Brian Jacques’s Redwall was one of the beloved series of my younger reading days.
They were, in some ways incredibly repetitive and problematic (for example, how an individual’s moral compass is almost invariably determined by their species–foxes were sly, mice were brave, stoats were mostly mean minions–somehow I never noticed the issues with this until I read the Wikipedia article and thought about it), but they were also insatiably good in other respects. They were absorbing, in the same way that some fantasy series are, characterized by strong world building as you become privy to another history, set of norms and traditions–and stereotypes.
Jacques’s books have always paid significant attention to food. Celebrations of any sort were synonymous with generous feasts, and it was always around food that the characters got a chance to sit down a bond. And he spared no expense in his descriptions, clearly humble but very generous affairs.
“When I was a young fellow, food was short because of World War II. Everything was on ration, and lots of things folk liked were just unobtainable. So, there I was, reading through my mother’s old cookery books, my mouth watering at the coloured illustrations of delicious recipes. And the books I’d read in the library…. It really annoyed me when I’d come to a passage where somebody ate a marvellous feast. There never seemed to be any description of it. Afterward the hero would ride off on his white stallion, thanking the King for the wonderful dinner. Wait! What did it taste like? What did it look like? How was it made? Did he really enjoy it?”
-Brian Jacques, The Redwall Cookbook
Understandably, and to the delight of most Redwall fans I’m sure, Jacques thus decided to compensate in his own writing. It is rare to find a series that so candidly and consistently pays attention to the food. While it may not be vital to the plot, the food he describes helps develop the atmosphere (I always love the cozy meals shared in the abbey). Besides, food becomes a bit of a characterization (though it may lean more towards stereotyping). The shrews always make bubble and squeak (I think, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), the moles are brewers of october beer and strawberry fizz, and hares just eat any darn thing.
This post comes as I recently realized that he passed a few years ago. It was a bit of a shock–after having read so many of his books, and yet always finding a new Redwall novel (though it could also be that I just didn’t remember and I’ve been infinitely cycling through the series…), Brian Jacques seemed an infinitely prolific writer, and Redwall, a series that would never end. It always appealed to me that Redwall Abbey was written with permanence, a structure that was a symbol of stability and endurance (fought over and inevitably recovered by the end of each novel). And if Jacques wasn’t writing about anthropomorphic woodland animals, he might be writing about an immortal boy and his dog. While it finally has ended, his novels continue to have an enduring character, and, regardless, I’m sure they’ll always remain as timeless and constant as the abbey itself.
With that in mind, I think that this is the sort of cake that could be served in the winter months with tea in the gatehouse, for when the scones and clotted cream and strawberries must make way for the heartier root vegetables stored in the cellar.
The cake is quite similar to the last set of yellow beet muffins I made, though I prefer this version. I reduced the amount of beet so it is not so strong tasting, and, of course, altered the accompanying flavours. The cake is only lightly sweetened, allowing the icing to steal the show and make it into a bit more of a treat (anything with icing automatically becomes a bit more special).
golden beet, chamomile, and rye iced cake
240 mL milk
75 g rye flour
215 g all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
250 g golden beets
115 g butter, melted
135 g brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Heat milk until steaming, and stir in around 1 1/2 tsp chamomile tea or 1/2 tea bag. Let steep and cool for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a loaf pan with a parchment sling and butter any remaining exposed surfaces.
Whisk together flours, salt, baking powder. Grate the beets on the fine holes of of a box grater.
Whisk together the melted butter, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. Beat in eggs one at a time. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring until combined, then the beets. Lastly, add the flour mixture all at once and stir until just combined.
Scrape into the prepared pan and bake for around 1 hour or until an inserted skewer is removed with only some crumbs clinging.
100 g icing sugar
strong brewed chamomile tea
dried jasmine flowers
Whisk the icing sugar with enough tea to form a glaze of the desired consistency. Pour over the cooled cake, sprinkle with some dried jasmine flowers, and let set.