Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Importance of Preserving Food Traditions, and My Surprisingly Strong Feelings about Baking Powder

"AN UNEXPECTED RISE. Bob Sliprail, a Free Settler, having purchased some tins of Hunt's Baking Powder, is horrified at the result of his first experiment in making a pudding."
While this is supposedly an extract from Punch, it appears in the newspaper archives only alongside advertisements for Hunt's Baking Powder in regional papers.

EXTRACT FROM "SYDNEY PUNCH.". (1895, November 23). The Hay Standard and Advertiser for Balranald, Wentworth, Maude...(Hay, NSW : 1871 - 1873; 1880 - 1881; 1890 - 1900), p. 4. Retrieved September 27, 2015, from

As a historian, I realise that nothing lasts. I even know it on an emotional level. After the death of a childhood friend I forced myself to walk the length of the Paris Catacombs repeating the thought that everyone I had ever known would die. Since then I haven't been too troubled by our mortal nature. But it turns out that seeing my culture pass away turns out to be a different kettle of fish entirely.

You see, cookery friends, I consider baking powder a pantry staple. You know - like yeast, plain flour, treacle ... that's just me then? In any case, a recent trip to the supermarket to stock up on baking powder brought about a minor personal crisis. This is because, instead of having pride of place on the eye-level shelf, baking powder was tucked away on the bottom shelf. At first glance, I hadn't even seen it.

Wild Colonial Grandma, who was there riding herd on my toddler, said with equanimity that baking powder probably wasn't very popular any more; and did I know that the Norwegians use ground antler as a rising agent (I didn't - I thought ground antler had gone out in the 1600s). But could baking powder be going the way of ground deer antler, and soon be the sort of thing you ordered from a speciality online store? Surely not!

I'm not the first person to experience this kind of ingredient-related angst. When researching candied Angelica for a colonial recipe, I found an upwelling of British grief for lost Christmas traditions. Angelica, in case you didn't grow up in England in the 50s, is a herb that until relatively recently could be bought candied by the tin and used for decorating cakes.

Candied Angelica was a particular favourite on top of traditional English Christmas cakes, and it's sudden disappearance from British supermarkets a few years ago came as a very nasty surprise to those die-hards still using recipes in which it featured. Though you can substitute other candied fruits in terms of taste, there is really no visual substitute for the neon green logs. The first page on Google for "candied Angelica" is largely filled with people hoping to keep the tradition alive by making their own. 

All of this flashed through my mind in the supermarket. I had the sudden feeling that I was a bit of a culinary fuddy-duddy. Which, for a 29-year-old, is a hard pill to swallow. For me, baking powder is essential. For most other people? Apparently not so much.

Baking powder, to me, means hospitality. With baking powder on hand, no unexpected guest or tradesperson need go hungry at morning or afternoon tea time, because a tray of hot scones can be produced in 20 minutes. My great-grandfather, on seeing people coming down the road to his farm, would put on a kettle of tea and scones in the oven. Both would be ready by the time his guests sat down at his kitchen table. One of my strongest food memories from my childhood is my mother taking a tray of scones from the oven, including a knobbly customer she called the "chef's scone" which was made from the last few offcuts of dough. We, and our guests, would eat her scones with jam and cream if it was a special occasion. For everyday use they were split while steaming hot, and a knob of butter was sat on each half and allowed to melt down into the soft crumb. Scones, and the baking powder that made them possible, meant that no guest went away feeling as if they had gone unnoticed in our home.

Back at the supermarket, I tried briefly to console myself by thinking that this was the way of the world - new ingredients replacing old. Baking powder, as the go-to raising agent, had superseded bicarbonate of soda; which in turn had knocked off saleratus; which saw off ground up deer antler in the early 18th century. I'm sure each had its fans who grumbled when it was superseded. But one glance at the shelves of packet cake mix and pre-made icing on the supermarket baking shelf put paid to that idea. Glumly, I worried that the answer to the question "What comes after baking powder?" might be "Nothing".

Though I have accepted that I will die, as will my wife, my parents, and even my child, it turns out I cannot accept that the same fate awaits my culture. I will rage against the dying of the light, and continue to buy baking powder as long as there is still one specialist online retailer who will sell it to me. And when guests come over unexpectedly, I will feed them with a tray of freshly-baked scones.

Readers, please help me in my quest to preserve this part of our food culture! If you've never tried baking with baking powder before, give it a go. You can use 1 teaspoon to a cup of plain flour or 2 teaspoons to a cup of wholemeal flour, to instantly produce self-raising flour. Entry-level recipes that use baking powder include pikelets and cupcakes. If you live in Australia buy heritage Australian brands such as Anchor and Mackenzies (neither of whom sponsored this post in any way).