Today, May 2nd …
Jonathan Swift, the great Irish writer and satirist, wrote a series of letters to ‘Stella’ between 1710 and 1713. He was fourteen years older than she, and the nature of their relationship is slightly mysterious – was she beloved friend, lifelong companion, or secret wife? Future biographers and historians will no doubt continue to debate the mystery, but we must concentrate on the food bits of his life and writings.
On this day in 1711, Swift wrote to Stella:
A fine day, but begins to grow a little warm; and that makes your little fat Presto sweat in the forehead. Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, etc. Sir Andrew Fountaine and I dined at Mrs. Vanhomrigh’s, and had a flask of my Florence, which lies in their cellar; and so I came home gravely, and saw nobody of consequence to-day.
Chelsea buns are made from sweet bread dough, pressed out into a rectangle, spread with dried fruit, rolled up snail-fashion, cut into slices which are then baked close together in a pan so that they end up square shaped. They were enormously popular in London in the 18th century, and came from The Chelsea Bun House in Grosvenor Row. T seems that they may have morphed from the Hot Cross Buns sold there – which, if it is true, is a great example of re-branding a traditional item to make it saleable all year.
For more history and some lovely pictures of the buns, I can do no better than refer you to the blog Baking for Britain. As for a recipe, strangely there is a dearth in old cookbooks. Mrs Raffald, Mrs Acton, and Mrs Beeton do not oblige. The extraordinarily comprehensive Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s) lists under ‘Buns’ – American Breakfast, Bath, Chester, Christmas (Scotch), Devonshire, Endcliffe, Geneva, Good Friday, Guernsey, Hanover, Hot Cross, Madeira, Plain, Plum, Scotch, Spanish, Windsor – but no Chelsea. I find this very strange, considering how famous and popular the buns were.
All of Cassells’ bun recipes are variations on the theme of sweet bread dough, and as King George II and King George III were enthusiastic patrons of the Chelsea Bun Shop, I give you Hanover Buns. If you really insist on Chelsea buns, a quick Internet search will oblige, or you could even make up the Hanover Bun dough in the snail shape filled with the dried fruit of your choice, glaze them nicely when they come out of the oven, and I am sure you will turn out a fine and rich version.
Mix a large tablespoonful of fresh yeast with three table-spoonfuls of warm milk, add a quarter of a pound of fine flour, and leave it to rise. Beat six ounces of butter to a cream, add a pinch of salt, a tablespoonful of sugar, half a pound of flour, and the thin rind of a lemon minced as small as possible. Moisten this with the yolks of three abd the white of one egg, add the yeast &c, and beat it well with the hand until air-bubbles begin to rise. The dough should be of the usual consistency. Make it into small cakes, and set them on a buttered tin. Make it into small cakes, and set them on a buttered tin a little distance from each other. Put them in a warm place, and, when nicely risen, brush them over with beaten egg, and bake them in a good oven till brightly browned. Strew a little powdered sugar over them before serving. If fresh yeast cannot be obtained, three-quarters of an ounce of German yeast may be substituted for it.
This Day, Last Year …
We examined a menu from 1903 in ‘Dining in State.’
Tomorrow’s Story …
At War with Weary.
Quotation for the Day…
Oh, the superb wretchedness of English food, what a subtle glow of nationality one feels in ordering a dish that one knows will be bad and being able to eat it! The French do not understand cooking, only good cooking - this is where we score. Cyril Connolly