Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus! Or if you’re not from Wales or a Welsh speaker, Happy Saint David’s Day! Saint David’s Day is the feast day of the patron saint of Wales & it falls on March 1st, the date of Saint David’s death. The day is much celebrated throughout Wales (even though it’s not a national holiday-come on Welsh Government!) by wearing symbols of Wales such as daffodils & leeks, donning traditional Welsh dress, eating traditional Welsh foods (including Welsh cakes) & generally just feeling very proud to be Welsh.
Saint David’s Day for me symbolises the beginning of Spring. Bold yellow daffodils begin to emerge, standing proud, returning colour to an otherwise grey & miserable landscape. Nights draw longer & milder with promise & excitement, & I am obliged to eat as many Welsh cakes as my heart contends. Childhood memories of Saint David’s Day don’t quite share the same sentiments for me. Looking back now, I can appreciate the tradition of wearing my little red & black Welsh lady costume. As child however, I did not appreciate the feeling of being swamped by layer upon layer of itchy, unnecessary dress in the fine spring sunshine.
First came the petticoat, then a skirt made from excessive amounts of wool. A white blouse, shawl & a paisley printed neckerchief (to this day I don’t know why mine was paisley) were used to cover up any remaining signs of a small human child, all held together with a little white apron. My head was topped with a tall, solid, black hat, held firmly in place by thick white ribbon tied under the chin. Throw in a pair of white cotton tights, my shiniest, patent black leather shoes, a fresh daffodil pinned to my chest & I was ready for a day of itching, fidgeting & attempting to subtly remove layers (the paisley was always the first to go).
Why did I endure this misery? What was my reward? Welsh cakes! Following the school Eisteddfod, which is essentially a school competition that involved a lot of Welsh singing, at lunchtime we were treated to milkshake & fresh Welsh cakes. Welsh cakes (or picau ar y maen) are traditional in Wales. Even though they are named “cakes” they are not baked but cooked on a griddle, they are similar to a scone & the size of a biscuit but they are unique in texture & a delight by their own merit.
Resourceful, wholesome & practical in nature, made from very simple store cupboard ingredients, Welsh cakes are a variation of a griddle baked flat-bread as fat, sugar & dried fruit were added to prolong its shelf life. Traditionally cooked on a bakestone which would have been a large, thick piece of slate which was later replaced by a cast-iron griddle in the 19th century (also known as a bakestone), Welsh cakes are incredibly easy to make but love & attention must be given to cook each one by hand, so as not to over-work the mixture or burn the cakes.
Being a bit of a hoarder of old, traditional bakeware (& teacups… so many teacups), I’m always on the lookout for new additions to my collection. I can always be found rummaging through bric-a-brac, haggling at markets & whiling away hours in antique shops. One thing which has eluded me for years, which I have desperately sought after is a traditional Welsh bakestone. Lo and behold, on an inadvertent visit during sunny afternoon drive with my new adventurer we stopped for a wander around a local antiques centre. Words cannot describe the rather audible shriek that escaped when I spotted a small collection of bakestones propped up in an alluring, proud manner, almost hidden from sight (he’s almost become a lucky charm at this point). Needless to say that this Saint David’s Day, everyone will be enjoying Welsh cakes.
Welsh cakes are not overly sweet but are certainly a treat to look forward to, particularly when eaten fresh from the pan, still warm enough so that butter begins to melt when spread on top. There are local variations throughout Wales such as cakes made with grated apple added to the mixture or thicker cakes made using baking powder & dusted in icing sugar are made in North Wales. Personally (though I could be a little bias here), my favourite variation is the jam split of South Wales. As the name suggests, this is quite simply a Welsh cake split horizontally & sandwiched together with jam (we all know I’m partial to a bit of jam). These are a really versatile treat that can be adapted to suit your tastes, try chocolate chips or cranberries instead of sultanas, or cardamom instead of mixed spice. I’m a bit of a traditionalist however & think these are perfect as they are, simply spread with a little salted butter, accompanied by a good strong cup of tea.
(makes around 20)
- 250g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 110g butter, diced
- 60g caster sugar (plus a little extra to coat)
- 70g sultanas
- 1 large egg, beaten
- A little milk
- Sift the flour & mixed spice together into a large bowl
- Next, add the cubed butter to the bowl & use your fingers to rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs
- Add the sugar & sultanas to the bowl & stir through
- Add the egg to the bowl & stir through until the mixture starts to come together & form a dough, if the mixture is a little dry, add 1 tsp at a time of milk
- Once the dough has come together, use your hands to roughly shape it into a ball but try not overwork it (much like a scone, overworking it makes for a denser cake), tip it straight out onto a floured surface
- Using a floured rolling-pin, roll the dough out to approximately 1/2 cm in thickness
- Take a round 3 or 4 inch fluted cutter (or even a shaped one if you’re feeling fancy) & cut out rounds by pressing sharply & removing (don’t twist the cutter)
- Re-roll any cuttings & keep cutting out until you have around 18-20 welsh cakes or have used all of the mixture
- Rub a bake stone or a heavy bottomed frying pan with butter & place over a medium heat
- Cook the Welsh cakes, a few at a time, for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown & cooked through
- Whilst they are cooking, pour out a little caster sugar into a saucer or wide bowl
- Once the cakes are cooked, remove from the pan & toss them through the caster sugar whilst they’re still still hot
- Leave to cool a little & eat still warm or cool completely & spread with a little butter