It started at about ten o’clock this morning. My husband, Toby, laid low by a bout of Man Flu, was lying on the lounge, snuffling piteously while I checked my email.
“Where’s my cake?” he lamented. “Will you make me a cake? I’d like one! CAKE!”
Of course, I refused this request with the asperity and hauteur it so obviously deserved. (As anyone experienced with Man Flu knows, indulging the sufferer’s whims only serves to reinforce the belief that they are, in fact, dying of bubonic plague, or possibly Ebola, rather than experiencing mild hayfever, the common cold, or – as is most usual – a hangover.) I am many things, but an on-demand cake wizard is not among them. Moaning his disappointment, my beloved reconciled himself to a cakeless existence and instead began reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, thereby redeeming himself.
Some hours passed. We had salad for lunch. I finished my editing and answered some outstanding emails. I was mooching about on Twitter in a guiltless sort of way when, all of a sudden, it struck me: banana and ginger cake, possibly with some sort of vanilla/cream involvement. Not only that, I already had most of the ingredients – some of them desperately needing to be used prior to rapidly approaching expiry dates – such that the cost of the missing elements would be negligible. I began to Tweet my enthusiasm for the project, and received only enthusiasm in return. I could do this.
By this time, Toby had relocated to the bedroom. I walked in and poked my head around the door – slyly, in the way of one proffering an unexpected treat.
“How serious were you about wanting cake?” I asked. “Because I’m totally making one. Banana and ginger.” I will admit to having emphasised these last words with a certain zealous relish.
“Can it be chocolate?” Toby asked. “Chocolate goes well with ginger and banana. I like chocolate cakes.”
I frowned. Chocolate had not been on the agenda, but perhaps compromise was possible. “We’ll see,” I said. With this established, I began the fifteen-minute trek to Morrisons, a franchise which, despite their aggravating stance on ID and alcohol purchases, nonetheless retains a good range of items. I purchased my sundries, walked back home, did the washing up, and began to arrange my ingredients on the far bench. My plan was simple: take my existing banana cake recipe, then add ginger, cinnamon and – in keeping with Toby’s request, albeit filtered through my own preferences – white chocolate. Midway through this process, however, it became wretchedly apparent that, contrary to what I’d thought, we had no vanilla essence in the cupboard.
“Rats,” I said (or some other expletive that may or may not have been stronger) – and set out again, this time barefoot and at a run, to the slightly closer corner shop at the end of our street. They had vanilla essence; I ran home, added it to my pile, turned the oven to 180 degrees, and began mixing.
In went the eggs, sugar, vanilla and butter. In went the flour, cinnamon, ginger and milk. I’d just got to the bananas when it occurred to me that the oven was being unusually silent. Given that I don’t bake regularly enough to trust that I know how to work the oven, my first reaction, on opening the door and discovering a cold, decidedly un-heated interior, was to ask Toby whether I’d turned it on properly. He poked at the door, turned the dial on and off a few times, removed and replaced the knob, tried the switch, crouched down to peer masterfully at its innards, and declared that my best bet was to leave it be and hope it started to get warm.
Given my significant doubts as to whether this would work, and refusing, after so much effort, to be thwarted by broken technology, I continued mashing my bananas, stirring the mixture, and finally dropping in most of the white chocolate drops. The oven, stubbornly, remained cold.
I formulated a plan. By which I mean, I rang my friend Sarah, who had just got home from Amsterdam, and asked if I could come round and borrow her oven. She said yes.
I informed my husband, packed my things, and started to walk.
There’s a certain sort of stare that members of the general public reserve for girls in weird t-shirts carrying clear plastic mixing bowls full of miscellaneous goop with wooden spoons poking out the end at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon – which is to say, I was stared at as though I might, in fact, be a crazy person. Possibly if the spoon had been less obvious, or the bowl more opaque, the reaction could have been different, but as things stood, even little old ladies were giving me weird glances. I ignored them, head held high, and rang the bell to Sarah’s house.
It should be mentioned at this point that Sarah lives in a student sharehouse with approximately eight other people, only half of whom I know. The slender, surprised-looking youth who answered the door belonged to the other half. Confronted by the sight of a strange woman holding a clingwrapped mixing bowl and a plastic bag full of cooking paraphernalia, he nonetheless waved me cheerfully into the house at the mention of Sarah’s name.
Moment later, Sarah herself emerged and joined me in the kitchen. As the oven preheated, we talked about Amsterdam while she chopped onions for an early dinner and I got out the icing sugar, vanilla, butter, cream and white chocolate drops and started to mix my icing. (Clearly, the overwhelming virtue of having salad for lunch three days in a row had manifested as cathartic desire to balance the calorie scales.) The cake went into the oven; the icing went into the fridge. This left me with a problem, vis-a-vis the leftover cream: there was no easy way to transport it back home, and it seemed like a waste to leave it be. For reasons unknown, this translated into my trying to change it – first with a whisk, and then with a fork – from runny to whipped.
Thus it was that when four of Sarah’s housemates (who I did know) and a friend of theirs (who I didn’t) came home, they found me sitting at their kitchen table, morosely churning a bowl of cream while Sarah cooked bolognese. It is either a testament to the nature of student sharehouses in general or these friends in particular that not a single one of them asked what I was doing there or why it involved cream, all completely unsurprised when I explained that my oven had broken and so I was using theirs, of course, as though interloping cakes were a common occurrence everywhere.
And so we talked. After forty minutes, the cake was done: I bundled it onto a borrowed plate, packed up my utensils, determined that yes, I could carry both the cake-plate and the icing bowl at the same time without endangering either of them, and prepared to go. Except that I needed to gladwrap the cake for safety. Sod’s law being what it is, all I needed on the home stretch was for some obnoxious passerby to bump me and send the fruit of my labours sprawling into the gutter. Unfortunately, this meant wrestling with a de-boxed roll of clingwrap that had twisted and torn into a sort of cylindrical Rubik’s cube. That took another five minutes – until, just as I unraveled the last thread, Sarah remembered that there was, in fact, an in-tact roll in the next drawer down I could’ve used. (In the end, I used a piece from each one, just in case.)
And then I walked home: bag over my shoulder, plastic bag on my right arm, icing bowl with spoon in my right hand, gladwrapped cake plate in my left. Again with the stares, though this time, at least, they were fewer.
Midway home I realised I’d left my favourite black jacket hung over Sarah’s kitchen chair. Of course.
But in the end, nothing could dull my triumph. I chilled the still-warm cake enough that the icing couldn’t immediately dissolve. I summoned my husband (who grumbled at having to put down Embassytown) and served the cake.
Who says persistence doesn’t pay?