Have you ever had a favourite favourite cookbook in all the world, a cookbook that is perfect in every way, that sings your name in a siren-like voice, a cookbook that compels you to bake nineteen different cakes over the space of about four weeks, because you are nothing if not OBSESSED by the glory that is that cookbook? A cookbook, moreover, that in addition to producing exactly the right sort of cake for you in every possible way, is also clearly written by a kindred spirit – a person who loves food with the same slightly crazed passion that you do, and who puts the icing on the cake (so to speak) by dividing the chapters of the book by colour and anthropomorphising all the recipes in a deliciously bonkers way?
Well, I do. It’s called Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache, it is by Harry Eastwood, and it is my favourite cookbook of all time.
1. The cakes all have vegetables in them. You can’t tell. Some of them even contain turnips, but they are stealth turnips, so nobody has to know. This fills me with glee. Ninja vegetables!
2. Most of the cakes are both gluten- and dairy-free, but you really can’t tell that, either. This has been scientifically tested on real scientists. By me. Almost daily during the month of July.
3. The introductions to the recipes are absolutely adorable and often hilarious.
4. I can’t stop making the recipes in this book. Seriously, I’ve had this book for
two four weeks, and I think I’m up to seven nineteen recipes baked so far. Eighteen of them have been raging successes. The nineteenth, everyone else liked except me, and I think I just didn’t make it very well (steamed puddings are not something I make very often)
5. I have already ordered Ms Eastwood’s second cookbook, and will be ordering the third as soon as I can justify it. Which might be tomorrow. These things happen.
6. I wish I’d written this cookbook. Seriously, it’s brilliant. I mean, what sort of mind looks at a chocolate cake and thinks, you know what would make this even better? Eggplant. And what sort of person thinks that and is absolutely 100% right? A genius, that’s who. I think I’m in love…
Oh dear, how do I review this book like a sensible person when I have absolutely no ability to do anything with regard to it except squeal with glee and gibber delightedly and then make more recipes? Well, maybe I should tell you about some of the cakes. Like the ones I’ve made this week. Today’s cake, for example, was a birthday cake for my favourite choir conductor. It was a lemon and lavender cake, and it contained turnip. (You have no idea how much fun it is to tell someone that there is turnip in a cake and watch them try to figure out whether you are lying or not. After all, I’m the sort of person who makes garlic fudge. I am clearly more than capable of putting turnips in cake. But would I really…? Of course I would.) This cake is soft and syrupy and very, very lavenderish.
Yesterday’s cake, for my mother in law, was the chamomile and zucchini cupcakes. These are one of my favourites so far – they are lovely and light and herbal, but not bitter, and they have the characteristic texture of the cakes from this book, which is soft, but substantial. These cakes are not rich, heavy bricks, but they are also not bits of cotton wool that dissolve on the tongue, leaving nothing behind. They are proper, afternoon tea sort of cakes. You have one, and you are happy, because you have had enough – they feel like precisely the right amount of cake. Which is good, because part of the point of the book is to make cakes that are a little healthier and lighter – and there is nothing light about eating four portions because the first one wasn’t really satisfying.
Thursday’s cake was really for no reason at all, and it was a lovely almond and apricot cake with a sticky apricot glaze. It contained sweet potato, which made the batter a beautiful peach colour, and filled me with joy. Andrew was less overjoyed, so I took it in to work, where my colleagues demolished it in something under ten minutes. They are very efficient, my colleagues!
Sunday’s cake was going to be dessert for guests, but then the guests cancelled, so we just had to eat our chocolate mint zucchini cupcakes ourselves. It was very sad. But the cakes were not sad, and nor was Andrew.
Are you beginning to see the pattern of my life recently? Other favourites so far have been the teeny tiny pistachio pops (with zucchini) and chocolate full stops (with pumpkin), the astonishing Miss Marple’s Seed Cake (with potato), the White Chocolate, Cinnamon and Raspberry Blondie (with sweet potato) and in the world of chocolate, Forbidden Chocolate Brownies (with beetroot and hazelnuts) and the Heartache Chocolate Cake (with eggplant, brandy ‘for moral support’, and salt ‘or tears, if you have them in the kitchen’).
Really, these cakes are spectacular.
In terms of allergies, the cakes do depend heavily on eggs for a rise and nuts to replace a lot of the gluten and butter, so vegans and those with nut allergies are out of luck, I’m afraid. But those with gluten or dairy intolerances should do quite well – the vast majority of the cakes use a combination of ground almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios along with rice flour instead of wheat flower, and only one or two contain any dairy at all. In most cases, the dairy is in the icing, and fairly easy to avoid. I don’t think there is any such thing as a low-GI cake, exactly, but these cakes are lower in sugar than the average cake, getting much of their sweetness from the vegetables and fruit that they contain. Many of them use honey rather than sugar as a sweetener. Finally, for those with fructose intolerance or who are avoiding FODMAPS, a lot of these recipes will suit you very well indeed – all are wheat free, most are dairy-free, and while a fair number contain fruit, the fruit is generally citrus or berries. It would be a pretty good buy for many people with these particular intolerances.
Incidentally, it’s also a fairly good book for beginning cooks – the recipes are clear and mostly very simple to make. You do want a good set of beaters, though, as most of them start off by having you whisk the eggs and sugar together for 3-5 minutes, and I have found that doing this step by hand really isn’t sufficient to get the beautiful texture and rise these recipes are capable of. But there is little else that is difficult about them, and there are little tips at the end of most recipes on how to make them work better.
Finally, and I know, I’ve mentioned this in passing already, but I really must draw your attention to the descriptions of the cakes, because they are hysterical. Here are the Honey and Sunflower Ginger Scones:
These perky little scones are a choir of happy children. Ginger is the best kind of teacher, Carrot is over-excited at the organ, whilst Honey and the Sunflower Seeds are sitting in the side wings, watching on with pride and cartons of juice.
Or the beetroot and chocolate fudge:
This fudge is a loveable boy of about nine, who won’t be pushed or made to walk any faster than feels right to him. Patience is required, but it’s completely worth the effort. You may find he grows on you – a bit like Schubert does.
And the brownies:
This recipe is dangerous. Sinful and completely irresistible, this brownie is so wicked that you could drown in it. Like a bad man, this is a girl’s deathbed. If it were poison, you would still be glad you’d tried it.
Do they tell you much about the cakes? Not really. Are they absolutely far more fun than anything sensible one could possibly write about a cake? You bet. Do I wish I had written them myself? Guess…
Honestly, this book is going to be a keeper for me. I may stop baking from it every three days (or I may not), but I can already tell that it’s going to be influencing my own recipes in a big way. The flavour combinations are exciting and enticing, the vegetables are really used in an incredibly clever way, and the results are delicious, and very nearly good for you. To my mind, this book is a triumph. I wish there were more like it, and I will be eagerly awaiting the next book by this author.
You can purchase Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache from The Book Depository, and I really think you should! Have I mentioned that I adore this book with an unquenchable cakey passion?