‘Sultana cake’ is probably not the thing you lust after … but bear with me! This cake is beautifully buttery without being particuarly high in butter, and the sultanas … well, I like sultanas, but in this cake they taste somehow better than plain sultanas – juicy and mellowed and more sophisticated. It’s definitely a case of a thing being more than the sum of its parts.
The recipe comes from a woman named Beth, who is a friend of my husband’s parents. She made it for the family a long while back after a funeral, and I was quietly blown away while eating a slice, my mind trying to tally up the cake’s simplicity, appearance and overall appeal versus how incredibly good it tasted. It also reminded me so much of being a kid, in particular a phase of my life when I was a young teenager and Dad moved to a dairy farm to work. On the nights I stayed with him, certain foods featured for my brother and I, such as good old Angus Park dried apricots, which Dad bought in large packets because I loved them, and supermarket genoa cake, which I loved almost as much. It was a simple butter cake with sultanas and glace cherries, and was top-notch for dealing with after-school hunger. It probably still exists but I’m not sure, as of course I grew up to become a person who doesn’t buy supermarket cake and cooks most things from scratch!
It doesn’t mean I don’t love the foods of my childhood. Ha ha, recently I made ‘tinned tomato soup’ (with passata and flour and a few other ingredients – yum!), and just the other day we were talking about those small red-skinned frankfurt sausages that we call saveloys (or, cringe, ‘little boys’), and it seems to me that denying these sausages from our own children, when we loved them so much ourselves, may be a small injustice. (One day I might try and find some good-quality frankfurts, if that exists!?)
I now have Beth’s sultana cake recipe stuck in my book of recipe cuttings, written in her beautiful old-fashioned handwriting. There’s a small trick that really makes her cake what it is, which is boiling the sultanas. No tea, no alcohol, just water, to plump them up and release their inner sultana-yness!
I’ve swapped some of the flour for polenta, because I happen to love Italian cakes with polenta, and I also like making things a little more wholesome/less wheat-based. So the thoroughly English/Australian cake has had a slight Italian renovation = the best of both worlds. I think the polenta is great and just adds a little more bite/texture to the cake, without changing its character too much.
Smaller cake / larger cake
250 g / 370 g sultanas
250 ml / 370 ml water
150 g / 225 g butter, softened
110 g / 165 g sugar
2 / 3 eggs
¾ teasooon / 1 teaspoon baking powder
110 g / 165 g plain flour
70 g / 105 g polenta
Combine the sultanas and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer without a lid for 10 minutes or so, or until the most of the water has been absorbed/evaporated. Leave to cool.
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Cream the butter and sugar until pale (lately I’ve stopped using electric beaters for this, finding that a good old wooden spoon does the job perfectly well, is just as fast, and is more fun – up to you, but either way, use butter that is nice and soft). Stir in the eggs one at a time. Sift the baking powder and flour over the top and add the polenta, mixing them in briefly. Mix in the sultanas and any remaining juices.
Pour into a prepared tin (round, and about 22 cm wide for the small cake, or 24 cm wide for the large cake; alternatively you can use a small/large loaf tin). Bake in the oven for 40 minutes–1 hour, until golden on top and the middle springs back when you touch it. Like all fruit cakes, this cake keeps very well (although it never lasts more than a week in our house).
Serves 12 / 18