Let Them Eat Cake!
Let them eat cake! Queen Marie Antoinette supposedly made this statement on learning that the starving peasants had no bread to eat during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband, Louis XVI. Whether or not she actually said this is open to debate but clearly a lover of cake, she considered it a good substitute for bread.
Cakes have been long been part of what we eat and the word ‘cake’ can be traced back to the 13th century, it is a derivation of ‘kaka’, an old Norse word. The very first cakes were much different from what we know today – resembling course bread, sweetened with honey and hard on both sides from being turned over. They were made by fashioning the mixture into round balls and baking on hearthstones or in shallow pans and the cakes were sometimes used in religious ceremonies – the shape symbolising the cyclical nature of life, generally the sun and the moon. Medieval European bakers made foods (that we later would consider to be cakes) that could last for many months, often baked with fruit and ginger (gingerbreads) and Romans added eggs and butter to basic bread dough to give a consistency that we would recognise as cake-like.
Antonin Careme (1784 – 1833) is considered by many to be THE historic chef of the modern cake world and I treasure my copy of Cooking for Kings – The Life of The First Celebrity Chef (by Ian Kelly) which draws on Antonin’s rich memoirs and his meteoric rise from orphan of the French Revolution to international celebrity – cooking for the likes of Napoleon and George IV, his extravagance with ingredients ensured that his desserts, pastries and sugar creations became legendry.
The first ‘cakes’ were baked in Europe in the mid-17th century and when refined white flour became available in the middle of the 19th century, cakes makers honed their skills and cakes became more of the delicious concoctions that are now familiar to us. Today we celebrate special occasions – birthdays, christenings, weddings etc with cakes. This originates from olden times when sugar, spices, nuts and dried fruit were expensive and it was an honour to be honoured with a cake.
I love cake and I love making it. It gives me enormous pleasure to fill the kitchen with the heavenly smells of warm baking and I find it very therapeutic. Most of us love a slice of something ‘naughty but nice’ when we feel like indulging and in honour of the wonderful world of cakes and for all your brilliant bakers out there, here are the recipes for my favourite top three cakes. Please do comment and add your own, I’m sure you’ve all got a treasured recipe that granny handed down…
Enjoy and happy baking!
Caribbean Fruit Cake
To say that I love this cake would be an understatement. You can make your own version with different fruits and booze (see ‘note’ below). I always have this cake somewhere in the pantry in an airtight tin, for unexpected guests – just make sure their not driving! I love this cake so much that I chose the recipe for my wedding cake many moons ago. Because of the rum content the cake couldn’t be iced until a couple of days before (or the icing would have turned yellow). It was three tiers and very grand, complete with a plastic bride and groom on top. The cake was seriously heavy (all that fruit and booze!) and to the horror of all the guests, it teetered over as my newly wedded husband and I walked into the reception. All three tiers headed south and broke up! Needless to say it was an omen… the marriage broke up a few years later!
However, don’t let that put you off!
For the fruit:
- 1 3/4 cups whole raw almonds, coarsely chopped (optional)
- 1 3/4 cups dried or glace cherries, coarsely chopped
- 1 3/4 cups prunes, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/4 cups currants
- 1 1/2 cups large raisins, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/2 cups dark rum
- 1 1/2 cups port
- 3/4 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
For the cake:
- 3 cups plain flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 cups of unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 1/4 cups light brown sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup treacle
- Combine all the fruit in an airtight container and cover with rum and port. Stir occasionally in a cool, dry place for at least a week.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F. Grease and line 2 cake tins, 9-by-5-inch and set aside.
- Sift flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg in a large bowl.
- Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy then add eggs one at a time, letting each mix in fully before adding the next. Add vanilla.
- Carefully add flour mixture, pre-soaked fruit and nuts along with any unabsorbed liquid, and treacle then mix until just combined. Divide mixture evenly between the prepared tins.
- Bake for approx 2 hours until firm to touch and coming away from the sides of the tin.
- Cool for 30 minutes in the tins then turn the cakes out onto a rack, and brush each with dark rum
This cake will keep for a long time and improves with age. If I am keeping it, I periodically add more rum by making small holes with a fork and pouring rum over the surface. Store wrapped in greaseproof paper in an airtight tin, in a cool place. I always have an airtight plastic box of dried fruits soaking in rum or brandy and use for this cake and many others – just top the fruit up when you take some out and pour more booze in. You can use tropical fruits – mango, pineapple, pawpaw – it’s endless, there are so many varieties of dried fruit in the supermarkets these days. Dried cranberries are delicious too. Make your own version! Bacardi rum or a white rum is good with tropical fruits. Don’t wait for a special occasion to make this cake – enjoy now!
My mum used to make this when we were kids and I never realised how easy it was until I got the recipe for myself. I just remember watching magic happen in the saucepan as the dates turned sticky and gooey and the delicious smell as the cake cooked and the oats toasted. It’s also known as date slice – if anyone knows why it’s called ‘Matrimonial Cake’ please let me know!
I am using ‘cups’ here as measure as I find it quick and easy – just a standard teacup is fine.
Topping & base:
1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 cups porridge oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 lb dates (pitted chopped), Rind of 1 orange – grated
1 cup water
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Date Filling: Add orange rind to dates and cook the dates in the water with orange rind and sugar over a moderate heat until thickened and smooth. Remove from the heat and add orange and lemon juice and mix well. Cool.
Topping: Sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Add butter and rub in until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add sugar and oats and mix well. Spread half of the mixture in a greased oven dish and press in smoothly. Evenly cover with cooled date mixture then cover with the remaining crumb mix.
Bake for 30 – 35 minutes in a medium heat oven (180C/350F/Gas 4) until light brown on top. While still hot, cut into squares, in the dish and allow to cool.
Note: This will keep for several days in an airtight tin and possibly freeze – I’ve never managed to keep any long enough to freeze… we eat it as it cools, it’s delicious!
Strawberry Cream Sponge Cake
The first recipe I learnt at school, a traditional all-in-one sponge cake! Our domestic science teacher (as it was in those days) was a dragon and simply terrified me. Woe betides anyone whose sponge sank or didn’t instantly spring back at the touch of her leathered old finger. To this day, I thank her – she rammed basic cooking methods into me and little did I know that my fear became a love and forged the way for my future career. This sponge is layered with strawberries and cream – can you think of anything nicer? I’ve always found this recipe fool-proof; it’s so easy to mix all the ingredients in one bowl…
225g/8oz butter (softened)
225g/80z caster sugar
225g/8oz SR Flour
2tsp baking powder
4 free-range eggs
A good quality strawberry jam, whipped cream and fresh strawberries
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
Grease and line 2 x 20cm/8 inch sandwich tins
Break the eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar, flour, baking powder and butter and mix together until all combined (using an electric hand mixer or wooden spoon).
Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for 25 minutes. The cakes are done when they are golden-brown and coming away from the edge of the tins, they should be springy to the touch.
Turn on to a rack and cool. Assemble by layering with jam and cream and add strawberries to the top.
Note: The cake in this picture uses twice the recipe i.e. four cakes.
*The Strawberry Cake photos are by chef and weight loss guru, Justine Forrest – author of Justine’s Journey, by kind permission of ThornBerry Publishing.