Use your loaf

The humble loaf is never going to get the recognition given to flashy cupcakes or decadent gateaux. Loaves are like nurses or nuns – reliable, sturdy, perhaps a little bit worthy, a little bit ignored. Loaves are the jeans-and-a-t-shirt option in a cupboard full of party dresses. Show a child an opulently iced cupcake or a lightly buttered slice of loaf and you can bet your best apron the loaf will get left on the plate.

But no matter how pretty a party dress is, you don’t always feel like wearing one. I’ve always had a soft spot for fruit loaves, studded with raisins and rich with spices, or squidgy banana bread sprinkled with walnuts. It’s rare to find them in modern cookbooks- they belong to the days of PTA recipe collections or Grandma’s handwritten notebooks – but the decadent Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook has several tucked inside its choc-dipped pages, so it may only be a matter of time before loaves are the new cupcakes or macaroons.

The Small Girl and I were playing with some old cookbooks last week and one of them opened at a page I’d never seen before. There, in plain black and white, was a bran loaf recipe. I fiddled about with the ingredients to make it a little less stolid and this is what I came up with. When I took it to lovely Joan’s for morning tea the Small Girl ate slice after slice.

A Lovely Little Loaf

This contains no eggs or butter and you could probably use soy milk if you want it to be vegan/dairy-free. I made the mistake of cooking it in an extra-large loaf tin, so it looks a little flat. A standard size one would be better.

1 cup plain flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup baking bran
1 cup dried fruit (I used a mixture of raisins and chopped up dates)
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 180C and grease a large loaf tin. Line the bottom with a strip of baking paper (baking paper is God’s gift to bakers – I always regret not using it).
Mix the dry ingredients together until combined, then pour in the milk. Stir well and scrape into the prepared tin. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave in the tin to cool for five minutes, then turn out onto a rack. Eat with lots of cold, unsalted butter and marmalade, or take to Joan’s and spread it with thick, creamy Piako yoghurt.

What are the 50 best cookbooks of all time?

Over at The Guardian’s excellent food blog, Word Of Mouth, they’re stirring the pot by asking readers to nominate what they believe to be the 50 best cookbooks “of all time”. It’s a nasty job, but I guess someone has to do it etc.
The full list will be published in this Sunday’s Observer Food Monthly, but they’ve left a trail of crumbs in the form of numbers 50-11 here. I’m picking Elizabeth David will be in the top 10, along with Nigel Slater (who, conveniently, edits OFM).

I thought I had a pretty comprehensive collection of cookbooks but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of a lot of these. Then again, some of them would be in my own top 10, such as Nigella’s How To Eat and Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. In fact, just those two would probably be enough to sustain even the keenest cook for a good number of meals. But I suppose it’s not a matter of having ‘enough’. Why have ‘enough’ when you can have a feast?

These are the books on high rotation chez nous (in no particular order):

1. How To Eat, Nigella Lawson: Her first, best book. Few pictures, no suggestive photos, just brilliant writing and wonderful food. A book to read in bed as well as keep in the kitchen.

2. The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander: THE Bible. Incredibly useful, with perhaps the best index of any book in any genre, ever.

3. River Cottage Everyday, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Lovely, shambolic Hugh shows that everyday food doesn’t have to be dull. The sort of book that makes you want to move to a country village and raise pigs.

4. Feast, Nigella Lawson: Food for weddings, parties, anything. And there’s a section devoted solely to chocolate cakes!

5. Favourite Food, Jill Dupleix: This Aussie sheila should be better known. She’s sharp, funny and unafraid of food fads (plus, she once replied within minutes to an email I sent her when she was writing food columns for The Times).

The Observer will reveal their top 10 on Sunday (August 22). What are your favourites?

The VIP dinner guest…

An Important Personage is coming for dinner. In the days of Jane Austen this would be the new vicar or a wealthy landowner, but in these, less rarefied times, it is simply the Boy Wonder’s new boss. There are things I have learned about the new boss that cannot be repeated, but we are rolling out the welcome mat and laying the best white tablecloth (thank you, St Vincent de Paul) all the same. The funny thing – well, funny to me, anyway – about the Important Personage is that he has gout, which is just the sort of affliction you would expect him to have.
Anyway, we are going to eat Shin of Beef with Ginger and Soy (from River Cottage Everyday), with udon noodles and steamed bok choy. Then, a Greek Orange Syrup Cake, which I haven’t made for years and years. A little note next to it in my recipe book says I first made it in 1999 for Vanessa’s birthday. Shamefully I can’t even remember the last time I spoke to Vanessa. But the cake looks good!

PS River Cottage Everyday is every bit as lovely – and useful – as you might expect. You can find more River Cottage inspiration at, including videos of Hugh making this very dish.

Coming soon…

There is a post coming, I promise. But I have an interview to cuddle and a cake to do and a roving child to bake. Or something like that…