Monthly Archives: June 2012

Let Us Eat cake

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.

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Blondes or Brunettes?

The slogan ‘Persil washes whiter’ was my first experience of discrimination.

There, under my affronted eight year old gaze were these huge hoardings, and on one was a  sparkling white double sheet pinned to the clothes line, and blowing in the wind, with a sparkling  blonde admiring with smug pleasure her domesticity. On the matching hoarding a grey sheet was pinned to the line with a brunette looking glum – presumably Persil thought sluts looked glum as well as dark-haired.

So I grew up feeling the injustice of assuming that because a woman had fair hair, she had other advantages. As the blondes paraded across the world’s stages, on screen and telly and magazine front covers, the feeling that gentlemen did indeed prefer blondes continued to be reinforced. And the blondes were undeniably gorgeous – sex bombs like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, would-be princesses like Grace Kelly, real ones like Diana. Even Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister was a blonde. Blondes seemed to have all the advantages, based not on gender, talent or nationality, but hair colour.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all to a brunette, was the remark of the woman who served me in the corner shop. She had always been a perfectly acceptable and slightly mousy person with light brown hair. One Monday morning after a long weekend, she stood behind the counter triumphantly blonde and beaming. I made no comment. But as the weeks went by, I asked her if she felt different now she was blonde. She looked at me with sparkling eyes – “I’ve never had so much fun in my life. I’d never go back to being dark”. I walked out gnashing my teeth.

The world’s brunettes didn’t give me much encouragement either. Jane Russell was too brazen to be taken seriously, while Jackie Kennedy, with her little girl voice, tragic destiny, and un-used opportunities to change the world in some way with all her influence and mana, was a bit of a let-down. Then there was tragic, raven-haired Queen Soraya, the beautiful Persian empress dismissed because she didn’t conceive an heir. She simply retired to the ski slopes in her large black sunglasses which became her trademark long before Jackie Kennedy learned to hide behind hers. I longed for both these women to have used all the goodwill and influence at their disposal to achieve something great.

But the times they are a-changing, and the habit ‘of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move’ and in what seems like a just re-arrangement of destiny, brunettes are now beginning to have their day in the sun. It began with the blessed Mary, the long haired Australian brunette who married the Crown Prince of Denmark, and then the also-blessed dark-haired Kate Middleton who snaffled her prince from under the noses of countless blonde society beauties.

Better still, some research has shown that brunettes tend to be paid better than blondes in the work force, as they are perceived to be more intelligent that blondes. Now we’re talking. And then there are the blonde jokes, many relayed to me by my grandsons who have more of a foot in the modern world than I. Maybe the crest of the wave was reached the day I was served with my coffee by a pretty blonde waitress. She wore a slogan on her t-shirt, which read: “Speak slowly. Genuine blonde”.  A statement which told me many things, and laid my old demons to rest.

And as the years go by, while Persil’s blondes may continue to wash whiter, their roots will only get darker. Brunettes, on the other hand, will grow old gracefully – I think! 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

It’s a bright sunny day in this corner of the Antipodes, and absolutely freezing. So I’ve the hot pot on for comforting pea and ham soup.After washing the dried peas, several handfuls or more, put them in the hotpot. Add three chopped carrots, and a hambone or pieces of bacon if you haven’t got a knuckle from the butcher. Then add a chopped onion, a couple of chopped celery sticks, one or two chopped garlic cloves, a bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover with boiling water, and leave to bubble away for five hours or more on high, or until it’s all cooked. Fish out the bone, by which time all the meat should be falling off it. I whizz the peas and vegetables in the blender, leaving some to make the soup a bit chunky.

Before eating, stir in lots of chopped parsley, and if you like, make some croutons – good bread cubed, and fried in olive oil.  Make plenty, and freeze the rest for another cold day. You can use lentils if you haven’t got dried peas, and make sure the dried peas aren’t old, or they’ll never really soften. I sometimes use some chicken stock cubes if I use lentils in this recipe.

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