It’s been an unusual week. A busy week. A week mostly of faltering but also of jubilation. A hot, damp, sticky week. And the last thing I thought I’d be doing would be celebrating with a damp, sticky cake. But here I am, with malt loaf in my sticky paw, celebrating.
As the week wore on and wore me down, I didn’t expect to find solace in a malt loaf, heavy with malty syrup, sticky with dried fruit, and daubed with extra malt extract to make it even more unmanageable to eat quickly and cleanly.
This week has been, perhaps ironically, a little like wading through treacle. Deadlines looming, projects stalling, baking failing all united in an overwhelming anxiety and so snappishness, sullenness and sulks inevitably followed. I have been, let’s be quite clear, absolutely beastly to be around this week.
I would blame the thick, soupy humidity were it not for me already laying the blame at a dozen other unjustified doors. But nonetheless, the week’s weather feels like a truly, well, pathetic pathetic fallacy. Miserable and oppressive, thick with unspoken tension.
But on a hot, damp day, I grumpily bake a malt loaf. I don’t know why. I knew that I didn’t have a bake ready for this week’s post, and that made me even more grumpy. I’d baked a tea loaf recently, delicate with earl grey, zesty and almost refreshing, scattered with demerera sugar, but a bright, light tea loaf seemed at odds with my mood. Malt loaf had to be the right bake: it was dark, like my soul, and heavy like my heart. It went into the oven, sludgy and unassuming, and I flounced off to be vile elsewhere. But it came out of the oven transformed, risen and proud, it smelt so damn good it shook me out of the week long funk. I was dragged by the smell of malt from my well of self-pity, blinking into the daylight.
And the daylight turned out a happy place to be: the week ended for me on a high note, with the publishing of my first food writing column for the Spectator’s magazine, Spectator Life. I found myself in the unusual position of being sandwiched between Sebastian Faulks and Brendan O’Neill on the cover of the magazine, and, inside, a defence of blancmange and a recipe of which I am terribly proud.
Maltloaf is probably not my first thought when I think of ’celebration cake’, but there is something sweetly, stoically triumphant about it. Fat slabs of cake, strongly-flavoured and bursting with fruit; a welcome vehicle for the best salted butter you can find. And cake, surely, is what you make of it (or sometimes what it makes of you).
This is, I think, the platonic malt loaf. It’s broadly based on Nigel Slater’s malt loaf, which has a surprisingly small amount of treacle in, and light muscovado rather than dark. In contrast, it has a triumphantly large amount of malt extract, and is so much the better for it. It doesn’t taste of molasses or christmas cake but, as it should: of malt. The chopped prunes are sticky, and the sultanas soft, both plump and moist from being soaked in the tea. The loaf is glazed with an extra splodging of malt extract, some of which soaks in, some lies proudly on top, giving the malt loaf its distinctive glisten. I catch faint smells of it, in the kitchen or, now, the office, sometimes from the tote bag I carried it in, and every one is glorious.
I know this may be sacrilege but believe me when I say: this stuff is so much better than Soreen. It laughs in the face of student cult foods, and lunchbox snack packs. And best of all, it doesn’t squish and compress into an unmanageable, dense sponge when you try to slice it.
1. At the last minute, I threw in two thick waxy ribbons of lemon peel with my fruit whilst it soaked in the tea, and discarded along with the teabag, which I highly recommend, but the cake won’t suffer for lack of it.
2. I get my malt extract from Holland and Barrett, but if your supermarket is large and well-stocked, you may not need to go further than that.
It goes like this:
A surprisingly celebratory Malt Loaf
Makes: 1 large loaf cake, from which we got eight fat slices
Takes: 20 minutes, including soaking time
Bakes: 1 hour
125 ml black tea
100g sultanas or raisins
Zest of 1/2 lemon, peeled in broad strips (optional)
150g malt extract, plus a little extra for glazing
100g light muscovado sugar
2 tablespoons black treacle
250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
1. Line a large loaf tin with baking paper; I use two long separate strips of greaseproof paper, make them stick with a little bit of extra butter, and allow them to overhang the side. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C.
2. Place the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl, and chop the prunes into small bits.
3. Make up 125ml hot black tea using one teabag. Pour the hot tea over the chopped prunes and sultanas (and lemon peel if using), and leave to sit for 15 minutes.
4. Heat the treacle, malt extract and the sugar in a small saucepan over a medium heat. No need to stir, but don’t allow it to boil.
5. Pour the sugary malty treacle mix into the flour and stir to create what will look like a thick gingerbread dough. Pour the eggs into the mix, one by one, and mix well until each is incorporated and the mixture is glossy.
6. Squeeze the teabag over the soaked fruit, and discard, along with any lemon peel. Pour the soaked fruit and tea into the mixture and stir until combined. Pour it all into the loaf tin as carefully as possible, and place in the oven for an hour.
7. Check the loaf at about 45 minutes and if it’s looking terribly dark, tent it with tin foil to protect it.
8. Remove from the oven when the cake springs back when pressed gently with a finger. Whilst still warm, daub with a little extra malt extract. Allow to cool completely in the tin.
9. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
Of course, you can toast malt loaf, and the obligatory pile of butter will melt into little pools, but with the weather as it is, even the thought of pressing the plunger on the toaster is too trying. I slice thick slabs with a bread knife, and liberally plaster with butter, warm enough to spread smoothly, but firm enough to retain teeth marks when the first, second, and third greedy bites are taken.