It’s the new year and we’re all meant to be health conscious and vowing that the excesses of the previous few weeks must NEVER be repeated...so what better than prune cake? I must confess to cheating – prune cake would be just too hard a sell to my family – and used a dried fruit orchard mix that contained prunes, pear, peach and apple.
This temptingly titled “prune special” cake is from the 1948 “What’s Cookin’?” book, subtitled, “A teen age cookery book.” Of course, you knew already it was for the youth as soon as you spied the missing “g” on “Cookin’”. I am intrigued that teenage is spelled as two separate words. If you’re wondering what the typical “teen ager” of 1948 looked like, it was like this:
Or, to put it into words – kind of middle aged. The book was written by a cast of thousands including the appropriately named Iris Weigh. Seeing as its aim is to engage with the youth, it’s rather stodgily written in places. Take, for example the dedication (note the interesting use of “them” rather than “you”): Dedicated to All Young People...in the hope that Cooking may hold more interest for them after the advent of this Book.
I can’t possibly convey the brilliance of this book in a single post; I adore everything about it – particularly the little vignettes of fiction surrounding the recipes; take for instance the story of Humphrey and his wife (whilst remembering that this book is for teenagers...and try not to get too disturbed at Humphrey’s – the teen age husband – outfit):
Humphrey likes sponge cake. There. His secret is out. His wife struggles to make him his desired Sunday sponge due to rationing of eggs (this is 1948). Dorothy, friend to Humphrey’s wife, has a cunning recipe that involves sieved dried egg and cold water, and the tension hangs on whether Humphrey will know the difference (he doesn’t, which makes me rather doubt his credentials as a sponge fancier).
Much as I love Humphrey and his old man dress sense, my heart belongs to Jake. It was difficult for Jean to make friends when her family moved to London, even though she did all the right things, such as joining the local tennis club. Jean’s mum decides that her daughter must host her own party in order to win friends – after all “had Jean not shone at domestic science at school?” Jean invites Jake after a wonderful game of tennis. Jake had a “smashing service and an infectious smile.” Are you sensing romance in the offing? Jean’s mum goes to a lot of trouble for the party to be a hit: “the flat was made to look festive with leaves from a friend’s garden. The carpet was taken up and they hired a radiogram for dancing.”
It’s actually Jean’s dad who swings it for her; after Jake has admired her “wizzo spread” (not a euphemism – don’t be smutty) Jean’s dad tells him that, “Friday night is going to be ping-pong night here. You’ll always be welcome.” This is the clincher and Jean knew that “she was well on the way to being the special friend of Jake!” The story ends thus: “soon they were engaged because Jake knew that the Girl he loved was a wizard cook!” It fair brings a tear to one’s eye.
Old books also highlight how language changes. Here are some teen agers (ignore that they all look well into their 40s) showing gratitude because the occasion is a “gay one”:
The Prune Special cake I have chosen is from a chapter entitled, “Friends to tea” and begins, “People who love to pop in for a chat and a cup of tea are something of a nuisance nowadays.” While it goes on to explain that rationing means ingredients are scarce and a host requires advance notice of when extra mouths will need feeding, I do love it as an opening sentence to a chapter on making cake and sandwiches for a social gathering!
Not doing much of a PR job on this cake the book dismisses it as a “plain cake”. After Christmas when we’ve all eaten so much rich food, I decided a plain cake was in order. We all liked the simplicity of flavour and that the sweetness was provided mostly by the dried fruit rather than added sugar; the batter is not at all sweet. Being a sugar addict, I fretted that the cake wasn’t all that nice but Mr CC saved the day by suggesting we should treat it more as a fruit bread or scone. We tried it with some butter...
... and it brought the whole cake to life. Ditto when we tried it with cream and jam. During the tough post-war years this probably wouldn’t have been an option so we should consider ourselves lucky to live in such a bounteous age.
My big mistake with this one was using a tin that was too big. Old cookery books rarely provide what size tin to use so, based on the quantities I used a standard 20cm tin...and got a very thin cake (I’m desperately trying to avoid saying “flat”). If you wish to use a 20cm tin I would double the quantities – unless you are in the market for a shallow (aka flat) cake! I’d use a much smaller round tin or a small loaf tin next time.
The texture is heavy sponge – somewhere between a scone and a tea bread, but don’t let that put you off. With the addition of butter or cream and jam it’s particularly nice with a cup of tea. If I served it to Jake he would no doubt describe it as “wizzo”. Humphrey, on the other hand, would probably prefer something made out of water and dried egg!
Postscript: for those of you with husbands/partners/relatives/friends etc who moan that a lot of what you bake is too sweet this recipe may be the answer. Mr CC genuinely didn’t understand my complaint that this was not sweet enough and he enjoyed it plain. He is happy to be quoted in saying that this was his favourite bake of mine for a long time. I’m off to check his birth certificate to see if his real name is actually Humphrey!
225g plain flour
115g unsalted butter, from the fridge
115g chopped dried prunes – I used a dried fruit orchard mix from M&S containing prune, pear, peach and apple
2 teaspoons baking powder
60g caster sugar
150ml milk – add more if the mix is too dry and heavy
To serve: butter or cream and jam
Preheat the oven to 190˚C/fan oven 170˚C/375˚F/gas mark 5.
Line the smallest round springform tin you have with baking paper; if using a 20cm tin double the recipe quantities. A small loaf tin would work if you plan on slicing and buttering the cake.
Rub the butter into the flour until you have fine breadcrumbs. I find this quicker and easier to do in a food processor.
Stir in the prunes, baking powder and caster sugar.
Beat the egg and stir into the dry ingredients.
Stir in the milk until well combined. Add more milk if the mix is too try - you're aiming for heavy sponge batter consistency.
Spoon into the prepared tin and level the surface.
Bake for approximately 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out cleanly. Mine took exactly one hour.
Leave to cool in the tin on a wire rack. Don’t be depressed as the cake will sink a little on cooling.
When cool enough to handle, remove from the tin, and leave to cool completely on the wire rack.
Serve on its with butter or jam and cream.
Bask in the glory of the wonderful thing you have made.