Wednesday 23 December 2015

My grandmother's fruit cake

December and January are - in Australia anyway - associated with one cake. Though it's often called Christmas cake, fruit cake straddles the summer. For me it's evocative of catching up with rellies in between present shopping and menu planning in the lead up to the 25th, and of morning teas in rest areas on road trips in the new year. It goes as well with bone china, as it does with tea from a thermos. My grandmother Irene, who I've talked about here before, many times, was famous for her fruitcake. When she died, my mother took up the tradition, and now, this year, it falls to me. In mum's cooking files, I found my grandmother's original handwritten recipe. Curiously, it listed only the ingredients, and no mention of method, but after a little internet research I was able to take a stab at how they combined. The key point of difference in any fruit cake, it seems, is whether or not the fruit is boiled. From what I gather, the boiling is a shortcut to allow you to make the cake the day you want to eat it, speeding the softening of the dried fruit. My grandmother did not believe in short cuts, so I elected to take the long road and soak the fruit the night before. Really, this took no time at all and required nothing more than a bit of measuring out. The next day, it was just a matter of combining the plumped, boozy fruit with the remaining ingredients to form a rich, robust batter, pouring it into a tin and baking it for three hours in a slow (low) oven. Though I didn't have either of my senior fruit cake advisers on hand, I did have the help of my dad's 16 year old neighbour William, a keen baker with 2nd and 3rd place wins in the fruit cake division of the Brookfield Show behind him. On the lookout for a prospective 1st place recipe, he offered his services and I gratefully accepted. I'm pleased to report it was a win for both of us, the cake pulled from the oven as good as I remembered my grandmother's and my mother's: deep brown, moist, and fragrant with citrus, dried fruit and the memory of those who'd made it before me.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Pomegranate molasses butter cake

My friends bought a house. After years of slogging through the Sydney real estate wilderness, ruining their weekends inspecting overpriced, dark, dilapidated terraces and missing out at auctions, they ended up in the perfect place: not in Sydney.... but close enough to commute. Instead of aircraft overhead they have hang-gliders drifting silently down from an impossibly green escarpment up above, instead of staring at their neighbours, they now look at the ocean, and instead of abandoned shopping trolleys on the streets of their neighbourhood, there are swings rigged from trees (mostly with views). There's a lot to celebrate. A cake was called for. 

I came across this recipe just recently via the New York Times Cooking app on my iPad (which I highly recommend for its free access to the newspaper's entire database of recipes as well as handy videos on technique). I loved the simplicity of it - a basic butter cake kicked up a notch by a glamorous (yet inexpensive) ingredient - pomegranate molasses. This dark, sticky syrup is incorporated into every part of the cake - the batter, the frosting and even into the caramelising of the nuts on top - itdistinctive sweet/tart zing offsetting the buttery richness. A lovely diversion from the expected, and all the better for it.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Mum's orange cake

A few weeks ago, my mum died. There's so much to say but I just don't have the words right now so I'll stick to talking about cakes, which seems appropriate here in this space - specifically this cake, which is the first one my mother taught me to make. It's the one that was routinely requested for birthdays in my family, the one most often packed in school lunchboxes. In a time before food processors, she showed me how to cream butter and sugar with the natural warmth of my hand. She taught me how to separate eggs, how to beat yolks in, one at a time so as not to curdle the mixture. How to gently fold in flour, to beat egg whites into stiff peaks and use them to aerate a batter. From her I learned how to grease a tin, to butter comprehensively and dust with flour. She taught me to use a skewer to test whether a cake was ready to come out of the oven, to trust my nose to know when to check. In many ways, I'm a naturally anxious person - I routinely fret about things that need not be fretted about - but the one part of my life that I'm truly confident - where I do not fret - is in baking. And that's because of her

This recipe is one I photocopied and packed when I moved out of home. Mum must have ripped it out of a magazine at my grandparents' place I imagine (it was never her style to buy something so frivolous but she couldn't resist reading one if it was lying around, especially the recipe section). From the date at the bottom of the page I know it's from two months after I was born, so effectively, she's been making it all my life. There are several recipes on the page but Mum has annotated this one with an asterisk and in her amazingly consistent handwriting, which now brings me to tears, she declares it excellent. And so do I.