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Treacle tart

"The treacle tart heralds a time of friendship, belonging and being looked after." Poires au chocolat

Well I couldn't resist using the quote above as my header quote, because of the coincidence of the name of the website, let alone the aptness of the quote. The quote is actually summing up the importance of treacle tart to Harry Potter - it was his favourite dessert and that fact has, of course, renewed interest in this most traditional of dishes. Well that's what popular culture does isn't it? But, of course, it is also a supremely nostalgic childhood treat to us British, and another school dinner favourite. And this one I do remember having at school dinners. Dinner actually being lunch of course.

"Stale bread and cheap syrup proved a killer combination for thrifty cooks chasing maximum calories for their cash, which is probably why the dish remains so popular in schools to this day. And, let's face it, if you could keep it down at school, it's going to keep a sweet spot in your heart for life." Felicity Cloake

Take note of that "if you could keep it down at school", because there were several things that I could barely keep down from my primary school dinners - macaroni cheese, lumpy rice pudding, frog spawn (semolina or tapioca?) ... High school was not quite so bad. And "a killer combination for thrifty cooks" - yes my mum made it too every now and then.

Not that it's healthy at all. No, no, no - there is a lot of Golden Syrup in there.

"Treacle tart is the sort of domestic pudding the health police throw a hissy fit over. Ignore them: it is not like we live on the stuff. Our national tart has its roots in good housekeeping; a way of using up stale bread that will tempt even the staunchest dessert hater. I like that frugality. It makes me feel good about the extravagances." Nigel Slater

This is yet another one of those recipes for which it is virtually impossible to find consensus. There are several variations, which I shall come to and the only common denominator it seems to me is the Golden Syrup. Indeed an American writer - Daring Gourmet (this is her version on the left) went so far as to exhort her American readers, to order Golden Syrup online if they could not find it. It doesn't exist in America apparently. And no, molasses (which I think is the same as what we British call treacle), or corn syrup just will not do. Although ... and I will come back to that.

Golden Syrup, it seems was invented in 1883, and so the treacle tart as we mostly know it today cannot have existed before then. I was absolutely certain that I had written a post on Golden Syrup in the past, but in spite of a fairly comprehensive search I have not been able to find it. So I shall add it to my list. Suffice to say that Golden Syrup is a unique product invented by the firm of Tate and Lyle in London. It was made from what was then virtually a waste product of refining sugar - the treacle. Nowadays it's just Lyle's Golden Syrup. I don't know what happened to Tate. I'll save that for my upcoming Golden Syrup post.

"Golden syrup is a thick amber-colored inverted sugar syrup that’s made with sugar, water and citric acid. It has a deep caramelized, buttery flavor." Daring Gourmet

The version of the tart shown there is the one you can find on the Lyles website. Not that I would necessarily recommend this particular recipe as it includes in its ingredients some packeted lemon zest. Really? I had no idea you could get such a thing. What's so hard about grating a bit of lemon zest? Even my grandchildren can do that.

There was an earlier recipe for a treacle tart, which did indeed use treacle - layered with pastry. It was written down few years earlier by one Mary Jewry. I gather that there probably were earlier medieval versions too which might have used honey - just honey mixed with breadcrumbs and baked in a pastry shell. Felicity Cloake tried a version with treacle but thought that it tasted too bitter, although in the good old British tradition of compromise she does end up adding a couple of spoonfuls of treacle to the Golden Syrup in her 'perfect' version. Maybe that's why hers looks much darker than most. I did see a few other versions with a bit of treacle, but none with just treacle.

Ruby Tandoh went one step further in her Honey treacle tart by adding honey to the mix of Golden Syrup and a tiny bit of treacle. I gather that the treacle is somewhat bitter and so takes off the edge of all that sugary sweetness.

As to the pastry - so many arguments and versions here, the most fundamental of which, I guess. is whether to use lard or butter as the fatty element in your flaky or shortcrust pastry. Well that's the basic pastry and most probably one that all those cash-strapped housewives chose, but you will find plenty more variations out there with ingredients such as oats, almonds, lemon and cream in the mix. They all agree you should bake the pastry blind first though or it will all be horribly soggy. Whether you put that lattice on the top seems to be a personal choice and, perhaps more likely, something to do with whether you have leftover pastry or not.

And here is where I come to the various arguments over what goes into the filling and why I started on this whole thing anyway. Because I don't think I have ever made one. Perhaps I should save it for the next Zoom cooking lesson. The reason why I chose to write about it is that other writer's block evasion technique that I have invented for myself - throwing out old magazines.

This particular magazine is a Gourmet Traveller from April 2003 - very old. It is in a section of recipes for teatime from Margaret Fulton, the doyenne of Australian cooks before the times of Stephanie and Maggie et al. She died back in 2019 at the grand old age of 94, still appearing here and there. I have no doubt that my generation of cooks here in Australia grew up with her as the voice of Australian food. Not just Australian food though as she was very involved in introducing other cuisines to the Australian housewife, through her cookbooks, and the work she did for various women's magazines. The Margaret Fulton Cookbook is an Australian cookbook classic.

Anyway amongst her recipes was the one at the top of the page, for treacle tart. It wasn't just the pretty picture that got me though, it was that good old nostalgia thing and a desire to tell the world that British food is much, much better than its reputation would suggest.

Having launched into the investigation of origins and variations, I found that actually Margaret Fulton is on the side of the non traditionalists. That is if we are to believe, and I think we should, that fundamentally the recipe is a mix of breadcrumbs and Golden Syrup in a tart shell. But Margaret Fulton has no breadcrumbs! Her filling is 160ml Golden Syrup, 15g butter, warmed together and then the rest - 1/2 cup cream, grated rind of 1/2 lemon and 2 lightly beaten eggs thrown in. Which would probably account for the thinness of her tart. But you'd have to wonder whether she had just forgotten them wouldn't you?

More or less everybody else has the breadcrumbs, but those other things - eggs, cream, lemon zest (and juice) seem to depend on what the particular chef fancies. A few add some apples, but then as somebody said, it's no longer a treacle tart then. They all seemed to agree that lemon is a good idea, though some thought the zest too bitter. Eggs seem to be another choice thing, and cream too, but almost everyone seems to add butter. Then there's the argument about what kind of bread. Does it matter one wonders? Surely if this is a leftovers, frugal dish you would just use what you had. Jamie Oliver even adds ground oats to his mix. Then there's the argument about whether you mix it all together in your saucepan and pour the whole lot into the tart or do as Felicity Cloake:

"I'll pour the syrup mixture over the crumbs in the case rather than mixing them together in a pan, so the top layer stays relatively dry and crisp." Felicity Cloake

Here are some examples: Jamie's version is lighter in colour - it must be those oats; Nigella hosts a recipe from Richard Snapes, Grant Harrington, and Eve Hemingwaycalled Sourdough treacle tart; delicious magazine has two versions, the second being a latticed version from Valli Little; Nigel Slater has a go; as does Rick Stein, and finally Ruby Tandoh has a Honey treacle tart. I think that between them they cover most of the common variations. Delia did have a recipe but it's not on her website and there was no picture on the site I found it on - but she adds apples, so it's not really a proper treacle tart anyway.

So what does a Michelin starred chef like Shaun Rankin do when he makes his award winning version? Well actually nothing very different. An egg yolk rather than a whole egg, some cream, but no lemon and ground almonds in the pastry. And yes there are breadcrumbs. But it looks pretty with the raspberries.

"The professional version has thinner pastry and a deeper, runnier filling. This is fine by me. In practice the domestic recipe is made to use up a surfeit of bread, while the restaurant version is there to appeal to our sense of nostalgia for the puddings that Mother never made. Or if she did, she never made them often enough." Nigel Slater

Honestly though not a lot to choose between them. Probably if you look closer you would find the amount of Golden Syrup versus the other ingredients varies enormously. I shall have to check them out more closely if I'm going to make this with the grandchildren.


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