Before learning how to do anything else in the kitchen – roast a chicken or make a béchamel sauce – I was taught how to bake a cake. The first was a Victoria sandwich, for which you cream butter and sugar, add eggs a little at a time and fold in flour.
When I was able to make buttercream to fill it and glacé icing for the top, I was allowed to move on to a classic whisked sponge. This was considered a tougher assignment. You could easily knock out the air you had whipped into the eggs and sugar as you folded in the flour, so you needed a careful, decisive hand.
I was less keen on whisked sponges – they’re light, not cakes to get your teeth into – but they were a good vehicle for fruit. We made ours in tins, which produced sponges that could be filled.
In summer, they were decadently stuffed to overflowing with strawberries, but more often they were filled with tinned fruit cocktail – chunks in which peach tasted the same as pear, and grapes were so wrinkled and pale it was hard to identify them.
I remember, with horror, taking one on a date, dragging it along in a special box in which it stayed upright, when I was 15. I’d said I would make a cake we could eat at our destination (a romantic bay on the Northern Irish coast) but my potential boyfriend probably thought I meant something sensible, a cake that had been baked in a loaf tin.
He looked at this fruit-filled bonnet of a thing under its cloud of whipped cream and couldn’t hide the fact he thought I was bonkers. I felt crushed but also indignant. Didn’t he know the skill it took to pull off a cake like this, a cake I had made specially for him?
We attach a lot of significance to cakes. They’re an important offering. To be given a cake someone has baked is special. It has nothing to do with the money they’ve spent but the time and care they’ve put in.
When I had children, I became a cake decorator as well as a baker. The first cake I made for my eldest son’s birthday was a rich chocolate one with a tumble of red berries. It was the last ‘sensible’ cake I made for years.
From his second birthday, the cakes became as complicated as pièces montées. There was a Thomas the Tank Engine cake, the Fat Controller sculpted from flesh-coloured fondant, a Harry Potter cake with superb glasses and a perfect scar on his forehead, a Tardis cake that would have thrilled Christopher Eccleston.
The cake for these had to be resilient as you basically used it like building blocks. The taste wasn’t the thing; these cakes were supposed to fill you with awe. They were fun to make and appealed to the show-off in me, but, unwisely, I started to regard the effort I put into them as a measure of the love I felt for my son. It’s possible to take cakes too seriously.
Even as I was proudly making cakes during my 20s, I realised that it was regarded as a fuddy-duddy hobby. But all that changed in the 1990s. In a New York bakery, the cupcake was reborn. These weren’t just delicious, they were fantasy cakes: frothy, pretty bites that spoke of dream families and happy lives.
Then Nigella Lawson wrote How to be a Domestic Goddess, a tongue-in-cheek title for a tongue-in-cheek book. She knew she was offering a fantasy and yet… it’s a book that is both hopeful and practical, full of joy and recipes that work. Baking became cool, and now, decades later, everyone’s carrying cakes into the office to share with work colleagues.
We pretend that baking is a bit ironic, that we’re all winking while we sift and whisk, but there’s simply something in cake that we love. Sugar, yes, but also optimism, creativity and care.