Photo: Katie Quinn Davies
The notion that you’re either a baker or a cook is one I’ve steadfastly clung to all my cooking life. Cooks prefer the unstructured creativity that using something picked up from the market, something from the fridge or make-it-up-as-you-go allows. Bakers prefer precision and formulas. They balk at the idea of the unpredictable. Baking requires obedience, and I’d have none of that.
It is true that baking shuns freewheeling and enlists timing and accuracy, a set of scales, and weights instead of cups. Cooking is more a-little-bit-of-this-or-that. So I have sidled up to the cook’s way of being, letting friends “bring dessert” when I hosted a gathering. But then something changed me. I bought a new oven and I made a cake. I made madeleines and chocolate whoopee pies to test the oven’s various settings. Things just progressed from there. I made coconut slices and a hummingbird cake, I made chocolate marshmallow squares that oozed in the centre. I made friends, too. I’d drop trays of muffins by the neighbours’ house and take orange-scented scones to an acquaintance on Saturday morning. I suddenly had a gorgeous glut to deal with, and people love helping out with that.
Baking presents rewards too because it is so very separate to the daily grind. It’s inherently a something-special thing to do, bequeathing calm and pride in “making your own”. Even for the resolute non-bakers among us, there’s something to be said for hammering out life’s frustrations with a whisk, working through a problem via a hand-kneaded loaf, or forgetting a Monday-morning worry with a Sunday-afternoon sponge cake.
Mascarpone and fig sponge cake
Measurements need to be spot on with sponge cakes, and using eggs at room temperature will give you a much better chance of success.
95g self-raising flour
4 eggs, separated
100g caster sugar, plus 2 tbsp extra
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp cream of tartar
1 cup (320g) fig jam
2 egg whites
2 tbsp icing sugar, plus extra to dust
6-8 semi-dried wild figs, halved
Preheat oven to 200ºC. Grease and line the base of a 22cm springform pan with baking paper. Sift the flour and cornflour together and set aside.
Using an electric beater, beat egg yolks, 100g caster sugar and vanilla for 2-3 minutes, until thick and mousse-like. Set aside.
Using an electric beater, beat egg whites until starting to froth, add the cream of tartar and beat until stiff but not dry. Gradually whisk in remaining 2 tbsp caster sugar. Fold a large scoop of the egg whites into the beaten yolks to slacken the mixture, then fold in the sifted flour. Fold in the remaining beaten whites until just combined.
Spoon mixture into prepared pan, smooth top. Place in oven, reduce temperature to 170ºC and bake for 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Leave in tin for 5 minutes, then transfer cake to a wire rack to cool. Once cool, use a serrated knife to split cake in half crossways through the centre, to make two even rounds. Spoon fig jam on to inside half of the bottom cake, spreading it evenly to the edges.
To make mascarpone filling, beat egg whites using an electric beater until firm peaks form. Soften mascarpone by mixing well in a bowl, then stir mascarpone and icing sugar through egg whites. Spoon mascarpone over the jam, then cover with top half of cake. Dust with extra icing sugar and top with semi-dried figs before serving.
Semi-dried wild figs can be found at good delis. Pariya figs come from Iran and can pretty up any cake, or be marinated in brandy overnight, halved and folded through muffins.