Snow Day Baking & My Lemon, Rose & Tonka Bean Madeira Cake

I rarely pay close attention to the weather. Having always lived in the North of England, I have come to accept the default weather condition of grey, colder than is preferable, and imminent rain. Certainly, expecting such conditions ensures that I am always prepared, and further escalates my enjoyment of the day when those rare glimpses of sunshine break through. However, although my weather stance is (productively) pessimistic, even I have been left flabbergasted, and admittedly frustrated, by this week’s spring time snow flurries. 

Fear not, I won’t dwell on the issue of snow for too long - it has already enveloped our recent lives both outdoors and on screens far too immensely - other than to contextualise my motivations for the recipe below, and indeed my other snow day inspired baking. Adventure eager and excitable school children aside, snow is predominantly unwelcome anytime other than Christmas. Its’ cold, wet and perpetual inconvenience has in this instance been transcended by utter chaos, panic (for a change warranted) and major disruption. If you sense a bitter tone I apologise, but it is relevant. Myself and partner had planned a little get away for this period, to a lovely idyllic pub setting in the Cotswolds, with cosy home cooked food, countryside rambles and even a spa day just for that extra bit of exuberance. Alas, it was not to be, and our suitcases were returned to storage as we watched the crisp, falling white engulf our car. As soon as was possible, we contacted the relevant parties to inform them of the unfortunate changes. The spa (Daylesford’s wonderful Bamford Haybarn Spa) were extremely empathetic, allowing us to rearrange without any quibbles. Our accommodation were not so kind, and in strict adherence to their 72 hour cancellation policy, offered us only a bill, with no option of reallocating a new date to our booking. Within the echo of the condescending tone of their reservations team, I couldn’t help but ponder the extremities of this policy. A change of heart perhaps warrants a charge, but a ‘national weather crisis’? (I use inverted commas here because I am conscious that the snow, albeit severe, does not warrant the extremity suggested by a ‘crisis’, though it has been portrayed by the media as such). And what if we had attempted the journey and incurred injury en route - would we have earned a discount for our efforts to honour the policy? Probably not. 

But so it was. Disheartened, disgruntled, and confined to the indoors - queue baking therapy. The first thing I did was scramble through my boxes, drawers and shelves for ingredients. My go too comfort bake is always a brownie; there is something so consoling in its simplicity; the rich aroma of melting butter and the enticing shine of liquid chocolate are remedy to any ill feeling. I love the safety of the process, the familiarity of folding the flour through the batter,  the smiling egg shell cracked surface of the finished bake. To add a little extra warmth to the brownie, I added toasted pecans and crisp banana chips, finishing with a spicy swirl of speculoos spread. We ate the brownies warm and melting, with extra thick double cream that we waded through almost ankle deep snow to pick up. (The supermarket turned the lights off around us as we searched, but we prevailed in our quest for dessert perfection). Spoons down and spirits lifted, I again found myself stricken by the ability of baking, and sharing said baking with loved ones, to restore and revive. 

The next day, still in the midst of the snow, I again took to the kitchen; this time with an alternate agenda. I am a big believer in seasonal baking, and as the first meteorological day of spring was upon us, I endeavoured to bake spring into existence, in my home at least. My family are very classic in their approach to food, preferring the simple and the rustic, moreover shunning anything with buttercream or even more formidable, an unidentified spice ensemble, especially if cinnamon is involved. Working within these confines, as well as the confines of my store cupboard, I decided upon a Madeira cake - butter rich sponge, zesty lemon and a crunchy sugar dusted top - nothing to dislike and everything to love. However, never one to be too conventional in my baking, I chose to incorporate some more exciting flavours. First up was my beloved tonka bean. I often describe tonka bean as a half way house between vanilla and almond; it has a sweet marzipan quality, and pairs brilliantly with citrus and tangy fruits such as raspberry. Next, I decided to add a little rose water, the subtle floral notes of which compliment the freshness of the lemon zest, allowing the light, sunshine-rich flavours of spring to leap free with every bite. If you don’t have these ingredients to hand, the cake is still divine without them, but if you are able (perhaps when the snow has thawed) I would implore you to try this twist on the classic Madeira. The citrus element is fundamental, but use whatever you have in, oranges or at a push limes will still work (essentially you are free to us whatever is your preferred G&T garnish!) I use golden caster sugar to add a caramel depth to the sponge, and importantly use granulated sugar for the sprinkle as it gives a satisfying bite. I list vanilla powder as an optional extra to cascade over with the granulated sugar, for a deep, sweet intensity and added intrigue. 

This recipe is, like brownies, simple and comforting to make. It is a classic recipe with a much needed spring time hit, that will succeed in lifting the sprits and tempting the appetites of all those around you. Moreover, the cake keeps very well when covered appropriately, so will see you though an unwanted and unexpected bout of snow if necessary - if it isn’t all eaten on the first day of course!

250g butter (soft)
200g golden caster sugar
Zest of 2 lemons (large, unwaxed)
1 tonka bean
Juice of 1 lemon
3 eggs (free range, organic)
1 tsp vanilla paste
2tsp rose water
220g self raising flour
80g plain flour
1/2tsp sea salt
2tbsp golden granulated sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla powder (optional)


  1. Grease and line a 900g loaf tin with butter & baking parchment. Set aside, and preheat the oven to 155c (fan)
  2. Dice the butter and place in the bowl of your stand mixer, ensure the mixer is fitted with a paddle attachment (if not using a stand mixer, a large bowl will work fine)
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the caster sugar and lemon zest. Into the same bowl, grate in the tonka bean using a microplane or fine grater. Whisk everything together vigorously until the sugar smells fragrant. Then tip the sugar into the bowl with the butter. Beat the butter and sugar together until light in colour and texture. Do this while you prepare the other ingredients. 
  4. In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs and stir in the vanilla paste and rose water; set aside.
  5. Weigh the flours and salt into a bowl (use the same one as you used for the sugar to save on washing up!) and whisk to omit any lumps. 
  6. Return to your butter and sugar - turn off the mixer and scrape down the side of the bowl with a spatula. Set the mixer to low, then add in the eggs a little at a time, using a little flour is needed to stop the mixture curdling. 
  7. When the eggs are combined, add the remaining flour and fold in gently.
  8. Finally, fold in the lemon juice, then transfer the mixture to the prepared loaf tin and smooth with a palette knife of the back of a teaspoon. 
  9. Sprinkle over the golden granulated sugar (the option here is the mix this with a touch of vanilla powder for a sweet & crunchy hit of vanilla when you eat the cake!) and place the loaf in the oven. 
  10. Bake for 55minutes - 1 hour until a cake tester comes out cleanly when inserted into the centre of the cake. 
  11. Allow to cool, then remove from the loaf tin. Cut generous slices or little pieces depending on your mood, and enjoy!
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