Sunday, 6 April 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne | Redcurrant and Poppy Seed Mini Cakes

What is so interesting about American literature is not only the fact that American writers are always experimenting with style and ideas but also that many of their works continue to remain relevant today. One of my great favourites is The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book was published in 1850. It became an instant best-seller but (unsurprisingly) met with wide protest from religious leaders who disapproved of the book's unsavoury depiction of the people of New England during the period in which it was set, almost two centuries earlier in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts.

Ironically for a book that explores the idea of freedom from religious bounds and moral idealism, The Scarlet Letter opens outside a prison door. Hawthorne wryly observes that the founders of any new colony, 'whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project', are soon obliged to realise that it is 'among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison'.

Hawthorne's novel is a story of sin and guilt, of repentance and dignity; 'an earthly story with a hellish meaning', according to D.H. Lawrence, but one which bleakly proposes that the ugliness of morality is often entwined with the brutality of the law inasmuch as love and hatred are really the same thing:
Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.

But the book's success lies, I think, in the creation of the character of Pearl, 'the elf-child' and 'demon offspring' at the centre of the novel. Little Pearl is as uncompromising in her affections as she is relentless in her scorn. She really sees through the hypocrisy and moral conformity of the society that has ostrasised her mother. She not only rejects the authority of her earthly father, and for that that matter of patriarchy, but also challenges the moral supremacy of a celestial deity.

She has a strong, inhuman affinity with nature, adorning herself with wild flowers like a nymph-child or infant dryad and tasting of its scarlet fruit:
The great black forest—stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom—became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how. Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of its moods to welcome her. It offered her the partridge–berries, the growth of the preceding autumn, but ripening only in the spring, and now red as drops of blood upon the withered leaves. These Pearl gathered, and was pleased with their wild flavour.

She is happily making friends with the forest animals - a partridge, a pigeon, a squirrel, even a fox and a wolf - and seems perfectly content in their company:
The small denizens of the wilderness hardly took pains to move out of her path.... A fox, startled from his sleep by her light foot-step on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal off, or renew his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said—but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable—came up and smelt of Pearl’s robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand. The truth seems to be, however, that the mother–forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wilderness in the human child.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

~ Redcurrant and Poppy Seed Mini Cakes ~

One of the advantages of my nomadic childhood was that it acquainted me not only with a whole new world of ideas and attitudes but with a novel way of cooking too. And so, while I never stayed in any one place long enough to become an integral part of the local life, I decided at a rather young age that developing a cosmopolitan outlook was far more exciting than growing roots.

I love baking with fruit and I would happily trade any chocolate cake for a simple dessert with fruit in it, but had never used redcurrants before. Not surprisingly, when I saw these redcurrant teacakes at La Tartine Gourmande, I was intrigued - indeed taken over by a compelling urge to make them. It was simply a matter of getting the redcurrants; and when some day I spotted them, the temptation to buy in excess was impossible to resist.

I made significant changes to the original recipe, mainly substituting spiced rum for the lemongrass, adding a small amount of ground pistachios, using vanilla extract instead of vanilla seeds, and last but not least using beurre noisette. What came out of the oven was an explosion of colour and taste. Even my friend SA who declares an aversion for sponge cake had to admit they were pretty, pretty good!

(Adapted loosely from La Tartine Gourmande)

180 g unsalted butter
110 g icing sugar, sifted
80 g ground almonds
20 g ground pistachios
65 g plain flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
4 egg whites, lightly beaten until foamy
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp spiced rum
1 tsp poppy seeds
2/3 cup (105-120 g) redcurrants (if frozen, do not thaw)

Makes 12 mini cakes

Prepare the beurre noisette: I used the same method as for my raspberry and blackberry financiers. For this recipe, however, you will need 140 ml beurre noisette for the batter to make the redcurrant cakes. Use the remaining brown butter to grease the moulds. This will enhance the nutty flavour of the cakes.

Heat the oven at 180 C.

Butter and flour generously 12 ridged cupcake or mini muffin moulds. You will need to make sure that every inch of the moulds is well-coated with butter and dusted with flour so that the cakes don't stick. Then place the moulds on a baking tray and put them in the fridge to set while you prepare the batter.

Prepare the batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground almonds and ground pistachios, icing sugar, salt and baking powder. Make a well in the centre and whisk in the lightly beaten egg whites, the vanilla extract and the spiced rum. Add 140 ml melted brown butter while continuing to mix. Finally add the poppy seeds and the redcurrants and mix lightly taking care not to break the redcurrants.

Divide the batter between the 12 moulds, pressing down gently to fill all available space. Place in the fridge on the baking tray for 10 minutes to set.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Mine were done at precisely 27 minutes.

Remove and let cool down for a few minutes before carefully taking them out of the moulds onto a cooling rack.

To serve, dust with icing sugar and enjoy!

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