Baking and writing

Victoria sponge

This piece first featured on Shaz’s Book Blog, as part of the Alice’s Secret digital launch blog tour, but here it is again, this time with photos.

Cakes and baking play a major part in the modern-day narrative in Alice’s Secret. Alys, our contemporary heroine, has left London for Yorkshire to help her aunt run her café – the Celestial Cake Café. She wants to bring a few recipes of her own to the venture – lemon poppyseed cake is one that she is trying to perfect throughout the novel but you’ll also find chocolate chiffon cake, Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle, brownies (below) and flapjacks on the café’s cake stands.


Baking was a big part of my own upbringing. Before my Mum went back to work full-time she use to bake once a week – I can remember gingerbread topped with toasted, flaked almonds; fruit loaf; walnut loaf; chocolate cake sandwiched with chocolate buttercream; scones and a kind of bakewell tart that she made in swiss roll tin and then cut into fingers. In addition, she always made puddings at the weekend – plum, rhubarb and apple crumbles and pies and, when she was back at work, a quick weekday trifle: slices of shop-bought swiss roll and tinned fruit with custard poured over the top, refrigerated. In those days, it was still considered a treat to have tinned fruit and evaporated milk as a dessert after Sunday tea.

When I was old enough, I wanted to bake too so I started out with packet mixes for what we called buns but are now known as fairy cakes, and chocolate and vanilla sponges. They were very light in texture when baked but I can still remember the odd, synthetic smell of the ingredients when you opened the packets. On Sundays I made ‘ice cream’ by boiling a tin of evaporated milk, whisking in sugar and flavouring using our new blue-and-white Kenwood mixer and then freezing the mixture.

When I left home, I graduated to ‘proper’ baking, making pastry, raspberry buns, coconut biscuits and Yorkshire curd cheesecake. On the pudding front, it was pecan pie, sticky toffee pudding and black cherry clafoutis.

The result of all this is a sweet tooth, of course! I can’t resist a slice of cake whenever I’m in a café and I’d happily skip a main course when I eat out, in favour of a starter and a dessert. I’m often disappointed by the café cakes, though – too dry, too sweet or sickly – but I struck lucky only last weekend with a simple and delicious un-iced chocolate sponge, sandwiched with buttercream and almost as good as the one Mum used to make!

Now, with my own children grown up and gone, I only make cakes and desserts to take along to friends and family otherwise the danger is that I would eat my way through the lot. Today’s baking repertoire consists of clementine cake, Nigella’s chocolate cloud cake, chocolate brownies and a vanilla sponge, usually filled with raspberries and cream and dusted with icing sugar.

If this listing of cakes has made you salivate, you’ll be pleased to know that the recipes for some of the cakes and biscuits that I’ve mentioned feature in Alice’s Secret, like the cardamom shortbread (below). Happy baking!


Alice's Secret_copy

April ramblings

Rape fields 1

‘April is the cruellest month’ according to TS Eliot and there were certainly times this month when that felt only too true. It started though, with Easter and babies – well, one baby, lots of photos!

Spring was slow to get going but the bulbs were poking through in the pots (Spring squill and Rip van Winkle daffs), while a trip to Goodnestone under grey skies found the magnolias in full flower, amazing Larch (?) cones and carpets of primroses on the banks. (Magnolia stellata is on my wish list for next year.)

Mid-month brought a burst of heat – suddenly we were up to 25 degrees, and the cool of the trees was welcome on a walk to Kingsdown, while a glass of rosé in the garden after a day’s writing was the perfect end to a week.

On a walk along Deal seafront on a bright day I spotted houses painted in the perfect colour for my hall walls – which I’ve only just this month painted grey and can’t face doing it again… And I drove myself slightly mad in a constant quest for paving for the patio, finding the right colour embedded in mixed packs but never on its own. (Had to compromise in the end.)

The heat brought out the oil seed rape planted in the fields all around me, and on 25th of April I saw the hawthorn in flower along a particularly sunny hedgerow. I turned to hanging CDs (Apple ones, appropriately) in the quince and cherry trees to ward off the sparrows who destroyed the cherry blossom buds last year. It worked – this year the cherry tree was in bloom, although it was to be short lived.

A short story of mine appeared in Love Sunday magazine, a section of the Sunday People. Not sure that it worked as publicity for Alice’s Secret but at least I can say I’ve been published in a national newspaper!


The weather turned again, back to normal spring temperatures, and towards the end of the month I went to Margate to see the Journeys with the Wasteland exhibition at the Turner contemporary. I would have preferred to see much more about Margate at the time of his sojourn there and more paintings from the era (like the one by Paul Nash),­ while the best bit for me was the Promenade newspaper produced for the exhibition by the students of Canterbury UCA. I thought the content was brilliant and  deserving of being up on the walls in the gallery.

One of the bad things about the month was my daughter losing her best friend and companion in Goa, her dog Chulo. He took himself off on walkabout, was spotted a couple of miles away and then vanished for five days, during which she was distraught and feared for the worst and the stress levels here were almost as high. He was found, thankfully, after five days having worked his way back close to home. Injured, dehydrated, hungry and exhausted but alive. It hasn’t been straightforward nursing him back to health, however, but at least he’s safe.

The weather at the end of the month brought the jumpers back out again. I took a trip to Harrogate to celebrate a friend’s big birthday with a fabulous Italian meal in very good company, followed by a trip back to London and more baby worship! The last day of the month produced a massive storm with high winds and a whole month’s rain in one day. Bye-bye cherry blossom – and hello to over a week with internet speeds those of a geriatric snail, due to water getting into some wiring…