The house smells good. I have been baking. There is a reason for this… it is an act of rebellion.
I’ve always baked. Not so much these days when there is usually only me, the dog and a recalcitrant waistline… though my lemon meringue pie seems to be in demand… but the recipes I’ve used since I was a child, learning with Great Granny, have stuck with me. I have used them so often that I don’t need to look them up, weigh the ingredients or be bound by procedures. It all goes on ‘feel’ and varies with whatever I happen to have in the cupboard.
When the boys were small, I baked every day. When they were a little older and I was once again working full-time, there would be a mass bake once a week. A huge batch of Victoria sponge and one of shortcrust pastry for starters. They would form the basis of a variety of cakes, a fruit pie and the base of a quiche. There might be Cornish pasties and sausage rolls…with the leftover pastry trimmings making jam tarts, maids of honour or almond slices. The cake mix would be flavoured with spices and fresh or dried fruit, chocolate and peppermint, coffee…or whatever else I had to hand… and every shelf of the oven would be in service for hours.
There were no bought cakes. I made bread and sweet bread dough for Devonshire splits and Chelsea buns. The biscuits, cookies and chocolates were home-made too. While all that was in the oven, I’d cook up some savoury stuff on the hob, hiding vegetables in stews and sauces. Meats that could be served as they were as a main meal, and extra portions transformed into completely different meals for later. It took about four hours, start to finish and left us with home-cooked food for most of the week.
It wasn’t anything special, it was just what Mums did as far I had been taught. It ‘cost’ me a morning doing something I love, often with my sons helping and learning and saved us an awful lot of money we didn’t have. Plus, I knew what the boys were eating… including the variety of hidden vegetables they swore they hated.
These days, I admit I am lazy. There is no fun cooking for one, but I do enjoy cooking for guests and still get my ‘fix’ of real cooking for Nick every day…but I rarely bake.
I threw away most of my baking tins when I moved, realising that they had seen better days and done valiant service. Today I decided to replace at least the basics as I was obliged to go, kicking and screaming against the necessity, into town.
I am not a fan of shopping, especially with the limited resources offered by both my town and my purse, so it is something I do as rarely and as fast as possible. Even so, I was surprised by the paucity of standard baking paraphernalia on offer and had a look around. I could have bought pretty much anything I wanted for sugarcraft but, while it is something I enjoy, there is little call for it on a daily basis. Everything else seemed to be geared towards the baking, decoration and presentation of cupcakes.
In recent years, there has been a rising demand for cupcakes and innumerable businesses have sprung up providing gorgeously decorated examples for weddings and special occasions. The glamorous American model has effectively ousted its plainer country-cousins from their place on the tea-table.
The cupcake started out as a small, individual portion of cake baked in a cup. They were probably quite simple to begin with and may still be so in domestic situations. The first known mention of this type of cake is in American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1796. In Britain, we did the same thing, calling them fairy cakes or, in my neck of the woods at least, buns.
Now a bun is the Cinderella of the cupcake world. Usually simple, plain and homely… perhaps even lopsided. It doesn’t matter; like Cinders, the real beauty of a bun is not hidden beneath deep layers of decadence and stylish confection. It is an inner beauty and all about taste.
Speaking of taste, though, I have often worried about Cinderella. Frankly, if her charming prince danced with her all night, but could only recognise her by her discarded footwear, I have to wonder whether he was incredibly shortsighted, had his eyes fixed elsewhere or had a shoe fetish… However, I digress…
The humble bun is mainly cake, not a mere platform for deep layers of fondant fabulousness with uncountable calories per bite and a degree in sculpture. It has substance. Mine would occasionally be drizzled with chocolate or topped with a blob of frosting. They might even rise to the dizzy heights of butterfly cakes for special occasions, or have half a cherry on top…but the flights of fantasy stopped there.
But, it would seem, no one wants buns any more. They want cupcakes. They want swirls and colour, artistry and culinary bling and the kind of personalisation that writes their name on top. They have even become luxury items where the price, say, of a small family car or an awful lot of groceries, is devoured in two bites.. the ultimate status symbol, perhaps?
As I headed home, with my
cupcake bun tin under my arm, I had to wonder what that says about the way our society’s values as a whole have changed. Have we created a culture that values superficiality over substance? Are we so insecure that we, as adults, still need to have our names emblazoned even our food to remind us of who we are? Or are the bright colours of the cupcakes a reminder, a momentary escape from the weight of the world, that carries us back to a lost childhood, touching, through their fairytale prettiness, something we feel we have lost?
I know which ones I’d rather eat…