Just what is so sexy about crumpets? Elizabeth David noted in 1977 that “crumpet” had long been a colloquialism used to describe “a piece of skirt, any likely young woman, a girl with whom someone is having a passing affair, and other less polite interpretations”. In the heyday of political incorrectness, a leading British broadcaster, Frank Muir, coined the phrase “thinking man’s crumpet” to describe Joan Bakewell, a woman audacious enough to be both attractive and intelligent. The term has also been applied over the years to Helen Mirren and Nigella Lawson.
At first sight, though, the crumpet, with its pudgy paleness, is the shrinking violet of the baking world. It only becomes irresistible when slathered in salty butter, becoming a great and illicit pleasure on a par with, to use the language of the 1970s Carry On films, a spot of slap and tickle.
More importantly, crumpets are a great example of the many unsung heroes of British baking, conjuring up visions of roaring fires and hissing kettles, steamy windows keeping out the worst of a northerly winter. They’re delicious, comforting and indulgent but rarely made these days—a great shame because they could definitely give their more glamorous and feted European counterparts a run for their money.
The key to a perfect crumpet is creating a mass of tiny holes for lots of butter to seep into. The yeast is partly responsible for this texture but while researching all things crumpet for this column, I discovered a 1937 recipe by Walter Banfield which incorporates a little bicarbonate of soda at the end of the first fermentation. This, Mr Banfield pronounces, will avoid “grotesque, unfair creations”, that is, crumpets without holes, sometimes described as “blind”.
I can’t decide whether crumpets are best straight from the pan or after cooling and re-toasting. I can also never decide what’s more delicious—crumpets bearing nothing but melting butter or with butter and jam for an exceptional salty sweet hit. One thing I do know is that the best time and place to devour them is Sunday morning—in bed.
Traditional British Crumpets
Makes approximately 18 crumpets
450g plain flour (maida)
1 tbsp salt (this seems like a lot but crumpets are meant to be quite salty)
1 tsp sugar
1 sachet (7g) of fast action, dried yeast
350ml cold milk
350ml boiling water
2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150ml warm water
A little extra butter for greasing the pan and rings
For traditional-style crumpets, you will need some metal rings. If you don’t have rings, you can go free-form and make the flatter variety known as pikelets.
Sift flour into a large bowl, then stir in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a jug, mix the cold milk, boiling water and oil, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir with what Walter Banfield describes as “vivacious turbulence”, until the batter is well mixed.
Cover the bowl and leave the yeast to do its work. Depending on how hot your kitchen is, it could be anything between 45 minutes and 2 hours before the batter has doubled in size, with a surface bursting with tiny bubbles. Crumpets are one of the few baked treats which actually thrive in a hot, humid Indian kitchen.
When the batter has risen, mix the bicarbonate of soda with the warm water, then stir well into the batter. Cover the bowl and leave until the surface is again covered with bubbles.
Heat a non-stick frying pan over low heat—I prefer to cook the crumpets slowly to prevent the bottoms browning too quickly. Grease the pan and rings (if using) thoroughly with butter. Pour a heaped tablespoon of batter into each ring and leave to cook until the surface is dry and covered with tiny holes—this should take 5-7 minutes. If the holes don’t appear, the batter may be too thick, so add a little more warm milk or water to the next batch—but don’t make it too thin or it will run out of the bottom of the rings.
Gently lift away the metal rings, then flip the crumpets over to lightly brown the holey side. Keep the crumpets covered with a clean tea towel to keep warm.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at http://eatanddust.wordpress.com
Write to Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org