[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.
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.
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.|