Take the cake

Birthdays she loathes, but birthday cakes are another matter. Anu Lakhan explains • Plus Kellie Magnus on the newly stylish June plum and more

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Mariel Brown. Photograph by Michele Jorsling
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

Birthdays I loathe. Always have done. Ever since I was five and stuffed into a frock more like a pavlova than a garment, I have felt keenly the sinister nature of the day. I appreciate the fact of them — having been born, one seems bound to — but fail to understand why so many people find it necessary to remember them. I’m not even convinced my being born is the biggest thing in my life.

Cake, however, is the one redeeming aspect of the birthday circus (a word so close to “crisis” it gives rise to similar sensations: fear, horror, panic. At least most crises don’t involve clowns).

I have loved many cakes in my time. Some mine, others coveted, still others stolen. But I have only truly loved one birthday cake. I made it myself. Coffee chocolate-chip cheesecake, fourteenth birthday. Like every fleeting happiness of that horrid year, the recipe, which I believe I tore out of a magazine, was promptly lost. It was a pure love. I loved the cake for itself, for its harmony and subtlety and surprise. Had I been fond of jazz in those days, I might have known better how to express my feelings to this cake.

This was not the first or the only or even, gastronomically speaking, the best cake in my life. As a child I thought cakes came from two places: sister number three, who made pineapple upside-down cakes and cheesecakes; and sister number four, who made the then profoundly mysterious marble cake, cupcakes, and fudge.

Years later, sister number six unleashed the glory of the red velvet chocolate cake and changed the way I looked at cakes forever. Its name alone is spellbinding: it is the red velvet of royal carriages in fairy tales, or trays of jewellery cases. (It is not to be confused with the semi-crushed red velvet furniture so inexplicably popular in the West Indies, which feels more like slightly weathered moss than the fur just at the base of a puppy’s ear.)

I was about nine the first time I saw my mother bake a cake, and trembled with awe that she too had the gift. After all, she made everything else; it didn’t seem natural to be able to both cook and make cakes. It smacked of something Promethean.

I can remember most birthdays by the cake. I had a five when I turned five — white, frilly, almost nuptial but for the fact of its being a numeral. (And is that such a bad idea for a wedding cake? Setting in confection what you reasonably expect to be the duration of the marriage contract?) A Big Bird when I turned six — just the head, I believe, and I not even into Mario Puzo as yet. For the past few years, the only thing that’s got me through the birthday gauntlet is the idea that on the other side of insincere joviality and painfully misguided present choices is the 7-Up cake made by my mother’s second-in-command. An intensely citrusy cake, firm but with spring, and a crumbling crust sweet as warm brown sugar with the gentlest lemon bite.

I recently met a cake so simple, so perfect, it seemed the stuff from which new ideologies are born. The lightest lemon sponge sandwich filled only with cream and smothered in more cream. Look at it one way, it seems wholesome and accessible — a cake familiar to all, with minimal fuss. But other eyes may see decadence, luxury, indulgence — the airiness of the cake beguiling you to eat a third of it at a time; the oceans of cream leading you to other sensuous trespass, or at least obesity. A cake for all; a cake of the people.

Occasionally, a birthday cake is eclipsed by a more eventful part of the meal: at the sixteenth birthday of one of my sisters, all the guests confounded my mother by raving about the almond vegetables. Post-party, we discovered a covered bowl of cooked chicken that was meant to have the starring role in the almond chicken dish.

I grew up in a house in which cakes proliferated as bread or bakes do in other homes. I once took to making what I called a breakfast cake — one that would be consumed almost entirely by myself, over a period of several days, at breakfast time. I was never much of a breakfaster (I prefer my breakfast foods at dinnertime); the era of the breakfast cake was one of the few times I successfully maintained a breakfasting practice for more than a week. It even managed to surpass the ice-cream breakfast phase.

But birthday cakes are special. That is what they are for — nothing else. Presents will not fit, will not match anything in your house, will make you sensible to the fact that no one has the slightest notion of what you really want. Parties will erupt in spite of your quelling remarks and general grumpiness. A birthday cake is hard to misunderstand. It is, after all, a cake, a sort of perfect idea in and of itself, and, most importantly, it was made for you. Others will share, but you will know that all the effort it took to make this cake — whether by parent, sibling, friend, or the fine people at the neighbourhood grocery — was meant only for you.

Cakes succeed where most other overtures fail. They do make us feel special. Whatever else may disappoint, it’s hard not to feel some warmth for the giver of the cake. Because, for a moment, all the horrors of birthdays past dissolve and you are four years old again. For once you are not reminded of little girls who ate too many sweets and died terrible deaths or of the special places of torment reserved for small boys who don’t share. For once, it is all yours. And in the moment of having everything, you become magnanimous and allow everyone to share in all that is rightfully yours.

Recipe: Coffee chocolate chip cheesecake

Having admitted fairly early on that my recipe for the glorious coffee chocolate chip cheesecake has forsaken me, it would be disingenuous to offer a conventional recipe here. It is not for want of trying to filch one. I offer instead a recipe guide. If you require stringent instructions in order to undertake any kitchen-based activities, this may not be the recipe for you.

For crust

1 cup cookie crumbs (graham, Oreo, or your preferred kind of chocolate chip cookie)

1 tablespoon icing sugar

1/4 cup butter (not margarine, not butter spread, not axle grease. Real butter)
(or you can buy a pre-made crust)

For filling

1 tin of evaporated milk (chilled)

1 cup white sugar

gelatine (about 2 tablespoons should do it, but if you can defer to a higher authority on how much gelatine will allow a recipe of these rough proportions to set, do so)

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

8 ounces cream cheese

1/2 cup strong coffee (chilled)

chocolate chips (only you know how many chocolate chips you need)

Mix cookie crumbs, icing sugar, and butter. Line a shallow baking tin with the mixture, patting it into place, sides and base, and bake at 300°F for about ten minutes or until it looks like it won’t dissolve when you pour the mixture in.

Dissolve gelatine in a cup of boiling water. Refrigerate just enough to chill, not to set.

Mix cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla essence until creamy. Add chocolate chips.

Beat chilled milk until fluffy. Fold in gelatine and coffee. Add cream cheese mixture and beat or fold until everything looks evenly distributed but not runny. Pour slowly, gently into cookie-crusted pans and refrigerate until set. A couple hours should do it.

With thanks to NSL for the basic recipe out of which this one could spin.

June all year

Kellie Magnus on the tart and newly stylish June plum

You know from the first bite: this is not a fruit for the faint of heart. Only those who can handle its tart, tangy taste should dare to make the journey all the way to the prickly core. Smaller than a mango, but much larger than the rest of the plum family, the June plum is a concentrated wallop of citrus flavour. When young, the deep chartreuse skin covers crisp, firm flesh — pale green or yellow — that is best eaten sliced and liberally sprinkled with salt and black pepper. When ripe, the skin varies from yellowish-green to a sunny yellow. The flesh, yellow too: soft, and juicy; and best eaten whole with a napkin in the other hand to wipe the chin.

Little known in much of the world, the June plum, or Spondias dulcis, is native to South-east Asia. Beloved in the Caribbean, it is nonetheless a source of much confusion, sporting more aliases than a little plum should warrant. The June plum, said to be so named for its early summer appearance, is also known as the otaheite apple or golden apple — names it shares with other entirely different fruits — as well as ambarella, pommecythere, dew plum, or, more controversially, Jew plum, though the connection to the Jewish community is unclear.

It used to be that the June plum enjoyed a limited summer run, starring in beach days, streetside nibblings, or rainy bouts at home, where stewed June plums with brown sugar and ginger added a little excitement to otherwise dull days. But today the plum is a bona-fide year-round star, headlining ever-expanding lines of natural juices, chutneys, jams, and condiments, and making cameo appearances in gourmet meals at tony restaurants. Roasted duck with June plum, cinnamon, and star anise sauce, anyone?

Its fresh, acidic taste makes it an excellent partner for fish and chicken dishes, and, with a splash of ginger and lime, the juice is the perfect backdrop for a Caribbean cocktail. In fact, a shot of white rum is said to enhance both the flavour and the healing properties of the June plum. Who are we to argue? So forget the screwdriver — how pre-CSME. What the Caribbean hipster drinks is vodka and June plum juice. Because though it may not be in season, the June plum is certainly in fashion all year round.

The sweet life

Jamie Eliot on sweet treats from Trinidad and Tobago

In Trinidad and Tobago, we’re especially keen on sour, tart, stinging, burning things: hot pepper sauces, flammable pickles or chows, Chinese preserved fruit like mangoes, plums, and cherries. Sweets are another matter. They’re not hard to find, but they’re easily overlooked. Here are some of the best sweets the islands have to offer, and an idea of where to find them.

Peppermint candy: Nothing — nothing — like cellophane-wrapped Christmas canes or posh pillow mints. Four or five inches long, and as thick as permanent marker. These days they tend to be hard-candy right through, but not so long ago they were of a slightly melting disposition. Not all-the-way melt like after-dinner mints, just a slight give, so the pink and white swirl was at once solid and not solid. Melty peppermint candy comes from Tobago. Try the vendors’ stalls just outside the airport.

Snow cones: The snow cone has relatives all over the world: sky juice in Jamaica, Italian ices, etc. Here it’s machine-shaved ice with guava, pineapple, or other fruity syrups. Best with a topping of condensed milk. “George”, operating officially as “Lil’ Princes”, is stationed by the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain across the street from Queen’s Royal College, and iconic in the snow cone universe. An actual George once existed, but his absence is not reliably accounted for. However, anyone selling from that cart is understood to be there under his aegis. A “special” from George means condensed milk on top and in the middle.

White Rabbits: This chewy, milky sweet is shrouded in mystery, and also what appears to be Chinese writing. Never proactive enough to have the wrapper translated, I still have no idea what it’s made of. Texture of toffee, about the dimensions of a Tootsie Roll. The waxy rice paper around the sweet makes it yet more attractive to children to whom the idea of eating stationery or packing material is almost irresistible. Found across the country in Chinese shops.

Guava sweeties: Nostalgia on a stick. A hard, grainy sweet, dark purple and so sugary the guava taste is more like an undertone than a striking flavour. Never seen them anywhere except in parlours — small home-based shops — and other rural establishments. They seem to have fallen out of fashion, but anyone who remembers their primary school days from up to, say, fifteen years ago, should be able to eulogise them.

Jub jubs: A jub jub is, like a German Gummi Bear, a gelatinous sweet, but with a far more onomatopoeic name. Jub jubs come in colourful squares, just big enough to wobble, and with typical Trini excess, are covered in sugar. Available everywhere.

Three questions for Mariel Brown

Mariel Brown produces and hosts a TV programme about food and other fun things in Trinidad. Sancoche, named for a thick, many-ingredient soup, airs in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, and in North America on the CMC cable channel.

Editing or entertaining? Does your TV work compromise your passion for dinner parties?
One of the consequences of putting myself in a situation of having to cook for work — on my show Sancoche — is that I found the whole idea of cooking for recreation, and by extension, entertaining, became a much less attractive prospect. But I have always loved cooking for friends and family, especially if the food is good and the conversation interesting. So the fact that I was losing interest was quite distressing — cooking dinner for friends was invariably when I would splash out and try some new concoction.

I’ve been working at bringing the cooking for work/cooking for friends thing back to some sort of equilibrium, and although I’m not quite there yet, I’m excited about food again, and have been doubly inspired by the prospect of writing a book on food, which means I delight in discovering a new vegetable or ingredient and trying it out for the first time.

The key is that one (entertaining) feeds the other (editing). And then too, the epicurean in me just loves the ritual of food: preparing it, cooking it, and sharing it. So I’m getting there!

Food is for . . . ?
Eating. And that’s a simple, straightforward proposition. The kitchen is the heart of every home, and the ritual of food, both preparing it and eating it, is, I suspect, the oldest communal ritual. Eating together, with family and friends, is an elemental, primal thing that connects us socially to all times and all places. I think eating — around a table, in community — is one of the most civilised rituals we participate in. Not something to be glossed over, or consumed in a rush, standing, solitary, at a table in between the “serious” matters of the day.

If you were a breakfast food . . .
I would most definitely be an egg. I think the egg is just about the most versatile and interesting of all breakfast foods. Eggs can be decadent and luxurious, as in eggs Benedict, they can be elegantly simple — scrambled eggs with a couple of strips of smoked salmon or a bit of flaked salt fish — and then, of course, there’s the super humble poached egg on toast. Yum!

– Jamie Eliot