Having a whale of a time (and spiced apple cake recipe)

IMG_1297.jpgIt’s official – I am in love with humpback whales, and I think I am hooked for life.

Sorry about the prolonged absence, but we have just returned from the most fantastic holiday, the main focus of which was swimming with humpback whales in the Ha’apai group of islands in Tonga.
I  promise not to bore you utterly with too many photos, but you have to have one or two, just to get into the swing of things. Here’s one of my new friends, who came out to play with us:

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And here’s where we had to spend our time when we were not fraternising with 50-tonne sea mammals:

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Sandy Beach Resort, Foa Island, Ha’apai, Tonga

Getting to Foa Island* involved a very small plane – one where we had to be weighed and then allocated a seat where the weight of one’s bottom would hopefully not bring down the aircraft (you can just imagine Lyce Doucet reporting such an incident on the BBC : ‘Initial reports suggest that the sheer weight of the woman’s bottom in 8C is thought to have unbalanced the aircraft.’) It’s enough to give you nightmares. I hate flying and I particularly dislike small planes, but I would happily put up with it again, just to spend another week with the whales. When I was brave enough to look up, the view from the window was pretty cool too.

We stayed at a tiny resort called Sandy Beach Resort, which was hand-built by local people and where everything is designed to impact as little as possible on the environment. It is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever visited. The resort is set on the most gorgeous white sand beach, right next to the reef, so you can snorkel just a few steps from your front door and be mingling with parrot fish and stingrays within minutes of your arrival. The resort has just 12 bungalows, which are more than comfortable, and the small number of guests means that everyone actually talks to each other and it’s easy to make new friends (Boris’s coconut house cocktail helps with that too…)

We were fantastically fed by Heidi, one of the owners, and she has kindly given me a couple of our favourite recipes from our week there – I will share them with you when I have a chance to try them out. Every day, as well as providing the most delicious breakfast and dinner, she and her team made something different for our boat picnic – food always tastes good on a boat, but this was exceptional. Here’s EJ, our guide, caught in the act of finishing up the salad:

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Our journey home this week was a bit of a marathon, so things are by no means back to normal yet. I have crazy hair (again), so today involves a trip to John to have it tamed, so that means cake of course. I did a minor grocery shop yesterday, but I was having to rack my brains this morning to come up with something for which I had both the inclination and the ingredients.

I chanced upon an article in today’s Guardian for a Dorset apple cake, which reminded me of a cake I used to make back in the 1980s when I worked in a ski resort in the Alps. Cakes there generally had to be of a fairly substantial nature, as sponges don’t rise in the normal fashion at 2,000 metres – they rise spectacularly and then collapse into something that looks like one of those cushions you can get if you suffer from haemorrhoids .

The recipe I am giving you today has been a particular favourite for more than three decades. It has a crunchy top and a deliciously fudgy centre. It is a useful recipe to add to your repertoire, because you can mix and match the spices and fruit according to what you have on hand. You can use whichever spices you like (cardamom is nice for something a little more exotic), and you can make it with just apples (or pears) and miss out the sultanas – whatever you feel like on the day. The cake can be served warm, with cream or ice cream on the side, for a casual dessert, or cut into slices and served with a piece of tangy cheese for an afternoon pick-me-up (Cheddar or Wensleydale would be perfect, Turkish kaşar less so, unfortunately for us).

The cake is in the oven as we speak and it’s smelling delicious. Here’s the recipe:

Spiced apple cake

Cuts into 8 – 12 slices

150g very soft butter or margarine
150g brown sugar (I used Demerara), plus extra for sprinkling
150g wholemeal flour
75g plain white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
2 -3 eggs (mine were tiny, so I used 3, but 2 large ones are enough)
1 rounded tablespoon plain yoghurt (or you could use milk)
2 apples, peeled and diced
125g sultanas or raisins
100g walnuts, chopped

You will need a 21cm (or similar size) round cake tin, greased and base lined


Pre-heat the oven to 160C.

Whisk the butter or margarine with the sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs and yoghurt (or milk).

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Whisk again, then sift in the flour, baking powder and spices, then mix again until well combined.

Stir in the diced apples and the sultanas – the mixture should be quite stiff, so you might need to use a bit of elbow grease. Don’t be tempted to add more liquid, as the apples will give off a lot of juice and you don’t want your cake to end up with a soggy centre.

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Smooth the top with the back of a spoon, then scatter over the chopped walnuts and sprinkle generously with brown sugar. (Please note that my cake tin is, in fact, straight sided – it is just the angle of the photo that makes it look basin-shaped).

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Bake for one hour, 15 minutes. When the cake is ready, it will just very fractionally start to pull away from the sides of the tin. Leave to cool completely before turning out of the tin.

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*Our trip was arranged by Majestic Whale Encounters in Sydney, who take care of all arrangements including accommodation, internal flights, transfers and whale-swimming activities, as well as providing a resort-based representative throughout the season (July to October).

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