Thursday 20 May 2010

Cook the Books - Eating for England Coffee and Walnut Cake

It's a very good thing that Johanna asked me to judge this round of Cook The Books. Her reasoning was based in part on me actually living in the UK, giving me a good perspective on all the entries, inspired by Nigel Slater's Eating For England. And my relief is based on the failure of the dish that I was intending to enter!

So this is not a formal entry, but I did want to chip in my tuppence worth on the book before I set to judging the entries after the round-up!

I really like Nigel Slater. His columns in the Guardian newspaper are a much-valued part of my weekend routine, with their gentle tone and straightforward, seasonal recipes. And on one occasion I emailed him a question and he got back to me almost instantly, even though it was quite early on a Sunday morning.

Eating for England is a collection of short pieces - some exceedingly short - on British food. It's not erudite essays on history or sociology, it's more of a personal food memoir, which, at it's best, gives an almost Alan Bennett-esque sense of time and place. I certainly felt that Bennett would recognise Slater's father's coffee-making. I thought that it would have benefited from a bit of editing. The several pieces on farmer's markets could probably have been condensed into one, likewise the pieces on biscuits. I got the definite impression that this is a book to be left in the spare bedroom, for people to dip in and out of, not to read the whole way through in a short space of time! But the only really unforgivable error was in the piece on seaside rock. How, how, can you write about the wonder of seaside rock and not talk about the magic of the letters going all the way through? I don't care how many flavours it comes in, how do they get the words in?

It didn't take me long to decide what I was going to make. I toyed with the idea of a treacle tart, because it is delicious and it is Harry Potter's favourite. I briefly considered making a custard tart, although I think the Portuguese and Chinese do them better. But I rapidly settled on Coffee and Walnut Cake. It gets a couple of mentions in the book: as a exemplar of British cake making and as a use for Camp coffee and chicory essence. And it also featured in one of Slater's columns as one of the things he could consider for his last meal on earth.

At this point, I would like to show you something.
This is my great-grandmother's first prize certificate for her madeira cake. I show this as proof that the blood of distinguished cake makers does in fact flow in my veins. Because god knows you'd never guess from my baking.

I followed the recipe - varying the ingredients only in that I used the famous Camp coffee and chicory instead of instant coffee in water. I don't have 2 21cm cake tins, so I thought I'd use a 23cm tin and vary the cooking time, and then just cut it through the centre to fill it. But when I went to scrape the batter into the tin, I realised that something was very, very wrong. The batter hardly covered the base of the tin. I stuck it in the oven, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. The best did not eventuate. It did rise enough to cover the base of the tin, but it rose in a bowl shape that was never, ever going to be sandwichable. So I made a smaller quantity of buttercream to top it, added a final walnut, took a picture and took a bite.

It was disgusting. It was heavy, leathery and had a nasty metallic tang. Absolutely horrible. And the thing is, I KNOW it was something I did. I have looked at dozens of recipes for this bloody cake and they are all pretty much the same. It is me that is wrong and I have no idea why. I couldn't bear wasting all that cake, so I ended up turning it into a really very successful bread and butter pudding, but that really is not the point. I think the current tally is Cakes 5, Alicia 1 (3 if we allow friands as a cake).

The deadline for inclusion in the Cook the Books round up is tomorrow, but if you miss it, keep an eye out for the round up and the announcement of the next book that we are cooking!


Choclette said...

I love the look of you cake and the fact it's created a nice cavity to have a pond of icing in it. Shame it didn't come up to scratch on the taste test though.

Bettina Douglas said...

Well, Nanny maintained she couldn't make pastry because she "didn't have a light enough hand" - so maybe its one or the other in our genes.

I'm glad the 1955 certificate has found its way into the electronic age.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Well hey--nothing wrong with a good bread and butter pudding. ;-) I almost made a Victoria Sandwich but sometimes cake and pressure don't work well for me and I made the fish dinner instead (hard for me to screw that one up!) ;-)

Great review--I loved it as a pages here and there book--I agree it would be difficult to consume in one setting. ;-)

Alicia Foodycat said...

Choclette - if it was just the appearance it would have been OK!

Mother - my pastry is a bit dodgy too. Breadmaking is where I shine! Although that is clearly from the Cocksedge genes too.

Deb - I love Victoria sandwich, but I suspect my cake making isn't up to it.

Bettina Douglas said...

The cheese making skill must tap into some ancestral Swiss dairy farmers.

kat said...

How frustrating to out your time & energy into something that doesn't work out. Glad you were able to turn it into something good.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Mother - oh definitely!

Kat - it still wasn't as good as my usual bread and butter pudding, but at least it wasn't wasted!

Jude said...

Let us know when you find out what you did wrong! I like bread and butter pudding too.

Rachel said...

Thanks so much for being our Cook the Books judge this month. And I'm with you on the cake making skills; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think pastry chefs have a different or extra chromosome than the rest of us cooks. I just turned some very dry pumpkin bread into a much more appetizer bread pudding and that trick works well. Cheers!

Suelle said...

What a shame this didn't work out! A good coffee and walnut cake is wonderful.

I hope you won't give up on cakes because of this.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Jude - I think I stuffed up the baking powder again.

Rachel - pumpkin bread and butter pudding sounds good!

Sue - I'm in two minds!

mscrankypants said...

Friands do count as cakes :-).

My biggest disasters in the baking arena were florentines that spread in the baking tray and looked like lumps of bird poo in an oil slurry, and the fudge experiment that ended up being molten bitumen and oil. Sometimes stuff happens, and it's confusing.

HH said...

Shame about the cake FC, maybe the eggs were bad or the flour iffy or something? I would think maybe it didn't like the big tin, each half wanted its own, because even though you are adjusting the cooking time, the air and heat around the cake would be different instead of rising nicely the cake used all its energy trying to fill the tin and then was too thinly spread, hence the leathery-ness?

Unknown said...

I think that your self raising flour was old, or your oven is not hot enough. Do you have an oven thermometer? temperature is vital for successful cake baking.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Cranky - I leave florentines to the professionals! They look difficult.

HH - I think you are right about each bit wanting its own tin.

Johanna - I'll have to look at getting an oven thermometer. You could definitely be right!

Unknown said...

I vote to check your baking powder/SR flour. My recent baking failures have been tracked down to a dodgy bag of flour (it caused *horrible* leathery, gluey cakes and pikelets from previously no fuss recipes) I have since repeated with a new bag of flour with success!


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