This is a book about baking, but not a baking book – not in the sense of being a manual or a comprehensive guide or a map of a land you do not inhabit. I neither want to confine you to kitchen quarters nor even suggest that it might be desirable. But I do think that many of us have become alienated from the domestic sphere, and that it can actually make us feel better to claim back some of that space, make it comforting rather than frightening.
In a way, baking stands both as a useful metaphor for the familial warmth of the kitchen we fondly imagine used to exist, and as a way of reclaiming our lost Eden. This is hardly a culinary matter, of course: but cooking, we know, has a way of cutting through things, and to things, which have nothing to do with the kitchen. This is why it matters.
The trouble with much modern cooking is not that the food it produces isn’t good, but that the mood it induces in the cook is one of skin-of-the-teeth efficiency, all briskness and little pleasure. Sometimes that's the best we can manage, but at other times we don’t want to feel like a post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.
So what I’m talking about is not being a domestic goddess exactly, but feeling like one. One of the reasons making cakes is satisfying is that the effort required is so much less than the gratitude conferred. Everyone seems to think it's hard to make a cake (and no need to disillusion them), but it doesn’t take more than 25 minutes to make and bake a tray of muffins or a sponge layer cake, and the returns are high: you feel disproportionately good about yourself afterwards.
This is what baking, what all of this book, is about: feeling good, wafting along in the warm, sweet-smelling air, unwinding, no longer being entirely an office creature; and that’s exactly what I mean when I talk about ‘comfort cooking’. Part of it too is about a fond, if ironic, dream: the unexpressed ‘I’ that is a cross between Sophia Loren and Debbie Reynolds in pink cashmere cardigan and fetching gingham pinny, a weekend alter-ego winning adoring glances and endless approbation from anyone who has the good fortune to eat in her kitchen.
The good thing is, we don’t have to get ourselves up in Little Lady drag and we don’t have to renounce the world and enter into a life of domestic drudgery. But we can bake a little - and a cake is just a cake, far easier than getting the timing right for even the most artlessly casual of midweek dinner parties.
This isn’t a dream; what’s more, it isn’t even a nightmare.
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