A (Groundhog) Day in the Life of a Yellow Hare
My internal alarm goes off at around 8am. It is Wednesday or Thursday, I have no idea which but it barely matters. I’m groggy, having been up until 3am ‘foutering,’ as some would call it. Foutering (pron. footering), for those unfamiliar with the expression, is time given to something in a non-constructive way. Example; ‘He’s been foutering with that all day. If it wasn’t broken before, it is now.’ I was foutering with admin. Shuffling papers from one place on my desk to another, believing that I was putting them in some sort of order that would make the mammoth task of logging and filing, come the day when the deadline has passed and tending to it can no longer be avoided, that much easier. In reality I spent the entire time creating more chaos.
And so, with the decision made on whether it’s to be the grey jeans or grey-black jeans; the comfy sweater or the comfy cardi; the huge great furry slippers or the sensible slip-ons, off I shuffle up to the kitchen to don hat and gloves and begin the day. The briefest of glances in the mirror en route tells me I have miraculously skipped a generation within the past year; no longer a dead-ringer for mum, I am of late reminded of my grandmother, in every respect.
8.30am There are fourteen baking orders today, slightly more than the 10-12 weekday average. I have a self-imposed rule that baking must be despatched on the day that it’s made
and have baking orders for:
· Large Bakewell Tart
· Chocolate loaf
· Gift box of Dundee Cake, Jam and Lemon Curd
· Box of Empire Biscuits
· Box of Custard creams
· Three Yellow Hare Bakes
· Four Chocolate Indulgence
· Two Biscuits & Bakes
· Box of bourbons
I quickly shuffle everything into make/bake order, so that it looks like this;
1. Dundee cake
2. dough for shortbread, Bakewell and millionaire’s
3. chocolate loaf
4. empire biscuits
5. tiffin, rocky road, and mint slice bases
6. almond paste for Bakewell
7. caramel for millionaire’s
8. melt chocolate for traybakes and millionaire’s
9. do ganache for chocolate loaf
10. tray of Brownies
11. feather icing for Bakewell
12. custard creams
14. buttercream vanilla filling and chocolate filling for biscuits
15. jam and curd
I’m fortunate to have a 2-oven range cooker; in truth it’s called a 4-oven range, but one is a plate warmer and the other a grill, so I don’t count them as ovens. I frequently have both ovens on the go at the same time.
9.30am The phone pings and dings and rings but I ignore it because my latexed hands are sticky and floury and chocolatey, as are the handles and doors of the cooker, fridge and cupboards which were pristine an hour earlier. Hunger pangs remind me that I’ve forgotten breakfast again. I always think I’ll do only one or two things before breakfast to get a head start and then get carried away in the moment. It’s often noon before I realise.
The oven timer beeps when the Dundee cake has been in the oven for 45 minutes, my cue to brush it with milk and turn the oven down a bit. Back it goes for a further hour and a half. By now, I have put the chocolate loaf in the second oven for an hour and prepared the dough for the shortbread, the tray of millionaire’s (also shortbread) and the Bakewell tart. I pop them in the fridge and take Billy for his first walk, checking briefly that my teenage children are up and ready for zoom-school. Their dad is 650 miles away. There’s an enclosed park nearby which allows Billy to run freely but not into traffic; something he would do in a heartbeat. A year after getting him and he’s still not traffic-trained. I have tried – we stop at the kerb every single time and I say ‘wait’, but he still dashes across given half the chance and no amount of stern voice, jolly encouragement or chirpy-cheery come-back-to-me voice brings him to me. I always have to go after him. There are some things I’ve found relatively easy to teach him and others, like this, at which I am useless.
10.30am Back at the house, I put Billy in the lounge with his bed, wash my hands, don apron, hat and gloves once again and continue baking. I'm adept at multi-tasking and juggling. Chocolate is melting, Empire Biscuits and shortbread are baking and I'm stirring caramel sauce, which cannot be left unsupervised for a minute. The pastry base of the Bakewell tart is cooling with a healthy dollop of Yellow Hare raspberry jam spread over it. Once the almond paste is applied, it's into the oven for 35 minutes whilst I continue with the traybakes. They all get chocolate poured over them except the Rocky Road. Mint slice takes longest to set - at least two hours - and is the one I try to do first but in my haste to do them all, I sometimes forget. The ganache for the chocolate loaf is next, and then the Brownies.
Whilst the Brownies are baking, I make up the white icing for the bakewell and melt a little chocolate for the feather effect. The important bit is getting the chocolate feathering on before the white icing begins to set. The feathering won't work if the main icing has begun to harden, which happens quite quickly.
I always think biscuits take no time at all and they always take longer. And so, an hour later I am still pressing out custard creams and bourbons. The empire biscuits are easy; having been iced earlier, they'll only need jam.
Whilst the biscuits are in the oven, I have the raspberry jam bubbling on the stove
and am stirring lemon curd until it thickens. Once I've washed and sterilised the jars in the oven and boiled the lids, I transfer the thickened contents into the jars before it cools.
2pm Baking is all but finished by now but not so that it can be packed. The Dundee cake is still
cooling on a rack; icing is setting on empire biscuits and the chocolate loaf is in the fridge with the rocky road, mint slice, millionaires and tiffin. I haven’t put filling in the bourbons, custard creams or empire biscuits yet. The jams also need at least another hour in the fridge.
I set to work on the admin for the orders. This involves copying and pasting all addresses on to labels for printing and doing the same for gift notes; each one is pasted onto an A4 page then printed and guillotined for insertion into its gift card. This basic prep has taken an hour today but it’s often closer to two. Each gift box begins as a flatpack, is tissue lined and contains a gift note, label, business card and care instructions where applicable (how to store/freeze, etc.). It all must be double checked for accuracy. I live in constant fear of putting someone’s gift note in the wrong box.
3pm I begin to pack the boxes. With fourteen to do, it’s a race against time. They must be at
the post office by 4.30pm if I’m to catch the last parcel post. Each box can take up to ten minutes to pack, wrap, weigh and apply postage. Today I have to get this down to six minutes per box.
4.30pm I’m preparing to race out of the house with Billy, who always knows when it’s close to Post Office time. He gets fidgety; I hear him trotting between the kitchen door and the front door, waiting for me to appear with my bags of completed boxes, knowing that he has to be ready to scoot out the door if he’s not to be left behind.
5pm Back from the post office, I record tracking numbers next to each order and this generates an automated email to customers letting them know their order is on its way. The kitchen is like a bomb-site. Half-empty trays, bakeware, wrapping materials, scales, a sinkful of dishes and utensils. Everything has to be cleaned; surfaces and cooker sprayed and the floor swept and washed before dinner can be prepared.
6pm All done. My angel daughter is making dinner whilst I take Billy for a run round the park.
It’ll be the same old, same old tomorrow and every weekday thereafter until customers stop coming back. I used to work on Saturdays but I’ve stopped that now.
At the moment and for that past few months, orders have tended to be within a 15-bake range. This means 15 things asked for again and again. Due to time constraints, it's difficult to experiment with new bakes, but I manage now and then. By and large, however, each day tends to be a replica of the one before. Some would find this tedious but, for me, there’s something curiously satisfying about monotony. I’ve always felt I was factory-material at heart. It takes a long time for me to tire of doing the same thing over and over and over again. I think it has something to do with perfecting things; the challenge of finding ways to do the same task faster, better, easier.
Baking is easy. As is often said; if you can read you can bake. But I’ve come to disagree with the claim that it is all about precision. Precision plays its part but I think it’s much more about patience. If you don’t have patience, don’t bake. It’s not for you. Stick to cooking, which is much more slap-dash with flair; a bit of this, sprinkle of that, sort-of-thing.
If anyone had suggested a year ago that I would be baking almost every day throughout lockdown I would have laughed. I sincerely doubt it, I would have said. Which makes it sound like I see it as a chore, but I don't. It really isn’t – I still enjoy it and I still get a great deal of pleasure out of trying new things and finding my own way of doing them.
And so, to wind down this Groundhog Day diary, a few tips I’ve picked up along the way and a couple of myths blown:
use a dry scrubbing brush to clean spring cookie cutters rather than water; you can't get at the spring but water can and will eventually rust it.
smooth icing on biscuits with a hot knife, it gives them a clean, smooth finish
push glace cherries three-quarters into the top of fruit cake mix just before putting it in the oven; they'll slowly sink but not to the bottom
put biscuit and pastry dough in the fridge for 20min before using
general rule for butter: cold for pastry, room temp for biscuits
wash hands in cold water for a couple of minutes before handling pastry dough
As a rule-of-thumb, I always, always….
…grease and line baking tins, no matter how much they claim to be super non-stick
…use butter for biscuits and pastry, stork margarine for sponges and loaves
…use silicon spatulas rather than wooden spoons
…beat eggs in a cup before adding to a mix – it distributes more evenly and reduces the chance of separation
…melt chocolate using the bowl-over-simmering-water method
And I never, ever…
… sift flour or icing sugar
… freeze things with icing on them
…’taste’ as I go – I can tell by looking if something is good-to-go
…melt chocolate in the microwave. The penultimate paragraph before 'tips', above, applies.
No excuses. No justification. It’s just the way I do it.