Returning to New Zealand in my 20s, after a couple of years backpacking the globe, I got a job as a microwave consultant. No one could believe it, let alone me. My sole experience with microwaves was limited to working in a pub in England, where every day a man would come in and ask for a cornish pasty and a beer for his lunch. The pasties were kept in the freezer and our instructions were to microwave them for 1 minute to heat them through. I always popped the pasty back in for a bit longer, hoping it might come out a bit less anaemic. It didn't. About three days into serving up my microwaved pasties to this bloke, he shoved his plate in my face so I could see the black carbonated centre. "If you ever burn them again I'm going to report you to management," he hissed, throwing the plate down on the counter and walking out.
When I landed the microwave job back in New Zealand, I was none the wiser as to how microwaves actually worked. My new employers handed me a huge box with a shiny new microwave machine in it and sent me off. No lessons, no explanations. I went to my sister's house out at Scorching Bay, unpacked the box and made a carrot cake. After 10 minutes the cake had risen but was deathly pale, so I put it on for another 10 minutes and then another and another. When I finally took the cake out 50 minutes later it still looked pale and unappetising and I found myself wondering why people might want a machine like this. Taking the cake out of the tin, I realised that I had, in effect, constructed a new building material - my cake was as hard as concrete.
I was reminded of this cooking disaster the other day when we were filming some online cooking clips with Toni Street, Niva Retimanu and Sam Wallace. The soundie on our shoot came up and said, "You probably won't remember me, but many years ago we worked on a shoot together. You turned up with a generator and a trestle table and a wagonload of microwaves to cater a short film."
It all came back. I had moonlighted from my microwave job to cater this shoot - my first ever catering job - and from its success I set up my own little catering business, which I called Hot on the Spot.
I don't think I've microwaved a cake since that disastrous day at the beach. When it comes to cakes I find it hard to go past my Miracle Cake - a brilliant base recipe that you can turn into a multitude of different cakes that are all light, tender and moist. And there's no microwave involved.
Ready in 1½ hours
Makes 1 medium cake
150g butter, at room temperature
1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of ½ an orange or lemon, finely grated
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ cup milk combined with ½ tsp baking soda
Preheat oven to 160C fanbake. Grease the sides of a 22cm or 23cm springform cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Beat together ricotta, butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then vanilla and orange or lemon zest. Mix in flour, baking powder and milk mixture until evenly combined. Spoon into prepared tin and smooth the top. Bake until the cake rises, is golden, set and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (about 1¼ hours). Allow to cool fully in the tin before turning out. Store in a sealed container in a cool place for up to a week.
Annabel says: In baking, the process of beating butter and sugar together is known as creaming, and it is used to deliver lightness to your cake mixtures, as the butter softens and warms and fluffs up with the sugar trapping in the air. I add the ricotta in here as well as it assists in holding air to make the cake nice and light. If you don't have ricotta you can use cottage cheese instead, but you'll need to drain off any liquid first then break up the lumps by beating the cottage cheese by itself before adding the butter and sugar. When you add the eggs the mixture sometimes curdles but don't worry about this, it doesn't affect the end texture of the cake. You could also add 1½ cups chocolate chips or 1½ cups chopped dried fruit, such as cranberries, to the base mix.
Chia Chocolate Miracle Cake
Ready in 1¾ hours + chilling
Makes 1 medium cake
¼ cup chia seeds
¼ cup cocoa
½ cup boiling water
1 recipe uncooked Miracle Cake batter (see above), made with orange zest
1 cup chocolate chips
2 cups cream
500g good-quality dark chocolate, in small pieces
Preheat oven to 150C fanbake. Grease the sides of a 22cm or 23cm springform cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Stir together chia seeds, cocoa and boiling water in a bowl until cocoa has dissolved, then set aside to cool and thicken. Stir into uncooked Miracle Cake batter with chocolate chips until evenly combined. Spoon into prepared tin and smooth the top. Bake until the cake is risen, set and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (1¼-1½ hours). The top will crack a little, like a pound cake does. Allow to cool fully in the tin before turning out. To make ganache, heat the cream in a small pot until almost boiling. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Stand for 2 minutes, then whisk until the chocolate is fully melted (when you start to stir it you think it won't come together, but it will). Chill for 30 minutes until firm. Split the cake in half horizontally and sandwich half the ganache in the centre. Spread the other half over the top and sides of the cake. Store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week.
Annabel says: Adding chia seeds to any kind of cake keeps it extra moist (and also adds protein, should you need to justify your treat!).
Ready in 1 hour
Makes about 36 pieces
½ cup raw sugar
200g white chocolate chips or chocolate, chopped
1 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1 recipe uncooked Miracle Cake batter (see above), made with lemon zest
Preheat oven to 160C fanbake. Lightly grease a shallow 30cm x 24cm slice tin or oven tray and line with baking paper. Mix sugar, chocolate chips and nuts into uncooked cake batter to evenly combine. Spoon into prepared tin and smooth the top. Bake until set and lightly golden (40-45 minutes). Allow to cool fully in the tin before slicing into squares or bars. Store in a sealed container in a cool place for up to a week. They are also nice chilled.
Annabel says: I add some more sugar and white chocolate to the base Miracle Cake mixture for a fudgy brownie-style texture, along with some macadamias for a nice crunch.
For more clever and adaptable recipes see Annabel's new book, Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65), a beautiful compendium of more than 650 of her best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.