My mother is an expert rock cake cook and can turn the plain mixture into jam buns and a horrid seed cake by adding black, spiky caraway seeds that look like mouse droppings and taste of medicine.
My sister took a biscuit tin full of mother’s rock cakes on her travels by Land Rover to Tehran. At the Turkish-Iran border she used them as bribes when stopped for papers and permits. She’s blond haired and looks like Farrah Fawcett Major, so she’s lucky that the border guards were only interested in the contents of her tin. And lucky that they didn’t search the Land Rover and find the gun that her boyfriend had hidden in the dashboard compartment.
In the hierarchy of teaching cooking skills, rock cakes are in the middle, lodged between apple crumble and shortcrust pastry.
As we’re halfway into the rubbing in method and by they know the rules.
‘Come on Terry – tell us how you know it’s done.’
‘Twist and shake miss, till the lumps have gone.’
He wobbles his hips and joggles his mixing bowl, shaking bits of margarine to the top of the mixed spice, sugar and flour.
‘Add your sultanas and mixed peel and stir to a soft dough with eggy milk .’
My jar of sultanas is lower than expected and I suspect some handfuls have been sneaked as snacks.
‘Put little piles on your greased baking tray Liz.’
‘Piles miss? That’s what me nan gets.’
Liz twizzles to the class and at her culinary correction .
‘OK , put spoonfuls on the tray then into the oven for 20 minutes.’
I crouch down to check in ovens as the room fills with warm, spicy smells then give the nod when the rock cakes are ready. My pink nylon overall just covers my miniskirt and I reckon that the boys stand back and watch my oven checking, just to get a glimpse of my underwear.
When marking time comes I sometimes shock the group and cut some cakes in half to taste, especially if I’ve missed my lunch.
Terry protests when I tell him that his cakes are too hard, and slightly burnt.
‘Miss… please! If they are called rock cakes, they should look and feel like rocks! Give me a better mark.’
In cafes in bus and train stations around the country rock cakes are a travelling staple and Betty’s Tea Rooms make Fat Rascals – a fancy northern delicacy with a shiny glacé cherry stuck on top. I expect they will remain a British treasure for years to come.