Before I had children, I never baked a damn thing. I never saw the point. Why bake when you can buy (especially if you shop at Waitrose)? I remember attending the 1st birthday of my niece, years before I had Prima. My cousin, the baby’s mother, is a brilliant doctor and dedicated mother, who insisted on baking the birthday cake herself.
In Sri Lankan Tamil families, the first birthday is a very important one. Families have been known to invite the entire community, the attendance list and seating plan is highly political and the poor unsuspecting one year old is subjected to a trial run for her wedding where she is surrounded by complete strangers, 500 of her parents closest friends and people they were too afraid of not to invite. Thankfully my family has always had the presence of mind and the tightness of wallet not to do the traditional first birthday, sticking to a party for just immediate family, which brings the number down to 50.
At this particular birthday party I just could not understand why my cousin would want to bake for 5 people let alone 50, and why, when so many of our aunties can bake so well, she didn’t simply outsource. That’s just good project management.
But then of course I had my own children and moved into a neighborhood where every mummy and nanny could bake for England. Suddenly my sense of womanhood, no my sense of motherhood, became intimately connected to this previously innocuous if not tedious task. Not only did I need to bear and breastfeed my children, I also had to be able to bake for them. The innocent cupcake came to represent something far more ominous than the sum of all its ingredients.
Amongst my circle of friends, I was one of the few women who went back to work after having children. I make absolutely no value judgement of any woman’s choices in this area, except my own. Every morning, 4 days a week, I slung my red shiny handbag over my shoulder, packed with a blackberry, tube pass, security ID card and a massive guilt complex, placed neatly between my lipgloss and my growing sense of failure. All day at the office I would run around like a crazy person trying to complete a full workload in fewer days for lesser pay, never feeling like I was completing anything. I would then run home, and force my children to spend quality time with me.
My heart would sink when one of them would produce a crumpled note reminding me that tomorrow was yet another fundraising bake sale. After putting the children to bed, scoffing dinner, logging back on to work and attempting to control my inbox, I would bake at 10pm so I could wake up at 5:30am to ice the cake, so I could be at work by 7:30am so I could leave work at 5pm so I could be home by 6pm so I could force my children to spend quality time with me again. The icing on the cake was so haphazard (my eyes aren’t really open at 5:30am) that Prima knew she was supposed to lie if asked about it and say that she and her little brother did it. But at least Prima went to school with a homemade cake proving in my sleep deprived brain that she was not a love and attention deprived child because I was a working mummy.
Which brings me to why all this talk of baking. On Saturday it is election day and Prima’s school is a polling station. The school will be holding a fundraising bake sale, raising money from Australians as they go to vote. Today the head of the Bake Sale Sub-committee of the Fundraising Committee of the PTA approached me with a note requesting contributions. There was a fire escape behind me and although the voice in my head was shouting “Leave the children, save yourself!” I knew that she knew that I was trapped. I anxiously asked her what kind of a contribution she would like, hoping she would say cash or cheque would be fine. Apparently homemade cakes or slices are fine. I should have said to her that I recently migrated from London and am still living out of boxes, I have four children including a newborn who has a cold, and after years of juggling a blackberry and a baking compulsion, every part of me just needs a nap. Instead I found myself committing to make a cake which had me more worried than the prospect of being governed by the speedo wearing, abstinence swearing Tony Abbott.
But then I remembered the following: all those years ago, my first attempts at baking involved detailed research using multiple primary sources, retaining a panel of mummies for advice and expert evidence (including the wonderful mummyinahurry), marking up recipes where best practice dictated deviating from the letter of the law and anally retentatively keeping all my know-how in a black folder with colour-coded dividers. Baking gave me a bigger tension headache than due diligence. Then one fateful day, Secundo, aged three at the time, pulled up his small stool next to me while I was baking. He put everything in the blender: the flour, the sugar, the block of butter, the eggs and a good measure of shell. He laughed his tinkly little laugh and pressed blend. Unwittingly he recreated Nigella Lawson’s Victoria Sponge cake (just blend everything whilst seductively wearing your pyjamas) and we have never looked back (or stopped laughing whilst baking) since.