The Great British Quarantine Bake Off
It’s not so often one finds oneself with absolutely nothing to do for two or three months. Wider reading? Research? I hear you, but I don’t know who you think you’re kidding. With no conceivable schedule and nowhere to go other than the kitchen, I’ve found myself staring at the wall far more often than I usually would. Being at liberty to start and end your day as you please is fun at first, but I couldn’t hack it for more than a week - for fear of never becoming a functional human being ever again.
However long or short my days have been thus far, I’ve tried my best to keep them all from merging into one great exercise in wall staring. So, fancying myself the people’s Nigella with all the charisma and half the talent, I tied up my very high fashion Lanzarote apron (a souvenir from one of my Nan’s four week SAGA stints) and decided to give proper baking a go. I’m talking roulades and choux pastries - no fairy cakes. Not that I’ve ever been particularly great with fairy cakes anyway, they’re too fiddly.
With Mother’s Day just gone, I had the perfect starting point - I’d bought my mum Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s “Sweet” recipe book. Full of obscure ingredients and posh tiny cakes, I’d marked out most of the book just looking at the pictures. Oddly enough, no one is stockpiling buckwheat flour or mahleb right now and they were much easier to find than toilet roll - go figure.
Back home, I propped up the book against a mug of tea bigger than my head and set myself up to attempt the first recipe I’d marked out; “pistachio roulade with raspberries and white chocolate”. The buzz word there being “roulade”. Intimidated but ever-determined, I felt a little like Amy Adams in “Julie & Julia” albeit without the office job - it’s all about working from home these days. Whether Nora Ephron turns my amateur baking venture into a film starring Meryl Streep as Ottolenghi is yet to be seen, but I’ll keep you in the loop.
Expertly lit food photography for your consideration - I may explore this career path at a later date... (Photos: Izzy White)
After entirely pissing up my first white chocolate cream, I wasn’t off to a running start. With my confidence as shaky as the camera feed on Microsoft Teams, but feeling pretty glad that cooking chocolate had been buy one get one free, I started again with the mantra don’t overwhip. New cream in the fridge and cake fresh out of the oven, it was time for the roll. Now, I don’t know if any of you watched the last episode of the Great Celebrity Bake Off for SU2C, but I was prepared for a Richard Dreyfuss style catastrophe. It was only a cake! I knew that! But there and then it was perhaps the most stressful experience I’d ever had in the kitchen - even surpassing the time my housemates told me to put three times the chilli called for in my arrabbiata sauce and I got third degree mouth burn. But Ottolenghi had my back this time and I “trained” my roulade as you would a small dog, before leaving it to cool. The man is a genius. When I assembled everything for real, I had a swirl to rival the one in the book - no cracks, no folds. I felt a real sense of accomplishment, probably how I imagine one feels when looking at their new-born child. I had stellar reviews - and a huge ego trip. My dad said it was the best cake he’d ever had, and although I’ve yet to see him bake anything in my almost-twenty years, it was enough to convince me I was star-baker material. That was, until I pulled my “lemon, blueberry and almond teacakes” out of the oven and they’d burnt themselves into the tin - that’s what you get for using a cupcake tray that’s older than you.
From then on, I made adjustments to fit my amateur equipment. I might not have had “small rectangular silicone financier moulds”, let alone know what a “financier” was - turns out, it’s got nothing to do with economics - but I did have a rectangle pan and a big knife. Improvise, adapt, overcome. I’ve baked so much over the past week that my parents have asked me to take a hiatus from my new profession for the sake of their cholesterol levels. I wonder if Ottolenghi was ever told to stop baking for the sake of someone’s cholesterol? Doubt it... Anyway, I’ve made “Persian love cakes” - not actually cakes? Marzipan sort of vibes, but in a good way, “Anzac biscuits” - a real hit, the sort of cookie you feel good about eating for breakfast because there’s bran flakes in it, “brown butter almond tuiles” - or as my sister would have it: “toy-lees”... the list goes on. Thankfully, there’s five people in my house - three of them particularly hungry athletes, and my Nan and Grandad live ten minutes down the road, so they’ve been receiving porch packages on the reg’.
It might sound a little (a lot) cringe, but I’ve had so much fun! Focusing on the consistency of your cake cream is far better than focusing on an incessant stream of bad news, even if it’s just for ten minutes. If you can’t even scramble an egg, let alone face a full recipe book, don’t sweat it - you’ll find your groove. It might be painting, yoga, crotchet or picking up your old guitar, but then again, it might be re-watching every season of How I Met Your Mother. I guess what I’m trying to say is that baking isn’t going to stop the world turning, it might just make it turn a little quicker, one day at a time.
Photographic evidence of my roulade, for the record (Photos: Izzy White)