The Warm Embrace of Nostalgia

Malt loaf

Malt loaf

Last night was a very special Band of Bakers event – the first of its kind.  Due to my inept scheduling, I had accidentally planned the event for the same night as The Great British Bake Off final, so we decided that, instead of cancelling the event or forcing everybody to miss the show, we would instead create the ‘Band of Bakers/GBBO Final Mash-up’.  Our venue, The Clockhouse, kindly allowed us the use of their television and we all sat down together to watch it.  Congratulations to Nancy, a very worthy winner and my favourite all along.

The theme for last night’s event was ‘Childhood Favourites’, so we invited our bakers to delve into their memory banks and bring something along that is a part of their past.  Since starting Band of Bakers a couple of years ago, I have always found nostalgia to be a really big part of baking – people will often bring along old family recipes, or something that reminds them of a particular time.  The things we loved as children may not be the best tasting or most accomplished bakes, but they are often those that give us the best memories.  It is also interesting to see how bakers of different age groups work with this theme – those who grew up in the 1970s, for example, will have a different repertoire to those who grew up in the 1990s.  What is also interesting is the influences in the baking of those with parents of other nationalities.

My bake for this event is something that has been a favourite of mine ever since I can remember: malt loaf.  And there is, of course, a bit of a backstory.  I spent a lot of time at my Nan’s house growing up in the late 80s and early 90s.  Like many grandmothers, she would often allow us more treats than we would get at home.  She would also allow us to eat our lunch in front of the television, something we were seldom allowed to do in our own house.  She would make us sandwiches of corned beef or polony, cut into eight tiny triangles, and would give us slices of malt loaf, thickly spread with butter.  It sounds fairly ordinary, and I suppose it was, but the memory of it always makes me smile.  Nan passed away a couple of years ago and I would trade any of the beautiful food in London for a corned beef sandwich and a slice of malt loaf in front of her old television.

Despite being an excellent baker and home cook, it would never have occurred to Nan to make her own malt loaf.  Having such a large family, she baked more for necessity and sustenance than for pleasure; desserts for Sunday lunches, tea loaves to give to visitors and pies for weeknight suppers.  Malt loaf came in those yellow packets from the supermarket, and that was the way she liked it.

I love those too, but I wanted to try my hand at making my own for the first time.  This recipe by Paul Hollywood looked like the most authentic and straightforward.  This recipe is very simple to do and, if you allow the usual time for proving, is fairly quick to make.  The biggest difficulty was finding malt extract, an ingredient I had never used before.  I had heard that some supermarkets do stock it, but seemingly none that I went to.  Luckily, the wonderful bakers of Twitter pointed me towards Holland & Barrett, who did indeed have a jar.  It’s very thick, a bit like honey and after the first use, you will forever have a sticky jar in your cupboard.

This malt loaf does not look much like the ones you get in the supermarket – it is far lighter in both colour and in texture, however the nostalgic taste is there.  Glaze it with honey, slice it up and spread thickly with good Irish butter.

Notes:  I made this malt loaf in a freestanding mixer as, to quote last night’s GBBO winner Nancy, I don’t have the strength to pummel it around.  You can make it in by hand if you wish, just knead it for a bit longer.

Malt Loaf

1 tbsp demerera sugar
3 tbsp malt extract
2 tbsp black treacle
25g butter
350g strong white bread flour
100g strong wholemeal flour
Pinch of salt
2 x 7g packets instant yeast
225g sultanas
250ml warm water
1 tbsp honey, to glaze

Prepare a 1lb loaf tin by greasing it with butter or spraying it with cake release spray.  Set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat together the sugar, malt extract, treacle and butter over a medium-low heat until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted.  Set aside to cool.

Combine the flours, salt, yeast and sultanas in the bowl of a freestanding mixer.  Add the warm water and cooled malt extract mixture and mix using a dough hook until the dough comes together.  Continue to knead with the dough hook for an extra couple of minutes.

Scrape the dough into the prepared loaf tin, it should come up to about ¾ inch below the edge of the tin.  You may not need all of the dough.  Place the tin in a plastic bag and leave to prove in a warm place for a couple of hours.  The dough should rise up just slightly above the tin.  Preheat the oven to 190ºc.  Smooth off the top of the dough to the top of the tin and bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until browned and risen.  Leave to cool a little in the tin before transferring to a wire rack.

Heat the honey in a small saucepan over a low heat until it loosens in consistency.  Brush over the warm malt loaf using a pastry brush.

One Year Ago:  In Praise of Banana Bread


A Few Things from Baden-Baden, Germany

I’m not quite sure how, but it is October tomorrow.  It doesn’t really feel like it as it is unseasonably warm in London at the moment, and I just got back from holiday.

For the past few days, Ollie and I have been in Baden-Baden.  If you’re not familiar, it is a little town in Germany’s Black Forest, south of Frankfurt and close to the French border.  It is famous for its thermal waters and its beautiful spas attract people from all over the region.  We spent quite a considerable amount of time at the Carcalla Baths.  It was a holiday after all.

As well as this, there was, of course, lots of eating and drinking.  Here are a few highlights:


Much to my constant dismay, I have never liked beer.  Fortunately, my husband is rather a fan and got to sample quite a few different beers during our time there.  With Oktoberfest imminent, a lot of the bars were promoting their own hausbrau.  Two of the best were at Amadeus and Lowenbrau.  The latter has a really nice beer garden.



This is an Alsace speciality that is also known as Tarte Flambee on the French side of the border.  It is a very thin, almost pizza-like dough, traditionally topped with sour cream, bacon and onions.  We ate at the Theaterkeller, where they have a number of different varities of flammkuchen, including this one with breasola.



Black Forest Cake
No trip to the Black Forest is complete without sampling the schwarzenwalden kirschetorte, the region’s most famous cake.  Many were put off by the old Sara Lee frozen desserts of the 1990s, but the real deal is a thing of beauty.  Light chocolate sponge, slightly-boozy-slightly-sour cherries and an abundance of blousy whipped cream.



As ubiquitous in Germany as good beer, you never have to look hard to find a good sausage.  We found these at a farmers’ market in the small town of Buhl, just outside of Baden-Baden; three euros for a gargantuan sausage in bread.  We both opted for the feuerwurst, a sausage heavily spiced with paprika and chilli, and doused it in dijon mustard.  Three euros.



More Cake
You could eat cake every day for a year in Baden-Baden and never be satisfied.  I cannot help but love a place that takes baking so seriously.  This was another favourite cake from the trip, from a small riverside bakery in Buhl: a chocolate and almond cake topped with sweet apricots.



Not really a German speciality, but I always like to try the local take on a burger.  This one was from Leo’s, a famous Baden-Baden restaurant where Bill Clinton apparently dined.  It was 18 euros, but it was also very good.  The meat was excellent quality and cooked medium (not quite medium-rare, sadly) and the other components worked well.  My husband had an excellent fillet steak for not much more money, that came with béarnaise sauce and dauphinoise.  A rare case of food envy.



There’s only so many times you can quote Ich bin eine Berliner whilst holding a doughnut.  This one came from a bakery in a small village called Steinbach.  The only thing open on a Sunday morning for miles.  Luckily they did coffee too.

One Year Ago:  Five Spice Duck Legs.

The Post Christmas Bulge

Homemade Soda Bread and Lentil Soup

Homemade Soda Bread and Lentil Soup

After a lovely Christmas break in Hampshire, we arrived home to find that five days of festive excess had made us considerably fatter than when we left.  Of course, eating and drinking is what Christmas is all about, but the endless roasts, bottomless tins of Quality Street and countless glasses of port are enough to tire out even the most committed glutton.  On the way home on the A3, car piled high with suitcases and gifts, Ollie and I agreed that we would not eat anything soaked in brandy for a very long time.

Coming home is always rather lovely: your own bed, full control over the remote and being able to cook in your own kitchen.  Inevitably, the fridge was bare, but we managed to pull together a lunch of toasted almost-stale bread, a packet of supermarket coleslaw lurking at the back and the last truckle of cheese, an applewood cheddar.  The last hurrah of excess before a few days of healthier eating, if only so we can squeeze back into our jeans in time for New Year’s Eve.

In the few days before Christmas and New Year, I always make a large batch of lentil soup.  I read somewhere that it is an Italian tradition to eat lentils on New Year’s Eve, their rounded shapes are said to resemble coins and encourage prosperity for the year ahead.  With my bank balance always severely depleted by the end of December, it can’t hurt, right? In any case, a wholesome lentil soup is the perfect tonic for several days of overindulgence – this particular recipe contains nothing more than vegetables, herbs, lentils, stock and the tiniest slosh of vinegar.  Homemade bread is always the perfect accompaniment for soup, but with all of those new Christmas presents to play with, who has time?  A loaf of soda bread can be made in a mere half an hour.  Saves a trip out to the bakery.

Lentil Soup

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 350g brown lentils, rinsed
  • 2 large sage leaves, chopped
  • ½ tsp dried rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • Sea salt and black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and cook the vegetables on a medium heat until soft.  The onions should be translucent but should not brown.  This will take about ten minutes.  Add the lentils and herbs and cook for a further few minutes.

Add the stock and bring to the boil, the reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, 35-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft.  Remove the pan from the heat and transfer two ladles of the mixture to a separate bowl.  Blend the remaining soup in the pan with a hand blender (or transfer to a stand blender if you don’t have one) until smooth.

Return the pan to the heat and stir in the reserved lentils and the cider vinegar.  Serve in warmed bowls with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Adapted from a recipe by Giorgio Locatelli.  Serves four.

Soda Bread

  • 225g plain wholemeal flour
  • 225g plain flour
  • 75g porridge oats
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 400ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven t0 220ºc / 425ºf / gas 7.  Lightly oil a baking sheet and dust with flour.

Place all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir together.  Add the buttermilk and mix with your hands to make a smooth dough.  Turn out on to a floured side and shape into a round with your hands.  If you like, you can add the traditional cross using the blunt edge of a sharp knife.

Sprinkle a few porridge oats on the top and transfer to the baking sheet.  Bake in the oven for 25 minutes.  To test if the loaf is ready, take it out of the oven, turn it upside down and tap the bottom.  If it makes a hollow sound, it’s done.

Bread Heaven

What a week it has been!  Wednesday was both the start of my new job and the Band of Bakers Christmas party.  Forgive me for not providing the usual photo round-up of the bakes, but I was embroiled in far too much chaos to remember to dig out my iPhone.  Luckily, the lovely Harley managed to get quite a few snaps which you can see on her blog Running, Cakes and London: A Beginner’s Blog.

One of the most exciting things that happened in 2013 was our appearance on Paul Hollywood’s Bread.  Naomi, Jon and I were lucky enough to get the chance to bake with the Silver Fox himself before he joined a big group of our bakers for an event celebrating enriched breads.  A couple of weeks later we were invited to Paul’s studio kitchen to try a range of enriched breads that he had made during the episode, including a very special brioche couronne filled with parma ham, mozzarella and basil.

Naomi, Jon and I making lardy cakes with the Master Baker

Naomi, Jon and I making lardy cakes with the Master Baker

The couronne was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, so I decided to recreate it for our Christmas party.  Honestly, if you only have time to make one loaf of bread over the festive season, make this. Your family will love you for it.  The recipe can be found on the BBC Food website here.

The inside of the pre-rolled brioche: parma ham, mozzarella and basil

The inside of the pre-rolled brioche: parma ham, mozzarella and basil

The finished article (photo by Harley Beecroft)

Brioche Burger Buns

Home-Made Burger

When burgers hit the big time in London a few years ago, it became clear very quickly that the only bread for burger buns was brioche.  The restaurants all caught on very quickly and brioche was snuggling burgers all over town, but the shops and bakeries were a little slower off the mark.  As the humble burger graduated from late night shame-food to gourmet menu centrepiece, what inevitably followed was a tidal wave of home cooks seeking to create their own at home. Suddenly we were stocking up on mince, bacon, American cheese and gherkins and scouring food blogs for tips on creating the perfect burger.  As summer came around and friends with gardens fired up their barbecues, we had the perfect opportunity for showcasing our concoctions.  There was only one problem: the bread.

When it comes to stocking up for a BBQ, bread is often an afterthought. The meat, obviously, is of paramount importance, the booze also, but the bread is usually chucked in the trolley at the last minute and barely given any attention at all.  Consequently, the bread table at a BBQ would often consist of those dry, anaemic looking multi-pack supermarket baps or finger rolls.  The kind that disintegrate the minute you get any kind of moisture or sauce near them.  The kind that stick to the roof of your mouth.  The kind that have no flavour whatsoever.  When we upped our game with our homemade burgers, this no longer became an option, the bread had to live up to the other components.  The problem was, hardly anywhere sold ready-made brioche buns.  Early in the summer, we used to get ours from Kindred Bakery in Herne Hill.  After the burst water main put them out of action, we found a stall in Brockley Market that sells them, but both are fairly pricey.  In recent months, the supermarkets have woken up to this trend and  you can now buy brioche buns in Marks & Spencer and Tesco, although both look a bit shiny and processed.  It seems that you definitely get what you pay for.

The other option, of course, is baking your own.  Brioche is a bit of a faff but need not be too laborious.  You will need about 12 hours or so to complete the whole process, but the active time you spend is barely more than you would spend ordering and collecting the buns from a local bakery.  My buns are based on a savoury brioche recipe by Paul Hollywood.  I was lucky enough to take part in Paul’s Bread series and got to taste a savoury brioche couronne he made. It was filled with mozzarella, basil and parma ham and was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.  The bread dough is enriched with milk, eggs and butter and proved in the fridge overnight.  Once firm enough to work with, the dough is then shaped into balls and baked.  The end result is a light, malleable bun that holds together well.  You could add sugar if you prefer your brioche a little sweeter.  The recipe below makes about eight buns.

Brioche Burger Buns

Brioche Burger Buns

Brioche Burger Buns

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 10g salt
  • 10g instant yeast
  • 170ml warm full-fat milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg, beaten, for glazing
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds

Put the flour, salt, yeast, milk and eggs into the bowl of a free-standing mixer and, using the paddle attachment, mix until the dough becomes smooth and shiny.  Continue to mix for another five minutes, adding the butter a teaspoon at a time until all of the butter incorporated into the dough.  It is important to add the butter gradually.

Tip the dough into an oiled plastic container with a lid.  The volume of the container should be a minimum of one litre so the dough has room to expand.  Leave to prove in the fridge overnight.

Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.  Remove the dough from the fridge and divide into eight equal portions.  To make the bun shape, flatten out the dough into a disc and bring the edges into the centre and pinch together.  Turn upside down and place on the baking tray.  Place four buns on each tray, ensuring that there is enough space between them to allow them to expand.  Cover the rays with clingfilm or a clean plastic bag and leave to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours or until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 190ºc / 375ºf / gas 5.  Brush the buns with a little beaten egg and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.  Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until risen and golden.  If you tap the bottom of the buns, they should sound hollow.  Leave to cool on a rack.