Home bakers will be delighted to hear that a worthy sponge doesn't require icing. As these cakes prove, a pared-back, flavoursome base is best left practically naked
It's a truth universally acknowledged that a fine, flavourful cake must be in want of icing, right? But I've seen cupcakes where the sponge has been all but lost under blousy swirls of buttercream, wedding cakes styled after Liberace and even Victoria sponge cakes - usually so perfect in their simplicity - mummified in American-style frosting. As someone with a very sweet tooth, I understand this compulsion to ice cakes, but as a baker I can't condone it.
There are times when a layer of fondant or buttercream is useful, if not crucial - for semi-sweet fruit cakes, for example, or to prevent staling in cakes that won't be eaten that day. Sometimes a decorative touch, so easy in mouldable fondants and sugar pastes, can set a cake apart for special occasions. But most cakes need no such dressing up: a good one ought to be able to hold its own without a slathering of icing. And where icing is used, it ought to complement - not overwhelm - the flavours and textures of the sponge.
This week's recipes are two un-iced cakes, each naked, pared back: perfect.
Lemon rosemary drizzle cake
Drizzling neatly sidesteps the icing conundrum, gently sweetening without smothering. By balancing sugar with acidity (typically citrus juice or passion-fruit pulp) or a boozy kick (think drizzles spiked with dark rum or whisky), they prevent cakes from drying and going stale, offset their richness and add another layer of flavour. Here I've mirrored the flavours of the crumb - bright lemon and rosemary - in the syrup.
A small amount of polenta lends a rich yellow colour to match the sunny, sweet-sharp lemon flavour. Polenta is gritty, though, and to avoid the textural confusion of crunching mid-mouthful, it needs to be briefly cooked before being added to the batter, hydrating and softening it.
150g caster sugar
50ml olive oil
125g unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
Zest of 3 lemons
Leaves from 2 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
175g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
For the drizzle
Juice of 1 lemon
50g caster sugar
1 sprig rosemary
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a 2lb/900g loaf tin.
2 In a small pan, combine half the sugar with the milk, olive oil and polenta. Cook over a medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or so - just long enough for the mixture to become thick and smooth. It should be paste-like rather than runny. Leave to cool.
3 Beat the butter with the remaining 75g sugar until creamy, then add the eggs, lemon zest and chopped rosemary. Stir in the cooled polenta mixture. Combine the flour with the baking powder and salt in a separate bowl before adding this dry mixture to the wet ingredients. Fold together.
4 Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 45-50 minutes, or as long as it takes for the crust to deepen to a light golden brown. The cake should be springy to the touch and a knife or skewer should emerge from the centre of the cake with no more than a crumb or two stuck to it.
5 As the cake approaches the end of its baking time, prepare the drizzle. Heat the lemon juice, sugar and whole sprig of rosemary in a small pan and let it simmer for a minute. Once the cake is cooked and still hot from the oven, pierce it all over with a cocktail stick or similar, and pour over the drizzle. You can perch the rosemary sprig on top of the cake, if you're not averse to garnishes. Leave to cool completely before serving.
Brown sugar peanut butter cakes
Here the cake is the centre of attention: a nutty, wholemeal crumb, sweetened with brown sugar and rich with peanut butter. The only ornament here is a sprinkling of demerara sugar and chopped peanuts, puncturing the mellow softness of the cake with a crunchy, sweet-salt crust.
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g smooth peanut butter
150g soft light brown sugar
3 large eggs
75g plain flour
75g wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
A large pinch of salt
1-2 tbsp milk
100g salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
For the topping
75g salted peanuts, finely chopped
50g demerara sugar
1 Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases and preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
2 In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with the peanut butter until smooth. Add the sugar and stir vigorously until the mixture is light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each. Don't worry if the mixture looks a little curdled at this point.
3 In a separate bowl, combine the plain and wholemeal flour, baking powder and salt. Add this to the wet ingredients. Gently fold together until smooth (avoid over-mixing or the cakes will be tough rather than tender).
4 Add milk to slacken the batter just so that it is "dropping consistency": it should fall softly from a wooden spoon. Add the peanuts.
5 Divide the batter between the muffin cases, taking care not to overfill them. Mix the chopped peanuts and demerara sugar for the topping, then sprinkle liberally over the top of the muffins. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, until well risen and springy to the touch. A knife inserted into the centre of a cake should emerge clean if the muffin is cooked through.
6 Leave to cool a little on a wire rack, but serve while still slightly warm.
Less is more ... a sponge base best served with little dressing up, just some lemon drizzle or a peanut butter crust. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian