Pikelets & Girdles
I came across a curious recipe for something called “Welsh Cakes” when I was looking for recipes using marmalade (see “On Golden Pond – Of Marmalade and Puddings” http://katywiddopsblog.blogspot.com.au/2016/09/on-golden-pond-of-marmalade-and-puddings.html ) At first I thought it was a recipe for pikelets, a stand-by of my childhood in New Zealand in the 1950s, then I realised it wasn’t. Vaguely connected it with something I’d read in one of Jane Grigson’s cookbooks…
“Welsh” Cakes with Scottish Marmalade?
The recipe is in Early Settlers’ Household Lore (Rev ed.), by Mrs L. Pescott (Richmond, Victoria, Raphael Arts, 1980), first published 1977. Mrs L. Pescott presents us with a jumble of recipes, all undated and unsourced, sadly. In the 1970s such collections of early recipes began to be published in Australia and New Zealand more as curiosities than cookbooks seriously intended for use in the kitchen. This one was a fundraiser for the Gold Museum at Sovereign Hill Goldmining Township in Ballarat, Victoria, under the auspices of the Ballarat Historical Park Association. It’s frustrating in that no bibliography or attributions are given and very many of the recipes clearly do not date back to the time of Australia’s “early settlers” at all. Reading not very far between the lines, Mrs Pescott seems to have collected favourite recipes from all her friends and acquaintances. As a result the book represents the food that was eaten at the time, all mixed up with genuine or rewritten early recipes.
“Welsh Cakes” is possibly quite an early recipe, as it advises that the little rounds of dough may be cooked on a griddle: by the time her book was published the implement was scarcely used. By the early Seventies we all not only had electric or gas stoves, we even had electric frypans. I remember Sue’s quite clearly: she, David and I were in a scungy flat in Balmoral, Auckland; if we used the frypan at the same time as the iron, the mean landlord’s fuse blew. (Possibly not the technical term, no. Loud CLICK! And everything went off.) It would only have been in Outback Australia that wood-burning stoves were still martyring the housewife, and a griddle was needed instead of an electric element or a frypan.
The “Welsh Cakes” are circlets of a lightish rolled dough, made with flour, egg, bicarbonate of soda and golden syrup, together with sugar, currants or sultanas, and a tablespoon of marmalade:
6 ozs. [175 g] flour; 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup; 1 oz. sugar
a few currants or sultanas; 1 tablespoon marmalade
1 egg; milk, or milk and water, to mix
2 ozs. [50-60 g] fat; pinch salt
Beat fat, sugar, syrup, marmalade and egg until light and frothy, then gradually add flour and liquid until mixture is stiff enough to roll out.
Roll out to 1/4 inch in thickness, stamp into rounds and cook on a griddle over any heat [sic]
When one side is delicate brown, turn over and brown other side.
Make the griddle moderately hot before cooking cakes, or put on a greased tray and cook as little cakes in oven.
The presence of the word “Welsh” possibly indicates these derive from the Welsh “bara pyglyd” (“pitchy bread”), given as the derivation of “pikelet” by The Concise Oxford Dictionary, but they are not true pikelets, which are made from a batter, not a rolled dough. It’s not at all clear what the marmalade is doing in there!
Welsh Girdle Cakes & Welsh Crêpes—Not Pikelets
Exactly why Jane Grigson has got recipes for Welsh griddle cakes and pancakes in her English Food (first published London: Macmillan, 1974) must remain a mystery! Her “Pice ar y Maean (Welsh cakes on the stone)” and “Cacen-gri (Girdle Cakes)” are in fact very like Mrs Pescott’s recipe: they are firm, flattened balls of dough, patted out “to the thickness of half an inch” and baked “on a moderately hot griddle.” You can see that the name “Pice ar y Maen” may well be the derivation of “pikelet”—but again, the texture is quite different from pikelet batter.
I thought I’d finally cracked the origins of the Antipodean pikelet when I came across Jane Grigson’s other Welsh recipe, “Welsh Light Cakes or Pancakes,” but no: these are far more like French crêpes, being very light and lacy. They’re traditionally eaten in a stack, which is how Americans eat their pancakes today—interesting, huh? See the page illustrated below, from the Penguin edition of English Food, 1977.
The only conclusion I could come to was that the two ideas had somehow got mixed in the Antipodes, and while the name “pikelet” is more like “Pice ar y Maean”, the Australasian recipe owes more to the “light cakes or pancakes.”
Pikelets for Tea?
Pikelets are little circlets of a sweetish batter, resembling a small pancake in appearance and to some extent texture. In Australia (rarely New Zealand) the term “pikelet” is sometimes used interchangeably with the Scottish term “drop scone.” The recipe is distinguished by the use of baking powder (bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar) as a rising agent, whereas the classic pancake, the French crêpe, merely leaves the batter to stand or “flower.” The use of the rising agent makes a great difference to the taste as well as the texture. Pikelets are traditionally made on the griddle—later the hot plate of an electric stove—lightly greased, in spoonfuls. In Australasia they were traditionally eaten cold with butter, and often jam, for morning or afternoon tea, although some more modern pundits advise eating them hot.
The Transatlantic Version, 1914
The American term for pikelet is “griddlecake,” or “griddle cake”, although the dictionaries do not say so. However, a 19th-century recipe in The Things Mother Used To Make by Lydia Maria Gurney, published in New York, 1914, indicates very clearly that the texture of griddlecakes is a “thin batter,” i.e. like that of a pancake. They are eaten hot, probably as a breakfast dish.
Sweet Milk Griddle Cakes
1 Egg; 1 Pint of Sweet Milk;
2 Level Teaspoonfuls of Cream of Tartar;
1 Level Teaspoonful of Soda; Pinch of Salt;
Flour enough for thin batter.
Mix soda and cream of tartar with flour. Beat the egg, add milk and stir into flour. Fry in small cakes on a griddle.
The Antipodean Tradition: Australia, 1926
First published in 1926, The Golden Wattle Cookery Book ran through dozens of editions, right up until 2005 (The Golden Wattle Cookery Book, Thirty-sixth impression, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1999, reprinted 2005). The recipes, as was usual, were simply repeated every time without revision; most “editions” of such standard texts were in fact just reprints, the same thing reissued. It’s certainly clear from the content that the recipes date from the first half of the 20th century.
The Antipodean Tradition: New Zealand, 1955
The Edmonds Cookery Book (Christchurch, N.Z., T.J. Edmonds Ltd., 1955, reprinted 1968) offers a New Zealand eggless version of pikelets in its “Cake Baking Powder Section (No Eggs Required).” But the version Mum sometimes made in the 1950s and early 1960s for Sunday tea when desperate, with one egg in the house, was the other Edmonds version, in the section on “Scones, Gems, and Pikelets.” This was also trotted out for dainty afternoon teas, to which the kids were not invited. If lucky, we got them warmish on the Sunday. But otherwise, cold was definitely the norm, and all the housewives would serve them up alongside the asparagus rolls, date loaf and cakes which were standard at afternoon tea. They were always buttered, and often had jam on them as well. Homemade jam, of course, or you’d be sneered at behind your back by the other housewives.
Pikelets must be made on the same day as your afternoon tea, or they go leathery. Kitchen martyrdom was pretty much the norm, back in the Fifties—in fact, if they weren’t martyring themselves in their kitchens all day they wouldn’t have known what to do with themselves.
1 Egg; 1/4 breakfastcup Sugar; 3/4 breakfastcup Milk (about);
1 teaspoon Edmonds Baking Powder; 1/4 teaspoon Salt;
1 breakfastcup Flour; 1 oz. Butter (optional)
Beat the egg and sugar until thick and add with the milk to the sifted flour, salt and baking powder. Lastly add melted butter. Mix until smooth and cook in spoonfuls on a hot, greased girdle.
Our diet was pretty heavy on the butter side but I don’t think Mum added the optional melted butter to the pikelet mixture.
Your Girdle, or Your Electric Stove?
The Edmonds Cookery Book recipes do use “girdle” instead of “griddle”, it’s not a typo. “Girdle” is a Scottish and Northern English variant of “griddle,” dating from the 15th century, so the story runs. Jane Grigson, who grew up in north-eastern England, often uses “girdle” in preference to “griddle,” too. This transposition of two phonemes is quite a common linguistic phenomenon, and there is also a fairly strong Scottish influence in New Zealand English.
The pikelet recipes’ continued use of “girdle” indicate that they originate well before the Edmonds Cookery Book’s “De Luxe Edition” was first published in 1955. By the mid-Fifties the convenient electric stove was well established in Australasia and many suburban home cooks no longer had any use for a griddle. In NZ, if the “National grid” had reached you, you held out for a nice new electric stove—too right. When I was about eleven I stayed with an aunty who was housekeeper on a sheep farm several hours’ drive out of Wanganui—pretty remote, in the Fifties—and she wouldn’t have given a wood-burner houseroom!
Apparently in South Australia you could even rent a lovely, shiny electric stove, around 1949: the Green and Gold Cookery Book features a two-page ad for this service:
The “Everybody Knows” Syndrome
We certainly had an electric stove in Auckland from 1950 onwards. For pikelets, the electric hot plate was always “greased” with butter: that is, you dropped a minute piece on, it sizzled and turned pale brown, and you immediately put your spoonful of mixture on it. Mum’s pikelets were always perfect, cooked through, a delicious even tan colour on both sides. I have made this recipe, and my pikelets usually looked all right on one side, the other being spotty, quite often full of holes, and quite often singed. Worth the bother? Not really.
—Yes, you do turn them, though the Edmonds book doesn’t say so. You wait until minute bubbles appear and the mixture starts to look cooked, then you flip them and cook on the other side. This was the Fifties, everybody knew!