My mother keeps her photographs in a biscuit tin and in an attempt to organise them I uncovered a dozen or so images that I’d never seen before. I particularly loved this one of my father as a young man with his friends at a birthday party.
We don’t know which of the lads is celebrating their birthday, but it’s not a scene I expected to ever see my father posing in. He often told me of the hardship he and his friends suffered when they first moved to England from their Dublin homes and when this picture was taken, at some point in the late 1950s, there was still rationing so a birthday cake would have been a luxury both in terms of expense and ingredients.
It’s also significant because birthday parties did not figure highly in our household. In fact, I was only ever thrown one during my childhood to celebrate my seventh birthday and given that it involved at least 30 children hyped up on bowls of Magic Gems and Mojos trashing the living room, it’s no surprise that I never blew out any more candles until I turned 21.
Our birthdays were still recognised, just that the celebrating was kept to a minimum, but I think my mother must have felt guilty because for my 21st she threw me a surprise birthday tea. Unfortunately, it was the day after a night of rather raucous behaviour involving 15 girls and a race to the bottom of several vodka bottles. I could barely chew, let along consume a slice of heavily-iced cake.
I’m assuming this is where my aversion to traditional birthday cakes started because over the years I’ve favoured baking my own and stepping away from any decorations that involve rolling out marzipan or royal icing. In fact, my favourite birthday cake is the one I made for my fiance that was a simple plum sponge.
It went down a treat and so recently I baked a pear version. It uses the same recipe as the plum, however, the pears I poached first as they were a little on the hard side. I bought my pears from a greengrocer and she could not say if they were English or not, something of a disappointment, but as it was outside of the season (from September to October) I’m assuming they were imported or had been stored for a good while. Even so, they were delicious in the cake, which I served with a splash of cream.
Having visited the Cake & Bake show last year, I can see why people love creating these fancy tiers of cakes with mermaids swimming across them and sugar flowers cascading down but for me, baking is about flavour and texture. I want to bite into something that’s going to tickle my tastebuds rather than melt my teeth. Also, a simple cake is a cost-effective one and given the prices of some of the sugar craft items, I’d rather use that cash to purchase a tin of Fortnum & Masons’ jasmine tea to pair with the pear cake! That’s what I call a birthday treat.