My last blog post was about enriched doughs and it chimed with the festive bread for Christmas.
Associated with enrichment by fat, eggs, and sugar is the more common addition of fats and oils to normal savoury doughs which have no relationship to festive breads. I have pointed out that it is my advice to add fats and oils customarily to doughs which are using dark, bran-laden flour since bran is very thirsty and continues to absorb any moisture in both dough and finished baked bread, causing darker breads to dry out and stale quickly. The presence of vegetable oil or solid fat (butter, lard) inhibits, and thereby slows down, that staling process by binding the water into both starch and protein molecules. Apart from branny darker flours there is also the customary use of fat when making a product in which softness is desired. Examples would be an elegant dinner roll or a sandwich loaf where solid fat or veg oil could be used at about 5% of flour weight. In the previouys blog I also offered advice about adding the fat/oil late in the kneading process, not early. Wait until the dough is properly formed and gluten strands are manifestly beginning to form. When added at this stage the fat/oil will enhance the dough structure by actually lubricating the emerging gluten strands, resulting in a superior dough with better all-round structure.
An exploration of saffron dough cake is a continuation of the enrichment topic, although it uses the fat in an entirely different way. With the dough cake method the fat is rubbed into the flour early, in the manner of making short pastry. By coating the protein molecules in the flour with fat they are rendered less capable of absorbing water and the formation of gluten is thus inhibited. In short pastry the formation of gluten is not required and, even worse, is undesirable since the pastry eats tough and shrinks in the oven. (Now the student will understand more deeply why I recommend adding the fat late to bread doughs where every aspect of gluten is to be enhanced). Saffron dough cake is described as a “cakey” bread, with a soft and delicate crumb, and rubbing the fat in early ensures that result.
SAFFRON DOUGH CAKE
Known as a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, the saffron dough cake can be associated with the West Country generally. The growing of saffron lingered on in Cornwall for centuries after it declined in other southern counties in the east. Hence there is a perception that the use of saffron in buns and sweet breads is typical of Cornwall. There are many recipes for spiced dough cakes throughout the whole of the British Isles, recorded in early manuscript cookbooks and the later published books beginning in the sixteenth century. They occupied a place in baking before the arrival of baking powder changed habits and tastes considerably, and cake itself became readily available to us all. The presence of considerable amounts of fat and sugar caused this sort of confection to be called a “dough cake” to distinguish it from a “bread”. A Cornish friend who is also a baker told me that in her childhood the traditional way to serve the saffron dough cake was as toast not bread.
From mediaeval times there was a great tradition, or custom, of the baker simply enriching a piece of leftover dough to make the dough cake as a special product, perhaps once a week or when one of the customers was celebrating a special event. That must have been going along for centuries before we have recorded recipes of dough cakes made from scratch.
Once commonly available in the south of England, saffron nowadays has to be brought from Spain or Turkey at great expense. The best way to treat the saffron filaments is by hot infusion (unless the recipe features alcohol, when the filaments can be left to steep in the brandy or sherry, or whatever liqour is called for).
Place the filaments for a short while in a really warm place until they are entirely dry and crisp – a few minutes will do. Then immerse them in a cup of hot water to infuse. Here we shall put them into hot milk rather than water, seeing as warm milk is part of the recipe. While the saffron infuses for a while, the over-heated milk can cool down to the temperature required to make the ferment, a little over 30° C.
The recipe here is a professional baker’s method, favouring the “ferment” which was very popular in the first half of the last century. The purpose of a ferment is to get the yeast working vigorously so that it is “up and running” before it meets the rich ingredients (egg yolk, fat, sugar) which will bog it down and create a heavy barrier between it and its food, causing sluggish feeding.
For the ferment: 1 pt milk (560ml)
10 oz flour (280 gm)
2 oz yeast (55 gm)
4 oz sugar (110 gm)
small clump of saffron filaments – perhaps ½ teaspoon, ¼ gram
Temperature of the finished ferment should be 28 – 30° C.
Soon it will become an expanding frothy pile. When it is ripe, perhaps in three-quarters of an hour, it will have a pitted surface where its tiny gas bubbles are popping. If it drops it is displaying that it is beyond “ready”.
Preparation for the doughmaking should have begun, beginning with the rough rubbing in of the butter into the flour.
When the ferment is ready add it to the rest of the ingredients.
For the dough: the ferment
1 lb 10 oz flour (730 gm)
7 oz butter (200 gm)
4 oz sugar (110 gm)
½ oz salt (14 gm)
zest of lemon & orange
1lb currants (450 gm)
egg for glazing
The initial rubbing into the flour of the butter makes it into a “cakey” bread that the baker describes as “short”, meaning that it will not be strong dough with a powerful presence of gluten. The formation of gluten has been undermined by putting the fat to the flour first, inhibiting the ability of the flour to take up the water and form the normal amount of gluten that it would be capable of forming. Because gluten formation is thus restricted, kneading will be relatively easy and quick. Knead until a smooth and stretchy dough is formed, putting the currants in gently at the end of kneading.
Leave the dough to lie for about an hour and a half, maybe longer, before a downward poke with a floured finger reveals that the cavity left by the finger does not close over, meaning that the dough is ripe and ready.
Weigh it for the size that suits your tins, covering them for final proof, which could take another hour. About halfway through, when the dough has expanded enough to be filling the inside of the tin, egg glaze them.
For such a rich cakey bread with all that sugar, bake it in a gently moderate oven, well below 200° C. The baker’s oven would be 190C, domestic 170-180C.
Being such a rich bread it is difficult to feel when they are ready. The professional baker will tap a loaf to feel that it vibrates and shudders inside, but another useful test is to check that the soft side of the loaf springs back when it is gently depressed with the ball of the thumb. A thermometer probe inserted to the exact middle of the loaf should reach 92C when properly baked.