On Making Mary Berry’s Fast Cakes
and Not Writing
The Great British Procrastination Show
Like many people I know, I am a fan of The Great British Baking Show (called The Great British Bake-Off in its native tongue). I have seen every episode, some more than once. I appreciate it for being nice and scrummy and boring. My fiancé appreciates it because whenever I am watching the show I also wind up baking. A lot.
As others have pointed out, if you’re a writer, there’s a particular charm to this show, even beyond the regular bountiful charm it has for other people. Baking is solitary, sensitive to mistakes, and ultimately a creative endeavor—and if you’re lucky, when you’re done, out pops something that someone else would want to consume. Unlike writing, however, baking is relaxing. So when we got a copy of Mary Berry’s Fast Cakes in the Literary Hub office, I had a bright idea: that instead of spending my Saturday as I had planned—writing and taking breaks to go to the gym, reading books better than mine, and/or watching episodes of The Magicians—I would spend my Saturday writing and taking breaks to make Mary Berry’s fast cakes.
The cakes, Mary Berry promised, would take about 20 minutes to make. They would be Easy as well as Fast. They would be a perfect brain time-out, and I could even keep thinking about my novel draft while I mixed. As a bonus, by the end of the day, I would not only have a far-from-finished novel draft (arguably even farther from finished than it was at the beginning of the day, because sometimes that happens, okay), but I would also have some cakes. Who doesn’t like cakes?
I bought ingredients for three bakes: the Blueberry and Vanilla Traybake (requested by the aforementioned fiancé, who likes classic flavors), Chocolate Cream Fingers (which I thought looked very fancy for the amount of time they would supposedly take), and the Swiss Roll (chosen because of how many bakers I’ve seen cry over it on the show). I am a fairly confident and experienced baker, with a full pantry, and yet I had to supplement with quite a number of ingredients. It seems that British baking is slightly different in tenor than American (or whatever it is I’ve learned from my grandmother, Julia Child, and the internet). I mean, who uses margarine? Is superfine sugar really necessary? What even is golden syrup? (Mary indicates that this mysterious ingredient is available online, but it was much too late by then.) Also, it turns out that Swiss Rolls require Swiss Roll tins. Whatever. I approximated. I decided I’d just use a regular baking sheet for the Swiss Roll. I bought agave syrup instead of golden. It was only a tablespoon, after all. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
After returning from the grocery store, I wrote for about an hour, and then I got up to take my first bake-break. I started with the Blueberry Vanilla Traybake, which Mary Berry told me would take ten minutes to make and thirty minutes to bake. Well, maybe it does if you are very neat and have all your ingredients out on the counter, but it took me personally 19 minutes to make, not including the frosting. The frosting took me forever, so long I stopped keeping track, because my microwave was broken, and I was expected to soften the butter, and instead of just doing it on the stovetop like a normal person, I got frustrated and impatient and threw it in the bowl mostly cold and tried to Make It Work, as another distinguished reality television host might have chirped. But it did not work. The butter never really softened and the frosting became very, very ugly. That said, it still tasted good, because there was sugar and mascarpone in there. You can’t go wrong with sugar and mascarpone, and Mary Berry knows this.
The frosting semi-vanquished and the traybake in the oven, I decided . . . not to go back to writing. I know, I know, but the kitchen was already a mess, so I figured that rather than clean up only to destroy everything again, I’d go straight on to the Chocolate Cream Fingers. These were supposed to take 20 minutes to make, and they did! I felt vindicated and great at baking. Then I realized that I had only made the dough. After chilling the dough for 30 minutes, it took me 30 more minutes to roll out and form into finger-shapes. I felt less great. By then at least I had figured out my butter drama and so the frosting for these turned out perfect. Score one point for me.
While my fingers were in the oven, I decided to clean the kitchen and finally get back to writing. While doing the dishes, I burned my left hand bright red by dunking it into a bowl of scalding water. After that, I decided I deserved to rest for a while.
After a short Instagram break, I finally sat down in front of my computer to get back to my novel draft. But then I realized that it was time to frost the traybake. I did this and decorated the ugly, lumpy frosting with blueberries, which slightly improved things. I ate some of the blueberries. I felt like I had done a lot of work already, so instead of writing, I made myself lunch. While I ate, I watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. By the time it was over, the Chocolate Cream Fingers were baked and cooled and ready to be assembled. So obviously I assembled them. Then it seemed like I deserved to eat a few, with a mug of tea. They were satisfyingly chocolatey, and I praised myself again for my improvement in the frosting department.
When I looked up again, it was getting dark outside. I never made the Swiss Roll. I honestly felt I had done enough. I had clocked only that single, first hour of writing time—but at least I had my promised cakes.
By the end of the day, I had discovered that baking is a little bit too analogous to writing—in that it both scratches my creative itch and makes me feel as if I’ve been productive that day, and therefore pretty much obliterates any desire or discipline I had for writing, which is supposed to be my actual creative endeavor. Plus, unlike writing, cakes have instructions that can be followed—even if one doesn’t in fact follow them, and winds up with lumpy-but-delicious frosting. (Even that is satisfying, because I could clearly see what I did wrong, and promise myself and Mary Berry to do it better next time.) And unlike writing, after a single day of work, you wind up with something you can point at and smell and feed your fiancé with. No wonder I’d rather bake than write, even if I’d rather be a writer than a baker.
By the way, said fiancé loved the requested traybake. He ate it all before the weekend was up. He also—perhaps fueled by the sugar?—got a ton of writing done.