April 30, 2012

In Many Ways

In many ways, it was doomed from the start. Sure, it had a beautifully taken photograph; yes, the parchment around the edges was perfectly crisped and browned; and indeed, those lemon slices looked caramelized and tart and toothsome. It could have gone a different way. Perhaps if I hadn’t been in the process of moving box-loads of historical relics out of my apartment, I might have been paying closer attention to things—I may have been able to intervene earlier on. But it had to happen, one of these days: that I would bake something that wouldn’t live up to its cookbook portrait, that needed serious modification, that was, perhaps, well intentioned, but not quite able to fulfill.

Today, my friends, apparently, is that day.

I knew from the start that I probably shouldn’t be baking another loaf cake. I had this one success a couple of weeks ago, and I should have left it at that for a bit. I was planning to offer you the following by way of excuses for this next loaf cake: (1) this one is made with butter not olive oil, and so we could compare and contrast; (2) I am defenseless before Nigel Slater and his beautiful photographs, and his brief jots of writing, and the way in which he chronicles, so simply, in so unadorned a way, the pleasures of cooking and eating; and (3) I’ve been reading way too much lately about the Great War.

I know that this last bit may come as a shock to any sane, mildly intelligent person out there. What on earth does loaf cake have to do with the Great War? Well, the answer, of course, is nothing really, nothing whatsoever. But I’ve been reading this book, primarily because I can’t seem to focus my mind on the sort of reading that I usually do, and in this book (which is really quite wonderful, actually) there is this section about the kinds of things that British troops at the front received as care packages while they were away at war. They received letters, and photographs, and news from home, of course, but they also received food—all manner of perishable and nonperishable things, including tarts, cakes, eggs, butter, fruit, and even fresh flowers “for the table” (specifically, violets and primroses). The idea of this passage is to point out the incredibly ironic, terribly sad, entirely ghastly proximity of these soldiers to their homes in England. They were at the front on the Sommes or in Amiens or in Ypres, but they were often just several hours away from home, a place that could be reached by boat along the Channel, and that was, in many cases, close enough to receive cakes and tarts from. This section of the book contains numerous humorous anecdotes about the sorts of food items that the troops received, including one letter from a captain in which he instructs his wife to package all future fruit tarts that she ships to him in cardboard rather than tin. (“I… received your parcel quite safe… I am sorry to say though that the tart had gone bad. I was so mad as I just felt like a bit of tart then too. I think the tin box done it. I don’t think a tin box is as good as a cardboard box or wood box for something in the tart line.”)

I won’t go on and on about this, but suffice it to say that it got me thinking: what could one make that would be sturdy enough to ship a long way, if one were pressed to the task? I might, I thought to myself, occasionally have something that I would like to send by the post; something that would hopefully arrive in one piece and that would still be delicious—perhaps even more delicious than when it was first baked?—once it got there. I settled on the idea of a loaf cake. And, specifically, this loaf cake, by Nigel Slater, with its lemon and brown sugar promises, its drizzle of lemon syrup, its luscious appearance, glossy finish, and parchment-wrapped exterior. This thing looked like it was built to travel. Perhaps it would be the kind of baked good that one could ship on, say, Mother’s Day, or for a friend’s birthday.

But alas, no. Not really at all.

Of course, I did just try it when it was first out of the oven; I haven’t given it time to settle yet; and I haven’t given myself time to warm up to it—but it’s not usually a good sign when one is not overcome with excitement with the thing that one has just baked. The just-out-of-the-oven moment should be filled with blissful enthusiasm, pride, satisfaction, and fulfillment—not sighs, frowns, and a scrunched, quizzical brow.

But I’m giving you the wrong idea here. It’s not a bad cake exactly, it’s just not amazing, and I find it to be too sweet. I’m also not singing home the praises of the lemon and brown sugar combination, though I really thought I would be. And it’s a little too sticky, and not in a way that I find appealing. To Nigel’s credit (and I do feel that he deserves a lot of credit; I may have been entirely to blame for the outcome of this cake), I did make one significant modification—I cut the amount of butter nearly by half. But I just couldn’t see, when it came down to it, how on earth I was going to be able to put 4 sticks of butter into a loaf cake—4 sticks of butter!! I consulted some other pound cake recipes and found that 2 sticks seemed to be a more generally accepted number, so that’s what I used.

Granted, I probably should have adjusted some other proportions once I made this change (for instance, the quantity of sugar), and I didn’t. I take full responsibility.

Next time, if there was going to be a next time, I would increase the amount of ground almonds, use a mixture of brown and granulated sugars, and perhaps I would even use oil instead of butter.

My favorite part of this cake is the lovely garnish of sliced lemons that adorns the top of it in a sort of haphazard meander. It’s a beautiful, rustic touch. And those lemon slices have been simmered in brown sugar and water, giving them a slightly caramelized quality and a beautiful, glimmering sheen. I like what this cake strives for. I like what the garnish beckons for it.

Maybe one day I’ll revisit it. For now, make this instead.

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