Welshie Buns

When I was little my Granny used to make a Simnel Cake each Easter. I remember her making the 11 toasted marzipan balls it’s traditionally topped with (to represent the 12 disciples minus Judas) and secretly hoping she’d make 12 after all and give Judas’ share to me…

Marzipan seems to be like marmite – you either love it or hate it. In our family we’re split between marzipan-lovers and marzipan-shunners. My youngest brother and I were definitely in the former camp and would make marzipan fruit at Christmas stuck with a clove “stalk” and calyx and painted with edible food colouring. Neither of us was that keen on heavy fruit cake like Christmas or Simnel Cake but we’d beg the almond paste and fondant off our other brothers’ share or anyone else overcome with the sugar rush of too-thick icing. My best friend is the marzipan queen though – for many, many years part of my Christmas gift to her was a box of marzipan that I had moulded into sweet shapes – plums with a “stone” created from a whole almond and dusted in sugar. Little white marzipan pigs with white chocolate drop trotters, ears and snouts. Tiny teddy bears coated in dark chocolate. Each year got I more and more inventive trying to outdo the year before but truly, I think she would have been just as happy with a big lump of plain marzipan to sit and nibble on!

A few days ago @knittingtastic mentioned Simnel Cake on Twitter and I fell to wondering if I should bake one after all – purely for memory and old times sake. There are only two of us here at home though and heavy fruit cake still isn’t my most favourite thing although I no longer pick off the icing and leave the dark, crumbling cake on the plate…

One of my favourite baked goods is Welsh Cakes which along with Bara Brith are two of the traditional tea time treats offered in Wales. I was thinking how amazing it would be if you could combine buttery Welsh Cakes with marzipan and Simnel Cake and all the good bits of these time-honoured baked goodies. I’ve also been meaning to make some Kanelbullar, the Swedish cinnamon buns served with coffee for fika – the fabulous tradition of pausing with coffee and pastry and just being present in the moment; so much more than a snatched coffee break. Or as my friend Jo used to call it “meeting up for a cup-of-coffee-and-a-sticky-bun!”. I decided I’d make a version of Kanelbullar with marzipan tucked inside and create a sort of mash-up of my favourite things as an Easter treat. Normally we have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday; I thought it might be nice to try something different.

I decided to use parts of some recipes and adapt them to include other things which is my normal method of using recipes – I’m not sure I’ve ever used one except as a rough guideline to quantities! Mostly I prefer to cook ad lib according to taste and whim and I decided here that including the cinnamon and cardamon of Kanelbullar was probably a flavour too far with the other spices and marzipan so I went with a more traditional Chelsea Bun approach instead.

I wanted to use some of our own Welsh honey from my mum’s bees – not only is honey more tasty than sugar, it also acts as a humectant and helps keeps baked goods moist. And although sadly no sugar is actually very good for you, I like to think that raw unfiltered honey has some microscopic goodness suspended in it’s amber depths that the empty calories of refined sugar crystals completely lacks. So I swapped out the sugar in the dough for our own honey and also cut back on the quantity of butter which seemed alarmingly excessive – I think in future I could probably cut back even more, these ones certainly didn’t suffer from the reduced fat content!

As well as using our own free range eggs from the hens and our honey, I like to use organic, stoneground flour where possible – my favourite flours are milled just 4 miles away at Bacheldre WaterMill. Heavier than regular flours, the slow stoneground method keeps the flour cool and so doesn’t destroy the wheatgerm in the way that more modern methods of milling flour do. It tastes far nicer and is better for you. Sadly I didn’t have any to hand. I rarely bake these days and when I do, prefer to buy artisan flour freshly milled so it doesn’t go rancid. So when the urge to bake hits you late in the evening you just have to go with whatever is on the shelf!

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I soaked the fruit beforehand to plump it up – instead of rolling it up inside the dough swirls I wanted to incorporate it a la Welsh Cakes. I wasn’t sure how much the honey would alter the dough texture but I’m happy to improvise and this actually worked out spot on with the reduced butter content.

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It kneaded beautifully and I put it in a warm spot to prove.

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More melted butter was needed for assembling the swirled buns (against my better judgement – high fat diets not being my thing!). However, this was meant to be a treat so I tried to ignore the nagging voice that was squeaking with alarm at the amount of naughties going into this concoction and set to rolling out the dough and marzipan.

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This is where baking in the evening becomes a problem – the heavy fruit and butter filled dough is slow to rise, as with homemade Stollen. I decided instead of trying to get them to rise sufficiently in a warm place and end up baking them at one ‘o’ clock in the morning or something crazy, that I’d allow them to rise gently overnight at room temperature and bake the next morning. This worked really, really well for this heavy dough and I’ll do this overnight slow rising in future when I bake other fruit breads I think.

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So this morning these beauties were almost ready but I gave them a little longer in a warm place to sit and think about things whilst I threw open my house to the glorious Good Friday sunshine and fresh air and indulged in a spot of Spring Cleaning before turning the oven on. Soon the house was also filled with the warm scents of spice, yeast, honey and marzipan as it melded into one delicious almondy fruity chewy tray of baked gorgeousness.

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Mum and I “tested” them and declared them fabulous. I also tried them out on my friends Dawn and Laurie who called round this afternoon to see if Marley and I wanted to join them on a walk to make the most of the beautiful weather before the forecasted storm closes in tomorrow. They also agreed they were yummy – Dawn commented that they were “like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one” which is exactly the flavour I was aiming for!

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I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. I’m calling them Welshie Buns in honour of their hybrid ancestry and the land of their birth – and I’m thinking I might make them my new Easter tradition instead of the heavier Simnel Cake in the same way that for us a small Stollen has replaced the big traditional iced Christmas Cake I always used to make when our family was larger.

I’m planning – all being well – on writing up the recipe tomorrow to include in my first newsletter this weekend. If you’d like to try making Welshie Buns too make sure you hop over to my new website barber-blacksheep.co.uk and subscribe to my newsletter (scroll down to the bottom of the home page and you’ll find the subscribe tab). I’ve got a couple of new woolly things to talk about and I also thought maybe a nice baking recipe might be a good way of wishing my internet friends a Happy Easter too.

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Spring into Colour

I’ve got a new wool blend to go in the shop later on today. As you know, I’ve been importing and selling Haunui New Zealand Halfbred since 2015 and enjoying dyeing and blending it as well as selling it in it’s beautiful natural shades.

Once of the more popular blends has been the Haunui/silk batts I did at Christmas. Haunui goes beautifully with silk and so with that in mind I decided to try an experiment.

Last time I headed up to North Wales I made an impromptu stop at a mini mill based there which wasn’t that far out of my way. The owners showed me around and I had a lovely couple of hours talking fibre and fibre animals. Because I just had a small test batch of fibre we blended it then and there on the big industrial carder which was rather exciting for me – a monster machine at around 8ft high it was a far cry from my little hand cranked Ashford drum carder!

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I was really grateful to them for taking time out to spend with me and help me. The resulting fibre is gorgeous to spin because it’s carded sliver and has 20% added tussah silk. This is a very small batch and unfortunately was expensive and as such really isn’t economic to produce commercially – this was more about experimenting and playing for me!

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The sliver is much thinner than the normal tops I dye for the shop which in itself presented a new challenge for me. They’re between the thinner Haunui tops and pencil roving in dimension and I decided the best way was to wind them into hanks like pencil roving to keep them stable during the dyeing process.

They took the dye beautiful thanks to the lovely wool and the added silk. I’ve dyed each 50g hank in separate colours to give as much choice as possible given the limited edition nature of this blend.

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I’ve left them in the hanks with several ties on to keep them neat – you would probably be best to wind them into a loose ball prior to spinning to keep the fibre ordered. This won’t take a minute (the length of the sliver isn’t excessive) and will save any frustration from tangles!

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I spun up a skein myself, dyeing it after for a semi-solid look – it was beautiful to spin. I’ve chosen to spin mine as a more bulky yarn and it’s lovely lightweight and springy. But equally you could maximise the yardage by spinning a fingering or lace weight yarn instead or by plying it with something else or two of the colours together for a barber pole yarn.

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I’m not sure what I’ll make with mine – I think I’ll probably combine it with some undyed Haunui perhaps in grey for stripes. It’s begging to be something squishy and cosy to be worn next to the skin!

I’ve also got a batch of BiffleRose blend – this is my Bluefaced Leicester/Rose Fibre/Faux Cashmere blend and it’s just heavenly to spin and dye. There’s just a few colours but mostly 2 of each braid.

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Whilst I was taking photos of the fibres I couldn’t help noticing some of the lovely colours coming through in the plants in pots outside my door.

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So much more beautiful than anything I could ever dye. But so inspiring!

The new fibres will go in the shop at barber-blacksheep.co.uk later on so keep an eye on the website and the update thread in my Ravelry group! Remember this isn’t something I will be repeating so if you want to try it you’ll have to snappity-snap it up now!

Strange fruit ‘n’ fibre…

It’s not just my chickens that are enjoying being outside (or inside as my last blog post demonstrated!!). I keep popping out to get the sun on my back and breeze in my hair too!

I’ve been dyeing some fibre over the last two days – the last is hanging out to dry now like strange colourful fruit – not the grisly kind in the song though!

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This is my BiffleRose in lovely subdued shades due to the over dyeing of a natural colour base. I love this blend both to dye and spin.

I’ve also dyed a small amount of a one-off blend – more about that soon. It really is a one-off too; it was an experiment that I won’t be repeating in this form due to practicalities but oh so lovely. So keep watching!

I’ve just ordered the last pieces for a piece of kit I need to make for my latest big project. More reasons to keep watching this space! (and I might need someone to bring me cups of tea and moral support as I work out what the heck I’m doing too!)

Here’s a wee hint though…

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On personal textile projects I’ve finally finished my handspun cardigan I’ve been working on. It’s made from lovely HilltopCloud fibre – the colours have been much commented on and I can’t take the credit for those! I love those autumnal shades, it’s more harvest than spring but I can see myself wearing this a lot over the course of the year.

I’m really pleased with how it’s worked out. The handspun yarn is a gradient and rather than spinning the colours in the transition chunks it’s designed in, I did further blending between the shades to make a smoother gradient. I also had to do a bit of lateral thinking when it came to knitting the sleeves.

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The pattern is a top down, knit in the round construction. I used a generic recipe for the pattern as a guide but made up the actual pattern as I went to my gauge and my measurements – quite satisfying really! I’ve still to add buttons, I think I’m going for some lovely metal leaf shaped ones from Textile Garden, my favourite button shopping stop! I need a few more though. Which is an excellent excuse for more button shopping… ;0)

I’ve more ideas for knitting but just can’t quite decide what to work on next. There’s a Kate Davies Fintry cardigan I’d like to knit in some handspun made from one ply Southern Cross Spelsau and one ply of my own BarberBlackSheep yak/silk – a glorious wine red yarn and so squishy. But I’m also sampling for a cowl pattern to my own design (ha!) and a shawl ditto as well as a poncho it would be nice to make before the weather warms up too much for me to wear it. I’d better crack on with that little lot hadn’t I!

Chicken Out

Spring finally feels like it’s just around the corner here. The past few days have been dry (hallelujah!) and sunny in the main – it’s beautiful and the overwhelming sensations are of relief and gratitude. It’s been extraordinarily wet this winter in Wales which makes caring for livestock much harder, the relentless wet on their backs and mud under their feet doesn’t do them any good and is generally just really depressing in the way that a crisp, cold winter isn’t.

The bright sunshine also shows up the smeary windows and dusty surfaces though so this morning I threw open my door and let the fresh air in whilst I did a spot of housework and washing. With the first load pegged out to dry on the line and the second in the machine I went upstairs to answer some emails. There are many things I love about having an “upside down house” with the living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs. One downside though is that when you have visitors you’re further away to answer the door so you get attuned to listening out for anyone calling (mostly around here people will open your door and call your name as soon as knock on it!)

I was aware of chicken noises as our bantams were clucking around the open front door and gradually it dawned on me that the chicken noises were quite close. So I went to look over the bannisters and sure enough as per local custom, I had some unexpected visitors who’d just walked right in and called for me!

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I love our little bantams but they’re not house trained so I politely suggested to them they’d better go outside and came downstairs to show them the way out. They’d been led in by my favourite chicken Henrietta who does actually spend quite a bit of time around the yard and recently, in my mum’s house at night for her own safety as we’ve had something attacking her hen ark in the dark hours and we don’t mind that much if she pops in to say hello during the day either. She likes being with people so much that she brought all her young friends down for a visit though and they liked what they saw of my house – so they weren’t going to be evicted without a protest!

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I’d assumed when I came into the kitchen that they’d run out of the door but no, they wanted to fully investigate whilst they had the chance and they hid behind the kitchen table whilst Marley and I tried to herd them back outside!

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Eventually after chasing them round and round the table a few times with Marley hindering more than helping (being labrador he’s bred for retrieving birds not herding animals and it shows in a situation like this!) we engineered them towards the door. Although by this point they’d worked out that there was underfloor heating under their claws as well as sunshine on their backs so it took a while to stop them from sitting down to bask in the unaccustomed warmth.

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I last saw them heading off outside and I went to empty the washing machine and put another load of sheets and towels in. When I came back all was quiet and a sulky Henrietta was sitting outside on the step which is fine; she often sits out there enjoying the sun. It was peaceful and quiet in the house but Marley was a bit suspicious, his keen sense of smell and hearing had picked up that there were chicken-y stowaways in the bathroom now. They’d sneaked back in when my back was turned!!!

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I asked them to please get off the bath mat – as I mentioned before they aren’t house trained and whilst it’s one matter to clear little offerings off slate floors, it’s quite another matter to wash bath mats and I’d already got my final load of washing in and I had no intention of doing another! So the chickens obligingly hopped off the mat…

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…and piled one by one into the shower! I contemplated turning it on to wash their feet as their fluffy foot feathers have got a bit muddy with the wet weather. But I didn’t – and they proved very stubborn to shift and so I had to get into the shower myself and pick them up one by one and put them outside the door. Whilst I was evicting the last chicken from the shower Marley rather unhelpfully stood in the way of the exit and so the rest of the flock took the chance and I saw them nipping into my bedroom next door.

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I did manage to finally catch them all and carrying the two ringleaders, one in each hand, I managed to herd the rest of them outside where they belong. Although one of the grey bantams has managed to get back in twice since then so I’ve set Badger the three-legged collie on guard on my doorstep much to the chickens disgust!

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One of the big laying chickens isn’t too “clever” this morning as they say around here – she’s looking very sorry for herself and has a very rattly chest as she breathes. My mum was a bit worried about her when she went to feed them this morning and she wasn’t looking any better later on so I popped her down to the veterinary practice I do a little work for to get some advice.

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Sarah and Eva had just finished dealing with a sick calf that was hospitalised on a drip in the farm animal ward and were free to see my little chicken so they both had a listen to her wheezing chest and then they put the stethoscope in my ears (because my hands were full holding a chicken!) so that I could listen too. We agreed that what I refer to as Sarah’s Chicken Recipe was the best option – a little cocktail of tiny injections to fight any infection and make her feel more comfortable. Chickens aren’t the easiest animals to treat, not many drugs are licensed for their treatment and they don’t respond in quite the same way as mammals either. However I have a great deal of trust in all our lovely vets and they’ve had success with curing some of my more random poorly animals that I bring in to the surgery so I’m hopeful that this chicken might respond as well as her sister Diddly Squat did last year. Fingers crossed anyway – she’s tucked up in her basket for now in the warmth of mum’s conservatory today.

On the whole it’s been rather a chicken-flavoured sort of day so far. I hope that despite that they’ll be laying some Easter Eggs for me!