We’ve just finished reading Jane Eyre in bookclub.
We do things a little differently in our bookclub. Rather than reading the novel and talking about it, we chunk it down into a set of chapters, read those, and meet to discuss before moving onto the next set. We’re all reading at the same pace (and trust each other not to read ahead) and have plenty of time to disappear down google rabbit holes as we find bits and pieces of interest. We each bring something different and valuable to the discussion and this time with these women has become an integral part of my self-care routine.
When we’re done with the novel, we meet again, but this time to bake something inspired by the novel, it’s time or the regional setting. For Wuthering Heights we made pikelets, for Agnes Grey (speaking of which, I’ve just realised I haven’t posted that one yet), it was soda bread.
I’m thankful to the Bronte sisters for setting their books in the atmospheric north of England – there’s so many wonderful regional treats to try from up there. The challenge we have as a bookclub, though, is to find something that can be prepared and baked in the hour we have available, doesn’t require any fancy equipment, techniques or ingredients. With that in mind, the bake we chose for Jane Eyre was fat rascals.
A sort-of cross between a rock cake and a fruit scone, I first sampled fat rascals in Betty’s Tearoom in York. Betty’s are famous for them. Indeed, they own the registered trademark fat rascals. While Betty’s, which first opened in Harrogate in 1919, might have made the fat rascal famous, they certainly didn’t invent it. Their version was developed in 1983 – the original, however, is much older than that.
Jane might not have eaten a fat rascal at Betty’s, but she probably ate something similar.
In the scenes where she is wandering the moors and in and out of villages yearning for a cake to eat – scenes, which, incidentally, still play like a movie in my mind – the cake she was craving wouldn’t have been a fancy cake. It probably would have been something like a spice cake or a teacake: a light, fruit-filled, yeasted bun that’s a little like a hot cross bun without the cross. (As an aside, I made these when we were reading Wuthering Heights, but because of the required proving time chose not to do them for bookclub. If you’re interested in giving them a go – and I’d encourage you to do so – the recipe I used is from Paul Hollywood’s British Baking. You can also find it here.)
What’s in a name?
The name fat rascal appears in the mid 1800’s in the rather catchily titled Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases Collected in Whitby and the Neighbourhood. In there, spice cakes are defined as being “tea cakes with currants as well as cakes more generally, known as plum cakes for which this quarter is famous. The tea cakes made rich with butter and cream are called fat rascals.”
Charles Dickens refers to them in a short story published in 1859, but linked them with singing hinnies – which are from a tad further north in Northumberland and which I told you about here. They’re also flatter and more similar to a Welsh cake. Hey ho.
Anyways, the name fat rascal was also used interchangeably in the 19th century with “turf cake”. The turf cake (or turf bun) dates back even further and was originally a canny way to use up leftover pieces of pastry dough. The dough was mixed with lard, honey and fruit and baked in a covered pan in the ashes of a peat fire – a simple yet substantial flat cake.
Betty’s have closely guarded their recipe, so the one we chose to use comes from Yorkshireman James Martin. You can find it here.
This is a buttery recipe with flour/fat ratio more similar to what you’d find in shortcrust pastry than a scone. It makes for a short cake (no pun intended) that crumbles on the tongue.
While I used a mixture of butter and lard (I keep it in the fridge for roast potatoes…it’s no wonder I struggle with cholesterol), the other bakers used just butter and had good results.
We also used sour cream instead of double cream as many of the traditional recipes I found used soured, slightly soured cream, a mix of cream with lemon juice, or a combo of cream, and milk.
The spices and zests made the whole house smell like Christmas – and the rascals we made tasted like it too.
I don’t like glace cherries and didn’t have time to go to the supermarket for almonds so chose not to decorate the tops of my rascals.
Speaking of which, they did crack a little on the top, but while this meant my photos weren’t great, it certainly didn’t impact the way they tasted.
We’re about to begin reading Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so watch this space!
Thanks to the following websites for some of the info in this post – any errors are, of course, mine.