I never made rock cakes as a child. My paternal grandma was more of a scone woman and so I never turned to that particular page of her Be-Ro recipe book. So I didn’t discover them until I was grown up, and had taught myself to bake. I ignored them for quite a while, convinced that I was far too sophisticated for this simple cake, and that the finished product would be commensurate with the short ingredient list and simple method, and would underwhelm.
Of course, I was wrong. Rock cakes are a complete treat: crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, low on sugar but high on plump, dried fruit and sticky candied peel. It took me a while to learn that a bake doesn’t have to be flashy or complicated to be good. Eventually I understood what the rest of the baking world had known forever: sometimes the simplest recipe is the loveliest.
Of course, part of the rock cake’s appeal is its rustic nature. They’re not called pebble cakes: nobody wants a batch of 12 identical smooth, perfect ice cream scoop of rock cake. Their charm is in their rubbly, nubbly nature, studded haphazardly with fruit, the craggy crust of the cake in contrast to the soft scone-like interior. It doesn’t need rolling and stamping out like scones or biscuits, it doesn’t even need scooping. This makes them perfect for little hands (attached to short attention spans) who care nothing for precision, and everything for poking and prodding and eating the fruits of their labour as soon as possible, please.
Rock cakes were originally one of a host of cheap bakes, promoted by the Ministry of Food during wartime, as they required less sugar and fewer eggs than other sweet bakes. Thankfully, we are no longer subject to rationing, but the recipe holds up with its original ingredients and proportions. My only nod to a modern age is using light brown sugar in place of caster, for a slightly deeper flavour, and a sprinkle of demerara on top, for extra crunch.
Makes: A dozen
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 20 minutes
225g self-raising flour
50g light brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
125g butter, cold and cubed
30g candied peel
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp milk
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
Demerara, to sprinkle on top
- First, preheat the oven to 160°C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.
- Rub together the flour and butter with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir through the light brown sugar and baking powder, followed by the sultanas and peel.
- Stir the beaten egg, milk and vanilla paste into the mixture to form a rough, raggedy dough. All the flour should be absorbed, but don’t expect the dough to smooth out.
- Spoon dollops of dough about the size of golfballs onto the baking trays, spaced apart, giving them room to expand and rise. Sprinkle generously with demerara sugar.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cakes are golden and risen with a slight crust. Leave to cool for ten minutes and then carefully transfer to a rack to cool entirely. These rock cakes will stay fresh for a couple of days inside an airtight container, but are best eaten on the day of baking.