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 dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)
But to return to the subject of 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 in those days. 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 an old school friend 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 back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. 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.
But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.
1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)
icing sugar, to dust (optional)
Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.
The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.
Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.
My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice – and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).
I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.
I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.
I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.
Food for thought
Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.
And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.
In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.
Donald Neale Walsch Conversations with God Book 3