30 Jan 2011

Purely Conceptual Cake (for 'The Raw Shark Texts')

'thought ... congealed' (p.4)
'fluid liquid concept ... waves of association and history' (p.59)

My goal this month was to create something edible that resembled the idea of a cake and tasted like the memory of cake without it actually being a cake. 

I started by asking myself: What do you mean by ‘cake’? If I were to narrow the memory of cake down to one particular type of cake it would be a basic sponge recipe. For many of us this would've been our first taste of cake, perhaps at our own first birthday party, so the psychological impact of the sponge cake must run deep...

A homage to pages 55 and 56 of The Raw Shark Texts might illustrate the 'waves of association and history' I'm aiming for:

Imagine a birthday cake.
You're in a room decorated with streamers and balloons. The lights have been dimmed and a chorus of 'Happy Birthday' is sung in time, though not in tune, by the assembled guests. A glow from the doorway announces the procession of the cake. It is set before you and a waft of wax, icing and sugary sponge invades your nostrils. The heat from the candles warms your face as you are urged to make a wish. There is a snap and flash of cameras as you take a deep breath, pause for effect, and do your best to blow out all the candles in one go. The lights are switched back on and there is a general hubbub as the guests await the cutting of the cake, anticipating it's moist crumb texture and the buttery smoothness of the filling. You are handed the knife. There is another pop and fizz of flashes as you press the blade into it's spongy centre and draw it towards the outer edge with an audible scrape of metal on crockery.

And right on that scraping sound - stop imagining.
The slightly unsettling but mundane truth of the matter is: the cake in my head has become the cake in your head. Yes, that's right. You may have thought you were imagining your own cake but I was merely using an ancient form of symbolism known as 'words' to implant my own cake-thoughts into your head. If you took a moment to contemplate the sheer number of possible combinations and permutations of sugar, flour and butter there are in this world you would be overwhelmed. Given long enough, under the right conditions, these same ingredients could bloom into a living organism of their own - a vengeful and intelligent Metacake with the ability to devour us all! Now, there's some food for thought...

After three failed experiments I finally hit on the idea of a birthday cake panna cotta. A molded milk-based gelatine dessert played on the congealed texture I was looking for and lent itself to a cake and ice cream effect. I like the idea of the stenciled letters because the power of the written word is an overarching theme in the book. I think the cocoa powder helps to bring out the cake flavour, which is quite subtle.

How would you interpret The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall? All cakes and commets welcome.

Purely Conceptual Cake  (Birthday Cake Panna Cotta) 
Serves 4-8


For the eggless sponge cake
1/2 tin condensed milk (198g)
75ml melted butter
2tsp vanilla essence
80ml water
150g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bi-carbonate of soda

For the panna cotta 
500ml whipping cream or double cream
60g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla essence
3-4 sheets gelatine (or 1 sachet powdered gelatine)
125g cake batter

To decorate
A sprinkle of cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 200*C.
Butter and flour a 9in round cake pan and set aside. In a bowl whisk together condensed milk, butter, vanilla and water. Add flour and stir until smooth. Reserve 125g batter in a separate dish. Add the baking powder and soda, stir well and pour into prepared pan. Bake for 12-15min or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Soak gelatine in cold water. Combine the cream, sugar and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat and leave to simmer until sugar is dissolved. Do not boil. Add the gelatine to the saucepan and remove from heat stirring occasionally until dissolved.

Pour about 2tbsp of panna cotta into each of your ramekins or moulds (I filled eight 85ml containers but you could use 4 larger ones) and put in the fridge to set for about half an hour until firm enough to pour a second layer on top. Meanwhile, stir the reserved cake batter into the remaining mixture and set aside. Pour into molds and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight, until set.
Turn out onto serving plates and dust with cocoa powder. Don't be tempted to skip this step. For some reason, this helps the cake flavour stand out.

 What you do with the eggless sponge cake is up to you. I chose not to serve it along side this recipe because the panna cotta is rich enough to stand on it's own.
If you have no use for a leftover 1/2 tin of condensed milk just double the batch, you'll still only need one 9in cake tin to bake it in. 
I crumbled mine up, stirred in some butter cream icing (140g icing sugar, 70g marg, 1tsp milk - double this too if you make a double batch) and rolled them into Bakerella-style cake balls. I've popped them in the freezer to be coated in chocolate later.

Modified from Del Sole
Eggless sponge cake from aditya28
Recipe, Dessert , Cake, Panna Cotta


  1. Success! This is absolute genius.

  2. What a lovely presentation. Very Good!!! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Very clever and well done. Love it!

  4. Thank you for all your lovely, encouraging comments. And thanks for following!


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