On Monday afternoon, a friend comes round to visit, and finds me in a flurry of flour and caster sugar.
‘We’ve got people coming round tonight and I’ve forgotten to bake,’ I am saying, whilst pouring pistachios over the floor. Elvis the kitten hoovers them up.
One day, scientists will discover a genetic predisposition to baking, and I will appear to be a martyr to my DNA rather than a neurotic wannabe Nigella. Until then, those around me will have to endure moments like this.
I come from the sort of family that would never dream of serving a shop-bought cake to guests. It’s not that we don’t eat that stuff at all, you understand; it’s more that we see it as private, furtive indulgence.
My Gran always kept a tin of spice buns and jam tarts at the ready, just in case any of us let our guard down for long enough to agree to eat one. Not that there was anything wrong with them; those jam tarts still sing to me at weak moments. But there are only so many baked goods one can consume without expiring. We are, unsurprisingly, a big-boned family.
Now, my Mother and I are far too sensible to keep a stock of fattening home produce (although Mum always has a stash of Kit Kats, if you know where to look for them), but we would still be uncomfortable with opening a pack of McVitie’s if there was company.
Mum is a trained confectioner, and can turn out neat rounds of shortbread from memory and without breaking sweat. I call to mind her precise, professional hands as I puff flour over the cookbook and attempt to corral the unruly pistachios into the dough.
The one thing I remember (from The Great British Bake-Off, not my Mother’s knee) is that shortbread must not be over-worked, lest it sag and lose its light crumble. I opt for patting the paste into rough triangles and studding them with nuts once they’re on the tray. If I’m honest, this is largely because I have sticky hands and can’t be bothered to get the rolling pin out. I will tell my guests it’s all about rustic charm.
By the time Herbert gets home, they are stacked up neatly on plate. Their triangular shape has softened so that they look like a pile of oysters. He bites into one, chews for a moment, and then his face crumples. I watch him pick something off his tongue, small and metallic.
‘How did you mange to get a staple in there?’ he asks.
‘What? No, can’t be!’
But the staple is unquestionably there. I bet you never get that with a pack of Hobnobs.
3oz caster sugar
1oz ground rice
1/2 lb flour
1/4 lb pistachios
1. Whisk butter until fluffy and pale. Add the sugar and mix well.
2. Stir in the flour, rice and pistachios, taking care not to over-mix.
3. Shape as desired and place on a greased baking sheet.
4. Bake at 160 centigrade for around 20-25 minutes if making smaller biscuits, or 30-40 minutes if rolling into one round. Either way, it’s best to keep an eye on it, so that it goes no further than the palest golden colour.
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