My own idea for a pudding to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was a sponge cake that would look like a Launer bag, the Monarch’s arm candy of choice. Let’s ignore its middle for the moment. The outside would have been covered in a thick layer of navy-blue royal icing, with a clasp fashioned from a milk-bottle top (à la Blue Peter, I keep a bag of them in a drawer in my kitchen at all times) and a handle made of shiny liquorice. The beauty of this concept was, of course, that the icing, which I would be able to buy at Tesco, would hide all manner of sunken disasters within. I would just roll it out and… voila!
But I see now that I was way off point. The five recipes that reached the final of the competition, screened on 12 May to a nation that cannot seem ever to get enough of baking programmes, were a bit more on the sophisticated side, to put it mildly. OK, so Mary Berry, the chair of the judges and the Queen’s nearest rival when it comes to regal longevity, spoke more than once about achievability; the recipe had, she insisted, to be suitable for any skillset, the idea being that it would be baked for street parties up and down the land during the long bank holiday we will all soon enjoy. This, however, was purest nonsense. Even the easiest of the puddings on offer – Jemma’s citrus trifle – looked wearyingly elaborate to me, with its layer of homemade Swiss roll, its St Clement’s jelly, its lemon custard and its jewelled chocolate bark.
As for the rose falooda cake – a confection of cream, vermicelli noodles and pre-soaked basil seeds that was then covered with fresh flowers until the point that it began to resemble one of Alan Titchmarsh’s hanging baskets – that was the creation of Shabnam from North Finchley, the mere sight of it was intimidating. I mean, if I was to take some time off work and start practising now, I guess it just might be possible I’d have a halfway decent finished item by early June. But then again, I was already worrying about greenfly. Would they, in the case of this particular bake, prove to be a problem?
Susan, from Helensburgh, had invented a Four Nations Pudding. Its bottom was made of crushed Welsh cakes and Irish butter, the middle was a mousse with bits of frozen Yorkshire rhubarb stuck in it, and it was topped with berries from Scotland. According to another of the judges, Monica Galetti, this was a “touching” concept, because Her Majesty does love every corner of this glorious land. But when Sue, having rustled it up in the Fortnum & Mason kitchen brought it out for the panel to try, the moment was anti-climactic. (The grocer that began its life in the time of Queen Anne is the force behind the competition; its head pastry chef, Roger Pizey, helped whittle the entries to five.) What was wrong? Personally – by now, I was getting into the groove and on the Dubonnet – I thought it was insufficiently flamboyant. There’s no point whatsoever to anything even vaguely royal unless it is camp. Couldn’t she at least have used a feather boa where ordinarily she might have wrapped a ribbon?
Speaking of Dubonnet, I wasn’t the only one. Sam, from Warwick, was making an “Elizabeth sponge” – a twist, she insisted, on the Victoria sponge, its various sections stuck together with a homemade strawberry jam to which she had added a splash of the Queen’s favourite fortified wine. I was hopeful I might be able to make Sam’s cake – until, that is, she produced a layer she had baked in a bundt tin that was crown-shaped. You can imagine how this would turn out if you tried yourself: there on the kitchen counter would be not so much a crown as a heavy sprinkling of spongey dandruff. What, though, was Kathryn from Didcot drinking? Her entry was a tart of frangipane, cheesecake and passion fruit- and thyme-flavoured jelly. Thyme? I wasn’t at all sure about this, though her technique for tidying her twice blind-baked shortcrust base – she shaved it with a carrot peeler – was certainly innovative, as Matt Adlard, an “influencer” and pastry chef and another of the judges, excitedly noted.
Alas, Her Maj did not appear, fork in hand, to announce the winner. But the Duchess of Cornwall was there, offering her very interesting thought that Didcot is to be found “down the M4”. Is Camilla a baker? Somehow, I doubt it. And anyway, these days she probably has a free supply of Waitrose Duchy Organic when it comes to cakes and biscuits. But perhaps she will be moved to make Jemma’s lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle for her mother-in-law, currently closeted at Windsor. (Yes, Jemma from Southport won! Didn’t I tell you her pudding was the easiest?) The recipe, for which you will need tinned mandarins and a dish the size of a beer barrel, feeds 20, so Andrew and Fergie could leg it from Royal Lodge for a bowl-full, if they were free (which they are – forever).
Meanwhile, all the rest of us can do is zest our lemons and wonder afresh that our national identity now seems to be based entirely on flour, sugar, eggs and butter, and all the things one can do with them – a full 68 years after rationing ended (we have no excuse for our cake lust; none of us really needs this kind of treat, or not every day). Before Brexit, I remember being in St Ives and having the semi-satirical thought that the country would soon comprise only coffee shops, tea shops and fudge shops; that eventually there would be nothing to buy anywhere but brownies and cupcakes and toffee; that if only JG Ballard was still alive, his dystopias would involve sieves and vanilla paste rather than concrete and petrol.
Has this come to pass? Not precisely. Nevertheless, we’re getting there. We could have celebrated the Platinum Jubilee with grand engineering projects (let’s leave the Elizabeth Line out of this), newly planted parks and prestigious scholarships. But, no. The nation will mark this milestone with a vat of orange jelly and lashings of double cream.
The Jubilee Pudding: 70 Years in the Baking
BBC One, 12 May, 8pm