Thursday, 29 August 2013

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake with blackberry compote

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote

Blackberries, or brambles, are probably the most widely foraged foodstuff in the UK.  This is probably a dangerous claim as we seem to have rediscovered our passion for "foraging", but during their season it's hard to take a country walk and not come across someone picking blackberries.  Speak to any seasoned blackberry picker and they'll tell you they have a favourite spot they return to year after year.  That's not to say they'll tell you where it is - blackberry patches are jealously guarded - but it is the spot they will head for each year to try their luck.  That first picking is invested with more hope than expectation.  Will the fruit be plump or seedy?  Fit for a blackberry and apple pie or destined to be sieved for a fruit jelly?

Wild Blackberries

A late, wet start to spring has turned out to be perfect for fruit growing in the UK.  From gooseberries through berries, cherries and currants, all have cropped well this year.  Now plums and gages are starting to arrive and tasting sweet as nectar.  Apples and pears are expected to produce bumper crops too.  Right now it's the turn of wild blackberries, so much better than cultivated ones and they're free.  Foraging is by its nature anarchic but my own written rules are 'leave some for somebody else'.

Almond,  Polenta and Lemon Cake

Blackberry is a fruit I would never plant on my allotment.  It's a bit of a thug and will take over if you let it. Besides, wherever there is a bit of uncultivated land, there is likely to be a bramble patch.  Birds disperse the seeds very efficiently.  If you want a better behaved option, go for loganberry which is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry.  If you do pick wild blackberries, folklore has it that you shouldn't take them after Michaelmas (29 September) as the Devil will have spat on them.  Superstitious or not, by the end of September in the UK you're unlikely to find berries you'd actually want to eat.

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote

My first pickings this year proved to be packed with juice, making the seeds barely noticeable.  Half of the berries were the basis for a classic apple and blackberry crumble.  The rest I warmed with a little sugar to enjoy as a compote which would be good, I thought, with a little almond 'something'.  I had almonds; I had polenta; and I had lemons.  With those ingredients, The River Cafe Cookbook was the first book I reached for. Their recipe for Torta di Polenta, Mandorle e Limone is the basis for the recipe below.  I know it's sacrilege, but I did change a few things.

Not wanting a cake as large as 30cm, I cut down the recipe to suit a 17cm x 6cm round tin.  It produced a beautifully light cake which is also gluten-free.  I found the lemon didn't come through quite enough for me so I increased the amount of lemon zest recommended.  I should mention the finished cake is fairly fragile so take extra care to prepare the tin.  The cake keeps well for a couple of days but it will lose its crunch.

Almond, Polenta and Lemon Cake
with blackberry compote
(Serves 4-6)

150g (6oz) unsalted butter, softened
150g (6oz) caster sugar
2 medium eggs
150g (6oz) almonds, skinned and ground fairly finely (or use ready-ground almonds)
Half a tsp of vanilla extract (or qtr tsp of vanilla powder - Ndali brand is very good)
Zest of 2 lemons
Juice of half a lemon
75g (3oz) polenta
Half a teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt

For the compote:
300g (12oz) blackberries
25-50g (1-2oz) icing sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)

Preheat oven 170C (fan 150C)/Gas 3.
Lightly butter a 17cm x 6cm round tin and dust with polenta.
Cream the butter well with the caster sugar.  Add the ground almonds and vanilla and mix briefly.  Gradually beat in the eggs. 
Gently fold in the lemon zest and juice, followed by the polenta, baking powder and salt.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out fairly clean (under-cooked is better than over-cooked).  Leave to cool in the tin before turning out.

While the cake is cooking, put the blackberries in a heavy-bottomed pan with no more than 1 tablespoon of water.  Heat until the juices flow.  Remove from the heat and mix in 30g of icing sugar, adding more if the compote is too tart.  

Spoon a little compote alongside a slice of cake.  I don't think it needs the addition of cream but it's up to you.