August 2, 2012
My love affair with this sweet spicy treat began during childhood summers in France.
In the summer months baking can take a bit of a backseat. Well in truth it rarely does in my house, but you take my point. Everyone is spending more time outside. There is less need for the warmth of the oven, or the extra padding a baking session will inevitably bring. Long school summer holidays require different types of recipes. Portable treats to furnish a picnic, or creative inventions to use up the glut of a garden harvest or your over-excited visit to the pick-your-own.
But summertime eating isn’t just about the green and virtuous, even if we aim for that when bikini-wearing looms. The pull of the delicate, multicoloured macarons in a Paris cafe, or the welsh-cakes at the end of a long walk on the Pembrokeshire coastline, have been recent summertime indulgences of mine.
However there is no replacing those of my childhood. Treats first tasted over summers spent at my grandparents house in the South of France stick fast in my memory. They filled a tummy hungry from battling the waves, and seemed especially exotic seasoned with Mediterranean sunshine and salt-water lips. There were ice creams, the swirly kind in paper-thin tasteless cones. In retrospect not a gourmet offering. But at the time they were a gift from the Gods, handed down to us by his emissary, my Grandfather, who was no less excited about them than we were.
My grandmother had a rather more interesting favourite. At tea times, if we were lucky, she used to bring out a packet of small round pain d’epices. I can picture the packet now, little more than a wrapping of yellow cellophane that crackled as it opened, to reveal the little cakes, dark beneath their thin sugary glaze. I was reminded forcefully of these cakes last year, while in Paris to visit the Salon du Chocolat. There was a smattering of stalls selling things other than chocolate. My greatest find amongst these was Nicolas of Aix-en-Provence, a stall groaning with dozens of vast glossy globes of pain d’epices. These were the creation of Stephane, a passionately dedicated one-man band, whose business is named after his grandfather, a baker before him. He makes some of the best I have ever tasted! They are made according to ancient recipes, which involved a nine-week process of fermentation and cooking in aluminium domes.
For me the true magic was their smell, a honeyed sweetness with the warmth of spice and the fruity tang of orange zest. It brought me back to the long forgotten pain d’epices of my childhood, and made me want to have a go at making some. I didn’t think that my oven could manage one quite the size of Stephane’s glorious creations. So I opted for the more conventional loaf tin. And I doubted I would persuade you to have a go if it took two months to make! This is far easier. I wouldn’t dream of saying my recipe is comme il faut. But it does follow the essential rule of using honey rather than sugar, and I wasn’t prepared to compromise on that wonderful, comforting, life-enhancing smell. It tastes yummy too of course. A good enough excuse to do a spot of baking even if it is summer. As if you needed one!
500g plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
1 ½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground cardamom
a good grating of nutmeg
the juice and zest of an orange
340g runny honey
½ tsp vanilla
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Butter and flour a loaf tin.
Cream the butter and honey with the zest in a mixer or bowl.
Add the eggs one by one, mixing between each to incorporate.
Mix the flour, spices, salt and baking powder together in a separate bowl.
Mix the milk and juice together.
Add these two mixtures part by part alternately to the butter.
Pour this final mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for around an hour and ten minutes. Check the loaf after an hour with a skewer. It is a dense loaf, and while you do not want it dry, you want to avoid uncooked mixture. You want your skewer to come out relatively clean. You are likely to need to cover the loaf with foil after 40 minutes so the top does not burn. The high honey content makes the loaf prone to burn before it is cooked through.
Top tip: Pain D’Epices keeps very well, in fact the flavour gains in depth. Wrap in foil and store in the fridge or in an airtight container. Toasting a slice before eating will bring it wonderfully to life.
This recipe first appeared in Cakes & Sugarcraft Issue 117.