take back the cake, burn the shoes and boil the rice

While frantically making royal icing at 7.00am yesterday, sending clouds of icing sugar into both the air and my eyebrows with each rotation my whisk made around the bowl; spreading it over layers of cake and massaging sprinkles into a uniform layer across its still-wet surface, it was hard to imagine that soon there’d be events that would require more attention than the one at hand.

However life, in the way it does to everyone every day, presented me with a whole lot of other things to take in.
Yesterday I found out that Nancy Wake had died, aged 98. I grew up with the proud knowledge that I was related to her down the line, but also with a more general respect for all that she’d achieved. I won’t pass wikipedia content off as my own here, instead I definitely recommend reading a summary of her life during WWII here. Where it says she was descended from Pourewa and Charles Cossell – those are my same ancestors, just a few generations back, of course.
A significant day in my life was when I met Nancy Wake in London in 2005 – sort of by chance, although you don’t just run into someone in the Royal Star and Garter Home for the ex-Service Community. It was very lucky that I was able to go in and visit her, as I was told at reception that they have a no-visitors policy unless Wake herself had cleared it first. However, my sincere story (from New Zealand, related, happy to leave if it doesn’t suit, just thought since this was my one chance, etc) randomly got the thumbs up and suddenly I was wearing a visitor’s sticker and being escorted down a hallway to her room. I hardly remember what happened to be honest, apart from small details – she was wearing red lipstick and red nailpolish, there was a handwritten Christmas card from Prince Charles and his sons pinned to the wall, and I’d (a little naively) brought her a gift of homemade fudge, to which she said sharply “I can’t eat any of that stuff.” Tim was there too – it was right when we first started ‘going out’ or whatever, he loitered outside but with her permission snapped a photo of the two of us together. Nancy Wake was a hugely inspirational person (quoted as saying “I’ve never been afraid in my life”, something that seems to have failed to reach my share of our DNA, as has her bicycling ability) and I was very sad to hear of her death. But, I also feel lucky to have had moment, though a slightly surreal moment, with her.
I’ve also been reading heaps of accounts of the rioting in London via Twitter and news websites. Hope everyone I know over there – and the list does grow the more I think about it – is doing okay and staying safe. Actually I just hope everyone is staying safe and that it somehow stops really soon. Scary, sad times.
It’s almost like my body or soul, whichever is responsible for this kind of carry-on, instinctively knew I’d need cake at some point. I made this on Sunday, not for any particular reason but just because it felt like something I needed to do, in my heart. Maybe not so much for my heart, some might say, but I tend to believe my body’s food-related instincts are always accurate. Firstly, I knew I wanted to make a big cake, secondly, I had a vision of a cake entirely covered in hundreds and thousands – this turned out to be way too difficult and so I compromised with just a rainbow-dotted top – and thirdly, I wanted the juicy acerbic squish of blackberries, which I already had in my freezer, against the buttery richness of vanilla and white chocolate.
Sometimes cakes and such will spring into my mind, fully-formed like this – in which case if I’ve got the means I just go with it. I’m glad I did, because this isn’t so much a cake as an accomplishment, the sort of thing you want to put on your CV. (Actually, this cake should go on your CV, the one I’ve made here one only looks complicated.)
White Chocolate Layer Cake with Blackberries and Hundreds and Thousands

Adapted liberally from a basic cake recipe of Nigella Lawson’s that appears in some form in nearly all her books.

225g soft, soft butter
225g sugar
4 eggs
200g plain flour
25g cornflour (or just 225g plain flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract/paste
100g good white chocolate (I used Whittakers) chopped roughly

Lots of blackberries (frozen is fine, but thaw them in a sieve over a bowl – they have SO much juice in them)
Royal icing:
2 egg whites
Icing sugar
vanilla extract/paste
Hundreds and Thousands (about a small container full, depending on your capacity)
  • Set your oven to 180 C/350 F and grease and line a 21 or 20cm springform caketin, or two if you have them.
  • Your two options for the cake are: Blitz the butter and sugar in the food processor, then the eggs, then everything else, scrape half the mixture into each of the cake tins and bake for 25-30 mins.
  • Or, do as I did, and beat the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon, then beat in the eggs, then fold in everything else and proceed as above. If you only have one tin (like me), just cook them one at a time, and when the first one’s done, carefully remove it from the tin and leave it aside to cool, while you put more baking paper into the tin and scrape the rest of the batter into it and bake.
  • Once the two layers are cooled, put one onto a plate and spread the top thinly with the jam of your choice. Then, arrange the blackberries over the top of the jam, and top with the second layer of cake. Quantities are a little hazy here, but I didn’t have nearly enough and had to top it up with some nearby scooped out tamarillo flesh, because the blackberries studded thinly across the cake looked ridiculous. Prepare more than you think you’ll need, you can always eat the leftovers.
  • To make your icing, whisk the egg whites a little then slowly stir in icing sugar. This is an instinctive recipe, sorry, I don’t have measurements, but probably 2 cups or so. When you’ve stirred in enough icing sugar that the mixture is thick and white, whisk it hard for a couple of minutes and add more icing sugar if it’s too soft and runny. It needs to be thick and spreadable. Stir in your vanilla.
  • Spread the icing carefully across the top and sides of the cake, and tip over as many 100s and 1000s as you like.
  • Serve with heaps of pride.
This cake recipe is reliable and easy, although admittedly my layers didn’t rise very high, I think this is because the wooden spoon I used to make them didn’t beat as much air in as a cake mixer would. No matter. It’s tender and buttery and good on its own; when paired with sharp berries, thick sweet icing steeped in vanilla, welcome lumps of white chocolate and the rainbow crunch of hundreds and thousands, not to mention more cake, it’s pretty damn flabbergasting.
Luckily for you, there are many, many options if the stars don’t align for you ingredients-wise.
Here’s a few of them! (Tell us, Susan!)
  • If you don’t have the energy/cake tins, just halve the recipe and possibly leave out the chocolate, for a small vanilla sponge cake.
  • Royal icing is practical, but also a little dull – hence why I vanilla-d it up to round off its sweetness. You could always use something else – buttercream or ganache, for example.
  • Fill with different fruits – whatever frozen berries are on special, canned pears, etc.
  • Pains me to say it, but the sprinkles are not essential. Or you could use different ones!
  • Use dark or milk chocolate instead of white
  • Add cocoa to the batter
  • And so on. Use your instincts, have fun. Add nuts, leave ’em out. Use fruit to join the layers, or more icing, or have no layers at all. Cake!
Be warned: sprinkles only need the barest encouragement to bounce all over the place and off your slice of cake and onto the floor.
I would finally like to send a quick “Hey!” and “Cheers” to Curd Nerd who snaffled me into the Beervana on Saturday, where I had a very fun time tasting tasty beers hither and thither, and sitting in on presentations by local prizewinning brewers and the redoubtable Martin Bosley.
Title via: Getting Married Today, from a musical that I just can’t get sick of, not that I’m trying, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. I once had a dream that I was performing this song most adequately in a local theatre production, if someone would like to make this happen in real life, that would be grand. I recommend first, original Broadway cast member Beth Howland; then 2006 revival cast member Heather Laws’ admirable version, and finally the always wonderful Alice Ripley performing it with her usual commitment in Washington in 2002.
Music lately:
New music from Tourettes is always good news to me.
The Go! Team, Ladyflash. This song is so cheery that some of it’s gotta rub off if you listen to it enough.
(Reach Out) I’ll Be There, The Four Tops. There is so much good stuff in this song that it’s only right to listen to it while thinking about the above cake. It’s so upbeat it’s almost on its way to being melancholic again, with all those minor keys and stuff (I really have no technical knowledge of what makes music sound the way it does…evidently.)
Next time: something a little more erring on the side of sensible. But not too sensible. It probably won’t be very sensible at all, let’s face it.

14 thoughts on “take back the cake, burn the shoes and boil the rice

  1. Emma says:

    The White Mouse. I had never before heard of her, that's how sneaky she was! Very interesting history though, I see how you were inspired.

    Jam: lots of blackberries. Ha:)

    Good idea about the CV. I'm always looking for ways to jazz mine up, and it's so long already I could slip in a “Most Appreciated Desserts” section in between “Publications – Unpublished Theses” and “Grants and Awards,” and no one would ever notice. This makes me giddy with mischievous glee!


  2. HayleyB says:

    I was just speaking with my sister yesterday about the sort of cake she wanted me to make for her birthday; white chocolate cake! I'm glad to read your recipe here! This cake does look pretty impressive! Though I'll be making a variation which doesn't include berries, as my sister isn't a fan.

    I always enjoy reading your blog 🙂 the imagery you use often makes me smile 🙂 I don't always get the chance to read your blog, but I do catch up on reading eventually. 🙂


  3. Kay says:

    To paraphrase my FaceBook posting: May we never be called upon to have to make the decisions and sacrifices that Nancy Wake made, and may we be able to draw on her courage and principles should the need arise. One wonders if those politicians who have been decorated for far less (and who deemed her ineligible for NZ official recognition) would have a shred of her courage and values if faced with something similar.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Great fun cake with all those sprinkles. The UK riots to bring back sad memories from home, Liverpool, in the 80s, I hope it doesn't get worse.


  5. Anonymous says:

    So sorry to hear about the loss of Ms. Wake. I read her wiki page and she was quite an amazing lady. What an honor that you are related to such a courageous woman who accomplished so much.

    On another note, your cake looks amazing 🙂


  6. AnneE says:

    How fascinating to learn that you're related to the redoutable Nancy Wake – I came across the Oriental Bay memorial to her recently and was so pleased to see it. You must be so pleased you got to see her.


  7. The Procrastobaker says:

    suuuuhhhtuning (thats an extended stunning if you cant decode my gawping adoration!) truly delicious sounding but i dont even think that matters when a cake looks as pretty as this! Youve inspired me to whip out the sprinkles 🙂


  8. Bailey says:

    I stumbled across the this excellent looking cake via tastespotting, but I had to comment just to tell you how much I love you for the [Title of Show] and Company references!


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