I am not musical at all. I love music, but I can’t read it or produce it in any way. I can’t sing, or play an instrument, or keep time very well. I can’t even dance.
Yet, every Monday, you’ll find me at band practice.
When James and I first got together, I knew he had an unruly folk band. I’m still not totally sure how many people are in it – twelve? thirteen? – because people come and go, and it’s never really clear what everyone’s status is at a given moment. There are people on maternity and paternity leave. People get jobs that take them away from the band for a while, like being in other bands, or taking acting jobs, or working abroad. And that’s part of the joy of the band. You don’t quite know who is going to turn up to a rehearsal, but it’s always enough people to make some sort of music.
I fluttered around the periphery of the group for a little while, and then I starting going to the rehearsals. I initially thought my being there would be a bit pointless. What was the use in showing up when I couldn’t play a thing? But I just sort of… kept going. I sing along in the loud bits where hopefully no one can really hear me, and I mess around with the simplest percussion instruments, and I force huge amounts of food on everyone. I take photographs and videos at gigs and have people round for dinner and go to band parties. Mostly, I chat to people.
The band is a mongrel mash-up of members from completely different backgrounds. The age range spans about thirty years. Some people are trained classical musicians who have jumped from those hallowed heights into folk’s cushioning, beery embrace. Some people are self taught musicians who can’t read music but can play along with anything from Bellowhead to Beethoven to Björk by ear on five different instruments. Some people are scientists, some are actors. We have a counsellor and a software QA engineer, a publishing professional and a policeman.
Even though I’m not really ‘in’ the band, I am at least with the band. I’ll see and talk to people socially, outside of rehearsals. I’ve helped some of them move. They’re all invited to our wedding.
Less than two weeks ago, a band member gave birth to an absolutely beautiful baby girl. I am one of those incredibly annoying people who will coo over babies for hours until their parents gently prise them from my arms so that they can, you know, go home and get some sleep, so I have been ridiculously excited about this pregnancy and the imminent arrival of the baby for months. Tomorrow, I get to go and meet her for the first time.
Of course, I’m not going empty-handed. I asked if I could bake a cake, and the request came in for something summery, with peaches. I couldn’t quite find a recipe that I liked the look of enough to fit the bill, so I made up my own.
Notes: The core of this cake is similar to a Madeira cake, but with a higher proportion of almonds than you would normally find, and no lemon or other citrus because I wanted the peaches and raspberries to shine through. It’s essentially a cake for summer fruits, fairly light and very moist, and content to be the background for whatever delicacies you fancy – apricots, nectarines, plums, blueberries, strawberries…
If you fancy making this, please don’t skip the almond extract in the topping, because it’s really important to the flavour of this cake. I buy it at the local Sainsburys, so it shouldn’t be hard to get hold of.
for the cake
175g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
100g ground almonds
150g self-raising flour
2 large or 3 small/flat peaches, fairly ripe
100g raspberries – either fresh or frozen is fine
for the topping
150g full fat cream cheese
50g icing sugar
1 tsp almond extract
handful of toasted almond flakes
handful of freeze dried raspberries (not essential, but pretty)
- Preheat your oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas 4. Find your largest loaf tin (mine is 30cm x 15cm), and grease and line it with parchment paper. Beat your butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then gradually beat in your eggs, followed by the vanilla extract. Fold your almonds into the mixture, then sift your flour and salt together and fold that in too.
- Cut your peaches into fairly chunky slices, and pop them in another small bowl with your raspberries and around 1 tbsp of flour. Shake it all about a bit so the flour lightly coats the fruit (it will help to stop all the fruit sinking to the bottom of the cake). Fold the fruit into your cake mixture, then dollop the mixture into your prepared tin and smooth over the top. Pop it in the oven for 50-60 minutes, or until the cake is firm and golden and passes the skewer test. Let it cool for ten minutes, and then get it out the tin and let it cool completely.
- Make your topping. Beat the butter with an electric mixer until it’s soft, and then beat in the cream cheese. Sift the icing sugar into the mixture, fold it in roughly, and then beat it properly until the mixture is smooth. Add the almond extract and beat once more. When your cake is completely cool (absolutely and completely – I have learned this the hard way many times), spread the topping onto it, and sprinkle it the cake with your toasted almond flakes and freeze dried raspberries.