Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The name's Kipling. Mrs Kipling.

.I make bread.


I make biscuits aka cookies, shortbread, focaccia, and shortcrust pastry (but I don't take pictures of them).

I don't make puff, flaky or choux pastry (who does?) and until this last month I'd have said I don't make cakes.

Not that I haven't tried.  With Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson at my side I've tried and failed and tried again.  And failed again.  And tried.  And failed.

Until this last month my cakes were so flat they looked like Pearson's Nut Goodies that have travelled a thousand miles through the US mail.  I choose my analogy for good reason.  Relieving news, eh?  If that was my idea of a good analogy plucked from the air I'd need a lot of luck to be making my living as a writer.

No, Pearson's Nut Goodies  - or Jessiecakes, as they're known in my house - have been a bit of an obsession since I first came across a description of them in May Day by Jessie No.1, Jess Lourey.  Her heroine's sojourn in rural Minnesota is  . . . well, not lightened, exactly, but certainly sweetened by the ingestion of Nut Goodies every now and then.

I read of their toothsome (unless you're a dentist) sweetness and mountainous chocolately chunkiness and had to taste one.

Needless to say you can't get them in northern California where Michael Pollan comes from.

Enter Jessie No.2, Jessie Chandler, also of Minnesota, who took time off from writing her Shay O'Hanlan capers to send me a couple in the mail.  They arrived, really quite sweet indeed - and this from someone with Tunnock's snowballs in her genes and Irn Bru thudding round in her veins - but not as mountainous as they should be.

Hence the analogy and from there back to the cakes. 

My mother has just gone home after a month's visit and both our birthdays fell while she was here.  So, for the first time in many years, ma mammy made me a birthday cake.  Then four days later, under very close supervision but still with no great hopes of success, I set about making one for her.

Miracle.  Wonders.  Amazement.  For the first time in my life I made a cake worthy of the name.  Here it is in the tin.

On the rack, being measured. 

I couldn't believe the airy heights it had climbed to.  NB: the clown?  He's behind it; not in it.  I haven't got as far as integral clown-heads just yet.

Here it is, decorated, with butter icing and fresh local walnuts (take that, Michael Pollan).

And finally being cut open, with an ordinary knife.  Not a hammer and chisel.

I went to bed that night trailing clouds of glory and lay awake going over and over what I'd done in my head until the recipe and procedures felt as if they were in there to stay.  Needless to say, my mother's cake recipe isn't written down.  She just knocks them together.

So do I now.  Here's cake number 2, made for pudding for a dinner party the next weekend, under less close supervision but still with my magic mother in the house.

I took it out of the oven and thought "Could it . . . ?  It looks . . . ?  Could it possibly be . . .?"

Yes!  It was even bigger.

But as I say, the master baker was still in the building, actually right in the kitchen.  She made a break for the fireside at the eggs and flour stage, but I herded her back again.  And there were still some bits of the process that felt shaky.  Like listening to it to see if it's ready.  Yup, my mother has no truck with clean skewers and disappearing dimples; she takes it out of the oven after an hour, leans in close and listens to see if it's ready.

So after she went home on Saturday and took her ears with her, I was all on my own. 

Today is my undergardener's birthday.  I took a deep breath, tied my pinny strings tight and went for it.  No written recipe, forty years of failure, guru away across the ocean . . . I give you . . . cake number three.

And if it tastes as good as it sounds, I'll be very happy.