Culture: Parkin the memories by Nicola Miller

Parkin, by Nicola Miller
Parkin, by Nicola Miller

It may have its origins in Yorkshire but for our food writer Nicola Miller, parkin brings back memories of festival time in Mexico

It seems odd that parkin, a traditional recipe from Yorkshire, baked in the kitchen of a woman from Staffordshire, and fed to a young girl newly arrived in Suffolk from Mexico became

a bridge between my old life and a new one here, but there

you go.

We returned to England on a dank, chilly November morning, moving in with grandparents until tenants vacated our house. To say it was a shock would be an understatement and leaving Mexico during All Souls was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

Dias de Los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – is a time of year when the souls of the deceased have permission to visit their families still living on earth, although the festivities in Mexico actually begin earlier on October 27, the Day of the Orphaned Souls. Indigenous rituals meld with Catholicism, the latter courtesy of the Spanish conquistadores, in a colourful feast of food, fireworks and music.

At sundown, a procession to the local cemetery was led by mariarchi bands who would dedicate songs to deceased loved ones as relatives decorated their tombs. We would picnic, drinking corn and chocolate atole from earthenware bowls before eating tamales stuffed with turkey, pork, and masa and pan de muerto in the shape of Catrina, encrusted with bright sugar crystals. Children gobbled down sugar skull candies straight from their twists of paper and calabaza en tacha (pumpkin cooked in brown sugar syrup). The air was perfumed with incense and the spicy scent of the crushed marigolds strewn underfoot. Late into the night and wrapped in blankets, we’d be carried home through the bright streets of the city with its bruise-black mountains in the distance. I loved Mexico and felt bereft at being taken away. New rituals were required.

Yorkshire (sticky) parkin may have Middle English origins. It is a cake for colder weather, originally prepared in northern England for the Martinmas fast that took place before Christmas: it must have been an efficient foil for appetites sharpened by cavorting around bonfires during the pagan ceremonies of late October. In England, it’s become customary to eat it on Guy Fawkes Night, extending its season of gingered goodwill, and this is when I first made parkin’s acquaintance, seeing an affinity between the fiery celebrations it accompanied and what I had left behind.

My grandfather loved Guy Fawkes night and took us to the local fireworks at his company each year. Gran would stay at home because she detested loud bangs, busy instead with pans of sausages and onions baked until jammy, and trays of parkin. This would be made three days earlier because an unmatured parkin is a neutered beast. Wary of the baked potatoes cooked in the embers of the bonfire and handed round in their parcels of foil after reading about Almanzo’s exploding potato in the book, Farmer Boy, by the time we returned home, I was as hungry as a wolf. The crowds and fireworks and the light and heat of the fire, ending with sausages and then the treacled spice of the parkin was familiar and comforting. Mexico and its national sweet tooth didn’t seem quite so

far away.

There are a few things to remember when baking parkin. As I’ve said, this is a cake for keeping; it becomes richer and stickier as time passes. Don’t overcook the wet ingredients; stir them until melted and just blended, that’s all. Keep an eye on timing – you know your oven better than I do – you don’t want the parkin to dry out. Otherwise, it’s a forgiving little soul, perfect for autumn and winter and especially delicious with the addition of dried figs, fresh pears and stem ginger. These are not traditional parkin ingredients but they are good, especially when you cut a slice to have with some Wensleydale cheese as my grandfather once did.

Ingredients

110g soft butter

110g soft dark brown sugar

60g black treacle

200g golden syrup

225g medium oatmeal

110g self-raising flour

2.5 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground mixed spice

2 medium eggs, beaten

1 tbsp milk

75g dried figs, finely sliced (look for squishy ones)

one medium pear, peeled and diced into small pieces

2 balls stem ginger, fine diced

Pinch of salt

Method

Preheat the oven to 140C/120C fan/Gas Mark 1. Grease and line a 20cm x 20cm square cake tin.

In a pan, over a low heat, melt the sugar, butter, treacle and golden syrup, gently stirring. Don’t let the mixture boil and take off the heat as soon as it is melted and mixed together. Leave to cool until just warm.

Take a large mixing bowl and pour in the oatmeal then add flour, ginger, and mixed spice. Make a well in the centre and slowly add the butter mixture then fold it all together. Now stir in the figs (keeping a few slices back to decorate the top), pear and stem ginger, add the beaten eggs and milk and fold in.

Pour into the baking tin, decorate with a few slices of fig and bake for 1 hr, 20 minutes, checking it after one hour because ovens do vary. When a cake pick comes out with just a trace of damp crumbiness, it is ready.

Remove from the oven and leave in the tin for 15 minutes then turn out onto a rack and leave to cool completely.

Once cool, wrap the parkin in greaseproof paper and store in a cake tin for at least 2 days and up to a week before you cut and eat it.