Chablis and Pelargoniums for Mrs Dalloway

Study­ing the nov­els of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre at uni­ver­sity, I inves­ted in a packet of Gitanes and listened to Juli­ette Greco on vinyl; mov­ing on to James Joyce, I took up Guin­ness and spoke in impossibly dense sen­tences. D. H. Lawrence was out of fash­ion then, or who knows where that could have led. And then came Vir­ginia Woolf. Obvi­ously, I clumped about in sturdy brogues for a while; I also developed a new-found interest in flowers. I can still remem­ber read­ing Mrs Dal­lo­way on a sunny park bench in London’s Regent’s Park and being deeply impressed by Sally Seton’s icon­o­clastic approach to flower-arranging. (When will I ever get the chance to com­bine icon­o­clasm and flor­istry in a single sen­tence again?)

  • Sally’s power was amaz­ing, her gift, her per­son­al­ity. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bour­ton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hol­ly­hocks, dah­lias — all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together — cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordin­ary — com­ing in to din­ner in the sunset.

I thought of Sally Seton and her cava­lier scis­sors, snip­ping wildly at never-before seen com­bin­a­tions of flowers, when I walked round my very clever friend’s newly-emergent wild­flower meadow today. If some gar­dens are in train­ing to be muni­cipal round­abouts, my friend’s garden is limber­ing up to be a Garden of Eden trib­ute act. As I trailed from one bil­low­ing mound of flowers to another, it was rain­ing that very Brit­ish kind of rain that stealth­ily adorns everything in a glossy mist, while every­one says brightly that “it’s hardly wet at all.”

Sally Seton would have had a field day with her scis­sors in that meadow. And both she and Vir­ginia Woolf would have loved the rose-scented cake, filled with whipped cream and Chab­lis and lemon jelly that I made after­wards. The extra­vag­ance and lux­uri­ous­ness of Chab­lis is included for Vir­ginia Woolf, whose poor rations inspired her to write A Room of One’s Own. The cake, infused with leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium or geranium, is for Sally Seton.

Leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium smell as good as any rose, per­haps even bet­ter, because their fra­grance is more sub­stan­tial, less eph­em­eral. George Eliot under­stood the rose pelargonium’s worth and made it a meta­phor for unselfish­ness in Scenes of Cler­ical Life:

  • But the sweet spring came to Milby not­with­stand­ing: the elm-tops were red with buds; the church­yard was starred with dais­ies; the lark showered his love-music on the flat fields; the rain­bows hung over the dingy town, cloth­ing the very roofs and chim­neys in a strange trans­fig­ur­ing beauty. And so it was with the human life there, which at first seemed a dis­mal mix­ture of grip­ing world­li­ness, van­ity, ostrich feath­ers, and the fumes of brandy: look­ing closer, you found some pur­ity, gen­tle­ness, and unselfish­ness, as you may have observed a scen­ted geranium giv­ing forth its whole­some odours amidst blas­phemy and gin in a noisy pot-house.

Tuck­ing a few rose pelar­gonium leaves into the tins, when mak­ing a sponge, infuses the cake with a floral fla­vour so subtle that it’s hard to know where it’s come from or if it’s really there at all. Adding the round, rich, but­tery fla­vour of Chab­lis to the lemon jelly makes it the ideal match for the cream.


  • 2 lem­ons — peel and juice
  • 95g caster sugar
  • 10g sheet gelatine
  • 275ml Chab­lis
  • 450ml water

Pare the rind thinly from the lem­ons — in one piece if you’re com­pet­it­ive, but it really doesn’t mat­ter — and place in a pan with the water, wine and the sugar. Heat gently until the liquid starts to sim­mer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the juice from both lem­ons. Allow to infuse. Soak the gelat­ine sheets in a bowl of cold water for five minutes. When the time is up, squeeze the sheets out as though ringing-out a dish­cloth and whisk them into the water, wine, sugar and lemon until dis­solved. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Cover with cling­film and place in the fridge. It will take around four hours to set. The con­sist­ency you’re look­ing for is that free­style, slightly unhinged wobble that looks as though it won’t be enough to keep the con­tents of the bowl under con­trol, until, at the last minute, its nat­ural sense of decorum reins it back in again — just. There will be more than enough for the cake, so save the rest to eat later with some fresh berries.


  • 8–10 fresh leaves from the Attar of Roses pelargonium
  • 230g plain flour
  • 4 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 230g caster sugar
  • 230g softened unsalted butter
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 150ml double cream for the filling
  • 2x20cm cake tins, greased with but­ter and lined at the bot­tom with bak­ing parchment

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Arrange four or five leaves on the base of each of the two greased and papered cake tins. Com­bine the flour, sugar, salt, bak­ing powder, but­ter and eggs, either by hand or in a mixer at a slow speed. Divide the mix­ture between the two cake tins, pour­ing it over the leaves. Bake for 25–30 minutes until golden brown. When cool, remove the sponges from the tins and peel the leaves off the base of each. Whip the cream. Spread the Chab­lis jelly on one half and top with the whipped cream. Place the second half of sponge on the top and dust with lib­eral amounts of icing sugar.

The Chab­lis, lemon and rose pelar­gonium cake has the beguil­ing fla­vours of Turk­ish Delight, the charm of a wild­flower meadow. Eat it out­side on a Brit­ish summer’s day and you won’t notice the rain. If there are wild­flowers to look at while you eat, so much the better.

The Tripartite Tri-Pie-Tart

Garden­ers, writers and artists have always under­stood the value of the num­ber three: less bor­ingly sym­met­rical than two, more com­plex than one. Where would Flaubert, Chek­hov or Con­stance Spry be without it? And scriptwriter Steven Mof­fat, whom I admire hugely, clearly loves it; he named one of his Doc­tor Who epis­odes ‘The Power of Three’ and one of his Sher­lock Holmes epis­odes ‘The Sign of Three’.

I’ve been afflic­ted by insom­nia again this week. Count­ing the hours until morn­ing is, apart from being exhaust­ing, extremely bor­ing. At times like these, the BBC World Ser­vice and Radio 4 are vital com­pan­ions. But when I even­tu­ally fall asleep and wake again, after what feels like only minutes, I find I’ve acquired very odd scraps of inform­a­tion from half-heard radio pro­grammes. (I woke recently with the crazy idea that there was a dead cow out­side, only to dis­cover that it wasn’t the leg­acy of a weird middle-of-the-night radio drama, but was in fact true. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time.)

One morn­ing this week I awoke with a com­pletely unfa­mil­iar word rack­et­ing around my brain. All I can remem­ber is hav­ing the radio on for most of the night and hear­ing someone, some­where say­ing ‘sizzi-jee’ and spelling it out very care­fully — ‘s-y-z-y-g-y’ — just as I finally dozed off. A three-syllable word com­pletely lack­ing in vow­els is worth look­ing up in the dic­tion­ary, if only for its Scrabble potential.

  • Syzygy: a straight-line con­fig­ur­a­tion of three celes­tial bod­ies, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, in a grav­it­a­tional system.

And, as so often, a frag­ment­ary idea, in this case about three celes­tial bod­ies, led me towards some­thing to cook. I’ve wanted to write about my tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart for a while, mainly because the name makes me laugh. The tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart is a pie that I thought-up dur­ing another bout of insom­nia. But I had to wait until the Eng­lish asparagus sea­son before I could make it. And now, of course, I can.

The tri-pie-tart is a three-part pie that com­bines my son’s, my daughter’s and my favour­ite tart ingredi­ents. My son prefers asparagus, my daugh­ter likes leeks and I love spin­ach. So this is the tri-pie-tart that com­bines them all. And, as with syzygy, if you line up three celes­tial ingredi­ents — in this case, asparagus, spin­ach and leeks — you’ll find there’s a grav­it­a­tional pull towards the kit­chen table.


For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 125g but­ter
  • 2 eggs yolks
  • 25cm loose-bottomed pie tin

Wrestle with it by hand if you prefer, but I use a mixer. Cut the cold but­ter into cubes and com­bine with the flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until you have a dry, crumbly tex­ture. Add three table­spoons of cold water to the egg yolks and whisk with a fork until com­bined. Pour half the egg mix­ture into the flour and con­tinue to add until the pastry forms a ball. Try to do this as quickly as pos­sible and don’t feel the need to use all of the eggs, if it doesn’t need it. Remove the ball, wrap in cling-film, flat­ten it down with the palm of your hand (it’s easier to roll later if it doesn’t emerge from the fridge as a massive, chilly globe) and place in the fridge for at least an hour. By the way, I’ve tried rolling pastry out straight­away, without rest­ing it, just to see what hap­pens. I ended up with a soft, string-vest of a thing that would no-more hold a pie filling than a sieve would. So now you know.

After at least an hour, roll the pastry out thinly. This is a nifty tip, if you dread man-handling your pastry into the tin. Roll it out onto the same piece of cling-film you used to wrap it in. That way, you won’t have to flour the sur­face on which you roll it which only adds a whole load of extra flour to the pastry which you don’t need or want. The added bene­fit of the cling-film method is that you can then pick up the cling-film, with its pastry disc attached and then just turn it upside down into the pie tin. None of that wrap­ping it round the rolling-pin and then unrolling it over the tin, which always sounds so much easier than it really is. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin and care­fully peel away the cling-film.

Place a circle of tin-foil over the pastry in the tin, fill with bak­ing beans, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C for ten minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake for a fur­ther seven minutes until the pastry case is golden in col­our and dry in tex­ture. If, when it emerges, there are any cracks, paint a little beaten egg over the cracks while the pastry is still hot and it will seal them. Lower the oven tem­per­at­ure to 140 degrees C.


  • 200g spin­ach
  • 2 leeks
  • 250g slim-ish asparagus
  • 2 eggs and an extra 3 yolks
  • 125g Mas­car­pone
  • 150ml double cream
  • 125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated. It doesn’t need to be that fine — you’re not aim­ing for cheese dust here

Cut the leeks finely, dis­card­ing the tougher dark green ends. Cook gently in a little but­ter for five minutes or so, until soft but not browned. Tip into a bowl, and, using the same pan, wilt the spin­ach briefly, adding a little more but­ter if neces­sary. Put the spin­ach in a second bowl. Finally, blanch the asparagus so that it is just, only just, cooked. Remove from the pan and run cold water over the asparagus to stop it cook­ing. All three of your celes­tial ingredi­ents should still be a bright green hue, rather than sid­ling off into the khaki or olive-green end of the paintbox.

Mix together the mas­car­pone, cream and eggs, whisk­ing in plenty of air. Spoon a quarter of the mix­ture over the tart base and spread it around. Layer on a quarter of the grated parmesan, fol­lowed by all the spin­ach, another layer of eggs and cream, a second layer of cheese, all the leeks, a third layer of eggs and cream, a third layer of cheese, the asparagus in a sun-burst effect and a final layer of eggs and cream. Bake in the oven, which should now be at 140 degrees C, for around twenty-five minutes, until the tri-pie-tart is a rich golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and a fine trickle of olive oil to give it some shine. Cast over some chive flowers if you like and eat the tri-pie-tart hot,cold or luke-warm. The syzygy is in the eating.

The Alumnae’s Lunch

Eat­ing with a book is one of the great pleas­ures. Eat­ing while talk­ing about books is another, and second to that comes talk­ing about books that have eat­ing in them. I once gave a lec­ture at Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge about Vir­ginia Woolf. Newnham was the venue for Woolf’s talks about women and fic­tion which formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own. In it, she con­trasts the grim, gravy soup that stu­dents at women’s col­leges sur­vived on and the plump part­ridge and sole that fuelled the men.

The lunch at Newn­ham on the day of my lec­ture bore no rela­tion to Woolf’s brown broth. I’d half-expected the kit­chen staff to tip a know­ing wink at A Room of One’s Own and give me a bowl of gravy. (I admit that I was in para­noid mood that day, hav­ing just been to the launch party for a new knit­ting book and been given blue-dyed spa­ghetti with bread-stick ‘needles’ poked in.) But the meal was as plen­ti­ful as it was deli­cious and I couldn’t help think­ing how pleased Vir­ginia Woolf would have been that the status of women, as meas­ured by our lunches at least, had soared.

I thought of Woolf, Newn­ham and brown soup today as I sat down to lunch with three female friends with whom I share a par­tic­u­lar bond. All four of us star­ted PhDs at the same time. Between us, we pro­duced doc­toral theses on Con­rad, Shakespeare, Vic­torian fem­in­ist poetry and con­tem­por­ary fic­tion. (One of the enter­tain­ments when doing a PhD is to mar­vel at the appar­ent insan­ity of every­one else’s choice of sub­ject; my favour­ite is still ‘the motif of decay­ing flesh in the works of J. M. Coet­zee.’) If there’d been a med­ical emer­gency in the res­taur­ant and someone had shouted out “Is there a doc­tor in the house?” we could have yelled back “Yes, four”.

Our lunch was a mil­lion miles from the parsi­mo­ni­ous meals of Vir­ginia Woolf’s exper­i­ence; the food wasn’t par­tic­u­larly spe­cial but we had more laughs than I’ve had all year. Laughter is a vital com­pon­ent of the PhD exper­i­ence, given that so much of it is gruelling, sol­it­ary, hard-dentistry and that it goes on for so, so long. Per­haps it was a lack of laughs that added to Woolf’s misery about her soup. Much as I love Woolf, her work is as thin on com­edy as her Cam­bridge meal was thin on part­ridge. If she’d had three good com­pan­ions to share her grue­some gravy with, she might not have noticed the food at all.

Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot

It can be use­ful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sit­ting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, ima­gin­ing his frus­tra­tion at hav­ing his exper­i­mental nov­els widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfor­tu­nates, pub­lished in 1969, involves per­muta­tions — so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole after­noon to work out the number.

The Unfor­tu­nates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere para­graph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full ver­sion in a life­time, how­ever pre­co­ciously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved exper­i­ment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the lin­ear restric­tions of the con­ven­tional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfor­tu­nates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disin­genu­ous instruc­tion that ‘if read­ers prefer not to accept the ran­dom order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sec­tions into any other ran­dom order before read­ing’. I’ve cal­cu­lated all the pos­sible per­muta­tions of those twenty five inter­change­able chapters and the num­ber I’m left with is:


which is oth­er­wise known as fif­teen sep­til­lion, five hun­dred and eleven sex­til­lion, two hun­dred and ten quin­til­lion, forty three quad­ril­lion, three hun­dred and thirty tril­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty five bil­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty four mil­lion dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­it­ies. You can never hope to read them all and it’s pos­sible that the ver­sion you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a dif­fer­ent angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘under­stand without gen­er­al­isa­tion, to see each piece of received truth, or gen­er­al­isa­tion, as true only if is true for me’. To gen­er­al­ise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthu­si­astic about avoid­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions while embra­cing the extraordin­ary pos­sib­il­it­ies thrown up by per­muta­tions, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beet­root in vin­egar, crumbly Lan­cashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with but­ter so thick that she could take an impres­sion of her teeth from the indent­a­tions they left, and a mug of tea the col­our of an old penny. By cal­cu­lat­ing the per­muta­tions, I made a beet­root salad for lunch today that is both spe­cific­ally Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a vari­ation on her theme.


  • Bunch of smallish raw beet­root (big­ger than snooker, smal­ler than hockey), leaves still attached — around one per person
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Hand­ful of walnuts
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Maple syrup

Cut the leaves and roots off the beet­root. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beet­root, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil par­cel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beet­root and arrange on a plate with spoon­fuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beet­root leaves and scat­ter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the wal­nuts and a scat­ter­ing of chives. Make a dress­ing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup — four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Sea­son to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad out­side, sit­ting in someone’s else’s seat and star­ing at someone else’s view.

I ima­gine that B. S. John­son would have been a good lunch com­pan­ion. Sadly, he lost heart, gave up on his ignored exper­i­ments and com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treas­ure it too.

The Unjustified Quince

My praise for the sooth­ing, reg­u­lar, oblong qual­it­ies of jus­ti­fied text in my last post, The Jus­ti­fied Green­gage, pro­voked some people to ques­tion my san­ity and judge­ment. Appar­ently, only jus­ti­fied left, raggedy right, will do. In my defence, I’m teach­ing myself the art of let­ter­press on my dad’s Vic­torian print­ing press, so it’s only in blog posts that I like slabs of type to look like Swedish crispbread.

If you were hor­ri­fied by my taste for uni­form lines, this post is for you. Its raggedy, ram­shackle right-hand edge will, I hope, soothe your raggedy nerves. If your nerves are still raggedy, jus­ti­fied text not­with­stand­ing, the glor­i­ous, per­fumed qual­it­ies of the quince will help no end. In my case, cre­at­ing sorbets, cor­di­als and jel­lies from my har­vest of quince, came at the end of a week in which I saw Ibsen’s Ghosts, Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. For three nights in a row, I wal­lowed in hypo­crisy, tor­ment, murder, tyranny and pints and pints of blood. (I’d always thought that Titus Andronicus was un-performable, but Michael Fentiman’s pro­duc­tion at the RSC proved me wrong. It was start­lingly, shock­ingly funny and very, very messy.)

I’ve writ­ten before about the truc­u­lence of the quince, but over time I’ve come to think of it as hav­ing Pollyanna-like qual­it­ies, des­pite its unyield­ing, concrete-like flesh. Once cajoled out of its raw state, the quince’s perky eagerness-to-please puts it in a cat­egory all of its own. The fruit looks beau­ti­ful on the tree, per­fumes the house when it’s brought inside, yields gen­er­ous amounts of cor­dial while it cooks and, hav­ing done that, it’s still there, at the ready, to be turned into some­thing else. This year, hav­ing grown over one hun­dred fruit, I’ve made jelly, mem­brillo, quince brandy, cor­dial and, per­haps my favour­ite of all, sorbet. Like Mrs Beeton’s instruc­tion, when mak­ing pie, to ‘first catch your rab­bit’, to make sorbet, first make your cor­dial. Like this:


  • 12 quince, whole and unpeeled
  • 850 ml water
  • 350g caster sugar

I’ve writ­ten the recipe for this before, but to make life easier, here it is again. Pre­heat the oven to 150 degrees C. Wash the fruit, rub­bing off its fluff with your fin­gers. Pack the quince snugly into a bak­ing dish that is approx­im­ately the same height as the fruit. Tip in the sugar and water and place a piece of sil­ver foil over the top, tuck­ing it in around the fruit. Bake in the oven for three hours and then remove and allow to cool before pour­ing the liquid into a jug. (Reserve the fruit and I will tell you how to use it for mem­brillo.) The amount of cor­dial you will get var­ies from between 500 to 700 ml, depend­ing on the size of the fruit. I freeze mine in small bottles, to pluck out, slightly show­ily, dur­ing the year. Serve it topped up with spark­ling water or pro­secco. Or, move onto phase 2.…. sorbet.


  • Home-made quince cordial
  • Finely grated parmesan

The point of com­bin­ing the sorbet with parmesan is to drag it in the dir­ec­tion of the savoury. But if you wish to nudge it back into the safe con­fines of a famil­iar har­bour, match it with mango and black­cur­rant sorbet instead.

Pour the cooled, undi­luted cor­dial straight into an ice-cream maker and churn until frozen. It will turn a rather soppy Ger­moline pink, but has its charms. To make the parmesan cups, heap mounds of grated cheese on bak­ing parch­ment — about two table­spoons for each cup — and bake in the oven for two to three minutes. When melted into golden discs, remove and shape them over the bot­tom of an espresso cup imme­di­ately. Allow to cool and then assemble.


Next, the com­pli­ant quince is ready for phase three — mem­brillo.

  • Cooked quince left over from the cor­dial experiment
  • Caster sugar

Like the cor­dial and the sorbet, this recipe is ridicu­lously easy. Squish the cooked fruit through a sieve. It’s easier to do this one at a time, dis­card­ing the pips and skin from the sieve and then mov­ing on to the next fruit. Weigh the pulp and add it, with an identical quant­ity of caster sugar, to a pan. Bring the mix­ture to the boil and then allow to sim­mer very gently for around one and a half hours. It will become a dark, rich red and is ready when you can draw a wooden spoon across the bot­tom of the pan, leav­ing the two sides to stand huffily apart from each other, before reluct­antly creep­ing back over the pan to reunite.

Serve with a hard, salty cheese and crisp­bread. For those of us who’ve aban­doned beau­ti­fully uni­form jus­ti­fied text for the sake of other people, use nice, sooth­ingly oblong, reg­u­lar, plank-shaped crisp­bread, to calm those raggedy nerves. My favour­ite sour­dough crisp­bread from Peter’s Yard is cir­cu­lar, not oblong. So I’ll cut my cheese into oblongs instead.

The Justified Greengage

Like a sum­mer dah­lia frozen in ice, this post is pos­sibly slightly per­verse (the flower-freezing thing isn’t always daft - some­times it’s edible.) I have a slightly sink­ing feel­ing that what I’m about to embark on may repel before it entices. But, as with my posts on Fermat’s Last The­orem and the French writer Ray­mond Queneau, it may be worth stick­ing with until the end, when at least there’ll be cake.

This is a homily about the hom­onym, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pro­nun­ci­ation, but have dif­fer­ent mean­ings. The word that star­ted all this off is the hom­onym jus­ti­fied, which can be typo­graph­ical or simply excusable. And the reason I’m going on about it is because of the lay­out of this page. I don’t much like text that’s

flush on the left but ragged on the right

or ragged on the left but flush on the right

And, even worse, text that hov­ers some­where in the middle of the page, without any real clue what it’s doing there

What I try to use is jus­ti­fied text — it’s so sooth­ingly square and sym­met­rical. But there’s some­thing bossily sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous about the other mean­ing of the word jus­ti­fied, that I really don’t like; boast­ing that it, and only it, is right (not as in left, but as in cor­rect, which is of course another hom­onym). We tend to use the word jus­ti­fied when we want to bol­ster our slightly flag­ging defences. Think of the 19th Cen­tury novel The Private Mem­oirs and Con­fes­sions of a Jus­ti­fied Sin­ner by James Hogg, if you want to find an example of just such a usage. Mem­oirs they may be, con­fes­sions they could be, but jus­ti­fied they cer­tainly are not.

So this is a post about jus­ti­fied in a typo­graph­ical sense, but not in a sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous sense. The green­gage of my title is jus­ti­fied in that it stops the cake from being ragged left, ragged right or simply all over the place. It’s an addi­tion that makes the cake right (as in per­fect, not as in left.)


  • 180 grams unsalted butter
  • 180 grams caster sugar plus extra tablespoon
  • 180 grams self-raising flour
  • 100 grams ground almonds
  • 3 medium eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tea­spoon vanilla essence
  • Hand­ful ripe green­gages, halved and stoned
  • Hand­ful ripe blueberries
  • Hand­ful flaked almonds

Pre­heat the oven to 175 C. But­ter a 25 cm cake tin and line the bot­tom with parch­ment. Beat the but­ter and sugar together until pale and fluffy look­ing. Whisk the eggs with a fork and mix them in, a little at a time. Sieve the flour to add a little air and fold it in, along with the ground almonds, the vanilla essence and a pinch of salt.

Tip the mix­ture into the cake tin and push the green­gage halves into the mix­ture, cut side up, until semi-submerged, but still vis­ible. Do the same with the blue­ber­ries and then sprinkle the extra table­spoon of sugar over the lot. Place in the middle of the oven. After half an hour, pull the tin out briefly so that you can sprinkle the top of the cake with the flaked, blanched almonds (add them any earlier than this and the nuts will burn). Place the tin back in the oven for another half and hour.

Take the cake out of the oven and, after half an hour, remove from the tin. This is one of those cakes that, without ques­tion, tastes bet­ter the next day. So you can be an entirely Jus­ti­fied Sin­ner by eat­ing the entire thing, single-handed, in two days.

p.s. To leaven this mix­ture a little, I will leave you with an example of what hap­pens if you muddle up your homonyms:

The thief tripped as he tried to make his get­away and landed in a cement mixer. He became a hardened criminal.

The Minutiae of Broad Beans

There’s a paint­ing by the sixteenth-century artist Titian in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gal­lery that seems to tell its entire story at a glance. Sup­per at Emmaus depicts the moment Jesus reveals his iden­tity to his fol­low­ers, after the Cru­ci­fix­ion and Resur­rec­tion. The dis­ciple on the left of the paint­ing looks suit­ably startled to dis­cover who his din­ing com­pan­ion is, while the fol­lower on the right seems to be mak­ing up his mind whether to offer apo­lo­gies or con­grat­u­la­tions. But look at the table­cloth, in front of the loaf of bread. There, oddly and even a little pro­sa­ic­ally, is a little heap of broad beans. What can they be doing there? And where are the mounds of grapes, flagons of wine and plat­ters of roast meats that we’ve come to expect from such reli­gious paintings?

Caravaggio’s Sup­per at Emmaus, painted in 1601, goes for a much grander menu to mark the solem­nity of the occa­sion: a slightly comic roast chicken, grapes, pomegranates and figs. In his 1620 ver­sion, Bar­to­lomeo Cav­arozzi plumps for a decanter of wine and enough grapes to fill a grocer’s shelves. So why Titian’s broad beans? The pos­sible answer is that broad beans were once thought to embody the soul of the dead (the Greek math­em­atician Pythagoras issued an injunc­tion for­bid­ding any­one to eat beans, ever). Per­haps to coun­ter­bal­ance the note of mel­an­choly intro­duced by the beans, Titian scattered a few bor­age flowers over the table­cloth, since these were thought to chase away sadness.

Fly­ing in the face of Pythagoras’ instruc­tions, I bring you a broad bean con­fec­tion that is res­ol­utely cheer­ful and sunny, with or without the perky bor­age flowers. August is the height of the broad bean sea­son, so cast mel­an­choly aside and celebrate.


  • Hand­ful of beans per person
  • Sour dough bread
  • Clove gar­lic
  • Ricotta
  • Hand­ful of pea shoots
  • Grated zest of lemon
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Season­ing
  • Hand­ful herb flowers — I used oregano this time, but thyme, rose­mary or chive would be good too
  • Hand­ful mint leaves

Pod the beans and boil in salted water for no more than two minutes. Allow to cool and then peel off the leath­ery jack­ets. Lightly toast the bread and rub with the cut side of a gar­lic clove. Spread each slice with ricotta cheese, sprinkled with a little salt and black pep­per. Tip the beans on top, fol­lowed by the pea shoots, torn mint leaves and a few herb flowers. Mix the lemon zest with the olive oil and drip a little on top of each toast.