The Tall Man had a birthday, and for that birthday I bought him books, and made him a cake. These are in order of importance, of course: a birthday can be a perfectly adequate birthday without cake, but a birthday is not any kind of a birthday without books.
Some of the books were silly (Bernard Cornwell) and some were important (H is for Hawk) and some were important just to him (The Three Musketeers), and some were just plain Mitfordish (Hons and Rebels, to go with Debo Devonshire’s Wait For Me, which is splendid). This is a cake which is a bit like all those books. It is a little bit silly, and a little bit Mitfordly extravagant, and a little bit made of things he has always loved, and a little bit of things I thought he’d like, and it was important to him, important enough that I baked, which I don’t often do, that he got his birthday cake. They go well together, books and cake, and particularly those books, and this cake.
There is no room in the Tiny Flat for surprises, really, so we chopped the apples together. The Tall Man is a much faster, neater chopper than I am; he is a much neater, more together person than I am, which is why we pull well together, balance each other out. He is a person who can cut an apple into a hundred pieces of identical size. I am not. I am a person who can invent cake. He is not. We are a good team, he and I. We are a good team, particularly with a glass of Calvados in one hand, a new book in the other, and a bit of cake balanced precariously on the knee. We are a good team.
It is worth noting here that caramel and apples are also a good team. A Dorset Apple Cake has been the Tall Man’s favourite cake since he was a little boy; I am permanently dissatisfied with just plain apple cake, but do love both booze and toffee apples. It’s a bit of an autumnal cake, this one, but it’s been an autumnal August, and the apples are coming up ripe just as I type. It’s not very cakey, actually; it’s more a sort of sticky-toffee pudding, only with the toffee replaced by an appl-y, salt-y, boozy caramel. It’s completely wonderful: it tastes a little bit of bonfires, and a little bit of sharp apple breeze, and a little bit of the sea.
The day after the birthday we went down to the sea, and sat there for a long time reading all the new books, and were perfectly happy.
Calvados Caramel Cake, Done Two Ways for Tall Man
Cake itself: prep. 20 minutes, bake: 50-70 minutes, oven permitting.
Caramel sauce: prep. a careful 6-7 minutes
This cake is adapted from this very good and lovely recipe at the West Dorset Foodie, which seemed about as authentic as I was going to get.
(I am giving here a quantity suitable to either one 7″ cake; or a baker’s dozen of little fat muffins- two ways, as it were. The technique is a little bit different; the muffins are a little bit different to the round cake; I can’t decide which I prefer, so I am giving both.)
For the cake:
About four large Bramley apples (to yield 225g chopped and peeled)
225g plain white flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
115g Demerara sugar; 30g Demerara sugar
2-3 tablespoons of milk (nobody measures milk by the spoon, surely?)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Any leftover salted caramel you might have in the freezer from the It Gets Better Brown Butter Brownies; I had about fifteen reasonable shards. This isn’t essential, but it is good.
For the caramel sauce:
3 tablespoons double cream
3 tablespoons salted butter (again: who spoons butter? You can make a good guess.)
125g Demerara sugar
A teaspoon of flaky sea-salt
About an ordinary wine-glass of Calvados
It has taken a long time for me to come round to the idea that pre-heating one’s oven isn’t just a cookbook writer’s fad. I grew up with an AGA; I am pretty incapable of understanding that the oven isn’t on all the time. It is not on all the time. It is not. So. Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees.
Take your apples and a decent peeler; peel them; chop them. If you’re doing one big cake, you will want about 3/4 of the apples chopped into smallish pieces; the last 1/4 should be sliced into little flat semi-circles, for the top of the cake. If muffins, dice it all. A Tall Man is invaluable for this kind of chopping.
Take a sieve; sift through your flour. A very simple way to do this- it took me a long time to figure out, which is why I write it here- is to put your sieve on your bowl on your scales, set the scale to zero, and weigh the flour straight in like that. Then sift. Sift the baking powder through, too. Take away the sieve; reset the scale to zero; weigh in the 115g sugar, and the butter. Rub in. Rubbing in is one of those baking terms that are absolutely evocative just by being; doing it is deeply, deeply satisfying. Briefly: with your finger tips, pinch together the butter and flour and sugar, and rub. You are combining the fat and the dry-stuff to make a breadcrumby texture.
Here is where your recipe will diverge, depending on if you want muffins, or a big round cake.
Round cakers: beat in to your breadcrumby-mixture your egg; stir through all your chopped apple; add a little milk to loosen the batter. If you have it, you can throw in all the leftover shards of caramel here, too.
Alors. Grease your cake tin (I went for a loose bottomed one), spoon your cake mix in lavishly. There’s a bit in Nigel Slater’s Toast, I think, where he talks about hearing cake mix fall into the tin. Listen out.
Toss your remaining apples with the cinnamon and remaining brown sugar, and layer them in concentric circles on the top of the batter. Pop in the oven; and go away for forty-odd minutes. As ever, your oven may vary. Mine is a bastard thing. Check your cake after forty minutes; you might need to cover the top with tin-foil and return it to the oven for more time. My round cake took more than an hour to be done all through, but it was worth waiting. When you judge there to be approximately ten minutes more baking to do, make your caramel sauce, as below. Proceed, round cakers!
You are the wicked, and shall have no rest. You will also have sin’s sweet rewards, which is to say, Calvados caramel sauce woven into the fabric of your cakes. For some reason, this doesn’t work well in the big cake. So.
As if you were making Second Love Salt Caramel, take an absolutely clean, dry saucepan, put it over a medium-high heat, and tip in the Demerara sugar. It will melt. It will melt gloriously. The secret to good caramel is confidence; the nice thing about this particular caramel is that since it doesn’t matter too much if it burns a bit, confidence is practically assured, this ensuring that you won’t burn it even a bit. Melt the sugar; once humming and bubbling goldenly, add very quickly the butter and about half the Calvados, and stir. It will hiss and protest like buggery. Stir it into submission. Keep stirring vigorously. You are burning off a little of the booze, and melting the butter. Keep stirring. Add the rest of the Calvados. Stir, stir, stir. Remove from the heat, and add the cream. A good pinch of flaky sea-salt. Stir. Taste. Taste. It should be a medium-thick butterscotch sauce, pourable, drinkable, gorgeous.
If you are a muffin man, let the sauce cool. Beat your egg, and all your apple into your breadcrumb-mixture. Instead of milk, use a decent helping of the Calvados butterscotch to loosen the mixture. Four tablespoons should do it. Grease your muffin tins generously; line, if you like (I never do); a tablespoon of batter in each tin. A scatter of Demerara over the top of the muffins, and into the oven they go. They should be ready in about twenty-five minutes.
Take your cake from the oven, and allow to cool properly. This is another thing I am learning: sometimes you have to let things cool, not eat them greedily with burning fingers. That said, of course, that’s why you make a baker’s dozen, if you’re on muffins. Cook’s perks.
Decant your Calvados sauce. For the big cake, I put it in a tumbler. For the small ones, I went full twee and put it in little glass jars, one for each muffin. Sometimes twee is allowed. Double cream to serve.
Candles. Gold would look nice and sophisticated; I only had a 2 and a 5 of the kind usually set out for little children. We lit them; they were pretty anyway.
Sing your birthday hearts out. Cut the birthday man a large wedge; lavish with the cream, generous with the caramel sauce. This is a generous cake; generous to a fault, a down-to-earth cake, a practical, extravagant, ludicrous, autumn-in-August, gorgeous, friendly, generous cake. It’s a Tall Man cake.
Happy birthday, Tall Man. May we spend a hundred more birthdays like this by the sea, cake crumbs on our lips and salt-spray in our hair and a book in our hands and a song in our hearts. Happy birthday. And thank you.