How did it all begin? The British have a long line of famous cake-bakers and an equally long line of classic cake recipes. From the committed Isabella Beeton to the spectacularly gaudy Fanny Cradock, these special cooks have earned their place in the baking history books. Here’s who to thank for that chocolate cake you’re slicing tomorrow afternoon…
Perhaps the earliest cookery writer to become a household name was Isabella Beeton. Aged just 21 when she wrote her major cookery work, Isabella was only a learner herself. Married to a publisher and inspired to help readers in their women’s magazine, Isabella conceived ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ as a comprehensive guide for housewives. In terms of a legacy, however, few of Mrs Beeton’s recipes became ‘signature’; her manual featured tried-and-tested recipes for basics like lemon cake, apple Cheesecake, gingerbread and Christmas cake.
Even a Man Could do it!
A strong contender for the title of first personality chef, Marguerite Patten launched a television cookery show just as World War Two was beginning. Her series provided a simple introduction to cookery; she was Delia’s predecessor, encouraging everyone to have a go. She was a hugely prolific food writer, with titles like ‘Soup Basics’, ‘The Spam Cookbook’ and ‘We’ll Eat Again’ under her belt. While she lacked the stylish presence of later TV chefs like Fanny Cradock, Marguerite was a warm, witty woman.
She began one show with the immortal line: “You know, it’s so easy, I feel sure that even a man could walk into the studio and do it!” As you’d expect from the first lady of simple cookery, her books feature step-by-step, definitive recipes for classic and old-fashioned cakes, from Carrot Cake to Apricot Gateau.
Blue Eggs and Kirsch
Shortly after Marguerite, the most infamous TV chef of all time arrived on our screens. She may have been British, but Fanny Cradock’s baking style was heavily influenced by French cuisine. In fact, one of Fanny and her husband Johnny’s first forays into entertainment was a series of theatre productions in which they dressed as French chefs, and cooked for their audiences. Although Fanny became a figure of fun, due to her extravagant dress sense and husband-pecking, she’s indisputably contributed to British cookery. Her television programmes, which started after World War Two, showed housewives how to create interesting meals without breaking the bank: economy, as much as presentation, was Fanny’s real skill.
“I would sooner put a baby in the refrigerator than an egg,” Fanny declares in one of her bossy and fabulously intricate cookery books. Introducing us to the prawn cocktail, green cheese ice-cream, meringue swans and pastry boats, Fanny was big on entertaining. Her ‘Ambassador’s Gateau’, a layered gateau of butter biscuits crushed and steeped in kirsch, chocolate mouse, grapes and cream, was probably served to dinner guests in her Hollywood-style London home.
Importing The Chocolate Truffle
Meanwhile, quietly scribbling her cookery books in the background was Elizabeth David. An Italiophile with a vivacious appetite for life and wine, Elizabeth travelled around Italy gathering material for her fine work, ‘Italian Food’. Sugar, she reminds us, was brought to England from Asia via Venice, where Italian pastry chefs quickly established themselves as world leaders. Although Elizabeth disliked the “gaudy” decoration that Italians made for their cakes, and wasn’t a voracious cake-baker, she included some of their Classic Sweet Recipes in her book. It’s an invaluable reference for light, fruit-filled Italian pastries, peaches poached in white wine, chocolate truffles, and tiny almond cakes.
How to Cook
Of course, the modern queen of good baking and home cooking is Delia Smith, whose career began with a column for the London Evening Standard in 1969. Her first television programme for the BBC, Family Fare (1973), was a studio-based show which Delia used to re-introduce a take-away nation to home cooking. Her ‘Complete Cookery Course’ became a household bible. Delia’s most famous creation is probably her Christmas Cake: this, she says, is her most popular recipe ever. But her tried-and-tested recipes for Victoria Sponge, Carrot Cake and Treacle Tart are probably the versions many of us know and cook today.
Up The Cupcake
Just when we thought the personality TV chef had dwindled, along came Nigella. Her revolutionary series and book ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ reintroduced literally thousands of women to baking at home. A generation raised on diet advice and healthy eating fads had largely abandoned home-made cakes. But Nigella, with her voluptuous figure and infectiously joyful appetite, showed us Glamorous Cupcakes, super-rich chocolate puddings and brownies sprinkled with gold dust. If you buy one baking book this year, start with Nigella – and work backwards through the list!