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Food writer Nicola Miller remembers the joy that now defunct Christmas catalogues gave her and gives us a delicious cake recipe to sweeten the loss





Back in 1984, in an assault on the Christmas charts, Captain Sensible released One Christmas Catalogue.

The video featured him in bed wearing a striped nightshirt and sleeping cap, billows of fake snow, checked slippers with foam soles just like my grandad wore, a mysterious hamster inside an old wooden chest and children pouring over catalogues packed with all the best Woolworths, Argos and Boots had to offer.

At its time of release, the track went unnoticed not just by me but by most of the record-buying public too.

Mocha and chocolate date bundt cake
Mocha and chocolate date bundt cake

I think it only reached number 70 in the charts.

Twenty-odd years after its release, Rhino Records included the track on a compilation CD titled Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Christmas, which I found in a charity shop not that long ago and that is how Captain Sensible ended up on my Christmas playlist.

“One Christmas catalogue too many,” he sings. I disagree. There’s no such thing. I feel this even more keenly now actual paper catalogues and seasonal pamphlets have been replaced by e-catalogues, which are as unsatisfactory as it gets when it comes to the building of anticipation.

Nothing can replace the thrill of circling everything you might want or drawing frantic felt-tip arrows pointing to the things you particularly covet. This is not a pleasure confined to childhood either (my copy of the latest Lakeland catalogue being a case in point).

I miss the wicker newspaper stand of my past, crammed to overflowing with circulars, pamphlets and catalogues, the thwack as the latest thick catalogue of dreams landed on our doormat, and the excitement when entering Boots to see their enormous Christmas catalogue had finally come out.

I mourn the Christmas pamphlets and ads from Thornton’s advertising the chocolate dates and coffee creams my grandmother adored. They no longer sell them.

Aged 17, I even had a Saturday job at Mander Walsh on Sudbury’s industrial estate stuffing envelopes with the Harrods food hamper catalogue which arrived in big metal cages. The warehouse was unheated, and we froze.

Paid piecework, I envied the deft fingers of the permanent staff that enabled them to earn a lot of money over a short period: “That’s the dining room table bought,” said one woman as she counted her stacks of stuffed envelopes.

Some catalogues I miss terribly: arriving from the USA every Christmas, the King Arthur Flour Company version opened my eyes to a world of baking that combined the practical attitude and precise methodology of its New England-based founders with the more sybaritic world of baking in general: I mooned over pages crammed with images of tiny bottles of Fiori Di Sicilia, orange oil, fat-bellied jars of cane syrup and wide, shallow jars of ‘cinnamon sweet bits’ that sounded like something you’d name a Bond Girl.

I coveted Swedish pearl sugar, Cozy Village, Swirl or Classic Fluted bundt pans from Nordic Ware, festive Springerle moulds, jars of fruit butter, and bottled Vermont Boiled Cider.

Proof that not all scones were round and plain like our British ones came via pages and pages of boxed scone mixes: a photo of their cranberry and orange flavour showed one giant circular scone cut into wedges.

The company even sold jars of ‘English-style’ clotted cream. Somewhere in the States were people who found Swedish pearl sugar and cane syrup commonplace and clotted cream exotic – the exact opposite of me!

The Williams Sonoma catalogue was where you shopped for utilitarian glamour and glamorous frippery.

Might I want to buy for someone a jar of rimming sugar, mug toppers in the shape of a cottage made from gingerbread, a T’was The Night Before Christmas Champagne Bucket, or a larding needle made from diamond-encrusted platinum (I might have made that last one up)?

Was I the kind of person who might need a pair of gloves specifically for the scrubbing of potatoes, a bundt tin in the shape of the Star of David or a neat gadget that makes your watermelon resemble a waterlily in full bloom when it is sliced?

For a short time, sitting with an opened catalogue on my lap with Clarence Carter’s ‘Back Door Santa playing softly in the background, I was. Today, the King Arthur Flour catalogue is only available online. California-based Williams Sonoma won’t allow British customers to browse online or order a paper catalogue unless they use a VPN. I despair of the world.

The old saying, “You must reach the consumer anywhere she wants to be”, no longer holds true.

Now I only have King Arthur Flour’s website and treasured copies of their old catalogues. Although Lakeland’s output helps to soothe my pain, I no longer measure out my life with mundane dreams of coffee spoons from Williams Sonoma.

Memories of Thornton’s coffee creams and chocolate dates will have to remain just that, doomed to forever be my favourite of all the Dearly Departed Chocolates.

But. . . browsing the King Arthur Flour website last May, I found a recipe for a mocha pound cake, and I remembered the chocolate dates my grandmother bought at Christmas and knew I had to combine them with coffee.

So here is my adaptation of King Arthur’s original cake ‘imaginatively’ re-christened as a Mocha and Chocolate Date Bundt Cake. For now, it will have to do.

MOCHA AND CHOCOLATE DATE BUNDT CAKE

Ingredients:

120g soft Medjool dates, chopped

200g unsalted soft butter and a little extra to grease your pans

300g plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon bicarb of soda

½ teaspoon salt

100g dark chocolate chopped

45g Dutch process cocoa powder

10g espresso powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

160ml buttermilk

200g dark brown soft sugar

200g light brown soft sugar + ½ teaspoon extra to dust the inside of your tin

3 medium free-range eggs

For the ganache topping:

150ml double cream

70g fridge-cold dark chocolate coarsely grated + three more squares for decoration

Method:

Heat the oven to 170°C/fan150°C/gas 3.5.

Butter the inside of a 2.4L bundt tin generously, making sure you reach every nook and cranny. Toss in a little soft brown sugar and shake the tin, so it coats its insides. This tip came from Nik Sharma, the American bundt cake master, who says it creates a lovely crackly glaze on the outside of the cake. He’s right; it does.

Halve the dates, remove the stones and chop finely. Evenly arrange the dates along the tin base. I use a circular bundt to arrange the dates to crown the top of my cake when it is removed from its tin.

Set a small bowl of water to heat over a pan of water.

Place the flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt into a bowl, and mix to incorporate.

Add the roughly-chopped chocolate to your small bowl set over a pan of simmering water and stir the chocolate slowly over very low heat until it is glossy. Remove from the heat and stir in the espresso powder and cocoa powder.

Add the vanilla, boiling water and buttermilk, mix and stir until thick and smooth.

Take a large bowl (I use my mixer for this stage) and cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time and whisk well. Pour in your chocolate mixture and mix until it is just combined.

Add the flour mix and fold in with a metal spoon until flour is well incorporated but don’t fold too vigorously, or you’ll over-develop the gluten in the flour, and your cake won’t be as fluffy.

Use a flat spatula to drop the cake mix into your bundt tin and give the tin a good few whacks on the counter to ensure the mixture has settled into all its nooks and crannies.

Bake for 45-50 mins, but test after 40 minutes using a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake. If it comes out clean, your cake is done.

Leave your cake in its tin for 15 minutes to cool, then turn it onto a wire rack and cool it completely. Don’t worry if some dates stick to the pan after you upend the cake. Just pop the dates onto the top of the cake; it won’t matter because you will drown the whole thing in chocolate ganache anyway.

To make the ganache, heat the cream over low heat in a small saucepan until it begins to simmer, then remove from the heat and stir in the chopped chocolate. Stir as the chocolate melts until it is smooth. Grating your chocolate helps you get a more even melt. When your ganache is smooth and glossy, pour it over the cake and grate a little more chocolate over its top.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022