Baking, in our culture, is so often inextricably connected with love. Family memories and relations are shaped around food; some of our fondest recollections of our mothers and grandmothers are perfumed by the heady scent of a baking pie or cake. Missing the closeness of home and the familiarity of domesticity is frequently couched in terms of our longing for a particular dish, and even parental ineptitude in the kitchen is usually recalled with wry affection. Childhood friendships are formed and dissolved over the sharing of cake and other baked goods: I still remember once refusing to speak to my best friend for a week because she stole my lunchtime flapjack and ate it. We bake cakes, bread, brownies to cheer up our loved ones or as a token of our affection; the humble combination of flour, butter and sugar has become fetishized in our culture to such an extent that we apparently believe there are few gifts more redolent of love than a homemade baked good.
Baking is an act of love, we’re constantly told. One of the most pervasive tropes in current culinary culture is that we put a small part of ourselves into that which we bake. When you see contestants crying after being judged harshly on The Great British Bake Off, they often claim their emotional reaction arises from viewing their baking as an extension of themselves: when it is critiqued, they can’t help but take it personally: surely that soggy-bottomed pie is indicative of a lapse in reason, that over-sweet sponge an indication of some fatal psychological flaw. How often do you hear chefs on MasterChef claim that their dish is ‘me on a plate’? Although a tired cliché, this phrase is highly symptomatic of our culture’s obsessive yoking together of cooking and love, of its frequent implication that truly good food requires passion and affection to make it shine.
I got to thinking in depth about all this the other night, when I found myself crying onto a chopping board covered in fragments of apple peel as I cored and sliced a series of fat, rotund apples from my tree to put into a cake. I’d purchased a very fancy apple peeling, coring and slicing device a couple of weeks ago to help me deal with my current glut of cooking apples. I don’t normally approve of such gadgets, but it came very highly recommended and I am genuinely struggling to cope with the sheer volume of apples in my life (the next person to ask me ‘if I’d thought of making apple crumble’ will be force-fed crumble until they resemble human foie gras). I’d made the cake batter for my apple crumble cake; all that remained was to prepare the apples.
But oh no, the damn thing didn’t work. At all. After struggling to comprehend the instruction manual (“Your device comes pre-assembled. Please read the following instructions in order to assemble your device”), after screwing and unscrewing and moving and tweaking every conceivable part of the contraption, after watching the apple simply slide off the end of the spokes, emphatically unpeeled, uncored and unsliced, I despaired. The kitchen was a tip; I had cake batter in my hair and all over the walls; every conceivable square inch of worktop was covered in baking paraphernalia; and I just wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea. There was simply no other option: I burst into tears.
So there I was, crying as I hand-peeled, cored and sliced the apples, and I started thinking about this association between baking and emotion. The idea is to bake a cake with love for its recipient; homemade treats always taste better, we’re made to believe, for this reason. Why else would you be able to buy silicon stamps to mark your hand-shaped biscuits with a gigantic ‘HOMEMADE’ label? This cake that I was standing there weeping about was progressively being made with nothing but angst and frustration; there was very little love in my heart at this point, mostly just rage and profanity.
Irrational as it sounds, a tiny part of me was genuinely worried that the finished product would taste tainted in some way, rippled with the acrid flavour of my frustration or slightly sour from my bitter hatred of malfunctioning kitchen gadgets. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Like Water for Chocolate, but I started to worry that the end result would be a pale fraction of the bouncy, buoyed-up-with-waves-of-love confection I had in mind. (By the way, I didn’t literally cry into the cake batter, or I might have legitimate reason to worry about it tasting inferior). Maybe I should have waited until I was in a better mood…stress is the worst possible ingredient you can add to a cake…what if someone notices it tastes odd…?
Fortunately, this is all clearly ludicrous nonsense. The cake tasted bloody good. How could it not? There’s a rich, buttery batter, enriched with the toffee scent of golden caster sugar and muscovado, laced with layers of soft, gooey apple and sweet sultanas, spiked with cinnamon and demerara sugar. But the fun doesn’t end there: this moist beauty of a cake is then topped with a buttery, oaty crumble packed with toasted hazelnuts. It’s soft and squidgy with that crunchy, nutty layer for contrast, perfumed with delicious tangy apple and fragrant sultana. It’s two desserts in one, and all the better for it. A simple idea, but one of the best cakes I’ve eaten in ages, regardless of however many tears I shed over the chopping board in the process of making it.
So the moral of this story is: don’t worry if you cry a bit while making a cake. It will still taste nice. You came to this blog for recipes, but you also get free profound life advice. This is what puts me a cut above all the other food writers. You’re welcome.
Apple, cinnamon and sultana hazelnut crumble cake (makes 16 squares):
For the cake:
225g butter, softened
125g golden caster sugar
125g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 tbsp milk
350g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
3 cooking apples
4 tbsp sultanas
Juice of half a lemon
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp demerara sugar
For the crumble topping:
100g plain flour
80g cold butter, cubed
80g coarsely chopped hazelnuts
40g jumbo oats
40g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1-2 tbsp water
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan oven 160C.
Using an electric whisk or mixer, beat the butter with the caster sugar and muscovado sugar until light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract and milk, then sift in the flour and baking powder and mix well.
Grease and line a 20x20cm cake tin with baking parchment. Spread half the cake batter into the tin.
Peel, core and thinly slice the cooking apples. Toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice to prevent them colouring. Layer half the apples, slightly overlapping, on top of the cake batter in the tin. Scatter over the sultanas. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of the cinnamon and half the demerara sugar.
Pour the rest of the cake batter on top of the apples and sultanas and spread out as evenly as you can without dislodging the fruit too much. Layer the rest of the apples over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon and demerara sugar.
Bake for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the crumble mixture. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the oats, nuts, sugar and cinnamon, and mix briefly. Trickle over the water and stir into the mixture to make it turn 'pebbly'.
When the 20 minutes are over, remove the cake briefly from the oven and sprinkle the crumble mixture evenly over the top (don't worry about it sinking, just be gentle). Return to the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes until the crumble is golden and crunchy, the cake springs back to the touch, and a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Dust with icing sugar and serve with ice cream, cream or crème fraîche, or leave to cool and eat with a nice cup of tea.