|The legendary Merle with the peach|
blossom cake that was a hit on MasterChef.
This gorgeous book is a celebration of home baking and the traditions of the Country Women's Association. Merle has been a member of the CWA for 58 years and one of its champion bakers throughout that time. She grew up when there were always biscuits in the tin, a cake ready to be sliced and pudding with dinner -- all home baked.
Lucky me, I was asked to write the intro for the book, for which I had several interviews with Merle. I loved finding out about her life. I was struck by the simplicity of the recipes. Most are made with flour, butter, eggs and sugar ('ingredients any housewife will have in the pantry', according to Merle) and all were in her head. If she wants some scones, she goes into the kitchen and makes some. I would have to purchase ingredients and consult a book, furrowed brow, at every step.
When the book arrived, I was surprised by my husband's enthusiasm. 'These are just the sort of things Mum used to make,' he said. He was particularly taken with memories of Date and Walnut Loaf and asked me to make Merle's. Except he can't eat nuts, so it would have to be a Date Loaf. I think the walnuts are a crucial ingredient for adding texture and a welcome bitter flavour note, but never mind. Here we go.
|Lovely, sludgy cake mix, just like when you were a kid!|
1 cup chopped dates
3/4 cup warm water
125 g butter, at room temperature
1 tsp sugar (I used rapadura)
1 tsp vanilla essence
90 g chopped walnuts (if you're using them)
1.5 cups plain flour (I used spelt)
1.25 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to moderately slow (160 degrees). Grease a loaf tin and line with baking paper, hanging over the 2 long sides. Soak the dates in the warm water while you prepare the other ingredients.
Use electric beaters (had to dig mine out) to cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy (hey, it worked!). Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.
Fold in the dates and the soaking water. Add the walnuts here if you're using them. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over, and fold in until combined. Spoon into the tin, and smooth the surface. Bake for 45 mins to 1 hour until springy to a gentle touch. Stand in the tin for 5 mins to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
|The smell was wonderful. Who needs walnuts?!|
The verdict? Beautifully rich with all that extra sweetness from the dates. Extra fructose to all you sugar-phobes, but extra fibre and phytonutrients as well. My husband was pleased and for a whole week there was home-baked dessert ready to go. We served it with a dollop of yoghurt, but don't tell Merle. It's really meant to be served warm with butter for afternoon tea, as in Steve Brown's lovely pic.
|Lashings of butter and honey on warm loaf.|
Merle's Kitchen would make a lovely mother's day gift. It's impossible not to look through it and feel inspired to tie on your best pink apron. And because the recipes come from a home cook (admittedly, a supremely talented one who has won dozens of awards for decades), they are all practical, straightforward and welcoming. Simple pleasures are the stuff of everyday happiness.
What's your favourite cake to make at home? Do you know where your electric beaters are? Tell me in the comments!