I’ve found the oddest books in a secondhand book shop — First-Line Index of English Poetry 1500–1800 in Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, edited by Margaret Crum. The two huge volumes contain just the first lines of over 23,000 poems, spread across more than 1,000 pages. I hated the idea of all that effort sitting abandoned on the shelves, when other more flirtatious books were slinking out of the shop without even having to try. So I bought both volumes.
I’ve been teaching undergraduates the history of the English novel and at the end of term I felt they deserved a treat. The choice was either chocolates or a glorious new word to add to their lexicons. In the spirit of Margaret Crum, I chose the word over the confectionery.
My word gift was a really good one: palimpsest — a manuscript that’s been erased and on which new words have been written. Not a word to be used very often but, like caramel souffle, perfect for the big occasion. I asked my students if they agreed with my choice: palimpsest over Cadbury’s. Well, it turns out I got it wrong.
But I’m not giving up on the palimpsest. I’ve created a chocolate version, so the students get their way and I get mine. It’s called diplomacy. Or having your palimpsest and eating it too.
You should end up with a dozen.
Manuscript 1 — peanut butter biscuits
100g butter — if it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mixture. If it’s not, don’t.
100g crunchy peanut butter
125g golden caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Either 165g plain flour with a teaspoon of baking powder OR 165g self raising flour.
Mix the butter, peanut butter and sugar until smooth, then trickle in the vanilla extract and add the egg. Combine the lot into a tan coloured mixture. Separately, blend the salt and the baking powder and mix well into the flour (or just weigh out 165g self raising flour — it really doesn’t matter.) Fold the flour into the butter and peanut butter.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out and then flatten the top and sides to form a solid brick about five inches long and 2 inches square. Wrap the brick in cling film and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours. Don’t miss this bit out — if you do, the biscuits will ooze all over the baking tray before they get a chance to cook.
Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and butter a baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Cut the dough into 5 mm slices and place them on the tray with plenty of room to expand. Bake for about 10 minutes until golden. Allow to cool, while you make Manuscript 2.
Manuscript 2 — chocolate cream
150 g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
150 ml double cream
25 g butter
20g icing sugar
Chop the chocolate roughly and put it into a bowl with the cream and butter. Melt it over a pan of simmering water, stirring well. Sift in the icing sugar. When it’s thoroughly mixed and a uniform glossy brown, put it to one side to set, but not too hard.
Turn the biscuits upside down to reveal their flatter sides, scoop up a wodge of chocolate paste on a knife and spread it on in a good, thick layer. Write something important/funny/daft/endearing/educational in the chocolate using a skewer or a cocktail stick.
Manuscript 3 — toasted almonds and chocolate shards
40g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
A handful of flaked almonds
Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Butter a baking sheet and cover it with baking parchment. Pour the melted chocolate onto the paper and spread it to a 5 inch by 7 inch rectangle. While it cools, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan, or in the oven for about ten minutes at 180 degrees C.
When the chocolate is firm but not rock hard, pull it off the paper and tear it into strips about half an inch inch wide. Tear each strip into half inch lengths. Push overlapping pieces of chocolate into half the peanut biscuits spread with chocolate paste and coat the remaining biscuits with almonds you’ve toasted lightly in the oven for ten minutes. You no longer have posh chocolate biscuits, you have palimpsests. If the message carved into the paste is one you’d like the recipients to see, ask them to peel back the top layer of chocolate or nuts. If you’d rather keep it secret, stay silent while they devour the evidence.
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