Love letter to British baking

Food writer Regula Ysewijn. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Food writer Regula Ysewijn. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Described as a love letter to British baking, Oats in the North, Wheat from the South is, funnily enough, written by Regula Ysewijn, who is from Belgium.

‘‘The joy of Regula’s writing is that through it all, we realise that it takes an outsider looking in to show us who we truly are,’’ food historian Dr Annie Gray says.

Ysewijn has a long-held fascination with Britain and a love of its baking since she was a child spending holidays in the isles.

‘‘I would press my nose to the window to see which buns and cake were on offer.’’

She describes British baking as ‘‘cosiness and warmth’’ and part of the nation’s consciousness.

‘‘If they could, they would drop everything each day at 4o’clock for afternoon tea.’’

THE BOOK: Oats in the North, Wheat from the South, by Regula Ysewijn, published by Murdoch Books,...
THE BOOK: Oats in the North, Wheat from the South, by Regula Ysewijn, published by Murdoch Books, RRP $55
Given many of New Zealand’s tea and cake traditions were influenced by British settlers, many of the recipes will be familiar.

Ysewijn developed the book’s recipes based on historical research and her own recipes for more recent classics such as carrot cake and coffee and walnut cake.

Gray says the book brings together buns and bakes that people would find in every British shop and cakes and breads that have long disappeared.

‘‘Together with the stories that make them such a window on to both the past and present.’’

Ysewijn discovered British baking was influenced by its landscape. The weather in the north meant oats and barley were the most important crops because they could withstand the weather, so northerners developed a culture for quick breads such as soda bread, griddle cakes, oatcakes and scones, while cakes were heavily spiced and often included rum or sherry.

In the south, where the climate was dryer and summers longer, wheat was the grain ‘‘par excellence’’.

However, over the centuries many bakes disappeared or changed extensively, while others survived because they were the staple food of workers in particular regions, such as the pasty in Cornwall, eaten by miners.

She has not divided the book into chapters or put ‘‘cakes into boxes’’ as buns and biscuits sometimes bear the name cake and some biscuits are actually gingerbread and a gingerbread can also be a parkin.

While much has changed in Britain in recent times, Ysewijn believes its traditions should be celebrated.

‘‘I think there is no better time to gather around the table and get to know each other with a good piece of cake and a cup of strong English tea.’’

She also makes a special acknowledgement at the start of the book that the bakes would not have existed if not for sugar imports, which were made possible due to slavery in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, until its abolition in 1834.

‘‘Sugar has a cost, and that cost was paid by those held in bondage.’’

Carrot cake 

Carrot cake is loved by young and old. It has its origins in the Middle Ages, when sugar and honey were far too expensive to use lavishly.  In those days, carrots were considered a sweet food. During World War 2, many carrot cakes were made in Great Britain because there was a surplus of carrots. 
Carrots are, of course, very healthy, which is why the Ministry of Food promoted cooking with carrots and a special leaflet with carrot dishes was distributed. Children became fond of carrots and were even given a thick carrot on a stick instead of a lollipop as the latter were not available during the war.
I like to use wholemeal flour for this cake because it gives the cake more body and it works well with the rest of the ingredients.

Although carrot cake is often made with cream cheese icing or buttercream, I love it with this cashew nut topping because the nuts go beautifully with the carrots and spices in the cake. Feel free to use cream cheese icing or buttercream if you prefer.

Serves 6-8

For the cake

250ml extra virgin olive oil

225g raw (demerara) sugar

4 eggs

300g wholemeal wheat flour or spelt flour

grated zest of œ orange

2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp ground nutmeg

1 tsp ground ginger

5 large cloves, ground

pinch of pepper and sea salt

400g carrots, grated

2 tsp baking powder

100g pecans or walnuts, broken

butter, for greasing

flour, for dusting

For the topping

200g cashews, soaked overnight in cold water or in hot water for 12 hours

2 Tbsp maple syrup or golden syrup

pinch of sea salt

100g Greek yoghurt, skyr or coconut yoghurt

unsalted pistachio nuts or marzipan carrots


two 18cm-20cm round cake tins


Start with the topping. Drain the cashews and pat dry with paper towel. Place in a food processor or blender, add the syrup and blend until smooth. Add the salt and yoghurt and blend until smooth and creamy. Spoon into a small bowl and place in the fridge.

Preheat your oven to 180degC and prepare the tins (see below).

For the cake, beat the oil and sugar together in an electric mixer for 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add a teaspoon of flour with the last egg to prevent the mixture from separating.

Add the orange zest, spices and salt, followed by the grated carrot. Mix well with a spatula. Mix in the remaining flour and the baking powder until the batter is well combined. Finally, stir in the nuts.

Divide the batter between the two tins. Firmly tap the tins on the bench to distribute the batter and remove any air bubbles.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 35-40 minutes, then test the cakes with a skewer - if it comes out clean, the cakes are ready.

Allow the cakes to cool completely before assembling. If you’ve made the cakes a day ahead, place them in the fridge 1 hour before decorating.

Spread or pipe one-third of the topping over the bottom cake layer. Add the second cake layer and spread the rest of the topping over the cake. Decorate with whole and chopped pistachio nuts or marzipan carrots. Place the cake in the refrigerator after assembly if you’re not serving it immediately.

Preparing baking tins

Apply a thin layer of butter with a folded sheet of paper towel and divide it nicely around the edge of the baking tin.

Apply a layer of baking paper to the bottom of the baking tin: trace around the tin on to the baking paper, then cut out the circle.

Stick the baking paper to the butter so that the paper stays in place. Dust the lined tin with flour, hold the tin above your workbench or sink and tap on the bottom to remove the excess flour.


Digestives were developed by two Scottish doctors in the 1830s with the aim of creating a biscuit that could improve digestion, hence the name digestive. The most popular digestives are those made by McVities, which the company began to bake on a large scale in 1892.

Digestives were often called malt cookies and the original patent received was entitled Making Malted Bread. Cassells’ Universal Cookery Book from 1894 provides a recipe for malt biscuits.

The author suggests that the use of ground caraway seeds is a suitable aromatic for people suffering from flatulence, but he also states that any other spices are a possibility.

Today, digestives are one of the most-loved British biscuits, along with shortbread and rich tea biscuits. They are also sometimes made with a layer of chocolate, which is great when you dip the cookie in your coffee and the chocolate melts.

I rather like the ground roasted pecans in this biscuit but, if you are a purist, feel free to substitute them with more oat flour.

Makes 40

40g pecan nuts

150g butter, at room temperature

100g raw (demerara) sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp sea salt

150g oat flour

260g wholemeal plain (all-purpose) flour or spelt flour

flour, for dusting


Preheat your oven to 200degC and line two baking trays with baking paper.

Spread the pecans on one of the trays and roast for 10 minutes. Allow to cool, then pulse the nuts in a blender until they resemble coarse flour.

Mix the butter and sugar together until creamy (use an electric mixer if you have one), then add the eggs, one by one. Add the baking powder, then add the pecans, salt and flours, a teaspoon at a time. It will take a while for the mixture to come together. It will appear very dry at first, but don’t be tempted to add milk or water.

Use the dough immediately or leave it in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Pat the dough flat on a floured work surface or a sheet of baking paper. Dust the dough with flour to prevent the rolling pin from sticking, then roll out the dough until 5mm thick. Use a round cutter to cut out the biscuits. Push the left-over dough back together, roll it out and cut out more biscuits until you have used all the dough.

Place the biscuits on the baking trays and prick all over with a fork. Bake in the middle of your oven for 10-13 minutes. After 13 minutes you will have the darker version that I like best.

Grassmere gingerbread

Grassmere  is a small picturesque village in the hilly landscape of the Lake District in the north of England. Its surroundings are poetic, so it is not surprising that the poet William Wordsworth took up residence here to write. His sister, Dorothy, wrote in her diary in 1803 that she was going to buy gingerbread for her brother in Grasmere.

Fifty years later in 1854, Sarah Nelson started baking her version of Grasmere gingerbread, which she sold from her little gingerbread house-like stone cottage just a few yards from the final resting place of William Wordsworth. Now, more than 150 years later, you can still buy gingerbread in the same little house.

The name Grasmere gingerbread has since been given a trademark and no other gingerbread can carry the Grasmere name. This led to a gingerbread war about 10 years ago, because Nelson was not the only one selling her biscuits in the area and gingerbread had clearly been made in Grasmere before she began selling it.

In the village, there is talk of the Dixon family, who sold gingerbread in the 18th century, and in a book from 1912 I discovered that in the church a few metres from Nelson’s shop, gingerbread was given to the children as early as 1819. They called it Rushbearers gingerbread. (Rushbearing is an old English church ceremony for which bundles of grass are collected to cover the rough earth floor of the local church. The bundles had to be replaced every year; this usually happened on the name day of the church and was called Wakes Day. In Britain, there are many bakes connected to these Wakes Days.)

The same 1912 book says that the Walker family baked gingerbread in their small shop, and that in 1912 a Mrs Gibson ran a gingerbread store after a Mrs Mary Dixon had been the gingerbread maker there for years.

Strangely enough, Sarah Nelson is not mentioned in this book. What is special is that it seems that baking gingerbread was a task for women, while at that time bakers were mainly male.

Makes 4 large pieces

225g plain (all-purpose) flour

115g soft brown sugar

1 tsp ground ginger

¼ tsp ground nutmeg

¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) pinch of sea salt

115g butter, at room temperature butter, for greasing

flour, for dusting

For a 20cm square cake tin


Heat your oven to 180degC and prepare the cake tin.

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and rub the butter into the mixture until it is the consistency of breadcrumbs. This is best done in a food processor or blender. The dough won’t come together as with other cookie doughs, it will remain as crumbs.

Weigh 70g of the crumb mixture and set it aside. Press the remaining crumb mixture into the cake tin, using a mini rolling pin or a sheet of baking paper to push the crumbs down firmly. Spoon the reserved crumbs over the top and press very lightly to distribute the crumbs over the surface of the dough.

Lightly score the top of the gingerbread, first dividing it into four squares and then dividing each square in half.

Bake the gingerbread for 25 minutes, then immediately remove it from the oven. Cut the gingerbread into portions along the marked lines while it is still hot.



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