Imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. How they crouched by the fire which blazed and leaped and made so much of itself in the little grate. How they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them. The mug from the washstand was used as Becky's tea cup, and the tea was so delicious that it was not necessary to pretend that it was anything but tea. They were warm and full-fed and happy, and it was just like Sara that, having found her strange good fortune real, she should give herself up to the enjoyment of it to the utmost. She had lived such a life of imaginings that she was quite equal to accepting any wonderful thing that happened, and almost to cease, in a short time, to find it bewildering.
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Visitor
I'm not quite sure why it has taken me so long to develop a recipe for this scene; it was one of my favourite books as a child, and Sara and Becky's picnic in the attic is such a fantastically evocative scene. After months of cold and hunger thanks to the miserly Miss Minchin, the girls wake to find a true feast, alongside some warming blankets, slippers and robes. Their disbelief at finding such treasures continues as they eat it later that evening - Sara pinches herself, even while she enjoys a hot buttered muffin.
I adore English muffins, both as part of a hollandaise-based breakfast and, slightly more simply, soaked with butter and, perhaps controversially on an English muffin, Vegemite. They're wonderfully gratifying to make too - watching them rise and cook in a pan is such an immediate joy - you can see the fruits of your labour rise in front of your eyes! They're miles easier than I could ever have hoped and a true example of something that is immeasurably better when homemade. As such, they'll be a regular fixture in my kitchen from now on.
300g strong white bread flour
6g fast action dried yeast
15g caster sugar
15g softened butter
Mixing bowl (or mixer)
1. Put the flour into the bowl of your mixer (or mixing bowl). Add the salt on one side and yeast on the other, then the sugar, butter, egg and milk. Using a dough hook, mix the dough until it is smooth and stretchy (around five minutes). Alternatively, if you don't have a mixer, combine the ingredients by hand in the bowl then tip onto a lightly floured bench and knead for around ten minutes. Shape the dough into a ball.
2. Wash out your mixing bowl and lightly grease with oil. Pop the dough in the bowl, cover with cling film and allow to prove until doubled in size. In my wintery kitchen, this took around two hours, but it could happen in one if it's summer where you are. A little hint in terms of dough 'doubling' - take a quick photo. I find it really hard to remember what it originally looked like.
3. Once the dough has doubled in size, tip it out on to a floured bench. Roll it out to around 2.5cm thick and, with a floured biscuit cutter, cut out your muffins. Reshape any leftover dough and, if necessary, push the dough into the cutter for your final muffin.
4. Scatter your baking trays with half of the polenta, and carefully transfer the muffins to the trays. Scatter the top of the muffins with the rest of the polenta. Cover them with cling film and allow to prove again, this time for around 30 minutes. Don't be concerned if the muffins look disappointingly flat; they'll puff up beautifully once on the heat.
5. Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a low heat. Carefully transfer a few muffins into the pan; they'll spread and grow, so don't overcrowd them. Cook them for around 5 minutes before flipping them over and cooking for a further five minutes until golden brown on both sides.
6. To serve in the style of A Little Princess, cut the muffin in half through the middle, spear it with a fork and toast over a fire (or a gas hob, in my case). Butter liberally. Enjoy.
Any leftover muffins will keep for a couple of days in a paper bag, and should be toasted before eating. Perfect for a packed lunch with some homemade baked beans, or for breakfast with some grilled cheese and chilli jam.
ps. I used a recipe from Paul Hollywood for this one - there were countless online, but his was clear, simple and without too many additional ingredients (no random cider vinegar, for example).