The Essex huffer is a triangular shaped bread roll peculiar to Essex (some might say, not the only pecularity of Essex). Huffers are substantial and won’t fall apart, making them perfect for food on the move; tractor drivers can eat them one-handed during long harvest hours and huffers emerge relatively unscathed from the depths of a well filled walker’s rucksack. Eat them warm, filled with bacon and mushrooms or eat them cold filled with cheese and salad.
Twenty or so years ago, when I decided to bake my own huffers, I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere and the huffers on sale in various Essex pubs and bakeries varied quite a bit. Some were dry and boring wedges of bread while others were light and fluffy. Some were baked as individual rolls, others batch baked and broken apart. The only constant was their triangular shape.
I delved a little deeper. The claim that the word huffer originates from a corruption of ‘half a loaf’ seems plausible (especially in an Essex country accent) as does the story of huffers being made originally for workers labouring all day in the fields.
If this is how huffers originated, it’s important to know a little history of Essex farming. In the late nineteenth century Essex was badly affected by the agricultural depression, which led to a great influx of farmers from other parts of England and most notably, Scotland. It seems logical that these migrant farmers and their families brought not only their different farming skills to Essex but also their food heritage with barm cakes and morning rolls, Devon splits and cobs. Maybe huffers are a variation on a traditional bread from another part of the country. Maybe somebody decided it was a lot quicker to make a large round of bread and cut it into sections instead of fiddling around making individual rolls. Or maybe it was the invention of an enterprising baker with a good eye for marketing. Who knows?
Whatever their origins, Essex huffers are delicious and my version is below. I make no claim for authenticity, other than my cultural heritage though for truly Essex huffers, you should use Marriage’s flour made with wheat from Essex farmers and Maldon sea salt.
The dough is enriched a little with milk and butter, similar to Scottish morning rolls. After proving, the huffers are shaped by rolling out the dough and cutting it into quarters.
The huffers can then be fitted together on a baking tray or baked in the round using two round baking tins.
When baked and cooled, cut your huffer in half horizontally and fill. My favourite huffer filling is streaky bacon. Sometimes with lettuce and tomato. A fried egg makes a delicious, if rather messy, filling.
BAKING ESSEX HUFFERS
- 280 ml just boiled water
- 60 g butter cubed
- 1 ½ teasp salt
- 200 ml milk
- 750 g strong white flour
- 1 ½ teasp fast action dried yeast
Stir the butter and salt in the just boiled water until the butter has melted and the salt dissolved. Add the milk and set aside.
Put the strong flour and yeast into a large bowl.
Check that the liquid has cooled to hand temperature, pour it into the flour and mix together until all the liquid is incorporated.
Leave to stand for ten minutes (it will make kneading easier) and then knead until you have a smooth, stretchy dough.
Put the dough back into the bowl, cover and leave to rise for an hour or two.
When the dough has doubled in size, tip it onto a lightly floured work surface, fold it a few times and then divide in half and form two tight balls.
Leave the dough to relax for a few minutes and then use a rolling pin to roll into two rounds, each about 23 centimetres in diameter.
Cut the rounds into quarters (or more if you prefer smaller huffers) and put them in the round into two greased, round 24cm baking tins or separate them and fit them onto a greased baking tray (30 x 38cm or larger), leaving a small gap between each. Cover and leave to rise for about 45 minutes.
Bake for about 20 minutes at 230C for a soft crust or 25-30 minutes at 210C for a more chewy crust.
Once cooled, break the huffers apart and split each one horizontally to fill.