Fran, my wife of these past eight years and partner of nine more before that, isn’t really much of a cake person. Or a pudding person. Or a chocolate person. We’re quite Jack and Mrs Sprat in our food inclinations. I was a vegetarian or pescetarian for 20 or so years, she’s pretty much always been a keen carnivore.
When we got together, our dietary habits met in the middle somewhere, but I still don’t have a great sense of what her favourite cake is. Personally, I’m all about the chocolate, so a rich chocolate cake is what I always hope for on my birthday. As her birthday approached last week, however, I wasn’t sure what do bake her. I hinted for some guidance, but it didn’t really manifest. So I looked through old recipes and took a punt.
This isn’t exactly what you’d call a celebration cake. It’s not slathered in icing or exactly suitable for candles. But it’s rich and yummy, and a bit different.
Special honey… or not
It’s originally from a recipe by Nigel Slater in The Observer. His piece was all about the honey, which is here used to make the citrusy syrup. I enjoy honey, and always like to have a jar of special honey in the house. A few years ago, some friends from New Zealand came for a visit, and brought a jar of Tutaki Manuka honey, produced by Trees and Bees, up the Mangles Valley, in the Buller Gorge, South Island. This was my stomping ground on and off in my youth, so a mere sniff of the jar is hugely evocative.
Just as that jar was reaching emptiness, my friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gave me a jar of honey from the bees he’d kept on his allotment in the Coombe, just on the eastern side of Lewes, about half a mile from home.
The Coombe is a try chalk valley that cuts into Malling Down, which is a reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It’s farmed to preserve the ancient Downland ecology, an essential task as Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, when the Second World War food shortages meant vast amounts of grazing land was put under the plough for grain and potatoes.
It’s a special place, especially at this time of year when not only are the orchids (common spotted and pyramidal I believe) out, but the wild thyme and wild marjoram are starting to flower. Before moving to Lewes I didn’t even realise these herbs grew wild in Britain. I grew up on the Downs, but at the other end of this ridge of chalk hills, in Winchester, 80 miles to the west. I don’t remember seeing thyme and marjoram growing wild there. Perhaps Sussex is just that bit sunnier and dryer (it has some of the most sun and least precipitation in the UK).
Anyway, Alex’s Coombe honey evokes Malling Down with one sniff, the thyme, marjoram and innumerable other flowers the bees visited in their time there. Alex subsequently lost the allotment, so the Coombe honey is extra-special, as it was only produced for one year. The bees are now in his back garden, feeding off more domestic flower species, but apparently doing well.
I’ll admit I didn’t use special honey for Fran’s cake. Don’t tell her. I used cheap rubbish, which I buy for making granola. I know, I know, it’s probably made by bees who are fed sugar syrup, but… well, home economics. Plus, I just prefer to keep the good stuff to enjoy simply with a piece of bread or toast; I don’t want to lose its qualities in the melange of cooking.
So yes, I’d love to make this cake with special honey, but I defaulted to the cheap stuff. Don’t tell Fran.
180g unrefined caster sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs, beaten, approx 175g beaten egg
5g (1 tsp) baking powder
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
Zest of one lemon
12-20 green cardamom pods, to taste
For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, juice of 2 oranges, approx 320g juice
1. Grease and line the base of 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin.
2. Preheat oven 180C.
3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
4. Add the beaten eggs and combine.
5. Add the ground almonds.
6. Mix the polenta and baking powder, then fold into the mixture, together with the zest and juice.
7. Crush the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture and combine.
8. Put the cake mixture in the tin.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160C for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
10. To make the syrup, put the honey and juice sin a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid simmering until it has formed a thin syrup, about 5-10 minutes.
11. Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup.
12. Leave to almost cool, then remove from the tin.
Serve with Greek or other thick yogurt, crème fraîche, or even thick cream. It’s up to you. It doesn’t really need the dairy blob though. With its dense, ground-almond texture and dowsing in syrup, it’s not unlike the Greek cake Greek revani or Claudia Roden’s Orange and almond cake, which Rachel Roddy talks about here, or is also available here (scroll down a bit).
Yum. T-Rex, three and a half, rejected it on the first bite. The Raver, almost two, went mad for it. Fran seemed content with it too.