My Grandmother gave me her recipe book just before she passed away and it is one of my favourite books and my most prized possession. It is from this little hard backed, handwritten jotter that I find most of my bright ideas in the kitchen. Its pages are worn, spattered and turning yellow at the edges.
In between the pages are endless scraps of paper, the ends of envelopes, old bills, theatre programmes, the backs of cereal boxes, the margins of newspapers, all covered with recipes, all written in that same neat hand, perfectly legible in blue fountain ink. These recipes are inextricably linked in my mind to memories of my Gran and to all the times we cooked together in a kitchen full of laughter, the results eaten by hungry family members or guests.
The books recipes are spotted with grease or flicks of batter from a cake or biscuit mixture. The spine sits open at any recipe as they have all been made hundreds of times over the book’s life span, some of the recipes are simply lists of ingredients, while others give detailed methods. In the margins are notes that suggest the recipe was ‘good’, or to ‘heat sugar’ or ‘use a silver spoon’ to fold.
Then there are those that have the scantest of direction, such as the recipe for fudge, which lists the ingredients as 2 lbs soft brown sugar, 1 small tin of condensed milk, same tin filled with milk, ¼ lb salted butter, drops of vanilla extract and then says, ‘Boil for 10 mins. Add milk, boil till brown – beat’. Surprisingly, given the brief methodology, it’s a recipe that works perfectly every time.
This old book is a book of memories, as well as recipes. It records the legacy of my Gran’s love for baking, a gift she passed on to me, and I find that baking from this book grounds me. Some of the recipes are over a hundred years old, passed down from generation to generation of cooks in my family with love and great care. There are nearly 100 recipes in total for things as varied as Coffee Kisses, Yum Yums, 15’s, Orange and Chocolate Cake, Coffee Cake and the range goes from Sweet and Sour Pork to Sausage Savoury and Golden Caramel Glaze. There’s even a really good recipe for Barbeque Sauce hidden in and amongst the cakes and biscuits.
My favorite recipes are the ones for baking. This little book calls to me from my kitchen bookshelf urging me into the kitchen to create and bake, to take out the scales and whip up a 3-minute sandwich or peanut butter squares, meringues, 15s, flake meal biscuits dipped in chocolate, sponge cakes, Swiss milk toffee, melting moments, raspberry buns or tea muffins every time I read through its pages. It gives me ideas for new recipes, and allows me to experiment with twists on old. There are recipes from New Zealand cousins for a type of Anzac cookie and from distant Canadian relatives for Canadian Nutties – another form of biscuit. There are several types of pastry, each with a family name beside them.
Gran shared her love of baking with her own mother and sisters, and gave it to my Mum and me. We are a family of bakers, who for all the cookery books in Ireland, return again, and again for inspiration to the handwritten recipe book of my Gran. This recipe book is her living inheritance to us, it tells the story of my Gran’s kitchen and the pleasure she found in making things for other people to enjoy.
From this book Gran would bakehuge birthday party feasts where the table would groan from the weight of delights and the children smile in wonder at the huge array of wonders on top of it: millionaire’s shortbread, caramel fingers, chocolate rice krispie bars, jam sandwiches, bread triangles with hundreds & thousands, top hats, cake, mini meringues, Paris Buns, Gypsy Queens and my favourite wee buns. Her glasses of lemon dunk – a homemade lemonade that Gran taught me to make one very hot summer, when I was about nine – still refreshes with zest and sweetness. The grown up version includes a splash of gin.
Often we would cook from this little book late into the night, making recipe after recipe, to fill the biscuits tins and always have something to offer guests or to bring to those who were sick or in need of comfort. When we waited for my mother and new born baby sister to come home from hospital, Gran and I baked until 2am. We made so many things that we ran out of tins to fill, and had to start storing our wares in huge glass bell jars, with silver screw lids.
Gran never arrived empty-handed to anything, and when she came to stay with us, her little suitcase nestled for space in the back seat of her red Ford with cake tins, and farls of wheaten bread wrapped in teacloths.
‘Bread is a living thing Nicky, a clean linen teacloth allows it to breathe, whereas putting it in a tin, or wrapping in clingfilm, makes it sweat and ruins the crumb,’ she used to tell me, the interior of the car fragranced with warm sugar.
I loved everything she made for us, but the ‘wee buns’, the cream of the cupcake world, always excited me. They are little buns or as some of you might know them fairycakes, with the Belfast saying ‘wee’ in front. The word ‘wee’ is a Northern Irish and Scottish colloquialism and means small, tiny, or cute. It’s used frequently as a term of endearment, such as ‘wee Nicky’. They are smaller than a cupcake and don’t have as much frosting or icing, in fact sometimes they don’t have any at all.
My eyes would light up, as I opened the tin to ‘wee buns’ lined up sometimes dusted with icing sugar, or my absolute favourite with a pale pink icing, and 100s and 1000s sugar strands. Gran’s Wee Buns had that mouthwateringly taste which you inhale through the nose before you taste them. Even though I haven’t seen one of Gran’s filled tins or eaten her ‘wee buns’ for over a decade, her little book perpetuates their memory, her laughter and wicked sense of humour in my mind, my kitchen and my heart.
Recipe for Gran’s Wee Buns
6 oz salted butter, softened
6 oz self Raising Flour or wholemeal flour
6 oz golden caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract
Ingredients to make the icing
6oz unsalted butter, softened
10oz icing sugar
One capful of vanilla extract – you can use rose water, or orange flower water if you wish
Chocolate drops, smarties, sugar strands or fruit to decorate the top of each wee bun.
Preheat the oven to 180°c (gas mark 4), Aga top oven, first line of runners, with cold shelf two sets of runners above. Prepare one bun tray holding 12 -15 with bun cases
Put all ingredients into a spotlessly clean bowl and beat on high with an electric mixer for three minutes only
Evenly divide the mixture between the bun cases
Bake for 20-25 minutes – Aga 15-20 minutes – until golden and a skewer comes out clean.
Place ‘wee buns’ on a wire rack to cool.
While the buns cool, put all the ingredients for the icing into the mixer bowl, and beat on high for 3-4 minutes, until the icing is pliable and easily handed for decorating.
Ice the wee buns when cold to the touch, and decorate each with a chocolate shape
Note: I piped the icing for the buns in the photograph, but they look just as good with the icing applied with a spoon. You only need one teaspoon of icing in the middle of each bun
Nicky Cahill’s Blog: www.saltandsparkle.com
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