My father has been bringing home a large slice of fluffy, soft teacake every day after he finishes his afternoon tea. For decades, my mother has made this cake at least twice per week. It can be a simple sponge baked in an 8-inch cake pan. Other days it is adorned with powdered sugar and cinnamon or a layer shredded coconut. The cake crackles under the weight of your knife when you cut into it. Sometimes, cupcakes are made in pretty liners with frosting and chocolate ganache. The makeup of the cupcakes may change from time to time, but the inside remains the same: 3/4 stick butter, 3/4 cup sugar, and 1 cup flour.
It all began 40 years ago when my mother was newly married and lived with her in-laws. My grandmother was a reluctant cook. She can be defended, however, as she was born into a household with a battalion kitchen staff that ran the kitchen like clockwork, and rarely needed to take over. My mother, unlike her mother-in law, was an explorer in the kitchen. She was naturally curious and made her first cake from a recipe in a book that hadn’t been published for decades. It was baked in a small oven, barely bigger than a shoebox. My mother was a natural baker and became the family’s official baker. My grandmother used to say to her in Malayalam “Kathija oru cake Iduvo?” Although ‘Iduvo is hard to translate, it is the same word that one would use to describe the act when a hen lays an egg. This particular word is easy to understand when I see my mother in the kitchen with her measuring cups and baking tins. My mother does this with the same effortless ease and instinct: scoop, stir, whisk, then out comes the cake. Perfection.
My mother is currently away, while my father and me are at home taking care of ourselves. As usual, the cake box is still on his desk, but it’s now empty and filled with guilt over running out of cake in my house.
Although I am aware that I have big shoes, I text my mother anyway. I get a reply quickly: beat two eggs with 3/4 cup sugar, 80g butter and whisk them together. Mix one cup flour with one teaspoon ‘bp’. Alternate between one cup and two cups milk. Bake at 150°C for 30 minutes.
Finally, I understand what she meant by bp (baking flour). I’m ready to get to work. Do the tins need to be lined? I don’t. Do I need butter to be creamed until it becomes fluffy and pale yellow? It’s summer in Kerala and the chances of the butter turning fluffy are almost as good as it turning into a unicorn. So I keep going. My mother’s smooth movements where she adds the flour in small batches while the mixer is still running are not as easy as they seem. A good portion of my pantry looks like it has been snowed on. I didn’t let this discourage me. A splash of milk on the floor and another snowstorm on the table top later, the batter is still warm in the tin.
My father cuts into the cake in the evening and I wait to hear the verdict. He asks me delicately, dusting the crumbs from his shirt, “It tastes great…ahem. Maybe a little dry?” I smile and nod. I know it will take some time to perfect my baking skills, but for now there is a cup to sip on.
80g butter at room temp
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup caster Sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
Combine the flour, baking powder and milk in a large bowl. Set aside.
Mix the butter and sugar together until they are pale and fluffy
Mix the eggs with the mixture.
Mix the flour and milk together in small batches.
Bake the batter in a greased 8-inch baking pan for 30 minutes at 150° celsius or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.