Nan, Potato Cakes & Me

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My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary recently. In preparation for a last minute ‘do’ at ours, I broke in to their house, and stole their giant box of family photos and their wedding album.

The wedding album was great. Lancashire in 1961 was full of women with matching white stilettos and boxy handbags, and blokes like my dad and uncles with quiffs. Comedy wedding photos for the walls? Sorted.

Then I moved on to the giant box of family photos. My mum must have inherited her mum’s photo’s when she died eight years ago, because I found a picture of Nana Riley which took my breath away. It was a portrait, taken in Liverpool in 1937. It shows my Nan as a stunning young woman with beautiful, alabaster skin and pin waved hair. Absolutely gorgeous, and I can see shadows of her in my mum, and most of the women in our family, although alas I did not inherit that skin.

Fast forward from 1937 to August 2011. I did a charity cake sale and on the day of the sale, my mum came to lend a hand; bringing with her a cut-glass cake stand which belonged to Nana Riley and is now owned by my aunty. I am allowed to borrow this stand on the understanding that no harm must ever come to it. I am always a bit gutted when I have to give it back. At the end of the day, as mum was leaving, she turned to me and said how great it would have been if Nan had been around. You see, Nana Riley was the greatest baker our family has ever had- and will probably ever have. She would have loved to get involved and contribute to the table.

There are two words which clearly sum up my childhood memories of Nana Riley: potato cakes! Granted, not very poetic but seriously, they were damn good potato cakes, topped with melted butter on a Saturday night salad, and none I have tried since have come close. I can actually smell them as I think about them. I’ve never made potato cakes because I would be so disappointed if they didn’t taste like Nan’s.

Then there were the Christmas cakes. When I was very young, I remember her making quite a lot of cakes, boozy as you like. When I first started making Christmas cake, the recipe called for it to be fed with brandy or whiskey. But mum told me that Nan fed hers with dark rum, so that’s what I did- and will be doing this weekend when I get my cakes on the go again.

Going back to my parent’s recent golden wedding, there is a family legend about their wedding cake. Naturally Nan made the cake, and the fashion at the time was for lots of royal icing. The happy couple struck a pose with the giant cake knife, smiled for the camera, and…clunk! The icing was so thick, the knife wouldn’t go through! Poor Nan must have been mortified but it didn’t stop her from many more years of choux pastry éclairs, festive bakes and of course those potato cakes.

I’d love to say that before Nan died she taught me everything she knew. But sadly, I only picked up the baking bug after she died. I’d also love to say that I inherited her book of secrets- that family recipe book that so many people claim to get their inspiration from. But as far as I know, it was all in her head and no little recipe book existed. Or maybe no one thought to look for it. In a way I hope that it was all in her head as I would hate to think that something so personal, all those years of knowledge, would be lost in a clear out.

Looking back, of course I would have loved to spend time in the kitchen with Nana Riley, learning from her and sharing her passion. But I have something that will stay with me forever, and that is the memories.

So, is she looking over my shoulder as I bake myself? Maybe. Probably not. But if she is, I am sure that she is laughing long and hard at my inability to make a decent Victoria Sponge!


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