A taste of London’s River Café

For years, my mum has been meaning to take me to lunch at The River Café. It was April 2002 when she first suggested we go to this landmark London restaurant as my birthday treat (I was studying in Edinburgh at the time and she was over for a visit, so we met in London). Seven years later, I still haven’t had a birthday lunch at the River Café, or any sort of lunch. Other restaurants, other sights, other London ‘stuff’ always seems to get in the way.

She has, however, bought me a little cookbook from the River Café’s Pocket Book series – my sister got the one on vegetables and I, of course, got the one on puddings. I’m ashamed to say I’ve flipped through it several times, but never actually used it. Until yesterday!

You can find more recipes at barbara-luijckx.com

I had some plums from the farmer’s market that were limping day by day towards the compost bin, so I went looking for a way to use them up. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d find much to interest me in this book, which I had thought of as a rather dull-looking little thing with a few unappetizing photos peppering its pages (sorry, Mum!). So I was surprised when the recipes drew me in almost immediately, even without a pretty picture to back them up. (Really, what did I expect? I mean, it’s The River Café. Of course their recipes are going to be interesting!)

The plum cake recipe I chose was different than this one, which I made earlier in the summer; I would choose Dorie’s recipe for an everyday cake and the River Café’s for something a bit special. With a big dollop of thick double cream or creme fraiche, it would be a stunning cake for company. The slightly caramelized almond topping added an extra, fancy little element, but if you’re not wild about nuts or too much texture in a cake, it could easily be left out.

I was impressed enough by this cake that I’ll be going back to the previously ignored little cookbook it came from. So, there will certainly be more cakes from the River Café in my future – if I’m lucky there might even be a lunch one day, too!

Plum, Almond and Orange Cake
From The River Café Pocket Book: Puddings, Cakes & Ice Creams by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers

Plum filling:
500 g plums, stoned and halved
50 g sugar
juice and zest of one orange
1 vanilla pod, split

150 g unsalted butter
150 g sugar
2 eggs
85 g self raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
100 g almonds, finely ground

Almond topping:
30 g unsalted butter
25 g brown sugar
zest of one orange
50 g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 180C / 375F. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch (25cm) springform cake tin.

In an ovenproof roasting dish, combine the plums with the sugar, orange and vanilla. Bake for 20 minutes. Let the mixture cool, then scrape the vanilla seeds into the fruit and discard the pod.

Meanwhile, make the cake batter: In a small bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder and ground almonds. Set aside. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. With the stand mixer on low speed or by hand, add in the dry ingredients and fold in until just combined.

Spread the batter into the cake tin (it will be a thin layer). With a slotted spoon, spoon the plums out of their roasting juices and spread on top of the batter (if you wish, preserve the roasting juices to serve with the cake later. They’re delicious!). Bake in the centre of the oven at 180C / 350F for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cake is starting to firm up and brown at the edges but is still quite soft in the centre.

While the cake is baking, make the topping: melt the butter and stir in the sugar, zest and almonds. Scatter on top of the half-baked cake, lower the heat to 160C / 325F and return to the oven for around 20 minutes. The cake is ready when the sides are starting to pull away from the tin, the topping is golden brown and a thin knife inserted into the centre comes out almost clean.