Thursday, February 4, 2010

cooking the books

My office desk, just before graduate class today - The Odd Women, and a paper plate of just-baked Grasmere Gingerbread, for I was kicking off the class coffee break baking roster, and this is my fall-back pre-class recipe, because I can make it when half asleep at 6.30 in the morning, so long as I remember to soften the butter the night before. The recipe's from Grasmere, in the Lake District, where the Wordsworths lived, so I like to think of it being munched by William and Dorothy, striding round the local hills - though I doubt they had candied peel in theirs. OK, the recipe...

cream together

1/2 lb butter
1/2 lb soft brown sugar (that's 1 1/8 cups)
2 large tablespoonfuls of Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup (which is none too easy to find in the US: try, in NJ, Wegmans).

rub in
1 lb [4 cups] plain flour
a tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger

and add a small handful of candied peel (also not too easy to find. Wegmans, again. Whole Foods thinks that the preservatives used are too artificial, which isn't encouraging)

press down into buttered baking tin, and bake in 325 degree oven for around 45 minutes - maybe a little less. Don't make this any hotter - and lower still if it's a fan oven, as I found out to my cost at my parents on Christmas Eve, whilst producing something more akin to a bar of toffee. Sorry, consumers.

This recipe certainly bears no relation to Gissing's novel, which contains only the instructions for making hot gin - gin, plus sugar, plus hot water - which Gissing, doubtless recoiling from the experience of his first wife, describes (as someone in the class said) with all the fascinated revulsion of someone watching preparations for shooting up heroin. I once tried (strictly in the interests of research) preparing gin just like Virginia Madden in the novel, and decided to go straight back to tonic water.

But there is another literary - or at least academic - connection for the day. Having joined the Facebook group Save Paleography at King's London, I read up on the brief history of the paleography chair there - and was instantly reminded that its first holder was Julian Brown. When I was between 3 and nearly 7, and we lived in a castle in Cumberland (yes, that is rather an exotic phrase) the wonderful woman in the next door apartment - a gallery that joined onto our tower - happened to be Julian Brown's mother, Helen Wright Brown (an American, I believe, and also - something that very much stuck with me - a suffragette). Julian married Alison, from the Lake District (not from Grasmere, but from Sawrey - from a house next door to Beatrix Potter's) - and her family was the origin of the gingerbread recipe. There's a lot of potted personal history here - worth remarking, though, that Julian was also an influence on the very young Me because he had the most exquisite italic handwriting - no need of paleography classes to decipher his handwriting. But I was so glad that I had to take paleography as part of my qualifying exams for graduate work in Oxford - not just because it's been useful ever since when doing research in manuscripts, but it's left me able to read the most crabbed and weird and contorted of scripts that one encounters in everyday life. This may not be the most scholarly of reasons to support its continuance, but it would be a shocking blow to an essential research skill to let this chair perish.


  1. This was delicious when you made it last semester! I'm so glad you posted the recipe! Although I should probably avoid trying to bake it myself, because my talents with food seem to begin and end with Brower thievery (well, that and my ability to actually consume such obscene amounts of food). When I was younger, my best friend always tried to get me to bake with her, and I was usually so disinterested in whatever we were doing that I never mixed in any of the ingredients I was responsible for (instead I just sat at her kitchen table eating Oreos, which we never had in my house). Anyway, after I left the baking powder out of what was supposed to be a chocolate layer cake, she finally gave up on me...

  2. Ah, my eating-when-not-at-home treat was when playing with the gang in my street (Andrew and William and Simon), and having peanut butter sandwiches at Andrew's house - peanut butter, chez Flint, was somehow considered rather American, and therefore probably vulgar/fattening/bad for the teeth, and hence never seen...