I was born by the sea, and grew up by the sea. I am from South Shields, a small coastal town in between Newcastle and Sunderland, that sits at the mouth of the Tyne, with a coastline of pigeon-grey cliffs. If you are born in South Shields, you’re not a Geordie, or a Mackem: you’re something different, all of its own: you are a Sand Dancer. I am a sand dancer. I am a beach baby. There is salt and vinegar in my blood. Lighthouses make my heart soar. My spirits can be revived by a single pickled egg.
I am, without a shadow of a doubt, happiest by the sea. Sometimes I think it is the only place I can ever truly by calm. It gives me an equilibrium I lose in the city. So whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed, or restless, or miserable without merit, I run away to sea. I think sometimes when I feel homesick, what I am really homesick for is the sea. And not the sea of the South, but the fearsome, blustery, cold unforgiving seas of my childhood. Beaches that will buffet you, that will make your mascara run, that are bookended by cafes with formica tables and metal teapots.
When I travel home to South Shields, I don’t take the train that chugs across the Tyne Bridge, traditionally the Northerner’s heart-stopping glimpse of Newcastle. Instead, I take the train that speeds along the coast, that shows me the sea. And then I know I am home.
I feel fiercely possessive of the sea, I catch myself thinking it is mine alone, a secret that only I can share with others should I so choose, furiously resenting those who get to see the sea when I cannot. I didn’t fall in love by the sea, because that happened in tiny increments, almost imperceptibly, in supermarket aisles and at bus stops, playing cards, and standing over hobs. But it was at the seaside where I realised, suddenly, all at once, that I had fallen in love. It is perhaps only there where I could have realised something like that. The only place I could stop the ticker tape of nonsense and fret that streams across my mind, and just be.
So last year, after a particularly trying time, I wrapped up this cake, and I ran away to sea. I took my ugliest and warmest jumpers and a Breton cake, and drove to Whitby. It was cold and bright, and the tiny cottage we stayed in stood so close to the beach, that when the tide came in, it was like sitting on the sea. And for a short time, I didn’t feel fretful.
But sometimes I can’t escape to the sea. I can’t run away. Life gets in the way, as it has a tendency to do, and I find myself mired in commutes and commitments and landlocked in London. So when I feel homesick for the sea, I bake this cake.
This cake was born by the sea too. Different sea, different country, but I like to imagine we nevertheless have a common bond. It comes from Brittany, which is bordered by the English Channel to the north, the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Bay of Biscay to the south. It is a Breton cake, properly a gateau, although not what we tend to think of as a gateau. It hangs somewhere between a cake and a biscuit. It’s not quite a shortbread, not quite a sponge. It is impossibly rich, with six whole egg yolks mixed into it, but so much the better for it. It is glazed and scored before baking so that it forms clean, pleasing diamonds as it cooks.
Brittany was where we would, almost without fail, go on family holidays when we were little. It is really where I learnt that food existed beyond my own small experience. Where I wrestled with pots of mussels bigger than me. Where I discovered that prawns could not only be eaten outside of a cocktail garnished with fridge-cold iceberg lettuce, but that they came armoured, in such a way that small, methodical hands could liberate them. Where I drank huge glasses of sirop, and small illicit sips of Pernod, and pretended to like them equally. Where I ate apples baked almost whole, volcanically hot inside sweet, steaming pastry, sold on the street. And this cake, of course.
It is an incredibly simple cake to bake: the hands-on time is almost negligible, and it is virtually impossible to muck up (I once accidentally grilled mine for the first twenty minutes when using an unfamiliar oven, and it was still completely delicious). But perhaps most importantly, it is eminently transportable. It is, as it should be, a cake you can wrap up in waxed paper, and take to the sea. You can put it in your running away bag.
I know it feels decadent using a whole box of egg yolks, but egg whites freeze well, so pop them in a sealed container and freeze them if you can (I have an egg white post coming up soon so keep your eyes peeled).
It goes like this:
Run Away to Sea Breton Cake
Makes: 12 portions
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour
225g plain flour
250g caster sugar
250g salted butter
6 large egg yolks
Preheat your oven to 190°C. Line a 20cm springform tin with a circle of greaseproof paper. Grease the walls of the tin with a little bit of butter.
Separate the egg yolks from the eggs (if you do this with your hands, it’s messier, but you’re less likely to break the yolk with a bit of shell). Take a teaspoon of the yolks and put in a small cup with a tablespoon of water.
Place the flour and sugar into a large bowl and mix together. Cut the butter into cubes and rub through the flour and sugar until it resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the egg yolks to the flour-sugar-butter mixture and stir together to form a dough.
Press the dough into the lined tin. It may be difficult to handle, but if you have slightly damp hands, it’s much easier.
Brush the top of the gateau with the egg yolk and water glaze. Using your best knife, score the surface of the gateau.
Bake at 190 degrees for twenty minutes, then turn the oven down to 170 degrees and cook for a further forty minutes, by which time it should be firm and golden. If it starts to look too dark, you may want to cover the tin with foil for the last part of the cooking time.
Allow to cool completely before you release it from the tin.
Icing on the Cake: I serve this cake in slender, elegant isosceles triangles (until no one is in the kitchen, and then I carve out fat equilateral triangles).
If you cannot run away to sea just now, this goes particularly well with a cup of strong coffee and a stoical smile.