Nothing, all and some

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
  • nutmeg

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.



Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, food, pumpkin, Rachel's Diary, recipes

85 responses to “Nothing, all and some

  1. sarah

    Rachel, if I am reading this prose correctly this morning, and coming from a not so dissimilar position, I would like to say what a brave honest and comforting post. Thank you so much. Less seriously, the cake looks lovely, as do all your recipes! Quick question…fennel risotto! Have you made with cream? Looking lovingly at an anna del conte recipe at the mo, and her polenta loaf which is slightly diff to the river cafe ones, and wondered if you had tried it.

    Many thanks

    take care

    well done in woman and home best bloggers list too!


    • rachel

      Hi Sarah,
      I have never put cream in fennel risotto and I am not familiar with A del C – but I am interested to know about the recipe. I am about to post (well next week) about pumpkin risotto with milk which might be helpful. I really like polenta cake/loaf too. Oh and Thank you, I need to put the widget W and H gave me on the blog

  2. Jacqui

    Rachel – thank you for this post – today didnt seem to be yet another great day – but whenever you pop up on the screen everything changes – this cake will be made tomorrow and I shall be thinking of you. You do seem to have found your place.

    • rachel

      I hope you do make the cake/loaf/round loaf-cake – it is just fab and it stays deliciously moist for days. I think I have (unexpectedly) found my place. I do hope I don’t make it sound perfect as it really isn’t, it is good enough though.

  3. Maria

    Hi Rachel,
    thank you for this.

  4. There must be a visceral connection between standing on top of Mt Etna raging with the forces that be, and baking a cake. It seems perfectly logical to me that this post would tumble out, and around, a recipe for a sweet loaf. Well done you, for not toppling back.

  5. This is so well written. Thank you for an inspirational post! (The cake looks tasty too!)

  6. a stunning, moving piece rachel.

  7. I don’t have a sweet tooth myself, but ‘cake definitely matters’ as you said. As does catharsis … well done, lovely post.

  8. I would like some indeed. I am glad you didn’t stuff it all back in, this is a very moving and wonderful post. Thank goodness for Naples and the escape that you made, you should be very, very proud of yourself. xx

    • rachel

      Kath I wish we could have a slice right now – I made another one. Do you still have pumpkins? You should try, I think you will like it and the aga will bake it beautifully.

  9. Rachel, my goodness, what a post. Your writing here is so very fine. The beauty of some, indeed. xo.

  10. You are awesome, and that’s why I love reading your blog, not to mention making your recipes. Great post, massive hugs and smiles. That post rocked!

  11. Dennis

    Thank you. I feel truly glad to be a tiny part of your wonderful blog about things that matter.

  12. Leanne

    I have been following your blog for a little while. Today your post has moved me to tears. An inspirational piece that I will return to when I need bolstering.
    Thank you. x

    I love the recipies too!

  13. Susan

    Rachel, you are amazing. I so admire your ability to open up and articulate those feelings so well, telling your story that so many of us can relate to. Thank you for being you. Your writing is so wonderful.

  14. This is a mighty post and that looks like a mighty cake. I have a big pumpkin from the garden in my kitchen right this minute- I might just have to get grating…

  15. Rachel, this is a beautiful post that expresses things I’ve experienced as well with all of the grace and pain and beauty hard to muster but inherent in the whole thing. Finding that place of some between all and nothing can be so hard, but oh, is it ever a wonderful place to rest. And the cake — love cakes like this. Glad you found your way back to cake.

    • rachel

      Some was a revelation. Of course I knew it was there it was just impossible to find. I’m glad I found my way back to cake because it matters a lot.

  16. I definately would like some, with the earl grey I just finished a couple of minutes ago. Your posts are diamonds in the sea of blogs and your son is one lucky child to eat all that pumpkin goodies!

  17. Thank you for sharing your story. I admire your bravery and honesty in posting this. Plus the pumpkin cake looks amazing!

    • rachel

      Brave and honest – that’s great, although I’m not sure I feel that way. Anyway thank you so much and yes, the cake is good, I hope you try.

  18. Amy

    This was eloquent and beautiful. And comforting in a lot of ways, too. Thanks so much for it.

  19. Ann

    Oh, Rachel, what a fierce torrent of a post, so beautiful and brave. I scarcely know you yet I feel so proud of you and your cake. Thank you for letting us know you a little better, then and now. xo

  20. Eha

    Rachel . . . I am putting this aside for ‘weekend reading’ and am so looking forwards to it . . . Methinks there are so many utterances there to which I totally do relate: thank you SO much for allowing us to feel and be connected and find the painful and joyful moments to which, one way or the other, we can relate! Yesterday I had a bad day but persevered in saying ‘hi’ to favourite posters – I believe I talked about ‘the blessedness of blogging’ to someone near Chicago, US, who had picked it up by this morning as a v valid comment to him: yes, we can share!!!

    • rachel

      Hi Eha, maybe you could make a cake for with your weekend reading. I have never been good at being part of a community but blogging has (started) changing that. It is good to have you reading.

  21. Carolle

    Congratulations on being able to make cakes again, it doesn’t matter how you do it only that you do. I’m not much of baker because I don’t have the self discipline to only eat one slice, it’s the whole cake or nothing!!
    Btw did you know your blog is 26 in Woman & Home’s Best 100 food blogs – congrats again. I’ve had a quick look through them yours should be Numero Uno.

  22. Rachel, I’ve never been quite in the place you’ve been, though there’s no doubt some discomforting bells were ringing as a read this piece. It was bravely and beautifully written and I thank you for it. Btw, I agree with Carolle’s btw!

    • rachel

      Hello Evie, We have an ice cream friend in Common! I am so enjoying your writing at SS, a welcome dose of fine words and London (which I miss these days). And Thank you.

  23. Some words should never be stuffed back in–thank you for sharing this brave and inspirational post. And not incidentally the cake sounds great.

    • rachel

      I’m glad you think so. I did panic rather having pressed post. Anyway more importantly, It is a really great cake, it stays beautifully moist for days – I have just made another one.

  24. sarah

    rachel, I cannot get your post off my mind. Some is so much nicer than all but harder than all…i need practice.

    re the squash risotto, i cannot wait

    keep well

    oh do you have a pistachio cake recipe up your sleeve?


  25. M.

    Thank you for this Rachel. I have always loved reading your blog, but this post in particular has touched me very deeply. It is wonderful to hear that the state of ‘some’ is out there somewhere and does exist, for someone I love very much. Enjoy your cake. I will too, along with your comforting words.

  26. suz

    We do come for your recipes, but we stay for your voice! I like to think that we’re a bit (just a tiny bit!) like family where you don’t have to put out just the pretty plates & fancy forks, you can invite us in to see the everyday and messy and hear the bits that need to be said. Thanks for sharing and inviting us in. I’m so glad you’ve found your place (physically and mentally)

    It’s going to be a cold rainy weekend in San Francisco and I think it just might call for a cake…plus I always love a cake with vegetables in it so I can feel more virtuous (turns out I’m not that great at some and I lean a bit more towards all)

    • rachel

      Well you are Suz! Blogamily shall we say. Today wasn’t just everyday and messy but with piles of dirty washing too.
      San F – Lucky lady. I read this yesterday Go on make that cake, it will count as one of your five.

      • suz

        Thanks so much for the article. I’ve not been to several of those restaurants but they are now on my list ( I’ve really wanted to go to State Bird Provisions – I’m hoping it’s better than this writer thinks!). This was an interesting take on the food scene here.
        I made the cake and it’s lovely! My partner was not sold on it when I called it a squash cake but even she loved it (altho she picked out the raisins, which I thought really added to the cake). I’ll definitely be making this again and again this winter!

  27. laura

    Every time I click on your blog and see that there is a new post, I know my day will be enriched. Little did I know when I clicked today how much was in store for me. Your authenticity and eloquence are very moving. There is always something in your writing that rings a bell, strikes a chord, hits home yet never fails to feel spontaneous. Once again, thank you. Grazie di cuore.

  28. I’m glad you didn’t stuff it back in. I read somewhere, in a book or article on writing, that when somethings comes to you it is important to write it down and not save it for later, because come later it might not be there anymore. Of course your struggles with food aren’t just going to disappear, but the manner in which you let us in and shared your story so clearly might not have come as easily another time.

    I’ve been there, the disordered eating, the all or none, my mind busy and overwhelmed with food, and how much and where and when. I use to wonder what I’d think about if I didn’t think about food so much. It was a tough time. I don’t remember what pulled me out, but I do remember one day eating something and thinking ‘I am okay’ this no longer consumes me, I can eat a sandwich for lunch like a normal person. I too make cake now. It’s a little trophy of sorts, a gift from the other side, that side I so wished I was on for so many years, the normal side.

    This cake sounds perfect for a late autumn afternoon. I love the idea of grating the pumpkin instead of pureeing it. But I wonder, without fat or puree, is the cake more like a bread and less like a cake?

    • rachel

      Hi Talley, thanks for this, you clearly understand both the tumble and the all, none and some.

      Now down to matters of cake. You are quite right it is more of a bread or a tea loaf, in fact HFW calls it a loaf. The pumpkin must function as the fat replacement though, it is extraordinarily moist.

  29. rich and messy and full of emotion…as the best cakes and cooks and lovely ladies should be.

  30. This is so, so beautiful, Rachel. I too struggle with the nothing/all syndrome. I recently spent 10 days doing the “Master Cleanse,” aka Lemonade Diet (in which you basically only drink lemon juice sweetened with maple syrup). And then I had a bunch of people over, and made a banana bread that I didn’t taste, and urged my guests to take home. When everyone left, I realized that the banana cake was still there, and, well, my resolve wasn’t. I ate all of it. So yes, I’m all too familiar with the all or nothing. Some. Now that sounds good. xoxo

  31. sue

    beautiful, lovely, courage. thinking of you!

  32. Pingback: In my kitchen November 2012 « Garden Correspondent

  33. Yes please, I’d love a slice! This was such a beautiful and moving post to read, I’m so very glad you didn’t stuff it back in. Thank you for sharing your story, your courage has given me some much needed courage of my own. Here’s to cake and courage (and cream on top)!

  34. M

    R, I hope you know how much your posts help us through difficult times too 🙂

  35. Dear sweet Rachel,
    You cut closer to the bone than you know.
    You are more courageous, brave and beautiful than you could imagine.
    You have made me want raisins in cake for the first time, ever.
    Fucking herbal tea. Good lord, woman. Amen.

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  37. Ciao Rachel, come state tu e Luca? E’ bella la tua torta alla zucca, vorrei provarla presto, prima che le zucche finiscano…Spero sempre di vederti e farci una chiaccherata sugli argomenti che ci piacciono. Baci, Monica

  38. Brava, Rach. and thank you for toppling forward, sharing all of the some.
    to the joy of food, making, eating, writing—

  39. To Rachel in Italy from Rachel in Japan:
    I so love your writing and your recipes. This post is so beautifully written, so honest. You look the world in the eye and find beauty and deliciousness. Thank you for sharing it all on your blog.

  40. Pingback: Part and parcel | rachel eats

  41. Sara

    In sharing your experiences, you have so gracefully put into words what I too struggle with. I am comforted by your journey from a place of “all or none”, to “some”, a transition I am still trying to make myself. Thank you for words which have encouraged me.

  42. Grey Favorite

    Years later, I still find comfort in re-reading this post. I too struggle with “all or none.” Your story inspires me with hope. Thank you for sharing.

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