When asked where I live, I often respond that I spend 85% of my time in Paris, 10% in London and the remaining 5% on the Eurostar. While I have been known to board the train without my computer adaptor, cell phone or British credit card, I rarely travel without at least one bottle of inky, spicy southern French wine, a few jars of tapenade and a sack of cheese which grows ever-stinkier as London draws near.* Good wine and cheese can certainly be found in London, if not with comparable ease. But I’ve come to enjoy the pre-travel ritual of rounding up treats in my local shops and the post-travel one of a picnic-like Friday night dinner, together, watching some silly TV.
A few weeks ago, having made the wine and cheese rounds, I stopped in at a local pastry shop to buy dessert for that evening’s meal. I selected what I thought to be a sturdy tarte aux poires and asked the saleswoman to package it for a train trip. To my surprise, she asked how long the journey was and whether I planned to eat the tarte in transit. When I explained that I was taking the Eurostar to London, she shook her head firmly and explained that the item would not be at its best after 3 hours. I tried again with a tarte citron, but this too was rejected. Finally, we agreed that I would be allowed to purchase a sack of financiers, unadorned, ingot-shaped cakes tasting of almonds and very good butter.
While the proprietor was undoubtedly a bit overprotective of her wares, in this season of picnics and "staycations", it is perhaps worth considering a few other cakes able to make it to their destinations intact. One obvious candidate is gâteau au yaourt. Often the first cake a French child learns how to make, it gets its name from the glass pot of yogurt which moistens the batter and provides a handy measuring cup for the other ingredients. Not too sweet, it could be eaten any time of day and takes easily both to adornments like coulis or whipped cream, as well as nuts, fruit or bits of chocolate.
Nigella Lawson’s rhubarb cornmeal cake, which was eaten far too quickly last weekend to be road-tested, is in fact an Anglo-Italian variation on this classic. Cornmeal or polenta, substituted for half the volume of flour, provides crunch and heft, while small chunks of rhubarb add hits of sweet-sour tang. The most significant variation—in structural terms at least—is in creaming soft butter with eggs, rather than using liquid fat. (Vegetable oil is traditional in the French recipe, most likely because it is easier and less messy than melting butter.)
Perfect just as it is, the recipe could certainly be adapted to other ingredients: creme fraiche (thinned with a bit of milk), sour cream or buttermilk in place of the yogurt, other seasonal fruits and more prominent seasoning instead of, or in addition to, the vanilla. Come September, plum-hazelnut cake with a bit of nutmeg would be wonderful. But for now, I’m just hoping that the rhubarb sticks around until that next Eurostar journey, at the end of which is a functioning oven and someone who, despite his protestations, appears to enjoy a good piece of cake.
Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “How To Be A Domestic Goddess)
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes; Active time: 20 minutes
While I’ve left the original proportions below, I adapted this to fit an 18 cm (7 inch) pan, cutting everything in half except the bicarbonate and salt. It took about 50 minutes to bake.
500g rhubarb (these should ideally be even-sized, not too thick stalks; the cake will be prettier if they are more pink than green)
300g caster sugar
150g plain flour
155g fine polenta or cornmeal (I used instant polenta without any problem)
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
125g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract OR ½ a vanilla pod
250g plain yogurt, either full fat or lowfat
Special equipment: 23cm springform cake tin, greased with butter and base lined
Preheat the oven to 180C. Trim the rhubarb and cut into 1/2cm slices. Macerate in a bowl with 100g of the sugar while preparing the other ingredients. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, cornmeal, bicarb, salt). Place the butter and sugar into a large bowl. With either a wooden spoon or a hand mixer, cream the mixture until light and fluffy. Crack in the eggs one at a time, mixing gently. Add vanilla extract, if using.
Add the dry ingredients and yogurt to the butter-sugar-egg mixture in alternating batches, mixing as little as necessary to combine. If using the vanilla pod, scrape in the seeds. Fold in the rhubarb and any juices that accumulated in the bowl.
Pour into the greased tin and put in preheated oven. Bake for approximately one hour or until the top is springy and a skewer comes out almost clean. You may need to cover the cake after 40 minutes. Let it cool, in the tin, on a wire rack. Due to its high moisture content, the cake should keep well-covered for several days.
* I used to bring bread as well. But the loaves being baked at this local Brixton deli are as good as anything I can buy in Paris.