By Louise G. Cole
The sound of summer rain lashing the windows brings back memories of long-ago baking days with my mother, conjured to entertain a fractious six-year-old imprisoned indoors, stymied by the weather.
Outside, the brown puddles in the yard filled deeper, while indoors, a wooden crate was pulled up to the kitchen table to bring me eye level with the business at hand: fruit cake, my father’s favourite.
First was a wrestle with sheets of white butcher’s paper, cut to line the bottom and sides of the blackened old tin would had been my granny’s, and which was eventually left to me. Too young to wield the oversized kitchen scissors, I was tasked with drawing around the base with a pencil, so my mother could cut a paper circle that would fit the tin exactly.
Butter papers were produced for greasing, and the old brown Mason Cash mixing bowl set on a folded dishcloth on the table. I was in charge of the raisins, my mother pretending not to notice how many found their way into my mouth as I emptied them from the grocer’s paper bag, picking them over to remove stalks and stones. Then, they were washed and steeped in the remains of the morning’s breakfast brew.
If my mother turned to look into my face as I counted out the raisins, I stopped chewing, hoping she wasn’t going to ask a question that needed an answer before I’d managed to swallow. She told me years later that I always flushed deep scarlet as I helped myself to the dried fruit, yet swore blind I’d not taken any.
My so-patient mother usually baked using the ‘a fist of this and a pinch of that’ approach, but when I was at hand and was learning to bake, she brought out the balance scales, and showed me how to follow the recipes written in the pocket cash book she kept behind the tea caddy on the dresser.
The scales were solid, mechanical and imperial, weighted metal discs piled on one side, to offset the pounds and ounces of flour and sugar on the other.
The demerara sugar had often turned solid from humidity, and it was my job to hack at it with a big tablespoon until the dip of the scales signalled there were enough brown crystals for the cake.
Meanwhile, my mother was busy with her kitchen scissors snipping at the great chunks of candied peel, deliciously sticky and citrus-scented, and in serious need of being cut down to size.
I’d help to break the eggs into a glass dish, always white eggshells, never brown. I was then allowed to beat them with an old three-tined silver fork kept especially for the purpose.
Sieving the speckled brown wheaten flour – there was no other kind around in those days – involved checking for weevils and other foreign bodies. The butter was softening by the oven while all this was going on.
There would be much stirring and dipping of fingers and teaspoons into the mixture for a taste, with extra ground ginger added or another grating of nutmeg, a sprinkle of mace or cinnamon powder.
By this time, I was giddy with the promise of having the bowl to scrape out – I’m still convinced raw cake mixture tastes as good as the finished cooked cake! And it was all the more delicious then, because I didn’t have to share, my baby sister still too young for such a treat.
After the cake was set in the oven, with a folded sheet of paper on top to stop it from browning too quickly, there were several long hours to wait before it was cooked, to say nothing of the cooling time before it could be cut. And all the while, the delicious sweet smell of baking threaded its way through the house, filling every room.
The wait was tempered by all the clearing up to do. My oversized apron was re-tied and I was installed on a chair at the Belfast sink with a bowl of sudsy hot water and instructions not to clash the dishes down too hard onto the wooden draining board.
Washing the dishes, up to my armpits in frothy bubbles, was one of those tasks that I was still young enough to enjoy, before it became a regular chore that I was obliged to do. On rainy baking days, it was part of the indoor fun.
And the baking days entertainment wasn’t complete until at last, my father arrived home for his tea, teasing us that he couldn’t stomach that awful stink in the house. But, of course, he was always the one to cut the first slice of fruit cake, and he always let me, his eldest daughter, take the eager first bite.