Illustration: Sophie MacCarthy, from Italian Food by Elizabeth David (The Folio Society)
The cool stillness of the first day of autumn and the kitchen feels like a nice place to be. Using a recipe from my friend, home economist and food stylist Sue Ashworth, I’ve been trying to perfect lemon curd – my lifelong crush of the preserve world. Fresh farm eggs and a slab of Cornish butter mixed with sugar, lemon juice and a soft mound of zest is never going to taste and smell anything short of amazing when it hits the hob, melting and thickening into a silky, lemony spread. Practice is all part of the fun. I just need to amp up my zest levels (thanks, testers) then it’s on to lime and raspberry in time for Christmas potting.
Last weekend I assisted Sue at the Cake & Bake Show in Earl’s Court, our third event representing vegetable fat, Trex. Admittedly, after several hundred fairy cake’s worth of icing, dusting and handing out of samples to droves of bakers in a pop-up kitchen, I felt – and probably looked – a little bleary-eyed. Yet I’ve realised the whole experience taps into a very simple pleasure – the ritualistic and childlike joy gained from prepping ingredients in cookery show type fashion. Talking to a friend at work, I’m not alone. What is about that tray of perfectly-weighed ingredients, that stackable family of gleaming glass bowls showcasing piles of flour, sugar and spices, then to be effortlessly knocked into the mixing bowl by a culinary whizz to camera? I’m still trying to work it out.
Bound for life: my treasured trio of Elizabeth David recipe books
In the grips of a lingering cold bug, I’ve been especially cheered by the words of Elizabeth David, whose Folio-bound recipe books – Italian Food, French Provincial Cooking and A Book of Mediterranean Food – took pride of place on my shelves last winter as part of a special wedding gift from my family in South Africa. The preface of each edition (written by Terence Conran, Simon Hopkinson and Julian Barnes respectively) offer fascinating starters and through first-hand accounts of dinner with ‘E.D’ to collective observations on her skills as a writer and no-nonsense cook, we glean insight into one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs. In Italian Food she rattles through store cupboard staples with passion, name-checking anchovies, olive oil and her most beloved of herbs (‘If I had to choose just one plant from the whole herb garden I should be content with basil’). Her plea for the adoption of Italian flair in the English kitchen seems to sing out to a country who 15 years previous were in the midst of strict rationing. As with all of the covetable Folio recipe books, chapters are interspersed with the type of culinary watercolours I’d happily line my walls with (see top). I’m earmarking Budino di Mandorle (Almond Pudding) and Torta di Albicocche (Apricot Tart) for the baking this autumn.
I end here with a good chocolate cake. The recipe comes from my lovely Auntie Cecily, through the hand-written recipe card of her sister, my mother-in-law, Nina. On my last trip to Cape Town, I was sent off with various family recipes for puddings and cakes and this number has given me the perfect excuse to try out my new measuring cups – a nest of bright plastic spoons that I picked up from my local hardware store. Here’s the recipe, topped with my own chocolate icing.
Auntie Cecily’s Chocolate Cake
- 1 cup of boiling water
- ½ cup of cocoa (I used half cocoa, half drinking chocolate)
- 1 ¾ cups plain flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 unbeaten egg yolks
- 4 egg whites, whipped to stiff peaks
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- pinch of salt
- 1 generous cup of icing sugar
- 40g butter
- 2 tbsp whole milk
- 1 tbsp cocoa
- 1 tbsp drinking chocolate
- Pre-heat the oven to 190°C, gas mark 5.
- Grease and line a large deep cake tin.
- Pour boiling water onto cocoa and allow to cool.
- In a separate bowl, mix together plain flour, sugar and baking powder. Make a hole in the centre and pour in the cool cocoa.
- Add to the mix vanilla extract, egg yolks, oil and salt. Beat well.
- Gently fold in the egg whites and bake for approx. 25 minutes. Leave to cool.
- For the icing, add all the ingredients to a bowl and gently heat over a pan of simmering water until smooth and glossy. Take off the heat and leave to set before spreading on top of the cake.