I’m often asked how I came to baking. My mum didn’t bake much when we were kids, and we lived far away from our grandparents, so it wasn’t a tradition passed down through the family. When I scroll through my memories, baking punctuates almost every stage of my life, but I think it really took root with Winnie. When I was a child, she was our nearest neighbour (two long fields away), and on Monday mornings, she came up the road to collect eggs from our chickens. She then spent the day baking, producing enough to last the week. She had lived in her house all of her life. It was an ancient cottage, the stone walls thick and uneven, a red corrugated iron roof covered the thatch underneath, and there was no central heating. It was usually freezing, even in the summer, but on baking days the kitchen was warm and the smell irresistible. Winnie was gentle and kind, a sort of surrogate grandmother to the four of us, and whenever we popped in we were invited to pick something from her cake tin. We usually took one of her buns—just a simple sponge in a paper cupcake case, no icing—and washed it down with a tumbler of very strong orange squash. The tops of the buns were gently crisp golden domes, and I saved them for last. Visits with Winnie are some of my fondest and most enduring childhood memories.
Baking played a starring role in community events too. School fundraisers always had a baking table, and at the summer Highland Games there’d be several. Laid with paper cloths, the tables were stacked with homemade fairy cakes, scones, flapjacks, chocolate Krispie cakes, little plastic bags filled with tablet, millionaire shortbread, rock cakes, gingerbread people, shortbread petticoat tails, fruitcake, ginger cake smeared with butter, homemade jams, and various things covered in thick, sickly buttercream. Greedy children crowded the tables, pleading with their parents for this treat or that. Appetites spoiled left, right, and centre. I didn’t grow up with exquisitely decorated cakes and pastries. I grew up with things that women made at home to be shared with family and friends.
I wasn’t especially good at baking when I was younger, but I did love to make things for other people. When I was a student, my flatmates and I baked on Mondays (like Winnie) for our weekly America’s Next Top Model viewing. We shared a cake and watched Tyra Banks teach beautiful, impressionable young women how to smile with only their eyes and to channel their inner “fierceness”. We held bake sales in our final year of college, raising funds to produce our degree show catalogue. After I graduated I moved to London and took a job as a project manager in a gallery. I baked in my spare time as respite. I’d never considered baking as a legitimate career choice, but as time went on and the egos of famous artists began to weigh on me, it became clear that I was not made to manage other people’s projects. I was made to make my own things, and that’s what brings me happiness.
People talk about baking as therapy, and it was for me; it brought a clarity to my life that I hadn’t felt before. I discovered that I had an instinct for it, that the materials made sense to me, and that I was good at it. All these memories became my reference points, woven into my senses, waiting to be put to work. Women who baked for their loved ones, communities coming together, nothing fancy, everything delicious. During the last year, many of you have also used baking as therapy. (If you didn’t bake sourdough or banana bread, were you even pandemic-ing properly?) At the beginning of last year, in those last glorious weeks of normality, I sat down and talked with the US-based publication Milk Street about why I bake. Without knowing that it would become the lockdown bake of choice, I shared our banana bread recipe, and it was published in the November issue of the magazine. So if you haven’t yet settled on a pandemic banana bread, give this one a go. Our recipe was adapted by Milk Street for the home kitchen and is a little different to the one we bake in the shop, but still very good. Serve it by the slice, adding a smear of nut butter if you like.
Banana hazelnut loaf
35 g hazelnuts, unroasted
70 g hazelnuts, roasted (no skins)
210 g plain flour (in Germany, 405 is best)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (Natron)
¼ tsp salt
400 g very ripe bananas, the skin should be very spotted
160 g fine sugar
80 g rapeseed oil
1 tbsp granulated sugar for sprinkling
Heat the oven to 180°C (no fan).
Roughly chop the unroasted hazelnuts and set aside.
Spray a 25 cm loaf tin with cooking spray, or brush with oil. Line with baking paper, and also mist the paper with cooking spray.
In a food processor, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, and remaining hazelnuts. Process until the nuts are finely ground, 30 to 45 seconds. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, then return the food processor bowl and blade to the base.
Add the bananas, fine sugar, and oil to the processor bowl. Process until smooth, creamy and aerated, about 30 seconds. Add the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and fold with a silicone spatula until just combined. Transfer to the prepared loaf tin and smooth the top. Sprinkle evenly with the granulated sugar and chopped hazelnuts. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes.
Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack to cool completely.