This blog entry is inspired by Jane’s ode to her mother, the Great Mary Brennan, on Mothers Day last weekend. A genius idea. Now, there is no doubt that my own mother, the Unstoppable Mary McCarthy, deserves to be written about (not to mention numerous other family members), but they are all very generous and loving people and would completely understand the subject of this post: Declan Bracken, baker extraordinaire and my uncle.
I do a bit of baking. The creation of delicious food is something that runs in the veins of the Halbert family, so from an early age, we were used to playing around with flour and eggs and causing culinary explosions in the kitchen.
But this interest intensified when my godmother-aunt Finola married Declan and moved him from Cork city to the wilds of Glenville. Luckily, he is a brave man, so even the sight of these two brats didn’t phase him.
He settled in well, once the Head Grandchild and Deputy Head Grandchild had given him their seal of approval. In fact, Declan and Finola’s wedding counts as my clearest early memory. Martha and I would have been about 2 and a half and we were flower girls. Granny made our dresses from the same material as the wedding dress and she also made frilly knickers for us to wear over our nappies. We thought we were the absolute end. Sadly, when the group photos were being taken, I got into a giant strop and stormed off down the church, so there is only proof of Martha’s attire on their special day. Another memory was the day after the wedding when we were playing in Granny’s garden and were called for lunch by Declan’s twin brother, Lloyd. Martha, the fool, squealed “Declan!” and ran up the garden to him, but I hung back, thinking to myself, “That can’t possibly be Declan, he is gone on holidays with Finola”. The little baby Poirot brain on me.
Anyway, once Declan and Finola returned from their honeymoon, they got working on the new generation of Halbert-Brackens, churning out Lydia, Sam and Erica in the space of about 5 years.
The whole lot of them lived next door to us, our gardens were joined together, and when you factored in the other cousins who spent most weekends and summer holidays with us, there often seemed to be about 50 children running around, screaming and shouting at each other.
Poor Declan sometimes had to sleep during the day if he was going on nightwork in the bakery, so a warning would go out from Finola that we had to stay away from that part of the house. Word to the wise: don’t ever cross Finola Bracken.
When I think of those days, it is always summer. Long evenings, when we would be able to play outside for hours and hours before being gathered up, cranky and disgruntled at the thought of going to bed before the sun went down. Dad and Declan had become firm friends (in spite of the incident when Declan was led to believe that Dad had bugged his and Finola’s bedroom) and we would hear them and the mothers talking and laughing in the garden.
Even better was when we would go to Rosscarbery in West Cork, all eleven of us, for a few weeks by the sea. Dec was always the centre of attention, messing around, swimming, telling stories about the latest book he was reading (Lonesome Dove and Dead Man Walking and talking, talking, talking. It seemed that he was a much a child as we were.
Sometimes his talk gets him into trouble. Like the time I learned and used my first “bad word”, thinking that “bollocks” was something that all tennis players said when they hit a wild ball. And for someone known for his absent-mindedness, he has a knack for remembering those stories that should remain forgotten. Like my childhood difficulty at distinguishing the difference between the words “brain” and “breast”, resulting in the now-infamous answer to the question “Sylvia McCarthy, get down from there, do you have any brains?”*
And behind it all is the bakery. I don’t even know where to start with the bakery. We have all worked there at one point or another and some of us still do. I get this kind of photo from Jack on a Saturday morning:
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the whole lot of us working in the bakery. I got home from Brussels too late one year and was told that I wasn’t needed, so I had to spend 2 days at home alone with the dogs. The bakery is the place to be, even though by 23 December, you want to cry if you see another gallon of cream and you start to dream in Black Forest Gateaux. But we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love these two people to bits.
Last week, Declan was struck down with a terrible kidney infection (not as a result of lying on an icy river) and that was when I decided to write this blog for him, because it is horrible to hear about loved ones being sick when you are far from home. He is feeling better now and went back to work today, but I thought this would be a little reminder of what he means to us all.
Chocolate fudge cupcakes
These were the first cakes that I made in Brussels and anything to do with chocolate fudge reminds me of the bakery and Sunday lunch at home with the Brackens, so it’s all connected somehow. I made them recently for St. Patrick’s Day, but the first time was for Cuba and Steph’s 30th birthday party.
200 ml water
85g caster sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp bicarb of soda
2 tbsp cocoa powder
225g plain flour
For the icing:
100g plain chocolate, broken/chopped into pieces
4 tbsp water
350g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line 2 muffin tins with paper cases (makes around 20 cakes).
Put the water, butter, caster sugar and golden syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir and heat until the sugar is dissolved, then increase the heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cook gently for 5 minutes, before removing from the heat and allowing to cool.
Put the milk and vanilla extract in a bowl. Add the bicarb and stir to dissolve.
Sift the cocoa powder and flour into a separate bowl and add the syrup mix. Stir in the milk mix and beat until smooth.
Spoon the mix into the paper cases, filling them about two-thirds of the way. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until well risen and firm to the touch. Transfer to a wire and leave to cool. Try not to test them at this point – they are strangely disappointing when they are warm and un-iced.
For the icing, melt the plain chocolate in a bowl with the water and the butter, set over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir until smooth and leave to stand over the water. Stir the icing sugar into the bowl and beat under smooth and fudgy.
Once the cakes are cool, cover them with the icing. Leave them to cool and decorate as you wish (e.g. with sugar petals, writing or hundreds-and-thousands). Leave to set before serving.
*The answer is “Just two small ones!”