A bit of this, a pinch of that, a glug of this and a dollop of whatever comes to hand. A recipe that is made up on the spot with very little understanding, but applying to it, a little love, care and attention. This is where I would self teach and set myself on a platform that would teach me to persist and where the old time fashioned phrase of, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again, but well before I would understand any of this my first ever cake that was made with no exact measurements was taken from the oven and it was terrible. If you can tick every possible thing that can go wrong with a sponge this ticked all the boxes.
I’m not sure how old I was when I set myself to task to bake my first cake on my own. This is not to be confused with baking with my mother. To be honest the only times I can remember cooking with my mother was when we made shortbread and home-made pizzas, I think the four of us were all involved and we’re all allowed to choose our own toppings. This made it more fun and kept each of us happy. So what was it going to be, bearing in mind that if we ever had pizza I would have only eaten it if the topping was scraped off so all that remained was a smiging of tomato sauce. I think it was this also led to the creation of the toasty with no filling, just lightly buttered on the outside and empty in the middle. So with decision made, my pizza was going to be topped with sliced banana. With everyone’s pizzas ready all that was left was to fight for oven space. Delicious, it was, though the base if I remember was a little to thick but still light with the little air pockets you would expect from a descent dough. Even though there are not many memories of cooking with my mother there are plenty of her cooking for the family and as doubly important for me was the baking she used to do.
Now if this blog is about honest food, I feel I must be as honest as I can. It was some years ago that my mother took night classes in baking. Perhaps she wanted to take things to the next level, but from what I know, all she had made to date was from being self taught. Now even though I have had the privilege to have been involved in organising night classes for gourmet cookery in the past, it certainly did bring those who attended, not just some extra knowledge, but it gave people the opportunity to be out of the house for an evening, meet new people and have some fun at the same time. From what I can remember my mother was working on a birthday cake for me. I can’t remember if I had asked for it or was it a present surprise. At the time of my musical career that changed after one previous guitar lesson, my mother came home with a cake in the shape of a piano and it looked brilliant. The only thing was, once it was cut up for all of us to get a slice, I couldn’t like it. I’m not sure exactly why but all I can remember is that the a lemon flavouring took prominence. I ate as much as I could , but the rest ended up in the little that remained of the fire that burned in the stove. To be honest I think the fire had pretty much burned out and I’m not sure if any evidence was ever found. I have only ever told my wife this story and have carried this guilt around for to long but what brings comfort to me is that mam took a course in a college, that I would later attend with the people that I would years later eventually get to know, respect and class as legends.
There were all sorts of bakes, cakes, slices, and biscuits, which all stood out as equals, but I suppose if there was any that stood out the most it would be her cakes. I remember especially the rich fruit cakes that would be made on the lead up to Christmas or any special occasion which were all different shapes and sizes. Before they were baked the tin was protected with news paper affixed with string to protect the cake while baking. I’ve never questioned the science of this but it is a practice that I do carry on myself to this day. Once the cake was cooled it was soaked in lashings of brandy or sherry. The cake the would be protected with grease proof paper and wrapped in tin foil. Air tight containers were purchased after the year a mouse had a field day, ending in disaster for cakes and mouse (alcohol poisoning), It’s strange how memories can be stirred when writing. It’s not just memories that stir, many a time I was given a telling off by gran if the contents of the bowl or pan were not stirred clockwise, I think it meant some kind of bad luck.
Once the cakes were coated in marzipan a process that was much more than rolling a block of marzipan out and just draping it over the cake. This took a little time and patience to allow for perfect edges. After the marzipan came the icing of the cake, again a process that takes time and patience, with the sides and the tops being done in stages. The precision levelling that was applied with the icing was, I know now, was something to behold. To me it was art at its finest. With all the ingredients weighed out, to match the size of the tin. The dried fruit all soaking in an alcohol. The butter softened and creamed with the sugar. Simple spices. The treat of the remnants of the bowl, which was always appreciated, be it an almost, very empty bowl coated with the tasty cake batter, that be it, of a rich fruit cake, duff or a basic sponge, which even today I accidentally , deliberately leave, just a little more than in the bowl than I should. The use of a big spoon is ideal for this method but the use of a spatula is very much frowned upon, it just takes to much pleasure away.
After the cake was iced it was time to finish it with the final decoration. This depended on the occasion. This memory is full of the Christmas decorations of the little plastic Christmas trees or the writing that comes in the frames of plastic, the ones that are gold or silver, to finish the cake it had to be wrapped in a cake ribbon or frill. If I am being honest, I think the last time I was going through my carry boxes of knives etc, I still had a little box that carried the said little plastic decorations. I didn’t want to throw them out but even by my standards, these little decorations still mean a lot to me, more for nostalgic reasons than any thing else. It was not that I didn’t want to use them but more the fact like most things, to face the fact that times change and always will, all be it to quickly.
I had decided one year that I was going to start making Christmas cakes and sell them. This was when I was in my first year as a commis. It was just a little side venture that I decided on. Time was a bit of a problem as I wouldn’t get home until after ten after working all day and that was when I dressed them in marzipan or began to ice them. I liked forming the royal icing into peaks as I thought it gave it more of a festive look. The clock would take me to five in the morning, a little sleep and then over to college on the eight bus. Looking back at this I don’t know where I got the energy from. Perhaps at that age I was driven and focused on what I was doing, I mean, today that drive is still with me and that focus has shifted to more important things in life and new life goals. I like to think that the days of darting around like a numpty are behind me, stuck between the same four walls for hours on end, though I do like to keep a hand in now and again to help friends out, but that is different, it’s more fun, it’s going in doing what you have to do, help out, lend some little advice that I have learnt along the way that can perhaps benefit others, go home and forget about it, sometimes, which is a fry cry of how it used to be, with stress, tempers fraying, worry, long hours, a general lack of appreciation or respect for any thing and very little return except for lost time.
I don’t bake a lot at home for fun anymore. This is not be be confused with baking for Stramash, as I do find joy in that (see belting out tunes from previous blog). We tried one day baking together at home, trying to be all romantic and nice, but I couldn’t take my serious hat off. We don’t bake together anymore after that. If herself is to bake I am not to be in the kitchen or even house, preferably outside is best and this results in some fine cakes and tray bakes being produced. The same rules apply when meals are prepared for home which is something I am truly grateful for.
I still have plenty of ideas which I am working on to keep me busy. It used to be the case when a recipe was conjured up and worked on and being tried and tested in the kitchen this was the time when the defence barriers went up and criticism was not understood correctly and anger and annoyance would creep in. But now, to understand things better, I know now that an idea doesn’t always work the first time around, an error will perhaps take us down another avenue, where we invite other voices in and ask them to find faults, where the faults are and how could we improve, this is what I now call learning curves for all so us and not mistakes.