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gingerbread

Guinness Pumpkin Gingerbread

Christmas isn’t Christmas without the scent and taste of spices in the air and on the tongue. Last year I indulged with doughnuts and mulled cider. This year, my appetite whetted by the parkin, I decided my Christmas spice had to come from gingerbread. I intended to make hard gingerbread people made extra festive with gold leaf, but my dough refused to play ball and I ended up with something more akin to sticky Play-doh. I sought solace in booze and a stack of Nigella’s recipes to see if I could find a foolproof gingerbread recipe.

And lurking in Kitchen, but also available online was the truly tempting sounding Guinness Gingerbread that combined dark sticky stout with dark sticky treacle and spice. I was instantly sold. Except I didn’t have any sour cream or even emergency yoghurt. I didn’t have time to go out and hunt any down (sour cream is surprisingly elusive these days. It’s all creme fraiche instead.) But I did have some leftover buttermilk and half a can of the pumpkin leftover from the ice cream. Despite the lack of success with that, I knew the pumpkin works well in baked goods, adding amazing moisture. Mouth watering, I got baking…

You’ll need:

150g butter
300g golden syrup (or use black treacle if you have it. I did half and half)
200g dark muscavado sugar
250ml Guinness (this is about half a bottle and you can use any stout)

2tsp ground ginger
2tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (or as I had none, I used mace)

300g plain flour
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g pumpkin or squash puree
150ml buttermilk (or leave out the pumpkin & buttermilk and use 300ml sour cream)
2 large eggs

Then prepare yourself for the easiest baking recipe in the history of the world. Line a 20x30cm deep baking tray with parchment. Then melt the syrup, treacle, sugar and Guinness in a pan. This will smell amazing.

Sift the flour and bicarb and spices into a nice big bowl and then pour in the melted treacle Guinness mix and half combine. Then add in the beaten eggs, buttermilk and pumpkin puree and combine the mixure lightly until just properly mixed. Don’t overbeat or you’ll knock the air out of this beautiful batter. Pour the batter in the lined tray and then bake at 170℃ for around 45 minutes or until the gingebread is a glossy dark brown on top and coming away from the edges slightly.

Then comes the tricky bit. Your house will smell sensational, all spicy and treacly and sweet and you will have to wait at least 20 minutes for the gingerbread to cool and firm enough to get it out of the tray and cut in pieces. This will test your limits. You’ll want to get the kettle on and your chops round a sticky piece of gingerbread sooner, but it is worth the wait.

Unbelievably moist, but firm and springy from that fortifying Guinness and with the most wonderful spicing, this is the stickiest, moistest most Christmassy gingerbread possible. Served slightly warm with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream it would make a great dessert. I iced some of it with simple icing sugar and water mix with a teeny splash of the leftover Guinness to make it more a cake. The un-iced stuff lasted well in a tin, growing softer and stickier each day, allowing you to make this and have it ready for visitors with ease.

Just remember to keep your last piece to put by the stockings for Santa on Christmas Eve. He’ll come to your house first next year after tasting gingerbread this good…

A taste of home?

The Christmas I discovered duck…

I have read a lot in the past few months about culinary heritage, from articles about the attempts to save English apples to the eternal debate about food and class and discussions of regionalism in British food. I find this fascinating, but also wonder how much a lot of people can relate to this wider food heritage? Is it not the case that most people’s relationship with food is much more influenced by their immediate surroundings with the wider social aspects playing a less obvious role?

I grew up in a house engaged in food. My parents cooked almost everything from scratch, partly because that’s what they grew up on and partly because it was much cheaper and in 1980s Belfast where we didn’t didn’t have any national supermarket chains or McDonalds, it was pretty much the norm. My parents did have a slightly crunchy streak, making their own yoghurt and whipping up vats of dahl, but mainly we ate a mixture of traditional British and Irish dishes and slightly unusually for the time, real pasta (not the tinned stuff), rice and other meals influenced by my parents’ interest in travel. We ate well, but weren’t strangers to a fry or chips. Fussiness was not tolerated, although I was allowed to indulge in a teenage dalliance with vegetarianism. I spent a lot of time in kitchens as a child, watching people cook, both at home and at my granny’s farmhouse where a Esse cooker provided constant warmth and a never ending stream of excellent baked goods. Yet until I was nineteen, I couldn’t cook. In fact I could barely make toast and I couldn’t care less.

I had rebelled in my late teens, craving lurid foods from packets and cereals so sweet just looking at the box caused dental erosion. I was just about to leave home and unashamedly I was feeding myself a diet that a five year old would baulk at. Something needed to happen to stop me leaving my entire food heritage behind and hailing Pot Noodles as haute cuisine. And it did. It was an odd salvation, but one that would shepherd me back toward the path my parents had put me on. I discovered Ainsley Harriott.

Laid low by serious ill health, I watched a lot of daytime TV and the jewel in the crown of afternoon scheduling in the late 90s was Ready Steady Cook. It almost always featured Britain’s most exuberant cook and slowly and awakened an interest in cooking. I learned more about the technical side of making food than any Home Economics class had shown me and slowly but surely, it piqued my interest and I moved from sofa to kitchen. I’d like to tell you Ainsley’s easy inexpensive dishes were the motivation, but I think it was just as much as an urge to get away from his endless bellowing. I began cooking simple things, mainly pasta and couscous based, while I gained confidence in prepping ingredients and understanding timings. I’m sure there were some gastronomic horrors that my poor mother ate to be supportive, but I’ve blocked those memories out.

By the time I went to university, clutching the first ever cookbook I bought, a copy of Nigella’s How to Eat, I was pretty confident in the kitchen and unlike my flatmates who relied heavily on processed meals and parcels from home, I cooked everything from scratch, including making my own yeast free bread. Broke, bored and marooned on an out of town campus at night, I re-lived a childhood cooking interest and made apple crumble almost nightly for something to do, resulting in block wide ‘crumble offs’ and custard making competitions. Moving to London and starting a job in fashion stunted my fledgling interest in food slightly, living off Ryvita and cream cheese most of the time, but when money and parties were thin on the ground, happy to partake of ‘Goulash Night’ and slightly obsessive onion ring making with my housemates. I did also construct a (now sadly lost and much missed) recipe book of Vogue recipes, food article cuttings and Lindsey Bareham‘s brilliant after work recipes from the Evening Standard.

But it wasn’t til I moved into my current flat about five years ago that I really started to challenge myself culinararily. Living on a very restricted budget led me away from the trendier world of the celebrity cooks to a certain extent and back toward the skills and loves my parents instilled in me from an early age. I still rarely buy anything ready made (unless I can’t do it myself) and I am a demon with leftovers. Somewhere my granny’s love of baking has come back to me and I still whip everything up in her mixing bowl. The confidence and independence these skills offer me is worth its weight in gold (and the money it saves me) and I find it hard to believe that I didn’t pay more attention when I was younger, although thank god, I’ve got my mum’s potato salad recipe to hand!

I’m still very much developing as a cook. I’m a little bit nervous of doughs, pastries, batters and things involving yeast. My childhood love of oddly bland things such as Marie biscuits has never left me and despite being a food lover, I could happily eat plain brown rice, Ryvita and porridge five times a week. I’m not very cheffy in my presentation and Mister North is much more adventurous with his techniques and ingredients. My favourite childhood comfort food dish is still mince and potatoes, preferably cooked by my mum. But I’m enjoying following a path that my childhood set me on where I’ll try just about anything once, even if it also involves rather a lot of baking fails along with a revived love of lentils.

What about you? Who shaped your foodie path? Have you bucked childhood trends and tastes? Do the people around you influence your food feelings or do the TV chefs have more sway these days? Are bloggers your new inspiration? And have you ever successfully re-created those things other people cooked for to show you their love?

Steak and Kidney Pudding

I love suet. I know it’s as unfashionable as lard these days, but I love the stuff. A fluffy suet dumpling on top of a rich stew is such a winter treat that I will bear a lot of cold grey days just to have the excuse to embrace this most British of dishes. I also love the rich stickiness of Christmas dishes filled with fruit and suet and welcome sweet suet dishes that are a stunning vehicle for custard. But despite this love, I have never made a proper steamed suet pudding before. The sticky soft texture that is so dinky as dumplings, scares me in larger quantities. I have visions of sheer stodge, something you could kill someone with if handled incorrectly. Add in the traditional filling of kidneys and I feel a moment of blind panic. So it makes perfect sense that I offered to cook one for several friends on Friday night… Read more