For those of you who don’t know, parkin is a special, and delicious, ginger cake made with oatmeal, traditionally baked in Yorkshire and Lancashire. As I have a foot in both camps – born and brought up in Liverpool but with my dad’s side of the family coming from Sheffield – this cake is something I grew up with, and it has come to have a very special place in my life and baking repertoire. Traditionally parkin was made for Bonfire Night, and I certainly associate it with autumn. I baked my first of the year this morning, even though the weather probably isn’t really cold enough to justify such nesting treats, and it has inspired a whole host of parkin related memories.
My recipe is handed down to me from my Granny, and I never bake parkin without thinking about her. It’s now nearly five years since she died, and I still miss her very much, most of all when I am baking or pottering round my kitchen, as undoubtedly my love of cooking and of using the food I make as a way to show love for family and friends is something I inherited from her. I have very clear memories of standing at her kitchen table choosing the correct weight for her old-fashioned scales, or learning the difference between stirring and folding. We had all our best conversations in the kitchen. As my Grandad’s birthday was 1st November, we often spent October half-term in Sheffield with my grandparents to celebrate, and so, more often than not, parkin was on the menu. Sometimes Granny would have already baked it before we arrived, but my favourite times were when she hadn’t and so I got to help her.
When my brother and I were very small children my dad would do some fireworks in the back garden, and we’d have a packet of sparklers to share. November evenings seemed colder then, and so we’d both be bundled up in every hat, scarf and jumper we possessed. When they were finished and we came in, over-tired and over-excited, we used to strip off all the woolies and put them in a big pile in the middle of the living room floor, making a nest in which we could sit for our post firework supper of parkin (Granny had passed the recipe on to my mum) and hot Ribena.
In my first term at university I was really poorly with a horrible and long-lasting case of Fresher’s Flu. After a couple of weeks of feeling utterly miserable, barely able to leave my room, I phoned my parents in despair. Now that I’m a mum myself I can fully empathise with how hard that phone call must have been for them, and totally understand why they did the 300 mile round trip to see me as soon as humanly possible. They arrived laden with vitamin tablets, hot water bottles and tonics, but, best of all, my mum had baked me some parkin. The other two girls on my staircase were from County Durham and Huddersfield respectively, and during those first few weeks any strange predilection the three of us showed for the likes of brown sauce, black pudding or mushy peas was explained to our new friends from Down South as “it’s a Northern Thing”. It rapidly became a catch phrase. Parkin was another one of these Northern things, and it proved a very popular one – all sixteen portions of cake were gone within about an hour. I was very lucky to have made amazing friends very quickly, and because I wasn’t well enough to go out, they came to me. Especially when there was home-made cake. Ginger is meant to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and they may have helped, but it was the feeling of being loved, baked for and looked after which really helped my recovery.
Pretty much this time last year, Bonfire Night to be exact, my husband was away with work and, although I was suffering the total wipe-out exhaustion of early pregnancy, I had decided that after nursery Anna and I would bake parkin together (another Northern tradition for my Southern baby) before heading out to watch the fireworks display in a local park. Unfortunately during the morning I started with the cramping pains that warned me another miscarriage, my second in five months, was on the way. I gritted my teeth and carried on – picking Anna up from nursery, making lunch, baking parkin. I was scared and in pain, trying to hold it together for Anna and worried that I wouldn’t be able to, but I did find comfort from the memories of my Granny which the baking evoked, and I knew that, when she was confronted with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, getting in the kitchen and getting on with it was the way she would have coped.
By the time the cake was in the oven, and the resonant buttery-gingery smells were wafting through the house, I gave in, realising there was no way I was going to be taking Anna to the fireworks that evening. I installed her on the sofa with a dvd to watch and sent out a may-day. My husband wasn’t contactable, so my poor parents were the recipient of yet another distressed phone call. Once more they found themselves unexpectedly heading south to come and look after me.
And when the miscarriage turned out actually to be an ectopic pregnancy, and my parents stayed to look after Anna while my husband was at the hospital with me, I felt just slightly better knowing that there was a wholesome, comforting cake at home for them to all tuck into.
This morning is the first time I have baked parkin since that day last year – for the rest of last autumn and winter it simply felt too emotionally loaded. As I looked for the recipe in my file I worried about how I would cope, but in the event I was fine. There’s a new layer; as well as remembering my Granny, and thinking about the times my mum has baked it for me with love, I now also remember a baby who wasn’t to be. There’s a great solace in baking a recipe which has been handed down through the generations, which has been baked through illness and crisis and bereavement and war, and each time has provided a cake to nurture and sustain. That’s what my mother and grandmother have done for me, and what I in turn hope to do for my own daughter. I’ve included the recipe below in case you want to create some comforting memories of your own.
4oz brown sugar
4oz golden syrup
4oz medium oatmeal
4oz self raising flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tablespoons of milk
2-3 teaspoons of ginger (to personal taste)
1) Pre-heat oven to 160 (Gas 3). Grease and line a 7 inch square tin.
2) Melt sugar, margarine and syrup gently together in a pan, don’t allow to boil.
3) Weigh out dry ingredients into a bowl. Pour melted sugar mixture onto dry ingredients and mix, alternating with the egg mixture. Combine into a fairly runny batter. Be warned, it doesn’t look especially pretty at this point!
4) Pour into tin and bake for one hour, or until golden and slightly risen, with a knife or skewer coming out clean. (You can see from my picture that I was quite heavy handed doing that today!).
This cake (unless eaten) keeps beautifully in a tin for up to a fortnight. In fact many aficionados feel it tastes better after a few days – I wouldn’t disagree, but it often doesn’t last that long!