Given my obsession with nostalgia and cake, it was only a matter of time before this recipe popped up again. Friends, I hope you have the patience to sit through it again. You can skip it if you want. Or, you can put some dried fruit in a bowl, pour a cup of black tea over it and join me in my tea loaf fixation for a while.
My nan made the best tea loaf there ever was. As prone to hyperbole as I am, I can assure you that this is no exaggeration. Every week, when we went to visit, she would emerge from the kitchen with one, still warm from the oven, wrapped in crumpled and slightly charred baking paper. With this cake, she managed to win over many guests who weren’t really into fruit cake, my now husband included.
The problem is that Nan never wrote down any of her recipes. She had quite a small repertoire, favouring the same dishes that she simply adapted to whatever ingredients she had in the house, and just committed them to memory. When she sadly passed away in 2011, all of this knowledge became lost. Intense cravings for this cake, and for other dishes she used to make, became a part of the grief in the months immediately following her death; and the idea that she would never again cook for me was overwhelming.
It was my nan who taught me to bake, you see. My brother and I would spend most of the holidays with her when my parents worked and, whilst my brother would occupy my time with his Nintendo, I would be stood on a chair at the kitchen counter with a tea towel tucked into my waistband as a makeshift apron, contentedly rubbing butter into flour. It was probably the best way to keep me occupied and, over the years, I learned how to make pies, cakes, jam tarts and biscuits. She had very few gadgets by modern standards, so taught me to make pastry by hand, cakes without a mixer and whip up cream using nothing but a hand whisk and a lot of effort.
When Nan died, my kitchen provided a welcome distraction. I had cleared out my diary for a couple of months to recover but quickly tired of doing nothing, so embarked upon a mission to replicate the tea loaf. I knew it began with dried fruit soaked in tea, to which the usual cake-making ingredients are added. There was a lot of trial and error, I added spices and took them out again, I experimented with different quantities of eggs, sugar and flour and I threw many disasters in the bin. I palmed off tea loaf on to neighbours, colleagues and just about every tradesman that came into my building. What I couldn’t get rid of, I froze.
Eventually, I wrote a recipe that I was happy with and that I have used every time since, and now I make this tea loaf all the time. When friends visit, I will often emerge from the kitchen with one, still warm, wrapped in crumpled and slightly charred baking paper. Each time I make it, my husband, who is really not into fruit cake, remarks: “I think this might be your best one yet.”
“Perhaps,” I reply. “But it still isn’t as good as Nan’s.”
My Nan’s Tea Loaf
Note: this recipe is very easy to make vegan, just replace the egg with an egg substitute.
400g dried mixed fruit
275ml black Earl Grey tea, cooled
75g soft light brown sugar
250g self-raising flour
Combine the fruit and tea in a large bowl and leave to soak overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°c and spray a medium-sized loaf tin with cake release spray (I use Dr. Oetker’s.)
Stir the egg and brown sugar into the fruit mixture, then add the flour, a little at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the batter into the loaf tin and bake in the oven for about an hour until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. You will be able to smell it when it’s cooked!