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  • Writer's pictureAmelia

Sweet Research

I think it's an accepted fact by now that I am a research nut. This latest burst of investigation, though, is somewhat nuttier than the usual, and for that you can thank* my beta reader. I've attempted cookery-based research before, sometimes under the auspices of The Regency Cook, Paul Couchman, and sometimes via the pages of my own, sticky-leaved cookery books, but without my beta's innocent and completely unconnected question about mealtimes, I would never have set foot in this particular rabbit hole, much less tripped and fallen and headlong. I am so glad that I did. What my beta wanted to know was why, according to my story, there were only two meals in the day. And the answer is: because, for most of the vague, uncertain, ever-shifting period in which my books are -- and I can not use this word too loosely -- set, that's how many meals there were. If you were lucky. Which is all well and good but, once I'd gone back into my text and clarified things a little, it made me wonder: was the food I'd put down as "breakfast" actually enough to get one through the day? Since most of the breakfasts in the book are, frankly, huge, the answer is a generalised yes. But. But in one chapter I mention Dora lying in bed with rolls and chocolate, doing her best impersonation of a lazy baggage. Would bread and chocolate really be enough to keep her going till dinner time? More to the point, given that she'd have to make it all herself, would it, at that time in the morning, be even faintly feasible? It's a throw away line. No one will ever care about it. Even my beta hadn't pointed it out. It was no good. I had to know. First I had to establish exactly what I meant by "rolls." In honesty, when I first wrote the word I had been thinking of something on the lines of a croissant, which would certainly have existed at the time, or of whatever it was that Ben Franklin meant when he talked about eating "puffy" bread. Unfortunately I couldn't find a reliable period recipe for a croissant anywhere***, and while I did locate a recipe for Ben Franklin's rolls, the result looked like... Well, like bread. For Dora's impression of indolence I wanted something a little more luxurious. Fortunately, while I was searching for recipes, Max Miller brought out two videos in reasonably close succession. The first, titled Breakfast In Jane Austen's England included a recipe for Bath buns****, while the second, just for good measure, was for Eighteenth Century Chocolate. I had my recipes*****. The first thing to work on was the chocolate. Modern day hot chocolate is hardly time consuming. You throw some chocolate flakes or powder into hot milk or water, stir a little, and you're done. The main difference between that and the eighteenth century kind is that before you can get to the hot-milk-or-water stage you have to make the chocolate. From cacao nibs. Personally I saw this as a bonus. Everyone knows that too much chocolate is bad for you, but, conversely, everyone knows that cacao nibs are good for you. A "superfood" even. And home made is always healthier, right? I was making my chocolate myself, from cacao nibs, therefore I was being healthy. No sugary, processed junk for me! Anyway, I dumped the cacao nibs and spices into the food processor, added a healthy quantity of sugar, and pressed the button. According to the comments on Max's recipe page, one of two things should have happened. Either the stuff should have crumbled and melted until, as per the recipe, it formed chocolate; or it should have become a fine, dark, and yet unmelted powder. What actually happened was that it melted only around the processor blades, which happen to be inside the processor lid, and then set hard so I couldn't get the lid off. Much muttering, banging, wrapping tea-towels round the lid and, when all else failed, handing it to the kids and letting them try, later, and I was able to remove the chocolate from the blades, shake up the crumbs below it and restart the machine. It happened again. Five times. At which point I observed that it was at least now a "fine dark powder" as promised, remembered that I own a microwave, and threw it in to finish melting the easy way. It really shouldn't have worked.

Nestled awkwardly upon a flowered cushion, against the back of a beige-ish chair, sits a white mug full of crumbly brown chocolate. There's not much more to say about this image, really. I have no idea why I took the photograph like that, but I assume it seemed a good idea at the time.
Behold: Chocolate! No, Really.

Since microwaving the hell out of my chocolate did, for some unknown reason, do the job, I was free to get on with the buns. It seems to me that the most important thing, when making fresh hot buns for breakfast, is that you should be able to do so with as little work as possible. Nobody wants to get up at the crack of dawn to start measuring yeast and pummelling dough. Or most people don't. Some do, probably, but there's a word for people like that. Its "bakers". I am not, and have no aspiration to be, a baker, and I didn't want to do it. Moreover Dora, for all she's responsible for her household's baking, probably didn't want to get up even earlier either. She could, of course, eat yesterday's buns. But that seemed to miss the point. The point was: could she have fresh, hot rolls and chocolate, first thing in the morning? I was betting she could. The trick, of course, was to do all the hard work the night before, then to leave the rolls for their last rise somewhere cold instead of warm, so they would rise up slowly and be ready to go into the oven in the morning. Well, that was my theory anyway. I set to work and realised almost immediately that Mr Miller had left some important points out of his recipe. He had not, for example, mentioned that every shop in the neighbourhood can be counted on to run out of caraway seed the minute you need any. He likewise hadn't mentioned that the minute you put this dough into a stand mixer and turn it on, the whole kitchen will lose power, leading you to spend half an hour trying to find a blown fuse by torchlight, before a chorus of restarting burglar alarms informs you that no, you didn't just overload the fusebox: it was a power cut, you nit.****** He had thought to mention what a difference a stand mixer makes to the whole thing, but it stands mentioning again because holy cow. I feel no guilt about using a stand mixer to mix my dough, incidentally: Dora might have had to do the whole thing by hand, but Dora is a fictional creation with arm muscles honed through years of bar work, whereas I am a real, live wuss. Dora wouldn't have had a microwave either. What Max definitely hadn't thought to mention, because it wasn't remotely relevant to his recipe or to his video, was that some refrigerators are built out of one hundred percent, purest, professional grade evil.

Which was something of a problem for me. The obvious cold place in which to put my rolls was the fridge. Unfortunately for me, our fridge was purchased, sight-unseen in a fit of desperate necessity when the old fridge expired, in the middle of a heatwave, in the second month of lockdown. We did our best with the reviews and tiny photographs, but nevertheless ended up buying a fridge that seems to have been designed by someone on their final day in the office as a last act of spite against the company. It is a fridge designed not to be used. For example: cooling is apparently achieved through the medium of a wall of ice at the back of the fridge. Anything touching, or even just too close to this wall, will freeze, making it a useful backup if the freezer breaks down, but reducing the actual useable fridge-space by about a third. In the door there is a handy shelf, of the kind one might use to hold bottles or jars.

However said shelf is in a fixed position, so high up that it can't actually hold anything taller than, say, one of those individual pots of jam handed out in the nicer kind of café, or the door won't close. In an attempt to make up for this, the designer has made sure that the top shelf has plenty of headroom. Which would be great if I could reach the top shelf, or find the stupid plastic step that we bought when the kids were small and helpless. Warning: do not hang off of the fridge shelf by your hands. Your fridge will fall over and squash you. Or it won't, but your family will point and laugh and that will be almost as bad. As an additional space-saving measure the designer added a hanging rack on the middle shelf creating a sort of additional section of shelving capable of holding bottles or similar objects.

As the middle shelf is very short, that is pretty much all it can hold. And then there's the bottom shelf. The bottom shelf is ideally placed for access, with plenty of headroom, and, apart from that whole wall of ice problem, ideally placed to receive a couple of carefully stacked trays of buns. It is also "the chiller shelf". According to the manual this means that it is the perfect place to keep anything that you want to ensure stays in perfect condition.

Which, in rather plainer English means that if you put a frozen pot of soup on the chiller shelf on Friday, it will still be frozen when you come to take it out on Monday. I have tested this. However, since my house, while rich in microwaves and stand mixers, is decidedly short on little things like walk-in larders, the chiller shelf is pretty much the only accessible cold place in the house. Onto the chiller shelf went the buns.

I did not expect much of them. They were, when I took them out and started heating the oven in the morning, cold, sad looking little lumps of dough with, in my opinion, rather too thick a skin on them to rise well. Since it was too late to turn back, I glazed them and put them in anyway and started on the chocolate. To my complete shock everything came together perfectly. The time it took to heat milk, chop the chocolate, and whisk the whole thing together, was exactly the time needed for the buns to puff up and turn the ideal golden brown. I glazed them, as per the recipe, for the second time, sprinkled them with sugar, poured out the chocolate and, as the time needed to make a cup of chocolate is also, apparently, the exact time needed for the scent of buns to summon every child in a sixty mile radius, laid down some firm rules about clean hands, crumbs, and not stripping the kitchen like a plague of locusts, before sloping off back to bed to examine my work in the appropriate setting.

On a white plate, against a background of a black, fluffy blanket, sits a sticky, golden-brown Bath bun. It has sultanas instead of caraway comfits, because I couldn't find the blessed caraway seeds anywhere, and anyway sultanas are just as good if you aren't trying to recreate the ur-recipe. And I prefer sultanas, really. On the plate beside the bun is a cup of chocolate. The chocolate is dark and rich-looking, with a small amount of froth on top. The cup, which sits in a matching saucer, has a decoration of purple flowers, and bears in side its rim the legend "I could poison you". It is, for no particular reason, my favourite cup.
Breakfast In Bed

Breakfast was, against all my expectations, magnificent. The chocolate was rich and sweet, too sweet in fact, for bitter me, but delicious all the same; whereas the buns were light, soft, perfectly flavoured, and puffy enough to make Ben Franklin weep for jealousy. They were also rich. Could you get through the day on a couple of these buns? You could climb up Snowden on one of them. If you started out from Malaysia. On two you could probably make it to Jupiter and back. I can't comment on the effects of eating three, because I think, at that point, your heart might explode. My youngest child had two.

With butter and jam.

I am still trying to work out how she managed it. My thesis proven I retired from the field in a haze of glory and butter. Dora could have chocolate and sweet rolls for breakfast, and she could get through the day on them. The next week, just by way of a reference, I made the modern day equivalent of this breakfast. It was a lot more convenient, but not nearly as good. If you have time on your hands, and the ingredients to spare, I recommend you make the old-fashioned kind. But I also recommend you use a stand-mixer, if you've got one, because ye gods does it make a difference. I also recommend that you read The Wolf-Finder General, when it comes out; if only so that you can see how very, ridiculously, ludicrously tangential all this bun-making really was. *No, seriously, thank them. They've helped turn The Wolf-Finder General into the book** it now is. They deserve all the sticky buns and chocolate in the world. Or at least all that they can comfortably consume. **Coming soon. This time I mean it. ***I did discover a book called "The Bloody History Of The Croissant" by David Halliday, but I haven't read it yet. ****What happened to Bath buns? You used to see them all over the place when I was little. Now they seem to have disappeared entirely. *****I'm not going to share those recipes here. Mostly because this, despite all appearances, this isn't a recipe blog, but also because Max has already gone to all the trouble of making the videos, and writing up the recipes so I don't have to. If you want to try them yourself, go and check out those links. And do the like-and-subscribe thing while you're at it. You'll be glad you did. ******My area, occupied as it largely is, by the elderly and paranoid, has rather more than the usual number of burglar alarms per head. As there is a fairly high turnover of home-owners, with several people selling up and moving -- be it to retirement communities or to the homes of their children -- every year, a power cut is an opportunity for new home owners to discover all the burglar alarms they didn't know they had. And don't have the codes for.

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