This recipe is an ode in praise of the miniature, in praise of the small.
I have a soft spot for the miniature – maybe because I’m rather miniature myself. Five foot, three inches. And three quarters – to be precise. Petite. Categorically, not short. Almost average height – when wearing heels.
I naturally gravitate towards the small. Our dog, Coco, is what is known – by those in the canine know – as a teacup. That means that she’s bigger than an actual teacup – you know a cup with tea. But smaller than your average small dog. I have a weakness for those tiny impractical clutch bags – the ones with just enough space to hold a mobile phone and a lipstick, but no room for anything useful, like my house keys, say. Offer me a hefty chunk of cake or a delicate petit four and I’ll choose the latter. Time and time again.
This love of the small is not just a ‘me’ thing. Other people have it too. Respectable people. There’s a long history of it. Let’s start with Callimachus, the Ancient poet from Alexandria, for example. Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, he made a career out of glorifying the small. He liked his muses ‘slender’ and his poems short. He actively campaigned against the big – ‘big book, big evil’ was his slogan. Rather catchy.
The thing about the small is it requires perfection – its physical limitations leave no room for error, no space for the mediocre. Callimachus appreciated this complexity. He wrote the story of why things are as they are and of how the world came to be – in 7000 perfectly formed lines. If 7,000 seems like a lot, by comparison Homer’s Odyssey – the story of how Ulysses travelled from A to B – is just over 12,000 lines; the Old Testament is about 23,000; and the Harry Potter saga – all seven books of it – is just over 90,000.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually counted line by line, I’m making an educated guess.
So, these tiny cakes made with olive oil, ground almonds and a hint of citrus are my tribute to Callimachus and to all that is miniature. They’re not poetry – not in the literal sense of the word, anyhow. They don’t tell the story of the world’s mythical origins; and probably won’t stand the test of two millennia worth of time. But they’re a gesture, a fleeting tribute. Let’s call them my minimum opus.
I took this large olive oil cake. I made it small. I lessened the lemon juice to just a subtle hint of citrus. And I added a splash of Cointreau – barley there, but enough to tease your palate. I tossed in some fresh rosemary so that each small bite echoes spring and the bucolic. Because it’s spring. I played around with the proportions of baking powder to make a lighter batter; and lessened the olive oil ever so slightly for that very same reason.
Then I baked the cakes in tiny, elegantly shaped tins and topped each cake with a drizzle of fondant icing and a dainty sugared flower.
Of course, miniature might not be your thing. You may be six foot tall and relish the large in life. You may well prefer your cake big, sliced and chunky – so bake it in a bundt pan or a round cake tin. That’s fine too. No judgement here, no ‘big cake, big evil’ campaign. Maybe top it with a crown of sprigs of fresh rosemary. It can be your homage to Homer, to the epic, and to the grand. I like the sound of that too.
PS I will be selling homemade cakes and giving away balloons on a stall this coming Saturday. I’ll be at at the St John’s Hill Fair on St John’s Hill from 11am until 5pm. If you’re in the area – please pop by and say hello!
- FOR THE CAKES
- Butter and flour for greasing the tin
- 150g plain flour
- 50g ground almonds
- 200g caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 1 1/2 tsps baking powder
- 80ml good quality mild olive oil
- 2 eggs
- juice of 1 lemon
- 60ml Cointreau
- FOR THE ICING
- 75 icing sugar
- 2 tbsps water
- Preaheat the oven to 180 degrees. Grease your tin with butter and sprinkle with flour so that the entire surface is well covered.
- Pour the flour, ground almonds, sugar, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Tear the rosemary leaves off their stalks and roughly chop, then toss into the mixing bowl with the rest of the dry ingredients. Stir until well combined.
- In a small jug lightly beat the eggs, then create a shallow well at the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the eggs, olive oil and Cointreau stirring constantly until you have a smooth and aromatic batter.
- Spoon the batter into the cake tin, filling each mould up to three quarters. Then set the tray in the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown on top and if you insert a knife into the middle, it should come out clean. Turn the cakes onto a wire rack and allow to cool for a few moments before icing.
- For the icing, sift the sugar into a clean bowl add the water and stir until smooth. If you would like a runnier glaze add a little more water and if you prefer a stiffer icing, hold back a little on the water. Spoon the icing on top of the cakes and let it drizzle down the sides.