It’s a funny thing, but when you spend hours of every day on something as intangible as music, you become very conscious that there’s nothing to show for it at the end of the day. You may have twisted your brain into wild unruly shapes (shapes resembling Beethoven) and strained the muscles of your arms until they ache, but you still can’t stagger out of the practice room holding aloft a Thing that you’ve succeeded in making, a Thing you can call your own and show other people, or put down on a table and use. Even if your time in rehearsal has wrought a whole new interpretation of some piece or other, it is still only potential energy until it meets its audience (which may be weeks or months away), and in the meantime there is nothing that you can actually point to as evidence that you’ve been spending your time constructively. Part of the loveliness of music is its evanescence, but sometimes that quality of not-remaining seems to cry out for its opposite, something that is really there, something created by your labours.
This is one of the reasons that cake plays such a positive role in my life. Growing up in Scotland, of course, cake played an important role. Going out to meet up with friends or relatives, whether in their own homes or in cafes, was an activity blessed with cake, and we all looked forward to it. A home-made cake announced that the maker thought you were worth some effort, and its solid hit of calories often seemed a perfect bulwark against the homeward journey in biting Scottish winds.
For years, on Saturday afternoons, I would come home from music lessons to find the house filled with a warm aroma and my Mum putting the finishing touches to a fruit cake or a Victoria sponge filled with jam or cream. It somehow set up an association between music and cake which continues to this day. If I have a lot of ‘brain work’ to do, either at the piano or at my computer, I often try to find time in the morning to bake a cake. It pleases me to know that even if Beethoven or Schubert have restricted their nutrients to spiritual ones, out there on a plate in my kitchen is a round, buttery-smelling, reassuringly heavy object which didn’t exist beforehand, but which I made, and which exists now without any doubt. Even if I can’t prove that I have made any headway with the sonata I’ve been practising, I can show people the cake and offer them a slice, or eat it myself if there’s no-one there. For me it’s a perfect refutation of the doctrine that the things of this world are only illusion.
Moist Lemon Cake
6 oz (170g) self-raising flour
6 oz (170g) sugar
6 oz (170g) butter
juice and zest of a lemon
a handful of dried coconut (optional)
a handful of ground almonds (optional)
Method: Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well, and add the grated zest of lemon. Sift the flour and fold it in to the mixture, adding some coconut and/or ground almonds if you like the taste (the recipe works perfectly without them though). Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin, preferably with baking parchment on the bottom. Cook slowly on a low shelf of the oven for one hour at gas mark 3 (160 deg C). While it’s cooking, squeeze the juice of a lemon into a bowl and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Take the cake out of the oven, let it rest for ten minutes in the tin, and then turn it onto a plate. While the cake is still warm, prick holes all over the top with a fine skewer or with a fork, making sure you go down almost to the bottom of the cake. Pour the sweetened lemon juice slowly over the top of the cake so that it drizzles down into the holes. Eat as soon as you like.