I get jealous of my kids. Every week they have some exciting new experience laid up on a plate: making decoupage, or clay tiles, or little felt animals filled with beans. Someone else brings the materials and tidies them up. I'm just the taxi and the bankroll.
So I felt excited and just a little avenged to become a student again myself, in a dress rehearsal for the first of Baker Tom's new three-hour courses at his cafe and bakery in Pool near Redruth. On the menu/syllabus were three Easter treats: hot cross buns, Simnel cake, and Italian Easter bread (guti di Pasqua), a plaited ring around a dyed egg – how festive!
I don't bake much, mainly because I've never learned how. It would be nice to have something to make every year for Easter. This could be the dawn of a new era, I thought… as long as my guru, 29-year-old baking enthusiast Tom Hazzledine, was able to demystify the process in three hours.
Our class of six got stuck in making the dough for the Italian Easter bread, a sweet and eggy delight. "This type of bread is sometimes called 'poor man's brioche', because it's basically brioche with less butter," Tom told us. We mixed our ingredients and started to knead.
Kneading stretches the gluten in the flour. It's physical work. Tom showed us how to use the heels of our hands to push and work the dough. It is always interesting watching a craftsman: under Tom's experienced hands the dough bloomed and yielded – ours stayed sticky a lot longer. After ten minutes of kneading, we cut the dough into thirds and left it to rest. (You always cut dough with a blade apparently, so as not squash it.)
We moved on to the Simnel cake, a traditional English dish that has been around since Medieval times. You eat it as a break from Lent, so it's decadent with all the nice things you have foregone: eggs and sugar, fruit and spices. Nestled in the bowl, these looked and smelled glorious.
Having mixed the ingredients, the next step was to aerate the batter. We took turns beating vigorously. What a workout! My arms and shoulder were aching, and still Tom spurred us on. Finally, we could stir in the fruits and spices. The creamy mixture looked so inviting, and a cinnamon fragrance steeped the air. Would we be allowed to lick the spoon? It suddenly seemed appropriate that it was Lent. I hate self-control.
Into muffin cases went the batter, as we were making Simnel cupcakes rather than a big cake. (I confess that I did lick my fingers at the end for the rich, spicy sweetness. But then I washed them with soap.)
Tom brought out a big mixing bowl of hot cross bun dough that he had made earlier and left to prove. It had bloomed voluptuously in its clingfilm greenhouse. He cut chunks of dough, weighing each one to make sure they were a uniform size.
"These are the three ways of shaping the buns," he said.
First, he held the dough in his hands and pinched a flap, stretching it from the middle to the underside. He turned the dough in his hands and repeated this action twice all the way around, until the top was smooth and round.
The second method was to put the dough on the table, letting friction do the work. Tom cupped his lightly floured hand and moved the dough in circles, so that it was stretched and teased into shape.
The third way Tom showed us was to push the dough through finger and thumb, as if he were blowing a bubble. The desired result was that circular dome on top, with the creases concealed under the bun.
We tried. Some of us succeeded. We improved with practice. Finally we had a batch of relatively spherical shapes, ready to go on a big tray. "Really good effort," Tom said, smiling.
We placed them evenly on a tray a finger's breadth apart; they would just join at the edges, and stay soft.
Our Easter bread dough was also ready to be shaped; we rolled it into strips with our hands, like play-doh snakes. These we plaited into a ring before tucking in our beetroot-dyed eggs, and into the oven they went.
Now it was time for a cup of tea and a chat. My fellow students, Nancy and Beth, both work at Baker Tom's Falmouth shop. "Customers do ask us what's in the bread and how it's made, so it's great for us to see it," said Beth. "Usually they can't believe it's only three or four ingredients."
Tom himself is friendly and modest, which belies the enormous work ethic that keeps his night-and-day operation going. His own first, formative baking moment came when an Indian woman visited his primary school class and taught them to make chapatis; now he is spreading the love, along with the skills. "There is something magical in being up to your elbows in flour and sharing your passion with other people," he said. "Baking is a craft – I want it to catch other people's imagination too."
Enough chatting – there's work to do. Do you know what makes the cross on a hot cross bun? I do (now). It's a runny paste of flour and water, applied just before they go in the oven. You put it in a piping bag and stripe the whole tray in rows. This is why it is important to line up the buns on the tray – otherwise you get wonky crosses.
While they are baking, we decorate our Simnel cakes with marzipan discs and balls, stuck on with jam, et voila! – a pretty bow.
Our Italian bread has come out of the oven fluffy, festive and fanciful, and the hot cross buns look surprisingly good, for amateurs. The finishing touch is a sugar glaze, brushed over the top to make them shiny.
Each of us compile a box full of dazzling edibles to take home to the family. For once it would be me getting the oohs and aahs instead of giving them. It's definitely the start of a new Easter tradition…
Baker Tom's courses cost £40, to include ingredients, and last three hours. They are: Easter Baking, My First Loaf, Italian Breads, Scones and English Treats, Sourdough, Tarts, and Christmas Baking. See www.bakertom.co.uk or call 01209 218989 for dates and details.