Sunday, 4 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Baking

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling, party games and knitting.

Whenever guests were expected, the first thing you did was bake some pies and cakes. Pies were served as hot starter, after herrings, fish and cold meats. Mince-meat pie, salmon-and-rice pie, cabbage pie, mushroom pie, as large as the baking pan, with a thick crust. Or else it would be small pies or pasties, again with all kinds of fillings, and no hostess with self-respect would omit a pie on a festive table.

Russia doesn't have a huge tradition for dessert, other than ice-cream, so after the main course, tea would follow, accompanied by cake. Now, if pies were more or less universal and the only variation was the filling, cakes came in all kinds. Sponge cake, apple-and-vanilla cake, plum cake, almond cake, walnut cake, napoleon cake, roll cake, custard cake, cinnamon cake. And biscuits and tarts, dozens upon dozens of recipes, each family keeping their own secrets.

I remember when I was maybe five, a cake was magically produced from granny's room; possibly, baked during the day and kept away until evening tea. Ever since then, the recipe was called “the small cake from granny's room”. When there were many guests coming, there would be a large “small cake from granny's room”. As the only child, I was always allowed to lick out the bowl.

There were no cookbooks, so recipes were carefully written down in notebooks and passed down to the next generations. In my great-grandmother's notebook, you could read: “Butter for two kopecks”.

Nobody baked bread, because bread in the stores was cheap and good.

As a grownup, I would bake a cake at least once a week. I went on baking after I moved to Sweden, bringing all the family recipes and finding new in Swedish cookbooks. I learned to bake Swedish gingerbread and saffron buns for Christmas. I even started baking bread, not because there wasn't any to buy, but because everybody did it, for fun or for whatever reasons. I soon noticed that my bread wasn't appreciated and quit. I continued baking cakes and biscuits, but in Sweden there is no tradition of tea and cake. If you invited guests in the evening it meant dinner, not tea and cake. And there is no tradition of afternoon tea either. Somehow, there wasn't any natural cake time.

I made cakes for children's birthdays, but noticed that after the candles were blown out the guests left the cake uneaten.

I dutifully made Christmas gingerbread and saffron buns, and it was fun baking together with the children, as long as they found it pleasurable. I also baked Russian Easter cakes. 

Fifteen years ago Staffan and I went low-carb, and it doesn't make sense to bake if we don't eat it, even if baking is a pleasure. Occasionally I make sponge cake if we have guests coming for tea. Here in England I have re-discovered the joys of tea as a meal. But this is rare. I have friends and students who bake most amazing cakes, and I feel I cannot compete. There are no children with whom baking might be a way of being together. I miss it. I am not yet at the stage when I bake a cake just for myself.

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