“I always do it, you know I do,” her mother had said. “We can’t let them down, they rely on me. It’s only a Christmas cake, your gran’s recipe is so straightforward even a child could do it, and the decorations needn’t be elaborate.”
Sally groaned inwardly. She had never made a cake in her life, let alone a decorated Celebration cake to be the centrepiece of her mother’s Lunch Club annual raffle. Of course her mother wouldn’t listen to her protestations, and pretended to feel faint to stop them, perking up instantly as soon as Sally had reluctantly agreed to do it. She was in hospital recovering from a bad fall, and was taking advantage of being fussed over. “You’ll have to do it this weekend” said the older woman “It should have been done about three weeks ago, and fed regularly until it’s decorated, but no matter, they won’t know if you give it one big feed. They need it next weekend for the raffle so there’s no time to lose. Most of the ingredients are in the cupboard, so you could start tonight.”
Back in her mother’s house, Sally flipped through the various cookery books on the shelf until she found gran’s recipe pencilled in spidery writing on the inside cover of an old well-thumbed one called “Cakes for Every Occasion.” She checked the list of ingredients against the contents of the store cupboard, and was glad to realise she had them all. She was keen to get started, so, according to the instructions, she tipped the dried fruit into a large bowl, enjoying eating a stolen handful of sultanas, as she always did as a child when her mother was baking. She added two tablespoons of synthetic lemon juice and two large glasses of sherry, stirred it all up then left it to stand overnight. Then she relaxed with another large glass of sherry. She hadn’t realised how tasty it was !
The next morning, after an exceptionally good night’s sleep, she made a quick breakfast for herself and the cat, then she lit the oven and after a struggle with greaseproof paper and string, had prepared the baking tin according to the instructions. Then she set to work. She didn’t have any brown sugar, so beat up butter with caster sugar from an unmarked canister until she thought it looked light and soft, then added the eggs and flour, then the soaked fruit. She realised she should have mixed them all in gradually instead of piling them all in at once, and also that she had forgotten the spices and baking powder, but she soldiered on, scattering flour all over the table and floor in the process. Thinking it looked a little anaemic, she stirred in a large spoonful of black treacle, then a teaspoon of gravy granules. The recipe called for “caramel or gravy browning” but not knowing what these were, she decided gravy granules would do the same job. At last she was happy with the mixture, so she scraped it into the tin and put it in the oven, saying a little prayer as she did so. It would need 4-5 hours, according to the recipe, so she had plenty of time to clear up her mess and clean the house before it was due be ready.
The smell of the cake cooking during the afternoon was very pleasing to her nostrils, and made her determined to bake more often. She checked it several times , and although it was looking better each time, the skewer she stuck in it always came out sticky. After five hours, the top of the cake was an ominous chocolate brown colour, bordering on black in places, but as the skewer was just about dry, Sally decided it must be done. She took it out of the oven to cool, and went to visit her mother, who was delighted to know the cake was made. She advised Sally on feeding it, and told her to buy ready-made icing and marzipan, plus a couple of decorations for the top and a paper ruff. “Hides a multitude of sins round the sides” she confided.
Next day, Sally removed the cake from the tin. It stuck to the paper in several places, but she squashed the bits back into the gaps, sure the marzipan would hold them in. It smelled good, but not quite like the cakes she remembered of old. She turned it upside down and gave it a good soaking with brandy, as her mother had told her. Then she put it in the cake tin.
Three days later, she rolled the marzipan and icing out as level as she could, and put the cake on a silver-paper covered board. It was a bit lop-sided, but once she had trimmed off the burnt edges, it didn’t look too bad. She smothered it in apricot jam and laid the marzipan over the top. It tore in several places but she persevered and managed to patch it up. Then she did the same with the icing. What a struggle, she had no idea something sounding so simple could be so stressful. It looked pretty awful, covered in thumb marks, but she pressed it hard all over with a palette knife and placed a little plastic Santa and Rudolf on the worst area. Once the frill was put round the outside and it was finished, she vowed never ever again! It looked very amateurish, but it was too late now. She put it in a tin and took it to Mrs Sloane, who was in charge of the raffle.
“I’m sorry it’s not my mother’s usual quality” she said “But I tried my best.”
Mrs Sloane managed a forced smile. “It’s er lovely” she said. “But we heard about your mother’s accident so Mrs Skinner has made the special cake for us this year. This is er fine though, thank you very much We can use it for one of the lesser prizes.”
A few days later, Sally’s mother was discharged from hospital and was soon creeping round the house on her crutches, checking that all was in order following her absence. She was checking the store cupboard and Sally was writing a shopping list. She picked up the caster sugar canister and nearly dropped it because it was almost
full. “I was expecting this to be nearly empty after your cake making” she said. “Did you buy more caster sugar?”
“No” said Sally “I didn’t use that one, I used this.” She picked up the almost empty unmarked canister.
Her mother dropped one of her crutches and sat down hastily. “Oh Sally” she wailed “Whatever have you done? That is cooking salt, not sugar. Oh whatever will people think of us, we must get it back. Oh my goodness, oh my goodness!”
Sally got her mother a drink of water and settled her down. She rang Mrs Sloane. “Sorry to bother you Mrs Sloane” she said “But out of curiosity, could you tell me who won my cake in the raffle? ”
“It was Mrs Potter ” said Mrs Sloane. “She was very pleased with it” she added hastily.
Yes, I bet, thought Sally, who had never much liked Mrs Potter. She rang her all the same. “Mrs Potter” she smarmed “Mum is so sorry she couldn’t make her usual cake this year, and the one I made was such a poor substitute, she would like you to let us have it back, and she will make you a proper one instead.”
“I’m sorry dear” said Mrs Potter “But I gave it to the Hospital Friends group for their raffle. I’m going to my son for Christmas this year, so I don’t need it.”
Sally thanked her and relayed the message to her mother, who was on the verge of tears. “It could be anyone ” she said “They sold tickets to absolutely everyone including all the staff, I even bought some myself. We’ll have to go down there and see if we can find out.”
“Let’s have some lunch first” said Sally “There’s no knowing how long it will take us.”
As they ate their sandwiches, the doorbell rang. A lady stood there holding a large box. “It’s your lucky day” she said “You have won a prize in the hospital raffle.” Back in the kitchen, they opened it very tentatively and could not believe their eyes – it was Sally’s cake !. They hugged each other and cried tears of joy.
“It certainly is our lucky day” said her mother “We’ll celebrate by throwing this in the bin and buying a chocolate log from Sainsbury’s. Now where’s that bottle of sherry?”