"I don't know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors," said George. "For instance, even if we had hard-boiled eggs and bread and butter indoors, they wouldn't taste as nice as these."
"Can everyone eat two eggs?" asked Anne. "I did two each. And there's plenty of cake - and more sandwiches and some plums we picked this morning."
"Best meal I've ever had in my life," said Nobby, and picked up his second egg. "Best company I've ever been in, too!"
Five Go Off in a Caravan, Enid Blyton, A Curious Change of Mind
I spent much of my time, between the ages of eight and ten, reading about the adventures of the Famous Five. At this early stage of my life, I identified most with George; I was a girl who abseiled and played football, hung around with the boys and wore shorts more often than not. Goody-goody Anne, though useful when beds needed to be made or caves needed cleaning, always needed to be rescued, which didn't impress me at all.
However, my George phase didn't last into adulthood; I'm now pretty much always seen in a dress, grew up to love lipstick and own at least eight aprons - more how I imagined Anne might have grown up. And certainly, at age 28, I am the one who (if I ever adventured in a caravan) would have made sure we found a farm, picked up some ingredients and had enough for a nice picnic lunch.
And so I wanted to recreate this scene, where Anne, who I gave such a hard time when I was young, appears out of the caravan with a lovely meal. Alongside the beautiful pastel eggs and ripe plums, I baked one of the easiest cakes in the world, which is also one of the best for a picnic. Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat again. Fold in flour and almonds. Spoon into tin. Top with fruit. Bake. Perfectly simple.
But, despite the dresses, I am not an Anne. I am a George. So of course it wasn't simple. Or perfect.
I've made much more complicated cakes in the past - ones with layers, one with multiple types of icing, ones for people's weddings, ones that collapse if the tiniest weight measurement is off-kilter. But somehow, at 11pm one night, I managed to make an error with this one - a farewell cake for my lovely colleague and friend Anna (who, as I type, may well be welcoming her second child into the world). I added self-raising flour by mistake, along with the baking powder. I wasn't concentrating, I was just using up rogue bags of ingredients before my big move. It was an old bag; I don't even use self-raising flour anymore. Of course, the cake ballooned. By the time I took a peek through the oven door, my carefully fanned out and beautifully arranged plums had all but disappeared under the batter.
I got the ingredients out to make it again. But it was midnight. By this point, the little corner-shop had shut, and I had almost run out of plums. So I wrapped the cake in paper, tied a bow around it, took a photo of it and served it anyway. Sometimes life is just too short. I have retested the recipe (detailed below) but have kept my original photo. It's not perfect. But then, none of us are.
It still tasted great.
ps. This recipe is coming a little late. I had intended for it to be an 'end of summer' post but, as I type, I have wooly socks on and am sitting with my back to the oven (some aubergines are roasting inside, for a baba ganoush). Last week's warmer weather is a distant memory. So, if you're in England, this is probably not something you'll be having at a picnic anytime soon. Not to worry; it's just as good with a spoonful of yoghurt and a cup of tea indoors.
225g softened unsalted butter
160g golden castor sugar
3 medium eggs
110g plain flour
110g ground almonds
3/4tsp baking powder
5 small plums (greengages work particularly well)
20cm loose-bottomed cake tin
Electric hand whisk
1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease the cake tin and line it with baking paper. Cream the butter and golden castor sugar for five minutes, until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs, beating between each addition. Fold in the flour, baking powder and almonds. Spoon into the cake tin and smooth out the top.
2. Slice the plums through the middle, remove the stones and cut into 5mm slices. Lay them on top of the cake batter in a nice pattern (you can do better than mine - come on) and place the cake in the oven.
3. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the cake comes out clean (though it will be damp). Remove and cool in the tin for five minutes before releasing. Eat warm or at room temperature. Sprinkle the top with flaked almonds if you have something to hide.