The thought of a picnic conjures up a rustic ideal of simpler times, of summer and of nonchalance. Of freshly-mown lawn-scented breezes, vintage post cards and hand-woven baskets. Of innocence, and checked, ruffled skirts, and hands stained with fresh strawberry juice. A hilltop sunset reverie of pristine isosceles cucumber sandwiches, and crisp flaky tomato tarts, and fluffy light jam sponges. Of laughter and birdsong and sunsets and…. UGHH. This is a cliché-riddled, utopian fantasy that I never have experienced, and never will. And shrouded in such deceptive ideals that somehow no one remembers the harsh reality of what picnics are really like.
Maybe it’s the fervent desire to believe in this that makes people forget – but I refuse to.
To start with, there’s the preparation - of course you could pop in to a shop but is that reallyan authentic picnic? Surely you only achieve the picnic zenith with something homemade. Fine. So you make all the food, but then how to transport it? Oh yes: the cumbersome, cracked plastic bucket with a lid that bangs against and bruises your leg as you carry it to your destination. Then there’s the blanket – it’s never big enough: cue grass rash, ants, Lyme disease-bearing ticks… Then the plague of wasps, and then the food that was so fresh and carefully prepared that turns into a soggy amalgam: the cake collapses, the sandwich filling slithers out, and the tarts are a sticky crumble.
Then, this perfect isolated hilltop is actually only isolated if you count the 1metre radius around you – the rest is thronged with 500 other picnic fantasists, drunk, or getting there fast, with rampaging children and screaming babies. And you desperately need the loo, but there isn’t one for miles, and the bushes are more patchy gauze than a full-on shield. The weather has changed since initial plans were made and suddenly you're drowned rats. You gather everything up to take away, but there’s more picnic paraphernalia that you originally took, and it doesn’t fit in the bag, so you’ve now become a picnic pack-mule. And you’re sticky with jam and crumbs and you’re wet and shivering and really just crave simple things that you took for granted: a table top, a chair and a roof over your head, and you ask yourself why you every thought it was a good idea when this happened the last time and the time before that. Until the next morning, when somehow the sticky, rainy, overpopulated picnic has converted into a sepia-tinted, wholesome, sunset mirage.
So really, why not just cut to the chase and make the best thing about the picnic: the cake, obviously. This the perfect non-picnic picnic cake. It’s light with a cloudy vanilla sponge, and laced with fresh cherries which burst in your mouth and whose astringency perfectly cut through the smooth rich vanilla-cream. I keep the cherries fresh and unadulterated so as to keep the cake not too sweet, with a hint of cherry jam just to counter too much acidity.
It’s really easy to make, fun to assemble and has a vintage, wholesome tea time allure - which is the only thing about picnics that compelled you in the first place, right? If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can take a slice and sit outside on your doorstep and that’s basically a picnic anyway.
340g unsalted butter, at room temperature
320g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 large eggs, at room temperature
300g plain flour
35g corn flour
4 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
5 tbsp milk
150g smooth cherry jam (or other fruit jam without large pieces of fruit)
2 tbsp water
600ml double cream
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
600g fresh cherries (stoned and sliced in half)
100g fresh cherries with stems for topping
3 x 21cm diameter round cake tins, greased with butter and dusted with flour.
1) Preheat oven to 180C. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar for a few minutes until pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and eggs, and beat together to combine – if it looks slightly separated/split, don’t worry.
2) Sieve the flour, corn flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl and fold the wet and dry ingredients together until just combined. Pour in the milk, and continue gently to fold together until the batter is smooth.
3) Divide batter equally between the cake tins and place in oven to bake for 20-25 minutes until golden, springy, and an inserted cake skewer comes out clean. Place on a rack to cool.
1) While the cake is cooling, in a mixer fitted with a whisk, or by hand, whisk together the double cream and vanilla bean paste until fluffy and somewhere between soft and stiff peaks. Set aside (preferably in a fridge).
2) Place jam and water in a pan on a low heat and stir together until the jam thins and becomes syrup-like. Remove from heat.
3) If the cakes have formed domes, use a sharp, serrated knife to slice the domes off to leave a flat surface, ensuring each cake has the same height.
4) Place the first layer, cut side up on the serving plate. Using a pastry brush, paint a layer of the cherry jam syrup to cover the exposed surface. Pour a third of the cream on to the cake, and smooth across the cake using the back of a spoon or a palette knife. Arrange half the cherry haves on top then place the next layer of layer cut side up on top. Repeat until you reach the top layer, and top the cream with the whole cherries, as per the photos.
5) Serve and devour (best eaten on day of baking although you can bake the cakes a day in advance and store them in an airtight container overnight).