I used to make myself a tea loaf every few days when I was in my second and third year of university. I remember this very distinctly. I can remember the exact spot on my bookshelves in my room where I would keep the polka-dot Emma Bridgewater cake tin (a present - I can never afford that sort of stuff normally). I can remember my daily afternoon ritual: returning from the Bodleian to have lunch, then working in my room for the rest of the day, occasionally getting distracted by people-watching through my gigantic bay window that looked out onto a busy thoroughfare (sometimes I'd see a friend frantically waving up at me). Around four o'clock, I'd make myself a big mug of tea, slice a thick slab of tea loaf, lick the sugary residue off my fingers after transporting it to a plate, and sit down, settled, a fork in hand.
There I would sit, sun streaming in through the window, books piled up around my laptop, tea steaming, the faint sound of voices and laughter emanating from the street outside. Mouthful after sugary mouthful, the tea loaf would disappear in a haze of sweet stickiness, and I would feel revived, ready to carry on with Marvell or Richardson or Defoe or whatever else I had to set my mind to that afternoon.
Sometimes it was banana bread, when I had bananas to use up, but often I'd make various variations on the theme of a tea loaf. Tea loaves are, to me, a quintessentially British bit of baking. They involve steeping dried fruit in strong tea for several hours (or overnight), before mixing this fruit and tea medley with flour and eggs; sometimes a little sugar (not much is needed as the fruit is so sweet), sometimes ground almonds to add moisture; sometimes a pinch of warming spice. The main point is that there is no fat added: the tea-soaked fruit makes the cake perfectly moist and gooey without the need for butter or oil. Thus, the beauty of the tea loaf: good for those watching their waistline.
I wasn't, incidentally, but few things can perk up the academic brain more than a slice of cake packed with dried fruit. I used to use apricots, figs, prunes, dates and sultanas. My favourite mouthfuls were those featuring the dates, which turned gloriously sticky and toffee-like during the baking process. Sometimes I added almonds, for a little crunch, or steeped the fruit in orange juice instead of tea.
I love the magic that happens when you soak dried fruit. Used to eating it raw, or throwing it raw into things like cakes and breads, I forget how deliciously plump and juicy it becomes after a nice hot bath. The saturated fruit makes the cake all the more moist, sticky and gooey. It's kind of how a fruit cake should be - I always find those fruit cakes we make on festive occasions, like Christmas cake or simnel cake, far too dry.
There's something intensely comforting about a tea loaf. It's solid and robust, a good, proper, old-fashioned cake. It often has a lovely crunchy crust around the outside, while the inside is gloriously moist and gooey from all the fruit. The fruit is plump and sweet, having absorbed the tea or juice, while the cake itself is fluffy, often with a hint of spice. It's the kind of thing you eat when you are feeling a bit sad, or a bit tired, or a bit peckish. I can't think of something better to revive you in the afternoon. Also, because it's lower on sugar than most cakes, it doesn't give you a horrible sugar crash when you come back down to earth - the dried fruit is good, honest, slow-release energy. At least I feel it is; I'm no nutritionist.
You can eat a tea loaf spread with a little butter, but when it's fresh from the oven it needs no accompaniment other than tea. The smell as it bakes, filling your kitchen with homely, warming aromas, is - for me - what baking is all about.
This recipe is inspired by my recent trip to the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival. There I bought a delicious rhubarb and ginger 'brack', an Irish name for a sweet, fruited bread that is now often used to denote a tea loaf. I gave it to my mum for Mother's Day, and it only recently emerged from the freezer, allowing me to finally have a taste. It's delicious - quite a dense cake, with wonderfully gingery, sweet sultanas and sticky chunks of rhubarb. The sort of thing you could almost justify having for breakfast. It feels wholesome, somehow, robust and earthy and inviting.
Inspired by a few mouthfuls of this, I decided to have a go at creating my own. Having never made a rhubarb tea loaf before, I experimented, basing my recipe on a few others I'd come across online and the taste and texture of the brack I had bought. I was a little worried it wouldn't work, but it did - beautifully.
I soaked a mixture of raisins, finely chopped crystallized ginger and finely chopped rhubarb in strong Earl Grey tea overnight (part of me wanted to use Yorkshire tea, given the provenance of rhubarb and where I live, but I thought Earl Grey would add a lovely floral fragrance). In the morning, the raisins were plump and the ginger had perfumed the whole thing with its sharp, hot scent. To this mixture I added an egg and a little brown sugar, then folded the whole lot into flour, baking powder, ground almonds, a hefty amount of ground ginger and a little cinnamon. I wanted the whole thing to be really gingery - I almost considered adding some stem ginger syrup as well, but restrained myself. The batter was the perfect consistency (I worried I'd put in too much tea, and the rhubarb would be watery) as I spooned it all into a lined loaf tin.
This honestly is one of the easiest cakes you could ever make. I whipped it up in the time it took me to make a cup of tea to go with my breakfast. You only need a couple of bowls and spoons, and a loaf tin. And an oven, of course. I really love how simple and homely it is - just a few ingredients, no fancy techniques (not even a whisk needed), and the result is a beautiful old-fashioned loaf.
And the taste? Fantastic. It's incredibly gingery, fiery bursts of crystallised ginger peppering the dense, moist crumb. This, though, is tempered by the gooey pieces of rhubarb throughout, and the sweet, plump raisins. I actually think it's better than the brack I bought from the festival! Although tea loaves have a tendency to be quite dense, the juicy rhubarb in this really lightens it, while still making it seem indulgent. You could serve it as a pudding after a light meal, with some ice cream, or have it for breakfast spread with butter. I ate it still warm from the oven, unable to believe that my spontaneous experiment had worked out quite so well.
If you're a rhubarb fan, or a ginger fan, I'd urge you to try this. It's unlike any other rhubarb or ginger cake I've tasted, and perfect for lovers of very gingery cakes. For such a simple recipe, it's immensely rewarding. And, even better, it's low-fat - but you wouldn't guess.
Rhubarb and ginger brack (makes 1 loaf):
- 300ml strong, hot tea (I used Earl Grey)
- 100g raisins or sultanas
- 150g finely diced rhubarb
- 50g crystallised ginger, finely chopped
- 200g plain, wholemeal or spelt flour
- 50g ground almonds
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 egg
- 75g light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp demerara sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
Soak the raisins, rhubarb and crystallised ginger in the tea overnight.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 170C. Grease and line a loaf tin with baking parchment. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, almonds, baking powder, ginger and cinnamon. To the tea and fruit mixture, add the egg and sugar and stir together. Pour the fruit mixture into the flour mixture, and mix with a large spoon or spatula until evenly combined.
Pour the mixture into the loaf tin, then sprinkle with the demerara sugar, if using. Bake for 55 minutes, until the top of the loaf is crusty and golden, but still gives slightly in the middle when pressed. Leave to cool a little before slicing and serving. It's also very good the next day spread with butter, and freezes well.