I’ve always been a panic baker. I need only feel a hint of anxiety before I’m marching towards the flour. Long before coronavirus turned everyone into meal-preppers and hoarders, I was busy adhering to the Jewish stereotype of massively over-feeding everyone around me. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t also cook normal, nutritious meals. In fact, I only ever feel truly at ease when my freezer is bursting with all kinds of different soup. But, baking – baking is something else.
From the first second that I crave something doughy and delicious – to the final moment when I’m cutting into my sweet-scented creation, I’ve self-soothed in a way that can only be achieved through baking my own cakes. I would be a much thinner woman if I were terrible at cooking.
And yes, I have friends that love long-distance running, I know those people exist, but it doesn’t mean I understand what’s going on in their brain when it says “feeling down? Why not get all sweaty outside – problem solved!” My brain is more like “feeling down? Those bananas are ready to be made into muffins.”
Growing up, home wasn’t exactly a warm and cuddly situation, hence why I now live on the other side of the world. At 12 years old, I could probably be found sitting on a bench somewhere “loitering”, playing Snake on my Nokia 3210. If things had been particularly non-cuddly that evening, I would most certainly be at the skate park, texting my friends and, if no one was around to tease me, calling my Grandma. When she picked up, I’d immediately squeak “phone me back!” because I never had any credit on my mobile (I didn’t mean for this to be a history lesson on the early 2000s and yet, here we are). From her kitchen 100 miles away, we’d talk through recipes – Grandma’s tips and tricks for the kitchen. Emotional support kneaded tactfully into discussions on the merits of butter vs margarine. I once listened patiently to the whole creation of a coffee-walnut cake for my Aunt, sieving flour right through to the icing crumb-coat, until I realised my hand was frozen in place, and the park was getting more of a late-night vibe.
Once I reached the cusp of adulthood and realised that coffee wasn’t disgusting sludge, but actually life-giving go-juice, Tiramisu became our shared favourite treat. I’ll be honest, sometimes we made it, and sometimes we bought it from the supermarket. One time, I thought I’d try something different and I made Tiramisu with Limoncello instead of the traditional Marsala wine, per recommendation from Jamie Oliver. Giggling, with tears in her eyes, my Grandma pronounced it the most disgusting dessert that had ever been created in her honour. Several years later, that is. Credit where credit is due, at the time she’d polished off her bowl and gone back for seconds.
Even the throes of dementia could not slow my Grandma’s love of baking. One of the saddest and funniest moments of my life was when I left her alone for two minutes, less than two minutes, even! And in that time, she somehow managed to start an Italian meringue buttercream. I can only imagine that she lost her train of thought somewhere between egg whites and coffee liqueur. Because when I returned to the kitchen, I was greeted by a very confused old woman, proffering burnt-coffee-scrambled eggs in my general direction.
I remember being so worried that she was about to burst into tears. But before I knew it, we were both howling with laughter, jiggling wobbly brown egg-jelly at each other and pretending we were going to eat it. She nearly put it outside for the birds, (did anyone else’s Grandma put absolutely everything out for the birds??) until we realised it would either caffeinate, or kill them. About ten minutes later we were sat at the kitchen table, and I was taking her through the steps of coffee buttercream icing. Speaking out loud the instructions I had listened to so many times before.