Currant account: the joys of the raisin's little sister

Date:09-11-2013 08:58:18 read:2

Currant account: the joys of the raisin's little sister

Lest we forget, currants were once a cornerstone of great British baking.

"My favourite was Knight’s Biscuits from 1669, currants in a buttery dough enriched with yolk, sherry and cream." Photo: RUTHLEWISILLUSTRATIONS.COM

Scattering a large volume of currants in a mixing-bowl for this year’s mincemeat, I was struck by how often currants feature in British baking. On Christmas Day it gets out of hand. Would you care for a slice of curranty cake to follow your curranty pudding? And, for tea, perhaps a few currant pies? Yet our penchant for currants baked in many different ways was once even greater. Two lovely new books on historic British cooking reminded me that these sharp little raisins (dried black Corinth grapes) were for a long time the default addition for most cakes, biscuits and puddings.

In Great British Bakes (Square Peg, £20), Mary-Anne Boermans uses currants in no fewer than 14 recipes. Boermans, a finalist on The Great British Bake Off in 2011, has trawled through archives and libraries to find some of the forgotten treats of the British Isles, then spruced them up in a modern kitchen.

In Boermans’ book currants pop up in tarts, pies and cakes (though not, interestingly, in Chelsea buns, because the first recipes lacked dried fruit). The amounts of currants used are often as much, weight for weight, as the flour. This means, as Boermans says, that “only the tiniest amount of sugar” was needed: a selling point when sugar was a luxury. But currants brought more than just sweetness. Their richness was the ideal partner to the old flavourings of mace and nutmeg, anise and lemon peel.

Many of the currant recipes that Boermans has unearthed are near-identical in flavourings. As you turn the page, you think, “Oh, here’s another cakey thing involving currants and nutmeg.” What makes this an interesting book to cook from, however, is the subtle variations in texture, from flaky Banbury cakes to airy teabreads and rich fruitcakes. My favourite was Knight’s Biscuits from 1669, currants in a buttery dough enriched with yolk, sherry and cream. Similar, but softer and more scone-like in texture, are King Cakes; softer still are Queen Cakes, like currant cupcakes. Boermans says that these King and Queen cakes were “the oldest type of small cake baked in Britain”.

One place you might eat such small cakes, by Regency times, was at a “rout”, an evening gathering with tea or wine. A new kind of bun evolved, called “rout cakes”. They are mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma, as Pen Vogler tells us in Dinner with Mr Darcy, a delightful collection of Austen-inspired dishes (CICO, £16.99). In Emma, Mrs Elton criticises her unsophisticated new neighbours for their “poor attempt at rout-cakes”. Vogler’s rout cakes are “like elegant rock buns”, perfumed with rosewater and brandy and dotted with… currants. They wouldn’t be quite as elegant with larger raisins or sultanas.

For me, though, the top currant recipe in Dinner with Mr Darcy is a thrifty pudding, possibly made by Jane Austen’s mother, of breadcrumbs baked with milk, sugar, eggs, lemon, currants and mace. It came out somewhere between bread pudding and a custard in texture. We devoured it with cream. The currants punctuated the blandness of the bread, like capers on a dish of roasted cauliflower or berries on porridge.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013