It is the first day of November and so, today …
I’m doing a mini cake competition!
It’s “mini” in that there are only two contenders, and also that each cake is small — both types of cake were actually made in my little red silicone muffin tray. Which is perfect, since I love baking but don’t have much of a sweet tooth; these are delicious little snacks. (And don’t worry, I have a big friend group that’s always happy to accept free food.)
Since The Scorpio Races was a comp title for To Best the Boys, it just made sense to compare and contrast their signature treats: November cakes and Labyrinth cakes, respectively.
Each recipe comes from the author of the corresponding book; the pictures and observations in this post are mine.
Finn […] puts a November cake in my palm. It oozes honey and butter, rivulets of the creamy frosting joining the honey in the pit of my hand. It begs to be licked.Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races
Of course I used Maggie’s own recipe — the edited version, with pictures — for November cakes. (Also, can we spare a moment to admire Maggie Stiefvater as a person, with her multiple interests and talents? I aspire to be so multifaceted.) But, well, let’s just say my cakes didn’t turn out quite like hers.
Problem number one: I don’t have a stand mixer, and I had quite a bit of trouble mixing the dough by hand because it was super sticky. It also rose a delightful amount throughout the process so I at least succeeded in Not Killing My Yeast!
There was some variation in my cakes since I had to bake them in two batches, only having one muffin tray with six cups. (I’d planned to halve the recipe but … forgot.) The second came out nicer, with more distinct swirls, so that’s pictured above.
Problem number two: I ran out of butter since I was making both recipes on the same day, so the glazing-and-icing part of the process didn’t happen until later in the week. (I actually ate almost half the November cakes plain in the interim, and they were really tasty: bread-y with hints of orange and butter.)
Problem number three: I added too much water to the icing, so it came out too thin to create the lovely zigzag visual.
But despite these setbacks, the flavors all come through and the cakes have kind of a perfectly-imperfect / homemade charm, so for a first attempt I’m satisfied.
It’s pouring rain as Seleni and I make the deliveries — biscuits and scones to the regulars, Labyrinth cakes to those who can afford the extra splurge for a festival breakfast.Mary Weber, To Best the Boys
I spent ages flipping through my ARC trying to find more quotes about Labyrinth cakes, only to come up empty: they make a few brief appearances, but never with much detail. So really, I had to make the recipe that appears in the back of the book (without pictures, I might add), if only to satisfy my curiosity.
It was a pretty straightforward process: combining first the wet then the dry ingredients, dividing into the muffin tray, then baking. The batter was more custard-like than dough-like, and after baking the cakes have a texture kind of like pound cake.
With these I only encountered one major problem, which was that the given baking time and temperature were not enough — when I tested the cakes, they were still mostly liquid! They had to go back into the oven for two or three more rounds, so the tops ended up a bit burnt and cracked. (The picture above is the first time they came out of the oven; only the tops and sides are baked.)
The recipe makes six cakes, so I used the written proportions but halved the caramel sauce, which still ended up being more than enough; I think most of it ended up sliding off the cakes to pool under the cooling rack. I didn’t garnish the tops with more orange peel (mostly because I’d already washed the grater), but that’s an option for more visual interest.
Labyrinth cakes involve quite a few ingredients, but they’re easy to combine and the flavor is correspondingly complex. In other words, it was well worth the effort.
Winner: Labyrinth cakes!
To be quite honest, I was disappointed but not surprised that both were actually too sweet for my taste. (The vast majority of Western recipes are.) In the future, I’ll definitely be cutting down on the sugar, and I might even omit the glaze — or at least reduce it to a light drizzle per cake.
But since the Labyrinth cakes had a more nuanced flavor and were much easier to make, it was a clear victory.
(That said, I’m a big fan of the individual components of the November cake: the caramel-honey glaze smells fantastic and provides a nice textural contrast to the soft bread-y cake which is nonetheless nice on its own. I’m just not eager to devote the energy, time, and cleanup for a repeat anytime soon.)
Have you tried either of these recipes, or do you at least want to? Are there any other bookish dishes you’d like to recreate (or see me recreate)?