We were out to dinner, talking about these letters.
‘I love them’, you said. I felt a pin point pressure in my chest slightly up from my heart, to the top of my breastbone. It rounded out into a ball of fizzy yellowy warmth. The ball stayed there for a few minutes more, until the food arrived and my attention got taken by pasta sauce.
It was the quickest moment that fit into a conversation we had about writing, reading and the odd observation of how much bread we’d managed to eat since sitting down.
In that conversation you told me to read Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, a collection of short essays that weave details of Solnit’s life into broader thoughts on the world. Since reading this book, it got me thinking about why I write to you about cake.
The opening essay is about trees. It talks about how they stand as symbols of continuity and how George Orwell believes in planting trees as an act of contribution to posterity. That planting a single plum tree might promise sustenance to future generations is a great thought to hold close to your heart.
There are trees that have lived for hundreds of years, they are part of a history that we weren’t even alive to see. And their roots, like you said, are connected underground across the world in a web that supports the soil we stand on. A hive of past wisdom that’s buried underground. There’s something grand, slow and peaceful about this, in the same way that a grandmother, or whale, or old house is.
Reading Solnits essay, it struck me that the reason I love cake, was because it stands as the exact opposite of the tree. The cake is not wise. And cake is also not peaceful. I’m not talking here about the act of making a cake, but of presenting and eating one. A beautiful, quick, excited example of an effort to make moments of joy. And the consumption, a brilliant and messy confirmation of the closure of celebration. Finishing the cake signals these moments will come again, like little erruptions of excitement in an individual’s lifespan. The cake isn’t wise like the tree because it’s eaten too quickly to gain any life expereince.
Solnit writes about her love of the steadfastness of trees, in the same manner of fondness I write about cake to you. She intersects her essay about trees with glimpses into her personal life. She seeks to find pockets of space where her own intimate experiences of daily life might fit into the wider world, the trees world. I find this to be infinitely comforting. Writing to you about the cake I bake skates close to Orwell’s idea in planting a tree as an act of contribution to future life. As I said, the cake has no wisdom itself, but the accumulation of the cakes I bake, the moments they signal in our life and the capturing of them in these letters I see as planting and tending to a tree that will grow on after us.
Soltin’s last line in the essay goes like this ‘…where (do) pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.’
I write about beautiful cake to capture hours of pleasure passed. Keeping a record of them feels important. Like a way to change my small world, and maybe to add something to yours too, to give us some perspective, some past wisdom we can call on at a later date.
I’ve written this to you in a cafe in Naples where I’m waiting to get an overnight train to Zürich. I feel I should be more excited than I am, in reality I feel quite scared and like I want to jump back to London on the plane with you – I’m kicking myself for deciding to get this train. What I’m actually saying is, I’m kicking myself for a desicion that I have made – it could have been any decision. I would have doubted it and myself all the same. Writing this, I realise it is these moments where my writing offers real solice and perspective, like the steadfastness of a tree. Since I started writing this an hour and a half ago, I’ve felt refueled by cakes, trees and writing. Reasurance from letters of cakes past, each marking one moment of celebration or consolation, these letters very existance is evidence enough for me that more of these moments will come.
I’ve since come back to Oxford from Zürich and a long trip around Italy. It was amazing. And the overnight train that kicked off this adventure, I would do again in a heartbeat. This cake is for Cokes, who I got the overnight train to Zürich to meet, and who is sitting on the sofa next to me in Oxford as I write this. It’s his spirit cake, both joyous and wise, where a play between the excitement of a celebration cake and a depth of flavour brings each slice alive. It’s a really brilliant cake, you should make it.
Note On Berries – I first made this cake in December, for Coco’s birthday, so fresh cranberries were easy to find. Sour cherries are a great alternative for this time of year, that’s the fruit I used for these picturse. You can also use any frozen berries of your choice, just make sure to reduce the oil to 5 ml.
Note On Tins – this is a forgiving cake that is difficult to overbake and works well in a slightly larger or smaller tin that I have written in the method, just be sure to adjust the baking time.
For The Cake
- 45g plain natural yoghurt or plain Greek yoghurt
- 1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
- 150g ground almonds
- 75g plain flour
- 135g unsalted butter, softened
- 150g caster sugar
- Zest of one lemon
- Zest of one orange
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 ½ teaspoons / 6g baking powder
- 10ml / 2 teaspoons vegetable or sunflower oil
- 120g fresh cranberries or sour cherries
For the Topping
- 40g unsalted butter, very soft
- 50g caster sugar
- A small handful of flaked almonds (optional)
For The Vanilla Mascarpone Cream – you may have extra
- 90g mascarpone, room temperature
- 60g cream cheese, room temperature
- 70g double cream
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 30g icing sugar
Preheat oven to 180 / 160 fan oven. Grease and line 2 7inch / 18cm round cake tins.
In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the topping to form a paste. Set aside.
Combine the yoghurt and lemon juice in a small bowl. Set aside. Combine the ground almonds and plain flour in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, lemon and orange zest, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one after another adding a heaped tablespoon of the flour and almonds mixture with each egg addition – this will stop the mixture from curdling too much. Add in the oil and beat to combine. Now add the rest of the flour and almonds, baking powder and yoghurt mixture in one go, mix until just combined. Fold the cranberries or other berries through the batter.
Divide the batter evenly between each cake tin. Top one tin with small lumps of the topping paste, making sure it is evenly distributed.
Bake for 35 – 40 mins or until golden brown and a knife inserted into the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs. Allow to cool.
Whist together all the ingredients for the vanilla mascarpone cream until it reaches soft peaks. When the cake is cooled, sandwich the two halves with the mascarpone cream.
Once filled, the cake will keep for 3 days in an airtight container. Past one day, keep the cake in the fridge, this is due to the cream filling.
To cakes, trees and writing. Caitlin x