So I'm about to go all Julie & Julia, and write a confessional post about cooking. I suppose I could call it NappyValleyGirl & Nigella, but the idea of cooking my way through 'Nigella Christmas' is simply laughable. Because this post is actually all about my fear of baking.
I decided this year to make Littleboy 2 a birthday cake. Now this is a big departure for me; I've always bought the boys' birthday cakes before, usually at vast expense from a poncey Italian deli on Clapham High Street. This was partly down to laziness but the truth is, baking terrifies me, and I just don't know enough about it. The last time I baked a cake, for The Doctor's birthday a few years ago, it was a total disaster and the time before, for my mother's funeral, the whole thing collapsed and had to be binned. Before that, my only efforts had been similar disasters in school cookery lessons; I recall once making a swiss roll that was inexplicably twice the size of anyone else's AND burnt.....
The fact is, I can't bake. I can cook a half- decent supper, but when it comes to cakes, puddings, biscuits and breads, I just don't have a clue. Just the thought of it makes me panic. I get all paranoid about the quantities, then about the ingredients. The whole terminology of baking is like a foreign language to me. Does it matter that something calls for 'cake flour' and not normal flour? Is the baking powder that I've bought 'double acting' - what the hell does that mean anyway? Is whipping the same as beating, and should I do it with a whisk or a wooden spoon? Are you still supposed to grease a non-stick pan? No-one, even the most 'simple' of recipe writers, tells you these things; they just assume you know.
But this year I was determined to be different. I am not doing much journalistic work at the moment - thanks, recession - and I have less of an excuse not to become a domestic goddess (ha). And I didn't just want to buy a commercial cake mix - I wanted to do it properly, mixing everything by hand. My mother always baked our birthday cakes, and I remember enjoying helping, so I also thought it would be a fun activity for the Littleboys.
I perused a few cookery books and settled on a very basic Nigella Lawson recipe for children's birthday parties, plus an icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I spent ages in the supermarket selecting a cake tin and baking ingredients (and trying to work out what all the American equivalents are - for example, icing sugar is 'confectioners' sugar', and caster sugar didn't appear to exist). And then I began the task with the Littleboys, who were tremendously excited.
My first mistake was not reading the recipe properly. Somewhere between trying to instruct the Littleboys how to beat eggs and making sure they didn't spill everything all over the kitchen, I failed to notice that this was actually a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake ie. in two tins. While I do partly blame Nigella's rambling prose (quote - "I do not know how to ice, but have taken the precaution of marrying someone who does"), I have to admit that I was not really concentrating.
I only had one tin, but by the time I'd measured the quantities out it was too late. 'Oh well," I thought, "I'll just have to put it all in the one tin and cook it for longer." Then I panicked because Nigella called for greaseproof paper and I had bought a non-stick tin. I had a sinking feeling at this point that things would not go well.....
After the maximum time suggested by Nigella, I took a look at the cake. It looked done. And for sure it was - black on the edges and the underside, well done in the middle. Chargrilled cake. And I swear I followed Nigella's oven temperatures.....
I would have binned it, but for the boys, who were desperate to try it, so we iced it anyway. Littleboy 2 had asked for a 'green cake' but I wasn't up to this; instead I made a white icing and then tried to write his name in green icing from a tube. But the tube stuff melted into the hot icing straightaway. So there we have it; blackened sponge cake with green smudge icing. I cut off the burnt bits and served it to the Littleboys (who, bless them, still pronounced it delicious).
This morning I turned myself away sternly from the ready-made birthday cakes in the supermarket, like a reformed alcoholic, and swore to try again. This time, I attempted a sponge cake from The Joy of Cooking to be served at his birthday tea tomorrow. Again, I was flummoxed by the recipe; I couldn't understand why, unlike Nigella's, it didn't seem to contain butter, and didn't need self-raising flour. How can a sponge cake recipe vary quite so much?
This time I was solo in the kitchen, without my Littleboy helpers. I concentrated painstakingly with the quantities and tried not to worry that my beaten egg whites were not 'stiff' as suggested. The result? Cake no 2 isn't burnt, and looks vaguely like a sponge cake, even if the icing looks distinctly like the handiwork of a child or a deranged modern artist. I do feel a small sense of achievement (although we haven't tasted it yet) and have been spurred on to cook brownies with the boys this afternoon.
But I also feel frustrated; why do I find these things quite so difficult, when other people seem to be able to knock up cakes at a moment's notice? Is there anyone else there who suffers from fear of baking?