I must have been about 7 or 8, head filled with stories and adventures described by Enid Blyton, wanting to own an Island, solve a mystery, join the circus or at least own a dog. My parents figured the last dream was the easiest to fulfill and I got a dog and Timothy was his name (full marks if you can guess why) I would climb the window, swing on to the tree, scamper up the branches all the way to the terrace and finally land on the highest point of the house where I was born. Of course I could have taken the stairs, but then what is the fun in that!
In a little backpack, I had a water bottle filled with cold lemonade and some tomato sandwiches and of course a book. Under the shade of the water tank, kept cool by the vast quantities of water stored for daily use, out came my little picnic. The little space became a sacred space, a space where you could transform yourself, a space which would transform itself and you could have a fill of all the adventures that your imagination allowed you to have.
Particularly fascinating to the 8-year-old mind was the variety of food, with magical names and flavours only the imagination would permit. “Why a dosa mom?” I would exclaim as she served me the rice and lentil crepes “Why can’t we have scones and strawberry jam?” In response, my mother handed me a fat black book. “Take a look” she said. “When you can make it, you can eat it!”The fat black book was a British cook book, filled with delicious recipes. Simple instructions and photographs explained all you needed to know about baking. Sponge, Chiffon, Genoise and Victoria sandwich, Puff, Shortcrust and Choux were all demystified. I could talk with all the authority an 8-year-old could muster about Dundee cake and Madeira cake. Book in hand, I informed my mother that I was ready to start baking.
We had this little round oven, almost like a hat box with a glass top. You could set the temperature and slip in a little plate with your goodies. To check the ‘doneness’ of your cake, you had little holes on the edge of the glass, through which you could insert a thin skewer. After careful perusal of the book, I zeroed in on some delightfully rustic looking buns ( I realised in that book, cupcakes were all called buns) aptly called rock buns. It had little bits of candied peel and sultanas peeking from the craggy surface. It sounded delicious
There was one problem though. I need an egg to be added to the dough and that was a problem because my orthodox family would never permit me to sneak an egg into the kitchen. So my mom and I surreptitiously carried the oven up into the bedroom, while I cradled the egg, oh so carefully, in the depths of my pinafore. “You have to rub in the butter” I said aloud as the flour took on a resemblance to the breadcrumbs that my mother used to coat the vegetable patties. In went the spices, carefully prepared fruit, sugar and the precious egg to form a crumbly mixture.
Bits of the dough were clumped together on a makeshift baking tray and as it turned golden in the oven, the room was filled with warm, delicious smells. I was sure heaven was filled with that special fragrance.
Many years have passed. The black book is lost, the oven now replaced with a swankier model and I no longer have to hide the eggs. I still remember the day the baker was born amidst the smell of spices in the air and the gentle heat from the oven on her face.
When I bake those rock buns today, I can feel the same excitement, the anticipation, and when I take a bite of the barely cool cake, the scent of the nutmeg fills my nostrils and I am an eight year old again, ready to take on the adventures the world had to offer, with the Famous Five and Timothy the dog.
225 gms All Purpose Flour
2 level tsp Baking Powder
1/4 tsp salt
100 gms Chilled Butter cut into little cubes
1 tsp mixed spice powder (I used cinnamon and nutmeg)
100 gms Soft Brown Sugar
100 gms Mixed dry Fruit ( I used raisins, cranberries, apricots and strawberries)
25 gms chopped nuts ( I used walnuts)
1 tsp each Zest of lemon/lime and orange
2 TBS milk
1. Pre heat your oven to 200C
2. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
3.Rub in the butter and flour mixture. Make sure the butter is not soft. Chilled butter will give you the lightest buns. If you live in a really cold place, you could grate your butter into the flour. Those who are averse to getting their hands dirty, may use a food processor. Make sure you pulse the flour and butter.
4. Toss in your dry fruits (Please chop them if they are big) nuts, the zest and sugar. Lightly mix with your fingers.
5. Make well in the center and add the milk and egg.
6. Gently bring the dough together with a light hand. The dough is almost like that of a scone or pastry. A heavy hand or too much of kneading will produce a dense and heavy bun (Like rocks!!) These only need to look like rocks not feel like one.
7. Pile on bits of dough on a baking tray. There is no need to grease your tray. Do not bother to make them round or even. They are after all rock buns. You could sprinkle the top of the buns with more brown sugar. I did not.
8. Bake them at 200C for 15 minutes until golden.
9. Remove and cool on wire rack and try to stay way from them, at least till they are somewhat cool.
This is a really simple recipe and the texture is almost like that of a scone. The extra sugar and the addition of the candies fruits add a richness to this classic recipe. I cannot stress the importance of cold butter and light hands. You can vary the fruits according to your taste. Use only raisins if that is what you have on hand. Add almonds instead of walnuts, candied peel instead of zest. You can even add some chocolate chips. As for the spices, to me a rock bun has to have the predominant flavour of nutmeg. You can go with a spice or combination of your choice. The soft brown sugar adds a mellow, caramely taste to the buns. If you don’t have it use regular granulated sugar. See how versatile the recipe is–and simple. As far as I am concerned, it is the perfect project to work on this summer with your child, and let the wonderful world of baking unfold before their eyes.