Coming home for Christmas

Everybody was mad with excitement. William was coming on Christmas Eve. Mrs Morel surveyed the pantry. There was a big plum cake, and a rice cake, jam tarts, lemon tarts, and mince pies – two enormous dishes. She was finishing cooking – Spanish tarts and cheese-cakes.’ (D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers)

One of the things that makes Christmas so special – as well as all the wonderful food – is the gathering together of family. Nowadays family members are often scattered around the country – even the world – and Christmas may be one of the few occasions families are reunited. Provided that relationships are good – sadly not always the case – then the prospect of returning home, or having a loved one return home, can be a very exciting one.

That is certainly the case in Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence’s 1913 novel of mother-son relationships that I wrote about here. Whilst previously I blogged about the close relationship between Gertrude Morel and her second son, Paul, that is expressed through her buying him a meal she can ill afford on the occasion of his first job interview, in the episode quoted above her focus is her eldest child, William.

William Morel – who dies prematurely (in both the novel and his life) – leaves home at the age of twenty to take up a job in a London office. Whilst Gertrude is proud of her son’s achievements, she is still heartbroken that he is leaving the family’s Nottinghamshire home. She writes letters to him every week and ‘All day long, as she cleaned the house, she thought of him.’

His return home for Christmas – his first visit since his departure – provokes much delighted anticipation amongst family members. And one way in which this is demonstrated by his mother is through her food preparations. As the quotation above notes, her pantry is well-supplied with a range of home-made baked items.

Whilst many of the baked goods were familiar to me when I read this passage, two of them were not: Spanish tarts (precisely what they are I have still not determined) and rice cakes. Suspecting that the latter were not the low-calorie, puffed-rice cakes so beloved of those watching their waistline, I started my research. I found recipes for sweet rice cakes in Victorian cookbooks, including Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1861, so I presume this is the type of rice cake Lawrence is referring to here.

Mrs Beeton’s rice cake is a plain cake made with a mixture of ground rice and self-raising flour and flavoured with lemon zest. It provides quite a contrast to the richer and more extravagant baked goods we normally associate with Christmas, but perhaps that is part of its appeal. It’s very tasty cut into thick slices and thickly buttered. Rice cake is clearly a favourite of William Morel’s; earlier in the novel, when he first leaves home for London, the narrator notes that Mrs Morel ‘was making him a rice cake, which he loved, to take with him.’

Ground rice or rice flour – which is gluten-free – can be found in large supermarkets and health-food stores. I kept my recipe entirely gluten-free by also using gluten-free self-raising flour, but if gluten is not an issue for your consumers you can stick with the normal flour.

100g rice flour
100g self-raising flour (I used gluten-free)
zest of one lemon
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
2 large free-range eggs beaten

Preheat the oven to 180C / fan 160C / gas mark 4.
Grease and line a small loaf tin (20cm x 12cm x 6cm).
In one bowl mix together the two flours. In a separate bowl cream together the butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy.
Gradually beat the eggs into the mixture, adding a teaspooon of flour between each addition to prevent the mixture curdling.
Fold in both the flours and enough milk to make a soft dropping consistency.
Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and bake in the preheated oven for 30-45 minutes until golden brown and a cake tester or skewer comes out clean.
If you like a more lemon-y cake whilst the cake is baking mix together the juice of one lemon with 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar or sugar nibs. As soon as the cake is out of oven pierce the top in several places using the cake tester or a skewer and pour the lemon and sugar mixture over the top. Leave to cool in the tin.

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