Lately, I have dreamt in custard. Lying in bed last night, I could have sworn I could smell the faint boozy hum of vanilla, the richness of eggs and cream. It’s not surprising. Over the last month, custard and I have become pretty well – if reluctantly – acquainted.
It’s been an unusual week. A busy week. A week mostly of faltering but also of jubilation. A hot, damp, sticky week. And the last thing I thought I’d be doing would be celebrating with a damp, sticky cake. But here I am, with malt loaf in my sticky paw, celebrating.
A cake has taken over my life. I’m not actually a very cakey person. As much as I love making them, I’m more likely to reach for a biscuit or a pastry or, if I’m brutally honest, a large bag of crisps. And when it comes to cakes, I’m particularly reluctant to go for a chocolate cake. Give me a lemon drizzle, or an almond cake, or something filled with curd or jam. Chocolate is never my choice. Until now. Until this cake.
Sometimes, especially when I’m sad, or just find myself in a bit of a cooking rut, I realise that what I need is a taste of home. And growing up in the North East, in Newcastle and South Shields, that taste of home is the stotty bread. So I have spent the last week making stotties, and it has been glorious.
Brioche is amongst the loveliest of breads to bake, and the most rewarding. But it’s also one of the most daunting. You don’t fall into brioche. You don’t find yourself accidentally making it at 10pm at night. It requires planning and perseverance and a lot of eggs. This is serious baking. This is reading a phone contract before you sign it bread. This is buying bin bags before the last batch have run out dough. This is consider getting a pension, realise you can’t afford it, and then consider having children, so that they can look after you in your old age kneading. Brioche is grown up baking.
Jane Grigson does not like rhubarb. Jane Grigson does not like rhubarb at all.
Her Fruit Book is a delightful and beautiful thing: each chapter is a paeon to an individual fruit, listed in alphabetical order. All, that is, apart from her chapter on rhubarb. That chapter is something to behold: a barely disguised invective against rhubarb, laced with vitriol. Yes, there are recipes within the chapter, but each speaks of flavours that will ‘improve’ or ‘ameliorate’ rhubarb, and are littered with caveats.And don’t get her started on rhubarb and custard: one two line instruction exists and begins with the fatal line ‘if you must have rhubarb with custard’. The entire chapter drips with disdain and derision.
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.
I wish I were someone who was organised and neat, someone who excelled at making organised and neat lists, and then methodically ticking off each item on completion. But that will never be me.
And that is why, despite my best efforts, I found myself in Newcastle on a rainy Northumberland Street on 22nd December trying to decide whether I should spend £15 on a jar of pork scratchings, or just scratch my own eyes out and be done with it.
Sometimes I worry that I’m flighty. And not in a charming, no one can tie me down, I’m-a-free-spirit sort of way. But rather skittish, unreliable, inconstant. When I feel that way, I come home and bake spelt bread.
Spelt bread is grounding. It is quick, physical work that you have to do with hands. It doesn’t require skill or implements or fancy ingredients. I don’t need to set a timer, or panic about precision. It transforms me into someone pragmatic and capable and resilient.