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.

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