My mother’s kitchen smelt of leeks, frying gently in butter. So when I seek succour, I fry leeks, gently, in butter.
Earlier this month, I sat at a big farmhouse table, in a house none of us live in, drinking wine with my aunt and my sister and we talk of how my mum smelt. To my sister, she will always smell of Chanel Chance, the perfume she wore as we got older. To me it is Chance mixed with the Clarins facewash she used and the Silk Cut cigarettes she smoked. I remember further back, too: to the Max Factor face powder she always wore, and Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers, a scent she sprayed throughout the 90’s, that makes me think of family holidays and summer and her dressing table. My aunt, however, can reel off all of my mother’s perfumes, her smells, her signatures and signs, smells that elude me, that predate me. Smells that were my mother before she became my mother. We sit together, shouting over each other, yelling brand names triumphantly, like we are on a strange game show, clutching at things that we can still hold, that are tangible. Names of things that still exist.
When she died, my sister and I, tenderly executing our brutal executrix duties, saved a perfume bottle. Not for us, but for my aunt. It felt like preserving a memory for her, something that you could leave on a table, or take out of a drawer when you needed it. It was sentimental and sweet, and we did it without too much thought.
I suppose I thought I didn’t need this. I was sure I was resilient and strong and fancied myself as pragmatic.
I have a cardigan that belonged to my mother. It’s a flimsy little leopard skin cardy from Marks and Spencer. And it smells of her. I keep it in an equally flimsy Budgens carrier bag, deep in a box in my bedroom. Scared that I will wash it. Scared of losing the smell. But more scared of allowing myself access to the smell. Losing my veneer. My carefully lacquered strength and resilience and pragmatism. I’m scared of losing the last three years of adjustment. So I never take it out of the bag. I never smell it. I wear my own scent, that is nothing like my mother’s. I remain strong.
Instead, I cook leeks. Without wanting to be overly Proustian (maudlin is more my thing), the smell of cooking leeks is the smell of my childhood. It is the smell of home. It is the smell of my mother in the kitchen. My mother would have had no truck with cooking fudge or making pasta or bacon from scratch. She didn’t bake tarts or tortes.
But what she did cook was utter comfort and reassurance, minestrone soups laden with vegetables and ribbons of leek and snippets of bacon and tiny macaroni, shepherd’s pie with cheddar and leeks laced through the mashed potato, leek and potato soup with enough black pepper to make your eyes water. To me, the smell of comfort and reassurance is the smell of leeks, frying gently in butter. It is only when I cook leeks that my kitchen resembles hers. And, I suspect, when I most resemble her. So now, when I find myself sad, when my veneer of resilience is chipped and dulled, I cook leeks.
Her food was designed to quietly heal, to nourish. I associate leeks with all my heart with nourishment and goodness. This is why I can in all good conscience fry them in butter with sausage, mix them with two types of cheese, stuff them into a bread, bake it and call it soul food – nourishing food.
This bread lightens the blackest of moods, abates the heaviest of sorrows. It is based heavily on Honey & Co’s Balkan Bread, and is a yeasted, slightly enriched dough – a beautiful dough to work with, gentle and springy and silky – with buttery, fragrant leeks and two different types of cheese pummelled into it. Slightly spicy, rich and golden. Sometimes I add sausage meat to it, sometimes I don’t. When I do, it becomes more complex, a meal in itself, almost stromboli-like. When I don’t, I slice it into long slivers, which I toast and butter. It is comfort in a bread.
It goes like this:
Cheesy Leek Bread
Makes: 1 substantial loaf of bread
Takes: 3 hours (including proving time)
Bakes: 30 minutes
For the dough:
1½ tsp dried yeast
150ml lukewarm water
2 tsp caster sugar
300g plain flour
½ tsp table salt
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus 1 tbsp for the top
For the filling:
2 pork sausages (optional)
20g unsalted butter
1 large leek, sliced and washed
½ tsp chilli flakes
100g feta cheese, crumbled
For the topping:
30g kashkaval or pecorino cheese (really any strong flavoured hard cheese works – I sometimes use Parmesan or Grana Padano)
Pinch of sweet paprika
1. First you need to activate the yeast. Place it in a jug or cup with two teaspoons of sugar and 150ml of warm water. Give it a quick stir and leave it alone for five minutes.
2. Place the rest of the dough ingredients in a big bowl, and add the activated yeast mixture, slowly mixing. If you have a stand mixer, you can then leave it to whir on a dough hook and do it’s thing for 2-3 minutes and skip to step 4, but if (like me), you don’t, you’ll need to knead by hand.
3. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and push the dough away from you with the heel of your hand, then fold it back on itself, constantly stretching. The dough will be sticky, but slowly, it will become more pliable. Have faith, and it will form a beautiful satin-like dough, that you can roll into a pleasing ball.
4. Rub some vegetable oil onto your hand and smooth it over the ball of dough. Place it in a clean bowl, cover with clingfilm, and leave it in a warmish place for 2 hours, for it to rise.
5. Slit the skin of the sausage, if using, and crumble the sausage meat into a frying pan over a medium heat, frying until cooked through (this will only take a very few minutes). Decant into a heat proof bowl, and add the butter and chopped leeks to the pan, lowering the heat. Cook very gently for about 15 minutes, until the leeks are thoroughly softened. Season and add chilli flakes. Add to the sausage meat, and stir through the feta cheese.
6. Line a 20cm springform pan with baking paper, and grease the sides. When the dough has had its first proving time, place the ball into the springform pan and squish down so that it covers the base of the pan. Spoon the filling onto the centre of the disc of dough and fold the dough over the top, in on itself so that there is only a small portion of the filling showing. Clingfilm the tin and leave to prove for another thirty minutes.
7. Just before you reach the end of the proving time, preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Crack your remaining egg into a small bowl, add a teaspoon of water, and mix it all together using a fork. Paint this eggwash onto any visible dough, and then finally grate the hard cheese over the top and sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 30 minutes, turning the tin round once half way through if it’s browning unevenly.
8. Allow to cool in the tin for fifteen minutes before releasing. 9. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake
We eat this hot from the oven, or rewarmed, smeared with butter – mostly on Sundays, to steel ourselves for the coming week.