Once upon a time in a far away tropical country, in the early beginnings of my expat life, I baked a simple cake–a light, lovely, lemony cake. But baking a simple cake, I’ll have you know, was a major undertaking, nothing like taking a box of mix, adding an egg, some oil, some water and bingo: batter.
Ghana, West Africa, in the late seventies and early eighties was not a happy place and there were no gourmet food emporiums with cake mixes and smoked salmon to make life easy. However, these days several well-stocked supermarkets make cooking and baking no problem; I know because I came back and lived there again in happier times, times replete with cappuccino and cheese and wine and all manner of lovely comestibles.
However, in the earlier, trying times, improvisation and resourcefulness, not to speak of some courage and a hammer at times, were essential ingredients for successful cooking and baking. So, pour yourself a glass of wine and let me tell you how I went about the laborious task of baking a cake in Ghana in the mid-seventies. If you think you bake cakes from scratch, you’ve seen nothing yet, girl.
Follow me to the pantry, please. First we have to take inventory to determine whether the baking of a cake is an actual possibility rather than a culinary pipe dream. As we all know, to create a simple cake, you need flour, sugar, eggs, butter or margarine, vanilla, baking powder and salt. So here goes:
FLOUR. I’m in luck. Some time ago I was able to procure a one-hundred-pound bag of white flour from a local merchant with shadowy connections to the government. He “slipped” me the bag at an exorbitant price. Jubilant, I dragged my black-market treasure home, called my friends to share in the bounty and a flour-scooping orgy followed in my bedroom (the only room with an air conditioner). A festive mood prevailed as everyone filled empty milk powder cans and Tupperware containers with the precious commodity. Some said it was better than sex, which should give you some indication of how desperate we were.
Flour, then, I have. So far, so good.
SUGAR. Again, I am in luck. I have a box of French sugar cubes, a hostess gift presented to me by a good friend with sugar connections. These need to be smashed. This can be accomplished by putting the cubes in a bag or tea towel and applying a common hammer. If the electricity is functioning, one can try using a blender.
SALT. I have some.
Photo © bethantigua. Used by permission
It was harvested from the local seaside salt ponds and looks coarse and dirty, but it’s just healthy minerals that make it look that way; I hang on to this illusion as well as I can. As I said, it takes courage.
BAKING POWDER and VANILLA. These I have too. When I’m on home leave, I buy a supply to bring back with me to sustain me through another spell of scarcity and deprivation. (Why do I even get on a plane, you ask? Let’s not go there.)
For flavoring I also have a lemon that’s courageously trying to look yellow, but fails. Lemons look green, as do the oranges, since they need the contrast of cool temperatures at night to produce the vivid yellow and orange colors we are familiar with. (Cool weather is not a known concept in tropical Ghana.)
EGGS. My nanny has chickens running free in her compound and I buy eggs from her. (These eggs look just like ordinary eggs anywhere, just so you know.)
MILK. I am the happy owner of a can of Dutch milk powder, acquired during my latest shopping foray across the border into Togo, a neighboring country whose economy – at the time of this writing — is supported by France and therefore has everything known to mankind sitting on the grocery shelves. I reconstitute the precious powder with tap water that has been boiled for fifteen minutes to exterminate life forms you don’t want to set up house in your body.
This cake is starting to look like a real possibility. Next is:
BUTTER OR MARGARINE. Unfortunately, I have neither.
But despair not. I do have a beer bottle containing unrefined coconut oil that my thoughtful husband was able to purchase for me from a roadside oil press last week. It’s the equivalent of receiving a dozen long-stemmed roses, and if you think something is wrong with me in the romance department, all I can say is, go suck an egg.
Unrefined coconut oil gives a slightly sweet, coconutty flavor to your scrambled eggs, fried fish and everything else you cook using it, but for a cake this is not a calamity.
SOMETHING FRUITY FOR THE TOPPING. The mango tree in my backyard yields several ripe fruits not yet pilfered by the neighborhood boys.
I’ve got it! I can do it! I can bake a cake! That is, if the electricity holds out long enough for me to use my mixer. Fortunately the stove and therefore the oven run on bottled gas, and the tank was recently replaced (also not easy).
I am grateful for all my blessings, including cake.
So, I get started, only to discover that the flour, which has been sitting around for a while, has become colonized by weevils, the signs of which are cobwebby strands in the flour and tiny little wormy things wiggling around convulsively. Some adult bugs are holding court as well. Excellent protein, I’ve been told, but I hope you’ll forgive me for employing my strainer and sifting the creatures out.
Next I mix boiled water and milk powder and add the salt so this can dissolve and not end up like crunchy nuggets in the final cake. I tell you, you have to think of everything. Now I pulverize the sugar cubes, enough to measure one cup of loose sugar, and after grating the lemon zest I’m ready to assemble the cake batter.
And I do. And I bake it. And put sliced mango on top. And voilà, the best cake in the world!
(Or so I thought in those long-ago days.)
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Please entertain me with your baking and cooking adventures — the good, the bad and the disgusting unappetizing. Links to hair-raising tales are welcome!