A plain walnut cake

When we came back from our trip to France two weeks ago, along with the copper kugelhopf tins, bottles of olive oil and plaits of pink garlic, I stuffed into my luggage a plastic bag filled with walnuts – a gift from the man at the brocante from whom I’d bought the cake tins. 

They’ve been sitting in a bowl in the kitchen ever since, a nutcracker poised hopefully on top. I’ve made the odd crack-and-grab raid, snatching one or two as I walk past, or nibbled a few after dinner with some cheese. But I have been longing to make a cake. Not a classic coffee and walnut cake – though I love that – but a very simple thing. I wanted a low, plain cake, one that would allow the creamy lusciousness of the fresh walnuts to shine – at least enough to make the shelling of them worth it.

So on Saturday, I sat in my kitchen, rhythmically shelling 500g or so of walnuts, sending shards of shell onto high shelves and skittering across the floor, much to the excitement of the cat. As I cracked, and picked and extracted the meat from the nuts, I watched the news from Paris on the television. 

I have loved France, the fantasy of it and the complicated reality of it, ever since I first visited Paris with my school when I was 10. I sit here typing and deleting, typing and deleting, finding it impossible to convey my deep affection for a country which has helped form me almost as much as the one that birthed me. What Ian McEwen had to say here expresses it. And this much-shared segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO… well, I was just cheering my head off at this.

‘If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche.’ 

For the cake:

I took my inspiration from this recipe from the very useful site of the French food magazine Marmiton. I love it. I hope you do too. I tried serving it in several ways. With poached quince and quince ice cream after Sunday lunch, with cream and then with thick Turkish yoghurt, but really it’s best with nothing at all, just by itself, with perhaps a glass of sweet wine or rum to sip along with it.

100g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
160g shelled walnuts, from about 500g whole nuts if you’re shelling them yourself
140g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
40g plain flour
½ tsp flaky sea salt
3 eggs
2 tbsps rum

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4.Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin. Line the base with parchment and butter the parchment.

Reserve 8-10 perfect walnut halves to finish the cake – if you like, leave them off if you think this is just far too much adornment. Put the rest of the walnuts into a food processor and pulse until most of the mixture is quite fine (you still want a few small chunks in it). Tip a third of the sugar into the processor and pulse once to blend. It should have the texture of slightly gritty sand. Of course, you can chop the nuts finely on a chopping board with a large knife if you like.

Beat together the butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the walnut mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the rum then gently fold in the flour and salt until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the walnut halves on top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. It should be lightly golden on the surface but don’t overbake it – you want it to remain soft in the middle. 

Place the tin on a rack and leave the cake to cool completely before removing it. It keeps quite well for a few days in an airtight container.

Welcome to the Elevenses Revival Society


I love the idea of elevenses. I feel a tremble of sadness that it’s now virtually extinct, but then I still write with a fountain pen and keep a dodo as a pet.

The first thing on my To Do list this week was to revive elevenses. The second thing was to have, tantalisingly on Monday at 11am, the first meeting about the food events for next year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival

What better reason to bring on the cake than a morning spent talking about books and food, two of my favourite things, with two of my favourite women? Julia, Chattanooga’s finest daughter, is one of my dearest friends and absolutely the sort of person you’d want by your side at the barricades. If your speaker were to arrive late, drunk and naked, she wouldn’t bat an eye. And Liz founded the festival five years ago on a hunch and a credit card. She’s a force of nature whose modesty is matched only by boundless sense of what’s possible. If anyone deserves cake it’s these two. I’m making them founder members and trustees of my Elevenses Revival Society, an arduous responsibility but I think they’re up to it.

Cherry, chocolate and orange bundt

Inaugural meeting of the Elevenses Revival Society.

I used dried morello cherries in this cake because I love them and I throw them into as many things I possibly can, from breakfast porridge to salads and cakes. If you don’t have them or don’t like them, cranberries, raisins or sultanas would also be good. You could substitute brandy or sherry for the kirsch, too.

When I posted a picture of this on instagram, a lot of people asked me about the plate. It’s Chinoiserie Green, a design that Jasper Conran did for Wedgwood a few years ago. It was a birthday present from my best friend Victoria and remains a great favourite of mine.

For the cake:
100g dried cherries 
About 150ml kirsch, just enough to cover the cherries in a small pan
130g cocoa powder
250g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
220g unsalted butter, softened
350g caster sugar
3 large eggs
160ml whole milk, you may need a little more
125ml sour cream
Finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

For the icing:
80g dark chocolate, about 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
125ml double cream
30g butter
2 tbsps kirsch, reserved from soaking the cherries

Put the cherries into a small saucepan and pour on just enough kirsch to cover. Bring to a very gentle simmer, then simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and let the cherries fatten and cool completely.  You can leave them for several hours if you like. Drain the cherries, reserving the liquid. Gently pat them dry with kitchen paper.

Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C Fan/Gas 3. Grease a 2 litre Bundt tin with butter, sprinkle with flour, place in a plastic bag and shake shake shake until every part of the tin is lightly coated with the flour. Tap off any excess. Alternatively brush with Wilton Cake Release – this stuff is great for intricately shaped Bundt pans.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt until very well combined and light, with no lumps. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of the mixture on a plate and toss the cherries in it lightly to coat.

In a separate bowl or a jug, whisk together the milk, sour cream and 1 tbsp of the reserved kirsch.

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (of course you can do this in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the orange zest.

With the mixer on very low, beat in a third of the flour then half the milk mixture, then repeat, ending with flour – be careful not to overprocess the mixture or the cake will be tough. If the mixture seems a little stiff, add a splash or two of milk until it has a consistency which drops easily from a wooden spoon. Fold in the cherries with a spatula.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and smooth the top with a palette knife or the back of a spoon – it shouldn’t come more than two thirds of the way up the tin. Bake for 65-70 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the tin. Remove the cake from the tin then place on a cooling rack lined with a sheet of baking parchment. Cool completely.

When the cake is completely cold, make the icing. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate and leave to stand for a couple of minutes. Tip the butter and 2 tbsps of the remaining reserved kirsch (just swig any that’s leftover – it’s delicious) into the bowl and mix until smooth. Leave for a couple of minutes so that it thickens slightly. Pour over the cake and let the icing set before serving in thick slices, ideally at 11am.

Something for the train

The English seaside. Not for the faint hearted. 

You know those conversations. You’ve had them. Sitting around in the pub with your mates and someone suggests you club together to buy a barge, or take up Morris dancing, or go part shares in a racehorse. It’s going to be brilliant. And then it’s tomorrow and no one ever mentions the barge, or the jingle bells or the horse ever again.

Only this time, Nick was at the table and he’s the most efficient person on the planet. When he suggested a trip to Blackpool, his hometown, to see the Illuminations and we said yes, the tickets were booked and the day planned before the condensation had even dried on those craft ale glasses. 

On Friday we took the 8.30am train from Euston. I’d packed a bacon and egg pie and an iced thermos of Bloody Marys. The six of us were in a high old state of excitement and I felt a little sorry for the people surrounding us, clearly on their way to work, hoping to get a few hours on their laptop to catch up with their emails or play games or whatever. We were definitely the people you didn’t want in your carriage. We’d made a good inroad into pie and bloodies and laughing when Kirstin said ‘Is it even 9 0’clock yet?’. It wasn’t. I was worried we’d peaked too early.

Pie on a train.

Pie at midnight – last minute preparations for our train breakfast.

Train picnic: the Eccles cake v Chorley cake taste off, with some Lancashire cheese, naturally.

We hadn’t. We had a blissful day. This is what happened:
  • Our bus got stuck in the funeral cortege of the man who allegedly kept the Krays out of Blackpool. Inside the vintage Austin hearse, his trilby sat on top of his coffin along with a huge cross of white chrysanths. On the side of the coffin, in foot-high letters, more white chrysanths spelled out ‘MIXIE’.
  • A delicious fish and chip lunch at Seniors (National Fish and Chip Award winner, 2012). I highly recommend it. The fish is super fresh, the batter light, the chips a proper shade (not the pale, sad things which’ve barely flirted with the fryer you get in the South), and the staff are charming.
    Seniors for lunch. Cod, chips, gravy, mushy peas and tea. 
    Note the correct colour of the chips.

    • I tried (very hard) and failed to win a pony key ring on the penny falls slot machine.
    • I got far too goosebumpy at the sight of elderly couples waltzing around the Tower Ballroom in their best shoes, so nimbly and with so much mutual devotion in their eyes, as the Wurlitzer played Sunny Side of the Street.
    • We whizzed up to the top of the Tower. I loved the views over the frigid North Sea and the rows of colourful Blackpool terraces. Nothing would induce me to step foot on the clear glass floor and look 380ft below to My Certain Death.
    Nothing would have got me onto the glass floor.
    • We skipped across the Comedy Carpet, Gordon Young’s tribute to English variety. A pleasing number of terrible food-based gags.
    • We saw a murmuration of starlings swirling above our heads as we walked along the wide, wooden pier in the grey, growing dusk.
    The Pier
    • We rattled up and down the sea front on the tram, any city cynicism evaporating as the lights twinkled all around us.
    A tram, decked out with lights and dressed as an ocean liner.

    • We walked along the last part, enjoying the tableaux, listening to grandparents tell their grandchildren about the light shows they remembered from their own childhoods, reciting nursery rhymes, holding on tightly to tiny gloved hands.
    Alice in Wonderland.
    • Wine and cheese at Nick’s mum’s. We all agreed she looks like Helen Mirren.

    What didn’t happen…
    I didn’t have candy floss, whelks, a hot dog or my fortune told by Madame Petulengro. I also still want that pony key ring from the penny falls. For these reasons I must go back.


    Breakfast pie
    Breakfast pie – Note the whole eggs.

    My great auntie Louie was an excellent baker and made delicious bacon and egg pies. Hers most definitely did not have pancetta in them, but I was trying to use up some things from the fridge and I had a nice chunk hogging a corner of the deli drawer. You can use just bacon if you like – just cook a bit of it to render out the fat to fry the onions in, and leave the rest raw to bake in the pie.


    SERVES 6-8 

    For the pastry 
    400g plain flour, plus more for flouring the surface and rolling pin
    ¾ tsp fine sea salt
    100g lard, chilled and cut into cubes
    100g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
    2 eggs, lightly beaten
    2-3 tbsps iced water

    For the filling
    20g butter
    80-100g pancetta, cut into small cubes
    1 onion, diced
    Bay leaf
    5-6 new potatoes, cooked and thickly sliced
    4 slices streaky bacon, unsmoked or smoked, whichever you prefer, rind cut off and cut into small pieces
    4 spring onions, white and pale green part only, finely sliced
    6 eggs, plus 1 more for glazing and filling
    80ml double cream
    2 tbsps finely chopped parsley
    1 tbsp finely chopped sage leaves
    A few gratings of nutmeg
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper

    To finish
    A couple of pinches of flaky sea salt
    1 tbsp finely chopped sage leaves

    To serve
    HP sauce, if you like

    First make the pastry. Whisk together the flour and salt in a bowl then rub in the lard and butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs – you still want some lumps of fat in the dough to ensure a nice, flaky pastry. Make a well in the middle and add the eggs a little at a time, using a knife to cut them into the mixture. Add just enough water to bring it together into a dough, kneading very lightly with your hands to bring it together into a smooth disc. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least an hour. You can make this a day or so before you want to make the pie if you like. Of course, you can make this in a food processor but be very careful not to over process it – use the pulse button and only work it until it just comes together.

    Lightly flour a clean surface and a rolling pin. Cut the dough in half and roll one piece out into a circle of approximately 30cm diameter. Use the pastry to line a 23cm loose-bottomed flan tin, pressing it gently into the corners, then trim and crimp the edges. Put it back into the fridge to chill. Roll the second half of the pastry out and trim into a 23cm circle (use a plate or the base of a flan tin as a template); place on a baking sheet and put it in the fridge. Chill the lined flan tin and the top for at least 30 minutes.

    While the pastry is chilling, prepare the filling. Warm the butter gently over a medium heat and when it stops foaming, add the pancetta. Cook until it’s rendered some of its fat and turns lightly golden. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. Tip the onions into the pan with a pinch of salt and a bay leaf and reduce the temperature to medium low. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Put the potatoes into the pan along with the reserved pancetta. Turn everything over for a couple of minutes then remove from the heat and discard the bay leaf. Cool.

    Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4. Place the lined flan tin on a baking sheet. Prick the base and sides with a fork. Line the tin with crumpled baking parchment and fill with baking beans and/or uncooked rice or pulses. Bake for 18 minutes. Remove the parchment and baking beans. Return the flan tin to the oven and bake for 7-10 minutes until the base is completely dried out and beginning to turn golden.

    Increase the oven temperature to 200°C/180°C Fan/Gas 6.

    Spoon half of the pancetta, onion and potato mixture into the bottom of the pie. Scatter on the bacon and spring onions, then spoon the remaining pancetta mixture over the top. Using the back of a spoon, make six evenly-spaced hollows around the edge of the pie. Crack a raw egg into each of the hollows.

    In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining egg with the cream. Tip a couple of tablespoons of this mixture into a small bowl and reserve it to glaze the pie. Stir the sage, parsley and nutmeg into the remaining mixture and season well with salt and pepper. Pour over the top of the pie filling and give the tin a little shake to distribute it evenly. Brush the edge of the pie with some of the egg and cream wash. Carefully place on the remaining disc of pastry. It should be a good fit, with no overhanging pastry. Press it down firmly with your thumb or a fork to seal. Brush the top of the pie with the egg wash then sprinkle on the chopped sage and a little flaky sea salt. Cut three short slits in the middle of the pie to allow the steam to escape. Return the pie to the oven and cook for 30-35 minutes, until the pie is golden brown all over. Serve warm or cold, with brown sauce if you like.

    From the Comedy Carpet, some food-based gags…

     
     
     
     
     

    An apple cake, to eat warm or cold


    You know about my surfeit of apples. This is one of the other ways I’ve been using them up, with a recipe that wobbles tenderly between pudding and cake, something to be eaten warm at the end of an autumn dinner or cold with a cup of something, either at tea time or better yet, at breakfast like a sybaritic bircher muesli.


    When the cake comes out of the oven its quite soft. That’s the moment to serve it with some good vanilla ice cream or clotted cream. As it cools, it firms up a little and then it’s good with thick cream or yoghurt (or simply on its own, if it’s Lent or something).


    When I was thinking about this recipe, I had in my mind a simple apple cake, with chunks of apple and just enough sweet cake mixture to hold them together. This I based on Marie-Hélène’s Apple Cake from Dorrie Greenspan’s Around My French Table (if you have even the tiniest of a glimmer of a Francophile in you, you should have this book. It’s a treasure), adding a bit of cardamom because I love it with apples, and a slosh of applesauce for texture and because I have jars and jars of it. Then I thought scattering on a streusel topping would be good, partly because I just like the word streusel and also because adding a little walnut crunch to the sweetness is always a good thing.


     Warm, it’s more like a pudding, cold it’s more like a cake.

    For the cake:
    140g plain flour

    1 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp ground cardamom
    ½ tsp salt
    4 apples*
    2 large eggs
    150g caster sugar
    3 tbsps dark rum
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    120g unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus a little more for greasing the tin
    150g cooked, puréed apple


    For the streusel:

    60g plain flour

    60g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
    60g light muscovado sugar
    60g shelled walnuts, chopped

    * It’s good to use a combination of apples if you can, for the combination of textures and flavours. I used a Bramley, a James Grieve and a couple of Cox’s.


    Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/Gas 5. Grease a 23cm springform tin with some of the butter. Line with baking parchment and butter the parchment. Place the tin on a baking tray.


    To make the streusel, in a small bowl rub together the flour and butter until roughly combined – you still want the butter to be in quite big pieces – then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt together in a bowl until well combined and aerated.


    Peel the apples, core them and cut them into large-ish chunks. Wedges of about 3-4cm are about right.


    Put the eggs and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attached (of course, you can do this by hand if you prefer. It’s not one of those cakes which is terribly arduous). On a medium speed, whisk them together until light and foamy – a ribbon of batter should remain on the top of the mixture for a second or two when you lift up the beaters. Whisk in the rum and vanilla. 


    Remove the bowl from the stand mixture and with a spatula, first stir in half of the flour then half of the butter. Gently fold in the remaining flour, then the butter until only just combined. Fold in the applesauce, then the cut apples just until they’re evenly coated with batter. Scrape the mixture into the tin and smooth it down gently. Sprinkle on the streusel topping and bake for 50-60 minutes – it should be golden on the top and feel slightly springy to the touch, but still have some softness to it.


     Scattering on the streusel.

    Cool in the tin for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of the tin, release the catch and carefully remove the cake. Gently peel off the parchment and either serve warm as a pudding, with ice cream or clotted cream, or cold, with whatever you like. It will keep, covered, for a couple of days.

    My favourite apple pie

    Sour cream apple pie



    I’ve been going a little crazy with the apples. The two young trees in our small city garden (a Bramley, because you have to, and a James Grieve) are bent low with fruit. Friends arrive from the country, or from their own corners of the city, with more bags of apples. The whole house smells of them.

    I’ve juiced them and stirred them into cakes and puddings. At night, I let the dog out, turn on the dishwasher, lock up the house and spoon another batch of cooked apples into their muslin hammocks so they can drip drip drip their juice into bowls, to be made into herb jellies in the morning.

    Friends arrive with apples.

    And twice now, I’ve made this pie. It comes from TheSilver Palate Cookbook, an enormous favourite of mine, picked up on a trip to America in the 80s and now falling apart from decades of love and overuse.

    I’m terribly keen on the cosy look of lattice-topped pie, something that would look good cooling on Laura Ingalls’ window sill in Walnut Grove. I could try and tell you how to do it here, but it would go on for ages and we might fall out. What you need is something from YouTube like this (if only for the use of the word ‘cattywampus’ at 8.05). For happiness, try to banish from the kitchen anyone who might be inclined to chip in with ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ at any stage.
    Silver Palate Sour-Cream Apple Pie

    Making the lattice.


    This makes a deep pie with a tender crust – as it cooks, the topping bubbles and melts into caramelised lusciousness under the pretty lattice.  Serve it warm or at room temperature with thick cream, clotted cream or good vanilla ice cream.

    I’ve metric’d the ingredients here, because we’re not actually in Walnut Grove, and I link here to the methodfrom epicurious.  I used a mixture of James Grieve apples and Cox’s Orange Pippins – you don’t really want the fluffiness of Bramleys here.  I like to toast the walnuts very lightly in the oven before mixing them into the topping, about 5-6 minutes on an oven tray at 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas 4 should do it.

    For the crust:

    320g plain flour
    60g caster sugar
    ¾ tsp salt
    ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
    90g butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
    90g lard, chilled and cut into small cubes
    4-6 tbsps chilled apple juice or water

    For the filling:
    5-7 tart apples
    160ml sour cream
    75g caster sugar or vanilla sugar
    1 egg, lightly beaten
    ¼ tsp salt
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    3 tbsp plain flour

    For the topping:

    3 tbsps light muscovado sugar
    3 tbsps granulated or demerara sugar
    1 tsp ground cinnamon
    120g shelled walnuts (see note in introduction), roughly chopped

    Filling the pie.

    Crimped.

    Learning to love the muscat (it didn’t take long)

    DSCF1676

     
    I now discover I really like the muscat. This is the reverse of that syndrome where you drag home from your holidays a lurid liqueur (it’s almost always a liqueur), the drink that was so delicious over five-hour lunches on the terrace, only to find that back home it has all the charm of a Fairy Liquid daiquiri. I think the Ms Murderous Heels sour puss made the muscat taste of ashes in my mouth.
    Anyway, I like it now. So that will teach her.

    I’m always on the hunt for small cookbooks, the sort sold to raise funds for the church roof or the local sanctuary for tap-dancing owls, the ones with four-line recipes and no glossy pictures. So I was very happy to find Recettes d’un Petit Village en Languedoc. It’s a collection of recipes from the residents of Saint Xist, a little village in the Aveyron, collated by Denis Cristol to raise money for their twelfth-century priory. It contains a recipe by Régine Fargier for a simple cake made with muscat which, along with a bowl of very pretty purple plums, inspired a bit of tinkering about and this is the result. Try it. It’s very easy and looks impressive. If you like, you can serve it straight away, warm, as a pudding with cream, crème fraiche or custard. Or serve it cold. Whichever way you serve it, naturally a glass or two of muscat goes very well with it.


    Plum and muscat cake

    DSCF1685

    This is really good with the plums, but in summer I imagine it would be really lovely made with peaches or nectarines too.


    For the plums:
    4-5 plums, just ripe, not too soft
    3 tablespoons demerara sugar

    For the cake:
    250g caster sugar, vanilla sugar if you have it
    200g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
    4 eggs, separated
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    250g plain flour
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    A good pinch of salt
    200ml muscat

    Some icing sugar for dusting, if you like
    Serve with crème fraîche or lightly whipped cream

    Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Lightly grease a 23cm springform baking tin and line the bottom with baking parchment. Butter the parchment.

    Halve the plums, stone them, and cut each half into four pieces. Toss them with the demerara sugar and line the tin with the pieces of plum. Try to cram them as closely together as possible.
    Beat together the sugar and butter until pale and light. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
    Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl.

    In another, scrupulously-clean bowl whisk the egg whites until they form peaks.
    Begin to add the muscat and flour mixture to the batter in alternate batches, starting and ending with some of the flour (flour/wine/flour/wine/flour), folding in well with a spatula after each addition.
    Fold in a third of the beaten egg whites with a spatula to lighten the batter. Then stir in the rest, lifting the batter with the spatula and gently folding it into the mixture. It should be well combined but you want to keep in as much air as possible. Spoon the mixture over the top of the plums, smooth the top with a spatula, place the tin on a baking tray and bake in the oven for about 55 minutes – a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean. It may need a little bit longer. Put it back into the oven and test every 5 minutes.

    Place the cake tin on a cooling rack. Run a palette knife around the sides of the tin but leave it to cool for 15 minutes before releasing the sides of the tin and turning it out onto a plate. Gently remove the base of the tin and the baking parchment; serve warm or cold.

    So much cake

    20140215_163912

    Every weekend at this time of year I load a cake into a box and hope the combination of dark, rainy evenings + unfamiliar heels + a tiny cocktail livener before heading out to the party won’t lead to a baked-goods-buttercream-meets pavement disaster.

    Almost everyone who is dear to me has a birthday round about now. I am in the middle of a four-weekend-long baking blitz. It started with Séan (chocolate, of course), then Liz (the cake you see here), tomorrow it’s my best pal Victoria (red velvet, cream cheese frosting) and next weekend my friend Lola’s daughter Mary – astonishingly – turns 18 (60 chocolate cupcakes). Depending on chance and shared geography, the dying glimmers of winter might also find me baking for my brother, nephew and mother. My scales are WHITE HOT and my baking cupboard runeth over with sprinkles, edible glitter and tiny candles in all colours.

    Liz’s cake had to be a special one.

    A few years ago, Liz noticed that whenever she went to literary festivals with her husband Pete she would bump into people from Stoke Newington reading from their books, singing their songs, telling their jokes. In a moment of creative-yet-cosy inspiration, she thought ‘If we had a festival in Stoke Newington we could all stay home and sleep in our own beds’.

    So in the space of a few months, she took this idea and created Stoke Newington Literary Festival on a hunch and a credit card. Five years on, Stokey LitFest is a mad success, a riot of creativity, talk, fun, songs, drink and discussion which continues our little corner of London’s tradition of dissent, debate and dissolute behaviour.

    So when Pete emailed some of us a few weeks ago to ask if we could help him organise Liz’s fiftieth birthday party, of course I volunteered to make her cake. Big enough for a hundred people or so. Truthfully, I enjoy the sheer exuberance of using dozens of eggs, kilos of chocolate and packets and packets of butter, working out the architecture of the thing. Gold dust! Let’s scatter gold dust over it, why not? For Liz is golden and we love her.

    IMG_20140215_115919

    Salted Caramel Buttercream Chocolate Cake

    20140215_172157

    A quick email back-and-forth with Pete and we decided on something chocolate-y and salted caramel-y, because really who wouldn’t love that? No one we would care to share a dance floor with, for sure. A quick Google search and I came across this smack-you-in-the-face-delicious recipe on Melissa Coleman’s elegant and charming blog, The Faux Martha. For those of us with WHITE-HOT scales at our disposal (and for whom cup measures are a challenge), I’ve metric’d up the ingredients’ list here.

    This quantity makes one 23cm two-layer cake; I think I multiplied it by about six or so for Liz’s cake.

    FOR THE CAKE:

    Dry
    170g plain flour
    60g unsweetened cocoa powder
    1 ½ tsp baking powder
    1 tsp sea salt

    Liquid
    150ml single cream
    100ml whole milk
    1 tbsp vanilla extract

    Creaming
    170g unsalted butter, room temperature
    350g caster sugar
    4 large eggs

    FOR THE Salted Caramel Buttercream:
    225g caster sugar
    60ml water
    100ml double cream
    heaping pinch of sea salt
    340g unsalted butter, room temperature
    4 large egg whites

    FOR THE GANACHE:
    280g dark chocolate
    70g icing sugar, sifted
    200ml double cream
    2 large egg yolks
    40g unsalted butter, room temperature
    heaping dash of sea salt