A Princess Elizabeth cake to honor Ondaatje’s novel ‘Warlight’



Books, friends, and food – a recipe for a pleasant afternoon

Having volunteered to host our bookclub this week with only a few days notice, Vinny and I decided to make a cake we had attempted once before for Canada Day. It was a recipe that Queen Elizabeth had popularized immediately after the Second World War. Food was being rationed in Britain and there was little sugar to spare. At that time Elizabeth was still a princess, not yet 20. She wanted to do her part for the war effort and, as one of her many projects, she came up with a cake that was sweetened not with sugar but with dates and honey.

I love to feed our imaginations with recipes that reflect back on stories being told. I thought Elizabeth’s cake would do very well to set off the themes in the book we were discussing this month: Michael Ondaatje’s latest award-winning novel Warlight.

Ondaatje gives us a nostalgic story lyrically told, about reinterpreting our archived childhood memories from the vantage point of adulthood. It helps when the memories he is talking about plunk us in the middle of wartime espionage in England and disrupt our sense of safety and justice. It is narrated by Nathaniel, a 28-year-old reflecting on an  adventure-filled adolescence lived in the midst of the Second World War in London.

Vinny highly recommends both the novel and the cake. Like they said: Keep calm and carry on!

Elizabeth cakes for "warlight" discussion - Ondaatje

Elizabeth cakes for “Warlight” discussion – Ondaatje

Princess Elizabeth Cake

• 1/3 cup (100 g) honey
• 2.5 oz  (75 g) butter, softened (about 1/2 cup)
• 1/4 cup (50 grams) coconut oil (or a further addition of butter)
• 2 eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla flavouring

•  1 1/2 cup (165 g) whole-grain pastry flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/3 teaspoon salt

• 6 oz (170 g) dates, chopped and with stones removed
• 1 cup (240 ml) water
• 1 teaspoon baking powder

• 150 g chopped pecans, walnuts or dried fruits (optional – I used dried cranberries)


  • 2.5 oz goat cheese, at room temperature
  • 2  oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon warm water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon curd, lemon marmalade. or ginger marmlade
  • additional water and lemon curd until you achieve your desired consistensy and flavor. It should spread easily and taste sweet and tangy.

Making the cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Prepare one 8×8-inch pan by spraying them with oil and lining them with parchment paper.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, oil, and honey. Add the beaten eggs and the vanilla and beat with a hand mixer until creamy, about 5 minutes.
  4. Whisk the flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and a dash of salt in a medieum bowl until well incorporated.
  5. Combine in a small pot the dates and hot water. Bring to a boil and allow dates to bubble for a few minutes, stirring until the dates become sticky, like a thick jam. I used a hand blender at this point  to make sure the consistency of the date mixture was smooth and thick. But you could also just patiently stir until you get the same effect.
  6. Fold the flour mixture into the butter mixture throughly and quickly.
  7. Add one more teaspoon of  baking powder to the date mixture and stir it through evenly. Because the dates are moist, the soda may bubble up. Move on quickly so as not to lose all the soda’s effectiveness on the counter.
  8. Add the date mixture to the batter, and fold together gently.
  9. Mix into the batter the nuts and dried fruit (in any combination), if you are including these. I did and the result was excellent.
  10. Pour the batter into the pan, place into the preheated oven set on ‘bake’, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. It is done when golden brown on top and a wooden skewer stuck into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  11. Remove the pan from oven and let it stand on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes.
  12. Run a knife around the outside of the cake and invert the pan over another wire rack to allow the loosened cake to come out of the pan onto the rack. Let the cake sit on the cupboard until it is completely cool to the touch.

Making the creamed goat cheese icing

  1. Cream the two cheeses together until smooth and even.
  2. Add the water and mix until smooth.
  3. Add the lemon curd or other jam and cream it into the cheese. Taste and adjust consistency and flavor to taste.

Presentation (Optional)

Decorate the icing with more of the dried fruit and nuts you used in the cake or use a few fresh berries. Or you can cheat and buy a colored icing tube, like I did.

I had nine guests coming, so I cut my square cake into 9 portions. I wanted to suggest the Union Jack in reference to Britain, where Warlight took place. So I used a tube of red icing to make a cross on each square. I set the squares out on a crystal stand the British often use for cream teas. Then I topped the display with a blue candle to represent the warlight referred to in the story.

How did it taste?

The cake was moist, fluffy and full of tang. It reminded us a bit of Christmas pudding, except it was much less dense and more cake-like. People said they liked it.

I liked it too. It was far more successful than the previous time I tried to make Princess Elizabeth’s wartime cake. This time I made three significant changes: I used a thick honey instead of the more watery maple syrup used last time to sweeten the batter. I chose a smaller pan than last time (8×8″). And I cooked the dates down only after all the rest of the ingredients were measured and mixed. Last time, I added the baking power to the dates so early that its leavening powers were wasted on the counter before the cake even neared the hot oven. This time, I added the baking soda  to the dates  immediately before I added the date mixture to the batter. Then I blended the wet ingredients into the dry ones very quickly, so that the baking soda could perform its magic in the hot oven.


Food rationing in Britain during WWII

Sugar rationing began in 1940, along with other basic foods like white flour, milk, and eggs. The Brits were encouraged to grow their own food and raise chickens for eggs and meat, rather than depend on food imports. Whole grain loafs were the rule. Some people likely had dried fruits and a small supply of homemade jams and marmelades put away for a rainly day. Honey production was encouraged to make up for a shortage of sugar. So honey, whole-grain flour, eggs, dates and dried fruits are the main ingredients of our wartime cake. Vinny approves, thinking these ingredients are better for our health than the over-processed foods used in modern cake recipes, especially the store-bought ones.

“We have no memories from our childhood,” said Freud, “only memories that pertain to our childhood.” It feels like this idea – that memory is the construct of the older self looking back – has been the engine driving much of Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary literary career. Warlight, his eighth work of prose, is no exception. Read it and see for yourself how war, witnessed through the eyes of children, tears families apart.

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