SURPRISE INGREDIENT

“COULD you possibly bake a cake for the church coffee morning on Saturday?” asks M-R.  Can I bake a cake? Can an MP fill in an expenses form? Having been in the culinary desert for the best part of my 60-plus years, I find myself now in the lush pastures of cake-making heaven: if there’s a cake that can’t be baked by me I’ve yet to see it. I choose a Delia special – date and walnut with lemon icing. Gosh, it looks good. But first a few chores. Cleaning the work surface I slice my finger on the metal edge of the microwave (I note the brand: Sharp). I stick a plaster on, start to assemble the ingredients, then notice the stack of freshly-laundered sheets and duvet covers on the kitchen table ready for the guest beds which will be in heavy use this weekend with no fewer than nine guests. (We only have bed space for seven, but never mind).

As I set down the bedding safely out of the way in the hall, blood drips on to the crisp, clean pillowcases. I put the offending – or rather, offended – items into the washing machine, apply a clean plaster to the bleeding finger and return to the baking. I’m following the recipe on-screen. It’s tricky scrolling down with floury fingers, but I can’t be bothered to print it all out and anyway I’m saving the planet.

It’s chilly in the kitchen, so I check the central heating boiler which has been playing up lately, and which stands right next to the washing machine. As I press the boiler’s restart button I wonder why my feet are wet. The washing machine’s leaking. Ian’s away collecting a spare bed from a friend – we’ve discovered ours, in the loft, doesn’t have a mattress and the guests are only two days away – so, being a mere woman, I decide there’s nothing I can do but stand on a bath towel and carry on with the cake.

“Take a 7-inch tin, 4 inches deep, with a loose base, ” instructs the blessed Delia. I have four round cake tins, not one of which meets the requirements. Eight inches by 3 inches deep; 9 inches by 2; 7 inches by 1.5; and several with fixed bottoms.

I choose the 8 by 3 and pour in the mixture. Which promptly pours out again. As brown goo oozes over the work surface and dribbles down the front of the units I wonder why it’s so – well, liquid. Never mind: I scrape up what I can, plonk it in a fixed-bottomed tin which I have neither time nor inclination to measure, and stick it in the oven. As I turn to clear away the ingredients, I notice an untouched packet of ground almonds and another of chopped walnuts. Both of which should, of course, have been in the cake – and indeed would have been if I’d scrolled a bit further down the screen (though even without any recipe at all some instinct surely should have told me a date and walnut cake needs walnuts).

The cake has now been cooking for a good 10 minutes and is starting to set. Can I do it? You bet  . . .

I scoop out the half-cooked mixture, chuck in the ground almonds and walnuts, give it a good stir and return it to the oven. Forty-five minutes later when the pinger goes I can hardly bear to open the oven door. But I do. As I take it out of the oven it looks and smells delicious: firm to the touch and cooked to perfection. This, I tell myself, is the mark of a great cook: the ability to adapt when others would panic, to hold firm in the face of impending disaster, and – even when standing on a wet bath towel in a flooded kitchen with a throbbing finger – to produce a culinary triumph.

I turn my attention to the throbbing finger. Where’s that Elastoplast gone . . . ?

“Don’t worry,” says Ian on his return. “I’ll make another cake for the coffee morning. We’ll eat this one. I love date and walnut – especially one with a little extra something.”

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