A birthday weekend is always an excuse to bake a cake. Will it be vanilla with cream cheese icing, or cream and jam, all over frosting or a light dusting of icing sugar? Or a squidgy carrot cake, coffee and walnut or chocolate fudge?
Whatever the choice the gathering together of utensils and ingredients is a pleasure rather than a chore. Softening the butter and mixing with sugar until fluffy, adding the eggs and folding in the dried ingredients a simple and well practiced routine. I always know when a cake’s done because you can smell it. OK, I admit it, the washing up and putting away is a bit of a bore but there’s time to do it while the cake cooks. Someone gets to lick the spoon and everyone is happy. Anyone can make a cake, and I mean anyone.
There are other cooking tasks I really enjoy because of the gathering together of genuinely good things. If there’s a glut of courgettes in the garden I make a bucket of ratatouille for the freezer. A big pile of onions and peppers cut into small dice and the chunky discs of courgette fried off in a slug of olive oil, a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes, and some tomato puree, and a bit of fresh basil, if I’ve got any drooping on the window sill, simmered ’til its thick and fudgy. A glug of red wine adds a bit of body.
Then there’s chutney of any type to use up anyone’s spare produce. Gooseberry with its tartness, and apple and ginger with its spicy tang. The piles of chopped ingredients waiting to go into the pan and the smell when the vinegar and sugar combine is joy, not forgetting the satisfying glop sound as it reduces down to a pot-able mass.
Jam is a bit of a tricky exercise. Having always sworn by a jam thermometer and often ended up with ‘very well set’ jam indeed. Spoon bendingly set. I’ve resorted now to the old fashioned wrinkle test on a cold saucer. Which if you’ve never done it sounds bizarre but trust me it works. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s friend Pam the Jam has all the answers to pots and pickles (although she uses a jam thermometer). I don’t think there’s a fruit or veg that Pam hasn’t preserved in one way or another.
A friend let me sample her Sloe Conserve at Christmas. It was divine. She patiently waits gets her sloes from the same bush every year, and its location is well known so there’s a bit of a competition to who can get there first when harvest time comes. I’m going to track down my own source and try to make it myself this year, if she’ll share her recipe.
Ooh then there’s the blackcurrant vodka, using up the huge quantity of blackcurrants we get and have nothing to do with. That’s vodka, blackcurrants, sugar, a bottle and a dark cupboard. With a ribbon round it – that’s a present right there. Happy Days.
I know its not just me who enjoys these simple things, and makes time to do one or two of them when they can. A freezer with something “ready” or the kitchen cupboard with jars waiting to be cracked open is a bonus. My sister makes a mean chilli jam and delicious mango chutney so there’s exchanging to be done, and if someone gives me fruit they get jam or a cake in exchange.
Before I get completely carried away with Nigella Lawson aspirations I’ll mention the last birthday cake I made. A chocolate chip one was requested and following an American recipe with cup measures I served up a confection that frankly would have been better at home filling gaps in a dry stone wall. Success is not always guaranteed.
So the birthday girl this weekend will have Chocolate Courgette Cake (and believe me you wouldn’t know it has courgettes in it). Hopefully it will be moist, chocolatey and delicious and we’ll sing, and she’ll make a wish and there will be happy faces. Simple. Cake anyone?
If you’d like the recipe, send me a message 🙂