Tag Archives: cake

Me against the elements

There’s taking things too far and there’s taking things too far. This story falls into the second, more literal category. But at least it has a happy ending:

The well-travelled cake

The well-travelled cake

I was merrily creaming butter and sugar in preparation for this, Nigel Slater’s lush peach and blueberry cake. My wilted peaches, the cake’s raison d’être, sat expectantly on the kitchen surface. They were in urgent need of a botox injection but settling for some oven-based TLC. Then, as I twiddled the oven dials to warm it up to receive my culinary efforts, it became apparent that nothing would get baked that day.

I’m no stranger to temperamental elements going ele-mental, nor to the heartache they can cause the keen cook. I knew then with grim certainty that me and the oven would be out of action for a good two weeks. I would have two weeks to apportion blame, wondering forlornly whether one can cook too much and overwhelm a kitchen appliance, or whether said appliances are primed like bombs to self-destruct at regular (in my case six-month) intervals for the manufacturer’s pecuniary delectation. Now was the time for action. I had two severely compromised peaches whose lives only I could save from being futile. I had to do something.

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May contain nuts

Why is it that whenever I offer anything up for human consumption I have to voice a loud disclaimer before people tuck in? Am I alone in this self-sabotage? I know I can’t be, because I learnt this bad behaviour from my mum, whose verbal apéritif to anything she’s prepared is flavoured with tremulous uncertainty. I in turn have become a similar kind of Hugh Grant figure in the kitchen, babbling self-justification and wobbling like jelly as soon as I have to share my creations.

Even when I invite unsuspecting friends in for a simple cuppa, I can’t seem to get by without exclaiming in surprise at the lack of clean mugs instead of giving the offending crockery a surreptitious cosmetic rinse, or voicing my misgivings over how long we’ve had that bottle of milk instead of keeping schtum. And heaven help me if I’ve run out of biscuits to offer round.

Worse still, when I bring homemade goodies into work, my colleagues have to endure the long and tedious back story that comes with them. Before tucking in, they must listen patiently to my concerns over whether I used the right type of cream cheese for the frosting on those muffins, whether that cake could have done with an extra five minutes in the oven, and whether we’ll notice that I forgot to add the sugar to that tart. Sometimes I’ll announce that I’ve brought in a treat, then dash everybody’s enthusiasm by adding that I don’t think it will be very nice, leaving my guinea pigs wondering in exasperation why I bothered in the first place. Happily, advertising wasn’t my career of choice, though God knows applying a little brand management to my products wouldn’t do any harm.

Some people have the chutzpah to present their food without untoward comment, sensibly leaving the recipients to judge the results for themselves. These people also have the quiet cunning that turns tragedy into opportunity – burnt brownies are deftly trimmed of their offending edges and dusted with sugar, sunken cakes are levelled off and elaborately iced, and dry sponges are swiftly doused in booze, plunged into softly whipped cream, sprinkled with nuts and berries and transformed into a decadent dessert, with no one any the wiser.

It’s a simple concept, yet so difficult for transparency-crazed neurotics like me to follow in practice. For example, if you come for dinner at mine we won’t say grace. Instead, before every meal I’ll bow my head and religiously repeat the words, ‘Here it is, I’m not sure if it’s OK or not. If you don’t like any of it, just leave it, I won’t be offended’ – the better to dampen any appetites that have been prematurely whetted.

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Czeching out the local grub

We’ve just spent the Easter weekend in Prague, and what an unexpectedly delectable trip it turned out to be. Even the humdrum hotel breakfast had dense bread rife with pumpkin seeds (bread that went some way to excusing the square sheets of yellow rubber, glistening pink ham and dubious-looking pâté laid out for us to put on it).

I’d been told that eating out in Prague is tricky – any place on a main road is to be avoided, bills need to combed acutely for mysterious additions and special tourist prices sometimes apply. Our Czech friends gave it to us straight: if they don’t smile at you as you enter, turn around and walk back out. Luckily, they also gave us a list of fail-safe places to try.

First up was a museum café, Klub Arkitektu. I was expecting a National Trust-style clattering canteen and imagined us in a queue holding wet trays, waiting for ladles of hot food, then choosing from a stodgy selection of solid-looking cakes before reaching the till. (You never know how close others’ version of ‘a nice meal’ is to your own unless you’ve eaten out with them, and in the case of these friends, we hadn’t.) However, I was proved decidedly wrong when we walked into a trendily furnished, dimly lit, low-ceilinged stone cavern and were served two hearty courses each for ₤16 all-in: a pungent cream of garlic soup with smoked cheese on toast and honey and almond cake for me, a spicy and tender beef goulash with (the first of many helpings of) dumplings, then apple strüdel for my date.

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Honestly – they were this big!

This weekend I caught a bit of must-see TV. On Saturday night I watched a weepie – or was it a horror story? Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like a happy ending to me, and the end of the line seemed far too close for comfort.

After backing into a brief intellectual cul-de-sac where I basked in the idea of lobster becoming the new cod (until it too was fished to oblivion), I started imagining having to describe the taste of extinct types of fish – or perhaps fish as a whole species – to my grandchildren. What a job that would be: to provide a first-hand account of an animal we did nothing to save without cringing with shame. ‘Well, they were about yea big (bigger if you believe some fishermen), with scales and googly eyes and flaky flesh that could sometimes be as pure white as coconut meat is. What did they smell of, you ask? Well, they smelt, erm… fishy. How did they taste? Well, I gobbled them down so quickly I didn’t pay much attention to the taste itself, but they were delicious, I can tell you that much. A very delicate flavour, went a treat with lemons, even more delicious stuffed with shellfish. Shellfish? Oh, shellfish were other creatures that used to live in the oceans. Yes, we would eat both at one sitting, why?’

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Five a day the naughty way

Ever since my turbo-gastro-weekend with the sensitive gluttons, when we indulged in a cake threesome, not 24 hours have passed in which I haven’t thought wistfully of the perfect match that courgettes and hazelnuts make.

Unfortunately, my gastronomic personality in these matters is an unsavoury combination: a handful of stubbornness mixed with a pinch of stinge, simmered with lashings of greed. Because of this, if I can make the same cake as the one we enjoyed in that café and serve myself a larger portion of it at home for half the price, the likelihood of me returning to the Northcote Road is as slim as I was – before the cake, that is.

Unable to wait for the seasons to catch up with me, I got down to the marrow of my nutty summer squash confection this weekend. I added my own touches – a splash of Frangelico here to liven things up (plus a drop or two in the cake), a smothering of full-fat hazelnut frosting there – and voilà. For artistic purposes, I just had to cut an XXL slice:

Courgette and hazelnut cake

Get that five-a-day feelgood factor

Had my concern for your vicarious viewing pleasure not taken over, I would have allowed temptation to have its wicked way with me before, during and after the photo session. Somehow I managed to restrain myself long enough to take this photo, and my patience paid off – the cake was a healthy yet hedonistic treat, and so moist you could hear the fork bite into it. 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Give us this day our daily bread, our first Le Creuset and an invitation to a posh meal out

A fantastic foodie day, nay – weekend.

Friday night: baked homemade sourdough bread for the first time, then lamented that it had taken me until so late in life to get around to doing such a ludicrously easy and smugly satisfying thing. The friends I’d invited over for dinner mistook me for a domestic goddess because, due to a hectic week that had led me to put off the baking again and again, the timing of the freshly baked bread coming out of the oven coincided exactly with their arrival. I insisted that it was my first time and by no means a regular occurrence, but they swatted away my protestations as modesty. Hey ho, goddess it is then. We sliced it and dipped it in homemade pesto as a starter and it was heaven.

Saturday am: spolit said friends by whipping up scrambled eggs on sourdough toast for breakfast. They’re sensitive gluttons – unwilling to resist delicious food but equally unwilling to think about what devilish ingredients have made it so damn edible. So I hid diligently in the kitchen to pour in the tub of cream and coax the eggs to fluffy perfection. The sensitive gluttons only saw the cold knob of butter being stirred in at the end and so enjoyed the finished dish unquestioningly. The sourdough made great toast too.

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