Sometimes, especially when I’m sad, or just find myself in a bit of a cooking rut, I realise that what I need is a taste of home. And growing up in the North East, in Newcastle and South Shields, that taste of home is the stotty bread. So I have spent the last week making stotties, and it has been glorious.
Brioche is amongst the loveliest of breads to bake, and the most rewarding. But it’s also one of the most daunting. You don’t fall into brioche. You don’t find yourself accidentally making it at 10pm at night. It requires planning and perseverance and a lot of eggs. This is serious baking. This is reading a phone contract before you sign it bread. This is buying bin bags before the last batch have run out dough. This is consider getting a pension, realise you can’t afford it, and then consider having children, so that they can look after you in your old age kneading. Brioche is grown up baking.
My mother’s kitchen smelt of leeks, frying gently in butter. So when I seek succour, I fry leeks, gently, in butter.
Earlier this month, I sat at a big farmhouse table, in a house none of us live in, drinking wine with my aunt and my sister and we talk of how my mum smelt. To my sister, she will always smell of Chanel Chance, the perfume she wore as we got older. To me it is Chance mixed with the Clarins facewash she used and the Silk Cut cigarettes she smoked.
The bits of Christmas I like most are the stolen quiet moments. And in those quiet moments, I make Nutella Snowflake Bread.
Please do not think this is an invective against Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the sparkling lights and bright colours and traditions and organised fun. I do, really.
Sometimes I worry that I’m flighty. And not in a charming, no one can tie me down, I’m-a-free-spirit sort of way. But rather skittish, unreliable, inconstant. When I feel that way, I come home and bake spelt bread.
Spelt bread is grounding. It is quick, physical work that you have to do with hands. It doesn’t require skill or implements or fancy ingredients. I don’t need to set a timer, or panic about precision. It transforms me into someone pragmatic and capable and resilient.
I have fallen in love with scones.
Quite suddenly, all at once, head over heels. All scones. Cheese scones (sometimes with marmite, sometimes with walnuts and mustard), saffron, honey and sultana scones, cherry scones, stilton and cranberry scones. I can’t get enough of them. But this is my current favourite: a grown up, not-too-sweet scone — the only added sugar is the crunchy Demerara on the top — that is sufficiently handsome to present to friends, but simple enough to knock up for yourself at 10:30 to go with an 11 o’clock coffee.
My life is punctuated by books.
Reader, I will be frank with you: in many ways, this bread is the antithesis of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that littered libraries when I was a child. But please don’t let that stop you.
For the uninitiated, these were books – inevitably ghost stories or quest books (the format never really suited Noel Streatfield or Dick King-Smith) – that would force you at the end of the page or chapter to nail your colours to the mast and follow a particular path, offering you two plot choices, and two associated page numbers. It made you implicit in the plot, in the conclusion. Inexplicably, these books were achingly cool. I had very bad instinct with these books; within three plot choices I was dead, the treasure was lost, the story ended prematurely. My choices failed me.
A confession, to begin with – appropriate, given the season. This is not a story of how I stopped worrying. It wouldn’t take a psychiatrist to determine that, in the last two years, I have used baking as a crutch, or a crude therapy. I have written previously about how pastries and breads and curds have helped me in times of mourning and misery and panic. I have been grounded by baking. But for a long time, I was scared of bread.