Thursday, May 8, 2014

A baking memoir; The Baker's Daughter by Louise Johncox

"My life has been shaped by cakes, the ones baked by my father in our family’s tea shop, Peter’s, in Weybridge."

This book is close to my heart. I grew up in the Surrey town where Louise Johncox's  parents had their bakery and cafe, and it was the best bakery in Weybridge for all the time I lived there. It was in many ways Weybridge's own 'Betty's of Harrogate'. Classical, elegant, with very high standards, and as I have learnt from reading the book, steeped in european baking history. It was a great treat to be taken to the tea room and although for lack of budget my mother often sought out bread and cakes from cheaper shops, Peter's was for most people where you went when you wanted the best. Regular bakery items, rarely found in shops today, included viennese fingers, farmhouse fruit cakes, hand made battenburgs, japonnaise, cream horns, hand made chocolates, and the cafe's welsh rarebit was legendary.

Peter Johncox had opened his bakery/cafe in 1958 and ran it with his wife for over 40 years. Reading the book it was clearly not an easy journey but I have total respect for the phenomenal hard work that they put into the bakery, and huge empathy with Peter's wish that his products should remain traditional.
Peter's was an important part of the Weybridge community for over 42 years
Louise Johncox has written so beautifully about her parents journey and how the development of the book after Peter's retirement brought back so many family memories, that even if you are not a baker, it is a book to be enjoyed. For me it also brought back many recollections of a childhood in Weybridge, including the mention of Brockwells the greengrocers where I once had a Saturday job. In my time, Brockwells was not self service, the shop was split centrally with the vegetables displayed against one wall and the fruit against the other. Customers had to queue twice, I was only ever on the 'veg' service side, the smarter girls and permanent staff served the more valuable fruit!

But back to the book, and for a taste of what is in store do read this introduction to the story of the development of the book on Louise Johncox's homepage and also published online in the local magazine  Surrey Life , both with some lovely photos.

One of the bakery items that was particularly popular with local children were the animal biscuits and you can see the 'rabbit biscuit' on the book cover picture above. I took my inspiration from these this Easter when making my own marzipan covered and chocolate dipped Animal Biscuits. The marzipan used was 50% almonds which makes a far less sweet biscuit covering than that of a sugar icing cover, but no doubt children would prefer the iced version. The dipping is a bit tricky, some bunnies just want to dive in up to their noses.
The first recipe I made properly from the book was the Coffee Japonaise. This is a rather delicious nutty meringue style biscuit sandwiched with coffee butter-cream and coated with more butter-cream and then dipped in crushed japonaise biscuits. If like me, you have sometimes smarted at the price of the patisserie that you see for sale it is worth glancing at a recipe to see just how much work and skill can be needed to make them. The Japonaise recipe is fun but give yourself time and follow it carefully. Here they are with the final flourish of a decorative chocolate button and they do need to be eaten with a fork unless you want messy fingers.
The recipe is in the Poschiavo and Pastry Chefs- European Pastries chapter which I think is my favourite chapter. The recipe is also extracted in this online article by the author titled: Baker Boys.

You will need a lot of egg whites. Thankfully they keep well in the fridge for a week or two, or in the freezer for several months (Nigella website notes on freezing) so you can accumulate them over a period of time.

This is quite a sweet pastry and to my taste goes well with a very strong morning coffee. I often substitute butter-cream with a white chocolate ganache, to reduce the sugar content a little, and that works here, but the moister ganache may well soften the nutty biscuits faster than a butter-cream would. I devoured mine too quickly to find out.

You need to pipe the mixture out into the rounds and those disposable piping bags are very good, especially if you do not have any piping tubes, as with care you can cut the exact size piping tip that you need. Amazon sell a range of pack sizes if your local shops do not carry them and all the online cake decorating shops will have them too.

The disks are baked fairly quickly but make sure they are cooked enough, as under-baking will produce a very mallowy centre that may be too soft to work with when assembling the two layers. The base should be an even golden brown.
I found it helpful to have the biscuits on a high rack when getting the final crumb coat on the outside. Excess crumbs can drop off onto a plate below and you can easily see any gaps in the crumb covering.
Transfer the finished pastries to your serving plate with care, they are really quite delicate.
On a more homely level I also love the recipe for rock cakes, a not too sweet cake that is lightly spiced and studded with dried fruits and candied peel.
This was a popular (with me at least) childhood afternoon tea treat, and they are relatively easy to make. The method is the 'rubbing in' similar to pastry but far more forgiving. The tricky part is stopping yourself from adding too much milk when bringing the dough together. I put too much in with this batch so although they look just right before baking once in the oven they flattened out too much. These are best eaten on the day they are baked, but like scones they can be frozen and then 'refreshed' when you need them by putting the defrosted items into a hot oven for just a few minutes. If you do not like dried fruits like sultanas and raisins you can easily substitute finely chopped dried apricots, cranberries and use some freshly grated orange zest instead of the candied peel.
And finally, as I mentioned earlier, the Welsh Rarebit was one of the cafe's most well known dishes and it is really a very simple one that can be scaled down from the full recipe in the book to a per egg ratio of:
  • 1 tbs milk
  • 1 egg
  • 65g grated cheddar cheese (I would choose a medium cheddar, not a really dry mature one)
  • 1/4 tsp made mustard.
  • 1 thick slice of bread
Method as written in the book
Using a fork, mix the milk and eggs together, add some seasoning, then stir the mixture into the cheese. Once mixed, add the mustard and continue to stir. Preheat the grill on a medium setting. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast it on both sides. Now completely cover one side with the mixture to a depth of at least 5mm. Grill the topped toast until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown. The Welsh rarebit mixture is always best left overnight and used the following day. If you do this, ensure you give it a good stir before topping the toast with it. Add roughly 1 tablespoon Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce to the cheese mixture to give the Welsh rarebit that extra bite. You can add 2 tablespoons chopped-up ham or bacon to the cheese mixture. You could also add some thin slices of tomato on top before cooking.

This is no ordinary cheese on toast, do try it.

My thanks to Louise Johncox for her help in providing information regarding the book. There are many baking books in the shops right now, but this is far more than another baking book. If you buy it I do hope you will love it as much as I do. 

Now what to bake next?

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