Why Jane Asher still likes to get naughty in the kitchen
With a wicked glint in her eyes, Jane Asher is recalling a recipe from her first baking book. The novelty cake, made for a friend's 40th birthday, was adorned with 40 naked ladies made of flesh-coloured icing, "because he was a bit of a ladies' man".
The naughty concoction, from the 1982 book Jane Asher's Party Cakes, is still a popular order at the actress and writer's cake shop in Chelsea, West London.
"I mean sex and food – you can't get better than that," says the red-headed star, looking chic in a fitted shift dress. "And now, of course, we do every combination – men, women, different nationalities, bondage. My initial one looks so innocent now, these misshapen little ladies."
All this talk of nudity and bondage comes as a bit of surprise, given Asher's wholesome image.
But as the 68-year-old, who began acting aged five (in the 1952 film Mandy) and had a high-profile romance with Beatle Paul McCartney in the Sixties, points out: "I've been around for so long, there isn't much I haven't seen.
"An image will float to the surface, it will never be what you're like, of course," she adds of her clean-cut reputation. "But you could do a lot worse."
Asher's cake business began as a hobby when her three children were small. More books followed after the success of her first, as did collaborations with stores such as Debenhams and Matalan.
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Asher's latest venture is a bakeware range with bargain chain Poundland, selling pastel-coloured kitchen essentials, including mini-scales and whisks for £1 a piece.
"It's lovely to think that for less than a fiver, people can buy a couple of cake tins, and a mixing bowl," says the down-to-earth star, snatching bites from a shop-bought sandwich during a busy day launching the range.
"Life's too short to live in the kitchen all the time, but it is a great joy.
"And for a child, making gingerbread men or cupcakes is a way into cookery."
On top of running the cake business and appearing on stage and screen, Asher still finds time to bake, often with her four step-grandchildren.
"Very often I'll bake on a Sunday morning and put on the Archers," she says.
"There's something about making a cake that makes you feel good. It is a sort of iconic object. Without being pretentious about it, there aren't many foods you stick candles in, sing around and divide up."
Her husband of more than three decades, the Sunday Times cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, also helps out in the kitchen.
"He's great. He does a lot of the shopping, particularly when I'm on tour," says Asher, who recently completed a stint in a stage adaptation of the Penelope Lively novel Moon Tiger.
"I tend to cook it. He'll stick a leg of lamb in the oven, or a chicken ... If you're a genius [like him], you don't have to cook as well!"
The glamorous star is approaching septuagenarian status, but she isn't planning to slow down.
"I'd hate to retire from acting. I'd love to die on stage, or at least in the wings, preferably," she confesses.
"I don't feel like it's work. It's just living, really."
Here are three delicious recipes for you to try at home from her new Poundland book, Beautiful Baking.
Beautiful Baking by Jane Asher, Simon & Schuster, is on sale now for just £1 at Poundland stores
Soaked lemon cake
175g spreadable butter
175g caster sugar
3 medium eggs, lightly beaten
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon and the juice of 2 (about 3 tbsp)
175g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
50g granulated sugar
For the drizzle:
50g sieved icing sugar
A little lemon juice
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/165C fan. Line the bottom and sides of a 900g (21 x 10 x 6cm) loaf tin with baking parchment or a liner, to come a couple of centimetres above the top edge.
Cream the butter and caster sugar together, beating well until really pale and fluffy.
Add the eggs little by little, beating well all the time.
Add the grated lemon zest, then gently fold in the flour and salt.
Stir in the milk, then turn the mixture into the prepared loaf tin.
Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until springy to the touch and a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Remove from the oven but leave in the tin.
Put the granulated sugar and lemon juice into a small pan and bring it to the boil, stirring all the time as the sugar dissolves. Boil strongly for about half a minute. Make several holes in the cake with a skewer, going right to the bottom of the tin. Pour the hot syrup all over the cake, letting it seep into the holes. Leave to cool.
Carefully lift the cake from the tin, by holding the edges of the paper or silicon. Gently peel away the paper or liner.
Add the lemon juice little by little to the icing sugar, beating well, until it's of pouring consistency but not too runny. Drizzle over the top of the cake and let it run down the sides.
Chocolate fridge cake
(Makes nine or 16 servings, depending on size)
350g dark chocolate drops
2 tbsp golden syrup
450g cake crumbs (any leftovers, even stale, will do)
4 tbsp brandy
225g crushed digestive biscuits
50g glace cherries
Icing sugar, to serve
Grease and line an 8-inch square or rectangular tray bake tin.
Put the chocolate, butter and golden syrup into a large, heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally until all is melted together (or melt it in the microwave).
Take the pan off the heat and stir in all the other ingredients.
Turn the mix into the prepared tin and chill until set (about two to three hours). Cut into nine or 16 squares, then dust the tops with sieved icing sugar.
Devil's food cake
(Makes 12-14 slices)
250g light soft brown sugar
75g spreadable butter
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
175g plain flour
75g dark chocolate drops
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the butter icing:
50g spreadable butter
100g icing sugar, sieved
For the chocolate frosting:
125g dark chocolate chips
300g icing sugar, sieved
1-2 tbsp hot water
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
50g butter, melted
Pre-heat the oven to 175C/160C fan. Prepare two 8-inch sandwich tins.
Cream the butter and sugar together and beat well. This will have a strange texture – not pale and fluffy like usual creaming – because of the high proportion of sugar to butter.
Add the egg, little by little, beating well all the time. Stir in the flour, very gently, bit by bit (or use the pulse setting on the mixer, and add the flour through the feed tube in spoonfuls). Stir the bicarbonate into the milk, then add it to the cake mix, stirring all the time.
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over hot water or in the microwave (this takes about two to two-and-a-half minutes on full power). Let it cool a little, then stir gently into the cake mix.
Turn the mix into the sandwich tins, dividing it evenly, and smooth the tops. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are springy or a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Allow to cool for a couple of minutes in the tins, then turn out on to a rack to cool completely.
To make the butter icing, put the 50g of butter and 100g of sieved icing sugar into a mixing bowl and beat together. Add a few drops of warm water to soften it if necessary, and keep beating until the mixture gets really light and fluffy.
To make the chocolate frosting, melt the 125g of chocolate in a bowl over hot water, or in the microwave. Stir in the 300g of icing sugar with a little hot water. This will be tricky and the texture will become very granular, but keep going until it's nearly mixed in, then, using an electric mixer if possible, gradually beat in the egg yolk and butter, adding a little more hot water as necessary, to reach a smooth, spreadable consistency.
Sandwich the cakes together with butter icing, then spread the entire cake with chocolate frosting.