The Depressed Cake Shop at Suzzle

greyscale_topviewI promised a more in-depth post earlier this week on this subject, so here we are. Honestly?  I’ve been putting it off to an extent, because I want to do it justice and also, perhaps, because I don’t necessarily want to have to tell the story as often as I may have to if all my lovely regular customers ask me – not unreasonably – “why here, why you?” As you’ve probably gathered, I have personal reasons for being involved in this project. Just because I’m prepared to speak up, doesn’t make it less painful, but if I remain silent I perpetuate the problem of people not talking about mental health. So here goes. This won’t necessarily make for light reading: consider this a ‘trigger’ warning, if triggers are something you have to watch for.

greyscale_cake, greyscale cake with grey ombre icing

The Depressed Cake Shop is the idea of Miss Cakehead. When it comes to charity cake pop-ups, she’s got form: I first met her at the London Cakes for Japan pop-up, then at the Geek Cake Shop, and the formula works. Keep it short and – pretty much of necessity – sweet and, most important of all, make sure your theme or concept is strong, while leaving room for creativity.

So: short (3 days for the London shop) and sweet (cakes, biscuits, macarons, I could go on …) and a theme which has been strong enough to raise eyebrows, as all of the cakes will be grey on the outside. Yes, of course we know that not everyone’s experience of depression in particular, or mental illness in general, can be characterised by the colour grey. But we wanted to make an impact, and the one thing you can guarantee is that grey cakes turn heads.

Grey is good for a number of reasons. It works for those who feel their mental health issues have leached all colour out of their lives. It works for those for whom a latent mental health problem is ever lurking in the shadows, waiting to catch them unawares and drag them under again. It works because most of us naturally try to avoid the ‘nutter on the bus’, even though they’re just another human being. And it will work because one of the first things anyone says on seeing a grey cake is “why is that cake grey?”, and this gives people an opening to discuss mental health as an issue, instead of sweeping it back into the shadows.

For a lot of us involved in this project, mental illness and baking are linked: a lot of us turn to baking when we’re feeling low. Some of us even started baking because they were ill and needed something simple as a focus. And there is genuinely something very therapeutic about baking. I have, for years, turned to my kitchen and cooked, savoury or sweet, because I get some relief in the creation of something that, in and of itself, is goodness, love, nurture – sometimes even beauty – when all I feel I am is ugliness, pain and a drain on all around me. And being part of this project has made me realise I’m not alone in this. Being one of some 800+ people involved in Depressed Cake Shops all around the world is somehow simultaneously wonderful, humbling, sad and inspiring.

As a group, we’ve had some mixed reactions to the concept – some comments on this Guardian article seem to have missed the point, for example – and I felt obliged to respond. To quote my comment (as meelzebub):

The target audience for this pop-up is the public at large, not specifically those affected by mental illness, although they’re naturally also welcome. The point of The Depressed Cake Shop is that there is still massive stigma encountered by the mentally ill, and it’s mostly discussed as something that happens to other people. Some of us lose jobs even for admitting there’s a problem. Some people never seek help because they’re afraid to admit to a weakness. Some of us learn to shut up because if we once admit it to someone, or if a suicide attempt is leaked to ‘friends’ and family by someone well-meaning, we have to endure the pity – even if intended as sympathy – of others, some of whom genuinely care and want to help, others who are secretly hoping you’ll freak in front of them so they can partake of the drama they imagine associated with a melt-down, and still others who are terrified that what you’ve got might be catching.

And even so, I’m hiding behind ‘some of us’. Yes, I lost a job for telling my boss I had been prescribed anti-depressants and needed to cut my working hours to something closer to 60, instead of 75. I’ve had to face a family party comprised mostly of people I’d never met (my boyfriend’s aunt’s birthday, IIRC), who knew I’d tried to kill myself a couple of weeks previously. It’s one hell of a first impression, and it endured for years. Small wonder those of us with ‘issues’ hesitate to open up and talk about them.

Getting treatment has not always been easy, but I have a good support network who have helped me fight for what was needed, and in particular a husband who has been tireless in trying to get to the bottom of things. 15 years and a lot of pain later, and we finally have a diagnosis. I have borderline personality disorder. Frankly, it explains a lot.

But I’m in danger of straying from my point. Cooking and baking have, on occasion, very literally saved my life, giving me an outlet for emotions I couldn’t handle. Most importantly, it gave me a way of translating something enormously negative into something positive. The lovely Emmeline, one of our customers in the shop, has said that she likes our food because it’s clear that it’s made with love. She’s right, but perhaps more so than she knew.

Hence another part of my comment in the Grauniad:

If these pop-ups – there will be several across the country – tell only one person who was feeling desperate that there is help, and that it’s OK to need it, and gives them the means to access it, or gives them the courage to speak up so someone else can help them get the treatment they need instead of topping themselves, I would personally consider that a bloody good result. If, as is likely, it gets more people thinking and talking about mental health issues in general, and in its own small way starts normalising them for those touched by the event so depression et al become as acceptable to talk about as, say, arthritis, migraine or the common cold, then that’s also a result that’s worth having, and all of us involved will feel our efforts have been worthwhile.

I’m one of the 1 in 4 that gets mentioned in every campaign about mental health. I’m told I don’t look obviously mentally ill, whatever that may mean, and yet my mental illness has, on occasion, been damn nigh fatal. And I’m one of the lucky ones. This is why Suzzle is hosting the Depressed Cake Shop from 2-4 August this year.  Proceeds will be going to CALM, and to the establishment of a new charity to provide baking therapy.

md.

Shades of grey

While I’ll be back in a couple of days to say more about this project, I thought it was probably wise to confirm here that Suzzle will indeed be hosting the rather wonderful Depressed Cake Shop from 2-4 August.  This is the lovely Miss Cakehead’s charity project for the year, and it’s struck a chord not only here in London, but in places all over the UK, the US, and now possibly even in Australia.

So why the shades of grey?  Because every single cake, biscuit and macaron sold will be grey.  This is a pop-up that is close to my heart for a number of reasons, and it will be held not only to raise funds for CALM, but also to raise awareness in general of mental health issues and spark discussion.  Too often, people don’t talk about their mental health problems until they’ve become very serious or, in the saddest cases, until it is quite literally too late to save them.  We’re hoping this will go some small way to change that.

This is one of the rare occasions where we will be selling cakes with gluten in, but there will still be gluten and lactose free cakes available as well as  – I believe – some vegan cakes, too.  So pop the dates in your diary: it’ll be on for three days, including a Saturday and Sunday, and this much deliciousness in a good cause should not be missed 🙂

Gluten-free Heroes Part 2: Dove’s Farm

My second gluten-free hero this week is Dove’s Farm.  It’s fair to say that, without them, my diet would be a lot less varied and baking would take a lot longer.  This is because I would have to blend flours myself in order to get the right characteristics and, frankly, I simply don’t have the time or the energy to be doing that most of the time, especially given how much I bake.  So I probably wouldn’t bother.  Yes, I know, other GF flour blends are available, but since so many of the prescribables contain either lactose or soya, they’re not going to work for me, and those that don’t contain any nasties somehow don’t result in the lovely texture I get with the Dove’s Farm flours.

They don’t just do flours, either: they have a range of breakfast cereals that appeals to my 5 year old, even thought he doesn’t have to follow a gluten-free diet, which is praise indeed, and must be a godsend for parents of coeliac children.  Their chocolate stars really do taste very good, as well as being appealingly packaged.  And don’t get me started on the biscuits… once the packet’s opened, that’s it!

I’m less keen on their pasta, which you’ll find used by restaurant chains like Zizzi, but then I’m not all that gone on corn pasta in general.

Anyway, if you’ve ever tasted one of my cakes and not been able to tell the difference between that and a cake made with wheat flour, it’s at least in part because of these guys. Thank you 🙂

Suzzle banana cake recipe

Just the other day in the shop I had a sample plate of banana cake out. Yes, I know, many people already know what banana cake tastes like, but they’ve not necessarily tasted mine, and it’s nice to give people a little taste of something from time to time.

Suzzle banana cake

Anyway, I was going somewhere with this, I promise. On the day in question, a young couple came in with their incredibly cute baby intending – I think – just to look at the art in the shop, but ultimately leaving with a piece of the banana cake they’d sampled, and a request for me to post the recipe on the blog.

The mum had also asked me about sugar content, because the cake doesn’t taste too sweet, and she was thinking about whether or not she could give some to her baby once the first birthday milestone had been reached, since banana cake ‘felt’ like a healthy starter cake, or at least healthier than some.

This got me thinking, because even though there’s not masses of sugar in my banana cake, it might yet be possible to reduce it, so I’ll be having a play over the next few weeks to see how far I can get it down without completely killing the cake.  In the meantime, here’s my original recipe if you want to make the fully sinful version before I take out most of the sugar.

When I first made this cake I had actually set out to make a carrot cake.  I’d got the oil, golden syrup and eggs in the jug before realising I’d managed to run out of light brown soft sugar, and that all I had left was caster.  This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but when you’re baking at 4am, the option to just nip out to the corner shop and grab some more is simply not there, even where I live in central London.  I couldn’t unmix the ingredients that were already in the jug, so instead I scouted around for an alternative to carrots and came across some overripe bananas and thought they had to be worth a try.  They were certainly a better option than the savoy cabbage or the onions, although part of me is now wondering whether there might not be an option for a savoury onion cake type thingy to go with soup.  Hmmmm…..

But back to the banana cake!  You will need:

Bowl ingredients:
125g Dove’s Farm GF plain flour
125g Dove’s Farm GF self-raising flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
8g bicarbonate of soda
3 large or 4 medium ripe bananas

Jug ingredients:
110g vegetable oil – I generally use rapeseed, sunflower is fine
80g golden syrup
140g caster/golden caster sugar (can substitute light/dark brown soft sugar, see recipe)
3 large free range eggs
5ml vanilla essence/seeds from 1 vanilla pod

Pre-heat the oven to Gas 5/180C.  Measure the ingredients into their respective containers.  Beat the jug ingredients with a metal spoon until they’ve formed a thick, gloopy liquid.  Mash the bananas into the flour mixture with a fork.  In terms of which sugar to use, I tend to work on the basis of how ripe the bananas are and therefore how much and what kind of flavour they’re going to bring to the recipe.  If the skins of the bananas are very yellow or slightly green, use a sugar with a higher molasses content, like light or dark brown soft sugar or, at a pinch, golden caster.  If the bananas are good and ripe/overripe and speckly-skinned, use plain old caster to counter the slightly acetoney taste.

Using a silicone spatula, stir the jug ingredients into the bowl ingredients until it’s all very thoroughly mixed.  Pour the lot into a lined traybake tray (and by lined I just mean with a long strip of greaseproof paper the width of the base of the tray, not fussing with the corners) measuring around 12″x7″ (30cm x 17.5cm), and cook for 40 minutes, or until a cake tester/cocktail stick comes out clean.  Fan ovens will cook it a little quicker.

Once it’s on the cooling rack, I generally sprinkle over a little demerara sugar, which then sticks in the still-moist top crust of the cake, or you can leave it to cool and frost it if you prefer.  I tend not to frost it because it’s nice as it is, but a good lemon or coconut frosting would work, as would vanilla buttercream, or even sandwiching it with chocolate spread.  It probably goes without saying that mixing in some chocolate chips before baking produces a more than edible result, or a handful of sultanas/dates is also nice, but it’s the simpler version I serve in the shop.  If you fancy experimenting, try adding a little grated orange or lime zest, then coating cubes of the finished cake in chocolate and coconut to make banana lamingtons.  Yum!

NB: For those not using GF flours, I’d recommend using medium eggs instead of large, as gluten-free flours tend to be thirstier than wheat flour.

New years and new beginnings

Happy New Year everybody!  

Having staggered painfully out of 2011 with nasty, mean gallstones that put a serious curb on a lot of end of year activities, 2012 started with no rapid prospect of a resolution until a call last Thursday to offer me someone else’s cancelled surgery slot for yesterday. Which means I’m typing this on the Touchpad my lovely brother so kindly gave me for my 40th, while snuggled under a duvet recovering from yesterday’s op.

So while I’m obviously a bit sore and battered at the moment, the knowledge that all the pain I’ve had since July is done with is more than compensation for a couple of weeks’ recovery, not least because it brings a particular dream a lot closer.

The dream? Well, we’re going to open a shop. And it will only sell yummy gluten-free things. Assuming the recovery goes well, we’ll be soft launching around Valentine’s Day, so it’s about to get quite busy round here. On the menu? Cakes, salads, snacks, soups… and art, since that’s long been a part of the plan. Sort of art and tarts, really. 

Still a couple of experiments to go before we can include them in the shop, which I will obviously share here, for good or ill 😉

Happy 2012!

Tweet Tweet – Twitter cakes for iCake

Run-out twitter birds

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m having a great time thanks to Emma – aka Miss Cakehead. I’ve been doing some very therapeutic run-out work making little tweety birds to put on cupcakes for tomorrow’s iCake Shop at the Hospital Club.

Lots of cakes, all themed around things geeky, and all profits to a good cause.  Make sure you get down there tomorrow!

Sneak preview of the twitter birds on the left 🙂

And more details about the event here.

 

Why I won’t be entering GBBO (the Great British Bake-Off)

I’m well known among family, friends and acquaintances for being an enthusiastic baker, with end results to match.  And like, I am sure, many other people in the UK, it has often been suggested that I enter GBBO.  It’s very sweet of people to suggest it, and even sweeter that they think I would stand a real chance of getting as far as the show, but it’s something that’s not destined to happen.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not some sort of false modesty on my part, or a lack of self-confidence.  I admit, most people who know me also know I hate having my picture taken, although I’m learning to be better about that now.  I will also admit I’m not hugely keen to have TV cameras add another ten pounds to my already overweight frame.  But this is not the reason I’ll be steering clear.  No, the simple reason comes down to what got me baking in the first place: the simple fact that I can’t eat gluten.

I love watching the Great British Bake Off, and in many cases I think I could probably do as well without gluten as many of the contestants do with it, but there are some things I simply cannot do.  The blind challenges in particular would be impossible for me as I would doubtless end up being ‘glutened’ either by inhalation or from the simple need to check flavouring.  Paul Hollywood’s focaccia?  Would love to, but I don’t think it’s worth risking my health to get there.

Would I enter if the Beeb did a gluten-free version of GBBO?  I would indeed, but the chances of them ever doing that are probably fairly slim.  I do find this frustrating.  After all, increasing numbers of people are having to exclude gluten from their diet because of either coeliac disease or intolerance, and yet you’ll see very little about gluten-free cooking on TV.  I think the best gluten-free bakers can hope for on that front is for series 3 to include one episode where the contestants have to bake exclusively gluten-free.  It’s at least as much of a challenge as the perfect macaron, after all.

Anyway, back off the soapbox.  For those of you that fancy entering, I believe they’re recruiting the next set of contestants now.  In the meantime, if anyone from the BBC would like someone to set and judge a gluten-free challenge on GBBO, I’m right here 🙂