Nan’s voice drops to a whisper as soon as the oven door gently closes on the creamy yellow mixture, but I struggle. It’s as though the warning to be quiet has made something inside me break loose and I itch with the need to run around the house, feet thundering against the floor, voice raised even louder than usual.
But my love of food, or perhaps childish greed, wins out. I know that if I’m quiet for long enough, there will be yellow sponge cake with lashings of whipped cream and piles of strawberries waiting as a reward.
Now, in the tiny kitchen of my house, far away from Nan’s homes of my childhood, the careful act of preparing a sponge cake transports me back to her warm, happy kitchen. Actually, the memories come before the preparation begins; the very act of deciding to make this cake means searching the shelves for Kream Brand cornflour – the now seldom-seen retro brand that Nan insisted be used. She was so vehement about this that both the hand-written recipes she gave my sister and me, she’d underlined Kream Brand more than once.
This week, there was a flurry of texts passing between us, mostly about the cornflour. We both hadn’t seen Kream lately (sometimes, my sister said, it popped up at the IGA), and agreed that the supermarket brand cornflours made the cake flop. The best either of us could do in 2017 was White Wings.
It took me longer than expected to make the cake; I had to set aside an afternoon, make sure the weather wasn’t too hot or too cold. I had to get my oven to the right temperature and make sure I was feeling happy and calm so that I didn’t whip any stress into the egg whites while I was baking. Archie and I sat quietly while it was baking. No running around, no yelling, no stamping through the house.
If you’ve never had a traditional sponge cake, this one is made like a meringue. The egg whites are beaten till they’re fluffy, then sugar is added and they’re beaten again. The yolks next, and more beating. All the dry ingredients have to be sifted and sifted and sifted. And when it comes time to mix the wet with the dry, you need to be gentle and thorough. I’m not the gentlest of people and when it comes to cooking, not cutting corners is hard work for me.
It could be because of either of those things, or perhaps it was the cornflour, but my cake didn’t completely work. The sink hole in the middle was like a bowl, so I filled it with whipped cream and strawberries and took it to my friend’s place. It was better eat it at her house, in a lounge room that’s usually full of family and kids, than my quiet townhouse where I barely even had to try to whisper while the cake was in the oven.
The cake tasted almost exactly the way I remembered it, except now I have the palette to understand that the custard flavour comes from the way the cornflour has combined with those whipped eggs, and the slight crustiness on the outside came from the way the eggs were prepared like a meringue.
I miss my nan. But I love cooking her recipes and thinking about her, and in some small way, going back to her kitchen with every special thing I cook.