If you’ve followed my recipe blog for some time you’ll have no doubt have noticed that my childhood has various landmarks in the form of baked goods- Soda bread; Cheesecake; Queen of Puddings. This is yet another one of those anchor points with which nostalgia comes crashing in waves.
Known by various names including Gur Cake; Chester Slice; Donkey’s Gudge, it was Chester Bread that I knew this by growing up in South-East Ireland. Many an early adolescent afternoon was spent munching on these en route to my childhood home from school- oblivious to not only the background the baked treat I clutched but also ignorant to dubious history of where I was buying them from. My only preoccupation was how could something so delicious be so cheap!
At the bottom of the hill to my school was a building known simply to us as “The Good Shepherds”. All I knew of it, at the time, was that it was a convent and former orphanage. The expression “If you don’t behave I’ll take ya to The Good Shepherds” was frustratingly hissed by many a Waterford parent to the offspring, uttered in ominous overtones akin to summoning The Boogey Man. A fuller investigation later in life revealed the title of the building to be The Good Shepherd Magdalene Asylum (Laundry) and Orphanage, Without going in to it in too much detail it was one of number of locations of a religious order whose ethos and modus operandi was of a particularly sordid and horrific nature. A sordid blemish on the hem of Ireland’s pious petticoat. Google it if your’re intreest has been piqued- but consider yourself forewarned.
The main institute had ceased operation in 1982, however there were still some occupant nuns in residence and as a means of charitable support income they ran a small bakery onsite. It was here that myself and many another transient school-goer would purchase our after-school sugar rush. Chester breads; Vanilla Slices (a more rustic version of Mille-feuille with pastry, vanilla custard filling and water icing topping) and cream doughnuts (think Long John doughnuts filled with jam and cream) were all greedily snapped up to the point of selling out.
Whilst they all would bear mentioning, as nostalgia renders them supremely tasty, it’s Chester Bread that brings us here today. I’ve already mentioned that this bake is known throughout Ireland under various monikers such was its popularity. Originally used in the 19th century as a novel, but nonetheless innovative, method to use up stale offcuts and surplus bakes in bakeries, the cake was inexpensive to make using a basic recipe template of filler, binder and sweetener. The finished bakes were then sold cheaply (but not so cheap as to not yield a profit) to youngsters playing truant from school as something to fill the gap until dinner. In Ireland, particularly Dublin, such kids were called “gurriers” who would “mitch”, “mooch” or just generally bunk off school. Hence the ‘Gur Cake” name. I have yet to unearth the link as to why it’s called ‘Chester Bread” where I grew up when that name is apparently derived from it’s place of origin in Chester in the United Kingdom. As for the ‘Donkey’s Gudge” version? I don’t know what a donkey has to do with it, let alone what their gudge is! Feel free to comment should you be able to shed some light here.
Whatever way you call it, I find that the finished bake is definitely memorable. What starts as simple stale bread is baked to a fudgy, slightly gelatinous, sweetly spiced filling. It’s almost like a dense ginger cake. I’m sure the pastry serves as nothing more than a utilitarian purpose to allow the filling to be handled with minimal mess. Try it out and see what you think. It’s an ideal accompaniment to a cup of tea- perhaps whilst researching The Magdalene Laundries?
- 2 1/2 cups All purpose flour
- 3/4 cup Butter, cold and diced
- 1/4 tspn salt
- 3 tbspn ice cold water
- Flour, for dusting
- 15 Slices of bread, at least 1 day old
- 1 1/2 cups Cold strong tea (preferably Irish)
- 1 cup, packed Brown sugar
- 2 tbspns Mixed spice
- 1 tspn Baking powder
- 1/2 cup All purpose flour
- 1/4 cup Salted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 cup Raisins
- 2 tbspn Treacle
- Icing or fine sugar for dusting, optional
To make shortcrust pastry
- Combine the flour and salt into a bowl, coarsely rub in the butter/margarine. Continue to rub together until you have the texture of coarse meal. Some pea-sized granules of butter may remain
- Sprinkle over the water and bring the ingredients together to make a soft dough. Additional water may be needed depending on your kitchen’s temperature/ humidity
- Lightly knead to bring it together in a ball. Flatten to a disc, wrap in cling wrap and refrigerate until needed
*Pastry is best chilled before rolling.
To make filling
- Preheat your oven to 375°F
- Grease and line a 9′ x 9′ tin (2″ high)
- Remove the crusts from the slices of bread and lie in a shallow casserole or baking dish.
- Pour over the cold tea and leave to soak for 1 hr
- After the hour, drain of any excess tea and using a fork mash the wet bread to thick pulp
- In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and mixed spice, stirring well to combine
- Rub in the cold diced butter until you have something that resembles coarse meal in texture (similar to making the pastry above)
- Add the bread mixture and treacle to the other flour/ sugar/ spice mixture and stir well to combine
- Remove the pastry from the fridge and divide into 2
- Roll one 1/2 of the pastry large enough to fit your baking tin and use to line the bottom of it. Prick the pastry all over with a fork or knife
- Pour and spread the bread mixture over this pastry layer
- Roll the remaining pastry to fit the top of the tin and place over the filling, pressing to form a lid. Again prick the second layer of pastry all over with a fork or knife (helpful hint: I roll to size and prick BEFORE placing the pastry lid on to the filling. This stops the pastry being pushed down into the soft filling mixture)
- Bake in your preheated oven for 1 hr, after which remove and let to cool completely in the tin. The finished bake should have firmed up considerably but still have a slight wobble. Dust with sugar if using.
- Once fully cooled, cut into squares (using this tin I usually divide into 4 x 4)
- The finished Chester bread can be dusted with sugar or left plain if preferred
- Baked Chester bread can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days