This month, I’m handing over to home-cook, Clare Shirtcliff, who shared with me her Granny Corbett’s hand-written recipe book. Ann Corbett was born in 1899 in Lancashire. She married in 1924 from which date she probably began this notebook of recipes. Clare has penned her memories of her grandmother and her cooking which I share with you below. I also included her Granny’s frankly delicious zesty, jammy, meringuey Queen of Puddings recipe below which I tested and updated with modern measurements.
What fascinates me is the book is almost all cakes and sweet things, and the sweet puddings all use breadcrumbs – a cheap staple of every kitchen that would have needed using up on a daily basis. For more recipes that use breadcrumbs, there is also Mary Morgan’s Welsh Cheese Pudding here.
Granny Corbett’s cardboard covered, cotton bound, battered, plum coloured recipe book. Not really the size of a book, more of a notebook. With a distinct smell I can’t quite place. Most entries are in pencil. With a few exceptions, the recipes are all for cakes or other sweet goods. I realise she didn’t need to make a note about how to cook a main course – they were basic meat and two veg type meals, all on repeat.
She baked once a week. She never, ever put the oven on for just one thing. My mother was just the same, and drilled that lesson into us. It was all about maximising the use of the oven in the interests of thrift.
Raspberry Sandwich, Lemon Cheese, Elsie’s Chocolate cake, Flo’s scones, (Flo and Elsie were sisters and Granny’s cousins) Barm cake (barm being the yeasty froth from ale making), Amber apple, and B.B.C. Chocolate cake. Then there’s ‘May Barron’s cake’ which reminds me that I used to meet the same Mrs Barron at St Andrew’s on a Sunday evening when Granny would take me to church with her. Another goes by the mysterious title of ‘Didn’t catch it’. Is that a warning that the recipe is incomplete because Granny knows she’s missed something out? Or is there really a cake called ‘Didn’t catch it’?
Some are with, some without instructions. Mostly there’s just a list of ingredients with no explanation telling you how to combine them. Granny had no other audience in mind and needed no reminder herself. Even where there are instructions, they are often minimal. ‘Bake in moderate oven 1 hour’. Again, it was sufficient that she knew what she meant by a ‘moderate’ oven. 70, maybe 80 years on, some of the recipes contain puzzles to challenge the 21st century cook. Mostly to do with quantities, but also ingredients. A gill of syrup, 3 quarts of water, 4 drams of ginger, 2 drams of capsicum. Who knew that a dram was a measure of dry ingredients and not just a tot of whisky?
Trickier assessments will need to be made when interpreting the need to include a ‘teacup of milk’, a ‘pennyworth of barm’ or a ‘nut of butter’. How many people even have a tea cup now? Are they all the same size and how full do you fill one? How much barm did you get for a penny?
Puff pastry apparently requires ‘best’ flour whereas oat biscuits can make do with ‘ordinary’ flour. And a Swiss roll emphatically needs ‘well dried’ flour. The prescription of ‘well dried’ suggests it was common to discover that your flour was damp – presumably because of where and how you stored it. Soya flour features in several of the recipes. I didn’t know it was available then. Soya feels so contemporary. Maybe it was a wartime alternative to flour or just cheaper. Others require dried egg. Granny clearly had a gas oven at the time she recorded some of the recipes. All temperatures, when mentioned at all, are phrased as ‘regular Mark 6’ or similar.
One of my favourite discoveries is a recipe for ‘Husband’s Sponge’. Did all husbands like this or was it just something the Grandfather I never knew was partial to? Does the fact it contains water, presumably instead of milk, indicate meanness, resentment or punishment or is it merely what’s required for the recipe and to exercise economy? Perhaps the better clue to its apparent popularity or suitability for husbands is in the final instruction: ‘Sandwich together when cold with marg and marmalade’. Convenient eating for the breadwinner during his working day.
Appearing part way through the notebook is an address for my Uncle Cyril.
C. Corbett I/RO,
S/S ‘Arabian Prince’
c/o Prince Line Ltd
56, Leadenhall St
Cyril was in the Merchant Navy for most, maybe all of the second World War. As well as crossing the Atlantic in supply ships, he was involved in D-Day, transporting soldiers into Caen in 1944. He told my Mum afterwards that he remembers lots of the soldiers being violently sick on the crossing and feeling so sorry for them because they had to get off and fight any minute. After the war in Europe ended he was on a ship taking supplies to the Chindits in Burma to support the fight against the Japanese.
The ‘RO’ tells me he was a Radio Officer. But is that a letter or a number before the RO? An ‘I’ or a ‘1’? If it’s a 1, I discover that it probably refers to the ship’s UK port of origin, and is code for Aberdeen. When I ask Mum about this, she tells me Cyril trained at the Liverpool College of Wireless and then at some point during the war was trained in the then brand-new technology of radar. She remembers him coming home and telling them all about radar. The address is written in ink and what looks like a different hand. Maybe Cyril wrote it in there for Granny. It’s clear its where she can write to him. Was it the last thing he did before leaving home to join his ship? What must she have felt every time she came across it?
Sometimes, stuck between the leaves are fragile bits of paper – recipes shared by friends or neighbours on scrap paper or pages torn from other notebooks. One’s on the back of part of a blank bill of sale from Mersey Docks. Name of ship / Date cleared / Goods shipped for – all blank.
There’s the recipe for ‘Queens pudding’ – something my mum used to make for us, although we used to call it ‘Queen of puddings’. This must be the same recipe Mum used and probably the one I’m keenest to have a go at myself.
Granny writes ‘all spice’. I realise she means ‘allspice’. Coming from the dried, unripe berry of the Pimenta tree, it combines the flavours of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. So yes, it can make a claim to being all spice. I make a mental note to bring that different emphasis back into vogue.
Suddenly the notebook takes a different turn, digressing into a list of household expenses for the weeks beginning August 29th, Sept 4th, 11th and 18th. Frustratingly there’s no mention of the year. But Granny knows and that’s all that matters at the time.
She itemises the daily amounts and calculates a weekly total. They all come to two or three pounds something. Three pounds, eight shillings and ten pence (written as 3.8.10), two pounds, eighteen shillings and a ha’penny (2.18.0½). I realise Sunday isn’t listed in the days of the week because of course you couldn’t shop on a Sunday. Much later a last stand by the Trades Unions and the Lord’s Day Observance Society failed to hold back the arrival of Sunday opening hours – the thin end of the wedge that eventually put paid to the day of rest. Another loss for the workers paraded as freedom and choice in the interests of commerce.
Then there’s a list of household goods and money spent. Or is it their price? Against ‘pillows’ Granny records one pound ten shillings. But is that for one or more than one? She spent 19 shillings and 10 pence on towels. How many did you get for that?
At the back of the notebook there are recipes for elderflower drink, orange marmalade, grapefruit and lemon marmalade, marrow pickle and ginger wine. Granny was still making ginger wine when we stayed with her as children in the 60s and early 70s. I loved her ginger wine and for a moment think about recreating that recipe until I realise just how much sugar it involves. And that’s in addition to the requirement for burnt sugar.
One of the last recipes is for cough mixture. This contains peppermint oil, aniseed oil, white wine vinegar, Paregoric (a camphorated tincture of opium, the name derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to soothe’, in popular use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but declining in the 20th century) and horehound. Horehound turns out to be a member of the mint family and an unproven folk treatment for coughs.
The only recipe that isn’t in there is for Granny’s regular offering whenever we said we were thirsty – the one for Corporation Pop – because that came straight out of the kitchen tap! – Words by Clare Shirtcliff
Granny Corbett’s Queen of Puddings
This is the original recipe with updated measurements and instructions for the modern cook.
½ pint/300ml milk
50g fresh breadcrumbs [I used granary loaf]
2 eggs, separated
25g sugar, plus a teaspoon for the meringue
zest from 1 lemon
jam [I used blackcurrant]
Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Boil the milk, then pour over your breadcrumbs and leave to soak. I left it for 15 minutes. Beat the egg yolks and mix into the breadcrumbs with the sugar and lemon zest.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until golden and set but still a bit wobbly. Leave to cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 150ºC. Whisk the egg whites with a teaspoon of sugar until stiff. Warm the jam, then spread it on the base, followed by the meringue. Bake for a further 10 to 20 minutes, or until golden on top.