"Made with decent ingredients, a rock cake can rival the best scone or sponge; yet make it meanly, and it tastes like a dull waste of time"
Why have rock cakes disappeared more or less completely, when scones, cup cakes and muffins have become so super trendy? I searched my cook books today and not even The Best of Eliza Acton, or Elizabeth David's two learned tomes on English food included a recipe. Not to mention Jane Grigson's almost as learned English Food or any of my other English cooks - Jamie, Nigel, Nigella or Delia.
Well to be fair to Delia she does have a recipe online for Good old rock cakes, although in her introduction she does seem almost surprised that they tasted so good.
Also to be fair, Nigel Slater did mention them in an article on Mother's Day food, but he didn't give a recipe.
You would also think that the Australians (having a largely Anglo culture) would be into rock cakes. And I did indeed find recipes in Taste, The Australian Women's Weekly and also in a personal essay from someone writing about her mother's old recipe on the Homes to Love website.
But the Australian gurus - Stephanie Alexander et al. have nothing.
This is another post inspired by my current read The Dictionary of Lost Words. In this case it was just a passing mention. The young heroine, still a child, feeling somewhat down, is given the task of making some by Dr. Murray's cook. But the very mention of the words rock cakes, brought back memories of childhood and cooking with my mother. They are such a simple thing that, in Britain anyway, they are one of the first things that children cook. Which is why Nigel Slater mentions them in his Mother's Day post.
"I have a soft spot for rock cakes, partly because they were one of my first successes. Such sweet things can be made in minutes, providing the butter is at room temperature and will be out of the oven in a quarter of an hour" Nigel Slater
Children after all are after instant gratification are they not? And it's fun to mix it all up and roll them into a ball. Besides:
"Can there be any gift so well received as that of some food a child has made?" Nigel Slater
They're called rock cakes because they are nobbly I believe, rather than what they taste like - although there is a danger that they will indeed be somewhat dense and hard - like Hagrid's in Harry Potter. Somewhere in Britain they are called rock buns - I'm guessing in the north, but nobody who told us this actually said where they were called buns rather than cakes. There was also not much discussion about when or where they were invented. Mostly they seem to think Victorian, but then again it's such a basic thing that is hard to believe it's not ancient. After all:
"They’re the kind of easy cake you can rustle up with not much more than a bag of old flour and some sad-looking currants lurking at the back of the cupboard: no fancy techniques, no tins, no fuss ... no art." Ruby Tandoh
And like scones they go off pretty quickly and are best eaten warm with a touch of butter straight from the oven. Scones are still popular though, so why not rock cakes? Is it the look, or maybe the sultanas? So how do you make them and what are the tips and tricks, and do people do radical things with them?
Well, the Delia recipe above will give you the basics. Ruby Tandoh in The Guardian had a few very useful things to say about the whole process. (Interestingly Felicity Cloake seems not to feel she has to produce a Perfect rock cake.)
"The dough needs to be firm enough to hold its shape as it bakes freeform, without tins or moulds, but rich enough that the finished cake tastes of something other than disappointment."
"In terms of technique, the trick to rock cakes that don’t live up to their name is to handle the dough as little as possible. The more you work the flour, the more you’ll develop gluten and the tougher and heavier the cakes will be."
But this is 2020 and we don't leave tradition alone these days. And some of the first things to get the 'modernisation' technique are basic things like rock cakes. Perhaps this is also more forgivable when the original is so plain, dare one say ordinary? For:
"that curious hybrid of a scone and a butter cake, is all the better when made with generosity rather than stern adherence to tradition" Dan Lepard
And there are plenty of variations out there. Not all of them sweet. Ruby Tandoh had a recipe for a carrot version and Rachel Davis, The Vagabond Baker, had a rhubarb version. Which goes to show the possibilities are endless with something so basic.
"With ever a firm grasp of the mathematics of happiness, we concluded that good thing plus good thing will always equal better thing ... Carrot cake was my childhood bake of choice; rock buns were often the only treats that we had the ingredients for: this recipe is a fusion." Ruby Tandoh
The most tempting variations were all sweet though. Rocky Road Rock cakes and Gingerbread rock cakes from Dan Lepard and Apple Spice cakes and Lemon-glazed gingerbread rock cakes from Ruby Tandoh
And whilst we are on basic and few ingredients, in the course of my 'research' for this post I came across this rather useful post in the Guardian, called, No Flour, Eggs or Butter? No problem! in how to cope with shortages of 'basics' in the current COVID19 world. It took all the basic things like flour, sugar, eggs and gave you ideas and recipes for substitutes. It also offered this insight.
"bear in mind that no two kitchen cupboards are the same and you may find that grocers can still supply “fancy” alternatives such as ricotta or flaxseeds while the staples are but a memory." Dale Berning Sawa
So maybe I should be writing about what to do with the exotics rather than making basic things with flour. Still in short supply here, and according to my sister, almost impossible to find in the UK. Everyone is at home making rock cakes and scones and getting fat! But no they are exercising as well so perhaps not really fat.