7th April, 1950
Everyone was so grateful for the parcel. My little ones (girl five, boy four) were in Heaven - with the raisins and egg I was actually able to make them a cake!
84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff
I moved to London when I was 21. I had dreamt of it my entire life - of visiting the park where the Darling children played, the streets the Artful Dodger ran down, the station that gave Paddington Bear his name. I had formed such a clear image of it in my head and knew, somehow, that it was going to feel like home. And, despite feeling homesick for my family in Brisbane, it really did. Very quickly I felt certain that I would be here indefinitely; I had found the place I was supposed to be.
Before I visited California recently, someone recommended I find a copy of 84, Charing Cross Road, a series of letters between a New York bibliophile and a London man working in an antiquarian bookshop. I didn't pick it up in time, but I took it down from my friend Liv's bookshelves last week, after she put me up on my return to London. I read it while journeying home for the first time in a month, and felt, immediately, that I had found my people. I desperately wanted to meet these two mid-20th century pen pals, corresponding across the Atlantic through letters, and books, and food. The edition I read happily also includes Hanff's follow-up, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which chronicles her first trip to London, nearly twenty-five years after she started writing to Frank Doel.
Her time in London allows her to finally explore the city she had dreamt of for so long: 'the England of English literature'. She eats lobster thermidor, visits theatres, and walks down Charing Cross Road (the bookstore sadly no longer exists by the time she travels over). She is disappointed by multiple martinis, meets fan who wish to show her around, and drinks in pubs where Shakespeare once did. London is everything she hoped for and more. I felt exactly the same; overwhelmed at this place that had been in my head for so long, an overlapping collection of stories I knew so well.
In the early years of correspondence, Hanff sends food parcels to the staff at the bookstore, who are all still receiving rations. She makes sure they have meat (sometimes fresh, sometimes in tins), eggs, raisins, and nylon stockings. In return Frank, and the rest of the staff, offer gifts to her: a recipe for Yorkshire pudding (which I'd be doing here, but for last week's popovers), a hand embroidered tablecloth, and promises of a bed and generous hospitality should she ever come to London.
Early one April, after Hanff sends eggs and raisins to the staff at 84, Charing Cross Road, she receives a letter from Cecily Farr, the first of Frank's colleagues to write to her independently. She writes about the cake she was able to make just a couple of days before Easter. I imagined her making a cake for Easter Sunday - a Simnel cake of sorts (though without the marzipan topping, which feels possibly too extravagant to have been made during rationing). The marzipan in the cake itself is optional; I hesitated about including it, but I think it's just too delicious to leave out.
100g ground almonds
25g golden caster sugar
75g icing sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
200g unsalted butter
200g golden caster sugar
175g plain flour
50g ground almonds
2tsp mixed spice
1tsp baking powder
100g dried sour cherries
50g glace cherries
Zest of 2 oranges
20cm loose-bottomed cake tin
1. Preheat the oven to 150C and grease and line the cake tin. To make the marzipan, combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl until the form a paste. Roll the mixture into large marble sized balls. Set the marzipan aside and clean out the mixing bowl.
2. Cream the butter and sugar. You don't need it to be incredibly light, so doing it with a regular whisk is fine here. Beat the eggs in, one at a time, adding a spoonful of the flour if the mixture splits.
3. Add all but around 50g of the flour, as well as the ground almonds, baking powder, mixed spice, and salt. Fold into the batter. Pour the milk in, and fold this through too.
4. Toss the dried fruit in the rest of the flour, and then fold it through. Finally, add the zest. Spoon half of the batter into the tin, and disperse the balls of marzipan over the top. Cover with the rest of the batter.
5. Put the tin in the oven, and bake for 1 hr 40 mins, loosely covering the top of the tin with foil after about an hour. Cool the cake for half an hour in the tin, and then on a wire rack until completely cool.