Picture the scene: it’s the end of October, 2011. I’m living between parents and on sofas, out of suitcases, boxes and assorted IKEA bags. Commuting to my job in London, which somehow seems to have become the only constant in a fractured, post-break-up world.
Mind state: raw.
Baking skills: average.
Cake decorating skills: non-existent.
So… Christmas cake?
Earlier that year I had received my first issue of the excellent BBC Good Food magazine, having pleaded with various relatives for a subscription-shaped birthday gift. I ADORE leafing through the glossy pages of all the glorious seasonal recipes and foodie facts, hints and tips. It was truly a happy day for me when the latest edition hit the doormat and the next day’s train commute would be that little bit more exciting for all the foodie daydreaming I could indulge in. (Note: this is still very much the case today.)
Up to this point however, I had never truly taken advantage of the monthly recipe compendium and, you know, actually cooked much. Ahem. I had tinkered with cupcake concoctions over the last few months, frolicked with edible glitter, luxuriated in buttercream – that sort of thing. I’d always considered myself more of a baker (a provider of desserts, an exuder of sweetness) – largely as my Mum, Dad and sister are all such brilliant cooks that frankly the other courses were basically taken care of.
And then, the pre-Christmas issue landed. And it was a Thing of Loveliness. It was just cheese and canapés and fizz and mince pies and meat just falling off bones on every page AND MARY BERRY. The many-splendoured-cardigan wearer herself, smiling kindly above a Victorian Christmas cake recipe. Because, if you’re going to really crack on with this Actual Baking Malarkey, it’s totally wise and sensible to start with the British Behemoth of Baking, to make what is essentially the festive centrepiece of the Christmas dinner table. Oh, and the time between actually baking it and eating it is literally WEEKS, so gawd only knows what could have happened to it in the interval. This is before you wrap it all up in marzipan and royal icing and wait anxiously to see whether the first slice induces brandy poisoning in anyone within inhaling distance. Despite all this, I just knew I HAD to do it. Now, trying to put my finger on exactly how I made that decision, I believe it was a small revolutionary cry, though it seemed deafening at the time. A sort of smash and grasp urge to regain a sliver of independence, choice, and control. Coming up against practical difficulties, e.g. the inability to roll the fricking icing any thinner, and deciding to just try harder: roll it up into a ball again, knead it a bit, start over. I must have done this five times that first year. And I also shouted a lot. Quite possibly poured myself some mulled wine. But I did it! I covered the darn cake, and covered up the – ahem – knobbly bits with some bright, festive tinsel. Behold, a crisp, clean white slate! (Metaphor Alert.) Now what? Quick rummage through topmost boxes and AHA – 101 cookie cutters. Keep it simple – red and green royal icing. DONE!
Crucially, tinsel does not mend broken relationships. This undeniable fact can lead to feelings of General Helplessness following a break-up. So I guess instead of turning inward and running through all the things I wasn’t able to do, I made a subconscious decision to ruddy well make something completely new, totally from scratch, and to do it properly. I say ‘subconscious’ as this by no means marked the start of a clear linear trajectory in which I baked myself happily ever after; it sort of doesn’t work like that. But I’d inadvertently kick-started something within myself: a bit of faith, a sprinkling of motivation to improve a skill. Not to mention an annual promise to produce a cake.
I already happened to love Christmas, although the sheer joy I glean from designing festive accoutrements came as a bit of a surprise. I certainly don’t practice my sugarpasting skills all year round, but give it a whirl and you can actually knock out a not-half-bad-looking Santa (albeit faceless and somewhat tipsy). And the happy faces and contented munching sounds of anyone you serve it to is its own rather lovely – and wholly satisfying – reward.
You can see all my festive offerings to date in the Christmas cake gallery – enjoy!