Last night as The Author was preparing dinner, he said, “I don’t actually enjoy cooking anymore.”
I know how he feels.
Around our house, dinner can be a contentious time. The Author and I prefer a more continental dining time, and the kids prefer – well, I don’t actually know what they prefer half the time. When we try to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour (that would be 7:30 for us), they complain that they don’t want to eat that early. When we lag behind and get dinner on the table late (sometimes as late as 9:00), they complain about the food.
It seems we are raising a household of complainers.
Mind you, we were just on holiday in the States over the half-term, and there were no complaints there. On the other hand, that may be thanks to an indulgent grandma who provided cereal, strawberries, Oreos and whipped cream at any opportunity.
But when it comes to an actual meal, with vegetables and a source of protein, it’s a rare thing nowadays to find the three kids in agreement about what is “good” and what merits constant criticism, wariness, and poking with a fork.
To be fair, this behaviour is cyclical; there are whole months when The Author and I are crossing our fingers that the tide has turned for good, as the three offspring tuck into their dinner with gusto and drink pints and pints of milk. But inevitably the wheel turns, and they are back to questioning the food. (The Son has been known to pick up a pork chop and demand sceptically, “What kind of chicken is this?!”)
So I can understand why The Author might dread getting dinner on the table. Although he and I enjoy our meals, the peanut gallery can dim our enthusiasm a little. And that saddens me, because not only do I love to eat, but I love to cook. In his recent series Cooked, Michael Pollan asks, “Is there any practice less selfish, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?” And I have to confess, I sometimes think it actually is selfish, because I enjoy it so much. It is pure joy. Until my harshest critics pipe up.
So what’s a cook to do? I guess I have to persevere, and hope that for every step backwards, the kids are taking two forward. I will keep providing well-balanced, seasonal meals, and encouraging their tastebuds to savour new flavours along with the familiar. I will encourage The Author to continue his foray into Chinese cooking, which he is getting increasingly good at and which the kids enjoy – until the nights when they don’t. I will remember that at some point, they will all grow up and leave home and when they come back, they will wistfully ask us to make a meal that they loved, and hopefully we will remember how we did it.
But for this minute, with two and a half hours to dinner (or four, if it’s one of those nights), I will let them eat cake. (For the record, there were no complaints.)
Almond Cake with Orange Rose Syrup
makes one 20cm x 20cm (8″) cake, or 1 round 23cm (9″)
The beauty of this cake is that it requires hardly any ingredients and it’s pretty easy to (literally) whip up. The flavour is, quite simply, amazing. Long after you finish eating it, your tastebuds will be zinging. It is perfect on its own, or at the end of a spicy meal, or with a cup of coffee (breakfast, maybe?). It tastes summery and light and fresh, and distinctly flowery. I think you should make it right now.
For the cake:
- 5 eggs, separated
- 200g granulated sugar
- 250g blanched almonds, ground (if you have whole almonds, see how to blanch them here)
- pinch of salt
For the syrup:
- 100g granulated sugar
- 200ml boiling water
- 1 orange
- 1 TB rose water
Preheat the oven to 180C (375F). Line the baking tin with parchment or tin foil; it is useful to leave an overhang on two sides, to help you remove the cake later (when it is sodden with delicious syrup).
If you have bought ground almonds, you can skip to the next paragraph! If you are starting with whole almonds, grind them as fine as you can in a food processor or blender. (As an aside, if you continue to grind the almonds after they are quite fine, you will end up with almond butter, which may be useful, but not in this recipe. But try it sometime; just add a pinch of salt for a boost of flavour, and then use as you would peanut butter.)
In a large bowl, beat together the egg yolks and the sugar until the mixture is pale and creamy and the sugar is not visible. Mix in the salt and the ground almonds. The mixture will be quite firm at this point, but don’t worry.
In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites are they are stiff. Put about 1/4 of the egg white into the almond mix and vigorously stir it in to loosen the mixture. Now gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the almond mix. When there is no more egg white showing, gently pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for about 35-45 minutes. It is done when a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, and if you pat the centre of the cake, it feels the same as the edges.
While the cake is baking, start the syrup by zesting the orange with a zester. If you don’t have a zester, cut the skin off, being careful to cut only the orange part of the peel and not the white pith underneath. Then slice the peel into very very thin slivers. Set them aside for now. Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice out, discarding any pips (seeds).
Put the sugar and the boiling water into a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until all the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange juice and the zest, and simmer this mixture for 10-15 minutes, until it becomes thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. (You may find this difficult to determine, so here are a few tips: The liquid will have reduced by almost half, and if you immerse a spoon in it and then take it out and hold it vertically for a few seconds, you should be able to swipe a clear path with your finger down the back of the spoon. Also, the liquid will drip off the edge of the spoon in double drops, as opposed to one clear stream. Also, if you wait another minute and touch the syrup left on the spoon, it will be very sticky. Once it has reached these points, it is done.)
When you take the cake out of the oven, use a toothpick or skewer to poke holes all over the top, then pour about 1/2 or 3/4 of the syrup over it. Try to hold back the orange zest as you do this.
Let the cake cool in the pan, and then, using the overhanging parchment or foil, remove the entire cake from the tin and cut into whatever serving shapes you like. Pour the remaining syrup on top and around the plate, and scatter the orange zest over the pieces. Throw on a few rose petals, and maybe even some toasted or candied almond slivers, and you’re good to go. We all agree.