Saving Norfolk’s Knobs

Snigger. While my sense of humour can justifiably be labelled immature – after all my desk at work used to be known as innuendo corner – the plight of the Norfolk knob is no laughing matter. And it is by no means alone. Along with rusks, huffers, fourses cake, kitchels and I’m sure many other traditional local bakes and dishes, the knob (also known as a hollow biscuit) is perilously close to being forgotten forever.

In fact information on Norfolk knobs is already so scarce that the very mention of them tends to attract odd looks and a shrug of the shoulders. So it is time to do something about it – let’s save the knob!

So what is a Norfolk knob?

Simply put, it is a yeasted biscuit. I understand they were traditionally made using left over bread dough, which was enriched with fat (typically lard) and a little sugar – a useful way of avoiding waste. The trick is in shaping them from two layers of dough to retain a hollow centre once baked. They are baked twice so are a true British biscuit – once to give them a golden colour, and a second time at a much lower temperature to crisp them up. They were then served with butter and either cheese or jam.

Are there any other types of knob?

Dorset also has a knob which shot to fame earlier this year when the BBC covered the 2014 Dorset Knob Throwing and Food Festival. Despite the Festival, the Dorset knob is only made by one company at certain times of the year, so it remains a niche product and an amusing talking point.

Norfolk and Dorset knobs have very similar ingredients and differ mainly in how they are made –  the Norfolk variety being smaller but with a unique hollow centre. Thanks to cooksinfo.com for the explanation.

Why save the Norfolk knob?

Naturally some well-loved things disappear over time. Some with good reason – Turkey Twizzlers anyone? While others fight to survive – remember the Heinz Salad Cream protests of 1999?

Before I begin my crusade to save the Norfolk knob, I thought it best to check whether they are really worth saving. Having tried to hunt them down at the last bakery known to make them – Merv’s Hot Bread Kitchen in Wymondham – to be told that they don’t sell them anymore (not regularly at least), the only thing for it was to try making them for myself.

With little to go on visually and a couple of online recipes that could be described as ropey at best (think Bake Off Technical Challenge), my hopes weren’t high as they went into the oven. For a first effort though, I produced something edible, even enjoyable. However they bore little resemblance to the hallowed ‘golden doorknob’ and my success rate on the hollow centre bordered on zero. OK it was zero. More practice required!

Despite the failings in the appearance department the knobs were both crunchy and light – kind of like a round breadstick. They have a slightly sweet bread flavour and worked a treat with a homemade red pepper hummus for lunch and dipped in Nutella for dessert, demonstrating that the knob is, like totally down with the 21st Century.

Attempt 1: More blobs than knobs

Attempt 1: More blobs than knobs

Forget breadsticks - Norfolk knobs and hummus

Forget breadsticks – Norfolk knobs and hummus

So I have some adjustments to make to my recipe, but I will be trying again – the hollow biscuit is worth saving. And after all, this is about more than knobs, it’s about preserving traditions, awakening curiosity and rediscovering lost gems.

Do you still bake or buy Norfolk knobs? Do you have any memories of hollow biscuits? Are there any other traditional dishes in danger of disappearing that you think should be saved? Please tweet us (@eatanglia) or leave a comment below as we’d love to hear about them and investigate as many as possible before they fade away forever.

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