I love to read. I love to cook. What better set of projects to undertake than foods inspired by my favorite books? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been comfortably curled up, reading a description of something delicious being eaten/made/thrown by a character, and thought “I wonder what that tasted like?” So I figured that I’d try to bring some of those dishes to life.
First up is a classic from my favorite book in the world, Anne of Green Gables. There are numerous references to food in the book, mostly mentioned in passing (ice cream, chicken salad, chocolate caramels), but a few stand out as plot points. One of those is the layer cake Anne makes for a tea party, despite having a head cold that prevents her from smelling the bottle-full of what she thinks is vanilla extract– with disastrous results, since it’s actually anodyne liniment. Based on the text, the cake is a vanilla-flavored layer cake, sandwiched with jelly.
The cake did rise… and came out of the oven as light and feathery as golden foam. Anne, flushed with delight, clapped it together with layers of ruby jelly and, in imagination, saw Mrs. Allan eating it and possibly asking for another piece!
While the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook (written by Montgomery’s granddaughter) provides a recipe for this cake, reviews indicate that it comes out somewhat dense, which doesn’t jibe with the “light and feathery as golden foam” description in the original book. I decided to go another route, using a hot milk sponge cake recipe which has been around for a while and is supposed to produce a light, tender cake.
I made this in three layers because the text says Anne used “layers of ruby jelly,” and a two-layer cake would only have one layer of jelly in it. You could also make it a two-layer cake, if you prefer.
Vanilla Layer Cake (from Baking Bites)
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4 eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla (not anodyne liniment!)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and prepare three 9-inch round cake pans with baking spray and parchment paper.
2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
3. Beat eggs and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until the mixture is fluffy, pale, and tripled in volume. This will take about 5 minutes at medium-high speed.
4. In the meantime, heat the butter and milk in a glass measuring cup (or other microwave-safe container) in the microwave until the butter is melted and the mixture comes just to a simmer (about 3 minutes using refrigerator-cold milk, for me). Give it one last stir and add the vanilla.
Yes, I realize that this bottle isn’t a conventional vanilla bottle, but I made my own vanilla extract using about a dozen split vanilla beans soaked in bourbon for six months. Delicious (plus it has the added bonus of never being mistaken for liniment). I’m never buying store-bought vanilla again.
5. When your eggs are ready, gently stir in the flour mixture.
6. Then, with the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the hot milk and butter mixture into the batter until completely incorporated. It’ll look a bit thin, but don’t worry.
7. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake about 18-20 minutes (for three 9″ layers– could be longer for two layers, since they’d be deeper), until toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.
It’s not obvious from the pictures, but the cake did rise up nice and light. The layers look short, but that was expected. The recipe I used called for 2 or 3 pans with an 8″ or 9″ diameter. I knew I wanted three layers, so ideally I would have used 8″ pans to make the layers a bit taller and prettier, but I didn’t have any– only 9″ and 7″. Since the book states that Mrs. Allan helps herself to a “plump triangle” of cake despite being full, I wanted to ensure that a plump triangle (which I interpreted as a wide, rather than a thin slice) wouldn’t be a gigantic chunk of cake. I figured that a shorter 9″ diameter cake would be more appropriate than a much taller 7″ cake, and used the larger pans.
Not feeling up to the task of making my own jelly, I picked up a jar of seedless raspberry jam to sandwich the layers. In an ideal world I’d have been able to find red currant jelly, but only black currant was available. Basically, I was looking for something red that wasn’t strawberry, since the book definitely calls this “jelly” but refers at other times to “strawberry preserves” and “strawberry jam.” I figured that if L.M. Montgomery meant the jelly here to be strawberry she’d have used one of those terms, so I used red raspberry instead.
Just look at those layers of ruby jelly…
As the book doesn’t mention any frosting or other topping on this cake, I decided to go the Victoria Sandwich route and cover the top, un-jellied layer with a heavy layer of powdered sugar. (Don’t do this until you’re going to serve it– over time the moisture of the cake will make the sugar soak in and it won’t look nearly as pretty)
There, doesn’t that look good enough to eat? Excuse me while I go brew up a cup of tea, open up my well-loved copy of Anne of Green Gables, and settle in for a snack.
1. I really like this hot milk sponge cake recipe, It’s just a tiny bit eggy in flavor, but that doesn’t detract. The crumb is light and fluffy, a touch spongy (as a good sponge cake should be), with a tight crumb. Best of all, it doesn’t require any special ingredients or time-consuming butter softening. (you can just soak the eggs in hot water for 10 minutes to warm them to room temperature– something you can’t do with butter). This may be my new go-to vanilla cake recipe.
2. As a side note, another reason I think this recipe is “right” is that later in the series, Anne and Diana help a neighbor make a “small layer cake” for company while his wife is away– at one point Diana is described as beating the eggs while Anne mixes up the rest of the ingredients. I tend to think that if “beating the eggs” was just the standard “beat lightly with a fork for a minute” that we do for cakes today, it wouldn’t have been listed as a separate task. Similarly, if the eggs were beaten into the batter one by one the way we do with creamed butter/sugar cakes, then Diana wouldn’t need to beat them separately. So it makes sense that the technique outlined above (beating the eggs until very light) would fit with the text.
3. Finally, as much as I like raspberry jam, it made the cake as a whole a bit too sweet for me. Next time I’d go with something more acidic. The cake is quite sweet, so a tarter jelly (like currant), or even something like lemon curd would really make it sing. Ooh, or maybe a bitter marmalade and a thin dark chocolate glaze over the top…