The freshly whipped cream, with a hint of vanilla, oozed just slightly out of one side of the cake before my mother, Jill, swiftly troweled it flush, and then applied the broad knife to the sponge’s multi layered sides to correct it’s towering lean. All it needed now was a single candle on top. After all dad was 82, and he neither had the lung capacity, nor the inclination to tackle too many candles, and in the absence of roman numeral shaped sparklers, we were going to have to abbreviate his age into a far more manageable quantity. So 1 candle was just fine. There is something magnetic about a lone lit candle standing proudly in the centre of a deliciously sweet glaze of passion-fruit icing. A miniature plume of smoke was still rising from the extinguished waxen monument when the grandchildren jostled for “front of the line” serving honors. They all knew what was coming. Nothing in our solar system tasted as good as grandma’s sponge cake. And they reappeared, applying heat for seconds, before the grownups could even be served their first slice.
It is no secret that all mums make good sponge cakes, but there must be a secret to my mum’s sponges, because no-one I have ever met has been able to produce anything that tastes as good. Mum is a bit younger than dad (a lot younger by her own reckoning), and we tell her that she shouldn’t continue to go to all the trouble of baking cakes and preparing feasts for us, and that we can go out for dinner instead or help with the preparation, but to be selfishly truthful, I just don’t want her culinary triumphs to end!
So what is it that makes our mum’s or grandma’s food taste so good? What is the miracle ingredient?
It’s the comfort that they add to it.
You will not find this ingredient in any recipe book, and it is not something you will spot on a supermarket shelf. Fittingly, it is only made available to all loving and caring mum’s and grandma’s, who surreptitiously add it to mixing bowls in oven-warmed (and often outdated) kitchens around the world every day. Whether it is baked, roasted, fried, or sautéed, they stealthily add comfort in liberal measures to everything they create, whilst all grateful beneficiaries invariably emit unashamed food noises like “Oooh!” and “Mmmm!” and rub their bellies with delight, and talk about it for a long time after, just like I am doing now.
Having said all that, I still think that mum’s sponges are the best in the world. At our large family events, wizened relatives walk in the door and the first thing they say before they undertake a search is “We’ve heard that Jill has baked a sponge! Quick, let me see it!” One of my aunts once informed me, at such a gathering, that she was prepared to fight me for the last slice of an all but demolished sponge cake that was resting, exhausted and nervous, on a nearby dessert table. “That’s mine,” she announced, “I saw it first!” Of course I informed my aunt that I had been to the table earlier, when she wasn’t looking, and had already laid claim to that slice, but she wasn’t having any of it. “I’ve been standing here since you walked in,” she countered, “And you haven’t been anywhere near that table. The best I can do is go halves with you. That’s my final offer!” It was a big slice and a fair deal, but secretly I still selfishly wanted all of it. Mum’s sponges can do that to you. I considered a diversionary tactic or a distraction, but my aunt was way too sharp for that. She quickly seized a knife and cut the piece of cake in two. We both stood there, “Oooing” and “Mmming” and rolling our eyes and grinning as we ate. Comfort is achieved far more powerfully in allied numbers.
Not entirely on topic, but worth mentioning, is that my mother Jill has also been known to commission a sponge for the purpose of entertainment. When she was working as a mothercraft nurse back in the 80’s, she produced a fabulous birthday sponge cake for one of her nursing friends at the Royal Women’s hospital in Melbourne. All the staff gathered to watch as the birthday girl inserted a large knife into the cake, only to find it impenetrable. The knife kept bouncing back at her, time and time again. It became quite an awkward moment. Jill appeared all the while to be both dumbfounded and profoundly offended, but had, in preparing the cake, devilishly substituted the baked sponge sections with the foam rubber padding found in a round stool seat. Once the laughter subsided, I’m sure they would have all leaned forward and picked away at the icing just the same, and perhaps poked a finger or two into the whipped cream sandwiched between the perfectly cut rubber foam layers. No point in letting the edible bits go to waste.
Now that we have correctly isolated Comfort as being the key mystery ingredient for successful cooking, let us debunk a myth or two, starting with “The great chocolate addiction” myth. Scientists will insist that addiction to chocolate is due to the ingredient cocoa stimulating the secretion of endorphins in the brain, triggering off a heightened sense of “well-being”. Well, I can tell you that this feeling of euphoria is more likely due to chocolate being produced by a bunch of certified bona-fide mum’s and grandma’s, secretly co-opted by the chocolate giants (under the cover of darkness), to add their comfort touch – along with full cream dairy milk – to each production batch! Another myth is that “School tuck-shops don’t sell healthy food”. School tuck-shops the world over are manned by school mothers, who, by merely being there and presiding over the food, are able to make it taste better and can magically extract any additive and calorie nasties that may have attached themselves along the way. A sandwich prepared by yourself at home does not taste nearly as good as the same one handed to you by a tuck-shop mother, because it is served with a warm smile and kind regards to be passed on to your family, and a tongue-in-cheek inquiry as to where you think her offspring might be lurking, in order to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with her.
Some readers may assert that this post is no more than a cunning plan to encourage my mother to continue making sponge cakes. And Anzac cookies. And roasts with Yorkshire pudding, and crumbed cutlets with mashed potato and peas, salmon patties, coleslaw, and sausage rolls.
Okay. I might be “bustable” on that assertion. So charge me with “seeking comfort by improper means”.
Mum’s sponges can do that to you.