My mother is a fabulous baker. When we were kids, she had a round Racold oven with a lift-up lid and a round glass window on the top which grew slightly cloudy over years of constant usage. That round Racold oven birthed a million cakes and puddings and biscuits and macaroons and almost all of my childhood happiness. Because of that oven, I know that the warm welcoming vanilla fug of a recently baked cake is what paradise will smell of, if I ever get there.
It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a time in our country when, if you had a choice between being born a trust-fund baby and being born to a home where your mum baked, you would definitely have chosen the latter. Because while one could always dream that hard work or talent could approximate the sort of glittering life you could lead if you had a trust fund, nothing at all could make up for a life where the only cake you were destined to eat was what was available off the shelf.
These were the days before artisanal bakers and cordon bleu trained pastry chefs set up cake shops selling exquisite baked confections. This was the dark age; if you didn’t live in either a metro or a hill station and your mother didn’t bake, your best bet to celebrate your birthday with a yum cake was to go to the nearest halwai and buy a milkcake.
We were doubly blessed. First, Mummy could bake like a fiend, and often did. And, second, our grandparents lived in Dehradun—which was widely acknowledged to be for cake what Newcastle is for coal, i.e. the mother lode, with a number of excellent bakeries and a hundred delicious versions of cake.
It is this accident of birth that has made me a monster, a purist, a connoisseur and an unabashed lover of cake. I always carry a knife in my purse—in case someone has a cake I need to slice a wodge off of. When I’m happy, I reach for cake. When I’m anxious or fretful, cake soothes the ruffled edges of my mood. And when I am contemplative, cake makes me more mindful of my blessings. I have whipped and licked batters, I have waited in high excitement glued to the window of the oven till the cake has risen, I have opened the oven door midway to check how it’s doing and watched the cake collapse, I have stuck a million knitting needles and spaghetti sticks in cakes ostensibly checking to see if they are done, but actually to stab the cake and lick half-baked batter. I have baked a million cakes and I have eaten a trillion.
So from this high pedestal of greed and expertise, here are the truths of the universe as manifest in clumsy and delicious homemade cake crumbs:
1. Nothing in the world tastes as good as a cake fresh out of the oven. If you are the sort of person who yanks out a cake from the oven the second its made, you know that from then on there are only two certainties. First is that you will burn yourself handling the cake pan, because impatience and greed such as this knows no restraint. The cake will be so yummy, (slightly less sweet at this point than it will be after it has cooled down) and so soft and fresh that you won’t be able to cut it with a knife. It will billow seductive clouds of fragrant steam at you and in reaching to scoop it out with your greedy fat fingers before someone else gets to it, here is the second certainty: you will burn yourself on the hot cake pan.
2. a) Frosting is not cake. This seems like a simple self-evident truth, but somehow people don’t get it. Buying, baking, liking or eating cakes because of the taste or the look of the frosting is like reviewing or reading a book because you like the font. So those of you who chunter on about frosting, please understand you reveal your callowness, your general roguery and untrustworthiness to the world the minute you do so. No one trusts you and you shouldn’t be allowed to eat cake, but made to sit in a corner till you finish your barrel of frosting first.
b) As a corollary to that—cupcakes are not cakes. Cupcakes exist to look impossibly beautiful, be photographed and drive people mad with envy on Snapchat. They are NOT meant to be eaten, sometimes people forget that and then for days afterwards they have to eat plywood to get the hideous taste of cupcakes out of their mouth.
3. While a chocolate cake is the answer, a fabulous chocolate cake is an orgasm. The look, taste and appeal of every chocolate cake differs depending upon the type of cocoa used and how it reacts with the leavening agents the recipe asks for. I have wept tears of joy at eating chocolate cakes made with cocoa at all ends of the “real” cocoa spectrum—from Dutch process cocoa to cocoa that had only a nodding acquaintance with the cacao plant. These cakes have been leavened with baking soda and sour cream and buttermilk and every permutation and combination thereof. So even as these days I adore flourless chocolate tortes and use a dark double dutch cocoa powder that makes my chocolate cakes almost black, I have snarfed brown chocolate cakes and red chocolate cakes and auburn chocolate cakes and burnt sienna chocolate cakes at various stages in my life. The thing about chocolate cakes is that no matter how sophisticated or childish, how frosting laden or unadorned, how dark or not they are, they need to be damp and gooey, and they need to taste overwhelmingly of chocolate. When you eat them, they should reach out and envelop you in a big chocolate hug. There are people who put beetroot in a chocolate cake and it is my view that such people should immediately be unfriended and left to sit in the corner with the frosting eaters, because while beetroot is lovely in its own way—especially roasted and paired with goat cheese—I really see NO reason why it should do the nasty with my chocolate cake.
4. Sponge cakes remind us all of our slightly starchy but much-adored aunties. Completely fat-free yet light and airy—a good sponge is not just a fabulous er...sponge for liqueurs and drizzles and a route to reach trifle pudding heaven, but a worthy end in itself. Had with just a little compote or jam, it’s a piece of comfort and love on a plate.
5. Black Forest cake should never have been allowed to escape the Black Forest—the Brothers Grimm should have imprisoned it in a tower with Rapunzel.
6. The cakes of our childhood will always continue to exert an unnatural pull over us. So it is that my friend can get weak-kneed over a pineapple upside down cake and I can kill for a rum-laden caramel fruit cake that my mother invented and won a recipe contest for which her prize was a mixie. For years, we called it the mixie cake and even today I can confidently and objectively assert that while a pineapple upside down cake should be imprisoned along with Black Forest cake in the tower with Rapunzel, the mixie cake is a taste revolution waiting to happen. Similarly, the carrot cakes we loved in our childhood—I still adore it—they were light and flavourful and we felt vaguely virtuous eating them. But I cannot abide the American version of carrot cake where the cream cheese frosting itself can cause you to sink into the ground a few inches every day.
7. Banana bread is not a cake. Nope, no way. It is yummy and grainy and dense and the taste of childhood for most of us, but no, it ain’t cake. Get over it.
8. Cake can mean different things to different people—a chocolate cake, a fruit cake, a lemon-poppy seed cake or a spiced sticky ginger cake. But the cake that means cake to everyone, everywhere, every time, is always pound cake. A pound cake is simply a pound of butter, a pound of flour and a pound of sugar whipped together with eggs and a hint of vanilla extract. It is hellishly hard to make, because its so simple that there is no place to hide. It is the Mahatma Gandhi of cakes—empires weaken and crumble before it’s inner magnificence. It is deceptively humble with no layers, frostings, or fillings, but its virtue shines through in every bite. It is simplicity and comfort and pleasure and redemption in every slice. Everyone who has ever bitten into a dense velvety wodge of it and reeled in delight at the pure butter flavour, knows that it doesn’t matter one whit if one’s mother baked or not, if it was eaten first in childhood or at the age of 40, there is something about its deliciousness that is encoded in the collective human consciousness.
So here’s a deal. I have a marvellous, though incredibly unconventional, recipe for pound cake; I invented it after trying about 50 others (some of us do what it takes to advance the human race, we are selfless that way). If you want it, please do write in and ask, but please accompany the request with a generous wodge of the cake you dream of when you dream of cake. (Remember what I said about frosting and beetroot. And Black Forest cake.) And if your cake takes me to my happy place, prepare to be dazzled in return.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.