I have a dream job. I don’t mean my current job, although it can have its dreamy moments. I mean the job I dream of doing if I wasn’t utterly compelled to be a midwife anymore. My dream is to be a librarian. Not an actual librarian obviously. I think there’s a degree involved for that and quite a lot more work than the role I picture myself in. In my dream library there are lamplit corners with worn and cosy armchairs, tea in real cups and saucers, enthusiastic children to be read to, dark wooden shelves, a big stamp to mark the return date inside the back cover of books, and I just have to waft about doing the odd bit of reshelving in between dipping into old Fay Weldon novels and comparing cake recipes with the regulars.
Our local library doesn’t quite match up with this, but it’s still a good place to go and hang out with the small person. It’s light and welcoming. The librarians have kindly waived late fees when I’ve staggered in clutching a small baby and looking confused about how I could need to pay more in late fees than it would have cost to buy the three books that have sat in the footwell of the car for four months. Then, despite me having held their books hostage, they notice which series of books I am reading and offer to put the sequels on hold (I know – what service!). There are armchairs (sadly not old squashy leather – more utilitarian, washable polyester in bright primary colours) to sit and breastfeed or read to the small person. There are conveniently low bookshelves for the same small person to rearrange as he scoots around on his belly, waiting for his mother to finish reading or chatting or searching for a book, the title and author of which are escaping her entirely. And there are the books. The only downside is that they have to be returned. Eventually.
My most recent visit was with my LMF and her two daughters. M, the six year-old, is a new convert to the delights of the library. This was cemented further when one of the librarians told her that she could borrow as many books as she wanted!!! Most of our time was spent finding a pile of borrowed delight for our children, but I did scoot through the cooking section and borrow a couple of appropriately wintery books to spill ingredients in.
Michel Roux’s eggs is excellent. I have been drooling at the possibilities: vanilla eggs with caramel and brioche; pear and cinnamon omelette; profiteroles crammed full of coffee and drambuie pastry cream; earl grey tea ice-cream; chocolate truffle cake on a genoese sponge base. However, with birthday cakes to make and projected egg laying at a low due to short days and rain, practicality wins. I cannot spare ten whole eggs for a choux pastry and coffee concoction, at least not just yet.
The Two Fat Ladies are a different story. If I had my own dairy cow she would be in trouble, but luckily all my double cream and butter needs are met by the supermarket. Do you remember the Two Fat Ladies? Zooming around the UK, one perched atop a motorbike and the other crammed into the sidecar. Combining local produce with an overflowing cupful of double cream in every county. Sniggering at things like margarine, dieting and the banning of British beef on the bone. Brilliant. This is their fourth book and is divided into sections based on the featured ingredient (Chapter 8-Parsley, Chapter 11-Snails and so on). Some sections I wouldn’t leap to (Chapter 21-Tripe anyone?) but Chapters 24 through 34 -Lamb, Figs, Coffee, Chocolate and Butter to name a few – yes please.
It was a tough call to pick between dishes so intriguingly named: Chocolate Pye, Snow Cream, Brazo Gitano and Barm Brack. Happily I am also in the middle of a novel (The Extra Large Medium by Helen Slavin, not bad) and just this morning the main character launched into a soliloquy about her mother’s Barm Brack. How’s the synchronicity?
Barm Brack is a bread in the same sense that banana bread is a bread. It is cake masquerading as breakfast food. I love its name. It sounds like something you should eat on a winter’s afternoon when you’ve spent the morning tramping across rainy fields. Or just tramping across a rainy back yard to the hen house.
175 grams of soft brown sugar
300 grams of dried fruit – I used dates
55 grams of chopped mixed peel (didn’t have any, so I used dried apricots)
600 mls of freshly made tea (I used Lady Grey leaf tea, 3 teaspoons – you could substitute any black tea that you fancy)
1 egg, beaten
55 grams of unsalted butter at room temperature, chopped up quite small
350 grams of wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of mixed spice
#Alert: you will need to start this a good half a day before you want to eat it #
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius (170 degrees fan forced).
Grease and line a 1kg loaf tin (bit bigger or a bit smaller – not an issue, just adjust your cooking time accordingly)
Put the sugar and dried fruit into a large bowl and pour on the strained tea (the Two Fat Ladies suggest cooling the tea first, but the Extra Large Medium swore by using it hot, so I did). Cover the bowl and leave to stand for at least six hours.
Add the beaten egg and softened butter to the fruit mixture and stir thoroughly.
Sift in the flour, bicarb soda and spice. Stir enthusiastically by hand until all the ingredients are well combined. The mixture will be slightly lumpy and thick enough to stand your wooden spoon up in.
Put the mixture into your loaf tin.
Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on your oven. Check on it partway through and cover with foil if the top is getting too brown. It is done when it is well risen and firmly springy to touch.
Turn onto a wire rack to cool.
Dense, moist, a bit sticky and heady with the flavour of bergamot from the tea. Slice it up and eat it slathered with butter. Or, in true Two Fat Lady style, with a heavy dollop of double cream. Then have some more. Then have a bit for breakfast the next day, toasted, with lots of lovely butter.