Rachel Bennett

Posts Tagged ‘cake’

A Fruitcake in Squelchy Boots

In Food on October 2, 2011 at 08:24

It is autumn. Bright summer has softened to a diffused gold and the air turned brisk and invigorating.  At this time of year Seattleites abandon their brief flirtation with optimism and return to resolute melancholy. Each dazzling fall day framed with golden leaves must be savored, for it will surely be the last and give way to endless grey and drizzle. Such is life, they sigh, doubling the daily prescription of americanos, haunting ballads, and microbrews.

For the culinary minded, this pessimism is compounded by the gradual closing of farmers markets and the end of tomato season. No more bulbous heirlooms, jewel-like cherries, or pinky plums will graces market tables and those craving the swelling fruit must content themselves with Mexican impostors, pale and insipid. Only the most resolute will continue picnicking into October and barbecues will soon be cleaned and packed away for another nine months. The general mood is one of resignation; it was good while it lasted.

I must not be a true Seattleite, because I am cheered by the waning tilt of earth. After the closeness of summer, after the scrutinizing sun and the season’s admonition to be out-of-doors, the chill air is a refreshing tonic. After months of languishing under the bodily pulse of growth and greenness, my mind wakes up again. I can think again. I read books and feel an urge to learn things. And unlike many cooks I welcome the end of summer. I have overdosed on salads and even the most scarlet tomato has lost its allure. Instead I dive into butternut squash, mushrooms, and my beloved apple. Bring on the soups and stews, the roasted vegetables and heavy red wine.

In honor of fall, I have made a fruitcake. Not an airy fairy fruit-flecked sponge; not an exotic huckleberry inspired torte. No, this is a traditional fruitcake, the kind that calls for several pounds of dried fruit, a good measure of brandy, and a thick coating of marzipan. It is a cake that delivers calories, the ideal provision for a long hike or a day on the slopes. It is a cake with purpose and character; one might conquer Everest with this cake.

Today my efforts were finally rewarded. Breaking the cake’s ivory surface, I carved out a slice and bit into it. Beneath its pale blanket of marzipan the fruit was dense and earthy, almost black. It repelled light. It was moist and fragrant, chock-full of dark and golden raisins, cranberries, almonds, and little chunks of crystalized ginger. And the whole was infused with a rich brandied warmth. It is a cake to bolster body and soul during even the most foul Seattle weather.

Proper fruitcake is easy to make but it does not provide instant gratification. In addition to the usual mixing and baking, it must then be fed with brandy (spooning some liquor over the cake) daily for a week. Then you make some marzipan, roll it out, and cover the cake. You can also finish it with royal icing, although I prefer simply marzipan. Thanks to the high proportion of fruit and alcohol, this cake will keep for several months so long as you wrap it in foil and keep it in a tightly sealed container. In England, fruitcake was traditional wedding fare and the top-tier was set aside to be eaten at the first child’s christening.

The cake will darken and the flavor will improve with age.

This is adapted from the BBC Food Christmas cake recipe.

225 grams/8 ounces all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
200 grams/7 ounces butter
200 grams/7 ounces dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1 tablespoons marmalade
1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence
4 eggs, lightly beaten
800 grams/1 3/4 pounds mixed dark and golden raisins
100 grams/3 1/2 ounces chopped crystalized ginger
150 grams/5 ounces dried cranberries or cherries
100 grams/3 1/2 ounces blanched almonds, chopped
Cheap cooking brandy

1. Heat the oven to 150C/300F. Grease a deep, 20cm/8-inch round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper.
2. Sieve the flour, salt, mixed spice and cinnamon into a bowl.
3. Cream the butter and the sugar in a large mixing bowl and then mix in the sugar, treacle, marmalade and vanilla essence until light and fluffy.
4. Mix the eggs a little at a time into the mixture adding a tablespoon of flour mixture with the last amount.
5. Fold in the remaining flour mixture until well mixed and then mix in the dried fruit, crystalized ginger, and almonds.
6. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the centre.
7. Bake in the oven for 2.5 – 3 hours and then test with a skewer. If not ready bake for up to another hour testing every 20 minutes until the skewer comes out clean.
8. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for  15 minutes, and then turn out on to a wire rack and cool completely.
9. Once cool, make a few holes in the cake with a skewer and brush or spoon 1/4 cup of brandy over the cake.
10. Store the cake wrapped in foil and in an airtight tin or plastic container. Brush a little brandy over the cake each day for one week.


250 grams/9 ounces confectioners’ sugar
225 grams/8 ounces blanched almonds
1 egg white, lightly beaten
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1. Grind the almonds to a fine texture in a food processor. Add the confectioner’s sugar and salt and process until combined. Then, add the egg and almond extract and pulse until the mixture just comes together into a dough, adding a little more egg white if necessary – but take care not to add too much egg or your marzipan will be too wet!
2. Divide the marzipan into two balls, roll out one into a round the size of your cake, and carefully place it over the cake. Roll the second ball into a sausage shape and press it out into a long, skinny rectangle the width of your cake’s side. Carefully wrap it around the cake like a belt, trimming where necessary, and press the upper edge together with the top round of marzipan.
3. Smooth the marzipan with the side of a warm damp knife or spatula.

This is it for me, although most people then finish the cake with royal icing.

Proper fruitcake is at its best eaten outside, in rough autumn weather, washed down with a dram of whiskey. No matter how squelchy your boots, this repast will immeasurably improve your existence.


Icarus and the Great Melt

In Food on July 22, 2011 at 05:09

‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way . . . Travel between the extremes.’

– Ovid, Metamorphoses.

High hopes. I laid the pieces of my gateau out on the countertop, delicately, like jewels or fine china. There was a madeline biscuit base, a chocolate sponge and a gelatinized Kirsch cream. Behind these sat a jar of cherries in syrup I had canned the day before, a piping bag of chocolate ganache, and a plate of vanilla beans, sliced lengthwise and fashioned into knotted strands to mimic cherry stalks. Continuing with fierce concentration I assessed this mis en place.

The only item absent was the aerated chocolate and my heart sunk at the thought of it – what a failure. Heston Blumenthal’s recipe for this particular element does require special equipment including a vacuum cleaner, vacuum-seal storage bag, Tupperware container with a small hole bored into the lid, and a whip cream canister with nitrous oxide cartridges. The process, however, looks simple, deceptively simple. Heston instructs the reader to melt milk chocolate and stir in a little peanut oil. So far so good. Then he tells us to pour this mixture into the whip cream canister, charge with the gas, and spray the contents into the Tupperware container. This I dutifully completed, but then the trouble began. Placing the Tupperware inside the vacuum-seal storage bag and aligning the hole in the container’s lid with the valve in the bag, the reader is then instructed to turn on the vacuum cleaner and place it’s nossle on the bag’s valve. In theory the bag deflates, the chocolate aerates (expanding and becoming riddled with little tongue-tingling bubbles) and the job is done.

Being academically inclined, I’ve always found theory less complicated than practice and today was no different. I turned on the vacuum cleaner. Alas, instead of the vacuum-seal bag deflating my Tupperware itself deflated complete with chocolate inside, the plastic container crumpling into a distorted wreck reminiscent of a car that has encountered a solid stone wall; there was no hint of airy, honey-combed chocolate. I tossed the failed aeration away and tried to shrug it off, my ego threatening to deflate in tandem with the Tupperware.

All the other components were ready and my spirits rose. It would still be a beautiful, multilayered cake, even if lacking an element of intrigue that a layer of aerated chocolate might provide. So I assembled the cake in a loaf tin, just as Heston instructs: first the madeline biscuit base brushed with a layer of apricot glaze, then the chocolate sponge sprinkled with Kirsch and cherry syrup, topped by piped strands of chocolate ganache and dotted with cherries, and finally a layer of Kirsch cream. Having made double of each layer I then departed from Heston’s instructions, piling a second layer of each element on top, the resultant cake a tottering tower threatening collapse. The final step involves making a chocolate mousse and pouring it around the layers (inside the cake tin) and freezing the whole until set.

As in any good fable, it is always the last step before reaching the pot of gold at which the protagonist stumbles. My cake might have held together if it had not been for my impatience. Thinking the mousse had set I lifted the gateau out of it’s tin onto a serving platter. Alas, instead of holding firm, the creamy confection dissolved around the cake, oozing earthward leaving my masterpiece naked and swimming in a puddle of dark and glistening chocolate. Like Icarus abandoning his guide I paid the price, the laws of nature triumphing over artifice.

Eventually, I managed to repair the cake to some extent and with the help of chocolate shards, a good dusting of cocoa powder, and garnished with cherries it looked quite beautiful. As I cut into it however, the cake succumbed to gravity again, dissolving into a faintly sickening mass as I sorrowfully served it around the table. Suddenly I was profoundly tired of this food, and thought wistfully of a simple, steaming cherry pie—how much better that would have been—and made a solemn vow to eschew Heston, his vacuum cleaners, and all other forms of culinary pretension for good.

Several days later, however, I have had time to lick my wounds. I am still resolved to devote all culinary efforts to good honest food but I am glad I made the black forest gateau. It was never only about showing off; it was also a whole lot of fun. To pour over an unfamiliar recipe, drool over the pictures and search out strange ingredients—all of this is delicious and absorbing. It piques creativity and adds a dash of invigorating frivolity to the kitchen. After all, perhaps that first Egyptian goatherd who tossed some Arabica beans onto the fire was breaking the rules or wandering in rebellion from tradition. We shall never know; but today we have coffee.

Never regret thy fall, 
O Icarus of the fearless flight 
For the greatest tragedy of them all 
Is never to feel the burning light.

– Oscar Wilde

Of Cake and Peasants

In Food on July 15, 2011 at 07:12

The food I like best is simple. In winter hearty soups and stews, slow simmered oxtail and whole baked pumpkin. In summer big leafy salads and bowls of olives, thin slices of salami and piles of fresh cherries. And at all times bread—good crusty loaves the color of hot sand. It is the sort of food labeled today as ‘peasant’ cuisine, a rather fanciful label that bares scarce resemblance to the monotonous and meager diet of most of the world’s peasants throughout most of their history. But is sells well and has a nice ring to it. (Whereas plain old ‘bread’ can only sell for a couple of dollars, ‘peasant bread’ sells for at least double, an extra dollar tacked on to the price for each additional adjective. A loaf of ‘crusty Provencal harvest bread baked with heirloom wheat and kneaded by a sweaty, foul-mouthed, and cigarette smoking French baker’ would threaten the fattest wallet.) The modern gastro-science of gels and foams and spherified pig’s urine is interesting, in an abstract sort of way. And yet, for better or worse it is that straightforward and soul-warming, pseudo-peasant food that I like best and always return to cook and eat.

That said, I have an alter ego obsessed with culinary perfection and a mania for creating knee wobbling mouthfuls of something so unearthly—so blindingly blissful—that is silences the table.  I do not claim to have achieved such a feat, but sometimes the alter ego takes charge and I find myself launching into frenzied attempts. Now and then it feels good to toss aside mundane considerations, like work and budgets, and bake a cake so complicated it takes a week to complete and requires obscure and outrageously expensive ingredients.

My excuse for this latest mania—a recipe by the wizard chef Heston Blumental for a monumental Black forest gateau—was my birthday. My parents wanted to take me out to dinner. Wouldn’t it be nicer, I suggested cunningly, if we had a BBQ at home? I would do the cooking, naturally. And bake the cake. We could even make it a double birthday celebration as my brother’s was around the same time. My mother agreed, unwittingly committing herself to pay for my explorations in the land of culinary absurdity, unaware that Heston insists on the use of the best chocolate and the most extravagant kirschwasser (cherry liqueur) in his gateau. But it was my birthday and I won.

Making this cake is more a combination of middle school science and architecture than baking. There are eight separate elements including ‘cherry stalks’ fashioned out of dried vanilla bean and an aerated chocolate that requires the use of a vacuum cleaner. The barbecue is this Sunday and so far I have only complete two elements: the basic chocolate sponge and kirsch cream. That leaves six to go and I know Saturday will be chaos. And yet I’m going to love every minute of it. From figuring out how the vacuum cleaner is supposed to aerate my chocolate to making my own ‘wood effect’ base on which to present the cake, this is just the sort of indulgence my alter ego needs. Then it will leave me in peace to eat my peasant food for another six months, until Christmas perhaps.

And I still hold out hope for a culinary masterpiece of magnificent, knee-wobbling proportions.


Have Cake and Eat Cheese Too

In Food on June 24, 2011 at 15:43

I made a cheesecake for Father’s Day. This decadent confection has always been a favorite of my dad who used to demolish half a cake in one sitting. Perhaps his love of it comes from the lavish fact that this dessert combines the delights of cheese with those of cake – you could not ask for more.

Whenever Mom was away and Dad and I had to fend for ourselves the menu was predictable: take away Chinese (or pizza if I whined enough) and a frozen Sara Lee cheesecake. It was his rebellion at a time during which health foods were resolutely dismal and mom was obsessed by a sequence of odious nut cutlets and endless sprouts; if it is was dull and brown it was deemed good to eat.

I am also partial to this luxurious cake but have outgrown the Sara Lee variety—too dense and sweet. To my mind, a good cheesecake should be at once rich and light, silky, slightly tart and with a fine, biscuity crust.

In this version I went for a white chocolate cheesecake edged by a ginger crust and piled high with fresh raspberries. It was a beauty.

White Chocolate, Ginger and Raspberry Cheesecake

10 oz. ginger thins or other crisp gingery biscuits
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
8 tbsp. unsalted butter

3 8-oz. packages cream cheese
8 oz. white chocolate
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
Table salt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. cassis, chambord or other berry liqueur
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs

4 cups fresh raspberries
1/4 cup red current jelly

Heat the oven to 375°F. For the crust, whiz the ginger thins in a processor or crush by hand until you have fine crumbs. Melt the butter over a low heat. Mix together the crumbs, sugar, and melted butter until the mixture sticks together when pressed between your fingers. It will not come together as a ball of dough. Press the mixture into the base and sides of an eight-inch round, spring-form cake pan, taking care to make the crust as even as possible. Note: make sure it is not too thick along the bottom edge of the pan where the base meets the sides otherwise you will end up with an annoying wedge of too thick crust just here. Bake the crust for about 10 minutes, until it has darkened slightly. Leave too cool.

Next, lower the oven temperature to 300°F. For the filling, first melt the white chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water; allow to cool a little. Then mix together the cream cheese, melted chocolate, flour, and a pinch of salt, beating well until light and puffy. Blend in the sugar, liqueur and vanilla, then gently beat in the eggs one by one. Pour the filling into the crust, place on a baking sheet and set in the oven. Bake for about 50 minutes, until puffed up and set. Allow to cool and then refrigerate until fully chilled, at least 8 hours or overnight.

To serve the cake, slide a thin knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan and carefully remove pan’s side or ring. Then use the knife to loosen the cake from the pan’s base and gently slide the cake onto a plate. Pile the raspberries on top of the cake, melt the red current jelly on the stove, and then drizzle it over the berries.

Olney Report

In Food on March 12, 2011 at 14:29

Owing to my utter incompetence in navigating London traffic, we missed the race. By 10 minutes.

On the bright side we spent the day eating and drinking, devoured the entire rosemary lemon cake between the four of us, (without finding the bean), and returned home bearing mini-casks of Brainstorm, a local Olney beer from the new Hopping Mad Brewery.

On the Way to Olney

In Food on March 8, 2011 at 08:48

Happy Shrove Tuesday!

Yes, it’s here folks. Otherwise known as Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, it is the day on which (in case you haven’t figured it out by now) those of a Christian persuasion traditionally gorged themselves silly on pancakes slathered no doubt with butter and cream. As dairy products were forbidden during the 40 day lenten fast, this was the feast before the famine, the last opportunity for a religiously sanctioned binge on all that luscious milk-rich bovine goodness.

To celebrate, some friends an I are heading northwest of London to Olney, Buckinghamshire to watch an enduring, typically eccentric tradition that takes place annually in this village. Full details of this delightful absurdity will follow.

For the trip we need provisions. So I’ve baked a highly unorthodox kings cake, demonstrably not of Luisiana origin. But it contains the requisite bean, so there.

It is a lemon rosemary olive oil cake. Vegan, for my friend.

Beneath the Icing

In Food on November 28, 2010 at 11:11

Of all the desserts dreamed up throughout the ages by a million cooks, the continuing preeminence of cake is baffling. From weddings, graduations and birthdays to Valentine’s day, Easter and Christmas, cakes—specifically classic sponge cakes layered with a flavored cream and coated with frosting—are an edible representation of so much that is special and celebratory in life.

Yet they are almost always the least satisfying of desserts. Give me a steaming slice of apple pie, a luscious scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a devilish orb of truffle over a wedge of cake any day. And although my knees might not wobble over a mediocre lemon tart, I generally succumb to temptation no matter the quality of the product. But when it comes to cake my resolve doesn’t falter; I can eye the most glamorous creation without a flicker of enthusiasm rustling my taste buds, because I have learned from a litany of disappointing experiences that a cake’s beauty is surface deep—they’re all image and no substance. Once, when I was more impressionable, I might have been seduced by the glitz of silken frosting—or by a certain Hungarian boy with a devilish smile and the body of a particularly athletic Greek god—but I soon learned my lesson. Consequently, I now approach all seemingly angelic cakes and cherubic faces with equal skepticism.

Even as a kid I remember a feeling a pang of disenchantment over many a birthday cake. First it arrives with promising fanfare—is there any other dessert that is regularly crowned with candles and marched to the table to a vigorous tune? Then it is reverently sliced. Anticipation grows as you pass around the wedges with each layer intriguingly revealed like the geological strata of a canyon wall. The individual levels promise a delectable combination of cream and crumb, sweet and tang, smooth and crunch. And then there is the proverbial icing, so shiny and promising you ache dip a finger into its glossiness, just to test. Finally everyone has a slice and you attack with abandon, hefting a sizable segment onto your fork and delivering it to your taste buds. Alas, disillusionment is immediate, as you discover that the crumb is dry, the cream cloying, and the flavors bland.  A few experiences like this and you soon learn to shun cakes in favor of the less flashy virtues of a pie, souffle, or crumble.

However, there are certain exceptions to this rule, and over time I’ve come across a handful of cakes that deliver on the promise of a seductive exterior. They are few and far between, so when I find one it haunts me for ages. One such specimen was a cake I made several years ago for Christmas. I came across it in the October 2008 edition of Fine Cooking, an intriguing recipe for a “cinnamon caramel ganache layer cake.” It consisted of a cinnamon infused caramel chocolate filling, bittersweet chocolate sponge, and glossy ganache icing. . . I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and the result was well worth my faith. The sponge was delicate yet resonant with chocolate, the filling was warm and sweet with cinnamon, and the ganache had a refreshing bitter edge to it, balancing perfectly with the mellifluous layers beneath.

Yesterday I made this cake for a second time, so I can safely say that the first success wasn’t a fluke. It was a good as I’d remembered and well worth the slightly laborious preparation. I wouldn’t say this cake falls in the category of something you can simply whip up, in fact you really need to dedicate a whole afternoon to the endeavor, but it makes an utterly magnificent conclusion to any celebration.