Baking is an instinctive skill and is borne of years of effort and practice
Many people know someone who’s a great natural baker.
The type of person to whom it seems to come naturally without the need for scales or a recipe book.
This type of skill is instinctive and is borne of years of effort and practice to perfect the best cake, scones or bread. When I started teaching at Northern Regional College 20 years ago one of the lecturers in the college was immensely talented in this regard. Jane McAuley had been the chef/patron of the well known and very successful Ballymaclary House Restaurant in Magilligan. We started teaching at the same time and for two decades Iooked after the professional savoury side of the kitchen and Jane was in charge of the sweet section. We learned from each other and forged a friendship based on a mutual love of cooking and not taking life too seriously.
Teaching in a further education college can be a little trying at times and we buoyed each other up. Anytime I was doing a demonstration or outside catering event, Jane was always there in the wings keeping me calm at all times. We talk about “six degrees of separation” and I have no doubt that most people from every county in the country have sampled a cake baked by Jane, either directly or indirectly, at some time in their lives.
She baked cakes for most of my family celebrations, her own family and for the many, many friends she made wherever she went.
Sadly Jane passed away last month and her loss is deeply felt across the north coast community. Jane is particulary in my thoughts given that tomorrow is Stir Up Sunday. She baked copious amounts of Christmas cakes every year and her classes were responsible for making hundreds of Christmas puddings thanks to the college’s industrial steamer. She was very generous with the “feeding” part of the cake. It was well tended to in the run up to the festive period with generous glugs of brandy or whiskey anointed over the top on a regular basis. My late granny cracked open one of her birthday cakes made by Jane that had been in a box years after the event and I can report it was as good as the day it was baked.
Jane was a woman of great faith and a parishioner of St Paul’s Church in Articlave. At her funeral the minister spoke of the work she had done with the young people of the parish – including feeding them for a fortnight during summer bible clubs. She worked tirelessly providing catering and fundraising for the church. No one had any idea she had done any of this, because she never talked about it. In a world where the minutia of our lives are often chronicled on social media the way Jane lived her life was the antithesis of this. As another friend said to the minister she was Christian in the true sense of the word - she did many good works but wasn’t the kind of person to shout about it.
Since her death I’ve heard countless stories of how she helped students, and young people that she didn’t even actually teach, way beyond the call of duty. If you ever saw Jane in the paper you can be sure that photograph would have been taken under duress. She was happy to do the work and not take any public credit.
This week’s recipes are for Jane’s Christmas cake and for her Yule log. Tomorrow I’ll be stirring up her Christmas cake in her honour - I hope I can do it justice but know already it won’t be as good as hers. And to keep up the tradition I’ll give the cake a toot of brandy and have one myself to toast an amazing woman and one of the best friends you could ever hope to have had. As C S Lewis once wrote, ‘Her loss is like the sky, it covers everything’.