“…take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…”  Walt Whitman

Much as I concur with Walt’s position, I would dearly like to meet the wit who coined the maxim, “school days are the best days of your life”, as my memories are less than ambrosial.

My school, a Victorian pile situated in leafy west London opposite the Palladian masterpiece; Burlington House, boasted an extensive landholding. These ancient rural hectares flaunted a rugby pitch and a full sized running track, sand pits for pole vault and long jump, a cricket pitch with attendant pavilion and, almost unbelievably, a rifle range. It was here that the school’s Combined Cadet Force spent an afternoon period each week discharging live ammunition into a vast sand bank – staff clearly viewed health and safety as an extra-curricula affectation. In short ours was the type of regime, as Peter Cook wryly observed, “where born leaders were trained”.

Beyond our grasp at that time was the release of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal movie: If, set amidst the staff and pupils of a typical British public school. Had we understood the potential for sixth formers to stage an armed insurrection picking off staff members around the quad, who knows what direction my education might have taken. Some staff, unwittingly pre-empting the film, presumably thought they were simply training us for Sandhurst, the ocassional colonial uprising or subsequent pheasant shoots. As you may have gathered I went to a school exclusively populated by boys of the middling sort.

Next door to us however was a similar Victorian pile, a blue stocking Girl’s School with a high castellated wall expressly separating boys from girls – one could only dream. And anticipating that dream, the rugby pitch and athletic track were clearly laid to distract as well as improve.

Beyond the 3 r’s, the boy’s school enforced military manoeuvres, Latin declensions, calculus, athletic attainment, technical drawing and constitutional history – rigours that remain virtually unused to this day. Our neighbours on the other hand were encouraged to sew, cook, type, or grace their gymnasium with free-associative dancing. We were all unknowingly being ordained by way of social precepts that were likely to determine our future.

On illicit occasions when sexes met socially, principally the bus ride home, there was  generous apportioning from biscuit tins – at the time adorned with cut-outs of John, Paul, George and Ringo – which were brimming with baked perquisites from the girl’s double cookery classes. Delicious sausage rolls, meat pies, Eccles cakes, jam tarts, ambrosial rhubarb crumble or iced buns – culinary treats, furnished in such company, often made the school day memorable. It was the appreciation of those female-only cookery classes, later disastrously demoted to ‘food technology’, that became yet one more example of how lacking the boy’s own portfolio was and by default how scant the notion of feeding oneself, and others, was valued within our curriculum.

If, once collegiate lessons were put to bed, we all left school with an added grasp of modest tasks such as riding a bicycle, growing vegetables, learning to swim, or in this particular case the preparation of straightforward meals, how much more valuable might that have been. Perhaps  the catastrophic and inexorable rise in diet related illnesses across the Western world might have been curtailed if all school children were still taught to cook.

Feeling then that my education left pretty much everything to be desired, the double whammy came in the form of my parents’ generation who resolutely insisted that school undertook all tuition and that their sole educational role was to ensure homework was completed and to purchase ‘improving’ books as Christmas presents. Of little help was the fact that my dear mother was neither an adventurous nor exciting cook, her kitchen activities barely strayed from the borders of practicality and I always sensed that kitchen tasks were tinged with an air of resentful necessity. Not exactly a Dickensian matriarchal habitat, but I was certainly never taught anything at her proverbial knee. My only task was to whisk the ingredients of a Victoria sponge that was dutifully constructed each Sunday to provide afternoon tea, I think it was the only variety of cake that was ever allowed to break cover at our house.

So along with other practical skills, baking came very late. Partly based on time restraints but mainly on the intimidation surrounding its purported difficultly and the idea that it was not the task of the Alpha male. You have to admire an education system that managed to enforce such flawed myths in the face of reality.

One way or another, I never entered a kitchen until I owned one, but the catch up has been a pleasure.

And of all examples I have learnt from, this is one exquisite cake that I’ve happily practiced and refined over the years and which manages to outclass almost all others, especially those that offer ginger as the major ingredient. It is usually rare to discover ultimates when searching for the perfect, but this one might just fit the bill. Hello once again Delia.

As you may imagine this cake can occasionally bring back memories of that homeward bound, number 55 bus. And although Literature was one of the more agreeable subjects I was taught, I never in a lifetime thought I might get within touching distance of that nice Monsieur Proust’s madeleines.

These days, in an ironic role reversal, I bake it regularly to the delight of the girls in my own household.

Preserved Ginger Cake with Lemon Icing from The Delia Collection – Baking (2005) Delia Smith

Pre-heat the oven to 170ºC, 325℉ gas mark 3

You will need a square cake tin 15 X 25cm, or the round equivalent

5 pieces of preserved stem ginger in syrup, chopped

1 heaped tsp ground ginger

1 heaped tsp grated fresh root ginger

175g butter at room temperature, plus a little extra for greasing

175g golden caster sugar

3 large eggs

1 tbsp molasses syrup

225g self-raising flour

1 tbsp ground almonds

2 tbsp milk

For the icing

225 icing sugar

Juice of a lemon

2 extra pieces of stem ginger

First, prepare the cake tin by greasing it lightly and lining it with baking parchment.

Begin by placing the opened tin of black treacle in a saucepan of barely simmering water to warm it and make it easier to spoon.

Meanwhile sift the flour and baking powder into a roomy mixing bowl, lifting the sieve quite high to give the flour a good airing as it goes down, then add the butter, golden caster sugar, eggs, treacle and ground ginger.

Now, using an electric hand whisk, combine them for about 1 minute until you have a smooth creamy consistency.

After that fold in the milk, along with the heaped tablespoon of ground almonds, grated fresh ginger and the ginger syrup.

Then chop 5 of the pieces of stem ginger fairly small and fold these into the cake mix too.

Spread the cake mix in the tin, level it off with the back of a tablespoon and bake for 45–50 minutes near the centre of the oven or until the cake is risen, springy and firm to the touch.

Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then lift the cake out of the tin using the liner and place it on a wire rack.

Then, holding the liner at one end, use a palette knife to slide the cake directly onto the rack, and leave until cold.

For the icing: sift the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with enough lemon juice to make the consistency of thin cream.

Spread the icing over the top of the cake, and never mind if it dribbles down the side in a few places – it looks nice and homemade.

Decorate with sliced preserved ginger if desired