I am, in truth, an incurable showoff: disgustingly competitive and wanting nothing more than to bathe in the adoration of others. Which is why I was irritated this week, when the home baking I’d poured blood, sweat and golden syrup into looked, well…home baked.
I stewed over this fact: despite my best efforts, the food I produce generally looks a little messy, a little unkempt. I made myself miserable with what I saw as sheer culinary ineptitude. I began to resent the very thing I’d spent three years learning and loving. When I was asked to turn up with a cake for a major birthday, I panicked.
I struggle with the essential homeliness of my cooking. Even on my good days, my croissants are always slightly lopsided, my meringues ‘abstract’, my icing a tad haphazard. Sometimes my sauces split, and my heart breaks. Sometimes my cakes don’t rise, and my heart sinks. The idea gnawed away at me that I simply wasn’t capable of producing a beautiful celebration cake, like I wanted to. I just wasn’t up to the task.
The miserable danger of the internet is the ease with which you can find someone doing anything better than you do it. Everywhere you turn there are individuals showing off their talents with nonchalant aplomb. In the name of seeking inspiration for this celebration cake, I ended up in pinterest baking blackholes, watching men and women I had never met mastering macarons and producing perfect patisserie.
Like picking at a scab, I returned to these sites and pictures and accounts again and again. I picked at that scab. It hurt.
I spent days feeling sad about my inability to create smooth icing. Days. Now, I recognise the level of self-involvement this level of mourning for cake suggested. How ridiculous it was. But at the time, I couldn’t help feeling like a failure. I’d failed in my quest to become an adept, proficient home baker. I would always be an amateur.
And then, I realised that that was surely why I began cooking in the first place. To create a cosiness and comfort and homeliness. Why, exactly, should homely be lesser?
I long to be neat and professional and collected. To work clean. To remain unflustered. Not to cry when I burn myself, or drop eggs, or splash my cookbooks.
But I know that in all honesty, I never will be neat or tidy. I will leave the house with wet hair. I will forget to iron my dress and wear it anyway. I will leave dishes in the sink in favour of a cup of tea and an episode of Broadchurch. I will never really be graceful or elegant. And neither will my cakes.
And really truly, isn’t that the delight of homebaking? I’m a cook, not a chef. The joy of home baking is that food is pretty much always love. You don’t bake cakes for people you hate. It’s not supposed to be professional. It’s not commercial. It doesn’t need to take into account costing or profit. It is an end in itself. Home cooking is an act of love.
If you come home cold and tired and a little bit sad, you can make beans on toast. That’s OK. You can’t do that in a professional kitchen. Or, I suspect, if you did, words would be exchanged. Equally, if you are filled with longing for a plum cake, you can make one.
Of course, the irony is, nothing is more likely to garner you adoration than a homemade cake. So I bake this cake proudly, and with love. And then I take this cake to parties. I take it to work. I take it to friends. I take it to family. I give it with love. And sometimes, sitting in my cosy home, I eat it and love myself a little more. This may not be the most handsome cake ever baked, but it’s possibly the most delicious I have ever made. It has won me friends and influenced people. It has impressed. It has done me proud. It has made me proud.
So this is a simple cake. An unashamedly messy cake. It is a cake that it is a bit like me. And that’s OK. I choose simple. I choose homely. I choose love.
The sweetness of the fruit is balanced by the slightly savoury burnt butter in the sponge, and then topped by the best butter icing I have ever tasted.
The icing is what makes this cake, which is absurd given how simple it is. For those already initiated into the burnt butter cult, none of this will come as news. For those who have not yet been brain-washed: burnt butter (or browned butter) is magical. Browning butter feels like alchemy. It seems ridiculous that simply by taking butter beyond the point of melting, right up to the point of almost burning, until it turns a deep copper, it can tranform the flavour of an entire cake. But trust me. Do not discard the brown sediment: this is where so much of the flavour is, and it gives the icing a beautiful speckled appearance.
Do use tinned fruit for this cake, they’re softer and sweeter than their fresh counterparts, but don’t be put off when you see them: they are not the most attractive of things, but will transform when enrobed in a mellow, almondy, slightly savoury burnt butter batter. These tins are available at big supermarkets and, often, smaller corner shops. Drain them well to prevent a soggy cake.
Note that you will need to brown and cool the butter before using for the cake, so if possible do this a day in advance.
It goes like this:
Brown butter plum and almond cake
Makes: One medium-sized cake
Takes: 2 hours plus chilling and cooling
Bakes: 1 hour 30
For the cake:
125g burnt butter (see below)
567g tin of red plums
125g light brown sugar
125g self raising flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
75g ground almonds
1 teaspoon almond extract
For the brown butter icing
125g burnt butter
140g golden icing sugar (or just icing sugar if you can’t get hold of the golden)
A small splash of milk (about 1 tablespoon)
1. First brown your butter. Place the butter in a deep, heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat. The butter will melt, and then bubble for quite a long time. It will look like it is never going to do anything else. It will then suddenly foam up, and die down again. At this point, the magic will take hold. The butter will smell nutty, and as the foam dies away, you will see that it has transformed: where before there was yellow, slightly greasy smelling butter, now there is a pan of burnished bronze with flecks of dark brown. Decant into tupperware or similar (you need something thoroughly heatproof or it will melt the container), scraping all the brown grainy bits at the bottom. Allow to cool before using.
2. Preheat your oven to 150°C, and line the base of a 20cm round springform tin with baking paper (this sticks better if you put a little bit of butter between the paper and tin), and lightly grease the sides of the tin with butter.
3. Tip the tin of plums into a colander. Chop the drained plums into small pieces, removing the stones, Return the cut plum to the colander and leave them to drain further whilst you whip up the cake.
4. Cream together the browned butter and brown sugar. I use electric hand beaters here and just keep beating and increasing the speed until the mixture turns from sand to rubble and finally lightens in colour, increases in volume, and becomes fluffy. You can do this with a spatula or wooden spoon, but be patient, and make sure your butter really is room temperature.
5. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing them thoroughly into the mixture. Add the almond essence.
6. Stir the flour and baking powder gently through the mixture until properly combined.
7. Stir in the ground almonds, and finally the drained plums. Pour or spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and give it a gentle jiggle to even out the surface.
8. Bake for 1 hour 30 minutes, or until when you gently press the surface of the cake with a finger, it springs back. I cover the cake with tin foil from about the 45 minute mark to stop the top browning too much. You may want to do this depending on your oven.
9. Allow the cake to cool fully before icing or it will melt.
10. For the icing, beat together the icing sugar and the browned butter, gently at first so that the process doesn’t envelop you in a cloud of golden icing sugar. You can do this in a stand mixture or with electric beaters or by hand. If doing it by hand, do it with a wooden spoon or spatula rather than a whisk. If using a stand mixture, keep scraping the sides down or you’ll end up with an uneven mixture. The icing will turn into a sandy mixture, then a rubble, and then a distinctive buttercream. At this stage it will be the colour of milky coffee. Keep beating it until it noticeably lightens into a pale oatmeal: now it is ready.
11. Pile onto the cake liberally and distribute as evenly as possible. This is not a cake that demands precision or faff. Thank God.
(If you can leave the iced cake for a while and allow the buttercream to crust, the cake will slice more cleanly.)
Icing on the Cake
I serve this to friends and colleagues and family and strangers. And they all adore me. And I eat it at home, on my own, and I adore me.
[This cake is based on a plum cake of Nigella’s that I’ve injected with burnt butter and added a burnt butter icing]