When Becky went downstairs, she was not the same Becky who had staggered up, loaded down by the weight of the coal scuttle. She had an extra piece of cake in her pocket, and she had been fed and warmed, but not only by cake and fire. Something else had warmed and fed her, and the something else was Sara.
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Last week's recipe - though heavily focused on my stepdad Geoff - made me think, as ever, about my mum. In particular, I've been remembering those years we spent as a trio of girls; the visits to the theatre, the afternoons spent watching films, and the books we devoured. Lucy and I shared bunk beds until our teenage years, and mum used to sit on the floor at the base of the ladder, reading to us each night. I have lost count of the stories we escaped into over the years.
Memorably, we had a copy of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, a two-in-one book that could be flipped over for the second story once you finished the first. Although my love for The Secret Garden can't be rivaled, I adore A Little Princess too. I've baked from the famous attic feast before, and I've been developing new recipes to honour it in the coming book too.
Long after my mum stopped reading to us, I still adore reading aloud - sharing a story I know well with someone I think may love it too. Like Sara Crewe, who invited a procession of peers into her room to eat cake and hear tales from India, I am forever finding an excuse to pick up a book and (inevitably) butcher a character's accent. I always find something new in the language and poetry when reading aloud, and find the ritual of it immensely comforting.
When I first moved here, and at many points since, rediscovering the books I first read as a child (or those read to me) sustained me. Late nights with Harry Potter, weekends in the park with Danny, the Champion of the World, endless commutes with Northern Lights, these books continue to serve the same purpose that they did when I was young: they help me feel a little less alone. Through homesickness and loneliness and uncertainty, the familiarity of my childhood books have grounded me, taking me back to that bunk bed, my old bedroom and a house full of people who are still supporting me, even from the other side of the world. Literature has a magical ability to offer us what we need, something Sara, whose stories fed Becky just as much as the sponge cake she folded into a handkerchief, understood completely.
Becky describes Sara's sponge cake as 'melting away' as she eats it. She's right, a well-made sponge is sweet and buttery, but gloriously light. It is surely one of the most commonly made cakes in England and, in terms of a recipe, I can't argue with the best: Mrs Beeton's. It's simplicity itself - equal weights of eggs, butter, sugar and flour, loosened with milk if necessary. It's the type of cake you can make without a recipe in front of you, tricky in almost every other cake baking situation, where I can never rely on my memory to tell me whether it's 225g or 275g that's needed. Everything here is based on the eggs, just weigh them in their shells and you're off.
I generally prefer a denser sort of cake - one made with ground almonds or yoghurt or sour cream. But sometimes, especially at the start of spring, a simple sponge is called for, to be eaten on a picnic, with some fresh fruit, or stored for a midnight snack in a clean handkerchief. This is that cake.
Golden caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract or the seeds from a vanilla pod
A tablespoon or two of milk, if necessary
A tablespoon of icing sugar, for decorating
20cm round cake tin (loose-bottomed is ideal)
Electric hand whisk or mixer (you can use a hand whisk, but you're going to need substantial upper arm strength)
1. First, weigh your eggs in their shells. Measure out this same weight of self-raising flour, golden caster sugar and butter. Preheat the oven to 180C (160C in a fan forced oven). Grease and line the cake tin with butter and greaseproof paper.
2. Cream the butter and sugar until the sugar is no longer grainy and the mixture has turned white. This will take a while - a good five or so minutes in a mixer on a medium-high speed. Scrape the bowl down regularly to ensure the mixture is uniformly light.
3. Reduce the speed to low and, one by one, add the eggs. A tablespoon of the flour between each egg helps prevent the batter from curdling.
4. Once the eggs are incorporated, beat in the vanilla. Finally, sieve the flour and salt into the batter, then fold in gently. To test the consistency of the batter, take a spoonful of it and drop it back into the bowl. If it drops without encouragement, it is ready. If it stubbornly adheres to the spoon, fold in a tablespoon (or two) of milk.
5. Tip the batter into the tin and smooth the top. Transfer to the middle of the preheated oven. Bake until the top springs back when pressed (lightly) and a skewer inserted comes out clean. In my oven this took 45 minutes, but keep an eye on yours, as this cake will go dry quickly if overbaked. I checked on mine every couple of minutes after 35 minutes (sometimes just through the closed oven door) and covered the top with foil when it started to brown too much.
6. Cool in the cake tin for ten minutes and then on a wire rack until stone cold. Sieve some icing sugar over the top. If you fancy a Victoria sponge (and none could blame you if you do) then split the cake and fill it with jam. But if you want to keep it in a cake tin in your bedroom, as I imagine Sara did, plain is just perfect.