‘Gordon,’ she said, ‘a cake.’
He shook his head and said softly, as if soothing her, ‘Oh, no, no.’
‘Yes, Gordon. It is full of goodness.’ And she made him eat a Chester cake…
(Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
If you’re anything like me, then the idea of being ‘forced’ to eat cake – with the justification that ‘it is full of goodness’- is a very appealing one! In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that is exactly what happens.
Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel – made into a memorable film starring Maggie Smith in the title role eight years later – is set in 1930s Edinburgh and focuses on the eccentric teacher, Jean Brodie, and her relationship with her six chosen girl pupils – known as ‘the Brodie set’. Rejecting the curriculum and traditional modes of teaching, Brodie contrasts her educational philosophy with that of the school’s headmistress:
The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.
Whilst Brodie’s approach sounds laudable, the substance of her teaching is little more than telling the girls about art, her love affairs and travels and her admiration for the Italian fascist leader, Mussolini. Repeatedly boasting to her pupils that she is in her prime, and assuming their admiration of her, in the mode of a Shakespearean tragic character the hubristic Jean Brodie experiences a reversal of fortune when one of her pupils – she never finds out which one, though the reader is informed – betrays her and ruins her teaching career once and for all.
At the centre of the novel, awakening her pupils’ romantic interests, is Jean Brodie’s relationships with two of her teacher colleagues: the unmarried singing teacher, Gordon Lowther, and the married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd. Whilst her preference is for Lloyd, she only exchanges one kiss with him and then renounces him because he is married, turning her attentions instead to Lowther, albeit reluctantly:
It was after morning church on Sundays that Miss Brodie would go to Cramond, there to lunch and spend the afternoon with Mr Lowther. She spent Sunday evenings with him also, and more often than not the night, in a spirit of definite duty if not exactly martyrdom, since her spirit was with the renounced teacher of art.
Gordon Lowther has an arrangement with two unmarried sisters, the Misses Kerr, who take care of his domestic arrangements, including cooking for him. But Jean Brodie is not impressed. She expresses concern that Lowther is ‘looking thin’ and that the Kerr sisters are ‘skimping him’, and in a parallel to her forced feeding of her pupils with her ideas and views, she sets about ‘feeding Mr Lowther up’, often in the presence of the Brodie set girls who take it in turns to visit in pairs every weekend. Telling Lowther he ‘must be fattened up’ and ‘two stone the better’ before she goes on her holiday, Jean Brodie sets about forcibly feeding him ‘an admirable lobster salad, …sandwiches of liver paste, cake and tea, followed by a bowl of porridge and cream’ and ‘joints of beef and lamb, or great angry-eyed whole salmon’.
And the aforementioned Chester cake. I had never heard of Chester cake before reading Spark’s novel. When I researched it I discovered that it is more commonly associated with Ireland, rather than Scotland, and is basically a carbohydrate-lover’s dream. Bearing a resemblance to a bread pudding encased in pastry, one of my colleagues on tasting it described it as a ‘bready mince pie’. Whatever the definition, I’m sure that eaten in significant quantities Chester cake would have helped Gordon Lowther gain the requisite two stone.
Ingredients (makes 10-12 pieces):
For the shortcrust pastry:
75g fat (I used 35g unsalted butter and 40g Trex – solid vegetable fat – but you can use all butter if you so wish)
Pinch of salt
Water to bind
For the filling:
200g breadcrumbs (made from stale white bread with the crusts removed)
150ml strong black tea
100g dried fruit (I used a mixture of raisins and dried cherries, but you could use cranberries, dried apricots or similar)
1 egg, beaten
75g soft brown sugar
50g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons golden syrup
To brush on the finished cake:
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Make the shortcrust pastry in advance, by rubbing the fat into the flour using your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in a pinch of salt. Add the cold water a small amount at a time, and using a knife stir into the mixture until it begins to clump together. Bring the mixture together into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Soak the breadcrumbs in the tea.
Grease and line a 20cm diameter shallow cake tin. Remove the pastry from the fridge to allow it to warm up slightly – otherwise it will be difficult to roll out.
Mix together the flour, spice, baking powder and sugar. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Drain the breadcrumb and tea mixture and squeeze the mixture dry.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, flour and butter mixture, dried fruit and beaten egg until it is all combined. Finally stir in the syrup.
Preheat the oven to 190C / 170C fan / Gas Mark 5.
Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to the thickness of a pound coin (approx. 3mm). Cut out two circles the same size as the cake tin. Place one pastry circle in the base of the tin. Then spoon the breadcrumb and fruit filling on top and finish with the second pastry circle.
Bake in the oven for 50 minutes – 1 hour until the pastry is cooked and golden brown on top. Whilst the cake is stlll warm brush with melted butter and sprinkle with the granulated sugar. When cooled cut into pieces and serve.