Sunday, 16 May 2010

Scone verses Biscuit...

Oh the controversy which surrounds the word 'biscuit'.  'Controversy?' you may question.  Yes, controversy- between the British and the Americans (as our household represents) and what the word biscuit actually represents.  Depending on which culture you are referencing or surrounded by, when asking for a 'biscuit' you might be brought one of two things; a sweet and crunchy accompaniment to your tea or milk- generally served after a meal, or a buttery flaky morsel which often accompanies sausage gravy or fried chicken and takes part in the meal itself.

The controversy surrounding this post all started off quite innocently with my quest to use up the rest of the buttermilk I had purchased for last week's Red Velvet adventures.  I had already make pancakes (American style- thick and served in a stack with maple syrup), and needed something else, something a bit easier perhaps as I had been sick for most of the week, and of course something comforting.  So I went to some of my favorite places for recipes and looked up ones that contained buttermilk.  Low and behold the theme for this week quickly unveiled itself.  The online discussion on whether or not one particular recipe was for scones or biscuits was surprisingly feisty and lengthy!  There was also added controversy when I brought said recipe for 'Traditional Scottish Scones' to my Scottish husband for his thoughts and he added that now-a-days 'traditional' Scottish scones would be made using potatoes and not just flour (as perhaps another intentionally distinguishing difference between the Scottish and the English)- thickening the dilemma and culture clash even further!  So the desired simplicity of my chosen recipe for the week certainly has an underbelly of cultural debates and history I surely must uncover and explain, perhaps negating the simplicity altogether....

To begin with here is a bit of history on the use of the word 'biscuit'- 

What Americans refer to as 'cookies' the British refer to as 'biscuits', for the most part.  I have found the British hold very dear to their definition of biscuits- 'cookies' being much larger than your standard Oreo, and 9 times out of 10 are soft and freshly baked rather than pre-packaged.  Why the rigid definition?  This time it is not just a case of the British being British, but rather the outcome of biscuits being defined in a famous court case in 1991.  I kid you not.  Let me explain.

'Jaffa Cakes' are biscuit-like cake in the UK and Ireland.  McVitie and Price introduced the Jaffa Cake in 1927.  Jaffa Cakes are circular, 54mm (2 1/2 inches) in diameter and have three layers: a sponge cake base, a layer of orange flavoured jelly and a coating of dark chocolate (and are one of my husbands favorite snacks ever).  Under UK law, no Value Added Tax (VAT) is charged on biscuits and cakes. Chocolate covered biscuits, however, are subject to VAT, currently 17.5%, as they then become a luxury rather than a necessity. McVities classed its Jaffa Cakes as cakes, but in 1991, this was challenged by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and the case ended up before the courts. This may have been because Jaffa Cakes are about the same size and shape as some types of biscuit, and particularly because they are commonly eaten alongside, or instead of, traditional biscuits. The court asked "What criteria should be used to class something as a cake?"

McVities argued that a distinction between cakes and biscuits is, among other things, that biscuits would normally be expected to go soft when stale, whereas cakes would normally be expected to go hard. It was demonstrated after a 12 inch Jaffa Cake was made for the court as demonstration that they were in fact cakes, that Jaffa Cakes become hard when stale. After other factors taken into account it was ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake. McVities therefore won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes. 

Moral of this story?  DO NOT under any circumstances call a traditional scone a biscuit when in the company of of the British, they fought long and hard to define their biscuit so just let it be!

But speaking of scones (not biscuits) my mother is coming to visit us in just one week!  I remember my family's last and first visit to London just a few years back, and the way my father took to the scones we had in the cafe by the Tower of London.  It was his first real connection to British culture (outside of my then boyfriend Nick) and it was a pleasure to share in his enjoyment.  Though I know these scones won't last for my mother to take them back with her when she leaves (they may not even make it for her arrival if we're not careful), they are also an acknowledgment of my family's last visit, and of my father and his own appreciation of the controversial scone/biscuit, magnified only by the clotted cream he piled on top of them.

By the way Mom, I'm saving this one for you! 

As for the distinguishing difference between the Scottish and the English... that is for another day.

Easy Scones


400g (14 oz) plain flour
100 g (3 3/4 oz) caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
175g butter at room temperature
250ml buttermilk, plus some to brush the top of scones before baking


Preheat oven to 175C *I use a fan assisted oven, if you're not using one you can bump it up to 195 or so...

Combine together all dry ingredients.  Cut your butter into small cubes and use a fork to mix into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles small bread crumbs.

Create a well with your dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk .  Mix until fully combined and you dough is now moist.

Take half of your dough and roll it into a ball with your hands, then place on a well-floured surface.  Knead the dough for 3-4 minutes before using a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out to about 3/4-1cm in thickness.  Using either a rounded cookie cutter or just the lip of a glass cut 6 rounds out and place onto an ungreased baking tray.  Brush with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar if desired.

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until rounds have risen and tops are golden.  You can roll out the second half of your dough while waiting for your first set of scones.  Cool and consume with clotted cream and strawberry jam- or whatever you prefer!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Red Velvet complexities...

Perhaps I wanted to do too much.  This is often my problem in general, not just in the kitchen.  An editing eye is something that one develops over time- and just because I have mastered the skill in one area, does not mean I have in another.  I think I wanted this week's post to do too much... let me start at the beginning.  

So my thoughts in general about this blog are to keep my recipes and captured kitchen adventures relevant to the theme hopefully implied by the title of the blog 'Coffee in a Teacup'.  I want it to express my background, and the ways I go about adapting it to the tastes of British culture and ingredient availability.  

Last week I was greeted at work by a fellow American looking to make a connection through our shared American food culture- namely a red velvet cupcake.  Red velvet is a type of sponge cake that originated in the US, though the story(ies) behind it are a bit blurry.  Some claim it originated in the South, and is thought of as a 'Southern Chocolate Cake' (that's what I had always heard, although I suppose some of that connection could come from the movie Steel Magnolias, set in the South where the grooms cake is a red velvet cake, made into the shape of an Armadilo).  

There is another story floating around that a red velvet cake was a signature dessert at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in the 1920's.  A woman dining there once asked for the recipe for the cake, and was given it.  She was later given a bill for $100 (quite a lot of money at that time).  She was so furious that she sent letters to all of her friends with the recipe details in a chain letter format, so they were to then pass it on to all of their friends etc. 

When foods were rationed during WWII, bakers used boiled beets to enhance the color of their cakes, as well as sometimes used them to replace the rationed sugar when it was unavailable or in low supply. Boiled grated beets or beet baby food are found in some red velvet cake recipes, where they also serve to retain moisture.  Though now most recipes (like the one I followed) call for food dye, it may have been this useful substitution during a difficult time that kept the recipe alive.  

I love red velvet cake.  You can taste a hint of the cocoa combined with the rich velvety buttermilk- it's the perfect amount of richness and sweetness.  I love it so much that I introduced my British husband Nick to it, he loved it just as much as I did, and we had our wedding cake made from it (topped with chocolate ganache and alternating layers of a light orange marmalade butter cream and apricot preserves).  

So I wanted to make it for several reasons, and then some.  I wanted to make it to thank Nick for the encouragement he's given me to not only create this site, but to follow my interests into a completely new career path.  I wanted to make it to represent where I come from, and that 'American' connection I had earlier last week. Despite the fact I have grown to love and adapt to much of Great Britain's culture, I still like to recognise and be reminded of my own history.  And given the cake's ties to the South, I wanted to pay tribute to a dear friend and southerner, who recently passed away.  She was just as ballsy and brilliant as the color of the cake itself and I was looking for a way to honor her memory.

Lastly (and perhaps to my cakes detriment) I wanted to incorporate something from British culture into the cake, put my coffee into the lovely teacup instead of the giant coffee mug...  cue the classic 'pound cake'.  

Pound cake can be traced back to the 1700's, originating in England.  The name comes from the fact that the original pound cakes contained one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour.  No leaveners were used other than air whipped into the batter.  In the days where many people didn't know how to read, this made for a simple recipe to remember.

So I set out yesterday to make a 'British American Red Velvet Pound Cake'.  I came close I think- the color was perfect, the flavour composition is there, but sadly my pound cake sat like several pounds in the stomach.  It came out heavy and dense as opposed to the light and fluffy sponge I was anticipating.  

I suppose I will take this too as a metaphor and with the same amount of symbolism I attached to the idea of making the cake itself.  Enculturation is a learning curve.  It takes a great deal of time and practice to find the right balanced combination that sits nicely together and brings out the best side of each element.  And everything is better with cream cheese frosting...

The Recipe
(adapted from Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)

60g unsalted butter at room temperuature
150g caster sugar
1 egg
10g cocoa
20ml red food colouring
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (I used more)
120ml buttermilk
150g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp biocarbonate of soda
1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 quantity Cream Cheese Frosting


Preheat the oven to 170C/ 325F

Put the butter and sugar in a bowl and beat on a medium speed until light and fluffy and well mixed.  Add the egg slowly while beating at high speed until all is incorporated.

In a small separate bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, red food coloring, and vanilla to make a thick paste.  Add this to the wet mixture and mix thoroughly until evenly combined with an even color.  Turn the mixer down to low and add 1/2 the buttermilk, followed by 1/2 the flour.  Repeat the process combining all ingredients until smooth.  Beat for 2-3 minutes at a high speed before turning back to low to add your soda and white wine vinegar.  Turn the mixer back up to high and beat to incorporate air, for up to five minutes (batter should be light and fluffy).  Pour into your loaf baking tin or into individual cupcake tins and bake for about 20-25 minutes.  Let it cool completely before adding cream cheese frosting to the top.

*My cream cheese frosting called for 125g cold cream cheese, 50g butter at room temp, and 300g icing sugar- whipped until fluffy.  I don't think you'll need that much sugar, you could probably do with only 200g and bring out the flavour of the cream cheese a bit more.*

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Mexican-Style Roasted Garlic Soup with Chipotle

My appreciation for Mexican, and Mexican-inspired cooking began originally with my father, who was raised in Texas, brought up nursing bbq ribs and queso covered nachos, the way most babies nurse bottles. My mother, never one to voluntarily reach for the spice, began to coax her tastebuds to adjust and accept the lovingly labled "kick", that so infamously comes with most if not all Texan dishes. Both my parents compromised in marriage by vowing to expand their palettes- my father's began to include things that were crunchy and green, and my mother's the "kick" (perhaps bribed with a stylish pair of calf-high brown leather cowgirl boots that I coveted growing up).

Whenever one of the Texan relatives would darken our mild midwest door, they always brought with them the most amazing bbq (and the only pork ever allowed access to my mothers refrigerator and freezer with open arms), accompanied by the smokey, sweet and tangy bbq sauce that all other sauces since have had to live up to. I am convinced now that it was roasted Mexican chipotle peppers and their sweet heat that gave the Texan bbq sauce its memorable and nearly out-do-able quality.

In my early 20's I left the midwest for the dusty desert of Albuquerque, in the rightfully-named 'Land of Enchantment' New Mexico. Town houses and tudor homes were replaced with adobe style houses, with Spanish-inspired courtyards and Mexican tiles. Vegetable barley soup was replaced with posole, biscuits with sopapillas, and green or red chile (or 'Christmas'- which meant both on one dish) became the common gravy/condiment.

Living in New Mexico was different than anything else I had experienced. With both a large Mexican and a Native American influence, as well as the dramatic climate of the desert and landscape of the Sandia mountains (named the Sandias by the Spanish, who believed the color of the mountains around sunset to resemble that of the sweet pink flesh of a watermelon- a 'sandia' in Spanish) the food in New Mexico cannot help being inspired by the hands that make it and the histories of the people behind it. 'New Mexican food' is a cuisine in itself, combining the heritage of three different peoples (Native American, Hispanic, Anglo-American), the rich, rustic essence of the red earth which surrounds it, and the tiniest hint of the dust which in the desert is as inevitable and unavoidable, no matter how many times a day you sweep.

I decided to pay homage to these flavours by making a version of Rick Bayless's Mexican-Style Sweet Roasted Garlic Soup. We had wonderful friends over for dinner last night and it was a real joy to be able to share these flavours with them. The dish was simple to make, and was clean enough that it could be played with in a variety of ways, as I enjoy doing with any recipe. Here it is, open of course to other interpretations other than my own....

Mexican-Style Sweet Roasted Garlic Soup


1/2 cup fruity olive oil
1 large head of garlic, cloves peeled, chopped into rough 1/8-inch pieces
6-7 cups good chicken broth (*It depends on how long you're going to let the soup cook down for- more broth for a longer cook time)
4 slices sourdough bread
1 ripe avocado, pitted peeled and cut into 1/2inch dice
3/4 cup Mexican queso fresco, or feta cheese, diced or crumbled
1 large ripe red tomato, diced
4 spring onions/scallions- brushed with left over garlic olive oil and grilled, diagonally sliced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
canned chipotles in adobo paste- amount at your discretion based on heat/spice preferences *(You could use the actual chillies, roasted if you can find them- I however have yet to uncover the 'Mexican' neighborhood, here in England... so I did my best with what Whole Foods had to offer)


1. The Garlic- Heat the olive oil in a small heavy pot over a medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring continuously until the garlic is very soft and golden- about 15-20 minutes. Note you are not frying the garlic, so the oil should never become too hot. Rather it should appear to be softly simmering. At the end the garlic will be soft and gooey and golden, not crispy and browned.

Set a strainer over a small bowl and pour the oil and garlic over it. Reserve three tablespoons of the garlic-infused oil for your croutons. The rest you can use in other cooking adventures- salads, fish, eggs, meat- whatever you fancy.

Transfer the garlic to a medium sized saucepan and stir in the broth. *Here is where I added more broth than originally recommended, as I wanted to cook my soup for a bit longer and didn't want to risk not having enough.

2. The croutons- Turn the oven to 325F/160C. Spread your cubed bread out onto a baking tray, not making more than 1 layer. Put the baking tray in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the bread is dried out but not fully toasted. Pour 3 tbsp of your garlic olive oil into a medium/large bowl. When bread cubes are done add them to the bowl and mix until all your bread has been coated in the oil. Return to the oven on a baking tray for just a few minutes, until the croutons are golden. Remove and set aside. You can put these on the soups yourself before serving, or in a bowl for guests to serve themselves (which I think our guests rather enjoyed!)

3. Finishing and serving the soup- When you are ready to serve the soup make sure it is nice and hot (but not boiling) and lightly beat two eggs. Give the soup a good stir to create a 'whirlpool' effect and slowly drizzle in your beaten eggs. They should cook almost immediately, and give the soup a creamier body. I then added about 1/4 cup finely shredded warmed chicken to the bottom of each soup bowl (it's optional of course), poured the soup in, added avocado, tomato, grilled sliced spring onion, and a generous scoop of the chipotle paste to each bowl before serving. (I made the mistake of adding a scoop of creme fraiche to the top, which just seemed to break up, but would use feta next time as suggested). This soup was wonderful, served with slices of sourdough bread for dunking, and the homemade croutons.

Thank you very much to my guests for so eagerly trying my creations, and for the great tip off about the New Mexico feature in the paper today! Who knows, maybe in the near future it won't just be Whole Foods that carries Mexican products (and 'Mexican Food' here will perhaps consist of more than just salsa and sour cream...)!

And here's to the Land of Enchantment- a place I remember fondly with it's watermelon mountains to the East, brick red earth, and it's pleasurable sting of roasted chillies in the air. And of course it's people...