Next week, The Great British Bake Off returns to our screens. I am beyond excited, but with all the changes, who knows what the format will be like? Will the new line-up work the same magic as grande dame of baking Mary Berry did, along with the puntastic Sue and Mel?
One thing is certain — we’ll be glued to our televisions. Jews love a slice of cake and many of us are happiest with a whisk and spatula in our hands.
This is backed up by the submissions received by the ladies from Australia’s Monday Morning Cooking Club for their charity books. The five Sydney ladies told me that for every savoury recipe submitted for the books, they receive six sweet ones. Their next book will be exclusively cakes, bakes and puddings.
I asked our very own grande dame of Jewish cooking, Claudia Roden why it means so much to us. “For Jews, baking represents joy and happiness and there’s a symbolic significance too. Cakes have to be present at festive and happy occasions.”
She’s right. At simchahs we roll out the baked goods. And even when the occasion is s sad as a shivah we turn up with cakes and biscuits. From Danish pastries to honey cake and from cheesecake to strudel, no get-together is complete without something sweet.
I invited my family to tea this weekend and baked no less than four cakes for 16 guests. Strawberry cake; blackberry and apple cake; a plum and meringue-topped sponge cake and a tray of brownies. A quarter of a cake per head (plus crudites, dips, crisps and a huge plate of summer fruit) and I was still worried I hadn’t made enough food. The cakes were a talking point and the pleasure I gleaned from being asked for the recipes was immeasurable. No end of naches.
My husband remonstrates with me for spending hours in the kitchen when I’m tired or stressed, but it’s my happy place. I lose myself in the measuring, mixing, beating and folding. I’m totally focused on the task in hand. It brings back fond memories of learning how to bake by my mother’s side. She’s an excellent cook and baked all the time when we were younger. Her instructions on how to line a tin or correctly use the measuring spoons have stayed with me. Now I’m teaching my daughter, which brings new joy. She’s only six but she makes a mean scone.
Roden feels the same: “I do love baking. It’s satisfying and beautiful to bring out little treats you can pass around.”
She’s right, cakes have something special about them. Unlike a casserole or a plate of pasta, they have the ‘X’ factor. They will always be the centrepiece. I remember my mother and her sister competing in their own Shabbat bake-off each week at my Grandma Doris’s house. Jokey rivalry masked a steely determination to be crowned the duchess of dessert.
Shannon Sarna, Editor of The Nosher website and author of the up-coming book Modern Jewish Baker (TheCountryman Press £23.99), agrees we are natural bakers: “It’s a desire to feed as an act of love. There’s literally nothing I love to do more than feed my little girls. If they like something I’ve cooked for them I’m happy. My grandfather, who was a food chemist at General Foods and a foodie himself, also took great joy in feeding us. I do think it’s very Jewish.”
Sarna’s book concentrates on the key Jewish bakes — challah, bagels, babka, rogelach and hamantaschen. She gives a step-by-step instruction for the basic version and then provides several variations.
Bagels were a challenge for her initially. “When I went to my publisher and they asked ‘You can make a bagel, right?’ I said ‘Of course!’, but I had no idea. It was a challenge. They were pretty hard to master. I made them once or twice a week for eight weeks until I got them right. When they were what I wanted — crusty New York-style bagels — I did a victory dance!”
A house that smells of baking is a haimishe home. Producing a perfect challah or gorgeous cake evokes the same feelings for me. You just know that as you present your guests with it they will be smiling.