On 14th March 2021, Ireland celebrated Mothering Sunday a day to pay tribute to all the mammies and mothering figures in our lives, past, present and future. In this women’s lives, women’s voices feature, Grace Gerry reflects on her memories of her last mother and the love for baking her mother has passed on to her.
I pull out the greaseproof baking inserts for the loaf tins from the lower kitchen cupboard, in behind the Pyrex dishes and cake tins. And then I realise the last person to touch them was my mother, and she died ten weeks ago. It strikes me with a sad blow. She will never bake again. My sister showed me a photo recently that she took of my mother sitting in front of these same loaf tins at the kitchen table, the tins filled to the brim with boiled cake. Was this the last time she baked? When was that? Was it really only a little more than a year ago that my 94-year-old mother had baked these cakes?
Today I decide to make a lemon and orange cake. It is a quiet afternoon; the kitchen is tidy; I am alone and I love to bake. I measure out the butter, which is nicely soft from hours sitting on a plate in a warm room. I weigh the castor sugar followed by the self-raising flour, the eggs, the milk, and the baking powder. Today I am taking my time to get organised, assembling all the cake ingredients mindfully on the kitchen table before I start. I turn on the oven to 190 degrees, pull out the non-stick loaf tins and line them with the baking inserts. They are so much handier than greasing the tins to stop the cakes sticking.
I open the Styrofoam container of free-range eggs and crack each of them into my mother’s Pyrex bowl, a perfect size for the job. She always advised me to crack each individual egg into a cup first to make sure it wasn’t bad. I take my chances and crack each one in on top of the other, adding several tablespoons of milk according to the recipe and orange essence.
I recently bought a micro plane grater-zester, which is a great gadget for taking rind off citrus fruits. As I drag it around the freshly washed orange and lemon, the rind gathers in the folds in the device and falls into the bowl in clumps below. Later, the microplane releases a wonderful citrus scent as I wash it under the hot tap.
Now that I’ve measured everything, I put it all into the mixing bowl, retrieve the mixer and push the blades firmly in place, ready for action. I will leave the rind to stir into the mix at the end. Otherwise it clings to the blades. Three minutes later the cake mixture looks well blended and I use a spoon to stir in the fragrant citrus rind.
I carry the bowl of cake batter over to the kitchen table and ladle globs of it into the lined loaf tins, aiming to make both cakes the same size. I smooth out the surface of the cakes with the back of a spoon, open the heated oven, and arrange them on the top shelf.
With the timer set for thirty minutes I wash up the sieve, the mixing bowl, the mixing blades; tidy away the flour, baking powder, castor sugar and the eggs and wipe the kitchen table and counters. The cakes send out an aroma of sweet baking.
It’s time to make the icing. I search for a glaze icing recipe that involve orange juice and icing sugar. I find one and squeeze out an orange and lemon juice combination and pare the rind from a second orange as I have already used up the rest in the cake. After I have measured the icing sugar into a bowl, I wonder if it will be too dry. But as I stir in the fresh orange juice and rind it looks perfect, not too dry and not overly runny.
The oven alarm rings so I check the twin cakes. I take one out, push down on its top with my finger and it springs up again. It’s done. I turn off the oven and the kitchen is suddenly quiet as the drone of the oven fan is missing. I leave the cakes in their tins for a while to cool down, then spoon the icing over the top. I am not sure how it’s going to behave. It spreads nicely and drizzles down the sides. I keep heaping it on top of the two cakes until I use it up. They smell divine, a mix of hot cake and warm orange and lemon scent.
Once they are cool, I make a cup of tea and share a slice with my brother. It tastes divine. I know however if I don’t give them away they will tempt me to eat too much. I decide who to give them to and slide the cakes back into their tins for ease of carrying.
I ring the lucky recipient. They are at home, careful because of Covid. I tell them about the cake delivery and they are pleased. I drive a mile or two to their house and have a chat at the door. I suggest they lift the cake out by its paper insert and return the tin to me. They are delighted with the unexpected gift and I am glad to share it.
As I drive back home, I think about my mother. I am surprised how alike we are. She too loved to bake and to share it with neighbours and friends. Noticing the ways we were similar is warmly comforting, and while baking can never bring her back, every cake I make will always remind me of her.
Below is a boiled cake hand written recipe by Grace’s mother and an orange drizzle recipe from 1967.
NCCWN Donegal are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.