Up until about five years ago I was absolutely awful at cooking. I'm not saying I'm rivalling Nigella or anyone now but I tell you, pre-2006 I was a right cookery dunce.
Even school Home Economics lessons were bad. I really wanted to be good at cooking but no matter what I did it always seemed to go wrong. I remember the day I came home with a sausagemeat plait that I'd made in Miss Worth's lesson. Mum had cleared away all family dinner cooking plans because that Tuesday night I - yes I, thirteen year old I - was feeding the family. Mum was going to provide some mashed potato and vegetables but the undisputed star of the meal was going to be my majestic sausagemeat plait.
At three o'clock that afternoon I left my Geography lesson (what a waste of a subject that was on me - I have trouble pinpointing Cambridge on the weather map) and headed over to Block 5 to collect my culinary masterpiece. I walked into the classroom which was filled with the aroma of baked pastry and warm sausage (bottle that, Gucci - there's a scent!) and found my sausagemeat plait sitting on a cooling rack with my name label next to it. Dang, it looked good! I was so proud. I carefully lifted it into my red Family Circle biscuit tin and set off on my journey home.
I kept the tin level all the way home. I didn't even stop at Moore's newsagents for my daily packet of Space Raiders because I had an important cargo that needed to be shown to my Mum. As I approached the house Mum opened the door for me and I carried my tin through to the kitchen. I had such a grin on my face as I removed the lid for the big reveal ..... and then that grin quickly fell off my face as I looked inside the tin. My lovely sausagemeat plait seemed to have shape shifted during the walk home. Instead of gazing upon the delicious crisp, golden, carefully-braided loveliness that I'd lifted into the tin less than an hour before, I was looking (in horror) at a pale and oily plap of stuff that seemed to be sweating grease. Think Mick Hucknall in pastry-and-meat form. My sausagemeat plait had collapsed into a right old sorry heap.
Mum got the fish slice and lifted the item out of the tin and onto a rack. She dabbed at it with some kitchen roll in an attempt to remove some of the drippy fat and then she gently patted it back into some kind of shape. I was thoroughly crestfallen (that's the first time I've ever used that word) and very disappointed. The 'plait' sat on the cooling rack until about a quarter to six when Mum transferred it to a baking tray and put it in the oven to warm through. On the worktop, underneath the empty cooling rack, sat a puddle of grease. I have NO idea why my handiwork was so oily. Maybe it was the sausagemeat or perhaps I got the recipe measurements wrong? I don't know.
At six o'clock we sat down to dinner and Mum dished up slices of my plait onto plates. Bless her, I knew she was trying not to laugh but I could tell that she desperately wanted to. Her and Dad ate the sausagemeat plait (it's a joke to call it that) and Dad honestly seemed to enjoy it. Sally wouldn't eat hers and I also refused to eat mine. Thank goodness for Mum's mash and vegetables or we'd have been hungry.
So yeah, me, Home Economics and cooking in general just didn't go together. I would help Mum in the kitchen, just as I always had - mixing cake mixture, making jam tarts, Angel Delight and Rice Krispie cakes, cutting out pastry leaves for pies and, of course, licking cake spoons and bowls - but whenever I tried anything more complex than that I would just fail miserably.
My Mum was an amazing cook. Her cakes were sublime and she made the most wondrous apple pie. Her roast dinners were superb and her bread pudding was legendary. Mum would read cookery books like novels - she had a cupboard chock-full of recipe books of every age, type and description. She absolutely loved the things.
My Mum died in 2006. She had a heart attack on Mothering Sunday.
I was just starting to get into cooking. It was back when Ready Steady Cook was good and Jamie Oliver was King Of The TV Chefs (he still is in my mind) and I was inspired by it all. I'd planned to cook Mum a Mother's Day lunch. We were going to have chicken chasseur followed by homemade pavlova. Mum didn't feel right on Sunday morning and I joked that she was just trying to get out of eating my cooking! I helped her upstairs so she could have a rest and I went back downstairs and set about cleaning beads and getting the raspberries out of the freezer to defrost ready for the pavolva.
Then all of a sudden, within the space of about forty five minutes, our lives changed forever.
We never did have that lunch. I can remember tipping the chicken and raspberries into the bin the next day.
One of the first things I said after Mum died (to a lovely paramedic who was wonderful and who made me a very sugary cup of tea) was 'I'm never going to eat one of my Mum's roast dinners again.' A very odd thing to think of at such a time but it kind of tells you what an ace cook she was.
On the Monday I vowed that I was going to learn to cook like Mum. I had to because we'd all become so used to her delicious meals and puddings that there was just no going back. I went through Mum's recipe book cupboard and I fished out the book that I knew was her ultimate cookery Bible - Marguerite Patten's Every Day Cook Book. That very book is sat next to me right now.
It's the 1970 edition and is in a bit of a tatty state. It has lost its dust jacket and some of its pages are loose. The index is torn and in need of mending and the book feels floury (yes, actual flour - some probably about forty years old) and it has food splats all over it. The front cover seems to have had a fight with some chocolate cake mixture and page 144 - the chicken and bacon pie page - has actual bits of pie stuck to it. But despite its condition I love this book. It was Mum's go-to recipe book and having read it and used it umpteen times myself I can see why she loved it so much. I refer to this book at least once a week. It contains everything you need to know about cooking.
It also contains some amazing retro photographs of retro food. I just love how there's so much orange (the colour, not the fruit) and brown - you just don't get food photographs like these now!
But retro pictures aside, this book is amazing and Marguerite Patten is amazing. She has taught me how to cook and, more importantly, she has taught me how to cook like my Mum used to. That chicken and bacon pie tastes exactly as it did when Mum made it. Making the cakes, scones and flapjacks from the book reminds me of Mum because they taste just like hers did. Isn't it marvellous how one bite of cake can bring back so many happy memories?
Obviously Mum isn't here to see how far I've come with my cooking. She's not here to watch me in the kitchen using her recipe books, scales, mixing bowls and pastry cutters and she's not here to taste my cooked goods. But when I'm in the kitchen twiddling about with cakes and pastry I feel closer to Mum. I might have been a rubbish cook when I was younger but I've really improved and I'm learning all the time. I can still hear Mum's voice and her words of cookery wisdom - "Roll it like that", "Cut it like this" and "Don't stir it - fold it in gently" - like some kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi in my mind.
Yes, cooking definitely makes me feel closer to Mum and that's a brilliant thing but I'll tell you what, there is NO way on Earth I am attempting another sausagemeat plait ever again!