Here in the UK we are coming up for the effigy-burning, firework-displaying extravaganza that is Guy Fawkes Night. Also known as Bonfire Night, November 5 commemorates the evening in 1605 that 13 young men had planned to use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Poor old Guy Fawkes should have stayed in the ye olde tavern because not only was he caught, tortured and executed, we now have a rather gruesome tradition of making effigies of him to burn. Or rather they do in England. Up in Scotland it’s just fireworks and hard cider (any excuse really).
Truthfully there are probably more than a few people celebrating his and his co-conspirator’s bravery and (drunken) idea rather than celebrating their execution. And more than a few who have no idea what it’s all about but who like stockpiling and setting off fireworks in a socially sanctioned way. In our neck of the woods, for about a week now, sporadic, half-hearted displays have been shooting off as soon as the sun goes down. Calendars are obviously passe these days.
But Bonfire Night is always quite something. In a couple of days’ time we will be getting sore necks from craning them skyward. And our bellies will be stretched with socially sanctioned Bonfire Night food: my Mexican hot chocolate, some warm soup from a flask, bangers and mash (I am already anticipating a request from Mr A who, I swear, could live on mashed potatoes) and this cake. To be followed by a week of tofu and steamed vegetables. LOL. Other Bonfire Night foods that are popular around the country include Cottage Pie, Bonfire Toffee (the dentist’s favourite), foil-wrapped bonfire-baked potatoes, Scotch eggs and toffee apples. Not the healthiest of feasts, but they are all foods that hit the spot when standing around in a foot-stampingly cold – and probably damp – field.
I think pretty much anything warming and vaguely portable can take a spot on the Bonfire Night table. The only non-negotiable is parkin. I don’t think many would argue with me on this. But the thing about parkin is that it is not a last-minute ‘ooh I’ll just bung something together’ kind of cake. It is very easy but it does need to be made in advance. A good three days, or a few more. So if you are reading this and planning to celebrate (the execution, or the drunken idea), get stirring. If you have never eaten or made it, you are in for a real English treat.
I was first introduced to parkin by Mr A’s grandmother, affectionately known as GG. Although born in Edinburgh she lived many years in Yorkshire and, as well as being able to switch on a broad Yorkshire accent at the drop of a (cloth) hat, she was a mean baker, and this was a specialty. We all miss her very much, she really was a wonderful, vibrant lady, but we have her recipes to help remember her. And at this time of year I feel she is right here with me while I make this cake. I have adapted GG’s old recipe but it is essentially hers. Heartily recommended for eating most anytime, not only on Bonfire Night. Just add fireworks.
Three-Ginger Bonfire Night Parkin with Vanilla-Apple Compote
Parkin, whose origins are as dark as the actual cake, is essentially a Northern English gingerbread, but much stickier with a hint of liquorice from the dark treacle. It is made all over northern England but the Yorkshire version, with its inclusion of deeply nutritious medium oats, is the most popular and, imho, the most delicious. For any of you outside the UK, pinhead or steelcut oats, whizzed briefly in a food processor to get a finer grain, will do just fine. Bob’s Red Mill carries what we call medium oatmeal, but it’s quite pricey.
Although it is traditional to have parkin on November 5 for Bonfire Night, it is of course suitable for eating any time, any place. The key to fabulous, sticky parkin is to leave it to mature, tightly wrapped and airtight, for at least three days. A week is best. Enjoy it on its own, with this compote, some custard or whipped cream. And you have to have a strong cup of tea (Yorkshire Gold perhaps?). I hope to take ours out of its shroud of crinkled paper and into the garden to enjoy while watching the neighbourhood fireworks. Any leftovers – crumbs probably – will get fed to the hens as a reward for surviving the noise. Poor things! Cute pic of them below.
100g (4 oz) butter or dairy-free margarine
100g (4 oz) black treacle/sorghum/molasses
200g (7 oz) agave nectar/golden syrup/corn syrup
75g (3 oz) coconut palm sugar/dark brown sugar
200g (7 oz/1.6 cups) unbleached plain flour/AP flour sifted with 2 ¼ tsp baking powder and ¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 heaped tbsp ground ginger (or 2 tbsp if not using other gingers)
1 ½ tsp allspice or mixed spice (I prefer allspice, but mixed is traditional)
2 heaped tsp freshly grated ginger
10 pieces crystallised ginger, chopped
6 tbsp oat, almond or dairy milk (4 if your eggs are large, as my hens’ are)
To make: Oil and completely line a 20cm x 20cm/8” x 8” baking tin. Preheat oven to 140C/275F.
In a large, heavy pan gently melt together the butter, treacle, syrup and sugar. You just want the sugar to melt – no boiling please.
In a large, wide bowl whisk together the dry ingredients. Make a well and pour in the warm sugary mixture, stirring well to make sure everything is wet. Now whisk in the eggs and milk. It may take a number of strokes to get it amalgamated, but it will come together in a fragrant, impossibly sloppy batter.
Pour the parkin batter into your prepared tin and bake for 1 ½ hours until it is completely set and an inserted skewer comes out clean. It should be a tempting deep golden brown. Take the parkin from the oven and let it cool in the tin on a wire cooling rack. At this point some bakers remove the cake and paper and wrap it in fresh paper and smother it in tightly wrapped foil. I just leave mine as is but wrapped in two thick layers of foil. Now, the hard part. You know how good it looks and smells, but you are going to have to bite the bullet and tuck the parkin away somewhere dry and cool. Leave it for at least three days, but up to a week. The flavour will mature, the cake will become gloriously, finger-lickingly sticky, and the moistness will be perfect. If you dare to pinch off a piece after baking, it will be kind of dry and ordinary, so please wait. It is worth it.
In season, I always make apple compote from my garden’s apple tree, which seems to be a cooker-eater cross. Due to earlier poor weather this year’s crop is skimpy and the fruit miniscule, but luckily the taste is still very fine; they are just a pest to peel. Traditionally one uses cooking apples, which are more tart than eaters, and ‘fall’ to a delightful snow-like mush. But use any apples you have, adding a touch of lemon juice to eaters and mashing them if they don’t fall. I like texture in my applesauce, which compote is really, but if you don’t, just use a hand blender to get the texture you want. Add in a touch of cinnamon too if you like. Btw, the butter is optional but just the tiny amount I have listed makes a huge difference to the taste. Don’t know why, but it does.
500g (1 lb) cooking apples
100ml (4 fl oz) water
4 tbsp agave nectar OR 75g (3 oz) sugar (agave is sweeter than sugar)
1 vanilla pod (keep whole) OR 1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp butter
To make: Peel, core and roughly chop the apples. Pop these in a heavy saucepan with the water, agave/sugar and vanilla. Heat gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the butter. If the apples are still quite wet cook until the obvious moisture disappears, but don’t let the pan go dry. Remove the vanilla pod; rinse and dry it, then store. Mash the apples a potato masher if necessary, but proper cooking apples usually just need a good stir to make fluffy, thick apple compote. Use within one week, but it freezes well too.
Uses: in yogurt and cottage cheese, on pancakes, with cake, as a pie filling, to accompany roasted and grilled meat and game, alongside mackerel, mixed with fresh fruit and topped with nuts, just as a wee healthy snack.