Last year was a year of pastry. Of cakes and tortes, of weddings and supper clubs. Of learning how to cook for others, of learning how to put a dish together, of learning what it means to put a dish in front of someone else. It was a year spent in kitchens: church hall kitchens, kitchens we erected in garages, bright, white, professional kitchens.
I whisked sponge after sponge, made litres of custard, bloomed my weight in gelatine, carved grape after grape. I shredded kilos of slow cooked lamb, arranged dozens of salads, stacked tier after tier of wedding cakes.
When I began writing about food, I couldn’t conceive of a time where I would be able to, let alone want to, create my own recipes. I clung to cookbooks and columns: the recipes of others were more than support to me, they were the be all and end all of cooking. This shows in my first blog posts, retellings of Nigel Slater’s lemon curd and banana cake, Nigella’s clementine cake, Justin Gellatly’s biscuits. My stories framed by their food.
This week at college has been afternoon tea week. The name sounds elegant, serene, and not terribly labour-intensive. It’s the main event in the college calendar to show off to one’s loved ones: an actual afternoon tea, hosted by superior students, to which friends and family are invited to try our wares, all participating in the fiction that they haven’t spent the last six months having our class bakes almost literally rammed down their throats.
A combination of having a little sister called Madeleine, and our family holidays almost always being in Northern France meant that the holiday souvenirs we inevitably brought back to school were madeleines. We would traipse back to school with packets of supermarket madeleine cakes, unavailable in the UK and so positively exotic in 1994. Slightly compromised from spending two days in a hot car and ferry, those madeleines retained the strange bounce peculiar to European bagged longlife cakes, and a strangely synthetic lemony aroma. They would be gone in moments. Each year we’d bring back more than the previous, and each year, they would disappear instantly.
I began this week badly, with a roaring hangover, a hangover-induced shame spiral, and eight days until my exams start. Gently rocking on the sofa, trying to remember the proportions needed for a soufflé chaud and not remember my less than decorous behaviour the night before was a tall order.
Wednesday is St David’s Day, and in our household that means one thing: Welsh cakes. Sam and his family are Welsh, and Welsh cakes are a staple all year round for them. Of course this meant that the prospect of trying to pull together a recipe that stood up against those of Sam’s childhood was a daunting one.
I’ve been lonely this week. I didn’t expect to be lonely, I expected to embrace my partner’s ten day absence on a work trip in a haze of relaxation with occasional stabs of wild productivity. I would clean the oven! I would take bubble baths every day! I would read nineteen books! Instead, I’ve just been a bit sad and pathetic, moping around the too-quiet house.
I’m licking the last of this recipe off my spoon as I press ‘send’ on a pitch about the tyranny of wedding diets. Because honestly, even if I had even the slightest inclination to spend a whole year of my life not drinking wine and demurely declining puddings and pastries, sticky buns and smelly cheeses, not touching blisteringly hot, glassy roast potatoes or crumbling, buttery shortbread, this recipe would be my undoing. Let’s be real, I will never have that level of will power, and I don’t especially long for the ability to deprive myself of the things that bring joy to my personal and professional life, but even if I did, speculoos chocolate fondant would see off any such intentions.
I have a little electronic diffuser in the room I write in. It is a small white cylinder, that sits in the corner of the room, far away enough from my desk so that I have to actually get up to fiddle with it, but close enough that as it pipes out its scented steam, glowing and vibrating ever so gently, it feels comforting, as if it’s quietly breathing alongside me.
I’ve been back in London a couple of weeks now, and back at college one week. After ten glorious days of being hosted and cooked for and looked after, I came home ready to cook up a storm, flexing my now rested culinary muscles, which hadn’t really been exercised since last term’s exams.