Thursday, July 28, 2011

Perfect Crumpets

OK, maybe it’s not time for crumpets in the best of circles...I hear that no self-respecting Scotsman would have one before late fall. But I fell into a crumpet mood here in the dead heat of summer in New Jersey, and there was no turning away from the thought of one: warm, crispy on the bottom, tenderly perforated at the top by a multitude of holes that suck up melted butter and jam into a bewilderingly crunchy, yet chewy and custardy, sweet, oozy, and buttery snack.

Crumpets are infuriating, however. I knew they had to be fantastic the way they are always written about so fondly in British novels. But frankly, they have only been a disappointment in real life. I have never found a decent one to buy anywhere. Sitting as they do for days in plastic, they taste old and rubbery. (Think putting a week-old pancake in a toaster.) If you can’t eat them the moment they are made, it is better just to forget them altogether.

Making them at home is not so easy either. They seem simple enough, if you aren’t afraid of baking with yeast. But until this weekend, I had not been able to make one that was worth the calories, and certainly not one that lived up to its romantic, comforting and scrumptious reputation. Sure, they’re crispy enough, but they tend to be flat, and lack the essential holes which sponge up butter and jam. Like I said...That all changed this weekend.

A newspaper writer was coming over to interview me on the re-opening of my cooking school. I thought I’d set an artful scene with a few crumpets temptingly browning on the stove as he walked through the door. Yeah, it was a gutsy move, as I had yet to achieve anything even close to crumpet success. Somehow the day felt special, however, and I knew this particular writer was a kind fellow. He deserved a decent crumpet. It was a good day to try.

I had read a thousand recipes in my years, but the most inspiring account of a crumpet is a YouTube clip by the Hairy Bikers. They give some great tips on technique, but reliable measurements? Not so much. So, I reviewed the video, if only for laughs, then rolled up my sleeves and prayed to the kitchen goddess (and the Hairy Bikers).

Up until then, it made sense to make the crumpet dough as rich as possible--butter, eggs, milk. This time was different. The Hairy Bikers didn’t do that--they only used milk. And oddly enough, I neglected to use even that. Yes, I used almost nothing but flour and water. It could have been the stuff of prison food. Yet, that is all that was needed to make the perfect crumpet. As with so many things in life, plain stuff done with care and finesse creates treasures.

The trick is using two leavenings (yeast and baking soda), a cast iron griddle, the perfect heat, and...a particular technique at the end! Make at least one tester crumpet that will probably be thrown away. In fact, it’s best to plan on going through an entire batch or two at the beginning. It hurts to waste, but the waste is all up front...I now can make perfect crumpets...and trust me, they will all get eaten from now on!

In a small bowl add:
2¼ cups warm water
1 package yeast 1 teaspoon sugar

Stir and allow to rise about 10 minutes while you assemble the dry ingredients. Combine in a bowl and whisk thoroughly:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons gluten flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Add the yeast-water and beat for about 4 minutes. (As with all yeast doughs, mix in the same direction.) It may be necessary to add a bit more water, as this should be a very wet dough--too wet to handle--almost like a thick pancake batter but more viscous. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place until bubbly and double in bulk--45 minutes to an hour.

Remove the cloth and add to the mixture:
½ cup water mixed with
½ teaspoon baking soda

Cover again and set the dough to rise for another ½ hour while you put a large cast iron pan or griddle on to a low heat. Butter as many 4-inch metal rings as will fit, and place them on the heating pan/griddle. Allow them to warm for the entire time you are letting your dough rise, which should finally look quite bubbly.

You are ready to make your first crumpet!
Put just a bit of butter on the cooking surface. Without disturbing the dough any more than is necessary, gently scoop ⅓ cup of the mixture into each ring (or just one ring if you are doing a ‘tester’). Allow this to cook undisturbed for a few minutes. The top should begin to form bubbles as the crumpet rises in its protective ring to a heavenly ½ to ¾ inches thick, and dries out--
the way a pancake does.

Now is the trick. Traditionally, one cooks only one side of the crumpet, much like an egg done sunny-side-up. Typically, however, people like to remove the crumpet from its ring and flip it over to brown the holey side, resulting in a perfect toasty top. The problem is two-fold: both the ring-removal and the turning usually flattens everything, leaving you with only the memory of the lightness that crumpet once had.

As it turned out with the writer, the crumpets had been flattened in this way, and half of them were burning as when he walked in the door. (As I said, he was kind about it.) The ones I served had a decent texture, and he did have a sense of what they could have been. The minute the writer left, however, I went back to the stove.

The solution to the problem was inspired by a further viewing of the Hairy Bikers video. At the end, they toast their perfect crumpets over the fire (on the beach, actually!) Lacking a beach front fire, I tried toasting the crumpet tops over my gas flame for that romantic fire-toasted taste without the flattening flip! It worked remarkably well. Still, removing them from the ring I flattened my creation again, and the tongs flattened the crumpet further.

One is tempted to whisper, “Those blasted rings!” But as so often happens in life, the two problems mutually offer the solution!

Keeping the crumpet in the ring while using their metal sides (and not the crumpet) for clamping the tongs allows one to toast the holey top over the flame! It’s perfect. The top has a fire-roasted finish on its scrumptiously holey surface, and the extra cooking stabilizes the delicately risen crumpet enough so as to allow removal from the ring with a quick circling with a sharp knife. Wipe or rinse the rings and place back on the griddle to heat for re-using.

Serve the crumpets immediately smothered in good butter and jam or honey.

Photos by Kylie Springman, New York

1 comment:

  1. A note--It is important to put in that gluten flour. I neglected to do that today and the crumpets did not turn out as well. (The Hairy Bikers used 2/3 part bread flour to 1 part all-purpose flour.)