When Sam and I first started dating, I would occasionally make him neat, thoughtful packed lunches as an act of love. They invariably involved expensive ingredients, or time consuming preparation: smoked salmon, or proper homemade chutneys. I composed salads that would make a grown man cry, with mackerel and beetroot and horseradish, or tiny potatoes, with dill and creme fraiche and gherkins. He would probably have been as happy with a haphazard cheese and salad sandwich as anything else, but for me it was a way to send him off to work with affection. Fast forward four years and he now survives on a combination of leftovers and sandwiches he hastily makes himself. Until now.
My mum’s packed lunches were things of beauty: if she made you a ham and tomato sandwich, it was the finest ham and tomato sandwich you’d ever eaten. My best friend became vegetarian for a decade and said the thing she missed most were Aunty Ruth’s tuna sandwiches. Never soggy, never overhanging, cut into triangles so exactly you’d think she’d measured them with a ruler. She hadn’t of course, it was just her gift: she made perfect sandwiches. She was the sandwich whisperer. I don’t eat ham and tomato sandwiches now, because they’ll never truly be quite right. Like those from my days of early dating, her packed lunches were little acts of love.
As September looms, I start to feel an itch to go back to my lunch-packed ways. To show again thought and care and love. I’ve always felt a fondness for September, and not just because it houses my birthday. The legal calendar (sort of) works in the same way as academic terms, and there remains a back to school feeling when Michaelmas term begins. I love it. I love new starts, new terms, new shoes.
But this time it really is me going back to school. Term begins in three weeks, and you’d better believe I’m going to have a piece of this in my shiny, new satchel.
These loaves are delicious: chilled together, the components meld and compliment each other; the compression makes their disproportionate filling manageable for even the smallest hands, and packed-lunch appropriate.
The loaf below is truly a guide: you can put whatever the hell you fancy in there, as long as it’s not too soggy: no tomatoes here. If you’re using cucumber, slice and salt it first, sitting it on kitchen towel to let it drain. Make sure you have layers of protective leaves on the bottom of the loaf, and that you push them all the way up the sides. But other than that: go wild. Smoked mozzarella would be gorgeous, as would brie. Proscuitto is a decadently lovely option, and would work well with marinated artichokes. Griddled and drained courgette or aubergine would be delicious.
It is also, I imagine, a great way to get vegetables into children. I say I imagine because I am not a parent and don’t presume to know the intricacies of teaching children, well, anything. But I’m occasionally a vegetable-denier, much to my shame, when I don’t believe it is an integral part of the meal. But, I was duped by this loaf, and I made the damn thing.
It goes like this:
Back to School Picnic Loaf
Makes: 1 loaf: 3 adult lunches or 6 child portions
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes [chills]: 2 hours
A medium-sized cob loaf
2 tablespoons of mayonnaise
1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
A handful of baby spinach
2-3 marinated peppers
4-5 slices of Salami
1 pinch of fresh basil leaves
1. First, excavate your loaf. You’re going to do this by cutting a circle with a small, sharp knife. Ease your fingers under the loaf and wiggle the crumbs until the lid is freed. Then cut off the excess crumbs/bread insides from the lid with a bread knife. Set the lid to one side. Scoop out the crumbs inside to form a hollow, but be careful not to tear the crust.
2. Now, line your hollow: I like baby spinach for this, as there’s a neat overlap, and they provide a safe base to stop your loaf going soggy. Mix two tablespoons of mayonnaise with a teaspoon of mustard, and paint 2/3 of this carefully over the leaves with the back of your spoon.
3. Add a layer of salami over the spinach.
4. Drain the peppers or other roasted veg that you’re using, and lay them carefully over the layer of mayonnaise.
5. Drain excess liquid from the ricotta and then beat it with a fork until it is creamy. Season really well with lots of salt and pepper (I like smoked salt here, if I have some). Spoon it over the peppers .
6. Place another layer of salami over the ricotta, and paint the final 1/3 of mustard mayonnaise over the top.
7. Top with spinach leaves, and a few leaves of basil. Place the lid back on to the loaf and wrap it several times in clingfilm. Put it in the fridge with a dinner plate resting on it, and weight the dinner plate with two or three tins of beans. Refrigerate for two hours.
8. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
We ate this as it should be eaten: in fat wedges, showing off their layers, packed smugly and snugly into lunch boxes.