“So,” my Scottish great aunt asked my husband, “is she a good cook?”
Sensibly, he affirmed.
“Ah that’ll be the English in her” said my aunt, probably one of the few times when ideas of Englishness and good cooking have been put together.
I was somewhat surprised at my great aunt who was usually quite modern. But maybe she thought it was still the sort of thing you asked a relatively newly married couple.
“The Scots can’t cook” she informed my Welsh husband.
“Granny Mac was a good cook” I argued (Granny Mac being her older sister).
“Uh-huh but that’s unusual, perhaps it was all that time living in England.”
Fast forward a few years, and my Welsh mother-in-law tells me that what I’ve just cooked couldn’t possibly have been welshcakes because I didn’t use a bakestone but a frying pan. In the end, I told her they were English and therefore King Alfred cakes, if partly because in the absence of a bakestone and as we were all hungry, they had got a little scorched in my hurry. Using the same sort of logic, my mother might possibly argue that I can’t cook scotch pancakes because I don’t have a girdle. Linguistically speaking this all boils down (if you’ll pardon the pun) to localised words for the same thing. A girdle is the same thing as a bakestone is the same thing as a smooth cast iron griddle. Call it what you will, all I have is a heavy bottomed frying pan. And if I eat too many of my mother-in-law’s delicious welshcakes I will need one of the other sorts of girdle.
My mother is a good plain cook. When I was about six she taught me to make scones. This was a great idea. Come home from school and hungry? Make some scones. I mention this to my daughter now when she rings me at work to complain that she’s just come in and there is NOTHING IN THE HOUSE TO EAT (having ignored the fruit bowl and vegetable basket). I tell her that when I was in the same predicament, faced with either fruit or having to do some baking, I made scones but she says “yeah but that was then, I want a packet of crisps.”
My father had a great love of food and a fascination with cooking, the more exotic the cuisine the better. Unfortunately, he also had no patience. Crispy fried eggs, undercooked potato in Spanish omelette, burnt apple pancakes anyone? Fortunately I had left home a long time before he started experimenting with making kim-chi. The only thing I ever remember him refusing to eat (apart from a Guinness cake made by my sister, which was still liquid after three hours in the oven but too revolting to drink) were “eggs cooked in vinegar” which he had found in a Middle Eastern cookbook and should have left there.
He and I had a fairly longstanding battle over food if it involved my not wanting to eat what was in front of me, particularly soft boiled eggs, but we did agree on the delights of good cuisine and his interest and curiosity led me to being willing to try most things at least once, even if we’re abroad and I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to be. A plate of gizzards wasn’t one of the best of these choices.
My husband is a great cook, although defaults to putting extra-hot chillies in everything. Both my children can cook if they can be bothered. The least said about my sister’s cooking the better.
Although Granny Mac was indeed a good plain cook, her real creativity flowed into painting in oils. Granny D however, expressed her love through sewing, knitting and cooking. I suspect that if she hadn’t married a frugal man with plain tastes, her table would have groaned under mad experiments with rich flavours. I imagine she would have loved the cornucopia of ingredients available nowadays and would have lapped up all the cookery programmes on TV. As it was, my happiest childhood memories are being in her sunny kitchen as she gave my sister and me delight after delight. We were given segments of orange and powdered glycerine for dipping so that we got that little bit of extra sweetness just for a little snack. In the days before anyone thought about sugar or salt as bad things (especially by Granny’s generation which had put up with wartime and post-war rationing), we were spoiled with blackcurrant squash and yeast extract spreads on the grounds they must be good for children, and fed up with biscuits, melt in the mouth macaroons and when the home made bottled plums finally run out or it was a special time, we had Yum-Yum cake for Sunday pudding.
Many years later, when my parents were moving from the family home to a bungalow, I found the notebook where Granny D had written down recipes from the radio or TV or magazines. In it, I found the recipe for Yum-Yum Cake, which according to her note was taken from Jimmy Young’s radio programme in 1968. She can’t have been the only person who noted it and passed it down because I am sure I saw a very similar recipe on “The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best” TV series once.
Granny D taught me dressmaking and an instinctive method of cooking. I learnt how to make a roux for a bechamel sauce by eye rather than measuring and I can do the same when making pancakes if, on Pancake Day, it all seems too much of a faff to measure out. At a push, I can just about do this with scones too. On those mornings when I remember we’ve run out of anything suitable for breakfast, I get up to make some Bad Mummy Cheese Scones (which don’t need rolling out) and put them to bake while I’m showering. I have no idea how long these would keep for as they barely have time to get cold before they’ve all been eaten.
Looking at Granny D’s terrible handwriting in her notebook fills me with nostalgia and longing for her. More years than I care to remember have passed since she died, yet I still remember the smell of her perfume and make-up, the softness of her face and her hugs. I don’t recall one negative word from her. She sat patiently and watched as I learnt to cook and sew. And as each attempt, however wonky was encouraged and supported by her, I learnt to be brave enough to try and try again when things went wrong. Perhaps that’s the greatest thing she taught me in her gentle way.
Here are some recipes for anyone who’s interested (NB Granny D’s measurements were in imperial so the conversion is the closest possible. I learnt to make scones using imperial and my electric scales can be changed from metric to imperial so I tend to use imperial. I’m not even going to try to convert to cups!):
JIMMY YOUNG’S YUM YUM CAKE
2oz (50g) brown sugar
3oz (75g) butter
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla essence (and a little less of almond essence)
6oz (150g) flour
Mix butter, sugar, essences, yolks well and add flour. When rather crumbly, put into oven dish and press down slightly and level top.
1oz (25g) chopped walnuts
1oz (25g) chopped cherries
4oz (125g) caster sugar
Whisk whites stiff, add 2oz sugar, whisk again, fold in other 2oz sugar and lastly the cherries and nuts.
Spread over mixture in dish and bake for about 30 minutes on second shelf at No 4 [180°C (350°F Gas 4)] Perhaps the oven could be at 6 [200°C (400°F Gas 6)] for quarter of an hour then turned down. This depends on oven. Delicious hot or cold.
BAD MUMMY CHEESE SCONES
8oz (250g) self-raising flour
2oz (50g) soft spread or butter
4oz (125g) grated strong cheddar
1oz (25g) mustard (dry or made)
3-4ish tablespoons of milk (you may need more or less depending on the flour)
Put oven on to 200°C (400°F Gas 6) and line a baking tray with greaseproof or oven paper.
While oven is heating up, mix the flour and rub in the spread or butter. If using dry mustard put it in before spread and mix with flour, if using made mustard add it after you rubbed in the spread (if you get it wrong the world will not end but someone might end up with a bit more mustard in their bite)
Mix in almost all the grated cheese.
Mix in the milk, bit by bit until you have a soft ball. If it’s a bit wet add some flour, if it’s too dry, add some milk.
Divide the dough into six or eight and roll each section into a ball and put onto baking sheet.
Flatten each scone slightly and sprinkle on the remaining grated cheese.
Pop in oven for ten minutes. They are done when the bottom is slightly brown and you can “knock” on them.
Best eaten hot from the oven with butter.
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission