Midnight Feasts

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.’

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

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.


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
120ml milk
1 egg
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.

David Copperfield’s Batter Pudding

In my last post, about eating other people’s food, I wrote about the episode in David Copperfield where the young David ‘loses’ his meal to the hungry waiter in the Yarmouth inn.  As well as drinking David’s ale and eating his chops, he also dives eagerly into his ‘batter pudding’:

‘Why, a batter-pudding,’ [the waiter] said, taking up a table-spoon, ‘is my favourite pudding!  Ain’t that lucky?  Come on, little ‘un, and let’s see who’ll get most.’
The waiter certainly got most.  

Whilst most of us are familiar with the batter pudding which is Yorkshire pudding, the traditional English accompaniment to roast beef, a sweet version has a long tradition in English cuisine.  Bearing resemblances to the French batter pudding, clafoutis, from the Limousin region in France, which traditionally contains fresh cherries, recipes for English batter puddings date back centuries.  Some of these are simply sweetened batter and others contain fruit, whether dried or fresh.

Mrs Beeton, in her Book of Household Management, published in 1861, just over a decade after David Copperfield, includes a recipe for ‘Baked batter pudding’.   Her version is sugar-less and includes currants, but at the end of the recipe she does suggest using fresh fruits when in season, such as ‘damsons, plums, red currants, gooseberries, or apples’, saying that, if these are used, ‘the pudding must be thickly sprinkled over with sifted sugar.’

However, going even further back, cherry batter puddings were apparently introduced to England by the Normans – presumably they brought their version of clafoutis with them.  Cherry batter puddings are particularly associated with Kent, and since David Copperfield spends significant parts of his life in Kent – as did Dickens himself – that was the version I made.  With fresh cherries not being in season, I used tinned, which worked well.  And, in deference to Mrs Beeton – who uses suet in her recipe – I stirred melted butter into the final mixture.  

David Copperfield’s (and the waiter’s!) Batter Pudding

Ingredients (for 4 portions):
150ml milk
50g sugar
50g butter (melted)
60g plain flour
2 eggs
Pinch of salt.
1 tin cherries (pitted and drained) or 250g fresh (pitted)

Butter and lightly flour a pudding dish, and place the cherries on the bottom.
Set the oven to 180C, 170 (fan) or Gas mark 4.
Mix together the flour, caster sugar and a pinch of salt.  Make a well in the centre and add the eggs and milk.  Stir to make a batter.  Add melted butter.
Pour the batter over the cherries.
Bake the  pudding for 35 – 40 minutes until risen and golden brown.
Dust with sifted icing sugar before serving.

Eating someone else’s food

When we had done, [the waiter] brought me a pudding, and having set it before me, seemed to ruminate, and to become absent in his mind for some moments.
‘How’s the pie?’ he said, rousing himself.
‘It’s a pudding’, I made answer. 
‘Pudding!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Why, bless me, so it is!  What!’ looking at it nearer.  ‘You don’t mean to say it’s a batter-pudding!’
‘Yes, it is indeed.’
‘Why, a batter-pudding,’ he said, taking up a table-spoon, ‘is my favourite pudding!  Ain’t that lucky?  Come on, little ‘un, and let’s see who’ll get most.’
The waiter certainly got most.   David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Why is it so often the case that what someone else is eating is so much more enticing than what is on our own plate?   I have vivid memories of primary school lunches when I would have done just about anything to eat my friend’s white sliced bread sandwiches and chocolate bar rather than my Mum’s home-made soup, though nowadays I think I got the better deal.

And how much more difficult it must be if you have nothing to eat, but all around you is food, as is the case with the waiter in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-50).

The episode comes early in the novel.  Young David Copperfield has been sent off to school in London by his new nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone.  He breaks his journey at an inn in Yarmouth where a meal is provided for him.  Overwhelmed both by the grief of leaving his home and his beloved mother and by his new strange surroundings, David struggles with the experience of eating chops and vegetables in the presence of his overly attentive waiter:

I …found it extremely difficult to handle my knife and fork with anything like dexterity, or to avoid splashing myself with the gravy, while he was standing opposite, staring so hard, and making me blush in the most dreadful manner every time I caught his eye.  

Persuading David not to drink his ale by telling him the story of a man who had dropped down dead after drinking it the previous day, the waiter offers to do the honours himself and, having rapidly downed the drink, informs David that “a chop’s the very thing to take off the bad effects of that beer” and thus helps himself to David’s dinner:

So he took a chop by the bone in one hand, and a potato in the other, and ate away with a very good appetite, to my extreme satisfaction.  He afterwards took another chop, and another potato; and after that, another chop and another potato.  

And having polished off David’s main course, he sets to work on the pudding, as above.

Steel etching by Phiz (Halbot K. Browne) for the second instalment of David Copperfield (1849)

(Image scan by Philip V. Allingham, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/phiz/dc/5.html)

Now, as readers are probably aware, Dickens was extremely concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in 19th century England, so perhaps in this episode he is drawing attention to the appalling way waiters were starved and treated by their employers at this time!

However, I think it is far more likely that the episode serves to highlight the vulnerability of the young child sent into the world with no-one to guide him and doing his utmost to please those he encounters.  David shows himself willing to give food and drink to others on more than one occasion.  On the first leg of his journey to his new school he shares the cakes that Peggotty, his nursemaid, has made for him with Barkis, the carrier.  And, on arriving at his school, Salem House, he uncomplainingly allows Steerforth, one of the older boys at the school, to pressure him into spending the little money he has on currant wine and almond cakes for the other boys.

See my next post for a recipe for David Copperfield’s batter-pudding.