Cooking by Numbers

Like most country girls of my generation, I learned to bake at a young age. Baking was seen as one of the skills you needed in adult life – and moreover, it was prized as an art and a science, and something to be taken seriously. I could turn out a fine tray of shortbread by the time I was twelve.

As the years went by, and my life didn’t quite take the shape my mother had anticipated for me, baking became less urgent, more of a pastime; and while the farmers’ daughters of my generation baked their recipes into their very bones, I have always had to look it up in a book – even if it’s a cake or a scone or a biscuit I’ve made many times before.

Many years later I met an old friend and we got into sharing our baking exploits. I asked her for a particular recipe and she said something along the lines of ‘6 – 6 – 3 – 2’. What??? I was confused and she looked at me pityingly: ‘Six of sugar, six of marg, three of sugar, two eggs.’ Well! How convenient, I thought – it was like learning a new language.

However languages need to be practised to be learned thoroughly, so my fluency never reached advanced levels. And then metrication took hold – pints and pounds and ounces were replaced by litres and kilos and grammes, and gradually I submitted to the new order. And 6 – 6 – 3 – 2   doesn’t work so well in metric. 170 – 170 – 85 – 2? It doesn’t readily trip off the tongue, does it?

Yesterday I wanted to make a sponge cake – fatless, the classic way – and the only recipe I could find was in my ancient Be-Ro baking booklet, purchased for me by mother when I was 14, at the cost of two empty flour bags and one and sixpence in postage stamps. And the recipe was in ounces! Not a gramme in sight.

I made the sponge – it turned out light as a feather – and split it horizontally, filling it with my Seville Orange Curd and creme fraiche. Yes, it was just as gorgeous as it sounds – sharp and fruity and not too sweet, with a nice textural contrast between the sponge and the filling. I was a happy hostess. And I can faithfully report to you that in the matter of sugar, flour and eggs, the answer you are seeking is:

3 – 3 – 2.

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