I am lucky enough to have the manuscript cookery books which belonged to my grandmother and to my mother. Occasionally I pull them out, but I've never cooked from them. They are very like my manuscript book: full of scribblings, jottings, bits torn out of newspapers and magazines, recipes noted down by friends ... a chaotic, slightly disorganised jumble that works for its owner, but probably not for anyone else. They are, I think, what I would save first if the house caught fire, because they are redolent of the continuity in my family's life.
Now, I think, I would like to explore these precious books. Once a week, I'm going to cook from them, and blog the result. Some of the recipes will be familiar: my grandmother Buzz first taught me to cook - one of my earliest memories is standing on a chair in her kitchen in Oxford, "helping" her weigh out the flour, the breadcrumbs, the sugar, the butter, for treacle tart, and then licking the satisfyingly sticky syrup off the spoon. Think of the patience she needed to give me such a wonderful introduction to a life-long culinary journey!
My mother's recipes will be a discovery, as she died when I was an infant. They are written in her strong confident hand, and I think that cooking from them will bring me closer to her. I've tried asking people who knew her to tell me about her - the things that made her laugh, what colours she liked, inconsequential details - but it's too hard, it doesn't work across so many decades, and, besides, you perhaps need to have this particular void in your life to understand exactly what the question is.
Already I feel the first sense of connection with her. I've found a recipe written by Buzz for my mother. She's being a model mother-in-law: helpful, wanting to do the right thing - and so is my mother, flattering her new mother-in-law by asking for her gingerbread recipe. And look at Buzz's writing, that characteristic round hand, which she learnt in the late 19th century, unlike anyone else's I've ever seen.
I'm going to cook it this afternoon for my son, just back from university, and with the largest appetite in the family. Only just like Buzz, I'm going to experiment with it, to take out all that butter.
LATER: Okay, I've made it, and it's very good indeed, only I'm puzzled that Buzz calls it flat gingerbread cake, because this recipe has made me understand why it's called gingerbread. The result is definitely more of a bread than a cake, quite solid. Good eating; also no butter, no eggs - I'm beginning to feel that I'm cracking the cake problem (all that saturated fat).
I had fun converting the recipe between imperial measures, metric measures, and American cup sizes (because the conversion table for butter to oil that I found was on an American website).
Buzz's flat gingerbread
600g plain flour
200ml grapeseed oil (NOT olive oil)
150g soft brown sugar
200g runny honey
50g crystallised ginger, chopped fairly small
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp baking powder
In a large bowl, beat together the oil, honey and sugar. Mix the spices and baking powder into the flour, then work this into the oil mixture. You will almost certainly need some liquid at this point; I used 150ml of water. Finally, stir in the ginger pieces. Spread into a flat baking tin, and bake at 180C for about half an hour. Test with a skewer. Leave to cool in the tin.
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