Charlotte & Emily Brontë: Apple Cake

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One of the sobering realizations about marriage is that I now have a roommate for life. And with any roommate comes a critical question: How do we divide up all these chores?

Who does the dishes? Who takes out the trash? Can I eat those leftovers in the fridge? In previous roommate relationships, I tried a variety of strategies: The chore chart (organized, fairly unsuccessful). The  passive-aggressive note (disorganized, very unsuccessful). The ignore-everything-until-absolutely-necessary method (disorganized, but kind of successful if you don’t mind stepping over the piles of trash). 

Clearly I needed a more sustainable strategy with my new roommate-for-life. So I looked to another family-turned-roommate duo: Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

The Brontës grew up in Haworth, a small town on the edge of the Moors. Although they both ventured out on their own on short-lived posts as governesses, they eventually both returned to become housemates again. While there, they worked out a division of labor that lasted for the rest of their lives. 

Charlotte laid it all out in a 1839 letter to a friend. “I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean,” she said. “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen.” This arrangement seemed to play to both of their strengths—or rather, to the least of Charlotte’s weaknesses. “I won’t be a cook; I hate cooking. I won’t be a nursemaid or a lady’s maid, far less a lady’s company … I won’t be anything but a housemaid.” Frankly, even her housemaid-ing talent seems questionable. “I excited aunt’s wrath very much by burning the clothes the first time I attempted to iron; but I do better now,” she wrote.

On the other hand, Emily’s skill at baking was known throughout Haworth; the town stationer, John Greenwood, said she could often be found “in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand.” In 1843, when the family maid broke her leg, Emily took over the rest of the cooking too, with beef and potatoes as mealtime staples. (Charlotte was known to pitch in for potato-peeling.)

So are you a Charlotte or an Emily? It shouldn’t be surprising how our household divvied up the tasks. I cook; he cleans. And being the cook has a notable benefit, particularly for Emily. It takes time—and that time can usually be spent with a book. “Books were, indeed, a very common sight in [the Brontë] kitchen,” Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of the sisters in her 1857 biography. “In their careful employment of time, they found many an odd five minutes for reading while watching the cakes.”

Emily hadn’t always been the family baker. Early on, the division of labor was a little more nebulous. In her papers from 1834, when she was 16, Emily wrote, “Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make an apple pudding.” (You might be wondering where Anne has been during all of this. She was off governessing while Emily and Charlotte were choosing their chores, lest you think she was that roommate who never takes out the trash.)

But later on, as Gaskell wrote, “It was Emily who made all the bread for the family; and anyone passing by the kitchen-door, might have seen her studying German out of an open cook, proper up before her, as she kneeded [sp] the dough; but no study, however interesting, interfered with the goodness of the bread, which was always light and excellent.”

There aren’t any of Emily’s recipes remaining (although you can still see her loaf pan if you visit the Parsonage Museum in Haworth). So I combined this apple pudding recipe from 1861 with the one I use from Smitten Kitchen. The two recipes are surprisingly similar, but this one could be baked in Emily’s loaf pan, if you ever get the chance to use it.

(Adapted from Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management and Smitten Kitchen)

For the apples:
4 apples
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar

  1. Peel, core and dice apples into 1-inch chunks. Place in a bowl.
  2. Add cinnamon and sugar; toss to coat and set aside.

For the cake:
1 1/3 cups (360 grams) flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs

  1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease a loaf pan.
  2. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, vanilla and eggs. Mix wet ingredients into dry ones; scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of the apples (and their juices) over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

7 thoughts on “Charlotte & Emily Brontë: Apple Cake

  1. Rebecca Hargett

    so simple, yet scrumptious, amazing how recipes that are the best are so simple. our grandmas recipes so easy, mastered by just watching her as a child. today all the recipes are for the most part confusing, involved and takes a “bundle” just to shop for all the ingredients..( while only using a small amount of each)

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