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At the punctuation points of life – birthdays, weddings, christenings and funerals – the English mind turns to cake. Alongside its place as the centrepiece of our celebrations, cake has a humbler place in daily life: a small, affordable luxury that invites us to pause for a moment in the afternoon, when energy begins to fade.
In March 1842, the actress Fanny Kemble described taking tea and cake with the Duchess of Bedford, who began the practice as an antidote to the “sinking feeling” that overcame her between luncheon and dinner. Yet our ideas about cake have progressed a long way from the plain madeira or seed cake that might have appeared at the Duchess of Bedford’s tea-table.
The Great British Bake Off has taught us to expect spectacular things. These days, the expectation of a properly ambitious cake is that it should be a Mannerist artefact that looks as inedible as possible. The past week brought us a pair of outstanding examples. In Walsall, Lara Mason celebrated the Super Bowl by making a life-sized Taylor Swift sculpture in vanilla-flavoured red velvet cake.
Meanwhile the artist Damien Hirst (perhaps inspired by the fact that the Latin word for cake is “placenta”), celebrated the 30th birthday of his pregnant girlfriend, Sophie Cannell, with a cake in the form of a foetus in utero.
It is an interesting riff on metaphorical descriptions of babies as delicious enough to eat. But both the Hirst baby and the Swift effigy raise a tricky question: where to cut the first slice?
Who would have the temerity to take a nibble of Swift’s torso, or perform a cake-knife caesarean on the Hirst infant? It seems more likely that the destiny of these monuments of the pâtissier’s art was always to become social media fodder, rather than teatime nourishment.
If so, they take their place in a long history of ornamental food, from elaborate 18th and 19th-century pièce montées to Emma Bovary’s wedding cake: a provincial extravaganza of Savoy cake topped with a cupid on a chocolate swing.
While Hirst’s baby cake could go on display alongside his famous bisected cow and calf, Mother and Child (Divided), and Swift might go gently stale (if she didn’t become a slightly cannibalistic half-time snack), the charm of less fanciful cakes shouldn’t be underestimated.
It is not too late to make Geraldene Holt’s classic January lemon cake: cream 6oz (175g) each of sugar and butter, add three beaten eggs, 6oz (175g) flour and the juice of half a lemon. Bake for half an hour at 180C/350F and ice with lemon butter cream.
The joy of small books
The recent Telegraph obituary of the publisher John Rotheroe was a timely reminder of the enduring charm of small books. Interested in everything except publicity, Rotheroe published an eclectic series of slim guides to subjects ranging from Thimbles to Betel-chewing Equipment of East New Guinea.
The peculiar fascination of small books begins in childhood: Beatrix Potter’s exquisitely illustrated stories are the perfect size for a child’s hand. From there, the junior bibliophile might graduate to J L Carr’s Quince Tree Press pocket books of English poets and wood engravers, and the Notting Hill Editions catalogue of handsome hardbacks at miniature prices: small books that contain multitudes.