Continuing the cake inventory I started last week, I think this may be The Best Cake I’ve Ever Made. This expression gets bandied about a lot, I admit, and often I make pronouncements that later have to be revised, such as my adolescent belief that Five Star (a pop combo from Romford who all looked like versions of Michael Jackson) were “brilliant.”
That said, I think this is one of the best cakes I’ve made so far, and I take no credit for it at all. It’s all Nigel Slater, except for the almond extract and a redeployment of the blueberries. I’ve always been a fan of almonds – the only drawback being that an excess of ground almonds in a cake can make all the ingredients collapse into a kind of almond-induced stupor. I love moist, but I don’t really want a cake to drip. The almond’s strength is that it mitigates against the dryness of flour. Whenever I’ve made an all-flour cake, a few hours after it’s cooled it’s like eating hunks of stale bread. And dry cake is always disappointing, no matter how much you try to bury it beneath an avalanche of icing. Too much ground almond though, and it’s wet sand, so balance is all. This recipe captures the perfect ratio of crumbly and cakey with an almond-rich warmth.
Now to the idea of peaches and sponge – it feels as if the textures would be at war with one another. However, the peaches hang in the cake, discrete, plump and surprising. And because stone fruit and almonds are related (they belong to the Drupe family), the flavours speak sympathetically to each other. Of course, most of the fruit falls to the bottom of the cake – I would love to know how to prevent this: maybe make the pieces smaller – but apart from this one aesthetic gripe, it is a thing of gentle, rustic beauty and our guests ate it in silence. Always a good sign. The smell is wondrous, it is the pale golden-brown of a wheat field and icebergs of peach are still visible through the sponge.
In Nigel Slater’s version, the blueberries and peaches are all jumbled up together, but the blueberry needs its own stage, I feel. It is the colour of midnight, a sombre, ink-blue (Robert Frost said “I taste in them sometimes the flavour of soot”), and I don’t want it to have to share the limelight. Its true home is the American cobbler, and it seems happiest when it can seep and bubble, turning a deep, hot, liquid pink. I’ve used it here as a compote to douse the ice cream. Many feel it lacks the acidic surge, the sheer clout of other berries, and it can underwhelm. I have added lemon juice and bay leaves to the compote to counter this. It is very fine.
Adapted from Nigel Slater, Summer Cake Recipes, The Observer
175g butter, softened
175g golden caster sugar
225g ripe peaches
2 large eggs at room temperature
175g self-raising flour (or 1 tsp baking powder for every 125g of plain flour)
100g ground almonds
1 tsp grated orange zest
a few drops of almond extract
150g blueberries (optional)
Butter and line the base of a 20cm (8 in) loose-bottomed cake tin with baking paper. Set the oven at 170C/350F.
Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Peel, halve, stone and roughly chop the peaches. If the peaches are very ripe, the skin will peel off easily. Otherwise, scald them in boiling water, lift out using a slotted spoon, and peel off the skin when it has cooled slightly. Beat the eggs lightly then add, a little at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. If there is any sign of curdling, stir in a tablespoon of the flour.
Mix the flour and almonds together and fold into the mixture, in two or three separate lots. Add the orange zest and almond extract, and once they are incorporated add the chopped peaches and blueberries (if using).
Scrape the mixture into the cake tin and bake for about 1 hour. Test with a skewer – if it comes out relatively clean, then the cake is done. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so in the tin, run a palette knife around the edge, then slide out on to a plate, decorating as the fancy takes you; fresh berries, fruit compote, ice cream, thin single cream, the possibilities are endless. This is also lovely for breakfast.
Adapted from Jane’s Grigson’s Fruit Book
Grated zest and juice of a lemon
¼ tsp ground cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
60g/2oz/¼ cup cane sugar or maple sugar
2 bay leaves
1 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot
Put sugar, spices, cornstarch, salt and bay leaves into a heavy saucepan, and mix together with 150ml (5 fl oz/⅔ cup) water. When smooth, put in the blueberries and set over a moderate heat. Stir until the liquid clears and thickens. Add extra water if you want a runnier consistency. Stir in the zest and lemon juice gradually to taste. Let it cool. Keep chilled. The flavours will intensify over time.
Addendum added 20/7/12
This blueberry compote also makes a glorious jam. Place it over a medium high heat and reduce until the liquid is about half. A couple of splashes of balsamic vinegar and a sprig of basil or tarragon also lifts the flavours and makes the blueberry sparkle. Pot it up and keep in the fridge.