28 April, 2006

an afternoon at school

This post has nothing to do with Matthew Macfadyen. But I'm going to upload (or is it download? I can never remember which is which) one picture of him per day until someone reports back to me from the Tribeca Film Festival. So there.

What a day yesterday at Avery's school. I frantically wrapped up my strawberry cake and headed out to find a taxi. While I'm at it I'll give you the recipe for this extra-fast, foolproof dessert (believe me, I am a fool when it comes to baking and even I cannot screw up this cake). Just for fun, I'm going to do this in cookbook style to see if I can. You all tell me how it turns out.

Avery's Strawberry Lemon Sour Cream Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour(ed) cream
2 tsps. vanilla extract
2 tsps. lemon extract
the grated peel of one lemon
2 large eggs
6 strawberries, coarsely chopped
3 tbsps. extra sugar

Stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Of course, at this point all recipes will tell you about what speed setting to use on your electric beater. Well, try plugging an American beater into an English socket, and once the smoke has cleared and you've replaced all the fuses in your flat, you can go back to stirring by hand like in the old days. It just doesn't matter. Just stir until the butter and sugar are glossy. Then add the sour cream, the extracts and the eggs and the lemon peel, which will smell glorious. Stir really well until the batter starts to come away from the bowl as you move the spoon. Dump in the flour mixture and stir very, very well. You'll notice that a bit of bubbliness appears from the baking soda, when you've stirred enough. Gently fold in the strawberries, taking care not to mash them up. Tip into a pan that you've sprayed with Pam. I wish I had a Bundt pan but I do not. It would be very pretty like that. However, it is much more English to have a simple square or round cake that will fit in one of the tins with lids, so de rigeur in the English kitchen, to have on hand in the larder when someone comes to tea.

Sprinkle the extra sugar over the batter and bake at about 350 for about 45 minutes, or until the center does not jiggle and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Yesterday I burned mine, which was probably a combination of not paying attention (hey, someone has to blog!) and not really having a precise handle on the relationship between celsius and fahrenheit. Oh well, I'll get it right before I publish my cookbook! I guarantee you it will not take longer than 10 minutes to put this cake together, and other than the strawberries, you'll have everything on your shelves already.

So I zipped up to school, relishing NOT walking for once, and made my way down to the basement of the school to the drama room (aka the dining room, and who knows what else in that space-constrained school) where the babble of feminine voices told me a cake sale was happening. Most of the desserts on offer were store-bought, some extremely fancy from Paul, the ultra-authentic French patisserie in the High Street, and some more obviously your basic Waitrose cookies and cakes. So when I arrived with my unglamorous, square, but undeniably homemade and still-warm cake, I was the star of the show! Never mind that the edges were a bit too brown! They priced that baby at 15 pounds and it was snapped up immediately by a Form One mother, but she was made to leave it on the sale table until the end of the afternoon, because the smell of real, fresh cake was boosting sales. Take that, all of you at home who know I am a hopeless baker. All it took was a captive audience.

So I sloped off down the passage to the simultaneous second-hand uniform sale, and immediately regretted every pound I had ever spent at John Lewis buying these things new. Amazing prices. I can't imagine Avery's clothes surviving in such a condition as to be acceptable at some future sale, but perhaps these children have more than one set.

The conversations I heard as I browsed around the tables were so... English. "Have you plans for the Bank Holiday, Serena? We'll be in the country, if Angus can get away." "Well, Isobel, now that Poppy is settled and ready to go to St. Mary's in the autumn, how will your empty house feel?" Their voices all operate at a half-octave higher pitch than American mothers, and their clothes all look different: patterned scarves draped across their shoulders, little heels, discreet expensive belts and handbags. "I do think it's horrid how these cardies shrink so in the laundry. This size 30 bears no resemblance atall [all one word] to what it was when it was new." And yet, as foreign as parts of the afternoon felt, there was much the same general feeling as at Avery's old preschool: the attention of devoted mothers, the supervision of devoted staff, the shabby, slightly old-fashioned surroundings. And tea towels draped all over the kitchen to dry: the King's College annual fundraising tea towel, with a self-portrait of each schoolgirl and her name below, somehow reproduced onto a towel! By the time we arrived in January they were all sold out, but I have high hopes for next Christmas.

The uniform sale room opened out into the sweet little playground, home of the famous Wendy house (there were spiders, it's true) and looked up into the windows of the flat whose occupants, it turns out, are the real barricade between the girls and a proper outdoor recess. Why on earth would people move into a flat whose terrace looks out onto the yard of a girls' school, and then complain about the noise? Very irritating.

Becky arrived and after we bought everything in sight and took a look at the depleted cake sale table, we went outside to wait for the girls to come out. Suddenly, up the pavement came a lady, although I use the word with some caution, dressed in an outlandish spangled, off the shoulder, plunging neckline dress, in ultra high heels with her hair teased a mile off the top of her head. She ran toward the school as fast as her hideous shoes would allow, and then stopped dead in front of the entrance, turning toward the street. "Miles, Miles, park there, park there," she screeched to a driver standing on the pavement. Behind him were two enormous white limousines, decorated with pink ribbon bows on their grilles, double-parked by the kerb (note English spelling, please). Becky and I tried not to look at her. "If I ever, ever, even APPROACH looking anything like that, please stop me," she said. We were both smothering laughing, and wondering who on earth this could be. "Please let her clothes be in the line of duty," Becky hissed. We decided she was a birthday party entertainer. And sure enough, the little Form Three girls came filing out of the building, dressed, as they do for after school parties, in festive non-uniform clothes, looking oddly random, clutching their backpacks. They were packed up into the limousines chattering madly. I said to Becky, "No one at home would believe this if I told them." Very un-PS 234!