‘The East End is a state of mind.
If you think you’re in it, you’re in it.’
The Gentle Author
Every morning, my hair still wet from the shower and a cup of coffee in my hand, I check my favourite blog, Spitalfields Life. I begin with that day’s piece but invariably wander around through other links, from stories of mudlarks, gangsters, cooks and artists, to Playboy bunnies, gardeners, murderers, pub landladies, taxidermists, and Mr Pussy, the author’s cat. By the time I’ve finished, my coffee’s cold and my hair’s nearly dry and the dog is making that air-slowly-escaping-from a balloon whine which means he’s ready to meet his public in the park.
In the introduction to his talk, The Gentle Author (he maintains his anonymity so that his subjects are the stars) explained, ‘People who are not famous are so much more interesting than celebrities’. When he published his story about 92-year-old wood turner Maurice Franklin, it received 250,000 hits from all over the world, making it one of the most popular stories on Google that day. The GA told Maurice ‘You’re bigger than Keanu Reeves.’ ‘Who’s Keanu Reaves?’ asked Maurice.
I wanted to take The GA a little present to say thank you for all of the delightful distraction on those coffee-fuelled, damp-haired mornings, so I decided to make him some biscuits. As many of his blog posts are about Georgian London, I thought I’d take him something from that period. I have some facsimile cookbooks, such as those by Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton, but I didn’t really have time to ‘rasp on some lumps of well-refined sugar’ so a quick run around the internet, stopping here and there, and I came up with rout cakes.
Rout cakes were popular during the Regency period, when they fuelled the fashionable through dancing, gossiping and flirting at large parties. They’re rich, buttery, slightly shortbread-y, delicately flavoured with rose- and orange waters, splashes of Madeira and brandy, and dotted with currants.
‘Being an invalid, Joseph Sedley contented himself with a bottle of claret besides his Madeira at dinner, and he managed a couple of plates full of strawberries and cream, and 24 little rout-cakes that were lying neglected in a plate near him.’
Vanity Fair, William Thackeray, 1847
Some black tea or chamomile tea
2 tbsp brandy
2 tbsp Madeira
1 tsp rosewater
1 tsp orange flower water
300g plain flour, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
125g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
125g caster sugar or vanilla sugar, plus a little more caster or granulated sugar for dredging (optional)
A few gratings of nutmeg
1 egg, lightly beaten
Makes about 20 biscuits
Make a weakish brew of tea and soak the currants in it for a couple of hours. Drain well and pat dry with kitchen paper.
Combine the flower waters and alcohols in a small jug or cup.
Whisk together the salt and flour in a mixing bowl. Rub in the butter with your finger tips (or whizz it together in a food processor) until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Whisk in the sugar and nutmeg with a fork, then stir in the currants.
Stir in the egg, then the flower waters and alcohol, and add just enough milk to bring the mixture together into a soft-ish but not sticky dough. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
Take teaspoonfuls of the mixture, roll them into balls and place them on a piece of baking parchment or a lightly-floured surface. Flatten them slightly with the bottom of a lightly-floured glass and place them on a non-stick baking sheet.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until just golden around the edges. If you like, dredge them with caster- or granulated sugar as soon as they come out of the oven. Cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes then place them on a wire rack to cool completely. Once cold, they will keep for about a week in an airtight tin.