a better steam engine cake
Just like last year, my elder son requested a chocolate steam engine cake for his birthday. (This is more straightforward than it sounds, as I have a wonderful steam engine-shaped cake tin.)
‘Only please,’ he added on the phone from his new boarding school, ‘could you decorate it differently this year?’
Looking back at last year’s effort, I could see that there was indeed room for improvement. Chocolate icing (frosting) may taste good, but it makes for a pretty dingy-looking steam engine. After a little thought, therefore, I made an executive decision to use coloured icing this year. The dilemma was, red – like the Hogwarts Express – or green, like the Flying Scotsman? Actually, it wasn’t much of a dilemma, as a moment’s more thought made me realise that mixing red food colouring into white icing would produce a pink steam engine. (I’m a quick lass, you know.) Now, a four-year-old boy might be happy with a pink cake, but a nine-year-old would never live it down amongst his friends. (I don’t make the rules.) Behold, then, a green steam engine, resplendent with edible ball bearings and a yellow Smartie headlight. It’s not professional, but it’s made with love.
I think I got the mixture better this year, too. The recipe given on the cake tin goes down fine with children, but is heavy and unappetising to adults. Last year’s Claire Macdonald recipe was delectable to adults but too rich for children. This year, then, I fell back on my trusty old Victoria sponge recipe, which has been my standby since I first started baking cakes as a child of nine or ten, and which everybody enjoys. I think of it as my mum’s recipe, but I’m pretty sure that it is originally from Mary Berry’s ‘Cooking for Your Freezer’, circa nineteen seventy-something. If you want a great, easy, fail-safe cake recipe, this is it:
6 oz (175 g) each of soft-ish butter or margarine, caster sugar and self-raising flour, plus 3 whole eggs. (For a big birthday cake, like the steam engine, I double these quantities.)
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Meanwhile sift the flour into a separate bowl. In a third bowl, beat the eggs until frothy.
Blend the eggs gradually into the creamed butter mixture. If it looks like curdling, fold in a little of the flour with the eggs. (This is especially important if you are using double quantities.)
Fold in the remaining flour until well blended, and then tip the mixture into the greased cake tin. (For a regular cake, use 2 seven or eight inch sandwich tins.)
Bake at about 190 degrees Celsius for about 20-25 minutes. Cool. Ice. Eat.
You can add pretty much anything to this basic mixture. For a chocolate sponge, just replace 1 oz (25 g) of the flour with 1 oz sieved cocoa powder. For coffee, dissolve 1 heaped teaspoon of instant coffee in the beaten eggs before you add them to the mixture; and you could add 2 oz chopped walnuts at the same time as adding the flour. For an orange cake (my favourite), add the finely grated rind of an orange to the creamed mixture, and sandwich the cake together with lemon or orange curd. Mary Berry, you haven’t done my waistline much good over the years, but you have certainly added to the sum of this family’s happiness!