Peek Freans

How about “a nice-cuppa-tea-and-a-sit-down”?  It’s the perfect way to recharge when out for a day of sightseeing, or shopping, or just running errands.  The afternoon is winding down and you need to relax for a few moments, over a hot cuppa.  And, what do you need when you’re having that “sit-down”?  A biscuit or two, of course.

The marketing genius who decided that tea and biscuits should go together was James Peek.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the Peek Freans Company, once one of the biggest biscuit (cookie) companies in the world.  How did it start?  With ‘tea’, of course!

William Peek was born into a wealthy family from Devon.  In 1818 William decided to move to London and start a tea importing business, W. Peek and Company.  It became quite successful and within two years William’s two brothers, Richard and James, decided to join the firm.  The name of the company then became, Peek Brothers and Company.

Peek Bros Trademark — Camel Caravan. 1884. Peek House, 20 Eastcheap, London. These premises were the headquarters of Peek Bros & Co., dealers in tea, coffee and spices, built 1883 – 1885. (Ward-Jackson)

In 1824, James Peek married Elizabeth Masters and had 8 children.  As most fathers, James wanted his sons to join him in the family tea business.  But his two eldest sons were not at all interested in tea.  Ever-creative James, realized that a business which would complement “tea” might be perfect for them.  He suggested a biscuit business.  Of course, his sons were still just teenagers at this point, so now James needed someone to run his new biscuit business.

3rd U.S. Infantry eating hard tack.

James’ niece, Hanna, had recently married George Frean.  George was a miller and baker of “ship biscuits” or what was commonly called “hard tack”.  Hard tack is a simple, tasteless cracker made from flour, water and salt.  It is very inexpensive to make and can last for long periods of time, making it commonly used by the military.  James wrote to George, saying that he had set up a biscuit business for his sons, but because he was still managing the tea business, he wanted to know if George would manage the new biscuit business.  George agreed.  The business was set up with James and George as partners, and the factory opened in London in 1857.   The new partners registered their company as the Peek Frean Company.  Just as James had predicted, the business took off, but after three years, the sons wanted nothing more to do with it.

Now George needed help.  George wrote to his long-time school mate, John Carr of the Scottish biscuit company (perhaps you’ve heard of Carr Crackers and Biscuits).  Carr accepted the offer and came down from Scotland to join the company in 1860.  Throughout this time the Peek Frean Company was just producing those tasteless “ship biscuits”, but Carr was working on new ideas and new products.  In 1861, they introduced the Garibaldi biscuit, a thin oblong of biscuit dough with a filling of dried currants.  It’s still very popular in the U.K. as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Now it was time for a softer, sweeter biscuit with no “docker holes” (which kept the biscuit from rising during baking).  Carr named this new soft and crumbling, yet crisp biscuit, the Pearl Biscuit.  The Pearl Biscuit was revolutionary.  Everyone loved them.   In the meantime, an order from the French government came in for 460 tons of “hard tack” which was needed to help feed the armies during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  Business was booming!

After the “Pearl”, came the “Marie”, then the “Chocolate Table”, “Pat-a-Cake”, the “Golden Puff” and then in 1910, the company introduced the first cream sandwich biscuit, now known as the “Bourbon” biscuit , a chocolate sandwich with a chocolate cream filling.  But did Peek Frean invent this biscuit?

Credit for the “Bourbon” biscuit, the “Custard Creme” and “Nice” biscuits go to Harold Trixie, not an employee of Peek Frean, but housemaster at the King Edward VI Boarding School in Nottinghamshire.  Harold’s father was a baker,  and created the “two biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy filling”.   Boarding schools at that time were notorious for underfeeding their students.  Remembering the French-inspired baked goods his father would make, Trixie used the same method, a soft filling between a harder outer shell, to make biscuits for his young male students.  Disguised as a demonstration of good etiquette, Trixie began hosting informal ‘afternoon tea’ sessions at the boy’s school, bringing in his own baked goods and biscuits.   Because of the extra sugar and fat provided by the biscuits, it was noticed that Harold Trixie’s students had begun to outperform their peers.  His chocolate creation was named the ‘Bourbon’ after the French noblemen’s House of Bourbon.

The Peek Frean Company began hearing about these unusual two-piece with a creamy filling cocoa biscuits.  They contacted the school to ask whether they could reproduce these interesting biscuits, for which they were willing to pay a fee.  When put in touch with Harold Trixie, they were told that the biscuits were free to whoever cared to bake them.  Peek Frean began producing Bourbons, crediting Trixie with his creation, and they became an immediate success.

Peek Frean’s mission was that their workforce should be healthy, comfortable and contented.  For over a hundred years Peek Frean’s focus was the community, with free medical and dental care for their over 4,000 workers.  In addition to its own fire brigade and post office, they founded a cricket club in 1868 and later musical and dramatic societies were set up. In 1918, they cut back worker’s hours, introduced a week’s paid holiday for everyone, a pension fund, and daily tea breaks.  This was a true family-run business which employed generations of families.  Sadly, the biscuit factory closed in 1989, but there’s hardly a Brit who doesn’t lovingly remember them.

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References:  Brighton Toy Museum, Cook’s Info, Wikipedia, Exploring Southwark, Rousdon Estate, Quora,

STRAWBERRIES

I love strawberries and every year I buy a few strawberry plants and plant them in the garden.  Yes, I know.  Strawberries are perennials, which means the plant grows back every year … in the same place … generally bigger and stronger than the year before.  But, not for me.  Every spring I look to see where the strawberry plants should be and there’s nothing.  Nothing I should say except the dead plants from the season before.

I realize I live in New England and our winters get pretty cold, but no one else has a problem growing strawberries.  I mulch them heavily to make sure they stay as warm as can be over the winter.  But, I have yet to have any plants survive.  All the other perennials in the garden are fine.  As soon as the weather and the soil warms up, the shoots start to pop up from the ground, the blooms burst open and all’s right with the world.  Except, that is, for strawberries!

Strawberries are sweet, delicious and good for you (full of antioxidants and very low in calories).  And they are so versatile.  You can just pop them into your mouth or use them in salads, smoothies and all sorts of desserts from ice cream to shortcakes.  You can make jams, jellies and spreads, or dip them into chocolate.  They freeze easily, and for some people, they are easy to grow.  I, however, have been relegated to a “pick-your-own-fruit” farm where I “pick-my-own-strawberries”.  Now, armed with 10 lbs. of strawberries and a three-day window before they start to lose their appeal, it’s time to get cooking.

Strawberry jam is on the list as is Strawberry Cake Squares and Strawberry, Goat Cheese, Prosciutto Tart … but because this classic dessert is one of my favorites, the first thing I am making is Strawberry Shortcake.  No, not the packaged sponge cakes which always appear next to the strawberries in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  This recipe is more like a crisp, sweet scone.  Split them in half, add the sliced, sweetened strawberries and top with whipped cream!  Oh my, nothing better!

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
Depending upon the size you cut the biscuits, you can make as few as four really large ones to as many as twelve minis.  Oven temperature 425°.  Bake 12 to 15 minutes.

For the biscuits/scones:
2 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold butter, diced or grated
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white, beaten

Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar.  Either by hand or in a food processor mix the cold, diced butter until the flour mixture resembles crumbs.  Don’t over-mix in the butter.  It needs to be a bit chunky.  Whisk together the egg, buttermilk and vanilla.  Quickly mix these wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Again, don’t overmix.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and bring together into a round ball.  Flatten the ball and gently roll it into an 10″ circle, about 3/4″ thick.  To cut out the biscuits, you can use a knife and cut the dough into squares or use a biscuit cutter to cut out rounds.  The size, again, is up to you.  I like to make smaller ones … using two per serving.

Place the cakes onto a parchment lined baking sheet, brush with the beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar.  Demerara sugar has larger crystals and adds a bit of color and crunch.

At this point, put the baking sheet into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven … 425°.  This will ensure the butter is nice and cold.  Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Strawberry Filling:
1 lb. fresh strawberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Wash, hull and slice the strawberries.  Put them into a bowl and sprinkle with sugar and balsamic vinegar.  Let the strawberries mascerate for 30 minutes or more.  When ready to serve, split the biscuits in half, spoon the strawberry filling inside, add the top and then slather on the whipped cream.

It’s hard to find a better, more delicious dessert … guaranteed to impress your toughest critics!  Should you prefer to use other berries or fruits, please do.  Or fill these biscuits with ice cream and top with hot fudge!  Yum!!!


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Digestives

Digestives!  What in the world could I be thinking!  Do you know what a Digestive Biscuit is? Honestly, it is a relatively unexciting cookie made with whole wheat flour, some oatmeal (not much), brown sugar and baking powder, but Brits love them … and they go so well with a good cuppa.  Fifty-two Digestive biscuits are said to be eaten every second of every day in Great Britain.  Prime Minister Gordon Brown caused a huge uproar in 2009 when he refused to acknowledge which manufacturer he thought made the best biscuit.  Digestives are a huge export item and are found in most grocery stores in the international foods aisle.  Of course, Hubby loves the chocolate covered ones, which makes this cracker-like cookie a little more interesting.  So, I’m going to ‘give them a go’.

In doing research for a good, authentic recipe, I’ve learned that Digestives actually originated during the elaborate Victorian period of Great Britain when long multi-course breakfasts and dinners were served. The Digestive biscuit was created as a way to ‘help’ aid digestion either after or before one of these marathon meals.  The thought was the whole wheat flour and oatmeal would add fiber and the antacid properties of baking soda would aid “digestion”.  Hence, the “Digestive“.

Producing 27 million biscuits every single day, the largest manufacturer of Digestives today is McVitie (pictured above).  They claim to have created this their signature product in 1894, the recipe for which is kept very secret, but they may have a problem.  Huntley & Palmers  claim to have created the ‘wholemeal biscuit’ in 1839, 55 years earlier.  But it seems even Huntley & Palmers may not be the creator.  An advertisement in theManchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser placed by J. Hutchinson, proprietor of Abernethy’s, on September 19, 1829 states that his biscuits are “… highly approved by medical men.”

This early recipe from the 1890 cookbook The Bread And Biscuit Baker’s And Sugar-Boiler’s Assistant by Robert Wells may be interesting, but I think I’ll  make them using  something a little more current.

“5 lbs. of granulated wheat meal, 1 lb. of butter, ¼ lb. of sugar, ¼ lb. of ground
arrowroot, 4 eggs, 1 quart of milk, ¼ oz. of carbonate of soda. These are mixed up
in the usual way, pinned out and cut with a small round cutter, docked and baked
in a moderate oven.”

If you haven’t tried a Digestive, they are not sweet cookies – more like a cracker – and I must admit these aren’t as good as the packaged ones (sometimes the original is just had to beat), but they are pretty darn close.  Not only can Digestives be served as an accompaniment to a dessert (especially the chocolate covered ones) or alone to dunk in a hot cuppa, they can also pair very nicely with a good quality cheddar and glass of wine.

DIGESTIVE BISCUITS
Makes 3 dozen.  Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes.

1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all purpose unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons rolled oats
1 stick butter, room temperature
3/4 to 1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cold milk
~~~
8 to 10 oz. good quality bar chocolate
light cream

In a small bowl, sift together the dry ingredients.  In another bowl, with a mixer, cream the softened butter and brown sugar together.

Add the dry ingredients to the creamed butter/sugar and mix until well blended.  Add the cold milk and continue to mix well.  When thoroughly combined, dump the batter onto a floured pastry board.  Form into a ball and knead lightly.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least an hour or more (or even overnight if you’d like).

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Working with half the dough at a time, put the other half back into the refrigerator.  Working quickly, place the chilled dough onto a floured board and roll to 1/4″ thickness.  Don’t roll too thin or they will crumble after baking.  Cut with a 2″ cookie cutter (or smaller, if you want more cookies) and place on parchment lined sheet pans.  This is a very wet dough so flour your work surface and work quickly.


Prick the tops with a fork to keep the biscuits from rising.  When finished, roll out the second half of the dough and do the same.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350° or until firm.  It is not necessary to have them brown.  The longer they bake, the crisper they will be.  Remove the pans from the oven and let them cool completely before transferring the cookies to a wire rack.

For chocolate Digestives, melt good quality bar chocolate in the microwave and then thin the melted chocolate with about 2 tablespoons of cream.  Mix well.  Either dip or spread the chocolate onto the cooled cookies.  These cookies keep very well for a week or more in a tightly sealed container.

Now put that kettle on (or open a nice bottle of red wine) and enjoy!!

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References:  McVitie’s, Foods of England, Downton Abbey Cookbook, Food 52, Washington Post

 

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Addicted to GBBO

Yes, I will admit it.  I am addicted to the “GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF” program on PBS.  It doesn’t matter which season, or which episode, or which challenge, I will stop what I am doing and watch every action-packed moment.

But why?  What makes this cooking program any different from the slew of other cooking programs … on all the many cooking channels … at any time of the day or night?   I’m not really sure.  Could it be that the two judges are actually professional bakers, and not actors or tv personalities whose careers have waned and they have no other place to go?  Could it be the lack of insulting comments from the chef judges to the contestants?   Master Chef, you know who you are!   Or perhaps the lack of having to utilize the obvious ‘placement’ products from their sponsors to create the ‘challenge’ that week?  Sound familiar, Top Chef?  Maybe its the gimmick-free way in which the program is presented … name most of the shows on the Food Network these days!

The format is very basic – three baking challenges over two days – starting with 12 bakers, eliminating one each week and selecting a “star” baker, until the final three bakers face off to select the winner. The winner of the GBBO does not get $250,000.00 in cash, or their own cooking program, or a feature in Food & Wine magazine.  They get “bragging rights”.  Yup!  That’s it!Abouttop-Sue-Mel

Fashion icons they are not, but the show hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, are masterful in their handling of each week’s challenges and contestants.  They have very little camera time but when they do, their quips are quick, slick, and quite funny.

I became familiar with Sue Perkins, the bespectacled brunette, from a BBC program called THE SUPERSIZERS, in which she and her co-host had to live in selected British periods of time and experience the life styles and, more-importantly, the foods from those eras. It was historically accurate and hysterically funny.   Each episode focused on one historical period and for one week they lived in that time period … from clothing and lack of conveniences to tasty repasts sometimes consisting of sow’s udder paté, bovine pudding or duck tongue.

Mel Giedroyc, the perky blonde with the quick wit, has co-hosted with Sue before.  Apparently they worked together on a daytime British program called LIGHT LUNCH or was it LATE LUNCH.  Either way, I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it was quite entertaining.  Together Mel and Sue have a great comraderie, and always empathize with each contestant’s near disasters.

Abouttop-Paul-MaryThe judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, somehow work beautifully together … a bit like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.  Paul, with his piercing blue eyes, would intimidate even the most seasoned baker.  It just takes one look for you to know you’re doomed, but Mary (30 years Paul’s senior) finds some good in every bake, regardless of how awful it may look or taste.  Both Paul and Mary are hugely successful professional bakers, cookbook authors, and television personalities, each with their own cooking shows; but there are no signs of egos here.   Each week they bring interesting and quite difficult challenges to the contestants, after which they focus on the ‘bake’, nothing more.  How refreshing!

The show is filmed in tents on the grounds of many different British country houses from Welford Park in Newbury, to Harptree Court in Bristol, to Valentines Mansion in Redbridge.   Did I say, in tents?  Yup!  Where else could you showcase Britain in all of its glory but on perfectly manicured lawns of magnificent country houses with a background of lush green gardens and, of course, the completely unpredictable British weather!  The location for each of the season’s filming is kept quite secretive … not wanting stampeding fans showing up, I guess.

Abouttop-Victoria-SandwichThe baking “challenges” are divided into three categories.  First , there is the Signature Bake, to test the contestants’ creativity and baking ability.  Next is the Technical Bake, where the bakers receive a recipe from Mary or Paul with minimal instruction.  Finally, it’s the Showstopper Bake, which is designed to display the bakers’ skill and talent.  Many of these “challenges” are classic British baked items, some are from French patisseries … most of which I have never ever heard of (actually some of the contestants have never heard of them either).  Yes, the contestants are given recipes in the Technical Bake, and, yes, they have advance knowledge of what the next challenge is going to be so that they can practice at home.  What they don’t have to do is try to utilize canned chicken, root beer, squash blossoms and dill pickles to make a frozen dessert.  This is a true baking show, remember.   Gimmick free!

This cooking/baking program may not be for everyone, but it certainly is a hit for many.  Not only can you buy the cookbooks, you can, of course, download any of the episodes, and now you can buy the intriguing background music composed by Tom Howe.

We’re into Season 6 right now … but in Great Britain Season 7 is viewing and competing with the Olympics.  For some reason, PBS didn’t start airing GBBO until Season 3 and are calling this season “Season 3” …!  Confused?  So am I.   Perhaps PBS wanted to see if the show was going to gain in popularity before airing it, as they do with so many other British television programs. Well, it has!  Over 13 million viewers in Great Britain alone.  And what it has done to the baking industry is unbelievable.  Sales of flour, baking powder, baking chocolate have all risen (no pun intended).  Home bakers are being challenged to try their hand at scones, bread and cake.  Yes, it has even inspired me.

So if you haven’t seen an episode of the GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF, I challenge you to watch it, and tell me you don’t hunger for one of those “Show Stoppers“!

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References:  Great British Bake Off, GBBO Music, The Guardian

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Millionaire’s Shortbread

The first time I had this rich, buttery piece of deliciousness was about ten years ago, in a basement tearoom of an old Manor House in Cornwall.  The tearoom was very modest, providing visitors with just a quick cuppa and a biscuit (cookie) or scone.  But standing out among the other biscuits was this stunning shortbread …. a buttery cookie base with gooey caramel filling, topped with a thick layer of milk chocolate.  Irresistible!!

But now, at least 10 years later, Millionaire’s Shortbread is EVERYWHERE!  From the food counters at M&S, to the bakery cases in the finest patisserie, to handy packages of 2, 4 or 6 pieces at every roadside rest area shop.  But, honestly, even the prepackaged shortbreads were pretty darn good.

How did Millionaire’s Shortbread get it’s name?
Shortbread originated in Scotland around the 12th century as a simple unleavened biscuit (cookie) using just the ingredients available in most homes at that time ….. butter, flour, sugar.   The refinement of this biscuit didn’t occur until Mary Queen of Scots assigned her French chefs to the task.  Only with the addition of more butter, more sugar, a pinch of salt, and formed into different shapes, did this delectable morsel become in demand.  Over time, other ingredients were added, lemon, almonds, ginger, cinnamon.   This version, with its creamy caramel center and thick milk chocolate topping, didn’t appear until the 19th century.  It is said that to be able to afford this decadently RICH biscuit you actually had to be a “Millionaire”.

Of course, I had to try my hand at making it.  I must admit to a couple of fails (overbaked shortbread, burnt caramel, etc.), but the last one turned out exactly how I remembered it.  So, don’t be afraid to make a mistake (or two), it’s well worth the effort in the end.

MILLIONAIRE’S SHORTBREAD 
Shortbread base:
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch

Caramel filling:
1/2 cup water
2-1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

Chocolate topping:
8 oz. milk chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease and flour, or line with parchment paper a 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  I recommend using parchment paper.  It makes getting the shortbread out of the baking pan much easier.

In one bowl mix together the flour and cornstarch.  In another bowl using a stand or hand mixer, beat the softened butter til creamy.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the creamed butter and beat til lemony colored, light and airy.

Using a wooden spoon, slowly add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, blending well. The mixture will be very crumbly (short).  Don’t overwork the dough or your cookies will be tough.  Dump the batter into the prepared baking pan and press down with your hands.  Use whatever you happen to have (with a flat bottom) to press the batter down firmly and evenly.

Bake at 350° for 16 to 18 minutes – just until its set and lightly browned.  Take the shortbread out of the oven and let it cool in the pan while you prepare the caramel.

The caramel can be tricky (believe me, I’ve burnt a couple of batches).  The secret is to not stir it, or take your eyes off it, while its boiling away.  A minute will make all the difference.  If you want to use a candy thermometer, then by all means use it.  I didn’t.


Using a heavy, high-sided saucepan pour the sugar into the center of the pan.  Then carefully pour the water around the outside of the sugar.  Try not to get the sugar onto the sides of the pan or it will crystallize.  If this happens, have a pastry brush handy in a cup of water to wash down the sides of the pan.  Do not stir the sugar and water together.  Just let it be.

Using medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil – NO STIRRING.  When it boils, reduce the heat to low and let it boil away until its caramel colored.  You can determine how dark you want it … but don’t let it burn.  This will take about 15 minutes.

When it is ready, remove the pan from the heat and drop in 2 tablespoons of butter.  The mixture will immediately boil up.  Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the butter.  Now pour in the 1/2 cup of heavy cream.  Again the mixture will bubble up.  Stir it down quickly.  Continue stirring until the caramel has cooled down and thickened.  This will take about 5 minutes.

When it is ready, pour the caramel over the cooled shortbread and place the pan into the refrigerator to let the caramel set.

This is the easiest part … dump a bag of chocolate chips (milk chocolate or semi-sweet, it’s up to you), into a microwave-proof bowl and melt the chocolate.  When its melted, stir in the oil. Quickly pour the warm chocolate over the cooled caramel filling and, with the back of a spatula, smooth out the surface.  Let the chocolate cool completely.

When ready to serve, take the shortbread out of the pan.  If you’ve used parchment paper, you can just lift it up and out.  Using a very sharp knife, cut the shortbread into bars or squares.  It’s up to you!  Stack them up on a plate and keep an eye on them because they’ll disappear right before your eyes.  But, if they don’t, they’ll keep very well in an airtight container.

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