The fourth installment of Maryrose Wood's "The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, about three children who were raised by wolves and the young governess who cares for them, was finally released last month. I say "finally" because for those of us who adore this series for young readers, the year-long wait seemed to drag on for an eternity!
The series, which takes place in England sometime in "the past," is a favorite of mine for its vintage aesthetic, in both its visuals and its storytelling. The first book came out in 2011 when my son was just beginning to age out of picture books, but like a book group of two, we still enjoyed reading aloud together in the evenings.
The novels follow the adventures of 15-year old Penelope Lumley as she leaves the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, where she has spent most of her life, bound for Ashton Place to interview for a job as a governess. There, she meets her three young charges, Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible, so named by Lord Frederick Ashton, who "rescued" them from the woods, where they had been abandoned and were being raised by wolves. His flighty young wife, the Lady Constance, hires Penelope on the spot.
She gamely takes on the challenge of helping the children assimilate back into society (and her strategies work for children raised by humans too!). But who abandoned them, and why? Is Penelope's arrival at Ashton Place a product of chance, or is there more to her relationship with the children? Are Lord Ashton's intentions entirely innocent? Mysteries, witticisms, and words of wisdom (courtesy of Swanburne Academy's founder) abound in these charming novels that make great read alouds.
Book Four, "The Interrupted Tale," picks up Penelope's story with an invitation from her alma mater to speak at its Celebrate Alumnae Knowledge Exposition, known by its acronym CAKE. She and the children travel to the Swanburne Academy for the occasion, but nefarious doings are afoot, and once again, it's up to plucky Penelope to save the day.
Quite a grand cake is served at CAKE:
"It was so large that it took two servants on each side and one in the back to push the enormous wheeled trolley that bore this confection out of the kitchen. It had twelve layers, and each one was a different kind of cake altogether.
Chocolate cake, vanilla cake, carrot cake, sponge cake, coconut cake, marble cake, pineapple cake, mousse cake, nougat cake, cheesecake, pound cake, and Black Forest cake," Miss Mortimer explained. The icing had been applied in thick, painterly swirls. On top, written in a delicate script, was the Swanburne motto: No Hopeless Case Is Truly Without Hope."
So cake is the perfect edible accompaniment to reading the novel, but why stop at just eating it? Whether you're reading the novel with your children or grown-ups who enjoy a good story, baking together is a great opportunity for talking and bonding.
Baking a 12-layer cake may be a bit over the top for a book discussion, but any one of the layer flavors would work. One of them is a personal favorite: coconut cake. Master baker and HamletHub contributor John Barricelli has a terrific recipe (see below).
Of course, if you really aren't the baking type, you can find his decadent confections at one of his SoNo Baking Company and Café locations (101 Water St. in Norwalk and 1680 Post Rd. E in Westport).
Recipe for John Barricelli's Coconut Cake
- 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons cream of coconut
- 1 teaspoon coconut extract
Coconut Pastry Cream Ingredients
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 cups milk
- 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and scraped, or 1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
- 1 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
Coconut Buttercream Ingredients
- 5 large egg whites
- 1-1/3 cups sugar
- Pinch of coarse salt
- 1 pound unsalted butter, firm but not chilled, cut into cubes
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons coconut extract
- 2-1/2 to 3 cups shredded, sweetened coconut, for decorating.
1. Set an oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush a 9 by 2-inch round cake pan with softened butter. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick silicone baking mat; set aside.
2. To make the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking powder; set aside.
3. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs whites on medium speed until frothy. With the mixer running, gradually sprinkle in the granulated sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Scrape the meringue into a bowl; set aside.
4. Exchange the whisk for the paddle attachment. Wash and dry the bowl. Add the butter, confectioners' sugar and salt to the mixer bowl. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl halfway through. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the coconut milk, cream of coconut, and coconut extract.
5. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients, beating until the flour is absorbed. Remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the meringue.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake on the prepared baking sheet, rotating the sheet about two-thirds of the the way through the baking time, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Then turn the cake out and let cool completely on the rack.
7. To make the pastry cream: In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, about half of the sugar, all the cornstarch, and 1/2 cup of the milk.
8. In a saucepan, combine the remaining sugar, the remaining 1-1/2 cups milk, the vanilla extract or vanilla bean, and the salt. Bring to a simmer. Whisking contantly, pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, gradually at first to temper it, and then more quickly. Set a strainer over the saucepan. Strain the custard mixture back into the saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil for 10 seconds, whisking. (Make sure the custard boils for 10 seconds in the center of the pan, not just around the sides.) The mixture should thicken to a pudding-like consistency. Discard the vanilla bean, if using.