‘Talking About Cakes’ by Margaret Bages


I just love rummaging around in vintage and charity shops. You never know what you’ll come across. Often, I find nothing at all but occasionally I unearth a treasure of no particular interest to anyone else. During a recent trawl through random books in a West Cork shop, I came across what for me is a little gem. A cookbook entitled ‘Talking About cakes with an Irish and Scottish Accent’ by Margaret Bates.

When I went to pay, the sweet lady at the till quipped… “Thought you’d have enough baking cookbooks by now”!

From what I understand, Margaret Bates was vice principal of the Belfast College of Domestic Science in the 1960’s and author of the Belfast Cookbook, ‘Talking About Puddings’ and ‘Talking About Cakes’. The latter is definitely one of my all-time favourite baking books, I owned a paperback copy in the 1970’s which somehow, I managed to mislay. It was chock-a-block with brilliant recipes. Every recipe was tested and retested, over and over again until Margaret was happy that she had perfected the very best version of each for her students and readers. 

I bought this preloved, hardback copy, published in 1964. (Is this a first edition?) for the princely sum of €2.00 – how about that for a bargain!

Every recipe calls for margarine but as you know I don’t do marge so I’ve substituted butter for margarine in every recipe. 

Despite my best efforts, a deep dive into Google yielded little information about Margaret, perhaps some readers may be able to share some further details. Somehow, I understood that she also taught at Atholl Crescent in Edinburgh, but I haven’t been able to verify that.

The book looks really dated and old-fashioned, but don’t jump to conclusions, so many of the recipes are unusual and contemporary, delicious combinations of texture and flavour. 

Margaret has no less than 10 riffs on “good scone recipes” including coconut scones, dates scones, ginger and walnuts scones, Montréal scones…

There is a whole chapter on coffee cakes, another on favourite chocolate cakes and yet another on ginger confections.

The art of making a feather light sponge and super tender Victoria and Genoese sponges with lots of tips on “how to dress them up” deliciously.

She is fairly flaithiúlach with the bottle of sherry and rum and appears to love caraway seeds, which I hated as a child, but absolutely love now. 

There are cakes for the store cupboard and featherlight pastries and curiosities like conversation cakes – “troublesome to make but delicious “, Scots current bun, continues, English, rout biscuits, with five variations, Pitcaithley bannock, rich slim cakes… 

 Keep an eye out for the little paperback, ‘Talking about Cakes’, you may be able to find a copy on eBay. If you love baking, it’s really worth seeking out.

All recipes are taken from ‘Talking About Cakes – with an Irish and Scottish Accent’ by Margaret Bates

A Strawberry Meringue Cake

Strawberry meringue cake is equally at home on the tea-table or as a luscious pudding for a special occasion.  It is unusual in that a thin layer of cake mixture is baked with a covering of meringue and you might well imagine that this arrangement would not really be feasible.  In fact, it works very well, the result having a good eating quality as well as looking most attractive. Two of these are sandwiched together with a generous mixture of strawberries and whipped cream and, while any fruit might be used, one with a sharp flavour is best.


50g butter 

110g caster sugar 

4 egg yolks

110g flour

a little vanilla extract 

1 tsp baking powder 

5 tbsp milk 


4 egg whites

225g sugar 

2 tbsp flaked almonds


1 punnet strawberries 

225ml cream 

sugar if necessary  

Line the bottom of two 23cm cake tins with circles of greased paper.

To make the cake.

Cream the butter and the sugar together in a bowl and when light, beat in the egg yolks adding one at a time.  Then add the flour, vanilla extract, baking powder alternately with the milk. 

Divide this mixture between the two tins and spread evenly.

To make the meringue.

In the bowl of a food mixer, add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and whisk until stiff.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Divide between the two cake tins and swirl attractively.  Sprinkle one cake with the flaked almonds.  Bake in a moderate oven at 180°C/gas mark 4 for approximately 45 minutes.   

When cold, sandwich generously with a mixture of fruit and whipped cream.  The cake sprinkled with almonds should be uppermost.

Chocolate Log Cake

2 eggs 

pinch of salt 

75g caster sugar 

50g flour 

1/2 tsp baking powder

2 tbsp milk 

40g cocoa 

a few drops of vanilla extract 

Chocolate Butter Icing 

110g butter 

175g icing sugar 

50g melted chocolate 

a few drops of vanilla extract 

Separate the whites from the yolks.  Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and whisk until stiff.  Then gradually beat in the sugar and yolks adding each alternately and beating well between each addition. Continue to beat until the mixture is light and thick.  

Sift the flour and baking powder onto the eggs and fold it in.  Gently fold in the cocoa, milk and vanilla extract.  Spread into a lined and greased Swiss-roll tin and bake in a hot oven 230°C/gas mark 8 for approximately 8-10 minutes.  Turn out onto a piece of baking paper lightly dusted with caster sugar and roll up without any filling.  Leave for a few minutes then carefully unroll. 

To Finish.

First make the chocolate butter icing.

Melt the chocolate over a bowl of simmering water and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes.  Cream the butter in a bowl.  Add in the sieved icing sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  When cool, fold in the melted chocolate and vanilla extract.

Spread over the cake when quite cold and roll up once more.  Dust off any surplus flour.  Then cover the cake with the remainder of the icing, creating some peaks to simulate the bark.  Trim the ends.  If wished, a diagonal wedge may be cut from one end of the cake before it is iced.  This piece can be placed at the side of the roll to gauge an even more realistic appearance. 

Sherry Cake


2 eggs 

75g sugar

75g flour 

a pinch of salt 


1 1/2 egg whites 

75g ground almonds 

110g caster sugar 

a little almond extract


75g butter 

110g icing sugar 

2 tbsp sweet sherry (Harvey’s)

2-3 tbsp sherry to soak the cake plus chopped pistachio nuts and silver balls to decorate it 

one x 20.5cm square tin

Make the sponge.

Beat the eggs and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy.  Sieve the dry ingredients together and fold into the egg mixture. Pop into the cake tin and bake at 200°C/gas mark 6 for 15-20 minutes until golden and shrinking away from the sides of the tin.

To make the macaroons.

Whip the egg whites until stiff and then fold in the sugar, ground almonds and extract.  Spread the mixture on a baking tray lined with oiled parchment paper.  Use a wet palette knife for this purpose and spread to approx. 5mm in thickness measuring 25cm x 25cm.  The area of the macaroon mixture should be greater than the cake, to allow trimmingsto crush for the outside.

Bake the macaroon in a moderate oven at 180°C/gas mark 4 and when set and golden, remove from the oven and cut a piece the exact size of the cake.  Crumble the trimmings with the fingers and return to the oven.  Dry until quite crisp, then crush with a rolling pin. 

Make the icing by creaming the butter until light and then gradually beating in the sieved icing sugar together with the sherry, adding a little at a time, since it is likely to cuddle the mixture.

Put a generous spreading of the icing on the portion of macaroon and sandwich with the cake – the piece of macaroon makes the base of the sherry cake.

Next soak the sponge with sherry, being as generous as possible, without making the cake sodden.

Spread the icing on the sides of the cake and roll it, as you work, in the crushed macaroon.  Finally, spread the top of the cake with icing and cover, like the sides with macaroon.

Decorate simple with a sprinkling of chopped pistachio nuts and silver balls.

Ginger Crowns 

These little cakes are particularly delicious to eat and consist of a combination of marzipan and finely chopped ginger.  They are finished somewhat after the shape of a crown and the centre is iced with a ginger-flavoured water icing.  If this seems too laboursome, use the same basic mixture and simplify the shape as you please.

50g ground almonds 

50g caster sugar 

1 tbsp finely chopped preserved ginger 

1-2 egg yolks 

a little syrup from the jar of ginger 


2 tbsp icing sugar 

1 tsp ginger syrup 

a little boiling water 


small pieces of preserved ginger 

Put the ground almonds, caster sugar and chopped ginger in a bowl.  Stir in the ginger syrup and mix to a stiff paste with the egg yolks.

Divide the mixture roughly in half and, from one piece, shape small balls like marbles.  Roll the other piece out thinly and cut into strips, the width being a little greater than the diameter of the ball of mixture – one side of this strip should be cut with a fluted edge if possible.  Wrap these around the little balls in such a way as to make miniature ‘crowns’.

These are best left overnight before baking, then brown quickly by placing in a hot oven at 220°C/gas mark 7 for 5-10 minutes until golden brown.  Lastly fill the centre of each crown with a little ginger-flavoured icing and decorate with a small piece of ginger. 

Deep River Chocolate Fingers

A friend who lives in Deep River, Ontario, sent me this excellent recipe for chocolate fingers, hence its curious name.

Base Mixture

150g plain sweet biscuits 

110g butter

40g caster sugar

3 tbsp cocoa 

1 beaten egg 

1 tsp vanilla extract 

50g coconut 

50g chopped walnut

Middle Mixture

50g butter

175g icing sugar

2 tbsp custard powder

5 tbsp hot water 


110g chocolate

50g butter 

To make the base mixture.

Begin by crushing the biscuits with a rolling pin, then put the butter, sugar and cocoa in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until smooth.  Stir in the egg and vanilla extract.  Remove from the heat and add the crushed biscuits, coconut and chopped walnuts.  Press the mixture into a greased Swiss-roll tin and put in a cool place to set.

When firm, prepare the middle mixture.

Cream the butter and gradually work in the icing sugar, custard powder and hot water.  Spread smoothly over the base mixture.  Again, leave aside in a cool place to firm.

Lastly,  prepare the top mixture.

Melt the chocolate and the butter together in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water ensuring the bowl does not touch the water.  Spread like an icing on top of the cream mixture.  When firm, cut into finger pieces.

Peanut Biscuits 

Especially for those who enjoy peanuts.

110g butter 

110g sugar 

1 egg 

150g peanuts

150g oat flakes

60g flour 

1/2 tsp baking powder 

a pinch of baking soda

a pinch of salt 

Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl and gradually beat in the lightly whisked egg, the roughly chopped nuts and the dry ingredients.  Put small spoonfuls of the mixture on a greased tray.  Flatten with a fork, making a criss-cross mark and bake at 190°C/gas mark 5 for approximately 20-30 minutes.  Remove from the tray and cool on a wire rack.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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