Tea habits across the country are a great window into the way we live – from households where teatime is considered the fourth meal of the day, to the homes where it involves bringing out a tin of Parle G biscuit served next to a glass of sweet, milky tea, and homes like mine, where the teatime routine stays comfortingly unchanged for years – a cup of tea and a slice of teacake.
For years now, when my father gets home from the office, there is a generous slice of soft, feathery teacake waiting for him, to be eaten after finishing his evening tea. My mother has been making this cake at least twice a week for decades now. Some days it’s a simple sponge, baked in an eight-inch tin, on other days, it gets dressed up with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon on top, or a layer of shredded toasted coconut, that crackles gently under the weight of the knife as you slice into it. Occasionally, when there’s company, they take the form of cupcakes in pretty liners, with a smattering of chocolate ganache and frosting on top. Although the get-up changes occasionally, its inner makeup remains the same- ¾ stick butter, ¾ cup sugar and a cup of flour.
It started a little over 40 years ago, when my mother was a newly wed, living with her in-laws. My grandmother was what one might call a reluctant cook. Although in her defence, like many households back in the day, she inherited a home with a battalion of cooks that managed the kitchen like clockwork and was hardly ever required to step in. My mother unlike her mother-in-law was an explorer in the kitchen. Naturally curious, she made her first cake reading a recipe from a book that hasn’t been in print for decades, in an oven that was only marginally bigger than a shoebox. As it happened, my mother turned out to be a natural and came to be the official baker in the family. My grandmother would say to her in Malayalam, “Kathija, oru cake iduvo?” ‘Iduvo’ is difficult to translate, but it is the same word one might use to describe the act of a hen laying an egg. These days when I watch my mother in the kitchen, with her baking tins and measuring cups around her, I understand this particular choice of word. My mother does it with the same beguiling ease, and instinct -- scoop, stir, whisk, in goes the batter, out comes the cake. Perfection.
Incidentally, my mother is away right now, and my father and I are at home, fending for ourselves. The cake box sits on his desk as always, only now it sits empty, filled with nothing but my guilt that this house has run out of cake on my watch.
I know I have big shoes to fill, but I text my mother anyway. And promptly comes the reply: whisk two eggs with ¾ cup sugar and 80 g butter. Add one cup flour sieved with one tsp ‘bp’, and alternate between one cup milk. Bake for 30 at 150 degrees.
When I finally decipher what she means by bp (baking powder!), I get to work. Does the tin need to be lined? I don’t. Do I need to cream the butter till it turns fluffy and pale yellow? It’s peak summer here in Kerala, and it seems to me that the chances of it turning fluffy are about the same as of it turning into to a unicorn, and so I move on. It appears that the slick movement my mother makes where she adds in the flour in small batches with the mixer still running is not as effortless as it looks, and a good portion of the pantry now looks like it’s been snowed upon. Not one to be easily discouraged, I plough on… a dash of milk on the floor, another snow storm on the table top, but twenty minutes later, a silky batter sits snug in its tin, waiting to be transformed.
Come evening, my father slices into the cake, and I wait for the verdict. “It tastes good…ahem, maybe a little dry?” he asks delicately, dusting crumbs off his shirt. I shrug noncommittally. It might take me a while to perfect my baking game, but for now, there’s a cup of tea to enjoy.
Kathija Hashim’s Teacake
80 g butter at room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
Mix the flour and baking powder in a medium bowl and set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar until it is pale and fluffy.
Add the eggs and incorporate into the mixture.
Add the flour and milk in batches and mix until combined.
Empty the batter into a greased 8-inch baking tin and bake for 30 minutes at 150 degrees celsius, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.