Barbados ❀ Bajan Sweet Bread

Never shall it be said that I won’t go far enough for good food.  Today’s adventures included rescuing a runaway coconut, and then laboriously reducing its hairy and almost impenetrable body to a fragrant pile of grated flesh.  But it was all worth it for this blog’s first venture into Christmas baking.  I’d been eager to get elbow-deep in spices and candied fruit, and Barbadian Christmas cake proved an excellent way to assuage this urge.  I’m not usually a fan of fruitcakes, but this lighter, coconutty version really hit the spot.

Astute readers may notice that today is supposed to be Bangladesh’s turn in the culinary alphabet, but I decided to postpone the fiery mustard and fish curry I plan for that country until after Christmas (especially after last week‘s spicy baked fish from Bahrain).  Turning to the next country on my list, I found that Barbados not only celebrates Christmas in style with all kinds of festive dishes, but had a particularly delicious-sounding festive cake called ‘sweet bread.’  ‘Bajan’ (the adjective by which the island’s inhabitants  refer to all things from Barbados) message boards are full of nostalgic comments from expats pining for the dish they grew up with:

Oh, for the sound of  “MERRY CHRISTMAS ” after midnight mass and the aroma of the baked [bread] at 1 am…!

Apparently, the “bread” (an overly modest label if ever I heard one) is baking at such an unusual hour because Bajans like to enjoy it on Christmas morning.  I wasn’t going to wait that long, however.

But what a crazy time I had getting the thing into the oven!  The road to cake is paved with good – but not very well thought-out – intentions, and the first challenge was to open the nice big coconut I had procured for the occasion.  We don’t have any hammers or rocks around, so I took the coconut out on the balcony to try to smash it with the heaviest saucepan I could find.  The balcony floor wasn’t hard enough, but the ledge looked sturdy enough to withstand the roughly 3 kilograms of iron and coconut.  I perched the coconut on the ledge – yes, I can be a little impulsive – attacked it with the frying pan….

…and whoops,

off bounced the coconut,

over the edge,

and into the neighbours’ patio below.

It hopped a few times, luckily not breaking anything in the process, and settled into the middle of the patio, looking smug.  The neighbours’ cat stared at me indignantly.  I eyed my central, indispensable ingredient forlornly.  The neighbours didn’t appear to be home, no shops would be open on a Sunday, and I NEEDED that coconut if I was going to make anything even resembling Bajan sweet bread!

How did your intrepid chef get out of this mess, I hear you ask?  To make an even longer story short, I ended up enlisting poor Joe’s help, as ever.  We did finally get it back, but because we alternated between being doubled over in laughter and squabbling about the best way to approach the problem, it probably took slightly longer than was strictly necessary.  In the end, it took us about an hour of trial and error to fashion a contraption made out of long lengths of kitchen string, a broom, a mop and a plastic shopping bag.  We lost a lemon and an apple along the way – putative weights that ended up also wanting to escape.  Joe chuckled at the absurdity of the situation:

It’s like a fruit machine.  This is turning into the most surreal weekend I can remember.

By the time we’d hoisted the thing up, we were so bowled over by having succeeded that we just looked at it, astonished.  And it had a nice deep crack in it, too – so my method of getting it open worked after all!  Shows you what can be done if you put your mind to it.

Of course, you can use dessicated coconut too; it won’t taste quite as fresh or moist, but it will be a damn sight quicker (sorry, been watching a bit too much Upstairs Downstairs recently).  Just be sure to re-hydrate it for an hour or so in a little water, milk or coconut milk beforehand.  I myself made one adjustment:  Bajans typically use coconut, glacé cherries and raisins, but I like candied ginger so much more than raisins that I took the liberty of substituting one for the other.  You could probably play around with other combinations too – the only essential ingredient, it seems, is coconut!

What Did I Need?

I adapted this recipe (it uses US measurements, so one cup is 240 ml):

  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • the contents of 1 vanilla pod, OR 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 2 cups freshly-grated coconut OR rehydrated dessicated coconut
  • 1 cup raisins OR 1/2 cup candied ginger
  • 1/2 cup glace cherries, cut into quarters

How Did I Do It?

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius (350 degrees fahrenheit)
  2. Sift flour, baking powder and dry spices together into a large bowl.
  3. Using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar together in another bowl until light-coloured and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time and beat after each addition.  Add the vanilla and beat again.
  4. Fold a small portion of the flour into the creamed mixture, then add some of the milk.  Continue this way, alternating until all the flour and milk is incorporated. You will have a fairly liquid batter.
  5. Stir the fruit (including the coconut) into the batter.
  6. Pour into 2 large greased loaf pans.  Sprinkle with a little more grated coconut, and bake for 1 hour or until a fork comes out cleanly when inserted.
  7. Leave to cool, and serve with a cup of tea on Christmas morning.  :-)

So How Did It Taste?

Finger-licking good – I’m going to run out of adjectives pretty soon on this blog!  It came out a beautiful golden-brown, and filled the house with amazing Christmas aromas while in the oven.  I could barely restrain myself from cutting into it while it was  still cooling.  When I finally allowed myself to have a taste, it was moist and spicy, with lots of lovely little crunchy coconut flakes and chewy pieces of candied fruit.  The cherries tended to sink to the bottom, but that didn’t bother us too much.  An excellent alternative to traditional Christmas cakes, methinks, as it’s lighter but still tastes satisfyingly decadent.

Joe also munched away happily, glad that his coconut-trapping exploits had not been in vain.  His quote for the week:

Hunting down that hairy bastard was worth it after all.

And the best thing, as usual, is the massive amounts of leftovers that today’s baking produced.  A week of cake?  Be still, my beating heart!

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12 thoughts on “Barbados ❀ Bajan Sweet Bread

  1. Sounds and looks divine!

  2. That bread looks just beautiful.

  3. “Hunting down that hairy bastard was worth it after all.” — Best quote of the week so far! :D

  4. Thanks ediblesubstance, carynbirch, savory simple and vitor – yes, it was well worth the effort!

  5. Paula Fourie says:

    Just to let everyone know that I actually tasted this bread. I am here in Brussels and looking forward to the next country that we get to eat!

  6. Jessie says:

    PLEASE continue with this!!! I don’t know where you’re getting your recipes from, but keep up the great work!! I am finishing up a two-year traveling stint across the globe (by ship!), and I’ve been collecting ideas for all the foods I want to make when I return home. I’m definitely bookmarking your blog, and when I get home I’ll be joining you in my own international food adventures! :-D

    • Hi Jessie,

      Thanks for the encouraging words! I actually also did a trip around the world by boat too, but mine was more rushed – it would have been great to have 2 years to do it properly! My recipes come mostly from online, with a few tweaks. Sometimes I also combine a few recipes at a time. Let me know when you start your own cooking adventures, and I’ll be following them with interest!

      • Jessie says:

        Really? So cool – what boat were you on? My ship is Logos Hope – logoshope.org if you’re interested. Of the countries you’ve covered, so far I’ve been in India and the Bahamas (almost made it to Bahrain, except for the poor timing of the riots there last spring! :-)). I’m definitely not a food blogger, but I love to enjoy others’ work! I’m looking forward to seeing more of my favorite cuisines here (just waiting for Lebanon and Malaysia, YUM!) :-)

  7. @ Jessie, I was on Peace Boat (www.peaceboat.org) – it took 3 months to go from Tokyo to Tokyo. And yes, I can’t wait for Malaysia myself – East Asian and Southeast Asian countries have been woefully thin on the ground in the first two letters of the alphabet, but at least Bhutan and Burma are coming up! :-)

  8. Amie says:

    What is a ground clove?

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