When I was a kid, I was pretty clueless about things like cooking and baking. I know I did stuff with my mother when I was very young, and had a brilliantly enjoyable term of Home Ec. (followed by an equally enjoyable term of woodwork, then metalwork) at school but by the time I was about 13 I’d lost any skills I’d had.
One day, when I was about 14, I decided I was going to bake a fruit cake for my mum. She had recently got a job after being at home for years, it was the school holidays and I wanted to help her out and do something nice for her. I’d already cleaned the house from top to bottom and reasoned that presenting her with a cake would be my coupe de grâce.
I found Mum’s cookbook, got the recipe and gathered up
the ingredients most of the ingredients the ingredients we had in the cupboards. I seem to recall we had the bulk of what I needed. I got the closest match I could to the required size of cake tin: only a couple of inches larger, which I didn’t think would matter. That day I learned it did.
The book said to bake the cake at 275 degrees. We had an electric oven but it only went up to about 240 degrees. At this stage it did not occur to me that there might be a need to find out why there was such a discrepancy in temperature. No, I just turned the oven up as high as it would go and got on with creating my masterpiece.
Having mixed everything up to something approaching what I imagined to be the right consistency, I poured the mixture into the tin and stuck it into the hot (as in the very fires of Hades) oven. For four hours.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. It was supposed to bake for four hours but I smelled a sort of charred smell and noticed a bit of a haze in the kitchen after a while so went to check. What I found was most certainly cake-shaped and had risen, although the larger tin probably didn’t help with that so it was a little dense. More than that, though, it was utterly black with carbonised raisins poking out of something reminiscent of cooled lava.
Sticking a skewer into the centre, as per the instructions, revealed that while the outside of the cake was brick-like in its density, the middle was entirely raw. This wouldn’t have happened had the internet been invented and I would have seen that there was a temperature measurement other than Celsius but, sadly for me, it hadn’t so I put the cake back into the 240C oven to continue to
Mum’s book was, of course, pre-decimalisation and everything was in Fahrenheit. I’d never even heard of Fahrenheit and, to be honest, even today if you tell me that the temperature where you are is in “the mid-80s” I’m going to imagine the skin must be burning off your screaming body rather than that you’re enjoying a hot, sunny day.
At about the three hour mark I admitted defeat. The cake was getting progressively harder to break through with the skewer but the middle was still raw. When my parents got home I explained what I’d done and my mum taught me about that thing they used to use called Fahrenheit and managed not to laugh at me too much – she appreciated that I’d tried. My dad (whose motto with food is the more well-done the better) sawed off the worst of the charred bits, which even he wouldn’t touch, and gamely declared the squidgier bits to be “quite good”. Even then I knew he was lying…
So, that was the first in a long line of disasters involving cake. Failing to live up to my early promise of winning first prize in my primary school fête’s Victoria Sponge-baking competition at the age of 6, the next 30 years were marked by a series of cake-related mishaps, each one more terrible than the first.
Until now, that is. Here’s a (horrible phone picture) of a carrot cake I made when I decided that I needed to clear a surfeit of carrots a while ago. Tip: you only actually need about 3 carrots per cake so it’s a rubbish way of using them up, really.
After I took this, I added icing and spoiled the look of it entirely without adding anything to the overall experience, so now I make it without. You can find the recipe here. I also omit the lemon and add marmalade dissolved in a little boiling water as a sort of syrup at the mixing stage. It’s squidgy and delicious and at some stage I’ll try it heated in the microwave, with custard. Stores well, in an airtight box, for a couple of weeks and can be frozen. I plan to make a batch of these in the future and freeze them for when I’m too busy to bake. I also want to come up with some sort of orangey glaze that I can pour over the cake just after I take it out of the oven. Something that won’t set hard like a glaze but won’t make the cake soggy either. Further testing is ongoing…
I’ve had more requests for this from family than any other. The cake-related mocking has nearly stopped now but cakes still fill me with dread and I approach them with trepidation.