I’m of the impression that most people don’t just want to see gardens, they want to have great cake too. Why else would we have so many gardens with integrated cafes and cake stalls? It’s no different for an NGS Open Garden event. Though we haven’t been to as many as we’d like, one of the principal reasons we set out for an afternoon NGS visit is to nosy around another garden and then sample the baking. One can’t be without the other.
Thankfully, I’m also a very good baker (so I’m told, often by people with my cake in their mouth at the time) and the catering is all in-house. I’m writing this after “just” whipping up three entire cakes for a private group visit. I know they will expect good cake and I won’t let them down.
For an NGS Open Day or private visit, I tend to keep it simple so there’s something for everyone. My basic set is:
- Victoria Sponge – people just expect it
- Lemon Drizzle – for those that want some zing
- Ginger Cake – not my cup of tea (as it were) but is surprisingly popular
For larger private groups, I’ll also make a Chocolate Treacle sandwich cake. This is a dark, dark chocolate cake made with black treacle and lots of cocoa powder. It’s not a sweet chocolate cake and the ganache in the middle is made with dark chocolate, but I make a creme Chantilly to go on top to offset that. Oddly though, it doesn’t get picked until one or two people try it and spread the word to others.
For public Open Days, when we can have 50+ people, I’ll also do:
- Coffee and Pecan cake (for those, like me, who love their nuts)
- Caramel cake (new recipe, very sweet, might swap it out for something else next time)
- Gluten-Free Lemon and raspberry cake
So that’s seven in all and do-able in a day if I measure out all the ingredients the night before. Cakes with a whipped cream filling are made up on Event day to keep the double cream in the fridge as long as possible. All the cakes are 8-inches in size and cut into ten generous slices.
I like to think these cakes – while simple in flavour and simply decorated – have a touch of class from the attention to detail I give them. In the Victoria sponge – for example – the flavour comes from golden caster sugar infused with whole vanilla pods for several months. There’s no additional vanilla flavouring needed. I don’t use extract (and never essence) when I have this sugar around. The Lemon drizzle has lemon zest in the sponge as well as lemon juice and the buttercream is flavoured with lemon curd. I also give it a thick, crunchy drizzle top that sparkles like diamonds in the sunshine.
For the ginger cake, I use ground ginger in the sponge. In the buttercream I have finely-chopped stem ginger pieces as well as flavouring from the syrup they come in. I use dark muscovado sugar to give a deeper flavour for these “heavier” cakes. Real pecan nuts and real coffee for the coffee and pecan cake. Fresh raspberries for the gluten free cake. I avoid artificial flavouring where ever I can and stick to base baking ingredients. The “Keep It Simple Stoopid” approach is essential here. In the lemon drizzle, I might put some lemon oil in the sponge mix before baking, but this is actually limonene, which is the oil present in the skin and pith of the lemon. It adds intense lemon flavour, but without the sourness of lemon juice – which is very odd as your brain always put the two together.
There is a lot of effort that goes into the preparation, baking and assembly of the cakes before each Open Day but visitors positively remark on the cakes just as much as the garden. I’d say the comments are split 50-50, which for me, is about the right split when it comes to visiting a garden.