I bake sporadically, which is to say about once every 5 years. Baking is not a hobby I’d take up on a daily or even weekly basis. It’s something to do with the transient nature of it all. You spend all that time measuring stuff out, then mixing it together, then bunging it in the oven; for it to hopefully emerge as a cake or a biscuit or a flan or a tart, and then it disappears down somebody’s aptly named cakehole, never to be seen again.
Back in the early days I used to bake quite a lot though, whipping up American fudge cakes, treacle tarts, caramel slices, birthday cakes and an annual Christmas cake. Because I was in feathering nest mode, for the little kiddiwinks, so I developed a mania for all things domesticated – like knitting (to which I’d been a stranger), DIY, interior decoration.
But back to transient baking. People might call your baking effort a work of art (or you might, while those around you scoff in derision) but it isn’t – because it doesn’t last; not like a painting lasts, or a sculpture, or a knitted jumper, or that novel waiting to get out.
The only time I’m now remotely interested in baking is when the Bake Off comes on the telly, and even then it’s not the bread or the cakes that hold my attention. It’s the green and pleasant English landscape; the vagaries of a British summer; the church fete-style marquee, plonked down in front of a gigantically posh house, probably belonging to some plummy aristocrat ……… all a carefully produced, Downton Abbeyesque vision of the England I know and love.
One that reminds me of Agatha Christie and genteel murder and mayhem (there is a sort of murderous desire to win, behind all that gentle kneeding and polite pastry making.) An England (the Bake Off may be British but it seems very English to me) reminiscent of a far off distant time when everything stopped for tea. A time when you could hang Union Jack bunting all over the place, without being accused of vulgar Nationalism – or looking like a jumped-up Imperialist. A time when the politically incorrect Carry On double-entendre made you fall off your settee – a throwback style gleefully resurrected by Mel and Sue’s Oxbridge, witty Britishness.
It’s a place where War and ISIS, hunger and famine, death and disease do not exist. Where everything is cosy, lovely and safe – ‘more tea Vicar?’ Where your biggest problem is Paul noticing that your bottom sags; or Mary offering up a stern reprimand (in the style of your quintessentially British nanny) for not knowing some basic sponge-related baking technique.
The Bake Off is so huge the theme tune might as well be our second National Anthem. Unfortunately the Beeb deletes uploaded Bake Off themes to YouTube, so I had to use an entire episode just to get the music bit. Try it out. Move your mouse to about 1.09 minutes in and start singing, in an Imperialistic fashion:
“I’m glad I’m British.
The UK is goodish
Those other countries
Are all a bit rubbish.”
then imagine the entire nation doing the same thing outside Buckingham Palace, brandishing mugs of tea – I think it could work.
(Since publishing this post the Bake Off video I’d inserted here has been deleted. I’m assuming you know how the Bake Off tune goes, so you’ll just have to sing along to it in your head – because you were going to actually sing weren’t you?)
So, I decided to do a bit of Christmas baking this week, thinking to emulate the gentle nostalgia of the Bake Off. I plumped for yuletide gingerbread. I was going to make a gingerbread house, but the recipes on the net were too scary, because the icing that glues the houses together is made from icing sugar and egg whites; and I’m old enough to remember Edwina Curry threatening the Salmonella Apocalypse, so I stay away from anything containing egg that isn’t cooked into oblivion; which led to replacing the house with biscuits.
Son No. 2 and a friend are home for the weekend, so I thought it would be a nice christmassy thing to bake them some gingerbread, ice it and hand it over as a little pre-christmas gift to take away.
Having not baked for years I didn’t even have the basics in. Actually my fridge is almost always empty, as are the cupboards. The husband comes home from work every night ravenous, and goes searching through cupboards and poking around in the fridge (only there’s nothing to poke around) before heaving the sigh of one who accepts his fate and goes off to sleep in the chair.
So I had to rush out to stock up on flour, eggs, treacle, ginger and icing that comes in tubes. This all came to a massive £15 – which is another reason I don’t go in for baking much, apart from the fact that the mass produced stuff often tastes better. Take mince pies for example. I’ve never eaten a homemade mince pie that tasted as good as the factory variety. The supermarket ones, and Mr Kipling, produce pies that melt in your mouth and are chock-a-blocked with mincemeat. The only homemade ones I’ve ever tasted, in the dim and distant past, were generally as hard as a small rock, with the barest smattering of mincemeat filling, which still somehow managed to leak out all over the place, so your pie looked more like a burnt offering to the Pagan midwinter festival gods (which is how I prefer to think of Christmas.)
Not that I like mincemeat – can’t stand the stuff – but I feel it’s a festive requirement to at least get it past my lips at Christmas time. It’s why I don’t make a Christmas cake every year anymore, or a pudding – too much like mincemeat; that and the fact that you often couldn’t tell the difference between my Christmas cake and the Christmas pudding, which isn’t as bad as I thought actually, now I’ve discovered that the cake evolved from the pudding, when a couple of Tudor cooks chucked some flour and eggs into the leftovers from the plum (Tudor for Christmas) pudding – as a sort of yuletide lark. The Tudor plum pudding, by the way, was shaped like a sausage and enclosed in animal guts. You’d have thought that sort of thing would have died out with the Tudor lot but no, we’re still stuck with it. At least it’s now a nice dome shape and comes minus the entrails.
But still, all that dense dried fruit and thick heavy cake concoction, coloured a sort of dirty brown is deeply unappetising, and tastes revolting. Thankfully no one likes this 16th century hangover in our house, except the husband, who loves his xmas pud and ends up having to eat a whole one, so it doesn’t go to waste; suffering mightily all evening from pudding-based indigestion. Mind you, the husband also loves ancient Christmas Ale, a beverage he orders online round about nowish, stocking up with 50 bottles. This real ale pours like treacle and is almost black, coming with a higher than average alcohol content and can knock you out at 50 paces. The Tudors probably knocked back gallons of the stuff, so they could forget that their pudding came inside part of the small intestine.
I spent an entire morning creating festive gingerbread biscuits, wearing my Bake Off apron (given by a friend) in honour of the Bake Off.
The recipe said the dough should be 1/4 ” thick, roughly 2 pound coins worth, so I actually used 2 pound coins.
Then I used my newly acquired cookie cutters:
When it came to the baking, the main problem was my oven, which is the oven from hell, in that it’s a fiery furnace. The recipe said to bake my biscuits at 180C for 12-15 mins. Knowing that my oven would incinerate the poor things at this ridiculously high temperature, I adjusted the heat to 120C and timed them for 10 mins instead, thinking that no way could my oven do its usual diabolical work in such a short time. Opening the door at 10 mins revealed overdone and even slightly burned biscuits, so the final lot got just 6 mins at 100C, which is the lowest number on the dial, in fact the oven was barely on and they still came out singed around the edges.
And here are the finished biscuits, all covered in cracks, even though I followed the recipe to the letter – some of the stars had morphed into that starfish person from Spongebob Squarepants.
The next problem was the icing. The icing tubes were supposed to make icing easy but required a vice like grip to squeeze the stuff out, ending with acute pain in one thumb and an inability to fully open my right hand for a good hour. Not to mention that I had no idea how to decorate the snowmen, ending with the gingerbread equivalent of those porcelain dolls that feature heavily in horror movies, or the kind of gift you’d give to that girl from the Exorcist.
Second lot were slightly less frightening but still pretty weird.
I then popped them into something called ‘gifting bags’, my new baking discovery, artfully arranging them around a christmas candle and my husband’s nuts (sorry, I went all Mel and Sue there – my husband loves chestnuts.)
With this non-relaxing Christmas activity done, I moved on to putting lights up at the windows, where I discovered that the lounge window was in dire need of a clean and spent 45 mins manically rubbing windows, causing neighbour one, who was passing at the time, to stop, lean on the wall and wave frantically in at the window (he thought this was hysterical ) since my washing looked like waving – that poem by Stevie Smith kept coming to mind: ‘and not waving but drowning’, which was just about how I felt after all the baking and cleaning shenanigans.
Getting back to the lights. I knackered my left knee and leg in the process, by perching on a very high ladder trying to unravel lights, place them on the windows and use selotape all at the same time.
Anyways, my house is now adorned. And after all that back breaking effort, the husband came home and said: “is that our token gesture is it?”