There’s certainly a time and a place for multi-tiered, elaborate cakes. Over lockdown, I’ve particularly enjoyed devising increasingly complex and embellished celebration cakes for a number of quarantine birthdays and graduations, relishing the challenge of combining the perfect crumb structure with the right flavour profile, icing (cream cheese frosting, Italian meringue buttercream, or ganache?) and decorative finishing touches. However, I also find that there is equal – or even greater – joy to be found in simple, plain cakes; the kind you can cut and come again whenever the kettle is boiling. Over the last few years, social media platforms have been awash with ‘satisfying’ videos documenting cakes being cut, moulded, iced and decorated beyond recognition – think rainbow cakes, drip cakes, or cakes that have a hidden confectionary centre. While all of this is well and good, the phrase ‘style over substance’ comes to mind; these creations seem to consist primarily of saccharine icing and not much else. Yes, they look beautiful, but do they actually taste nice?
In my own kitchen, the most simple cakes are the most requested: Victoria sandwich, lemon loaf, maybe the odd carrot cake. It’s true that the simpler the cake, the less room there is to hide, but with the right recipe there’s little that can go wrong. This iconic River Café lemon, almond and polenta cake is the type of cake which is as at home alongside a cup of strong coffee as it is as an elegant dinner party pudding with a dollop of crème fraîche. It’s not iced, glazed, or soaked in syrup, but its beauty lies in its simplicity. The tender, damp cake is heady with lemon, and the polenta gives it a wonderful bite. It’s a one-bowl, one-tin kind of cake, and it’s flourless, too, so it’s naturally gluten free. For me, it’s the perfect cake for summer – moist, zesty, and somehow light despite the outrageously high butter content.
The original recipe (taken from the first River Cafe cookbook) makes a 30cm (12 in) cake, which is uncommonly large, so I’ve converted the quantities to make a standard 23cm cake (hence the slightly random measurements).
Torta di Polenta, Mandorle e Limone
338g unsalted butter, softened
338g caster sugar
228g ground almonds
1 tsp good vanilla essence
4 very large eggs
zest of 3 large, unwaxed lemons
juice of 1 lemon
1 heaped tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3. Butter and flour a 23cm springform cake tin.
- Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
- Spoon into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 50-55 minutes or until set. The cake will be a deep brown on top.
- Leave to cool in the tin before releasing.