Friday, October 2, 2020

Tea Time: What is a crumpet, anyway?

Tea and crumpets. It is a phrase many of us have heard, conjuring images of steaming Earl Grey served in porcelain cups and overstuffed armed chairs. But what is a crumpet? Recently, I dug up a recipe and made a batch.


Crumpet with buter and jam on a plate.
Crumpet rings, tea is whistlin'; On the cake, butter's glistening. We're humming a song as we munch along...

A "crumpet" is a griddle cake, something like a cross between a pancake and an English muffin. Unlike a pancake, crumpets are yeast-risen and fluffy, big foamy bubbles form the "nooks and crannies" that absorb plenty of warm butter and jam. Crumpets are grilled on one side only at first and toasted before serving. They are an old English tradition, going back in some form for centuries, first fomally mentioned by the Bible translator, John Wycliffe, in the 14th century and later described in closer to the their current form by Elizabeth Raffald in "The Experienced English Housekeeper" in the 18th century [Oxford Online Reference Library].

The ready-to-cook batter is much too soft to stand on its own while cooking, so the crumpets are formed in metal rings, crumpet rings. Good crumpet rings are stainless steel and double-rolled to present a smooth, easy-to-clean surface for consistent crumpet extraction. Most people don't have them, however, and it's not like you can just pick them up at an typical American store. Canning jar lids are not at all ideal, but they do (mostly) work. (They probably offend some deep-seated English taboo, so exercise caution. I have no idea how a Brit would resond to them being served with hot coffee, either...)

My crumpet adventure started with a recipe from the Daring Gourmet. I was with the in-laws and made a double batch. I did not double the salt. So, the ingredients list ended up being:

  • 4 cups of flour, sifted. Half of this was recently ground, half store-bought because I ran out of fresh.
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups warm milk
  • 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

As instructed in that recipe, the batter is made in two stages, first making and rising a spongy dough, then beating in more liquid and resting for 30 minutes. The recipe specifically states not to worry about beating all of the lumps out when mixing the batter: you want some variation in texture. The rising process is very important to getting the big bubbles in the batter (you can see this in my picture of crumpets on the griddle). On this particular day, my wife was also baking, so the area was nicely warm for the rising and it doubled in size fairly quickly. Your mileage may vary. Proof your yeast and go by actual rising, not the clock-time.

The rings are necessary to get the batter to stand up enough to get decently-thick crumpets. The canning jar lids are not ideal and take some fiddling. I used a mix of narrow and wide mouth rings because that is what my inlaws had in the cupboard. I found that it was best to fill them 2/3rds full with batter on the hot, greased griddle. Preheat the griddle until a droplet of water dances. The crumpets expand when cooking and will overflow if the ring is overfilled. The crumpets are flatter and kindof crispy when underfilled. They have a pleasant, yeasty aroma while cooking.

Grease the rings well! I used cooking spray, again, because it was what I had on hand. When the rings were not greased well, underfilled or overfilled, I suffered Crumpet Extraction Failure (CEF). I had to force the cooked crumpet out and then had to try to quickly scrub and regrease the ring for the next batch. This was a substantial pain-in-the-you-know-what. When the rings were filled correctly and greased well, the crumpets dropped right out, even with the threads in the rings. When you are still learning, you probably want to have a large stock of clean rings handy, preferably the wide-mouth ones. That way, when CEF occurs, you can just set it aside temporarily and grab a clean ring.

The Crumpet Extraction Falure (CEF) condition. Avoid this. Have spare rings in case you do not avoid it.

Since some of the crumpets were to be served right away, I toasted them right on the hot griddle after everything was done. Turn up the heat a bit for proper toasting. The crumpets made with wide-mouth rings fit in a slot toaster, the small ones not safely. In civilized places, crumpets are supposed to be served cut in half (half-moons, not sliced like English muffins!). Again, this worked well for the larger rings, not so well for the smaller. The crumpets were slathered with butter and optionally homemade strawberry jam or honey, served with tea. They were a big hit with our teenage daughter who is now angling for me to make more.

The doubled recipe made 30 crumpets of mixed sizes. I found that the leftovers were best stored in brown paper because they were otherwise retaining too much moisture.

Some people do all kinds of unnatural things with crumpets, including topping with ham and cheese, curry, etc. Diehards stick to butter and jam or honey. Or just butter.

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