This is National Cake week – founded in 2011 as a way of celebrating this delicacy and also using it as a means of bringing people together.
On most Saturday mornings I visit St George’s Market in Belfast and my first port of call is the Javaman Coffee stand to pick up a quick espresso. John Paul, who runs it, and I always have a bit of a chat about what’s happening in the hospitality industry and putting the world to rights.
Last week’s topic of conversation was about how many coffee shops sell quite mediocre coffee served alongside pre-made, and often dry, cakes and scones. Often with the coffee it’s a case of style over substance – the coffee brought out in glass jugs to pour into the cup or fancy patterns on the froth. The best cafes are the ones that concentrate on the actual art of making the coffee while offering a smaller range of freshly made scones and cake.
There’s nothing worse than a stale scone that nearly explodes with dryness when you cut into it. Cake is the same – it’s so lovely when you get a freshly made lemon drizzle or chocolate cake. You don’t need a pastry cast of thousands – two well made cakes are plenty. Icing on a cake shouldn’t dominate the actual baked item.
I loathe cupcakes because most have a layer of buttercream that’s twice the size of the actual bun. The great American chef Julia Child said “When you have a few cake formulas and filling ideas in your repertoire, you will find that it’s pretty much an assembly job – you can mix and match a different way every time”. She was right. One cake you need to have the recipe for is a good chocolate cake. My version uses dried figs that have been cooked in red wine with orange and spices. The figs keep the cake moist and the liquor you cook them in is the base for a chocolate sauce to pour on top. It’s rich, decadent and sultry – just as a good chocolate cake should be.
My other cake also uses dried fruits – apricots cooked in Earl Grey tea and lemon and pureed form the base of this moist confection. The cake is drizzled with a lemon syrup and served with a lemon mascarpone cream. It’s light and citrusy.
Both cakes should take pride of place in the middle of a table, tea or coffee on the go to be enjoyed with friends and family.
National baking guru Mary Berry says: “I think to eat cake is very good for us,
but it’s the size of the slice and how often you have it”. Well it’s all relative isn’t it?
“The Great British Bake Off” show is in full swing at the moment. While it’s entertaining it’s all a bit aspirational. You don’t need smoke, mirrors and sparklers to make a good cake. You need good ingredients, something that a wee bit of care has been put into, but most importantly laughter and conviviality while you eat it.