English cookery writer Elizabeth David was critical of commercially produced crumpets and she pulled no punches in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. "Crumpets, or at least terrible travesties of them… are more commonly sold packeted by grocers or supermarkets than by bakers. Perhaps indeed they are delivered direct from a plastics recycling plant, and have never been near a bakery," she wrote.
So what constitutes a good crumpet? Truth be told, we here at GT quite enjoy a shop-bought crumpet, toasted, buttered and honeyed, but that said, we had not until recently eaten the freshly made variety.
The word "crumpet" is thought to derive from the Welsh crempog, a pancake or fritter, and it's likely they date from the 18th century. Like a pancake, a crumpet is made with a thin batter, but there the similarity ends: it differs greatly in texture and body. The signature hole-riddled texture is created variously by the addition of yeast or a chemical raising agent such as baking powder or bicarbonate of soda, or - in some cases - all of the above. The recipe here uses both yeast and bicarbonate of soda. The yeast does most of the work and is added at the first stage, transforming the almost-liquid batter into a bubbling mass. The addition of bicarbonate of soda, added after the batter has proved, accelerates the formation of holes once heat is applied to the batter and has the added benefit of lightening the texture of the finished crumpet.
Opinion differs regarding how to treat the mixing of the batter itself. Elizabeth David advocates vigorous beating to develop a certain elasticity, but we found that treating the batter more gently, and beating it only enough to incorporate the ingredients, results in a lighter, fluffier crumpet.
The consistency of the batter is key to success, and it's a changeable thing. It's worth noting that the batter thickens upon standing, so after you've cooked your first batch, you may need to thin the batter with a little lukewarm water or milk before you start cooking the second. If the batter is too thick, the holes won't be able to force their way through to the top, and the result will be what is known as a blind crumpet, lacking the characteristic honeycomb texture. That said, add too much liquid and batter will run out from under the rings, so be judicious and add just a little liquid at a time.
This brings us neatly to crumpet rings. Some specialist cookware shops sell rings the perfect size, complete with a little handle, making them easy to remove when the time comes. But as these can be a little difficult to come by, your best bet is to use a biscuit cutter. Ten centimetres is the perfect diameter, and you'll need them to be 2.5cm to 3cm deep so you end up with lovely thick crumpets (don't be tempted to resort to egg rings, which are nowhere near deep enough). Butter them generously with soft butter before using them.
A heavy-based frying pan, preferably cast-iron, is an essential tool. Warm it over a very low heat and grease it with a sliver of butter. Place the rings in the pan and fill them two-thirds full with batter. Do not over-fill or the batter will bubble up and spill over the tops of the rings. Cook until holes and a skin develop on the top of the crumpet, slip off the rings (loosen them with a small sharp knife if necessary), then turn the crumpets and cook the tops until light golden.
Eat them as soon as they're cooked or keep the crumpets warm in a tea towel, and reheat them in a covered dish in the oven. You can make them ahead and then toast them if you like, but you'll be hard-pressed to resist tucking into them straight away, especially when slathered with caramelised maple butter.