Snow days always make me want to cook up a soup or bake some sort of comforting treat. Today, with a considerable amount of snow forecast, I decided to revisit Welsh Cakes.
Any recipe with “cake” in the name will get my attention, and I first learned of Welsh Cakes from a cookbook by one of Britain's top pastry chefs. I was intrigued by maître pâtissier Will Torrent's recipe where rounds of a scone-like dough are shaped by a cookie cutter and then griddled like a pancake. The recipe, from his cookbook “Afternoon Tea at Home” (Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95), has less than five steps and fewer than 10 ingredients, which tends to be my personal limit with the usual kitchen rush.
Torrent's take on Welsh Cakes also offered an opportunity to explore the flavor of allspice, an ingredient that rarely gets to shine on its own. It's often mingled with other spices to season foods ranging from pumpkin pie to jerk chicken.
There was a small challenge in the fact that Torrent's Welsh Cakes recipe is inexact, as is often the case with recipes by chefs who sometimes forget that not everyone shares their well-honed kitchen instincts. The recipe calls for an uspecified quantity of “whole milk, to slacken.” In context, it was easy to discern that the unfamiliar term “slacken” referred to the liquid being used to moisten flour and other dry ingredients to help hold them together as dough. As I read through the recipe, I figured I'd employ techniques used for biscuits or pastry: don't make the dough too wet and handle it as little as possible.
The first time I made Welsh Cakes, I didn't have milk, so I “slackened” the dough with plain water, adding it by the tablespoon and mixing gently until things started to hold together. It was 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) when all was said and done.
The next challenge was how to cook them. Torrent advises using “a low heat,” but does not specify how long the cakes should be cooked on each side or suggest how one might know when they're done.
Using low heat, the cakes browned but still seemed a bit raw. My solution was to get the pan hot over medium heat, and then immediately reduce the heat to low create a good crust on the first side without scorching. Three minutes on the first side worked well with this method, but I found that I had to cook the second side for as long as 5 minutes when using low heat. So, I went up to medium-low heat. My test of done-ness was to touch the sides. If they felt tacky, I cooked longer. I even covered the skillet in some cases, because the trapped steam creates something like a stovetop steam oven, and the tacky sides would go away more quickly.
This is likely the sort of recipe that Welsh grandmothers can execute perfectly, having had years of practice. Not so with me. Despite Torrent's advice to watch the cooking carefully to avoid burning, my cast iron skillet over gas heat had some obvious hot spots, and some of the cakes cooked more quickly than others, requiring strategic placement and turning.
I consulted other Welsh Cakes recipes online. The King Arthur Flour recipe gives exact measurements; JoyofBaking.com gives a very exact temperature, although I'm not exactly sure how to know when a pan reaches 350 degrees. Supporting my own Welsh Cakes cooking experience, Joy of Baking notes: “Keep in mind that you may have to adjust the heat as you go to ensure that the Welsh Cakes have a lovely golden brown crust and are cooked all the way through.”
The verdict: Welsh cakes are amazingly delicious even with the challenges. I like the idea of making something that's like a slender scone without having to turn on the oven.
Allspice is a perfect flavor enhancement for these sweet little biscuits, but I've also imagined them with chopped dried cranberries or mini chocolate chips or pecan pieces in place of the currants. I wondered how I'd need to adapt the recipe to incorporate fresh apple bits, or what they'd taste like using the chocolate-ifying technique of substituting a little cocoa powder for some of the flour. Could I make savory ones with cheese or chopped pepperoni? What about pumpkin puree?
What prevented further experimentation was the fact that I had fallen in love with Welsh Cakes. I knew from the first batch that they are irresistible. I imagined the effect on my body of overeating all that butter and flour and sugar, and I didn't make them again. Until today.
Because I can't resist them, I'm testing Torrent's suggestion that they freeze well. Below is my adaptation of his recipe.
Welsh Cakes recipe
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup of granulated sugar (Torrent uses a little more at 6 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, frozen (plus more for pan)
2/3 cup currants
1 large egg, beaten
About 4 tablespoons of any type of milk or water
1. In a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, allspice and salt.
2. Using a chilled box grater, finely grate the frozen butter into the dry ingredients and blend well. (You can rub the butter into the flour or just continue with the recipe, as I did.) Stir in the currants.
Stir the egg into the flour mixture, add your chosen liquid by the tablespoonful until the batter holds together when squeezed lightly. When this happens, knead the dough slightly and roll out to 3/8-inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Use a cookie cutter or the rim of a drinking glass to press out round cakes. I got 15 cakes, cutting them at about 2-1/2 inches in diameter.
3. Over medium-heat, warm a skillet or griddle, preferably cast iron. Melt enough butter to just cover the bottom. Place Welsh Cakes on the hot surface and heat for three minutes, checking the bottoms frequently to avoid scorching. Reduce heat if cakes are cooking to quickly. Turn each cake and cook 3 to 5 more minutes, adjusting heat as needed to cook through. Cool on a wire rack.
Note: Grating frozen butter into the dough for biscuits, scones or pastry is an America's Test Kitchen technique that was the secret to my first successful batch of biscuits, so I now use it exclusively.