Empower yourself by learning to bake a wonderful Carrot & Banana cake

Carrot & Banana cake with pecan nuts. A delightful, simple flop-proof cake.

Empowerment is one of the buzzwords circulating freely today. But have you ever taken five to consider what “empowerment” really means?

Educationist Dr Seth Kreisberg  of the University of Massachusetts suggested in 1992 in his  educational classic**  that empowerment was “the capacity to implement”.

Implicit in this concept is that change (and growth) is involved. Through learning to make or do stuff, you gain (change) in self-confidence and ability. Skilling is a very self-empowering process.

I took Seth Kreisberg’s sense of empowerment to heart and devoted much of my time at home to “empowering” my extended family members with home skills (carpentry, mucking around with engines, reading for pleasure and information, growing things, and preparing food).

The first non-essential, but very rewarding, skill everyone learnt in the kitchen was how to bake a flop-proof Carrot & Banana cake.

We have been baking this cake since the end of 1992 when Matt (Thabethe) and I modified a recipe from the “Great Baking Classics” supplement in the July 1987 Living and Loving magazine.

Further modifications followed over the years with suggestions and tweaks from Puggy (Xaba), TZ (Thabizolo Msimang), Philani (Khumalo),  Khaya (Mwelase), Bam (Phumlani Hlatshwayo), Senzo (Khanyile), Zotha and Zazi (Shange), and Phila (Msimang), along with Michael and David. David, now living in Derby, England, also bakes really good-looking  proper bread (made with yeast – not the “health” variety soda bicarb bread). Michael, a fine artist, knows that man does not live by bread (or meat) alone — he is continuously experimenting with simple, tasty, vegetarian dishes.

As with many of our basic recipes, the basic measuring unit is one of our cups (a 250 ml coffee mug). But any standard cup will do. Cooking is not so much about precise quantities, but rather about correct proportions and understanding what is going on with your ingredients. A “pinch” is the amount that can be held between the tips of the thumb and fore-finger. A “generous pinch” is between thumb and crooked fore-finger. I don’t do ml. I have never understood the pedantic translation of those early rough-and-ready recipes with handfuls, tablespoonfuls, and cups of this, and a pinch of that, into precise metric equivalents.

We do not use an electric mixer. All mixing is by hand with a wooden spoon. You have better control and reduce the risk of the gluten in the flour reacting too quickly through over-mixing, forming a “doodgooi” heavy dough.

  • 1 cup grated raw carrot (thinly peeled first)
  • 1 cup mashed bananas (4 ripe bananas)
  • I cup raisins
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped or broken pecan nuts
  • I cup sugar (brown is nice)
  • 2 cups cake flour (I prefer SASKO®)
  • 125 g butter or margarine (quarter of a block)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder (slightly heaped)
  • 1 teaspoon soda bicarbonate (dissolved in half a cup of warm water)
  • a pinch of mixed spice. This is an essential flavourant for carrot cake – a ground mix of pimento (all spice), cloves, cassia, and nutmeg.
  • 1 teaspoon (cap-full) vanilla essence
  • 2 extra-large eggs
  • a pinch of salt
  1. Switch on the oven to preheat at 180 degrees C.
  2. Into a mixing bowl add the sugar and the diced butter. Microwave on high for one minute. Stir well.
  3. Add the beaten eggs and vanilla essence. Mix well (hand mix with a wooden spoon).
  4. Add the mashed bananas. Mix well.
  5. Sieve into the mix a cup of flour and the baking powder, salt and mixed spice. Mix well. Add the second cup of flour. Mix well.
  6. Add the grated carrot, raisins and broken pecan nuts. Mix well.
  7. Add the half cup of water with dissolved bicarbonate of soda. Mix well.
  8. Divide the cake batter evenly into two  pre-greased medium loaf-shaped tins (wiped generously with a torn-off square of butter paper or sprayed with Spray n Cook®). Use either anodized aluminium, glass Pyrex®, or heavy silicone rubber  pans (Woollies ones are best).

Bake at 180 degrees C for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on oven size, age, and whether fan oven or not. We use a 32-year-old Defy® Thermofan 418. Most of the wiring, all the rings, a number of switches etc have been replaced by us over the years. But it still keeps going.

Test for doneness while still in the oven by probing the loaves at either end with a wooden skewer. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done. If it comes out with gunk, they are not ready. If gunky, close the oven door and let them do for another 15 minutes.

Let the cakes cool in the loaf pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing them from the pans. Let them dry and cool further, bottom-side down, for another hour before wrapping them in aluminium foil. You can slice and eat them while still warm – yum, but crumbly. If you let them cool properly then they will firm up and slice well with a sharp knife. They keep well, wrapped, for several days.

** Kreisberg, S. (1992). Transforming power: Domination, empowerment, and education. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992)


Traditional South African steamed breads

When I was young my mother would make steamed bread in 1 lb (500g) baking powder tins prized for the purpose because they were rust-proofed, smooth sided and had tight-fitting screw on or slide on tops. She made boston bread (a raisin and molasses tea bread), ginger bread and mealie bread. She had three tins kept for the purpose and could always be relied on to whip up a tasty high tea treat in the late afternoon whether for guests or just her own hungry boys. If you don’t have any old baking powder tins (or old cocoa tins that also came with tin caps), you can buy similar-sized “steaming” tins from a

Baking powder tin with tight-fitting lid.

baking goods shop (shame on your mother for not passing on her old baking powder or cocoa tins. Today most brands of baking powder and cocoa come in useless plastic containers – absolutely not suitable for steaming bread!).

Later in life, when I began living with Zulu people, I was introduced to a completely different steamed bread, ujeqe (pronounced: u- ch- eh- tongue descending plosive click- soft, disappearing  uh). Recently a friend inaugurated me in the rites of making ujeqe.

So give tradition a go! A good ginger bread is made somewhat differently to these simple recipes. I will add it later (I need to do some experimenting!).


Zulu steamed bread (ujeqe)

No traditional feast or ceremony (umsebenzi) is complete without slices or hunks of freshly-made ujeqe, traditionally served on a wooden platter (ugqoko), alongside chunks of meat (usually the sacrificial goat) and small mounds of salt for dabbing the meat. There is a bit of controversy over the correct name of the wooden platter. Purists call it ugqoko, but current usage is to call wooden serving platters isithebe (traditionally a name reserved for the finely-woven small mats on which ground maize is collected, also used for serving vegetables).

This was the recipe given me by Khumbuzile, the other half of good friend and journalist, Sbu Mboto, and mother of his, at the time of writing, last born, Zander Satchmo. She made it for me on Christmas day 2011 when the three were around for lunch, along with Bam – Phumlani Hlatshwayo – Khaya Mwelase and his lively young brother, Sanele, Girlie Makhathini (Khaya’s grandmother and my vegetable gardening mentor),  and Senzo Khanyile and his fiancée Sle (short for Slender) Mthalane.

Traditionally ujeqe is made from crushed fresh mealies rather like the traditional South African steamed green mealie bread. The  recipe below, however, is the one all township folk use.

  •  2½ cups of cake flour
  • 1 dessert spoon sugar
  • 600 ml warm water
  • 2 teaspoons Anchor brand instant yeast
  • 1 pinch salt

Mix dough and knead lightly. Place in a covered glass dish in the sun to rise for an hour (or any other warm place).

The dough wrapped in an oiled plastic shopping bag and placed on a steaming rack inside a pot.

Oil (with olive oil or margarine) the inside of a plastic shopping bag (which you have wiped first – you never know what has been inside it, says Khumbuzile). Place the risen dough in the bag and tie the top to stop water getting in.

Place on a legged expandable vegetable steamer in a pot with boiling water up to the steamer platform. Lightly boil for an hour. By then the bread should be done. Check the pot from time to time to see that it has water (you are making steamed bread, not potjie roasted bread which is another recipe).

Opening ujeqe to check that it is cooked.

After an hour of boiling open up the bag and slip a wooden skewer into the middle of the bread. If it is done it will come out smooth. If still sticky with gunk then close up the bag and continue boiling for another 20 minutes. When done the steamed bread has a light tan “skin”. Allow to air on a rack for a few minutes before serving.

The result is a delicious, coarsely-textured, slightly chewy bread which is not wet (as you may have expected) but light and firm with a nutty aroma. Wonderful bread. I eat it with honey or fruit preserve. Or even with (to the horror of my friends) with my favourite full-cream maas (thickened sour milk) (amasi), traditionally prepared in an igula, a calabash (the dried outer husk of the fruit of iselwa, the squash family calabash gourd plant, Lagenaria siceria).

Traditional South African steamed green mealie bread

This is really a steamed soda bread, as opposed to a yeast bread. If you don’t have mealies then use most of two drained tins of corn (or sweetcorn emptied into a sieve so you can wash out all the creamy gunk).

  • 2 ½  cups minced or coarsely blended green mealies cut from the freshly-picked cob.
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 beaten egg

Mix mealies, salt, sugar, baking powder in a bowl. Add beaten eggs mixed with the melted butter. Mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into a greased 500g baking powder tin. Place a disc of greased waterproof paper a little larger than the tin diameter on the tin (also known as greaseproof paper) (if you don’t have any just grab a sheet of paper from your printer and rub butter on both sides – works even better!). Screw the lid down over the greased paper. Place on a trivet or pot stand inside a large pot and add water to reach two-thirds up the side of the tin. Lightly boil for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Very nice with golden syrup, honey or just a dab of butter. A nice bready side-dish instead of boring rolls (rolls – yuk! Only plebs or fast-food joint habitués have rolls with a meal. Rolls and boerie  or chicken sausage on Friday night are acceptable. But not with a dinner – puhleeez!).

Traditional steamed Boston bread

A tea cake steamed soda bread.

  •  1 cup cake flour
  • 1 cup blended dry oats
  • 1 cup mealie meal
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 handful raisins (optional)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup (I prefer molasses)
  • 1 ¼ cups of lukewarm milk

Mix dry ingredients. Blend the warmed milk and syrup and add to the dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly.

Makes enough batter for two tins. Fill each tin two-thirds with the mixture and cook as above for steamed mealie bread.

Philani’s melktert

If music be the food of love, play on. But food itself is more than nutrition for the body, it is also the music of loving memories. Last night my youngest own-blood son, David, sent me a skype message from faraway England asking whether I still had Philani’s wonderful melktert recipe. David’s request triggered a rush of memories, but I was sitting on a deadline so said I would get back to him today.

When I woke this morning I decided not only to dig up Philani’s recipe, but whip up two melktert with different bases and write it up for the blog. Working with me on this project was long-time member of our extended family, Khaya (Mwelase), a trainee paramedic with NetCare 911, who was off-duty for the day.

Philani, let me first explain, is Philani Khumalo, a tall easy-going, seriously intelligent young attorney who now works in Johannesburg. For many years, while completing school and then studying law at university, he was a much loved member of our household. He loved nothing better on Saturday afternoons than putting on his favourite Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten, and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Invariably, due to popular demand he would produce his justly famous melktert which he had perfected and to which everyone still refers nostalgically.

South Africa is a hunter’s hotpot of cultures and their foods. The Dutch contributed not only their language, the backbone of Afrikaans, but also several delicacies which have joined the ranks of our popular national food symbols: melktert, intertwined koeksusters, and the ball-shaped vetkoek. Although melktert is sometimes translated as milk tart, or baked custard pie, most people know it as melktert.

The basis of Philani’s melktert was a recipe he got from the back of the box of another South African traditional symbol, Maizena® (the South African standard household cornflour brand). I still have the old original recipe, as well as our modified recipe given here, but do not have all Philani’s variations. Nonetheless melktert in our household is still fondly known as Philani’s melktert.

You can use any shallow pie or rippled flan dish with an outer diameter of around 26cm. Grease the dish with a piece of butter paper, or spray it with an anti-stick agent like Spray ‘n Cook®. You will be glad you did when removing a wedge of melktert at the end.

Khaya pressing out the shortcrust pastry base. On the left is the crushed biscuit base.

 shortcrust pastry base (makes one)

  • 250 ml (1 cup) cake flour [375 ml (1½  cups)]
  • 80ml (1/3 cup) Maizena
  • 62,5 ml (¼  cup) sugar
  • [2 level teaspoons baking powder]
  • 1 pinch salt (a pinch is between thumb and tip of forefinger, a generous pinch is between thumb and crooked forefinger)
  • 90g (a fifth of a 500g block) butter or margarine [100g]
  • yolk of an egg

Mix together dry ingredients. Work the butter into the dry ingredients, rubbing between your fingers until there are no lumps of butter left and you have an even-coloured, gritty mix (a bit like fine sawdust). Put the egg yolk in a cup and top up to half-way with cold water, then beat with a fork. Using the fork whisk the beaten egg into the flour mix then with floured hands lightly compress the mix in a ball, put it in a pie dish in the fridge for 20 minutes or so to chill. Once chilled press the pastry evenly out and up the sides. Prick the base with a fork (to prevent unseemly swelling) and bake the shell in the oven for 10 minutes at 180C.

Pricking the base of the shortcrust pastry shell.

alternate base (makes one)

  • 1 packet tennis or marie biscuits (crushed in a plastic bag with a rolling pin)
  • 140g melted margarine or butter

Melt the butter in the microwave for a minute on high. Stir in the crushed biscuit and press out in a pie dish with the back of a spoon.

filling for one melktert:

  • 500ml (2 cups) milk
  • 1 heaped (or 1¼ ) tablespoon Maizena (cornflour)
  • 1 heaped (or 1¼ ) tablespoon cake flour
  • 1 level tablespoon butter (or margarine)
  • 1 egg (separated)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 capful (½ teaspoon) of vanilla essence

filling for two melktert:

  • 1 litre (4 cups) milk
  • 4 level tablespoons cornflour
  • 3 ½ level tablespoons cake flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter (or margarine)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 capsful (1 teaspoon) of vanilla essence

Melt the margarine in the microwave. Beat in the sugar with a wooden spoon. Beat the eggs and then mix thoroughly with the margarine and sugar mix. Add the vanilla essence. Begin gently heating the milk. When warm, not hot, add some warm milk to the mix and stir well until the mix combines evenly. Add all of your mix now to the warm milk in the pot, stirring all the while.

Pouring the cornflour and cake flour mix into the warm milk mix in the pot. Keep stirring!

Meanwhile mix the cornflour and cake flour with some cold water, adding a bit at a time until you have a smooth mix that will just pour.

Add this to the warm milk mixture in the pan, keeping on stirring. As the mixture approaches boiling it begins thickening. Let it bubble (boil) for a minute or two as you stir.

If you rush this process (too hot a cooking ring) you will get the odd lump or two. But that is not a disaster. Just keep on. The lumps will reduce and you will remember next time to use a lower ring heat, or take the pot off the heat from time to time so that you can match your stirring to the thickening.

Pouring the thick cooked custard into the shells.

Pour your thick custard mix into the pie shell(s). Bake at 180C for 15 to 20 minutes, then put on a wire rack to cool and set. Sprinkle powdered cinnamon over the baked custard top.

The finished product fresh from the oven, with a dusting of cinnamon.

You will know that you got it right when you cut and remove that first slice. The custard should be firm and not flow into the space left!

You should experiment with both bases. Crushed biscuit is fine (and quick). But the shortcrust pastry recipe we use is great for all sorts of dishes, whether as the shell for a quiche or for a pie topping (chicken pie, steak and kidney pie, savoury mince pie).

Since it’s my birthday – let them eat cake!

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche

The famous phrase – “let them eat cake” – is often attributed to the ill-fated 18th century French queen, Marie Antoinette. The phrase in fact comes from her contemporary, best-seller serial writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche [fancy bread, or cake]’,” he wrote in 1769 in volume six of his largely fictional, but racily scandalous, “Confessions” (published in 1782). He was describing his temptation for pastry to accompany wine he had just stolen.

Just which princess he was referring to is not clear, but it was not Marie Antoinette who was only 14 at the time, and had not yet arrived at the French Court at Versailles.

There are three quite different, but simply excellent never-fail cake recipes that we have adapted and used for many years at KwaKhehla: boiled fruit cake, banana (carrot) cake, and chocolate cake. In today’s blog we talk about the first.

fruit cake

Nan Elsworth’s never-fail boiled fruit cake.

Nan Elsworth’s never-fail fruit cake.

I met Nan Elsworth, 94, on Leisure Island, Knysna, in April 1986. Despite her great age she was still very active with her favourite occupations – gardening and working on her recipe book in the kitchen. She had invited me to tea and served slices of a fruit cake she had baked the day before. It was so good I asked for the recipe which we have used every year since then. I never found out whether she managed to publish her book.

Here is the recipe she gave me:

  • 500g (750 ml or 3 cups) dried cake fruit mix (raisins, sultanas, currents, candied peel)
  • 125g (125 ml or 4oz) butter or margarine
  • 5ml (1 teaspoon) bicarbonate of soda
  • 250ml (1 cup) sugar
  • 375 ml (1.5 cups) water

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and boil gently for 25 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Remove from heat and allow to cool to finger warm (if you can put your finger in and keep it there without screaming, then it is probably cool enough).

Add, in the following order, to the mixture in the saucepan, stirring as you go:

  •  200g (500 ml or 2 cups) sifted cake flour
  • 10 ml (1 heaped teaspoon) baking powder
  • 1 large egg (or two smaller eggs) beaten gently with a fork
  • 1 tablespoon syrup (golden or treacle)

Stir well.

  • Option (highly recommended): add a handful of broken, shelled walnuts or pecan nuts and a handful of glace cherries.

Pour mixture into a medium (21 cm diameter) cake tin with removable bottom, lined on the bottom and sides with grease-proof paper.

Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for two hours. If you have an oven that tends to get a bit hot then bake for 20 minutes at 180 degrees C and then turn it down to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F) for the remainder of the time.

Turn out the cake while still warm, running a knife between cake and bottom plate to gently part the two. Peel off the grease-paper from the bottom of the cake and let stand on a cake rack to further cool.

At this stage we usually prick the top and pour on half a glass of Old Brown sherry (but you can use brandy or what-ever takes your taste).

Once cool wrap the cake in foil. You can eat it straight away, but it will also keep perfectly well for weeks.

Wonderful to eat, wonderful to give as a present.