Recipe from Sue Lawrence
125 g / 4½ oz unsalted butter
1 kg / 2¼ lb golden granulated sugar
300 ml / 10 fl oz full-fat milk
200g / 7 oz condensed milk (half a tin)
1 – 2 tsp pure vanilla essence
Place the butter in a large heavy-based saucepan. Melt over a low heat. Add the sugar, milk and a pinch of salt and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Once it has dissolved, bring to the boil and simmer over a fairly high heat for 8-10 minutes, stirring often. Add the condensed milk, stir well then simmer for a further 8-10 minutes (it should bubble, but not too fiercely), stirring constantly. After 8 minutes, test if it is ready. What you want is the ‘soft ball’ stage. On a sugar thermometer, it should read 115 degrees Celsius. Remove from the heat at once and add the vanilla (or other flavourings). Using an electric beater, beat on medium for 4-5 minutes just until you feel it begin to stiffen a little and become ever so slightly grainy. Pour immediately into a buttered swiss-roll tin (23 x 33 cm) and allow to cool. Then mark into squares or oblongs when it is almost cold. When completely cold, remove and store in an air-tight tin or wrap individually in waxed paper.
The scene is a large garden somewhere in Scotland on a warm, summer afternoon. The date is circa 1965. The occasion is the church garden fête. I remember so vividly queuing up (probably in my best cotton frock) at the cake and candy stall before the fête had even been opened with my 3d – or whatever – to buy a bar of tablet. And I was not alone. Tablet, neatly wrapped in waxed paper was first to sell out at any fête, sale of work or bazaar and the people in the queue stretching past the bric-a-brac and tombola stalls invariably ignored the lady in the big hat who was officially opening the fête, while attempting (politely – it was a church fête, remember) to edge up the queue a little more.
Fast forward some decades. These days when invited to help at my church fair or coffee morning I am often asked to manage the cake and candy stall. The scene might be inside a hall instead of outside on rolling lawns, but the spirit is still the same. The tablet is always first to go – and there is never enough.
Almost unknown south of the border, tablet is one of Scotland’s oldest types of confectionery. There is reference to it in Marion Lochhead’s book, The Scots Household in the Eighteenth Century. By 1929, when F Marian McNeill wrote her book, milk had been added – her recipe entitled ‘Scots tablet’ calls for granulated sugar, thin cream or milk and flavouring. For the latter, she suggests adding cinnamon, coconut, fig, ginger, lemon, orange, peppermint, walnut or vanilla.
Having been brought up on tablet embellished with nothing other than its neatly packaged waxy wrapping, I like it only with the merest hint of vanilla, pure and simple. If ever there was a childhood memory to evoke happy thoughts of sunshine, laughter and lush green gardens, it is an indulgent bite of tablet. I leave the rather more rarefied confections such as madeleines to Proust.
Sue Lawrence is a renowned food writer, journalist, broadcaster and former winner of BBC TV’s Masterchef. Her cookery titles include The Sunday Times Cookbook (1998), Sue Lawrence Book of Baking (2003), A Cook’s Tour of Scotland (2006), and Scottish Baking (2014). Fields of Blue Flax is her debut novel, in which dark Victorian secrets mirror the pattern of betrayal and deception in the present.
Fields of Blue Flax is published by Freight Books.