THERE is an old saying, repeated in kitchens up and down the country on sad Sundays. When in doubt, bake.
It’s in our DNA, this knack for turning stress into sponge. A bit like our collective ability to drink tea, argue about how to remember/forget Margaret Thatcher and shake our heads at everything Justin Bieber says, does or beliebes.
We can’t get enough of baking. We’re like a nation of Mrs Dalloways on steroids, maniacally creaming butter and sugar and watching reruns of The Great British Bake Off as though our futures depended on it. Sometimes – when I’m walking past boarded-up cafés available to let and wondering what if? – I actually think they might.
It’s something to do with Sundays. The sound of sadness emanating from the telly – otherwise known as the title music from The Antiques Roadshow. The childhood memories of approaching double maths and a freshly washed uniform awaiting you in your wardrobe like an old enemy. The proximity to Monday. Chez nous, we call this mysterious malady – characterised by fear and loathing in front of a period drama – ‘Sunday tummy’.
There are all sorts of ways of treating it. In your teens, you feign illness, Ferris Bueller-style. In your 20s, you get drunk. And in our 30s, instead of going out and getting smashed we stay in and apply hundreds and thousands to fairy cakes with a pair of tweezers. Or, if you’re C, you repaint a radiator. Each to their own.
So, this cake is a Victoria sponge – the kind that has made it through the industrial age, wars, rationing, even Thatcherism. A cake that never lets you down. A cake that would be presented by Victoria Wood if it was in a documentary. A solid, bunting-strewn two-tier cake with jam and cream and fortitude. What can go wrong?
I’m using one of those beautiful recipe books that has pictures to die for and words that make you want to kill yourself. They’re about as cryptic as Richard O’Brien’s instructions on The Crystal Maze. (Apologies for my outdated cultural references. Is anyone else out there experiencing a Thatcher-induced bout of time warping? If so, I’m sure there’s a cake we can bake for that – a 1970s winter-of-discontent-style Black Forest gâteau perchance?) Anyway, the method is devilishly simple. You weigh the eggs and then use the same amount of flour, butter and caster sugar. Even a toddler could manage this.
Everything goes swimmingly at first. I use an electric whisk and don’t even break a sweat. There is no-one to lick the spoon so, while C is busy with the radiator, I feed a fingerful to the dog. Finally, the batter is poured into a cake tin and into the oven she goes.
Forty minutes later... The cake looks and smells like Victoria sponge but a wet skewer proves the centre is still raw. In it goes again. This happens more times than is worth recounting.
Finally, after insisting that the recipe is a joke, the oven is broken and I HATE BAKING ANYWAY, I decide to let both cake and self cool down. It will continue to cook, just as life will continue to disappoint.
Ten minutes later, I have developed a delusional confidence. I whip double cream and open a jar of jam. Then I cut the cake... and the middle falls out. You know, just like the Yeats poem. ‘Things fall apart / the centre cannot hold’. It’s quite poetic really, this small but significant failure in my kitchen on a Sunday night.
C carries on painting the radiator. The dog cries for more raw cake. And I give in and settle down in front of The Antiques Roadshow.