My mum tells the story of how her mother (my granny) used to have days at home as designated ‘baking days’. She would make a sponge cake, paradise slices, biscuits, maybe a savoury meat pie. The kitchen would be warm from the heat of the oven, there would be the gentle hum of the radio chattering in the background (Radio Ulster, probably), and the air would be thick with the smell of butter, flour and that enticing scent of freshly-baked goods.
Mum always says that I have Granny’s touch with cakes. This basically means that I can usually tell when a cake is just right – not overdone or underdone, just the right shade of gold and with the slight amount of springyness when you press it with your fingers. She believes this ‘touch’ skipped a generation, and usually calls me to check if her cakes are baked or not. (For the record, I think she’s a pretty good baker.)
One of my favourite memories of Granny involves one cold December afternoon, when I decided to make shortbread biscuits for my parents’ Christmas present. This was a top-secret surprise, of course, but I hadn’t done much baking at that point and so enlisted Granny to help. We spent the afternoon in the kitchen, mixing ingredients and baking shortbread stars, which we studded with tiny silver balls. I had underestimated how difficult it would be to bring the buttery dough together, and was ready to give up quite quickly, slightly sweaty, with oily hands from the butter and nothing to show for it except a pile of pieces of dough. It was Granny who saved this dough from going in the bin; Granny who painstakingly, faithfully kneaded it together until we had enough to cut out the stars for my parents. The biscuits were the crumbliest, most delicious shortbread I’d had for a long time, and all the more delicious for the time and combined effort of grandmother and granddaughter which had gone into them.
During our shortbread making extravaganza, I burnt my wrist on a hot baking tray. The scar stayed for a long time, but my lasting memory from that day is not the scar, but Granny at the countertop, working away, hands working the dough as they had done all those years before. Her dementia was already setting in at that point and would get worse over the next few years, but I like to think of her there, in a place where she felt comfortable; a place where memory didn’t matter and where the muscle memory – honed over years of baking and cooking – took over.