I am addicted to The Great British Bake Off – to all of it’s sieving, shaking, folding and whisking – to the extent that last winter, delving into the cupboards to stave off a seismic episode of the winter blues, I went doolally. I baked every weekend, large victoria sponges with vanilla buttercream and expensive, out-of-season berries. I forgot that my husband didn’t eat cakes, thereby leaving me to eat a third of it over the next few days and then throw the lot in the bin. I used to stand, sentry-like, against the door of the oven in our old flat, to ensure it stayed properly closed so that the aeration effect of the self-raising flour would not be jeopardised. Choux buns launched themselves out of the kitchen and landed, coolly glazed with organic dark chocolate and edible gold baking stars, to be munched and savoured through repeats of Downton Abbey on ITV3. I fretted over the state of my ginger nuts. I baked chocolate roulades in feverish, hasty bouts of pre-menstrual madness. And then, at some point during the spring, I came to my senses and got a life.
Did get me wondering though. Surely I could brave the interrogation of Mary Berry and that strapping Yorkshire bloke with the thick, grey spiky hair. Would my drop scones pass muster, or could I meringue myself into a frenzy, whilst staring out Sue and /or Mel with the soundbite “I like to bake IT RELAXES ME. During baking I fantasize about living in the 1950s and I find this rewarding. Why are you standing on my vanilla essence?” It amazes me that, tortes whirling through the air like plates, the bakers keep their cool in the final moments of the ticking clock whilst Sue and/or Mel ask them questions like “You’re struggling a bit today aren’t you? Your muffins flopped and your crumpets defied belief. You remember where you parked your car, don’t you? Don’t bump the SMEG fridges on the way out. They’re hired.”
Amongst all this cutesy-cutesy, retro, pastel-coloured world in which the GBBO lives, is the repeated, heraldric message of the triangular Union Jack flags, floating above the cinnamon musk of sweet bagels and looking like last year’s bunting. One entrant was criticised this week by producing a cake dotted with so many crescents of clementines he was accused of being “too 1970s”. Such are the highly-ranked standards of the GBBO, however, that this entrant still was awarded the much-desired title of “This week’s star baker”. 1970s is bad. The GBBO is about harvesting ideas of 1950s retro, and don’t you forget it. It’s about romanticising and slightly fetishizing the golden glamour of the perfect English housewife, the Betty Drapers who didn’t turn to the bottle, the wide-skirted ladies with the permanent red lipline who appeared in adverts for estate cars, three piece suites and caravan holidays. In the safe smog of the baking fumes in the kitchen we can return to our true domestic selves. We shall bake our way through the recession. In fact, we already are – what with sales of cake stands and baking utensils up 10% in John Lewis over the last twelve months. Running through this is a restorative red, white and blue ribbon of Britishness. We find solace, as ever, in golden age fantasies of the past, feeding our Caerphilly and rosemary scones to the blushing cricketeers who team from the cricket pitch on the village green on cloudless, ever sunny, English afternoons.
The problem is, the 1950s weren’t actually like that (No? Really? I hear, shouted from the back). Firstly there was polio, which really disturbed your Battenburg skills and left you with a permanent limp, if you were lucky to survive it. Heroin was legal, which probably explains why all those housewives in adverts in magazines are smiling. Corporal punishment was still the law in all schools. But perhaps most cripplingly for our national bakers, tea was on ration until 1952 and eggs and sugar until 1953. How would Mary Berry cope with producing an ideal meringue or a creme caramel of crippling beauty with the dredges of bastardised powdered egg that lurked at the bottom of the housewives culinary arsenal? It wasn’t until rationing was completely lifted in 1954 that people were able to focus on getting fat again, and buying as much butter, sugar, eggs and sugared, decorative swans etc as they wanted.
During rationing, bakers had to get inventive. Margarine or dripping could be welcome substitutes for butter, but margarine doesn’t bake brilliantly or produce a richness of flavour. Dripping just makes a cake feel unrelentingly suet-y. But it is the eggs where the problem really arises. Eggs are incredibly versatile – especially on their own, whether you fry them, poach them, go all continental and produce an omelette or scramble them. The alchemy they perform in a cake cannot be echoed by any other foodstuff, hence the fact that ration era recipes from the 1940s and 1950s don’t even try pretending to imitate the noble egg and leave it out altogether. Try this ration era recipe:
Eggless Sponge Cake
Cooking time: 20 mins Quantity 1 cake
6 oz self-raising flour with 1 level teaspoon baking powder or plain flour with 3 level teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ oz margarine
2 oz sugar
1 level tablespoon golden syrup
¼ pint milk or milk and water jam for filling
Sift the flour and baking powder. Cream the margarine, sugar and golden syrup until soft and light, add a little flour then a little liquid. Continue like this until a smooth mixture. Grease and flour two 7 inch sandwich tins and divide the mixture between the tins. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until firm to the touch just above the centre of a moderately hot oven. Turn out and sandwich with jam.
When you’re feeling festive you could even attempt the Wartime Eggless Christmas Cake. Note use of carrots, a common wartime substitute for everything it seems. This cake seems incredibly dense, so may come in useful in the event of an enemy attack, whereupon you can pelt unwanted German interlopers with slices of it:
- 1 large carrot finely grated
- 2-3 tablespoons of golden syrup
- 3 oz sugar
- 4 oz margarine
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
- ½ teaspoon of almond essence (or 1 teaspoon of rum extract)
- 6 oz dried fruit
- 12 oz self raising flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 small teacup of slightly warm tea or coffee (with milk in)
- Cook the grated carrot and syrup over low heat for few minutes
- Cream the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy
- Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the syrup mixture and then beat it into the sugar and margarine as if adding an egg, bit by bit
- Add the vanilla and almond essence
- Add dried mixed fruit
- Fold in the sieved flour and cinnamon
- Add some of the tea or coffee if needs be. The batter needs to be thick but moist.
- Put the mixture into a greased tin
- Smooth the top
- Place into pre-heated oven at 200C for 15 minutes
- Reduce temperature to 160C and cook for 45 minutes
- Cool and decorate with edible toppings
The recipes fail to comment that you won’t have a bowel movement for the best part of a fortnight, but I suppose that’s not important if there’s a war on. You would also have to contend with mockeries – mock marzipan, mock meringue, mock icing. The closest thing Mary Berry or Baker Paul would get to a dark chocolate gateaux with blackberry and vanilla coulis and a rose-infused sponge in 1952 would have been “Duke Pudding” which is like Duke Ellington except it is made of cake. It was the closest a housewife could get in 1944 to a “chocolate fix:
- Soak 2 breakfast cups of stale bread (about 5-6 slices) in a little cold water then squeeze the water out until it is as dry as possible.
- Beat out lumps with a fork
- Add two tablespoons of fat or margarine , 2 tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of dried fruit , small teacup full of grated carrot, 1 teaspoon of mixed spice or cinnamon.
- Stir 1 flat teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a few teaspoons of milk and mix and then blend well into the mixture
- Spread evenly into a well greased tart tin or pie dish and cook in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes.
Whilst a noble attempt at a sugary cake, this appears to have no sweetness in it all, except that which comes from the cinnamon or the carrot. Mary Berry would show it the door, particularly if some wartime housewife presented this during the “Technical Challenge”. But it is the biggest challenge of all – to create a foodstuff associated with plenty and luxury when you have neither of those things. Amidst all the gingham patterns and the Americana 1950s refrigerators, there is some things in The Great British Bake Off that would be foreign to any housewife of the post war years – the waste inherent in chucking away unsuccessful cake mixes without a second glance and the pure, wonderful glory of actually having six ounces of butter.
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