I never knew a better baker than my Granny. As a child, I would watch her tall figure move swiftly around the kitchen. Placing fistfuls of flour into bowls, beating egg whites with brisk, slight flicks of the wrist and kneading dough thoroughly, my Granny navigated the kitchen with military efficiency. She rarely used a weighing scales, almost knowing by instinct the amount of ingredients she would need for a recipe. Her cake baking skills were commissioned for christenings, communions and weddings alike. Tinfoil wrapped sponge cake would be savoured in the middle of the bog, instantly making a day cutting turf somewhat bearable, while slivers of her fruit cake would be surreptitiously stowed in handbags under the table at weddings.
One of the best loved delicacies in her repertoire was her apple tart. With sweet, stewed apples encased in a pastry both crispy and buttery, her tart met with lots of praise over the decades. Not too sugary, but sweet enough to counter the bitter tang of the apples, she has been mastering this dessert for the past sixty years.
Germany is probably the furthest location to which her tart has been sent and from where I now find myself speaking to her through the miracle that is skype. I watch as she stoops slowly to retrieve an apple tart from the oven, gently checking the underside of the tart. It’s golden brown and firm to the touch. Now in her eighties, she doesn’t make apple tarts as frequently as she once did. Her movements have stiffened, her arthritic fingers no longer able to knead dough at the speed they once were.
“When did you start baking apple tarts?” I ask inquisitively, when her face appears on the screen again. “It was rare that I got a chance to bake. We barely had enough flour to make bread, not to mind dessert. Sugar and butter were strictly rationed.” Maureen was born in Spiddal in rural County Galway in 1934. The youngest of nine, her early life was fraught with poverty and loss. She lost her father at the tender age of nine and her mother during her first week of college. “It wasn’t until teacher training college that I started baking properly”, she tells me.
Baking has been an unwavering constant in my Granny’s life- she and her sisters baked for all occasions, whether it was a wedding or a funeral. Whatever the crisis, she always managed to make a daily loaf of brown bread to feed her family. I remember watching her the day after my Grandad had passed away. She was obviously heartbroken but yet she took out her familiar enamel bowl, to make scones for the wake where hundreds were to come to pay their respects. Ever practical and never one to feel sorry for herself, her no-nonsense approach and enduring faith have remained throughout her life.
People have often asked her to share her recipes for jams, tarts and cakes and she has always obliged them. However, I think that her recipe for life is the most successful of all.