For almost a third of my life if I made a cake, it was nothing, or all. Nothing, not even a wisp of batter or a wayward crumb, only the purposeful sliding of slices onto other people’s plates, their appetite nourishing my steely abstinence. All, meaning I ate it all, then felt wretched and furious. Lashing feelings assuaged only by renewed vows of temperance.
At the time all felt monstrous and much harder to bear than none. I now understand none was the uglier face of my symptoms: tight, calculated and superior, the antithesis of the generous, cake bearing hostess I fantasized I was being. The all, the part of myself I loathed and feared the most: the greedy, needy, messy part was in fact my salvation. For it was this grabbing, gorging Rachel that begged desperately for help.
And help would come, again, gallons of it, So too would terror and denial, that familiar and toxic pair, surging through my veins. Deadlock.
I come from a family who can talk as intently (and obsessively) about our behavior as we do our food. A family whose fingers reek of garlic and who talk endlessly of behavior and food over food, which can make for terrible table manners. We all knew perfectly well my nothing or all behavior was perverse. But we were helpless in the face of insidious and entrenched habits that had – and I know this may sound absurd – become my way of surviving.
I was 30 when things began to shift. A fierce period of nothing, sustained by a conveniently abstemious few months in India doing Yoga, was followed, unsurprisingly, by an even fiercer period of all. The beginning of the end of a relationship I thought would last forever and the uncomfortable truth about my acting career collided with all. I was, quite literally, on my knees.
Until that point I’d frantically avoided practical help – the make a list, make a plan, keep a diary, avoid that shop, avoid that food, count to three, make a phone call sort of help. What’s more I’d jeered and sneered at it, believing it pathetic and useless in the face of the complex deep-rooted problems I’d been burrowing for with at least six different therapists since the age of 16. Then just after my thirtieth birthday, drowning in all, I sat down and made a list. A list of the all the advice I’d been offered, given, thrown, administered, heard and read over the years. I still have it somewhere. Third or fourth on the list was: stop making cakes until. Until what? I’m not sure. Just until.
I stopped. I stopped other things too, dozens of them. My symptoms roared, subsided and roared again. I started going to groups I swore I’d never go to. I stopped more things and started others. There was talking and more talking and sharing and counting the days, months and years. I weighed the beans. Symptoms subsided and people rushed over to tell me how well I was doing and I knew they were right. But I felt like a zombie. ‘It’s normal‘, they cried. ‘Remember what it was like.‘ But I still felt like a zombie. ‘Don’t go back‘ they cried with terror in their eyes, as if my doubt was contagious. ‘I don’t want to go back ‘ I replied. ‘I also don’t want to stay here‘ I thought as I drank my fucking herbal tea.
I took flight. I drank more coffee during that first week in Naples than in the entire two and a half years following the list. I also ate Rum baba and drank red wine. I pounded the streets of Naples, fueled by caffeine, sugar and a lick of alcohol wondering if I might topple back into something terrible. Then on the third or fourth day, as I walked – yet again – along the sea front eating yet another booze laced confection I realised that everything, the all and the nothing, my families uncompromising tenet that we eat and talk, the medical, the philosophical, the analytical, the practical, the blasted steps, my list and my impulsive flight to Naples had all clotted together. I was alright.
Of course my moment of realisation was followed by a more sober reality as I built a new life. But I didn’t topple back. I picked up habits I’d stopped. Feelings roared, subsided and roared, but I didn’t topple back. I cried and raged and stood panic-stricken on the top of Mount Etna in the snow for three hours. But I didn’t topple back. In fact as far as my food was concerned – to put it clumsily – I toppled forward, somersaulted really, into what was to become a pretty sane and often joyous way of eating. I never, even for a moment, doubted that leaving England was the right thing to do.
It took me a couple of years to make a cake. I’m not really sure why, I’d returned to habits that were historically more threatening than sponge. The first cake was a madeira cake. Which come to think of it, was a toppling back of sorts! Toppling way back, to my perfectly imperfect childhood and the years before eating twisted into something distorted and peculiar.
The memory is sharp as a red currant, I’m standing by the kitchen door in the flat in Via Mastro Giorgio creaming the butter and sugar, noting how perfectly right making a cake felt and that, more importantly, the doorstep needed a bloody good scrub. The cake was pretty lame, but that didn’t matter. I slid a sunken slice onto Vincenzo’s plate and another on to mine. We ate. The next day I did the same thing. Then later that same day I cut myself another thick slice, tucked the foil back round the cake, ate and marvelled at the beauty of some.
I’ve just bombarded you all with that in much the same way as I’ve lined the cake tin above: clumsily, quickly and carelessly. I apologize. It’s just that when I sat down to write about today recipe, sat down at my red table and thought about how best to talk about the cake, this is what tumbled out. At first I tried to stuff it back in: surely an ode to blazing pumpkins or quaint Roman markets would be more appropriate! After all that’s what you come here for. Then I realized I couldn’t stuff it back anywhere and that maybe it was important. After all cake matters.
On Sunday, in a fit of kitchen management, I bought pumpkin the size of my son 14 months ago – that is 3.850kg precisely – and set about planning a series of very orange meals. There would be a risotto of course – which I am going to write about. There would be soup, gnocchi, puree and if I could find the right recipe a cake. Jess had planted a seed you see. I wasn’t actually recipe hunting in the Guardian newspaper, but there it was. A seed, a pumpkin, a recipe, a sleeping baby, a cake.
The ingredient list is promising: grated pumpkin, grounds almonds, raisins, lemon, nutmeg – there is always a nutmeg in my house – eggs, flour, sugar. The procedure is straightforward and the cake excellent: properly moist (but not soggy) richly flavored and absolutely delicious. Hugh describes it better than I ever could.
Good with milky coffee and Earl Grey tea. Also being the sort of damp cake that’s happy to help the puddings out every now and then, I imagine it would be a fine finish to a meal, especially if topped with a spoonful of very cold, very thick cream. Would you like some?
Pumpkin, raisin and nutmeg loaf (cake)
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe in this weeks Guardian
- 200 g soft brown sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 200 g of raw pumpkin flesh, grated coarsely
- zest and juice of a unwaxed lemon
- 100 g ground almonds
- 100 g raisins
- 200 g self-raising flour or 200 g plain flour and 1 tbsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 170C/335F/gas mark 3 and line a 10cm x 20cm loaf tin or with baking parchment.
Beat together the brown sugar and egg yolks for two to three minutes – using a hand or electric whisk – until they are pale and creamy. Gently stir the grated pumpkin, lemon zest and juice, raisins and almonds into the egg and sugar mixture. Sift the flour into the mixture and the add the salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Stir.
Whisk the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Then using a metal spoon fold the mounted egg whites into the rest of the mixture.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin. Bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tin, than invert to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.