Tea with Miss Marple (4)

Constance Spry, British floral expert and co-author of "The Constance Spry Cookery Book."

Last Saturday evening we were invited to dine at a friend’s house in a nearby village, so my husband baked the fourth in our series of seed cakes to bring as a hostess gift. It looked a little strange, due to a kitchen mishap involving the candied-caraway-seed garnish (more on that below) but despite that, it was terrific. The entire cake was devoured during the cocktail hour by the assembled guests, who included designer Rico Espinet, his wife, and their two children.

The seed-cake recipe came from The Constance Spry Cookery Book (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956), a book whose very existence might surprise some readers of this blog. Rather than being known for food, Spry (1886—1960) was famous for revolutionizing flower-arranging in the 20th century, thanks to her adventuresome use of weeds, pods, fruiting branches, and other unusual materials, and she gilded that reputation by garlanding the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That last event makes the publishing of The Constance Spry Cookery Book more understandable. Another participant in the coronation festivities was Spry’s friend and business partner Rosemary Hume, co-founder of London’s Cordon Bleu Cookery School and inventor of that classic dish served to the newly crowned queen’s honoured guests, Coronation Chicken. At the end of World War II, Spry and Hume reestablished the latter’s cookery school, which had closed due to the international conflict; given Spry’s celebrity it was called the Constance Spry Cordon Bleu School of Cookery. A year later, in 1946, the women also launched a school of domestic science at Winkfield Place. “Little did I realize what was at stake when I went to see her [about this collaboration], for I did not realize, nor do I think did she, what a big part cookery was to play in the lives of women after the war,” Spry wrote. “I was the amateur with homely ideas and limited knowledge, enough perhaps to meet simple war-time demands, but completely inadequate to deal with the overwhelming demand for and need of knowledge which have since become manifest.” (Also associated with the cookery-book project was Major Bruce Shand, better known as father of Camilla Parker-Bowles, the present Duchess of Cornwall; the Army officer turned wine merchant advised on the chapter about wines.)

Spry and Hume’s seed cake is one the authors call “a good old-fashioned seed cake.” It was different from our previous experiments, however. For one it included candied orange peel. For another the top of the cake was supposed to be sprinkled with “a handful of caraway confits.” A footnote explained these are “sugared caraway seeds and may sometimes be bought at the confectioner’s. They may be replaced by roughly crushed lump sugar.” Instead my husband tried to candy the caraway seeds himself, the same way he candies orange peel; the decision was not exactly a success, since the seeds clumped together with the sugar and had to be crumbled. In the oven the crumbles melted and gave the top of the seed cake a sweet but blotchy surface. Oh, well; the taste was wonderful nonetheless.

SEED CAKE (4)

SOURCE: The Constance Spry Cookery Book by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1967)

INGREDIENTS

8 ounces flour

5 teaspoons flour (keep separate)

8 ounces butter

8 ounces castor sugar

5 eggs

3 ounces candied orange peel

A good pinch of grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 tablespoons brandy

About a handful of caraway comfits [sugared caraway seeds. You can also substitute roughly crushed lump sugar.]

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sift the flour and beat into it the butter until it is a creamy consistency. Add the sugar gradually and beat to a fine white cream. Separate the yolks from the whites, beat in the yolks one at a time, with a teaspoon of flour added before each yolk. Add the candied peel, the grated nutmeg, and the caraway seeds. Whisk the egg whites and fold them into the mixture with the remaining flour. Lastly stir in the brandy.

Put the batter into a well-greased loaf tin. Strew over it the comfits and bake for an hour or until a skewer or toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.

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Tea with Miss Marple (3)

A caraway-packed seedcake courtesy of James Beard, though the recipe comes via his mother's brilliant Cantonese chef. Overlook the toasty edges; we certainly did. Our vintage oven needs its temperature settings adjusted.

It should come as no surprise that James Beard, that icon of America cookery, would have had a seed cake recipe in one of his books. After all, his mother, the former Elizabeth Jones, was a formidable, occasionally profane Wiltshire lass and tremendously talented in the kitchen. In fact she ran a hotel known for its bill of fare in Portland, Oregon, and later became a successful caterer. (Good thing too, since her second husband, Beard’s father, came to the marriage bed with a mountain of debts.) The seed-cake recipe Beard included in The Armchair James Beard (Globe Pequot, 1999) wasn’t Mrs. Beard’s recipe, however. “Pastries and cakes were not really my mother’s forte,” he wrote. Surprisingly, perhaps, the seed cake he grew up was one of the specialties of Mrs. Beard’s Cantonese business partner and chef, Jue Let. “We nursed one all the time,” Beard recounted in his later years. “It was always there, diminishing, until a brand-new one replaced it. When it was too stale, it was sometimes served toasted and buttered. The soft, strange flavour of caraway left a pleasant taste in the mouth.”

Let’s oh-so-English recipe makes a mighty good seed cake, the best I have ever eaten. And I mean with all the enthusiasm I can muster. It is moist and flavourful and packed with caraway seeds. That being said, a woman friend who tried a slice declared it to be a bit too assertive. Our post-baking male guinea pigs, on the other hand, finished the rest, leaving barely a crumb behind.

A cross section of Beard's seedcake, cut shortly after it cooled. The center top remained a smidgen undercooked, despite the perfectly followed directions. Once again, blame our oven. Nonetheless every bite was fantastic. This one's a keeper.

SEED CAKE (3)

SOURCE: The Armchair James Beard by James Beard and John Ferrone (Globe Pequot, 1999)

INGREDIENTS

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1-1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons caraway seeds

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, cover the bottom with wax paper, and butter the paper.

Thoroughly cream butter with sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in the caraway seeds. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gently fold into the butter-egg mixture. Spread the batter in the pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until it begins to shrink from the sides of the pan and is firm to the touch [and when it tests done with a straw or toothpick]. Let cook in the pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn out on a rack, peel off the paper, and let cool completely.

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].

A Cake with a Gimmick

The Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, circa 1940. The building was destroyed by fire in 1984, and the site reportedly is now occupied by a Wendy's burger joint.

I’m an enthusiastic cook but my skills as a baker are only so-so. Cakes don’t rise properly for me; as for bread, I leave that to my husband—the man crafts superlative baguettes. Though the oven and I sometimes don’t see eye to culinary eye, I continue to try, try, and try again.

On Saturday I dove into Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes by Ruth Graves Wakefield (M. Barrows & Company, 1940). The author and her husband, Kenneth, once ran The Toll House Inn, a hugely popular New England watering hole housed in a rambling 1709 Cape Cod in Whitman, Massachusetts. And if the name of the establishment sounds familiar, it should. The restaurant, which opened in 1930, when Mrs Wakefield was 27, and was sold in 1966, when the couple retired, was where Toll House chocolate-chip cookies were born, the very first of the genre. In fact the recipe printed on the back of Nestlé’s chocolate-chip packages today is Mrs Wakefield’s own, thanks to an agreement that resulted in her recipe getting nationwide publicity and her restaurant receiving free chocolate for decades.

The celebrated Ruth Wakefield (1903-1977), co-owner of The Toll House Inn and inventor of the Toll House cookie, first baked in 1933.

Ruth Whitman’s expertise as a dietician and nutritionist drove the menu, whose culinary manta was simple: “there are no substitutes for butter, cream, eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables in preparing a fine meal.” Encouraged by this appreciation of fine ingredients—butter and cream, who couldn’t love butter and cream?—I began flipping the yellowed pages. I was briefly tempted to make her celebrated Toll House Chocolate Crunch cookies (page 216) or the fruity, no-bake Toll House Ting a Lings (page 217), but I ultimately settled on Cross Word Puzzle Cake. Since our dinner guests would include two third-grade classmates—my daughter, Catherine, and her friend Alex—a cake revealing a dark-and-light checkerboard with each slice seemed like a fun way to end the meal.

Wakefield's Cross Word Puzzle Cake, as baked by The Aesthete.

A cross-section of the Cross Word Puzzle Cake; overlook the central slump, if you can.

My inaugural attempt at this Wakefield specialty resulted in one perfect layer and a swaybacked twin. Strategically deployed chocolate frosting—the recipe also came from the book—concealed most of the structural damage. So did a last-minute dusting of slivered almonds. Served with a scoop of Breyer’s natural vanilla ice cream, the cake was delightful. Perhaps my next attempt will look as good as it tastes.

CROSS WORD PUZZLE CAKE

SOURCE: Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes by Ruth Graves Wakefield (M. Barrows & Company, 1940)

INGREDIENTS

2 nine-inch-round cake pans

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), room temperature

1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

Grated rind of 1 orange

2 egg yolks, beaten

2-1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

1 egg white, beaten very light

1-1/2 ounce semisweet chocolate, melted

DIRECTIONS

Grease and lightly flour the cake pans. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cream together butter and sugar. Add orange rind. Add yolks.

Mix the flour, salt, and baking powder and then thoroughly sift. Add a bit of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, then a bit of the milk, then a bit of the flour mixture, et cetera, until thoroughly combined. Fold in egg white.

Place one half of the batter in a separate mixing bowl. To it add the melted chocolate and mix thoroughly.

This photograph shows how the batter for the two layers is to be poured or, more accurately, spooned into the pans.

In one cake pan place a circle of light batter in the center and then a ring of dark batter around it and so on, until the pan is filled. [SEE PHOTOGRAPH ABOVE.] In the other pan start with a circle of dark batter in the center and a ring of light batter around it and so on until the pan is filled.

Place the pans in the oven and bake until done, approximately 25 to 30 minutes or when a toothpick pushed through the center of cakes comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool. Spread with chocolate frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and over the top and sides.

CHOCOLATE FROSTING

DIRECTIONS

Melt slowly 2 squares chocolate with 1 tablespoon butter in 1/2 cup rich milk. When chocolate is melted and mixture is thickened, remove from fire and let stand until lukewarm. Add confectioner’s sugar until of the consistency to spread. Flavour with vanilla. If frosting is too bitter, thin with a little warm milk and add more confectioner’s sugar. Keeps very soft and smooth.