There are so many reasons – other than that I love them very much – why it’s so great when Louise and her family come and stay with us.
I’m always on and off slimming – all too soon I put back most of the weight I lost whilst on a ventilator two years ago after a major heart attack, so I don’t make desserts for just Joshua and me. Having visitors is a good excuse. The latest Waitrose Magazine came out with this recipe for Plum and Almond Cake just in time. Josh doesn’t like almond essence so I use vanilla essence instead.
When Josh and I got married in 1956 I could just about cook omelettes and minestrone. Over the next few years, whilst I was a Medical Student and then a House Officer, I gradually increased my repertoire but really learned to cook a wide variety of dishes at the excellent Good Housekeeping six-week full time course in 1960.
Listen to my account of that experience from my memoir Woman in a White Coat Chapter 14 Starting a Family Pages 247-249 and try the recipe given at the end of this post
Woman in a White Coat Chapter 14 Starting a Family Pages 247-249
By the time I finished my second house job, I was five months pregnant. I was unlikely to find a part-time temporary job in medicine and I couldn’t face the thought of standing all day in a dental practice.
I decided to take a cookery course instead. Only the girls in the lower streams at school did cookery and my mother had always shooed me away, especially during wartime. When we got married I could cook omelettes and minestrone and not much else, though I’d extended my range a bit since then.
‘Food is rationed,’ she’d say. ‘Don’t want you wasting good food. Time enough to learn to cook when you get married.’
My mother was a very plain cook. Her repertoire was limited to chicken soup, boiled chicken, braised beef, fried fish and sardines on toast. On Saturdays, we’d have cholent, potatoes and meat or chicken that had been cooking all night on a gas ring turned on very low before the Sabbath came in.
I saw an advertisement for a six-week full-time course at the Good Housekeeping Cookery School. The courses were originally designed for debutantes who needed to learn how to run a kitchen, though they might only set a foot inside one to give orders to the cook.
Most of the other students were upper crust young women who had hardly ever gone into a kitchen. One 17-year-old had never even peeled a potato. Some of the others had moved to London and got a flat of their own so they had done a bit of cooking but we were all pretty inexperienced. One student was a woman in her early thirties who had been in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) – someone more my age. We paired up and shared chores.
Before the war, the students would have cooked in the morning and learned about housework in the afternoon, though they might never have to do any housework once they were married. They were taught to use the starch-enriched water from soaking the potatoes they cooked in the morning to starch a frilly cap or a shirt; how to use gophering tongs – the tubular bladed instruments that made little tunnels in starched caps – and how to iron men’s shirts. By the time I took the course, it only covered cookery.
The kitchens were in a large basement in Mayfair. There were eight Formica-topped tables for the sixteen of us. The shelves around the walls were stacked with bowls and saucepans of every shape and size and there were drawers and drawers of cooking implements. as well as several gas cookers and hobs. On Mondays, the room smelled of cleaning fluid but the rest of the week we were greeted by the gorgeous smell of the cakes we’d cooked for our tea the day before.
We were taught from scratch – how to boil an egg, how to boil potatoes, how to skin and bone a fish. It was a mixture of traditional English cookery – roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding – and some more exotic dishes like dolmas (stuffed vine leaves), curries and the classic sole dishes Sole Veronique, sole with green grapes and Sole Meniere, sole panfried in butter.
In the mornings, we cooked a main meal for lunch and ate it – meat, fish or a vegetarian dish and two vegetables. In the afternoons we baked cakes, bread, brioches, and pastries. I adored it all, especially the chocolate éclairs. In 1960, no-one seemed to bother about pregnant women putting on too much weight and I ate for two with gusto.
I couldn’t find a suitable sized alphabetised book so I bought a linen covered book and made my own index. I still have it, a few food stains on the cover and the leaves a bit faded, but the recipes as good as ever.
The teachers were all highly experienced cooks and managed their often unruly pupils with ease. At dental and medical school, there had been few women – there was still a 10% quota for us. I thoroughly enjoyed the fun of bonding and giggling and having a great time in an all-female group.
I thrived on being pregnant, though I got a bit more tired than the others. It was a lovely six weeks. I cried when they gave me an embroidered layette at the end of the course.
Here is my slightly modified recipe: Continue reading Plum and Almond Cake (Waitrose) and Where I learned to Cook