Lost and Found

by Sam Bilton on March 19, 2021 No comments

Losing or misplacing stuff is a daily occurrence in my house. For me it’s usually a particular kitchen utensil. For my husband, it’s always his glasses. The ‘stuff’ in question invariably turns up albeit not necessarily where you would expect it to be or indeed when you need it.

People too sadly vanish and are mourned (American aviator Amelia Earhart springs to mind). Some like author Agatha Christie emerge, thankfully unscathed, a short time after their disappearance. But what of the recipes and dishes that have evaporated from our memory like the morning mist leaving no trace of their deliciousness in their wake?

There is one culinary passing that has always puzzled me – the wigg. Wiggs were a type of sweet bun peppered with fragrant caraway seeds. A few hundred years ago they were as ubiquitous as the hot cross bun is today. In 1664 the diarist Samuel Pepys ate them for supper during Lent. Eighteenth century farmer William Ellis favoured a plainer sort of wig for his labourers omitting the butter and eggs found in ‘richer’ recipes:

‘Thus, we think these sort of plain Wigs are a cheap and pleasant food for our workmen, our frugal housewives generally make some of them twice a week, sometimes alone, and sometimes they bake them when they bake bread.’ (The Country Housewives Family Companion, 1750)

In fact, wiggs were so well known that everyone knew exactly what they should look like. Instructions in recipes that state ‘make it into wigs’ (thank you Mrs Glasse!) are not terribly helpful to the twenty-first century food historian when you have no idea what an edible wigg is supposed to look like.  Elizabeth David observes that as ‘wigg is said to derive from weig, an old Teutonic word meaning wedge, it seems fairly obvious that cakes should be triangular.’ (English Bread & Yeast Cookery, 1977), However, Food Historian Ivan Day believes wigs were made into a variety of shapes including an elliptical bun.

Frankly, I’m still none the wiser as to their form or why the wigg should have been swept under a metaphorical carpet and forgotten. By the mid nineteenth century recipes for wiggs are a rarity (even Eliza Acton overlooks them in her English Bread Book,1857). Florence White explains that wiggs were still being made in Hawkshead, Cumbria during the early part of the twentieth century but those appear to be a much plainer bun (omitting the sugar, butter and eggs in earlier recipes).

So why have we have we eschewed wiggs?

Tastes change and perhaps the preponderance of caraway seeds in these buns gradually caused them to fall out of favour (much in the same way as the antiquated seed cake, which is seldom found in cafes or on afternoon tea menus these days). Elizabeth David (who was not a fan herself of this spice) said that the use of caraway in wiggs ‘was probably symbolic of the spring sown wheat’ making them popular during Lent. Maybe we are now so removed from the seasons and the land that we feel no need to celebrate the coming of spring or the bounty of a harvest in the form of a cake?

Whatever the reason, wiggs deserve to be rediscovered. Let’s face it, not many can resist freshly baked bread goods still warm from the oven. Plus wiggs make a remarkably good base for toasted cheese (or a rarebit topping if you can stretch to it) as noted by Elizabeth Raffald.

Sourdough Wiggs

Old recipes use ale balm to make wiggs rise. I have adapted Elaine Boddy’s enriched sourdough method (which I heartily recommend) for this version. However, if you don’t have a sourdough starter on the go, then substitute this for a 7g sachet of Easy Blend yeast. Follow the instruction on the packet for a standard loaf although bear in mind that it may take a little longer to rise (and you’ll be able to make the wiggs in a few hours rather than the overnight method below).

If you are using a sourdough starter you will need to begin making this the afternoon of the day before you plan to bake it.

Ingredients

  • 500g white bread flour
  • 100g unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 2 tsp caraway seeds (although you could use fennel seeds if you prefer)
  • 1 whole egg 
  • 1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing before baking) 
  • About 300ml whole milk
  • 50g recently refreshed sourdough starter
  • Demerara sugar for sprinkling (optional)

Method

  1. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles bread crumbs. Stir in the sugar, spices and seeds. 
  2. Place a medium measuring jug on a set of digital scales (if you have them). Break the whole egg and yolk into the jug, measuring their weight in grammes. Add enough milk to make up a total of 350g. Lightly beat the eggs and milk. Make a well in the centre of the flour then add the starter and the milk and egg mixture. Mix to a rough dough – it will be very sticky. Cover the bowl and leave it for an hour or so on the kitchen worktop.
  3. After an hour, lift and fold the dough and bring it into a smooth ball. I usually grease my hands with a light olive oil before doing this. Literally pick up a handful of dough from one side of the bowl, lift it and fold it over the rest of the dough to the other side of the bowl; you don’t need to pull it tight. Then turn the bowl and repeat the process, do it about 20-25 times maximum. During this first set of pulls and folds the dough will still be sticky so re-oil your hands if necessary. Leave for another hour. (Elaine provides detailed instructions on how to do this here.)
  4. After this time, perform the second set pulls and folds. Lift and fold it as before although far fewer pulls and folds will be required to pull the dough into a loose ball (say 8-10 should do it) before covering and leaving it again for a further 45-60 minutes.
  5. Repeat the process in Step 3 at least once more (or twice if you have time). The dough should be nice to handle now. Cover and leave to prove on the counter overnight.
  6. The following morning the dough will typically have grown. Depending on how warm your kitchen is it may need a further 2-3 hours to grow appreciably (although I haven’t found this to be the case in my house).
  7. On a lightly floured board divide the dough into three and shape into rounds. Place on a greased or lined baking sheet with plenty of room between them. Cut right through each ball of dough to create four equal wedges.
  8. Leave the dough to prove again on the kitchen worktop for a further 3-4 hours or until it has risen significantly. 
  9. Preheat the oven to 180℃. Brush the top of each ball with the remaining egg white. You can sprinkle the buns with Demerara sugar if you like. Bake for 20-25 mins, covering lightly with a piece of baking paper or foil if the tops are becoming too dark. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before tearing open a wedge and slathering with butter.

Sam BiltonLost and Found

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