Ronald Searle’s “Molesworth” books, of which I was a devotee when at prep school, often featured, among their wildly stylised illustrations, an image of what appeared to be a solid speckled cake like wedge, known as “seed cake”, and which was being normally being offered to Nigel (our hero) by a very fucked up looking Auntie…I think this image damaged me…if only there had been more pornography available to young minds in that era I would have avoided images of Molesworth’s Auntie’s seed cake and gained a more balanced view of both cake and procreation. But this was not to be. It would have been a miracle for a young palate, assaulted daily by unpleasant and mostly brown dishes, not to conclude that flavour and taste were linked to colour. I quickly assumed that brown food, according to all the available evidence, would probably be unpleasant. Plain, brown, unadorned, cake can, and did appear to me, as very dull fare indeed. I only ate it on the occasions when it was offered and only then if it would have been rude to refuse, although such an occasion evades me as I have tried not to shy away from rudeness when it has been called for and the offer of dull, dry brown cake would have definitely constituted such a moment. The plain quality of food at this time was inextricably linked to post war rationing so, with the slow relaxing of that sugarless grip, I entered into a period of infatuation with icing; the term icing did not, to my mind, include the thick and insidious layer of marzipan, a confection that I’m sure was created by a young de Sade, which was used in the way that carpet layers use an under felt. It lay unseen in ambush, threatening the sugar craving palate as does the deadly freezing water that lies beneath the ice threaten the carefree skater. Young white teeth cut into the pristine fondant crust, delighting in this new total sugarness, only to break through and, like a cart wheel on a muddy track, be embedded in brown almond ooze. The very worst case scenario was when marzipan appeared topless, as in Battenberg (which I respected as I believed it to be the name of the Royal family) which cake did not have the decency to cover up its marzipan even with the thinnest, flimsiest layer of sugar.
O tempora, o mores…we now have tiled floors and sugar is treated with the same respect as gelignite. There is no under felt nor icing.,,,,but, as a direct consequence of childhood icing infatuation, quite a few less teeth. Cake making is now one of my pleasures and, in direct contrast to days gone by, brown cake, in all its varieties, is the cake of choice. Surrounded as we are by boulangeries and patisseries I cannot remember when I last bought a cake. The brown cake in the picture is from a Nigel Slater recipe for an Autumnal pear cake with a crumble topping. This apparently dull slice of browness is charged with flavour and texture ..the sponge cake surprises with the flavours of roasted hazelnuts, cinnamon, vanilla and muscovado sugar. Above is a layer of soft sweet spiced poached pears and, on the roof, a crisp buttery crumble. As a final touch, the poaching juice of the pears is reduced and dribbled over the cooked cake surface to set as chunks of amber in the rough sugary surface. I have made this cake a few times now, and each time it is slightly different…sometimes I forget an ingredient or cook it at a slightly different temperature or with apples as I have no pears or one of dozens of other possibilities . Each time it is slightly or greatly different and each time I love it. Which is why I don’t buy cakes as I know how they will taste and I had no part in their creation.