Finally got up the nerve to sign in to my blog dashboard this morning. Couldn't believe the vicious beating my visitor stats had taken since my last post about a month and a half ago. Still, it warmed the old cockles to see that a surprising number of you continued to visit, despite the lack of updates. Thank you for your loyalty or curiosity, and for the lovely notes some of you sent to find out where the dickens I've been hiding and what the devil I've been up to. You know how blogging can be a consuming passion, an addiction? Well, so can life, lived normally. My neck's on the block here, but it's true to some extent, that food bloggers are a breed apart. Our families will attest to how we're slightly batty about our food, table settings, garnishes, props, kitchens and all our related 'toys'.
What's "normal" then and what's so darned consuming and addictive about it? How about a meal freshly cooked and eaten while it's hot, like macaroni and cheese, still bubbling and molten instead of cold and congealed? Or being able to cook food and not immediately think "Horrors!!! I forgot the step-by-step pics"... or "should I put that on the celadon green plate, or the embossed floral white one?" Would that look better with some cherry tomato wedges... or two sprigs of cilantro?"And what about my all time favourite - "bloody hell.... could the sky be more grey?!? Ugh!! When will I ever learn to use a lightbox?"
Of course there are other little things, like ohhh..... a well dusted and sparkling home, living without the visual assault of blogging clutter everywhere you turn, quality time spent with your family or the love of your life, daily, leisurely chats with your maker, 30 minutes spent in meditative silence to mend your frayed soul, a proper manicure, or slathering tea rose body lotion from shoulder to toe, and suddenly remembering... you can't remember the last time your lover boy slid his hand down your bare arm and sighed at the silken wonder that was your skin. The luxury of falling ill and recovering leisurely. You know..... insignificant, "normal" things like that, which elude most dedicated food bloggers unless they have an entourage comprising shopper, cook, food stylist, photographer, writer, editor, marketing and promo exec and food trendspotter.
Do I sound resentful? I'm not. But, machines break down, and humans tire. I'm happy to say though that ideas still worm their way into my brain and gnaw unrelentingly until I cave and get into the kitchen. I still feel a crackle each time I pick up my camera. My heart still pounds when I look through the viewfinder and I still scrutinise every frame, agitated, cagey and on edge, until I find the one. Even after a break, even though blogging's still a b**l buster (if I had them, they'd be busted) of a mistress who will take your soul if you let her, I'm still in love. She's got me in her grip, she demands I be a tireless multitasker, she doesn't even pay minimum wage, she expects me at her beck and call, she has no concept of time, but I still love her and I can't stay away, for long.
These last 6 weeks or so, have been a wonderful respite of delicious hot meals, eaten greedily, without thought or reservation, or a hefty, flour speckled camera swinging from my neck. Of time attentively and wholeheartedly spent with loved ones, reconnecting, reaffirming, appreciating anew. I've actually been watching tv *gasp*, going to bed at a godly hour and making some nice, real money for a change! I don't do puns, but call it what you will ;) I've been feeding my family cake, cookies and gateaux, like dessert's going out of style, all happily wolfed downed, blissfully, none photographed, except for the last two, one of which was this very pretty and easy zebra cake. How easy? Think preschooler art lesson. That easy.
I've been wanting to make one, since I saw a recipe for a bundt cake version in a cookbook my mum gave me when I was 14, eons ago. Of course, back then, it wasn't called a zebra cake. Uhmm.. the magic of marketing, even when there's no money to be made! Anyway, better 32 years late then never, right? :) The same, now worn and yellowed cookbook also inspired this delicious teatime treat.
This isn't a difficult cake but the usual pitfalls are a cracked top, dramatically domed centre, a rapidly rising then collapsing cake or indistinct stripes. Some tips to help you get it right without too much grief :
*Follow my recipe without changes. Stick to one style of measurement, preferably the metric one. If you use a cup, make it a standard English teacup, NOT a measuring cup or any other type of cup or mug.
*Don't add too much cocoa to the chocolate batter to make it more chocolatey. This will make the chocolate batter thicker than the vanilla batter, which will affect the spreadability/expansion propensity of the chocolate batter. It will also make the chocolate batter denser but drier (cocoa has a drying effect and makes your cake likelier to crack) than the vanilla batter, which will result in different cooking times for the two batters ie, the chocolate batter will take longer to cook through than the vanilla batter. Having two batters of different densities, cooking times and expansion propensities baking side by side in the same pan is what causes the domed centres and cracking between the lines of different batter.
*Too thick a batter will prevent it from spreading as it should, too thin and the two batters will spread too quickly and bleed into each other, thus resulting in indistinct stripes. As far as possible the two batters should have the same consistency and spreadability.
*When pouring the two batters alternately into the pan, start with larger amounts of batter (I used a little espresso/demitasse cup for each batter) and use incrementally less batter as you near the end. Don't wait for each cup of batter to spread before pouring the next. Just keep going. Always aim for the centre of the baking tin as you pour each cup or spoon (towards the end) of batter. Don't EVER shake, tamp (bang on the counter) or tilt the pan attempting to level or centre the batter. This is another reason you get indistinct stripes and also a low rising cake. Just keep calm, keep pouring, keep aiming for the centre and if both your batters are the right consistency, you WILL get the beautiful, striking stripes and an even, uncracked top.
*I got a softer, higher rising cake when I made the two batters separately, rather than make one main batter then divide it and flavour it accordingly. I attribute this to the fact that making two separate batters from the start results in less stirring and mixing and less gluten development of the flour.
*Keep the oven temperature on the low side to prevent a rapid rise and consequent collapse, cracking and a domed centre.
*Use a straight sided pan with an equal base and rim circumference rather than a slant sided one that is smaller at the base and gradually expands to a bigger circumference at the rim. Some will disagree, but in my experience, a straight sided pan helps to prevent doming or peaking of the cake.
The cake you see above is my second attempt and I'm happy with the visuals, but, you need to know that zebra cakes in general, are mildly flavoured and their true virtue is their striking appearance rather than rock-my-foodie-world flavour. Tweaking with the batters may yield a more flavoursome cake, but you will almost certainly trade off visual impact for "wow!" flavour.
Sorry there are no "step-by-steps"; it's gonna take a few posts before I'm in full blogging battle mode. For now, I'm back, (wetting my feet in the blogging pool again) and I hope you will be too :) Won't you join me for a slice of cake and a cup of tea?
chocolate and vanilla zebra cake (eggless)
prep 40 mins cook 55 - 65 mins yield 8 - 12 slices
chocolate batter (dry ingredients)
150 g (1 1/2 cups) plain or all purpose flour
4 level tbsp pure dark unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Van Houten or Valrhona if cost is no issue)
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/3 tsp fine salt
2 tsp best quality chocolate extract you can afford (if you want to amp up the chocolate flavour)
3 tbsp light vegetable oil
vanilla batter (dry ingredients)
150 g (1 1/2 cups) plain or all purpose flour
4 level tbsp full cream (full fat) milk powder
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/3 tsp salt
3 tsp best quality vanilla extract you can afford
liquid ingredients (for both batters)
200 g (1 1/3 cups) fine granulated sugar
350 ml (1 3/4 cups) buttermilk or regular milk + 1 1/2 tbsp cider vinegar or lemon juice
150 ml (3/4 cup) cooled melted butter (about 120g or 3/4 cup softened butter will give this amount melted butter)
100 g (1 cup) unsweetened smooth applesauce (Heinz or Gerber is perfect)
3 tbsp maple syrup (you can use honey but maple syrup tastes much better)
Grease and line with parchment paper, a straight sided 20 cm (8 in) round cake tin. Do not grease the parchment, only the tin so the parchment stays in place. Preheat oven at 160 (310 F).
Combine and whisk together in a large bowl the dry ingredients (except for chocolate extract and vegetable oil) for chocolate batter. Set aside.
In another large bowl, combine and whisk together the dry ingredients (except for vanilla extract) for vanilla batter. Set aside.
In a large measuring jug, whisk together all the liquid ingredients until sugar and maple syrup dissolve and butter is emulsified with other ingredients.
Pour half of liquid into the chocolate dry mix, add chocolate extract and vegetable oil and whisk gently until smooth and well combined. Do not over mix.
Pour remaining liquid mixture into vanilla dry mix, add the vanilla extract and whisk gently until smooth and well combined. Do not over mix.
If chocolate batter seems thicker than the vanilla batter, gently whisk in 2 - 3 tbsp milk or water until it's closer in consistency to vanilla batter.
Using two separate cups, pour about 1/3 cup (standard English teacup) or about 1 espresso cup (those tiny coffee cups called "demitasse) of one batter into the centre of the tin, trying your best to form a neat circle. Next pour the same amount of the other batter as far as possible into the centre of the first circle of batter, without waiting for the first batter to spread out. Keep doing this, contiuously, alternating between the two batters, gradually using less and less batter as you go, until both are used up and the batter in the pan looks like a target board.
Gently transfer baking pan to oven and bake for 55 minutes before testing with a skewer. If not done, continue baking until skewer comes out almost clean from centre of cake.
Remove cake from oven and cool in tin for 10 minutes before gently turning out onto a cooling rack. When cold, slice cleanly with a very sharp straight edged knife so the beautiful stripes are not marred. Admire appreciatively, before tucking in!