Family recipes are something we should all treasure. They are a building block of our formative years and no off-the-shelf cookbook, no matter how good, will ever conjure up the same warmth and comfort than making food that’s as intrinsic to your own past as something your mom, aunt, or nan (or these days, could also be your dad, uncle or granddad) used to make.
And yet it will never taste the same as when they made it. But yet I somehow want to share with anyone who reads this, recipes from mostly my mother’s side of the family. This one, from my great-aunt Marion via my mother’s battered recipe journal, is a classic and will probably be familiar to some. It has been much made by me (indeed, it was partly the bass line for my Irish Porter Cake recipe) both rigidly to the original and with numerous variations.
So what is the recipe?
“What was wrong with it (bob-a-job week) was that people like you were getting little lads to shift pianos and double-glaze the French windows…..in exchange for nine pence ha’penny and a slice of malt loaf.” – Jean, dinnerladies episode ‘Catering’, by the late Victoria Wood.
Malt loaf. That squidgy, fruited, malty brown cross between cake and bread so unique to Britain. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love it, or ‘sticky bread’ as I first encountered it in Jon Carrie Nursery School (when I didn’t get sent home for severe homesickness-induced tantrums…). Malt loaf was also known as ‘Harvo loaf’ in Birmingham but I’ve never come across this pretender to Manchester-based Soreen’s crown (probably because Harvo went bust in 1973.)
I still call this recipe Harvo loaf anyway owing to my Midland roots, and perhaps to lend it a false air of rose-tinted legacy.
This recipe, like the Porter Cake, doesn’t require scales, creaming of fats and sugar, folding, sieving or any of that nonsense. All you need is a mixing bowl, a 2lb loaf tin and a regular-sized 200-250ml tea mug (no dainty bone china or big Starbucks type mugs!) as your unit of measurement. You may have encountered this type of thing as ‘Weetabix cake’ or ‘All Bran cake’ as breakfast cereal is one of the ingredients. The recipe, as taken from Auntie Marion, calls for All-Bran, but I have also used Bran Flakes, Shreddies, Weetabix or Shredded Wheat in its place. You can get that squidgy Soreen flavour by adding malt extract and wrapping up and leaving for a day or so before diving in, but All-Bran or bran flakes will give the malt flavour already. It contains no eggs and no butter, so fat free, yay. Unless you slather it thickly in good real butter, of course, which is not compulsory, but highly recommended.
Of course like many simple cakes, you can tweak the recipe to suit your own tastes. Use any mix of dried fruit you want, and the same with the type of sugar used. I cannot recommend classic dark brown soft enough, but again, feel free to do a mix of brown and white, light brown, dark muscovado, whatever you like or have on hand. Same with the milk – whatever you have as it’s just the wetting agent but obviously will push the fat content up or down. And if you’re catering for a vegan or dairy-intolerant crowd, simply use any alternative, or failing that, strong black tea.
If you can’t find malt extract, then a couple of spoonfuls of Horlicks powder would also be a good addition to boost the malty taste. The world’s your pickle, as Laura Vitale says.
However, be aware that you may have to bake the loaf for longer depending on the size of mug and tin you used. Just check to see when the tester comes out clean but in my experience it never takes longer than 1 hour 15 minutes. 1 hour 20 at a push.
It keeps well, up to a week, and is best served thickly sliced with a brew and with that optional butter.
The loaf shown in the photos was the last time I made this recipe and used Weetabix (or Waitrose’s rip-off imitation version). It was for work so never got around to taking photos of it sliced! However I find that for the true Soreen taste, All-Bran is the best bet.
Marion’s Malt Loaf / Harvo loaf
1 x mug mixed dried fruit
3/4-1 x mug dark brown sugar
1 x mug All Bran cereal (the plain stick-shaped one beloved of the elderly please)/Bran flakes/Weetabix/Shreddies
1 x mug milk (any kind will do, depends how virtuous you’re feeling. Dairy-free milk will make this vegan but check your cereal box as well if you’re baking for vegans)
1 x mug self-raising flour
1 tsp mixed spice
1-2 tbsp malt extract, plus extra for glazing
1 tbsp black treacle
Nib sugar, for sprinkling atop before baking
- Soak cereal of choice, fruit and sugar (and treacle/malt if using) in the milk for 6-8 hours or overnight.
- Preheat oven to Gas Mark 4/160C fan/180C.
- Add the flour (and spice if using) and mix to combine.
- Pour this somewhat stiff mix into a greased and lined 2lb/900g loaf tin, sprinkle with nib sugar if using, and bake for 1 hour-1 hour 15 minutes (depends on size of mug used and tin – the mixture can vary in consistency too) until risen and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Cool in the tin for a little while and then remove and finish on a wire rack. If using malt extract to glaze, smear this over whilst still warm.
- Slice thickly and smother with proper butter if desired and enjoy with a brew.