What do we talk about when we talk about cake?

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

We went to Victoria and Helder’s for dinner. I told her I’d been to watch my nephew Angus play rugby. This is how long we’ve known each other. He was born just after we met. He’s now well over six feet tall and learning to drive.

Candle lit drinks

In those seventeen years, we’ve been each other’s autodial for crises large and small, deadlines and hemlines, heartbreak and house hunting, mortgages and marriages. She held my hand on my wedding day; I made the cake and a speech (complete with quotations from the Mary Tyler Moore show) at hers.

On this most recent sunny evening, we tucked into Helder’s barbecued cauliflower and spatchcocked chicken. He’s Portuguese. He knows his way around a grill. And I brought along a cake for pudding.

Helder's BBQ

Cake: the shortest measurable distance between now and then, something about its comforting sweetness pulls memories from their recesses better than any truth drug. Cutting into a big, soft slice is the culinary equivalent of ‘Once upon a time…’

Slice of cake

Our husbands really like each other, which is great as when they go off on some kind of techno gizmo riff, V and I can indulge in all of our ‘Remember when…’ conversations.

Like the time when, in our single days, we used to take each other out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

Like the time when I was being pursued by a Nigerian musician and I forced her to come with me to an Ogoni wedding in a community centre in Dollis Hill. In a wedding album far, far away there are pictures of us drinking neat gin out of the bottle cap with the band.

Like the time we hitched a ride in a lorry up the Holloway Road with a French waiter we’d kidnapped from our favourite local restaurant. We were headed for a snooker club. This was in the days of stricter licensing laws and it was one of the few places you could get a drink after midnight, but you needed a bloke to sign you in.

Like the time she was invited to a reception at Number 10 and spent all day working out what her perfect opening line to the Prime Minister would be. When the moment came, what came out of her mouth was ‘Gordon, do you realise you have ink all over your sleeve?’

Like the time when I got a call for a job I really, really wanted and was so stressed out, over prepared and sleep deprived by the time I got to the interview, when the questioning got challenging my best retort was a tetchy ‘Look, you called me. If you think you’re going to make me cry, you’re not.’

Eyjafjallajökull fortold?

Victoria and Helder’s son Luca, my gorgeous godson, spent a lot of time in April making volcanoes. Then Eyjafjallajökull erupted. We are watching very closely for what he next moulds in clay, in case it’s a Tory government.

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

This recipe is from Fiona Cairns’ cake-alicious book, Bake and Decorate: Tea Time Luxury (Quadrille, £19.99). It’s full of fabulous sweet treats, from fondant fancies and rosebud fairy cakes to gilded chocolate tiffin and strawberry, mint and balsamic cheesecake. It’s also crammed with Fiona’s great cake decorating tips, finely honed after years of being baker to the stars. It’s beautiful too, with photographs by the wonderful Laura Hynd. Laura took gorgeous pictures for Mark Diacono’s book, Taste of the Unexpected, which comes out in the autumn and for which I wrote the recipes.

Serves 8

130g unsalted butter, softened, plus more to grease the tin
20 green cardamom pods (or 1 tsp ground)
170g self-raising flour
100g white chocolate, chopped
130g white caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

100g white chocolate, finely chopped
100ml double cream
2 tsp rosewater

150g icing sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 170C/350F/Gas mark 4. Fiona Cairns makes this cake in a heart-shaped tin measuring 23cm at its widest point and 6.5cm deep, as did I, but she suggests a 20cm round, 7.5cm deep tin as an alternative. Butter the tin very well, then line with baking parchment.

Cardamom pods

Deseed the cardamom pods: split them with the point of a knife, empty out the little seeds and grind them to a powder in a pestle and mortar. There may be a few pieces of husk mixed in, so sift the cardamom powder together with the flour to remove them. (My note: or use 1tsp ground cardamom. I like the one from lovely spice company, Steenbergs,  – they do mail order.)

Place the chocolate in a food processor with half the sugar. Process until as fine as possible. Take 2tbsp hot water – not boiling or the chocolate will seize – and leave it until you can just dip in your finger. Dribble it into the chocolate, processing until most has melted. Add the remaining sugar and butter, cut into knobs, and process well. Add the eggs, flour and vanilla and mix again. Don’t worry if there are tiny pieces of chocolate left in the batter.

Pour into the tin and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Rest in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack, removing the papers. Leave until absolutely cold.

Meanwhile, make the ganache. Place the chocolate in a bowl and, in a pan, bring the cream and rosewater to the boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate, leave it for a few seconds, then gently stir until smooth. Leave until cold, chill slightly, then whisk until it thickens.

White chocolate

The ganache is delicious and would be wonderful in other cakes too.




Split the cake in half and invert so the flat base forms the top. Fill with the ganache and top with the second layer of cake. Place the icing sugar in a small bowl and add 1 ½-2 tbsp water until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour it over the cake and allow to trickle down the sides. (My note: I found it took about 3tbsp to get the icing trickle-able, but also that it was perhaps a little sweet, so sweet it overwhelmed the delicate cardamom and rosewater flavours. Next time, I might add a little lemon juice or rosewater to the water to thin it.)

To decorate, I scattered some sugared rose petals over the top. In summer, it would be lovely with real rose petals, if you have a good, unsprayed source.

It takes a village …

Patriot jellies
Our friend Stuart could be the sweetest person I know. He has a supernatural ability to divine whether an occasion merits a cup of tea or a stiff gin, he remembers birthdays, charms small children, sends puppies and kittens into paroxysms of joy just by his gentle presence. He’s also gloriously handsome, a quality he wears as carelessly as an old overcoat. Stuart’s always taking care of everyone else so we couldn’t let his 30th birthday pass by without, for once, taking care of him, fêting his fortuitous presence in our lives in a fittingly exuberant manner.
Lady de B and I decided a few weeks ago that we would host a party for him in her garden. He’s Australian, so we thought a posh surf and turf barbecue would be appropriate, a late lunch starting at three o’clock. Simple.
Lady de B and I spent days connected by the umbilical cord of telephone, email and Blackberry discussing the merits of raspberries over passion fruit, marinades or rubs, platters or bowls. We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we called in the troops. Helder and Steve wired the garden for lights and sound; Kim sent over a restaurant’s worth of white china; Séan got up at 5am to collect flowers and fruit from New Covent Garden market; James spent Saturday morning blowing up inflatable kangaroos and hanging them from the trees along with enough flags and bunting to do an ocean liner proud; Paul ran around town collecting loaves, meringues and prawns; Sarah graciously served up lychee martinis and elastoplasts into the early hours; Alex and the beautiful seňoritas washed a mountain of dishes. We ate and drank and danced until three in the morning.
P1160281Sunny startTime to stop taking pictures!
And then, on Sunday, we did it all again. Ten of us assembled to tidy up and rehash the scandals of the night before. It was a beautiful day so we laid the table in the garden and served up a banquet of leftovers and gossip. By seven o’clock, as we sipped reviving glasses of Sauternes and spooned soft Valençay cheese onto slices of walnut bread, I think we all felt very lucky indeed, blessed in the friendships that have steered us through heartbreak and triumph to find us all together, sitting in the dappled sunshine on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Feet up the next day…All relaxed
Stuart’s birthday menu
Stuart’s birthday spread ~
Bellinis and Kir Royale
Muhamarra ~
Bagna Cauda
Radishes with butter & sea salt
Marinated olives
Roasted Chickpeas
~Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust ~
Rib of beef with mustard & horseradish crust
Roasted Carliston chillies
Hard core prawns
Director & Lincolnshire sausages
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted aubergine & tahini salad
Roasted beetroot & feta salad
Mange tout, green bean, hazelnut & orange salad
Minted new potatoes
Green salad
Pavlova with summer fruits
Patriot jellies
Chocolate dipped strawberries
Lychee martinis
Colston Bassett Stilton
English & Irish goat cheeses
Homemade de Beauvoir pear chutney
Figs and sultana grapes
Saturday’s pavlova becomes Sunday’s Eton Mess, eaten from one big plate in the middle of the table, with ten spoons.
Eton messEton Mess going.......gone

Lady de B

I’d like to introduce you to Lady de Beauvoir. That’s not her real name – though Vanessa’s elevation to the peerage for services to the general jollity of the masses must surely be imminent? In the meantime, we all call her that because it’s the name of the part of London where she lives and because, while all around her are track suits and tower blocks, she negotiates those mean streets with velvet ballet slippers on her feet and a French market basket swinging from her arm. Her house sparkles with antique chandeliers and lovingly waxed floorboards.

At one point, Vanessa and I considered setting up our own business. We both spend an inordinate amount of time advising our many gay friends about the decoration and furnishing of their homes, obsessing over every detail, whether it’s what they should put on their perfect Matthew Hilton dining table or pour into their Jasper Conran wine glasses. We thought we could offer a one-stop queenly lifestyle advice service, everything from decorating and gardening to food, wine and flowers – the concept of GayCare was born. This wasn’t our only business idea – but given that our other flash of entrepreneurial brilliance was running a catering company out of the back of a vintage Bentley, we’re hardly beating a path to the Dragons’ Den.

Vanessa can throw a party for anything – a new job or new season’s asparagus, a good haircut or a surfeit of raspberries. So the sun coming out is definitely cause for celebration.

Yesterday, Vanessa held the inaugural barbecue of the season. Five of us sat amid pots of brightly coloured primulas and anemones on her pretty terrace, sipping the year’s first glasses of rosé and feasting on lamb chops, smoky baba ganoush and a mouth watering salad of crunchy cucumbers, hot, hot, hot red chillies and soothing dollops of mascarpone and crème fraîche. All definitely delicious, but by far the most spectacular dish of the day was a mountain of grilled prawns in a perky marinade. Lady de B says she based it on a Marcella Hazan recipe. She’s a braver woman than I to tinker with a recipe from that marvellous, and marvellously dictatorial, Italian food writer, but the results were addictively, messily wonderful.

Hard-core prawn

3-4 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 tbsps vegetable oil
80g fine, dry breadcrumbs
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
3-4 tbsps finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
A good few pinches of sea salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1kg large prawns, unshelled but cut along the spine and the dark vein of intestines removed

Whisk together all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl then add the prawns, mixing everything well with your hands and making sure you rub plenty of the tasty sauce into the cut part of the prawns. Marinate for about an hour in a cool place, ideally not the fridge.

Heat the barbecue until the coals glow red and are covered by a coating of white ash. Place the prawns on the grill in batches (use tongs – but you knew that, right?), turning after a couple of minutes and cooking until the prawns have taken on some colour and are just opaque in the middle. Don’t overcook – an overcooked prawn is a horrible thing, unless fish-flavoured chewing gum is something you crave. Make sure you have a mountain of napkins – they don’t have to be pretty little patches of Provençal linen like Lady de B’s, for the rest of us mere mortals, paper ones will do.