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 (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].