Sunday 9 May 2010

What do we talk about when we talk about cake?

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

We went to Victoria and Helder’s for dinner. I told her I’d been to watch my nephew Angus play rugby. This is how long we’ve known each other. He was born just after we met. He’s now well over six feet tall and learning to drive.

Candle lit drinks

In those seventeen years, we’ve been each other’s autodial for crises large and small, deadlines and hemlines, heartbreak and house hunting, mortgages and marriages. She held my hand on my wedding day; I made the cake and a speech (complete with quotations from the Mary Tyler Moore show) at hers.

On this most recent sunny evening, we tucked into Helder’s barbecued cauliflower and spatchcocked chicken. He’s Portuguese. He knows his way around a grill. And I brought along a cake for pudding.

Helder's BBQ

Cake: the shortest measurable distance between now and then, something about its comforting sweetness pulls memories from their recesses better than any truth drug. Cutting into a big, soft slice is the culinary equivalent of ‘Once upon a time…’

Slice of cake

Our husbands really like each other, which is great as when they go off on some kind of techno gizmo riff, V and I can indulge in all of our ‘Remember when…’ conversations.

Like the time when, in our single days, we used to take each other out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

Like the time when I was being pursued by a Nigerian musician and I forced her to come with me to an Ogoni wedding in a community centre in Dollis Hill. In a wedding album far, far away there are pictures of us drinking neat gin out of the bottle cap with the band.

Like the time we hitched a ride in a lorry up the Holloway Road with a French waiter we’d kidnapped from our favourite local restaurant. We were headed for a snooker club. This was in the days of stricter licensing laws and it was one of the few places you could get a drink after midnight, but you needed a bloke to sign you in.

Like the time she was invited to a reception at Number 10 and spent all day working out what her perfect opening line to the Prime Minister would be. When the moment came, what came out of her mouth was ‘Gordon, do you realise you have ink all over your sleeve?’

Like the time when I got a call for a job I really, really wanted and was so stressed out, over prepared and sleep deprived by the time I got to the interview, when the questioning got challenging my best retort was a tetchy ‘Look, you called me. If you think you’re going to make me cry, you’re not.’

Eyjafjallajökull fortold?

Victoria and Helder’s son Luca, my gorgeous godson, spent a lot of time in April making volcanoes. Then Eyjafjallajökull erupted. We are watching very closely for what he next moulds in clay, in case it’s a Tory government.

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

White chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge

This recipe is from Fiona Cairns’ cake-alicious book, Bake and Decorate: Tea Time Luxury (Quadrille, £19.99). It’s full of fabulous sweet treats, from fondant fancies and rosebud fairy cakes to gilded chocolate tiffin and strawberry, mint and balsamic cheesecake. It’s also crammed with Fiona’s great cake decorating tips, finely honed after years of being baker to the stars. It’s beautiful too, with photographs by the wonderful Laura Hynd. Laura took gorgeous pictures for Mark Diacono’s book, Taste of the Unexpected, which comes out in the autumn and for which I wrote the recipes.

Serves 8

130g unsalted butter, softened, plus more to grease the tin
20 green cardamom pods (or 1 tsp ground)
170g self-raising flour
100g white chocolate, chopped
130g white caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

100g white chocolate, finely chopped
100ml double cream
2 tsp rosewater

150g icing sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 170C/350F/Gas mark 4. Fiona Cairns makes this cake in a heart-shaped tin measuring 23cm at its widest point and 6.5cm deep, as did I, but she suggests a 20cm round, 7.5cm deep tin as an alternative. Butter the tin very well, then line with baking parchment.

Cardamom pods

Deseed the cardamom pods: split them with the point of a knife, empty out the little seeds and grind them to a powder in a pestle and mortar. There may be a few pieces of husk mixed in, so sift the cardamom powder together with the flour to remove them. (My note: or use 1tsp ground cardamom. I like the one from lovely spice company, Steenbergs,  - they do mail order.)

Place the chocolate in a food processor with half the sugar. Process until as fine as possible. Take 2tbsp hot water – not boiling or the chocolate will seize – and leave it until you can just dip in your finger. Dribble it into the chocolate, processing until most has melted. Add the remaining sugar and butter, cut into knobs, and process well. Add the eggs, flour and vanilla and mix again. Don’t worry if there are tiny pieces of chocolate left in the batter.

Pour into the tin and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Rest in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack, removing the papers. Leave until absolutely cold.

Meanwhile, make the ganache. Place the chocolate in a bowl and, in a pan, bring the cream and rosewater to the boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate, leave it for a few seconds, then gently stir until smooth. Leave until cold, chill slightly, then whisk until it thickens.

White chocolate

The ganache is delicious and would be wonderful in other cakes too.




Split the cake in half and invert so the flat base forms the top. Fill with the ganache and top with the second layer of cake. Place the icing sugar in a small bowl and add 1 ½-2 tbsp water until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour it over the cake and allow to trickle down the sides. (My note: I found it took about 3tbsp to get the icing trickle-able, but also that it was perhaps a little sweet, so sweet it overwhelmed the delicate cardamom and rosewater flavours. Next time, I might add a little lemon juice or rosewater to the water to thin it.)

To decorate, I scattered some sugared rose petals over the top. In summer, it would be lovely with real rose petals, if you have a good, unsprayed source.


  1. Ah cake, it's the only thing that satisfies my 4.30 craving in a way chocolate or biscuits with their brittle snap never can.

  2. Lovely words. Raymond Carver would have munched away at this one. With gin.

  3. I loved this post! And I loved reading your friendship reminiscences. There is nothing more special than a friendship that has withstood the test of time, or of sitting around, eating cake and indulgently giggling over the wilder times. Made me smile very much.

  4. You had me at "cake, the shortest measurable distance..."

    I bow in the presence of the master...
    Your words charm me so!

    You..pardon me...take the cake.

    Love, Karen Marline

  5. Alex, so right. Cake = Happiness.
    Wendy, I blush, and take a sip of gin.
    Lialeendertz, Thanks so much. It's one of life's greatest (and cheapest) pleasures, to be sure.
    Karen, Thank you darling one. It is though, isn't it?

  6. so worth the wait

  7. I love reading about your friendship and your cake looks incredibly good. I'm a big fan of cardamom.

  8. What a great post - I adore hearing about the background to a recipe, it makes it all come alive. Thank you.

  9. oh lovely words, just found you via Alex.

    The story about your godson is brilliant. he alas, your prediction was correct.

  10. Did you return the French waiter or is he there still?

  11. Oh what a fun post - I sort of hope your godson does make a model Coalition Government!

    I need all the hand holding I can get on the cake front but your photos are so super I am newly inspired ! Thanks as always xx

  12. That cake is a thing of beauty. It's going straight on my 'must make very soon or else self-flagellate' list. Thanks for sharing the recipe :)

  13. Marty, Phew *relieved*
    Denise, Eating, drinking, talking into the night = Joy.
    Wendy, I love the stories attached to recipes too. Asking a stranger about their favourite food will draw forth far more interesting and personal answers than 'tell me about yourself'
    HannahB, Thanks for visiting. We have locked away the clay.
    Kath, The hilarious thing was that when we got there, we were sipping our warm, cheap lager surrounded by people who really knew what they were doing. Between the three of us, we had about as much knowledge of snooker as your average trout. French waiter could still be there. Hopefully his skills have improved.
    Belgravia Wife, DO try it, it's so easy and delicious.
    aforkkfulofspaghetti, Oh for god's sake, make the cake. No self-flagellation please, guilt = wrinkles.

  14. Friendship summed up beautifully by cake. And a beautiful cake too. I really wanted to make a cake using cardamom and rosewater and came up with brownies. Unfortunately the dark chocolate rather overwhelmed the rose so this sounds a much better combination.

  15. Choclette, Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Yes, I think white chocolate would certainly be better with rosewater than dark. I think you would have to use an edible rose essential oil with dark chocolate and be very careful to have just the right amount so you have a whisper of it, and not let it overwhelm. Thanks, too, for following.

  16. this post made me feel really nostalgic. i really enjoyed reading it. and the cake- ah, a cup of tea with that, right now. x shayma

  17. Thanks, Shayma. Do try it - it's very good and so easy. Dx

  18. An absolutely delightful cake. Rosewater & cardamom are certainly a match made for each other. Lovely post.


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