Saturday, 23 July 2011

Greengage and almond cake

Chriesi from Almond Corner is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and this week I've got some gorgeous greengages to play with.

I know it's bad to judge people on the basis of little things. The clothes they wear; whether or not they pronounce the T in 'little'; what books they like; the music they listen to; how often they change their sheets; the places they've travelled; whether they use dental floss; their job; how often they exercise; the university they attended; how many units they drink a week; their preferred methods of relaxation; where they do their food shopping; the car they drive. I generally try not to form arbitrary opinions of people based on such criteria. I'm certainly no fashion guru, so what people wear tends to pass me by. I don't drive, or know the first thing about cars. I have absolutely no knowledge of what music is cool and what isn't, generally spending my days with a music collection that I've had since I was a wannabe Goth at the age of fourteen (are Slipknot not cool anymore?).

So I can proudly declare I don't generally form opinions of people based on any of the above qualities. The only problem is, I've just gone and formed my own, slightly more niche, set of standards by which to judge the general public.

Criteria that can make or break whether I warm to someone or not include: how they feel about cats (gorgeous animals, better than dogs); their opinion of the Harry Potter books (incredible, no matter how old you are); how they react when I tell them my specialist subject is Arthurian literature (if they look blank and I have to say "You know, King Arthur? Like in The Sword in the Stone by Disney? Er...basically knights on horses killing each other a lot? Heath Ledger?!?" I die a little inside - conversely, if they say "Oh, so are you using Malory?", I fight the urge to bear their children); whether they consider Bella Italia to be an example of a good restaurant (yes, in the same way the News of the World is an example of sound journalism); whether they eat breakfast (people who don't immediately strike me as a) mad and b) badly organised, which jars somewhat with my control-freak sensibilities); whether they support animal rights and buy free range meat; whether or not they're a picky eater (I have a love-hate relationship with such creatures; I abhor picky eaters yet at the same time relish the challenge of having them in my kitchen because it forces me to be more creative); what they order in a restaurant (lasagne/spaghetti bolognaise? Do you even have a personality?); their favourite fish (is it mackerel? If not why not?); their feelings regarding fruit in savoury dishes (if you leave the apricots on the side of your plate after eating a tagine I've made, you will probably never be invited back, simply on the grounds that you clearly have no taste); how they cook rice (NO! You do NOT just chuck it in a pan of boiling water then sieve it like pasta! How bloody hard is it to just measure out 1 part rice to 2 parts boiling water, pour the water in, stick on a lid and leave it to cook on the lowest heat for 20 minutes?); the bread they buy (Tesco value white sliced kept in the fridge is possibly a more depressing concept than bras for men); whether they know what polenta is (the number of times people have told me they think I've just invented this ancient foodstuff is slightly alarming - ditto spring greens); how they like their steak (medium? Well done? Go away).

And so the list goes on. I have, of course, noticed that most of these criteria relate to food. Yet how could they not, food being arguably the most central aspect of my life? I am constantly burdened with a sneaking suspicion that possessing such strong feelings about food is a) tragic and b) not very conducive to a healthy social life. I'm pretty sure my opinions have prevented me forming lasting friendships. Picture the scene: I've met someone at a party. We're getting along like a house on fire, possibly with the aid of wine. I'm perhaps thinking "yay! Someone else to cook for!" and then suddenly they drop the bombshell. They utter one of the following phrases:

"I don't care if it's not free range, as long as it tastes good."
"Favourite restaurant? Probably Zizzi. It's just like the food I had in Italy once, eleven years ago."
"Ugh, I hate cheese."

Said social interaction is over. I make my excuses, down my glass of wine and leave. Such is the lonely life of a food blogger.

Given that food is important to me, and rarely more so than when it contains fruit and sugar, I have often found myself judging people based on their dessert preferences. There are three levels to this process. The biggest faux-pas: no dessert at all. This does not impress me. In fact, it actively disgusts me. Either the person in question is anorexic, or that tired excuse so often the preserve of men, "just doesn't have a sweet tooth". Nothing is more ridiculous than the idea that certain palates just cannot cope with a mild sugar hit at the end of a meal. What do they think will happen if they indulge in a piece of cake? "Oh! My frail male tastebuds are being slowly and tortuously eroded by these sheer and razor-sharp granules of sugar in the apple crumble! If only I had a sweet tooth to deal with all that fructose!!!"

At the opposite end of the scale lies ordering one of the following: brownie, crumble, tart (preferably treacle - something good, stodgy and sticky - none of that delicate 'lemon torte' nonsense), bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, pie of any kind, cake. This is real food. Calorific food. Stodgy food. It is good. I am impressed with people who do so. Usually because they can keep me company and make me feel less vast. There is nothing worse than being the only one to order a dessert; you sit there, chocolate sauce possibly dribbling down your chin, eyes of the world on you, and you can practically hear the vibes they're sending out: "Fatty. Greedy. Piggy. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips...think of all the saturated fats", et cetera.

So somewhere in the middle are the people who order panna cotta. Crême brulée. Posset. Fool. Mousse. Jelly. Tiramisù. Semifreddo. What is the point in these desserts? One spoonful and then it's gone, your mouth having barely registered its presence. Your poor molars are sitting there going "where is our food? We need something to chew on!" Sometimes they might be lucky; there might be a biscuit or a tuile to provide them with some semblance of comfort, one tiny bite to assuage their sadness at being made redundant. Then it's back to mouthfuls of what is essentially air-infused fat.

Only fools order fools.

Needless to say, I have very little time for such desserts. You'll probably have noticed that I rarely make any such things on this blog. I think my lack of desire for them stems largely from the fact that I don't like cream. Well, I should clarify that. I love cream in savoury dishes; potatoes dauphinoise are possibly the closest to a savoury foodgasm you can get, oozing with butter and cream as you slice through the tender layers, infusing the gravy or sauce on your plate with their artery-clogging juices. Cream in a sauce used to coat slippery strands of pasta is also a fine thing. But cream in a dessert? Pointless. A waste of calories. Whenever a dessert comes served with cream in a restaurant, I substitute ice cream. It has more texture. As you can probably imagine, I like my ice cream fairly solid, so I have something to bite into. Whipped cream tastes of nothing, contributes nothing to the dessert, and is in general utterly useless. It doesn't even get properly cold, like ice cream does, so there's very little point in serving it with a hot pudding; you miss out on that temperature contrast that is the whole beautiful point of the thing. Pouring cream is possibly even more stupid; it just gets absorbed by the dessert so you can't even taste it. I'd rather have an extra helping of pie than douse one helping in cream.

My main problem with panna cotta, posset and the like is that they're just not satisfying. There's nothing to get your teeth into. It's like being a baby again. I accept that a good lemon or passion fruit posset can be immensely refreshing at the end of a heavy meal, but my teeth still miss texture. I once had a passion fruit posset served with a tropical fruit salad at college; that was good. There was both texture and tart, refreshing cream. Tiramisu I can just about tolerate, because at least it has those different-textured layers, but there's still far too much airy cream for my liking. I'd rather have alcohol-infused sponge served with coffee and ice cream. Incidentally, you know affogato? That Italian concoction whereby you are given a bowl of vanilla ice cream and an espresso, and you pour the latter over the former so it all melts into a coffee-laden, creamy mess? I don't do that. I order it, ask for them separately, then eat the gloriously solid ice cream while sipping my coffee. Much more civilised and less like baby food.

I suppose all this is basically my way of saying I love a good piece of cake. This is such a cake.

Greengages have just started appearing in the market. I admit, I wasn't enormously excited by this. My experiences of greengages have been mediocre, to say the least - I once tried to bake them with rosewater for a porridge topping and they just stayed firm and unappetising. However, I think maybe I just wasn't using them properly, and now I'm a convert. In this case, they are amazing. Sweeter and sharper than plums, and also a beautiful colour. Some of mine were a deep jade green, others were the greenish-yellow of a ripening lime. They were beyond ripe, soft and yielding and nearly impossible to cut and twist cleanly in half without oozing their vivid, jelloid flesh all over the chopping board. I sliced around the stone as best I could and cut them into very uneven slices for this cake, but it didn't matter. The beauty lies in the rusticity of it. Apparently greengages make excellent jam, but I'm not sure I'll get to find out: the season is short, and any I end up buying from now on will end up in a repeat of this cake.

It's made with spelt flour, which gives it a gorgeous rich, nutty flavour. Yet it has an incredibly light, airy crumb and stays moist for days from the inclusion of buttermilk. There's a hint of almond flavour running throughout, brightened by lemon zest. The beautiful sweet fragrance of the almonds is wonderful paired with the tart sugar of the greengages. The best bit of all is the spot where the greengages have been dropped into the batter, and ooze their delicious fruity juices into the surrounding sponge. The heat of the oven forms a crunchy crust on top, with even more crunch from the toasted almonds and demerara sugar. Crunchy cake gives way to tart, soft greengages, spread on a blanket of moist sponge. If I could change one thing, I'd mix some greengage slices into the cake batter as well as sprinkling them on top: it's quite a thick cake, and you end up with a substantial amount left unenriched by the greengages' tart juice, which is a shame. But it makes the layer of crunchy topping interspersed with soft fruit even more rewarding (I save it for last).

It's everything I want in a dessert: full of substance, full of fruit, full of fresh flavours and not enormously heavy. But heavier than a pointless panna cotta.

Do you have any unusual, personal standards by which you judge other people? Or is it just me?

Greengage and almond cake (serves 10):

310g spelt flour (or plain/wholemeal, depending on your preference)
1 tbsp baking powder
70g brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
360ml buttermilk or yoghurt
1 tsp almond essence
60g melted butter, cooled slightly
Grated zest of 2 lemons
10 greengages, sliced
4 tbsp demerara sugar
4 tbsp flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease a 25cm cake tin or fluted tart tin. You could line it with baking parchment but I didn't bother.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, lemon zest and salt.

In another bowl whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, almond essence and melted butter. Pour this into the dry mixture and fold together gently with a large spoon until just combined - don't over mix.

Scatter half the greengages over the bottom of the dish/tin. Pour the cake mixture over the top, then scatter over the remaining fruit. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and sugar, then bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the centre is firm and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool slightly before dusting with icing sugar.

Serve with vanilla ice cream or - if you must! - cream. It's best eaten warm, but keeps for days wrapped in foil and reheats well in the oven.

(Adapted from Super Natural Every Day, by Heidi Swanson)

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  1. I enjoyed reading thsi post so much.I also live simple and have a lot incommon with some things you describe.However I do have to drive as I live in a village and need a car to bring me places.And lucky petrol here is very cheap still so I do get to places.
    Your cake looks very yummu even without cream.
    And judging people I don't do.I actually often have simpathy with some 'odd' ones.Genrally I live

  2. Couldn't agree more with you on the cream front. Most of my friends' dessert heaven consists of a scoop or more of vanilla icecream with chocolate sauce and a big dollop of cream and/or whipped cream on top of it. I know...! I'm disgusted simply writing it and imagining that such a thing (I don't call that food) exists. I do love a good tiramisu though but I'll never order it in a restaurant because I know I make a better one!
    Oh and I HATE when people leave dried fruits, especially apricots on their plates. It's the best part of the meal!
    Finally, and I'm sure you'll like this one: I have a friend who orders the same thing every time she eats out - I mean, seriously, who does that?!


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