I seem to have developed a reputation as a bit of a baker, which surprises me as I have never considered myself to be the next Mary Berry. However, whenever I offer to bring something to our various social gatherings, the request is always for puddings or cakes, which makes me wonder what is wrong with the rest of my cooking of course, because I can never take a compliment on face value.
We hear often on programmes such as “The Great British Bake-Off”, of which I am a huge fan, that baking is an exact science and that the rules should not be broken if you want your Victoria sponge to be light and moist – can I just interject to say that this is the only context in which the word “moist” is acceptable in my opinion and I still have to stifle girly giggles when it is uttered – but in my opinion, baking can be as haphazard as any other form of cooking, as long as you blag your way through.
I taught myself to cook shortly after I moved in with my then-boyfriend fresh out of university. My mum, who considers herself to be a bit of a Delia, never taught me how to cook or let me assist in any way. Probably mother’s intuition about my talents. In fact, the only thing I was allowed to cook was spaghetti bolognese, which I made once a week for my dad because my mum hated pasta and refused to cook it, but it is still one of my dad’s favourites. So when I started “living in sin” – at the “Love Shack” as my dad labelled our starter home for two – I had to teach myself to cook something other than good old spag bol if I had any hope of convincing my boyfriend I was worth hanging on to. I think I have done alright since then; I certainly haven’t killed anyone.
Baking became more of a pastime when I had children and I learnt that it is actually good fun to whip up a batch of cupcakes and see the delight on small children’s faces when sinking their gums into them. (I do remember an earlier attempt at a four-layered chocolate celebration cake for my mum’s then-40th birthday when I was a teenager that did nearly kill someone, after which I steered clear of baking for a long time.) My first foray into baking happened to be for my oldest daughter’s 1st birthday when I created a beautiful pink and purple butterfly cake for her party. Everyone raved about it; little did they know that it had come from a packet supplied by a party website and everything, down to the icing decorations, came with flat-pack instructions so easy to follow that even my 1 year old could’ve made it. It was only when a good friend (herself an exceptional baker) kept quizzing me for the recipe that the deception began to unravel. I started by saying the recipe came from James Martin, but I was unsure of which recipe book. Then, as she kept telling me how she was endlessly searching the internet for the James Martin butterfly cake recipe, I came clean and told her that it had come from a box. You would’ve thought I had admitted murdering James Martin with my spatula the way she looked at me!
Since my girls started school, I have had ample opportunity to practice and now not a cake sale goes by without me inflicting my little morsels on everyone – and I generally seem to get it right if the feedback is to be believed. This is what is so bizarre, considering what people would think if they witnessed me actually in the process of baking. There is generally an overriding atmosphere of chaos as flour spills everywhere, egg shells end up in the cake batter, I turn the air blue with expletives, and vanilla essence is added with gay abandon and no thought of using a measuring spoon. So the idea that baking is an exact science is surely tosh.
Now decorating, on the other hand, requires more skill and a steady hand, neither of which are my forte apparently. I find the easiest way to decorate a cupcake is to slather the (readymade) icing onto the cake then dust liberally with glitter as everyone likes a sparkly cupcake, even boys if it is blue glitter!
Recently a good friend requested that I make her a cake for her birthday party. This friend has a weird crush on Rupert Grint and, as a result, my first thought was to do a penis-shaped cake complete with a ginger dusting made – unsurprisingly – from a packet of crushed ginger nut biscuits. However, the thought of my friend offering around a piece of “shaft” or “testicle” was enough to change my mind and do Plan A: cupcakes with a twist. Since my friend is partial to booze and decadence, I chose to do mojito cupcakes laced with rum and mint, and chocolate caramel cupcakes. Now I just had to think of some clever ideas for the decorations, but with time running short the day before the party as school runs and kids’ extracurricular activities intruded, I decided to leave the decorating until the next day. My first mistake.
My second mistake was going to a dinner party that night where the first drink constituted a lethal martini. As the evening wore on and the drinks continued to flow, all thoughts of cupcake decorating were pushed to the back of my booze-addled brain. At 01:50am my other half suddenly remembered we were an hour late for the babysitter. At 03:15 I stumbled home with vague memories of having scripted on a napkin a new BBC sitcom that would make me a million. I blame my inebriation on on the olive in the martini; it was clearly off. That and the new “alternate day fasting” diet we are all trying, but that’s a different blog altogether.
It was nearly 5pm when I dared to even try and stand up the next day. The party started at 7pm. It took me about an hour to bath as I had to keep sitting down and taking deep breaths. Then I realised I hadn’t finished the cupcakes. Between sips of water and bites of a banana (and the odd toilet dash), I set about slathering the icing onto the mojito cupcakes and liberally dusting them with rainbow glitter. One job done.
However, by the time I got to the chocolate caramel cakes, I was feeling slightly better (although my hands were still shaking), so I decided to get more creative and try piping the caramel onto the top of each cake in what was supposed to be a fabulous swirl, before sticking a little cupcake topper in the shape of a high-heeled shoe into each one. Proud of myself for managing to finish the cakes and dress myself into something vaguely acceptable – not to mention applying makeup and straightening my hair, which was a Herculean task and resulted in me burning one of my earlobes – I slowly made my way up the road to the party armed with three boxes of cupcakes and an extremely high pair of black suede heels (I blame my vertigo on my heels, not on the martini still coursing through my veins).
When the time came to unveil the cupcakes and sing “happy birthday”, I opened the boxes and discovered, to the mirth of my so-called friends, that the rainbow glitter had dissolved in the rum of the mojito cakes, leaving ugly psychedelic patterns that only a meth addict would love, and my intricate piping with the shoe toppers looked like lots of little feet stepping in elaborate mounds of dog poo.
I should’ve stuck with the penis cake after all.