Miami is the COVID epicenter now, and everyone’s on edge. It feels a little like wartime. Not all wars are fought on the battlefield. Some are fought — and won — on the home front. So maybe it’s no coincidence that when researching ideas for my conscious cookery series, I came across a vintage wartime recipe for something called granny cake.
Granny cake is a lesson in frugality made by mums across Britain during and after World War II, when dinner was determined by food rations. Sugar, butter, flour, eggs, milk were all scarce. Wartime England isn’t the first place I think of as a hot spot for cocina povera, the intuitive use-everything-waste-nothing culinary traditions of the past, but granny cake made me reconsider.
Made without fat and eggs and only a little sugar, granny cake is hardly the American notion of cake. It’s an earnest and clever quick bread, and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Granny cake, aka granny loaf, gets its lift from baking powder, not yeast, and good luck getting yeast these days, anyway. Its sweetness comes from dried fruit, pantry-friendly and nutrient-dense.
Lavender and Lovage’s Karen Burns-Booth, who provided the recipe, bent tradition far enough to add some sweet spice, and I did, too. The irony is, at one time, spices were far from affordable and available. They were so precious, people waged wars to get them.
The recipe proportions, I confess, looked dodgy, with only 1/2 cup of milk (okay, I used almond milk) and a few tablespoons of golden syrup (or molasses). The baking sirens beckoned me to embellish, to add applesauce or oil for a moister loaf, and I always want to add whole grains. I resisted the urge. If it was good enough for the Mrs. Minivers of the past, it was worth trying the original unvarnished recipe now. After all, the whole idea is to fight the war on the home front by doing more with less.
The cake came together quickly — it’s a quick bread, after all. Instructions said, add more liquid if the mixture seems dry. Oboy, did the mixture seem dry. I wondered if this experiment was worth sacrificing the last of my unbleached flour, but I was committed. I added another goodly glug of almond milk and stirred until I had a stiff batter, like Irish soda bread. I spooned everything into the loaf pan. It baked. I hoped.
About halfway through baking, a sweet scent came wafting from the oven. I remained skeptical. But wartime grannies wouldn’t lie. My granny cake baked into a dense fruit-studded loaf with a pebbled, crusty top, skewing more towards Irish soda bread than Boston brown bread (two more frugal favorites), fat-free and naturally sweet. It’s not tall, but neither am I.
I had a slice with a schmear of nut butter, a handful of blueberries, and a cup of jasmine tea. It makes for a what the Brits would call a teatime treat. I called it lunch, and an indulgent, comforting one, at that.
Granny cake will not win The Great British Bake-Off, but it’s a winner nonetheless, a homey loaf you can enjoy any time. It goes from start to slice fast, without nurturing a sourdough starter. It helped England get through a war, it’ll nourish and sustain us through the pandemic, with a little pleasure and sweetness besides.
Stay well, everyone. #wearadamnmask.
- 1-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1-1/2 tablespoons brown sugar or evaporated cane sugar
- 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
- 1/3 cup dried mixed fruit such as raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried apricots
- 2-1/2 tablespoons molasses or agave
- 3/4 cup almond milk or other plant-based milk
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- pinch nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9 X 5” loaf pan.
- In a large bowl, sift together, flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Add the nuts and dried fruit. Then add the almond milk and molasses or agave, and wonder why the batter is so dry. It’s okay. It’ll work.
- Spoon batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until your kitchen smells fruity and sweet and tester comes out clean. Loaf will have a firm crust.
- Allow to cool slightly. Then turn out, slice, and enjoy. Wrapped and refrigerated, it keeps well for days.