…of the week 15

Bake of the week: Rhubarb crumble and custard cupcakes
Movie of the week: Love and Friendship
Book of the week: The School of Manners series by M. C. Beaton

I think autumn is my favourite season of the year. I love the low yellow light and the changing colours of the leaves, the early morning chill in the air and the wild winds. I enjoy the way my cat abandons his Mr Hyde night prowling persona for another year and turns back into my adorable Jekyll-y lap cat. There is only one thing that makes me a little sad this year – I don’t have a little person to help me kick the leaves and hunt for conkers. My last bastion of toddlerhood – my nephew Little T – is no longer coming to me for the day as his dad’s job has changed and he can’t manage dropping him off. So Little T has started going to nursery and I have to make sure I venture out on leaf-kicking walks with a grown-up. Fortunately, I have an old friend who has a large dog and she makes a pretty good child substitute on these occasions, though she’s far easier to please than any of our children and much less expensive on the snack front!

Autumn is also the season of crumbles. Lovely full flavours of apple, blackberry, rhubarb and ginger – hot and bubbly and smothered in custard. This week I have attempted to capture the essense of a rhubarb crumble in a cupcake. The cake part is made with light muscavado sugar to give it a richer rounder flavour, and I made sure to use real butter rather than baking spread. The creaming part was a little more difficult with not using caster sugar, but next time I used this method I smoothed out the lumps with the back of a wooden spoon before blending and that seemed to do the trick. I usually use a simple all-in-one method for cupcake sponges, but with the unrefined sugar I thought it would be better to stick to a traditional method. Recipe is here.

These cakes have more stages to them than I would usually bother with, but I really think they are worth it. The friends I tried them out on made some borderline indecent noises whilst eating. I think they were enjoying themselves.

Firstly, cream the butter and sugar together, then add the other cake ingredients and mix up. Dollop and bake. I think I had the oven silghtly too hot, so I ended up with the pointy bits on the cakes, but that doesn’t matter as you’re taking the middle out anyway. I have used an apple corer for taking out the middle of the cake before, but I think that was a mistake this time. A shallower and wider hole is needed so that you get a hit of the rhubarb with each bite. As it was that didn’t really work with the apple corer, so I think a cupcake corer would work better – just don’t go very deep. I did find a recipe for rhubarb compote online, but this isn’t the Bake Off so no one is judging me for taking shortcuts – I used Bonne Maman Rhubarb Conserve and whizzed it a bit with a stick blender. It worked very well and I have enough stages already!

To make the crumble topping is super simple, just don’t heat the grill too high or you will singe it before it starts to clump, some lumpy bits are needed for the proper crunch on top. While the crumble topping is cooling, make the custard buttercream and pipe it onto the cakes, then sprinkle some crunchy bits on top. These are quite rich, I would say one is enough unless you are feeling particularly greedy or have had a really crappy day.

Another solution for a really crappy day is, of course, a cheerful movie and I think I have that for you in Love and Friendship. Love and Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novella Lady Susan. For reasons best known to themselves, the film-makers have decided to give it the title of an entirely different novella. Ours is not to wonder why, and all that. Despite that befuddling fact, Love and Friendship is an absolute gem. It has all of Austen’s trademarks – parody of the tropes of romantic fiction, undercutting of the manners and social mores of the time and a biting wit. It is set slightly earlier than Austen’s most popular works – in the 1790s rather than the 1810s – and among more fashionable people than Pride and Prejudice, for example, so there are plenty of flouncy frocks and silly hats to admire. Manners were also less prim, giving Lady Susan’s sharp tongue free reign. Kate Beckinsale is sublime as the wheeling, manipulative and catty Lady Susan, who, having been left a penniless widow by a feckless husband, is using her charms to sponge off relatives during her “visits” and to attempt to plot herself into a more comfortable position in society. Her innocent daughter Frederica is a pawn in a scheme to marry her off to the ridiculously gormless Sir James, while Lady Susan ingratiates herself with the son of an aristocrat who is also a guest at the house where she has invited herself. Tom Bennett is hilarious as the stupid buffoon Sir James who’s idiotic pronouncements had me hooting with laughter. All in all, it is a fantastically funny ride that was well worth the £3 I spent on admission. So if you’re a bit bored of slapstick and fancy a clever comedy for a change it’s out now on DVD and all the usual platforms.

I have a little confession to make here – the books (yes, plural) that I’m recommending here are not something I have read in the past month, but a whole series that I devoured over the summer holidays. img_2143I went to the library to find a book a week for the 6 weeks of the holidays, but one of these 6 was the first book in The School for Manners series – Refining Felicity by M. C. Beaton. M.C. Beaton was a name that sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I wasn’t really aware of who she was or how incredibly prolific, with a long series of Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin mystery novels. These are not mystery novels, but Georgian comedy romances, much in the vein of Love and Friendship. Middle-aged spinster sisters who have a place in society but no money of their own, find themselves obliged to find some sort of work after their last expectations of a bequest from an elderly aunt come to nothing. Having few skills and fewer resources, Amy and Effy start to advertise to ‘bring out’ difficult cases into society, basically taking unmarriageable girls into their house to teach them manners and refinement in order to use their introductions to find the girl a husband by the end of the London Season.

The books are perfect escapism. They are funny and fast paced compact tales full of tall handsome aristocrats, unmannerly girls, ghastly relatives and grumpy servants. There are schemes and plots aplenty with a fair dose of early/late Georgian culture clash across the generations with sex scandals and murders thrown in for good measure. Amy and Effy are vivid characters that leap off the page and the interplay between the 2 of them is a joy to read – they are defintely not proper little misses, despite their status as ancient spinster chaperones. I went back to the library shortly after finishing the first book, got out all 5 of the others and read them back to back. They were so addictive it only took me about 10 days.

It’s autumn. Snuggle up under a blanket and a cat (if you are fortunate enough to be owned by one), grab a cake and indulge yourself!

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