Your message read ‘I’m gunna do a self-care day. Cucumber on the eyes. Face packs. That kind of thing. Any tips?’ As well as ‘put cucumber on your eyes – or anyother watery, green and helthy looking veg, such as celery, or lettuce’ and ‘listen to the late night jazz playlist on Spotify’ and ‘moisturise’ I strongly believe that the planning of a successful SCD (self-care day) is sometimes just as therapeutic as the act of the SCD itself. For example, I’ve been thinking about doing yoga for the past 3 days, so much so that I feel like I’ve already done it, which is really great, becauase the time I would have spent doing yoga, I’m using to write to you. And you already started planning your SCD a couple days before you wanted to have it, so you were already winning when you sent me that message.
In preparation for this letter, I asked Coco if he had any tips for your successful SCD. Giving someone tips for such a sacred thing as an SCD is quite the undertaking, which Cokes expressed with an ‘uummmm…’ – clearly he wanted your SCD to be just right, didn’t want to set you off on the wrong path. So, I asked him to describe what self care was.
12 hours of sleep passed and Coco sent me a message, ‘self-care is losing track of time.’
With Coco’s definition, I’m an expert a self-care. A bloody professor of self-care even. I lose track of time all the time. Particularly when I’m asleep. I woke up to that message having lost track of time whilst asleep, to quite the extreme. All sounding alarms in the world wouldn’t wake me.
It is true that I was, albeit unwillingly and sharply (definitely not how you should commence your SDC) shunted into (you should go for an ‘ease into’) my SCD. On this day, I decided I would carry on loosing track of time. Maybe you could do the same for a little bit, see where you go.
Now, if I was going to bake an SCD into a cake – it would be a banana cake. Specifically this banana cake, this Banana Butter Crumble Cake. It’s got self-care written all over it. So do bananas, everyone knows bananas are healthy, a perfect snack for a SCD. And their sweetness when they are a bit old and brown affords them a comforting presence, because bananas are one of those fruits that really does have presence, and a great addition to any fruit bowl because of that, on a SCD or not.
So here is a banana cake, a great, buttery one. The name may be misleading, there’s no butter in the cake batter, olive oil takes its place giving a soft and dense crumb, but the butter is a crucial component to the crumble topping. A high proportion of butter to flour and sugar in this crumble mixture, creates a heaver, thicker biscuity topping that sinks a little into the cake as it bakes. Once cooled and sliced little pockets of butter soaked banana cake can be found near the cakes surface under lumps of crumble and flecks of brown sugar. And every now and then, you strike gold, hitting on a lump of crumble sunk into the cake and baked within the batter. Self-care cake. Like the banana cake is giving these lil crumble clusters a big old hug. haha.
For the Crumble Topping
65g butter – verycold from the fridge and cubed
75g plain flour
45g caster sugar
Large pinch salt
For the Cake
200g ripe banana / about 2 medium bananas – mashed
150g caster sugar
20g soft light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
110g olive oil
Scant tablespoon milk
200g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Start with the crumble topping. In a bowl rub the butter into the flour, sugar and salt using your fingertips to make a breadcrumb texture. Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge or freezer while you make the cake.
Pre heat the oven to 185 / 165 fan. Grease and line with parchment paper a 7 inch / 18 cm round cake tin.
In a large bowl whisk together the mashed banana, sugars, salt, eggs, oil and milk until thoroughly combined. Sift in the flour and baking powder and stir in until only just combined. Pour into the cake tin, top with the crumble mixture and bake for about 70 – 80 mins or until golden brown and a knife inserted into the cake comes out with some moist crumbs. Long bake, I know, don’t worry, it’s all that crumble and banana.
Lee Dixon, Big Lee, ‘Just keep playin’ (spoken in a soft Mancunian accent). Hahahah
Been turning this chocolate pie over in my mind for the past couple weeks, triggered by a want to bake you something for your birthday and by a strong pie craving. I was after a specific texture – a ‘Joe chocolate texture’ – thick, velvety chocolate mousse in the centre, surrounded by a very dense, almost brownie like chocolate mud cake exterior, all topped off by a shiny sugar crust. I wanted it in a chocolate pastry case too. Here’s how I went about my choc pie quest: I looked at cheesecake, brownie and chess pie recipes, custard and mouse recipes and had a long look at that chocolate mud cake you were obsessed with when we were young. The calculator even came out to get the ratios right.
And here it is. In all its pie glory. Between a chocolate mousse, a thick chocolate pudding and a chocolate cheesecake; the centre has an unexpected delicateness to it, left untouched it holds its own weight – and it is weighty – but relaxes and melts on impact from a fork or hands eager for pie. This centre is encased by the densest chocolate mud cake you’ve ever eaten, which is all wrapped in a bitter, sweet and flaky chocolate pastry case. These layers of texture form in the oven, the only trick is knowing when to pull it from the heat. It goes in a viscous chocolate mixture and comes out puffed up, seemingly liquid under a firm set glassy sugar crust. The pie exhales as it cools and sets satisfyingly firm.
Before the pie, or baked into it, are my thoughts about usefullness, of which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. People really do need to feel useful. Hold that thought in your head, and you’ll start to see it everywhere. Getting a job is a great example of being useful, it’s a given that, unless there’s a specific reason you can’t work, you need to get a job, so that you can provide, do, or fix things for other people. Obviously, getting a job is important for keeping everything, like the economy (lol out of my depth here), going, but the resulting feeling of use provided by having a job to do is bound up, sometimes messily, with a notion, my notion, of self. I’m talking about things like self-worth, being needed, having a direction. As I write this, I remember we had a conversation similar to what I’m tentitivly scratching at here in a piazza in Naples this summer.
I wasn’t aware that the need to be useful was quite so strong a part of me, until I got the job I’m in now. I feel fulfilled after working, and I notice that same fulfilment in friends who are similarly at a post student moment of their life. The need to be useful skates close to a deeper, more private notion of self, called purpose. ‘I work, I am useful. I have a purpose, I am needed’ is beautifully simple mantra that signals a warm feeling of being at the right place, in the right time, doing the right thing. And we all love to be right; it forms part of the fabric of bubble wrap we are ‘fragile, handle with care’ taped in.
Thinking back on that convo in Naples, I remember we feel something similar. Only, our expectations of the work we do in our life surpass ‘usefulness’ – it seems we shoot for exceptional. This way, no one, even ourselves, can question our sense of self, our worth, that we are needed, or that we have direction.
If you’re not Joe and reading this observation as a big congratulation to the two of us for being really great, (we are, but) you’re missing my point, and I’m sorry about that. I hope this makes things clearer: my version of finding purpose, my usefulness – and everyone has their own way – was born out of circumstances that stretched my child self’s capacity of usefulness beyond what I could give. And for Joe, repeatedly felt the brunt, a harsh brunt, of supposedly not being usefull enough. I’m treading cearfully here so as not to write something I would later rather not be publiclly accessable, but you could say, the way me and Joe grew up left us feeling we had something to prove, something to fight against.
The ease with which the feeling of lacking purpose, of not being useful, finds me at the moment, is really quite impressive. There’s no failure in this, although it can feel like that, because if framed in the context of starting to work after finishing uni, it makes a lot of sense. It is becoming clear to me that we’re all making up our purpose, all the time.
My feeling of lacking in purpose becomes a bit spikey when met with that large part of me left over from when I was young that had to do a lot of fighting to prove my usefulness, or fighgint to prove, perhaps to myself, that everything was ok. I wonder if it’s similar for you Joe, might not be, maybe I should ask you lol.
We don’t have anything to prove, Joe. We are, it seems, incredibly useful, very needed, and have purpose, most of the time, for example, I purposefully went to Lidl after work to get cream cheese so I could bake you this pie. And it’s a peng pie !!!
Note On Oven Time – This pie has quite a long bake, don’t wait for it to firm up before pulling it from the oven. It won’t. This is essentially a brownie recipe combined with key elements of a cheesecake, cream, cream cheese and a low flour to batter ratio. Just like a brownie and a cheesecake, you don’t want them to bake until firm, you want them to bake and then set in the fridge. It will need at least 4 hours in the fridge before it set enough to slice, a safe bet is to let it sit in the fridge overnight before slicing. Store the pie in the fridge, covered well for up to 4 days.
For the Pastry
155g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
100g butter – cubed and cold
1 egg yolk – keep the egg white to brush the interiro of the pie shell during blind baking
2.5 – 3 table spoons cold water
For the Pie Filling
170g dark chocolate – roughly chopped
120g cream cheese – atroom temperature
3 medium eggs + 1 egg yolk
370g caster sugar
80g double cream
35g plain flour
35g cocoa powder
pinch of salt
Start by making the pastry. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, and sugar in a large bowl. Add the cold cubed butter, rubbing the butter into the flour mixture with fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs with some larger, slightly bigger than pea size chunks of floury butter. Add the egg yolk – reserving the egg white for blind baking – followed by 2.5 tablespoons of water. Bring the crumbly mixture together into a tight ball by squeezing with your hands. If the mixture is too crumbly to hold a ball, add the extra half a tablespoon of water. Press the ball into a thick disk shape and wrap in cling film. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 mins, and up to 24 hours.
Pre heat the oven to 180 / 160 fan. Thoroughly grease a deep 8inch pie dish or shallow cake tin including the rim of the dish – if you use a springform or loose bottom cake tin, like I did, you can lift the whole pie out of the tin before cutting, it looks cool, no other reason. Dust the tin or dish with cocoa powder if you’re worried about it sticking.
Remove the pastry from the fridge. Using a rolling pin, roll it out to a rough circle about 1/4 of an inch thick. Line your prepared tin with the pastry, making sure there are no cracks in the pastry, and it is flush with the edges of the tin. There will be some overhanging pastry, squash these bits together to rest on top of the rim of the dish – forming a thick pastry crust around the pie as it bakes. Prick the base with a fork, cover with greaseproof paper, weigh it down with baking beads or uncooked rice and blind bake the pie crust for 15 mins.
Take it out the oven, remove the weighted greaseproof to expose the pastry case, brush the interior liberally with the reserved egg white – this will act as a barrier between the pastry and the liquid filling. Return to the oven for a further 3 minutes. Once out the oven, allow to cool while you make the filling.
When you are ready to make the filling make sure the oven is on at 180 / 160 fan. Melt the butter and chopped chocolate together over a bain-marie, stirring occasionally. Once melted, take off the heat and set the mixture aside.
Using a whisk, loosen up the cream cheese in a large bowl so it becomes smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking vigorously in between each addition to combine – you don’t want to whisk air into the mixture, you just want to ensure there are not lumps. Now stir in the egg yolk, followed by the sugar and double cream.
Pour in the melted chocolate and stir again. Sift in the flour and cocoa powder and give the batter a final mix, until no dry patches of flour are visible. Pour the mixture into the pastry case and bake for 1 hour and 10 mins. The pie will be puffed up and when gently shaken the middle will have a liquid wabble beneath the set crust. Allow to cool in the cake tin or pie dish at room temp before setting the pie in the fridge for at least 4 hours, and preferably overnight.
If you are using a cake tin, it is easiest to remove the tin once the pie has been chilled. To get a nice cut of the pie, run a large knife under just boiled water, wipe the knife and cut into the pie, repeat for each slice. The pie will keep for up to 4 days, in the fridge and covered well.
Tiger told me about a honey cake the canteen of her secondary school used to offer up. The area she went to school in had a big Jewish community, which in turn influenced the food served in the cafes and canteens about the area. Honey Cake was one of the traditional Jewish foods Tiger had particular memories about. The cake is eaten on Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year but it sounded like Tigers school celebrated with honey cake most days.
The way Tiger described the cake to me, it’s taste and texture was with an attention to detail particular to the way people describe food from their past. It’s a special fondness I’ve notice, food nostalgia. That food is a common topic of reminiscing, makes sense to me, the immediacy of taste, smell or touch, brings the past a bit closer to now.
Last night me and Emma had ‘Soy Glazed Things Are Different Salmon’ for dinner. Things do feel very different. Everyone around me is becoming an adult very quickly, not a bad thing, but, and I tread carefully now so as not to read like the diary of a mid-20s graduate, (which this is hahaha) bloody nora it’s all change.
It was because of Tigers fondness towards the honey cake, probably bound up with a fondness towards her memories of pre university years, that I set about working on a recipe. He’s where I’ve ended up. A beautifully soft syrupy tasting cake paired with a custard cream, custard seeming a suitably nostalgic taste. I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find someone without a fond memory that features custard. If you find that person, please send them my way, I’ll whisk them up a custard that’ll blow their socks off haha. Honestly the cake is worth making for the cream alone, me and Emma call it ‘crack cream’. That good.
Note on Finishing The Cake – This is a sweet cake, I’ve warned you. Saying that, it’s level of sweetness is matched in lightness. Light like a cloud, this cake. If you want a bit of tang with your sweet, a bit more complexity in taste, make up the plum compote from last weeks Plum Syrup Cake Pudding, and add it on top of the custard cream between each cake layer. Make double the recipe of the compote and you’ll have enough to fill each layer of this cake.
For the Cake
150g unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
300g plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
For the Custard Cream
250g full fat milk
50g soft light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
50g egg yolks – about 3 large egg yolks
25g unsalted butter – softened
280g double cream
Salt to taste – start with half a teaspoon
Preheat the oven to 180 / 160 fan. Grease and line two 18 cm/ 7 inch round cake tins.
Melt the honey and butter together in the microwave or in a small saucepan on the hob. Set aside to cool slightly. In another small bowl or jug combine the vanilla, water and eggs, set this aside.
Add the sugar, flour, baking powder and bicarb in a large bowl, whisk to get rid of any lumps. Pour in the egg mixture followed by the melted butter and cream. Whisk everything to a smooth liquid batter, your only whisking to combine, don’t beat it, you’ll get a pancake not a cake. Divide the batter evenly between the two tins. Bake for 40 – 45 mins or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs. Allow the cakes to cool completely before icing.
For the custard cream, you’re making a very firm set creme patissiere and then folding through whipped cream. Start with the creme pat. Add the milk, half the sugar (25g) and the vanilla extract to a small, heavy bottom saucepan, stir to combine and heat on medium heat.
While this is heating, add the remaining sugar, corn flour and egg yolks to a bowl, whisk that together. Place this bowl on top of a tea towel set on your work surface.
When the milk is just about to boil (steaming and bubbling at the sides) take it off the heat and, with one hand pour slowly into the egg yolk mixture, as you pour the hot milk whisk the yolks continuously with the other hand, this will stop the eggs from scrambling with the heat.
Once all the milk has been incorporated into the egg yolks, pour the liquid back into the saucepan. You’re now going to cook off the cornflour and thicken the cream. Set the heat on medium and whisk vigorously until it starts to thicken. This needs to be quite firm, so once the cream is very thick you want to keep whisking fast for about another minuet. Take off the heat, add the butter in small pieces into the saucepan and stir through the cream until fully incorporated. Get it into a clean bowl and covered with cling film making sure the cling film is touching the surface of the cream to prevent a skin forming, place the bowl in the fridge to cool completely.
For the assembly, cut the domes off the cakes and slice each levelled cake into 2 layers. Using the back of a metal spoon or a spatula, work the creme pat back and forth to loosen it so it can be folded through the whipped cream easily. Whip the double cream to stiff peaks and fold through the creme pat, add salt to taste. Pick the two most sturdy looking layers of cake, one will be the top, the other will be the base. Put the base layer on your serving plate or cake stand and spread over an even layer of the custard cream, leaving a little rim of un-creamed cake around the outer edge, place the next layer on top. Repeat for each cake layer, finally smoothing the remaining cream on top of the cake. Allow to chill for an hour before slicing to give it all a chance to set (that’s if you care about getting a very neat slice of cake, that’s what I wanted this time, but you could equally go at it with a knife straight away).
Have a good Sunday Joe, and Happy Birthday Mum for tomorrow boiii !! We love you to space and back. Caitlin X
Every now and then, often, if you’re lucky, there come moments in a day where life happens, where it expands and suspends at once. I really do wish these moments for everyone. Today, life happened like this – it was at the bakery. Mandal produced a small plate of perfectly baked, crispy, dappled and soft focaccia made out of dough offcuts she’d collected from the mornings work and baked off with a generous amount of salt oil. She sat it down on the bench in the middle of the kitchen with a coffee cup filled with oil and some magic chilli spice she’d fished out of the back of one of the shelves. Aron, who drives the baked goods from bakery to shop front, Mandal and me all stopped what we were doing, wordless, like choreography in a dance routine, to gather round the plate and eat the bread.
As soon as the first bit of bread was eaten, we all came to life, you know, things like words, eye contact, raised eyebrows came about. It was brilliant. One of the highlights in my day.
Like gold dust, my writing, and being alive in general depend on these moments. A vacuum pack bag would be a pretty shit place to live and would produce some equally shit prose. I’ll leave you with that haha.
Note on Plum Syrup Cake (df) (gf) – I’ve been working on a honey cake, this Plumb Syrup Cake Pudding was a happy accident in the process. This is a cake that really wants to be a dessert served with lots of cream and eaten with a spoon, but equally as good as a standalone cake with a damp and dense syrupy base topped with a tart plum compote that holds like jam but isn’t nearly as sickly sweet. This is perfect for a dessert that you need to transport or make ahead of time, and keeps really well for up to 5 days, covered airtight (not in a vacuum bag haha) in the fridge.
For the Cake
55g ground almonds
45g rice flour
50g granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
50ml recently boiled water
50ml vegetable or sunflower oil
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
For the Compote
150g plums – with the stone removed, cut into small chunks.
20g granulated sugar
25g lemon juice
Pre heat the oven to 190 / 170 fan. Grease and line an 18cm / 7inch round cake tin.
Measure all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix. In a jug or separate bowl, mix the boiled water, honey, oil, and vanilla extract. Add this to the bowl of dry ingredients, along with the 2 eggs and whisk to combine. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 30 – 33 mins, or until a toothpick comes out with only a few moist crumbs. Allow the cake to cool completely in the tin before turning it out and topping with the compote.
While the cake cools make the compote. In a small bowl, combine 100 grams of the plums with the cornflour, making sure all the fruit is coated, set aside. In a small saucepan add 50 grams of the plums, the sugar and lemon juice. Heat on medium for 2 -3 mins. The mixture will bubble, the fruit will break down to almost a liquid and the sugar will dissolve. Depending on how ripe your plums are, you might want to use a wooden spoon to mash the mixture a bit while it bubbles away. At this stage, add the cornflour plums to the saucepan, stirring on the heat for another minute, until the cornflour has cooked off. Pour into a clean bowl and allow the compote to cool before spreading it over the cake’s top.
I want to write to you about the icing. Tricky. Because, as I sit down to write this, I realise I left the recipe for the icing in a storage cupboard at my old flat. I moved out yesterday. The whole process was very simple, carried out with the kind of detached mind needed when packing up and filling bags and boxes with one years’ worth of living, ready to move the contents to another location, to unpack the old way of living, and do it again. Maybe I’ll do it differently this time.
There’s something poetic that could be written about leaving this crucial recipe for toffee icing tucked away in a notebook in the cupboard of a flat I spent my last year at university in, but, life moves on in a way that often leaves little space for poetic reflection. Thank God haha. I’m now planning when I can get on my bike to retrieve the recipe.
To understand why I want to write to you about this icing, at this time, it needs a proper description.
Hot toffee is poured over the cake still sitting in the tin, which sets firm and sticky. You might forget there’s any cake beneath the layer of glassy toffee, until you unveil the cake out the tin. As you peel the baking paper collar off the cake, the icing catches and holds on, with an almost elastic quality, before giving up, and falling over the cakes edge. It’s the most beautiful kind of giving up I’ve ever seen.
The toffee falls slow and graceful, with an understated purpose of direction. Magic. The thick layer of icing that was held in place by the cake tin has set enough so that when it’s unveiled, it bunches, slowly, slowly, slowly at the edges of the cakes top, until it just keeps falling, down the sides and sinking into the cakes body.
At first a little burst of excitement, (yeahhh… haha), peeling off the paper flood gates holding the slow-moving avalanche of toffee icing. And then, a wave of comfort as you watch the icing relax into the cake. What’s incredible about this transformation, is that like most transformations, you only notice it once it’s happened. The toffee moves too slowly, or maybe your too wrapped up in its shiny beauty to notice the change.
In every way, this cakes rhythm, the way it transforms, echoes the rhythm me and Emma have when we’re together and captures how our friendship has grown. A burst of hold-your-breath, lift-your-fists-in-the-air-like-you-do-not-care and scream out with excitement, followed by a slow, barely noticeable, sinking into the reassurance of a slow pace and a hug.
Enjoy the cake Joe!
Note on the Test Kitchen – This recipe hasn’t been developed or tested multiple times. So do with the recipe what you want. You can follow it exactly, and you’ll get a delicious cake. Or you can play around with it, and make your own delicious cake.
My Notes – The cake could do with a shorter bake, so would do well in a slightly bigger tin. I’d try subbing the water with milk, next time too, to give it a bit more dairy-ness (haha, you’ll see what I mean if you give the cake a go). I love the icing, but it’s not for everyone, it really is like toffee, I reckon adding 150g icing sugar would make it more of a buttercream consistency.
For the Cake
200g dates – chopped
250ml boiling water
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
85g butter – softened
80g dark brown sugar
2 medium eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
185g self raising flour
For the Icing
60g granulated sugar
150g condensed milk
Pre heat the oven to 180 / 160 fan. Grease and line with greaseproof paper an 18cm (7 inch) round cake tin.
In a bowl or jug combined the chopped dates, boiling water and bicarbonate of soda. Give everything a mix and set aside. In another bowl cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture has fluffed up around the sides of the bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding in a tablespoon of the flour with each egg addition.
Now add the rest of the flour, the salt and dates/water to the butter sugar mixture. Stir to combine, pour into the prepared tin and bake for 65 – 75 mins, or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs. Allow the cake to cool in the tin.
Once the cake has cooled, make the icing. Add all ingredients into a heavy bottom saucepan, and heat on medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Let the sauce simmer until it’s a rich golden colour – 4 mins, or when a little dropped into a glass of cold water forms a soft ball/blob. Remove from the heat and whisk until it just begins to thicken. Pour over the cake still in its tin and let it set in the fridge.
When the icing feels firm, remove the cake from the tin. The icing will fall slowly down the sides and into the cake. The cake is good for up to 5 days in an airtight container at room temp.
There are two things on my mind as I start writing this.
It’s beginning to feel like autumn in Glasgow, the air is smelling cold and I like it. Mum said she always feels a sense of new beginning in these times. Maybe because she spent most of her life in a job that starts again every September. My September isn’t a fresh start how I’m used to, there are no more classes to go to. Sick. Haha. Still, the cold mud smell of autumn has coated Glasgow’s floor with a fresh autumn carpet. It’s quite nice, soft on the feet and sparking a desire for comfort in the evenings, nutty tasting things and bedside lamps switched on.
I love bedside lamps for their glow. I love how they instantly create a pocket of light you can dip in and out of.
The other thing I have on my mind is how I can make these letters to you feel less like they need to be perfect.
Sometimes perfect is absolutely perfect. Very necessary, even. Like, if you are sharing a recipe for a cake with a lot of people. These times ‘perfect’ is a measure of precision. Sometimes though, perfection is something you are seeking, and it’s less about accuracy. These times ‘perfect’ is a measure of satisfaction. Most often, this is a search for the most above average level of satisfaction I know to exist.
So one finger up to that kind of perfect, here’s a new kind of post. I made this cake once, from the memory of drinking cognac at night, in candle light, the rustic kind of bedside light, with a feeling of new beginnings and a sweet, nutty taste on my tongue.
Note on the Test Kitchen – I love this cake, it’s a cake that wants teeth to sink into it, but the recipe hasn’t been developed or tested multiple times. So do with the recipe what you want. You can follow it exactly, and you’ll get a delicious cake. Or you can play around with it, and make your own delicious cake.
My Notes – The pastry is the way I want it, maybe my new go to pastry, I wouldn’t change a thing. The fruit needs more cognac if this is to be called a cognac cake and the frangipane needs to be spread thinner – use a larger tin. This will likely reduce the baking time. This cake should be eaten at least once warmed up with cream and does not keep well longer than 3 days.
For the Pastry
90g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
175g plain flour
30g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon cold water
For the Cake Filling
190g dried prunes and figs
150g butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
salt and lemon zest to taste
3 medium eggs
165g ground almonds
80g plain flour
In a large bowl rub the butter through the flour sugar and salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and cold water. Use a knife to begin clumping the mixture together, finishing off with your hands until you have a ball of pastry. Shape into a disk and put in the freezer for 15 mins.
Pre heat the oven to 180/160 fan. Grease an 8inch round cake tin, if you use a tart case make sure it is a deep one. Roll out the pastry to about the thickness of a pound coin. Use a dinner plate bigger than the tin to trace a circle out the pastry. Line this into the greased tin, the pastry will come up the sides of the tin a little.
Blind bake the pastry case for 15 minutes. To do this, cover the pastry with greaseproof paper, then pour baking beans, rice or lentils over the paper to weigh everything down. After 15 mins, remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans/rice or lentils and bake for another 5 mins. Remove from the oven but keep the oven on.
Roughly chop the dried fruit and put in a small saucepan with the cognac. Bring to a simmer then turn the heat off, cover, and allow to infuse while you make the frangipane. (Possibly the two most autumnal sentences I have ever written).
In a large bowl cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, salt and lemon zest until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, ground almonds and flour in one and mix until just combined. Tip in the cognac and fruit and mix through the frangipane before scraping into the pastry lined tin. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs.
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.
I’ve been thinking of this scene from the Matrix for the last two weeks. I’ve dreamt about it, thought about it in the shower, eating dinner, running. Had a lot of conversations about it too. With Emma having a coffee, Coco in a sauna and Máté on a park bench. The scene is lodged in my head.
Imagine it for a second. No longer than a second though, mum told me this was the film that gave you 5 years of nightmares when we were kids. So, for a second only, think of the bit where the main man with the sunglasses is on a roof, dodging bullets. Who, or what, is firing the bullets – your guess is as good as any, but they’re coming from every angle. Main Matrix man’s reflexes, and the bullets, are moving at lightning speed, in deep, breathy slow motion.
Someone ran out of bullets. Only one thing for it… to lob their afternoon snack at main Matrix man. The crunchiest, juiciest, just-plucked-from-the-tree, green apple. Cutting through the air, the green globe is spinning slowly on its axis headed to hit our main man dead centre in the forehead. He knows it. I know it. You know it. The apple, poor sod, doesn’t know it. The apple is just catapulting through the air, fast in a direction that it’s unsure of only so far as it hasn’t chosen it. But holy moly, this tasty morsel is moving with impressive conviction.
Time is slowed to an 8th of its normal pace; a thicker wave of bullets now, like a fleet of mini submarines (llolll what an effective use of a simile). But Matrix man is fixated on the green apple globe about to bonk him. A bullet impact would be far more painful, but nothing comes close to the fixation, fear and… bewilderment at something as out of place as a green apple flying through a battle field. With a sharp backwards back bend and a chin tuck, Matrix man dodges, only just clearing a path for the apple to drive through.
That’s where it ends, the scene that’s been playing in my head. I never see what happens to the apple. I only see its impressive globe greenness, and its shininess, and the sheer speed of it hurtling through the air in slow motion. The apple might be a bit baffled by the speed of the situation, only, its rapid movement forward doesn’t allow for it. The only way I can comprehend the apple’s feeling is the way the scene is distilled, neatly, but disorientingly, in mega pixel slow motion (lol what’s that?).
I have to confess, I’ve never watched the Matrix. And I’ve come to find, that scene doesn’t exist. I realise it would’ve been impressive to have a memory of a scene in mind from a film I’d never watched, but I was pretty convinced. Ever since I handed in my dissertation and finished my degree, there popped up that green apple Matrix scene. I’ve been describing it to everyone. Emma told me it made her think of Magritte’s The Son Of Man and it got me and Máté googling ‘what does you are the apple of my eye mean?’
When I realise half way through narrating this scene that the listener has watched the Matrix, I cut to the chase, tell them that I feel like that green apple. A bit lost in air and space, no ground at my feet, moving slow, a bit adrift, but hurtling so surly in a direction that I can’t comprehend, through a world that’s too quick for its own good.
Thyme gives this cake a lemony savoriness that’s initially surprising, and then addictive. It creeps up on you, and then demands to be craved. Cream cheese gives a crumb that’s soft and buttery, that holds integrity. Sugared chunks of green apple add layers of sweet and sour in equal measure that sing a lil bit when hit against the thymey cakey base(y – haha). Like I said, arresting, and then, it melts together in comforting, thrilling ways.
A Note On Thyme. You need fresh thyme leaves for this cake, so you’ll need to hand pluck them from the stalks. Yup, it takes time, but it makes a good thing in the end. I’m heavy handed with my spices and herbs, I’m not one for their subtle use. If you prefer a less punchy herb or spice experience, go for 1 and a half teaspoons.
160g green apple, aprox. 2 small applespeeled cored and cubed
120g unsalted butter, softened
170g caster sugar, plus a tablespoon extra to finish the cake before the oven
Zest of an orange
2 large eggs
100g cream cheese
130g plain flour
40g ground almonds
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pre heat the oven to 180 / 160 fan oven. Grease and line a 22cm / 8inch round cake tin.
Peel, core and cube the apples. Don’t worry too much about getting exactly 160g. Just keep in mind, if you go a lot over that weight, the cake will take longer to bake, resulting in a tough cake texture. Strip the thyme leaves off the stalks and give the leaves a rough chop. Set both aside while you make the cake batter.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar and orange zest until fluffed up, about 1 min. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until fully incorporated between each addition.
To the bowl, add the thyme leaves, cream cheese, flour, ground almonds and baking powder. Give everything a gentle mix until just incorporated, being careful not to overmix the batter. You should end up with a soft but thick-ish batter. Smooth it out into the cake tin, scatter over the cubed apple and the tablespoon of sugar.
Bake for 50-55 mins, until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean but with a few moist crumbs still attached. The cake will keep covered for 4 days, but this one is best eaten on the day or the day after.
Long-time, no cake. Writing to you about cake, that is. Not saying anything about my consumption of cake. I eat a lot of the stuff.
I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by life of late. Lol, what a start.
There’s something about the beginnings of spring that has this effect I’ve noticed. The moment that cold sun comes out to play and everyone suddenly carries tote bags instead of rucksacks. Makes people feel carefree I think – Just gives me a sore shoulder.
My kitchen window looks over the carpark of a big car sales warehouse. It’s where the people that work at the warehouse like to go, to feel like they aren’t at work. A couple weeks back, when it was cold and snowing, I saw a man, I’d say late 40’s, in his car sales uniform, stretch out his arms and run in figures of 8 around the carpark, pretending to be an aeroplane. That same week, I saw two guys, younger this time, in their uniforms, play a game of one a side football – haha not a thing – with a snowball for a football. It was brilliant.
It was brilliant because they were playing, despite the snow, the cold and the dark. In sun, everyone is out, everyone plays all the time. In sun, the world is oversaturated with moments like the man pretending to be an aeroplane. I find it sets me a bit adrift. It’s like there are too many special moments for me to catch. Like I can’t keep up.
Maybe this makes me sound bloody miserable. I hope not. As it goes, I don’t think I have a lot of misery in me. I really love life, I find a lot of joy in it. But when big change is happening, at first, I feel a bit disconnected from the world. A bit overwhelmed by it. Honestly, a bit frightened of it. Frightened of its oversaturated new-ness. I think maybe you feel this sometimes too?
When this happens, I turn to what I know I can make good – butter, flour, sugar and eggs. I start with a thing I want to make. Next, I decide on the texture I want the thing to have. Then I look at every book I can get my hands on with a recipe for the thing. I compare the recipes, work out what each ingredient does. After that, I bake. And bake again, and then again. Until I have what I’m after. Some people would call this an obsession. Lol that’s exactly what it is, but when I’ve cracked it, when I’ve worked it out, it’s a feeling like none other. I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed by life, because I’ve cracked my perfect muffin and I can give it to people I love.
I believe, Joe, that you’d call this process a version of ‘retaining my soul’. That’s exactly what it is.
I wanted a not too sweet, buttery muffin with a structural integrity that borders on denseness but doesn’t feel like you’re eating a brick. Back up with them dry, dense muffins that would struggle to bounce if you dropped it on a trampoline. Haha. There’s a large quantity of blueberries too, and for a bit of sweet somethin, a thick and crumbly shortbread topping.
Bake these muffins and retain your soul, Joe. You have my fave soul, a soul in a millimuffin.
This will either make 8 large muffins or 14 regular sized muffins. If you only have one 6 or 12-hole muffin tray, like me, you can reserve the leftover batter in the fridge and bake them once your first batch is out.
For the Shortbread Crumble Topping
40g butter – cubed and a little cold
60g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the Muffin Batter
340g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
130g caster sugar
2 medium eggs – 100g, if you want to weigh it
250g sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 scant tablespoons milk
Pre-heat the oven to 180 / 160 fan. Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases, or with butter and strips of greaseproof paper.
Make the shortbread topping by rubbing all the ingredients together between your fingertips. The mixture will come together in clumps. Once done put in the fridge or freezer while you make the muffin batter.
Melt the butter in the microwave and set aside to cool.
Squash about a third of the blueberries with the back of a folk, you don’t want to turn them into a pulp, just burst them a bit. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and sugar.
In another bowl, combine the eggs, sour cream, vanilla extract, milk and melted butter.
Add the wet mix to the dry, followed the by the squashed and not squashed blueberries. Fold to combine, careful not to overmix – about 15 folds of a spatula will do it. There might be a few small dry patches of flour, that’s ok! Better that than an overworked batter.
Distribute the batter between the muffin tins and top each with shortbread crumble until all used up. Bake for 24 mins (or 29 mins if making 8 large muffins), or until very lightly golden and a knife inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out with a few moist crumbs.