I have always baked, ever since I was a little girl helping in the kitchen. I was taught early about such arcane practices as rubbing in, folding and kneading and how to keep my pastry cool and my dough warm. Decorating cakes came later and it was something I taught myself, though my grandfather was a pretty mean hand with a piping nozzle. I have fond, and hilarious memories of the eve of my wedding day when my mother and I unpacked the tiered cake he had made. It had, as such cakes should be, been stored to mature. Unfortunately the marzipan had not been allowed to dry out first and the oils had leached through into the snowy, royal icing, staining the pristine whiteness a dull and unpleasant beige.
“Right,” said mother, rolling her sleeves up. “It has to go.” The plan was to scrape off the icing and re-cover the cakes. “Shouldn’t be difficult.” Grandad was a sculptor… and it showed. But the glorious, painstaking creation was to be re-done in a mere matter of hours, with mother preparing the battleground while I ransacked the local market for the flowers to make the bouquets and raid the shops for huge amounts of icing sugar.
Only it wasn’t going to be that simple. First we had to get the icing off. And it wouldn’t budge.
Yorkshire women share a trait in times of adversity. “Carving knife,” said mother, her eyes narrowing stubbornly. Apparently grandfather had gone a bit overboard. And hadn’t used glycerine to make a softer icing. This stuff could have stood for centuries. “Pass the chisel,” said mother. “And the hammer.”
We did it eventually, getting the hastily iced cake to the church hall in the nick of time… me, holding it precariously on my lap in the back of a three wheeled Reliant van, while my bridesmaid… who had just passed her driving test and had never driven alone… juddered her way through the village streets. It was a good thing we had too… cutting the cake at the reception would have been hilarious!
There is no picture of that cake, nor indeed any of my wedding day apart from one little black and white Polaroid snap. My mother burned them when I was in France and about to remarry as she didn’t think my husband-to-be would want to see them. But I did come across pictures of past cakes today and they set the memories going, for each one is not just a cake, but a whole stream of people.
There are the wedding cakes made for friends, birthday cakes for all ages… a Spitfire painted in food colouring for my youngest son, a grown up cake for the other son’s 13th birthday… orchids, posies of sugar flowers made and painted petal by petal, sugar figurines hand sculpted… a process that fascinated the small tribe of children that congregated at our home on a daily basis. They all joined in, learning to bake, to decorate, to sculpt in sugar.
The pictures that survive are not good, many are pre digital… but the cakes were… and the memories of those days, with those people, are even better. There is more than a crumb of comfort in laughter shared and remembered.