Whenever someone needs to know I care, I reach for the mixing bowl.
If you’ve had a scary diagnosis: it’s brownies, made with Muscovado sugar and a negligible amount of flour.
If you need donations for your fundraiser? Chocolate chip cookies. With golden syrup dripped in for a crystallised chewiness.
If it’s your birthday: of course, I’ll make you some cake. You get to choose. Lemon Drizzle? Marbled? Chocolate?
My husband’s daughter turned eleven when my first-born was eight days old. I made her a cake between breastfeeds: not a cake substitute or half a cake, step-cake. Stepdaughter isn’t a word I use.
I was milk-laden, bereft of sleep, just home from the hospital. Pre-referred as ‘at risk of puerperal psychosis’ – a kind of post-natal depression, but on hash brownies. More than anything, I was trying to forget that stretched ten seconds between my son’s birth and his first breath.
The hum of the fan-assisted oven covered the memory of that silence. My baby breathed, both in and out: even when I wasn’t watching. Everything was back to normal.
I didn’t know that nothing would ever go back to normal.
Sure, I’d been a stepmother – an acceptable term – ‘mother’ is a whole other section of the supermarket. After years of temporary children, it felt like an administrative error had left me in sole charge of this baby on a permanent basis.
While he was quiet, (and breathing) I baked. This was before I learned to begin by creaming butter with sugar into a sweet grease. But after I had learned not to take the cake out before it was ready. In my mind, ‘bake for’ means ‘the first time you check the cake should be after…’ The equivalent of the due date. Mind and not slam the door, because it won’t be ready.
So my cakes had stopped sinking into a hollow, but they hadn’t reached their current quality. There is no way to compare baking and parenting: I am a great baker now – but ‘parent’ is not a job I will ever learn to do well. There are far more variables than sugar, eggs and oven temperatures, and the required recipes change every day for each child.
I mixed and poured and measured and checked. I don’t remember feeling tired. All activity was powered by honeyed adrenaline and the juice of mother, stepmother.
I hoped that the cake would mark the creation of a new family. A mix. Some came in two distinct parts, with shuttling at the weekend. I had arrived later: balloon whisks, pregnancy tests and a determination not to be an evil character from a fairy tale.
Yes, we had brought a baby into a house where there would soon be teenagers. But look! I was still baking. I’m still going to belong to you, as much as you want me to. I’m not going to leave you in the woods so you can find your own house made of cake. There is cake, here, just for you.
Until I began to decorate it, unplanned, with no specific look in mind, I hadn’t realised that what I was doing was eccentric. Or obsessive? I found jelly diamond jewels in the cupboard, placed them carefully in coloured icing, added candles. It didn’t occur to me to buy, or to delegate. I could have and do it all.
This year, I made my son’s ninth birthday cake in a break from helping my husband’s daughter with some course work. She will be twenty next week.
It felt like a symmetry. A repayment. I didn’t rush, but I didn’t linger either, whipping butter and sugar, whisking eggs, adding them in three pourings. I have learned that only then are you supposed to fold in the flour. My mother didn’t believe in folding, but then she makes cakes with half the butter recommended in my splattered recipe books.
Folding flour: blending families. It’s about how careful you need to be. It’s not really blending; blending in cooking is breaking. Merging disparate items into an alternative shape and taste. Families with separated parents need to stay the same, as well as becoming different. Everything needs to be handled with the careful turn of a metal spoon, and a focus on everyone at the same time. That’s why it isn’t possible to become good at it.
It is not because I made her cake that my husband’s daughter and I are close – food does not equal love – although I like to think it counted towards something. I can’t even take credit for her genetic brilliance. Except to say that I recognised it in her Dad, who iced the cake while I helped his daughter with her work.
The essay and the cake came out fine. I hesitate to say anything about a family that ‘comes out fine’. I hope, and I bake and I keep everyone in my focus. It’s all I can do.
It is family. It is cake. Both are important.