“The fisherman fishes as the urchin eats cream buns, from lust.”
Almost the last item in the current Coles Magazine is this - a promotional, not quite recipe for cream buns. They looked so delicious and pretty - well they were styled by one of Australia's top food stylists - Steve Pearce - but more importantly it just created one of those huge nostalgia moments for me - cream buns - a sometime after school tea-time treat of my childhood. Bought from a shop - probably a baker's I think. I don't remember my mother making them at home. Indeed I don't remember my mother making anything with yeast at all. Although I willingly admit I may be doing her a disservice. Although I don't think so as my first memory of yeast - real yeast - was in one of my high school cooking lessons.
The ones shown here, as I said, are not a complete recipe because you start with a Coles product - French style brioche rolls, which you then fill with whipped cream sweetened with some icing sugar (300ml cream +1 tbsp icing sugar), and some strained blueberry jam. Top with some actual blueberries and dust with icing sugar. And there you are - something you could serve at a posh afternoon tea. I don't know how good their brioche buns are. Coles also took the opportunity to promote another product Coles Bakery Fresh Cream Long John Donuts - which are not the same thing at all, - other than the split and the cream and jam - and of which one commenter on a Whirlpool Forum said:
"Have you bought them? They're revolting. I dunno if it's Coles wide but they don't sweeten the cream, which just makes it a little strange, as the pastry isn't sweet either, so literally the only sweetness comes from the confectioners jam."
Which is indeed an interesting point about sweetening the cream. I'm not at all sure the cream buns of my youth were sweetened - well I think the buns were but possibly not the cream.
But cream buns are indeed sweet. One of those guilty pleasures for just now and again. And not guilty just because of the cream and the sugar and the general lack of nutritional gold, but also because it's such a basic, even ordinary thing - a plain white bun with a bit of jam and cream. Like jam sandwiches.
I remember we must have bought them from various different places, or maybe I sometimes indulged when I was at university, but I do know that the thing that made them good or bad was the amount of cream within. And you know I don't remember the jam. Maybe at home we added our own jam, or maybe the shops were a bit stingy with the jam.
Anyway here we are - 'doing' cream buns.
Almost the first recipe I found was from the Australian Women's Weekly of course, and they are indeed pretty traditional looking - boring even? The Australian Women's Weekly also rarely gives you any information, just some little hook - in this case nostalgia - and a hopefully attractive photograph to get you in. They did call them Cream buns though, so maybe the Australians, too have adopted that name.
I kept looking fora short time, but it wasn't that simple as it turns out. I had thought of them as English, definitely boringly English - sort of country English. But then the first site that I looked at - Christina's Cucina claimed them as Scottish. Here are hers - not a lot of cream but quite a lot of jam, and not much dusting with icing sugar - I definitely remember the dusting of icing sugar and they don't look as soft as I remember them either.. As I wasn't at all sure that this was right I decided to search my English food authorities in my bookshelves - Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, but nothing. Nor did Jamie and Delia have anything either. I also didn't find anything to back up the Scottish claim online.
However, I did find a reference to a different name altogether - Devonshire Splits. And yes, Elizabeth David deals with them, Cornish splits too, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery opus. This nomenclature in the search window of Google produced a whole lot more results. Including Nigel Slater who calls his Elizabeth David adapted recipe Devonshire splits.
It turns out that there are subtle differences between Devonshire and Cornish splits, although there also seem to be different opinions about what those differences are - big ones for Cornwall, small ones for Devonshire; cream on top, cream on bottom; slit on top, slit at the side. I'm sure there are people who will argue about this forever, but we don't really care. Here is an example of a comment from one Phillip on the Pantry site to show you how serious some people take these things:
"More commonly known as Chudleigh Splits or Buns the real thing is never filled with fresh double cream, whipped or not. The filling from traditional Devonshire bakers was and continues to be made up of Mock Cream, with a fruit jelly, not jam. Fortunately this original recipe is by and large rained to this day."
(I'm not at all sure what he means by 'rained', but that's what it said.) The Chudleigh bit is the name of a village from which they are supposed to have emanated, but this could just be a legend. Maybe they just made the best ones there.
As to the Mock cream however, another Devon focused website says:
"also known as Devon (or Cornish) Splits, the use of the word split simply describing a bun or roll that has been split to be filled. In Devonshire, my lovelies, this can only mean ‘to be filled with clotted cream’ and home-made jam." Devonium and Kitchenalia
Alas I suspect that the ones I ate in my youth were made with Mock cream - it was certainly light and fluffy rather than rich and dense like Cornish clotted cream. Which, in fact, might be more appropriate in this case - maybe the Coles recommendation of whipping thickened cream is a compromise solution.
They are apparently a predecessor to the scones which are now the Devonshire tea favourites, and the splits have gone out of favour a bit. Probably because they take a bit more doing.
"Devonshire splits seem to have been abandoned in favour of less-capricious scones. They deserve a pretty plate, some good gossip and either clotted cream or some double cream softly whipped. Oh, and a pot of tea rather than the usual bag in a mug." Nigel Slater
And there is one last word on the Cornish and Devonshire splits:
"If you eat them with cream and treacle they are known as ‘thunder and lightening’ and are wickedly good." Devonium and Kitchenalia
Or these days with golden syrup or even honey or maple syrup and cream. I think treacle is the tradition though.
So no they are not easy to find these days, but you could have a go yourself to try and recreate those late afternoon tea-time treats, when you're feeling down and depressed, and you could probably use the Nigel Slater/Elizabeth David recipe as your basis:
"The Devonshire split is a rare treat now (try and find one) but the dough is easy to make. It is little more than a bread dough, but enriched with butter and a little sugar. They do not keep well (you could probably freeze them) and are particularly pleasing when made small rather the norm, which is the size of a tennis ball. They become true to their name only when served, when you split them by slicing a broad smile into their top and stuffing it with jam and cream." Nigel Slater
And one more tip I saw was to cover them with a tea towel when they come out of the oven so that they soften. They should not be hard, or even marginally hard. Soft like a bap.
But that's not the end of the story. Because early on I found that Rachel Roddy had a recipe for something called Maritozzi cream buns.
Surely, thought I, these are the same. Even the glazing - which several recipes for splits or cream buns suggested. And that's definitely cream in the split. These are ancient with rather more well documented origins, going right back to Rome and the middle-ages when some almond biscuits called quaresimali were approved by the Pope for eating in Lent. Later on these morphed into the maritozzi cream buns - also approved for Lent. Personally I think it's a bit of a jump from biscuits to buns but that's what they say - Other sites said the same thing. Some recipes for maritozzi included dried fruits and candied peel in the dough, but Rachel Roddy seemed to think that these were for the biscuits - still made - and not the buns. Anyway - Italian cream buns, and being Italian of course and therefore more foodie approved there are many more recipes for maritozzi online.
There are not very many however, for Semla - the Scandinavian (mostly Swedish) version of the cream bun. There are spices such as cardamom in the dough and an almond paste kind of thing instead of jam, but definitely a relation.
There are even some far away in Hong Kong and China.
So there you go another journey around the world from my youth in Hornchurch, Essex, through Scotland, Devon and Cornwall (somebody claimed them for Ireland too), to Italy and on to the far east. Well it just proves that the whole world has a weak spot for sugar and cream and other sweet things don't we?