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.

On Mother’s Day…

For those of us whose moth­ers are no longer here, Mother’s Day is slightly mourn­ful. The old rituals of mak­ing homemade cards, tying bunches of mis­matched wild flowers and car­ry­ing break­fast upstairs on wobbly trays have gone. It becomes a day of absence, rather than joy­ful presence.

But let’s make today a cel­eb­ra­tion any­way. Relive the won­der­ful memor­ies — the moments when you and your mum laughed uncon­trol­lably at some­thing that wasn’t even funny, the day she watched you win at sports day, the day she con­soled you when you came last. Because Mother’s Day is Mother’s Day whether your mum is here or not.

It seems to me that the per­fect thing to eat on Mother’s Day is after­noon tea — the meal that moth­ers never make for themselves.

So this after­noon I’m going to eat homemade scones with clot­ted cream and black­cur­rant jam and raise a cup of tea to my mum and to all moth­ers everywhere.


But­ter­milk Scones

This recipe is based on one in Brit­ish Bak­ing by Peyton and Byrne

Makes 8 scones

240g self rais­ing flour

50g caster sugar

2 tea­spoons bak­ing powder

Pinch of salt

60g cold butter

175ml but­ter­milk

Beaten egg for brushing

Pre­heat the oven to 170 degrees C and line a tin with bak­ing paper.

Sift the flour, sugar, bak­ing powder and salt into a mix­ing bowl. Add the cold but­ter, cut into small cubes. I use an elec­tric stand mixer to rub it in, but you can use your fin­gers if you prefer. Add the but­ter­milk and mix until it just forms a dough. Form into a ball and rest in the fridge for ten minutes or so. Roll out until 2.5 to 3 cm thick and with a 5cm cut­ter make 8 scones. Brush them with a little beaten egg. Cook for 25 minutes and then allow them to cool com­pletely in the tin before you remove them.

And as a little post­script.… my chil­dren have just brought me break­fast in bed, homemade cards and a bunch of mis­matched wild flowers. So it turns out that life really does go on…