Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake.
In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.
The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.
I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.
A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.
So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.
The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.
When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with old school friends who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.
But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian as it was called then. Highbrow though the womens’ pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.
This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It ‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Threadbare gourmets sometimes have to break out, and there’s no point in trying to make something delicious and then economising on the ingredients, so cakes for hungry paupers still need their full quota of butter, eggs and sugar. Apples, though usually the cheapest fruit, are also one of the most delicious. So this is an apple cake, complete with melted butter.
You need two large apples peeled, 150 g melted butter, a cup of castor sugar, two large lightly beaten eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla essence, one and a half cups of SR flour.
Grease and line the cake tin. Mix the sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla, sift in the flour, and then slice the apples into the mix and stir. Tip into the cake tin, and sprinkle some caster sugar over the top. Bake in a moderate oven – about 160 degrees, for 45 to 60 minutes. Test with knitting needle or similar to check it’s cooked through, and leave in the tin to cool completely.
A message to the friends who read this blog – Now that my computer is behaving itself again, I’m enjoying being back on the air! I’ve had good reports on the easy bread recipe.