Sometimes, especially when I’m sad, or just find myself in a bit of a cooking rut, I realise that what I need is a taste of home. And growing up in the North East, in Newcastle and South Shields, that taste of home is the stotty bread. So I have spent the last week making stotties, and it has been glorious.
Previously, when I found myself mindlessly eating the same soup for multiple meals in a row, or relying on branflakes to sustain me for days on end, I would recreate my grandmother’s sultana scones (and realise guiltily that I prefer Ruby Tandoh’s), or make my mum’s minestrone. Anything that brought the smells and flavours of my childhood home into my grown up kitchen. What I haven’t been able to do, until now, is make a decent stotty.
(You can’t, to my knowledge, get hold of stotties in London. I’ve developed an unintentional tradition of, usually in an overly-emotional hungover fog, buying a ham and pease pudding stottie from the Greggs outside Newcastle central station just before I catch a train down to London, like a culinary farewell.)
My mum would serve them with bacon and mushrooms and lots of ketchup on Saturday lunchtimes, but my grandma’s were proper South Shields fare: stuffed with pease pudding and breaded ham. This is how we had them on Sunday evening and I think a stottie and some tinned pease pudding is as close as I will come to a Proustian epiphany.
For the uninitiated, first of all, I’m so sorry, you have unquestionably been missing out for however many years you’ve spent stotty-less. Secondly, a stotty bread or stotty cake (also spelt ‘stottie’) is a fairly normal bread dough, with a short prove, which is then cooked for quite a long time at quite a low temperature. It’s docked (pricked and dented) so it doesn’t puff up in the oven, but instead is soft on the outside, and chewy in the middle, like a firm, oversized bap. It should be cut in half and used for sandwiches, and if you haven’t had one with a fried egg in, you haven’t lived. For me, they are the platonic sandwich.
The word comes from the Geordie ‘to stot’, which means ’to bounce’. I like to interpret this as having a spring to the soft outside, but I think the reality is that they were able to stot off the floor, which is satisfying etymologically, but not hugely appetising. The history of the stottie is this: scraps of old white dough, left over from the day’s baking, were thrown together into large discs and left in the bottom of a cooling oven. They were a practical solution to a kitchen problem, a cheap, fuel-saving waste-not-want-not answer.
I think, perhaps the stotties of my childhood were treated a little more gently. They were softer, almost milkier; a product that took pride of place in bakery windows, and only touched the ground if given to a clumsy bairn.
So maybe they aren’t authentic in the sense that they’re not made with old dough, and I don’t have an Aga or a wood burning stove, which means I have to manufacture the conditions that led older cooks to bake this bread. But that’s OK. We don’t bake in the same way we used to, and our ovens are a little more advanced. And they’re authentic to my experience of stotties. The chewiness and softness of stotties can be heroically replicated in a modern domestic oven, just by preheating to a high temperature, and then turning it off once the stottie has had a few minutes in there, leaving it in place for an hour until firm but still soft.
If you’re homesick for the North and long for a stottie, this will not only do the job but make you question why you don’t eat stotties every day of your life.
I did quite a lot of research before I began baking and developing this recipe, and I have some sad news: some of the recipes online don’t work. The methods don’t match up with the instructions, or the ingredient ratios contain typos (as I discovered by baking a recipe which resulted in sloppy, shapeless dough, producing breads that were inexplicably both flaccid and cardboard-like, only to find another version of the recipe, identical but for a significantly larger quantity of bread flour). I used as a starting point for mine a combination of this ingredient list and this method. I’ve upped the liquid ratio, because it makes the bread softer and chewier. My recipe also uses both lard and milk, and more sugar than most, which I found gave a greater depth of flavour, and a very slight sweetness, but the recipe works perfectly well leaving substituting the milk for water or the lard for butter (or leaving it out completely). Don’t skimp on the salt: bread needs salt. That bit is non-negotiable.
It goes like this:
Makes: 2 large stotty cakes
Takes: 1 hour 10 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour 15 minutes
500g strong plain white flour
2 tsp salt
8g fast acting dried yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
180ml warm water
1. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar and dried yeast) together in a large bowl, and rub the lard into the mix. It may start to resemble bread crumbs, or the lard may just disappear into the flour; the goal is to incorporate it fully, so there are no lardy lumps. Stir in the milk and warm water. Stir together with your hand until it comes into a ball; the dough will be pretty sticky at this point.
2. Tip the dough onto a well-floured work surface. Knead it for ten minutes: time yourself. Push the dough away from you with heel of your hand, then pull it back towards you, stretching and returning, stretching and returning. It will transform over the ten minutes, into pliable, elastic, soft dough that is smooth, and no longer sticky.
3. Leave to prove in a warm place for an hour, or until doubled in size.
4. Preheat your oven to 200°C. Remove the dough from the bowl and tip it onto a floured surface. Knock the air out of it with a couple of well-aimed punches.
5. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Roll out with a floured rolling pin into a rough circle, about the size of a small dinner plate or frisbee (the dough will be very elastic and spring back; persevere).
6. Line a baking sheet with baking paper or a silicone mat, and then flour the baking paper. Transfer each cake onto its own lined tray.
5. Using your thumb, stab a deep indentation in the centre of each cake. Prick each cake about ten times with a fork.
5. Bake at that temperature for 15 minutes, then turn the oven off, and leave for one hour, before removing from the oven. You may need to wait for the stotties to cool a little bit before you can lift them easily from the baking paper.
6. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
Although we ate these with pease pudding and ham, they’re really the perfect vehicle for any sandwich. I’m a bit of a glutton and even I think that you can get four decent sandwiches out of one. We ate them with big mugs of tea, on an early Sunday evening. I think my grandma would approve. I also had it the following night, toasted with butter and marmite and soft boiled eggs. I’ve rarely had a more satisfying supper.