What is better than Pancakes on Pancake Tuesday? Vanakes on Vancake Tuesday! But what is even better again is weather mild enough to enjoy cooking outdoors. We were lucky this year, on Sandeel Beach on the Hook Peninsula, County Wexford in February the sun cooperated fully and the day was fresh and bright.
William whipped up a batch of pancake batter and left some berries and a little lemon juice in a pot on the embers to simmer for compote. Milk and eggs as a rule do not travel well and we rarely have either ingredient in stock, ditto the whipped cream we bought for serving, these things don’t last without refrigeration. He used half white and half wholemeal stone ground flour, one of the artisan products we purchased way back in December at Holgate Windmill across the Irish Sea in York, England.
Pancakes with fruit and cream are delicious, but except for the novelty of cooking over open flames, nothing he couldn’t do at home, right?
William comes from a long line of bakers, he grew up in a bakery, trained in London and on the continent, he’s won Irish Food awards for his recipes, baking is really in his blood. Now that we’ve moved into a house with no oven, opportunities to bake are few and far between, and may have to be improvised somewhat in the future… hence The Unconventional Oven was born, a place to share his recipes and ideas about bread, baking, ovens and alternatives, and any other thing we eat or drink.
Imagine our excitement to get a tour of Holgate Windmill one snowy Saturday morning in December. We spoke at length to the friendly volunteers from the Preservation Society who were in attendance to guide us up the 5 floors, share the buildings history and explain all about the huge mechanical workings of the mill. The massive wooden cogs and wheels and huge millstones took up much of the space as we ascended the winding staircase through the low-ceilinged rooms, the meal, stone, bin and dust floors we learned they are called, in order, the highest smallest room right up in the roof is called the cap. The oldest 5 sail windmill in England, Holgate has been lovingly restored thanks to the efforts of a group of concerned locals and now continues to mill and open for business one day a week, it is well worth a visit and a tour if you are passing by that way!
Holgate Windmill cuts a lovely silhouette on the suburban skyline, but I would be remiss to not mention that although unbeknownst to us when we visited, we learned since the busy roundabout on which the mill sits was voted “Best Roundabout in England 2013” by the British Roundabout Appreciation Society, this award being a real accolade and this society being a legitimate coterie.
The campfires flames died down just as the last light left the sky and we took the fleece blanket from the couch to make a warm windbreak behind us and pulled our chairs in closer to the hearth. William decided to use the pancake leftovers to bake a loaf of Bannock, a traditional skillet or griddle stone bread, a very quick and easy yeast free kind of soda bread, baked in a dying fire. I’d never heard of Bannock. Born out of necessity in rural homes, he told me, when kitchens often had just the open fire hearth for cooking and because the simple ingredients were cheap, adaptable and in plentiful supply. Bannock is enjoyed in Scotland and Ireland to this day, mostly homemade still, and the inuits of Canada and Alaska bake a very similiar recipe called ‘muqpauraq’ or ‘skaan’, using their local fruits, seeds and tree sap.
I asked how I should share the recipe and these are Williams words:
“Campfire Bannock Bread:
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 1/2 cups wholemeal flour
3 cups milk
2 “good pinches” of salt
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons local honey (optional)
Handful of museli (optional)
Firstly, wash your hands. If you live in a van, wash them twice!
Secondly, food miles really do matter. Try to shop locally wherever possible, support worthy businesses and especially artisan producers who put their heart and souls into their arts and their passion. We use salt we bought when we visited Maldon, their flaky sea salt is fantastic, world famous and a little goes a long way.
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl (I used a basin, it was all I had handy). I threw in some museli because we had some there in the kitchen, you could use chia or any kind of nuts, seeds or fruit you have to hand, or none at all, it’s very adaptable. Use honey or not, we had a jar of Yorkshire honey that also came from the mill. Make a well in the centre, add the wet ingredients, bring the mixture together gently with your hands until it is of a thick porridge consistency. Flour your hands and the bowl well and mould the dough into a ball, push down into a flat disc about 3/4 – 1 inch thick.
Put the dough straight onto a preheated skillet (cast iron is best if you have it, we don’t so I used a large frying pan) over low heat, think embers now not flames. At this point, all good bakers know to cut a deep cross into the loaf to let the fairies out. Failure to cut the cross may result in your loaf becoming jinxed, and don’t say I didn’t warn you if that happens to you. Keeping an eye on the fire and regulating the heat meant I had to cover the dough with foil after about 5 minutes to maintain the temperature, if you do try this recipe on a campfire you’ll have to judge it for yourself. If the bottom of the loaf turns dark, reduce the heat. Bake for about 15 minutes on each side, the loaf does remain somewhat flat but the texture inside is light and crumbly, almost like a scone. Charred edges add to the taste so dont worry about those. Serve the bread hot right out of the pan, ripped in quartered chunks known as ‘farls’ and covered with melting Irish butter….” Mmmmm…. thanks William 😊
The more we read about Holgate Roundabout the stranger the story gets. Back then in 2013 the Roundabout Appreciation Society were accused of “sexing it up” by presenting the coveted award to a windmill-about, a move some roundabout afficianadoes saw as nothing more than an attempt to attract more women to their club and to sell more copies of their 2014 calendar. In-fighting amongst the committee, they forgot what is really important in all this, what really matters: the roundabouts.
Unfortunately I took no photos of the finished Bannock bread to post here, too busy I was eating one entire half of the huge round loaf. Warm and springy and with a chewy soda bread crust, dripping in butter, it was really delicious and we ate every crumb, washed down with many mugs of strong Irish tea. You simply can’t beat a campfire for atmosphere, watching the flames, the smell of coal and the wood logs crackling dry in the heat, but baking on a fire is just like baking in an oven, in a roundabout kind of way 😉