I recently read about a three year old French child who bakes her own cupcakes. I imagine she needs help putting them in the oven, but apart from that she’s her own pastry chef. Much has been written recently about the difference between French and American children, and the way the French like to ignore their offspring.
I remember teaching English to a Parisian lady (and mother) who told me outright that she found ‘pre-language’ children uninteresting. They were simply beneath her until they could find the right words to keep her in the room. So the idea of a small child not just able to feed herself, but preparing baked goods was interesting to me. The French idea is that children should learn to be self-sufficient from a young age, resourceful and able to deal with periods of boredom and frustration – periods of aloneness, without setting fire to themselves or the house.
I too have memories of long, starchy afternoons, when time would linger and there was nothing much to do and no one around. This was before the days of constant adult supervision – or in the words of the late, great Nora Ephron, before parenting became “a participle.” My refuge was reading, and making concoctions from scrag ends of food and my mother’s baking chocolate, which was like snacking on tar. It wasn’t just unsweet, but rock hard, greasy and impossible to either bite into or break off. I think she got it from a wholesaler called Norman’s in Budleigh Salterton. I don’t remember it ever being employed in a cake, but perversely for something inedible, she always hid it so it could only ever be accessed by balancing on a stool, hoisting myself up onto the counter and rummaging through packets of dessicated coconut and paprika until my hand landed on a wrapped lump the texture and weight of a horse-shoe. I cut my gums on it.
My nana from Australia sent me my first cook books. Floury Fingers by Celia Hinde did interesting things with fondant, but left me with a lifelong suspicion of cup sizes. The second book, though, became my friend, babysitter and an endless source of material both for my cooking life and beyond. It was called the Kids’ Own Book of Stories and Things to Do. It was an absolute treasure trove. I think it was seasonal because one section was all about ice lollies and then another one had pictures of snow and mittens. There were stories of betrayal, wallabies, children of different ethnic backgrounds, slides, kites and all sorts. I loved the recipes the best and returned year after year to try them out. I rarely had the right ingredients. Sugar was banned in our house, except for muscovado that turned tea to treacle, though it was nice on porridge. We kept goats, whose warm (and occasionally hairy) milk softened our cornflakes in a way that I can only describe as off-putting. Raspberries were picked fresh from the bush for breakfast. There was ratatoullie and lambs’ brains. I wasn’t particularly appreciative.
What I wanted was cake. Preferably with thick slopes of icing and cut into giant-sized wedges. I do remember being terribly sick but still managing to swallow a few slabs of chocolate cake at another child’s birthday party, the sweat beading across my brow, twin flares of fiery red on each cheek. So slabs it must be here – as an homage to what I would have baked had I had the requisite ingredients. I did my best. I made chocolate logs that my dad said looked like dog turds, and rock cakes that lived up to their name. Had I not had huge swathes of time to explore, I probably would not have made them at all, so I’m grateful I was allowed to get on with the business of childhood without too many interruptions.
I am still in search of the perfect cake, even now. Something you can eat for breakfast (toasted, with butter), for elevenses, or brunch, for afternoon tea, and of course, for pudding. Beginning with this cherry-almond loaf cake, the cataloguing has officially begun.
Now’s the time for cherries – the Bing variety has that deep, glossy coat, almost mahogany in hue, but any cherry can be made into a decent compote. The trick is no water, only a little sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The cherries should keep their shape and not be overcooked. If you already have a jar of such things, or you have some (preferably undyed) glacé cherries, you can skip this bit.
Adapted from Lindsey Shere, Chez Panisse Desserts
1lb ripe cherries
2 tbs sugar
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
Put the cherries, stems and all, in a colander, pick out any bad ones, rinse and pat dry. Put them in one layer in a pan. Sprinkle the fruit with sugar and shake over a medium high heat for about 5-10 minutes. The sugar will melt and the cherries will feel soft to the touch. Don’t go to mush. Sprinkle with the balsamic vinegar, and shake for a minute or so more. Scrape the cherries, together with their juice, into a container and let them cool before chilling. You can serve them as they are (they love ice cream), or stone and stem them for use in the cake.
Cherry-almond loaf cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson, How To Be a Domestic Goddess
Here, I’ve reverted to grams; going back to my roots.
200g cherries (stoned, stemmed and halved)
250g self-raising flour
(or add 1tsp of baking powder to every 125g/4oz of plain flour)
225g softened butter
175g cane sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
2-3 drops of almond extract
100g ground almonds
9x5ins or 23x13x7cm loaf tin, lined and buttered
Preheat the oven to 325F/170C. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten eggs and almond extract, alternating with the flour and ground almonds until it’s all one. Fold in the cherries, and then the milk and spoon the thick mixture into the loaf tin. Bake for ¾ – 1 hour, or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave in the pan on a wire rack until completely cooled. Makes 8-10 slabs.
p.s I read about the cupcake-baking three year old in The New Yorker. Here’s the whole article if you want to read on.