'Homemade? I've had my fill of cupcake fetishism, twee polka-dot aprons and smug TV bakers'
Enough already, says Rebecca Armstrong – get me to a Greggs
Until last week, I had no idea that something called a Pie Shield existed. I was flicking through a Lakeland catalogue I found on a colleague's desk when I spotted a cherry-red segmented silicone ring. "New product!" exclaimed the accompanying text. "The crust is always the first part of your pie to burn," it went on to explain. "So instead of spending time fashioning foil to try and protect it, place one of these reusable silicone Pie Shields around the edge of your pastry before baking and you'll have beautiful golden-brown results with no sign of scorching."
Having never made a pie, I can't tell how troubling a scorched crust might be. But to someone out there, it must be quite a trial – the smallest sized Perfect Crust Pie Shield costs £7.99. And given that you could buy two short-crust steak pies in Sainsbury's for £3, each with a perfectly golden unsinged pastry margin around the outside, why on earth would you need to go and buy a dedicated crust protector?
But then, I would say that. Because, between you and me, I don't really believe in baking. I'll eat the fruits of other people's ovens and I'm very fond of bread, buns and baps – but making them myself? When there are at least seven perfectly good shops that sell baked goods within a two-minute walk from my front door? No, thank you.
No thank you to the trolley dash that every occasional baker will know, where you can't remember the difference between baking powder and bicarb, buy both, plus all the extras you've forgotten you have at home (alive with weevils, mind), some muffin cases, a sheaf of greaseproof paper and end up spending £40 on eight leaden fairy cakes. No thank you to the zero-tolerance "science" of baking. Screw up a tsp or tbsp and you end up with an inedible bread Frisbee that even the birds (and those other denizens of the back garden, rats) won't touch.
And I'd also like to politely decline the invitations from every TV channel and bookshop to give baking a bash. Having managed to dodge both series of The Great British Bake Off, I now feel as though I'm under siege. In January, the photogenic Herbert siblings took to TV screens with a series devoted to baking accompanied by a cookbook, The Fabulous Baking Boys. A 13-part series recently started on the Good Food Channel featuring "young, sexy" (no, Food Channel, they really, really aren't) chefs Paul Hollywood and James Martin "delving into the world of speciality breads and the food that goes with them", while later this month, The Big Book of Baking by the Hairy Bikers hits shelves and screens, followed by the second series of Baking Mad on Channel 4.
The promotional material informing me about the latter needlessly points out that British baking is booming. With all this TV evangelising, is there any wonder? Caster sugar sales are up by 7 per cent, icing sugar by 14 per cent and vanilla extract by 20 per cent. The market intelligence wonks at Mintel saw all this coming in a 2006 report, which predicted (warned?) that sales of home-baking products would reach £550m by 2011. By 2010 it had actually reached £576m, no doubt because of the 28 per cent of us baking from scratch using raw ingredients at least once a week.
Cooking anything from scratch is, of course, a good thing. Well done that 28 per cent. But might now be a good time to take a small step away from the butter cream? I don't mind what anyone gets up to in their own kitchens, but I do mind the baking-is-a-virtue mindset. A pile of homemade cakes is every bit as obesity-causing as a stack of shop-bought ones. Yes, they will have fewer mystery ingredients (mmm, corn syrup) and they will taste lovely fresh from the oven, but come on, we have spent hundreds of years trying to escape from the tyranny of being chained to the stove. It feels a bit Marie Antoinette-ish, this playing at baking. Or maybe it reminds me of Valium-numbed1950s' housewives baking endlessly because there was nothing else they could do.
It's the Fifties' housewife vibe that also bothers me about all the pastel-hued, labour-saving baking devices that sit alongside things like the Pie Shield in kitchenware shops (you wouldn't need to labour-save if you just went to Greggs, after all). It's the cake-levelling doo-dah that gives you an even surface for your icing. It's the terminally twee stamps for home bakers that imprint the message "homemade" on any biscuits they craft, even though everyone can tell they're homemade because they look rubbish. It's the unnerving feel of silicone baking moulds in the shape of rabbits. It's polka-dotted aprons and retro-style mixers and all the other lifestyle baking tat that manufacturers and marketeers are pushing. Every time I see a cupcake stand, a part of me dies inside.
Baking doesn't have to be this way. Even a flour-dodger like me has a great deal of admiration for those who are pushing the boundaries of what you can do with a bit of Battenberg. I watch the Food Channel show Charm City Cakes and marvel at what can be done with icing sugar, imagination, some sponge and a few wooden struts. Then there's the evil genius of British creative Miss Cakehead, a PR and events expert turned Dr Frankenstein offondant. She provides cakes for big-name clients that are more Nightmare on Elm Street than I Dream of Jeannie. "I want to challenge the medium – with cake you can get away with anything," she says, while telling me about how to decorate a cake to make it look blood-spattered, as well as the edible beach she's working on for this year's Cake and Bake Show in September. "We made an edible autopsy out of cake and got a pathologist to come in and dissect it." That's my kind of cake making. She is also no fan of the all-conquering cupcake, either. "There was a horrendous outbreak of cupcakes suddenly becoming so trendy – about five years ago. They're the equivalent of painting by numbers compared with Peter Blake." See her work at staypuft.cc or follow her antics on Twitter @miss_cakehead.
But if you love baking, you won't care what I think about it. For many people baking is useful, joyful, relaxing, fun. For some, it's life-saving: the chick-lit writer Marian Keyes published Saved by Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy last month, a very personal cookbook in which she reveals that in the throes of a nervous breakdown, she turned to cake-making: "Baking... gets me through. To be perfectly blunt about it, my choice sometimes is, I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes."
She also understands that there will always be unbelievers. "I need to make something clear: baking may not be for you". Marian, it's not. But I'm glad that it can be about more than showing off perfect pie crusts and buying spotted aprons, even if you're more likely to find me buying my bread and bagels rather than up to my elbows in flour.
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