Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bodacious Banana Cake

There have been some excellent animals that have transitted in and out of my life since I was three years old. Scrunch the Sydney Silky, Bill the black cat, and Angus the ginger manx. And for the last almost nine years there's been Derek Dog, a mad mini-foxy who isn't very mini at all and to my knowledge, isn't really aware that he's a dog at all.

Derek carrived at a time when I really needed a friend. He was so insane as a puppy, he was an extremely good diversion from the woes that characterised that period of my life. He ate anything - my Converse One Stars, my best black lace bra, even the stone feet on my magazine rack! In fact, he was so crazy, I'm not even sure I really liked him until he'd clocked up his second birthday.

But these days, Derek actually astounds me with his complexity of character. He is very cleary an individual with his own agenda and his own preferences. His daily antics never fail to infuriate and amuse me all at the same time. He is a beacon of light, sent to teach me the true meaning of love in its most unconditional form, which, despite his manic approach to life, I am forever grateful for.

A couple of months back I had a friend over for afternoon tea. I'd carefully sliced up four pieces of banana cake and arranged them on a bread and butter plate. I put the kettle on, picked up the plate of cake and went to the lounge room where I deposited the cake on the coffee table. My friend and I took a moment to admire one of the plants on my balcony, and when I heard the kettle click to indicate it was boiled, I turned around and found Derek swallowing his second piece of banana cake!

Stupid me! It never occurred to me that banana cake would appeal to him - bacon is more his style! But dang it, that coffee table is the perfect height for Derek to dine off, and I'm sure in his mind I wouldn't have put those pieces of cake there if they weren't specifically for him to eat!

My guest and I made do with the remaining two slices of cake, which thankfully had not come into contact with Derek's lips or tongue! But it was the last time I left any food I valued on that coffee table.

125g butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
2-3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp mixed spice
1.5 cups self raising flour
2/3 cup of milk
1 tsp bicarb soda

1. Place the butter and brown sugar in the small bowl of an electric mixer and beat until pale and creamy. This will take at least five minutes - more if the butter isn't at room temperature.

2. Add vanilla essence and then the eggs, one at a time, mixing to combine all ingredients.

3. Add mashed bananas and mixed spice to mixture and lightly combine.

4. Now add the flour - sift if you like. It will make the cake lighter, but it's not absolutely compulsory.

5. Gradually add the milk and mix until all ingredients are well combined. Don't over mix!

6. Lastly, add the bicarb soda and stir well. Banana cake can be a little heavy and the bicarb soda will aerate it. But be sure to mix it well - any pockets of bicarb will discolour the cake and create a bitter lump!

7. Pour batter into a loaf tin or a 20cm round cake tin, greased and lined with baking paper. Bake in a moderate oven (180 degrees celsius) for approximately 45 minutes or until the cake is cooked. Pierce a skewer through the middle of the cake to test if it's cooked. If the skewer comes out clean, it's cooked!

Note: you can ice this cake with the same cream cheese icing used for Humming Bird Cake, the recipe for which is also on this blog. Or you can ice it with caramel icing, the recipe for which I'll publish some time in the near future. You can also slice this cake up without icing, slather it in butter and eat it as a teacake!

Traditional Christmas Cake

In my family there is no greater tradition than the Christmas Cake. Unless of course we're talking about Christmas Pudding!

As a little kid, I had absolutely no interest in either of these fruit-laden, booze laced Christmas staples. Their flavour was far too complex and mature for me to appreciate. It wasn't until well into my twenties that I started to take an interest in the fruit cake and puddings my mother makes. She and her sisters had obviously learned the art of Christmas cookery from my Nana, who cooked a wicked fruitcake in her heyday, if I do say so myself.

But my interest in Christmas cookery always lay with the sweeter delicacies we liked to enjoy on the day - rum balls, coconut ice, mixed spice biscuits. I appointed myself at a very early age to cook the Christmas fancies, and took great delight in seeing my family devour them and grow fat as a result!

A couple of years back, my dad suddenly passed away. When Christmas came round that year, my mother arrived at the family gathering with a massive pudding and a beautifully decorated Christmas cake - complete with marzipan, fondant, the red foil wrapper with silver 'Merry Christmas' written on it, and a glazed holly leaf poking out the top. It occurred to me that Mum's pudding and cake would go with her to the grave if I didn't do something about it - lord knows my sister would never be able to cook them. So I asked Mum for her Christmas Cake recipe, which she gladly gave me. I took it home, put it inside my copy of Jill Dupleix's 'New Food', and proceeded to ignore it.

Until last year. I was going away for Christmas and wasn't going to see my mum before hand. The realisation that I'd be without fruit cake struck me like a bolt of lightning! I scrabbled through my cookbooks looking for Mum's recipe. I reviewed the list of ingredients and felt afraid. But I decided I was equal to the task despite my trepidation.

I went off to the supermarket, acquired all the ingredients, took them home and covered them with sherry. By that stage I was sooo excited, I think I only let the fruit soak for three hours! I decided to divide the mix between two large loaf tins, making one cake for my best friend Jeannette, and one to take to my holiday hosts. I wrapped the tins in layers of newspaper then put the cakes in the oven. It was 6.05pm on the clock. They would be done at 9.05pm.

By 8.00pm the smell of Christmas filled my house. I knew I'd gotten the cakes right and I couldn't wait to taste them. Christmas cake! Yum!

750g sultanas
250g raisins
125g currants
125g dried pineapple pieces
125g glace cherries
125g mixed peel
1 can fruit salad in natural juice (Golden Circle is best!)
1 cup sherry (or brandy or whiskey)
250g butter
1.5 cups dark brown sugar, tightly packed
4 eggs
1 tsp orange zest
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2.5 cups plain flour

1. Combine all the fruit in a large bowl. A LARGE bowl! Cover with sherry and allow to soak for one week. If you can't manage a week, make it a least 24 hours. Stir periodically to make sure all the fruit has a chance to absorb the sherry. You'll know it's good to go when you can see the raisins are plump with extra moisture from the soaking process.

2. In a large bowl on the electric mixer, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix until just combined. Try not to eat this mix - it's delicious, but you should resist!

3. Add eggs one by one, scraping down any mixture on the sides of the bowl to make sure it's properly combined.

4. Add the orange and lemon zest and then the spices. You can use one of those zest strippers to create long thin strips of zest, or just use the zester side of the grate for finely grated zest.

5. Change beaters on the mixer to dough hooks (if you have them). Alternate adding flour and fruit mix, combining on the lowest speed so as to gently fold the flour and fruit into the cake mix. Dough hooks will prevent your glace cherries from being minced (a slice of cake with a whole cherry in it is very enticing!). Continue until all ingredients are combined. (If you don't have dough hooks for your mixer, combine the ingredients by hand - and don't lick your fingers until you've finished mixing!).

6. Line a large round cake tin - at least 22cm in diameter for this size mix- with a double layer of heavy baking paper - make sure you cover the bottom and sides. Then wrap four layers of newspaper around the outside of the tin, securing with sticky tape. Place tin on a tray covered with four layers of newspaper - this will help prevent the cake from burning.

7. Spoon the fruit cake mix into the tin, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Tap the filled tin on the bench top about eight times to help the cake mix to settle. Don't forget to smooth the top down, ensuring the mix is level in the tin.

8. Bake in a slow oven (160 degrees Celsius) for three hours or until cake is cooked. If your oven is good, this cake should be ready dead on three hours. If anything, it might require an extra 15 minutes cooking time, but no more! Test by inserting a skewer in the middle of the cake - if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked. But honestly, the smell will tell you when this cake is cooked - it is positively Christmasey!

9. Cover a board with foil and place over the top of the cooked cake while it's still in its tin. Turn upside and leave on the bench to cool over night. This will help flatten the top of the cake which is handy if you're planning on decorating it. In the morning, lift the tin off the cooled cake, leave baking paper on base and sides of cake and wrap in Glad Wrap. Then wrap in aluminium foil and for extra measure, store in an airtight container. Keep in this manner for as long as possible before serving. Fruit cakes can keep for an incredibly long time if they've been stored correctly. A fruit cake that's about three months old when cut will be absolutely delicious.

10. If desired, decorate cake with marzipan and fondant about a week before serving. You'll need to leave it exposed to air at this stage, as an airtight container will encourage the fondant to become wet and sticky. If giving the cake as a gift, wrap tightly in clear cellophane, then bag bottom of cake with decorative paper, leaving top exposed. Secure paper with a gorgeous big bow!