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Thursday, 21 February 2013

almost-spring cake

See? Sun. Photographic evidence of sun.

Yesterday, something peculiar happened: I went to post a letter. For me, that alone is rather unusual- I still have a stack of Christmas cards (addressed and stamped) languishing in a kitchen drawer, along with two lovingly-penned letters to a friend in Australia that are now so outdated that I'll have to write a third. Which I'll probably forget to post. But putting my own anecdotal scattiness aside, I went to post a letter, and it wasn't cold. Windy, certainly. Balmy? No. But it wasn't cold. I was in a t-shirt and pyjama bottoms- inappropriate on several of levels- firstly, it was two o'clock. Secondly, they had sheep on. And I was wearing them in public. Thirdly, it was, and still is, February. I should have been cold. But it seems it's nearly spring... and we can all feel it; there's a contagious and palpable uplift in the national mood that gains momentum with every additional minute of daylight that's creeping in. However, judging by the ominous grey of today's sky (not to mention the return to near sub-zero temperatures this morning), I'd say we're not quite there yet. There's no spring lamb, no asparagus, and no new Game of Thrones on the telly- because what heralds the advent of Spring quite like the annual arrival of more bloodshed, pelts and dragons than you can shake a stick at?

So what am I eating? I'm bored of stews, and done with stodgy steamed puddings. And because I haven't given up cake for Lent (instead I opted for bread AND potatoes- what was I thinking??), I'm eating this. A lot.

Almond St Clements Cake

... or essentially a tarted-up Lemon Drizzle.

This recipe has come about after years of tweaking, adjusting, and screw-ups. A lemon Drizzle was the first of many things I learned to cook with my mum, and is quick, easy and relatively fuss-free to cobble together. It won't win any awards for gastronomic originality, but it might just pinch first place in a quaint rural bake sale of some sort. I can't say for sure, I've never tried.

What You Need:

  • 4 oz (or 113.398g... this one works better in ounces, it seems) caster sugar
  • 4 oz salted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 oz self-raising flour
  • 1 oz ground almonds (or for a nut-free version, just up the flour measurement to a full 4 oz)
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 eggs from happy chickens
  • 3 unwaxed lemons- you're using them for the zest too, so unwaxed is infintely better
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 tbsp (or more) of milk or cream
  • 3 tbsp (or more) of icing sugar
  • A sprinkling of poppy seeds

What You Do:

1. Preheat your oven to 160 degrees fan, or 180 degrees otherwise. It's just occurred to me that I never give a gas mark instruction- that's primarily because I've never used one, nor would I have a clue how to. Sorry.

2. Grease a 7" tin (with a removable base, or else you'll be gouging the finished cake out with your hands, which is never classy), and line with baking parchment or greaseproof paper. I find it helps if you grease the base, and then stick the paper on. It makes trimming easier.

Butter and zest. Lots of zest.

3. Cream your butter with the zest of two of your lemons, and one of your oranges. You'll need the rest for the 'drizzle' part. Beat for at least two minutes.

NB. I'm lucky enough to have a big shiny Kitchen Aid, which my husband bought me in lieu of paying the rent one month. No joke- they aren't cheap, but they make light work of exhausting tasks like this. Working on the assumption that most people don't own one, a handheld electric mixer (about a tenner from Argos) works well. Only resort to using a wooden spoon if you're either some kind of masochist, or looking to offset the calories from actually eating the cake itself.

Not a noteworthy picture, but just one to illustrate what
I mean when I say like yellow whipped cream. Because that
doesn't really paint a very nice picture.
4. Gradually add your caster sugar, and continue to beat. I really can't emphasise enough just how important this step is: it's the foundation of the entire cake. Do it carelessly or hastily, and your cake will be as solid and appetising as a breeze block. The process allows the sugar crystals to beat air bubbles into the fat, creating the light, airy sponge that's the mark of any good drizzle cake. Cream for at least five minutes- the mixture needs to be significantly paler, and almost have the appearance of a yellow whipped cream.

5. Add your eggs, one at a time. If your mixture looks as though it might split or curdle, add in a spoon of sifted flour between each egg.

6. Sift your self-raising flour (even if it says something along the lines of 'No Need To Sift!' on the front- it's always worthwhile), and add your bicarbonate of soda. This gives the cake an extra bit if oomph.

7. Fold in gently using a metal spoon or spatula (both minimise air-loss in the mixture, whereas a chunky wooden spoon is more likely to knock the bubbles out).

8. Add in your ground almonds, and fold in gently. Again, your aim is to retain as much air as possible, so do this lovingly.

9. Add a splash of milk or cream to your mixture- just enough to loosen it so that it falls from a spoon when nudged. Do this gradually-you can't take it away once it's in.

10. Place in the centre of your oven for 25-35 minutes. I appreciate that these timings are a bit vague, but it all depends on your oven, the mixture, your tin... I would suggest spending a fiver on an oven thermometer, because oven calibrations are nearly always wrong. Check it at the twenty-two minute mark- and not before! Opening the oven any earlier will cause the temperature to drop, your cake will sink, and you'll be the laughing stock of whichever provincial cake competition you've entered it into.

The cake is done once a skewer comes out without any wet batter clinging to it. Mine took twenty-seven minutes.

11. While it's in the oven, crack on with your syrup and the icing. Squeeze the juice of two lemons and one orange into a bowl, and grate in the zest of one lemon and one orange. Add caster sugar- a teaspoonful at a time- until you get the desired level of sweetness. I like mine quite tart, because it has the sweet sponge and the icing sugar to contend with, but it's up to you. Stir to make sure the sugar crystals dissolve.

12. For the icing, place your icing sugar in a bowl, and squeeze the juice of you remaining lemon inside. Mix feverishly until a paste forms- it should be quite thick, and retain a bright white colour. Adjust as necessary with lemon juice or more sugar to get it just right.

13. Once your cake is out of the oven, prick it all over with a cocktail stick, and drizzle the... err... drizzle... over in stages. Wait for the first lot to soak in before continuing. How much you use is up to you- I love a sticky, wet cake, so I go all in. Leave your cake to cool for a few minutes until you can handle the tin safely, and remove the outer ring


14. Once the cake has cooled, drizzle your icing over in a way that strikes you as attractive. Top with a sprinkling of poppy seeds, and then try to refrain from eating it entirely. Saving a slice or two for the cat is always nice.

Happy Almost-Spring,

mrs hunt.x

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