Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

I love bonfire night. A black sky punctuated by lights; the thick smell of smoke wending around people with half-hot faces; and the promise of a charred baked potato from the ashes.

My earliest memory of the 5th of November is aged 5, pressing my nose against my bedroom window, watching the neighbours setting off Catherine wheels below. My mum is ridiculously frugal (I think receiving Christmas presents wrapped in Tesco carrier bags turned me into the Martha Stewart fanatic I am today) and scoffed at the idea of spending money on things that would, quite literally, go up in smoke.

In later years we would go to village bonfire parties and pay a couple of pounds towards building an extension to the village hall or whatever the latest good work was. The bonfire would be ablaze, but after a holiday to Disney World, where the million dollar firework shows were choreographed to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the ad hoc rockets and bangers seemed a little limp.

I think my love for the celebration is compounded by the fact that Mr Guy Fawkes himself came from York (yes, I am a true Yorkshire girl). Apparently, St. Peter's School, where the hot-headed anti-monarchist studied, doesn't celebrate bonfire night. Given that Mr Hawkes ended up being hung, drawn and quartered, I guess it makes sense.

Like any celebration, there are certain foods which scream 'Bonfire Night' even more than those screechy rockets which scare the pets. Baked potatoes, toffee apples and most importantly, given my roots, Yorkshire Parkin. Just like dogs and their owners who tend to look alike, parkin and the people of Yorkshire share similarities. It is an unpretentious cake; not as glamorous as its sponge brethren and you have to give it time to develop before you see how great it is. At its best it's a dense, sticky and spicy treat; perfect for a blustery November 5th.
Sadly, I won't be waving my sparkler* on Monday as, not so sadly, I am going to New York for a week. Yay! The Bedmate is doing the marathon and I may well tackle a sporting event of my own (26.2 different New York specialities, starting with bagels, in sub-4 hours is my personal challenge). I have been scouring the blogs to find tips for New York eateries, but if anyone has any must-eats I would be very grateful to hear from you.

So, in my absence, make this warming treat, wrap it in foil and leave it to perfect ready for Monday night.

Traditional Yorkshire Parkin
8oz plain flour
pinch of salt
2 level tsps baking powder
2 rounded tsps ground ginger
2oz butter
20z lard
8oz oats/medium oatmeal
4oz light brown sugar
6oz golden syrup
6oz black treacle
4 tbsps milk

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and grease a 10 inch x 8 inch tin and line with greaseproof paper if you can be bothered (I didn't and it was fine).
  2. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and ginger into a bowl.

  3. Cut the butter and lard into small pieces and rub the fats into the flour to make fine breadcrumbs. Relish the feeling of the cool breadcrumbs running through your fingers.

  4. Stir in the oats and the sugar.

  5. Warm the syrup and the treacle (I do this in the microwave until it is more runny than sticky).

  6. Pour the milk and the treacle into a well in the dried ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are combined.

  7. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes or until the cake has started to shrink ever so slightly away from the tin. Don't worry if it starts to sink slightly.

  8. Cool the cake, wrap it in foil and leave to mature for 3 days to a week.**

* I do love a good sparkler. Last year bonfire night was marred by an official in a yellow vest who told my friends and I that we weren't allowed to light them due to "health and safety". Trying to write your name with an unlit sparkler isn't very much fun. Booo.

** I must admit, only half of my cake made it into its foil wrap, but it is definitely much better once it has matured.


Autumn Days When the Grass is Jewelled and the Silk Inside a Chesnut Shell*

I'm going to sound terribly British when I say this, but hasn't the weather been just beautiful recently? Clear, bright skies with a crisp rosy-cheeked chill. On days like these everything is in such sharp focus; it's as if the leaves and the trees have been cut out of photos and stuck onto a backdrop with glue. Reading some of my favourite blogs** I see I am not the only one coming over all Keats. Food and the change of seasons seem to go hand in hand, much like crispy leaves and my desire to cycle over them (seriously, the thrill of the crunch has me swerving all over London).

As the clocks go back (you had to love that extra hour in bed this morning) it also means the start of legitimate hot-pudding-eating weather. It's not like I haven't had a warm pudding all summer (hell, after six weeks of eating rice and fruit in Thailand I ate an apple crumble on a sun-scorched beach) but it's like girls who insist on going out on the town in the wind and rain wearing vest-tops and bare-legs; it just doesn't look right. So, while others bemoan the dark nights and the ceremonial switch-on of the heating, I rub my hands with glee and think of all the stodgy delights ahead.

If I was forced into a Sophie's Choice decision about hot puds, I think Sticky Toffee Pudding ("STP") would accompany me to the camp. Some pudding novices confuse STP with treacle sponge (such people also confuse treacle sponge with treacle tart, so they clearly can't be trusted) but, for me, STP should be dark, dense and drenched with a rich toffee sauce.

I normally advocate eating STP in a country pub, in a comfy chair next to an open fire, but sometimes one must forgo the traditional context and get a hit elsewhere. And so, it was in Flaneur Food Hall in Farringdon that I succumbed. After surreptitiously removing my fluorescent cycling tabbard around the corner, I entered the restaurant through the shop. Unfortunately, I was the last to arrive, otherwise I would have had a chance to browse the shelves (laden with produce, the shop looked like a fabulous, if expensive, place to pick up some new ingredients).

My savoury courses were both delicious but, as P sagely told us, we had to save room for the puddings. I hadn't expected to sample my first STP of the season but when my toffee and banana cake arrived warm and sitting in a moat of toffee sauce I knew that Autumn had arrived. I must admit that the banana was unorthodox for a true afficinado, but marbling the spiced sponge it worked well. Together with the vat (seriously, go see for yourself) of Chantilly cream, it was definitely enough to create pudding-envy amongst P and C.

The following night was my Irish pals' fancy-dress birthday party. With the memory of the pudding fresh in my mind, I wanted to make some STP inspired cupcakes, complete with banana. I'm not normally that much of a Jamie Oliver fan (his matey-matey thick tongued banter gets a bit wearing) but he does have a great recipe for STP in his "Jamie's Dinners" book. I took this as my starting point and did some tweaking to get a sponge not dissimilar to the one from Flaneur, if not more moist. Unfortunately, the rich toffee sauce wouldn't have worked a-top a cupcake so I opted for a moussy, brown sugar icing instead.

Toffee Banana Sponge
225g fresh dates, stoned
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
85g unsalted butter
170g dark brown sugar
170g self-raising flour
1/4 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp Ovaltine
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
2-3 freckled bananas mashed (I used my potato masher)

Malty Brown Sugar Icing
1 large egg
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
75g butter at room temperature
1 tbsp Ovaltine
1tsp vanilla extract
  1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Put the dates into a bowl and sprinkle with the bicarbonate of soda. Cover with 200ml of boiling water so that they can plump up ready for cooking. Leave them for a couple of minutes then drain them before whizzing them in a food processor to make a puree. Resist the urge to eat the date paste straight from the mixer's bowl.
  3. Meanwhile, cream the butter and sugar using a wooden spoon. Add the eggs then fold in the flour, spices and Ovaltine. Mix together, then fold in the yoghurt, dates and bananas.
  4. Spoon into muffin cups (about 3/4 full) and bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (or until a cake-tester comes out clean).
  5. Allow the cakes to cool while you make the icing.
  6. Fill a saucepan with an inch or so of water and bring it to simmering point. Put a bowl over the simmering water and then break the egg into the bowl. Whisk the egg over the heat until it is light and frothy (the simmering water should not touch the bottom of the bowl).
  7. Whisk in the brown sugar until it has dissolved and the mixture is warmed (1-2 minutes). Remove the bowl from the pan and allow it to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, beat the butter in a separate bowl until it is light and fluffy. The more elbow-grease you use, the better the icing will be. Gradually beat in the egg/sugar mixture and then the vanilla extract. Don't panic if it starts to curdle, you can always use some icing sugar to bind it. Add the Ovaltine and beat well.
  9. Once the cupcakes are cool you can ice them. I was intending to sprinkle some crunched up dime bars over the top of the cakes, unfortunately our local Best One was all out. Such is life!

* From the primary school classic, "Autumn Days" by Estelle White.

** Smitten Kitchen, Orangette and Oswego Tea to name a few.


A true friend is one who thinks you are a good egg even if you are half-cracked*

As well you know, I have perfectionist tendencies. I should, however, clarify that such tendencies are almost always directed towards myself (and sometimes the Bedmate - poor soul). I promise you that I am not someone who is ridiculously high maintenance and when I am not being pinnikity about having my books in alphabetical order I am actually pretty laid back. So please don't think it's just me having crazily high standards when I say:

Is it just me or is anyone else ever a little disappointed by their friends sometimes?

I feel like a traitor even saying it and I don't want you to think that I don't have great friends who are very dear to me, but so much energy is expended dissecting the relationships between men and women that sometimes I think we forget that our friends can upset us even more than the latest crush.

So, recently I have been feeling a little bit jaded about my long term relationships. A missed birthday here, a last minute cancellation there - I felt like running away with the milk-man. Thankfully I have been saved from becoming this cliche** by a couple of lovely ladies I met on a brief jaunt to a different office with work.

We bonded over our shared love of food and we grew closer still with lively debates on the merits of slide-out brownie pans (truly excellent). But it was on my final day in the office that I realised I was in the presence of greatness. Returning to my desk after lunch I was met with a slab of chewy brownies and the moistest carrot cake I had ever encountered. Being the one who normally caters for these sorts of occasions, I felt truly touched at being the recipient this time. However, hating to come to a party empty-handed, I was glad I had brought some baked-goods of my own to add to the haul:

Traditional Shortbread
This shortbread is one of the first recipes I remember making; pressing the dough into the corners of a battered old pan and decorating the surface with row after row of fork marks. The result is a crumbly, sandy biscuit which is rich in flavour but light in bite.

50z plain (all-purpose) flour
pinch of salt
1oz rice flour or ground rice
2oz caster sugar
40z butter (use a brand that you enjoy the flavour of)
  1. Sift the four, salt and rice flour/ground rice into a bowl.
  2. Add the sugar and grate in the butter straight from the fridge. Or add the butter, diced.
  3. Using the tips of your fingers rub the fat into the dried ingredients until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Press the mixture into a 7-inch straight sided sandwich tin (I actually used the aforementioned brownie pan). Because of the butter content you shouldn't need to grease/line your tin. Don't worry if the mixture needs a little force to push it together - that's normal.
  5. Chill the mixture in the fridge for an hour or so. Once the shortbread is chilled you can decorate the top and mark out the portions so it's easier to break when cooked. Traditionally, the shortbread would be cut into short bread "tails" (triangles) with patterns provided by a fork.
  6. Put into a preheated oven (3o0 degrees) for about an hour or until the shortbread is pale straw coloured. Allow the baked shortbread to cool on a wire rack and then break into pieces.
  7. I decided to go a little Jackson Pollock with my biscuits (apologies to the thousands of Scots who are now turning in their graves) and drizzled melted plain chocolate across the top. If you want to be authentic, you should dredge the completed biscuits with caster sugar.

I also made Orangette's sumptuous 'Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Cake'. Moist, rich and dense, I can assure you that it is absolutely as good as it sounds and with only 1 tablespoon of flour is pretty much health food. Next time I would like to try the recipe using orange-flavoured dark chocolate and a slug of Cointreau.

So, I left the office with a full tummy and a renewed faith in the power of female friendships. And, as if the cakes hadn't been enough, a dazzling new addition for my kitchen:

A big hurrah to new friends!

* Anon.

* Apologies, I can't find out how to do the "e "with an accent on blogger. Any tips gratefully received.