EVERYTHING I know about cooking, I learned at my mother’s knee.
Boiling, roasting, casseroles, pies, stews. How to handle and store raw meat, the necessity of fresh herbs and the most important rule of all – if something doesn’t work out, tell your guests it was supposed to taste like that.
We’d come home from school as children, eagerly running up the road, noses upturned sniffing to see what dinner she had on that day.
Liver and onions, stuffed lambs hearts, roast chicken, Shepherd’s Pie, steak and kidney pie, homemade burgers, beef stew, smoked cod poached in milk, roasted vegetables, new potatoes boiled in their jackets with country butter, we devoured it all.
Mammy Dunne in turn learned all her tricks from her mother, my grandmother, a woman I never met but who was renowned for her cooking skills.
“My mother could pull up a few vegetables from the garden, throw in a few herbs and produce a meal fit for the gentry. And she’d never let on that she wasn’t expecting you, you’d barely even realise she was cooking. She’d put the dinner up to you and you’d be stuffed after it,” she remembers.
As a young woman in the 1920s, my grandmother worked as a parlour maid in one of the Big Houses in Graignamanagh, Kilkenny, waiting on rich farmers and landowners. From time to time she helped out in the kitchen, watching the cook carefully, picking up hints and tips.
One evening she was put entirely on the spot – when the cook passed out drunk on cooking sherry – and singlehandedly put up a six-course meal for 12; the next day the rich landowner fired the cook and gave my grandmother the job.
This was unheard of at the time, she was untrained and so young, but her cooking had to be tasted to be believed so she was given the chance.
She thrived in the job, retaining her knowledge and then passing it on for when she had a family of her own.
So you’d think with all that wealth of experience and talent behind me, with the blood of two generations of cooks running through my veins that I’d be a dab hand in the kitchen, wouldn’t you?
Not exactly. And here comes the point of this long rambling post.
I can cook, but I can’t bake. Give me a lump of meat and a sack of potatoes and I’ll whip you up a meal. But faced with flour and sugar and eggs, I’m useless.
My sponges are thick and heavy. My fruitcake sinks. My brownies are gritty and tasteless and my scones are flat and overly sweet.
It’s too precise, you see, baking. Too exact. Things have to be weighed and measured. 100 grams of sugar is NOT the same as ‘an oul handful’ no matter how much I wish it was, so I rarely bake. I try from time to time of course, but weighing is for wimps, so it rarely works out and the cake is always a disappointment.
Perversely I love a slice of cake so I do. I’m mad for cake. And there’s nothing like the smell of sweet vanilla sponge filling a house. So yesterday in a fit of madness I decided I was going to face my fear and bake. And do it properly this time. And yes, I was going to have a day off from Slimming World to eat cake. Sue me.
Yer Man had bought me Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes for our first wedding anniversary and for the past five weeks it’s sat on my kitchen counter looking pretty but unused. I’d read it, of course, and adored the pictures and recipes and Marian’s wonderful way with words, even when just talking about icing sugar. But I hadn’t used it.
So yesterday with great trepidation I cracked open the book, wrote a shopping list and got to work.
I unearthed my weighing scales from where it was languishing at the back of the cupboard – still wrapped in plastic – bought some round sandwich tins and finally ran to ground a roll of baking paper in the supermarket. Harder than you’d think.
I picked two recipes which looked easy enough. Nothing had to be done in stages, there were no scary words like ‘knocked back’ or ‘clarified butter’ or ‘bake blind’, instead there were nice easy words like ‘mix’ and ‘pour’. I could definitely mix and pour.
First up Ultimate Chocolate Brownies – all my favourite things in one gooey cake. Butter, chocolate, brazil nuts, er, flour.
I melted, I sieved, I weighed and measured. I stirred and poured and when it was all ready to go into the oven, indeed’n I did lick the spatula.
Almost the second these babies hit the oven the smell of melty, oozey, chocolatey goodness filled the air and it was all I could do to get off my knees where I was salivating in front of the oven to wash up the mixing bowl.
I wanted to dive into them the minute they were cooked but Wise Marian warned against this as they would simply run all over the place as they still needed a few hours setting time.
Needless to say it was the longest three hours of my life but in the end well worth the wait. Eyes rolling back in our heads, myself and Yer Man hopped off the brownies, cramming ever more of the sweet, chocolate gooeyness into our gobs.
So rich, so decadent, so delicious. If I’ve one complaint it’s that they’re almost TOO rich. You can barely eat one before starting to feel sick and everyone knows one of anything is no use to man nor beast, you always have to have at least three.
While waiting for the brownies to set I set about making a Victoria Sponge, reassured by Marian that it was ‘extremely easy’ to make.
Like a pro I lined sandwich tins with baking paper, weighed out sugar and butter, foraged for vanilla extract. It was only when I was attempting to cream the butter and sugar that I realised I really needed an electric mixer.
Too late at that stage obviously, but I’d advise any of you to get one. I’ve a right arm on me that’d make Popeye proud.
Into the oven the layers went, their buttery smell wafting around the house, mingling with the chocolate from the earlier brownies. It was like Willy Wonka’s factory in my kitchen, neighbourhood children slowed down as they passed the house. Not that they were getting any, but still, they’re free to look, and smell.
Once the sponges were cooled, I slapped them together with strawberry jam and fresh whipped cream, then sprinkled with icing sugar.
And it was only delicious. Light, spongy, buttery. Mouth thick with cake I mumbled ‘Is g’d isnn eh?’ at Yer Man and was met with a garbled ‘Fnnarrghhglllhgghg’ in response which I took as a compliment.
Overall both recipes worked really well and I realised that if I follow a recipe closely and bother my arse to weigh out ingredients I can actually bake. Who knew?
Now that I’ve liberated my weighing scales and invested in three types of sugar (caster, soft brown and icing) I’ll definitely be baking again. And so should you. Give it a try.
If you want to try out Marian’s recipes, buy Saved by Cake here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saved-Cake-Marian-Keyes/dp/071815889X or at all good book shops.