Jo Baker's "Longbourn" & Mini Upside-Down Pear Cakes
I've been a Jane Austen fan for a long time. From reading her novels to settling in for marathon viewings of the A&E excellent miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, her work has swept me away to provincial England to consider the first word problems facing her heroines. Austen's social commentary is decidedly entertaining, but also seriously one-sided. Jo Baker's new novel Longbourn attempts to right that wrong, retelling Austen's most famous tale from the servants' perspective.
Upstairs, Elizabeth Bennet is tracking her petticoats through the mud — again. Downstairs, Sarah is the maid responsible for washing those same garments, as well as the floors, dishes and anything else that requires a good scrub. Like any Downton Abbey fan undoubtedly knows, the servants' lives are as full of drama and intrigue as their masters'.
Sarah's life is small but simple until a mysterious footman named James Smith joins the household and throws everything into flux. His connection to Longbourn is mysterious, yet undeniable. He unsettles everyone from Mr. Bennet to Sarah to the cook. As Sarah falls in love with James, questions about his past intensify, raising the reader's anxiety even as she grants him more trust.
Longbourn's plot follows Pride and Prejudice's timeline, with Baker peppering in references to famous events from the original narrative to keep the reader on track. Major characters like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley make rare appearances, while others, such as Mr. Wickham and Mr. Collins provide context and insight into the servants' woes. I found the portrayal of Mr. Wickham to be most interesting and disturbing, as Baker paints him a pedophilic bully who offers treats to a nine-year-old maid while simultaneously bothering James with just his presence.
The first half of the book drags a bit, but as mysteries unravel and the tale travels beyond the confines of the Bennets' estate later on, it picks up steam. Longbourn's strength is not sophistication — it's perspective, particularly since the one Sarah provides is fresh and inquisitive. Sure, it's the romantic drama that had me turning page after page late into the night, but Longbourn is more than a guilty pleasure. It's a must-read for any Austenhead.
Reading Longbourn, I couldn't help but feel a sense of deja vu. As beloved and reviled characters breezed in and out, they brought with them a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity, but tinged with something unexpected — a distance not apparent in Austen's classic. This book took the original story and flipped it on its head with surprisingly good results. It's no surprise that I chose to make mini upside-down pear cakes, is it? Fit to be served at the simplest or most elegant English tea party, these cakes are a light and delicious treat.
MINI UPSIDE-DOWN PEAR CAKES
For the topping
- 6 tbsp butter
- 3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar
- 1 pear, peeled, cored and diced
For the cakes
- 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 8 tbsp butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup milk
For the topping
Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add brown sugar, stirring with a rubber spatula until dissolved. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
In the meantime, distribute pear evenly across the 12 cups of an ungreased muffin pan. Pour equal amounts of the caramel over the pear in each cup. Set aside.
For the cakes
Preheat oven to 350ºF. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and granulated sugar using an electric beater on medium speed. Beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Beat in vanilla extract. Then, add yolks one at a time, beating until completely mixed in.
Next, alternate adding the dry ingredients and the milk to the large bowl with the butter mixture. Continue adding until flour is just incorporated.
Clean electric beater attachments and whip reserved egg whites in a clean, dry bowl until they reach stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, fold egg whites into batter. Divide evenly among muffin pan cups, leaving some space at the top. As they bake, the cakes will expand.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until well-browned on top. Test doneness by inserting a clean toothpick that comes out dry.
Run a butter knife around the edges, then immediately invert cakes onto a wire rack to cool. Serve while still warm, with whipped cream, if you like.
Adapted from Martha Stewart