A dog gives you a great excuse to play truant while appearing to be busy. At 3pm, the sky cleared, looked blue for the first time in days. I grabbed the lead and took Barney for a walk in the cemetery. For his benefit, right? Not to get away from teetering piles of paper on my desk, books that defy shelving, the list of phone calls, the conked out dryer, the leaking washing machine and the problem of what to do about the vanished accountant.
Through the Egyptian gates, the air is heavy, damp. Barney weaves his own eightsome reel through the dripping nettles and worn tombstones. There is a sweet smell of rotting leaves, faintly spicy like gingerbread.
I have never seen a hound look quite as pathetic as mine does when wet. Fur sticks out in uneven clumps. His legs look spindly, his eyes huge, pleading. He could head up a Dogs’ Trust campaign. The hardest of hearts would read in his soft brown eyes a life tied to a lamppost, abandoned, not one of tweed-lined baskets, woollen blankets and organic dog food.
We get home and he runs along the hallway rubbing his head and body against the skirting as if possessed, a foxy little dervish drying himself on the carefully chosen Farrow & Ball (can it be long before Dirty Dog nestles on the paint chart between Mouse’s Back, Cat’s Paw, Dead Salmon and Pigeon?).
I make a cake. Barney sits on his favourite chair, the one that’s so tatty my friend’s eight-year-old daughter asked, worried, ‘What’s wrong with it?’. It’s been a busy afternoon.
CARROT AND WALNUT CAKE
I created this recipe a couple of years ago for my friend Mark Diacono’s book, River Cottage Handbook No4 Veg . It’s not very refined, in the manner of grandly iced carrot cakes, but nor is it tiresomely worthy like those annoying confections whose highest ambition is to form one of you five a day. It’s spicy and rich and keeps very well for up to a week in a tin. Serve it warm as a pudding with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche, or cold anytime.
Either make your own apple sauce by simmering peeled, cored Bramley apples with a little water until light and fluffy or use good-quality ready made.
Makes 12 squares
A slug of apple brandy or cognac (optional)
Knob of butter, softened, for greasing the tin
220g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
Good pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
220g light muscovado sugar, plus an extra 3 tbsps for the syrup
120ml sunflower oil
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten
225g apple sauce
270g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
80g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas mark 3. Put the sultanas in a small bowl, pour on hot water to cover and leave to soak for 20 minutes or so. You can add a slug of apple brandy or cognac at this point if you like.
Lightly grease a loose-bottomed 20-22cm square cake tin, about 8cm deep. Line the base with greaseproof paper and butter the paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cloves and cardamom if using.
In a large bowl, whisk together the 220g of light muscovado sugar, oil and orange zest until well combined, then whisk in the eggs until the mixture is creamy. Fold in the apple sauce, followed by the flour mixture until just combined. Next fold in the grated carrots and walnuts. Finally, drain the sultanas and fold these in.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours, until a fine skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, without any crumbs clinging to it. If the cake appears to be overbrowning before it is done, cover the top loosely with foil.
While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Put the orange juice into a small pan with the 3tbsps of light muscovado sugar and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Warm over a low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer until slightly syrupy, about 4-5 minutes.
As you remove the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge and pierce the top a few times with a fine skewer. Now pour over the syrup, trying to make sure that you cover the surface fairly evenly. Stand the cake tin on a wire rack and leave to cool for a while before cutting into squares.