Sugar is stealthily creeping back into my life, and I will have to Take Steps. Seed-and-nut bars from the health food store appear to be a gateway drug: how sad.
Nevertheless, the big bag of caster sugar will remain on the shelf, for cake is an essential element of British hospitality, and making cake without sugar is an extremely fiddly business. Naturally, one can always cut the amount of sugar the recipe demands, which one should do for guests who hail from lower-sugar regions. This week I had four guests: a Scot and a Polish-American (dinner party) and two Polish-Poles (coffee klatsch). I imagined the Scot and American were acclimatized to sugar, but I cut their dosage anyway.
The first cake (for the dinner party) was the plum cake or placek from the Applebaum-Crittenden Polish cookbook. It vastly diverges from the Standard British Cake (i.e. the Victora Sponge) in that it demands only half a cup of butter to the cup of flour, cup of sugar and 2 large eggs. Ann & Danielle were, let's face it, writing for Canucks and Yanks, not Poles, so I reduced the sugar to 3/4s of a cup. I didn't have two large eggs, so I used three medium eggs. Meanwhile, Americans and Canadians are not fans of "self-raising flour" and sure enough A&D asked for 1 tsp baking powder instead.
Normally I turn up my nose at such newfangled things as electric beaters, but as my butter wasn't very soft, I decided to do as they said and use one. This made for a much runnier batter than usual, which is what the ladies wanted, and after poking in the plum halves and drizzling the top with sugar and lemon juice, I popped the pan in the oven and prayed that it would rise.
The problem with Standard British Cake, with its 1:1:1 ratio of butter, sugar and so-called self-raising flour, is that the blessed thing doesn't rise very much. The Victoria Sponge would look really pathetic if one didn't pile one cake on top of another with a thick layer of whipped cream and/or jam in the middle. Even then it does not achieve the heights of the standard North American layer cake, especially my mother's.
My mother makes excellent cake. The first time I was engaged to someone, my grandmother was very sentimental about it, and as it was my birthday, my mother had baked a layer cake--light, fluffy, rich, covered with smooth butter icing, "Happy Birthday" written in delicate letters--delicious.
"Do you think you will ever make cake as good as your mother's?" asked my grandmother, inspiring me with murderous thoughts, as I was very embarrassed to be engaged and dreaded such domestic questions. However, I politely said that I didn't think that was possible, and my father heartily approved my answer, and peace reigned. Had I been a bit more cocky and cheerful about take particular engagement, I might have said, "Well, she's got 24 years on me, so check back in a couple of decades." Ha ha ha!
Still, though, after a happier engagement, I migrated to the Old Country, and had to cope with a fan-assisted over, British flour and no electric mixer. It was a good day when I did get an electric hand-mixer although by then I was so used to beating everything by hand, I used it only in meringue-making emergencies. Thanks to the climate, better recipes and sheer repetition, my (often meringue-topped) pastry now now rivals my mother's, but the perfection of her layer cakes eludes me.
An hour after I put my dinner party placek in the oven I had a look and, lo, it had risen beautifully. The plums had all but disappeared into the batter, so high did it rise. I looked at the electric hand mixer with new respect. Or was it the extra egg? Or the baking powder? Regardless, the Polish-American had two pieces and spoke about his mother. The missing sugar was not remarked upon: baked plum halves are plenty sweet.
Today I decided to use the placek recipe to make a chocolate Victorian sponge for my morning kaffeeklatsch*, and was miffed to discover I had only two medium eggs. Nevertheless, I plunged ahead, making things up as I went along. This time I used about 3/4 of a cup of butter, no more than 2/3 cup of sugar, 3/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup Green and Black's cocoa and 1 teaspoon of baking powder. I employed the beater, and put in both eggs. The batter didn't look runny, so I put in two heaping spoonfuls of soured cream. That did the trick. I poured all into a paper-lined cake tin and spread the top with red currant jelly (made by my mother, 2015).
An hour later, I had another beautifully risen cake, and I waited impatiently for my Polish-Polish guests to arrive so I could try it. When they arrived I did. In terms of texture, the sour cream worked beautifully--resulting in a cake that was moist but not squidgey--and in terms of flavour, the red current jelly worked with, not against, the cocoa. What a relief. It is a cake that needs neither cream nor ice-cream, neither of which are appropriate at 10 AM.
The British love to pour cream on their cake. My Polish guests (girls) and I commented on this as we compared Polish, British and American cake. It does seem a pity to drown a beautiful cake with cream--unless it is dry, and then the baker can only be relieved that cream covers a multitude of sins. We also agreed that British baking is insanely sweet--brownies, muffins, all the ghastly things at Caffée Nero--although a Brit would find this opinion rather ironic, coming from a North American.
I feel that I have had made some excellent progress in my journey towards cake perfection. Again, sugar is the enemy, but as it is culturally necessary, I must keep a bag of it. Instead I will toss the useless self-raising flour and stick to baking powder and sour cream.
*Suddenly I feel all nostalgically German-American. My German-American Great Aunt Tilly weighed more than 300 lbs. I love stories about Great Aunt Tilly. The Scots-Canadians were rather less interestingly from a food point of view--except for my mother, who is practically fluent in German. Wypadek? Nie sądzę.