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.