No mess at all
There are a great many recipes levelled at this season’s seductive strawberries, but they reach no greater hedonistic height than when adorned only with a dusting of sugar and lemon juice alongside this pain de Gênes almond cake
Pain de Gênes is a delicate cake warranting a little extra effort for a most special summer’s pudding
I’ve often thought the Eton Mess to be a great allegory for a population done in by the long haul to summer. At the height of the season, when folks are near collapse, gasping towards the holidays, puddings are all bowls of strawberries, meringues and sponges, cream galore and yet more mounds of strawberries, the whole lot then heaped with ice-cream and made into that almighty eponymous mess.
I used to like strawberries left unprepared – even the hull left in as I thought them so beautiful. I still think the best way to eat them is unadorned but for a dusting of sugar and some of the best jersey cream. I do find, though, that even in the summer it can be hard to spot a strawberry that is a genuine, home-grown, real sunshinedrenched, rain-starved fruit that has had to fight to grow and ripen.
I wonder if it is the old story that the strawberries I ate as a child in Scotland – in that extraordinary berrygreat country along the banks of the river Tay – remain the finest I ever had? They were without doubt splendid and we certainly feasted: jammed them, jellied them, gorged on them in the fields until my mother issued a reproving “tut”.
Teamed with strawberries, scones and meringues are marvellous beyond any whisper of doubt. Being an avid fan of Scots baking, I would still rate my mother’s scones – little scudding clouds of a delightful softness heaped with cream and strawberry jam that sang summer sunshine from a spoon – over any other I have tried, and there are many.
There are, though, a great many other recipes to fanfare the strawberry. A particular favourite is an almond cake that is as light and lovely as can be: a pain de Gênes, a French recipe with Italian ancestry. Lifted from Anne Willan’s eminent book French Regional Cooking, this recipe has never failed to delight.
Pain de Gênes is a delicate cake – delicious too – warranting a little extra effort to ensure a most special summer’s pudding. Just before company descends, hull the strawberries and slice them holusbolus into the most random of shapes and sizes, dust with icing sugar, then dress with a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Toss all together with care and let sit. With the strawberries heaped upon the cake – or not as the case may be, for the cake is handsome – with much cream alongside, this makes for beautiful summer fare and a lovely finale to a fine lunch.
Almond cake with strawberries and cream
For the cake 125g 100g125g 3 eggs caster softenedwhole sugar almonds, unsalted finely butter ground 1 30g vanilla cornflourpod ½ tsp baking powder A pinch of salt For the topping 125g pine nuts 3 large spoonfuls of plum or apricot jam The juice of a small lemon For the strawberries At least 750g strawberries
2 tbsp caster sugar
The juice of a small lemon A generously charged jug of jersey cream, to serve
1 Line a 20cm cake tin with parchment and set the oven to 160C/325F/gas 3. Melt the butter over a gentle heat.
2 Combine the ground almonds and sugar. Crack an egg into the bowl, mix, then add another, mix, then the third. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the bowl. Beat the contents until lighter and slightly thicker.
3 Sift the cornflour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and strew it over the batter. Pour in the melted butter and mix it all together deftly and swiftly.
4 Pour the batter into the tin. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool in the tin on a wire rack.
5 Put the pine nuts on to a baking tray, pop them into the oven and bake for 5-8 minutes, or until lightly coloured. Set aside to cool.
6 Warm the jam with the lemon juice on a low heat, stirring, until quite melted. Worry not about any pieces of fruit, as they add charm. When liquid, brush the warmed jam over the cake, then cover with the pine nuts.
7 Not too long before the cake is required at table, hull the strawberries. Slice into myriad different shapes and sizes. Tip into a handsome bowl, pour over the lemon juice and add the sugar. Mix with care and let sit.
8 When ready to serve, remove the cake from the tin and place on a fine plate. Take all to table.