Scales are a bit of a contentious issue for me and my family. Before you start thinking that any of us are cold-blooded and reptilian, I should probably clarify that I mean weighing scales, the kind you use to measure things for cooking. Until a few years ago, the only scales I knew were the huge, old fashioned ones we have in our kitchen at home, made of heavy black metal with a big brass bowl and a plate that you balance brass weights on. If you wanted to weigh out any quantity of anything, you first had to pile up the right weights and then pour whatever it was into the brass bowl until the scales tipped into a tentative balance.
This is all well and good, until you need to do the opposite - find out how much something weighs. For this, you have to play a ridiculous balancing game, slowly piling up weights until the scales start to level out. It can be done, but it is a bit of a faff. As is weighing out different quantities of ingredients, switching and swapping the piles of weights for every different amount of something. If you're baking a fruit cake, this can be a little bit of a nightmare. Especially if you drop one of the weights on your bare foot or - worse, as far as my mother is concerned - on the wooden kitchen floor.
My first electric kitchen scales, then, were a revelation. You could just balance a big bowl on top of the glass plate, reset the digital display, weigh out your first ingredient, then keep resetting it as you added all the others. No heavy weights to store and fiddle with, and the best part was the accuracy. You could weigh out three grams of flour if you wanted to. You probably never would, but for making something like macarons, where you - apparently - need to weigh out very precise quantities of egg white, they would have been perfect. I've never tried to make macarons, though, because I quite like my blood pressure on the low side, and also I can't really imagine they'd be particularly tasty. I'd much rather have a good wedge of cake than a silly, fussy little egg white biscuity thing. I really don't understand the appeal. Does that make me deeply untrendy, culinarily speaking?
Those halcyon days of digital scales were short-lived, however. Returning to my student house after the Christmas holidays, I discovered someone had stolen them, along with my salt and pepper mills. I never got them back (though my lovely boyfriend was kind enough to buy me some brand new, rather posh salt and pepper mills - who says money can't buy love?) and since then have been making do with some £2 Tesco plastic scales which I finally broke a few months ago by dropping them. On my foot, actually. Oh, the irony.
The reason there was a spot of familial contention regarding the scales related to our new house in Yorkshire which my parents have pretty much built from scratch. My mum has kitted out the kitchen with all sorts of nice china and utensils (including a Kenwood mixer). The scales in the huge utensil cupboard once belonged to my nanna, and are also the type requiring a balancing act involving heavy weights. My dad and I both think we need to get a pair of the digital or mechanical ones to go with them, for the precise reason mentioned above - they're completely impractical for weighing out small quantities, and they also make it difficult if you just want to, for example, weigh an opened bag of pasta to find out if there's enough left in there for two people. My parents let the house out as a holiday cottage, and my mum thinks that we should keep the old-fashioned scales, and the old-fashioned scales alone, because "people like that sort of thing when they're on holiday". I don't agree - yes, they look all quaint and from a bygone age, but I think the guests would appreciate them far more if they were simply a display item, while the utensil cupboard also contained a pair of scales they could actually use in a practical context.
Mum doesn't agree, and the battle rages on. This, of course, is a total hyperbole, and I think that if that's the only big subject of controversy and argument in our family, we're probably doing quite well. But that didn't make me any less excited when these new ProCook mechanical scales arrived in the post the other day. I'm quite fond of ProCook's products, having tried out their saucepans and wooden chopping boards recently. They're a British company, which appeals to my sense of culinary patriotism, and their products do seem genuinely crafted to be useful and lasting.
There's something rather retro about these scales, with their big round measurement dial and wide weighing bowl. They're made from stainless steel which is wipe-clean, a big improvement on our brass weighing bowl that goes a funny colour if you weigh something like cream cheese in it, because it reacts with the metal, or that goes a very funny colour if my dad forgets that it isn't dishwasher-safe and puts it in anyway. The weighing bowl is nice and big, too (21cm diameter) - I always struggled with my tiny Tesco plastic scales at university because the 'bowl' was actually a sort of box shape, and it could only fit about 100g of flour in it - useless for making bread or large cakes (which form about 80% of my cooking).
The scales have an adjustment button, so you can keep turning the reading back to zero if you need to, and the measurements are in both imperial and metric (they weigh quantities up to 5kg/11lb). They look great on the kitchen counter, unlike my little plastic version - maybe not as quaint as mother's huge brass scales, but still aesthetically pleasing enough to stand proudly on a kitchen worktop (they have little rubber feet, too, to stop them scratching anything or moving around while you try and weigh things).
What better way to test scales than to bake a cake? Well, actually, I could easily have just picked up and weighed random household objects to "test" them, and let's be honest, weighing scales don't really need "testing", but I love any excuse to bake a cake.
This may look familiar - it's essentially an apricot version of my delightful greengage and almond cake from a couple of weeks ago, but with a few extras added and the recipe tweaked slightly. My favourite part of the greengage cake was the delicious crunchiness of the top, with its demerara sugar and flaked almond crust. To make this even more crispy, and to bring out the almond flavour a little more, I thought some crumbled amaretti biscuits would be perfect sprinkled over the top. Apricots will start to disappear from the market stalls soon, and so I thought I'd make the most of them while they're still around and still cheap - a sort of last hurrah for the humble apricot, if you will. They go so well with almonds, and I've never actually tried them in a cake before, but thought their delightful sharp tartness and beautiful marigold colouring would look and taste delicious strewn through a dense, nutty, moist cake.
My only problem with the greengage cake last time was that, because all the fruit was on top, the actual cake mixture was a little dry underneath. I thought I'd address that minor issue by putting half the apricots on the bottom of the cake tin, and half on top of the cake batter. Unfortunately, this still didn't improve the cake as much as I'd hoped, because the mixture rises quite a lot so you have a vast expanse of unfruited cakey desert in between the two apricot layers - I can only conclude that the solution is to stir half the fruit through the cake batter and scatter the rest on top, so I've altered the recipe below to suggest that instead.
Apart from that, this cake is just wonderful. It has a delicious nutty flavour from the spelt flour, a freshness from lemon zest, a lovely moisture from the inclusion of buttermilk, tart bursts of juicy apricots throughout, and finally that delightful crunchy almond topping. Next time I make it I'm going to use more amaretti biscuits and flaked almonds to make it even crunchier.
As expected, the ProCook scales make baking this a lot easier than the balancing variety, although in an ideal world I'd probably use ProCook's other digital scales, simply because then you can just put the bowl on top and add everything in at once, zeroing the scales in between. While I like the appearance and the big bowl of the mechanical variety, the only problem is the measuring dial - because they're designed to weigh up to 5kg, it's very hard to accurately weigh out quantities under 100g. Which doesn't really matter if you're making big cakes or loaves of bread, but for something more fiddly - like the dreaded macarons - I'd recommend the digital version for accuracy.
What I love about this cake is that it's a great blueprint for numerous variations. You could use peaches, plums, raspberries, blueberries, pears, apples - pretty much any fruit whatsoever instead of the apricots. You could swap the almond flavouring for vanilla, or orange flower, or rosewater, or lemon, or cinnamon. Just thinking about all these makes me want to start trying them out, but I still have a third of this version left to be devoured.
Whatever you try, you will be rewarded with a substantial, satisfyingly rustic cake, delicious warm as a pudding with ice cream, or equally good served for afternoon tea with a hot beverage.
Do you, like my mother, have a fondness for a particular piece of archaic kitchen equipment? Or do you prefer modern gadgets as a rule?
Apricot and amaretti tart (serves 8-10):
10 apricots, stone removed
300ml buttermilk or natural yoghurt
Zest of 1 lemon
70g light muscovado sugar
A generous pinch of salt
1 tsp almond essence
300g spelt flour
1 tbsp baking powder
6 amaretti biscuits
2 tbsp demerara sugar
3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 28cm tart or quiche tin (you could also make this in a 22cm cake tin) and line the bottom with baking parchment.
Melt the butter in a large bowl and allow to cool a little. Whisk in the eggs, buttermilk, muscovado sugar, lemon zest, almond essence and salt. Sift in the flour and baking powder, then mix until just combined.
Roughly chop half the apricots and mix them gently into the cake batter until evenly dispersed.
Pour the cake batter over the apricots in the tin, then thinly slice the remaining apricots and scatter them over the top (you can be neat and arrange them in concentric circles, or you can just throw them on randomly). Crumble the amaretti biscuits (you can blitz them in a food processor or just roughly crumble them using your fingers) and scatter over the top of the fruit, along with the flaked almonds and demerara sugar.
Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown and firm on top, and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.