How austerity shaped my cake-baking
My mother's frugal habits still haunt my cake-making, admits Lisa Jardine in her A Point of View column.
In an affectionate address delivered at my mother Rita's funeral in California three weeks ago, in front of family and friends, my youngest sister recalled one of her endearing, lifelong character traits. Having known hardship when she was a child, and scrimped and saved as a young wartime wife, my mother could never resist a bargain, even when she had become rather well-off.
"Rita was frugal," my sister said, "to a fault. Long before bulk-buying warehouse companies like Costco were invented, Rita and I were schlepping long-distance from the prosperous enclave in La Jolla where we lived, to buy toilet paper and toothpaste in less affluent neighbourhoods - at a price far cheaper than could be had closer to home."
Reminiscing further, later the same day, another of my sisters who was still living at home when my parents moved to California in the sixties, recalled Rita carefully clipping coupons out of the local newspaper, so as to claim the couple of cents off the next purchase at a local store. And once she went to college, our mother would send her back after each vacation with a pile of coupons for necessaries like tins of coffee and kitchen roll, to be used in her local campus supermarket.
These are habits of domestic frugality that I and my three sisters find we cannot escape from ourselves, even today: "I still can't bring myself to buy toilet paper at my local up-market store," my sister Clare confessed in her funeral address. My children will tell you that my own version of this is my habit of cheerfully offering them hand-me-down kitchen appliances as house-warming gifts. And when they were younger, I would be thrilled to track down a serviceable second-hand bicycle, advertised in the local Cambridge newspaper, to be given to one of them as a birthday present, even though we could probably easily have afforded the state-of-the-art, shiny new one that all their friends had.
Lashings of butter
According to research being conducted by the University of Westminster, my tendency, even today, to walk miles across London if I think I might locate a bargain may actually not be down to nurture - my mother's thrifty example - but simply that I am being characteristically British. Early results of a survey seem to show that British consumers offered discounts or other promotions on a range of consumer goods display a mental response which resembles that of sexual arousal.
Mind you, the research was commissioned by The Institute of Promotional Marketing - an organisation that would presumably be happy to think we might get excited about a discount. Colin Harper of the institute said: "It's early days but these results seem to indicate a correlation between high emotional response and sales uplift."
Given that I am prepared to spend hours on the internet checking that the price of the electric toothbrush I am about to purchase online really is the lowest available, I am a little perplexed to have to admit that when it comes to another area of my domestic life - baking - I display exactly the opposite tendency.
I love to cook, and have done since I was quite young. I particularly like making cakes - rich and many-layered confections, stacked high with the help of lashings of butter icing, and topped with more icing and as many edible decorations as possible. I have always especially enjoyed creating cakes for birthdays - anyone's birthday these days, now that my children are too old for birthday parties.
I once made a chocolate cake in the shape of Gauguin's curvaceous reclining nude in his painting Nevermore. It never occurred to me that it might give offence, so I was somewhat taken aback when, as I proudly carried it into to the room, candles ablaze, there was an audible, slightly disapproving, sharp intake of breath from a number of the party guests. I thought it prudent to retire to the kitchen to slice it.
Where cake recipes are concerned, there is nothing even remotely prudent or penny-pinching about me. If Nigella or Delia specifies 200g of sugar, I will measure out 200g and then add some more, just to be on the safe side. Then I will reason with myself that that means slightly more butter and rather more flour, a dash more milk, and perhaps an additional egg. As for flavourings, somehow I always decide that the half-teaspoon the recipe calls for is really meant to be half a tablespoon. In any case, it is bound to taste nicer with a splash more vanilla essence or a tad more lemon juice.
None of this seems to interfere with the way the cake turns out, however. There have been very few failures among my many and varied cakes over the years, and they have mostly turned out rather tasty (even if I say so myself). It may well be that this is down to long experience and a lot of practice. I know instinctively what a plausible batter should be like before it is ready to be poured into thoroughly greased and floured cake tins and placed in the oven - what the consistency of the mixture should be, what it should look like, how it should taste and smell. I suppose I take this set of acquired skills for granted.
Recently, indeed, I attempted for the first time a cake recipe which called for almost an entire bottle of maple syrup in the batter (not to mention a whole lot more for the icing). Once creamed and beaten, the mixture was an odd dark-brown colour, and had a curious texture I had never encountered before. I was convinced it would turn out a disaster. But, to my relief, when I took it out of the oven, the result was convincingly light yellow-coloured, firm, moist and delicious. "Add 300g of maple syrup" - now there's a cookery instruction that would have made my mother turn pale.
Cake-making can bring out my competitive instincts. When my children were primary school age and I already had something of a reputation in the birthday cake department, the mother of one of my son's school friends invited us to tea. We were both young university teachers, and generally ambitious in all aspects of our lives, so I was a little annoyed when she - something of a novice cook - proudly produced a perfect triple-layered chocolate cake, complete with a rather difficult-to-make shiny chocolate icing. I remembered that she had asked me to give her my recipe only days before. We all ate large slices, and pronounced her cake perfect and delicious.
Only when we were ready to go home did she take me ruefully into her kitchen, and open the door of her larder. There, set out in a row, were three failed chocolate cakes. One had sunk in the middle, one was rock hard all the way through, and the third had disintegrated entirely under the weight of uncontrollably runny chocolate icing. I shuddered at the waste of ingredients such determination to out-do a competitor on the cake-making front had required - and of course felt a tiny bit smug at the amount of time and effort her success had cost her.
There is, though, one way in which my mother's frugal habits still haunt my cake-making. When it comes to filling my cake tins I cannot bear to waste even a smidgeon of batter. I buy a succession of clever kitchen implements with flexible, spoon-like ends, spatulas of every shape and size, in order to be able to tease the very last morsel of icing out of the bowl or the food processor. Nor is anyone in the family allowed more than the tiniest lick before the cake is ready to go into the oven.
So in the end, even my cake-baking takes me back to early post-war habits, learned from babyhood in my mother's kitchen, when my sister Judith and I would watch, eyes popping, as she beat her margarine and sugar to a white froth, broke her eggs in adeptly with her free hand, and swiftly added clouds of flour till they combined into a fragrant, gleaming batter. As she carefully spooned every last bit of it into her cake tins we would hope against hope there might be something left over for us. And of course there was, just a very little, just enough for two small girls to enjoy. But not enough for my thrifty mother to consider that any of her precious ingredients had been wasted.