"Meaning is located in the impossible opera cake, or the baked Alaska, or the meringue buttercream: that thing that one day you will master."

By Ruby Tandoh
Updated January 09, 2020
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Credit: Emma Darvick

I avoid talking about how I started baking. When people ask, I throw out, “Oh, just when I was at university,” followed by a self-deprecating aside about how I was eating tins of chickpeas for dinner because I couldn’t cook worth a damn, but boy, could I fuss over a croquembouche. These insincerities fly out of my mouth with well-practiced ease, and I whisk us on to the next topic. ‘‘Did you get your sink fixed yet?” I will ask, a little too urgently.

There is some truth to the story. Any liar knows that a good fib knots itself together with the truth. So when I say that I learned to bake at university, what I really ought to say is that I applied for The Great British Bake Off barely a week into starting coursework toward my bachelor’s degree. I applied without knowing anything about how to make a cake rise or whisk eggs to glossy meringue. I figured that having this external obligation—something for which I needed to practice, improve, and impress—would give me the impetus I needed to learn.

It did. I made cream cheese–filled Russian vatrushka with raspberries in the middle. I learned to make phyllo pastry by stretching dough again and again and again before teasing it out to a sheet as thin as a Bible page. I spent hours online sifting through baking blogs for any bit of expertise that would help me bridge the gap between the amateurish state I was in and the prowess of the baking show, where I wanted to be. I powered forward. I got on the show. I made the finals. I had done it.

But this kind of dreaming has its downfalls. I guess that’s why I’m wary of telling the story of how I got into baking, filled as it is with all those big dreams. When you live like this, you’re hungry for a sense of purpose that lies just out of reach. You tumble forward, off-balance, breathless, in anticipation of the moment when you finally “succeed.” Meaning is located in the impossible opera cake, or the baked Alaska, or the meringue buttercream: that thing that one day you will master. What you miss is the here and now, the meaning embedded in the everyday.

So, this is a recipe that resists romanticism and glamour and ambition. It is stubbornly brown, weighty, even ugly–not a glistening beacon of hope and change. I like this plainness. With recipes like this, I have no choice but to immerse myself in the rhythms of making: the careful chopping of prunes, the sound of batter spooned softly into the tin, the immediate reality of eggs, sugar, and flour. I am not a shimmering haze of “if only” and “one day.” I am concrete, finite, already complete. I am in my kitchen, sitting quietly in front of the oven. My hunger is just for a piece of cake, nothing more.

Get the recipe: Earl Gray Tea Bread