Everyone has a repertoire. Even if cooking simply isn’t your thing or you pay a private chef to cook for you, everyone has a practiced dish up their sleeve. Whether it’s a spaghetti bolognese, the Sunday roast, or a secret family recipe, it’s the dish you return to like a well-worn pair of slippers. Its comfort is quietly confidence-boosting and you’re soon bouncing around the kitchen, tea towel nonchalantly slung over one shoulder like the kitchen is your stage and you are the act cheered by thousands. All it takes is the knowledge it will be delicious and you are the next Gordon Ramsay.
That said, I experienced a sleepless night after baking my ‘signature dish’ – soft and squidgy Hummingbird cake – for my friend, Georgie’s, birthday. Georgie is my toughest critic; my Leiths comrade, private chef, culinary expert extraordinaire, and there I was baking her birthday cake. The pressure was too much. My vivid dreams included frenzied slicing of the cake before she even saw it (deep with self-destructive meaning) proving even the most practiced recipe, the paper sticky from cream cheese icing and spotted with grease, can give us doubts.
We all know these insecurities are meaningless. But it is good to know we all have them! Even the most confident chefs in Michelin-starred restaurants must feel a lurch in their stomach when cooking to impress, or simply for someone who knows the difference between hard-work and blagging it.
I discovered the delectable pleasures of Hummingbird cake a few years ago. As the recipient of a baking recipe book one Christmas I found Hummingbird cake nestled among its pages – banana and pineapple cake with a touch of cinnamon and coated in a thick layer of lemony cream cheese frosting. Warming from the spice yet fruity like a pina colada, it is dense, moist and tender, reminiscent of carrot cake or banana loaf. Even those adverse to banana find themselves cutting themselves a secretive second slice.
Crowd-pleasing is this cake’s game. Popular with my family, even my dad who is one of those banana-sceptics, I expanded my audience to include my university housemates. It was my friend, Amber’s, birthday. The nine of us (yes, nine, and it was a small house too!) congregated around the coffee table and sang happy birthday in the flickering candle light, before she cut us large slabs of squidgy cake laden with creamy icing. Appreciative sounds of enjoyment and munching filled the room as one of my housemates exclaimed, ‘This is what cake should be!’ I would like to put that statement on my CV.
I then baked it in a loaf tin and packed it snugly in a plastic tub for tea and cake at Harriet’s. Nothing was better than tea and cake at Harriet’s. Her kitchen cabinets were decorated in reams of homemade bunting and we poured tea out of a teapot and drank from matching teacups she bought at a jumble sale. Chewing on a forkful of soft cake her eyes widened and she announced her surprise at its sweet flavour with the salty, tangy icing. We savoured every crumb, dabbing each up with the prongs of our forks.
And now, somehow subtly coerced into baking Georgie’s birthday cake (she has mystical powers of persuasion) I was both chuffed and daunted. I knew it was time to return to my repertoire and pulled out the old baking book. Hummingbird cake fit the bill; intriguingly fruity and never disappoints. But, how to impress a chef? Baked in my Bundt tin, the top had little room for fancy garnish. First the thick coating of cream cheese icing dripping down the side of the cake, then a sprinkling of salted pecan brittle and homemade dried pineapple flowers.
I needn’t have been worried. Georgie loved the cake and, although I sat there with baited breath hardly tasting the sponge, there was silence as we all tucked in, a few murmurs of surprise and an overall enthusiastic thumbs up.
So, the moral of this story, dear reader, is take to your kitchen and concoct your specialty dish. Food you make with confidence and love is a comfort and will be enjoyed by all who eat it.
Adapted from Commonsense Baking
2 ripe bananas, mashed
130g crushed tinned pineapple, drained (preferably in juice)
285g caster sugar
210g self-raising flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
170ml flavourless oil (sunflower, vegetable)
60ml pineapple juice
For the icing:
60g unsalted butter, softened
135g cream cheese, softened
185g icing sugar
1-2 tsp lemon juice
N.B If you want the icing to drip down the sides of the cake then omit the butter and gradually add more lemon juice for a thick yet pourable consistency.
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Lightly grease a 20cm cake tin and line with baking parchment.
- In a large bowl mix together the banana, pineapple and sugar. Sift over the flour and spices then stir all together until combined.
- In a separate bowl or jug whisk the wet ingredients – the oil, pineapple juice and eggs. Pour into the banana mixture and stir until smooth.
- Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, with a few tiny crumbs attached. Leave the cake in the tin for 15 minutes then turn out onto a cooling rack.
- To make the icing, beat together the butter and cream cheese until smooth. Sift in the icing sugar and gradually add splashes of lemon juice for the tangy flavour. Spread thickly over the cake once cool.