Who knew that Whole Foods could be a Janeite's best friend?
I'm headed down to The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on Saturday, October 23rd, for one of Barbara Peter's fab signings--it wouldn't be a Jane Launch without a visit to the Pen--and in a moment of idiocy this past summer I suggested brightly: "Let's do a tea! And I'll bring Ratafia Cakes!"
Devoted readers of Regency-era novels know that such things are frequently referenced in most scenes of routs, balls, masques and impetuous late-night calls, rashly paid by feckless heroines to the bachelor digs of their dangerous suitors. But what's ratafia? And how did it get into a cake?
Jane Austen, although she never mentions them to my knowledge in any of her novels--(Sudden Rush of Janeites Everywhere to Prove Me Wrong)--was intimately familiar with the little oohjahs. A recipe for them shows up in The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye. Most of the recipes are culled from the cherished collection of Martha Lloyd, Jane's longtime friend, housemate, and second wife of brother Frank. I forget whether the Ratafia Cakes recipe was Martha's or someone else's. But whatever. There it is, on the VERY LAST PAGE of the book. And it turns out to be something like a macaroon. The kind you buy at Laduree's. Nothing much more than ground almonds, powdered sugar, egg whites, and...wait for it...rose water.
Hoping to avoid the whole hunt-for-the-archaic-nineteenth-century-ingredient-thing, I decided on a strategic retreat to the front section of the cookbook, where Naples Biscuits are prominently featured. Now, in every Georgette Heyer novel involving passage by sea (or is it the Patrick O'Brian books?), the characters are forced to exist on a monotonous diet of Naples Biscuit. One gets the impression of something like Melba Toast, stored in barrels in the holds of ships. But apparently they had other uses--Amabel Fancot brings a vast store of them to her country seat from London, for entertaining, in Heyer's False Colours. And in reading over the handy recipe, I discovered they seem a lot like our present-day biscotti, or even madeleines. I quite like madeleines. I dip them in tea and imagine I'm in Paris. But alas, alack--Naples Biscuits turn out to require orange flower water.
I ask you.
Which brings me back to Whole Foods.
They stock orange flower water. From Paris. The label's quaint, and vaguely suggestive of the Moulin Rouge, or a flirtation with absinthe. I can get into having that in my pantry. They even stock rose water--although it's in the cosmetics section, which seems a little sketchy. I bought it anyway. Best of all, they have pre-ground almonds in their massive section of Bulk Food Items!!! Who knew? I got lots of that, too.
So I'll be arriving at The Poisoned Pen with the requisite Austen tea things. If airport security doesn't rip them off first.
And as for that ratafia?
Turns out it was a kind of liqueur made from apricot pits. Or cherry stones. Or bitter almonds.
All of which contain cyanide.
A drink only a detective novelist could love. :)