When was the last time someone responded badly to something you’d made?
In the kitchen, I tend to be my own worst critic. Although I enjoy cooking all sorts of savoury dishes, I definitely get the most joy out of baking and making desserts. And one major bonus that comes with being a baker is that your creations are almost always met with a rapturous response. While I’ll worry that something hasn’t turned out quite perfect, that the top is too brown or the middle less moist than I’d hoped, most of the time people have nothing but praise to impart when handed something sweet.
Maybe it’s an inherent insecurity which means I thrive on this praise, or perhaps conversely it’s some sort of overblown ego which makes me enjoy the eager eyes, nods of appreciation, squeals of pleasure and silent smiles of satisfaction, but the reaction of my friends and family to the treats I make brings me at least as much happiness as the actual processes of both baking and eating.
Of all our critics, children are often the harshest. They know what they like, they say what they think and they aren’t afraid to voice it in the clearest of terms. I don’t yet have any of my own, but can imagine that putting supper on the table for your kids day in and day out can sometimes be a thankless task. I’ve said before that my Mum was (and is still) a wonderful cook, but I remember how all too often my brother and I would wrinkle our noses at dishes she’d made that we didn’t like, criticize her cooking, lament the fact that we weren’t allowed Alphabites for tea and other such holy grails of childhood cuisine.
Last weekend we went over to a friend’s house for lunch. A gluten free (coeliac rather than just fussy) friend to be precise. I’d offered to bring dessert and, after making this heart-stopping two-tiered chocolate creation the last time we saw each other, I decided to try my hand at something a little lighter and brighter. I sent out a request for help on Twitter, and dozens of tweets later (there’s a lot of love out there for gluten free cake) decided polenta should be my main ingredient.
Mixing and matching ideas from various different recommended recipes, I ended up with this orange, pistachio and polenta cake. Dense and moist with a fragile golden crumb, this cake is lent a sublime stickiness by the sweet citrus and honey syrup, while a thin layer of tart yoghurt and orange icing studded with crunchy pistachios elevates it into an elegant and grown up dessert. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, there were noises of appreciation and everyone at the table went back for second slices (always a good sign). Then my friend took a couple of crumbs and popped them into the mouth of her eighteen month old daughter. Who promptly burst into tears.
And I mean tears. Not just a slight welling up around the eyes, but big, angry, streaming blobs, blotchy cheeks and howls of anguish. This was not a happy child, and in comparison to the cute little kissing noises she made when presented with my previous chocolate creation, her reaction wasn’t entirely the seal of approval I’d been hoping for.
After our laughter subsided (please don’t think we’re harsh for laughing at a small child, but she timed her tears with such comic accuracy), excuses were made, teething and tiredness blamed, and we happily finished the final few crumbs on our plates. And while I’m not going to take those tears to heart, I do think they may have been something to do with the slightly unusual texture of this cake, which is something worth pointing out in this post.
If you’re expecting a feather light classic Victoria sponge, think again. The combination of grainy golden polenta and dense, nutty almond makes for a rich, sticky, slightly crumbly cake which packs a hefty citrus punch. This isn’t a cake you could slice in half and stuff with buttercream, it’s solid and substantial, made for soaking up spoonfuls of sweet syrupy gloop and perfect eaten alone or with a scant spread of tart citrus icing. A dessert for grown ups.
One of the things I like about this recipe is that it’s naturally gluten free. Rather than trying to emulate anything made with normal flour, it takes on an identity of its own. It’s also infinitely adaptable – you could add crushed nuts to the batter, exchange the citrus for elderflower or apricot cordial, crush some cardamom or other spices into the batter or stir through chocolate chips.
If you decide to make this cake, or any variation of it, I’d love to hear what you think. Unless it makes you burst into tears, that is.
For the cake
225g butter, softened
225g unrefined caster sugar
150g ground almonds
3 large free range eggs, beaten
1 level tsp gluten free baking powder
2 tbsp greek yoghurt
Finely grated zest and juice of one large orange
For the syrup
150ml freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tbsp runny honey
For the icing
200g Greek yoghurt
4 tbsp icing sugar
2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
For the cake
Grease and line a 20cm round spring form cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the ground almonds. Beat the eggs and yoghurt together then stir in lightly with a fork. Mix the polenta and baking powder then fold into the mixture with the orange zest and juice.
Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 160 degrees C then bake for an additional 25 – 30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean and the cake is firm.
For the syrup
Bring the orange juice and honey to the boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for about five minutes until thickened.
Use a skewer to spike holes in the top of the cake then spoon the syrup over. Leave in the tin to cool completely.
For the icing
Mix together the yoghurt, icing sugar and orange juice and spread over the cake, allowing to trickle down the sides. Sprinkle over the chopped pistachios and pop in the fridge to set. Serve at room temperature.