Today, sponge cake and a delicious-sounding apricot gateaux.
Miss Benson was a wise woman. She did not wish to make the weekly classes at White House too severely scientific. So, on the third morning on which the young Mertons came up her spotless hite steps, and into her pretty, comfortable kitchen, they found a variety of tempting ingredients laid out on the table in the window. There were currants and spices, and sultanas and sugar, and flour and baking-powder, and butter and jam. The fire too was alight, and nothing but one of the most interesting of processes to be gone through.
“I am going to have a tea-party tonight. I want a sponge cake, voila tout!” explained the old lady, with a sweep of her hands.
“But how are we to make it, please?” quoth the proud Lucilla humbly. “I haven’t the faintest idea!”
“What ingredients do you suppose you will want?” queried Miss Benson.
“Flour, of course,” answered all three.
“Butter as well,” added Lucilla.
“Eggs,” said Eva.
“Milk,” supplemented Linda.
“Eggs certainly,” assented Miss Benson. “And maybe a very little flour. But no milk and no butter. Sponge cake is one of the easiest of cakes to make. It is also one of the least expensive. On the other hand it takes the most time and requires a good deal of elbow grease. Now, Lucilla, take two eggs and their weight in flour. Put the latter in a basin, and whilst you are breaking up six more eggs, Linda must sift the flour carefully. My last cook broke my sifting wheel, Linda; but pass the flour carefully through that tiny wire sieve and it will do as well. Now, Lucilla, break each egg separately. This is always necessary if eggs are bought in a shop. It is unnecessary if they are home laid. AS you see that the white of each is clear, you may add it to the ones already broken. There, that will do. Now, with a spoon, Lucilla, remove these little white specks and threads attached to so many yolks. If you forget to do this, the cake may taste strongly and will be heavy too. Now, whisk with that wire erection. It cost eightpence, and is better than any double fork. Nay, child, but you have to whip for twenty minutes, and if you do it from the shoulder you will never last out! Whisk with the wrist, as I show you – what a mercy I have the use of my hands, isn’t it? Now, take a quarter of a pound of sifted sugar, and add it to your eggs. Go on whisking all the time. I see that the mixture is more like milk than cream, so we must add the flour Linda has already prepared. If you were expert enough at whisking, this would not be necessary. Now squeeze half a lemon into the cream.”
Poor Lucilla went on labouring at the beating, whilst Eva was directed to put a walnut of butter into a round cake pan.
“Melt it, and then sift over some white sugar, turning the tin in all directions as you do so in order that it may be coated with the oleaginous compound. This little addition is the secret whereby confectioners manage to give their sponges the syrupy, frosty appearance so taking, and apparently unattainable by an ordinary amateur. The oven must be hot. Put a crumb of bread in it, Linda. Is it brown at once? Then the oven is hot enough. Now pour the cream into the pan, Lucilla, as quickly and deftly as possible. Cover the face with a sheet of tissue paper, and put at once into the oven. Don’t attempt to look at it for ten minutes, girls. At the end of that time it will have risen as much as it will ever do, a /heat must be moderated in order to cook it thoroughly all through."
All three girls were intensely delighted at the result of this morning’s work. Their cake emerged from the oven in first-rate condition. Though the cream had only half filled its tin when introduced to its fiery ordeal, it was a couple of inches above the top of the rim when finished. Loosening it with a knife from its surroundings, it slid out freely and satisfactorily without leaving any morsels of ragged sponge behind it. Then it was set on a sieve to cool.
“If it we lay it on a flat surface like a plate,” explained Miss Benson, “it would become moist and heavy with the condensation of steam. On a sieve it dries evenly and completely, and even its bottom layer will be as crisp as its crown.”
So it was. And great was Mrs Merton’s satisfaction when she eat a bit of the first cake made by her daughters’ hands.
Not to be prolix, I will say that this sponge mixture may be used in many different ways. It can be poured into patty-pans and made into spongelets. It can be spread out evenly on the tin top of an ordinary biscuit box, then cut in two, sandwiched with jam, and so made into swiss roll. It can, par excellence, be made into apricot shape. As this is a famous supper dish of Miss Benson’s, I will tell you how she prepared it.
After making and baking a square sponge cake after the above plan, she caused the girls to scoop out its crumb as far as possible. This was done with the point of a knife. Then this hollow was filled with apricot mixture and covered with apricot glaze. To prepare the latter, she soaked a quarter of an ounce of sheet gelatine in about two tablespoonfuls of water. In order to do this, it was set over gentle heat in a small saucepan. As soon as it was melted, two tablespoonfuls of apricot jam was added to it. If too thick to run nicely when dropped from a spoon (and gelatine rather varies in strength) a little syrup from an open tin of apricots was added to it. This glaze was then poured over the sponge casing, which rested on a tin, through a fine wire-sieve. This enabled any glaze which ran down the sides to be pasted up again with the back of a spoon. That left over finally was taken up and poured into the centre of the casing.
Then two whites of egg were beaten up as stiffly as possible with a flat wire-netting spoon. Two and a half ounces of sugar were added to the froth and mixed up in it. This compound was next forced through a paper bag (the pattern for which I gave in a recent number of the “G.O.P.”) on to the sponge. It was sprinkled with sugar.
“Never forget this sprinkling,” directed Miss Benson, when she was teaching her class this particular recipe. “If you do, the meringue will entirely lose its crispness and character.”
It was set in an oven for five or six minutes, taken out and let cool. Then, lastly, the centre of the apricot gateau was filled up with good tinned apricots.
“Would fresh fruit do as well, Miss Benson?” queried Lucilla, as she piled up the apricots. “Mother has a great prejudice against our eating any tinned things, and we would like our share of this delicious dish.”
“To be sure,” answered the old lady. “Any fresh fruit would do as well. Strawberries might be slightly mawkish, but raspberries would not be too sweet to use, or stewed apples. There, it is done now, girls; but it looks a little dry. So put away the syrup out of the tin, and I will tell cook to add a little to the cake before bringing it to the table. This must be done at the last moment, or it would soak into the sponge casing and make it sodden. But, for gracious, Linda, don’t leave the juice in the tin! Pour it into a cup or bowl. No wonder your mother objects to your eating canned things, if that is the way you manage them. Never leave any contents of a tin in its former receptacle when once opened; that is what causes the few cases of poisonings we hear of. If it be fruit, an acid will be formed which is highly injurious. Why, even potted meat should never be left in the tin in which it is bought! It should be scraped out and put into a china pot. I have them of all sizes with tight-fitting covers. By using such, all dangers of ptomaine poison is avoided.”
As Mr Ruskin’s definition of cookery included a knowledge of fruits, Miss Benson told her class a little about the process of preserving fruits in a tin.
“I was for awhile in California,” she said, and the girls set themselves to listen as to an interesting tale, “and saw several canneries at work. All prejudice on the matter was taken from my mind at seeing the way in which peaches and apricots were treated. Warm and luscious they were brought from out of the hot sunshine into the cool depths of the store. They were always carefully covered with layers of their own glossy oval leaves. Then each downy, orange-brown skin was looked at, and if bruised in any way, that particular specimen was tossed aside into a large basket and sent away to feed the pigs; if whole and sound, the fruit was laid on a stone slab, and with one sweep of a sharp knife detached from its stone. Some of the kernels were bitter, others sweet; when this last was the case the kernel was added to the quartered fruit and put into the tin with it. Syrup was then poured over all, and the air being expelled by artificial means, it was soldered down. Now, besides the care exercised in choosing only sound apricots, the tins were subjected to strict scrutiny before being used. It is almost impossible to say how quick and deft the packers were in discerning any flaw in them. Thousands of tins are passed through a store in the season, but quite as many are rejected as being unsuitable."
“Does the apricot tree flourish in all parts of the world, Miss Benson?” queried Linda.
“I do not know,” replied the old lady frankly, “but it is not indigenous to England, though it flourishes so well on a south wall in our cold island. It was introduced only in the time of Henry VIII. The agent was his own gardener named Weolf, and this man brought it from Italy. The fruit was, however, well known to the Greeks and the Romans, so its antiquity is great.”
“It is rather hard sometimes to tell an apricot from a peach,” quoth Lucilla thoughtfully. “Do they belong to the same family, Miss Benson?”
“No,” answered the old lady, who seemed to have such knowledge at her finger-ends. “The peach is of the genus almond and of the natural order Rosaceae, whereas the apricot belongs to the plum family. Nectarines are a tender variety of the peach, with a smooth instead of a hairy skin, but apricots are quite distinct. I suppose you know that the tiny bottles of bitter almond flavouring are distilled from peach stones and from the pulp of the bruises leaves. It is a deadly poison.”
“Why do we so seldom come across canned plums?” queried Eva, whose special favourite was the above mentioned stone fruit.
“There is no need to tin plums when we can procure them so easily in a dried form,” answered Miss Benson. “Heavy pressure to extract moisture, and a thorough drying in a southern sun is enough to preserve this fruit to us. If prunes be properly cooked, they are almost equal to fresh plums, and their mecicinal properties are too well known for me to enlarge on them.”
“I suppose it is incorrect cooking that makes the stewed prunes one is so often given, like nothing but hard skin and stone,” went on Eva. “How do you cook them, Miss Benson?”
“Just gently stewing them,” said the old lady. “But the secret is not so much to soak as to plump them, by pouring over them boiling water. The prunes, if treated in this way, and dried figs too, will ‘swell wisible’ like Mr Guppy. Then they must be stewed in a prepared syrup until tender. Taken as a laxative they are invaluable. But if given to very young children the skins should be passed through a wire-sieve and reduced to pulp, or the results may be disastrous.”
Here the kitchen clock struck a sonorous twelve, and the class had to adjourn.