When I was seventeen, I worked in the kind of restaurant that I was far too much of a food philistine to appreciate. Why would a fussy teenager who lived off a diet of McDonalds super-size happy meals, cheese sandwiches and fish fingers care about organic food that was lovingly sourced from within a fifty-mile radius, with an emphasis on seasonality, ‘from-scratch’ cooking and unusual flavour combinations? Not for my anaemic adolescent palate the delights of duck liver and raisin pâté, pickled fennel, greengage pavlova or Moroccan lamb and preserved lemon tagine. Pass the chicken nuggets.
However, there was one dish that made it past my ignorant, plebeian wall of resistance. The Tunisian citrus cake was a huge hit with our customers, a constant on the otherwise ever-changing menu, and even my tastebuds – whose sweet treat of choice was usually a Marks & Spencer ‘yum yum’ or a packet of cheap supermarket bakery cookies – readily accepted its light, textured crumb, saturated in spiced, citrus-scented syrup. It was a thing of beauty to behold on the café counter – a gigantic orange wheel, glistening stickily in the overhead glow of the fluorescent lights, its drenched surface speckled with a smattering of spices: a cinnamon stick here, a star anise there, a few dainty little cloves and perhaps a cardamom pod or two.
All I knew about this cake was that the chef made it using olive oil, ground almonds and crumbs from the sourdough bread he would bake every day for the restaurant. Again, my teenage self was far too absorbed in the be-all-and-end-all of her A-levels, tawdry romantic intricacies, agonising race to acquire tickets for Leeds Festival and questionable fashion sense to appreciate the beauty of food frugality, the importance of trying not to waste. She changed her tune shortly afterwards, though; perhaps she absorbed this ethos by some sort of osmotic process, hanging heavy in the steam of the restaurant kitchen, but at one point she insisted on taking home a Kilner jar full of thirty egg whites – leftovers from making fresh pasta – that the chef otherwise intended to chuck down the sink.
She hasn’t made macaroons since. The horror, the horror.
This cake was memorable for two reasons. First, of course, its toothsome, slightly crunchy texture – the result of those sourdough breadcrumbs – permeated by a heavy slick of sweet, tangy citrus syrup and a whisper of cinnamon-heady perfume. It was light and fragrant, both moreish and Moorish, a tingling harmony of the sour and the sweet.
Second, because I once served the last piece to a customer – the piece that traditionally ended up with all the whole spices on top as we removed them from all the preceding slices that we served – and when I cleared their table an hour or so later, I noticed that there was not a spice to be seen. The whole cinnamon stick, star anise and handful of spiky cloves had disappeared, with only two possible conclusions to be had, both of which were equally unfathomable: said customer had either consumed the whole spices along with their cake, or had taken them home, drenched as they were in deeply sticky syrup. I dread to think about the state of their oesophagus/coat pockets an hour or so later.
Fast forward a decade, and I find myself many miles away making a citrus-soaked cake with breadcrumbs and ground almonds. The breadcrumbs come from my own home-baked sourdough, which I always turn into crumbs to avoid waste. The olive oil is a bergamot-infused specimen I acquired from a lovely Italian who sources it directly from the producers, and it gives an extra smooth, slightly grassy perfume to the cake. The citrus in question is the bergamot, a rare find from the local organic farmers market. I had used the zest and juice to make bergamot curd, and, not wanting to waste the leftover citrus rinds, macerated them overnight with sugar to form a thick syrup, the pale, milky green-yellow of spring with a powerful citrus snap and the exotic perfume of Earl Grey tea. This sinks into the cake like rain on a parched garden, strewing its friable crumb with the taste of North African sunshine. The rosemary is ‘sourced’ from within a five-metre radius, growing in a pot on my own balcony.
I put my frugal creation into the oven: a homage to from-scratch cooking, local sourcing, food economy and unusual flavours. I remember the mystery of the customer’s missing spices and smile.
And suddenly I wonder if perhaps, unbeknownst to her McDonalds-guzzling self, that teenage girl may just have had the most formative experiences of her life in that restaurant kitchen. Who knew, eh?
Bergamot, rosemary and olive oil syrup cake (serves 6-8):
For the syrup:
- Zested, juiced halves of 8 bergamots or lemons (use the zest and juice for something else, like curd)
- Caster sugar, quantity depending on the weight of your citrus
For the cake:
- 60g stale white or sourdough bread
- 100g almonds (blanched if you prefer a less crunchy cake)
- 1 sprig rosemary, leaves stripped
- 150g golden caster sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 100ml lemon or bergamot-infused olive oil (I use this one)
- 50ml regular olive oil (or all regular olive oil if you don’t have the above)
- 4 eggs, beaten
Make the syrup the day or morning before you want to make the cake. Roughly chop the lemon or bergamot halves and weigh them. Put them in a non-reactive bowl (glass is best) and add half their weight in caster sugar. Stir well, then set aside. Leave for around 12 hours, stirring occasionally, then strain the mixture into a small bowl or jug. Discard the leftover fruit. You should have around 100ml of syrup.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm springform cake tin.
Tear the bread into rough chunks and put in a food processor or mini chopper with the almonds and rosemary leaves. Blitz as finely as possible. Put it into a bowl and add the sugar, baking powder, olive oil and eggs. Whisk together until combined.
Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 35-45 minutes until just set and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and prick it all over with a skewer or cocktail stick, then drizzle the bergamot or lemon syrup all over the cake, letting it sink into the holes. Leave to cool before removing it from the tin and dusting it with icing sugar.
Slice and serve with fresh berries and a scoop of Greek yoghurt or crème fraiche.