The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Fuss Free Canapés with a Welsh Twist

Last year my sister published her first book and asked me to make some canapés for the launch. I didn’t have much time to prepare, so wracked my brains for something quick, easy and delicious.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and, as I have mentioned before, am a great believer in the old cooking methods, so I turned to one of my favourite recipes and IMG_6707adapted it to suit. Welsh Cakes. Made on cast iron griddles for centuries, most people know them as the current speckled, sugar-dredged teatime treat but with a little experimentation I was able to produce 3 different savoury canapés, to suit all tastes. I cook my Welsh Cakes on a large cast iron griddle but you can use a heavy based frying pan just as well, it’s also possible to bake them on sheets in the oven but the exterior texture won’t be quite the same.

These also freeze extremely well, before, and after cooking.

Savoury Welsh Cake Canapés – this recipe will easily make over 100 depending on the size of cutters

Ingredients 

750g self raising flour

150g butter

150g lard or vegetable fat

3 eggs, beaten

1 heaped tsp sea salt

good grinding of black pepper

75g mature cheddar cheese

1 heaped tsp wholegrain mustard

1 heaped tsp dried dill

the zest of half a lemon, finely grated

Method 

Rub the fat into the flour, salt and pepper until it resembles ‘breadcrumbs’. Divide the mixture between three bowls.

Into the first bowl, add the cheese and mustard

Into the second, add the dill and lemon zest

Leave the third plain

Add a beaten egg to each bowl and form into a ball, if it’s too moist, add a little more flour, too dry, add little milk or water

Wrap each ball in foil or cling film and place in the fridge until chilled. This allows the pastry to rest and makes it easier to roll out later

Once the pastry is chilled, roll each ball out on a floured board to a depth of 1 cm. Cut into any shape you like – at this time of year it’s quite nice to use festive shapes, small leaves, bells, holly etc.

Heat your Bakestone, Griddle or frying pan over a medium heat and cook the cakes in batches, they shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes a side, larger cakes will, of course take longer.

These can be kept in a lidded Tupperware until needed. If you would like to make a version suitable for vegans, use all vegetable fat instead of butter.

Toppings

Ideas for the Plain Welsh Cakes

Bacon, Brie and Cranberry (not the most imaginative but universally liked)

Hummous, Olives, Baba Ganoush, roasted peppers, mozzarella, smoked tofu

Pear, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Chestnuts and Roasted Butternut Squash

Ideas for the Cheese Welsh Cake

Butter fried leeks and Caerphilly

Any cheese with chutney or relish

Sun dried tomatoes

Pastrami and Cornichons

Ideas for the Lemon and Dill Welsh Cakes 

Any sort of smoked fish: salmon, trout or Gravadlax with accompanying sauces

Fish Pâté – mackerel, trout, potted shrimps

Prawns in Cocktail Sauce (retro but good!)

Caviar with Sour Cream

Smoked Cod Roe


Spicing up the Welsh Cake for the Autumn

Welsh Cakes have always been my go-to standby for surprise guests; they are so simple to make and are best eaten hot, bounced from hand-to-hand almost straight from the pan. My grandmother, who at the age of twelve took over her family’s weekly baking told me how Welsh Cakes scarcely made it out of the pan before being demolished by one or other of her brothers.

I enjoy the ritual of the Welsh Cake; I always feel as if I am at the end of long, ancient line of ‘planc’ bakers, even the cakes reputedly burnt by King Alfred were Griddle Cakes. There’s something so comforting about the pliable, slightly sticky dough and the griddle warming on the stove. I own three; one standard, plate-sized and Welsh made; an enormous (almost too big to carry) very old planc pitted through years of use and delightfully burnished with age. My latest acquisition, mostly due to my burning myself frequently, is a cast iron enamelled Staub crepe pan with a proper handle. As long as I remember that handles get hot, this seems to work extremely well, and it is also perfect for cooking breakfast and steaks on, and pancakes (which is its true purpose)

Welsh cakes, traditionally, are dotted with currants and liberally scattered with caster sugar, but in this recipe I have removed the currents and replaced them with a generous teaspoon of cinnamon which gives an autumnal feel to the cakes. I always find Easter biscuits and traditional Welsh Cakes very similar in taste so perhaps I associate currants with spring, but in the colder months cinnamon is wonderful for warding off colds and it has anti-inflammatory properties to ease those cold-weather aches.

We like to serve them topped with clotted cream and jam, or (and I don’t advocate this too often) clotted cream and golden syrup.

Welsh Cakes are also extremely family friendly and children love to help cut out the dough in a variety of shapes, we’ve even made pumpkin shaped, Halloween ones.

A good Welsh Cake should have a soft, light scone-like texture; they cannot be cut too deep nor too shallow. They keep well in a tin and there are very few people who’ll refuse one when offered!

Autumn Cinnamon Welsh Cakes 

Makes 12-18, depending on size but as long as they are generally the same thickness it’ll be fine

250g self-raising flour

pinch of salt

130g unsalted butter

90g caster sugar (I use unrefined because it gives a lovely toffee-like undertone)

1 large egg, beaten

1 heaped tsp of cinnamon

splash of milk

2tbls sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Method

Add a pinch of salt to the flour and rub in the butter

When the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, add the sugar and cinnamon and combine well

Pour in the egg – a little at a time until you have a sticky, light dough. You can add a splash of milk or a little more flour if the dough appears too soft or too dry

On a floured board, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 8mm and cut into shapes as desired

Heat your bake-stone or a heavy based frying pan over a medium heat

Cook the Welsh Cakes until golden brown and then turn over

Reduce the heat to low and keep turning them until they are evenly coloured and cooked through (you may need to ‘test’ one at this stage)

They usually take about 12 minutes in total but it will vary depending upon thickness of pan and thickness of cake

Remove and place on a cooling rack

combine the sugar and cinnamon and dust over the Welsh Cakes


Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness…A little taster of the project I’m currently working on…

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The Forest of Dean is at its best in the Autumn months, when the great oaks, once famed the country over for their strength and height, and used in shipbuilding, are burnished in the golden light of an Indian summer. The forest’s leaves encompass all shades from tawny yellow, to ruby-red and dark earthy brown. Coaches drive through these wild woods, their occupants’ cameras poised for the perfect shot, whilst those who live there barely notice the beauty as they drive, eyes front, through this, most ancient of royal forests. The law of the Freeminer and the word of the Verderer still hold here. Any person who works for a year and a day in one of the few mines still in existence is awarded the status of Freeminer allowing mining rights anywhere within the forest. The Verderer’s court, held in the Stately Speech House, a building with more than a hint of Judge Jeffries about it, talk of the free roaming sheep shepherded by the Badgers, or the wild boar.

Ancient legends speak of the Wild Hunt, a fairy army waiting in the forest’s depths to carry you off. Wise women were consulted as doctors were few and far between; tinctures from foraged plants cured all manners of ailments, even into the middle of the twentieth century. Public houses were prolific; breweries filled the village air with the scent of warm malt and hops. Here, rooting out fabulous local foods becomes a pleasure, from the game of the Lydney Park Estate to the fine meat, dairy and chaucuterie of Severnside. Many restaurants have taken up the flag of local and homemade seems to be ‘de rigour’. The Wye Valley, the gateway to the Forest for many, is aristocratically confident in its seasonal changes. Sheltered as it is, autumn arrives a little later and without the violence of the more exposed Forest. Here, the Kingstone Brewery’s experienced brewers produce exemplary real ale, the Tintern Parva vineyards, their vines elegantly placed overlooking the famous abbey and village, produce excellent wines and mead, a legacy of the Cistercian monks who once made this village with its breathtaking abbey a prime example of total self-sufficiency. To stop at one of the many inns between Chepstow and Monmouth, in the autumn is a great treat and, local drink in hand, whiles away many pleasant afternoons.

Early in autumn, as August comes to a close the air is heady with fruit. The lane, to the front of the farmhouse, is shaded by low hanging boughs of ripening orchard fruits, the tiny cherry plums, not seen in the supermarkets spill onto the cool tarmac. We pick these with relish, to be turned into crumbles and jams to fortify the larder throughout the winter. Some are deep red, some buttery yellow, yet none is bigger than a fifty pence piece. They pop satisfyingly in the heavy cast iron pan before cooling and sieving, the ruby juice is returned to the pan with an equal volume of preserving sugar. The ancient, roadside hedgerows are also home to glistening, bulbous blackberries, more of which make it to the stomach than the jam pot, especially if my son is with us. High above, the elderberries wait their turn, their tiny dark berries will be made into a cordial to ward off coughs and colds, also to provide a simple sauce for a rare grilled duck breast. IMG_7742
Apples of all varieties abound, the larger ‘cooking’ apples are peeled, cored, sliced and cooked until they yield their juice before being bagged, labelled and frozen for winter crumbles and pies. Some are made into chutney, enhanced with a dash of cider and left to mature in the deep dark cupboard alongside the fireplace. The desert apples are stored between straw in the old dairy; the darkness preventing their rotting. We bake these, stuffed with a medieval mixture of dried fruit, herbs, spices and honey. They are grated into cake mixtures; we have even experimented with apple and cinnamon Welsh Cakes.

Late autumn picnics make the most of the fine weather, simple fayre a Gloucestershire Squab Pie (Bacon, onions and apples in a short crust pastry) satisfies most appetites, whilst a Plum Upside-down cake provides a sweet finish, throw in some crusty bread, good cheese, chutney, ham and some hard-boiled free range eggs and you have a splendid banquet. As we drive across towards the Severn the Pheasant dash out in front of us providing sport for the distant guns. A brace of Pheasant is modestly priced and will provide an elegant dinner for four people. Drawn, plucked and halved, anointed liberally with goose fat or lard, as Pheasant has a tendency to dry, and roasted, it is simple and delicious. Cold roasted pheasant can be turned in the decadent old French dish Salmagundi; a combination of minced pheasant or other game, wine and rich spices. Roast Pheasant needs Game chips on the side, a spiced red cabbage, and perhaps a light jus flavoured with a little Hedgerow Jelly. We make Hedgerow Jelly as the fruit season is drawing to a close, following a final, desperate scramble to pick anything left. The fruit is boiled, strained through muslin and returned to the pan 500g of sugar to 600ml of juice. It keeps beautifully and adds a deeper, darker dimension to many savoury dishes.
In the Forest the wild boar are on the rampage, barely a week goes by without someone or other ‘cheating death’ when a Boar entered their garden. They leave furrows in the ground, there are official advice sheets on what to do when confronted by one. They are, however, extremely tasty as my Wild Boar Terrine will testify. In France wild boar is often cooked slowly with plenty of red wine, garlic and herbs; a Beef Bourguignon for those made of harder stuff. The flavour is dark; the texture takes you back to the halls of Medieval Europe. It is a perfect delight.

Some years we take a weekend away, most recently to Llantony Priory, a hamlet dominated by its once magnificent abbey in the heart of the Black Mountains. The car packed with the staples needed, children, dogs and kites included, we spend a couple of nights amongst friends, no television or wi-fi to disturb us here. The evenings are filled with good-humoured banter, discussions and confessions. We’ve made a thick, spiced apple cordial from the more weather-beaten of our fruit. It’s adds warmth and sweetness to rough local cider and alone proves a perfect alcohol-free tonic, diluted with warm water or apple juice for ‘I’m not tired’ children. In the morning we become a breakfast station. As a great believer in the traditional British breakfast there is no shortage of crispy dry cured bacon, sizzling chipolatas, stewed baked beans, eggs all ways, mushrooms, potato fritters and piles and piles of golden toast. The teapot is full, the mugs stand to attention. There is a strange formality about the British breakfast; without intention we are drawn to it at times when comfort is needed, curing the heavy head, setting oneself up for the day. Not for our Wild Welsh Weekends, the muesli and low-fat yoghurt brigade. We take tray bakes or slab cakes, robust enough to travel; scones ready to be decked with their thick clotted cream and homemade jam blankets. A walk works up an appetite; the communal meals of the evenings a showcase of hearty fayre. In the morning there will be jugs of cocoa for the children, who for a moment, put down their gadgets and communicate with each other.