Whenever we went on holiday as children, my father would have prunes. Nothing on or with them, just a bowl of prunes: as he ate them, he would lay the stones out carefully and then we – me and my sister – would count them out to determine what kind of man we would marry: …soldier, sailor,: rich man, poor man… For some reason, when we were little, Dad never had prunes for breakfast at home: they were firmly a holiday foodstuff. I thought he was mad: with a hotel breakfast buffet spread out before him, what kind of lunatic plumps for prunes? Had he not spotted the hashbrowns? Was he unaware of the peculiar but ubiquitous, distinctively scented breakfast cake? Prunes were gross: wrinkled, and sticky, and treacle-smelling.
It was baking that turned my head when it comes to virtues of the dark, shrivelled dried fruit: prunes are a bit of a secret weapon in baking. Those exact characteristics that I’d so disliked in my Dad’s breakfast bowl were transformative when mixed into cakes or pudding batters: they brought delightful stickiness, and a dark, treacly sweetness. They created a depth of flavour and texture. I baked them into frangipane tarts, into Christmas puddings and fruit cakes, and into this malt loaf.
Malt loaf is a prime example of how helpful prunes can be for texture: they ensure moistness and richness (as well as a greater shelf life) even in cake mixtures without added fats. Malt loaf is just such a mixture, a lean bread-cake hybrid that uses no butter, margarine, or oil. It relies on its soft, sticky fruit, and malt extract to create its distinctive chewy squish; the prunes acting in the same way dates do in a sticky toffee pudding.
This version of malt loaf relies heavily on malt syrup rather than a mix of malt and treacle, which is now relatively easily available, from plenty of health food shops, supermarkets and online retailers: malt is a very different flavour to treacle, and treacle can be a little bit of a bully, even in small amounts. Glazing the top of the loaf while still warm with a little extra syrup gives it that delightful stickiness that is near-compulsory for malt loaf. And because malt loaf is traditionally served at tea-time, I like to soak my fruit in a little black tea with lemon zest before folding it into the batter.
Malt loaf was probably my first true experience of what the Danish call tandsmør: butter on bread thick enough to leave toothmarks when bitten into. Malt loaf, more than anything else, demands thick swoops of salty butter: in its first few days, it should be spread cold and pale onto the sliced loaf, but as time passes, the malt loaf is best toasted and then buttered while still hot, so that the melted butter dribbles down your arm as you eat it.
Makes: 1 loaf cake
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour
100g prunes, chopped
100g sultanas or currants or raisins
100g dark muscovado sugar
150g malt syrup
250g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine salt
125ml black tea (made up with one tea bag)
2 thick strips of lemon zest
- Preheat the oven to 160°C and line a large loaf tin with baking paper (I use two long separate strips of greaseproof paper, make them stick with a little bit of extra butter, and allow them to overhang the side).
- Soak the chopped prunes and sultanas/currants/raisins with the lemon zest and the hot black tea (complete with tea bag) for 15 minutes.
- Heat the dark brown sugar and malt syrup together over a low heat until the sugar dissolves.
- Combine the syrup and sugar with the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder and salt). Add the eggs and stir those into the mixture. Remove the lemon zest, squeeze the tea bagx over the fruit (discard the teabag), and add the fruit along with the tea into the mixture, folding them through until combined.
- Pour the mixture into your prepared tin, and cook for an hour, until the loaf is risen, mahogany brown and, when pressed gently with a finger, springs back. Check the loaf at about 45 minutes and if it’s looking terribly dark, tent it with tin foil to protect it.
- While still warm, brush the top of the loaf with a couple of tablespoons of malt syrup. Allow to cool for fifteen minutes before removing from the tin and leaving to cool completely.