Here’s how book club usually works:
- Amanda, Darlington, Heather, Melissa, Sarah, Stephanie and I trickle in, toting the food we’ve brought to share.
- We set up the food and catch up with what’s been going on with each other since we last got together.
- We load up our plates.
- We discuss the book in between snacking.
- Somehow, we always end up talking about strange things to say to our bedmates.
- We eat some more.
Last week was no different. *
We gathered at Darlington’s place in Harvard Square for what we were calling a high tea, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning. We chose tea rather than breakfast or brunch as a wink to our book, the Britain-based Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.
That this month’s book was my pick — we take turns choosing titles, the same way we alternate hosting duties — and it just so happened that Innocent Traitor climaxes at the Tower of London, where I spent a morning a few months ago. It was there that I first heard of our book’s protagonist, and where I learned of her place in English history. Knowing how the story of the “innocent traitor” in question unfolded over four hundred and fifty years ago didn’t prevent me at all from thoroughly enjoying Weir’s work.
Something interesting is that Weir is a historian and a writer of narrative non-fiction; Innocent Traitor marks her first foray into fiction. Here she writes a based-in-fact account of Lady Jane Grey‘s life during the sixteenth century. Jane is portrayed as being an erudite girl and an avid student, wanting nothing more out of life than to continue her studies and live as a fervid Protestant. Of course, Jane can’t get her way (if she didn’t face conflict, Weir wouldn’t have much of a novel). It doesn’t help that Jane is a Tudor — the ruling family of England, Ireland and Wales from 1485 to 1603 — and therefore has a something of a shot of wearing the a crown. Positioned by her parents and ambitious men to be the next Queen of England after Edward VI dies of “consumption,” Jane soon finds hers incarcerated in the Tower.
We traded opinions on both Weir and Jane while we balanced our heavy plates on our knees; I shared how I (uncharacteristically) cried cried cried earlier in the week because Weir’s Jane is like a candle underneath a glass dome: burning brighter and brighter until all the air is consumed. Truly, even if you know the real story of Jane and her time, Innocent Traitor will take hold of your shirtsleeves and not let go until you’ve reached the end. At that point, you may cry. You’ve been warned.
Food-wise, we found ourselves faced with a feast, as usual. Stephanie assembled tea sandwiches spread with cream cheese, layered with baby cucumbers and sprinkled with herbs; Heather rolled cheese and salmon into spirals wrapped in spinach-flavored tortillas; Amanda had made scones sweetened with pecans and dried fruit; and the day before I baked a cake made only of clementines, eggs, sugar, nuts and little else. My mother used to make cakes similar to this one, and the entire house would smell sunny and warm, even on the coldest winter days, until the last slice mysteriously went missing.
For the record, my house still smells like sunshine.
4to 5 clementines, about 1 pound total weight
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/3 cups ground almonds (I used walnuts since that’s not only what I had on hand, but also because that’s what my mother uses in her citrus cakes.)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
- Put the clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds. Then finely chop the skins, pith, and fruit in a food processor or by hand.
- Preheat the oven to 375°; butter and line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper. (I used a 9-inch, as that’s what I own, and the cake turned out fine.)
- Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds, and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, when a skewer will come out clean. If necessary, cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top from burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, in the pan on a rack. When the cake is cold, take it out of the pan.
Note: If you do cover your cake with foil, I suggest poking a few toothpicks, skewers or similar into the top and creating a foil tent; mine stuck.