Even before I start baking, I am
seduced by the ingredients. The soft sting of lemon zest and orange peel, the warm-fudge smell of brown sugar, the fragile, saffron-yellow egg yolks as they sit in their bowl. I take a sniff from the bottle of Madagascan vanilla and the jar
of bitter orange preserve, run my fingers through the mounds of organic white flour, the buttery, finely ground almonds and the rough crystals of demerara. Cooking, in this kitchen at least, will never
be purely about the end result.
I cannot be the only one to notice that male cookery columnists (myself included) tend to run fewer recipes for cakes than they might, despite the fact that I have never yet known a man refuse a slice of home-made Dutch apple or coffee-and-walnut cake. Well, I'm as happy to bake cakes as I am to eat them - cakes scented with orange zest and flecked with marmalade; cakes stirred through with almonds and drizzled with syrup; cakes with teardops of sweet icing dribbling down their sides. I feel there should always be a cake of some sort in the house, and in summer something that will double up as a dessert with berries or poached fruits.
Sometimes I want a thick wedge of fruit cake, a sweet doorstop to chuck down with a mug of tea after digging the garden. Other times
I want a thin, elegant slice, a mere sliver of sponge to nibble with a cup of herb tea. That is when I need almond cake, its buttery-nuttiness a contrast to the clean taste of the tea.
What has always put me off baking is the whole palaver - the baking tins and the paper, the string and the scissors. Yet, for an everyday cake, you need line only the bottom of the tin, requiring just a single length of baking paper. (For big fruit cakes you will have to be a bit more serious about it.)
In my book, a cake stands or falls by how moist it is. Dry cake is fit only for trifle. What we are after is a soft, moist 'crumb' - that is, an open texture, where the cake is so fragile, so tender as to be almost impossible to transport from plate to mouth in one piece. Much depends on timing: nothing will
dry a cake out like a spot of overcooking, but just as important is what you put into the cake in the first place. Ground almonds, dried fruit, preserves and soft fruits, such as apples and blueberries, will all help, but so too will a dousing in syrup. I make a light stock syrup with sugar and water or lemon juice and spoon it over almond or walnut sponge cakes, the cake soaking up the syrup and holding onto it. What you get is a cake so juicy you could almost wring it out.
The cakes you make at home are always so much more interesting than the ones you can buy from even the smartest patisserie. This is not simply a matter of ingredients, but it is very much down to the wobbly factor - the old-fashioned charm that will always be lacking in any food that is too perfect, too symmetrical, too professional.
Frosted marmalade cake
I don't, as a rule, like icing. Yet on a summer cake, drizzled over so that
it sets wafer thin, it adds a welcome contrast to the soft sponge. You could use water to mix the icing, but I prefer to use fruit juice, occasionally adding a hint of orange-flower water. Serves 8.
175g golden, unrefined caster sugar
a large orange
3 large eggs
75g orange marmalade
175g self-raising flour
For the frosting:
100g icing sugar
2 tbsps orange juice
Set the oven at 180°C/gas mark 4. Line a loaf tin about 25 x 11 x 7cm deep. Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and beat till pale and fluffy. Finely grate the orange. Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. With the machine at moderate speed, pour in the beaten egg, a little at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition. Beat in the marmalade
and the grated orange zest.
Remove the bowl and fold in the flour with a large metal spoon. Do this slowly, firmly but carefully, till there is no sign of any flour. Gently stir in the juice of half the orange. Spoon into the lined cake tin, lightly smoothing the top. Bake for 40 minutes, checking it after 35 with a metal skewer. Leave to cool in the tin, then remove and cool on a wire rack.
Sieve the icing sugar and mix it to a smooth, slightly runny consistency with as much of the remaining orange juice as it takes. Drizzle the icing over the cake letting it run down the sides, and leave to set.
Demerara lemon cake
Almond cakes are the richest of the summer cakes. I like them with a spoonful of double cream, Greek yogurt or crème fraîche, and with fruit - sliced mangoes, raspberries or poached apricots. That is when they become a dessert rather than something for tea. I think it essential to use unwaxed or organic lemons. Serves 8.
2 tbsps demerara sugar
4 tbsps water
200g demerara sugar
90g plain flour
90g ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
a large lemon
4 large eggs
For the syrup:
2 tbsps demerara
the juice of the lemon above
Set the oven at 165°C/gas mark 3.
To make the topping, slice the lemon thinly and put it in a small saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil then watch closely for five minutes or so until the water has almost evaporated and the lemon slices are sticky. Set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar together in a food processor till they are light and fluffy. Meanwhile, weigh the flour and almonds and mix them with the baking powder. Grate the lemon and add the zest to the flour mixture.
Reserve the juice for the syrup. Line a baking tin with a piece of baking parchment or greaseproof. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, then add them to the creamed butter and sugar, a little at a time. The mixture may curdle a little, but don't worry. Remove the mixing bowl from the machine and gently fold in the flour, almonds and baking powder with a big metal spoon.
Scoop the cake mixture into the lined tin, then lay the reserved lemon slices on top, overlapping them down the centre of the cake. Bake for about 45 minutes till risen and golden. Insert a metal skewer to see if it is ready. If it comes out clean, the cake is done; if it has mixture sticking to it, then it needs a few minutes longer. Remove the cake from the oven and set aside.
Stir the demerara into the reserved lemon juice. Spike the top of the cake then spoon over the lemon and
sugar. Leave to cool.