"Just the way your mother baked it" has never been to me an entirely convincing slogan by means of which mass manufacturers of pies or cakes endeavor to take one for a ride.
How could they compare? Did they ever actually try my mother's ginger cake, coffeecake, chocolate cake, marmalade cake? Or her lemon cake with its soft, slightly crumbly texture and its blissful contrast between sweet and sharp?
Even now, the nostalgic taste buds set the mouth to watering at the very thought of it. Frankly, those commercial boys are clueless. I know for a fact that none of them ever sat down to teatime at our place. Their absence from that irresistible event testifies to the doubtfulness of their credentials.
Of course I am aware that there are those who were misguided enough to have had mothers who wouldn't or couldn't cook. To them, such a slogan must contain an uncomfortable irony – why would anyone try to sell you a cake as awful as your mother's forlorn attempts?
It was talking to Stevie, my new neighbor, that put me in mind of the maternal baking. This year he has started growing his own vegetables, and our plots adjoin. We chat over the fence. It turns out that he is a chef by profession. He's even cooked for Princess Anne. He told me that at one point, he spent three years learning to make pastry.
This seemed amazing to me. Three years! But it also made me realize that the dubious results of my one or two attempts at pastry might perhaps have been due to lack of dedication.
My mother made delectable, flaky pastry, and although her "training" had been in the kitchen of her mother's house, she had, by the time I came along, been making pastry for much longer than three years.
But in my chat with Stevie, what reminded me most of my mother's cooking was his description of a master chef he worked under at one time.
Stevie cupped both hands and moved them up and down. "These were his scales," he said. That master chef never weighed ingredients in any other way. "I tried to copy his method once," Stevie added. The results were apparently a disaster.
His boss's comment was: "You're the worst ... chef in the country!!" As Stevie quoted this, he winced comically. He still doesn't remember the criticism with unmitigated equanimity.
My mother did have scales – old ones with circular iron weights – but I think she measured the proportions of her ingredients without much recourse to weighing.
She did, very occasionally, have disasters, but they were what you might call positive disasters. One of my favorites was the marmalade that crystallized so that eating it was a gloriously crunchy affair.
Then there was her "crater cake." Cakes are not supposed to sink in the middle, but after it happened by mistake, she learned how to make it happen deliberately from then on because it was so popular. The crater was filled with all sorts of good things, chiefly with what Britons call icing.
With her flaky pastry, she made wonderful sticky jam tarts – red, golden yellow, and sometimes dark green if there was any greengage plum jam available.
If she filled them with mincemeat, she'd provide a pastry lid over it. She brushed egg yolk on the pastry lids of tarts and pies to give them a kind of varnish, and she'd pierce them with a skewer. I always assumed these little holes prevented explosions, but maybe they had some less dire purpose. She also cut out pastry leaf shapes for decoration.
One teatime pleasure was a kind of cake that my mother hadn't invented – as its name showed. We called it "Mrs. Johnson's Uncooked Cake," although where Mrs. Johnson got it from, I don't know.
This rich confection wasn't baked at all, but simply mixed and cooled. It was a kind of official version of the leftover uncooked cake mixture that my mother gave us to scrape out of the bowl. I always felt this delicious treat was possibly even nicer than what came out of the oven.
Immeasurable pleasures were always to be found in the warm kitchen of our house, and it is precisely that generous home atmosphere out of which cakes and buns and jam tarts and gingerbread emerged, utterly fresh, that no assembly-line bakery can possibly imitate.
The fact is, nothing can be just the way your mother – or mine – baked it.