Recently I have been reading Ghost Moth, a debut novel by Michèle Forbes. It is a haunting novel, set in Belfast but in two contrasting eras of the cities history. Belfast in 1949 was a happy city caught up in a whirlwind of post war optimism. It was a time when you could visit tearooms, take part in operatic societies and stroll along the river Lagan in the moonlight. By stark contrast Belfast in1969 was the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Burning vehicles can be found on the streets and people learn to stay home after dark. Against the backdrop of Belfast the turmoil of a family is set. It starts with a simple swim in the Irish Sea on the shoreline of Groomsport, a small town just outside Belfast. Katherine Bedford is transfixed by the sight of a seal that appears in the water next to her and then disappears. She then starts to struggle for her own life. Although she is rescued from the currents by her husband, George, the incident haunts her and releases memories from the past.
We find out how Katherine has changed over the years along with the city. With narrative that alternates between the forties and the sixties we find out that in her youth Katherine starred in the opera production of Carmen. Although she has just become engaged to George, she is fascinated by the tailor, Tom, who is designing her costume. An illicit romance ensues and over the book we find out how Katherine is now married to George and has four children. It is a haunting book which is focused on the family, but also gives a sense of the foreboding background of the troubles. Scenes where a visit to the hospital necessitates passing a burning bus and trying to take the children’s minds off it. Having grown up in Belfast in the seventies it was a stark reminder of the times, being searching going into shops in the city centre and having to be ready to evacuate if there was a bomb scare.
The book has its lighter moments as well and one of these is when the children are preparing for the summer fair which is being held in the back garden. The money raised was to go to charity and there were games and food stalls. One of the girls dressed up as a fortune teller and read fortunes in a make shift tent. One of the goodies on offer on the cake stall was a boiled cake.
The boiled cake that had been made for the fair had not been boiled. It had been baked in the oven like any other cake. But its generous quantities of sultanas and raisins had been steamed gently so that they were plump and soft before being folded into the mixture of cinnamon, flour, eggs and sugar. Katherine had made this cake with her mother when she was a child and now regularly made it with her own children. Elsa and Elizabeth, that morning, had slipped their girlish fingers around the insides of the deep ceramic bowl as Katherine was putting the cake into the oven and had lifted the remains of the fruit mixture to their mouths and licked their fingers clean.
While I love making fruit cakes like Dundee cake I have never tried boiling the fruit first. This was an experiment I had to try.
I actually did boil the fruit for this cake, I heated it with water, butter, sugar and spice in a saucepan. I brought it to a boil and then let it simmer gently for four or five minutes. The fruit grew plump and soft. Before I made the cake I let the boiled fruit cool until it was really cold. The fruit absorbed the sugar and looked almost like the filling for sweet mince pies.
It was then a simple matter of folding in the eggs and flour and baking the cake until it was ready. The resulting cake was lovely, full of succulent fruit and perfect with a cup of tea. It didn’t take much longer to make than a normal fruit cake, the only long part was waiting for the fruit to cool down. It was easy enough to get on and do other things whilst waiting. When the cake is ready it is perfect with a cup of tea, and being fruit cake it will keep well (if it does not get eaten).
- 340 g 12 oz mixed fruit
- 240 ml water
- 113 g 4 oz butter
- 113 g 4 oz light brown sugar
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 2 eggs
- 128 g 5oz plain flour
- 128 g 5oz self raising flour
- Grease a cake tin with butter and line with greaseproof paper
- Add the mixed fruit, water, butter, mixed spice and sugar into a pan.
- Bring to the boil whilst stirring then leave to simmer for four minutes.
- Leave to cool
- When the fruit mixture is cool add to a mixing bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 180C, 350 F, Gas Mark 4
- Beat the eggs and add to the fruit mixture.
- Fold the flour into the mixture.
- Pour into the cake tin and bake for 1¼ to 1½ hours. When it is ready a skewer inserted into the cake should come out clean.