Thursday, 16 June 2011

Rock Cakes

We all have times when, for whatever reason, you need a bit of comfort. No exotic new flavours, no culinary experimentation, just something that makes you feel safe and warm and takes you back to a time when you didn't feel vulnerable. 

When these times come, I think a lot of us turn to our childhood appetites. In my case, it would be Heinz tomato soup with hula hoops and grated cheese, Granny's tomato pasta sauce, and a boiled egg with soldiers. And these. 

When I was little I used to bake a lot with my mum and then, as I got older, on my own. All sorts of things, from ridiculously precocious profiteroles and choux pastry to cakes and tray bakes, biscuits and buns. These rock cakes were one of my favourites. 

They're not flashy, or gooey, there's no icing or clever tricks. In cake terms, they're quite austere. But I loved them. Crumbly, with crunchy crystals of demarara on top, a subtle spiced flavour and studded with raisins. And deeply, deeply comforting.

They are very quick to make and at one point I used to make a batch almost every Sunday to be taken to school for break throughout the week. I knew the recipe off by heart and even now I can almost remember it verbatim. 

I'd get down the brown leather folder in which my mum keeps recipes torn from magazines or scribbled down by friends, and wrap an apron over my clothes. I'd leaf through the folder to find the right page, pulling apart the plastic pages which would stick to each other slightly with every turn. 

The recipe was from a whole page torn out of a magazine, of Mary Berry's best tray bakes for church fetes and school fairs. It was hugely 80s, a beige background (or had it just discoloured through age?) and very old-fashioned photos. The only description which she gave of the rock cakes (I haven't checked this, but I'm absolutely sure of the wording) was "fruity crumb with a crunchy topping. The cooked mixture cuts easily into bars". I remember thinking that that wasn't a particularly enticing write-up for the cakes which I loved so much.

Another point in their favour - the raw mixture tastes delicious. I always ate loads while making it, to the point that I had to force myself to leave enough to cover the base of the tin. It was always the same tin, rectangular and brown with scratches and worn patches. The only variant was whether we cut the finished product into rectangles or triangles. To this day, I can't work out which is better. I think I lean towards the triangles. 

As a grown-up, these are still comforting. As much as the flavour, it's the ritual of making them, going through the motions which I've done so many times before. Although I made these in my own flat, without the brown leather folder or the battered old tin, the result was the same. 

And despite all the fancy cakes which I've made since, I still really like these. 

Rock Cakes 
From a recipe by Mary Berry, printed in an unknown magazine a long time ago
Makes 8 bars/triangles
- 225g self-raising flour
- 100g butter
- pinch of all spice

- 50g sugar
- 100g dried fruit
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoonful of milk
- demerara sugar to scatter on top

Preheat the oven to 200C, and line a tin with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, rub together the butter and flour as if you're making crumble, or until it's sandy in texture. Stir through the sugar, fruit and spice, then add the egg and milk and mix to a firm dough.
Transfer it to the tin, scatter with demerara and cut into bars or triangles. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and crunchy. You might want to cut out the bars/triangles again while it's warm. You will definitely want to eat at least one rock cake while it's warm.

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