I made my first minestrone of the season the other day.

After the early autumn warm spell it's time to turn towards more substantial, comforting food. Into my minestrone went diced onions, carrots and celery in olive oil, then a beef bone from the Sunday joint (a ham bone would have been even better) and a Parmesan rind from the batch I store in the freezer.

These two additions were enough to turn the water and a splash of wine into flavoursome broth, without the need for any stock. While this was cooking, I reduced the contents of two cans of chopped tomatoes in a large frying pan, together with some olive oil, a grinding of pepper, a couple of bay leaves and a sprig of thyme; rosemary, oregano or sage would have done just as well, but thyme is what I had.Ham & High: A slice of ginger cake is perfect on bonfire nightA slice of ginger cake is perfect on bonfire night

I find that treating canned tomatoes this way - and any will do, they do not have to be San Marzano - results in a rich, almost caramelised sauce, of which I only use a spoonful or two in the minestrone. The rest is perfect on a pizza or in a meat ragu for pasta. When I add the tomato to the minestrone, I also put in a few chopped green beans - of any variety, some shredded cavolo nero, cabbage or tenderstem broccoli florets and sliced stalk.

Finally, half a can of cannellini beans and some broken up spaghetti quadrato provide the heft. Simmer until the pasta is cooked, add a generous splash of olive oil, some pesto or fresh basil if you wish, and serve in deep bowls rather than soup plates, to keep the minestrone hot while you slowly savour it, with whatever accompaniments appeal; sometimes I prefer grissini, sometimes a thick slice of bread.

A rather tomato-laden dinner resulted because I did, indeed, use some of the tomato base on a home-made pizza. My excuse is that I finally had a new oven installed and was excited to try it out. Out went the old flour and yeast. With the new batch I made up a simple flour, water and instant yeast dough, adding a little olive oil.

After one rising I stretched the dough to fit a square perforated baking sheet. The simplest of toppings appealed; first a brushing of olive oil, then a good spread of tomato base, sliced mozzarella, first patted dry on paper towels, a few scattered halves of 'sugar drop' tomatoes and into a 250 C oven, on top of an already hot baking stone, for 10 minutes.

I had not realised how much I had missed baking until, a couple of days later, I took my ginger cake out of the oven. This is such a family favourite, and one I cooked when I was guest chef at various hotels around the world. As you will see from the cook's notes below, I have varied the composition and texture over the years. But essentially it is a dark, moist cake, with a more liquid mix than you think can possibly bake. Be bold, it is worth it. And it is just in time for Hallowe'en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, all manner of autumn festivities.

Ham & High: A ginger cake fresh out of the ovenA ginger cake fresh out of the oven (Image: Frances Bissell)

Large ginger cake

200 ml milk

100 g light or dark muscovado sugar

125 g plain flour

125 g self raising flour

½  teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 heaped tablespoon dried ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon and mixed spice

100 g unsalted butter

100 g black treacle

100g golden syrup

40 g chopped preserved stem ginger or

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

3 eggs, lightly beaten

Ham & High: Stem ginger goes into the cake along with grated fresh ginger and dried ginger powderStem ginger goes into the cake along with grated fresh ginger and dried ginger powder Method:

Line and grease a 1 kg loaf tin and pre-heat oven to 180 C, 350 F, gas mark 4.

Gently heat the milk, adding the sugar and allow to cool while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Sift the dry ingredients together. Rub in the butter. Trickle the treacle and golden syrup into the dry mix, then stir in the milk and sugar. Add the ginger and beat in the eggs.

Pour the cake batter, and it is a very loose batter, into the prepared cake tin leaving 2-3 cm for the cake to rise. Any extra mixture can be baked in a couple of small ramekins and served as a warm pudding. Bake the cake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool in the tin completely, then wrap in greaseproof and foil or clingfilm. The cake keeps  and freezes well.

Cook's notes: for a more sponge-like texture reduce the liquid to 120 ml and use all self-raising flour. To make it more parkin-like, omit the muscovado sugar and replace 25-50 g plain flour with fine rolled oats.

© Frances Bissell 2023. All rights reserved