8 oz self-raising flour
1 oz caster sugar. Can be licked off spoon.
1 egg. Budget for four eggs if working with under-sevens.
½ pint full cream milk. 10 oz for recipe, plus one glass to be taken with results.
Pinch of salt. This is a small amount of salt, Issy. Tinier than your little finger. Not too much! Not! Oh. That’s too much. Never mind.
Put the dry ingredients into a bowl and stir well.
Make a well in the centre – a well, that’s like a place you get water. Like Jack and Jill. Yes. Drop in the egg. Wheee! Yes, and milk.
Whisk everything together thoroughly. The batter should have a creamy consistency. Add a little more milk if necessary.
Preheat and butter a heavy-based pan. Grampa will pick up the pan. Do not try to lift the pan. Good. Now let the mix drip off a spoon. Don’t rush it. A few splatters on the side of the pan is fine. Now let Grampa flip them, but you can hold the handle … yup, that’s it. Hurrah!
Serve with the remainder of the milk, butter, jam, cream and whatever else is in the fridge, and a large kiss on the top of the head for being a clever girl.
Issy Randall refolded the piece of paper and smiled.
‘Are you absolutely sure about this?’ she said to the figure in the easy chair. ‘This is the recipe?’ The old man nodded vehemently. He held up one finger, which Issy recognized immediately as his cue for a lecture.
‘Well, the thing is,’ Grampa Joe began, ‘baking is …’
‘Life,’ filled in Issy patiently. She’d heard the speech many times before. Her grandfather had started sweeping up in the family bakery at the age of twelve; eventually he had taken over the business and run three large bakeries in Manchester. Baking was all he knew.
‘It is life. Bread is the staff of life, our most basic food.’
‘And very un-Atkins,’ said Issy, smoothing her cord skirt down over her hips and sighing. It was one thing for her grandfather to say that. He had spent his whole life skinny as a rake, thanks to a full-time diet of extremely hard physical work that started with lighting the furnace at 5am. It was quite another when baking was your hobby, your passion – but to pay the bills you were sitting down in an office all day. It was hard to show restraint when trying out … She drifted off, thinking about the new pineapple cream recipe she’d tried that morning. The trick was to leave enough of the pith in to give the flavour bite, but not so much that it turned into a smoothie. She needed to give it another shot. Issy ran her hands over her cloudy black hair. It went well with her green eyes but created absolute bloody havoc if it rained.
‘So when you describe what you’re making, you must describe life. Do you see? It’s not just recipes … next thing you’ll tell me you’re measuring in metric.’
Issy bit her lip and made a mental note to hide her metric scales the next time Grampa visited the flat. He’d only get himself worked up.
‘Are you listening to me?’
They both turned to look out of the window of the assisted living facility in north London. Issy had installed Joe there when it became clear he was getting too absent-minded to live on his own. Issy had hated moving him down south after he’d spent his life in the north, but she needed him close enough to visit. Joe had grumbled of course but he was going to grumble anyway, moving out of his home to anywhere that wouldn’t let him rise at 5am and start pounding bread dough. So he might as well be grumpy close by, where she could keep an eye on him. After all, it wasn’t as if anyone else was around to do it. And the three bakeries, with their proud, shiny brass handles and old signs proclaiming them to be ‘electric bakers’, were gone now; fallen prey to the supermarkets and chains that favoured cheap white pulp over hand-crafted but slightly more expensive loaves.
As he so often did, Grampa Joe watched the January raindrops fall across the window and read her mind.
‘Have you heard from … your mother recently?’ he said. Issy nodded, noting as ever how hard he found it to say his own daughter’s name. Marian had never felt at home as a baker’s daughter. And Issy’s grandmother had died so young, she hadn’t had long enough to provide a steadying influence. With Gramps working all the time, Marian had rebelled before she could even spell the word; hanging out with older boys and bad crowds from her teens, getting pregnant early to a travelling man who had given Issy her black hair and strong eyebrows and absolutely nothing else. Too much of a questing spirit to be tied down, Marian had often left her only child behind while she went off in search of herself.
Issy had spent most of her childhood in the bakery, watching Gramps as he manfully beat the dough, or delicately shaped the lightest, most mouth-melting filigree cakes and pies. Although he trained bakers for each of his shops, he still liked to get his own hands white with flour, one of the reasons Randall’s were once the most popular bakers in Manchester. Issy had spent countless hours doing her homework under the great Cable Street ovens, absorbing through her pores the time and skill and care of a great baker; much more conventional than her mother, she adored her gramps, and felt safe and cosy in the kitchens, even though she knew, of course, that she was different from her classmates, who went home to little houses with mums, and dads who worked for the council, and dogs and siblings, and ate potato waffles with ketchup in front of Neighbours and didn’t wake up before the sun, the smell of warm bread already rising from far below.
Now, at thirty-one, Issy had just about forgiven her troubled, untethered mother, even though she of all people should have known what it was like growing up without your mum. She didn’t care about the sports days and school outings – everyone knew her grandfather, who never missed one – and she was popular enough, rarely without a cast-off box of scones or French cakes to bring to school occasions, while her birthday-party spreads were the stuff of local legend. She did wish someone in her life had cared a little more for fashion – her grandfather bought her two cotton and one woollen dress every Christmas, regardless of age, style or size, even when everyone else she knew was in legwarmers and Pineapple T-shirts, and her mother would swoop back at regular intervals with strange hippy-style garments that she was selling at festivals, made of hemp or itchy llama wool or something else equally impractical. But Issy never felt short of love, in the cosy flat above the bakery where she and Gramps would eat apple pie and watch Dad’s Army. Even Marian, who on her flying visits would strictly admonish Issy not to trust men, to stay off the cider and always follow her rainbow, was a loving parent. Nevertheless, sometimes, when she saw happy families larking in the park, or parents cradling their newborns, Issy felt a desire at the pit of her stomach so strong it felt like a physical gnawing for the traditional, the safe.