My mother was an expert rock cake cook and could turn the plain mixture into jam buns and horrid seed cake made from black, spiky caraway seeds that looked like mouse droppings and tasted of medicine. My mother’s rock cakes were so good that my sister took a biscuit tin full of them for her travels by Land Rover to Tehran. At the Turkish Iran border she used them for bribes when stopped for papers and permits. My sister still has blond hair and in those days looked like Farrah Fawcett Major, so she was lucky that the border guards were only interested in the contents of her tin. We were pleased that they didn’t search the car some more and find the gun that my sister’s companion had hidden in the dashboard compartment.
Rock cakes are a delicious mixture of flour, butter, sugar, egg, milk, sultanas and mixed peel made fragrant with mixed spice. In the hierarchy of cooking difficulty, rock cakes are a middle range cookery skill, lodged between apple crumble and full blown shortcrust pastry. When I’ve reached the rock cake lesson, my class has reached the halfway point of the rubbing in method. Hoorah for cookery goals!
We start with rubbing the margarine into the flour, spice, baking powder and sugar.
By now they know the rubbing in routine.
‘Come on Mo – give us the rules.’
‘Twist and shake miss, till the lumps have gone.’ They shake their hips and bowls.
We add a tablespoon of plump sultanas, some mixed peel and mix it all together to a soft dough with milk and egg.
‘Put little piles on your greased baking tray Fran.’
‘Piles miss? That’s what me nan gets when she sits down. Says they really hurt some days.’
Fran knows how to wind me up, but this time she just gets a scowl.
‘OK class, put spoonfuls of the mixture onto the tray and leave some space in between so that they have room to cook. Then into the oven for 20 minutes.’
Rock cakes are a stalwart of the cafes on bus and train stations around the country, and I’ve never had a duff one. In Harrogate, Betty’s Tea Rooms make a fancy northern version called Fat Rascals with a posh glacé cherry stuck on top.
Soon the cookery room fills with warm, spicy smells. I peer in the ovens and give the nod when they can take the cakes out to cool onto wire racks. Sometimes the boys stand back and watch, which may have something to do with my ever shortening skirts which cling to the inside of my nylon overall. Perhaps I should replace the pretty pink with a severe white cotton outfit.
The final results are hard to mark. Sometimes I cut the cakes in half to taste, and see if they are cooked. They at shocked at my boldness.
Terry protests when I tell him that his baking is rather too hard, and slightly burnt.
‘If they are called rock cakes, that means they should look and feel like rocks! I demand a higher mark.’