IT was the first fight of Christmas, and possibly the one with the most at stake. Call me misguided or pathetic — or both — but one of the best things about the festive season was the post-baking, pre-washing-up wooden spoon.
The one with the remnants of the Yule log’s chocolate icing was a particular favourite, and usually by the time we came to do battle over it, competition in the kitchen had been whittled down to just two — my mother and me.
It wasn’t quite wooden spoons at dawn on Christmas Eve, but never underestimate the power of a chocolate-slathered spatula to thwart the tidings of peace and goodwill.
My mother, of course, always graciously conceded defeat, saying she would have exclusive licking rights when we went back to school. If the row, staged as it might have been, was the first sign of festive dissent, the generous olive branch was the first of many acts of forgiveness during the 12 days that would follow.
And Christmas would continue like that — by turns joyful, heart-warming, awkward, stressful and overwhelming. But for every occasion, there was a tipple and the results of the great Christmas Eve back-off: Yule log, mince pies and newly iced Christmas cake.
There is something about cake that provides the glue for every social occasion. It’s celebratory, joyful, a tiny bit sinful and it brings people together in all kinds of circumstances. It’s the social adhesive at Christmas but also at birthdays, bar mitzvahs, christenings, weddings … the list goes on.
No wonder the Great British Bake Off struck such a chord. In October, the show’s final episode on the BBC drew a staggering 14.8 million viewers. When it moves to Channel 4, it will lose three of its four presenters – the singular Mary Berry and comedians Sue and Mel – and possibly many of its viewers. However, it has succeeded in reawakening the appeal of baking in millions of households.
Part of the GBBO’s winning recipe is its gentle treatment of participants, its impish humour and the art of turning a soggy bottom into high drama.
It’s strange then that Irish home baking tends to be a solo activity — 65% of people bake on their own, according to a 2016 Bord Bia study. And many of those are becoming more health conscious. The home baking market in the Republic has been declining by 2.2% year on year, yet it is still worth a reported €119m.
A little surprisingly, it is still a largely female activity. Four-in-five Irish bakers are women, but here’s the interesting bit — bakers are spread across all regions, ages and social class. The fairy cake, it seems, knows no bounds.
Most of those who bake (60%) say they do it for families and friends, but a whopping 55% say they bake for fun.
And there is such fun in trying to turn sugar, butter and flour into something that bears even a passing resemblance to the grease-stained picture in the recipe book.
If you’ve managed to carve out some baking time from the frenzy of the everyday, it’s says something about your quality of life. It’s a quiet victory to be able to do something non-essential. Although, it’s hard to admit, cake is probably not vital to human life. I suppose we could survive without cake, but what a loss.
Creaming butter and sugar must be one of the most comforting, meditative acts there is. (Food-processor heretics, take note.) The wonderful Marian Keyes was not the only person to note that she was Saved by Cake. Her book on the subject describes how baking proved a daily comfort and how her depression lifted along with her sponges.
Chef and author Sophie White reprises the theme, more generally, in this year’s Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, a taboo-exposing collection of “recipes and rants” that accompany her central premise: “Life may not always be perfect, but there’s always food.”
The joy of producing that food — including, of course, cake — in your own kitchen is not only an act of fun and creativity but an elemental human right. The 1,000-plus homeless Irish families who will spend Christmas in hotels and emergency accommodation are denied so many things but among them is the simple pleasure of being able to bake, if or when the impulse takes you.
The same is true of those in direct provision, not to mention the millions displaced by war and conflict in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. What they have lost is incalculable, but when you deprive a people of the means to nourish themselves, it is the final act of human degradation.
On the other hand, there is nothing like the simplest of acts to reignite the fire of human kindness. Take what happened on a packed train on Black Friday as an example. Two inveterate bargain-hunters were coming back from Cork laden down with bags. As a post-shopping treat, they had bought a box of Marks & Spencer mince pies (luxury, of course) to have with tea on the train.
Before I knew it, a cup of steaming tea and a mince pie were on the table in front of me. Although it was still November, it struck me as the essence of the Christmas spirit (a shout out to Maeve and Muireann).
The unexpected treat also sparked something of a Proustian madeleine moment. A bite of mince pie with its hot tea chaser — don’t let anyone criticise the quality of tea on Iarnród Éireann — brought me right back to that kitchen with my mother when we would chance a just-out-of-the-oven pie to make sure they were ready for the masses.
There was another little spat over who might get the burned bits on the tin and a slight to-do about the washing up, but Christmas had truly started. It’s only now know that I can appreciate how lucky we were to have been able to bake our cake – and to eat it.