Marcel Proust is boring, but his cakes are memorable.
The madeleine is famous. By far and away the best-known portion of his seven-volume novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The narrator/author tastes a petite madeleine steeped in lime-blossom tea and
‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me … this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence.’
The cake triggers memories of childhood afternoons at his aunt’s house in the country—and much else.
My Proustian moment was round and chocolate sprinkled.
A sudden flashback of my mother standing outside a bakery in Potters Bar looking for something she’d never find. Something continental among the rock buns, and sponges bright yellow like their distant bath-time cousins.
A rum ball was the closest thing.
The rum ball, as its common British name of ‘rum truffle’ suggests, is a small cake that leans towards the chocolate box. They’re a truffle-like confection made from leftover cake, sometimes with a few stale biscuits thrown into the mix, which is crumbled up with melted dark chocolate and rum, rolled into balls, and coated with sprinkles or cocoa.
On my list of favourite spherical foods rum balls are in the top bracket—provided they have the requisite rich, boozy flavour, fudgy texture and aren’t too sweet. Some recipes include dried fruit, glacé cherries or ground nuts. Some eschew the rum to make a suitable-for-children adaptation. Although to my mind, a rum ball without the rum is—well, not a rum ball.
Because they aren’t baked, the alcoholic kick remains. To my nine-year-old self, rum balls were part of the grown-up taste-sphere, along with liqueur chocolates and prawn cocktails. That was their primary appeal.
One rainy morning decades later, I’m eating a rum ball in a Pyrmont café. Remembering not only my mother gazing wistfully into that bakery window, but also Flury’s, Kolkata’s iconic tea-room—scene of another rum ball indulgence. Pondering the cake’s heritage and wondering where it sits in the Australian culinary landscape. Somewhere between the madeiras and shortbreads of England and the tortes of central Europe, perhaps?
Rum balls may be popular in Britain, but they’re also traditional fare in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Were they an ingredient in Australia’s continental shift? Think post-war delis, coffee lounges, pâtisserie and cookbooks featuring stroganoff, schnitzels, strudels and black forest gateau.
This is from 1955, from Maria Kozslik Donovan’s introduction to Continental Cookery in Australia:
‘I hope that this book will be regarded, not as another fancy cookery book destined for the gourmet or the collector, but as a good, down-to-earth companion for the Australian housewife … Most European countries are poor compared with America and Australia; consequently there is more imagination than money used in their cooking.’
What did that word ‘continental’ represent? Sophistication and worldliness? A generalised notion of Europe? Was it a way of acknowledging cultural difference? A more palatable view of migrants?
Rum balls are quick and easy to make and have the ‘no cooking’ advantage. Maybe that’s why they often appeared in those ‘How to Hostess a Party’ articles of the 1950s and 60s. September 1962 The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a five-page guide to ‘Entertaining at Home’. As well as mocha rum balls, recommended recipes included an awful lot of dishes made with packet soups, and advice like this:
‘If you don’t hire help for the occasion try to make sure you and your husband (or co-host friend) are not both out of the room at the same time.’
‘Discuss the menu with your husband or a man friend and let him select and order drinks and serve them during the party. It’s your job to see that he has plenty of bottle openers … and clean glasses, and to remove empty glasses unobtrusively for washing.’
A few chocolate sprinkles are all that’s left of my Pyrmont rum ball; my Proustian reverie winds up. I’m pretty sure the Flury’s offering had rum flavouring rather than actual rum, but the ones my mother bought that day from the Potters Bar bakery did have real rum in them. I remember the sales assistant laughing as she explained that no one would get drunk eating them. I remember her voice with its trace of accent—like the presence of a flavour you almost but can’t quite identify.