“My mother was a wonderful cook,” she said, “and didn’t mind my being in the kitchen.” Her mother’s training prepared her for when she was “sent off to work” at age 14.

Later, as a GI in the English Army during World War II, she started working in the mess halls, but quickly ended up as a truck driver, mainly because she was “so sick and tired of the rationing.”

She came to the United States in 1946, after marrying an American GI named Seward Gordon Leavitt in England. Since her husband was attending Bliss College in Lewiston, they settled in Auburn, and before she knew it, she was cooking once again. Over the years, Leavitt worked professionally for local school lunch programs, summer camps and Head Start. She retired in 1987 after 17 years at Hebron Academy, where her co-workers nicknamed her “Mean Jean the Baking Machine.”

In certain circles, Leavitt is mostly known for her lovely English cakes and pastries. Her baking schedule varies, depending somewhat on her social schedule or if she is expecting company. Although most of her baking is English style, including English standbys such as crumpets, plum pudding and sausage rolls, she will periodically whip up a batch of something more American, such as whoopee pies.

Taking three of her favorite recipes, she added a few twists for Valentine’s Day Tea.

“As far as I’m concerned, they’re all pretty easy recipes. The Maids of Honor are a little more time consuming, though, because you have to make the pastry dough, roll it out and make the filling.”

For those of us who’ve made edible pastry dough only once in our lives, I was relieved when she said it would be OK to use store-bought, ready-made dough. She also advised not to overfill the tarts with jam, as hot jam can bubble out over the edge while baking. She warned that ground almonds might get a little pricey, but she prefers to buy them anyway to make sure the consistency is ground fine enough. Home-grinding may be too coarse. Hers were purchased at Fare Share in Norway.

Rumored to have first been developed for Queen Victoria’s afternoon teas, the Victoria Sandwich Cake is a pretty, classic English dessert, and is so easy to make, it was oftentimes the first cake a child would learn to bake. Leavitt’s mother used to make the Victoria Sandwich Cake, she said, “and I’ve made it ever since I was a child.” She added, “It has an unusual flavor, seeing as it has no vanilla or almond extract.” Made with just butter, sugar, eggs, flour and a pinch of salt, it has a nice, interestingly spongy texture that is not too sweet. Usually baked in round cake pans, it can easily be baked in heart-shaped pans for special occasions.

Typically, Leavitt uses raspberry jam — she doesn’t have a favorite brand of jam, but prefers to use a seedless version when possible. Her mother used to spread in a layer of butter cream frosting, but Leavitt said she usually does not. “I think it’s because I’m very fond of the raspberry!”

Any flavor of jam can be used, such as strawberry or apricot, and some people will add a layer of sweetened whipped cream. She said lemon curd usually gets rave reviews, too. Wondering if there were any tricks readers might want to know in advance of making the cake themselves, she made sure to point out that you should use self-rising flour. “All-purpose won’t work,” she said, because (quoting one of many favorite TV cooks) “as Emeril says, ‘It wouldn’t be puffy!’”

Scones are another English standard, oftentimes served during 4 o’clock tea, but the recipe Leavitt uses is, surprisingly, not a family original. “I actually got the recipe off the computer,” she confessed, now that she has become an Internet-savvy lady after buying a laptop just a few years ago. She referenced the Barefoot Contessa as her source. Why this particular recipe? “I liked the flavor,” she said, and follows the recipe exactly as written.

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, she noted, they can easily be shaped into hearts. The recipe includes cranberries and orange zest, is brushed with a glaze made of orange juice and sugar, and can be whipped up in less than an hour. Before the glaze dries completely, decorate with pink- or red-colored sugar or other Valentine decorations.

Leavitt sent me home with a few samples. Lucky me! In an impromptu taste test, including two adults and two children, the Victorian Sandwich Cake received eight thumbs-up. Ah, yes. Self-rising flour is now on the grocery list.

Recipes:

Victoria Sandwich Cake

Ingredients:

1 cup sifted self-rising flour

8 ounces softened butter

1 cup superfine sugar (granulated works well, and is what Leavitt typically uses)

4 medium eggs (room temperature), lightly beaten

Pinch of salt

Jam of your choice for filling (strawberry, black cherry, plum)

Confectioners sugar to dust the top of cake

To prepare:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with the shelf set in the middle of the oven. Grease the sides of two 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with grease-proof paper. Measure all the ingredients out and make sure that you have them all. Cream the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lightly beaten eggs slowly, avoiding curdling. Fold in the sifted flour and salt.

Divide the mixture between the tins and cook until the top is golden and firm. Loosen the cake from the edge of the tin by running a knife round the edge. Turn the cakes out of the tin peeling the paper off the bottom. Place onto a cooling rack till cool. After the cakes have cooled, sandwich them together with the jam. Place the cake onto the presentation plate and dust the top with icing sugar.

For additional “wow factor,” you can add either a layer of butter cream frosting or slightly sweetened whipped cream on top of the jam filling, before putting on the top layer.

Maids of Honor Tarts

Ingredients:

1 recipe pastry for a 9-inch double crust pie

1/4 cup raspberry jam

1 egg

1/2 cup white sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons milk

1 cup ground almonds

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously grease 12 2-inch tart tins.

Roll out pastry dough. Cut 12 3-inch circles. Reserve pastry scraps. Fit pastry circles into greased tart tins. Spread 1 teaspoon of jam into bottom of each tart shell.

In a small mixing bowl, beat together the egg, sugar and salt until light in color. Mix in milk and almonds. Spoon an equal amount of filling into each tart shell. Cut pastry scraps into small strips and form a cross on top of each tart.

Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, until tops are golden brown.

Cranberry Orange Scones

Ingredients:

4 cups plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling

2 tablespoons baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced

4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup cold heavy cream

1 cup dried cranberries

1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk, for egg wash

1/2 cup confectioners sugar, plus 2 tablespoons

4 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix 4 cups of flour, 1/4 cup sugar, the baking powder, salt and orange zest. Add the cold butter and mix at the lowest speed until the butter is the size of peas. Combine the eggs and heavy cream and, with the mixer on low speed, slowly pour it into the flour/butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will look lumpy! Combine the dried cranberries and 1/4 cup of flour, add to the dough, and mix on low speed until blended.

Dump the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead it into a ball. Flour your hands and a rolling pin and roll the dough 3/4-inch thick. You should see small bits of butter in the dough. Keep moving the dough on the floured board so it doesn’t stick. Flour a 3-inch round plain or fluted cutter and cut circles of dough. Place the scones on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Collect the scraps neatly, roll them out, and cut more circles.

Brush the tops of the scones with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are browned and the insides are fully baked. The scones will be firm to the touch. Allow the scones to cool for 15 minutes and then whisk together the confectioners sugar and orange juice, and drizzle over the scones.


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