It’s half-term. The streets are silent. The only sign of life is the wind belligerently rattling the door to the bakery. Golden and crusty sourdough loaves sit in their wooden trays on the shelf waiting to be chosen like a nervous teenager at a school dance. The front of house staff stand by the till drumming their fingers on the counter.
In this silence I have found my happiness.
Not that I don’t simply love the noise of screaming children. Or the bustle of ‘New order please!’ and dashing to the fridge for more bacon. Now, I have time to return to my one true love. Baking.
The back of the bakery is always busy even on quiet days. The ovens are bursting with bread, steam pouring from the crevices, and the bakers banter back and forth as they mix, shape and slide dough into the ovens. My corner (ahem, the kitchen, which I also generously share with an enormous bread trolley) is compact. To put it bluntly, everything is within arm’s reach. But now the orders aren’t flying in as usual, I’ve been staring about the space for stimulation.
Some little bird told me Valentine’s Day was approaching. I know, I know, it’s easy to miss, such an unobtrusive day and hardly any themed food whatsoever. I thought I should aid that gap in the market. This week has been an illustrious love-affair of spiced shortbread hearts, strawberry bedecked cruffins, and a devilishly creamy white chocolate and raspberry tart. All with a token pink shimmer (to remind people it’s Valentine’s Day. In case they’ve forgotten). It has been heady and sadly short-lived (rudely interrupted by my visit to Calum, yes he’s great and all but will he provide me with a white chocolate tart? I don’t think so).
So, there I am, happy as Larry with my spatula and Magimix. This time, though, it’s different. No longer am I baking to the tones of my Harry Potter audiobook, my parents my only reluctant consumers as I force them to eat more sugar. This time it’s the real deal; I’m baking for paying customers.
To bake with the aim of selling you have to part with your principles. Baking a dog-shaped cookie will not go down well on the Day of Love. The treats need to be pink, they need to be heart-shaped – they need to scream ‘share the love!’
Cue me printing off a heart-shaped stencil to trace around cardamom-speckled shortbread dough with a knife. Cue me mixing fuchsia rhubarb syrup with icing sugar and smearing it over the shortbread. Cue me hulling out-of-season strawberries and slicing them in half so they become miniature hearts to perch on top sugar-dusted cruffins. So yes, my principles were shot to pieces but there was still fun to be had.
Melting pieces of white chocolate in warmed silky crème fraîche, folding it into whipped cream and gently pouring this cascade over juicy, crushed raspberries and dousing in cocoa-powder. Tamasin Day-Lewis strikes again and I see this (traditionally summery) tart as perfect Valentine’s Day fodder, thanks to that coy strip of magenta pink as you pull out a slice. Notwithstanding the cheeky undertone of self-fulfillment and aphrodisiacs.
Transforming the cruffin – a sugar-coated croissant, baked in a muffin tin (oh, the joys of the English language) – into a saucy gift for loved ones was a sticky filling of strawberry jam, a mound of clotted cream and the aforementioned strawberry hearts; a romantic take on the English scone. With or without filling, cruffins are rather magical, appearing out the oven with vast top-heavy growths drooping over the edge of the tin, looking more vegetal than delicate French pastry. Cutting through the folds and layers, you scoop out buttery dough to make a crevice, all excess immediately disappearing into my mouth, and filling the hole with jam.
Nothing is more satisfying than that first crack of your spoon scooping through the skin of clotted cream. So thick and velvety it is dolloped on top. Biting into one of these morsels is like a volcano eruption – jam oozing over your tongue and sliding over your fingers, the sugary sweetness dissipated by the rich butter pastry and tart tang of out-of-season strawberries.
In reality, though, Valentine’s Day is nothing like the perfection of heart-shaped treats. Valentine’s Day is making the person you love a batch of butterscotch blondies but not lining the tin so you and your beau are sat side-by-side on the sofa, forks in hand, chiseling out gooey chunks of sponge, crunchy with caramel, that refuse to part with the tin’s surface. In that act you embrace your principles and your heart is warmed when they tell you, between mouthfuls of cake, how tasty it is. No matter how much I love baking, the fruits of its labours are always best shared.