Thursday, 26 March 2009

Remembrance of cakes past

On Sunday, we went to Columbia Road Flower Market . It was so crowded, it being both gloriously, unexpectedly sunny and Mothers’ Day, I swear that at one point in the crush someone was trying to remove my kidney.

I jostled through the bouquet-toting masses (or should that be, massive) to Carl’s stall where I buy my cut flowers each week. His rows of jewel-coloured tulips, ranunculus, hyacinths and anemones looked tempting as an old-fashioned sweet shop and there, right in front, yellow and fluffy as day-old chicks, were armfuls of mimosa.

Mimosa’s sweet, clean, slightly briny smell always pulls me back to the Easter when I was 13 and staying with Laure, my French exchange. Each morning, I unwrapped myself from the cool linen sheets and stumbled in inky darkness to the windows. I opened the heavy shutters and the brilliant light of the South West flooded the room. The scent of the mimosa tree below was the first thing I smelled each day. Heady stuff for the girl from County Durham.

As you know, food was not the most important thing in our house. And yet there I was, cheating on my parents by falling so willingly, so wantonly in love with this home where dinner formed its beating pulse. I was the first to volunteer to collect the bread from the bakery, wandering back along the dusty path with the baguette under my arm, nibbling a few crumbs from its end as I went. I happily whisked vinaigrette for the salad, carefully measuring out three spoons of olive oil to one of red wine vinegar and just the right amount of mustard. I watched carefully when, after dinner, Madame threw together a chocolate cake for the following evening’s dessert.

A few months ago I found the little exercise book I’d filled during my trip. I wanted to hug my sweet, earnest 13-year-old self when I read this:

‘I wonder what I really will do! And I wonder what the me of 5 years time will think of this dreamy 13 year old who has many ideas but whose main fault is lazyness. Next term at school I will try to work harder. I say that every term.’

Intoxicated by my mimosa-madeleine-moment, I thought I’d make Madame Sarrodie’s chocolate cake and it was just as good as I remembered - rich and fudgy, with a crispy top, like the best brownie. I did tinker with it a bit (I can’t help myself), replacing margarine with butter and adding a little vanilla and salt.

I was also inspired by a great article by Xanthe Clay in The Telegraph on how to make killer brownies. In her quest to create the perfect, dense interior and crackled top, she gleaned a great tip from American Queen of All Things Chocolate, Alice Medrich. She advises taking the brownies out of the oven and immediately plunging the tin into iced water to stop the cooking process. I wanted to try this with my cake and was all ready to go, the sink bobbing with ice cubes, when I remembered I’d used a loose-bottomed tin. I managed to stop myself just in time, but if you use a simple cake tin, or next time you make brownies, do give it a go and let me know how you get on.

Madame Sarrodie’s chocolate cake

80g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
180ml whole milk
125g dark chocolate, about 70%, broken into small pieces
175g caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
150g plain flour, seived
½ tsp vanilla extract
A good pinch of salt

Cocoa or icing sugar for dusting if you like

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Butter a 22cm, loose-bottomed cake tin then lightly dust it with cocoa.

In a saucepan over a low heat, melt together the butter and milk. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Leave it for a minute and then beat until smooth. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the vanilla and salt. Next, gently fold in the flour until just combined.

Beat the egg whites until stiff then gently fold them into the chocolate mixture with a spatula or metal spoon. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Leave on a rack until cool enough to handle, then remove the tin and cool completely before cutting. You can dust it with icing sugar or cocoa if you’re having a fancy day.

When I’m baking chocolate cake, I dust the baking tin with cocoa rather than flour – you get the non-stickability, without the whitish floury film which spoils the look of your cake.

Most sweet things benefit from a pinch of salt, and when I’m cooking with chocolate, I love to use this beautiful vanilla sea salt from Halen Môn , in Anglesey, Wales. It’s good, in very small doses, with scallops, too.


  1. is there any chance you could courier this round to the heat office immediately?! jules xx

  2. Well, let me not to the pursuit of great gossip, create impediments... It is scientifically proven that chocolate cake improves the detection of scandal, naughtiness and general ne'er do wellery. Fact.

    Big love to you - looking forward to seeing you at Easter.


  3. Oooh that looks delicious - perfect for an Easter treat!
    Clare x

  4. Well, Miss Clare, if you get yourself down here, I promise to make you one...


  5. That's an offer I certainly can't refuse! I'll talk to you both over the weekend and set a date! xx

  6. Got to say that is the best looking chocolate cake I have seen on the 'net so far. Loving your recipes. Keep them coming.
    Fellow North Londoner.

  7. Hello FNL - How very lovely of you to say so. Do come back and see what I'm up to, neighbour. Sorry, that sounds a bit Little House on the Prairie, but you know what I mean!


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