Thursday, March 22, 2012


I enjoy baking as it's fun, it's not as difficult as people make out and your audience/victims mostly seem to appreciate it. I guess like most things, it's as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. To do it well of course takes years of experience and not just the occasional weekend forays that I dabble in. Serious patisserie is obviously a real skill, baking the occasional cake is not.

Anyway here is an incredibly simple and very tasty recipe which a colleague at work gave to me - thanks Margaret. She found it here.

The consistency you should aim for is very moist without being undercooked. It won't rise much - that's fine. I prepared it at the weekend.

Lemon Polenta Cake

6oz/175g unsalted butter, softened
8oz/225g caster sugar
7oz/200g ground almonds
3 large eggs
Zest of 4 whole lemons and juice of 1
4oz/115g polenta
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/gas mark 3. Line an 8” (20cm) tin with baking parchment.
Put all the ingredients in a food processor and whizz to a smooth batter.

Spoon into the lined tin and bake for 45-50 minutes, until a skewer pushed into the centre comes out with no uncooked batter on it. Cool in the tin.

  • Just beat everything together in a large bowl if you don't have a food processor but make sure the batter is smooth (give it some elbow!)
  • Reducing your oven temperature by 10% if using a fan oven seems to be the general rule
  • It took slightly longer than 45-50 minutes to get a nice golden top and was still moist
  • Do observe the skewer guideline and keep cooking 'til you're sure it's ready
  • Use polenta flour/meal - not the ready made stuff, and if you have a choice, buy the finest grade you can get. If your polenta is too coarse you notice it in the end result although it's still damn tasty
  • Next time I think I will sprinkle lots of flaked almonds on the top (about 50g) before putting it in the oven. I think a nice topping of toasted almonds would work well with this
  • I'd also like to play around with quantities next time and try to make it more lemony and slightly less sweet - that's just my personal taste though

Polenta is a funny ingredient - I don't really like it in its savoury form and I've never used it in baking. A lot of my baking involves trying recipes/ingredients that are unfamiliar to me (rum, raisin and prune icecream anyone?) because I'm interested to see how they turn out. Sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked (that's a line from an INXS song if you're wondering but is applicable to so many situations that I tend to use it a lot).

I think you could decorate the top with almost anything to give it more eye-appeal or just go with a dusting of icing sugar like the picture.
I should've taken a photo of mine but I ate most of it before I thought of doing that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

(More) Olympian Heroics

This is part two of a rather peripatetic series of posts about Olympian heroics. Part one, you may recall, was about Andarin Carvajal the plucky Cuban postman who prefaced his 1904 marathon with a 600 mile walk to the event and a forty hour (probably involuntary) fast.

The 1908 marathon held in London has an equally interesting narrative. I suspect this event always produces an heroic performance from somebody - usually not the winner and 1908 was no exception.

The race was run from Windsor in Berkshire to the White City stadium in the west of London. The stadium was still there when I first moved to London but it had by then been reduced to hosting greyhound racing. It was demolished a few years later to make way for  additional offices for the BBC.

The marathon distance had historically been agreed at around 26 miles but in a late change for 1908 it was decided that the competitors would also run a circuit of the stadium at the end of the race so the finishing line would be in front of the royal box. The race therefore became 26 miles and 385 yards which is the distance it continues to be run today.

The hero of the 1908 marathon was undoubtedly Dorando Pietri.  I've seen him variously described as a pastry chef and also an ice cream salesman, he came from a modest background in Italy. Five feet two inches (1.59m) tall and slightly built he was already an established and well known long distance runner. 

The race was run in the afternoon of a humid English summer. It was keenly contested in the early stages but by the time it reached the stadium Pietri had what appeared to be an unassailable lead. He was however utterly exhausted. He entered the stadium believing he had won only to be confronted by a gaggle of officials who required him to complete the extra yards that had been added to create the dramatic finish. Delirious and confused he staggered erratically on the track surrounded by a crowd desperately encouraging him to complete the race. 

He continued to stumble and stagger about the track and fell five times. Each time he fell he was nursed and then physically picked up and encouraged onward a few more strides. Of his total time of 2h 54min 46s, ten minutes were needed for that last 385 yards (350 metres). He finally crossed the line and despite the agonising last ten minutes was still in first place. He collapsed and had to be carried from the track on a stretcher - many spectators believed he had died.

Crossing the line in second place was the American athlete Johnny Hayes. The American team lodged a challenge claiming that Pietri had received too much assistance - the challenge was upheld and Pietri was disqualified. 

Watch the following short video (longer ones are available on YouTube) - sorry the commentary is in Italian - it's heartbreaking.