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The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Lardy cake: a royal favourite

Lardy cake: a royal favourite
Illustrated by Natasha Lawson
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Lardy cake has a branding problem. We don’t mind puddings or cakes which explicitly announce their richness or decadence — death by chocolate, chocolate nemesis and devil’s food cake all remain popular. We actively embrace the hedonistic butteriness of croissants, along with brioche and puff pastry. Or consider the Betty’s Fat Rascal, which has achieved cult status despite (or because of) its unabashed fatty cheekiness.

But attach the word ‘lard’ and it’s a different story — a horror story. Those who wouldn’t think twice about accepting a hot cross bun or a piece of shortbread recoil at the prospect of lardy cake. ‘Lardy’ sounds inelegant, lumpen and, well, fatty. Even Elizabeth David said of the cake that ‘like every pack of cigarettes, every lardy cake should carry a health warning’.

It is safe to say that lard has resolutely fallen out of favour in baking and cooking. As it happens, lard actually has less saturated fat than butter, although that feels like a rather joyless way of approaching baking cakes and pastry. It also has lower water content than butter, which means that the things you bake with it are flakier, more tender, finer and more delicate: the very opposite of lumpen.

Lardy cake dates back to the mid-19th century, and almost certainly comes from the West Country, although it’s probably best not to attempt to pin down exactly where there unless you’re feeling particularly brave. The idea is simple: you use lard in place of butter to enrich a white dough. But lardy cake comes in many forms. Some are more like Chelsea buns, or monkey bread — individual portions designed to be torn apart. Others are closer to a cake, while others still are designed to be sliced and buttered like bread. In all of these forms, it is usually yeasted, sweetened, spiced, enriched with lard, filled with currants, raisins or sultanas.

Lardy cake is ordinarily laminated: the dough is rolled out and dotted liberally with the rich lard, then rolled back up or folded so that, when it bakes, it forms distinct layers, like a cinnamon bun or a rudimentary croissant.

While lardy cake is now a cheap cake to make, it was originally made for celebrations at a time when sugar and spice were rarer. It was traditionally baked during the harvest, and bears a strong resemblance to other regional harvest cakes, as well as the Cheltenham dripping cake (usually made with beef fat). But if it had humble beginnings, it retains fans in lofty places: lardy cake is regularly served at Buckingham Palace garden parties.

Mine is probably closer to a bread than a cake, with a soft, enriched crumb, tender from the lard, and rippled with currants. I roll the proved dough into a large, thin rectangle, before dotting it with the lard, spiced sugar and currants, using my fingers to gently paddle any wayward fruit into the dough. The whole thing is then folded up like a letter, and rolled out again, before adding more lard, more sugar, more fruit, and folding, rolling and dotting once more. This creates those all-important layers. The anointed, layered dough is then rolled out one final time (phew!), before being tightly spiralled up and then wound up like a snail’s shell, and placed in a round cake tin. It has a final prove, for the dough to expand and puff, before being baked hot and long, until it’s a dark bronze.

Traditionally, the finished bake is glazed with honey or a simple sugar syrup, making it gleam, but I also love it painted with sieved marmalade, bittersweet and sticky. It is wonderful when you eat it straight from the oven, and will stay good for a couple of days. My favourite way to enjoy it is cooled and left to settle, then sliced thickly, toasted and spread generously with cold salted butter. Just don’t tell Elizabeth David.

Serves 12 Takes 3.5 hrs Bakes 45 mins

For the dough

1 tbsp caster sugar

300g strong white bread flour

30g lard 10g instant yeast

½ tsp salt 200ml whole milk

For the filling and glaze

100g soft light brown sugar

1 tsp mixed spice 100g lard 150g currants

2 tbsp honey, or 3 tbsp marmalade to glaze

  1. Place the flour in a large bowl or base of a stand mixer. Rub the 30g lard into the flour until it disappears. Add the yeast, sugar, salt and milk, and knead using a dough hook for 10 minutes, or 15 minutes by hand. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size.
  2. Meanwhile, grease an 8in cake tin with a removable bottom, and line the base of the tin with a disc of greaseproof paper.
  3. For the filling, stir together the sugar and spice. Roll out the proved dough into a rough rectangle about half a centimetre thick. Dot with a third of the lard, a third of the spiced sugar mix, and a third of the currants. Press the currants gently into the dough. Fold the top third into the centre of the dough, and the bottom third on top of that. Turn the dough a quarter turn, roll out, and repeat twice more.
  4. Roll out the dough once more into a slim rectangle about 50cm long. Roll the rectangle up from the long edge, and then wind the whole thing round in on itself like a snail. Lift up the spiral and place into the prepared cake tin. Cover with a tea towel, and leave in a warm place to prove for an hour.
  5. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Transfer the cake tin to the oven and bake for 45 minutes until the dough is puffed, proud and dark gold.
  6. Leave to cool for 15 minutes, then remove the cake from the tin on to a cooling rack. Heat the honey or marmalade (sieved to remove rind) in a pan until warm, and then brush generously on to the top of the cake. Leave to cool completely.

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Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

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