Culture Wine & Food

    Bookish cakes: from Proust to Barbara Pym

    27 May 2020

    When the smug posts about using the lockdown to read Proust began popping up on Instagram, I thought of that quip about the most famous cake in literature.

    I think it was Nora Ephron who said there’s a reason everyone’s heard of Proust’s madeleine — because it’s in the first chapter.

    Few of us have made it past the opening pages of Swann’s Way, yet these plump little sponge cakes that look ‘as if they were moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell’ have become one of the most well-known metaphors in literature.

    Literary cakes are a comforting and convenient conduit to a supposedly happier, simpler time. For the exiled de Winters in Rebecca, the cakes that formed the centrepiece of afternoon tea at Manderley are recalled longingly: ‘… that very special gingerbread. Angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins’.

    Delectable descriptions abound in children’s literature: the Famous Five guzzling ginger cake, Alice sampling the bun with ‘Eat Me’ marked out in currants, the Queen of Hearts and her tarts.

    They are a marker of status, too, often by their absence. No tea-time treats for The Railway Children: ‘Jam OR butter, dear, not jam AND butter,’ counsels their mother, ‘We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury now!’ Cassandra in I Capture the Castle laments that whereas tea once meant ‘little cakes’ in the drawing room, it now consists of margarine and bread in the kitchen, due to their father’s reduced circumstances.

    A Madeline dipped in tea has become a Proustian trope.

    In grown-up books, cakes have been used to symbolise everything from memory, sex, decay (viz Miss Havisham’s grotesque, cobwebbed wedding cake in Great Expectations), even female identity. At the end of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, the food writer, Rachel finally confronts her philandering husband, hurling a Key lime pie at him. ‘It made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer.’

    Entire theses could be written on the role of the cake in Margaret Atwood’s proto-feminist debut novel of 1969, The Edible Woman. Its heroine, Marian, is troubled by a complex relationship with food and a fiancé she feels is devouring her. She bakes Peter a pink, woman-shaped cake, declaring, ‘this is what you really want’. He storms off, Marian starts to eat the cake. Does this act represent cannibalism, the rejection of female identities, the rejection of the patriarchal system? It’s ‘delicious’, pronounces her lover, Duncan, for whom it’s just a cake.

    As a child, I longed to try seed cake, as served by Bilbo Baggins at the ‘unexpected party’ that opens The Hobbit. It popped up again in my teenage years during an avid Agatha Christie phase. ‘Is it real seed cake?’ exclaims Lady Selina Hazy in At Bertram’s Hotel. ‘I haven’t eaten seed cake for years.’ Ubiquitous on Victorian tables, seed cake had become a rarity by the time Christie was writing in 1965. Packed with caraway, rather than poppy seeds, it had an unusual, liquorice taste. ‘Enormously popular with some, yet anathema to others,’ according to the food writer, Arabella Boxer.

    Seed cake features in both The Hobbit and Agatha Christie

    Another lost cake, now found only in literature — but remembered fondly by the schoolboys and girls of the 1940s and 50s, for whom it was a tuck box staple — is Fuller’s Walnut. It appears in some of my favourite books, by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Barbara Pym; the comfort reads I’ve been turning to of late.

    ‘Oh Mrs Heathery, you angel on earth, not Fuller’s walnut?’ exclaim the Radlett children in Love in a Cold Climate. In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s cousin Jasper dispenses volumes of preposterous advice over a very good tea of ‘honey-buns, anchovy toast and Fuller’s walnut cake’. It pops up again in Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet, published posthumously in 1985, but written during the war, during an illicit liaison between an academic and his student in Fuller’s Oxford teashop.

    Just before the London Library closed, I spent an afternoon in search of lost cake, researching Fuller’s walnut. Three layers of sponge, sandwiched with buttercream, covered in boiled meringue icing and studded with walnut halves, they cost six shillings and came surrounded by straw in a shiny white box.

    The recipe I found produced a rather austere cake. But by upping the quantities of buttercream and icing to sate the modern, sugar-addicted palate, it looked — and tasted — as blissful as the cake I’d imagined. Crisp, aerated icing, gooey underneath, the delicate walnut sponge.

    Unlike Proust, ‘the vicissitudes of life’ did not become ‘indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory’. But I’d found the English equivalent to his madeleine.

    A literary favourite – Fuller’s Walnut cake

    Fuller’s walnut cake


    For the sponges

    225g/8oz self-raising flour, sifted

    1 tsp baking powder

    100g/3.5oz walnuts, chopped

    225g/8oz butter

    225g/8oz caster sugar

    4 large eggs


    For the buttercream

    125g/4.5oz butter

    250g/9oz icing sugar, sifted

    2 tbsp milk

    ½ tsp vanilla extract


    For the boiled icing

    2 large egg whites

    350g/12oz caster sugar

    ¼ tsp cream of tartar

    4 tbsp water

    ½ tsp vanilla extract

    Walnut halves, to decorate

    1. Sift the flour and baking powder and add the walnuts
    2. Cream butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time
    3. Fold in the flour and walnut mixture and divide between three 20cm/8” tins, lined with greaseproof paper
    4. Bake at 160C/325F/gas mark 3 for about 20-25 minutes, until golden and a skewer comes out clean (start checking after 12-15 minutes)
    5. To make the buttercream, beat the ingredients with an electric whisk, then sandwich the cakes together once cooled
    6.  For the boiled icing, beat the egg white until the stiff peak stage. Dissolve the sugar and water in a saucepan over a low heat, then add the cream of tartar, mixed with a teaspoon of water. Boil the icing until it reaches a temperature of 115C/240F, or softball (at this stage, a small spoonful dropped into a cup of cold water quickly forms a small ball). Working quickly, pour the syrup over the egg white, while whisking briskly. When it becomes thick, add the vanilla, then spread over the cake (it sets quickly). Decorate with several walnut halves around the edge, and one in the middle