Having Tea With Miss Pym (and a Birthday giveaway)

[Later this evening, I will post a recap of Pym links from Days 1 and 2 of Barbara Pym Reading Week.]

Today Heavenali is hosting a virtual tea to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Barbara Pym’s birth. Folks from around the world are sitting down to a special tea today to honor the life and work of Miss Pym. Amanda had a great idea to bake something from The Barbara Pym Cookbook to mark the occasion, this seemed like a fantastic idea (like her idea for the reading week in the first place) so I am following suit.

Not being English, I have always been fascinated by English cakes. You know, the kind that one often sees in films that are eaten with the hand and not a fork. Solid looking wedges kept in tins for god knows how long. Many in this country would think of the holiday fruitcake as being an example of this, but there are many other kinds that have popped up over the years in my Anglophilic reading and viewing frenzy. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from Howard’s End where Margaret and Helen Schlegel ply Leonard Bast with cake in their drawing room. There is one round cake in that scene that always fascinates me. And of course there are years of Mrs. Bridges’ various cakes–especially her cherry cake–that I have always wanted to try. In reality I don’t like nuts in cakes so there are probably many English cakes that I would not like. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated.

The Barbara Pym Cookbook

I wanted to choose something from the Pym cookbook that would be one of those cakes that gets pulled out of a tin to be served to an unexpected guest. The one from the cookbook that stood out for that purpose was the Parkin cake.  One thing you need to understand about this cookbook is that it is more of a literary gift than a serious cookbook. After Pym’s death her sister Hilary and Honor Wyatt seemingly decided to capitalize on Barbara’s popularity by producing a cookbook that featured recipes for food featured in her novels. To give you an example, the lead up to the Parkin cake recipe is an extended quote from Crampton Hodnet in which, on a wet July afternoon, Mrs Cleveland frets about what to serve old Mrs. Killigrew who she feels obligated to invite in out of the cold for tea. She asks Anthea “Is there any cake in the house?” The cookbook goes on to say “If someone had thought to make a parkin, that is a very good cake for keeping.” In other words, this cake was never mentioned in any Pym book and Pym never necessarily made such a cake.

At the Pym conference in Boston in March, the food historian Laura Shapiro gave a wonderful paper on food in Pym’s novels. (What is it about food writers that make them so enthusiastic about life? Laura’s energy made me think of Ruth Reichl’s wonderful books.) Part of the discussion after her paper focused on the Pym cookbook. No one who spoke had really put the cookbook to practical use and many were dubious about its value as a source of recipes. With that knowledge, I thought it might be best if I compared the Pym recipe to other recipes for Parkin cake that others online had actually tried making. I soon discovered the different types of Parkin cake (oats in the north, no oats in the south), the fact that it was often made to be eaten on Bonfire Night, that it gets better and stickier with age, and that every recipe called for ground ginger and/or mixed spice. The Pym cookbook recipe called for no spice. The Pym cookbook is also short on direction. No mention of what size pan for this recipe. I ended up going off recipe a bit by adding ginger, a pinch of salt, and baking it for only 45 minutes (45 minutes fewer than the recipe called for). I also made it yesterday so it would have at least 24 hours to groovify and get some of the stickiness. Essentially the cake is a ginger or spice cake with dark treacle (or molasses) and dark sugar, and, since I wanted to go the more traditional Yorkshire route, oatmeal.

The Parkin Cake in progress.

I also wanted to test the cookbook’s version of Victoria Sandwich, one of my all time favorite treats when I am in England. For those who have never had this glorious cake, it is two layers of sponge with raspberry jam in between the layers and a dusting of sugar on top. I normally make a version that is in the cookbook from the Tea and Sympathy tea shop in New York City which calls for a layer of butter cream frosting on top of the jam, which is delicious. And I have had versions in England that have a what seems to be a sort of non-sweetened dairy cream. Like clotted cream in taste but lighter. In this instance I wanted to go with the basic version and the Pym recipe could not have been more basic. My main qualm about the Pym version is that it calls for a much hotter oven than other recipes I have used or seen.

The Result

So how did the The Pym Cookbook fare? Way better than expected. For a new baker it might be a little too short on information. And both recipes needed slight adjustments, but I am by no means a scientific baker and I managed those adjustments quite successfully. Neither recipe called for any salt. I added a pinch to each because I think everything benefits from a pinch of salt.

And the taste? Dee-licious. The Parkin cake was dense and moist and had a hearty, malty, gingery kind of taste with a bit of chew from the oats–my oatmeal may have been slightly thicker than the medium oats that most recipes call for. It is perfect for tea. Especially, as the cookbook alludes, for those off the cuff teas where something needs to be pulled out of the larder for an unexpected guest. The Victoria Sandwich was really lovely and light and flavorful. And the batter was delicious as well. I probably could have taken it out of the oven a tiny bit earlier, but still really good.

The completed Parkin.

The completed Victoria Sandwich. The layers are different sizes because I had to use two types and sizes of cake tins, neither of them the 7″ size the cookbook called for.

The most amazing thing about both of the recipes is how darn easy and quick both of them were. Very few ingredients and really easy to mix and assemble. I am really quite pleased with the results.

So, happy birthday Barbara. You may not have had anything to do with this cookbook, but the results brought your novels to life for me. Like J. L. Carr wrote in the wonderful novella A Month in the Country it was like eating disposable archaeology.

The Giveaway

I have a copy of the Open Road Media reissue  of the cookbook to give away. Simply leave a comment or email me at onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com to enter the drawing by 6 AM eastern US time on June 7th to qualify for the draw.

Incidentally, Open Road also has a little mini video about Pym’s centenary that includes comments from food historian Laura Shapiro.

The orange one is up for grabs.

26 thoughts on “Having Tea With Miss Pym (and a Birthday giveaway)

  1. Desperate Reader June 2, 2013 / 3:42 am

    Brilliant post, the differences in baking habits between the UK and US have fascinated me. Traditionally a Victoria sponge is a pound cake, and if you were going to do it the old fashioned way you would weigh the eggs first and then use equal amounts of butter, sugar, and flour with a drop of milk if the mixture was to stiff. Traditional fillings would indeed include whipped cream. What sort of cakes do you generally have? Finally M&S (another great British institution)have a commemorative coronation fruit cake in a tin at the moment which I feel would be just the thing for you http://www.britstore.co.uk/Marks-and-Spencer-Food-Marks-and-Spencer-Cakes/c1_995/p35100/Marks-and-Spencer-Fruit-Cake-907g-Coronation-Tin/product_info.html


  2. Alex in Leeds June 2, 2013 / 4:49 am

    I live in the heart of Parkin-land and am amused at the thought of making one without spice or oats, both are essential to give you the carbs-burning, mouth-tingling buzz as you stand in a freezing park waiting for fireworks… ;)


  3. rhapsodyinbooks June 2, 2013 / 5:49 am

    Very fun to read about all your changes but that is of course why it never would have worked for me! :–)


  4. Brona Joy June 2, 2013 / 5:52 am

    I love the idea that people all around the world are drinking tea, eating cake and reading Pym together.
    I've just started my first Pym – Excellent Women this weekend although I've been slowed down by a sinus migraine :(
    But I have enjoyed oodles of cups of herbal tea. And I really admire your baking experiments


  5. Genny T June 2, 2013 / 7:33 am

    Thanks for this – I didn't know the cookbook existed.

    I've also never tried making parkin myself, but yes, can't imagine it without spices or oats. (I think people usually just call it parkin, not parkin cake). I love any form of spicy, ginger cake so I really should make my own one day too.


  6. Lisa May June 2, 2013 / 8:17 am

    I love parkin but have not had a lot of success baking it – I think because of a wonky oven. This post makes me want to try again!


  7. JoAnn June 2, 2013 / 10:01 am

    I've never heard of a Parkin cake, but your modifications sound delicious. The Victoria sponge is a favorite though! Now I want a cup of tea…


  8. traveler June 2, 2013 / 10:43 am

    This post is delectable and special. Thanks for the lovely photos. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com


  9. Hockey Girl June 2, 2013 / 11:58 am

    What an interesting & hunger inspiring post. Baking off recipe totally intimidates me, lovely to see that your efforts were successful . Wish I was as adventurous both cakes look simply delicious. Enjoy!!


  10. Frances June 2, 2013 / 1:11 pm

    You have forced me to leave a comment in order to have a chance at the book where the recipes are. Since you didn't share them. :)


  11. Serenknitity June 2, 2013 / 2:02 pm

    Lovely post. My mouth was watering. May have to make some flapjacks now.

    I celebrated Miss Pym's birthday by turning down my usual cappuccino and opting for Lapsang Souchong, while cracking open 'Quartet in Autumn'.


  12. Mimi June 2, 2013 / 2:36 pm

    Oh my! Both “cakes” look absolutely delicious. Okay…to the kitchen to whip up something because there is no cake in this house. Thanks.


  13. Melwyk June 2, 2013 / 4:38 pm

    The weather here is actually cool enough to do some baking…though I bought scones this a.m. instead…

    Loved the mention of the literary focus of this cookbook, I find that I often compare recipes and fiddle — sometimes with good results, sometimes not! — but your modifications seemed to have worked out perfectly. I now want cake.


  14. Chrysler Szarlan June 2, 2013 / 4:39 pm

    Oh, Thomas, such a luscious post! I am envious of you, did not think of baking a cake to celebrate Barbara's birthday, but have some bits of left over seed cake, so I will stick a candle in and make a wish for her when I have my tea now. I will wish for her that there will always be Pym geeks like us to ensure her immortality! After which, I will delight in my reading of Less Than Angels. Thank you so much for the Pym reading week! This is so much fun!


  15. Mystica June 2, 2013 / 6:17 pm

    Such a mouth watering post to read in chilly Melbourne. Never eaten parkin but it sounds delicious! Please count me in.


  16. Susan in TX June 2, 2013 / 6:18 pm

    Those look delicious! I'm guessing the house smells pretty wonderful too, after the baking was done.


  17. Karen K. June 2, 2013 / 9:49 pm

    I am most intrigued by Cauliflower Cheese. I'm guessing it's like macaroni and cheese but with cauliflower instead. I may have to get this book myself.


  18. Miss Bibliophile June 3, 2013 / 9:05 am

    This cookbook has been on my wish list ever since I've become a Pym fan. The Victoria sandwich looks delicious, like it would be perfect to snack on while cathing up on all of the wonderful Pym week posts.


  19. Nadia June 3, 2013 / 9:31 am

    Your cake looked yummy! I love clotted cream, but I love buttercream frosting even more, so I'm sure your version is delicious!! Although this one looks pretty good to me right now – I could definitely go for a slice ;) Thanks for the awesome giveaway!!


  20. Wendy June 3, 2013 / 10:12 am

    Another centenary treat. Thanks for sharing.


  21. Cosy Books June 3, 2013 / 10:29 am

    I have made a few Victoria sponge cakes and use an 8″ spring pan. Once the cake has cooled I just slice it in half…very carefully…and then add the jam and whipping cream. Your method just proves how resourceful you are though and does anyone care if a cake is perfect or not? I certainly don't!

    My Parkin recipe says it's best when left for five days. I'd have to bake it before leaving for a holiday in order to stay away from it for that long!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. rainpebble June 4, 2013 / 11:48 am

    I must try the Parkin. It looks nummy.

    My tea party was a rousing success. There were just 4 of us in attendance: me, myself, I & of course the guest of honor Barbara Pym. We had tea & cakes of course and after attending church I spent the day reading No Fond Return of Love and Quartet in Autumn. Both of them lovely reads as are all of hers.
    Lovely post Thomas.


  23. Thomas at My Porch June 5, 2013 / 7:18 am

    Hayley: I think the Pym cookbook has a recipe where you weigh three eggs then use equal amounts of butter, sugar, and flour. I almost tried that. Most cakes in the US are like a torte or gateaux but plainer in style and flavors. Usally some fluffy sponge with plenty of frosting.

    Alex: I think the lack of spice was a typo whereas the recipes I found without oats was deliberate in some parts of UK.

    Jill: It could go wrong that is for sure.

    Brona Joy: I hope you were able to have some fun with your herbal ltea.

    Genny: It was so easy to make and qutie tasty.

    Lisa May: Wonky ovens are the worst.

    JoAnn: You should try a parkin. Perfect for tea. Not as sweet as some things.

    Traveler: Thank you.

    Amy Rea: It was fun. Now I want to try more from the book.

    Hockey Girl: The whole thing seemed adventurous so making some changes was less daunting.

    Frances: Consider yourself entered.

    Serenknitity: Maybe Pym would have transitioned to java had she lived to witness the coffee explosion.

    Mimi: Thankfully we had guests so I didn't eat all of the cake.

    Amanda: That would be a blast.

    Melwyk: I almost never fiddle with recipes. This was new territory for me.

    Chrysler: So nice to hear from you. You can still bake a bit of cake.

    Mystica: The Parkin would be perfect on a chilly day.

    Susan: The house smelled lovely.

    Karen: You are exactly right.

    Miss Bibliophile: Maybe you will win a copy./

    Nadia: I kind of liked it without the buttercream which makes it almost too sweet.

    Wendy: You are welcome.

    Cosy Books: I am terrible at slicing cakes horizontally. Just worthless.

    Rainpebble: Sounds like a wonderful tea.


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