Defining Dishes

The dish that defines me: Evelin Eros’s rum cake

Evelin Eros thought a rum cake from an old cookbook with missing pages in a library was a recipe for disaster. After dropping it – and eating it off the floor – she realised it was a lesson in not giving up. As told to Kate Ng

Tuesday 29 August 2023 16:58 BST
During the school holidays, Eros and her siblings would cook their own meals
During the school holidays, Eros and her siblings would cook their own meals (Evelin/Fleming)

Defining Dishes is an IndyEats column that explores the significance of food at key moments in our lives. From recipes that have been passed down for generations, to flavours that hold a special place in our hearts, food shapes every part of our lives in ways we might not have ever imagined.

As a teenager growing up in Hungary, I usually spent the summer school holidays at home because my parents were still working. They would leave us a list of house chores we needed to do before they left for work in the morning, and it included cooking our own meals, so I learnt at an early age that I really enjoy cooking. I love cooking traditional Hungarian food, but I was also keen to experiment with other recipes and there was one day when I was looking for something to cook for that evening, just anything.

My friends and I would go to the local library regularly, and on this day, I went and found an old cookbook in the food section. It looked about a hundred years old, it was falling apart, some pages were missing and others were stuck together. But I browsed through it and found a cake recipe involving plums soaked in rum that I thought sounded delicious. The recipe was incomplete because of the state of the book, but I wrote it down in my notebook anyway because it sounded good and I really wanted to try it.

I resolved to make it for our dessert that evening. I went to the supermarket and went to search for all the ingredients for the cake. What I wasn’t expecting at the time was how expensive they would be – thinking back now, it makes sense that rum, plums and vanilla would not come cheap, but I was young and didn’t really know the price of things like that. It turned out to be quite an expensive shop, particularly for a 16-year-old using her own pocket money, but I didn’t mind too much as I was convinced it would be great!

I got home and started getting ready to cook. It was around this time that I realised just how incomplete the recipe was. It confused me – for example, it seemed to call for just milk and eggs in the batter, there was no flour. But I pressed on and told myself that the recipe writers surely knew what they were doing. I mixed everything in a bowl and it was very, very liquidy, almost like water, which worried me. I poured the batter into a pan and into the oven it went.

Now, the recipe said it would only take 20 minutes to cook. But as much as I wanted to trust the recipe, this part made me doubtful because of how liquid the batter was. So I waited and waited, but it remained stubbornly liquid. I wasn’t even sure if it would be edible. After an hour and a half of waiting, I used the toothpick method to see if it was cooked. I inserted the toothpick into the middle of the cake and when I removed it, it was sticky but no batter was left on it, so it looked like it might be OK to take it out. By this time, I had used so much electricity and energy that I was anxious to get it out of the oven.

I took it out and left it on the kitchen counter to cool down. I told myself: “Maybe it will be solid by the time I come back.” It did smell amazing because of the vanilla and rum and plums, almost like Christmas cake that filled the house. But to be honest, I had a bad feeling about it. It looked horrendous, the most disgusting-looking cake I had ever seen. At least it looked solid, so I thought OK, that seems fine-ish.

Eros makes her rum cake at Christmas and other special occasions (Evelin Eros)

After a while, I figured it had cooled down enough so I tried to get it out of the tin. I had used a cake tin that you push up from the bottom to release the cake. While I was pushing the bottom, I don’t know what happened, but the cake slipped and the whole thing just fell onto its face on the floor. I remember standing there for a moment and thinking, I just spent a bloody fortune on this cake and it’s fallen in the dirt on the floor. I rushed to my room in tears, I just couldn’t deal with it. I was so sad.

My 18-year-old brother had been in his room the whole time and heard me slamming my door. He must have wondered what happened because I heard him come out of his room and go downstairs to the kitchen. I stayed in my room for a little while feeling sorry for myself, before pulling myself together and heading back out to go and clean up the mess I made.

I went down the stairs and I kid you not, saw the funniest scene before my eyes. My brother was on his knees in the kitchen, literally eating the cake from off the floor. I said: “What the hell are you doing?” He told me it smelled and tasted amazing, he couldn’t resist. It reminded me of the Friends episode “The One with All The Cheesecakes”, because there is a scene where Rachel and Chandler are eating cheesecake off the floor in their hallway. It was hilarious that it was happening to me in real life.

I didn’t join my brother on the floor, but I did try a little bit of the cake once we picked it up from the floor. It was really tasty even though it wasn’t quite done, but it wasn’t the total failure I thought it was going to be. He offered to get me more eggs so I could try and recreate it again. The next time I made it, I made some adjustments and it turned out bloody amazing. Now, after a lot of experimenting and tweaking the original recipe, I’ve kind of mastered it. It is still expensive to make, so I decided I would only make it for celebrations and for Christmas.

I even entered my recipe in an online competition. One of the prizes was a Jamie Oliver cookbook and my dad absolutely adored him. I enlisted his help to submit my entry because I didn’t have a laptop at the time, and it turned out to be a fun thing for us to do together. Some time later, I checked my email and found out I won the competition! Both Dad and I were stunned because I was worried my recipe was too complicated and nobody would want to make it. When we received the book prize, Dad was definitely more pleased than I was. It was a great thing for both of us to do.

I genuinely believe that making this cake taught me the power of not giving up. That lesson has followed me throughout my life ever since. I am now an archaeologist living in Glasgow, but it hasn’t been an easy journey. I have had to persist with things even if they don’t go according to plan and keep motivating myself to get here. I think this random cake I picked out of an old book in a library has helped shape my attitude towards life. I’m also really glad my brother ate it off the floor because if he hadn’t, I would never have learnt those lessons and maybe, I would be in a very different place today.

Evelin Eros is a Hungarian archaeologist at Rocket Group, living in Glasgow. She makes her rum cake every Christmas and for other special occasions.

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