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Brixton Banana Bread

Banana bread

I am very fussy about how I like my bananas. Barely yellow, top tipped with green and a satisfying crack when they open, this means that there is about five minute window when they are at the stage where I can eat them and enjoy them. This means I spend a lot of time realising that the little blighters have gone and ripened on me while I was making a cup of tea or turning my back for just a second. This could be pretty wasteful except that I make really really good banana bread.

Like all banana bread, this is a great way to use up overripe bananas, but unlike many banana bread recipes, it’s as simple and straightfoward as you want it to be. In fact this recipe is so simple that it was the only thing at all I could make at all in my teens when I thought cooking and baking was too difficult and scary to be bothered with. I felt confident to make this recipe because I’d learned it from the mother of the family I au paired for one summer in America who couldn’t cook at all. In between ordering take out food or heating up frozen burritos, she whipped up fresh banana bread for breakfast and I figured if someone who struggled with doing carrot sticks to go with hummus could do it, so could I!

Over the 17 years I’ve been making this recipe, I’ve tweaked it a bit and it’s changed from Boston Banana Bread to Brixton Banana Bread with the addition of some different spices, but it’s still super easy to do. I simply mash up bananas as they ripen and freeze in bags until needed. They defrost by the time you’ve measured everything and it means you don’t chuck black bananas out all the time.

Brixton Banana Bread: makes 1lb loaf

  • 300g plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 75g sugar
  • 1 tablespoon black treacle
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 mashed bananas

Grease and line a 1lb loaf tin and heat the oven to 180℃. Then put the flour and all the other dry ingredients in a bowl. Put the sugar, oil and all other wet ingredients in another bowl and add in the eggs, beating them until combined. Then pour the wet mix into the dry and add in the bananas, mixing lightly til combined. The batter should be dark, glossy and slightly lumpy. Pour it into the loaf tin and bake for 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean.

Cool on a rack for as long as you can wait and then have a good thick slice of this with a strong mug of tea. It’s super soft and sticky with a lovely sweet banana flavour and if you don’t devour the whole loaf in one sitting, it keeps really well for several days when wrapped in a tea towel. It also toasts beautifully with a smidge of butter as an excellent breakfast. It’s simplicity itself and I think it’ll probably something you make for years to come to once you’ve tried it!

Pastrami

There is a long weekend coming up and I have an excellent suggestion as to what you could do with it. Why not have a go at making home made pastrami? It’s not quick, but it’s also not difficult in the slightest. And if the weather is good over the Jubilee, it’s an excuse to get the barbecue out. Tempted yet?

Pastrami is beef brisket, brined and cured, then rubbed with spices and smoked until cooked. It’s also known as the finest sandwich filling around and something you always want more of so having a great big hunk of it in the fridge as cold cuts when you’re off work is just ideal. I’d actually never cooked with brisket before, but Mister North’s superlative spiced beef at Christmas had piqued my interest and I was just waiting to get my hands on one. And thanks to Becs over at Lay The Table alerting me to the presence of Farmison and their grass fed, higher welfare standard meat by mail order, I ordered a 2kg beauty on a Tuesday evening and had it ready for its brine bath by Thursday tea time which impressed me greatly and I’ll certainly be using them again for things my butcher can’t get me easily.

Brining meat is very easy. You simply prepare a solution of water, spices and salt and immerse the meat for the required time. This is also a cure thanks to the presence of saltpetre and means the meat doesn’t spoil, but retains a lovely rosy hue instead of looking leathery like some cooked beef does. Although the meat will be preserved by the process, you still need to be cautious with hygiene and make sure everything you use is nice and clean. It’s also worth preparing everything in advance rather than weighing spices at each step or you’ll lose track and end up accidentally doing too much of one thing.

Pastrami

  • brisket (I used a 2kg piece)
  • 200g sea salt
  • 100g dark brown sugar
  • 2 litres water ( I boiled it and cooled it)
  • 6 cloves of raw garlic
  • few stalks of thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of saltpetre (I had mine from the bacon)
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1 tsp whole peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp shichimi togarashi (or chilli flakes)
  • 2 tsp allspice berries
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground mace
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • 4 bay leaves (ie: I just used everything in the cupboard, bar cumin)

If your brisket comes in one of those meat hairnets, remove that now, but keep the string around it to keep the brisket shaped and rolled. Rub a handful of the salt over the meat while you dissolve the rest of the salt, the sugar and the saltpetre in the hot water. Give the spices a bash to release their oils and flavours and add to the water. Bruise the garlic cloves to release the flavours and put them and the thyme into a deep tupperware and put the meat in and pour the brine you’ve just made over the meat. Seal it up and leave it in the fridge for up to five days, but a minimum of two.

The meat will still have a pinkish tinge when you take it out of the brine so don’t worry, it’s quite safe to cook. The meat needs to be smoked to give that proper pastrami feel so there are two ways you can do it. If the weather is nice, you can use the barbecue or you can do it in the oven, but either way you’ll need wood chips to impart the  smokiness that lifts this from just being beef. Don’t forget to rub a crust of ground coriander seeds and cracked black pepper over the top of the meat first.

I started mine off on the barbecue using the indirect method where the charcoal is on either side of the grill and the meat is in the middle in the coolest spot so that it cooks without getting that charred exterior that direct cooking gives. I added pecan wood chips that I had soaked first and I got a fairly good smoke on but the charcoal went out about two hours in and since I don’t have a meat thermometer, I couldn’t tell if the meat was cooked so I popped in the oven to finish off. I put the rest of the wood chips in a dispable foil tray and put the meat above them on a trivet, then covered it all with foil and slow cooked it for 90 minutes at 150℃. The moisture from the wood chips steams the meat so it doesn’t dry out, but keep an eye and make sure they don’t lose moisture themselves. You might need to top up.

Once you’ve let the meat cool down then you can congratulate yourself. You’ve just made  pastrami from scratch! It’s as simple as that. Now serve it either slightly warmed (pop it back in the oven to heat gently) or at room temperature for a stunning picnic lunch. I made mini pretzel rolls and bagels from Dan Lepard’s excellent recipe and heaped them high with gherkins and mustard on the side and it all seemed to go down marvellously, fortifying us well to sit through four hours of Eurovision, but leaving me with a goodly amount of leftovers for cold cuts in the warm weather. Don’t delay and you could be seeing in the oh so British Jubilee next week with some very American pastrami!

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…

barmbrack

Barmbrack

As if autumn wasn’t good enough with its abundance of harvest items, sunny days that don’t actually require SPF and mellow fruitfulness, it also has Halloween. This is the perfect excuse to get dressed up and indulge in some seasonal treats that taste of my Irish childhood. One of those is the gorgeous spiced yeasted fruit bread known as barmbrack.

We loved it so much in our house, we ate it all year round, usually with lashings of butter and often a smidgeon of cheese, but it is traditionally associated with Halloween in Ireland according to those who know. It was studded with items such as coins and a ring to foretell your future luck. So as the days grow shorter, it seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at making it.

It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe. Barmbrack isn’t as well known over here as bara brith and a lot of the ones I across were really just fruit soda, lacking the yeast. I used a combination of these two recipes, adapting to create the closest memory of childhood tastes I could.

Start the night before and soak 350g of mixed dried fruit in tea. I wanted something to remind me of bonfires and being able to see my breath on dark nights and used lapsang souchong with a splash of rum, but you could use regular tea or even just water. Don’t skip the soaking stage. It really helps give the bread moistness.

Next day you’ll need:

  • 350g plain flour
  • 60g butter (chilled)
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice or I used a mix of nutmeg, ginger, mace and cinnamon
  • 7g fast-action Dried Yeast or 15g if using fresh
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 150ml milk, lukewarm
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Sift the flour and rub the butter into as you would for scones to create fine breadcrumbs. Then stir in the sugar, yeast and spices. Beat the milk and egg together and add to the dry ingredients, bringing together to form a dough. Add a bit more flour if it seems too sticky to knead.

Flour your surface well and begin the knead the dough on it. Keep this up for 8-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Start adding the soaked fruit to the dough. This is slightly fiddly as about half the fruit you add each time will fly off the counter if you don’t go slowly and carefully. Fold the dough over itself each time to minimise that. I also added some leftover chopped cobnuts or you could use hazelnuts. Stop kneading as soon as the fruit is combined, you don’t want to make it mushy.

Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover with a tea towel or clingfilm and allow the dough to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. It should double in size in this time. Flour a baking tray and place on it. Barmbrack should be cooked without a tin for a freehand feel. Cook in a preheated oven at 200C or Gas Mark 6 for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden on top. Don’t let the fruit burn or it’ll be bitter.

When the barmbrack comes out of the oven, anoint it liberally with a wash of butter and cinnamon to give it a most appealing glossy top. Barmbrack is a joy in its own right, but it’s also a vehicle for butter. Don’t skip this simple but effective stage. Serve slices of still warm bread with a good slathering of butter, slices of seriously good cheddar (try Greens of Glastonbury at Brixton Farmers’ Market) and a good strong mug of tea.

Despite my loaf not rising as much I had hoped and an uncooked seam at the bottom of my loaf (I think my milk wasn’t warm enough to get the yeast going*) the barmbrack tasted brilliant. Properly warm with spices, it was very moist with tonnes of lovely smoky sticky fruit and a teeny bit of crunch from the cobnuts. I wanted more than one piece, but it’s surprisingly filling. Perfect for taking on a long walk in the remaining sun or just being lazy and toasting it in front of a fire. Apparently it also makes excellent bread and butter pudding when it goes stale. As long as you butter it with gusto, I don’t need tell you any more!

*if you have similar problems, it’s probably my recipe and I apologise.

Lebkuchen plate

Lebkuchen

Christmas is one of the times of the year I like best. Mainly because it gives me the chance to buy presents for other people, drink alcohol in the middle of the day everyday and go to parties on a fairly regular basis. However one requires fortification for all these activities along with something to bring to all those parties, so to prevent you having to worry a minute longer about how to keep your energy up and impress the neighbours, I bring you a recipe for the easiest Christmas cookie around, German spiced lebkuchen

I adore these soft spiced biscuits so much that I normally raid Lidl this time and year and buy about eight boxes, eating them up until Easter when I get sidetracked again by hot cross buns. So imagine my glee when I discovered a recipe for them that is so easy, so quick and so simple, I could knock up a batch in the time it took for the yeast to get ready for my doughnuts

Oven on, I melted the butter and the remains of a bottle of honey on the stove, topping it up to the right amount with the syrup I bought for the pumpkin pie. I measured out my ingredients, delighted that I finally had a reason to use the random bag of groung almonds I’ve had knocking around in the cupboard for about a year, and added the spices, popping a pinch of mace in for good luck too. A quick stir with the spatula to combine the wet and dry and ingredients and I had a lovely soft cookie dough in under 5 minutes.

I plucked pieces off and squashed the balls of dough to make disc shapes on a greased and paper tray and baked about half the cookies in a batch since I didn’t have enough trays for all them at once. I noticed the dough dried out a bit in between, so I’d recommend wrapping it in a bit of clingfilm between batches. You can also form the discs, put paper between them and freeze them so you always can always offer fresh cookies even if people call unexpectedly. I got about 30 cookies from this recipe.

The cookies took about 12 minutes to cook and colour and I don’t find my oven runs hot, so check after 10 minutes to make sure these don’t burn. Add a moment or two more if you’re baking them from frozen. Transfer them to a wire rack and cool them for about 15 minutes if you are icing them. I tried one (just for research purposes you understand!) without the the icing and they were lovely as they were, but look a little bit insipid when left plain.

I mixed up the icing as instructed, using only one tablespoon of water and if I’m honest, I think it was a bit runny and probably didn’t really need the water at all. I iced them using a small spatula and they dripped a fair bit as the icing set, so when I do these again, I’ll skip the water and just use egg white and icing sugar.

The icing set quickly, making this a fairly simple step as you just don’t want to complicate such a simple recipe. I sneaked another one once they had set and was very pleased with how they turned out. Soft and melting (despite the lack of fat) they were warm with ginger and left a tingle thanks to the black pepper and mace that isn’t too savoury or grown up with the hint of sweetness of the icing. I imagine these being just as popular with the kids as with the adults.

These are a fantastic biscuit. Quick and easy to make, great fun to do with the kids, keep well and are much more nuanced with festive spice than shopbought versions. I didn’t expect to be considering another contender for biscuit of the year so soon after the graham crackers, but these are definitely in the running! Maybe I’ll have a seasonal category just for these?