This is the cake that sustains me in times of adversity. It isn’t fancy and it doesn’t demand artistry. It is easy to make. You rub together butter and flour, stir in sugar and dried fruit, then bind together with eggs and a little milk. Scoop it into a buttered tin, bake in a medium oven and your kitchen will be filled with the comforting aroma of sugar and love.
I have been eating this cake in one form or another most of my life. I first tasted it as rock-cakes, made by my maternal grandmother, Maggie. Before I started school, my mum would take me on two buses every Wednesday, to visit my Grandma and Grandad. In my memory, we always ate the same meal: meat pie from Marks & Spencer, soft, sweet tinned peas and carrots (a sort of treat, because we only had fresh carrots and frozen peas at home) and Grandma’s rock-cakes.
When Maggie died, my grandad Jim started making rock-cakes. Looking back, I find that quite surprising. He never seemed to be the sort of man to think of providing treats or luxuries. I did often hear him mutter “Oh dear, Maggie…” under his breath, so perhaps the rock-cakes were a way of keeping her around. Whatever the reason, we all enjoyed eating them.
At the end of the 1970s, my parents, my brother and I moved 250 miles away, so we saw Jim much less frequently. My mum must have started making this cake round about then. During the “high fibre” 1980s, she experimented with a wholemeal version. It was nice in its way and made us feel virtuous but it couldn’t match the soft, sweet comfort of the original.
During my university years and my early adult life, the cake faded into the background. It came back to me in 2001. When my husband was in hospital with leukaemia, my mum regularly made it and sent it me. When I got home at midnight, after sitting with him, nothing was more comforting than a large slice of this delicious cake. My husband had practically no immune system, so on one occasion, my mum made a cake with scrupulously sterilised equipment and the freshest ingredients and sent it, double-wrapped, so he could enjoy at the least the first piece with me.
When my son was born in 2007, my parents visited often, always bringing this cake. My mum was now “Grandma” and the cake became “Grandma cake”. This cake was my son’s first taste of real sugar.
Our lives were turned upside down in 2011. In the same week that we left London and moved to a rural village, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout my 9 months of treatment and recovery, my parents were there with support and, of course, Grandma cake.
In difficult times, this cake gives us love, energy and emotional scaffolding. This week, even with flour, eggs and butter in short supply, I felt the need to make it myself and we have all been very glad of it.
The recipe comes from the Be-Ro cookbook. It was first published in 1923, three years before Maggie and Jim were married. My mum still has her 1960s copy and I have my own copy, now in its 40th edition. I would have loved to include a picture of my mum’s copy, which is well-used and now lacks its front cover. Sadly, it is 260 miles away and while my dad has both a digital camera and access to email, he lacks the ability to put the two together.
Four generations of my family have made this cake: my grandparents, my mum, me and now, my 12 year old son. This week, I found a series of images of pages from the 1923 edition. In the editions my mum and I have, this cake is simply “fruit cake”. To my delight, I discovered that in the 1923 edition, it is called “Family cake”. Whoever wrote that recipe knew what they were talking about.