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The Country Kitchen: Heirlooms

In 2011, I fell victim to the cupcake craze that swept throughout the nation and have been labelled the family baker ever since. Despite having spent that last few years trying to shake this as I now much prefer to cook (baking, it seems, is too much of an exact science – even for a biochemist), I still enjoy baking so long as there are no time pressures or village-show reputations at stake. Last Christmas, my grandma gave me a pink sparkly notebook filled with her and her mum’s old recipes. Now is as good a time as any to start ambling my way through them. 

At a time when the closest I can get to Grandma is in the form of radiowaves travelling down the phone to Preston, keeping in touch has to take on a new, less physical meaning. Ringing her to ask for inspiration for recipes, troubleshoot various problems and find out the backstory behind many of her bakes is equally beneficial for the both of us. This week I will take you on a bit of a magical mystery tour through my baking ancestry in the hope that you might ring your own relatives and see if they have any recipes or stories to share.

Carol Chard’s Choc-Chip Cheesecake

This is my mum. She doesn’t strike me as particularly collected, or sophisticated. Rather, she’s quirky, homely and completely non-functional without her glasses…or after a glass of wine. I also wouldn’t describe her as much of a baker; just two days ago she made us some oat cookies but, despite having her glasses on at the time, still managed to use sesame seeds instead of oatmeal. Yet, my mum’s chocolate-chip cheesecake is the stuff of legends. In fact, every time this cheesecake comes up in conversation I am reminded how someone once thought her cheesecake so good that they proposed to her over it (I should probably say this was not my dad otherwise that would have made a very sorry story indeed). Now, I think she brings this up as a reminder that, despite having made this at least three times now, I still have not received such an offer. I’m hoping this is because my cheesecake hasn’t quite reached her standards and not down to personal character flaws.

This cheesecake is actually pretty easy and quick to make which came as a surprise given it’s baked. It’s also a bit of a whopper but, as demonstrated by my family, it doesn’t last long.

To make the base, bash up a packet of dark-choc digestives and combine with around 50g of melted butter. This crumbly biscuit goodness is pressed into the bottom and a little way up the sides of a greased 20cm tin (ideally one with a removable base). Bake this at 180⁰C for 5 minutes.

For the filling, beat two tubs of Philadelphia (do not use low fat, seriously don’t. If you are worried about cholesterol, I would steer well clear of this altogether) with 250g of sugar before adding three egg yolks and some vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, whisk up the whites of the eggs until stiff peaks form and fold this into the cream cheese mix followed by a bag of dark choc chips (or bashed up chocolate if you don’t have the chips). Spoon this over the biscuit base and leave to bake in the same oven for 40 minutes, by which time it should be golden brown and have a firm wobble. 

Yes, you can feel your arteries becoming that little bit narrower with every bite, but it tastes so good you just don’t care.

Cheap Cake

My Grandma is the real star baker. Every Christmas she used to make a Christmas cake, an orange cake, a coffee cake and a chocolate cake alongside all the other traditional Christmas desserts. Yet, the first thing that comes to mind is her ‘cheap cake’, aptly named because of the cheap ingredients used to make it. Grandma used to bake two every other week so that my grandad could take one with him every time he went to his Model Engineers social club.

This cake is nothing refined. It’s a stodgy fruit cake, verging on a loaf but it’s a classic Lancastrian cake that fills you up and washes down nicely with a cup of tea. To make it, rub together 170g of margarine with 500g of flour until it resembles crumbs. Then, add 200g of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder and 150g of dried mixed fruit. Mix up and add around 150ml of milk, or slightly more, to get a thick mix. This is spread into a deep square tinand baked for half an hour at 180 ⁰C before turning down the heat to 150 for another 30mins. If you think the top might be browning before the inside is cooked put a piece of parchment over the top.

Lancashire Parkin

My great grandma, who I never met but is the inspiration behind one of my middle names, Isabelle, was famous for her Parkin. Parkin (or gingerbread cake in Lancastrian) is a sponge made with ginger and treacle. Mine rose like a proper cake and was nice and light yet still received upturned noses as apparently it was ‘meant to sink’ and ‘should’ve had more treacle’. When I rang Grandma later that day to ask her opinion, she said she always put two tablespoons of treacle in rather than the frugal one stated in the recipe…that she wrote. So, depending on how sticky you like your cake feel free to play around with this one a bit. Since telling her I made this, Grandma made it for the first time again in about 15 years. If an 89-year-old, self-isolating woman can do this, I don’t see why you can’t.

When baking this recipe, I did find myself feeling like I’d landed in the Bake-Off tent, mid-technical challenge. The recipe was a skeleton, simply stating ‘milk’ as one of the ingredients, not giving any sort of hints as to how much, and the sole instructions were ‘slow bake for an hour.’ The absence of a temperature owes to the fact my great grandma would have baked this on the stove above a fire. Instincts were much more essential than instructions. What few measurements there were written down, were in cups- something which causes me unnecessary stress. Who decided which cup was the perfect measurement? And why does a cup of flour differ so much from a cup of sugar? These additional anxieties are just not needed in my life and so I have made the bold move to switch to the modern metric system. When recreating this, I’ve tried to give you a bit more of an idea of what to do- but if you just keep half an eye on it, it’s almost certain to be a success.

Whack 115g of margarine, 335g of self-raising flour, 200g of sugar, a teaspoon each of cream of tartar and ginger and a tablespoon of treacle in a bowl and mix. Treacle is one of those dependable ingredients you can always count on to be hidden somewhere at the back of the cupboard- if only you could find where. Its tin is probably worn and battered, the label fading, only brought out of its dusty depths once, maybe twice, a year. In its time it was the go-to, and this recipe restores it to its former glory.

Once all mixed, add the milk; 100 ml should suffice but you might find yourself needing slightly more or less. I recommend adding it in splashes until, once beaten, the mix becomes a thick batter. It shouldn’t be runny enough to pour into the tin (I used a deep square tin, lined) and will probably require a bit of a nudge. I’ve decided that the ‘slow bake’ was 150 ⁰C so throw the tin in the oven and forget about it while you enjoy an hour-long episode of the next big Netflix show.