A plain cook: on cake

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In her regular series, award-winning blogger and best-selling author Laura Hutton explores simple ingredients that can make the daily necessities a delicious pleasure. This month: cake

Words & images: Laura Hutton

I have been baking a lot of cakes. In fact, I am trying to remember when July was not a blur of continual cake baking. I think it was before I had children, and certainly before I lived in Britain.

In case you have become numb to this due to a lifetime of exposure, tea on the lawn with cake is a summer ritual round these parts.

Never mind that summer here is generally not conducive to sitting on grass and eating, because the lawn is probably rain-soaked and/or it is warmer indoors. One must have tea al fresco in summer, and there must be cake. We can all worry about being bikini-ready next month.

I noticed this cake thing with my first school fete, many years ago. As a nation, Britain is hard-wired to make cakes in summer.

Trays of cupcakes
Naturally, when school fair duties were handed out, I was drafted for the cake table and the next 10 years or so were spent dutifully producing trays of cupcakes every July—and hoping, for that one afternoon, it would not chuck with rain.

It was satisfying work, actually. Say what you like about cupcakes, they are fun to make and very useful at a sale because no slicing or plates need be involved. And I still have a pared-down version of my decorating basket high up in a cupboard, out of sentimentality. I’m pretty sure the edible silver powder and sugar flowers will last until I have grandchildren.

Just when I thought it was all over, I decided to open my garden for the NGS (National Gardens Scheme). So in addition to spending the spring months fretting over everything that did not survive the winter on London clay and replanting it all, there is a cake table to plan. It would be dishonest to say that I do not enjoy this. Life in France taught me to cook; life in Britain taught me to garden—this event is the perfect bringing together of it all.

Native expectations
It also highlighted native expectations around what should be on a cake table in July, in Britain. My first year, I had it all planned in my head—and on a scrap of paper, but this version never saw the light of day. It consisted of tarts and pies, layer cakes and lemon bars, and all manner of things that I did not see at any other NGS open garden tea and cake sale. I was imagining a Franco-American version of afternoon tea and, decidedly, it was all wrong.

Based on my observations, and Twitter conversations with other NGS garden owners in various parts of the country, there are definite staples of the summertime tea and cake table, and they are thus: lemon drizzle, ginger cake, fruit loaf or some kind of plain cake with dried fruits, walnut coffee cake, chocolate cakes, obviously, because chocolate always sells, and apple cake goes down well too.

But the queen of all cakes, for a celebratory summertime tea, is the victoria sandwich. For this, my 20cm continental cake tin, which has stood me in good cake stead for years, would not do. It was a learning process. I now own several sandwich tins, for batch baking.

A pound cake
I have also learned that the cake for victoria sandwich is not a génoise (no fat), it is a ‘sponge’ batter. This means butter, thankfully, in equal proportion to the eggs, flour and sugar. Where I come from that is a pound cake, but that is not where I am now, so sponge it is.

The compromise, which sells well, is to offer what is expected with a bit of variation. So alongside the above-mentioned staples, I make a whole load of buttery sponge cakes and layer them up. First is almond-coconut: to one basic recipe (4 eggs, 2 tins), I add a splash of almond extract and 75g desiccated coconut, then ice it with an almond-scented frosting and sprinkle the top with more desiccated coconut.

The next pair become a raspberry-lemon thing: 2 cakes get a middle layer of lemon curd and fresh raspberries, topped off with a very generous slathering of chantilly cream and more fresh raspberries.

A travesty of a victoria sponge
Finally, assembly of what I now know is a travesty of a victoria sponge: a thick layer of home-made strawberry compote between 2 sponges, with generous swirls of vanilla-scented Chantilly covering the top and a dainty mound of sliced fresh strawberries in the middle, finished off with a mint sprig. It looked very English to me.

But all hopes of authenticity were dashed when my ‘helper’ informed me, as I sold a slice of ‘victoria sandwich’, that my version was not the real deal. A genuine victoria sandwich is nothing more than two sponge cakes, sandwiched together with strawberry jam, finished with a dusting of caster sugar. The first recipe is in the original Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

Even a cake table is all about managing expectations. For the record, raspberry-lemon is always the best-seller.

To make a basic sponge
To make a basic sponge for 2 sandwich tins, take 4 eggs and weigh them in their shells. Measure out the egg weight in self-raising flour, caster sugar and room-temperature butter—a pinch of salt for the flour is a good thing.

Line the bottom of the cake tins with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180C. Using a mixer, cream together the sugar and butter until fluffy and pale yellow colored; this can take at least 10 mins—there’s no harm in lots of whisking at this stage. It will make the sponge very light—then add in the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition. If you’re using almond or vanilla extract, as I did in the above, add this with the eggs.

With a spatula or large spoon, gently fold in the flour in 2-3 batches, until no traces of flour remain. If adding any flavouring bits, like coconut or lemon zest, fold this in with the flour. Divide the mixture between the 2 tins. If you want perfection, set the tins on a scale and weigh out the batter as you fill each, to be sure each pan gets the same weight. Smooth the tops and bake until just browned around the edges and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean—around 20-30 mins.

Turn out and let the cakes cool. For a really moist sponge, soak with a simple sugar syrup just before assembling the cake. A syrup is made by dissolving equal parts sugar and boiling water (for example, 50g sugar in 50ml water). Let the syrup cool slightly, poke a few holes in the sponge so it soaks through and then brush over the syrup; 2-3 times is good.