At my 21st birthday party, I had a perspex tower of cupcakes, with huge swirls of icing – ivory and duck egg blue, to match my invitations. I was so desperately proud of them. I was 21 and energetic and brave and stupid. Stupid because cupcakes are simply dreadful.
This is quite a silly post about a very silly recipe. This cake is not big and it is not clever. So much so that I very nearly did not write this post. But it turned out to be really quite joyful, and a perfect cake for Easter, and so here it is.
There is something deliciously liberating about cooking something you know will be unremittingly ugly. Step forward Brutti ma Buoni.
When I am fretful, I run away to sea.
I was born by the sea, and grew up by the sea. I am from South Shields, a small coastal town in between Newcastle and Sunderland, that sits at the mouth of the Tyne, with a coastline of pigeon-grey cliffs. If you are born in South Shields, you’re not a Geordie, or a Mackem: you’re something different, all of its own: you are a Sand Dancer. I am a sand dancer. I am a beach baby. There is salt and vinegar in my blood. Lighthouses make my heart soar. My spirits can be revived by a single pickled egg.
I am, in truth, an incurable showoff: disgustingly competitive and wanting nothing more than to bathe in the adoration of others. Which is why I was irritated this week, when the home baking I’d poured blood, sweat and golden syrup into looked, well…home baked.
I have become obsessed with tiny kitchen miracles: little, unassuming, simple recipes, that for whatever reason become so much greater than the sum of their parts. A paltry number of ingredients that give way to deliciousness or complexity that almost defies reason. This shortbread is a tiny kitchen miracle.
For the last week I have had acute Christmas anxiety. So I made brownies. Christmas brownies. The best brownies, possibly, that you will ever taste.
When I say ‘Christmas anxiety’, I don’t mean indecision over which cheeses to buy, or what to wear for Christmas Day, or even whether I’ve bought particularly rubbish presents (although, also all of those).
We never really did festive baking in my house. Mince pies were Marks & Spencer. Yule logs never crossed the threshold. Stollen was an unknown, and Pannetone hadn’t made it to South Shields in 1994. The exception was the Christmas cake.
I spend a lot of time evangelising about stews and soups and curries and their particular value during the colder months. And they are important. They swaddle you in warmth, they comfort you with their stodge or depth or nursery-like qualities: they feed you up, and steel you against the outside world.
Bonfire night, for me, conjures up thoughts of food: watching fireworks in a cold, dark field, is synonymous with almost-too-hot-to-hold baked potatoes, thick, steaming soup in gloved hands, and charred sausages. So why do we waste our time with the eternally disappointing toffee apple?