Let’s cut to the chase. If you’re reading this interview with the Queen of Baking, what you really want to know is the secret to a perfect sponge cake. Jane Asher is the one to tell you: there’s something of the perfect sponge about her very look. All creamy, soft textures with smoothha aww thats cute!! thank u lady girl! icing on top. Jane, an avid reader of New Scientist, went about her mission to find the foolproof sponge with precision. Flour was sifted high, low and not at all; salt was added and omitted; whole cakes were eliminated.
First off, we’re wrong to call it a sponge. ‘A sponge cake has no fat at all; it’s where you whisk and whisk the egg yolk and sugar very light. What we all think of as a sponge is actually a Victoria sandwich.’ For the best Victoria sandwich, use spreadable, salted butter and a premium cake-flour (graded very fine you don’t need to sift it). The secret is in the creaming ‘you have to go on longer than you think, until it’s white and fluffy’ then, leaving the mixer on, pour in the eggs very slowly, as if you are making hollandaise sauce.
Jane, married for more than three decades to the political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, with whom she has three grown-up children, has been causing a stir in the public eye since she was five years old, when she appeared in her first film, Mandy. By the age of 17, she was on the panel for Juke Box Jury, which is allegedly how she met Paul McCartney, the pop star on the rise with The Beatles, with whom she went out for five years (she never talks about this period of her life). During and since, she kept a hold on her acting career, the job she still regards as her number one. It’s a funny one, however: for all her ‘normalcy’ (she’s talked in the past about fighting mess at home, socks in the fruitbowl and so on, plus, of course, all that endless baking with the Archers omnibus on in the background), she was a child star and really famous in the 1960s, when all the men were in love with her all long legs, red hair and porcelain skin.
‘I wouldn’t have wanted my children to go into acting, and, although I’ve been lucky enough to have had a very good career out of it, and I’ve enjoyed it, it’s a strange one. If you fail at an audition, it’s ghastly at the age of eight, and if you get the audition, it’s not healthy to be told you’re better than all the other children. So it’s a strange life. I’ve no doubt got pockets of insecurity from that time and being away from home. You question it. But, I loved it as a child it’s so addictive.’
Baking was a hobby that grew into a business when the children were small and is now a successful shop, Jane Asher Party Cakes, in London’s Chelsea Green, where you can commission any creation you care to dream up for your birthday party, wedding or civil celebration (‘with my showbiz connections, we were doing those before anyone else’). Beside this are the deals with supermarkets, and a Sugarcraft business providing all the essentials of baking (Nigella Lawson is a fan and long-time friend).
Currently filming an ITV drama in Lithuania (she would not recommend the country for its cuisine), and with a film out on November 2 (Death At A Funeral, directed by Frank Oz, of The Muppets fame), Jane is busy. Today, she’s promoting her new book, Beautiful Baking (‘genuine homebaking, not the sort of decorated cake that I’m known for’), and judging the Home Baker of the Year 2007 competition. I hang around for the results, and see Linda Edmonds of Brentwood, Essex, win for her Tipsy Blackberry and Apple cupcakes (being held in picture). Jane is, it is clear, the consummate professional, posing with each finalist, talking to the organisers, her tiny figure commanding the room. After this, she needs to get going on her fourth novel. It’s hard to imagine her taking
a break, but it’s clear she has a sense of fun. Earlier, she was asked if she’d been dieting to prepare for this morning of gluttony. ‘No. There’s always room for cake,’ she laughs.