When we were kids, our mum used to make Yorkshire puddings in bread tins, served as a starter before a main course of beef.
We had one each, a great boat of a pudding to fill the plate. We’d pour gravy into it, my sister holding the onions back with a fork because she hated them.
Mum’s Yorkshire puddings were incredible – big, bold, crisp, and light – and I’ve never really come close to replicating them. I tell myself that it’s because my modern electric oven doesn’t have the sheer ferocity of mum’s ancient gas one, or that I can’t match the precise proportions of egg, milk and flour, but the real reason is that those Yorkshire puddings exist in the legend and lore of our family, and they’re incomparable because of that. They’re part of our childhood, and they’re untouchable.
My mum and dad are both gone, and I’ve tried many, many times to come close to those idealistic Yorkshire puddings, but I’ve never done it. My Yorkshire puddings are flat and depressed, as well as depressing. Every time I’ve served up a frankly pathetic Yorkshire pudding, I’ve thought about my mum serving hers, dashing from kitchen to table as quickly as possible to present her triumphs in the best condition possible.
The other day, I cooked twice.
The first was a batch of falafel with far too much salt. I knew I was doing it as I shoved the spoon into the salt cellar, knew it was a bad idea, told myself not to, but I still added an extra spoonful, because that’s the kind of stupid thing I habitually do.
Those falafel were pretty much inedible, and despite trying to convince myself they were good, they weren’t, and I had to fall back on the stash of emergency samosas hidden in the freezer.
When I cook, I can feel when it’s happening, and I can tell when it isn’t, but I’d do well to start to listen to myself a little more.
The second meal was much more successful. Lara dropped a succession of hints, that developed into an outright demand for toad-in-the-hole, so that’s what I did, with proper butcher’s sausages, big sausages full of good cuts of pork.
I was nervous about this.
Yorkshire puddings and me don’t have an easy relationship, and after the complete fuck-up that was lunch, I felt uneasy about trying to deliver something I’ve spent a lifetime trying to perfect, never coming close. I sometimes have to work hard to get over kitchen setbacks and try again. The temptation to go back to that freezer and fish out a pack of chilli or something like that was immense.
But this time, it worked.
I used a recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s incomparable River Cottage Meat Book (250g of plain flour, 300ml each of water and milk, four eggs and another two yolks, salt), and went back to the Eighties and got the bread tins out.
I heated the oven as far as it’d go, scooped a generous chunk of lard into each tin and let them get raging hot in the dry heat of the oven. When they were hot, I made the tins even hotter by setting each over a lit hob and slid a couple of browned sausages into each tin, with a crackle. The kitchen filled with smoke as the fat protested.
I ladled the batter into the pans, guessing at the amount – about two ladles each seemed enough, generous perhaps – and then slid the tins back into the furnace.
And then I waited.
I sat in the kitchen listening to some punk band from Leeds I’d discovered that morning, trying not to imagine the disaster unfolding before me, the tension rising with the sharp, stabbing guitars.
After twenty minutes, I dared to peek and felt a rush of excitement as I saw these colossal things taking over the oven, towering proudly above the rim of their containers.
I couldn’t quite believe I’d done it. They were tall, golden, thick and crunchy, the sausages rising perfectly from a pillow of batter.
I hadn’t expected this. I hadn’t expected success, but here it was, right before me as I panicked and screamed for everybody to come and eat, fearing that I’d miss the crucial moment and stuff everything up because the kids were messing around with the cats or something.
I didn’t miss it.
Everybody sat down, and I rushed these huge Yorkshire puddings onto the table, and I saw everybody make a little double-take and start to gawp a bit, and that took me right back to those Sundays in the depths of winter when nothing else mattered except my mum’s Yorkshire puddings.
And that, really, is why I cook.