Recollections of big bonfire night gatherings filled with baked potatoes and vats of chilli set Bury St Edmunds-based food writer and MasterChef quarter-finalist Hannah Gregory on the path to her recipe for the gloriously rich parkin
There are few things that remind me more of the beginning of November and bonfire night than the smell of mixed spices: ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Sticky patches on the work surface where a golden syrupy spoon rested, and the sight of dark, glossy black treacle pouring slowly into a puddle.
Bonfire night was a huge occasion throughout my childhood. We lived on a farm and the piles of wood, papers, feed bags, ends of bailing twine and just about anything else that had been acquired throughout the year – including at times the odd rat carcass – would be topped with a very questionable Guy Fawkes and set alight.
The whole village was invited along with any of their rubbish that needed burning, and come 6pm, neighbours would rock up with wheelbarrows full of old Argos catalogues and Yellow Pages. Our bonfire parties were things of legend. Not only did we provide a free waste disposal service for anyone within a 10-mile radius but my mother, ever the host, insisted on feeding EVERYONE.
Trays of jacket potatoes were rubbed in oil and then rolled in flaky salt before spending the best part of the day in the AGA – NOTHING beats an AGA baked potato – they would then be individually wrapped in tin foil and dropped into buckets ready to be collected by our guests. My grandmother and a few of her mates were always around for this particular holiday, which meant lots of sets of dentures which weren’t quite up to the task of the gnarly, crispy potato skins. I would hover around like some kind of bin chicken waiting for the discarded skins, collect them up and have myself my favourite meal of all time.
Accompanying the buckets of potatoes were vats of chilli con carne that had been bubbling away for hours – in my mind it was always served in huge black cast iron cauldrons, but I am wondering if that is more to do with the narrative I have put on my mother, rather than a factual recollection.
But the piece de la resistance, the protagonist of this column. . . glorious, rich parkin. A northern dish, introduced to me by my mother, a northern lass through and through although her elocution lessons would tell you otherwise. Whilst I have been writing this column I have, of course, had to make a good three trays of the stuff to ensure it is absolutely perfect. As I have been handing it out to friends/neighbours/the postman, it has become apparent that this delicacy has not made it south of the Pennines. In short, it is a spiced ginger cake made with oats and treacle. I have upgraded our family version with a hit of stem ginger. Traditionally, you would eat it on its own but it also makes a great dessert served warm with plenty of cream.
When I was about 12 years old my mother tasked me with the making of the parkin. A HUGE responsibility, I remember taking my job so seriously, painstakingly measuring out every single ingredient (I am now more of a ‘chuck it in’ sort of cook), shutting anyone who wasn’t classed as essential out of the kitchen so I could really concentrate on my craft and spending hours on this winter cake. I have no idea what I was doing as since revisiting this recipe I have discovered it actually takes about 10 minutes and is possibly the easiest bake going.
4 pieces of stem ginger and 4 tablespoons of the syrup it comes in
4 tablespoons full fat milk
175g golden syrup
100g light brown sugar
80g medium ground oatmeal
100g self raising flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon mixed spice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Few shavings of fresh nutmeg
Thick jersey cream to serve
Preheat your oven to 150C and grease a square cake tin/brownie dish – I use a 20cm job.
In a large, heavy bottom saucepan melt the syrup, treacle, butter and sugar and then remove from the heat.
Whilst that is slowly melting measure out all your dry ingredients into a bowl. Combine with the syrup mixture.
Stir in the milk and egg to the mix.
Finely chop your stem ginger and add to the mix along with 2 tablespoons of the ginger syrup.
Pour into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour.
Allow to cool and then if eating as a cake wrap in tin foil. It gets better as it sits, believe me.
Alternatively, cut into squares and serve with thick jersey cream and the remaining ginger syrup poured over for a truly decadent winter dessert.
Find out about Hannah’s upcoming Supper Clubs and what she is currently cooking via Instagram @WanderSups or see wandersups.com