A triumph of nostalgia over necessity

All expats miss something – or many somethings – about their homeland.

If they claim not to, they prevaricate. Certain things are so deeply embedded in the formation of one’s character, tastes and preferences that their absence can become disproportionate. Perhaps I’m over-dramatising, but….  I don’t miss much, myself, but those things I do miss are tied to remembered happiness and pleasure. It was necessary to leave behind some particular pleasures, but there are always niggles. Who knew, 50 years ago, how memorable a particular kind of cake was going to be to this nearly 60-year-old living so happily in her adopted sunny land?

I’m talking about the King of Sunday tea-times, more gorgeous and satisfying than any fruit cake, delicate Victoria sponge or buttery upside-down cake. McVitie’s Jamaica Ginger Cake. Gingery, sticky, chewy, and that m-word that everyone hates. It was always a disaster when it was finished, but there was still the bliss of the paper-scraping, when you could ease up from the paper case all those super-sticky bits that had been left behind, and which were somehow the ultimate delight, the bonus of this cake.

You can’t buy them in Australia. Oh, that’s not strictly true… you can get them at British Food specialty shops, online, or from Amazon in Australia. But they’re stale and nasty. They’ve sat in containers for weeks, in warehouses for more weeks, and in the hands of Australia Post or couriers for still longer. They are a travesty.

So ultimately, the only solution was to make my own. Over the years, there have been lots of trials and errors, perfectly pleasant gingerbreads and nice-ish cakes, but none that fit the bill, that rang the bell of memory. Until now.

See that shiny, sticky crust on top? And mine is bigger, too!

Yesterday, I hit the jackpot. I’m giving the recipe below. Writing this post is proving to be a good way to prevent myself cutting a third thick slice… for now.

Jamaica Ginger Cake
300ml/10floz whole milk
120g/4oz packed soft dark brown sugar
120g/4oz treacle or molasses
120g/4oz golden syrup*
230g/8oz self raising flour
1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
2 tblsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
120g/4oz salted butter

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F and grease and line a large, heavy loaf tin with baking paper.
Measure the milk in a glass measuring jug, add the sugar and warm in the microwave for about a minute. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and set aside to cool.
Melt the treacle, butter and golden syrup in another pan together over a low heat until runny but not hot.
Sift together the flour, bicarb, ginger, cinnamon and allspice
Pour first the milk and then the syrup mixtures into the flour and beat hard with a whisk until smooth – a wooden spoon will not get rid of all the lumps. The consistency should be of pancake batter. Add a little more milk if necessary.
Pour into the loaf tin and bake for 45 – 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Cool completely in the tin.
Once cooled, turn out and wrap with paper and foil. Leave the cake wrapped for at least 1 day before you tear into it. This is what makes the top deliciously sticky. Do not be tempted to unwrap earlier, or the top will be normal and boring, although still perfectly delicious.

*Golden syrup is not the same as corn syrup. It is thicker, darker and has strong caramel overtones. You could substitute with dark corn syrup, but the flavour is not the same. There are recipes on the internet for a pretty good home made version using nothing more fancy than water, sugar and lemon juice.

You can obviously make substitutions if you want to, but this recipe is designed to mimic as closely as possible the cake of my childhood. It’d probably be really nice with chopped crystallised ginger in it, or maybe dark chocolate chips. I’m not going there, I don’t want to 🙂

This recipe is egg free. You could probably also make it dairy free by subbing unsweetened almond milk and dairy-free margarine, although flavour will be affected. I’m not sure how it’d go gluten free; it’s already pretty dense, so I’d recommend against using too much almond meal. Try a quality gluten-free brand (like White Wings Gluten Free in Australia, or Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour in the US). Disclosure: I don’t get paid anything for mentioning these two, I just want your recipe to turn out well.

Now, excuse me. I have a date with a cake…

59 thoughts on “A triumph of nostalgia over necessity

  1. Susan Nixon says:

    I’m so happy you found the perfect recipe to match your memories!

  2. As I kid I was never a fan of ginger but now… oh yes. So yes, I wondered if it could be even more ginger-fied by the addition of glace ginger. Omg… I can feel my blood sugar rising just thinking about eating it. Enjoy 😀

    • katechiconi says:

      It certainly does contain a fair bit of sugar… But it’s not something I’d bake every week or maybe even every month. Just when nostalgia strikes, or when I have guests who’d appreciate it! Next on the development list is Lumberjack Cake…

  3. Thank you so much for the recipe. It looks more than yummy. I saw the price on Amazon and making your own is a smart move. I’ve saved the recipe for later. I too have food stuff that is made strictly for memories sake. Lots of things we had growing up in Germany that were staples in my mother’s cooking. and the pfeffernusse and lebkuchen cookies. I’ve been baking them at Christmas for years until there was no one to eat them anymore. Thanks for stirring up the memory. Enjoy you yummy cake.

    • katechiconi says:

      The cake is delicious. Although there’s a lot of syrup in it, it also has a sort of deep bitter savoury note from the molasses. Luscious. Lebkuchen are always stale here too… And speculaas, and ontbijtkoek… All that lovely cinnamony north-European baking flavour.

      • Our German Deli gets the cookies in at Christmas time and when they are gone, they are completely gone. I might try baking again this year but it takes more energy than I usually have anymore. Trying to train the daughter to take over but she has less energy. Oh well, it was a nice thought. 😉 Do you have a recipe for Lebkuchen?

      • katechiconi says:

        I do indeed. I’ll send it to you. Not sure how totally authentic it is; I suspect it’s missing a few ‘secret’ ingredients from the spice mixture (pepper? aniseed?), but it still tastes pretty good to me!

      • I was going to send you mine. 🙂

      • katechiconi says:

        Do – I’ll be able to see where mine is missing stuff!

      • just emailed it to you and got yours but haven’t looked at it yet.

      • katechiconi says:

        One question on the one you sent me: how much does the pack of vanillin sugar weigh? I make my own vanilla sugar, so if I know how much to use I’ll be OK.

      • Each package is .32 oz or 9 g. I have no idea how to make my own and since I don’t bake except at Christmas, I never thought to do it any other way. Now I’m thinking. 😉 I like the idea of using almond flour but wonder at how much to exchange for regular flour. We all know now that our wheat is more or less toxic. ;(

      • katechiconi says:

        Thank you! I think a 1:1 replacement with almond flour wouldn’t be quite right, as almond flour is quite heavy and squidgy. Try 50:50 almond flour and cornstarch, which may give you the right degree of crispness and lightness. Alternatively, use some Bob’s Red Mill GF flour which is wheat free. And no, I don’t get paid to promote it, I just like how it performs.

      • Bob’s Red Mill is right down the road from us so readily available. We spent a good amount of time there. Thanks for the info.

  4. magpiesue says:

    Congratulations on your success! It looks and sounds yummy. I’ve always loved gingerbread though I’ve never had this type of cake.

  5. Marty K says:

    YUM! I need to get over to the British import shop I go to and get some Golden Syrup (and British treacle while I’m at it). I hope they’re open again.

    So many foods bring back childhood memories. I’m glad you were able to perfect the recipe.

    • katechiconi says:

      The golden syrup is important to the flavour. If you already have molasses, you can do without treacle, if you only have treacle, you can do without the molasses, they both have the right kind of flavour profile. I’m having to work quite hard not to walk into the kitchen and demolish the rest of the cake. Oh, and *brilliant* warmed up and served with vanilla ice cream.

  6. I remember! Your cake looks amazing, wish you could send me a slice 😉

  7. tialys says:

    Yum! I love a good ginger cake and do make my own sometimes but, when we have our dog refuge fundraiser events, our ‘leader’ is a top baker and so I always buy one of her ginger cakes which are magnificently sticky and very ‘m’. Your recipe sounds good but, although you can get golden syrup – and I’ve even spotted black treacle on occasion – in what I call ‘the English aisle’ in the supermarket, you have to pay silly prices.
    People are always shocked when I say there are quite a few foodstuffs I miss from England and often ask people who are driving over for supplies yet, when I eventually get back to living there, I can’t think of one single thing I will miss (food-wise) from France*. Yes, baguettes are often good but unless eaten within the hour, can be used as a lethal weapon, I prefer English cheeses and New World wines. I’m stopping now before les paysans storm up the hill with pitchforks to do me harm. Just finishing my English Breakfast tea (aka imported PG Tips).

    * O.K., almond croissants

    • katechiconi says:

      Oh, I can think of a few… Normandy butter, breakfast hot chocolate, proper apricot jam, tarte au citron, religieuses, sole bonne femme, beignets. And yes, there is a preponderance of patisserie… For England, apart from the Jamaica ginger cake, there’s good pork sausages, steak & kidney pie, Jaffa Cakes, Bakewell tarts, Eccles cakes… Do you see a theme emerging?

      • tialys says:

        The difference is, I think, you can get most things in Waitrose (how I miss it) but the supermarkets here are much less ‘adventurous’. I am still hoping they will discover halloumi cheese here as, since going almost veggie, it’s a bit of flavour and texture to add to stuff. If I wasn’t an almost veggie, I would certainly put really good, farm reared pork sausages and bacon on my list of things from England plus double and clotted cream. I haven’t got much of a sweet tooth so I wouldn’t miss the patisserie one bit. I prefer ‘proper’ cakes and I can make apricot jam!
        One of the supermarkets here sells McVities chocolate digestives – presumably an import version – as it says on the packet ‘Anglais – mais bon’. Cheeky beggars.
        Anyway, the flaming torches are getting nearer.

      • katechiconi says:

        I’m always amazed at what the supermarkets here choose to stock in their ‘international foods’ section for the Poms. Mushy peas, Branston Pickle, HobNobs…. I ask you. I defend to the death your right to prefer the foods of your heritage. Allons y, aux barricades!

  8. nanacathy2 says:

    It’s years since I had a Jamacian Ginger cake and they are delicious, especially the bits stuck to the paper. I feel almost honour bound to do a taste the difference challnege now. My children liked it when I used it as a basis for triffle with mandarin ornages and ornage jellies- an after Christmas treat!
    I would also put Mr Kiplings treacle tarts up there too.

    • katechiconi says:

      Oh yes, the ginger cake trifle! Mr Kipling Bakewell tarts, too. If you do try the recipe, and I hope you do, you’ll need a loaf tin a good bit larger than the McVitie’s version of the cake, just to warn you 🙂 Oh, the suffering of having to eat almost twice the amount of cake…

      • nanacathy2 says:

        I have a 2lb loaf tin and this week finally made my first cake in scary oven, I am well up for homemade Jamacian Ginger cake.

      • katechiconi says:

        Go for it! I hope you’ll post the results )so long as it doesn’t fall flat, of course!). We’ve just finished ours, and it was a struggle not to make pigs of ourselves and ration it out.

  9. cedar51 says:

    My ex-DH was from the UK, he always said “no, this isn’t trifle…not like my Mother made” – well some years later, said Mother and Father came to visit us at Christmas from the UK and hubby said “why don’t you make your version of trifle, so that Mother can show you the proper way…” so after a lovely Christmas dinner (NZ style) we tucked into my trifle…MIL was eager to try and ex-DH said it’s nothing like yours, it’s not proper. But hey ho, Mother declared it was absolutely spot on reminding my then man, it’s as good as your Father’s mothers, you do remember hers don’t you…

    I didn’t leave DH for just that reason, but there were many other reasons why in the early 1990s “I’d had enough of much of his silliness”…

  10. claire93 says:

    not sure how I managed to live the first 21 years of my life in England and never taste a slice of that Ginger cake ! My Mum must have been more conservative with what cakes or biccies she bought although I do remember a yummy squidgy malt loaf.

  11. I have recipes for ginger cakes but there is always room for one more! Thank you! For me, flavours, like smells, can transport me instantly to a remembered occasion – like teleportation. Remember that if you hold the slice of cake by one corner and shake it very gently all the calories will run out – well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

    • katechiconi says:

      You’re welcome, and thank you for the tip about calorie reduction – I’m going to need it! Next on the list is a cake most definitely from my second life here Down Under: Lumberjack Cake. Watch this space…

  12. If it’s any consolation, Jamaica Ginger Cake is nothing like it used to be, even here in the UK. It’s dry, quite pale and not very sticky. I used to buy them until a few years ago but nothing comes close to home baked now. Your cake will be far better than the branded one 🙂

    • katechiconi says:

      So sad that something so magnificent is now a mere shadow of its former self. I’m glad to have created a tribute to its glory days instead of the modern reality.

  13. Looks luscious. I’ve found several recipes to make golden syrup (a good kitchen-warming project for a cold day). Here’s a good one. https://www.internationaldessertsblog.com/make-golden-syrup/

    • katechiconi says:

      On behalf of my US readers, thank you! Golden Syrup is a permanent presence in most UK and Australian baking pantries, and it’s hard to imagine some recipes without its robust caramel flavour.

  14. Emmely says:

    I am not too keen on ginger but I can understand ontbijtkoek! Although I am very particular about brands, they’re not all equally tasty!

    • katechiconi says:

      We don’t have any choice at all here, one brand, and stale and tasteless at that. So I do want to get that recipe right. There’s a lot of different spices in it and some I don’t have, so it will depend on whether I can get them.

      • Emmely says:

        I wouldn’t mind having a look for you but I’m not sure whether mailing spices to Australia is allowed?

      • katechiconi says:

        It’s probably allowed, but I wouldn’t ask you to go to that trouble. I can get most of them fairly easily and the rest with a bit of online shopping. Thank you for the thought, though!

  15. We must have similar tastes. Your recipe and mine are practically identical. I have found having to be dairy free that cashew milk works incredibly well. Enjoy your cake. it looks divine.

    • katechiconi says:

      I have to be lactose free, but I just use lactose free milk, so that makes life easier, and real butter isn’t an issue for me. I think cashew milk would probably be perfect, it’s creamy enough to add the necessary richness. Hopefully future recipes will also suit your tastes 🙂

  16. The recipe has been saved … The longing and lingering memories for me is the street food in Kolkata…. I’ve managed to replicate a lot of them but still miss it.

  17. Oh well done, I have never managed to match that yummy, chewy cake. It’s one of the few sweet treats I have to buy because I can’t make it right myself.

    • katechiconi says:

      We’ve just finished it, and I really, really want to make another one all over again. But it’s time to try something new. I have another two recipes to work on, and of course, the results to sample. Oh, the sacrifices I make… I hope you try the cake, it’s not at all hard and the results are sooooo good!

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