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Stirring up memories


Cakes across the pond
May 23, 2007

St. Gennys Church hides itself in the towering cliffs of the North Cornish coast looking down on the often-raging Atlantic Ocean. It has for centuries.

A long, long time ago—something like 1,400 years ago—Celtic monks wandered the high and lonely cliffs of Cornwall on the western coast of England. There, some time in the 600s local lore recounts, they established a church; or rather they set up a stone cross and built huts for shelter. One of the big pluses of the location was the presence of a well that became the source of water for baptism. The well is still there.

For yes, there is a church in the same spot today. Sometime in the 1100s the church was named St. Genesius, but today it's known lovingly by its parishioners as St. Gennys. There have been a series of structures and additions—the Norman 12th century structure, and the later additions, all have provided a center for life in the community.

So it is today. The newsletter of the church covers life in the small community including food. Just recently, the food column written by my friend Ellen Hawley featured Decatur County!

How did this happen? I'd sent a copy of the collection of these columns, "Stirring up memories" all the times, over to Ellen and Ida for Christmas. Ellen enjoyed the book and she shared it with some cooking friends, Robyn Connelly-Webster and her mother, Maureen Connelly-Webster. They were so taken with Helen Sanders' pound cake that Ellen put it in the newsletter.

Helen Sanders' Pound Cake
1 stick butter
2 sticks margarine
1 package (8 ounce) cream cheese
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla or lemon extract
3 cups flour

Note: There is no milk in this recipe.

Cream together the butter, margarine and cream cheese, then gradually add the sugar. Beat until it is fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Add the vanilla or lemon extract. Gradually add in the flour.

Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 45 minutes in a greased and floured tube pan.

My changes: I was long on butter and short on margarine, so I used three sticks of butter. I wanted to take a cake to a friend and also wanted to try it myself, so instead of using the tube pan, I put the cake in three 8-by-3-inch loaf pans and baked them for about an hour. They were delicious.

It's surprising, but Ellen reports that her British friends are unfamiliar with pound cake (they love it now!) and bewildered by the call for a stick of butter. They had no idea!

Ellen explains: "[In Britain] butter is sold in 250-gram packages that aren't marked by the tablespoonful because cooks here measure solids by weight, not volume. So I've been kind of cutting the package in half lengthwise so they resemble 1/4-pound sticks (sort of) and then kind of cutting off a chunk and telling myself 'that'll do.' I end up using more butter than the recipes call for, I suspect, but so far our arteries have been surviving."

"What else can I tell you? They sell more kinds of sugar here than you'd believe. Not just light and dark brown and white but several kinds of white sugar whose names I can't remember."

Ellen also suggests perhaps reserving some of the batter, stirring in some chocolate syrup and then marbling it through the rest of the batter. That's something I'll try next time.

I asked Ellen for more recipes, especially a typical Cornish one. She offers a Cornish summer pudding. Seems like Cornish cooks must be like our good southern ones. The recipe isn't exact—it's largely in the head of the cook.

So, since it's not a recipe you have to follow exactly, here's a rough approximation.

Cornish Summer Pudding
You'll need:

  • white bread (good texture, possibly day-old)
  • soft summer fruit (blackberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, etc.)
  • sugar water

Simmer fruit in water and sugar until slightly soft.

Cut crusts off bread. Line a pan or mold of any sort with bread—bottom and sides. Fill with fruit and enough syrup to color the bread. Reserve some syrup.

Top with bread. The fruit should now be enclosed in bread. Weight pan with anything reasonable and leave overnight. Anywhere the bread is still white, pour reserved syrup on it. This is traditionally served with clotted cream but could be served with yogurt, frozen yogurt, ice cream or whipped cream.

Summer pudding shows up a lot in Cornwall during the summer—and occasionally in the winter thanks to berries frozen during the summer. If you can resist serving it with cream (I'm just sure there's someone out there who can), it's low fat.

About the cream. St. Gennys is in a dairy area. Ellen explained, one enduring legacy of the dairy farming is that almost nothing gets eaten here without cream: double cream, single cream, clotted cream (sounds horrid but absolutely delicious), very occasionally whipped cream.

All I can say is, "Yummy!"

Finally, when Ellen told me she is teaching Robyn to bake some American dishes, especially baking powder biscuits—they were as unfamiliar to the British palate as the pound cake and as big a hit—I asked for her recipe. Robyn has asked Maureen to keep the ingredients around so she can stir up a batch often. They sound like winners.

Ellen's baking powder biscuits
2 cups flour
1 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
5 tablespoons butter
2/3 to ¾ cup buttermilk

You do all the predictable things—sift, cut in butter, add as much of the buttermilk as it needs to turn into dough. Then knead about 30 seconds. Bake in 450 degree oven for 10-12 minutes.

Having said that, buttermilk is sold here but in small, strange-looking expensive little packages, so I've been using regular milk soured with vinegar.

Thanks to Ellen for sharing these cooking adventures with me.

I'll end with a copy of the note Maureen sent me after Ellen shared the book with her. I do this as a thank-you to all the generous folks like Helen Sanders who have shared their stories with all of us.

Dear Trilla,

Hi. I thought you might like to know that I have had a lovely time dipping into your cook/story book. I don't know what I like best—actually it's the stories! They literally provided a flavour of a 'time' and a region in the states I would never have experienced, if Ellen (Hawley) hadn't shared the recipes with me.

Thank you for pulling something like that together, it gave a lot of pleasure on the other side of the pond.

Take care
(Maureen Connelly-Webster: a neighbour of Ellen & Ida's)

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network