Stolen Cake

I read with interest about Jonathon Meades’ (hopefully) forthcoming cookbook. (Go on, have a pledge.) I’ve written before about the misplaced focus on originality and ‘art’ in cooking, the bizarre idea (heavily encouraged by the publishers and writers of cookbooks) that everything must be new, groundbreaking, never-before-seen; the idea that recipes follow something like the folk process of fairytale and ballad is one that I’m interested in. After all, amidst all the clamour for bigger and shinier cookbooks, the absurd contortions of Masterchef contestants, a love of food can be fostered, at least partly, by childhood eating experiences, from Mum’s or Dad’s or Grandma’s recipes, passed down in turn. This alternative narrative, of food as a link of an unbroken chain to the past, is what we claim to admire about the ‘peasant’ cuisines of France, Spain, Italy; a link they manage to maintain, perhaps, because their cookbooks aren’t stuffed with new and exciting recipes for potato salad.

Leaving aside romantic notions about Continental cookery, it is interesting to see the ways in which dishes are passed around and down, with a tweak here, a misremembering there making each iteration slightly different. An attempt to recreate flavours without the slightest notion about technique, or with only rough approximations of ingredients, can yield something subtly altered; this is how cuisines are formed. No one is ever trying to do anything ‘new’, yet everything changes all the time.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this cake recipe. My Mum made this often when I was little; remembering it recently, I asked her for the recipe; in the course of finding it, she mentioned, in passing, to my brother, that it was based on one she had eaten somewhere, which he told me; there’s a little folk process for you. So, for anthropological purposes, I give you the recipe as she gave it to me, with my own notes and further alterations. It’s yours now – make it new.


“I went to lunch years ago with Therese Sellen, who had two daughters at Wincheap [Primary School] around the same time as Joseph and James [my older brothers]. (I think Helen Chandler was there as well [utterly irrelevant detail provides verisimilitude] .) Therese – who was Swiss – made this chocolate hazelnut cake for dessert. Before tasting this, I hadn’t been aware of the potential for replacing flour by ground nuts, but went home and later experimented with a madeira cake recipe from THE book (ie the battered radiation cook book, the source of all wisdom about domestic British cooking in the 1950s.”

We assume the original cake is a Swiss recipe, but who knows? Perhaps Therese based it on one she’d had at Helen’s house. Nowadays, of course, you’d just Google “swiss hazelnut loaf recipe” when you got home.

“The cake in question is an adaptation of mine of a madeira cake recipe. The standard recipe is:

6oz butter (though I used to use soft margarine, something I would no longer do)
6oz sugar (soft light brown muscovado for flavour)
4 eggs
9oz flour
1 teasp baking powder
A little milk if necessary
[the recipe pre-dates grams, obviously; it’s so easy to reset digital scales that I didn’t bother converting it]
To make the chocolate hazelnut cake replace the 9oz of flour with:
4oz plain wholemeal flour (not bread flour) [actually, I used a mixed granary bread flour, and it was great]
4oz ground hazelnuts
1oz coca powder (actually cocoa, NOT drinking chocolate!)
Make in the usual way [cream butter and sugar, add beaten eggs a bit at a time, fold in dry mix, beat in a bit of milk if too thick], and bake (in a loaf tin) for 1 hour 45 minutes, in the middle of the oven at Gas Mark 3.
I haven’t made this for ages because nowhere locally sells ground hazelnuts anymore [I couldn’t find them either – blitz whole hazelnuts with the flour and cocoa to stop them grinding down into butter]. I would probably use wholemeal spelt flour now – I like its taste.”
Note that my mother assumes I know how to make a cake but also that I need telling to use proper cocoa; she doesn’t specify whether to use dutched cocoa or not, though.
Timing is for a classic loaf tin; I used a long, shorter one (more like a terrine mould), timed the recipe by 1.5, and cut the cooking time by half an hour. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.



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