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Grandmothers... the beginning of everything

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve making a mess in the kitchen. As a five-year-old, there were the dogged attempts at replicating the chocolate truffles I’d seen my mum make. Enlisting the help of the kid next door, we’d hoist ourselves onto the kitchen worktop, raid the larder cupboard and deliberate over those jars and bottles whose contents were a mystery. We were indiscriminate with our ingredients and liberal with the quantities. Everything went into the bowl. Peanut butter, cocoa powder, brown sugar. So far, so good, right? Tabasco, soy sauce… It often started off promising – but somehow we could never resist the urge to find out what it would taste like if we added just a little bit of mustard powder. Christopher never did get to take any truffles home.

When it came to culinary experimentation I had a kindred spirit in my grandmother, Mary. She, too, had her share of culinary missteps (her pineapple pizza on a soda bread base is a classic example). Mary wasn’t one for weighing scales or following recipes: she came from the ‘handful of this and a handful of that’ school of baking. Saturdays and school holidays spent at granny’s house inevitably involved rolling up one’s sleeves, greasing a raft of loaf tins and mixing together the ingredients she threw by the handful into a series of enormous, chipped, ceramic bowls. During the hour the loaves would spend rising in the oven the house was filled with the smells of home baking that to this day bring me back to her warm, bright kitchen that looked out onto the great horse chestnut tree. The descent of the prickly chestnuts each September heralded the fruit-picking season, when Mary would assemble a small army of grandchildren and steer us across the fields to relieve the brambles of their load. Invariably we’d return bemoaning the splinters and scratches, but always eagerly anticipating the opportunity to stir the jam pot, and the deluge of blackberry pies that would soon be distributed among family and neighbours.

My maternal grandmother, Rita, who I never knew as she passed away when I was very young, is said to have turned out a mean treacle bread, and a scrumptious raisin bread that my mum still reminisces about. Rita wasn’t one for weighing scales either. She was quite the creative, on occasion spotting a dress or an outfit in a shop and deciding that she’d just make it herself. My sewing and knitting skills are far from impressive, but I feel fairly sure I’ve inherited her DIY ethic when it comes to adventures in the kitchen.

So for my inaugural blog, and to pay homage to my formidable grandmothers, I’m beginning with a tried and tested recipe for Irish wheaten bread (a variation on a recipe given to me by the wonderful Deirdre Doherty), which I promise you’ll want to make again and again. Following on from the wheaten bread, I’ve included a gluten-free, wheat-free alternative – a maple and oat soda bread. It follows the same recipe format and gives the same beautiful texture and soft crumb as the wheaten bread. The pumpkin and sunflower seeds are optional but are a delightful addition to both breads. I’d love to hear what you think!

Wheaten Bread

125g plain flour

55ml sunflower oil

150g wholemeal flour

1 tsp (heaped) bicarbonate of soda

50g oats

75g wheat bran

25g wheat germ

1 tsp (level) salt

25g pumpkin seeds

25g sunflower seeds

Juice of ½ to 1 lemon

400ml unsweetened soya milk

25ml golden syrup

2 tbsp sesame seeds or oats

  1. Grease and line a loaf tin and preheat the oven to 180oC.
  2. Rub the oil into the plain flour. 
  3. Add the wholemeal flour and continue to rub to ensure that the fat is evenly distributed.
  4. Sift in the bicarbonate of soda, then add the oats, wheat bran, wheat germ, salt, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds and mix well.
  5. After measuring out the soya milk in a jug, stir and add a little of the lemon juice.  Keep stirring and adding small amounts of lemon juice until the soya milk thickens and sours.  Do not add any more lemon juice than needed (unless you enjoy a lemon tang!)
  6. Add the golden syrup to the milk and stir.
  7. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and add the milk.  Mix well.
  8. Pour into the greased loaf tin.  Smooth the mixture out with a spoon and sprinkle over the sesame seeds or oats.
  9. Bake for approximately one hour until a knife inserted comes out almost clean (so long as the mixture isn’t wet on the knife the bread is ready!)
  10. Leave to cool for 10-15 minutes before tipping the loaf out onto a cooling wrack.

The wheaten bread is easiest to slice when completely cool. Enjoy fresh, or toasted and spread with lashings of extra virgin coconut oil and strawberry jam. Delicious! Granny would definitely approve.

Tip: The loaf will easily last up to five days, but if you’re not going to use it up within this time, slice it, bag it and put it in the freezer, to take out as and when you need it. It tastes as good toasted from frozen as it does on the day it’s made.

Maple & Oat Soda Bread (gluten-free)

375g plain gluten-free flour

50ml sunflower oil

75g gluten-free oats

75g gluten-free oat bran

25g pumpkin seeds

1 tsp (level) salt

1 tsp (heaped) bicarbonate of soda

Juice of ½ to 1 lemon

375ml unsweetened soya milk

25ml maple syrup

2 tbsp sesame seeds or oats

  1. Grease and line a loaf tin and preheat the oven to 180oC.
  2. Combine the flour and oat bran and rub the oil into the mixture. 
  3. Sift in the bicarbonate of soda, then add the oats, salt and seeds and mix well.
  4. After measuring out the soya milk in a jug, stir and add a little of the lemon juice.  Keep stirring and adding small amounts of lemon juice until the soya milk thickens and sours.  Do not add any more lemon juice than needed.
  5. Add the maple syrup to the milk and stir.
  6. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and add the milk.  Mix well.
  7. Pour into the greased loaf tin.  Smooth the mixture out with a spoon and sprinkle over the sesame seeds or oats.
  8. Bake for approximately 50 minutes until a knife inserted comes out almost clean.
  9. Leave to cool for 10-15 minutes before tipping the loaf out onto a cooling wrack.

Tip: If you have trouble finding gluten free oat bran just double the quantity of gluten free oats instead.

As with the wheaten bread, the maple and oat soda bread is delicious fresh, or toasted and spread with a little coconut oil and strawberry jam. And similarly, if you’re not going to use it up within a couple of days, slice it, bag it and put it in the freezer, to take out as and when you need it.

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