I Was Welcome

Meet Celia and Michael Carrington: Britons, residents of a suburb of Bath, pescetarians and also foodies, parents of two college students, friends of my friends Andrew and Martin, complete strangers to you most likely, and once upon a time complete strangers to me. After 12 hours filled with door-to-door transportation, interesting conversation, and one of the best home-cooked meals I have ever eaten, Celia and Michael no longer feel like complete strangers. Instead they feel like people who, despite distance, could become friends.

Weeks before I arrived in England, Andrew mentioned to his college chum, Celia, that I was traveling to Bath for a day-long bread baking course at the Bertinet Cookery School. She and Michael, at one time a Bertinet student, asked would I like to stay with them for the night. They would fetch me at the train, provide a comfortable bed, and bring me to the school in the morning. Forget the impersonal hotel stay. I did, and canceled my reservation.

Over tea and later, wine, over a spectacular lemon-infused Spanish-style saute of mackerel, skate, and diminutive Cornish sole served up with homegrown purple sprouting broccoli, we three discussed American and British politics, books we had read or would read, food and the Bertinet School, our Scottish roots and Scottish football (soccer), our children, our work. Michael is both woodcutter and teacher of English to foreign students. He can also claim titles of chief cook at home and abroad, and bread baker extraordinaire. Celia once worked in Britain’s foreign office, then settled into federal government work, then regional, then local. She was, at present, just wrapping up a stint on the planning board of the 2012 London Olympics, and relinquishing her local government job as the two near empty nesters began planning for a new chapter in their lives.

They had, just the day before, returned from a singing holiday in the Orkney Islands, where a group of people unified only by a love of singing traveled together and rehearsed for two weeks in order to sing at a few churches and in a cave on the islands. Celia was the singing enthusiast, Michael went along to cook for the group of 30. In this remote part of Scotland, husband and wife grabbed a few moments alone and ended up running across a couple of properties for sale, one with the potential for becoming a bed and breakfast with function space, the other a charming set of tea rooms attached to a post office.

By the time the chocolate cake appeared on the table, Celia and Michael had admitted the prospect of hospitality work, even running the small island post office, intrigued and excited them; smiles crept across their faces and they glanced knowingly at each other as they told me their idea. I agreed they would be naturals. (It takes a certain temperament and personality to be able to invite a stranger in and make her feel at home almost instantly.) Michael already knows he can cook for crowds, making meals appear even when a touchy Aga stove breaks down, as one did while he was in the first days of cooking for the singing holidaymakers. Celia knows how to run things, how to make things happen in smart ways.  The whole experience – from singing with strangers to cooking for a crowd to stumbling across businesses for sale – was transformative and made them look at their future through a new lens. Maybe, just maybe, they thought, the next phase of their life together would move in new directions, maybe even on the Orkneys.

How fortunate I felt in that moment, landing there, meeting them! It is true, this business of travel can be transformative. For them, for me. One can find opportunity and often a hefty dose of clarity about life, too, when opening up to the strange and unknown.

Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake

(from How to be a Domestic Goddess)

This is the chocolate cake as Celia made it for our dessert, following Nigella’s instructions to the last detail. I urge you to as well. I also urge you to try, when possible, to make the cake using the original British weights rather than the translated version using American measures. I did it both ways, and the loaf just comes out better when made the way it was originally written. If you don’t use a kitchen scale, I have included the American conversions in parentheses following each ingredient.

Nigella writes in the introduction to the recipe, “This is the plainest of plain loaf cakes – but that doesn’t convey the damp, heady aromatic denseness of it…simply sliced, with a cup of tea or coffee, it’s pretty damn dreamy.” Celia served this with a spoon of cream and several raspberries. It is, as Nigella notes, also delicious plain.

  • 225 grams soft unsalted butter (or 1 cup)
  • 375 grams dark brown sugar (or 1-2/3 cups)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 100 grams best dark chocolate, about 70%, melted (or 4 ounces)
  • 200 grams plain all-purpose flour (or 1-1/3 cups)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 250 milliliters boiling water (or 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease and then line a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with parchment. The lining is important as this is a very damp cake. (I cut two pieces of parchment to fit the pan lengthwise and crosswise, see photo.)

Cream the butter and sugar, either with a wooden spoon or with an electric hand held mixer, then add the eggs and vanilla, beating in well. Next, fold in the melted and slightly cooled chocolate, taking care to blend well but being careful not to overbeat. You want the ingredients combined: you don’t want a light and airy mass.

Combine the flour and baking soda. Then gently add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture by spoonfuls, alternating with the boiling water, mixing just to blend after each addition. (This works like this: flour-stir; water-stir, and so on until you add the last splash of boiling water.) The batter will be smooth and fairly liquid.

Pour into the prepared loaf pan and place the pan on a baking sheet for stability. Place the baking sheet on the oven’s middle rack and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 350 and bake for about 20 minutes more. Check it after 15 minutes. The cake should have a cooked looking top; the cake underneath the center crack should look moist but not wet (see photo below). If wet, return it for 5 more minutes, as I did. Even when done, the loaf  will still be a bit “squidgy” inside, so an inserted cake tester or skewer won’t come out completely clean.

Place the loaf pan on a cooling rack and leave to get completely cold before lifting it out by the edges of the parchment. (I left my loaf to cool in the pan overnight, and it lifted out cleanly the next day.) Nigella adds, “I often leave it for a day or so: like gingerbread, it improves. Don’t worry if it sinks in the middle; indeed, it will do so because it’s such a damp and dense cake.”

To store (if there’s any left after serving), re-wrap the cake in its original parchment, then wrap it in foil.

©2012  Jane A. Ward