Back to school

It definitely feels like the start of the school term. It’s back to business as usual and summer will soon feel like a lifetime ago (I write this on a grey and drizzly evening). It’s also a time of new beginnings: my nephew is off to sixth form college and my stepdaughter (I hate that term, but what else do I use?) is starting secondary school.

Change is usually a good thing, although perhaps not in parliament as we face yet another general election. Boris is throwing all of his toys out of the pram and breaking news alerts either make me want to hide behind the sofa or reach for the popcorn as the drama unfolds. It’s no wonder that many of us want to stick their fingers in their ears, pretend it’s not happening and stick Bake Off on the telly.

Despite my fondness for food, I don’t watch Bake Off, because like Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor, I struggle to find the time to watch it. And because I take an all or nothing approach to life, I know that I’d feel guilty if I missed an episode. The summer before last, experiencing Love Island for the first time, I lost a good few days to watching every single episode. I’m not sure it was worth it, but I’m still a bit sad that Jack and Dani are no longer an item.

Watching a TV programme like Bake Off requires a dedication I simply don’t have. So much time and effort is needed just to keep up with the group chats on Whatsapp or to avoid spoilers on Twitter. It’s just too much of a commitment.

But bake I will, especially when confronted with a fruit bowl full of brown bananas. Some things, like the seasons, never change, and we always have a few sad-looking ones knocking around. No one will eat them and I watch them turn from speckled to almost black. I’m loath to waste food, so they either go in the freezer (they end up in smoothies and porridge) or I make banana bread, which is possibly one of the easiest things one can bake.

This time, I’ve added a bit of cocoa powder and coconut milk (although any plant milk will work) for a richer, squidgier loaf. Yes, there are seven whole bananas in here, but using fewer will also yield sweet results. Enjoy with a cup of tea and a sit down.

 

Chocolate banana bread

 

Chocolate banana bread

 

Makes 1 medium-sized loaf

Ingredients

225g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

7 very ripe bananas

50ml vegetable, olive, sunflower or coconut oil (plus a little bit extra for greasing the loaf tin)

200ml coconut milk

100g brown sugar

2 tbsp cocoa powder

2 tsp cinnamon

50g chocolate chips or cacoa nibs (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200C. In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a fork, then add the oil and sugar and mix with a wooden spoon. Sieve over the flour and baking powder and mix together. Add the other ingredients and stir thoroughly. Grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan, add the cake mixture and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown. Allow to cool, then serve in slices. This will keep in an airtight container for about two days after baking.

 

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All I want for Christmas…

The Beach Boys once sang, ‘Christmas comes this time each year’, and if you ask me, it gets more tiresome every time. I’m not completely ‘bah humbug’,  but I’m feeling more flat than festive at the moment even though I started the month feeling pretty jolly about the holiday season. Then my hormones went haywire and my pep petered out. So far, I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls of party season (I don’t have an office do and I have few friends in Swansea), so I’m waiting for the Christmas spirit to kick in by watching films under a blanket and buying presents online.

It’s really, really cold at the moment, and all I want this Christmas is to hibernate. Obviously, that involves food and drink, so I set about making my own Christmas cake, as there aren’t many vegan versions in the shops and the ones I’ve tried are synthetically sweet.

This one’s easy to make and should keep for a couple of weeks. As well as being vegan, it’s free from and nuts, which means that everyone can enjoy a slice.

With all that fruit, I don’t think there’s really any need to add marzipan and icing (plus, I’m lazy), but you can buy vegan versions if you’d like to top the cake. Although the alcohol in the brandy’s burned off in the baking, you can use 150ml of tea (try Chai or Earl Grey for a fruitier taste) instead, but be aware that it will only last for a few days if you do this.

Use whatever dried fruit you like and of course, you can bake with plain flour, if you like.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas cake

Christmas cake

Ingredients

250g sultanas

250g raisins

125g glacé cherries, roughly chopped

100g, dried apricots, roughly chopped

100ml brandy

350g rice (or gluten free) flour

1 tsp baking powder

150g light brown sugar

50ml rapeseed, olive or vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing

250ml plant milk

The juice of 1 orange

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

 

First of all, place all the dried fruit in a large mixing bowl, pour over the brandy and orange juice and give it a good stir. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to soak overnight or for at least a couple of hours.

When you’re ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices over the soaked fruit and combine with a wooden spoon, then add the sugar and mix again. Add the oil and stir, then add the milk and stir again. You’ll need to use a bit of elbow grease to make sure that the flour is fully mixed in with the rest of the ingredients.

Line a 9-inch springform (loose-based) tin with greaseproof paper or use a little oil, then pour the cake batter into the tin and smooth out evenly. Place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for an hour, then, without opening the oven, turn the temperature down to 150C and bake for another 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and test with a skewer – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

 

All the leaves are brown…

Is it just me who feels a bit undone as the seasons change? We’re halfway through September and although the temperature’s dropped, we have much colder weather to come, and I’m dreading it. I’ve been feeling a bit low recently, and on some days I’m gloomier than Eeyore. Hormones and hiraeth are a heady combination.

It’s been over a year since I moved to Swansea, but I’m still in a long-distance relationship with Cardiff. I miss my daily walks through leafy Bute Park, the familiar faces, the smell of Brains Brewery and the gentle hustle and bustle that you can only get in a city the size of Cardiff. Where we live now, all the leaves are brown and the skies are grey.

People tell me that I’m lucky to be by the sea, but contrary to popular belief, not everyone lives in Mumbles, and unless you drive (and I don’t yet), the beaches aren’t quite on your doorstep. Thankfully, I’ve found some comfort in the words of Dylan Thomas, who as we all know, described Swansea as: “An ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”

It’s not my world yet, Dylan, but I’m working on it. I’m not slagging off Swansea, but it hasn’t found its way to my heart just yet.

At least I can cheer myself up with autumn’s abundance of fruit and vegetables. The kitchen is full of apples, squash, pumpkin, pears and plums, and partly inspired by The Great British Bake Off, I’ve been baking again. The prime-time favourite has survived the move to Channel 4 and watching it is still the televisual equivalent of a warm bath and a bedtime story – well, kind of. I’m rooting for Rahul, who is surely Britain’s nicest man, and looking forward to the much-anticipated vegan week.

I’m no star baker but I do like to experiment with my cakes. This approach can sometimes end in tears, but I’ve created a recipe that works a treat. While we’re on the cusp of courgette season, pears have been at the greengrocers for a few weeks, and the two work surprisingly well together. In this cake, the sweetness of the pears and the mild mellowness of the courgettes are lifted with a pinch of cardamom for a gentle kick of spice. I’ve used rice flour, which makes this a gluten-free bake, but any flour will work.

Perfect with a mug of tea and five minutes’ peace.

 

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Pear, courgette and cardamom loaf

Courgette and pear loaf

Makes 1 medium-sized loaf

 

Ingredients

200g rice flour

2 tsp baking powder

100g porridge oats

2 large ripe pears (300g), cored and cubed

2 small courgettes (200g), grated

100ml vegetable, olive, sunflower or coconut oil (plus a little bit extra for greasing the loaf tin)

200ml plant milk

100g brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1-2 tsp apple cider vinegar (optional)

Cardamom (seeds from 5-6 pods)

Preheat the oven to 200C. In a large bowl, sieve over the flour and baking powder and mix together. Add the other ingredients and stir thoroughly. Grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan, add the cake mixture and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean. Allow to cool, then serve in slices, perhaps with some coconut yogurt or vegan ice cream.

 

How to fail

Last week, I raged against the onslaught of autumn, but as the seasons change, my resolve has weakened. I’ve submitted to September and its chilly mornings and nights and my legs are once again clad in 60-denier tights.

I’ve always loved this time of year, but as I get older, I find it pretty bleak – after all, everything’s dying. And don’t hate me, Swansea, but you’re pretty grey at the best of times so it’s no wonder that I find the colder months so difficult. As the temperature drops, so does my mood.

And anyway, autumn, once the underdog of the seasons, is a bit basic bitch nowadays thanks to pumpkin spiced lattes and Instagram.

I’m definitely with Sathnam on this one.

I was once enamoured with mists and mellow fruitfulness, but I’m failing at fall this year.  I’ve been blackberry picking (a first for me as a born and bred city girl), but my attempt to turn them into a crumble left a lot to be desired. It turns out that even if you’ve written a cookery book, you can still mess up a basic pudding. To be fair, I was playing around with coconut flour (which is the wildest I get these days) which was bound to end in tears, but I was still pretty annoyed with myself.

That’s the thing: when our social media feeds are so well-curated, anything less than perfect just won’t do. But, perhaps failing once in a while is a good thing. That’s what I’ve learned from listening to How to Fail, Elizabeth Day’s hugely enjoyable – and thought-provoking podcast. If you haven’t listened, you should.

As much as I really wanted to share a recipe for blackberry crumble, it still needs some work, so here’s a tried and tested cake which I promise will work.

 

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Chocolate and tahini cake with frosting

 

Ingredients

For the cake

150g brown sugar

350g plain flour

50g cocoa powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp baking powder

400ml unsweetened soya milk

75ml rapeseed oil, plus extra for greasing

120ml aquafaba

3 tbsp tahini

 

For the frosting

200g dark chocolate

2-3 tbsp cocoa powder

60ml aquafaba

150g icing sugar

50ml plant milk

 

Heat the oven to 160C. Grease 2 x 20cm sandwich tins, then grease the bases with a little oil.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Add sugar, cocoa powder, aquafaba and milk and stir. Add the oil and stir and then the tahini and stir again. Divide between the tins and bake for 25 mins or until fully risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the tins for 5 mins, then turn the cakes onto a rack to cool completely. While you wait, start preparing the frosting. Melt the chocolate with a little of the milk, either over a bowl of water or in the microwave, then let it cool for a few mins. Sift the cocoa and the icing sugar into a large bowl and add the melted chocolate and the rest of the milk and stir. Whisk the aquafaba, fold into the mixture and keep mixing to make a thick frosting. Use this to sandwich and top the cake.

This will keep in an airtight container for 2-3 days.