Happiness has only one yummy ingredient: baking!
“Cream the butter and sugar until pale,” it says in her cursive writing. “Soak the fruit in a cup of sherry.” This little notebook must be nearly a century old. It’s penned in pounds and ounces and smudged with the syrupy stains of hundreds of cakes.
I don’t remember the lady who owned it, my great-grandmother, who died when I was two. But her name, Rachel, is threaded like a tacking stitch through our family, and her recipes for rock cakes and neenish tarts are still filling lunch boxes five generations later.
Like my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, I bake. A lot. Cakes, slices, more scones than seems appropriate for a woman two decades short of 60. I bake when I’m stressed and when I’m happy. Mostly, I do it when I want to make other people happy.
I suspect I’m deeply unfashionable in these super-styled times, when the wrapping is more elaborate than the gift, and the table decoration - sorry, “table dressing” - is more celebrated than the food.
But as Christmas becomes more about how everything looks rather than how it feels, I cleave to my cookbooks and cake tins, to the feel of flour on my fingertips and the smell of cloves and cinnamon in my hair.
Earlier this year, Nigella Lawson claimed baking is a feminist act. I’ve long admired Nigella. For her cookie cutter collection, her enthusiastic use of butter and her lasciviousness towards even the lowliest vegetable. But I don’t think blokes sneer at baking, even if, as she says: “There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it’s always been female.”
Any man I’ve baked for has been thrilled. Given the choice between my hummingbird cake and me dressing up in a nurse outfit, they’d take the former every time. Just today I whipped up a batch of date and ginger scones for a friend who’s been in hospital for the past week being fitted with a temporary colostomy bag (I figured he’d seen plenty of nurse outfits).
He scoffed them faster than you could say, “Mind the overflow.” Brandy snaps and gingerbread might sound fuddy-duddy in our app-driven age, but baking is how I connect with the people I love.
These days I favour raspberries and figs, almonds and blood oranges. But the rhythms are the same – the sifting, stirring, beating and folding that soothed me through puberty when Stevie Nicks wasn’t cutting it, and through my parents’ divorce, which sank our hitherto happy family like a sponge after someone has carelessly opened the oven door.
“I love taking two or 20 ingredients and turning them into something different,” says a Twitter friend called 84thand3rd, whose food blog I swoon over. “I love the smile it brings and I love cake. I really love cake.”
Women are busy and a rolling pin – like a sewing needle (with which I possess no talent) – is another thing to beat ourselves with. But baking takes us back to a sweeter time when teddies had button eyes, tea was poured from a pot and the Famous Five feasted on Aunt Fanny’s cherry cake.
My kids have inherited the baking bug – or at least the licking bit. A tin of condensed milk can still lure them away from the iPad. For me, a bowl of batter will always beckon. On the rare days when writing fails to thrill, I dream about Angela’s Anzacs doing for biscuits what New York’s Magnolia Bakery has done for cupcakes.
Catch Angela Mollard on Weekend Today, Sundays at 7am on the Nine Network.
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