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Kitchen Project #115: Plum, brown sugar & ricotta cake
aka my moving in cake (take II)!
Welcome to today’s edition of Kitchen Projects. It’s so lovely to have you here.
I’m just dropping in with a divinely simple recipe this week, a quick one-bowl cake that you can mix by hand: Super fluffy plum, brown sugar and ricotta cake, aka the first bake of my new house. It’s a super tender sponge packed with flavour and there’s lessons to be learned about adapting your own recipes from it!
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The chaos of moving house, the comfort of plums
I write this newsletter surrounded by boxes in the aftermath of a big house move. Hopefully, this one will be the last for a while! It’s the first house we’ve ever owned together (and the first I’ve ever owned at all), and even though it’s in utter disarray, I’m feeling very at peace. This is the 15th(!) house I’ve lived in in London, and it feels good to know the revolving door is easing to a stop.
This move has also coincided with the wrapping up a major project that I am so incredibly excited to share with you - and will hopefully announce very soon - as well as a change of season. It all feels very symbolic and on the nose, but I’m embracing it and digging through boxes to find all my favourite jumpers and get the project over the line.
Setting up the new kitchen will be a task and a half - it’s a lovely space with a big window but a teeny tiny prep area, so installing a new cabinet and workspace has been essential. Of course, we’ve done the thing where we’ve bought the cheapest possible IKEA unit and then spent so much time and money customising it that we may as well have just bought something a bit nicer in the first place, but you live, and you learn. (do you ever learn?)
When we last moved house in 2022, I shared my formula for moving into a new home, including how to get to know your new oven and a recipe for my affectionately named ‘moving-in’ cake. I figured I should make it a tradition, even if I don’t move again for a while.
What is a moving-in cake?
Moving-in cake needs to be a simple recipe that will give you a chance to fall in love with your new oven. It should be a single-layer cake that can be eaten as you unpack boxes and last for several days. It must be delicious enough to cheer you up when you realise your washing machine doesn’t work and sturdy enough to hand over to visiting tradespeople and guests who don’t mind sitting on boxes rather than chairs after you give them the grand tour.
My 2022 moving-in cake was a lemon butter ricotta cake with pine nuts; honestly, I was expecting to make the same one this year. But instead of an exact repeat, I decided to create a new moving-in cake for 2023, using whatever ingredients were easily accessible and already in my new house. The result? A brown sugar, lemony plum cake with almonds & thyme.
Let me talk you through the substitutions I made on the fly and the logic behind them.
The fat (changed from 150g butter to 130g butter and 20g olive oil): The butter that made it from the old house to the new house was 20g short of the 150g I needed for the original recipe. So, rather than popping out to the shop, I subbed for 20ml olive oil. Adding liquid fat, like oils, to cakes will help improve the moistness and texture of the cake by better coating the ‘hardening’ (aka Flour and egg) ingredients.
The eggs (changed from 150g to 170g): We’ve been receiving large eggs in our delivery lately, so I kept it to three but made a note to compensate for the increase in moisture and the ‘hardening’ of the egg proteins.
The sugar (changed from 150g caster to 160g light muscovado): There was no caster or white sugar to be found, but I did find a bag of light muscovado sugar. I decided to slightly increase the amount of sugar to lean into the caramel-like flavours and improve the texture. When something has a lot of sugar, which is a tenderiser, the final cake will be softer - this works well in conjunction with the additional eggs since the extra sugar can form a syrup with the additional moisture (and combat any of the ‘hardening’ of the egg proteins!) making an even more tender cake!
The fruit forwardness (change from lemon to lemony plums): I have a plum-purchasing compulsion at this time of year. I would not let moving house get in the way of it. Lemon and plum are friendly, so I decided to halve the lemon zest and omit the juice - we have additional liquid from the larger eggs, anyway!
The nuts (keeping almonds in the sponge, changing from 50g to 75g, swapping to flaked almonds on top): I don’t like it when fruit sinks too much into cakes, so I decided to increase the body of the cake slightly by increasing the amount of ground almonds. Ground nuts give cake batters a nice sturdy structure, so I hoped this would mitigate any significant sinking. Also, increasing the proportion of ground nuts increases the fat in the cake, once again improving this cake’s lasting power and tenderness!
Ricotta - no change here! If you were to add a more acidic dairy, like yoghurt or sour cream, the fruit would be more likely to sink. This is because the acid will immediately set off the raising agents, resulting in a faster rise. You can substitute the ricotta, but be aware this is what will happen if you increase the acid!
The salt - (Changed from 4g to 2g) As I could only find the fine salt, and my flaky salt is nowhere to be found, I halved it!
Other additions: Herbs! I love thyme and saw some lemon thyme on the shelf at the greengrocer’s when I was collecting plums. Since we are moving away from a fully lemon-y cake, pairing the herb with lemon would be a nice segue into this new flavour profile.
Inspired by the results of my box foraging, I’ll definitely be making some bakes in the coming weeks based on ingredients or jars that have been hanging around in my fridge for while. I’m excited to put some of these unfairly forgotten flavours into the spotlight!
A note on plums
If there’s one thing that truly commiserates the end of the summer for me, it’s the influx of plums. Though the season of some begins earlier, and many trees explode in August - especially the French ones - these little round fruits bring me so much cheer. It can be a bit of a gamble - some plums are squishy and flavourless, and some are tart, but I never miss buying them. Even if they aren’t perfect to eat or bake with, plums are impressive shapeshifters, transforming into jams, chutneys and sauces, making equally good bedfellows with cake as they do cheese or meat.
There are a few superstars of the plum word: Small golden French mirabelles, pale green greengages, blushing reddish purple Victorias. But I always take a couple of each variety - my local greengrocers kindly price them all the same per kg so you can make an easily calculable pick-n-mix bag. This week, they have an ultra sweet-sour red-fleshed variety from Spain with no identification other than the generic name “Ciruela” on the side of the box, which means ‘Plum’ in Spanish. Not that helpful to find next year or to ask for at a shop, I’m afraid.
Over on KP+, the brilliant pastry chef Marie Havnø Frank has shared a recipe for a stunning greengage tart with a plum kernel pastry cream and a beautiful greengage jam, too. For anyone looking for an autumnal showstopper, this is for you:
How to get to know your oven
As detailed in my previous moving house post, one of the things I like to do when I move into a new house is get to know my oven. I do this by pre-heating the oven for about 20 minutes and then using an in-oven thermometer to measure the temperature in different parts of the oven. I move the racks around the oven to get an idea of what is happening in the top, middle and bottom!
Here’s my checklist:
Firstly, see if it's clean. Like, actually clean. If not, you know what to do.
If it looks alright, turn it on HOT. Around 200c (fan) should do it - you’ll soon find out if there are any burnt bits you haven’t spotted.
Once you’re happy with the cleanliness, get yourself an oven thermometer. This is the one I have. Most non-digital ovens will have a dial, so set it to whatever is clearest on your dial. Next, draw a little diagram of your oven like this:
Place your thermometer in various places in the oven, leaving 5-10 minutes for the oven to properly get to temperature and create a map! Now you know where the hot spots are, where to avoid, and how to adapt if necessary. My new oven runs about 5-10 degrees hotter than expected.
This can go the other way, though - I once recipe-tested in an Air BnB, and the whole oven ran 20c lower than it was supposed to - I’m so glad I checked before I got too disappointed!
Going through this process won’t make your oven run better, but it will give you the information to set it to the ‘right’ temp!
What about kit?
If you’re interested to know what else I have in my pastry toolkit, check out this edition of the newsletter from last year:
Alright, let’s make it!
Moving-in Cake Part II aka Plum, ricotta & almond cake
This makes 1 x 8inch cake
Active time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 45-50 minutes
Total: 1h05 min + cooling
130g unsalted butter, soft
20g olive oil
160g light brown sugar
1.5 x lemons, zested
170g eggs (about 3 x whole eggs)
150g plain flour
14g baking powder (about 3tsp)
75g ground almonds
2g fine salt
6 small plums, I use ciruela red fleshed plums
20-30g flaked almonds
Demerara sugar for sprinkling
Optional: 5g Lemon thyme or thyme
50g lemon juice
40g light brown sugar
5g thyme sprigs
Pre-heat oven to 170c fan
Line an 8inch tin with greaseproof paper
Cream room temp butter with oil, sugar, salt and lemon zest together for 1-2 minutes until well combined - it doesn’t need to be fluffy or aerated.
Whisk in the eggs one at a time. If it splits, don’t worry, just persevere. It won’t make a difference on the final cake.
Add in your ground almonds and mix to combine.
Sift together the Flour and baking powder
Fold in the dries, a few spoonfuls at a time. Be gentle as not to deflate the mixture
Finally, fold in the ricotta
Pour into the tin and spread smooth with an offset spatula
Halve the plums and place them on top of the cake. You can cut some of the plums into quarters to fill in gaps.
Put flaked almonds in all the gaps in nice clumps, then finish with demerara sugar.
Bake for 45-50 minutes until a skewer comes out clean or a thermometer inserted inside reads about 95c. If you want to add the thyme, remove the cake after 40 minutes and sprinkle a little thyme leaves all over the top. If you do it earlier, they will burn!
Meanwhile, make the syrup - heat the thyme sprigs, sugar, water and lemon juice together until boiling and cook for 4-5 minutes until it looks reduced and thick. Leave to cool slightly.
Pour all the syrup over your cake or brush on with a pastry brush.
Leave to cool on a wire rack - this is quite delicious when it’s still a little warm. Serve with Greek yoghurt on the side.
The cake will last well in an airtight container for three days.