It’s worth remembering that commercial baking powder as we know it today has only been with us for a little over 100 years (although the substance itself was discovered by British chemist Alfred Bird in 1843). Does this mean that our ancestors were denied the pleasure of a cup of tea and a slice of cake? Far from it. Instead fruit, butter or lard, sugar and spice would be added to bread dough to make a sweet treat as described by Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:
“The chief delicacy at these (harvest) teas was ‘baker’s cake‘, a rich fruity, spicy dough cake, obtained in the following manner. The housewife provided all the ingredients excepting the dough, putting raisins and currants, lard, sugar and spice in a basin which she gave to the baker, who added the dough, made and baked the cake, and returned it, beautifully browned in his big oven. The charge was the same as for that for a loaf of bread the same size, and the result delicious.”
Elizabeth David points out that traditional yeast leavened cakes are a lot less sweet than more modern recipes. She describes a modern recipe for a Yorkshire spiced loaf which contains 450g sugar, 1.35kg dried fruit and 900g flour concluding “this is almost solid sweet matter held together by flour, eggs and fat”. She particularly warns readers of her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery to steer clear of lardy cakes:
“They are a dietician’s nightmare. Weight watchers must stay far away from them, and to school children they could become perilously compulsive.”
As an homage to the cakes of yore I have baked this fruity loaf in a 20cm springform tin but it works equally well in a 900g (2lb) loaf tin. It’s a highly aromatic loaf which isn’t overly sweet although I’m sure, once you have slathered it in butter and jam as I do, it’s no healthier than lardy cake. The saffron gives it a delicate golden hue but if you use saffron strands every now and then you will come across a streak of vibrant amber. It toasts really well but if you intend to do this I would probably omit the icing. If you do plan to ice the bread be sure to use a really pungent rosewater (one that smells like you should dab it behind your ears) like this one. If you don’t like rose water then use ordinary tap water instead.
Apricot, Pistachio and Saffron Bread with Rose Water Icing
- 125g no need to soak apricots, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp rose water
- 125ml whole milk
- Good pinch of saffron strands
- 125ml lukewarm water
- 2 tsp active dried yeast or the same quantity of dried fast action yeast
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 25g unsalted butter, melted
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 50g caster sugar
- 10 cardamom pods, seeds removed then finely crushed
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 60g shelled, unsalted pistachios
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 225g icing sugar, sifted
- 2 – 4 tbsp rose water
- Rose petals or coarsely chopped pistachios to decorate (optional)
- Soak the apricots in the rose water for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile heat the milk in a small pan until almost boiling then pour over the saffron strands and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
- Mix the yeast and granulated sugar with the lukewarm water and leave for around 10 minutes until it is frothy. (You could skip this stage if you use the same quantity of fast action yeast).
- Place the flour, salt, sugar, ground spices and pistachios in a food mixer with a dough hook attached or a large bowl if making by hand. Add the infused apricots and milk followed by the yeast mix, melted butter and egg. Mix on a low speed for around 4 minutes or until a smooth dough has formed (this will take around 10 minutes by hand). Place in a bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave to prove for 1½ – 2 hours or until doubled in size.
- Knead the dough again then place in a greased 20cm springform tin or a greased 900g loaf tin. Leave to prove again for 30 – 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
- Bake at 200°C for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 180°C and bake for a further 25 – 30 minutes. Remove from the tin and allow to cool.
- To make the icing. Sift the sugar into a bowl. Add 2 tbsp of rose water and mix to a smooth but fairly stiff paste. Gradually add a further tablespoon of rose water until you reach a smooth dropping consistency (you don’t want it too runny otherwise it will slide off the loaf). I generally find 3 tbsp of liquid is sufficient but you may require slightly more or less.