MADE TO LAST

LIKE OUR FAVOURITE COUN­TRY COOK, STEVE CUMPER’S SYRUP CAKES IM­PROVE WITH AGE.

Country Style - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BRETT STEVENS STYLING DAVID MOR­GAN

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.

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