A CAKE FOR A CLOUDY DAY.

*This is a peice of fiction I once did for an assignment after being inspired to bake after watching GBBO. However, having very little baking ability, and none of the ingredients, I decided to make up an imaginary character and write about it instead. I saw a recipe for this pineapple one and thought, if you ever got the same baking bug you might want to try it out. You never know, it may perk up a gloomy Winter’s day. The original recipe is from Nigella, but for the sake of copyright I changed it so probably don’t try my rendition. Try hers, I bet it’s great because everything Nigella is impeccable. Link here:  https://www.nigella.com/recipes/pineapple-upside-down-cake * 

Celebrating Summer 

Every year when I was a child my parents would go away by themselves in the summer holidays and leave my brother and I at our grandparent’s house in The Midlands. My Grandad usually dragged my brother to some football game leaving me with my nan, who didn’t drive and didn’t particularly like to stray from the house in her old age unless accompanied. They lived on a rough estate where stabbings and drug-abuse were not uncommon. It was very culturally diverse; I remember thinking it felt like several different countries had been squeezed together onto one estate.                                                Meanwhile, I came from a small town in Oxfordshire where, apart from a few Polish residents that ran the local corner shop, most of the inhabitants were white, middle-class and British. Rather than living in a city built of concrete, I stepped out of my house only to be greeted by fields where you could roam for hours, picking blackberries and cooking apples in August to make the perfect crumble.

For me, it was always a shock to the system visiting such a place and, as a child my naivety caused this to leave me unsettled, wanting to sleep in my Grandad’s bed until I was ten because he was a retired policeman who practised martial arts so I thought he’d protect me well in the incident of a break in. As a I grew older however, I came to enjoy my local visit to the get the paper from the nearby shop run by a Pakistan family who were always friendly. When Grandad hurt his leg when one year, I felt so brave going on my own, striding into the shop with my head high, knowing exactly what I wanted. They always asked if everyone was in good health and ended every visit with ‘God bless you.’ I looked forward to taking the dog for a walk at sunset where I’d bump into the Chinese couple across the road, whose names I never knew. We always talked for several minutes about how school was going and if I’d tried Wonton Soup yet; I now have, and it is by far one of my favourite dishes. My grandparent’s little estate was, for me, a holiday from home where class, racial and religious differences were thrown out the window and instead you were judged by how good a neighbour who were.

When I was six, we had an unusually wet Summer, grey clouds permanently covering the sky and the sound of rainfall becoming white noise in the background. The boys had gone out and my nan could tell by my loud sighs and fidgety feet that I was bored. Colouring pencils and bad TV didn’t ease my creative mind and boundless energy.

“Lets bake a cake!” she said.

“Bake a cake? What kind of cake?” I was puzzled. My nan was always regarded as a passionate cook, but a baker she was not. In fact, she had confessed on many occasions that baking was too scientific and restrictive whilst she enjoyed the freedom cooking provided. The ability to drift from the recipe or throw random things into a pot with a mere imagine in mind of the final product and somehow all would work out. This was not the case with baking, it required focus, precision and patience; all qualities my nan confessed she lacked.

“I don’t know, I think I saw a recipe for a pineapple cake in the paper. Sort of like an ‘end of summer’ cake. I think I have all the ingredients, except tinned pineapple rings,  but I’m sure they sell them at the shop if you put a coat on.“ Within 5 minutes I was back, soaked to my skin and shivering, panting and proudly presenting the pineapple to my Nan who had already measured out the other ingredients.

Two hours and lots of love and concentration later, the cake was fresh from the oven, its citrusy aromas filling the kitchen. We let it cool and cut a slice to share, the sweet juices spilling down our face and into the warm, white sands of a tropical beach. It was delightful and for a small moment we were no longer in rainy England, but some exotic holiday resort, sunbathing and drinking fresh juice. The cake soon accompanied every family gathering and every year at the end of summer my nan and I would bake it whilst the boys were out. It was eaten at every celebration, during every sorrowful period, on every first day of school and the last, for every boyfriend and break up. The pineapple upside-down cake became the epitome of tradition and my nan became the family baker from that day on.

When I was fourteen my parents decided that my brother and I were old enough to look after ourselves and that was the first year of many years that I would not visit my grand-parents in the Summer. Soon my nan began to decline in health; the upside-down pineapple cake became my sole project in those dark days, and I would take it her in hospital to make her smile.                                                                                                                  I must confess that for a while my affections became divided between the pineapple cake and the banana loaf my mum made every Sunday evening to use up over-ripe bananas. It was so unambiguous, simple and easy to make with ingredients already in the pantry that it competed with the tropical fruit cake and its complexities. After a couple of years, the spongy delight began to bore me however, it reminded me of health cafes and leftovers rather than white sands, pina coladas and my nan. The natural golds and browns of the pineapple cake began to speak to me of their just-rightness once more.

Alas, there were many years when I couldn’t make this cake. Unthinkably, Nan’s little handwritten recipe note card disappeared with her death and the first few years of my adulthood cake-poor. I wanted to make it for my first boyfriend, my flatmates at university, my graduation but I knew no-one else who had the recipe and Google provided no answer to my searches. I searched for hours on end in every cookbook I stumbled across, but to no avail. This cake, the only cake I couldn’t reproduce, became my forbidden fruit, the apple to my Eve. I longed for it, daydreamed about it, and never came to terms with its loss.

I missed my erratic Nan and the Summers spent with her and as much as I adore to cook, I could never reciprocate he culinary capabilities. After all, she’s the one who first put the Joy of Cooking into my hands. She’s the one who bravely stuffed a suckling pig into our tiny oven one Christmas, a piglet that all of us refused to eat and convinced me to go vegetarian. She gave me my sense of fearlessness and adventure in the kitchen, for which I am profoundly thankful. Her most tangible legacy was that recipe card, and I had let it vanish.

One day, I mentioned the cake to a colleague explaining that the defining features of the cake were the addition of pineapple juice to the batter, the lightness of the beaten eggs whites and the fact it’s baked in a cast iron skillet. I went on to lament the fact that I still had my Nan’s very skillet that we had baked our first pineapple cake in which was gathering dust at the back of the kitchen cupboards; yet I did not possess the recipe. Then came the moment later that evening, so shocking and as sweet as the pineapples themselves, she emailed me with a link to a recipe and a ‘P.S. Could this be the one?!’                                                                                                                                                                    I don’t think there’s a word in English to describe the bliss induced by tasting a long-lost childhood food. Maybe it’s relief. I felt an enormous sense of relief, as if knowledge of the precise proportions of the cake’s nine ingredients set to rights a dessert universe that had been tilting along sadly, bereft of this confection. And I learned that, contrary to popular wisdom, yes, I could go visit Nan again. This was not to be one of those stories wherein the heroine returns to her childhood home and is amazed by how small and untidy everything is. The cake tasted just as it always had, just as it should.

I love baking, I still do it for my friends and family. I often make them fancy cakes; I love to bake them, and they love to eat them. But the one thing I don’t touch is Nan’s pineapple upside-down cake. Even though I have the recipe, I can’t bear to make it, nestling the fruit and nuts symmetrically into the warm topping, pouring the fluffy batter over it all. There’s no way I could duplicate the taste my nan had done for so many years.

So, if I could choose, this cake would be my last meal. And I don’t mean that I’d want a genteel slice as a part of a well-balanced plate containing all the food groups. I’d do my very best to eat the entire cake, all by myself. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. To peacefully drift away on a wave of pineapple, brown sugar, and pecans, time-traveling back to when I was a young girl first learning to work her magic in the kitchen with her Nanna. This cake is one that invites another bite, another slice. My Nanna’s been gone now for a few years, but this cake and the memories it holds will live on for many to come and every year, as Summer draws to a close, I will celebrate her life with a slice of pineapple cake.

The recipe: (serves 8)

AN: This cake should always be made in a cast-iron skillet; I still have my nans from years ago.

  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 1 ½ cups firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup pecan halves
  • 1 20 ounce can pineapple slices packed in juice, reserving 5 tablespoons juice
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt

 

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter in a 9-inch cast iron skillet. Add the brown sugar and stir well to thoroughly combine, then turn off the heat. Arrange 7 pineapple slices in a single layer over the brown sugar mixture (your 9-inch skillet should accommodate 7 slices without overlapping). Fill the spaces between the pineapple rings with the pecans, centering one in the middle of each ring and arranging the rest as artistically as possible. Turn the pecans upside-down, so that they will be right side up when you invert the cake later. Set the skillet aside.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl; set aside.

Beat the egg yolks at medium speed until they are thick, and lemon coloured. Gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat. On low speed, add the flour mixture to the yolk mixture, and gently mix in the reserved pineapple juice.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the cake batter. Pour or spoon the batter evenly over the pineapple slices.

Bake at 350°F for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the skillet for 30 minutes; then invert it onto a serving plate.

*Further notes:  I learned that lining my iron skillet or any other container with parchment works very well for turning out the cake from pan. Sometimes a bit of the toffee/sugar stuff stays in the pan when I invert it, but I just scrape it all on to the hot cake and it all melts right in and once it’s cooled, you don’t notice. 

FILMS TO WATCH WHEN YOU CAN’T COPE WITH ANYTHING ELSE.

When you’re feeling depressed, sometimes all you want to do is crawl into bed and watch a movie. That is OK. That is Human. I have been known to get myself in a cycle of self-destruction as I fear if I feel sad and just ‘mulch’ about, I’ll feel guilty and only worse. So, I pack my day with so much stuff and plaster a smile on my face to convince everyone I’m fine, until I evidentally burn out and crash into a messy pile of tears and anger which I take out on those around me.

We’re always told to ‘fake it til you make it’ and write down 5 positive things and yes, sometimes this helps. This can be dangerous though as we begin to think we should feel ashamed for having dark days, as if they’re not as important and as valuable to self-development as those that are better. I’m a firm believer that if you’re having a bad mental health moment, you should honour it. Like a child you should give it the attention it deserves for a certain amount of time, be that an afternoon, an entire day or a couple of days. During this time you should nurture it, treat it with care, give your brain nourishment and rest. Feed it with good films, books and food then go and make 1001 cups of tea and hot water bottles because it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO.

Picking the right film to lift you out of a funk is an art. In my opinion the movie you pick should have one of two qualities. It should either remind you that life is so beautiful and meaningful that the bad days are worth it, or it should be so absurd that you forget that your problems exist. If it can toe the line between both, even better.

But I will say that choosing the wrong movie can keep you feeling down in the dumps. More than once, I’ve heard someone recommend The Notebook as good viewing for a bad day, making me seriously question their judgment. To stay in the feel-good sphere, the movie you pick should not take place during a war, involve the death of a parent, lover, or other cherished character, contain gratuitous violence, or be based on a Nicholas Sparks book. For a safe bet, try one of these films.

MATILDA (1996)

Ok, before you start lecturing me on how Matilda is just a silly children’s film, pocket your pessimism and snobbery for just a moment and hear me out. With a super genius five-year-old girl who just so happens to possess magical powers and endless family problems, a crook of a dad played by DeVito who sells old, beat up cars and a terrifying Trunchbull who locks people in cells, what isn’t to love? Matilda is the epitome of powerlessness in a world dominated by uneducated criminals and vicious bullies disguised as ‘responsible adults.’ Dressed up with adorable names like ‘Miss Lavender’ and ‘Honey,’ plenty of mischief, a scene invoving everyone cheering on a fat kid to gorge on a chocolate cake we all wish we had for our birthday and probably one of the coolest movie soundtracks ever, the whole thing is utterly charming.

GOOD WILL HUNTNG (1997) 

Matt Damon stars as a mathematical genius who is equally arrogant yet loveable at the same time. He is ironed out by one of the most joyful people ever to be seen on screen, Robin Williams. Lessons in what it means to be vulnerable and how to come head-to-head with your own deep rooted issues are taught through a tale of friendship, love and how making mistakes is perfectly human. This film is funny, heart-warming and heart-wrenching all at once. Prepare some tissues as you’ll be both crying with laughter and sadness through the whole thing.

HAPPY FEET (2006)

Love, friendship and the importance of standing out from the crowd is told through singing and dancing penguins. Need i say more? Plus, with all the talk of climate change at the moment, the smaller themes of melting ice-caps and animal extinction feel very topical. Whilst the first film leaves you feeling all gooey inside and will surely have you breaking out in song and dance for days after, don’t bother with the sequel. Take my word for it.

AMELIE (2001) 

Amelie’s magic lies in how it defines us, not by materialistic objects, but by our actions, the unusual aspects of our personalities. Our quirks, which we’re sometimes ashamed of, are what makes us unique and gives us our humanity. Beyond a mere boy-meets-girl love story, Jean-Pierre Jeunet presents us with a story about a protagonist who, in trying to fix all of the problems of those around her, ignores her own happiness in the process.  All this is set in the backdrop of the wonderful, pretty peculiar and vibrant city of Paris and embedded with wonderfully weird characters. You’ll be swept off your feet in style with this film and be left longing to the learn the Accordian. That I guarantee.

ALADDIN (1992) 

Now, any Disney film is really applicable here; choose your favourite in my opinion! For me though this classic tale of sorcery, song, dance and a street rat’s rise to the top is one of the best Walt has to offer us. An admirable underdog (who we all relate to) falls madly in love with a beautiful princess (who we all want to be!) Despite the evil-sorcerer, difference in social-status and unfortunate mishaps throughout, the two are brought together by a hilarious and witty genie, a flying carpet and a misbehaving monkey.  When you feel like crap, do yourself a favour and take a visit to The Cave of Wonders where you’ll find a whole new world and realise you’re a diamond in the ruff.

MINDFULLNESS (IN A MINEFIELD OF A MIND)

The human foot has 26 bones, 19 muscles and tendons, 33 joints and 107 ligaments. If we did the recommended 10,000 steps a day that is 185,000 movements just within one foot alone. That’s 350,000 movements in your feet. These movements that allow us to walk don’t even credit the movement require in the bending of our legs or the swinging of our arm.

I considered this when I was on a walk with my dog the other day; how marvellous my feet are. I focused on the way my toes curl and uncurl with every step in order to grip onto the ground. I listened to the crunching of the leaves beneath my feet, revelling in the satisfaction that the sound bought me.

I took note of my breathing and my heart, trying to fathom how my body could hold hundreds of thousands of miles of blood vessels with enough iron to create a 3-inch long nail inside. Our hearts beat between 60-80 beats per minute equating to over 3 billion beats a lifetime. Each beat, when you pay attention, seems so simple and as if cleverly co-ordinated by a machine but in reality each beat itself if far more complex involving contractions of the aorta and ventricles, AV and semilunar valves all controlled by the admission of an electrical currents between the nodes within the heart.  I spent a good minute of the walk solely homing in on these movements that go unrecognized and equally unappreciated each and every day.

The 576 megapixels of my eye (far better than any Canon camera you can buy on Amazon) means I see the leaves dance to the rhythm of the wind and distinguish between 10 million different shades that the seasons provide. I can hear the songs the birds are singing and feel the bark peeling away from the trees towering over me, protecting me from the rain that feels fresh upon my face and is almost sweet to taste. These thoughts that I am thinking as I am walking are involving the signalling of nerve impulses to my brain at the mind-boggling motion of 250 miles per hour.

I’ve been doing this a lot recently; thinking about the tiny and seemingly insignificant but actually vital miracles that I can perform. It is these thoughts that allow me to rationalize things and put situations into perspective when I can feel myself becoming out of touch with reality or overwhelmed by seemingly sizeable issues.  It is somewhat selfish of us to complain about muddy footprints on the floor or the windy weather of winter when every second of every day or bodies are carrying out functions outside of anything we can imagine in order to keep us ALIVE.

Next time you feel stressed, ungrateful, anxious even, take notice of your senses, appreciate your surroundings and for a moment, just a minuscule moment of your day, appreciate the craftiness of your creation.