Friday, October 21, 2022

Vintage Weekend Cooking: Mrs Graham's Cold War Cookbook


I continue my celebration of National Cookbook Month with a vintage Weekend Cooking post. This, however, isn't an actual cookboob, but rather the story uses recipes as spy code!


It's 1946 and the war is over. It's time for everyone to go home and start to heal. And yet, as much as it was the end of the war, it was also the beginning of the Cold War. Germany has been divided into sectors amongst the Allies and the tensions that shaped the world for decades were building. The rebuilding of cities and countries across Europe has to start, rehousing of displaced persons needs to begin, and the search is on for the Nazi's who disappeared into the general population at the end of the war, with the assistance of some of the population who still were believers.

For teacher Edith Graham this is also the chance for a new beginning. She has spent the war at home looking after her mother. Now, she's been recruited by the British Control Commission to go Germany. Her job while she is there is to set up schooling in the ruins that is the city of Lubeck. The city is full of people living in the amongst the rubble, with barely enough food or clothes, scrounging the ruins for an existence with little time for schooling.

But Edith is not only there for the recovery effort. She has also been recruited to provide information to the British government. They are keen to located her former lover Kurt von Stavenow who was a doctor that they believe was involved in the medical "research" during the War. Edith and Kurt were close in the years before the war and she can't believe that the Kurt that she knew could possibly be the same man. After all, she had spent time with him and his aristocratic wife, Elisabeth, in Prussia before the war, and now Edith is tasked with finding either of them.

Von Stavenow is the kind of man that has caught the attention of lots of interested parties. The US and the Russians are both interested in what they can learn from him in the name of science. And even in the British government there are those are that are interested in the same thing. And then there are the parties that want to see people like him face justice for what they did during the war.

With all of these different agendas at play, it's hard for Edith to know who to trust. Everyone wants the information that Edith has collected, not least of all her friend Dori who is still in London. In order to pass information back Edith and Dori come up with a code that is centred around sharing recipes. And then there is Edith's American friend Adeline who pops up with alarming regularity. How is she involved?

In addition to Edith's female friends who all bring interesting voices, there are other characters like her driver Jack, the young refugee Luka who appoints himself as Edith's protector, and her occasional romantic interest Harry. Even within those closest to her, Edith has to question if they have their own agendas.

This book is very unusual. There are plenty of historical novels out there which talk about the female spy experience during war time, but I don't think I have ever read one in this kind of post war setting. The book also had a Cold War thriller feeling where it was hard for Edith to know who in her life she can trust, where there was danger and betrayal at every turn. And the ending. Oh my goodness I did not see that coming.

Celia Rees has written a lot of young adult historical fiction novels, but this is her first for adults. Based on this book I will definitely be looking forward to reading more from her in the future.

Using the idea of recipe as code was a very clever touch. There were plenty of examples of delicious sounding recipes mentioned, but this was also in the immediate aftermath of the war. There were shortages everywhere, and so there were also several recipes that I would be happy to never have to eat.

When I was reading the book I was trying to come up with how I was going to include a recipe for this post. There were a couple of recipes in the book that I have made before and shared on the blog including Lebkuchen (recipe here) and Apfelkuchen (recipe here) but the one that I decided to post is Bienenstich or Beesting Cake. I made it a while ago using this recipe from the Queen website. It's an unusual cake as it is made from brioche dough rather than cake but the combination with the custard was delicious.

Beesting Cake

2 cups (500ml) full cream milk
4 tsp Vanilla Bean Paste
6 large egg yolks (approx. 110g)
½ cup (110g) caster sugar
1/3 cup (50g) corn flour
45g butter, room temperature

½ cup (125ml) lukewarm milk
¼ cup (55g) caster sugar
1 ½ tsp dried yeast
2 cups (300g) plain flour
50g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp Vanilla Bean Paste
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg

70g unsalted butter
¼ cup (55g) caster sugar
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp thickened cream
1 cup (120g) flaked almonds

For the Custard

1. Place milk, and Vanilla Bean Paste in a large saucepan over a low heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. Combine egg yolks, sugar and corn flour in a large bowl and whisk to form a thick paste. Add a few tablespoons of warm milk mixture to thin out the mixture if necessary.

3. Slowly add half a cup of milk at a time to the egg mixture while whisking. Continue until all the milk has been added. Pour mixture back into saucepan over a low heat and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Once mixture starts to boil, keep mixing for 1 minute and then remove from the heat and pour into a clean bowl.

4. Place a piece of cling wrap directly over the pastry cream and allow to cool for 30 minutes before whisking through butter. Allow to cool completely, before refrigerating until chilled.

For the Brioche
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with dough hook attachment, combine milk, sugar and yeast and allow to sit until foamy. Add remaining ingredients and mix on low for 1 minute, before increasing the speed and mixing for a further 5 minutes. Place cling over mixer bowl and allow dough to rise for 1 hour or until almost doubled.

2. Grease and line the base and sides of a deep 20cm round cake tin. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured bench and knead for 4 minutes, adding more flour if needed. Press into the base of prepared tin, ensuring dough covers the base of the tin. Allow to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Method - Topping

1. Preheat oven to 180°C (fan forced). Prepare topping at the start of the second rise. Place all ingredients excluding flaked almonds in a medium saucepan over a low to medium heat until butter melts and mixture starts to simmer, cook for 1 minute until slightly thickened, do not brown. Remove from the heat and add flaked almonds, stirring well to combine. Set aside to cool.
2. Spoon almond topping over risen dough, do not worry about spreading the almond mixture as it will flatten out during baking. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden. Allow to cool for 10 minutes in tin, before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
3. Slice cake in half and spread custard over the base of the cake. Place top half on top of custard.


  1. I didn't recall adding this to my TBR but it was there when I checked. Thank you for the reminder- it sounds good. I have seen her other books but never got around to reading any. A series about a US army family that I loved as a teen by Janet Lambert had a book set in Germany after the war but the heroine was busy falling in love or giving her clothes to needy Germans. I do not like almonds but the cake sounds otherwise yummy!

    1. This was my first Celia Rees book and I really liked it!

  2. OMG - this cake looks decadent with the custard and toppings and I love the name!!

  3. This would be a good selection for Cook the Books! The cake is so beautiful!!