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.
Baking in my household has been exam focused over the last three weeks, my kitchen filled with whisked sponges and beaten custards, marzipan roses spilling over my dining table. Suppers have been simple and unceremonious: my mum’s thoroughly inauthentic spag bol, eggs in various different guises, and my old failsafe, peanut butter noodles.
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.
When I was little and went out shopping with my Mum – not supermarket shopping, but proper driving-to-Newcastle shopping – we would go to the John Lewis cafe. To eight year old me, this was the height of sophistication, sitting up at the tall stools and slim bars. We tended to go there for tea and cake, and the lemon drizzle cake remains in my memory the best cake I have ever tasted, I’m sure more for its air of glamour than its baking merits. But there was one item that always called to me from the hot food counter: The Welsh rarebit. Even the name sounded exotic.
It’s the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death this week. I know this because I worked out the date prompted by an unrelated memory that sprung up on social media. And then I felt a shock of anxiety and panic that I’d had to work out the date. That it wasn’t, I don’t know, written on my soul, ingrained in my everyday life. That I’d forgotten.
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.