Tea with Miss Marple (1)

British actress Joan Greenwood as seed-cake-loving aristocrat Lady Selina Hazy in the 1987 television production of "Miss Marple: At Bertram's Hotel."

“Is it real seed cake?” With her hallmark opulent enunciation and husky tones, British actress Joan Greenwood delivered that line in the 1987 television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Portraying Lady Selina Hazy, she and the mystery’s sleuth, Miss Jane Marple (portrayed by the divine Joan Hickson), are sitting in said London hotel, and the waiter has suggested the childhood friends try one of its old-time specialties—seed cake, a pound-cake-like treat packed with caraway seeds that give it a light licorice-style flavour.

Apparently Lady Selina’s elaborate concern about the hotel’s culinary productions was genuine. Seed cake is a British tradition that has fallen by the wayside, and it apparently was in danger of dying out even in Agatha Christie’s day. British cookery writer Arabella Boxer has described seed cake as “an English phenomenon: enormously popular with some, but anathema to others .… I find it delicious in a somewhat austere way.” American food expert James Beard, for his part, called it “quite addictive.” As far as I am concerned, few things are more delicious in the morning or afternoon than a slice of seed cake accompanied by a hot cup of tea or a glass of port.

Lady Selina’s question has become the latest catchphrase in our house, with my husband, our daughter, and I each trying to mimic Greenwood’s inimitable delivery and attempting to reduce each other into a fit of giggles. Believe it or not, our eight-year-old does the best eyebrow-arched imitation of what director Karel Reisz called Greenwood’s mannered way of delivering lines “as if she dimly suspected some hidden menace in them which she can’t quite identify.”

Given our family’s passion for Agatha Christie dramatizations—seed cake shows up in several of her novels—my husband and I decided to research and make five seed-cake recipes, ranging from the mid 19th century to the 1990s, all slightly but distinctively different. We hope you enjoy them as much as we have and will be posting them all over the next few days.

SEED CAKE (1)

SOURCE: Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991). The recipe was adapted from one published in When the Cook is Away by Catherine Ives (Duckworth, 1928)

REVIEW: Bold anise-like flavour, a bit dry yet fabulous at breakfast with a swipe of sweet butter.

INGREDIENTS

6 ounces unsalted butter

4 ounces castor sugar

2 large eggs

8 ounces self-rising flour, sifted

1/2 – 1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Grated rind of 1/2 large orange

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat the butter to a cream, sift the sugar onto it, and cream both together. [Or blend in the food processor.] Beat in one egg, and a little of the flour, then the second egg and more flour. When all the eggs and flour are in, add the caraway seeds and orange rind. [If making for the first time, try 1/2 tablespoon seeds, but if you are fond of seed cake use 1 tablespoon.] Beat all together for about 10 minutes, lifting the mixture up to make it as light as possible. [Or continue to blend in the processor.] Pour the mixture into a [well-buttered and] paper-lined tin [I used a loaf tin holding 1-1/2 pints]. Bake [for 1 and 1/2 hours].

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