Lunch, in their Bohemian household, consisted of a jug of ale, the remains of a large joint of roast beef, a fruit cake and a bag of apples, which Rosa said she had been given the night before by one of her admirers, a porter in Covent Garden market. They ate it, with the help of one large pocket knife and their fingers...
The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman
To say I read a lot when I was at school would be an understatement. Though I had some lovely friends, I didn't properly find my crowd until my senior years, relying on a good relationship with my sister, a love of films and our ever growing collection of novels to occupy my time outside of school. My parents were mystified by the number of times we could reread an old favourite, but Luce and I could proudly recite large sections of Harry Potter by heart. When the MS Read-a-thon came around every year, we were instructed to ask for donations, rather than per-book pledges for a month of reading, so as not to give our friends and neighbours a nasty surprise when we came to collect.
Over the past months, as I have begun to write my book, I have spent time in the local library, scanning shelves in bookshops, and tilting my head to read titles in my friends' living rooms. I am on constant lookout for hundreds of familiar titles, the ones that take me back to that time. There are the Harry Potters and the Secret Gardens, books that are so familiar that opening them feels like reaching for the hand of an old friend. But the list is endless, and I continue to find book after book that exists in the deep recesses of my memory; those ones I borrowed from the Ashgrove Library, and read only once. These books have the power to surprise me again now.
I read the Sally Lockhart mysteries (of which The Ruby in the Smoke is the first), like so many others I am sure, in a post Dark Materials haze. In the years that followed, I returned many times to Lyra's Oxford, but Sally's London didn't get much of a second look-in. After being reminded of it earlier this year, I am happy to report that it is well worth rediscovering in adulthood. All it took was one reread in a (very) long bath, and I'm right back in - I have ordered the rest in the series. There are so many details I had forgotten, and my fascination with Victorian London, especially the East End, is reason enough to open it up again after 15 years.
This lunch, the first that Rosa, Sally, Frederick and Trembler sit down to together, is one I'd like to share. I love fruitcake, but my consumption of it is normally confined to December and January, as we gradually chip away at an enormous Christmas cake, generously covered with marzipan and icing. This fruitcake is significantly lighter - less loaded with fruit, and free from booze. A cheaper cake to make, and one that suits the changeable days of April just as much as the dark days of winter. It's a joy of a cake, adapted from a Mrs Beeton recipe for Christmas cake; it's her Christening cake that more resembles our modern Christmas cakes. It wouldn't be out of place on Frederick and Rosa's table but, loaded with dates and cherries and ginger, more than satisfies modern tastes too. Serve in big slices, with a sliced apple and a pot of tea (or jug of ale).
Slices into (at least) 12 generous slices
500g plain flour
2tsp powdered ginger
1/2tsp bi-carbonate of soda
150g sultanas (you can use raisins, but I prefer plump sultanas)
75g chopped dried dates
50g chopped dried cherries (plain dried, rather than glacé, are better here)
200g melted unsalted butter
200ml double cream
180g soft brown sugar
20cm loose-bottomed cake tin
1. Preheat the oven to 150C and grease and line the cake tin. Put the flour, dried fruit, ginger, salt and bi-carbonate of soda in the mixing bowl and stir to combine.
2. Melt the butter in the saucepan, and set aside to cool. Add the cream, treacle, and sugar to it, and whisk well. Add the wet ingredients to the dry flour mix and mix through.
3. Whisk the eggs until light and frothy and then fold through the batter. Spoon the batter into the cake tin and place in the oven. Bake for 1 hour 45 mins, checking the top after an hour. If it is browning too quickly (mine was), open the oven door and, being sure not to move the cake too much, cover it with a sheet of foil. Test the cake regularly from around an hour and a half. When a skewer inserted into the cake comes out without raw batter clinging to it, remove the cake from the oven.
4. Cool on a wire rack in the tin for ten minutes, and then remove from the tin and cool completely. The cake is better the next day, so do wrap it in greaseproof paper and store it in a tin. It will keep a good few days like this. It's great on its own, or with a bit of butter.