Thursday, 27 January 2011

The icing on the cake? Common sense, apparently...

With Christmas thankfully dispatched for another year and many more weeks of long winter evenings, what better time to take up a new hobby? Combining my love of food and talents more usually associated with your Gran (please see my efforts at mastering knitting), I signed up for class named ‘Cake Decorating for Beginners’ and thus began my first foray into the weird and wonderful world of local authority-subsidised adult learning.

The weekly classes, held in an old, grand Victorian school building complete with the antiquated signs marking boys’ and girls’ separate entrances, began with the inevitable getting-to-know-you ice breakers, the prospect of which makes most civilised people want to groan out loud in sheer dread.

Once the teacher had furnished us all with her life story, the students were encouraged to do the same. As this is all about buzz words like ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’ and never, ever, on pain of death, discriminating against anyone at any time, for any reason, we didn’t go round the group à la corporate training courses and most other situations where people have to introduce themselves. Instead we were invited to chip in only when we felt ready to. Nothing so draconian as having to take turns. How wonderfully liberal yet senselessly time consuming, as throats were cleared and everyone looked awkward and shuffled.


The only man of the group began. No surprises there. Sorry chaps, but it’s a known fact that you love to steam roller ahead in such situations. Twenty minutes crawled past as we went through employment history (recently took early retirement from middle management in the Post Office), marital status (was engaged a few years ago but now single) and other interests (learning to cook and gardening). I suddenly felt as if I’d spent more time with him recently than my nearest and dearest.

Next up was a lady who talked at length about a bereavement she’d suffered. Now, I would never gripe about someone needing to talk about their loss as a part of their own grieving process. Unless it had all happened more than 20 years prior and had nothing whatsoever to do with learning to cake decorate. After two such lengthy and personal disclosures an uncomfortable silence fell over the room. No one wanted to be the next person to go. What could you say? How much delicate detail would you have to go into to top that?

It was mild despair that made me suddenly blurt out, a little too loudly: “I’m Rosie. I can bake but I’m not very good at decorating cakes and would like to learn how to do that”. Silence was maintained for a full minute; the clock ticked, possibly even the only bit of tumbleweed in South London blew past outside. Even the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond to my direct, yet highly relevant statement.


The following week, as we practised applying icing to a dummy cake (yes, such things exist), more personal information was traded. The very nice woman at the workstation next to me confided all her medical history and details of the time spent in hospital after being sectioned by Dr Raj off the telly. I didn’t have the heart to ask what her name was again.

Two latecomers joined the class: one heavily pregnant teenager and another woman so obese she couldn’t stand unaided. Should she really be learning how to add more calories to a cake?

All these people from different walks of life had one major thing in common: they were totally incapable of baking. Anything. When asked to bring a cake in to work on the following week panic erupted. The teacher, in a bid to quell the mounting hysteria, recommended buying one from the supermarket. But it didn’t calm the mood in the classroom. 

I suggested looking online for an easy recipe but they were too far gone down the route of out-and-out terror. Only the soothing maternal reassurances from the teacher that she would personally bake them one each and bring it in next week (at a cost) took them from a near-frenzied mob back to a group of adult learning students.

And that was when I cracked. My desire to be an epic smartarse overcame my manners and I had to sarcastically ask what were my fellow students planning on embellishing with their icing sugar and egg white mix on if the act of combining butter, sugar, eggs and flour and then heating was so anathema? Even more peculiarly the same centre ran a course called ‘An Introduction to Cake Baking’ and suggested students consider taking it in conjunction. Of course none of these bake-o-phobes had taken up the offer.

As the only person who had made the logical progression from mastering baking tasty, ugly cakes to wanting to create something prettier, I was genuinely mystified as to why all the other students were there. There is no conceivable reason for learning such complex sugar techniques if your eventual plan is stand poised with a piping bag ready to ice onto a nice eight square inches of nothing at all.

However, it’s slowly becoming clear to me that what I have in fact signed up for is a big, bizarre weekly group counselling session. But, at £90 for a 10-week course, it’s far cheaper than proper therapy and you get the added benefit of learning a few new skills too. Read more by Rosie.