The mythology of cake

When I was grow­ing up, tea after school was my favour­ite meal. It’s hard to relay the awful­ness of school din­ners in those days and by teatime I was raven­ously hungry. On the bus jour­ney home and the long walk from the bus stop, I fan­tas­ised about what there might be to eat.

My great aunt made my tea each day and the best days involved cake. There was a par­tic­u­lar cake she bought from the frozen food sec­tion at the super­mar­ket — vanilla sponge with whipped cream. When she was short of time, the sponge would still be icily solid and the whipped cream coldly leath­ery in tex­ture. Bit­ing down through a frozen slice I would muffle my teeth with my lips to shield them from the nerve-jangling cold.

I have a hazy memory of a short story in which a smart host­ess expresses dis­dain that an already-cut cake might be served at teatime. In her opin­ion cake had to be a com­plete, uncut circle of deli­ciously airy sponge. Once a wedge had been removed it lost its magical prop­er­ties. I don’t believe in such a tyr­an­nical approach to sponge but I do believe in the myth­o­logy of cake. It’s a euphem­ism for home, gen­er­os­ity and celebration.

Chest­nut and Roas­ted Hazel­nut Sponge With Whipped Cream and Rose Geranium Jelly

150g whole hazelnuts

180g softened butter

180g caster sugar

Half tea­spoon pure vanilla extract

4 eggs

125g self rais­ing flour

125g chest­nut flour — it has a beau­ti­fully sweet, slightly smoky fla­vour, but a short shelf life. If you can’t find it, simply double the amount of self rais­ing flour and omit the bak­ing powder

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

300ml whip­ping cream

Enough rose geranium jelly to spread thinly over the sponge. If you can’t get hold of rose geranium jelly, you could try a thin layer of chocol­ate filling per­haps, or leave it out alto­gether and rely on the cream

Pre­heat the oven to 170 degrees C.

Line two 18cm cake tins with buttered bak­ing parchment.

Toast the hazel­nuts in a dry fry­ing pan for five minutes or so, until they turn slightly golden in col­our. Once cool enough to handle, rub them between your hands to flake off most of the powdery skins. Tip the nuts into a food pro­cessor and pulse them into a crumbly-textured gravel.

Beat the but­ter and sugar together until light and creamy. Mix in the vanilla extract and then add the eggs one at a time. Tip in the ground nuts.

Sift the two flours and bak­ing powder together into the bowl and mix until com­bined. Divide the mix­ture between the two tins and bake in the oven for around 25 minutes until car­a­mel brown on top. While they’re bak­ing, whip the cream until it forms peaks.

Once the cake is cooked, cool it for five minutes and then remove from the tins. Once cold, spread one half with jelly, the other with cream, and sand­wich together.

This cake won’t keep long because of the whipped cream filling. Much like the posh host­ess who gasped at the idea of hanging on to an already-cut cake, I had to get rid of my sponge quickly. I asked my very clever friend who lives a few doors along from me if she’d like a slice. Ever resource­ful, she sug­ges­ted to one of her Bed and Break­fast guests that he knock on my front door. Newly arrived from Vienna he was bemused to be sent to a strange house to ask for cake. But he seemed rather touched to be presen­ted with a paper-wrapped bundle of sponge, so I will mark that down as fur­ther proof of the glor­i­ous prop­er­ties of cake. Who knows, he may go back to Vienna report­ing that it’s an ancient Eng­lish cus­tom to wel­come strangers with sponge. And that really wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Happy Birthday to you…

Eggs On The Roof is one year old today.

When I star­ted writ­ing and pho­to­graph­ing Eggs On The Roof, I got used to vari­ations on a single, puzzled ques­tion: but what’s it for? The answer to start with was very simple — a slightly apo­lo­getic it’s for me. I wanted to write about food, books I’d read, paint­ings I’d seen and the funny things that happened along the way. I couldn’t do that as a journ­al­ist and cer­tainly not as part of the PhD I’m inch­ing towards com­plet­ing. But over the past year I’ve dis­covered that it’s not just for me after all. I’ve made some won­der­ful friends through Eggs On The Roof. So this birth­day is a joint cel­eb­ra­tion. Happy Birth­day to Eggs On The Roof and happy first birth­day to you too.

Any birth­day needs cel­eb­rat­ing, prefer­ably with cake. And this cake is a good one. It’s light and flour-less and just as import­antly, it’s quick and extremely easy to make. Which means you have more time left to celebrate.

Chocol­ate Mousse Cake With a Hint of Crys­tal­lised Ginger and a Whole Lot of Whipped Cream

50g best dark chocol­ate, min­imum 70% cocoa solids

50g best milk chocolate

100g Green and Black’s dark chocol­ate with ginger, which is 60% cocoa solids. If you can’t get this, use 100g of best dark chocol­ate and add around a tea­spoon of crys­tal­lised ginger, minced very finely. Just remem­ber that you need a total of 200g of chocol­ate for this recipe.

150g slightly salted butter

9 medium eggs separated

6 table­spoons caster sugar

250 ml heavy or double cream, whipped until soft peaks form

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees C. But­ter two 18 cm cake tins and line with bak­ing parchment.

Melt the chocol­ate and but­ter in a bowl over a pan of sim­mer­ing water — add the ginger too, if using. While the chocol­ate melts, sep­ar­ate the egg yolks and whites into two bowls. Stir the yolks with a fork and whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Whisk the sugar into the whites. Once the chocol­ate has melted fully, allow it to cool for a few minutes and then mix in the eggs yolks. Gently fold in the egg whites, sep­ar­ate the mix­ture between the two cake tins and bake in the oven for around 20 minutes. Remove from the tins, allow to cool and then sand­wich the two halves together with whipped cream. As the two halves cool they will sink slightly and wrinkle like a Saint Bernard’s fore­head. If you want a smooth top to your cake, make sure that you turn the top layer upside down.

Polenta and pear crossover deluxe

Lemon polenta cake means it’s birth­day time in our house. A sack of polenta has a solid heft; plump, sturdy and chirpily yel­low. You could have a good pil­low fight with a bag of polenta.

But, birth­days aside, some­times a pud­ding is what you need. So this is my polenta cake/pear pud­ding cros­sover deluxe.

I’ve adap­ted the base of this recipe from the River Cafe’s lemon polenta cake. The ori­ginal is a vast, deli­cious mat­tress of a cake; my ver­sion is less of a duvet, more of a blanket.

225g but­ter (If it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt. If your but­ter is slightly salted, which mine always is, just omit the pinch)

225g vanilla sugar

225g ground almonds

2 tea­spoons vanilla extract

3 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Zest of 2 lemons

115g polenta

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

Mix the but­ter and sugar thor­oughly together. Stir in the almonds and vanilla extract and add the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon juice and zest, along with the polenta and the bak­ing powder. Pour the mix­ture into a buttered flan dish, about 10 inches in dia­meter. Peel, core and thinly slice the pears.

Poke the slices of pear into the polenta mix­ture, in two con­cent­ric circles.

Bake at 160 degrees C for about thirty minutes. The top should be a rich dark brown and the pears soft.

Enjoy for break­fast, lunch and tea — if you’re lucky, all on the same day.