I made my first wedding cake this week. It was, without doubt, the most nerve-wracking bake I have ever done, and could probably even compete with some of my scarier criminal cases in the nail-biting stakes.
It turns out that the only thing being able to bake small cakes for a handful of people and erecting a three tier, multiple layered, decorated monstrosity have in common is equal amounts of hope and denial.
The cake that the couple wanted was a naked cake, without icing on the outside; effectively three tiers of three layers of sponge cakes filled with buttercream and jams, like a victoria sponge. So far so simple. But the difficulty with sponge cakes is that you can’t make them ahead of the big day. They don’t respond well to freezing and defrosting like big, fat, moist chocolate cakes. You can’t make them weeks or months in advance, drip-feeding them with sherry or rum or whisky, like fruit cakes. Made more than a day ahead of celebrations, the cake will inevitably stale. There’s no saving a stale sponge cake. Even the biggest cake naif will recognise the error and wrinkle away in distaste.
All of which is to say that the cake had to be baked in its entirety no more than the day before the wedding. Which would have been absolutely fine if I hadn’t found myself with nine hours of classes and a three hour round trip on the day before the wedding.
I like last minute. I like throwing things together. I’ve always quite liked a bit of pressure. I’m one of those people who inexplicably boasts about never being able to get something done unless I’m staring down the barrel of a deadline.
However, six hours of baking, plus what felt like several years of buttercream making (not helped by accidentally throwing an entire bowlful on the floor half way through) is not a pressure I ever thought I’d find myself facing. And as glad as I am to have played a part in the wedding of a close friend, and mostly that I somehow managed to actually get a cake to the venue in time without tipping it down myself, this weekend I will giving myself a break.
So instead of a hundred victoria sponges made in some sort of Crystal Maze-esque time pressure test, I will be making these cheddar soda breads.
These little breads are precisely the sort of thing I do enjoy knocking up. I love soda bread. When I first began baking, I ignored it, dismissing it (bizarrely) as some kind of cheat route to bread. Which is, obviously, exactly what it is. And is also, obviously, exactly why it is such a gorgeous bread to make. Soda bread is impossibly easy, with no instructions really needed beyond ‘mix wet and dry ingredients; shape’. It’s great for using up yoghurt or milk that is slightly past its best. Because this is a no-yeast quick bread, it doesn’t need any proving time.
I use the most mature cheddar I can find: the streaks and pockets of cheese through the little buns are tiny joys. They smell fantastic while they’re baking, but also taste truly cheesy: they are the antidote to every promising but ultimately disappointing cheese scone you’ve ever had.
It goes like this:
Cheddar Soda Bread
Makes: 5 small loaves
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
400g plain flour
400g wholemeal flour
25g baking powder
250g mature cheddar.
1. Preheat over to 180°C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and sprinkle with flour
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a jug, measure out and mix the buttermilk and honey. If you are making your own buttermilk, measure out the same quantity of milk, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, mix once with a spoon, and allow to sit for five minutes until thickened.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix immediately, using your hands. You need the dough to come together cohesively, but to work it as little as possible. The dough won’t be smooth or elastic, so don’t worry if it looks a little scraggy.
4. Divide the dough into pieces of around 300g, and briefly roll to form balls. Place on the baking trays, spaced well apart and – using a knife or dough scraper – press a cross stretching the length and breadth of the dough ball. This should be deep: you want to stop just short of dividing the dough ball.
5. Bake for 25-35 minutes until golden and cheesy-smelling. Cool for fifteen minutes before carefully peeling from the paper. Eat warm, if possible, but these will also keep for at least a day, and toasts up well.
Icing on the Cake
We ate these straight out of the oven, broken into quarters and piled with really good butter.