Sunday, 7 August 2011

if i could just focus on one thing long enough to...

Among the plots and plans that clatter incessantly in my head is a long-cherished dream of writing a cookbook, almost certainly focusing on cake recipes, almost inevitably modelled on How To Be a Domestic Goddess (despite my deep-seated antipathy to Nigella Lawson, it's one of my favourites) but more indie-punk in spirit: How To Be a Domestic Riot Grrrl, perhaps. I doubt it will have much appeal beyond people like me who find it essentially impossible to follow a recipe without tweaking it in some way, who use them not as lists of instructions but starting points, sources of inspiration. I've just finished reading Kathryn Hughes' biography of Isabella Beeton, which is absorbing, enlightening and infuriating in roughly equal measure; in one of my favourite chapters, she describes how Mrs B fought against the snobbery implicit in much of the cookery-writing of her day, by setting out her recipes clearly, precisely and methodically, thus making them equally accessible to practised chefs and those who didn't know a skillet from a griddle. It's not that I can't see the usefulness of being prescriptive in this way, more that I personally chafe against it.

There is a cheering suggestion of egalitarianism in Hughes' Beeton, something you don't get from, for instance, this opening line in the “Essential information: the golden rules of baking” section of Julie Duff's book Cakes, which makes me fume whenever I read it: “Baking is something to enjoy, but unlike a lot of cookery, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to follow the recipe.” No it's not! What a pernicious attitude this is. It assumes that only one kind of cake – the kind guaranteed to win awards at competitions run by village fetes – is worth making. It suggests that baking is a daunting, rigorous scientific process (not that I have anything against rigorous scientific processes) to be approached in a spirit of caution. And it's preposterously egotistical, denying other people the opportunity to be creative with their baking, giving the impression that a cake will taste good only if you endeavour to replicate the divine writer's cooking, when in fact – as my friend David is so good at reminding me when I have my occasional baking flaps – it's quite hard for something containing vast quantities of butter and sugar not to taste good, however you go about boshing it together.

I frequently feel a sort of amazement at being friends with David: he's the kind of person I'm more used to worshipping from afar. He's a staggeringly good writer; for a long stretch of time he wasn't well enough to write, so it's thrilling that he's started working again, for The Quietus. He's dazzlingly smart: pretty much every time we're together I learn something from him about music or books or pop or queer culture. He also has a magic ability to befriend people who make the art that he likes: what I find remarkable about this isn't that they should adore him, because on top of everything he's funny and kind and intensely interested in the brilliant things people do, but just that he should have the confidence to form those relationships (I don't, hence my awe). A few months ago I opened up an email from him that he was sending to his nearest and dearest, and when I realised that my name was nestled alongside Mark Eitzel's and John Grant's I nearly fell off my chair.

As well as having impeccable taste in all things music and literature, David has the sweetest of tooths. He's a dab hand at whipping up a cake or jam himself: I savour memories of his iced lemon and pistachio cake, his tangerine and brown sugar marmalade, and the thimbleful of his elderberry jam I hid from the rest of the family, which ranks among the most exquisite confections I've ever eaten. A while ago, he told me about a cake he had eaten at the best deli in Glasgow: a lemon, olive oil and rosemary cake that had been unspeakably good. Since then, we've set about trying to make our own version, using recipes from the internet as rough guides. His was delicious, but the Glasgow one had been quite dense and crunchy and his was more spongy, which made him wonder if it ought to have polenta in it (he had used only flour). I made one for an Actionettes tea party in May that was also good but not quite rosemary enough. I've been meaning to post up the recipe ever since, but – typically – didn't write it down. So I made it up all over again the other weekend, put in too much baking powder and ended up with a sunken cake. None the less, it was yummy: dense but moist, good crumb, crunchy from a bit of demerara sugar I mixed in on a whim, fragrant with rosemary. And this time I remembered to write it down, correcting the baking powder quantity as I did so. So here it is, for David, with love.

Lemon, olive oil and rosemary cake

150ml olive oil

3 eggs

150ml sour cream

juice and rind of two lemons

125g caster sugar

50g demerara sugar

30cm stick of rosemary, leaves stripped off and cut into tiny pieces

100g flour

150g polenta

2 tsp baking powder

half tsp bicarb of soda

There are two ways of doing this. Method one: put all the wet stuff in a bowl with the two sugars and beat them together until they're amalgamated in a luscious, sweet and runny mayonnaise, stir in the lemon rind and rosemary, then fold in the flour, polenta and raising agents. Method two: separate the eggs, put the yolks in a bowl with the lemon juice, olive oil, sugars and sour cream and beat until luscious, stir in the lemon rind and rosemary, fold in the flour, polenta and raising agents, then in a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until they form sturdy peaks and fold those in. I've tried both ways, both come out well, but I probably have a preference for the second method, even though (and possibly because) it's more work. Either way, pour the batter into a 18-20cm round cake tin (I lined mine with greaseproof) and bake at 180-190 (again, I've done both, depending on what else was in the oven, with equally good results) for 45 or so minutes. It's good with lemon icing, either the kind the sits crisply on top or the kind that melts into the cake; it's even better with lemon sorbet on the side. Oh, and don't forget the raspberries.

A coda: I gave up using Julie Duff's book when none of the recipes – and for once I did make an effort to follow them to the letter – had good results. Her dough for raspberry buns was a sticky disaster, whereas when I followed the Mrs Beeton recipe (at least, the recipe in my beloved 1960 edition of the Book of Household Management) they were, as they ought to be, very fine indeed. So there.