13 August 2015
Blog Tour: Author Article by Sarah Vaughan
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By Sarah Vaughan
"I recently found one of my very earliest picture books, given to me for my second birthday. Battered, torn and sellotaped together, it tells the story of when Thomas Bakes a Cake.
A smiling cartoon child gathers ingredients, cracks eggs which slither “with a plop” into the bowl and mixes them together with a “wibbly, wobbly whisk”. “Father” lights the gas ring and puts the cake in the oven but Thomas makes the cake – and tastes the mixture - by himself. On the last page, he proudly presents “Mother” and “Father” with a feast of cake and orange juice. “They all agree that the orange juice is delicious but the cake is simply scrumptious.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that my debut novel The Art of Baking Blind is all about the reasons we bake. Because baking – and baking for and with my mum and sister – formed a crucial part of my early years. Rifling through the Ladybird Cooking with Mother, I can remember making cherry tops – small sponge cakes topped with half a glace cherry; chocolate crunchies (cornflakes with cocoa, margarine and golden syrup) and even egg and tomato mushrooms (a hard-boiled egg with the top cut off, topped with half a tomato and put on a piece of iceberg; yes really.) And crucially, it was baking with my family – impressing and delighting them – that was all-important.
I stopped baking in my twenties – too busy with a career and with trying, and failing, to be skinny – and if I baked, I did so ironically: a Black Forest Gateau, with morello cherries stepped in kirsch and lightly folded whipped cream; or a retro cheesecake, topped with glistening, tinned peaches.
But when I had my own children, I became obsessed with feeding them well and wrapping them in a warm fug of domesticity. I was hopeless at glitter and glue but baking let us be creative together – and meant we all had something tangible, and usually delicious, to eat at the end of it. My kids loved immersing themselves in the sensuousness of baking: the slurp of the batter plopping into a tin, the sight of a cake rising in the oven, the smell of melting butter and sugar, the taste of raw mixture, scraped from an empty bowl, licked from a spoon with a huge grin. Baking was decadent and messy and fun and we couldn’t get enough of it.
I found that, as well as plundering the cookbooks of Nigella, Jamie and Mary, we returned to the recipes I used as a child. Not the egg and tomato mushrooms or the cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, or even as something as simple as chocolate crunchies, but the Devil’s Food Cake my mum always made for our birthday cakes.
This moist chocolate sponge, with its dense fudge topping, could be turned into a cottage or a hedgehog – baked in a one-litre Pyrex bowl, smothered in fudge icing, and given chocolate buttons for spikes and gleaming glace cherry eyes. “I haven’t made that in years,” my mum said, when I asked for the recipe. A few summers on, she and her grandchildren now turn it into cupcakes, and it’s become a cake my ten-year-old can now make on her own.
The idea that each of us has a recipe that means something to us was something I wanted to explore in The Art of Baking Blind. Because baking seems to have become such a phenomenon not just because we crave sugar, or hanker after comfort in a recession, but because it allows us to be nostalgic: letting us recall the past as well as creating new memories.
Jenny, the eldest competitor, remembers baking biscuits with her mother and baby sister: “Standing on a chair in the kitchen, the only room that was ever warm in that draughty rectory, Jenny dips a fat finger into the mixture, sucks at a curl of buttery dough…. If only life could have remained that simple…for a moment, she wants to regress.”
Vicki, denied such a nurturing childhood, recalls the beef bourguignon eaten at a friend’s house. “As she sautés and simmers, binds and rolls, she drinks up the odour of an idealized childhood an imagines recreating it.”
Claire watches her mother and daughter bake saffron bread and enjoys the connection, and continuity offered by this pastime. “Two generations united in the simple pleasure of mixing a handful of ingredients – flour, yeast, water, salt and sugar – and witnessing culinary magic take place.”
Baking becomes so much a part of my character’s personalities that certain bakes take on huge symbolic importance. When Vicki bakes a Battenberg it is fraught with anxiety because she made it as a teenager for her critical mother. For Karen, a Baked Alaska serves as a metaphor for herself: “Glossy and crisp on the outside; ever chilly at the centre. Utterly desirable; always surprising.” Only the sweetness and the initial warmth ruin the analogy.
As for Kathleen Eaden, whose story we glimpse in flashbacks, it is gingerbread – made by her at the start and end of the book – that resonates. We glimpse its significance when she makes a gingerbread house and it becomes explicit when she cuts out a gingerbread family. “Slowly and ever so tenderly, she presses the boy cutter into the dough again…Another baby. She has told no one yet…She dithers over whether to bake the baby or to roll it back into the dough: is she tempting fate if she creates it, or if she expunges it?”
The Art of Baking Blind evolved as I baked with my own kids, creating gingerbread men, chocolate-studded cookies, cheese straws, bread and brownies and, from a page so be-splattered it is unreadable, Devil’s Food Cake.
It doesn’t feature in The Art of Baking Blind, this bake that means more to me than any other and that I turn to again and again. And so here it is. I do hope you enjoy it:
Devil’s Food Cake:
6oz self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
8 fluid oz water
4oz Stork margarine
10oz caster sugar
2 large eggs
8oz icing sugar
2 level tablespoons cocoa
2 oz butter
2oz granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of milk
Boiling water to spread icing
Two seven inch cake tins, greased and lined.
Oven: 170 C fan; 30 minutes.
To make the cake, cream the fat and sugar then beat in the eggs. In a separate bowl, sieve together the SR flour and baking powder. Put the cocoa in a jug, add the water and mix. Then, with a large metal spoon, fold a third of the flour mixture into the fat and sugar mixture; then a third of the cocoa/water mixture. Continue alternating the mixtures, making sure the flour is blended and as much air is retained as possible.
Divide the wet mixture between the two greased and lined cake tins and place in the centre of the oven for about 30 minutes. Once removed, wait a couple of minutes then turn to cool on a rack.
For the icing, mix the sieved cocoa and icing sugar. Heat the granulated sugar, fat and milk and bring to a rolling boil. Pour onto the icing sugar/cocoa and beat with a wooden spoon. Working quickly with a hot knife, spread half between the two sponges and half on top. Take care not to add too much hot water in doing so as the fudgy consistency will turn glossy. Enjoy."