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Who Needs A Recipe When You Can Bake From The Heart?

10/04/2016 6:23 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Pink heart shaped cake decorated whipped cream,aerial view.

The judges approach my cake at the bake off and are immediately impressed by the presentation, not to mention my schmaltzy story about discovering a heart-shaped cake tin in my grandmother's kitchen.

It's true, I did find the well-loved tin in the bottom of a cupboard. It had the bumps and scrapes of a pan that had produced sponges and butter cakes and birthday surprises for decades, and there was something about it that made me feel like it came from another world.

A halcyon time of long, summer afternoons, neighbours dropping in with hand-made cakes and cheeky kids squashing pennies on the railroad tracks.

I also thought the tin would help me win this bloody competition, or at least beat my mum and dad, who'd also entered. You see, there's a family tradition of friendly but ferocious rivalry when it comes to bake-offs, but I'm at a bit of a disadvantage.

My mum and grandma spent a good decade going against each other in the Country Women's Association stall of the annual show.

For grandma, her role as the bank manager's wife in a small, country town was a serious affair. She'd hold dinner parties, bring (heart-shaped) cakes to tennis and make it her business to welcome newcomers.

When I was a little girl, she showed me an ornate notebook with groupings of names -- lists of guests to dinner parties gone by written in neat pencil, along with the topics of conversation they covered (Archie's schooling, the new community pool) and the dish she served.

"So you don't repeat yourself," she'd explained.

My grandma grew up entering the annual cake-baking contest at the country fair, and as soon as my mum was old enough to master a marble cake, she went at it like a mad cook in an apron.

The winner got a small sum of money, so Mum always baked to win.

For me, growing up in suburban Sydney, there were no cake-baking contests, but I still picked up a few haphazard skills from Mum.

Mum is not someone who needs a recipe. I used to sneak choc chips in the kitchen while I watched her haphazardly throwing in eggs and flour and sugar in no particular order.

Out of butter? Whack some oil in. No choc chips? Smash up these Jaffas and throw them in.

It looked like total madness, but, time after time, she turned out perfect cakes.

(Well, there was one time when her chocolate pudding escaped the pan, creating a semi-burned mess that we retrieved from the oven base. We called that one 'Rollover Pudding'.)

Mostly though, she seemed to possess an innate ability to taste and feel and smell her way to an astoundingly good cake or legendary choc-chip cookies.

For me, the knack has been hard won: I once made a pavlova that tasted like vinegar (fish and chips and meringue, anyone?). I forgot baking soda and made a brick of a banana bread that I blamed on my husband's tummy ache (That turned out to be appendicitis). I once substituted half the ingredients and produced a brilliant, unrepeatable cake. Slowly, I picked up a country woman's knack for baking.

But back to the competition. I'm looking like a frontrunner on presentation and the story alone, when they slice into the cake.

The judges take a bite. One grimaces.

Paralysed by politeness, the other judge offers up a two out of 10. They agree it's terrible.

It seems my idea to substitute butter for coconut oil and yogurt was not a winner this time.

So my baking skills are a little neglected. Like the heart-shaped tin, the art of baking has been popped away in a bottom drawer somewhere along with the old-fashioned flour sifter and hand-cranked egg beaters.

This heart-shaped tin is a link to an era that's been replaced by $3 supermarket mud cakes.

It's a tin I'll continue to fill with batter for birthdays and special events -- and yes, some might taste like vinegar.

It's a tin I hope to one day pass on to a niece or nephew with the simple advice given to me: who needs a recipe when you can bake by feel?

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