Short and Tweet Challenge 20: Sophia Loren Cassata Cake, Saffron Peach Cake & Butterscotch Banana Cake

This week’s #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet was for Saffron peach cake pg 137 (an earlier challenge resulted in some useful tweaks); what Dan styles the “‘Sophia Loren’ of cake: four layers of orange sponge cake filled with a simplified Sicilian cassata mixture and drizzled with a light orange syrup”, pp 132-3; option three was a deep-flavoured Butterscotch banana cake, pp 126-7. It’s been an interesting selection of bakes that has generated questions about cakes with dome tops, what variety of cinnamon is commonly available in South Africa, and why a period of fast and abstinence has a cake associated with it. [The opening photograph is @joellybaby's banana cake.]

This week’s cakes have felt uncannily family and nostalgia related. Because of the saffron, the Saffron peach cake nods toward traditional associations with Mothering Sunday and, for me, the Butterscotch banana is reminiscent of childhood toffee smells. Looking at #shortandtweet-ers’ Orange cassata cake, there’s a sense that if we did not quite reach the acme of Sophia Loren, we brought to mind a glamorous aunt who somehow manages to wear a frilly-tiered outfit with panache. Monday 19 March was St Joseph’s Day (celebrated as Father’s Day in some countries) and in Italy, this is celebrated with regional food (this is Italy, what isn’t?). When I was at school, I had a weekend job in a pizzeria that was owned by Sicilians: so, from my n=1 experience, Sicilians (and others) celebrate by making and eating Sfinci di San Guiseppe (also pasta topped with breadcrumbs to recall the carpenter’s sawdust). Anyone who had been following #shortandtweet would have been able to do this because it involves frying choux puffs and filling them with a custard or creamy filling that is very similar to ‘Sophia’s Cassata’ filling. I was charmed to learn that @tomasi_carla made these traditional pastries and we’ve storifyed her account: @tomasi_carla’s Sfinci di San Giuseppe.

@underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked two cakes: Short and Tweet: ‘Butterscotch Banana’ and ‘Orange Cassata’ Cakes. There were some hiccups with both: “I can say straight up that neither would win “Prettiest Cake in Show” but taste-wise, there were varying degrees of success”. In an entertaining mix of personal preferences and interesting adjustments to allow for the impact of baking a sponge at altitude, @underthebluegum has a number of grumbles and misgivings about the Orange cassata cake. “Given my cake’s stunted stature, cutting it into three gave me a queasy moment but it was just about manageable. However, even after padding it out with the ricotta filling and giving it a drizzle of orange icing it looked a bit squat and lopsided..In the recipe intro, Dan refers to this dish as the ‘Sophia Loren’ of cakes. I am not sure what decade he was talking but my cake was certainly no sixties screen siren. I guess with a squint and in the right light it could possibly pass for today’s septuagenarian Ms Loren but that is probably being generous.” Remarkably enough, despite the low expectations: “I was surprised to find just how much I enjoyed this cake”.

@north_19 of North_19 kindly sent along her account of making the Orange cassata cake. I’ve storifyed her experience but reproduced some of it below because it highlights some common problems.

"To be honest, with my consistent lack of ability to bake sponge with a flat top, I should have known I would never have resulted in the poster-child of layer cakes. I should have baked just one large one and sliced it up, rather than two with their very domed tops (see ‘wonky cakes’ pic.")

"On the day it was baked, the cake was ok. Ricotta filling lumpy, and strangely textured…The after-taste was a little sharp and peel-y (my brand of candied peel?). However, the next day, something rather splendid had happened. The ricotta filling gently leaked into the sponge, mellowing the flavours beautifully, creating something far greater than the sum of its ingredients. I would make it again, to relish the next day."

"Oh, and I could do with some practise (advice?!) at creating the perfect flat-top sponge."

Please read @north_19's full account on Storify (where I’ve made some comments) and chip in with any advice. My additional suggestions are mundane and remedial rather than a pointer towards flat-top sponge perfection. It’s possible that the cakes rose unevenly because: i) the batter wasn’t level in the tin (an offset spatula might help to rectify this); ii) the oven isn’t level; iii) the oven has temperature zones that cause one side of the sponge to rise/set more rapidly (rotate the cake tins halfway through the cooking time; heat a bake stone in the oven and place the cake tins on that to reduce the temperature imbalances).

Domed tops can occur for several reasons. One of the likeliest problems is uneven transmission of heat so that the outer walls of the tin conducted the heat quickly and set the outer edges of the sponge while the centre of the sponge mix heated more gradually and then rose higher than the sides. In recipes with chemical leavening agents, the gases can’t escape from the cake mix once the crust has formed around the edges and they crowd towards the weakest spot (the unset centre) and push that up more. Domed tops can sometimes be fixed if you act quickly: as soon as the cakes are out of the oven, keep on the oven gloves and, using a clean tea towel, gently press down to flatten the dome and level the cake (watch out for steam as it can scald). Alternatively, when the cakes have cooled enough to be removed from the tin, invert the cake onto its top so that the top flattens under its own weight while cooling on the rack. This is helpful when slicing a cake into even layers for sandwiching.

It is at this point that I should mention that my Best Beloved succumbed to the siren promise of the Sophia Loren description and baked the Orange cassata cake. This was an ambitious choice for somebody who has never previously baked a sponge cake and so it was, perhaps, inevitable that at various points there were moments that resembled The Great British Bake Off in drama and emotion. The cake was fragrant and tasted delicious but a too-hasty turning out of one of the cakes, in combination with inadequate preparation of the sponge tins, meant that at one point we considered converting the presentation to an orange sponge and cassata trifle.

My Best Beloved removed the two cakes from the oven, and, giddy with success, turned one of them out before it had cooled enough. A section of the cake stuck to the silicone pan, and some of the part that did release broke up: despite the recipe instructions, neither tin had been lined. At this point we had nothing to lose as plan B was to serve it as a trifle so we placed the still warm sponge topside down onto some clingfilm, drizzled it with a small amount of warm sugar syrup, scraped the remaining sponge out of the pan and matched/patched up the holes, then gathered the clingfilm together to create a slight tension and gently slid the whole cake back into the still warm pan and left it to set (topside still down). We twisted and pegged the clingfilm to provide a gentle pull to encourage the cake to stick back together. (If the cake tin had been metal rather than silicone, we would probably have just folded the excess clingfilm flat and put a plate and suitable weight on top of the sponge to press it together but the silicone is flexible enough that it might have bulged.) The sponge was coaxed into sticking together well enough that it formed a sound base for the cake (we didn’t attempt to slice it into layers and the topside remained at the bottom) and held together without falling apart when it was cut and served. The final cake was just two layers of sponge, sandwiched and topped with the ricotta filling. It lasted 4 days in the fridge and matured delightfully.

I feel as if I’m highlighting the mistakes that my Best Beloved made rather than celebrating the fact that most of the procedure was correct, the cake crumb was light and it was delicious. It’s the more impressive that this was a lifetime first attempt at baking a sponge and it feels mean to detail the errors. However, it’s sometimes useful to have some back-up plans for taking remedial action and I’ve offered the above description of ‘how to stick a sponge cake back together’ in that spirit. Nonetheless, I’m conflicted precisely because I think that a number of home bakers are discouraged when their own attempts don’t look as fabulous as the photographs in a book or because other people criticise their mistakes while ignoring how good something tastes. None of the bakers who attempted it has any criticism of the taste, but none is wholly content with the appearance of their very first attempt at baking this cake. If none of the cakes achieved Sophia Loren status, I still think that we have a baker’s collection of aunts, wearing frilly outfits with panache.

I’m pleased to welcome back @joellybaby of Joelle McNichol. Her photographs and comments are storifyed: @joellybaby bakes Butterscotch banana cake. Go and admire the photographs, you might well think you can smell the caramelised banana just by looking at them.

As mentioned above, @underthebluegum of Under the Blue Gum Tree baked two cakes: Short and Tweet: ‘Butterscotch Banana’ and ‘Orange Cassata’ Cakes. In her account of the banana cake @underthebluegum speculates whether the taste of the delectable caramelised banana was smothered by her substitute spicing and wonders if other bakers had a similar experience (from the other accounts of this cake, it doesn’t seem as if this is a common problem). My own observation is that cinnamon is notoriously tricky to judge in recipes from other countries because it’s rarely clear which variety of cinnamon the recipe writer is using (eg, a floral or hot variety with varying strengths). Eg, we purchase Sri Lankan cinnamon in the UK; the commonly available cinnamon in the US is Indonesian cassia: it would be interesting to know which cinnamon is typically available in South Africa.

@BakeCakeCrumbs of Cake, Crumbs and Cooking has a helpfully illustrated account of various stages of the recipe: Butterscotch Banana Cakes - Short and Tweet. The write-up includes several useful tips. “Verdict? Great recipe - quite time consuming in terms of making the caramel, cooking the banana in it and then leaving to cool but once that bit is done, it’s plain sailing…[One] of my colleagues said that she thought these were possibly the best cakes I have ever taken to work!”

@BakerHay likewise baked the Butterscotch Banana Cake and had good intentions about giving them to her neighbours although it’s murky as to how many managed to make the handover. Her assessment is: “oil based cake light, moist and delicious”.

@lapindor of Lapin d ‘Or and More gave us: Reasons to be cheerful Jill’s variation on the Saffron peach cake substituted frozen nectarines for the peaches (in keeping with the desirable gold colour). Jill has some wisdom from Prue Leith and some praiseworthy reasoning on the health virtues of cake that contains fruit, nuts and saffron. Jane’s post triggered a series of questions from a visitor. Condensing the Q&A, I mention the following as it seems arcane to some people. Saffron has traditional associations with Mothering Sunday and Simnel Cake in the UK. Although Mothering Sunday is part of the Lenten calendar in the UK, and therefore a period of fast and abstinence, it has a cake associated with it because there is an official relaxation of Lenten observance to allow a day of celebration, also known as Refreshment Sunday.

It’s apparent that #shortandtweet search doesn’t always show everyone’s tweets so I apologise if I missed any notifications - please let me know and I’ll update this compilation.

I propose that we close the month with Light spelt rough puff pastry, pg 497. Dan Lepard notes that, “A smidgeon of baking powder softens the pastry and helps to gently aerate the tender buttery flakes as they bake”. This is a fairly free-form recipe as Dan suggests using it as you would puff pastry (lids for pies, or bases for tarts); as a wrap-around for items such as Pigs in blankets, or simply prepped for nibbles.

However, pp 498-503 have some excellent “ideas for individual savoury tarts”: be sure to read the additional baking notes for First-class tarts pg 498. The tarts can be as small or large as it suits you and the toppings can be simple or sophisticated. They’re flexible and allow a range of toppings to be baked at the same time (useful in families where people rarely agree on a single dish). For smaller households, the pastry freezes well and defrosts without mess for fast pie tops or tarts.

If you blog about your experience with one of the above recipes, please post links in the comments or tweet pictures or links to @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet - Thank you. It’s the same procedure if you don’t blog but just post a photograph of your work. Please send the links by 8pm 25 March or as soon thereafter as practical.

Schedule for the #shortandtweet March 2012 challenge.

Thank you for sharing your cakes. I look forward to our spelt rough puff pastry, whether whether it’s acting as a pie top, tart bottom, wrap-around, or nibble.

NB: apologies for the delay in sending out this compilation, it’s taken me a while to recover from a lengthy migraine. I’ll update this post with a link to the April Challenge schedule as soon as practical.

Short and Tweet Challenge: March 2012 Schedule

March 2012 schedule for the #shortandtweet challenge from Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet. (Read about #shortandtweet challenge and its conditions.)

The dates are those by which I’d like to receive links or photographs: please tweet these @foodcraftspace or @evidencematters using the hashtag #shortandtweet or leave links in the comments for the appropriate challenge announcement post. I’ll then collate these into the compendium post for that challenge.

The choices for some of these challenges vary as I realise that some of us have different ingredients available (or want to use up previous special purchases) or may be concerned about exposing ourselves or others to particular temptations. Nonetheless, I hope that it is stretching some of us to experiment with unfamiliar techniques or to tweak our familiar routines or recipes.

4 March Perfect plain pita pg 76 or the Garlic, thyme and lemon version pg 77. These breads are only vaguely related in taste and texture to the ones that are commonly available from supermarkets and are worth trying. Dan says: “Pita needs very little yeast, as the rolling and the very hot oven create the lift. So if your oven doesn’t get hot enough, you’ll have to make them at a friend’s house”. This is true - you will only get the full benefit of this recipe with a suitably hot oven. You will need very good, long tongs or superb oven gloves. You have been warned (but please make them as they are a revelation if you’ve not had fresh pita recently).

Simple bagels pg 61 de-mystified bagels for me and presented a very relaxed way of preparing a recipe that had always seemed fraught with complexity when I’d read about it elsewhere. There are notes to tweak the texture by altering the quantity of water or modifying the length of time for the rise. Again, unless you’re near a very good source for them, it’s remarkably different to make your own and discover that the result is not intrinsically heavy.

For anyone who didn’t bake last month’s North-South cornbread pg 53 or who did bake it and wants to use up some of the polenta or yellow corn meal, then I suggest the Double-corn bacon muffins pg 533. These are an excellent hearty lunch or tea-time item (works well with firm cooked mushrooms for those who don’t want bacon): I’ve heard that they’re good for brunch but I tend to have a punitive attitude to that institution (only within my own household and only if I’m the one responsible for preparing and serving it).

11 March When I was little my parents had a French cookery book that gave full and grisly details of how to cook an eel dish that required fresh eel blood for the sauce (it involved impaling live eels on a hook, a sharp knife and a dish to collect said blood). When it came to pastry, however, it was assumed that one pretty much already knew what was required: “Take a quantity of rough puff pastry” was as detailed as it got. I knew what puff pastry was but the recipe that fired my imagination was Paris Brest. I had no idea what choux pastry was but I instinctively knew that I liked the sound of a praline filling and toasted almonds on top. And I dreamed of the time when I could eat this delight. What made this recipe the more aspirational was the book’s account of how the recipe was developed: allegedly, in honour of the Paris-Brest cycle race (hence the shape).
“[The baker’s] tire-shaped choux pastry was piped full of a huge amount of calorific praline cream, perhaps mimicking the newly invented inner tubes of the day and traditionally baked almonds and icing sugar decorated the cake, imitating the tread of the tyre and dust from the road.” The Hungry Cyclist: Paris Brest – The Breakfast of Champions

Dan Lepard mentions the Paris Brest cycle race as well so this week is choux pastry and variations. For some of us, the stand out recipe is for Mini coffee Paris-Brest pg 418. There is coffee cream custard filling and instructions for drizzling a caramel over the top (this may well be tweaked into a praline that is smashed up and heavily dredged on top: I have a premonition).

For anyone who has their own rhubarb, or is putting up rhubarb this month, there is a delightful choux recipe for Rhubarb and custard buns, pg 422. These are both good and flexible: a friend didn’t make the custard but put together a half yoghurt, half whipped double cream filling which provided a good, slightly acid bite to the buns. The recipe also works well with roasted apples.

The third option is to use the sweet choux paste as a pie crust, as Dan outlines, pg 525. This is a very helpful hint for those of us who have sporadic difficulties in piping that make it difficult to envisage a tidy array of buns or homages to small bicycle wheels.

If you have any sweet choux paste left over, then if you adapt Dan’s recommendation for Soup choux, pg 524, and pipe/bake tiny blobs of it, you might sprinkle them on top of a stewed fruit dish (with or without tossing them in a dipping sugar of, eg, cinnamon and icing sugar). It looks very special and far more complicated than it is: it also offers a good texture contrast.

18 March It’s Mothering Sunday in the UK so I feel obliged to mention that there is a recipe for Saffron peach cake pg 137 which some people baked for an earlier challenge, with good results and some useful tweaks.

Option two “is the ‘Sophia Loren’ of cake: four layers of orange sponge cake filled with a simplified Sicilian cassata mixture and drizzled with a light orange syrup. The sponge alone is a good standby recipe for the lunchbox”. Dan has provided notes for advance preparation on pg 133, specifically for a special occasion. The recipe for Orange cassata cake is pg 132 and the cassata filling is delectable: if you have any Fiori di Sicilia or Panettone essence from other recipes, then that might be another way of flavouring the filling to taste (adjust the vanilla accordingly). It’s a delight even though it reminds me of a post-restaurant romantic clinch and my Best Beloved’s ill-timed burp that gave me the full experience of the apricot cassata that I hadn’t eaten.

Option three is a deep-flavoured Butterscotch banana cake that also makes excellent cupcakes. This is a cake for anyone who has, or whose mother has, fond memories of Banana Split Toffees and would appreciate both a more adult version and less dental jeopardy. There’s also a handy Short & Sweet tip about baking powder, the alkalinity of ripe bananas and its impact on the crumb of a cake.

25 March I propose that we close the month with Light spelt rough puff pastry, pg 497. Dan Lepard notes that, “A smidgeon of baking powder softens the pastry and helps to gently aerate the tender buttery flakes as they bake”. This is a fairly free-form recipe as Dan suggests using it as you would puff pastry (lids for pies, or bases for tarts); as a wrap-around for items such as Pigs in blankets, or simply prepped for nibbles.

However, pp 498-503 have some excellent “ideas for individual savoury tarts”: be sure to read the additional baking notes for First-class tarts pg 498. The tarts can be as small or large as it suits you and the toppings can be simple or sophisticated. They’re flexible and allow a range of toppings to be baked at the same time (useful in families where people rarely agree on a single dish). For smaller households, the pastry freezes well and defrosts without mess for fast pie tops or tarts.