It’s birthdays galore in the lab this week with both the technicians celebrating their birthdays – one yesterday, and one tomorrow, but she’s taking the day off so we celebrated today. We’ve named it Technician Week. Birthdays mean cake, and we don’t do things by halves in the lab so it’s been cake galore over the past two days. Brownies and cake yesterday, and then two more cakes and biscuits today (plus all of yesterday’s leftovers). We’re set for the week. I was in charge of Monday’s birthday cake, which was for the technician who doesn’t eat egg. The girl who was organising the present and card doesn’t like chocolate, so I needed to find a (reliable) cake recipe without egg and without chocolate. Quite a challenge, particularly since I didn’t want to go down the vegan route – my limited experience with vegan baking so far hasn’t been particularly spectacular and a birthday is not the occasion to attempt to rectify that.
I searched for some tips on egg-free baking, and found several credible-seeming sites that suggested that you can often substitute half a mashed banana in cake recipes calling for just one or two eggs as apparently it has similar binding properties and still keeps the cake moist. Obviously this won’t work if you need to separate the eggs or anything, but it’s a good to know. The next step was to find a cake recipe that only called for one or two eggs (and didn’t have any chocolate), which was a little more elusive than I expected – most seem to ask for at least three. A Treasury of New Zealand Baking came up trumps with a spiced date cake recipe requiring only one egg. The original recipe was for a 20 cm cake, and that seemed a little small for a birthday cake so I doubled it. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t 100% convinced that the banana trick was going to work, so I spent quite a while crossing my fingers whilst it was baking away. The original recipe is supposed to be made in the food processor, adding ingredients as you go along. Apparently my food processor had other plans, however, and instead of putting together a cake, it decided to make a strange noise, die and then emit a heck of a lot of smoke. Marvellous timing.
So I reverted back to my trusty electric whisk to rescue the situation, which thankfully it did with flying colours (and no flying batter). Luckily the taste of the cake wasn’t affected by the food processor mishap. In fact, the cake was utterly delicious with the spices and the date flavours coming through wonderfully. And it wasn’t at all dry, which is what I was most worried about (and had to wait until it was cut to find out whether it had really worked or not). I covered it in cream cheese icing, piped some little fish on top and boom, a marine-themed birthday cake! By the way, all the photos were taken on my phone and in the foyer or in our printer room (the only part of the lab we’re allowed to have food), so I apologise for the quality and slightly odd set-ups. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go claim the warranty on my food processor and then have a little lie-down after two days of cake…
Spiced date cake
Adapted from A Treasury of New Zealand Baking
The un-iced cake will keep for 4-5 days in an airtight box, so it can be prepared in advance. The iced cake will keep for about 2 days in an airtight box. Any leftover icing will keep for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge. If you need the icing to be smooth for piping, I’d recommend using lemons extract instead of lemon zest. The cake can also be decorated with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon and a handful of toasted walnuts.
For the cake:
500g pitted dates, roughly chopped
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250 ml boiling water
220g caster sugar
220g unsalted butter, softened
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
¾ mashed banana
300g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
For the icing:
200g icing sugar
100g cream cheese
100g unsalted butter, softened
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or ¼ tsp lemon extract
To make the cake:
1. Roughly chop the dates and place them in a heat-proof bowl along with the bicarbonate of soda. Pour the boiling water over them, stir and leave to soak for 30 mins, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
2. Butter the base and sides of a deep (mine is about 5 cm) 24 cm round cake tin. Line the bottom of the tin with baking paper (even if your tin is non-stick). Pre-heat the oven to 150°C/fan oven 130°C.
3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until pale and fluffy. Add the mashed banana and mix well.
4. Add the flour, baking powder, spices, dates and the soaking liquid to the butter mixture and whisk until just combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake tin and smooth the top with a spatula (it doesn’t have to be perfect).
5. Bake for about 1h10 (start checking after 1h) until golden and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin for 5 mins before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the icing:
6. Once the cake is fully cooled, transfer it to a serving plate and prepare the icing. Sift the icing sugar into a medium bowl and add the cream cheese, cubed butter and the lemon zest or extract. Whisk together with an electric whisk until white and fluffy (I kept aside about 2 tbsp for the orange piped icing), then spread over the top of the cake with a palette knife. Decorate as you wish.