Mrs Saffer’s Ginger Cake

I never knew Mrs Saffer. In fact, I didnt realise she was a real person. When mum said she was making Mrs Saffer’s ginger cake, I just thought that was the name of the cake. Same as I never realised Tongue, in a sandwich, was a real cow’s one. I was older before I started to think through stuff like that properly. It was around then that I started struggling to turn my thinking brain off at all. But thats a different story…

All the older Jewish ladies were called Mrs something or other and they all seemed to live alone. Then there were the aunties. Auntie Joanie, auntie Betty. There were loads of them and I never really knew which autie belonged to who. I was about 17 when I discovered that auntie Margaret had been but a kindly and totally unrelated neighbour, who mum paid to look after us after school. Bit of a bombshell that one. I thought she just loved us….Turns out, Mrs Saffer was a friend of my maternal grandfather. He loved the cake and she loved feeding him. Her recipe survives them both.

As is weekend tradition in my home, the cat jumped on my head and woke me early this morning. Meowing doesn’t work when your human has 150 hours of sleep to catch up on. I shifted about a bit to show willing, but clearly didn’t move fast enough. He started nudging me, ever so gently at first. So I got up before he could pounce again and shuffled to the coffee machine. I could smell ‘boy’, which prompted a happy moment of reasurance that number 2 son must have made it home in the early hours after all. I’m not one of those mums who can’t sleep when their kids aren’t yet home (no disrespect to any mums intended). I have too many. That’s the difference between 2 and more than 2 offspring: with 2 you can still hope to keep everything in good order. You’ve enough hands to catch both as they try to run off and cause havoc. Beyond 2, theres no point trying.

As I looked at the coffee machine, quietly willing it to make coffee without my assistance, I had this overwhelming urge for a slice of Mrs Saffer’s ginger cake. Could have been due to the (very) mild hangover: I only do mild, now that I’m naturally and very comfortably, tending towards old and reclusive (personal choice not COVID related). I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, can’t face breakfast first thing and have neither made nor tasted Mrs Saffer’s devine ginger cake in at least 10 years. Anyway, for whatever reason, there it was: Mrs Saffer’s ginger cake, all over my head. Moist, gooey and spicy…….until number 2 son sort of rose into sight. He’d fallen asleep in the lounge, which is basically the other side of where I was standing. Hence why I’d smelt his safe return so pungently.

From there and despite the slight head throb and general fatigue, ginger cake got trumped by a fit of weekend bonheur in remembering to have bought sausages and eggs and remembering that I’d remembered, in time to cook them for breakfast. I set to, frying for anyone awake and fit enough to stomach it. We chatted about what would be the first thing each would do if we (I) had won yesterday’s Euromillions bumper jackpot : I actually entered this time, so there was at least something to base the daydream on. A true Brady Bunch moment of family togetherness…

By 11.30, we’d still not reached agreement on whether we were heading straight to New York with our (my) winnings or would COVID delay the plan. Seemed like the best idea was to eat first and decide later. By the time our healthy breakfast was on the table. The cat was nagging to go back to bed, mine and I was happy for the excuse to join him. Last night had just been one of those late night, low achievement moments and I needed another few hours kip to recuperate enough to enjoy some of the weekend. Sometimes you just have to go with natures flow. It irritates the shit out of me when I sleep through a precious weekend, but there are times when you just have to accept defeat graciously…thats how I justified going back to bed in the middle of the day anyway. Not that I actually need to justify a snooze, either to myself or to my grown up and very slumber-friendly children.

I retrieved Mrs Saffer’s recipe easily. Mum had scribbled it down after a visit about 20 years ago. I’d kept it, together with all her other handwritten recipes, scribbled annotations and stain marks, in a little folder. Less easy was avoiding the lure of Glasgow Bobbi’s biscuits and mum’s luscious lemon drizzle. But I was still really craving some syrupy ginger therapy so set about gathering together the ingredients.

In my memory, mum was always baking. The house smelt of fresh bread and cake. There was always something in the oven. But we couldn’t just have what we wanted when we wanted. I remember sneaking bakewell tarts out of a big tupperware box in the freezer, eating them frozen and the almighty row after dad found the box empty when he went to defrost a batch. I dont think I ever confessed to that one…

I managed 10 minutes of domestic bliss : baking with the correct ingredients; without a deadline; and plugged in to Netflix, before number 1 son brought the shitty (excuse the terrible pun) news : “mum, I think the toilet’s blocked”. Why do toilets only ever block at the weekend? Thats what my head was saying as I pretended to continue stirring the cake mixture. I avoided the inevitable for a while, before assembling some essential kit : rubber gloves; a plunger; and some caustic product I’d witchily bought earlier in the week for no obvious reason. Then I had a glance at some scary plumber types on YouTube, giving expert “how to” advice on unblocking toilets, before leaving Mrs Saffer’s cake to do it’s magic in the oven whilst I entered the battle of the blockage.

I lost, of course: the battle I mean. The YouTube guys were sure that it’s an easy job, once you know how. After several tutorials with the ‘Genius’ and the ‘Ultimate’ plumber, I felt ready, equipped and able to beat the blockage. But it soon became clear that several years worth of poo reserves, or something equally hideous, had been building up for a long time and that no amount of plunging, hot water drizzled from a height, caustic soda, wiggling of wire coat hangers and other assorted tricks, was going to work. I confess to desperately resorting to the repeat flush technique: very much ill advised by the entire YouTube plumbing community but inevitable, once you reach the end of the troubleshooting section and loo buckets move from a ‘possible’ to a ‘likely’ ranking.  

After several hours of disgusting rubber gloved hell, culminating in failure, I poured another bucket of caustic stuff into the bowl and condemned the cubicle, ‘for now’….I needed to get back to Mrs Saffer’s delights more than ever. We have 2 loos, thank f**k. If the kids have to walk (stomp) through my bedroom at 3am to pee then so be it. I didn’t even want to be thinking about the problem on my precious Saturday night, though I did allow for a 30 minute interrogation of the primary loogate suspects : neither had seen nor heard anything strange in the days preceeding the blockage and had certainly not flushed anything inappropriate…

Oh the joy of returning to the kitchen to the distraction of Mrs Saffer’s perfectly formed ginger dream cake. Thank you, Mrs Saffer. Thank you for creating this amazing gift of a recipe that can be mixed by hand and works perfectly, regardless of whatever challenges are chucked your way in the process. Thank you also for reminding me that homes full of the devine odour of baking, can be happy homes, whatever else is going on behind the scenes. And most of all, Mrs Saffer, thank you for showing us today, that even if we aren’t heading off to New York with wads of cash stuffed into suitcases: we are a family; we have history; we have each other; and we also have stomach ache, having each consumed 4 huge slices of your dense and delicious ginger cake for dinner, which doesn’t bode well with only 1 loo flushing…..

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