I spend a lot of time evangelising about stews and soups and curries and their particular value during the colder months. And they are important. They swaddle you in warmth, they comfort you with their stodge or depth or nursery-like qualities: they feed you up, and steel you against the outside world.
But sometimes, as November drags its miserable feet, when the weather is bitterly rather than sweetly cold, and the rain isn’t the heart-pumping pour of romantic comedies, but a dull, interminable drizzle that makes your shoes and soul soggy, it is a better person than I who can think of a soup or stew they had two evenings ago, and still smile.
It’s easy to be phlegmatic about the weather and the season when wrapped up in front of Brief Encounter at home on a Sunday afternoon. It is harder on a Tuesday morning as the wind whistles through Hackney Downs station.
And, yes, I love Autumn as it falls into Winter and careers into Christmas, and every food is – by law – slightly spiced, and a bit drunken, and followed by a Quality Street chaser. I am the biggest proponent of Christmas food, but sometimes Christmas just isn’t close enough, and eating a mealy, dry mince pie at 3pm in the office won’t cut the mustard.
This is a cake to brighten the soul on the dreariest days. This is a taste of summer, of sunshine, of holidays. This doesn’t embrace November, it sticks two fingers up to it. It is zippy and exciting, the lemon syrup zinging through the robust, sponge, and the shredded coconut laughing in the face of pitch black commutes.
I accept that there is a clanging irony in prescribing what is, truly, a drizzle cake, to counteract the misery that drizzle brings. I’m ok with that. It is bright and sunshiney and cheering.The sky clears as you eat it.
It also has the advantage of being a forgiving bake, because even if you overwork the sponge slightly, or bake it for too long, it is then drowned in a syrup, which covers a multitude of sins. If you’re able to leave the cake sitting in the tin for a couple of hours, or overnight, the syrup will soak right down to the foot of the cake, and the undissolved sugar will solidify into a crisp, sweet-sharp shell.
A sidenote: microplanes are God’s own kitchen implement. It truly makes a tedious, awkward, inefficient job a total joy. I couldn’t believe how much zest one lemon elicited when I first used one, mounds of perfect lemon threads, peeling effortlessly away from my little bald lemon. This is probably because whenever I used my old blunt zester, all I got was tiny droplets of lemon oil which would disappear into the ether as I sawed backwards and forwards. I cannot recommend one highly enough.
It goes like this:
Glorious Lemon and Coconut Sunshine Cake
Makes: 1 loaf cake (6 fat slabs, more if you have something approaching decorum)
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour
245g sugar [this will be split into 175g for the sponge and 70g for the syrup]
2 really good lemons
3 large eggs
100g self-raising flour
75g dessicated coconut
25ml whole milk
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees. Line a loaf tin with baking parchment (I do this by cutting two lengths of baking paper, one the width of the tin, and one the length, and placing one on top of the other).
2. Zest one lemon. Muddle together 175g sugar with that zest. This is best done with a spatula or wooden spoon. Stop and smell the bowl. This is one of my favourite smells in the world.
3. Cream the lemony sugar with the butter.
4. Weigh the flour. Add the three eggs to the creamed butter and sugar mixture, one at a time. You need to properly combine your eggs with the creamed butter and sugar, but if the mixture looks split or scrambled, add a tablespoon of flour between each egg from your pre-weighed flour, and this should fix the problem.
5. Fold in the flour and coconut to your cake batter.
6. Add the milk slowly, mixing thoroughly, until the batter reluctantly falls off the spoon.
7. Spoon the batter into the tin and gently tip the tin so that the batter evens out.
8. Place in the oven for an hour, checking on it periodically from 45 minutes. If the top is looking a little more-than-golden than you might like, gently cover with a tent of tin foil.
9. Zest your unzested lemon, and juice it and its twin. Add all of this to 70g caster sugar and stir to encourage it to dissolve (it won’t all dissolve, don’t worry).
10. Remove from oven and using a cake tester or chopstick, poke holes throughout the whole cake (don’t skimp on this: you want as much of your cake as possible to receive a syrup soaking).
11. Pour the syrup slowly, and as evenly as you can, over the cake. Try and wait for the cake to absorb the syrup before adding more, or – because the loaf will have slightly domed during baking – the syrup will pool at the edges.
12. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake
This cake is stable enough to eat in slices; I wrap it in tin foil and take it to work as a mid-morning stabiliser or to soothe me late afternoon. But it also makes a handsome pudding, eaten with cake forks and a dollop of crème fraîche.