Is there anything better than a sponge cake, sandwiched with Nanna's raspberry jam and clouds of whipped cream? Perhaps, if the mood takes us, we'll use a gilt and floral plate, and even go to the trouble of sprinkling icing sugar through a doily to create a lacy crown for our confection.
It's a funny thing, in this time-poor world, to spend an hour or two building something that's gone in an instant - or less if there are children over to play. You've scrubbed the mixing bowl and whisk to remove any trace of fat that could interfere with the eggs rising, you've triple-sifted flour, lined tins and done that ridiculous thing with the doily, and, precisely because of your light touch, because of the delicacy of egg, sugar, flour and air, the thing you've made requires little work from the jaw, and even less digestion. If it's not all gone in a flash the wisest baker will discreetly whisk the plate from the table while there's still a piece remaining to be enjoyed in secret while tidying the kitchen.
Winter is the time of year for mucking about in the kitchen. Cool mornings invite you to linger by a hot oven, and the work on the farm is physical - barrowing compost and lugging sacks of seed potatoes, combined with the bracing afternoon south-westerlies, creating a hunger like no other.
Perhaps it's the cold, perhaps it's my inner hippie, or maybe I'm just growing up finally, but those sweet, uncomplicated sponges are evolving, becoming browner, denser, and - dare I say it? - more nutritious. For while I still, on occasion, reach for the fine white dust labelled "cake flour", you'll more often find me triple-sifting whole spelt flour and tipping the chaff from the sieve right into my cake batter.
There's a farm on the north coast of Tasmania, in the beautifully named town of Kindred, where Henriette and Lauran Damen grow spelt, oats, buckwheat, linseed and quinoa organically, and mill to order, meaning I can get my hands on sweet, fresh flour. I visited one blissful afternoon and watched Henriette at at work. She was grinding spelt for an order of white flour, and she held out a handful of the sieved-off bran for me to see, telling me that without the bran the beautiful, nutty, spelt flour was barely even food. The bran that's removed contains much of the fibre, protein, oils and minerals that make grain so nutritious, so, to her, discarding it was ridiculous.
As farms and mills grew bigger and further apart, and flour became a commodity to be shipped and stored, the nutritious germ - which quickly becomes rancid after milling - became a liability that had to be removed, and our taste for white fluffiness saw off the bran as well. But when you've met the farmer and miller of your food, and walked the magnificent red soils where your packet of flour was raised, it's hard not to hear her voice in your head as you bake.
The sticky pages of Jude Blereau's Wholefood Baking have shown me that I can still make a fluffy sponge, a hearty apple tart or chewy cheese crackers with whole grains, and, like my kids growing out of One Direction and taking up with Bon Iver (thank god), you begin to develop a taste for more complexity, the resistance to the tooth, and perhaps even for a little less air in your sponge.
So when there's a cold, sleety Sunday on the radar I'll call a few friends, maybe even iron a tablecloth and dig out the cake forks, and pile the table high with all my favourite carbohydrates - grown, milled and baked with care. I doubt my whole-spelt sponge cake will take out any prizes at this year's Huon Show, given its density and flecks of bran, but I'll be happy picturing Henriette's handful of bran as I hide the last slice in the pantry to enjoy at my leisure when everyone has gone home.
- Baking,Produce,Paulette Whitney
- Paulette Whitney
- William Meppem (Victoria sponge),Vanessa Levis (cassata)
- August 2017