I am in a contemplative mood as I sit here and write, looking around me with some fondness and slight regret that I will soon pack up this lovely lounge where I have had, in this past year, many cosy evenings by the fireplace. There’s been so many changes in my life: I started this blog and at last in a small way started giving voice to my inner writer, got engaged to a man whom I want to spend the rest of my life with, turned 50, buried my father, and am ending this year with an offer on a house accepted… a house with at last, a beautiful kitchen at the heart of it.
The biggest constant though has been and continues to be that there are always meals to be cooked, tables to linger around at, people to feed wonderfully prepared food to: at the heart of me there’s that. I am in good company: not only with all the foodies and food bloggers, but also with a certain Zen priest, Edward Espe Brown, who views cooking as one of the most spiritual things one can do: at how it connects us with the earth, ourselves and others. I have to admit, not every meal that I cook is as conscious and as deeply meaningful and meditative as it could be: but on balance I understand and subscribe to the truth in that. I love cooking. When I cook I feel alive..
Something though that I don’t do a lot of, is baking. But then yesterday, standing in my fiancee’s kitchen, cutting a little lid off a ripe grenadilla and sucking the tart juice out of it as I did when I were a child, he said: “I love grenadilla icing on cakes” and in two seconds I had decided that I needed to bake him a cake. In another half an hour we had found a recipe for a basic sponge cake, done a recce of his cupboards for the staple ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder: all of which he had. We had to go to a supermarket to get the rest: springform cake tins, icing sugar, cream cheese(for the frosting as the americans call it), fresh eggs, and in the next hour and a half we collectively separated eggs, creamed the sugar and egg yolks, sifted flour and eventually, triumphantly slid two tins with pale, almost bubbly with air, cake batter into the preheated oven. I was astounded at how it all came back to me: in moments I seemed to have access to all which my grandmother and mother taught me about baking: I demonstrated to my lover the technique of “folding in” the egg whites beaten to “soft peak” stage; I sternly warned about not opening the oven door to check the progress until at least 30 minutes at the low heat of 180, just like my grandmother used to. I almost could hear her voice.
She taught me how to bake. My sister and I used to go and stay with our maternal grandparents for maybe a weekend sometimes, and since my gran always baked at least bread and at the most a couple of cakes for the local church bazaar, we were automatically included in the proceedings. She would start after breakfast, assembling the ingredients on her formica kitchen table: flour, Royal baking powder in that familiar red tin: “Tried and Trusted” still printed on the front as it was over 40 years ago; butter, eggs, mixing bowls, the hand held egg beater soon whirring away in her deft hands. At first we were given little tasks like holding the sieve, or stirring the mixture, then as we got older, she taught us how to separate eggs, using the half shell to carefully scoop up the yolk again and again while the white falls gloopily into a bowl underneath. I remember when I first saw Nigella just break the egg into her hand and let the albumen run through her fingers, I thought: now why did my gran never do that? Yesterday I did it the way my gran taught me: a homage in a way(which also meant that I got some egg yolk in the bowl of egg white!) Not critical since I was not making meringue, but I still got exasperated with my clumsiness, as I did when I was ten years old!
And soon there would be fragrant hot heat, giving up a vanilla scent, in her kitchen, as there soon was yesterday in the apartment of my fiancee. I could smell when the cakes were ready almost before the timer went off. They came out of the oven perfectly evenly cooked, just beginning to brown. We Skyped his mom in Toronto and I had to show her the cakes, still warm, and not iced yet. That came later. And at 11 last night we had cake and tea, the texture perfect, the sweet icing melding with the distinctive astringent grenadilla juice, the black pips crunching under our teeth, and me smiling a promise to bake another cake, soon. Maybe even bread. In a new kitchen. In a New Year.