I freely admit that I am not, and never have been, a baker. I've never really tried; something to do with being a little underwhelmed by anything sweet. This you may feel is something of a hindrance in the cake department, which, on balance, tends to be full of sweet things.
But I'm British for god's sake. Our cuisine may have been notorious around the world, our cooking ridiculed, but our cakes and pudding are renowned, and in a good way. So I decided that I needed to stand up and be counted; I hadn’t baked a cake since the dreaded Home Ec classes of my early teenage years (which put me off cooking until I was in my 20s) but I thought this might be a good challenge to take on. Besides, I had 22 lemons kicking around the kitchen after my Pancake Day party and I needed some satisfying ideas for a cold, damp day in March.
Inspiration comes along in strange ways and for no apparent reason I was filled with enthusiasm for cake, despite my baking experience being limited to a few failed attempts at school; (the less said about that the better. If my Home Ec teacher had had an opportunity to say that my decision to give up cookery was a wise one, she had managed to remain silent on the subject and I fled the Home Ec kitchens to both of our mutual satisfaction). But 30 years later I am fired up with fervour. Just how hard could it be? Iit would seem that 30 years has been long enough to forget my past disasters and fill me with possibly misplaced enthusiasm).
I decided to seek the help of experts and an hour or so trawling through my cookery books, I had firmly plumped for a Lemon Drizzle Cake, relying on a recipe from one of my favourite authors, Nigel Slater. I like his breezy approach to cooking and delicious use of the English language. He reminds his readers to trust their instincts and I trust him; he speaks to me in my language; he has never let me down.
It wasn’t Nigel's fault.
I am sure that if I'd had an opportunity to explain my lack of baking prowess to him, he might have comfortably steered me in another direction. He might have even gently reminded me that the art of baking could actually be considered a science. While it is a talent, it is also a skill, one in which I was sadly lacking. He might have suggested that I just stick to his Lemon and Basil Chicken recipe (Real Food), a deliciously fragrant and sticky dish that has served me well over the years. But I didn't and he didn't, blithely deciding to tackle his lemon cake (The Kitchen Diaries), the addition of ground almonds and Demerara sugar winning me over and filling me with ardour for something sweetly acidic.
As I novice baker, I really hadn’t had much call to use my electric hand-held blender. I had never had to co-ordinate myself using one and hadn’t realised just how powerful it was. With hindsight it might have been better to start mixing up the ingredients with a wooden spoon rather than using the electric mixer. It could have been that my finished cake was missing those large splatters of cake batter that ended up all over the kitchen walls, (or in my mouth, forced open in surprise as globs of uncooked cake whizzed past me).
It is highly probable that I hadn't mixed the batter for long enough (I was getting a bit bored), thinking that somehow it would sort itself out in the oven.
A false hope, as it turned out.
While the flat was filled with enticing lemony, sugary aromas, which proved that the cake was actually baking, the batter itself didn't rise. Unlike my hopes, the cake rose a bit and then just sighed and gave up. And the beautifully caramelised lemon slices that I had laboured over for hours, intended to stud my beautiful cake, just vanished into its sticky nether regions.
Loathe to throw the somewhat viscid gloop away, I took it round to H's place (he's a boy who always needs food) and we tasted it. While it wasn't supposed to look like a gloopy sludge, it was beautifully sticky, more like a pudding. And H, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, had it for breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea, which is fine by me.
Well, it wasn’t Nigel's fault at all. But I was determined not to be defeated, I’d got the baking bug and was determined not to let this failure hold me back. Day two and I was back to the culinary drawing board.
This time I cut out the almonds and used plain caster sugar instead of the Demerara in the hope that boredom wouldn't have won me over before I'd finished beating the butter.
Unfortunately I had forgotten to buy any butter, but we had a slab of margarine in the fridge going a-begging. This should have been a sign that the kitchen imps were at work again. I have never bought margarine in my life. What was it doing in my fridge? Why wasn’t I suspicious?
I had always thought that marge was great for baking cakes (possibly propaganda put about by the margarine industry), that it helps to make the cakes lighter. And, I can't say that it didn't. The finished cake looked fabulous, just the way it was supposed to. Even the topping worked. Sadly, and I don't care what anyone says, it tasted of margarine. Fortunately, the Guinea Pigs aren't as picky as I am and only left me a few crumbs.
So will I be attempting this again, in the spirit of adventure and the quest for perfection? Of course, I will keep on trying until I have nailed it. Although next year, perhaps I’ll be making lemoncello.