I reckon that if I were a baked good, I would be a cupcake – probably lemon-flavoured – so that’s what I decided to begin my baking journey with. There was no question as to whose recipe I would use: Rachel Allen’s. The celebrity chef’s airs and graces are something to which all Trinity students should aspire.
In an attempt to create a Ballymaloe cookery school in the west of Ireland, I picked up a few eggs from my neighbour’s chickens, a bit of butter, caster sugar, flour, baking powder and lemons. The eggs had to be beaten. Simple, surely? And after fishing too much egg shell from the pot, the job was done. Usually confident in my ability to weigh things by eye, I assumed the same skills would apply to baking. After lumping things into the pot until it looked just right, I mixed it all up.
I axed the icing from the recipe as I didn’t want any distractions to mask my cakes’ elegant flavour. With the oven at 180 degrees I lined the cake tin. I was feeling pretty good about my baking abilities.
Waiting for the timer to go off was torturous. The alarm rang out, louder than expected: it was the fire alarm telling me my baking endeavour was coming to an end. What went wrong? I don’t know, it remains a mystery. But what is certain is that I ended up with severely burnt cupcakes, the majority of which went to my dog, as I knew they would gain her seal of approval. At least someone appreciated them.
Yu Hua Chaomhánach
This is the story of Hugo the sourdough starter, or more accurately, a series of unfortunate events. My sourdough journey has been a roller coaster of a ride. Making sourdough was born out of exam procrastination; Google has a plethora of resources with which I could fritter away time and I was overwhelmed by information about different hydration levels and the difference between dark and light rye. I chose to follow an extremely specific recipe – my first mistake.
Hugo’s life began with equal amounts organic rye and plain flour and a 2:3 ratio of flour to tap water. He slept in the hot press. I went to bed filled with excitement and woke up disheartened. My starter had not doubled in size. I continued relentlessly, following the recipe to a tee. After a week, my starter was a fail. It didn’t grow (the whole point of the thing) and had an unpleasant sour smell, not remotely like the fruity beer to which I was aspiring.
I decided to start from scratch, working with my instincts alone, detecting changes in texture, smell and size. I eventually hit the jackpot and was left with a healthy starter that tripled in volume within a six-hour window.
I learned some very valuable lessons so you don’t have to repeat my mistakes. Avoid unfiltered tap water because chlorine is an enemy killing your yeast. Do not use a completely airtight jar because microbes in the air are the ally. Experiment with flour types and ratios — I found that higher rye percentages gave rise to faster volume increases. I learned early on that a very aqueous starter won’t have enough structure to rise appropriately. Avoid feeding after peak volume, which weakens the starter.
Finally, starters love warmth. If that means precariously balancing your towel-wrapped starter on top of the hot water cylinder beside a hot pipe, do it. It will all be worth it for that perfect loaf of homemade sourdough bread. And give it a good name too. It is your baby, after all.
I begin cutting up the pie. Potato and spinach fill the pastry, and thyme perfumes the air. Glazed carrots add colour on top. I gently fried some tofu and peppers on the side too. “Perhaps too many vegetables for my strictly omnivorous mother,” I consider as we sit down at the dining table. I try to avoid eye contact until judgement has passed.
College-inspired new ideas have accompanied me home. The varied uses of chickpeas – “hummus, gram flour, aquafaba”, the new mantra – partner other issues affiliated with veganism which have only increased since my involvement in student politics. A new division of household labour has jolted the family home. I make dinner every Tuesday and I can introduce – well, force – some very strange meals on my family.
There have been successes and failures in my lockdown cooking. A notable failure is the aquafaba meringues. They were not sweet, tasting like the savoury chickpeas that they originated from. Instead of that satisfying crunch and chew of conventional meringues, mine had the texture of artificial sea foam. However, other than some shock at the compatibility of dark chocolate and silken tofu and some jokey disparagement, my family has been quietly accepting of all my newfangled ideas.