When we went upstairs to bed, [Steerforth] produced the whole seven shillings’ worth, and laid it out on my bed in the moonlight, saying:
‘There you are, young Copperfield, and a royal spread you’ve got.’
As a child I longed to go to boarding school. Not because I hated my family, but because of the books I read about boarding school life.
The ones that stand out in my memory are the Malory Towers and St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton. The varied personalities of the schoolgirls – who always included at least one ‘foreigner’ for added glamour – coupled with the eccentric teachers, created a tantalising world that was so far removed from my Devon schooldays. And the ‘fun and mischief’ they got up to – as it says on the blurb of my ancient copy of Third Year at Malory Towers – was equally appealing to my diligent and well-behaved nine year-old self; I would never dare to be naughty, but I could live vicariously through Blyton’s creations.
It was the midnight feasts I most envied. The prospect of food was – unsurprisingly – always appealing to me. And eating it outside of adult-regulated time created an extra frisson, especially as the food was always delicious – fruit and vegetables didn’t seem to feature very often.
I never had a midnight feast as a child. I think I thought about it, but I have always liked my sleep so the prospect of setting an alarm to get up in the middle of the night – even to eat food – was never particularly appealing. So, as with fun and mischief in the classroom, my midnight feasts were only ever participated in vicariously through the pages of a book.
Preceding Blyton by almost a century, Charles Dickens also recognised the fascination of illicit food-eating to children. But the midnight feast he describes in David Copperfield (1849-50) is tinged with coercion and bullying, just as the boarding school Salem House is a far cry from the fantasy boarding schools of Enid Blyton’s books. When David arrives at his new school, having lost most of his dinner to the hungry waiter at the Yarmouth inn – see my previous post – he encounters what is presumably a type of initiation ritual with the boys’ self-proclaimed leader, Steerforth.
Steerforth, with a friendly air, welcomes David to the school then suggests he hand over all the money he has – seven shillings – so he can take care of it. David is then persuaded by Steerforth to spend the money on provisions for the boys that they will consume later that evening:
‘Do you want to spend anything now?’ he asked me.
‘No, thank you,’ I replied.
‘You can, if you like, you know,’ said Steerforth. ‘Say the word.’
‘No, thank you, sir,’ I repeated.
‘Perhaps you’d like to spend a couple of shillings or so, in a bottle of currant wine by and by, up in the bedroom?’ said Steerforth. ‘You belong to my bedroom, I find.’
It certainly had not occurred to me before, but I said, Yes, I should like that.
‘Very good,’ said Steerforth. ‘You’ll be glad to spend another shilling or so, in almond cakes, I dare say?’
I said, Yes, I should like that, too.
‘And another shilling or so in biscuits, and another in fruit, eh?’ said Steerforth. ‘I say, young Copperfield, you’re going it!’
I smiled because he smiled, but I was a little troubled in my mind, too.
David is right to be troubled. Not just because he has given away all his money on his first evening, but also because in years to come Steerforth will wreck the life of David’s first love, little Emily. But that dark event is years away. And through funding the midnight feast, David has been welcomed into the school community, an absolute essential for a boy who has been, to all intents and purposes, ejected from his family home.
When it came to cooking something for this post, the almond cakes were an obvious choice – especially for someone like me who loves almonds. They were so good that I think that even an early bird like me would be happy to get up in the middle of the night to eat them.
STEERFORTH’S ALMOND CAKES
Ingredients (makes 10-12)
For the cakes
80g plain flour
40g ground almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of salt
40g unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
A handful of flaked almonds
For the icing
4 tablespoons icing sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon water
2 or 3 drops almond extract
Preheat the oven to 170C (160 fan or Gas mark 3).
If you have a standalone mixer, or an electric whisk, beat together all the cake ingredients – except the milk, egg and almond extract – on a slow speed until you have a sandy consistency. (If you are doing this by hand then you will need to rub the butter into the dry ingredients using the tips of your fingers to create the sandy consistency). Gradually pour in half the milk and beat until it is just incorporated into the mixture. Then whisk together the remaining milk with the egg and almond extract and beat into the remaining mixture until you have a smooth batter.
Spoon the mixture into cupcake cases in a cupcake tray until each one is 2/3 full. Sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top of each cake. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until light golden in colour, the cake springs back when pressed lightly and a skewer or cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean. Leave the cakes to cool slightly before turning onto a wire rack.
Whilst the cakes are cooling make the icing. Mix the water and almond extract with the icing sugar and drizzle over the top of the cakes.