My friend Willa loves Jane Eyre so much she re-reads it every year. As much as I liked Jane Eyre once was certainly enough for me. My college boyfriend and I had a book club that we took very seriously (I know, it’s tough) and one sweltering summer I made him read it–something I look back on and kind of cringe. As great as the Brontës are, their novels aren’t exactly light beach reading. In Jane Eyre, as in many Victorian novels, hunger is a major topic and usually represents some deeper yearning. Jane is searching for nourishment both physical and emotional throughout most of the novel. She is so terribly mistreated at her aunt’s house she is actually excited to be sent to a charity school, but when she gets there the misery of her aunt’s tyranny is replaced by the misery of constant gnawing hunger and the bullying of desperately hungry girls.
The scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion. Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.
Oftentimes the food that is given to the girls is so inedible that even the hungriest and sickest amongst them can’t stomach it. At one point the girls show up to breakfast only to find that the porridge they are being served is burnt—an offering which is apparently even worse than being offered nothing at all.
Ravenous, and now very faint, I devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess. Burned porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it. The spoons were moved slowly. I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it, but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted. (45)
Amongst all of this misery, however, Jane does have a few moments of happiness. After Mr. Brocklehurst announces to the entire school that Jane is a liar and makes her stand on a stool for a half-an-hour, Miss Temple invites Jane and her best friend Helen over for tea, and it is here that one of the most joyful scenes in the novel transpires.
Having invited Helen and me to approach the table, and placed before each of us a cup of tea, with one delicious but thin morsel of toast, she got up, and unlocked a drawer, and taking from it a parcel wrapped up in paper, disclosed presently to our eyes a good-sized seed-cake.
“I meant to give each of you some of this to take with you,” said she; “but as there is so little toast you must have it now” and she proceeded to cut slices with a generous hand.
We feasted that evening as on nectar and ambrosia; and not the least delight of the entertainment was the smile of gratification with which our hostess regarded us, as we satisfied our famished appetites on delicate fare she liberally supplied (73)
Traditional Victorian seed cakes had the texture of a fruitcake and were usually prepared with seeds like coriander and caraway. Sometimes candied citrus peels and overly-sweet liquors were involved. No matter how much I tried to psych myself up to make one of these authentically Victorian cakes I kept envisioning dense, brandy-heavy fruitcake. I knew I had to think of something else for this very important food scene.
In May Willa and I traveled to California to visit friends and wander around and eat and eat and eat. One morning while we were staying in Santa Rosa, Willa’s aunt and uncle brought us home a bag full of pastries from a place called Village Bakery. Amongst the goodies were three enormous buns lined with butter and cardamom and cinnamon and studded with pearl sugar. I had never had cardamom in anything other than savory dishes and I was skeptical at first, but after one bite I was a convert. Willa and I devoured all three and then talked about them intermittently throughout the rest of the day (and for weeks to come). I was in the grocery store last week halfheartedly searching for caraway and coriander to make a cake that I knew I wouldn’t like when I saw a jar of cardamom seeds. Smelling them I was brought right back to that sunny front porch in Santa Rosa with my very dear Jane-Eyre-loving friend, cutting in half seed bun after seed bun and sharing them with each other and I decided that a seed bun that can be shared amongst friends would do much better for this scene than a seed cake that no one wants to eat with you.
Jane Eyre Cardamom Seed Bun Recipe:
1 1/4 cups warm water (105°F.)
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
two 1/4-ounce packages active dry yeast (5 tablespoons total)
3 large eggs beaten lightly
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup powdered nonfat dry milk
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons cardamom seeds, ground in a mortar with a pestle, or in an electric spice/coffee grinder
an egg wash made by beating 1 large egg with 2 tablespoons water
Pearl Sugar (optional)
In a large bowl combine water, butter, and sugar. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand 5 minutes, or until foamy. Stir in eggs, salt and dry milk until combined. With a wooden spoon stir in 5 sups flour, 1 cup at a time, and stir mixture until a dough is formed.
On a floured surface, knead dough about 10 minutes, adding enough of the remaining 1 cup flour to make dough smooth and elastic. Put dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat, and let rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Punch down dough and on floured surface with a floured rolling pin roll into a 15- by 20-inch rectangle. Spread butter over dough and sprinkle with granulated sugar, cinnamon and cardamom.
With a long side facing you, roll up dough jelly-roll fashion and cut crosswise into approximately 1 1/2-inch-thick slices with a cut side down. Working with 1 slice at a time gently twist opposite ends of slice around twice to form a figure eight. Crimp ends together. Arrange rolls, a swirled side up, on a buttered baking sheet about 2 inches apart and let rise in a warm place until increased 1 1/2 times in bulk, about 1 hour.
While rolls are rising, preheat oven to 350F.
Brush tops of rolls with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake rolls in middle of oven until tops are pale golden, about 25 minutes.