Rarely does a cookbook convey such a sense of place and people as well as Aran by Flora Shedden does. Since receiving a copy to review in early spring, I have lingered with the recipes, stories, and the beautiful photography (by the incomparable Laura Edwards). In some ways, although Shedden’s name is on the cover, the reader gets such a sense of the talented and dedicated people who make Aran Bakery the place it is. That the success of this place is not dependent on Shedden alone. And, through the organization of the book and the tone of Shedden’s writing, she shares with the reader a small glimpse into the life at Aran.
Aran the name of Shedden’s bakery, is a Scottish Gaelic word meaning bread, and it is upon this humble offering that a day at Aran is started. This cookbook is about simplicity — the recipes do not overwhelm home bakers with complex techniques and terminology. Instead, Shedden who is a professed and proud home cook has written her cookbook for the home cook. Aran is about the senses — the smell of the bread as it bakes, the crackle of the loaves as they come out of the oven. And I think it is just as Shedden tell us — trust your instincts.
The recipes are arranged as Shedden’s day is: Aran (Bread, through the night), The Wee Hours (As the birds sing), Sunrise (Wake up to this), Elevenses (Mid-morning calm), Twalhoures (On the hoof), Lón (Lunch), Blether (To share), Pantry (On the shelves), High Tea (Early evening), and Gloaming (Dusk, bakery closed). The rhythm of the day is full and intoxicating. Not only are there recipes but Shedden has sprinkled the book with short introductions of the people who make up this place — from Trish her “lovely auntie and master of mischief”(147) to Mai (the youngest customer) then Bob “a local joiner and arguably our most regular customer”(113) and many others. There is a certain romance in these details and in the photography that I feel like I could close my eyes and imagine No. 2 Atholl Street — the sights, sounds, and the people.
There are those who might open this cookbook to a given recipe and get at cooking or baking. But it is within the section Notes at the beginning of this book and the section for Stockists at the end which give the reader invaluable information. For example, for a North American home cook such as myself, it was important to know that the oven temperatures throughout the book are given for fan-assisted/ convection ovens. So, I would need to increase the temps of my conventional oven to ensure my efforts would be successful. Also, when it came time to trying some of those gorgeous loaf cake recipes in Elevenses, it was helpful to know from reading the section on Stockists that the 12x4x3″ loaf tins came from IKEA (while a person could use the more common 9×3″ size I find that I prefer to use the same size baking tin as they do in their recipes).
The loaf cakes are quite lovely — when my daughter and I tried the recipe for the Apple Crumble, I was a bit uncertain on how it would turn out. This loaf cake has two parts — grated, spice apple and cake. When the batter is ready, it is layered in the loaf tin, along with the grated apple. It seemed strange to me that the apple wasn’t mixed into the batter but sandwiched in-between two layers of cake. I worried that it would end up too juicy or that the cake wouldn’t hold together properly when sliced. But as I waited for the loaf cake to cool completely in the tin, the lush spicy scent wafting around the kitchen, I wondered if I just need to trust in the process and stop over-thinking. Slicing the cooled cake, I discovered the most brilliant thing! The cake was cake-y and the grated apple had baked down into something akin to apple pie filling. Imagine a thick ribbon of spiced, baked apple running through the cake! With the oat-hazelnut crumble on top it was truly delightful! Just the thing to enjoy mid-morning with a warm cup in hand.
I appreciate how cookbooks like this give home cooks a chance to experience their establishment without even leaving the comforts of home. I can picture happy customers emerging from the bakery with their boxes of goodies and then I can go into my kitchen to try making my own version of Aran treats. One of the recipes I couldn’t wait to try was the Blueberry Crumble Brioche Buns. There are many components that go into making these buns — buttery brioche, thick Crème Pât, juicy berries and an oat-nut crumble. They take time to make but the result is too perfect not to devote time to the task. I ended up using cherries from a local farmers market in my brioche buns and, I could see that this recipe could work with any number of substitutions.
The scope of this cookbook reaches far beyond recipes for baking — there are beautiful, recipes for fresh salads, hummus, frittatas, quiche, and sandwiches. The seeded Morning Rolls — puffed and chewy — are filled with meat, cheese, pickles, and their Pea and Mint Hummus to make a tasty little bunwich. Since my family and I are vegetarian, we skipped the meat but that hummus — green and fresh — was delicious! I set out a platter of fixings and we each made our own. A great “little ‘pre-lunch’ sandwich” at their bakery or the perfect light summer supper here at my place.
Other fresh ideas include the all-purpose Aran House Dressing which we enjoyed on their Roast Fennel, Quinoa, Orange, and Sunflower Seeds Salad and the Kale and Lentil Salad w/ Butternut Squash. I appreciate how Shedden’s section on salads is inspired by “Ottolenghi’s heaving great platters of glorious veg and grains”(140) and, she goes about guiding the reader through a salad version of choose-your-own-adventure, but then, also gives a couple of bakery favs. Accompanied with a slice of bread and butter (whether at their place or mine), it seems to me to be the height of enjoyment. While the salad combinations at Aran are influenced by the offerings from the local community garden, The Field, I find that making salads from the book have been inspired by the seasonal offerings from my local farmer’s market.
While I’ve talked about everything I love about this cookbook, I think I’ve left off talking about the most crucial thing — butter. What Shedden advocates is something we should all strive for — toast dripping with butter. “[I]f your toast isn’t swimming in a pool of gold afterwards you are doing it wrong”(86) — what Shedden says sums up the principles behind her recipes. It’s not about how complex you make something that deems it to be successful but, it’s about basking in life’s simple pleasures. Put a bit of jam on it, enjoy it with a cup of tea or coffee but enjoy it. Life is full of endless possibilities.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hardie Grant Books and Raincoast Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.