It's been an interesting few days. Firstly, I found myself back in contact with two friends who I lost touch with 15 years ago, after we lived together in an intentional community in Dorset. Quite how we lost touch I'm not sure; one is recently back from living in Eastern Europe, which might have something to do with it, while the other has ended up back not a million miles from where we left off. It was Facebook that dunnit, one of those infernal friends of friends of friends things that I usually ignore (I'm not big on FB, though maybe I need to pay better attention ....). And so I was transported back to the days of running dance retreats and camps and living in tent and tipi circles on the land for three months in the summer and smelling of woodsmoke and trying to work out how to survive in winter in a big but beautiful draughty old Dorset thatched farmhouse on which I and another member had blagged a ninety thousand pound mortgage from Barclays (which was a fortune then, especially for a bunch of hippies with no proper income ....). Oh, and cooking for huge numbers of people.
And it was while I was ruminating on the trials and tribulations of cooking for groups that the second thing happened: I was approached to see if I'd be interested in cooking for twenty people on retreat, for 10 days. Vegan, of course. I spent - ooh, all of thirty seconds thinking about it. And then I said no. (Well, come on, haven't I got enough jobs to be going on with?). In my last-but-seventh incarnation as co-owner of a vegetarian guest house I reckon over half our guests were vegan, and it was a huge challenge, in the days before Terre a Terre and Denis Cotter and the like, to create interesting menus for them. Particularly traumatic was the annual visit, for a week at a time, of a lovely vegan family of four from Hull - they came three times altogether: that's 21 different vegan three course dinners ...... (We must have done something right though; recently my then-partner encountered, purely by chance, a woman who turned out to be one of the daughters; although she was only eight then, she still remembered eating dinner with us ....).
And it was while I was ruminating on the trials and tribulations of cooking for vegans that I had a sudden craving for something we used to cook in great quantities in our early restaurant days. So I dropped my plastering float and made it, there and then. It's just as good as ever, and I thought you might like to make it too. And so here is the recipe, reproduced shamelessly from our second cook book, which was called slowcafefood.
(very) sticky date gingerbread
Okay, here it is - the darkest, richest, stickiest thing ever. You've been badgering us for this one ever since we made the first one in our tea room days and it went within a couple of hours. Now who would have thought that a vegan cake would be so popular? Yes, this one contains absolutely no animal or animal derived products at all. No eggs, no butter, no honey … sounds gross (but, oh, it isn't). If you make no other cake from this book, make this one.
Having developed quite a repertoire of gluten free and sugar free dessert cakes, we've been working recently on coming up with some vegan ones. We know we've succeeded when most of the people eating them have no idea that what they're eating is 'different' in some way, because we really hate sidelining certain kinds of eaters, just as we hate being 'catered for' if we want to eat veggie in a restaurant or pub or hotel (in fact best not let me loose on this one - it's one of my major soapbox subjects). Vegan-cakes-I-have-known tend to be of the worthy wholefood variety, which are - er - very nice and all that, but come on - how many times have you heard the words 'vegan' and 'wicked' used in the same sentence? This cake, however, is most definitely wicked. Especially with (close your eyes, you vegans out there) a large dollop of Greek yoghurt or cream. You can eat this any time with a cup of good coffee, but it’s brilliant dressed up as a dessert in any number of ways. Try it, for instance, with slow roasted pears and ginger flavoured crème fraîche; or cut into thin fingers, arranged artfully over a rhubarb compote and drizzled with a vegan shrikand cream ...
Now we’ve never got tired of either eating or making this one just as it is, but ruminating away at the back of my mind are one or two variations. What would it be like, for instance, as a chocolate ginger cake, made by substituting some of the flour with organic cocoa? And perhaps throwing in some roasted hazelnuts or walnuts as well? I hope some of you are tempted to do a little fiddling around if you discover you like this cake as much as we do. So I guess you’d better have the recipe:
200g white flour
150g wholemeal flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g dates, chopped very thinly (otherwise they'll sink)
4 or 5 round stems of preserved ginger (the kind that comes in syrup), thinly sliced
125g Demerara sugar
150g black treacle
150g golden syrup
125ml sunflower or soya oil
125ml soya milk
Sift the flours and put all the dry stuff and fruit into a big bowl. Gently warm the treacle and syrup to blend them together, then when the mixture's cooled slightly (not too much otherwise it'll be too viscous) stir in the oil and then the soya milk. Don't worry if it appears to go globby or curdly (these are technical terms, you realise): simply trust the process and keep stirring gently, and all of a sudden you'll have a nice dark glossy liquid. It's important, this bit - for some reason the cake doesn't work so well if you add the soya milk first, or if you mix the oil and milk together before you add them. Pour the liquid mixture onto the solid mixture and stir to combine. Spoon the result (which should be pretty runny - if you can do this without making a mess you were either brought up nicer than me or you've done something different) into a 1kg loaf tin, lined with baking parchment, and bake for round about 75 minutes at 150°C. You want it to be quite firm, even slightly caramelised, at the edges and squidgy inside. And don't panic when it sinks a bit in the middle. That's what it does.
Take the cake out of the tin after about 5 minutes, peel the paper away from the sides and then leave it till it's cool. Wrap it in foil, put it in an airtight tin and (this is the most difficult bit) forget all about it for at least 3 days. Put it out of sight, tie up your hands, put the tin in your safety deposit box at the bank, do whatever you have to do … but wait. You (and it) will be all the better for it.