Just desserts – Fionnuala Ward on the joys of baking

May the cake rise with you

During the depths of Covid, my dealer took it upon herself to cycle around the city, dispensing her product on both sides of the river. She is retired, has plenty of time on her hands and took to this role like the proverbial duck to water. There might be a knock on the window or a mysterious package deposited in the postbox. Once in hand, the laptop would be pretty much abandoned, the box’s contents dispensed onto a plate or if too awkward to locate, the nearest available work surface and the kettle switched to work mode.

Chocolate-peanut butter squares, lemon drizzle cake, madeira slices, my buddy had taken to trying out recipes and was keen to find out if she’d hit the mark. She needed volunteers and I and my equivalent on the southside were happy to oblige.

More than happy.

I’ve always had a sweet tooth but when it comes to sweet things, nothing beats home baking. My Mam was of a generation where there was always cake or a stash of buns tucked away in a Tupperware somewhere in the larder. There were always spoons to be licked or bowls to be stripped of lingering mixture.


Pavlova was the speciality of the house, although it only came out on special occasions. It was known as the “nice dessert” and Mam was a whiz at it. The meringue was neither too hard nor too soft, and invariably put up the correct level of resistance to the crack of a spoon, before succumbing to its force and exposing the deliciousness of that soft, squishy centre. My siblings and I would try to outlast each other when digging in, eyeing each other suspiciously when we got towards the end, taking teeny, tiny, tortuous bites so as to still have a scrap remaining when everyone else was finished.

Like many households of the time, ours was appointed maker and distributor of Christmas cakes and puddings. In later years, I gave Mam a hand on the pudding front, although there was only ever one person in charge.

The puddings were mixed in my great-grandmother’s ornate bowl, retrieved from under the bed to perform this function. I fell heir to this bowl when the house was being cleared and it sits in pride of place on a shelf in my living area.

The Christmas pudding ritual involved a generous dash of poitín, a splash of holy water and a mix and a wish by all family members present.

Mam and I would be housebound for hours on end as the puddings, ensconced in muslin, in separate pots, boiled away on top of the cooker while the walls of the kitchen veritably wept. At various stages, one or other of us would wrap a tea towel around the bottom of a brush and sweep up and down from one wall to another to absorb all that moisture. Eight hours later, the job would be done.

I work as a teacher and as often as not there are sweets and biscuits scattered about the staff room. Hard to resist to be sure but there is a palpable ripple of excitement when it’s discovered that a particular teacher has been back home over the weekend and there is an oblong ginger cake, rich and spicy, on each of the staffroom tables straight from his mother’s kitchen.

At an education event recently, having finished a fairly sub-par lunch, four of us had high hopes for dessert. Sadly, they proved to be ill-founded. Dessert, we very quickly realised, would not be forthcoming.

“Not to worry,” one of our group commented. “I have emergency cake in the car”, whereupon she grabbed her bag and disappeared down some nearby steps. It was as if the clouds had lifted above us and the sun broken through. “Don’t stop at the other tables on your way back”, I found myself frantically whispering as she made her exit.

The emergency cake, which she’d made herself, turned out to be Middle Eastern in origin and infused with orange and yogurt. It entirely did the trick. All cars, it was promptly decided, should be fitted with emergency cake. And as for other emergency bits and pieces, well, if they could be fitted in as well, that would be nice too.

I’m not a baker, myself. My sisters are. My nieces and a nephew are. And judging by the gingerbread men and cup-cakes and slices of biscuit cake being dispensed to all and sundry by tin-bearing individuals just before the holidays, most of the pupils in my school are. Nor, as it turns out, am I a solo pudding steamer.

I have positioned myself instead on the other end of the spectrum.

I am a consumer. An enthusiastic consumer. And a very grateful one at that.