This week at college has been afternoon tea week. The name sounds elegant, serene, and not terribly labour-intensive. It’s the main event in the college calendar to show off to one’s loved ones: an actual afternoon tea, hosted by superior students, to which friends and family are invited to try our wares, all participating in the fiction that they haven’t spent the last six months having our class bakes almost literally rammed down their throats.
The reality is slightly different. It is panicked and long and arduous and, I realise as the guests are filing in and I am standing at the back of house using my teeth to frantically rip press-stud covers off my chef’s whites so that I can swap over my lapels to hide great swathes of raspberry jam that I managed to get all across my chest, about as far from elegant as anyone could be.
32 superior students work together in sub teams over a day and a half to make, I reckon, 1500 miniature cakes, 5 kilos of scones, and 20 full size cakes (to ‘decorate the room’, obviously). These miniatures are always intricate and identical, and the larger cakes echo their decoration. The irony was not lost on me, then, when two of the five cakes allocated to my little group were lemon posset, which I’d written about for Spectator Life last week, and carrot cake, which I’d planned for this week’s blog. The initial disappointment (no, really) that I wasn’t going to get to try lots of new things, quickly subsided into relief that at least a couple of our dishes, I’d have nailed.
But of course, that wasn’t quite the case. Le Cordon Bleu doesn’t just make carrot cake. A lemon posset isn’t just a lemon posset. Which is how I found myself making macaroons, soaking half of them in kirsch, whipping chantilly cream, candying zest, dehydrating channeled lemon slices, and making bubbly sugar for my little lemon possets. The carrot cakes were made individually in tiny loaf pans, with icing piped in a st honore style, and decorated with tempered chocolate squares and candied orange zest. And frankly, these were the easy ones; alongside them we made marcelines (I’m still not entirely sure what these are), a lot of scones, and a complicated mousse cake called a prince noir that I accidentally called ‘pinot noir’ for the entirety of the two days.
It started well, with enthusiasm, and a lot of energetic lemon julienning, but quickly became messy. The sheer number of elements to be prepared, and the number of cakes we were making was overwhelming, and the best laid plans of mice and men were lying in tatters, covered in flour. Timeplans were abandoned, my recipe list was a disgrace, covered in chocolate and butter.
Of course, we got there in the end. Right at the end. I mean, right down to the wire. Rows of tiny glasses filled with posset, and the bubbly sugar that took me over four times the amount of time it should have done to make; countless tiny carrot cakes; trays of marcelines, each with a single, perfect candied almond; uniform rectangles of prince noir, each bearing a carefully balanced chocolate spiral that I had spent far too long tempering and setting; and dozens of napkin baskets filled with fresh, towering scones.
By the end of it, I never wanted to see a fucking carrot cake again. Or at least, not 45 of them, lined up, bearing perfect icing, with exquisite decoration.
But, of course, baking at home is a completely different ball game, and the way I feel about this carrot cake is different. There’s no candied zest, no chocolate decoration; it’s made in a standard round pan, and the icing is smeared on unceremoniously, not a piping bag to be seen.
So here it is: it’s just a carrot cake. But it’s a good one. And I’ve infused the buttercream and sultanas with earl grey because if you can make something taste of earl grey, why wouldn’t you?
It goes like this:
Earl Grey Carrot Cake
Makes: 1 20cm carrot cake
Takes: 30 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 1 hour 15 minutes
For the cake
150 ml vegetable oil
230g self raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice
230g light brown sugar
1 orange, zested
4 medium carrots, grated
100g pecans, chopped
1 earl grey teabag
For the icing
2 earl grey teabags, or 2 tablespoons loose leaf earl grey
1 orange, zested
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
150g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
1. First, infuse your butter. Melt the butter, and add the teabags or looseleaf tea. Leave to infuse for fifteen minutes, and then squeeze out and remove the teabags, or sieve out the looseleaf tea. Allow to cool and solidify.
2. Make a small cup of earl grey with the teabag, and soak the sultanas in it for 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the sultanas.
3. Now make your cake. Preheat the oven to 160°C, and grease and line a 20cm cake tin. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, and add the carrot, soaked sultanas, pecans and orange zest. Stir in the sugar. Mix the oil and eggs together, and then add to the large bowl and stir well.
4. Pour the batter into the tin, and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes, or until the middle of the cake springs back when gently pressed with a finger, and a skewer comes out clean.
5. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin, and cool completely.
6. When the cake has completely cooled, cream the earl grey butter until pale and soft. Beat in the cream cheese until the whole mixture is soft. Add the orange zest, vanilla paste and the icing sugar, and continue beating until the mixture is thick and smooth, and goes from being floppy to holding on the whisk. Smooth onto the cake using a palette knife.
7. Ta dah!