The icing on the cake - no frosting!

In keeping with the holiday festivities, here are some delightful cakes to have with tea or coffee.

Cake 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cake 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the mid-morning or late afternoon, when I’m having a cup of coffee or tea, I often feel like having a piece of cake. All I need are a few sweet, delicious bites to bring back the tastes of my childhood, such as my mother’s moist, sweet carrot cake, cocoa applesauce cake, chocolate chip cake, vanilla pound cake or sour cream coffee cake with cinnamon-sugar trails running through it.
Occasionally I’m in the mood for a dense, flourless chocolate cake or a rustic prune-studded pound cake that I learned to prepare at a Parisian cooking school. Once in a while I want cakes that are out of the ordinary, perhaps flavored with candied ginger, or with familiar ingredients used in different combinations, such as the brown sugar bundt cake flavored with ground hazelnuts, diced pears and prunes baked by Dorie Greenspan, author of Baking – from My Home to Yours.
One preference of mine has remained constant: I crave cakes that taste good on their own and don’t need embellishments like frosting, glazes or toppings. A variety of cakes, from homey to elegant, satisfy this requirement. They do not comprise a well-defined group of cakes, although many are in the broad category of butter cakes, which includes pound cakes, marble cakes, loaf cakes, coffee cakes and tea cakes. However, some sponge cakes or angel food cakes rich in nuts or chocolate can also be served sans embellishment.
Which cakes fit the definition is also a matter of personal taste. Sometimes I bake a cake that’s designed to be layered with filling and frosting and find that I prefer the cake on its own.
In this cake, inspired by a specialty from the French region of Brittany, I flavor the batter with orange zest and pecans. The moist prunes come out on top when the cake is turned over and give the cake a wonderful flavor.
✔ 16 moist pitted prunes (about 170 gr. or 11⁄4 cups) ✔ 225 gr. (1 cup or 8 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut in 8 pieces ✔ 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar ✔ 4 large eggs, room temperature ✔ 13⁄4 cups cake flour, sifted ✔ 2 tsp. finely grated orange zest ✔ 3⁄4 cup pecans, chopped into fairly small, even pieces
Put prunes in a bowl and cover with hot water. Let stand 30 minutes until softened. Remove prunes from water, set them on paper towels and thoroughly pat them dry.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 175ºC (350ºF). Butter 23- to 24-cm. (9-inch) square pan. Line its base with parchment paper or foil wrap. Generously butter paper or foil. Flour pan, tapping it to remove excess flour.
Set prunes on paper at equal intervals, with their more attractive side downwards.
Beat butter at medium speed of mixer until it is soft and smooth and most of it clings to the side of the bowl. Gradually beat in sugar. Beat mixture at medium speed, scraping down twice, until it is very pale, smooth and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beat in 3 eggs, one by one, at medium speed, beating thoroughly after each and scraping mixture down occasionally. Beat fourth egg in small bowl. Add it to mixture, a scant Tbsp. at a time, beating very thoroughly after each addition. With the last few additions, the batter will look like it is separating, but it will come together when flour is added. Stir in orange zest.
Sprinkle about one-fourth of the flour over the batter and stir it in, using a rubber spatula. Stir in remaining flour in 3 batches. Mix well; be sure there are no lumps. Stir in pecans. Spoon batter carefully into pan without moving prunes. Spread smooth with rubber spatula. Tap pan once on work surface to level the batter. Bake until cake comes away from sides of pan and cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 40 minutes; test after 35 minutes.
Cool in pan on rack 5 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack, carefully remove paper and cool completely. Serve at room temperature. To serve, cut in squares around prunes.
COCONUT TEA CAKE Makes 10 servings
This recipe is from Baking – From My Home to Yours. Dorie Greenspan writes that the cake “gains flavor from unsweetened coconut milk, shredded dried coconut...and a spoonful of vanilla extract, which seems to deepen the coconut flavor.” This is the kind of cake “that is welcome just about any time of day... Moist, plain but very satisfying in its purity..., it will quickly shrink as slice after slice is cut and nibbled at whim.”
Wrapped in plastic, the cake keeps at room temperature for up to 4 days. It can also be frozen. Greenspan notes that when it’s a bit stale, it’s really good lightly toasted, cut into finger-shaped pieces and dipped in vin santo (Italian dessert wine). She also likes toasted slices topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
✔ 2 cups all-purpose flour ✔ 1 tsp. baking powder ✔ Pinch of salt
✔ 1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk (stir well before measuring) ✔ 55 gr. (2 ounces or 4 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces ✔ 4 large eggs, preferably at room temperature ✔ 2 cups sugar ✔ 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract ✔ 2 tsp. dark rum (optional, but so good) ✔ 3⁄4 cup shredded coconut (unsweetened or sweetened), toasted or not
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Butter a 23- to 25-cm. (9- to 10-inch) Kugelhopf or bundt pan (a fluted tube pan) or use an unbuttered silicone pan. Don’t place the pan on a baking sheet; you want the oven’s heat to circulate through the inner tube.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together.
Pour the coconut milk into a small saucepan, add the butter and heat until the milk is hot and the butter is melted. Remove from heat but keep warm. Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar at medium-high speed until the mixture is pale, thick and almost double in volume, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla and rum. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, scraping down sides of bowl as needed and stopping just when the flour disappears.
Keeping mixer on low, add the coconut, mixing only until it is blended, then steadily add the hot milk and butter. When mixture is smooth, stop mixing and give batter a couple of turns with a rubber spatula, to make certain that any ingredients that might have fallen to the bottom of the bowl are incorporated. Pour batter into the pan and give pan a few back-and-forth shakes to even the batter.
Bake for 60 to 65 minutes or until cake is golden brown and a thin knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean. Transfer cake to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding onto the rack to cool to room temperature. ■
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and, in Hebrew, of Sefer Ha’ugot.