A Question of Taste

It’s half term week and Grandson no.1 has come to stay. The north wind has blown in and a damp artic chill is hanging over London. Our visits to the local park are therefore curtailed as, no matter how many layers I wear, I am shivering and my fingers are turning a whiter shade of pale.  Neither Boy nor Dog feel the cold and are reluctant insiders unless given something to do. We retreat to the warmth of the kitchen and bake.

Boy is put in charge of weighing, measuring and timing – all good mathematical skills! Cookie dough is rolled and cut out, bread is proved and punched down and, as it is Shrove Tuesday, pancake batter is beaten. Teaching a nine year old to whisk by hand proves tricky – ‘Elbows in and it’s all in the wrist’– falls on deaf ears. We watch a YouTube video showing us the correct method of tossing. I am chosen to have the first go with a small pancake. First, second, and third are considered successes, a cocky fourth lands on the floor. Dog is happy to be able to join in the fun.  Unusually Boy’s favourite topping is the same as mine, freshly squeezed lemon and castor sugar, which gets me thinking as to what other tastes do the different generations share.

As babies, we all start off with 30,000 taste buds and a craving for fat and sugar because, at this point in human development, we need more calories pro rata to our body weight than at any other time in our life – it’s a pity we can’t remember those days.  Babies therefore, have a heightened sense of taste. Baby rice may taste bland to us with only 10,000 taste buds but not to them. My craving for sweet things has definitely decreased with time. I used to love sucking on squares of milk chocolate and letting them melt in my mouth; only dark chocolate tastes good now, and in small quantities.  Boy ate mostly everything he was given as a baby, but now his tastes have changed.

“I never knew we lost our taste buds as we grow older – that certainly explains why I prefer savoury over sweet as the years advance!” Fiona

I try him on my favourite taste of all time – umami. I give him the end of an instant miso soup packet to suck. You will see his reaction from the photograph. Which is interesting as breast milk is rich in the umami component, glutamate. Boy however, has lost those taste buds, as well as finding most green vegetables very bitter. I can’t argue with this, I love cavolo nero, the bitterest of brassicas, and the astringent taste of purple sprouting broccoli, braised with chilli, garlic, and splattering of lime – anything that makes the tastes stronger for my ageing buds.

No taste for umami

I am hesitant to introduce new foods to my grandchildren.  I want them to enjoy their time with me and not to have to chase spinach around their plates hoping that it will go away and they can have the promised dessert – I did enough of that with their parents. So I compromise and let them chose the food they want to eat, as long as it is not processed and includes a reasonable amount of vegetable matter. When introducing them to a new taste, I have to confess I can be less than honest. This time I wanted to make a polenta cake, one of my favourite winter desserts. So I dropped the word polenta from its title so Boy thought we were making an apple and lemon drizzle cake.  After all, in my version,  polenta flour is only a third of the ingredients, therefore only a small omission.

In the summer I like to serve lemon drizzle polenta cake with a bowl of fresh raspberries and cream, but it’s February and raspberry season is a long way off. Instead, I’ve topped it with candied apple slices, which worked well – perhaps too well, as not all the peeled rings of Cox’s apples made it into the candying pan. Some of them disappeared into the mouths of both the cook and her assistant. As you will see from the photo, I didn’t have quite enough rings to cover the cake. But the lesson was, it’s important to taste!

A Lack of Rings
A Lack of Rings

When cooked the cake was considered a roaring success, and the fact it had polenta in it made no difference at all to Boy. Now he is no longer wary of polenta, I’ll introduce him to creamed polenta next time, perhaps with fried sausages and onions, a change from mashed potato – cavolo nero on the side might be a step too far.

Apple and Lemon Drizzle Polenta Cake – Preparation time approx. 1hr 15mins, ten servings

For the cake
200 grams butter
200 grams caster sugar
200 grams ground almonds
100 grams polenta flour – I use Polenta Bramata – bought from wonderful Amazon. (If you prefer a finer texture I recommend giving it a whizz in a coffee/spice grinder)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
3 large eggs – these need to be large!
zest of 2 lemons (save juice for syrup)

 For the candied apples and syrup – apologies I only know this recipe in American cups, not metric or imperial measurements. But the ratio stays the same, so use any cup you have. You just need enough syrup.

2 coxes apples, peeled, cored and sliced into rounds
juice of 2 lemons – make this up to 1.5 cup measurement
2 cups of caster sugar


Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.
Line the bottom of a 23cm springform cake tin with greaseproof paper and grease its sides with butter.

Whisk the lemon juice/water mix with the sugar in a pan until it has dissolved, add the apple slices and poach for about 15 mins on a low heat, stir turning them over every now and then. Turn off heat and let them cool in syrup for another 15 or so minutes whilst you make the cake.

Beat the butter and sugar until pale. I do this in my freestanding mixer. Mix together the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder, and grate in the lemon zest. Be careful only to grate the yellow peel and not the pith underneath as that is bitter. Beat some of this mixture into the butter/sugar mix, followed by 1 egg, then add more dry ingredients and then eggs, beating all the time. This will give you a stiff mixture not a dropping mixture as you would have for a sponge cake.

Arrange the cooled and drained apple slices on the bottom of the prepared tin – keep the remaining syrup. Then spoon the cake mixture carefully on top of them, trying not to move the apples out of place.

Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes.

Whilst it is cooking, heat up the remaining syrup, and boil until you get to a very soft boil stage – ie you can drop a tiny amount into a saucer of cold water and it will stick together a bit – like you would do for making toffee. This should make a slight toffee bottom to the cake in contrast to the softness of the candied apples on the top.

When done, the cake should have started to shrink from the sides, but may be a bit sticky in the middle.  Remove from the oven to a wire cooling rack but leave in its tin. Prick the top of the cake all over with a dried spaghetti strand (a skewer will leave too big holes), and pour the warm syrup all over the cake. Leave to cool and then reverse the cake onto the cooling rack. Carefully remove the greaseproof paper so as not to disturb the apple slices.

A Satisfying Slice



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