Rock Buns: c. 1946

Today’s experiment and blog post can both be filed under “super quick”, which you’ll find next to the folder marked “can’t be arsed.”

You know those days when it feels like you have ten thousand and one things to do but no energy, time or patience for them? Well so far it’s been that kind of month. Maybe it’s because we’re onto week eight thousand of “lockdown” (are we still calling it that?), maybe it’s because my husband and I are stuck in a cycle of lasagne-spaghetti-ravioli dinners because we were both silently hoping the other one would step up and attempt to cook something without pasta, maybe it’s just because it’s June and I’m still checking to see if I need a coat before going out. I don’t know, I’m tired.

Rock buns (or rock cakes, as they’re more commonly called) are the sort of cakes we’re all familiar with from childhood. Having been coaxed into a trip to see grandparents by the promise of cake once there, rock buns are exactly the sort of non-iced, non-chocolate “treat” you’d end up being presented with. Or at least, that’s how I remembered them.

These rock buns are taken from a World War Two Ministry of Food leaflet – a government produced pamphlet to provide households with filling and nutritious recipes during the height of rationing. With eggs, butter and sugar all on ration by 1946, today’s experiment threatened to hark back to the days of disappointing afternoon tea at gran’s.

Oh you can afford fancy fonts but you can’t afford a couple of commas, Ministry of Food?

The recipe reflected the constrictions of the time; no eggs, very little sugar and margarine instead of butter. Reading it, there was also a distinct lack of descriptive language – whereas modern cake recipes usually tell us about the intoxicating smells, the golden hues, the nuttiness that dances lightly on the tip of the tongue etc, etc – this one really didn’t.

In fact, the whole thing was three sentences long. There was not one simile, not one metaphor, not even a charming anecdote, to make it more appetising. Clearly poetic writing skills were also on ration in 1946.

“Make the foundation recipe with the addition of 4oz. dried fruit and 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice added with sugar.”

I did as I was asked by mixing up a batch of the plain cake foundation recipe that formed the base of many of the cakes in the leaflet. At four sentences long, this was practically an essay and took a whopping 10 minutes to complete, but I persevered.

To the foundation mix I added the required dried fruit and spice and then just enough milk and water solution to help it form an incredibly dry dough (about two tablespoons.) I then rolled it into golf ball sized lumps and popped it into “a hot oven” for about 10-15 minutes as instructed. After 15 minutes the rock buns were still a bit anaemic looking so I left them for another 5 minutes or so while I went back to Googling “family dinner ideas – not pasta.”

Finally, they were done. About time too – I’d given up a full half an hour of my afternoon on these and was almost on my knees with exhaustion. I presented the fruits of my 30 minute labour to my husband and daughter with about the same levels of enthusiasm and energy as the author of the recipe had when writing it down.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” I told my girl. “Here are some disappointing cakes mummy made. What do you think?” I turned to grab the bin in anticipation…

And stopped; no one was complaining. My husband was already reaching for a second and nodding appreciatively. I bit into mine.

I don’t know whether I was just an obnoxious child (likely) or my gran was a terrible baker – but these were nothing like how I remembered. Where was the cardboard flavour? The burnt and crumbly currants that left a bitter aftertaste for hours? The crust so hard your teeth cracked with every bite?

Though these lived up to their name in terms of appearance, once the hard outer layer was broken into they were surprisingly soft and scone-like. The currants were plump and juicy and even as someone who dislikes dried fruit in cakes I found I didn’t mind them here. In fact, they were kind of necessary because they added a moistness that stopped the rock buns from becoming too dry.

In terms of flavour, the mixed spice shone through – perhaps because there was a lack of other flavouring – but it was very subtle and worked well with the currants. Unsurprisingly the rock buns weren’t very sweet; again I was reminded of a plain scone and were it not for a commitment to authenticity I think a big dollop of strawberry jam would work well with them (jam was on ration from 1941 to 1950.)

Less than 10 minutes after this was taken every single one had been eaten.

Sure, these rock buns lacked the appeal of an icing covered fairy cake and they weren’t as rich as chocolate fudge cake, but they were still incredibly moreish and I was surprised that for such a simple recipe they were so delicious. I found myself reaching for a second and then a third in a very unrestrained, un-1946 kind of way. It may have taken no time at all to whip a batch of them up, but it took even less time to devour them and with each one I felt my mood lift a little.

Gran, if you’re reading this – I’m on my way over. Get baking.

E x

Rock Buns

115g plain flour
115g self raising flour
45g margarine
45g sugar
50g currants
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
A tablespoon of milk or water

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees c.
  2. Combine the flour, sugar, currants, salt and mixed spice in a bowl.
  3. Add the margarine and vanilla and combine.
  4. Add the milk or water until the mixture just sticks together.
  5. Roll the mixture out in golf ball size balls and place on a baking tray. Leave space between each one as they will expand a bit as they cook.
  6. Cook for 15-20 minutes until they turn golden brown.

Lord Woolton’s Pie: 1940’s

It’s been a long first week back to work for both of us. Those 6:00am alarms had not been missed and their return was not welcome. Having crawled through Monday to Friday, I decided that what we could all do with was a delicious treat at the weekend to pick us up. Surely a dish named after a lauded member of the aristocracy would fit my needs?

Having wrestled my toddler into bed for a much needed nap, (though whether it was her or I who needed her to have one isn’t clear), and waited until her protestations – all of them eloquently well argued and not at all like wordless sirens – died down, I turned to the pages of history to find inspiration.

Lord Woolton was the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943 and his job was essentially to prevent the nation starving during World War Two when food was scarce and could not be easily imported. At this point, I’ll admit, alarm bells were ringing because I had a sneaking suspicion that my decadent pie was possibly not going to be as indulgent as I had hoped, but I’d picked it now so tough luck to me. “Lunch might be a little bit simpler than I’d planned”, I told my husband. Poor, innocent man; I felt I had to break it to him gently.

In January of 1940, the British government introduced rationing in an effort to ensure food was shared out fairly between all. In order to maintain group poverty at a level where everyone was suffering equally, Lord Woolton’s department distributed ration books, which were small booklets filled with coupons and given to every man, woman and child in Britain. Housewives had to register their family’s ration books at certain retailers in an effort to stop duplication. Certain foods could only be purchased with the coupons and once they were gone, they were gone. Woolton himself described it in 1940 when he told the Evening Express: “I suppose I am going to run the biggest shop in the world.”

From January of 1940, butter, bacon and sugar were rationed. In March, more meat was added to this list. For a nation that was the home of the Sunday Roast and the Full English, (yes, I’ve capitalised these national treasures), suddenly finding that meat was not as available as it had been was staggering. Combine this with the fact that in July of 1940 tea became a victim of rationing too and it’s a wonder Britain had the morale to go through with the war at all.

Subsequent years saw the rationing of foods such as jam, cheese, eggs, tinned tomatoes, sweets and chocolate. Other items were also rationed on a points system. Dried fruit, cereal and baked goods like biscuits and cakes were given out according to consumer demand and how available these items were. People would queue for hours in long lines at the shop only to be told that certain items had run out when they eventually got to the front. Milk was also given out on a priority basis to those deemed most in need of it: children and expectant mothers.

Some foods weren’t rationed. I’m sure that children in the 40’s who could only half remember what chocolate tasted like would have been comforted by the knowledge that seasonal local fruit and vegetables were usually readily available, although any fruit that was imported would have faced dwindling supplies.

It was with this national backdrop that the government came up with the ‘Dig for Victory’ scheme – an initiative designed to get people converting their gardens into allotments in order to become as self sufficient as possible. Many public spaces, such as parks, were also converted. Propaganda posters began to be created encouraging, and at times cajoling, those who were slow to start the process.

Truly patriotic mothers sent their unaccompanied babies into the wild with metal tools twice the size of them

Reproduced from the IWM

Historically, the people of Britain have viewed vegetables with the same level of mistrust and wariness that one might have if a rabid cheetah somehow broke through the back fence and was waiting in the borders of their garden. Oh, we grew them and even cultivated them, but in the past vegetables tended to be cooked until all the green had seeped away and those nasty dangerous vitamins had been boiled out.

To help people adapt to their slimmed down pantries and to encourage them to actually eat all the veg that was now being grown, Lord Woolton and his department devised a collection of recipes to inspire housewives to make the most of the ingredients available to them. Lord Woolton’s Pie, as it became known, is perhaps the most famous of these Ministry dishes.

By now, any lingering hope of a luxurious Saturday lunch was gone and had been replaced with despair when I read that journalist William Sitwell, who had recreated this recipe as part of his article into Lord Woolton and rationing, had described the meal as “grim and dull”. I went back to my husband and told him that as well as being simpler than he was expecting, lunch was also going to be a historical twist on the types of spiritual and energising meat free meals served in 5 star yoga retreats and was therefore, if he thought about it, Very Exciting Indeed.

For the pie filling I chopped and diced just over 1lb of potato, swede and carrot and mixed it with 4 diced spring onions. I tipped the vegetables into a saucepan of water, into which I added 1 teaspoon of Marmite. Food historians might argue this addition was part of the recipe because it was a quick way of ensuring additional nutrients were added to people’s sparse diet during the war; as a member of Team Hate It, I think it was just another way of making the public miserable.

The steam kept fogging up the camera, which was probably not a bad thing for this meal

While all this was simmering I began on the pie crust. Now, I am a big believer that if you’re going to advertise something as a ‘pie’, it needs to have a crust on the top, sides and bottom. Anything else is just a stew with a bit of pastry on top: disappointing, deceitful and downright insulting. Lord Woolton must have thought this would be perfect for this meal, then.

The crust consisted of 8oz wheatmeal flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt and 1/4 pint of cold milk (or water, depending on your sadist percentage). I mixed all the ingredients together into a sticky dough and rolled it out into a disk just big enough to disguise a stew as a pie before tipping the vegetables into a dish and covering with the pastry. It cooked at 180 degrees until the crust had turned golden brown.

It’s hard to put into words the range of emotions that flickered on my husband’s face when I presented lunch to him. To his everlasting credit he attempted a compliment when he described it as “simple waste not want not food”, which is exactly what the point of the meal was. It’s easy for me to mock now, but at the time this dish became popular because of how surprisingly filling it was as well as how quick, easy and cheap. If you were a woman trying to feed your children properly under strict rationing whilst also working, being self sufficient and/or running a household alone whilst your husband was at war, I don’t think you could get much better than this.

Not as “grim and dull” as I was expecting it to look

Additionally, this recipe also allowed me to fulfil a personal goal of eating more vegetables, even if they had been tainted with the poison that is Marmite. In terms of taste, it was unsurprisingly very bland. Because of the lack of any fat it had a thin and quite watery quality to it. The pastry was also underwhelming in flavour, but would have been filling if we’d not given up and reached for the biscuits after a few mouthfuls. Luckily for those living through rationing, this era was also responsible for some of the best puddings ever known to man: custard trifle to use up stale cake, lemon meringue pie to use eggs that were about to turn, and jam sponge made with grated carrot as part substitute for sugar were all welcome additions to the table.

My daughter woke up just as we sat down to eat so I thought I’d see what her verdict was. This is a child who will eat anything that’s not nailed down. I have seen her devour crayons with relish. This Christmas, in her eagerness to get to the chocolate inside, she consumed part of the foil on the outside of a chocolate coin. This time, however, she took one bite of the pie, chewed it round for a bit, spat it out and handed it back to me. Despite its good intentions and the history of its necessity, I couldn’t think of a better summation for this dish.

E x