My earliest memories are of watching my mother and my grandmother make pastry. While other kids were playing with Betta Builder or listening to Janet and John stories, I was absorbing life truths from my mother about a rounded tablespoon of flour being equivalent to an ounce, and pastry being made of half fat to flour.
In 1967, when I was five, a pivotal moment occurred in my lifelong quest to cook. We had arrived in America for a seven-month stay and advertised on television was every little girls’ dream – an Easy-Bake Oven! Being in the days before technology and virtual living, it was powered only by a 100-watt light bulb, yet this real-life oven promised to produce miniature cakes and biscuits.
It was the Summer of Love, and immediately I was in love. I vowed to save every cent of my pocket money so that I could own my very own working oven by the time we returned to the UK. I saw this as my passport to being able to cook whenever I wanted, well beyond the dubious-looking packet mixes that came supplied with the oven.
But the seven months passed, and I was heartbroken not to have saved enough to buy the oven. With my savings I bought a life-sized doll (to the envy of my English school friends when I returned) but I threw it into a cupboard, sickened by the reminder that I had not managed to buy an Easy-Bake Oven.
Friends were invited round on the basis of what they could filch from their mum’s kitchen and many an afternoon was spent melting chocolate or making mini-cookies
Several months later, life took a turn for the worse when my brother and I had to make way for a new baby sister. She was born at home and cried continuously the moment my mother’s screams stopped. Neighbours dropped round to admire the source of the noise.
The following morning my brother and I were both given presents as a sort of consolation prize, and to this day my present remains my absolute best ever present: an Easy-Bake Oven! So my parents weren’t as heartless as I had thought, and in fact had bought the oven before we left America.
At the age of seven, my career in cooking could really get off the ground. I quickly worked my way through the recipe book that came with it, but soon realised that the oven was capable of far more. It wasn’t long before I was producing scaled-down versions of any cake my mum could produce.
As the years progressed, I turned my hand to just about anything I fancied eating. If I could furtively procure an egg and maybe a rasher of bacon, then the pastry-lined tin would yield a tasty mini quiche when enhanced with my snack of milk and piece of cheese. An apple could be turned into a pie or crumble, and what would otherwise have been a Golden Syrup sandwich became a tasty miniature treacle tart.
Friends were invited round on the basis of what they could filch from their mum’s kitchen and many an afternoon was spent melting chocolate or making mini-cookies. It was lucky for me that my mum was born with no sense of smell so that even if she walked into my bedroom unannounced she remained blissfully ignorant of my culinary adventures.
The Easy-Bake Oven fuelled my desire to cook, and I started to live for the day when I would have proper cookery lessons at grammar school. Finally the day arrived and, to my utter disgust, we made a Victoria Sandwich that I could have made blindfolded without scales or a recipe.
Mindful of my mother’s admonition when let loose on a real oven not to turn it on for a mere sponge cake, I asked around for donations of any leftover ingredients and set to work. I gathered flour, butter, sugar and an apple. While feigning washing up, I popped the tray of apple scones into the oven, glad that I had brought enough jam for the Victoria Sandwich and the scones, which were gratefully enjoyed by the rest of the class later that afternoon.
I fell into the habit of taking in extra ingredients each time we had cookery, so that when the rest of the class were labouring tediously over scone or pastry making, my friend and I would pop in a flan or a tray of profiteroles or perhaps a batch of biscuits. It was amazing that the teacher never noticed, though I almost came unstuck one week when I had to share an oven with a new girl. If it wasn’t for the sticky rice pudding that was a reward for her silence, I would have been in serious trouble.
So many years had been spent cooking in secret, furtively appropriating ingredients and conning relatives into letting me cook while visiting, that I almost expected disappointment when finally let loose as an adult in my own kitchen and well-stocked larder. But no. While it is hard to match the white-knuckle ride of the late-night Easy-Bake-Oven session, there is pure joy to be found in ‘coming out’ freely in my own kitchen.
I enjoyed nourishing my family with proper meals made from scratch and eaten round the table and I took it as a compliment when my childrens’ friends put in their requests for my cottage pie or spaghetti carbonara before accepting an invitation to tea. I enjoy being able to rustle up a feast from humble ingredients, gathering friends round and feeding them with love.
Perhaps the greatest joy of all is time spent in the kitchen with my children, my nephews and lately my grandson, passing on to the next generations a wholesome alternative to Pot Noodle and Chicken Tonight. While some parents complain of barely being offered a cup of tea when visiting their student offspring at university, I can boast of being cooked a meal of chicken roasted with garlic, creamy leeks and Dauphinois potatoes by my daughter, when dropping in with minimal notice.
leemarch blogs at Lesley’s blog