Once upon a time, I was a little girl who watched my mum bake without measuring. She would gather ingredients, mix them, bake them and make perfect cake every single time. So, when I grew up and finally had a place of my own away from my six around the clock security guards (aka brothers), I decided to give baking a try.
Like I had seen my mother do so many times before, I gathered the ingredients, mixed a bit of this with some of that, and with all the optimism of a first timer, placed the mixture in my oven and hungrily awaited the tasty pastry that would emerge. A half hour later, as the aroma wafted through my kitchen, I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself. This girl, who in her childhood had been a card- carrying member of tomboy nation, was now baking cake bila kupima! (without measuring).
Nothing in my life prepared me for what happened next. That oven, previously an ally, now revealed that behind its frosted glass door lay malicious embers which transformed my cake mixture into what the Swahili people call mazingaombwe. In other words, the cake had somehow managed to burn to a crisp, collapse in the middle and against the laws of nature, remain uncooked in parts. I stared at that ungrateful oven. And the ungrateful deformed pastry. To call it cake would be an insult to cake everywhere. Didn’t that oven know that farmers had toiled under the hot sun, and maybe torrential rain, to produce the wheat, sugar, milk and eggs that went into that cake? Did it not believe in beginner’s luck? Might it have been upset because I used the stove top more often than I used it? The culprit silently emitted more heat, wordlessly daring me to insert another dish into the heat left over to burn my food to charred remnants. That oven believed that revenge was a dish best served smoking hot (literally burning). To quote my friends from the South, that oven did me dirty.
As you can imagine, since that traumatizing introduction to freelance baking, I have become a stickler for baking rules. I can measure like nobody’s business. I own every measuring cup and spoon known to man, woman and child. The result? I am proud to announce that I have baked everything from bundt cakes to quiches and all have turned out perfecto. And so, around the holidays, I decided to bake cake because my current oven is a dear friend and has never done me dirty. My current oven understands that not all foods must be cooked in it. It is not petty, unlike some ovens which will remain unnamed. It doesn’t seethe and sear my food in retaliation.
My mission to find a recipe for lemon blueberry cake turned up oodles of information that had nothing to do with cake. I found family trees. I read about grandmothers and grandfathers. I read about children’s schools and playground fights. I even found one recipe which started with photos of a cat. What a cat had to do with lemon blueberry cake eludes me to this day. But I keep searching and I keep reading these autobiographies disguised as recipes because I am so haunted by the specter of my baking failure all those years ago that I will patiently persevere through the meandering tales of ancestral recipes, all in the hopes of finally arriving at the actual recipe before I myself become an ancestor.