--- Join baker Paul Hollywood as he makes crumpets and other favourites in Paul Hollywood’s Bread, double episodes Mondays 8.30pm 6 July to 20 July on SBS Food and SBS on Demand. Catch the crumpet action on July 20 ---
Brown on the bottom, pale on the top, and marked with a myriad of holes ... the simple looks of a crumpet do not at first suggest the chewy, cratered deliciousness of it, the butter’s-best-friend status it deservedly has in so many households.
Respected food writer James Beard, in his book Beard on Bread, declared he loves them for the “buttery heaviness”. British baker Paul Hollywood describes them as “crisp and golden brown on the outside, yet light and fluffy within”.
But perhaps my favourite description of a crumpet is this:
“Crumpets have holes for a reason,” says the introduction to a crumpet recipe in a yellowing paperback called the Sunset Cook Book of Breads. “How else … can a generous amount of butter properly permeate each moist and springy bite?”
A star of the pancake family, a crumpet is superbly satisfying to make. Here’s how to master a golden round, pockmarked with butter-ready holes.
First, the flour
“Use good quality ingredients - if you start with amazing ingredients you will end up with an amazing crumpet,” says Merna Taouk, the crumpet-loving chef behind Sydney’s Crumpets by Merna, which has been delighting Australia with sourdough crumpets since 2017.
“It is a 24-hour process. The crumpet batter is made in the morning, fermented overnight and then cooked on the griddle the following day for half an hour. We focus on using local producers - with Pepe Saya buttermilk, Olsson’s salt, Australian whole-wheat flours, Zokoko chocolate.”
Josh Clements, the founder of Melbourne’s Holy Crumpets, which has pivoted to home delivery in the wake of coronavirus restrictions, agrees. “Crumpets have few ingredients so this pushes you to focus on where they’re sourced from,” he says of his passion – “perhaps even obsessiveness!” – for making a truly great crumpet. He suggests trying to source a local flour, and even better if you can get your hands on freshly milled flour.
While crumpets do derive much of their appeal from their spongy structure, most recipes use plain flour, rather than bread flour. “You want to use a flour with a low protein, don’t use a strong baker’s flour,” Taouk says. Paul Hollywood suggests using a combination: “The strong flour’s extra gluten helps give the crumpets structure, whilst the plain flour keeps the texture soft and light,” he says in Paul Hollywood‘s Bread, when making his crumpet recipe.
We asked Helen Tzouganatos, the host of SBS’s popular series Loving Gluten Free. Her advice for anyone adapting a recipe to make it gluten-free: “Use a good quality gluten-free flour because they vary greatly in quality and given flour is such a big component of the crumpet, there is nowhere to run and hide. Some gluten-free flours bake well whilst others will leave you with a crumbly mess. My favourite brands are Ardor Gluten Free (a Melbourne-based brand) or Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 plain gluten-free flour (the pack has a blue label)."
What about a vegan crumpet?
Most crumpet recipes use milk or buttermilk, but you can make great vegan crumpets – in fact, all of the Holy Crumpet crumpets are vegan, and Merna Taouk has a vegan version too. To make your own, try this recipe from popular blogger and cookbook author Jack Monroe.
Do you need crumpet rings?
To get the familiar round shape and a good rise, you’ll need rings of some kind. Crumpet rings are fairly widely available (try kitchenware stores and online retailers), and you could also use egg rings – it’s what Shane Delia suggests in his recipe for Moroccan crumpets with clementine marmalade.
The advantage of crumpet rings is that they are deeper, usually 2-2.5 cm. This allows you to cook a thicker crumpet; since egg rings are usually 1-1.5 cm tall, and smaller in diameter, you’ll end up with smaller, shallower crumpets. You could also try making your own crumpet rings, or try using scone cutters, if you have several the same size. And you can use shaped metal biscuit cutters to create fun crumpets, too.
Don’t despair, though, if you don’t have any crumpet or egg rings. The spongy crumpet-like North African semolina pancakes below also make a fine vehicle for lashing of honey and butter (indeed, the recipe includes instructions for making a honey butter).
Attack with “vivacious turbulence”
Some good advice never dates. British baker Robert Wells wrote in The Pastrycook and Confectioner’s Guide including Hundreds of Modern Recipes, published in 1889, that “careful practice, and particular attention to the whys and wherefores of both hot plates and batter … will make a good muffin or crumpet maker”. His crumpet advice included giving the batter (yeasted, no bicarb) a “thoroughly good mixing”, let it stand for an hour, giving it another “thoroughly good beat”, and leaving it for another hour before cooking.
A little more recently – in the 1947 edition of his respected British breadmaking treatise Manna – Walter Banfield wrote that “provided suitable flour is used, this honeycomb-y, labyrinthine structures are fairly simple to make”. He, too, recommends giving the first stage of the batter a though beating – or as he puts it, “the batter requires attacking with vivacious turbulence”! The batter is left to rise for about 1½ hours, or until it is just about to collapse, and then a mixture of water and bicarb soda is stirred in.
Hollywood, too, emphasises the importance of a thorough mixing: “It is essential to develop the protein strength in the batter and will ensure the crumpets develop their characteristic holes as they cook,” he says.
A bounty of bubbles
There are several secrets to getting what Hollywood calls “the crumpet's characteristic craters”. The use of bicarbonate of soda, aka baking soda, or less commonly, baking powder, is a big contributor to bubble; it’s usually used along with yeast to give a double boost to the final honeycomb structure and bubbled surface.
Making sure your pan is warm (but not too hot – a low heat is best) before you add the batter is also a factor, but perhaps most important is the thickness of the batter. Start with a test crumpet; you should see plenty of bubbles form on the top as it cooks. If not, the batter is too thick. Add a little more water or milk to the remaining batter and try again. (If the batter seeps out from your crumpet rings, it’s too thin.)
Don’t worry if it’s not as bubbly as a commercial crumpet: “Forget the sort you get in a packet. Homemade crumpets look different (usually having way fewer holes), and taste far better,” says SBS’s Gourmet Farmer Matthew Evans, who describes his crumpet batter as being like a “really runny bread dough”.
“Don’t be afraid of trial and error or to go on a different path to what you might find in recipes,” says Clements. His sourdough crumpets take 24-36 hours to make, but it’s great advice no matter what recipe you are using. “Patience is key, play with temperature and ratios to get that perfect consistency,” he says.
Taouk has a few more tips for getting a well-risen, bubbly crumpet: “Don’t over mix the batter. Oil your pan and your rings well. Cook it on a low heat so they cook through and get the crucial holes as the gases in the batter rise up and pop.”
Paul Hollywood includes lots of good tips on how to cook crumpets, including knowing when to turn them, in his recipe.
Ring the changes
There’s a lot to be said for a plain crumpet drizzled with honey, but you can change up the crumpet and topping in so many ways.
“I think butter and honey will always be a favourite, it just pairs so well with the characteristic holes, we usually have at least half a dozen honeys available from all around Victoria to highlight just how different honey can be,” says Clements. “This hasn’t stopped us from pushing the boundaries with our menu. We’ve done a range of flavoured crumpets, chocolate, banana, chai, even a carrot crumpet, we’ve made chocolate crumpet ice-cream sandwiches and a lot of savoury options as well, one stand out being a caramelised onion, thyme and taleggio number. As for a favourite way to eat a crumpet, my go-to is toasted in cultured butter in a pan on the stovetop.”
We have seen recipes that add egg and butter to the batter, and another that used mashed potato. The combination of dried yeast and bicarb soda is the most common way of leavening crumpets, but we’ve seen recipes that use dried yeast and baking powder, sourdough and baking powder or baking soda, and just sourdough. Some recipes use wholemeal flour, or a mixture of white and wholemeal. And while this article has focussed on the classic English crumpet, there are plenty of other deliciously spongy pancakes made around the world.
Sweet toppings – honey, jam, marmalade – are common, but a crumpet makes a fine base for savoury toppings, too.
Fresh or toasted?
Renowned English food writer Elizabeth David was firmly in the fresh camp. “Personally, I find crumpets edible only when freshly cooked. Toasting makes them tough and alters the whole structure,” she wrote in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, where she devoted 11 pages to the interwoven history of crumpets and English muffins. Controversial! (As is her preference for using oil in her crumpet batter.)
SBS’s Matthew Evans, on the other hand, rather likes that change in a crumpet’s texture after toasting: “Homemade crumpets don’t have as many holes, and take a while to cook, but the good news is, you can make them ahead because they’re even better toasted a few days after making,” he says of his recipe for crumpets with whipped leatherwood honey butter.
Some crumpet recipes also refer to splitting the crumpet, though that’s rare (and you’d need proper rings, creating a deep crumpet, to serve them that way). It might also reflect the fact that in British baking, the terms muffin, crumpet and pikelet overlapped a lot in the past, and an English muffin, of course, is made for splitting.
Toasted or warm from the pan, one thing is certain: a golden, hole-filled crumpet is a taste of a fine British baking tradition. Pass the butter, will you?
The Holy Crumpets Melbourne CBD store is currently closed due to coronavirus restrictions; find out about their crumpet delivery service on their website. Crumpets by Merna can send crumpets across Australia; find order and stockists details here.
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