As a 20-something career girl, I loved entertaining and experimenting with new dishes. But cakes and puddings were always the elements of a meal I would buy in ready-made.
With baking you had to be so precise and careful. So patient. So WI.
I liked cooking because you could throw in whatever ingredients you had to hand, try out new combinations, not worry too much about exact measurements. Jamie Oliver, as I’m sure you can tell, was a big influence.
But baking, well, that was different. It was more of an art to be mastered, a skill, an exact science. It was something you had to learn.
Like many women of my generation, my mother didn’t teach me how to cook, and certainly not how to bake. My only memory of cooking with mum as a child was being shown how to whisk up Angel’s Delight.
Working women, like my mum, didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. And she certainly didn’t want to glamourise the kitchen to me in any way. Mum wanted her daughters to study hard and become successful doctors or lawyers. Showing her girls the basics in the kitchen was not high on her agenda.
So while I’ve always loved eating cakes and puddings, back then I had no interest in or desire to create them myself. That was for women of my grandmother’s generation.
Then Nigella sashayed onto the scene and baking was suddenly sexy and fun. Women wanting to spend time again in the kitchen somehow became legitamised. We could surround ourselves in pretty retro accessories and Cath Kidston cake stands. Baking was a way of showing our creativity to delight and impress friends and family. We were allowed to feel feminine, rather than subservient, in the kitchen.
Nigella’s appearance on my radar coincided with social, and probably hormonal, changes in my own life. It was when I was pregnant with our first daughter Jessie that I truly began to embrace and enjoy baking. Was Nigella aiding and abetting my biological need to nest build?
A real turning point in my attitude to baking was when I joined my local NCT group in Bristol and got to know other mums-to-be. Whenever we met up, both before and after our babies were born, we’d all contribute dishes of food, much of which would be baked confection. There was probably a competitive element to this; who could bake the best while coping with sleep deprivation and mastitis? But I didn’t care. It was a lovely distraction from the sometime mundanity of life with a newborn and something to look forward to each week.
I remember when the lovely Jenny appeared with a large plate of Nigella’s decadent chocolate-cherry cupcakes at one of our NCT sessions to celebrate my 30th birthday. No-one had ever baked especially for me before. I was so moved. It was then I realised then the power and the beauty of the homemade cake.
I’ve been hooked on baking ever since.
Now I’m not saying a master baker. Baking hasn’t come naturally to me. But practice makes perfect as they say and I’m having fun trying.
While I’m not restricted to Nigella’s recipes, I do find myself returning to her books again and again, in particular How to be a Domestic Goddess. I love her banana bread, brownies, madeira cake (or rather her mother-in-laws), rocky road and chocolate loaf cake. And of course those gorgeous chocolate-cherry cupcakes.
But probably the recipe I come back to most often is Nigella’s dolly mixture fairy cakes. She says that all children love them and never a truer word was said. Although I’d only agree with her on them being “curiously therapeutic to make” if the children aren’t actually around. I do enjoy baking with the kids. But when I make these little treats with them, they always demand to do the decorating and won’t let me get a look in!
These beautiful fairy cakes have become a staple ingredient of my girls’ birthday parties. A stack of little cakes looks magical on the birthday tea table. And so much easier to send home with the guests in their doggy bags.
So, in case you don’t happen have a copy of How to be a Domestic Goddess, here’s the recipe…
Nigella’s Dolly Mixture Fairy Cakes
125g softened butter
125g caster sugar
125 self-raising flour
½ tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk
For the icing:
250g instant royal icing
Food colouring – the choice is yours
250g dolly mixtures (or really any little sweeties that take your fancy and look appealing)
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
Simply put all the ingredients, bar the milk, into a food processor and whizz until smooth. Then pulse while you add the milk a little at a time through the funnel, until you have a lovely dropping consistency.
Line a 12-bun muffin tin with 12 paper muffin cases and spoon in the mixture.
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the cakes are golden on top. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack.
Cut the peak off each cake to give it a flat top. Make up the icing according to the packet instructions and blend in your chosen colouring. Obviously divide the icing into more than one bowl if you are using more than one colour.
Ice each cake and use the back of a spoon to achieve a smooth finish. After a minute or two, once the icing has set slightly but is still tacky, decorate with the sweets. There, couldn’t be easier.
I am entering this recipe into the Forever Nigella Recipe Challenge over at Maison Cupcake. There have already been lots of great entries – you can see the others by clicking on the picture link below.