Sunday 2 August 2009

Baking and Bill Maxwell

I'll warn you at the beginning - this blog post does have some bookish bits, but you have to get through quite a lot on baking first. Not to be read if a) you loathe baking, or b) you're on a diet...

A happy afternoon has been spent baking - Mel and I discovered that we had seven types of sugar in the house, and decided to put them all in some carrot cake muffins. Seven types of sugar, you ask (and the more literary-theory-obsessed amongst you may make mention of Seven Types of Ambiguity) - since I am never one to turn down a sugar-based question, I'll list them. Caster sugar, golden caster sugar, granulated sugar, soft dark brown sugar, soft light brown sugar, muscovado sugar, icing sugar. The resultant carrot cake muffins are pretty delicious, though I says it as shouldn't.

I use sultanas with the carrots, rather than walnuts or almonds as some recipes suggest - and added in some cinammon. Oh, and I rather distrust any icing made of cheese, so I sprinkled muscovado sugar on them about two-thirds of the way through baking, to give an extra crunchy topping when they came out. (By the way, the main sugar in them is soft light brown - the other six were added in small amounts, just for fun).

Oh, and I also made a chocolate orange sponge cake, which is very sweet and very nice. This isn't Stuck-in-a-Baking-Tin, I know, but if anybody would like recipes, I'd be happy to include them soon...

This was all inspired by Darlene's foray into baking, which she documented here. Do go and read the comments (which do include a very lengthy one from me, I must confess) as the blogging baking community is quite good with tips. Though like most eager bakers, there are some fairly arbitrary rules which I stick by, regardless of advice. (Does anybody know the difference in taste achieved by caster or granulated in a sponge cake? Is there any? I refuse to use granulated, but based on nothing but whim and prejudice.)

Right. And onto books... They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell was the third title selected in the Cornflower Book Group over at Cornflower Books. Sadly, since I'm already in four other book groups, I've not been able to join in with this one online - but They Came Like Swallows sounded absolutely wonderful when I read this introductory post, not least because it was under 200pp long. Karen very kindly gave me a copy of it, and eventually I was able to read the novel, whilst in Devon with my brother. And it is quite, quite brilliant.

My copy is at home, so I'm going to have to rely on my memory and all these wonderful comments from the Cornflower Book Group (including some pretty big spoilers, but then
the book is more about writing than plot). In fact, I'll keep it quick, because you can just as easily follow the links above and read their more erudite thoughts(!) The novel is divided into three sections - the two sons and the husband of Elizabeth, the silent centre of the book. Bunny starts off - a very nervous, anxious child, bullied by his brother and scared of his father, who just wants to be left alone with his homemade village. His love for Elizabeth burns through his every action, as does the isolation he feels in every other relationship. But Maxwell writes very cleverly - by the time we get to the sections from the perspectives of Bunny's brother Robert, and father James, we realise that Bunny's perspective is skewed. Not wrong, but very subjective. Three competing viewpoints coalesce into one brilliantly delicate novel - the various relationships between family members are all laced with misunderstandings, misconstruings, misapprehensions... all so realistic and uncomfortably possible.

Maxwell (and here is the bold statement) may be the best plain stylist I've ever read. Writers like Woolf are better at the detailed, mosaic, entangled writing. Austen is better at the balanced sentence; Wilde better at the epigram - but Maxwell perfects that type of writing that seems style-less but must actually take endless work. It flows perfectly - depths and minutiae of emotions are included without being obtrusive. The subtlety is in these familial depictions, not in the way the story moves - which is only a vehicle for Maxwell's greater art. They Came Like Swallows has some pretty big plot moments, but the novel is much more about the interaction of a family - and that ambiguous, absent voice of Elizabeth ringing through every page.


  1. Please, please start up Stuck-in-a-Baking-Tin. I need some way to live vicariously through the awesome cakes of others, given that I don't have the time or the energy to bake anything myself at the moment.

    Although I did make drop scones last week. They were surprisingly tasty the next morning.

  2. Simon, Your chocolate orange sponge looks fantastic! The sponge bit definitely looks a lot lighter in texture than mine did so if you don't mind passing on your recipe when you have a minute that would be lovely. You should really try a cream cheese frosting sometime on your carrot cake muffins, it tastes much better than it sounds, promise. Stuck-in-a-Baking-Tin should make an appearance every now and again, I like it!

  3. I read this book with Cornflower and loved it. I've gone on to other Maxwells and all are quite wonderful. A great, and far too little known, writer.

  4. Stuck in a baking tin wouldn't be so good for a cake really :p Your cakes look good, and I'm a big fan of baking too and baking blogging. You've just reminded me that I haven't posted about this week's bake of the week yet (chocolate cherry cupcakes!).

    BTW - I hope you've managed to find Fair Trade versions of most of your sugars!

  5. I adore Maxwell and have spent a great deal of blog space encouraging people to read him. The Chateau is my particular favourite.

    The cakes look utterly splendid!

  6. I'd love the recipe for the chocolate orange cake. Is it as simple as it sounds i.e. use orange-flavoured chocolate in the mix? Or is it more fiddly than that?

  7. That baking looks very impressive. We had a big tea party at work today filled with over 200 cakes and I shamefully forgot to bake one and bring in, appaulling behaviour.

    Haven't read any Maxwell but this sounds and interesting read, and with a rave review of his writing I can't miss that!

  8. please bring cake to work. especially as you told everyone i was a drunk.

  9. Yum! I think you have more varieties of sugar than me - though I also have several honeys and agave nectar. Oh, and maple syrup. Do those count?

  10. You have many treats ahead of you with the wonderful, wonderful William Maxwell! My favourite of all is TIME WILL DARKEN try it when you've been through your others. He's marvellous. I am eschewing your cakes, however. I scrolled right past them, as I'm on a weightloss regime! Bet they were scrumptious!

  11. The William Maxwell book sounds marvellous, I will seek it out. Have you ever read The Element of Lavishness, a collection of his correspondence with Sylvia Townsend Warner? I recommend it to anyone who likes either writer.

    Oh, and the cakes look great.

  12. Funny you should mention The Element of Lavishness, catalpa - I just bought it online a few days ago. Waiting for it to arrive...


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