PopCo’s Let Them Eat Cake cake

Just before Christmas, Kylie sent me a book she thought I’d like, PopCo, by Scarlett Thomas. I finished reading it last night and was gratified to find a vegan cake recipe at the end, opposite a list of the first 1,000 prime numbers – a juxtaposition that as a vegan and a former high school Mathlete, I found delightful. Actually, the book sort of advocates veganism, and yes, the characters did eat the cake in the book. Naturally, today I had to bake the cake. Perhaps I’ll start a regular feature in which I cook from fictional books.

The book is British, so I’ll give you the original recipe, direct from the book, first, and then I’ll “translate” it for my American readers and add my commentary…basically I just measured everything for you after weighing it, although I will state that I much prefer baking by weight and I encourage you to buy a good scale if you don’t have one.

Let Them Eat Cake cake


2 oz ground almonds
6 oz self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 oz light muscovado sugar
150 ml corn oil
200-250 ml soya milk
zest of two unwaxed lemons
juice of 2 lemons
1 tbsp orange flower water
1 tsp natural vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees, or less if it’s a fan oven.

Grease a cake tin. A deep six-inch tin is good but any will do.

Sift the flour and the baking powder into a bowl and then add the sugar. Mix in the ground almonds and the lemon zest. Add the oil and the milk. Use slightly less liquid to make the end result for of a cake and less of a pudding. You don’t have to be 100per cent precise with the liquids in this cake.

Now add the lemon juice and mix in thoroughly. Add the flower essence and the vanilla extract and mix again. The result should look like a thick batter.

Pour into the cake tin and bake for about forty minutes. The outside should be brown and the inside very soft. Turn out, cool, and decorate with fresh mint leaves and strawberries.

Alright, now here is the recipe from my American kitchen:

It’s hard to find self-raising flour in America, so I’ve used all purpose and added additional baking powder and salt. Wegmans had muscovado sugar but it felt rock hard and not particularly fresh, and I figured it may not be super easy for Americans to find anyway, so you can substitute light brown sugar or turbinado sugar. The orange blossom water may be difficult to find. I found it in a Mediterranean grocery. If you simply can’t find it, you can try a few drops of orange extract, but be aware the orange blossom water has a floral component you will be missing. It is, however, a fairly subtle flavoring.

2 oz, or scant 1/2 cup almonds, ground (measure before grinding)
1 1/3 cup all purpose flour
heaping 1 Tbsp baking powder
heaping 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (unpacked) light brown, light muscovado, or turbinado sugar
2/3 cup corn oil
1 cup soy or other non-dairy milk (I used hemp)
zest of 2 unwaxed lemons
juice of 2 lemons
1 Tbsp orange flower water (also known as orange blossom water; can be found in Mediterranean and other specialty grocery stores)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grind the almonds, pulsing to ensure they don’t turn to a paste.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl. If you don’t have a sifter, you can just use a strainer, as I’ve done here.

Add the sugar and almond meal to the bowl.

Zest the lemons; you can do this right into the mixing bowl.

Mix the dry ingredients together well.

Juice the lemons and set aside.

Measure the oil – I barely had the 150 ml I needed, but here it is in both American and metric sizes:

Add it to the bowl, then measure the non-diary milk.

Add the milk to the bowl and mix well. Then add the orange blossom water and vanilla extract and mix well again.

Grease a cake pan. I’ve used an 8″ square baking dish. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a 6″ cake pan.

Pour the batter into the pan.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Let cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes, then place an upside down cooling rack over it …

… and invert. Let cool.

I didn’t have any fresh mint or strawberries, so I just topped with vegan whipped cream. Strawberries and mint would have been delightful though. Interestingly, Mark thought the cake smelled of strawberries, but in fact it tasted quite lemony, as you could probably have guessed from the ingredients list. It was very moist; I used the lower amount of liquid recommended and can’t imagine having used any more. I had it with tea, which was perfect, especially since I think a cup of tea was drunk on at least every other page of PopCo.

PopCo, with its emphasis on math (mostly as it relates to cryptology) proved to be an unintentionally interesting segue to my next book, which I’d been on the wait list for at the library and which finally arrived: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, what with Dirac being a very mathematically inclined physicist. (Well, all physicists are probably mathematically inclined, but until he became enamored with relativity, math was Dirac’s direct calling.) This is a strange book for me to be reading because I very rarely read biographies. I find I simply don’t care enough about anyone to read an entire book about them. I largely prefer to read fiction. But from the reviews I’d read of this book, it’s pretty heavy on the physics – it was written by a physicist – which I like. And it’s been a strange reading year so far: exactly half of the 8 books I’ve completed have been non-fiction. Compare that to the 93.6% fiction (of 109 books) I read in 2009. I don’t know how I’m tolerating all these facts!

Speaking of the library, I also checked out Vegan Soul Kitchen. Anyone have any favorite recipes from that book I should definitely try?

And now, Brachtune takes a bath…

(She’d just finished yawning.)


  1. Josiane Said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    Almond and lemon – two of my favorite flavors! That must be a seriously delicious cake!
    It’s interesting to notice the switches we make from fiction to non-fiction (or vice versa) sometimes…

  2. Lisa Goldstein Kieda Said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    Okay, read the book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett and see if you’d like to make the Chocolate Pie!!

    Went out for dinner last night with a Math professor at the University of Utah who read & recommended the Dirac bio.

    Love reading your food / literature blogs and the photos of Brachtune are tremendous – especially the scary yawn photo.

    Let me know if you’re ever planning a ski vacation in Utah. You’d have a great time hanging out with us, I promise (cats, physics & books).

  3. Jes Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    I’m all about a cooking from literature regular post–this cake looks great. Plus veganizing some recipes would be fun (a la Jane Austen) 🙂

  4. Michelle Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    I recently bought Vegan Soul Kitchen and have made the Blackened Tofu Slabs with Succotash Salsa, and also the Cornmeal Crusted Seitan. Both were delicious; I have blogged about the tofu slabs. Those books sound like something my mathematician fiance would enjoy! I myself just finished Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! yesterday and am still reeling. 😉

  5. renae Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    Josiane, the cake was pretty good! It seems to me like something you’d serve at a tea party. I do wish I had strawberries for it.

    Lisa, I don’t know if I’ll be having any ski vacations – I’ve only been skiing once and it ended up with me falling out of the lift (I’m so graceful) – but if life takes me to Utah, I will definitely let you know. And I put a hold on The Help at the library after looking it up, but it says I’m 999 in the queue. I’ve never seen a queue higher than 175 or so! I’m not sure that’s right.

    Jes, I have a feeling most of the recipes I will come across will require veganzing, but that is half the fun!

    Michelle, I will check those recipes out; they both sound good. I’ve read some Faulkner, but I haven’t read Absalom, Absalom!. I think I own it, though, so I should maybe put it in the queue with the other 30 books I’m trying to read (not counting the 11 I have on hold at the library!).

  6. Zoé Said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    It really looks so yummy!

  7. Lisa G/K Said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    I do not ski – I leave that to my husband and three boys – Last time I skied was in 1989 and ski patrol had to escort me down since I was paralyzed with fear. I’m assertive in all other areas of my life but gravity and snow in my mind do not mix!

    I work at an independent book store http://www.kingsenglish.com and I believe “The Help” was one of our top sellers for the holidays. So many book clubs are reading this book that I am sure the 999 figure is correct.

    I would be happy to pass along my copy to you, if you would like to provide a mailing address. Since you have give me endless hours of reading entertainment and inspiration, the least I can do is send you an appreciation book! My work email is accounting@kingsenglish.com is you would like to exercise this option! Also, check out the bookshop’s website. Tonight Audrey Niffenegger is at the store and next week Abraham Verghese. Not too bad for being a little off the grid.

  8. Emily Said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    hey, I just came across your blog while looking at tofu press designs. I’m pretty sure we have similar taste in kitchenware…pyrex primary color bowls (I negotiated mine from Grandma!), vintage milk glass pyrex, old lemon reamers, and perhaps not-so-vintage Le Creuset enameled cast iron! I’m loving the great photographs and fun projects 🙂

  9. Michelle Said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    Ah yes, gotta love the perpetual book queue. Currently I have five piled up on my nightstand, not to mention the one I just bought, plus the gazillion + in the bookcases that I will *eventually* get to. After I write my novel. 😉

  10. renae Said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    Emily, it’s funny you should mention that stuff: I’ve been thinking about doing a post about my favorite kitchen items, but thought it might come across as kind of obnoxious (“hey, look at all this awesome stuff I have!”). But yes, I LOVE old Pyrex and Fire King and all that stuff (and not-vintage-but-I-plan-to-keep-it-until-it-is Le Creuset)!

    Michelle, book queues are great although I’m starting to feel overwhelmed by mine! At my current rate of reading (which is quite high), between my at-home queue and the library wait list, I have enough reading material to last me until May. Which is cool except for the fact that it makes me feel guilty about buying anything else, and if I’m not buying books I’m sad! Vicious cycle.

  11. Cassie - Vegan Fox Said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Baking from books sound great. I’m interested in reading PopCo, it’s been sitting on my shelf. I didn’t realize that it mentioned veganism, though. Your cat’s a beast, by the way. That first pic is amazing!

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