MADE TO LAST
LIKE OUR FAVOURITE COUNTRY COOK, STEVE CUMPER’S SYRUP CAKES IMPROVE WITH AGE.
Steve Cumper combines nutty flflavour with a citrus tang in his lemon and almond syrup cakes.
BACK IN THE DAY, Acland Street in Melbourne’s St Kilda was the epicentre of all things bohemian, continental and exotic. On my fifirst visit as a 17-year-old, I remember weaving through groups of sharply dressed people originating from central Europe and being tantalised by the delicious aromas emanating from the delicatessens. My parents were surprisingly well travelled — despite Dad’s blue collar, inner-city upbringing and Mum’s formative years on a Deniliquin sheep station — and had imbued me with a taste for dark rye bread, pickles and cured meats. In the early 1980s, St Kilda was a magnet for artists and musicians, and Acland Street was awash with young people sporting black skivvies, dark blazers, stovepipe trousers and chic skirts — I felt like I’d found my tribe. After that I took frequent tram rides to St Kilda, my excitement building as I alighted at the end of the line. I’d spend my time wandering along the street, pressing my face up against one of the many windows fifilled with impossibly lavish cakes and pastries. It was a time before councils had strict regulations regarding food hygiene. There were no requirements for sneeze guards, refrigerated display cabinets or ‘best before’ dates, and the cascading ensemble of cream-fifilled ‘this and thats’ would be the mother lode of fifine revenue for today’s health inspector. Back then, it was just what pastry shops did. The displays made for an almost cinematic experience, but I suspect the constitution of many of those morsels declined rather swiftly without the chill of a refrigerated cabinet. (I imagine an artist mounting a pastry shop window installation at MONA, with time-lapse video to capture the decay.) While the cream and custard-fifilled goodies quickly lost their sheen to age, the syrup cakes held fast and, not unlike Helen Mirren, became more attractive with time. The more I rolled this phenomenon over in my mind, the more it began to make sense. Sugar, like salt, acts as a preservative and using nut meals instead of flflour has long been a necessity in regions with an arid climate, such as the Middle East. Commonly these kinds of cakes were made from fruits and nuts, then macerated in sugar syrup to flflavour and preserve them. Ever since I fifirst cooked the modern day equivalent of these cakes — Stephanie Alexander’s version of the classic Middle Eastern orange cake — I’ve admired their simplicity, flflavour and longevity. I’ve made them with all kinds of nut meals and tried many difffferent fruits, but it was my increasing penchant for bitter flflavours that led me to have a crack at this recipe using the humble lemon. As my almond syrup cakes include whole lemons, your initial response might be: “Oooh, that’s going to make my lips purse like a cat’s backside.” However, cooking the lemons in a sugar syrup until they are tender really smooths out the harshness of the flflavour. And, like Ms Mirren, this is a cake that actually gets better with age — what’s not to like about that? Steve Cumper is a chef and funnyman who lives in Tasmania and dreams of one day owning a flfleet of holiday vans called Wicked Cumpers.