Saturday, 17 March 2018
The Teacher's Secret by Suzanne Leal & Raisin, walnut and orange cake
We all make mistakes, and some of our blunders come to haunt us years later.
Terry Pritchard who is affectionately known at Brindle Public school as Mr P, is a warm-hearted teacher who loves his job. He has been teaching several generations of children - some of his current students are children of his former students. He is a well-known and much-loved figure in town.
Then a new principal arrives to school, and school life changes dramatically. Immediately her and Terry's personalities clash, and Ms Matthews takes it upon herself to make Terry comply with her new rules or perish. She is a very unpleasant, uncompromising (in a negative way) character, without redeeming features. She seems to be power-obsessed.
This brought back memories of working in school many years ago. While some of my colleagues were genuinely wonderful and kind people, there were also some colleagues who would be ready to stab you in the back and walk over dead bodies just to achieve their ambitions. Ms Matthews epitomises the abhorrent zeal and schemes of certain teaching professionals. I imagine we've all met "a Ms Matthews" in our lives, whether as a colleague or as a teacher of our children. This is the kind of person you mentally want to strangle.
Mr P is not as faultless as he appears at the beginning of the novel, and once Ms Matthews uncovers his past secret and decides that his behaviour is inappropriate, he is dismissed from the job he loves so passionately. Terry is forced into an early retirement, and the whole school community is shocked and devastated.
A new teacher, Nina, comes to replace him. Obviously, as Terry's replacement, she is not the flavour of the month. And she truly struggles to fit in and find her place. The pupils confront her and resent her for taking Terry's place. You feel sorry for Nina, as anyone in her position would struggle.
There are several smaller personal stories and subplots going on. The story is a bit scattered, and there are too many characters. The feel of a small town is rendered truthfully and authentically.
It is a thought-provoking book which tackles modern day issues.
Thank you to Legend Press for sending me an e-copy of the book for reviewing.
As it often happens, when I read novels, I take notice of what the characters cook and eat.
One of the characters, Joan, is very curious about a new family next door, She decides to bake a cake to welcome them to the neighbourhood. She hesitates, and imagines her late mother talking to her:
"Or, she hears her mother whisper, you could make them a cake, Joanie.
A tray of biscuits she can manage, but baking cakes has never been her forte and Joan shakes her head at the idea.
Come on, Joanie, her mother insists. Nothing fancy, just a little something.
As she washes up the breakfast dishes, she manages to talk herself into it. A sultana cake, she decides, that's what she will make. So she takes out her mother's cookbook and gets started. She measures out the sultanas, whips up the butter and the sugar, adds the eggs and the flour and she's done. Carefully, she pours the mixture into a loaf pan.
To her surprise and delight, when she pulls it out of the oven it looks absolutely beautiful.
Just a little something to welcome you to the street. That's what she'll say".
This short passage just makes your heart melt, doesn't it?! It brings back some lovely memories of the times when we moved to a college house in Williamstown, MA, when our elder son was just a few months old. We had most wonderful neighbours, and still keep in touch. They left a big basket of food (including some baked goodies) for us on the porch with a card, and it was such an unexpected warm gesture.
I love browsing bookshelves in charity shops, and I've recently spotted an old edition of The Australian Women's Weekly Cakes & Slices Cookbook. I just had to buy it. I looked up if there are any sultana cake recipes in the book, and indeed there is a brandied sultana cake recipe. But I was more inspired by Raisin, Walnut and Orange Syrup Cake recipe. It's quite easy, and I think even Joan who's not a confident cake baker would master it.
And here it is, a recipe for Raisin, walnut and orange syrup cake, which I have adapted to suit our tastes. I have reduced the sugar content and have changed some of the steps too.
Raisin, walnut and orange cake
zest of 1 orange
180g caster sugar
2 medium eggs
60g walnuts, finely chopped
180g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
100g chopped raisins
125g butter, melted
50ml orange juice
3-4 heaped tbsp icing sugar mixed with orange juice to make thick icing.
sliced orange (optional)
In a big mixing bowl mix caster sugar with orange zest. Beat in the eggs. Add chopped walnuts and most of the flour (minus 1tbsp) and baking powder. Chop raisins, then sprinkle them with 1tbsp of flour to coat them, this will help raisins to be spread inside the cake evenly rather than go to the bottom.
Add melted and cooled butter and orange juice, and mix well.
Spoon the cake dough in a well-oiled loaf tin. Put the tin in the oven preheated to 180C.
Bake for about 35+ minutes. Check readiness with a wooden toothpick.
Once cooked, let the cake cool a bit before taking it out of the tin.
Slice the orange into crescents, and cook for a couple of minutes in a mix of sugar and orange juice.
Decorate the cake first with the icing made from the icing sugar and orange juice, then put the slices of orange on top, and pour the remains of the syrup over.
The cake will keep for up to 3 days.
It's a tasty, moist cake, quite dark in colour. It will most likely be lighter in colour, if you swap raisins for sultanas.