Saturday, June 8, 2013
I first heard of Clandestine Cake Club one day at work. I was browsing NPR articles while eating my lunch and caught sight of a blog post titled “Why Britain Has Gone Mad About Baking.” My gut reaction was has Britain gone mad about baking? When?! The answers to those questions are: Yes and 2011.
Clandestine Cake Club was started by a retired British woman named Lynn Hill. She began a blog and website with this idea that she would personally facilitate strangers meeting together at secret locations to share cakes. NPR credits Hill (and the bad economy) with igniting a new national interest in baking. Hill has an informative website that shows a short documentary about CCC and pictures from recent gatherings. Looking at the photos, my mouth started to water. Depending on the size of your gathering, there are several cakes being passed around, and you can eat as much as you want. The sheer number of cakes and different bakers means there’s quite a lot of variety. It’s something of a cake buffet, which doesn’t really exist in the real world.
Immediately I started thinking about hosting a Clandestine Cake Club event at my house as an attempt to explore British culture for my blog. I pitched the idea to my friends, and they were very enthusiastic. They even looked the other way when I announced the incredibly strict rule that you have to bring a cake. You can’t bring brownies or muffins or pies or tarts or...in a sweepingly dramatic move...cupcakes. I didn’t really understand the need to be that strict about a dessert gathering, and most of my friends didn’t really understand it either. Maybe it’s a British thing. Anyway, we decided that at least the first time we’d play by the rules and all bake a cake.
I was sort of in awe as my friends marched into my dining room with their cakes a couple of weeks ago. There was a buttery raspberry summer cake with Haagen Daaz to go on the side (Beth: “I don’t care if bringing ice cream breaks one of the rules”); a chocolate peanut butter sheet cake with Reese’s pieces and peanut butter cups sprinkled on top, a tropical bundt with toasted coconut, and a moist lemon bundt. My friends had pushed aside their busy schedules to make these perfect little desserts because I asked them to. I was so touched by this. Even those that told me frankly they found the rules limiting and arbitrary had followed them so I could write this blog post about it.
Without planning it, we had such nice variety. I think we had all made a new recipe--something we’d wanted to try or thought sounded good but never brought to a potluck or made for a dinner party. That’s the great thing about a cake club meeting after all. If you’re on the fence about a recipe or worried that something will flop, it doesn’t really matter. Yours won’t be the only dessert. People can choose to eat your disaster cake or they cannot. My almond hazelnut gateaux (I thought I’d push the envelope and make a French cake) with a moussy chocolately filling was one I’d considered making for the past 10 years but had kept flipping past in my cookbook. It was a little bit dry for my taste...and a cake that was better paired with coffee at breakfast time than for dessert. Now I know that.
As much as we grumbled about Lynn Hill’s rules, we were religious in following her second one: everyone gets to take cake home. That’s the most fabulous part of Clandestine Cake Club. At the end, when the glasses of Pimm’s and lemonade and the cups of Twining’s have been drained, everyone divies up their leftovers. The next couple of mornings we woke up to a refrigerator full of cake, and Adam—who was initially insulted that I hadn't invited him to the club—stopped complaining.
Clandestine Cake Club is a worldwide phenomenon, but there aren’t too many chapters yet in the United States. I suspect that’s because there are so many rules, because most people with good sense are a little bit leery of going to a last-minute secret location to meet a bunch of strangers with baked goods. Even in inviting people I knew to come to my home for the event, I violated the whole clandestine principle of the club. The only thing clandestine about our meeting was that my kids didn’t know about it—and then that’s not true because Nicky woke up right before it began and refused to go back to sleep.
If my friends and I aren’t joining Lynn Hill’s official group we can’t call it a Clandestine Cake Club anymore; she has the name trademarked. We could call ours Cake Club, but then that still discriminates against desserts like cupcakes and brownies, and I don’t know if I agree with that. Of course then it’s a slippery slope from here. Soon the group will be getting together in sweat pants over break ’n bake cookies and pints of Ben & Jerry’s and maybe all of the nicety will be gone from it. But if I know my friends, attendance might even be higher given those standards.
To join a Clandestine Cake Club near you or to create your own, visit Hill’s website. For recipes, visit the Recipe section, Hill’s blog, or purchase the cookbook, which will finally be available in the States in August. You can pre-order here.