I’m a member of a book club, a fleeting member as I’ve attended two meetings and I’m leaving town again next month but a member nonetheless. Last month, we chose to read ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List, or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman’ by Natasha Solomons, which was a wonderful book that I had read before. In the book, a Jewish man and his wife move to England during the Second World War from Germany and he is given a pamphlet of how to fit in amongst the English and so he begins to compile his own list for being the perfect English gentleman. Amongst this is the pathos of his wife, Sadie, who has lost all whom she holds dear and who is leading an almost entirely separate life to that of her husband as she is desperate not to lose hold of what they have left behind.
Amongst the gently dignified honesty of the novel and its look at what it is to be British, if there really is such a thing becomes a question in itself and how someone can make themselves appear more of an outsider in the simple act of trying to fit in, I loved the way the author had brought food into the novel. Food is such an important and evocative link to our heritage and smells and tastes bring back memories more powerfully than many other things. Sadie’s baking, added to her sadness and remoteness as well as the cultural isolation of both main characters. When she takes the cakes she has baked to the local women’s institute, she doesn’t feel confident enough to stay and eat these with them.
In the book, Sadie cooks a baumtorte, a cake made of layers with each layer representing a memory. Sadie cooks such a huge number that she has to store them in the bath. The recipe, taken from the author’s grandmother’s recipe book, instructs
Whip together a batter made of eggs, the right amount of sugar, sufficient flour, the zest of enough lemons and the perfect quantity of vanilla. Oil a tin and heat up the grill until it is the correct heat, spread a thin layer over the bottom of the pan and grill until it is done. Ladle on layer after layer and grill until the side of the cake looks like the rings of a tree. Bake a layer for everyone you need to remember. Decorate with sugared lemon and orange peel, or in spring, frosted violets.”
Now this recipe got me wondering if I could recreate it but without the exact quantities, I was worried I would make a mess of it and I couldn’t do that with important memories attached. When we arranged to read this for our book group, I decided that it would be nice to bake and bring a baumtorte to the evening for everyone to try. With this in mind, I found the following recipe on the Times website.
The idea of spooning batter into a baking tin and grilling it was a strange one and I made two cakes using the first as a trial run. It’s actually quite a simple recipe and having now seen a photo on Natasha Solomons’ website, I can see that it looked about right. Hers is much neater but the idea is there! I made the first in a spring form tin to see if it needed to be unstuck but as it cooks, the batter slides away from the side of the tin so this wasn’t necessary and the one I baked in a well buttered cake tin came out much neater. I changed my grill heat from between 2 and 3 often as it kept flaring up in heat or not really browning but I think the browning is important as it lends the layers definition. Mine didn’t contain that many layers because I didn’t have a vast amount of time but as every layer bubbled and cooked, I thought of someone who I wanted to remember. My first attempt was slightly blackened as I got distracted by some memories!
I suppose the obvious comparison is with a lemon and sugar pancake. It smells and cooks rather like pancake batter but is even more delicious. We ate it with a fork while we thought of Sadie and all that she had left behind and all that haunted her every days.
225g caster sugar (or vanilla sugar — caster sugar stored with a vanilla pod); 225g unsalted butter; 225g plain flour; Zest of 1 lemon 6 eggs.
For the icing: 1 tbsp lemon juice; 175g icing sugar, sieved;Candied orange and lemon segments for decoration
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one by one. Stir in the lemon zest to taste — it should have a hint of lemon, not too zingy. When the mixture is creamy, slowly mix in the flour. Spread a thin layer of mixture in a cake tin and lightly brown under the grill. Continue to spread and grill, layer upon layer, until all the mixture is used. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, whisk the lemon juice into the icing sugar, then gradually add water until you have a lovely, thick icing. Ice the cake, then decorate with candied orange and lemon segments. I was unable to get candied lemon so I went for those cake decorating jelly diamonds and a big jelly lemon shape in the middle.