My daughter was mightily amused by a perfect moment at her select school for young ladies and gentlemen.
She sat with the other 11 year olds in her science lesson: a session on electromagnetism. Her teacher, Mrs Langton, found there were no magnets, and dispatched a class member to fetch them from her alternative empire: the food technology lab.
For Mrs Langton has an alter ego, and that alter ego instructs young ladies and gentlemen in matters of cookery.
The trusted pupil arrived back minutes later with the magnets and a look of undisguised concern.
“Mrs Langton,” she ventured, “there’s a pot bubbling over all by itself in the food tech lab…”
Mrs Langton’s hair stood on end. Here eyes bulged. “My friendship cake!” she exclaimed, and without further ado she shot out of the room and disappeared into the school of spiral stairs and convoluted little Victorian corridors, leaving the class gawping in her wake.
Friendship cakes: useful for teaching young people fellowship in a concrete way (unless you burn them).
I must enquire of my daughter whether the key ingredient of a friendship cake – the dough which contains living yeast – survived the disruption to its schedule.
For yeast can be awfully important.
Phil visited Estonia in 2008 as a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board. As part of the tour the Estonians took him to a traditional bakery.
Every time the bakers made a cake they took part of the live yeast culture to make the next set of dough. No one who worked there is quite sure how far back the first dough was made, but they estimate the first yeast was cultivated centuries ago.
Yeast is an extraordinary one-celled micro-creature: it does not require sunlight to grow. Rather, sugars are often its favoured repast. It pays for its keep by converting sugars to alcohols and- importantly – carbon dioxide. It is choosy about its surrounding temperature: bread yeast generally likes 26-29 degrees celsius, or 80-85 degrees farenheit.
And it is possible to cultivate yeast as one would a farm animal, providing one feeds it and keeps it in the right conditions. There is no milking or shearing. It does, however, take a particular lifestyle. The whole business shouts meticulous, slow, well-paced care.
And what Mrs Langton and I share is a hectic, harum-scarum pace of life which would, I fear, be extremely hazardous to all those little well-husbanded microorganisms.
What those little guys need for their wellbeing is a mother who does not work. A life with some space. Because as you read the recipe, and the process, it becomes clear that this is not some superwoman-hurdle to clear.
No: this is an altruistic ritual. It has a message. It teaches a lesson. One does not need to preach for hours on end to drive home these ethics: the baking process says it all using the words of a recipe, and a yeast ranch.
You will have heard the recipe before. The yeast needs a cup of flour, a cup of milk and half a cup of sugar to keep it company in a mixing bowl for two days.
You leave it alone awhile so the yeast-cells can get their bearings and get in the mood for lurve. Well: mitosis, an asexual equivalent.
On day three one would take them and feed them, much like one throws fish to penguins but without all the bird noises.A cup of flour, a cup of milk, half a cup of sugar.
Mix them up and cover so none of the little blighters escape.
For the next two days it’s just peek n’ stir. Day six is Drive The Cells To Market day: one-third stays with you, two-thirds board a truck (or car, or possibly you might just walk) to other friends to start a life in pastures new.
And on day seven, you make the cake.
I once received a cup of that starter mixture. I am notoriously disorganised, and the little yeast cells perished under my supervision. I don’t feel good about that.
And so, pardners, I have come to a decision.
When you are too busy to make friendship cake and pass it on to pester all your friends in this flighty 21st century of ours, you are too busy. I shall be donning my yeast ranger’s Stetson and moseying down to the kitchen to make little yeasty cells feel comfortable about getting it on. I shall be at the sharp end of yeast husbandry.
Because I have a sneaking feeling that the pace of the friendship cake is like an ancient metronome. An indicator of a correct pace of life.
A standard to which one might fall in step; and be happy.
I wonder if I’m chasing a dream?
Image source, and a friendship cake recipe at CookWomanFood.com – here