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Baking : Baking Day on an English Farm

July 21, 1994|ANNE WILLAN

"Why don't you come on Thursday," says Audrey. "That's baking day."

Baking day!

My husband and I had left our home in France to see my mother and had called Audrey, the current occupant of our family farm in Yorkshire, to see whether we could arrange a visit.

With Audrey's words, my mind flew back to my childhood in this part of rural England and the excitement of the kitchen where Emily, our family cook, would stoke up the range once a week and cook a mountain of pies, cakes and cookies to last for seven days.

First would emerge jam tarts, maids of honor (almond tartlets) and ginger cookies and scones, all brown and crisp from the early, searing heat of the oven. Then came larger cakes--pink, white-and-chocolate-marbled sponge, checkered Battenberg loaf and seedy cake, an ancient recipe flavored with caraway seeds that stuck between the teeth.

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Finally, as the oven cooled, the slower-baked custard tarts and fruitcakes emerged. Cherry cake was a particular specialty of Emily's, a pound cake studded with whole red candied cherries, the trick being to toss the heavy cherries in flour to prevent them from falling to the bottom of the batter.

We were a small household then, but on the nearby farm where Audrey now lives, the farmer's wife cooked three hearty meals a day for up to a dozen people, with snacks in between, still known as "10 o'clocks" and "3 o'clocks." These were carried into the fields, along with great tin cans of hot tea, baskets of scones, pies and Yorkshire tea cakes--sweet yeast breads flavored with dried fruits, candied peel and spices. Plain bread was kneaded on the wooden kitchen table, then left to rise in a bowl covered with a damp cloth in front of the fire.

"My mother used a 50-pound bag of flour each week," recalls Audrey. She herself is a notable baker, loading the table for us with such treats as fat rascals--sweet currant scones made with a batter soft enough to drop from a spoon.

Audrey gives a helpful tip. "Don't overmix them," she warns. "That's the key to a light scone."

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Tea, what I'd call supper, is around 6 o'clock. It includes fruit loaf, apple pie and perhaps some home-cured ham or cold meat left over from lunch. Jams are homemade, and for us visitors Audrey has also whipped up a Victoria sponge filled with raspberry jam and cream from the dairy.

"Have another slice," she presses us. "It won't keep, you know."

Baking and preserving are just the beginning of Audrey's tasks. Poultry is also her province; she raises turkeys and chickens, with a few geese and ducks for the Christmas table. In the past, her mother kept pigs, making the trimmings into black pudding (a blood sausage thickened with oatmeal), and brawn, a type of head cheese using the pig's cheeks and shanks and perhaps a rabbit or chicken.

The local Wensleydale cheese is world-renowned, and Audrey remembers the surplus milk being curdled with rennet and pressed into molds, with the whey going to the pigs. Some of the fresh curds would be reserved for curd tarts, the local version of cheesecake.

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Any spare time is spent in the garden, Audrey's love, but the climate is chilly, so vegetables are limited to roots, onions and cabbages and some peas and beans. Mint and sage are the only herbs, reflecting the wholesome Yorkshire table.

Surrounded by good food, you would expect Audrey to be as plump as her currant scones. But no.

"The wives work harder than the farmers," cuts in my mother, who has been listening as we talk. She should know. Her mother and grandmother were born and raised in this house, moving to the local market town only when the motor car--and my grandfather's new-found prosperity--opened the way.

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Made just like scones but with more sugar, fat rascals are a favorite on the farm at the 10 o'clock tea break.

FAT RASCALS

1 cup unbleached flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup lard or shortening

Sugar

1/3 cup dried currants

2 tablespoons golden raisins

Grated zest 1 orange

3/4 cup milk, more if needed

1/4 cup water

Sift flours, baking powder and salt into bowl. With fingers or 2 knives, work lard into flour to make coarse crumbs. Stir in 3/4 cup sugar, currants, raisins and grated zest.

Make well in center of mixture. Add milk and stir with wooden spoon until all ingredients are incorporated into sticky dough. Do not overmix, or cakes will be tough.

Using 2 large spoons, drop dough onto greased and floured baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches of space between 8 cakes. Bake at 400 degrees until browned and skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in pan heat 1/4 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water until dissolved to form syrup. Brush syrup over cakes while still warm. Cakes are best eaten day of baking but can be kept up to 2 days in airtight container. Makes 8 cakes.

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