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


Eating Away the Winter Chill

The ultimate comfort food: chicken 'n' dumplings

The ultimate comfort food: chicken ‘n’ dumplings

In this, the first weary week of December when we are all desperately craving our Christmas break, we all seem to be divided into two camps: those who have the sniffles and those who are trying to avoid catching the sniffles as best they can.  In our smoggy city with the recycled air circulating through our offices and the incredibly close proximity to our fellow Londoners on our public transport, it is inevitable that we will all end up with at least one cold during the winter months despite our attempts to evade the dreaded lurgy. In the depths of winter, a sneeze on a crowded train might generate the same reaction as pulling a pin from a hand grenade.

Of course, hot drinks and bed rest are the best remedy for a cold, but I have two other things I can’t live without: Lucozade and chicken ‘n’ dumplings. When laid out on the couch, coughing and making a general nuisance of myself, I will often send Ollie out for six bottles of Original Lucozade (never flavoured) and a whole chicken. Once the Lucozade has kicked in and I have mustered the energy to move, I head to the kitchen to make a huge pot of chicken ‘n’ dumplings: the ultimate in comfort food.

Chicken ‘n’ dumplings is exactly what it says: a brothy stew made with vegetables, white wine, and all of the joints of a chicken, topped with pillowy dumplings.  It is thought that chicken contains an enzyme that is effective at breaking up mucus, which goes to explain why chicken noodle soup is given the famous moniker ‘Jewish penicillin’ and why some studies have shown chicken soup to be more effective at treating symptoms of the common cold than some over-the-counter remedies.  After an hour in the oven, it will fill your kitchen with a smell that will alone make you feel better. If you can find somebody kind enough to bring you a chicken, you’re all set.

Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings

  • 1 whole chicken
  • Sea salt and cracked black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 slices smoked back bacon
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • ¾ tsp dried thyme leaves
  • 180ml dried white wine
  • 350ml chicken stock
  • 350ml water
  • 125g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 150ml single cream

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.

Joint the chicken into 10 pieces (two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings and two breasts, each halved) and season well with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and brown the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary. Set aside on a plate.

In the same pan, cook the vegetables and bacon for around 10 minutes on a medium heat until the bacon is brown and the vegetables are tender. Return the chicken to the pan.  Add the wine, turn up the heat and let it bubble away until reduced by a third. Add the stock and water and bring to the boil.  Transfer the contents of the pan to a large casserole dish, cover with a lid and cook in the oven for one hour.

Make the dumplings by combining the flour, baking powder and cream until a soft dough forms. Remove the casserole from the oven, divide the dumpling dough into eight balls and nestle them among the chicken pieces. Return the casserole to the oven, uncovered, and cook for a further 10-12 minutes until the dumplings are puffed up and brown on top.

Adapted from a recipe by Gwyneth Paltrow. Serves four.

Ollie’s Moules Mariniere

Moules Mariniere

Moules Mariniere

The old rule that certain types of shellfish can only be eaten when there is an ‘r’ in the month means that I always endure the summer without a number of my favourite foods.  After reading an article in the New York Times that explained why this was – the warmer waters and algae present in the summer months lead to an increase in the potential for food poisoning – I have observed this rule ardently, despite the temptations from supermarkets who still sell the shellfish at these forbidden times.  My favourite shellfish of all is mussels, so almost as soon as the autumn rolls around, I visit my fishmonger for a bag.  The repeat visits often continue until the onset of spring.  There is something about the sound of them crashing against the sides of the pan, and the salty burst of steam when you open to remind you of holidays past and make you feel that you are in a French beach house somewhere, not in the midst of a British winter.

photo 2-2

Moules Marinere is such a deliciously perfect dish that I anticipate it in the same way that I do many of my other favourites – especially as I usually do not have to cook it myself.  When I first met Ollie, he would cook mussels for me all the time, with a side order of salted, skinny frites and a glass of cold muscadet.  His recipe is so excellent that I have yet to find one in a restaurant that I enjoy as much.  It has been a long time since he perfected it and he makes it so often that he knows it by heart, so to get my hands on it, I had to volunteer as sous chef for the evening whilst trying to write down each step in a wine-splashed notebook.  Not the most conventional way of recipe research!

There is very little out of the ordinary in this recipe, the only wildcard being the addition of some finely-diced carrot to to give the sauce an extra amount of sweetness.  The rest is your usual combination of white wine, garlic, shallots, cream and herbs that make the most beautiful mariniere you have ever had.

Moules Mariniere

  • 1kg mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ medium carrot, very finely chopped
  • 3 eschalion shallots, very finely chopped
  • 5 medium cloves garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 250ml dry white wine
  • 2 tbsp creme fraiche
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

Heat the olive oil in a very large saucepan and sweat the shallot and carrot until very tender – about 5-10 minutes.  Add the bay leaf and thyme and stir to coat with the oil.

Turn the heat up to high, add the wine and allow it to bubble away until reduced slightly. Keep the lid on the pan whilst doing this as it will create some steam with which to cook the mussels.  Add the mussels and cook on a high heat.  After a couple of minutes, pick up the pan and, holding the lid on tightly, toss to coat the mussels in the wine mixture.  As the mussels just begin to open, take them off the heat.

Carefully pour the liquid from the pan into a separate saucepan, leaving the mussels and vegetables in the pan.  Put the lid on the mussels and leave to one side.  Heat the sauce on a medium heat until it is reduced a little further and stir in the creme fraiche.  Season well and gently cook the sauce for a further ten minutes.

Pour the sauce back over the mussels, add the parsley and toss again.  Serve in bowls with skinny fries or crusty bread.

Gingerbread Cake

The problem with shopping for ingredients on the way home from work is that I often forget what I have in the cupboard.  The better-safe-than-sorry approach has led me to duplicate a number of items, sometimes even more than once, taking up precious cupboard and fridge space.  I know I should be more organised and check before going shopping, but who can honestly say that they have time to do all of the things they should do? Anyway, such was the case with stem ginger when I bought an unnecessary extra jar for last week’s fig, ginger and spelt cake and yesterday I ended up making a gingerbread cake just to clear some room in the fridge before the Ocado order arrived.  I hope you aren’t rolling your eyes at the prospect of yet another cake recipe – this was never actually meant to become a cake blog but it’s all I seem to write about these days.

I had actually intended to make a batch of Jack o’ Lantern sugar cookies for my colleagues both in an attempt to get into the spirit of Hallowe’en and to get some use out of the pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter I impulse bought in Waitrose last week, before it was relegated to the back of the cupboard for a year.  My plan was scuppered upon discovering that shopping for orange food colouring the night before Hallowe’en is the real Nightmare Before Christmas – completely sold out everywhere.  The suggestions on Twitter to combine red and yellow would have been an inspired idea had everybody else not thought of that too and bought up all of those colours.  Left on the shelves was nothing but a few solitary bottles of pink, purple and almond flavouring; not very useful to anybody.  My Jack o’ Lanterns will have to wait until next year.

In contrast, ginger cake is something that can be enjoyed all year round.  It is both universally loved and, thanks to the McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake we all enjoyed as children, tinged with nostalgia.  As is probably the case with many people, this particular variety was the only ginger cake I had tried until well into adulthood and it is still a treat I find hard to resist when I walk past one on a supermarket shelf.  Every family had their own way of eating it: a friend of mine spreads butter on a slice, whereas in our house we used to pour over hot custard and eat it from a bowl.  As I began to try other ginger cakes, I found myself disappointed as many of them had a real ‘cake’ texture, which just didn’t seem quite right.  I made a few of my own and had the same problem, until somebody suggested that I was looking in the wrong place and should try ‘ginger bread’ recipes instead.  This is not bread in the traditional yeasted form, nor is it the hard kind that you make into people-shaped biscuits – it is, in fact, a cake recipe that gives a different texture of cake.  The difference is similar to that between banana cake and banana bread – something I have never really been able to explain so won’t dwell on.  Needless to say that a ginger cake recipe gives you a proper cake flavoured with ginger, and a ginger bread recipe gives you a beautifully moist and sticky texture, akin to the McVities kind we all know and love.

The Gingerbread Cake as a Loaf Cake with Lemon Water Icing

The Gingerbread Cake as a Loaf Cake with Lemon Water Icing

Although the texture of the original recipe is perfect, I have tweaked the ingredients over the years to try and get the right flavour.  Being a spice fiend, I find the flavour of some ginger products disappointing.  I like my ginger to be potent, but not so that it overwhelms the other flavours.  I have found that the best combination is ground ginger and stem ginger – ground ginger gives the much-needed heat and stem ginger a little sweetness.  I also like to brush a layer of the syrup from the stem ginger jar over the top of the warm cake – it adds a level of concentrated ginger flavour and helps to create a nice sticky top.  The cake mix is versatile and, subject to the adjustment of cooking times, can be used to make any kind of cake.  In the recipe below, I have added preparation and cooking times for four different options:  a loaf cake, a round cake, a layer cake and cupcakes, and a range of icings that work well with each of the options.  Of course, it is always worth experimenting, but in my experience the most complimentary flavours are lemon and chocolate.  Of course, you could just make the cake plain and pour over a load of hot custard.  Just sayin’.

The Gingerbread Cake as Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting for the Stylist Magazine Cupcake Competition, 2013

The Gingerbread Cake as Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting for the Stylist Magazine Cupcake Competition, 2013

Gingerbread Cake

  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 115g butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
  • 125g black treacle
  • 125g golden syrup
  • 115g dark soft brown sugar
  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 100g stem ginger
  • 1egg

Preheat the oven to 170ºc / 340ºf / gas 4.  To make the loaf cake:  grease a 1kg loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper.  To make the round cake:  grease a 8cm round cake tin and line with greaseproof paper.  To make the layer cake:  grease two 9cm sandwich tins and baseline with greaseproof paper.  To make the cupcakes:  line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.

Using a food processor, pulse together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice and cubed butter until it forms the texture of breadcrumbs.  Transfer to a large bowl.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, heat together the treacle, golden syrup and sugar until the sugar has dissolved.  Beat in the buttermilk and increase the heat slightly.  Bring to boiling point and quickly remove from the heat – try not to boil the mixture.

While the treacle mixture is cooling slightly, grate the stem ginger pieces into the flour using a microplane grater.  Stir into the mixture.

Pour the treacle mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until fully combined.  Use a silicone spatula to ensure that no flour is sticking to the bottom of the bowl.  Crack the egg into the batter and mix to combine.

Scrape the batter into your prepared tin or cases and bake in the middle shelf of the oven.  For the loaf cake:  bake for around 45-50 minutes.  For the round cake: bake for around 55-60 minutes.  For the layer cake:  bake for around 25-30 minutes.  For the cupcakes:  bake for around 20-25 minutes.  The cake will not rise enormously and will probably have a flat, rather than a peaked top.  When the cake is baked, a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean.

Below are some toppings that work well with this cake.  The addition of a little sharp lemon water icing cuts through the richness of the loaf cake and round cake – it is best drizzled across the top.  A little lemon buttercream spread sandwiched between two sandwich cakes can make a very pretty layer cake, and a white chocolate cream cheese frosting makes a very decadent topping for a simple ginger cupcake.

Lemon Water Icing

  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice

Slowly pour the lemon juice into the sifted icing sugar, constantly stirring, until a smooth icing is formed.  It should be the right consistency to be easily drizzled across a cake – not too firm and not too watery.

Lemon Buttercream

  • 250g icing sugar, sifted
  • 60g unsalted butter, softened
  • 30ml lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp whole milk

In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, with a whisk attachment, beat together the icing sugar, butter and lemon juice until smooth.  Gradually beat in the milk until fully combined.

This recipe makes enough buttercream to spread between two cakes.  If you wish to cover the cake as well or use to pipe on to cupcakes, double the quantities.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 50g white chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 225g cream cheese, softened
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 500g icing sugar

In the bowl of a freestanding mixer, with a whisk attachment, beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Mix in the cooled white chocolate and vanilla extract and mix until combined.  With the motor on a low speed, add the icing sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time, mixing until all of the icing sugar has been used up and the frosting is light and fluffy.

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

The weekend that the clocks go back to Greenwich Mean Time always feels like the final death knell of summer.  A balmy autumn can keep the spirits up for so long, but once it becomes dark at 6pm, winter is most definitely here.  This weekend, more than any so far this year, was especially turbulent, as we were all preparing for the impending storm of doom.  Of course, none of us knew that it was not going to be the epic storm of 1987 proportions, as we had all feared, and were all fearing the worst.  This may have explained the Mother Flipper queue at Brockley Market on Saturday – if there was a last meal to be had, well….

This weekend was also the birthday of my friend Adrienne, so we braved the blustery streets of East Dulwich to spend the afternoon drinking prosecco at The Bishop.  Every year, for Adrienne’s birthday, I make her either a key lime pie or a lemon meringue pie instead of a birthday cake as she prefers citrus desserts to birthday cake and these pies give her a link to her North American homeland.  I was relieved that this year she chose key lime pie as I have been having some serious issues with meringue pies lately.  Every time I make one, it comes out the oven looking like a piece of cloudy perfection only to collapse completely when I take it out of the tin, haemorrhaging liquid everywhere (where does the liquid come from? the eggs?).  A couple of years ago, Adrienne’s birthday lemon meringue pie was little more than slop, and I don’t think I could face that again.

Apparently if you add a layer of pulverised cake crumbs in between the filling and the meringue, it soaks up the liquid and stops this happening.  I have yet to try and need to practice!

A key lime pie is an American dessert and so named as the variety of limes traditionally used were called ‘key limes’ and originated from Florida.  The pie consists of three individual components, two of which vary greatly according to recipe.  I am told that the traditional base for a key lime pie is shortcrust pastry, although in recent years this has been substituted with the kind of biscuit base that you would find on a cheesecake.  Similarly, traditionalists claim that the original pies were topped with meringue, although many pies are now topped with whipped cream or, often, not topped at all.  The filling is the only consistent component – a thick custard flavoured with lime juice and zest – although some are set in the fridge and some baked in the oven.

My key lime pie has a chocolate shortcrust pastry, which almost recreates the flavour of those chocolate lime sweets we all remember from childhood.  Chocolate and lime are a seriously good combination.  The pie has a baked filling that contains only four ingredients: lime zest, lime juice, condensed milk and egg yolks and is topped with whipped Chantilly cream.  For decoration, there is drizzled dark chocolate and candied lime slices.   I added a little extra lime than I usually would in the hope that the sharpness would cut through the richness of the chocolate, and it worked.  The flavours compliment each other, rather than fighting for pole position.  It takes a long time to make: the pastry has to be chilled twice and the filling chilled in the fridge for several hours, but if you plan your time well, it need not take over your weekend.

Key Lime Pie

For the pastry:

  • 175g plain flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 140g cold unsalted butter
  • 2 egg yolks

For the filling:

  • 397g tin of condensed milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1½ tbsp lime zest
  • 120ml lime juice

For the topping:

  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 2 tbsp icing sugar
  • 100g dark chocolate
  • 1 lime, sliced horizontally into 5mm slices
  • 250g caster sugar

To make the pastry, sift together the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and icing sugar and pour into a food processor.  Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the food processor.  Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.  With the motor running, add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing until the mixture comes together in a firm dough.  Turn out on to a floured surface, and gently knead for a few seconds.  Form the dough into a disc and wrap in clingfilm.  Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the pastry on a well-floured surface and use to line a loose-bottom tart tin.  Gently push the pastry into each of the grooves, but do not trim the edges.  Return to the fridge and chill for a further 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.  Line the pastry case with baking parchment and baking beans and bake blind in the oven for 15 minutes.  Reduce the heat of the oven to 150ºc / 300ºf / gas 2, remove the baking parchment and baking beans and bake the pastry case, uncovered, for a further five minutes.  The bottom of the pastry case should be dry and cooked through.  Trim the edges and allow to cool.

To make the filling, combine the condensed milk, egg yolks, lime juice and lime zest in a large bowl.  Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon or balloon whisk until all of the ingredients are fully combined and smooth.  Scrape this mixture into the cooled pastry case – there should be a gap at the top, this is where the cream will sit – and bake at 170ºc / 325ºf / gas 3 for about 15-20 minutes.  The filling should be firm with a slight wobble in the centre.  Allow to cool completely at room temperature and then chill in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight.

For the cream topping, whisk together the whipping cream and icing sugar until thick, but not stiff.  Spread the cream over the cooled filling with a palette knife, filling to the top of the pastry case.  Return to the fridge to chill while you make the toppings.

Heat the chocolate in a glass bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water until melted.  Allow to cool to room temperature and scrape into a plastic piping bag.  Place the cooled pie on top of a large sheet of newspaper, snip a hole in the bottom of the piping bag and drizzled the chocolate back and forth across the pie.  Be sure to start and finish each of the lines on the newspaper, not on the pie, so you don’t end up with any blobs.  Return to the fridge to set the chocolate while you make the candied limes.

Place the lime slices in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil.  Drain and repeat four times.  Combine the sugar and 250ml water in a separate saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Add the lime slices and cook over a low heat for around 40 minutes, until tender.  Use to decorate the pie.

When Nothing Else Will Do

In recent years, food writing has been heavily focused on nostalgia.  It is rare to find a cookbook that does not contain at least one recipe that the writer has found in an old relative’s recipe box or remembers from childhood.  Looking back, in part, gives us some comfort through the association of the food with better times or loved ones no longer with us, but also considering our own history and lives in food provides inspiration for what we may wish to cook in the future.  By understanding our relationship with out past and our relationship with food, we can create in a way that is individual to us and links feelings of family, heritage and continuity with the past with the present day.  Food is a very powerful trigger of memory and, in the same way that the smell of suntan lotion can take you right back to your first holiday or the smell of burnt petrol to your first car, the taste of something nostalgic can also give us a kind of happiness through remembrance.  The old cliché of married men preferring their mother’s cooking to their wife’s is indicative of this – it is not that the mother’s cooking is necessarily better (although she has, inevitably, had considerably more practice!) but it is this that the husband is used to and what he associates with the days of being looked after and of carefree responsibility.

Nan and I, Christmas 2008

Today I feel more nostalgic than usual as it is two years since my grandmother, known to us as Nan, passed away following a long illness.  A mere paragraph in a blog post would be insufficient to cover the many wonderful things about Nan, but I will just say that she was an exceptional person and the loss was felt by everybody that knew her.  Nan, unknowingly at the time, taught me two things that have come to shape my life enormously: how to read and how to bake.  As a young child, I spent most days at her house and we would read for hours on end.  There was a bookshop close to her house that would sell the Key Words with Peter and Jane books and, once I had mastered one, we would go and buy the next one.  Through this, I developed a love of writing that has not diminished after more than two decades.  Nan also taught me how to cook.  Whilst my younger brother would occupy his time with the Nintendo, I would be in the kitchen.  One of my earliest memories is being stood on a chair next to the kitchen worktop, rubbing butter into flour to make pastry.  Perhaps it was just her way to keep me occupied, but we would often make pies, cakes, jam tarts and biscuits.  She had very few gadgets by modern standards, so I learned how to make pastry by hand, cakes without a mixer and how to whip up cream using nothing but a hand whisk and a lot of effort.

When Nan passed away, my kitchen provided a welcome distraction. I had cleared out my diary for a couple of months to allow myself time to recover but the downside of this was that I had a lot of time to think.  Spending a couple of hours baking a cake or a loaf of bread gave me something else to think about.  The concentration and meticulousness of baking took my mind off my grief and gave me time to develop new skills.  When I felt ready, I wanted to start working on recreating one of  Nan’s favourite cakes: a simple fruit tea loaf.  She probably made one of these every week, a sturdy loaf of mixed fruit soaked in tea, and everybody loved them.  A slice, alongside a cup of strong tea, would greet every visitor to her house, and she would often wrap a slice in tin foil for them to take home if she felt she had a surplus.  Despite making this so often, she never wrote down the recipe.  My challenge to recreate this started with making every tea loaf recipe I could find to see which was the closest and, consequently, my boyfriend, friends and colleagues ended up eating a lot of cake.  Eventually, I created my own combination with aspects of each and am now pretty close to the original.  Like Nan, I make this cake a lot – when friends are visiting, to take into work for colleagues and, recently, for my boyfriend to take to France to give the ex-pats he was working with a dose of nostalgia.  Each time it comes out of the oven he remarks, “I think this may be your best one yet.”  To which I respond, “Perhaps, but it’s still not as good as Nan’s.”

Tea Loaf

Tea Loaf

Tea Loaf

Nan’s Tea Loaf

  • 400g mixed fruit
  • 250ml black Earl Grey tea, cooled
  • 75g light soft brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 250g self-raising flour

Put the mixed fruit in a large bowl and cover with the tea.  Cover with clingfilm and leave for a few hours, or preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180ºc / 350 f / gas 4.  Grease and a 1kg loaf tin and line with greaseproof paper.

Add the egg and brown sugar to the fruit and tea mixture and stir until fully combined.  Add the flour, a little at a time, stirring after each addition until just incorporated.  When all the flour has been added you will have quite a thick batter.

Scrape this into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.  You will be able to smell it when it is cooked!

In Praise of Banana Bread

Picture the scene:  you buy a bunch of bananas from the local supermarket with big ideas about slicing them over your porridge for breakfast, instead you oversleep and breakfast instead becomes a mediocre croissant from your office canteen.  By the time you’ve remembered that you have bananas, black spots have begun to appear on the skin and little fruit flies have started to take a liking to them.  You curse yourself for wasting food and money and throw said bananas in the bin.  This is, of course, unless you are a baker, in which case you see these black bananas not as past their best, but as a source of endless possibilities.  Some bakers even buy bananas in order to purposefully let them go black, because everybody knows that this is when they have the strongest flavour.

Whilst catching up on recent food blog posts (Bloglovin’ is excellent for this, by the way, if you don’t use it already) I have noticed quite a few banana-baked-things popping up. I suppose it’s inevitable, really, as winter approaches and more and more ingredients drop from our ‘seasonal foods’ list, that we turn to bananas.  Also, what is more comforting than the smell of banana bread baking in the oven on a cold day?  Sadly, though, this baking stalwart has become a bit over-used – quite a few of the blogs I read came with some sort of apology:  “I know the world really doesn’t need another banana-baked-thing, but…” or “I know it’s a cliche, but…”  It’s almost like we, in an attempt to display our baking prowess, have become too good for the humble banana bread.  It has become the embarrassing relative of our repetoire – something we only allow out in public when entirely necessary.   Of course, banana bread is incredibly easy to make and, whilst it looks rather unspectacular, it is a shame to devalue it.  Anything that uses up unwanted fruit, can be whipped up in minutes and forgotten about in the oven for an hour, can be made with children and can be wrapped in foil and taken on even the most crowded of commutes is not to be sniffed at.

Banana bread is not really a ‘bread’ as such, as I have never come across one that uses a yeasted dough.  I think the name was given as it is usually baked in a loaf tin, rather than a round cake tin, which would identify it as a cake.  Although there is no one set recipe for this, the mixture is closer to a cake mixture than a bread mixture, although some leave the eggs.  Self-raising flour, or plain flour mixed with baking powder, is used to give the rise and most of the moisture in the cake is from the addition of bananas, often as many as four, which are mashed and added to the wet ingredients.  The subtlety of the banana flavour means that banana breads can accommodate a number of different ingredients including nuts and seeds, dried fruit, chocolate, toffee and even alcohol, meaning that you can often ad lib with anything you have lurking around the storecupboard.

I have chosen three banana breads that use a variety of different ingredients.  One is my boyfriend’s favourite: a banana, rum and coconut bread adapted from Orangette; a fruit and nut banana bread, perfect for using up the ends of old packets of fruit and nuts; and a basic banana and walnut bread.

Banana, Rum and Coconut Bread

Banana, Rum and Coconut Bread

Banana, Rum and Coconut Bread

  • 3 large bananas, mashed
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 115g unsalted butter, softened
  • 225g caster sugar
  • Drop white vinegar
  • 1½ tbsp dark, spiced rum
  • 40g desiccated coconut
  • Granualated sugar, for dredging

Preheat the oven to 175ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Butter a 1kg loaf tin and line with baking parchment.

Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Whilst beating, add the vinegar and the rum and mix well.  Add half the banana and mix well, followed by half the flour mixture, mixing until just incorporated.  Repeat this with the other half of both mixtures.  Fold in the coconut.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level off.  Dredge evenly with the granulated sugar and bake in the oven for an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.  Leave to cool in the tin  for 20 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Fruit and Nut Banana Bread

Fruit and Nut Banana Bread with Crumble Topping

Fruit and Nut Banana Bread with Crumble Topping

  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 75g chopped nuts (whatever you have in the cupboard is fine – I used a combination of walnuts and macadamias)
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1½ tbsp milk
  • 35g dried fruit (again, whatever you have is fine)
  • Crumble mix (optional)

Preheat the oven to 175ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Butter a 1kg loaf tin and line with baking parchment.

In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.  Fold in the nuts and flour.

In a small bowl, combine the mashed bananas with the milk and dried fruit.  Add this to the mixture and fold in until just incorporated.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level off.  Top with a crumble mix, or leave plain, and bake in the oven for an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.  Leave to cool in the tin  for 20 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana and Walnut Bread

Banana and Walnut Bread

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 bananas, mashed
  • 85g chopped walnuts
  • 50ml milk

Preheat the oven to 175ºc / 350ºf / gas 4.  Butter a 1kg loaf tin and line with baking parchment.

In a large bowl or stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and mix until combined.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.  Add a quarter of this mixture to the other ingredients, mixing until just combined.  Repeat this until all of the flour has been incorporated.  Fold in the banana and walnuts.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level off.  Top with a crumble mix, or leave plain, and bake in the oven for an hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.  Leave to cool in the tin  for 20 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.