Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Review of Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making (Fourth Impression, 1953)

Rifling through my late mother’s kitchen in search of ideas for a birthday cake for my son, I came across a pile of cook books bought in the 1950s in almost pristine condition (perhaps a testament to her scorn for domesticity when there are far more interesting things to do). Short of time as usual, I grabbed Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, picked out the Parcel Cake (page 145) and whipped it up (with a few tweaks—I couldn’t achieve the perfect butter cream writing under pressure so cheated and printed out an address label in a jaunty font instead) for my little cherub’s birthday tea. It was only a couple of weeks later when I had the chance to give it closer inspection that I realised what an absolute gem of a book it is—not just for the domestic goddess but for the sake of nostalgia, social history and the complete mouthwatering experience of 240 pages of cakes, cakes and more cakes…

Its opening gambit gives away its era: ‘Cake-making has an irresistible appeal to most women…Many housewives save up the necessary ingredients in order to give their families the benefit of good home-made cakes and to provide at moderate cost rich and exciting-looking cakes for special tea-parties and other celebrations’. The book was first published in 1952, so just at the tail end of rationing, and this seems to be reflected in the notion that cakes were for treats, and their making a special, almost sacred process.

Flicking through the book, I was impressed by the ingenuity in design of many of the cakes, given that the ingredients were pretty limited at the time: cakes shaped as baskets of flowers, fruit or mushrooms, hedgehogs, boats or cottages, for example. Several recipes suggest recycling stale cake to produce a new cake, indeed the foreword advises that, ‘The book is planned to demonstrate that cake-making is not a difficult art, and that innumerable varieties can be made from simple foundations’. And there’s even a whole section on ‘Economical sandwich cakes’.

The book’s tone is that of an old-fashioned, but encouraging, schoolmistress: ‘The most formal cake, and the most ambitious to make at home, is the tiered wedding cake. This calls for both patience and dexterity, but very satisfactory results can be obtained even by novices in cake decorating if they are prepared to follow instructions closely and carefully’. Despite the assumption that most women had an innate desire to stay at home and make cakes, which may seem slightly queer to us modern gals, the book actually makes you believe that anything is possible…even the notion of a novice baker producing a full-blown, traditional wedding cake!

For some strange reason, I love the level of detail about icing nozzles, with a whole plate depicting 42 examples complete with the icing they produce. Again, in line with the austerity of the age, the text suggests once you’ve practised your design on an upturned plate or saucer, the icing can be scraped off before it hardens, beaten up and used again.

The language is charming: ‘For a family party a jolly snow-scene cake can be quickly made, and will provide a gay decoration for the table’. How times have moved on.

How charming, too, that the cooking guide states that for gas ovens ‘standardised thermostats are not yet universal, so it is impracticable to quote cooking temperatures in terms of gas oven settings’. This statement alone transforms the cake-making process into a matter of alchemy, sixth sense and instinct (although it does also suggest using an oven thermometer to check up on temperatures).

Sweet, too, that the blurb at the back advertises the Good Housekeeping School of Cookery, its courses including ‘a special six-weeks course for brides, which includes choice and service of wines’.

As delightful as the book is, it would be wrong of me to gloss over one of its more startling recipes, the name of which I cannot bring myself to reproduce here. To give you a clue, the said cakes are mainly constructed from balls of cake mixture dipped in melted chocolate with ice cream cones for hats, emulating a dubious form of entertainment which was to enjoy a revival on television during the fifties. ‘These…cakes make excellent individual place cakes at a party; each child’s name can be written in icing on the cap, or if preferred the cones can be gaily decorated with icing and pieces of glacĂ© cherries, etc.’ the author blithely suggests.

If you followed one recipe a day for a year, you still wouldn’t get through the whole book…although it’s an average-sized book, it was produced in the pre-celebrity chef era when a cook book really was a cook book and is packed with practical and creative ideas. And there’s something deliciously indulgent and comforting about leafing through the book late at night…it’s a visual feast, inspirational and aspirational, and, on the whole (but not entirely), packed as full of the charm of a bygone age that us vintage-lovers dream of. My recommendation? Have a rummage through your mother’s drawers and see if you can find a copy for a delectable late-night read!

Have you been amazed or inspired by old books you’ve stumbled upon? Let me know!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

An Afternoon at Moyse's Hall

I think I can say—without being boastful—that Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, epitomises the spirit of Vintage Script…eclectic, unconventional and full of stories, some of them verging on the Gothic. Built in stone (indicating wealth) in 1180, the building is the oldest in the town, and the oldest domestic building open to the public in East Anglia. Originally a merchant’s house, and formerly a gaol, a tavern and a police station, it has been starring in its current role as museum since 1899.

I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon there yesterday. I experienced a frisson of excitement as I entered for a lady was in the throes of a “show and tell” episode with the man behind the counter. It seems she had discovered some artefact in her garden, and, eavesdropping as best I could, I overheard the gentleman declare that the item was officially “treasure”. How thrilling! The scene was so distracting that the lady at the admission desk ignored me and my entourage for a good five minutes before she acknowledged our presence. All was forgiven, though, as the circumstances were exceptional.

The ground floor of the museum houses artefacts connected to social and local history, with an element of the macabre throughout. Despite this common theme, the exhibitions feel disconnected and slightly random, but they are fascinating nonetheless. My favourites were firstly the lock of Mary Tudor’s (1496-1533) hair which was as luxuriant and golden as the ripened wheat in the Suffolk fields. (Her connection with the local area is that her second marriage was to Charles Brandon, First Duke of Suffolk, and she’s buried in St Mary’s Church in the town.)

I also loved the Anglo-Saxon pyramidal mount for a sword scabbard or sword belt, resplendent in gold, embellished with filigree and with a square garnet in the centre. It was tiny, but arresting, partly so because its shape reminded me of one of the sweets you get in Quality Street, but I can’t remember which one.

We turned the corner to the section on witchcraft and its morbidly fascinating exhibits—the dessicated cats found stuffed in walls to ward off witches, and the shoes (pronounced “shoowuz” in Suffolk) and witch bottles which served the same purpose. Interesting to learn, too, that the trials of 18 witches in Bury St Edmunds in 1662 influenced the Salem witch trials 30 years later.

Another ghoulish exhibition was that relating to the Red Barn Murder committed in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827. William Corder shot dead his lover Maria Marten and secreted her body in the so-called Red Barn. Corder’s trial in Bury St Edmunds in August 1828 attracted a frenzy of interest. The man admitted his guilt and was hanged before a crowd of thousands (some say up to 20,000 spectators were present). The museum reveals that because it was unclear how Maria died, Corder was charged with every possible way of killing her, and that Maria’s decomposing head was used as evidence in the trial. If that’s not enough gore for you, you will be pleased to learn that Corder’s tanned scalp forms one of the exhibits, as does a book bound in his skin.

There is plenty more to see, most notably an exhibition relating to St Edmund, after whom the town is named. He was the king of East Anglia from approximately 855 to his death in 869. The poor old boy was slaughtered and beheaded by the Danes after refusing to renounce Christ. After death his head was reported to spontaneously reconnect to his body—weird.

I was also pleased to see that the man trap complete with partially-severed leg, which I remember from childhood visits to the museum, was still in situ.

I’m sorry to report that I found both the Olympics exhibition on the top floor and the Suffolk Regiment Gallery on the middle floor unimaginative, and I can’t think of anything more to say about either.

However, the museum’s flaws are far outweighed by the fascinating contents of the ground floor exhibitions, and all in all, I would definitely recommend a visit.

By some bizarre twist of fate, as we left a man, this time, was standing at the front desk showing the museum gentleman some coin he had found. My eavesdropping this time determined that the find wasn’t as thrilling as the earlier treasure…but nonetheless, I left with a feeling of satisfaction that our visit had been sandwiched between two new discoveries for history-lovers everywhere!