Christina saw the glossy brown crust of it and her blue eyes widened like a child's. There was only one thing to do with a cake like that, she said, and that was to toast it...
The cake toasted quickly. With careful fingers they turned their slices, then loaded on the butter, holding plates beneath their chins as they ate, to catch the greasy drips.
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
I have always lived north of the river. In Brisbane, we talked often of 'the southside' and made regular trips to visit cousins, family friends and a cinema or two. But we always lived north. When I moved to London, though my dear friend Reills had taken up residence in Clapham mere months before, I found home in East London - first in Whitechapel and later in Hackney. I crossed the river for work on the South Bank, to visit markets and to see friends. But I knew East London like the back of my hand. I hardly ever left.
Then, in February this year, I moved to Clapham and, for the first time in my life, I became 'a southsider'. I swam at Brockwell Lido, discovered Battersea Park and ate in Dulwich restaurants. London is so large, and sprawling, that it occasionally feels as if I've moved to an entirely new city. Eight months in, I still take wrong turns, happen across new streets, and wind up on corners I've never been before. I stare out the window when on buses, taking in the lay of the land and linking up these places that, for so long, have been little more than stops at the other end of the Overground.
I have always been thrilled by mentions in books to places I know. So many are written about characters who wander the streets of London that we do, decades and worlds apart from us. It is a unique way to come to know a new area. When I settled in with The Paying Guests earlier this week, I read about characters visiting places that I have discovered in this new part of London. I found that I could picture their world in a way I couldn't have a year ago; the view of Crystal Palace, the walk around Ruskin Park, parties in Clapham. As with Kate Atkinson and Barbara Pym earlier this year, I can't quite believe I have only just started reading Sarah Waters' novels. I am pleased, however, that that she has arrived on my bookshelves at a time when I am exploring the London that she is writing about.
This currant loaf is described in the book as both a cake and a bread. The line between the two is a tricky one to draw, but for the loaf to be toasted on a fork in front of the fire, it needs to be pretty robust - too cake-like, and it will crumble. So this is a brioche dough, enriched with eggs, milk, butter, and treacle. It's soft and sweet, but will stand up to your toaster (or an open flame).
Cuts into 10 slices
500g strong bread four
10g fast action yeast
20g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg white
Mixing bowl or mixer with a dough hook
Loaf tin (at least 20cm long)
1. Tip the flour into the mixing bowl, then add the yeast on one side and the salt on the other, to keep them apart for as long as possible. Add the sugar, treacle, milk, and eggs, and stir or mix to combine. Continue mixing until the dough is smooth, and elastic. If kneading by hand, this will take around ten minutes, or five with a dough hook in a mixer.
2. While continuing to knead or mix, gradually add in small clumps of the butter. Once it is all added, your dough should be very smooth, soft and elastic. Shape it into a ball, place in the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise until doubled in size - around two hours. Eggs, milk and butter slow down the rise, so don't rush it.
3. Once the dough has risen, and springs back when you give it a gentle prod, fold in the currants and spices until they are evenly distributed. Knead again for a couple of minutes, then shape into a loaf, flip over so any seam is on the base, and place into a loaf tin lined with greaseproof paper. Cover the loaf again and leave to rise until the dough springs back, which should be around an hour. A little before the loaf is ready, preheat the oven to 190C.
4. Beat the egg white until foamy, and then paint it onto the top of the loaf. Transfer to the oven, on a low shelf. Bake for forty to forty-five minutes until glossy and brown on top, and hollow sounding when knocked on the base. Put the loaf on a rack to cool. It's lovely still warm from the oven, with butter, but try to leave it a couple of hours before toasting it, as it will be quite soft.