Category Archives: Cakes

Zucchini or courgette chocolate cake

Chocolate courgette zucchini cake

This one came highly recommended by my sister, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and is currently languishing in a Coronavirus lockdown. Such things as chocolate cake have been essential in getting us through lockdowns and the pandemic in general. Chocolate and cake are two such reliable morale boosters.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but as anyone with small or particularly demanding children will know, it’s hard to get much done in the school summer holidays. In England, they last about six weeks, but it might as well be sixty-six, or six months.

We’ve had another weird climate crisis summer here. We had a drought in southern England earlier in the year and summer was skewed into May and June. Then when it was the actual summer holidays in July and August, it was mostly mild and purgatorially grey with occasional downpours. Now the kids are actually back at school, the sun is out again. Our crop of courgettes, aka zucchini, has been a bit weird as a result. Small courgettes would arrive, then be ravaged by slugs and snails. A few would suddenly swell into more marrow-like beasts, which are less tasty, more watery, and not so good for this recipe.

Water content
Indeed, working with vegetables in cake recipes can be tricky due to the variations in water content. I found the bigger courgette-marrows still worked OK if you put the grated veg in a tea towel and squeezed out as much water as possible. I also tweaked and standardised the recipe my sister sent me into grams. She discovered the cake via a local bakery but it may have originated with this US blog, so thanks Sally.

Anyway, overall this is a delicious, rich chocolate cake, and like a good carrot cake, you’re not distracted by any particularly vegetably flavours.

Decoration freedom
I’ve made a few versions, one covered with a butter cream, then another just sandwiched with some butter cream. The latter was a more practical option as I took it on the first step of Coat of Hopes, a climate action pilgrimage. Our friend Barbara Keal and collaborators are walking from Newhaven on the south coast of England to Glasgow in Scotland for COP26. Their goal is to try and raise awareness and put pressure on world leaders to do more about the climate crisis.

Our summer might have been choppy, but a lot of people round the world have had unprecedented temperatures, wild fires and floods. I was chatting to a friend in Rome and they’d been to Puglia, the heel of Italy, where it tipped towards 49C (120F). These are highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Humans simply cannot function with these extremes, let alone grow food for ourselves. Something comprehensive, assertive and right now desperately needs to be agreed at COP26, but I’m preparing myself to be deeply disappointed.

Coat of Hopes walk, Newhaven

For the cake
250g plain flour
62g cocoa powder
6g baking soda
3g baking powder
3g fine salt
200g vegetable oil
175g granulated sugar
130g soft brown sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
80g sour cream or plain yogurt, at room temperature
6g vanilla extract
350g courgette, coarsely grated
180g dark chocolate, chopped into chips, or chocolate chips

For the icing. Halve these quantities if you just plan to use a filling:
280g unsalted butter, softened
400g icing sugar
65g cocoa powder
3g vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease two 22cm round tins. Ideally deep tins but basic sandwich tins seem to work OK.
3. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt.
4. In another large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer, beat the oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, sour cream or yoghurt and vanilla until combined. Add the courgette.
5. Pour into dry ingredients and beat until completely combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
6. Pour batter evenly into cake tins. Bake for around 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. Test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, it is done.


7. Allow cakes to cool completely in the tins on a cooling rack.
8. Make the icing by beating the butter until soft. Sieve together the icing sugar and cocoa then add to the butter along with the vanilla. Beat until smooth.
9. Ice the top of one, make a sandwich, then ice the top and sides. You can level the tops if you like a perfectly flat cake, but, really, why waste the goodness? Or if you’ve just made half the butter cream, just fill and sandwich. You can then dust the top with icing sugar. It’s not as indulgent this way, but certainly less messy taken on the first five miles of a 400 mile-plus (700km-plus) pilgrimage.*

 

 

* I do see the irony of talking about making an indulgent chocolate cake, featuring politically and environmentally problematic ingredients like chocolate, while mentioning involvement with a climate action. But being part of the movement to prevent total environmental and climatic meltdown isn’t synonymous with being entirely ascetic. The way I see it, breaking away from fossil fuels and generally improving our footprint on the planet is a profound moment for economic recovery and social health. The opportunities for growth and employment are huge in the green energy industry, education, sustainable housing (retro and new build), improved travel and transit infrastructure, better agricultural practices etc etc.

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Chocolate chip yogurt ring cake, ciambellone

This is my take on Rachel Roddy’s chocolate chip and yogurt ring cake, which is her take on another recipe found on Nigella Lawson’s website, which is itself a version of a teatime cake made in many an Italian household, a ciambellone (big ring shape). Or indeed similar to a cake make in the Ukraine, and probably other places. All recipes have heritage, they ebb and flow between cooks and countries.

I love the ring shape, but must admit I hesitate before using my aluminium ring tin, which Rachel gave us when were living in Rome in 2013. I can be a bit slapdash greasing and flouring it, and fail to create a satisfactory non-stick. Then my cake sticks. Then I get cross. Luckily, it worked well this time – I brushed the tin with melted butter and oil, then floured it liberally.

Anyway, when eating this cake, we’ll think of Rachel, who is poised to publish her third recipe book, An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes. Hopefully I’ll get a copy soon, and try some of the recipes. We’re a pasta family, and I have made fresh pasta with the kids, but Rachel’s books should give us some great ideas for getting it right, and matching sauces well.

Rachel does her recipe using a 125ml yogurt pot, using it like American recipes use cups. I like grams. I grew up in the weird British 70s and 80s when we used grams and ounces and feet and metres…. in fact, we’ve still not made any firm decisions about metrication nationally. But I have. My parents’ factory, where I worked as a youth, did everything in millimetres, and I did a lot of hitchhiking in New Zealand, where how far I plodded down highways, how far I had to go, was in kilometres. Then we lived in Italy, which, despite being a country possibly even more tied to tradition that Britain, seemed to be able to cope with properly metricating.

This is a great recipe. Many cake recipes are prissy and can be a bit unreliable. But this is one of those ones that’s forgiving and easy – basically chuck everything in a mix, though I sieve the powdered ingredients together first to homogenise them. It also lends itself to changes – use vegetable oil or olive oil (Rachel does the latter, as, you know, olives grow in Italy, whilst here we grow a lot of rapeseed); use 100% plain flour, don’t bother with the cornflour; leave out the lemon zest or change it to orange; add cocoa; add nuts or fruit or whatever you like.

You may of course prefer doing it with a pot, in so, go back to Rachel’s version on The Guardian site. Go for it! But if, like me, you prefer baking when everything is in grams, you’ve come to the right place.

150g plain full-fat yogurt
130g vegetable oil (plus some for greasing)
3 eggs (about 175g of egg)
220g caster sugar
6g vanilla extract
zest of ½ unwaxed lemon (I’m a grams purist, but this much zest won’t even weight 1g)
100g chocolate chips (you can of course add more if you’re that way inclined)
175g plain flour
75g cornflour
8g baking powder
Icing sugar (to serve)

1. Prepare a tin – either a 22cm springform greased and lined, or a well greased and floured ring tin.


2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flours and baking powder.
4. Beat together the wet stuff, zest and sugar, then add the chocolate chips.


5. Beat in the sieved flour until it’s all mixed into a loose batter.


6. Pour into the prepared tin.
7. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Note, if you’re using a round tin instead of a ring tin, it will take longer to bake, as the heat will take longer to penetrate the centre. So more like 45-50 minutes.


8. Cool in tin for 10 minutes then turn out to cool completely. Good luck with this bit if you struggle with aluminium ring tins like me.


9. Serve dusted with icing sugar, while browsing Rachel Roddy’s A-Z of Pasta.

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Fran’s Herman cake

Herman friendship cake

Just to be clear: this was Fran’s project. But as I’m enjoying eating it, she’s given me permission to cover it.

For those who’ve never encountered it, Herman cake, or friendship cake, is a type of apple cake that features a starter not unlike a sourdough. The principle is that you feed up the starter, then split it and pass containers of sludge onto your friends for them to then follow the recipe, and in turn pass sludge onto their friends.

Fran was given it by our friend Martina, another parent at our kids’ school. Seeing as I’m the avid baker of the household, I’m somewhat bemused she didn’t offer it to me. But as I was in thick of home-schooling our five year old and seven year old at that point, nurturing a pot of seething yeasts and lactobacilli as well was possibly a bridge too far for me.

The Herman cake starter isn’t strictly a sourdough. Or not necessarily. I’ve seen recipes online where people create the starter not by awaiting the gentle cascade of natural yeasts from the atmosphere but by making a batter with flour, milk, sugar, water and commercial yeast. Over time, however, this mix is fed (with more flour and sugar) and will take on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, and will give off that beery smell familiar to those who cultivate stricter natural leavens.

This type of cake is inspired by an older Amish tradition, Amish friendship bread, which itself would have originally used a true natural sourdough starter. Indeed, all breads and leavened baked goods did before the controlled cultivation and commercial sale of baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, in the second half of the 19th century following the Louis Pasteur’s advances in the understanding of microbiology.

A few notes:
1. Don’t refrigerate the starter. Just keep the sludge in a bowl, covered loosely with a clean cloth, at room temperature.
2. The final cake ingredients do include baking powder, which seems odd considering you’re using a sourdough-like starter – ie a leaven. But the result is delicious, so I’m not quibbling.
3. The recipe suggests cooking apples, but Fran used desert apples and they worked well. (Gala I believe.)
4. The original recipe also included raisins, but cooked raisins are a sure way to ruin a cake. They’re the devil’s work, like sultanas in the curries we used to have at primary school in the 1970s. Of course, if you like dried fruits in cakes, go ahead and add some.
5. You can add a streusel topping. My mum used to make us a streusel cake when I was a kid, so I’ve taken that element from her old Katie Stewart recipe.
6. It’s quite a big cake. Fran made it in a 23x23cm square tin. I can’t see any reason why you can’t bake it in a round tin, bundt tin or deep roasting pan, depending on what you’ve got at your disposal.
7. I would love to know how the microbiology of a Herman starter differs from that of a classic sourdough (which of course varies a lot too). There is a Herman Project underway looking at the microbial characteristics of different sourdoughs. It’s discussed here, but the link from this MIT page is dead, so I don’t know if it looks at these cake starters.
8. When Fran divided up the Herman starter, each quarter weighed around 300g.
9. I’ve no idea why it’s called Herman. Apparently, “Herman” is an affectionate name for any sourdough starter, though I’ve not heard that before. Presumably in America. Though again, I’ve no idea why that particular name was chosen.

Herman cake starter

So, assuming a friend passes you a container of sludge, here’s the recipe.

Starter
1. The day you receive the sludge is day 1. Stir each day and on day 4 add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk.
2. Stir each day on days 5 to 9, then add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk on day 9.
3. Weigh the mixture then divide into four equal portions. Give three containers of sludge away to friends.
4. Keep your quarter for one more day, then you’re ready to make the cake on day 10.

Cake ingredients

300g Herman starter
225g caster sugar
300g plain flour
12g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
155g cooking oil (sunflower or vegetable [ie rapeseed, aka canola] good)
2 medium eggs (ie around 115g, without shells)
10g vanilla essence
2 medium apples, cut into chunks
12g ground cinnamon

Optional streusel topping
50g self-raising flour
100g soft brown sugar
50g butter, melted

1. Grease a 23cm square tin and line with baking parchment.
2. Preheat your oven to 170C.


3. Simply combine all the ingredients and pour into the prepared tin.
4. To make the optional streusel, combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl and mix through the melted butter with a fork. Sprinkle this onto the cake batter.
5. Bake for around an hour, until a skewer comes out clean (-ish). If it’s not baked enough but the top is browning, cover with foil and keep baking.
6. Cool on a wire rack.
7. Enjoy. Or not if you’re a five year old who refuses to eat the cooked apple.

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Frustingolo Italian Christmas cake

This Christmas cake is specifically from the Marche region of eastern central Italy. It’s similar to those other dense, nutty, fruity Italian Christmas cakes – panforte from Siena, which is probably the best known, and pangiallo from Rome, which I got to know while living there. All of them are of a very ancient form – no chemical raising agents, no fancy sugar craft. Indeed, the very first cakes humanity concocted would have been of a similar format – dense discs that combined dried fruits, nuts and honey for sweetening. I called them “primitive cakes” in my post about pangiallo.

If panforte means “strong bread” and pangiallo means “yellow bread”, I’m not too sure what frustingolo means. The verb frustare means to whip or to lash, or, less violently and more related to cooking, to whisk. As it’s a very dense mixture, you don’t whisk it though, you laboriously turn it with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. My old friend, Italian teacher and philologist Giammarco suggests the cake’s name instead derives from the adjective frusto, meaning well used or worn out, but also used to mean un pezzetto, a little piece.* So I suppose in the sense of little pieces of nuts and fruit.

Anyway. I saw a recipe first in a cookbook by Anna del Conte but hunting around for more I found more Italian recipes online, which included chocolate. I love chocolate. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas fruit cakes, so adding chocolate was surely essential.

I give some procedural method, but frankly it’s just a case of adding everything and mixing well. You may be able to see in the pics I included some pecans – I didn’t have quite enough walnuts, and pecans are more of a treat anyway. It’s not a strict recipe. You can adjust the spices or ground coffee if you wish, and use other nuts or fruit depending on what’s in your store cupboard. You can also include a shot of brown spirits if you like. There’s a certain amount of QB here – an Italian recipe term meaning quanto basta, “how much is enough” or “just enough” or “as required”, ie just adding until the mix feels right.

300g dried figs
100g raisins
150g blanched almonds
150g walnuts
100g breadcrumbs (dried)
50g pine nuts**
60g dark chocolate, ideally 80% plus cocoa solids
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
125g wholemeal flour
2g cinnamon powder
10g cocoa
100g caster sugar
80g honey
15g ground coffee, to taste
About 150g strong coffee, espresso, QB
Olive oil, QB
Rum or brandy (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 160C and grease and line with parchment a 22cm loose-bottomed round tin.
2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
3. Soften the figs in hot water then drain and chop roughly.
4. Put the figs in a bowl with the raisins and mix.

5. Roughly chop the walnuts and combine with the pine nuts, the honey, the sugar and the peel.
6. Add the melted chocolate, coffee powder and the breadcrumbs.
7. Sieve together the flour, cocoa and cinnamon and add to the mix too.
8. Add the lemon and orange zest.


9. Soften the mixture with strong coffee, adding more or less as necessary, and some extra virgin olive oil. Aim for a stiff mixture, rather than a batter, mixing everything well. Add a splash of brandy or rum if you like.
10. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for around 1 hour 20 minutes, until nicely browned.
11. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then loosen and invert to cool completely.

12. To serve, you can decorate the top (formerly the bottom) with some more nuts or candied fruit and/or sprinkle with icing sugar.

 

 

Footnotes
* Giammarco explained frustare comes from the Latin fustis, meaning stick, rod or cane. Whereas frusto comes from the Latin frustum, meaning a little piece, a lump.
** Ideally Italian or European from Pinus pinea (the stone pine or umbrella pine) if you can get them, not Chinese ones from Pinus armandii (the almond pine or Chinese white pine). I couldn’t, and they’re considerably more expensive – but as with any expensive ingredient, it’s a treat to be used sparingly and doubtless better environmentally. I’m seriously mistrustful of Chinese agricultural practises, seeing as they supply much of the world with just about everything these days, and intensively intensive agriculture is one of our worst mistreatments of the planet: degrading and destroying soil that took millennia to develop; nuking it with toxins that end up in animals, rivers and the ocean; deforestation, etc etc etc etc.

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Lekach honey cake

Back in the first 2020 lockdown, when most shops were closed, markets weren’t operating, supermarket delivery slots were like gold dust and actual visits to supermarkets were nerve-wracking disease roulettes, we started getting food deliveries from other sources. One was a catering supplier recommended by a friend. Somehow I managed to over-order honey.

Usually, I like to have two types of honey in the house – good quality local stuff and cheap commercial stuff for use when making big batches of granola and to satisfy the sweet tooth of my son on Sunday mornings, aka “jam day”, when we’re allowed sugary stuff with our toast, pancakes or porridge.

The good stuff I’ve had the past few years has been from my friends Karin and Alex, who keep bees in their garden just across town from where I live.

When I realised I had this surplus of honey, all starting to crystallise, I thought I’d better make honey cake. Most cultures have their own variations on honey cake – after all, aside from dried fruit, it was the main sweetener available before the rise of the sugar trade*. Looking in my cloud recipes, my cookbooks and searching around online, I came across numerous honey cakes, including the Jewish lekach, traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the religious and ritual elements, Rosh Hashanah is essentially a harvest festival – its origins in the ancient agrarian societies of the Near East, where taking in the harvest was a logical time to mark the end of the year; indeed Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year”.

Karin is a great baker, from a Czech Jewish heritage, as well as a bee-keeper, so I asked her about lekach. Instead, she recommended medovnik, a Russian and eastern European honey cake. I will try that one of these days, but when I was round at their house – I work for Alex’s food business, Kabak – I found a recipe for lekach in their copy of Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew name for the cake is ougat dvash, literally “honey cake”, with the word lekach being Yiddish, and from Middle High German lecke, “to lick” – appropriately, given that my five-year-old daughter was keen to help cook and was ardent about licking the bowl after we’d made the batter but wasn’t terribly interested in eating the actual cake.

Obviously lekach would be better if made with good quality honey, and Roden’s recipe says to use dark liquid honey, but it worked fine using up my cheapo honey – after I’d put the bottles in hot water to soften up the crystalisation. The very presence of so many sugars – honey and refined – as well as spices and dried fruit and nuts makes it clear this is a feast day cake, but that’s not so say it can’t be enjoyed at other times.

Roden says you have to make it “at least three days in advance”.

2 eggs
200g caster sugar
125g vegetable oil
250g liquid honey
2 tbsp rum or brandy
125g warm strong black coffee
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
Grated zest of 1 orange
300g plain flour, plus extra to dust
50g coarsely chopped walnuts or slithered or flaked almonds
40g raisins or sultanas

1. Grease and line a 22cm cake tin with baking parchment; alternatively use two 24x13cm loaf tins or even a bundt tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C (lower if you have an aggressive fan).
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and creamy.

4. Beat in the oil, honey, brandy and coffee.
5. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and spices.
6. Add the salt and orange zest to the sifted mix.
7. Gradually add the flour mix to the wet mix, beating well to create a smooth batter.
8. Dust the fruit and nuts with flour (to prevent them sinking to the bottom) then add to the batter.
9. Put the batter in the prepared tin(s).
10. Put in the oven and bake for 1 1/4 hours for the big one or about 1 hour for the loaf tins. You want it firm and brown on top and a skewer to come out clean.
11. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out.
12. When totally cool, put in a tin and leave for three days.

Obviously, leaving a cake for three days is tricky when you have children and greedy people like me in the house. It was delicious on the day, but better when left before cutting, like many ginger cakes and fruit cakes; like them it also keeps well. The best technique for saving it for three days is to hide it. Then set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget where you’ve hidden it.

* And of course the slave trade that accompanied the growth demand for sugar. The slave trade is something I think about a lot more these days as an adopter whose children have some African-Caribbean heritage – some slave heritage. We joke about having a sweet tooth, but as the European sweet tooth – sugar addiction – grew, so did the slave trade, and the accompanying horrors and abuse. Britain might be a mismanaged, fading entity now, but in its imperial heyday, much of that wealth – exemplified by those solid buildings and monuments that give London and other cities much of their character to this day, those old maps where red covered a large portion of the globe, the abiding wealth of some families – came directly from sugar, from centuries of industrial scale slavery, from man’s inhumanity to man.

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I really want the chocolate cake

We love books and reading. We love chocolate cake. So the past few years, a couple of children’s books have been particularly popular in our house: Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen with illustrations by Kevin Waldron, and I Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip with illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti.

Both are wonderfully illustrated, lyrical tales of children’s uncontrollable desire to eat chocolate cake. I say “children’s” as the protagonists in both books are kids, but I can relate. In fact, in our household it’s the boys who are particularly ardent about all things chocolate. I Really Want the Cake includes a recipe on its final page and T asked to make it. So we did.

Baking with kids
Now, as any parent of young children knows, there’s a fine balance to be had in teaching kids to cook and bake. I love to encourage it, but conversely it can make for a lot of mess, and realistically, the kids’ role is often more about stirring – often with a separate bowl to keep them occupied. T is now old enough to read the recipes though, so we’ve reached a new stage – where he can weigh things out, reading the figures on the scales. That’s not to say the main preoccupation isn’t still rushing to get to the point where he can lick the spoons and bowl, but we’re making progress.

The recipe is for a chocolate cake made with cooking oil instead of butter. This arguably makes it slightly more child friendly as it’s a big mix-up job, not a cream together one. Though you do have to melt some chocolate over a double boiler, which is a job for the parent, or at least one that involves close supervision. It’s iced with a simple buttercream icing. This part was tricky as the cake is quite crumbly, and the icing quite firm so the results here aren’t exactly professional – but hey, sprinkles!

I’ve tweaked this a tad. Reduced the sugar etc.

Cake batter
230g plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
80g cocoa powder
300g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
250g full-fat milk
125g vegetable oil
50g chocolate, melted

Icing
150g unsalted butter, softened
20g cocoa powder
300g icing sugar

Method
1. Grease and line two 20cm round sandwich cake tins.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and cocoa into a mixing bowl. Stir in the caster sugar.
4. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
5. Add the eggs, oil, vanilla essence and milk to the dry mix and stir to combine.
6. Add the melted chocolate, and stir till all nicely combined, with no dry lumps.


7. Divide the batter equally into the tins. Allow your child to lick the bowl and spatula.


8. Bake for around 30 minutes, until a skewer or knife tip comes out clean.
9. Turn out and cool on a wire rack.
10. While the cakes are cooling, make the icing. Soften the butter (in a warm place or with a quick nuke in a microwave), then sieve in the icing sugar and cocoa. Mix well. Icing sugar is such a fine powder it can spray everywhere, so use a large bowl and a careful child!
11. Spread the icing between and on top of the cakes. If you’re feeling ambitious and can hold your children at bay, you could even smear it all over the sides but we didn’t get that far as T was poised with pots of sprinkles.

You really got the cake!

If, like us, you like reading and cakes, I highly recommend both these books. Gaggiotti’s illustration especially capture the energy of lively children, something we are gifted with, likewise Rosen’s verse captures the singlemindedness of children, something we see a lot of in our house. Support your local library, or support your local bookshop!

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Melachrino cake for St George’s day, 23 April

Melachrino cake

George was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor or the Middle East in the 3rd century and, according to legend, became a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to reject his Christian faith and make sacrifices to the Roman gods he was tortured and beheaded, possibly in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city now buried under the modern city of Izmit in western Turkey.

Through the marvellous convolutions of history he is now the patron saint of England. His reputation rose via the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th century. He was seen – honest ­– aiding Crusaders at the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and was made a patron saint of soldiers. It wasn’t until the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century that he became England’s patron.

Somewhere along the way he fought and killed a dragon. Dragons are so cool, it became a very popular subject among Medieval and Renaissance artists. In many versions, his shield is adorned with a red cross on a white field. Today, this flag – adopted as the English flag, again via the Crusaders – is mostly rolled out by desperate English football fans before desperate international football fixtures. Or for St George’s day, 23 April. (Or 6 May in the Gregorian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

Widespread patronage
Unsurprisingly, he’s also the patron saint of Georgia, as well as of cities as diverse as Beirut and Milan. He’s also an important figure in Greece, where he also gives his patronage to soldiers. Which is a long way to arrive at this recipe. It’s another one from Ernst Schuegraf’s Cooking with the Saints. He notes that it’s “an old Greek recipe traditionally associated with St George, and given to me by an employee of the Greek Embassy in London.”

Some of the supposedly traditional recipes in Schuegraf’s book have no other presence online beyond people making his, but looking up this one, various versions appear. Some are made with grape molasses instead of all the sugar used here, and oil instead of butter, but all feature a broadly similar combination of ground or chopped nuts (usually walnuts), citrus, spices, and a splash of booze in the syrup.

I’ve had a note in my diary to make this the past few years as I love cake batters featuring nuts, and semolina, and drenched in citrusy syrup. Like my favourite nutty cakes torta Caprese and Sachertorte, it’s made by separating eggs, then using the whisked egg whites to lighten the batter. In this case, there’s also a load of chemical raising agent too. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.

200g unsalted butter, softened
280g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 egg
400g fine semolina
200g plain flour
8g baking powder
6g baking soda
8g cinnamon
2g ground cloves
250g walnuts, coarsely ground or chopped

Syrup
1 orange, zest and juice
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
500g granulated sugar
1kg water (ie, 1 litre)
30g brandy
1 cinnamon stick

1. Grease and line a 25cm cake tin, and preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until soft and light.
3. Lightly beat the egg yolks, plus the 1 whole egg, then add gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
4. In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.


5. Sieve together the semolina, flour, raising agents and spices and add to the mixture. Also beat in the nuts.
6. Beat in a little of the egg white to lighten the mixture slightly, as it’s quite stiff, then gently fold in the rest.
7. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
8. While it’s baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar, water, zest and juice, and the cinnamon stick in saucepan and gradually heat up to the dissolve the sugar. I used a Sicilian blood orange, which was particularly pleasing.


9. When the sugar is dissolved, simmer the syrup, reducing the mixture by about a third.
10. When the cake it baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool slightly.
11. Take the cake out of the tin and transfer to a plate or platter with a rim, to contain the syrup.
12. Pour the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Serve warm or at ambient temperature.

Enjoy, preferably on a sunny afternoon with a lot of friends – it’s a fairly substantial cake!

Melachrino cake

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Madeira cake

Madeira cake with clotted cream

A while back, I just had one of those urges – very specific, for something somewhat old-fashioned. Madeira cake. It’s one of those English cakes the Victorians, or possibly even the Georgians, would have tucked into, accompanied by a glass of Madeira. Madeira is a fortified wine from the Portuguese island archipelago of the same name, located in the Atlantic 880-odd km west of the Moroccan coast. The cake itself isn’t from Madeira.

Madeira cake is a basic concoction, not unlike pound cake: dense and satisfying. Checking my cookbooks, I found several different recipes. It’s amazing how something so simple can have so much variation. A unifying feature seems to be some lemon flavour in the form of zest in the batter and sometimes candied peel or zest added on top too, part-way through baking. Except that when I checked Mrs Beeton, she had none of this. No flavouring whatsoever – not even the inclusion of ground almonds, which several recipes use.

Mary Berry Madeira cakeJane Grigson Madeira cake

I tried several. Mary Berry’s, which has almonds, was good. I found it a bit dry, but possibly I over-baked a tad. The recipe in Jane Grigson English Food was basic and reliable. The recipe in Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave was pleasingly crumbly and unusually had a pinch of cinnamon. I’ve not seen this elsewhere, and Leith and Waldegrave give no preamble, so the rationale for the spice will remain a mystery. Perhaps it was just a whim on their part.

Leith Madeira cakeDuff Madeira cake

I also tried a few more recipes from Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff, which worked well, but was particularly nice as I had such good eggs with bright orange yolks, and The Sainsbury Book of Home Baking by Carole Handslip. This was no-nonsense and fine. Plus, it was a trip down memory lane as the book, published in 1980, was one of those I used in my mum’s kitchen in my childhood. I also used another book from my mum: Geraldine Holt’s Cake Store, published in 1983. The cake was also tasty but the mixture wasn’t enough for the 18cm tin she recommended. It’s important that this cake has some verticality, rather than being too flat. It’s a tall cake not a disc.

Books

Having done all that important research, here’s my version. I’m not claiming it’s the perfect Madeira cake but it suits my requirements for flavour, ingredients and shape.

210g butter, softened
180g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
7g baking powder
110g ground almonds
90g milk
Pinch salt

1. Grease and line an 18cm tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 170C.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light.
4. Beat the eggs then add slowly to the creamed mix, combining all. If it starts to curdle, add a dash of flour.
5. Add the lemon zest.
6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the mixture.
7. Add the ground almonds and pinch of salt and fold to combine.
8. Add the milk. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more until it’s quite soft.
9. Put the mixture in the tin and bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. If the cake is starting to brown but the interior isn’t baked, cover with foil and leave in the oven a bit longer.
10. Cool on a wire rack.

Madeira cake in tin

I doubt many people drink it with Madeira wine these days. We certainly don’t. I’ve never even tasted the stuff, though we were just finishing off some pleasant Portuguese Vinho Verde when we had this one, eaten as dessert for Sunday lunch, accompanied by that ambrosial West Country delight, clotted cream. It’s also great, more modestly, with a cuppa.

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Buttermilk chocolate cake

Buttermilk chocolate cake

If I’m craving a cake, chances are I’m craving chocolate cake. Were someone, well Fran probably, to ask me what kind of birthday cake I want, I’ll say chocolate. Yes, I like chocolate. I like cake. I like chocolate cake.

But strangely, despite decades of baking and consuming chocolate cakes, I’ve never found a go-to recipe. A recipe so easy, reliable and rewarding that I don’t even have to think about it. Discussing this with my mum the other day, she asked if she’d ever given me an old Katie Stewart recipe called Quick-mix chocolate cake. Not that I recalled.

I like Stewart’s recipes. She died in 2013, and was somewhat out of fashion. But if you’ve ever seen or owned one of her recipe books, chances are it’ll be well-thumbed. She was one of those British writers food writers of a certain age, along with Prue Leith and Delia Smith1, born in or just before the Second World War, who produced practical, no-nonsense recipes.

Sometimes I like my recipes with a little more context and colourful images, but often I just want to reach for the recipe, forgo any preamble, grab the ingredients from store cupboard and fridge and get on with it. Stewart wrote for The Times from 1966, a year before my parents married and four years before I was born. She continued to do so until 1978, and my mum assiduously collected the cuttings in a yellow ring binder and used them a lot during my childhood. She still has it, still uses it. So yes, I had to try this recipe. Stewart was a big part of my upbringing and food education.

What is buttermilk?
Buttermilk is readily available from supermarkets these days – or at least the cultured version, as opposed to the liquid left from churning cream to make butter. This is what I first learned was buttermilk, when making butter while living at Newton Livery then Old Man Mountain farms in New Zealand in the early-mid 1990s. This is called “traditional buttermilk” and is unlikely to be available to you unless you’re churning cream.

If you really can’t find cultured buttermilk, I suspect (though I’ve yet to try. Watch this space*) you could make this using yogurt. A little Googling suggests a ratio of three parts yogurt thinned with one part milk. As you’re using alkaline baking soda as a raising agent, it needs an acid to react with, to produce the carbon dioxide that gives lift. Both cultured buttermilk and yogurt are acids, though they’re fermented with different bacteria giving rise to their different qualities2.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve converted it to new money and reduced the sugar.

225g plain flour
55g cocoa powder
5g bicarbonate of soda
2g fine salt
250g caster sugar
112g butter, softened
140g buttermilk
2 large eggs (about 120g beaten egg)

1. Grease and line two 18 or 20cm. (Smaller will be taller, larger will be flatter.)
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sift the flour, cooca and bicarb into a bowl.
4. Beat together the sugar and softened butter.
5. Add the buttermilk and beaten egg.
6. Add the sieved powder and stir in.
7. Beat to combine thoroughly, for about a minute.
8. Divide between the tins.
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm to the touch.
10. Cool in tins for 10 mins then turn out and cool on racks.
11. “Sandwich the layers with buttercream or chocolate frosting.”

Slices of buttermilk chocolate cake

I had some chocolate frosting in the freezer. I can’t remember what recipe I’d used to make it. I also had some cream cheese frosting left over from the Raver’s birthday. Both needed using up. I mixed them and added a dash more cocoa. Twas delicious, and probably fairly unrepeatable. I love those using-up-leftovers accidents. Any good frosting or buttercream will do.

I’m not entirely sure this will become my go-to chocolate cake recipe. As Stewart said in the cutting, it’s a “light-textured cake”, and sometimes I want rich and fudgy, sometimes I just want the ground nuts goodness of a Sachertorte or torta caprese. But I will be using this again, as it is indeed easy and reliable. Good old Stewart.

 

 

 

Notes
1. Obviously not everything. The earlier stuff by Smith, notably The Complete Cookery Course (c1980) is essential. How to Cheat at Cooking (2008) not so much.
2. Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus for buttermilk, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and others for yogurt.

* I tried it. 105g yogurt mixed with 35g milk. It worked fine. Can’t quite put my finger on how different it was.

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Citrus honey cake

Citrus polenta cake

Fran, my wife of these past eight years and partner of nine more before that, isn’t really much of a cake person. Or a pudding person. Or a chocolate person. We’re quite Jack and Mrs Sprat in our food inclinations. I was a vegetarian or pescetarian for 20 or so years, she’s pretty much always been a keen carnivore.

When we got together, our dietary habits met in the middle somewhere, but I still don’t have a great sense of what her favourite cake is. Personally, I’m all about the chocolate, so a rich chocolate cake is what I always hope for on my birthday. As her birthday approached last week, however, I wasn’t sure what do bake her. I hinted for some guidance, but it didn’t really manifest. So I looked through old recipes and took a punt.

This isn’t exactly what you’d call a celebration cake. It’s not slathered in icing or exactly suitable for candles. But it’s rich and yummy, and a bit different.

Special honey… or not
It’s originally from a recipe by Nigel Slater in The Observer. His piece was all about the honey, which is here used to make the citrusy syrup. I enjoy honey, and always like to have a jar of special honey in the house. A few years ago, some friends from New Zealand came for a visit, and brought a jar of Tutaki Manuka honey, produced by Trees and Bees, up the Mangles Valley, in the Buller Gorge, South Island. This was my stomping ground on and off in my youth, so a mere sniff of the jar is hugely evocative.

Just as that jar was reaching emptiness, my friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gave me a jar of honey from the bees he’d kept on his allotment in the Coombe, just on the eastern side of Lewes, about half a mile from home.

The Coombe is a try chalk valley that cuts into Malling Down, which is a reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It’s farmed to preserve the ancient Downland ecology, an essential task as Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, when the Second World War food shortages meant vast amounts of grazing land was put under the plough for grain and potatoes.

It’s a special place, especially at this time of year when not only are the orchids (common spotted and pyramidal I believe) out, but the wild thyme and wild marjoram are starting to flower. Before moving to Lewes I didn’t even realise these herbs grew wild in Britain. I grew up on the Downs, but at the other end of this ridge of chalk hills, in Winchester, 80 miles to the west. I don’t remember seeing thyme and marjoram growing wild there. Perhaps Sussex is just that bit sunnier and dryer (it has some of the most sun and least precipitation in the UK).

Anyway, Alex’s Coombe honey evokes Malling Down with one sniff, the thyme, marjoram and innumerable other flowers the bees visited in their time there. Alex subsequently lost the allotment, so the Coombe honey is extra-special, as it was only produced for one year. The bees are now in his back garden, feeding off more domestic flower species, but apparently doing well.

I’ll admit I didn’t use special honey for Fran’s cake. Don’t tell her. I used cheap rubbish, which I buy for making granola. I know, I know, it’s probably made by bees who are fed sugar syrup, but… well, home economics. Plus, I just prefer to keep the good stuff to enjoy simply with a piece of bread or toast; I don’t want to lose its qualities in the melange of cooking.

So yes, I’d love to make this cake with special honey, but I defaulted to the cheap stuff. Don’t tell Fran.

220g butter
180g unrefined caster sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs, beaten, approx 175g beaten egg
150g polenta
5g (1 tsp) baking powder
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
Zest of one lemon
12-20 green cardamom pods, to taste

For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, juice of 2 oranges, approx 320g juice
100g honey

1. Grease and line the base of 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin.
2. Preheat oven 180C.
3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
4. Add the beaten eggs and combine.
5. Add the ground almonds.
6. Mix the polenta and baking powder, then fold into the mixture, together with the zest and juice.
7. Crush the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture and combine.
8. Put the cake mixture in the tin.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160C for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
10. To make the syrup, put the honey and juice sin a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid simmering until it has formed a thin syrup, about 5-10 minutes.
11. Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup.
12. Leave to almost cool, then remove from the tin.

Serve with Greek or other thick yogurt, crème fraîche, or even thick cream. It’s up to you. It doesn’t really need the dairy blob though. With its dense, ground-almond texture and dowsing in syrup, it’s not unlike the Greek cake Greek revani or Claudia Roden’s Orange and almond cake, which Rachel Roddy talks about here, or is also available here (scroll down a bit).

Yum. T-Rex, three and a half, rejected it on the first bite. The Raver, almost two, went mad for it. Fran seemed content with it too.

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