I did some baking with niece Aimee this weekend, at my mum's house in Hampshire. Rather than the normal baking, I'd come over all retro. Cake mix! I'd seen, and fallen in love with, a box of ‘farmyard cupcake mix’ sighted in the aisles of a supermarket a couple of days before. The box showed beautiful little green cupcakes dotted with sugar farm animals. Aaah.
We made the cakes. Aimee sifted. I mixed. I turned on the oven. Mum’s super-duper new oven, in which the fan is so silent I hadn’t realised it was operating at all. Spooned cake mix into cake-paper cups. Aimee and I arranged nascent cakes on tray. Put tray into oven.
After five minutes, horror. I looked in the oven. Something primeval was taking place; an experiment. Not cooking as we know it. The tops of all the cakes were dark, dark, brown. Some kind of matter had spewed forth from most of them, and puddled and grown up the frilled sides of the cake-cases. As I watched, horrified, a hole appeared in the cake nearest to me and something white and fizzy came out, volcano-style, before drying and hardening into a kind of secondary vent; a horrible pyroclastic flow of hot chemical sponge and hot chemical sponge-gases.
“Argh, Aimee, the oven is too hot. I’ll turn it down. Our cakes have gone really weird.
She peered in.
They are weird, she pronounced, decidedly.
We took the cakes out. Aimee’s brown eyes went very wide.
“I don’t know what happened, there, Aimee. Cakes aren’t supposed to look like that, are they?” She shakes her head, staring at the weird buttons with tongues of pale sponge arrayed in front of us.
“Let’s get them to cool and then we’ll ice them” I said.
So we get the pack marked “ICING” which is a pale, minty green, and seems to be nought but icing sugar with colour in it. And Aimee mixes, and as the first drop of water hits the icing sugar she yells with pleasure. “It’s gone REALLY GREEN!” And it had. And as I drip water in, suddenly there’s too much water, and we have bright green icing which I already know will never set, let alone cover the cakes properly.
“Oh dear” I say.
She looks at me expectantly.
“You mixed really well, Aimee” I say, “But I put too much water in. Shall we ice the cakes anyway?”
Cake-caulking. It’s horrendous, because after the icing is applied, it simply runs off the burned top of the cakes, leaving them stained a shiny green, and rests in a thick, wet green puddle around the outside of the cakes. It looks like the Grimpen Mire.
Aimee is diplomatic in the extreme. She looks at the cakes, and then at me. “Can I put the animals on?”
“Yes, lets do that” I say, hoping that the addition of tiny sugar sheep and cows and horses will at least deflect attention from the appalling sight of their soggy sugar pasture.
“Oooh!” says Aimee. It’s sunk! She’s dropped a sugar dog into one cake, and it’s upended, titanic-style. She’s half horrified, half full of hilarity. We put a sheep on one and it slips backwards. Righted, the white sugar sheep is running horribly with green slime. “The sheep's green!” she says.
We top all the cakes with animals, including one horse with all-broken legs. Then we stand back and look at the cakes.
There is a long pause.
“Aimee” I say. “Do you know what we have made, here?”
“Cakes” she says.
“Yes, but special cakes. Do you know why they are special?”
She shakes her head.
I enunciate very carefully and seriously, frowning.
“Because, Aimee, these are The …Worst … Cakes…In …. The … World!”
For a second she’s not sure whether this is a disaster. And then I twitch my mouth, and she looks at these sorry puddles of burned sugar and wet green paste. And she starts laughing uncontrollably. “They are the worst cakes in the world!” she yells.
“They are,” I say. "They are a real triumph. No-one but you and me can make cakes this bad!"
She is so delighted.
And then later, around the table, because it is the anniversary of the last time the family all saw dad, at his last Birthday weekend, we all sit, and there are candles, and we have eaten, and we have a bottle of 1997 Chateau D’Yquem that has been sitting waiting for this very moment, and I mess up the toast to dad in stupid ways, because I am choked up, but we all drink this exquisite, exquisite nectar, and toast dad, and send our love into the ether.
And then Aimee says, “Aunty Helen, you have to eat one of our cakes”.
I can’t bring myself to do it, but James takes a photograph of The Worst Cakes in the World next to a glass and a half-drunk bottle of glowing, bewitching, D’Yquem.
It may well be the Best Food Photograph in the World.
Here’s to you, pops. Clink.