I don’t tend to make a lot of cakes. This is partly because after an initial flurry of enthusiasm at a cake’s first outing, my family revert to custard creams as their sweet treat of choice (‘You can’t dunk lemon drizzle, mum’) leaving me with three quarters of whatever it is I’ve made to fail miserably at resisting for the rest of the week. As my current baklava belly will testify, at my age – for me at least – there is no longer such a thing as ‘getting away with it’.
But it’s more that baking requires a degree of organisation and precision, in which both I – and my slapdash approach to cooking – am found woefully lacking. Even when I’ve tried my best and preheated the oven and assembled all the required ingredients in advance, chances are my butter will be too hard, my brown sugar will have become, since its last outing, a solid crystalline mass that requires 24 hours to remedy, or I won’t have the correct sized tin or enough parchment to line it. Then there are all those rules about ratios and temperatures and the correct spoon to use, blah, blah, blah: all sacrosanct yet unfathomable. Baking, in short, is a bit bossy. There is little room for ad-libbing, experimentation, or, perhaps more accurately in my case, winging it. ‘I’m an exact science, don’t you know,’ it says haughtily, ‘do as you’re told or pay the price.’
But what would happen if you were to bend a few rules? What, for example, would be the outcome if you opt for butter over the more usual veg oil in your carrot cake (for the sole reason that oil would deprive you of essential bowl licking)? What if you realise at the point of grating that you don’t have enough carrots so make up the shortfall with some wrinkled old courgettes you’ve spotted in the bottom of your fridge? What if you, having read this fascinating article on Food52 about reducing sugar content in baking, put in 10% less than the recipe demands? What if you remember you used all the plain flour in this morning’s pancakes, so substitute with some spelt you find in the back of the cupboard? And what if, because your family are picky buggers, you use cranberries and pecans in place of the more traditional raisins and walnuts? Would the ground open beneath you and swallow you and your heretical creation right up? No. On the contrary, you would be rewarded with the most deliciously moist, nubbly textured cake, all nutty and zesty and not too sweet – a cake you wouldn’t mind having for the rest of the week for breakfast, but so good, you will be left with not so much as a crumb.
So I say let’s not be bullied by baking. Throw caution to the wind, play around a bit, own it. If you want to use maple rather than muscovado, ground pistachios instead of ground almonds, or think that coconut oil might be better than butter, give it a go. It might turn out a flop, but you might be pleasantly surprised by the result. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s just a cake after all, not a fricking cure for cancer.
(Almost) five a day cake
OK this title might be a bit cheaty. I’m not sure vegetable based cakes count towards your five a day (ditto nuts) but they should. This recipe is a mash up between one from Justin Gellatly in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding and one by Oliver Peyton in British Baking with quite a lot of additional rule bending from me.
Makes a 20cm diameter cake
- 225g softened unsalted butter (a microwave comes in handy if yours is too hard – 10-15 seconds should do it)
- 200g light brown sugar
- 4 eggs
- 200g light spelt flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- pinch ground nutmeg or a few scrapings of fresh
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- pinch ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
- 115g grated carrots (finely or coarsely, not sure it matters)
- 115g grated courgette (ditto)
- 100g chopped pecans
- 50g chopped dried cranberries
- Zest of 2 oranges
- Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan). Butter and line the base of a 20cm loose bottomed tin.
- Cream together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy (I used a hand-held electric whisk for this). Sift flour, baking powder, spices and salt into another bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time to butter/sugar (add a spoonful of flour with each egg if curdling bothers you).
- Add the rest of the flour mix to the bowl in a couple of batches, folding in until just incorporated.
- Add the grated carrots, courgettes, chopped fruit, nuts and zest of 1 orange to cake mixture with the vanilla extract and stir to combine. Spoon cake mixture into prepared tin, leaving enough behind in bowl for licking (seriously, not even the grated raw veg puts me off doing this. I still avoid cracks in the pavement too).
- Bake in the oven for 50-60 minutes. It should feel springy to touch and a skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.
- Cool cake in tin for 10 mins then turn out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. Do not try and ice it when it is warm – it will just slide off. When cooled, slice in half, ready for the frosting.
- Once iced, scatter over some chopped pecans and the remaining orange zest. Or don’t, it’s your cake.
Cream cheese frosting
Allows enough to ice both the top and the middle of the above cake.
- 150g room temperature unsalted butter
- 50g caster sugar
- 300g full fat cream cheese, again at room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
- pinch salt
- finely grated zest of 1 orange
- Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
- Add remaining ingredients and beat until smooth. (If it’s not sweet enough for you, stir in some icing sugar, one spoon at a time, until it suits your tooth.)