I like my horror stories with a side of intelligence, and Help for the Haunted delivers in spades. It’s a quintessential coming of age story set in Maryland in the late 1980s. The premise: a young girl, Sylvie Mason, witnesses her parents’ murder one snowy night. But Mom and Dad are not your ordinary, everyday parental units. They offer help to the haunted, or rather, are demonologists. Sylvie and her older sister, Rose, a moody, sullen teenager until she is one day sent away to school, have grown up in this unusual family dynamic, meeting the haunted, possessed people that come to their parents for help and being around the haunted objects their parents occasionally bring home to store in their basement. Their parents are called that fateful night to meet Rose, who has run away from school, and Sylvie goes with them. But what she thinks she sees and what the truth is, are not as simple as you would think.
This was a genuinely creepy and eerie book, but it was also touching and evocative of those teenage years when you’re not sure of yourself or your place in the world. The dynamic of the two sisters was familiar territory for me, reminding me very much of my sister Krista and I growing up together, fighting and arguing, being simultaneously bossed around and protected by her. At its heart, as frightening as this book is, it’s ultimately about family and those ties that bind and strangle us, and yet at the same time, make us stronger and more resilient. Anyone who’s had sibling or parent issues can definitely relate.
In one passage, Sylvie describes a rare family moment of peace. Her sister Rose is behaving herself for once, her parents are home from their ghostly endeavors, and it’s Rose’s birthday. Their mother always made them something called a Lady Baltimore cake, an annual tradition.
“In late September, Rose’s seventeenth birthday arrived. Since Rose had been attending confirmation classes at Saint Bartholomew, my parents invited the new parish priest to dinner. Every birthday, my mother baked a Lady Baltimore cake, which, despite the name, she told us was not a Maryland tradition but a southern one.”
A Lady Baltimore cake is essentially a layered, tiered white cake with egg whites beaten into the batter to add lightness, and a special white frosting. The cake tiers are separated by this white frosting, into which has been mixed walnuts, maraschino cherries and raisins. Then the whole tiered cake is iced in white. Now, I hate raisins, I don’t care for maraschino cherries, and I am not a fan of thick, heavy cake frostings. And I hate plain white anything. Boring. White is from the Devil. So I hope the ghost of Lady Baltimore, whoever she was, doesn’t come haunt me for tweaking this classic American cake recipe. Because I did, so there.
This is the method that worked for me.
For two cake layers: (adapted from the classic cookbook The Encyclopedia of Cookery)
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
2 egg whites, beaten until stiff
Heat the oven to 350F. Sift the flour into a large bowl with the cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, butter, vanilla, and then slowly add in the sugar, stirring to incorporate. Slowly add in the bowl of dry ingredients, alternating with the milk, a little at a time until everything is evenly mixed together. Slowly fold in the beaten egg whites, and stir again so that everything is well mixed together and you have a smooth, creamy texture. Like this.
Pour into two round cake pans, greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes, remove and let cool for at least 2-3 hours, if not overnight. They are much easier to frost when completely cool; if not, the frosting will melt and you will have a God-awful mess to clean up.
While the cake layers are cooling, prepare the fruit filling and whipped cream icing.
For the icing:
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup limoncello or lemon juice (my twist)
Whip the cream until it’s stiff. Add in the sugar and the limoncello and mix together again until nice and smooth and white and creamy and luscious and unctuous………. Oh sorry. I got carried away there.
For the fruit filling:
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 cup of limoncello
Add the limoncello to the mix of berries and nuts in a bowl and leave to macerate for at least an hour, if not longer.
Add the spiked fruit to half the whipped cream, mix together and chill for another hour, along with the plain whipped cream.
Assemble the cake. Flip one of the cooled cake layers over so that the flat bottom is now on the top. Spread a generous layer of the fruit, nut and whipped cream mixture.
Top with the other cake layer. Cover the top and sides of the tiered cake with the remainder of the plain whipped cream. (As you can see, I am not the greatest cake handler and there were some issues with transferring one of the cake tiers to the cake stand…………nothing that a good dollop of whipped cream icing won’t cover!)
Since I was in a patriotic mood, I decorated the pristine white top of the cake with red strawberries and blueberries, evoking the American flag. Yes, I know a true, classic Lady Baltimore cake should be pure white on the outside, and yes I know I shouldn’t quit my day job to become a cake decorator, but it’s July 4th weekend! I HAD to decorate it in red, white and blue. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it, but here’s a picture of the white cake before decorating, for you purists out there.
When you cut into the cake, the white layers will contrast gorgeously with the whipped cream and fruit/nut filling. It’s really quite lovely, almost too lovely to eat. But we managed. A little champagne didn’t hurt, either.
Here’s to the ghosts of our Founding Fathers and to the United States of America! Happy July 4th!