Behind the door was another table, decked out for tea, with a white tablecloth, on which flourished the cocoa-nut cakes, and a basket piled with oranges and ruddy American apples, heaped on leaves.
It appeared to Mr. Thornton that all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret.
North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell
During my teenage years, in the absence of a love story in my own life, I lost myself in fictional romances. I sat in drawing rooms and walked in gardens with Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferras. I fell in love with George Emerson over a dinner table in Florence. My heart broke for the English patient, and his memories of Katharine Clifton. I took a seat in a Manhattan restaurant alongside Carol and Therese. I wandered dark hallways in Thornfield, and then escaped with Jane Eyre in the middle of the night. I agonised with Stevens as he recalled lost moments with Miss Kenton. I swooned at the letter sent from Frederick Wentworth to Anne Elliot.
With all this in mind, I can’t quite believe it took me until my late 20s to discover Elizabeth Gaskell. It is perhaps unsurprising; aside from Cranford, her most famous work, her books suffered in the 20th Century, dismissed as ‘feminine’, criticised for inadequately addressing the social concerns she had wished to explore, and fell into relative obscurity. And so, when I asked about early Victorian literature at school, I was directed instead to the Brontës, to Dickens, and to Makepeace Thackeray. More recently, Gaskell’s books have experienced a renaissance of sorts, and she has come to be recognised as a feminist writer, one who explored social class and the role of women from a unique vantage point. North and South’s Margaret Hale, for instance, who has a brother with a death warrant out against him, an oft-poorly mother, and a well-meaning but ineffectual father, is outspoken, grounded, and independent; a thoroughly modern heroine. And her relationship with John Thornton grows throughout the narrative until it emerges as one of equals.
These cakes are on the table during Margaret’s first formal meeting with Mr. Thornton, owner of one of the local cotton mills. Given how quickly Dixon pulls the afternoon tea together, it’s likely that they’re similar to Mrs Beeton’s cocoa-nut cakes/biscuits, made with just beaten egg, sugar, and coconut. But I wanted something that truly ‘flourished’ on the table. And so, I adapted an Eliza Acton recipe instead – this started life as her cocoa-nut gingerbread cake. The addition of lemon curd and icing (and the eggs in the batter – to quite literally give it a lift), are my own; ones I sheepishly acknowledge that sensible, conservative Dixon would not approve of. But it’s my birthday today, and so I have taken liberties.
Coconut (Cocoa-nut) Cake
Serves 8 for afternoon tea
100ml lemon juice (from about three lemons)
100g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
40g softened butter
100g black treacle
50g dark brown sugar
2tsp ground ginger
Zest of a lemon
1tsp baking powder
80g desiccated coconut
100g salted butter
2tbsp lemon juice
500g icing sugar
100g shaved coconut
1. First, make the lemon curd. Add the lemon juice and sugar to a heatproof bowl, and place over a pan of simmering water. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved, and then add the beaten eggs.
2. Whisk constantly, with the pan below just simmering, until the lemon curd thickens. When it is ready, the whisk should leave visible lines in the curd. Remove from the heat, whisk the butter in, bit by bit, and spoon into a jar. Cool in the fridge.
3. Preheat the oven to 160C fan. Melt the treacle, dark brown sugar, and butter in a small saucepan. Add the ground ginger and the lemon zest. Allow to cool, and then beat in the eggs. Tip the flour, baking powder, and coconut into a bowl, and then mix in the liquid ingredients.
4. Pour into a lined 15cm cake tin, and bake for 45 minutes. The cake is ready when a skewer poked into it comes out clean. Cool in the tin for ten minutes, and then on a wire rack.
5. To make the icing, beat the butter and lemon juice together, then add the icing sugar, a bit at a time, until the icing is light and creamy. Beat the milk in too.
6. To decorate the cake, slice it in half so that you have two layers. Spread a thick layer of icing onto the bottom half, and then spoon a layer of lemon curd on top. If you like, a little border of icing piped around the edge will provide a nice barrier, and prevent the curd from leaking out.
7. Place the second cake layer on top, and spread a thin layer of icing over the whole cake. This is the crumb coat – it keeps any cake crumbs in place, and prevents them showing through the top layer of icing. Refrigerate this layer of icing for half an hour before covering the whole thing with a thick second layer of icing. Top the cake with coconut flakes and serve.