My friend Tessa and I were having an on-line discussion about cake, as you do. She had just finished the mammoth task of baking (and was partway through the delicious task of eating) a Ten Layer Russian Burnt Honey Cake, with frosted layers of condensed milk and whipped cream topped with burnt caramel crumbs. For someone with a bakery-tooth like me, the photo of it was pure straight-from-the-oven porn.
Tessa was saying how lockdown led her to cake-making adventures, which ranged from buying miniature Bundt tins, to baking the ten layers of sweet-tooth bliss, and then inviting far-flung family and friends (some flung as far away as heaven), to assemble for taste testing. I love the idea of wishfully-thought guests having an imaginary kitchen tea party.
All this mouth-watering talk made me evaluate my own bake-my-way-out-of-a-crisis default setting, because when dire straits loom, I stock the freezer. Chocolate orange cake and banana bread, cheese scones, marmalade loaf and jam roly-poly. Knowing comforting fare is lurking among the frozen peas is sustenance in itself. When we got married I baked my wedding cake, and then I baked my wedding reception, with scones and clotted cream and jam, and enough cake to feed an army. Dainty canapes are SO not me. With all the emotion my wedding brought, following a recipe in the kitchen became my ten-step programme to calm. I regained my composure with the rhythmic ritual of beating air into eggs and sifting my flour.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, or maybe it’s just a woman thing untainted by race, but at the first sniff of crisis I head to the kitchen. Lockdown became bakedown, chemotherapy became cookotherapy and recuperation became recookeration. When I left my first marriage I took my horse, my cats, my collection of Victorian photograph albums and some (very mumsy) clothes that I never wore again. I later snuck back when I knew the house was empty and retrieved my baking tins. As far as I could recall, in fifteen years of marriage my then-husband had never baked a thing, but being pan-less left him distraught. More distraught than being wife-less. Another transgression to add to my unreasonable behaviour. And adultery. And cancer.
Cooking is for sharing, but baking is for giving. I once spent a pleasant hour with the psychotherapist exploring why I rarely bake for myself, and at the next session I took her a lemon drizzle cake. Cake currency is like that, it’s both a Please and a Thankyou, but most often it’s a Just Because. Baking a cake is never a chore, just like eating one is never unpleasant, because homemade cake has equal parts flour eggs sugar and fat, but most part love; it’s the love that gives them their rise, and sometimes their fall, but most of all their ability to please.
My kitchen is not gadgety, some would say it’s positively archaic. My pride-and-joy is an original seventies orange Kenwood mixer which belonged to the mother of a dear friend, and was an overwhelmingly generous birthday gift. The kitchen has a reclaimed white stone butler sink, floor-to-ceiling dresser which is original to the 1879 house, a scrub-top pine table bought for £10 in a junk shop in 1978, and an oil-fired Rayburn range cooker, which is an Aga’s poor relation. I have the joy of a walk-in larder with enough room for the fridge-freezer and microwave, and shelves to store drinking glasses and Tupperware. My kitchen doubles as craft space, sewing space, office space and cat refuge. It’s also provided warm refuge for poorly hens who needed a little TLC.
Despite the words in the manufacturer’s cookbook, the Rayburn does limit cake baking to more robust confections. It excels at puddings tarts and pies, fruit cakes and cookies are divine, but Swiss roll and light sponge cakes have a pudding-y demeanour which you either learn to love or stop baking them. The warming oven is perfect for overnight meringues. Macarons, and anything with a hint of patisserie are too precise for the rather pedestrian temperature gauge, and a southwesterly wind blowing down the chimney damps-down proceedings entirely.
My baking repertoire consists of Mark’s favourites, and childhood memories- not so much things my mother made, because she hated baking anything apart from flourless Plava cake at Passover, and Baked Alaska for a special dessert, but reminiscences of the shakily-iced efforts I conjured up in our blue-and-white kitchen with pet dogs Danny and Lulu sleeping under the table. Chocolate fairy cakes sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands, and buttercream filled butterfly cakes topped with pink jelly-tots. That kitchen had a walk-in larder too, and a proper Aga cooker. I loved Domestic Science classes at school, and still make pastry the way Mrs. Staunton taught us. I’ve never dared to see what happens if you flour the pastry instead of the board, it would be committing a cardinal sin.
I often dream of the gateaux I would create, and the things I could do with tempered chocolate if I had more workspace, or an oven that hadn’t been fitted without first levelling the floor; leaning cakes are my speciality. But it’s not eye-candy I’m after, it’s the comfort of a loving mouthful. Of giving something, feeding someone with the added gift of love. Although I have to confess, baking a ten-layer version of that gift is definitely food for thought . . .
P.S. who would you invite for your imaginary cake taste-testing party?