Today I have mostly been eating plum shuttles, because today is
Valentine’s Plum Shuttle Day. It’s said that should a child knock on your door before sunrise on 14 February and shout ‘Good morrow Valentine!’ at you twice before you can stop them, you have to give them a shuttle or some money. So I thought it was best to be prepared (irrespective that my front door bell is broken and not even a klaxon could have gotten me out of bed before sunrise today).
A plum shuttle, or ‘shittle’ as it’s properly pronounced (no sniggering at the back), is a bit like a yeasted currant bun moulded into the shape of a weaver’s shuttle and glazed and is said to be peculiar to Leicestershire, Rutland, Northamptonshire, Norfolk and now Sussex.
Despite me missing the sunrise, I had a friend coming over for elevenses, so instead of having breakfast, I started baking. I am not a natural baker. I have freezing cold hands which is great for pastry, so I’m well away with a jam tart, but I abandoned yeasty treats after a run of rather unpalatable loaves back when I had an airing cupboard in the early 1990s.
As I was using gluten free flour, I decided to add some xanthan gum after sifting for extra binding. Never used it before, but why not. Then I couldn’t find my yeast. So the next five minutes was spent cursing the JOTT as I cleaned out my cupboard, only to eventually find the sachet sandwiched between an ancient can of artichoke hearts and some mandarin slices.
I was making half the recipe, but didn’t have the brain power this morning to work out half a half a tablespoon so I made the yeast up to full measure. Then I couldn’t understand how to cream the yeast and sugar together prior to adding the warm water, given that they are both dry ingredients. The internet could only supply me with life sapping videos on the subject, so I busked it instead and left it to froth for 20mins.
After the allotted time, it didn’t look particularly frothy and I wondered if the water had been warm enough to activate the yeast, so did another batch with warmer water while I sorted out the dried fruit aspect. I hadn’t bought currants, instead I was using up the cranberries and sour cherries I’d bought to make a nut roast for Christmas dinner, and supplemented with some chopped up prunes. Once that was done I melted some dairy free spread (no three words can possibly bring less joy) and mixed it was some soya milk and half a beaten egg. After, I tipped everything into the flour, using the first lot of yeast, as it looked marginally more alive than the second, kneaded (quite a wet dough), covered the bowl with a cloth, and sat it by the radiator under my desk (where I’d kept the Philosopher’s Stone) to prove. And then did the hoovering.
After half an hour, I went at it again with my knuckles, but all my faith in the yeast had gone. If I’m absolutely honest, I have no idea which one of these photographs is the before and which is the after.
Next was to make the shuttle shapes, put them on a greased tray for a second prove, and brush them with egg. This time I covered them with a damp cloth and put them in the oven on a very low heat. By now my friend, Sarah (a different Sarah from last night, I have many Sarah shaped friends and all of them glorious), had arrived and was on hand to give advice. Sarah is an amazing baker. She’s also incredibly kind and supportive.
After another half an hour of proving, the shuttles went into the oven proper. We had a cup of tea. The shuttles came out, Sarah banged the bottom of them, broke one apart and gave the nod. They looked quite dry so we decided they needed something to help them go down, and slathered on some with spread (I was quite jam-less and my offer of peanut butter was cruelly rejected), and then we gave them a go.
And they weren’t all that bad. They were cooked through which is a start. But rather than have a bready bun texture, they were more like an unsweetened rock cake that got harder and harder the longer they were out of the oven. I probably could have used one as a doorstop if any had survived. Might have had something to do with forgetting to halve the yeast when I added it to the mixture, or this is the universe’s way of saying never apply to Bake Off. I still ate them, obviously. And with peanut butter after Sarah left.
Weatherwatch update: the 14th is the last of February’s Borrowed Days. Down where I am, it’s been a mixture of squalls, blusters, drips, shines and blindings. So I guess a little bit of everything is to come…
Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Jones, J. and Deer, B. (1987) Cattern Cakes and Lace, London, Dorling Kindersley Limited
Roud, S. (2006) The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, London, Penguin Books
By the way, the second batch of yeast is still fomenting. After all the anti-yeast sentiment, I got quite attached. Who knew it could be so fascinating….