I was reading a fantastic blog post the other day about how we shouldn’t tell women (and, I think, people generally!) what is brave for them. Which is so true! I moved to Torino not knowing anyone here and I wouldn’t call that brave, for me. Maybe it would be brave for you! I’m not saying it to boast. But for me at that time it just felt like an interesting thing to do.
On the other hand, here’s a story about how I felt brave about baking a cake.
The background is this. A few weeks ago, I decided to make a Guinness chocolate cake to take to work. This is one of my favourite recipes, and I’ve made it at least once a year for easily a decade now.
It starts by melting butter in a saucepan full of Guinness, which is probably the most effective way I know of making your whole house smell like Guinness short of converting your front room to an Irish pub. It’s a comforting smell, the smell of yes, Irish pubs, and my friend B.’s beef and Guinness pie, and cakes over the years and the corresponding birthdays and going-away parties and “why not, let’s have a cake” days.
This year, I couldn’t smell the Guinness. And it threw me. I mean, after 6 months I’m familiar with the idea that I can’t smell everything, but usually the absence of smell is a curiosity, and addition to the mental list titled Things Zoe Can’t Smell. But without its familiar scent, my Guinness chocolate cake felt unreal, like it was cut off from my baking traditions. It felt like something wasn’t just missing, but actually wrong, in a way that was upsetting.
And while I sat on the sofa as the cake baked and drank a cup of tea and told myself, For goodness’ sake, you’re not about to cry about a cake are you?, I had another thought: What on earth am I going to do with my Christmas cake?
If baking Guinness chocolate cakes is a loose tradition of mine, my Christmas cake tradition feels unbreakable. It’s a recipe I learned from my Mum. It’s the waypost that marks autumn passing on and winter arriving. Also, it’s delicious. I couldn’t possibly not bake it. I wanted to bake it. But I was certain it would be a disappointment.
So I put it off. This is a recipe that does better the longer you leave the cake to mature, and ideally I’d bake it by early November. But the weekends in November went by, and each Saturday I’d find something — anything — else to do rather than shop for ingredients.
Finally, last week, my refusal to be defeated by a cake met the deadline for having a mature cake by Christmas.
The story I was hoping to tell is this: On Friday afternoon I would say to myself, It’s time. I would come home with a bag full of dried fruit to soak, which I would prep with my head held high and a half-dance in my step as Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady filled my kitchen. An act of defiance. An assertion of the self I want to be, who doesn’t get weighed down by how things (don’t) smell.
I did come home with a bag of dried fruit and a bottle of Grand Marnier. I did put on my party play list. The fruit got prepped; the cake is now wrapped in cling film and absorbing a good splash of booze.
But defiance wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded. Actually, it felt a lot like letting a cake (for goodness’ sake, a cake!) tell me how to feel. And how I really felt wasn’t competent and in control. It was an awkward mixture of Uggggh why can I smell nutmeg but not cinnamon, and I’m kinda proud of myself for doing this, and Let’s have a drink of the Grand Marnier, it will make things go quicker, and Isn’t it genuinely lovely that I’ve got friends and family who will enjoy this cake even if it tastes off to me?
And I think that awkward mixture was what is called bravery.