Cookery School founder, Rosalind Rathouse talks about her annual Christmas cake as well as her favourite cake recipes that she grew up with, the importance of great ingredients and what to look for when dining out on cake.
The Christmas cake
Historically, the Christmas cake is associated with eating a large fruit cake to celebrate the Twelfth Night or Epiphany on the 5th of January, which at that time was a bigger feast-day than Christmas. Ever since I can remember (and that is into the 1940s), we had Christmas cake at Christmas. Christmas cakes are eaten in so many countries, each celebrating Christmas with so many different versions. The one that I am accustomed to is a very British version filled with vine fruits and brandy as well as using ground almonds to keep it moist along with best butter and eggs. Sugar used can be caster – we use unrefined caster sugar at Cookery School – but for a darker cake, darker sugars like demerara or molasses sugar can be used.
What is really important when cake baking?
It’s important that the cake is moist and flavourful so each bite is a treat to eat and very more-ish. When it comes to Christmas cake, while other cakes need to be freshly baked to be enjoyed at their best, fruit cakes mature and sometimes are eaten months or years after making. These cakes need to be very well fed with brandy and have a high sugar content to give them good lasting powers.
What are your family favourites?
I love most cakes but not ones that are overly sweet. I think that a good Victoria sponge takes a lot of beating (and love cakes based on a Victoria sponge, pound cake or a four part cake where the eggs, flour, sugar and butter weigh the same. These include lemon drizzle cake, sticky toffee pudding and others.
I do love lots of cream in cakes as a filling as I think that is so luxurious and indulgent. A good dollop of softly whipped cream enhances anything as does a good dose of berries beside the slice of cake.
Icings too can make a rather dull cake become a thing of great beauty. The addition of a lemon curd or good jam filling in a Victoria sponge or a really wonderful butter icing that can be enhanced with different flavours such as chocolate, coffee, vanilla or caramel, can really transform a cake. One of my firm favourites is passion fruit and a passion fruit curd sandwiching Victoria or fatless sponges together. Topped with a passion fruit icing is sheer bliss.
Having said that, for me a huge slice of freshly baked chiffon cake is a real treat. A good chiffon is one that tastes wonderful but is also so fluffy and light that it gives the illusion of floating. This is made without butter but instead with baking powder and stiffly beaten egg whites.
What do you look for in a cake?
I am spoiled because we bake everything that we use at Cookery School, even our sponge cake and fingers for trifle and tiramisu are specially made. I only enjoy cakes that are freshly baked. If someone gives me a piece of stale cake I am so disappointed. A good, fresh cake is a thing of great joy to be savoured and remembered.
My other criteria is that ingredients are the best that can be bought as it makes a huge difference to the flavour of the cake. I recall in the 1960s in London often being given cakes that were made with margarine. Even the icing was made of margarine. The taste is one that I cannot forget which I find difficult to liken to anything that we eat now but it tasted artificial. When I was a wee girl I used to go to ballet classes. My mother was always late in fetching me as she worked and had three boys to look after too. Sometimes I would be given a little money to buy a cake. I still remember how disappointing those little fondant cakes were. The outside was soft and melting but the insides tasted of margarine or sometimes almond essence, perhaps designed to kill off the flavour of the margarine. It was not a pleasant experience!
I am very aware when cakes are tough and over mixed. There are rules to follow to ensure that cakes can be light and airy and most important of all is not to overmix them. The temptation to mix and mix as satisfying as it is, needs to be desisted if the resulting cake is to have a perfect texture.
A simple icing is the crowning glory of any cake and even a sprinkling of icing sugar over the top of a jam filled sponge makes it look inviting and does alter the taste by adding a little additional sweetness.
Homemade vs. bought? (I think we know the answer)
Homemade every time! There is the odd exception and that is if you go into a bakery where cakes are fresh out of the oven or very recently baked, then it is worth having a slice. I have become adept at simply looking at a cake and being able to tell that it is not fresh. Fresh cakes have a wonderful gloss. Better still is if they have a golden, burnished colour and are not over baked. Overbaking can lead to them drying out but a perfect cake is moist and has a great feel in the mouth as it goes down..
What are your go-to recipes and cake favourites baked by others?
With cake baking more than with almost anything else, measuring accurately is important. Using a reputable recipe too is critical to the success of the finished cake. I was brought up in South Africa where American recipes reigned supreme. Betty Croker, The Woman’s Home Companion Cookbook and Rombauer and Becker’s Joy of Cooking were considered the bibles for both baking and cooking. I still use many of those recipes today.
The Betty Crocker Devil’s Food cake was used by my Mum when I was a child. I used it as a go to birthday cake for my children’s birthdays and whenever I had to produce a great deal of cake quickly for a party. It is now used by many that have visited Cookery School at Little Portland Street over the past 22 years.
Shops in London that I purposefully visit to eat a cake are La Fromagerie provided that they are freshly made. I judge that too by how much cake is on the stand. A cake with one piece cut out of it is likely to be the newest cake on the counter. Many of their cakes are ones that I make at home and are Cookery School favourites too. Ottolenghi cakes hit the spot but also need to be super fresh. Claire Ptak near London Fields has a small range of delicious cakes too. There are many other places that from time to time surprise me with their offerings. Too often cakes are considered products that hold and are disappointing when eaten (if they are no longer fresh). Freshness is most definitely the most important element to me. A fresh cake with a cup of coffee is incredibly memorable.
Rosalind Rathouse, founder, Cookery School, Little Portland Street, London.