The impossible sponge cake

"It is my belief that no cake should be taken too seriously. Which is probably why I yawn at the baking-perfection police. Those who silently give you marks out of ten as you pass them a slice of your afternoon's work. We should take delight that someone has baked at all, not wince because their cherries have sunk." Nigel Slater


I have just noticed that I simply cannot shake the perception that it is actually summer - high summer indeed because we have just begun July. Even though it is a very low 12 degrees outside - at midday. But I want to rid my desk of Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book, even though I could pick bits and pieces from it forever, and give it an honoured place on my bookshelves. If I can find one.


This is the last page that I earmarked for a post and it's about sponge cakes. An impossible feat for me and this particular version from Nigel - A blackcurrant cake for midsummer is doubly impossible here in Australia, because we just don't seem to do blackcurrants. I don't think we can even get them frozen - even though we can get pomegranates frozen, which are far more exotic.

Now I do adore blackcurrants, particularly in the form of cassis sorbet of which I consume a lot every time I go to France. It's a taste of heaven. And here is a particularly awful photograph of me with one - in the beautiful but very touristy town of Cassis on the south coast. Almost our last ever day in France. Unusually for the French you pronounce the last 's' of cassis the fruit, but not for the town. We asked the lovely young girl who served us the sorbet why but she laughed and said she didn't know - you just did. And anyway why do they both have the same name - did the town grow blackcurrants? No - too hot surely.


But I digress.

Back to sponge cakes. I'm not that great with any kind of cake - always the danger of a sunken middle and a burnt outside and base - but sponge cakes are especially disastrous. Well what I think of as a sponge cake anyway. I suppose what I think of as a sponge cake is a Victoria sponge. And to be honest I'm not even that particularly enamoured of them, because it's rare that they are light and fluffy. they are more often somewhat stale and dry I find.


Nigel Slater on the other hand waxes lyrical:


"Sponge cake holds an old-fashioned magic. The quiet joy of yellow crumbs flecked with aniseed, caraway or candied peel. A loaf cake spiced with cinnamon and studded with apples. The dark, liquorice-scented mystery of ginger cake. Reassurance rather than razzmatazz.


My childhood is dotted with sponges of every hue; Victoria sandwiches filled with plum jam; cake-shop sponges stuffed with whipped cream and thickly dusted with icing sugar; coffee and walnut cakes at the village fête; and sugar-encrusted Swiss rolls. There are not many sponge cakes I haven't liked."


Some of the cakes he talks about there are indeed what I think of as sponge cakes, but 'studded with apples'? I must admit I didn't think that sponge cakes had anything in them other than the prescribed, eggs, sugar, flour and butter. And maybe to a purist they don't but it seems that in fact a sponge cake can take any form. And interestingly when I looked for a definition I found that the Americans do it differently - They separate the eggs, beat the whites and fold them in later and they also don't include any fat. Which would seem to me to be very different. No butter?


If you want to give it a go though, I guess you should go with Mary Berry who seems to be the current queen of all things cake. You can find her recipe on the BBC Food website. Though I have to say I don't think this looks that light and fluffy.


However this does. Syrupy too. And that's because it's a sponge soaked in a lemon syrup - Nigel Slater's Lemon and thyme cake which seems to be quite famous. Lots of people have given this one a go. But it's not a real sponge cake surely because it's got ground almonds in it? For extra delicious taste. Now this one I might try sometime soon. It's in A Cook's Book.


Another thing that is interesting about the blackcurrant cake recipe is that I couldn't find a recipe online. I wonder why a celebrity chef publicises some recipes but not others? And why do some bloggers pick up on one recipe rather than another? I suppose the second question is more easily answered. For some purely personal reason a blogger decides to make a particular cake, likes it so blogs about it which means that others perhaps follow suit. As to the first I don't really know why. I guess they just don't want to put online all the recipes in their books. Otherwise why would you buy the book? There are so many potential answers to that last question that I'll leave that to another day.


In the meantime it seems that the blackcurrant cake, which Nigel calls A blackcurrant cake for Midsummer, is a variation on an earlier recipe, simply called A cake for midsummer which featured raspberries rather than blackcurrants. But it's basically the same recipe - with a little bit of milk which is not in the blackcurrant recipe. The pure raspberry version features on a website called Lottie and Doof.


But then again Nigel has yet another version with the same title which is made with blueberries and peaches. Obviously this is a cake that can be almost infinitely varied with whatever fruit you fancy. But is it a sponge cake? Well I suppose so - but not a pure sponge cake, because you've added things to your basic butter, sugar, flour and eggs. I guess it's a sponge cake because of the basic technique - cream the sugar and butter, add the eggs, add the flour. There's almond meal in there as well as the fruit in Nigel's recipes though. So at what point do you call it something else?


Anyway I wish I had blackcurrants to make the blackcurrant version.


"Blackcurrants are rippled through the soft, almond-rich crumb of this pretty cake - the very essence of summer. I sometimes add a few rose petals and extra handful of raspberries at the last moment, or perhaps a light scattering of caster sugar and a sprig of rosemary."


How incredibly twee - if you are in a cynical mood that is, although I do wish it was summer.

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