Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Can Americans bake British tea cakes?

Some of you may recall my struggles to replicate here at home the delicious British tea cakes my Dreamboat and I enjoyed in Wales and England last April.

I am excited to report that yesterday's effort, after a series of disappointing failures, seems finally promising enough to share here:

Zabrina’s Updated British Tea Cakes
Made December 7, 2007
Most successful trial yet; definitely within the realm of your traditional, ordinary, British tea cakes! At last! With U.S. measurements and ingredients, detailed for bread-baking dummies like yours truly.


1/4-oz. packet of active dry yeast (Red Star, Fleishman’s, etc.; have extra packets on hand)
1/4 cup of warm water (just comfortably, gently warm to the finger, not too hot)
3/4 cup of hot skim milk (you can microwave it to get it hot)
3 Tbsp. of softened butter or you can use Crisco vegetable shortening
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
1 egg, room temperature, beaten
3 to 3-1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour
about 1/4 cup of currants (which are smaller, specialty raisins you can find in the stores here only at Christmas time—buy a year’s supply and they will last)

You cannot rush this recipe to completion. Expect to be doing this in the background, all day.

1. Take the egg out of the fridge and put it on the counter so it will warm to room temperature.

2. Pour the grains of yeast into the warm water, stir briefly and gently to mix, and let sit for about 40 minutes. If the yeast is alive, it should combine with the water to become a visibly enlarged “sponge,” a yeasty mass (this is called “proofing” the yeast to see if it’s alive). If not much happens, the yeast is dead; start over with another packet of yeast. If the water is too hot, the yeast will be killed; also the yeast could be old or already dead in the packet. So have extra packets of yeast on hand. Don’t proceed without “proofed” yeast.

3. Mix together in a large bowl: the butter or shortening, the sugar, the salt, and the hot skim milk. When this mixture has cooled to a lukewarm temperature, stir in the yeast/water mixture and the beaten egg.

4. Then gradually stir in about 2 of the 3 cups of flour and all of the currants, to the point where the dough starts to leave the edges of the bowl. (I used a mixer at first, then stirred with a wooden spoon by hand.)

5. Using a bit of the additional cup of flour, flour a kneading surface and turn the dough out onto it. (The dough will be rather pasty and very sticky for awhile). Knead the dough gently for 10 minutes, reflouring the board as needed and gradually working into the dough the final cup or more of flour. Use no more than four cups of flour, and you may use less than that. The dough when you are finished should be soft, but no longer sticking to the board or your fingers. Then place the dough ball into a greased or buttered bowl, turning the dough once to butter the top side of the ball. Cover with a towel and place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place for around 90 minutes to let the dough rise.

6. When you return, the dough ball should be visibly larger (doubled in size is ideal, but don’t let it sit for hours waiting for that, as you still want some of the yeast to be active during the baking stage later). Take the dough out of the bowl and knead it gently for another 10 minutes. The dough should be of a consistency that you don’t need to add any additional flour. After kneading, gently divide the dough into 8 more or less equal pieces, roll each into a ball, and flatten into a circle about 1/4 inch in height. Place the 8 circles onto an ungreased cookie baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let sit in a warm, draft-free place for another 90 minutes or so, while the tea cakes rise again.

7. Bake tea cakes in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Pull them out when they are golden brown. Move tea cakes to cool on wire racks. Allow them to cool completely before cutting (or they will get hard and tough when the steam is let out).

When completely cool, slice a tea cake in half horizontally to open, toast, and serve hot and buttered. Good for light meal or snack anytime with tea or coffee. They last for several days, covered w/tin foil.

If anyone has suggestions to improve this version, I am all ears, a humble student! My tea cakes of yesterday (huzzahed by the family for breakfast this morning) could still stand to be lighter and fluffier, for example. But this success (with the real currants found in the stores now) has been very encouraging, after my series of failures I will not chronicle here.

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