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Jane Austen News – Issue 92

Jane Austen fans might like to see the new Howard's End production

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  


Mr Darcy and Mary Crawford Unite in Howards End

Jane Austen fans are often fans of other classic authors too. If you like Jane Austen, chances are you also like the works of a Bronte or of Hardy, etc etc. This is a bit of a generalisation, it’s true, but all the same we thought that a fair few of our Jane Austen fans might like to know that the BBC is about to air a new four-part, classic costume drama.

The new production is a new adaptation of EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, and will star Matthew Macfadyen (who played Mr Darcy in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), and Hayley Atwell (who played Mary Crawford in the 2007 ITV production of Mansfield Park).

We know that some might say classics stories like this one, and equally the novels of Austen, have been adapted enough and we don’t need anymore period dramas, but Mr Macfadyen has made an incredibly salient point about why new adaptations like this one are still popular and worth watching:

I can see why people sometimes say, “Oh, not another period drama”, but that’s only because some period dramas aren’t done very well, or they’re done in a boring way.
This one is eternally relevant. The social mores might have changed, but people’s behaviour hasn’t. It has money and class, the battle of the sexes, society and sex and family. Human behaviour is the same whether you’re wearing a frock coat or a hoodie. These issues endure.

Well said! We’re certainly looking forward to seeing it when it airs this Sunday (12th November) at 9pm on BBC One, and we’re sure that a few other Jane Austen fans like us will be too!


Sponge Cake “Baffles” Cassandra Austen

Jane Austen, being the very sensible woman that she was, had a great love of food. She often included details about the lovely food she’d been eating, or looking forward to eating, in the letters she wrote to Cassandra.

It’s been mentioned a few times recently that she was the first writer to use the term “dinner party” in a book – in this case in Mansfield Park in chapter 41, but we didn’t realise, until this week, that she also has the honour of being the person to whom the first recorded use of the term “sponge cake” can be attributed.

In an article for the Telegraph, the QI Elves (the researchers behind the hit UK panel show QI) shared some of their favourite weird facts that they’d found out while researching for the show, but which had sadly not made it onto camera. This fact about Jane being one of them.

7. The first recorded use of the word “sponge cake” was by Jane Austen.

Andrew: It was in a letter to her sister. I’m not sure we have her response, but it was presumably complete bafflement.

A couple of the other facts we enjoyed learning about were: that the world’s leading fortune-cookie writer has retired after 30 years – because of writer’s block, and, a scientist called Neil Gemmell is going to look for the Loch Ness Monster’s dandruff.

As fun as these are, we’d rather stick with Jane and have sponge cake than fortune cookies or monster dandruff! (She knew where her priorities lay.)

If you’d like to bake your own Regency version of pound cake (which is the sponge cake Jane was referring to) you can find our recipe here.

If you’d like to read the full QI Elves article, that can be found here.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 92

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Naples Bisket or Sponge Cake

“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.”
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Godmersham: Wednesday, June 15, 1808

During the renaissance, Italian cooks became famous for their baking skills and were hired by households in both England and France. The new items that they introduced were called “biscuits,” though they were the forerunner of what we now consider to be sponge cake. The earliest sponge cake recipe in English was recorded by Gervase Markham in 1615. These sponge cakes weren’t exactly your Betty Crocker behemoths, though – they were most likely thin, crisp cakes, more like modern cookies. Macaroons were developed during this period, as were spiced buns such as the Easter staple, hot cross buns.

Recette pour la Madeleine, by MairieSY, September 19, 2003

By the middle of the 18th century, yeast had fallen into disuse as a raising agent for cakes in favor of beaten eggs. The cooks of the day must have had arm muscles like Schwarzenegger – it takes an awful lot of beating by hand to do what we can accomplish in a few minutes with an electric mixer! Once as much air as possible had been beaten in, the mixture would be poured into molds, often elaborate creations, but sometimes as simple as two tin hoops, set on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. It is from these cake hoops that our modern cake pans developed.

Amazingly, it seems that the idea of cake as a dessert was particularly late in coming. Initially, they were served as a snack with sweet wine, much as madeira cake still is. Large, elaborate cakes would often be made as part of the display for banquets, but these were rarely eaten. The style of eating since the Middle Ages had required a selection of dishes to be on the table all at the same time. These would be removed and replaced with another vast array, but in the mid-nineteenth century the fashion changed and Service à la Russe became all the rage. Now the meal was served by servants, bringing diners individual dishes (similar to modern restaurant service), and while such a performance wasn’t within the reach of most people, it did result in a feature that everyone could enjoy – the dessert course. Now the decorated cake that we all know and love finally put in its appearance.

Sponge cakes are leavened by whipping eggs (whole, yolks only or whites only) with sugar. Whipping air into the mixture is what makes them light. When baked, the air bubbles expand from the heat of the oven and the cake rises.

Among the more popular Sponge cake types are the European styled Biscuit and Genoise, which more often than not are moistened with syrups because of their tendency to be somewhat dry. The right amount of syrup results in soft and tender crumbs, too little can render the cakes dry or tasteless, while too much produces soggy units. Hardcore European versions have liqueur as part of their syrupy additives, resulting in notably enhanced flavors. In both the Genoise and Biscuit, cornstarch replaces some of the flour, causing the cake to be tighter. Superfine sugar is recommended to achieve an extra fine texture.

Naples Biskets use the same batter, but are poured into shaped pans (you can use Madeleine tins) and baked as tiny cakes or cookies.

Naples Biskets
Take 3 Egs both Yolkes & Whites, & beat them in a bason, or wooden Bowle a quarter of an hour, then put to them halfe a pound of Sugar, & beat them together as long againe, ghen put to them 6 Ounces of fine flower & a graine or 2 of muske, being steeped in a spoonfull or two of Rosewater, & bat them well together while your Oven is a heating, & when it is as hot as for Manchett, butter your pans, & put your bread into thme & bakce it, & dry it, & keep it for your Use.
Period recipe, 1698

A modern recipe for Naples Biskets can be found here.

Portions of this article were reprinted with permission from the Medidrome article: The Peerless Cake Baker: The Surprising History of The Cake, by Helen Stringer.

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