Let them eat cake
by Lesley Truffle
I discovered the joy of cake early in life. It was a rare treat and cake recipes were sacred texts, especially Winston Churchill’s 80th birthday cake recipe. These fruit cakes were baked in advance, stored in our antique sideboard and fed a bottle of brandy. No kidding, those cakes really liked to drink. Size wise the cakes were heifers and could only be handled by my mother. I watched in awe, as over the course of several days she drizzled brandy over the cakes. The heady aroma of drunken fruit cakes meant Christmas was about to be unleashed.
My mother was devoted to the late Winston Churchill. He was right up there in her pantheon of gods that included Napoleon Bonaparte and the infamous poet, Lord Byron. Framed reproductions of Napoleon’s portraits graced our dining room. It was disconcerting – when I was on the telephone being sweet talked by some randy schoolboy – to find myself eyeball to eyeball with Napoleon. He had a suspicious stare, especially in his baby portrait. Even when I looked away, I could still feel Napoleon’s cold baby blue eyes boring into the back of my skull.
In our house birthday cakes were usually sponge cakes. If time was short, plain sponge cakes were purchased and the packaging hidden deep in the kitchen bin. These shop bought sponges were disguised with fresh strawberries, jam and whipped cream. For adult birthdays, the sponges were slathered with coffee icing, whereas for children it was chocolate or pink icing.
I’ve never managed to master the creation of sponge cakes. I recently consulted a clever woman known for her sumptuous sponges and delectable baked goods. Glenda maintains that one must sift the flour at least three times, or you’re not really trying. Apparently it is air that gives the sponge its lift – or as dedicated pillow plumpers put it – its loft.
My Yorkshire puddings have been known to lie down and take a kip. Glenda suspects that I’ve been a bit heavy handed mixing the batter. Furthermore, you must handle scones with featherlight fingers, and never overwork any dough or it toughens up. I should have learnt these rules in high school cookery classes but I didn’t. We had a draconian cookery teacher who stalked the kitchen, hovering over our shoulders, as we nervously rubbed butter into flour for shortcrust pastry. Mrs Sullivan assessed our efforts, ‘No. Too much’… ‘No, no. Not enough’. It was humiliating when she raised her voice, ‘You. Weren’t. Listening. Were you?’
She was right. I wasn’t. I loathed her classes because she’d sucked all the joy out of messing around with flour, butter and eggs. To make matters worse I hadn’t confessed that the embroidered name on my starched kitchen cap wasn’t mine. There’d been a mix up in the needlework class and the teacher had pencilled the wrong name on my cap. I was an unassuming child raised in the English manner and rather than make trouble, I’d dutifully embroidered the cap. I then spent the following year inadvertently snubbing Mrs Sullivan when she called out my supposed name. My inattention resulted in mediocre grades for Cookery.
Nigella Lawson is the antithesis to Mrs Sullivan. Licking a wooden spoon in Mrs Sullivan’s class was a heinous crime, whereas Nigella believes in the bacchanalian joy of food. She likes nothing better than licking mixing spoons. Nigella not only licks, she purrs. For many years, we’ve lived in a world of celebrity chefs promoting carb laden cuisine. Bacon ice-cream anyone? At the same time, muscular ‘reality’ TV weight loss trainers sagely advise the contestants, ‘Treats are for dogs.’
Glossy fashion magazines frequently pose the question, ‘Why don’t French women get fat?’ There’s an entire diet book industry built around this dodgy question. After all, French cuisine is lauded for its exquisite gateaux, pastries and national dishes that rely heavily on butter and full fat cream. Interviews are regularly conducted with fashionable Parisian women, who swear they owe their petite figures to portion control. Treats are strictly monitored: a tiny piece of Camembert, one petite madeleine or a whisper of chocolate gateau. Strangely enough – even their dogs look lean.
But you only have to leave the epicentre of fashionable Paris, and take a train to the outer suburbs or the provinces, to realise that not all French women are fixated on being Greyhound lean and hungry. Curvaceous French women can be seen dining in public, enjoying flavoursome creamy, garlic laden dishes and recklessly swilling down champagne and cocktails. For lunch, they publicly indulge in tasty charcuterie and chunks of Brie cheese. And at breakfast, the ladies aren’t shy about adding extra butter to their croissants. The sinful lusciousness of it all – sugar, carbs, alcohol, chocolate, butter and cream. Vive la France!
‘Lesley Truffle’s new book, The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte, is published by HarperCollins Publishers and available now – http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781460751442/the-scandalous-life-of-sasha-torte/#sm.00008ghxp0glwfs5r7510ylxwi26l.’