The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is a historical fantasy young adult or possibly children’s romance. But since it was published in 1946, you’ll probably never see it reviewed that way. It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl named Maria who is orphaned and sent to live with an uncle in the village of Silverymoon. She brings her governess Miss Heliotrope and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Winston. Upon her arrival, she is shown to a pretty little tower room with a little girl sized door and whimsical furniture. An unseen someone brings her slightly outdated clothing to wear and leaves sugar biscuits on her windowsill for a pre-breakfast snack. We come to find out that Maria and all the Merryweather family are either sun Merryweathers or moon Merryweathers and it isn’t very long before all and sundry are referring to Maria as a moon princess. She formerly also had a friend in London named Robin who everyone else thought was imaginary. But it turns out he actually lives there in the village.
The Little White Horse is pretty different from anything you would read as modern YA. For one thing, the pace is glacial. Hardly any action-oriented thing happens until the last 20 pages of the book. There are three romances in it, one between first cousins who first met at 10 and 25 years old, one between second cousins who get married at 14 and one between a parson and a governess who met when he was her tutor as a child. It’s all presented very matter-of-factly. I very much doubt it was quite the standard for 1946. I perhaps buy it as more standard for 1842 when the book is set. But a book set in 1842 written for children or young adults today would almost certainly not depict such relationships, historically accurate or not. Then there’s the overwhelmingly Christian worldview of the book: a tone much in the same vein as C.S. Lewis or George MacDonald and gobs of Biblical imagery. Then there’s the delicate heroine who loves embroidery, translates French poetry and is afraid to climb trees. She gets a little more adventurous toward the end, but the gender norms here are far from progressive. All that said, I thought the book was rather charming and laugh out loud funny in spots.
There are a few highlights. There’s a large dog named Wrolf, a rabbit named Serena, a pony named Periwinkle, the aforementioned spaniel named Winston and preternaturally smart cat named Zachariah that all play an enormous part in the narrative. They’re all clearly intelligent and communicate freely with the protagonists, though don’t actually speak. The Old Parson is a true man of God, taking his duties seriously, but only in the best ways. He’s warm, loving, intelligent and well-read. It’s quite a contrast to how most preachers are portrayed in fiction. Upper-class Maria and lower-class Robin are both a young thirteen, but in a way that feels refreshing. Maria embroiders and Robin watches sheep, but neither of these activities are judged as being bad or good; they just are. I thought the characters were both nicely balanced. Their expectations and adventures were quite within the capabilities of an average human despite the fantastic setting. For a fairy tale, they’re quite un-epic, which was welcome in a market now saturated with super-humanness. The most difficult things Maria does are climbing a tree and giving up a necklace that she doesn’t want to relinquish. Both those things would be very relatable to a young child, I think.
I was made aware of the book via a movie called The Secret of Moonacre, an adaptation that didn’t do terribly well and that also bears very little resemblance to the book, but now having read it, I can understand why. For in order for everything to be put right in Silverymoon, three things need to happen: a place called Paradise Hill that the Merryweathers stole from some monks ages ago has to be returned to God, Maria has to prove that an ancient ancestor of a terribly wicked neighbor was not murdered by her ancestor and she has to find and return a string of moon pearls to that same neighbor. Plus, in order to be happy together, Maria and Robin must learn not to get angry or be aggravating. Like any fairy tale, it has wisdom to impart: it encourages patience, love, honesty and a distinct lack of attachment to material wealth.
To be honest, I’m not sure anyone except me would much like it, but I’ve always had a thing for stories along the line of folktales, especially ones with romantic elements and happy endings. The Little White Horse is an original, pretty, amusing example that might please young readers and lovers of fairy tales.
There is a little white horse in The Little White Horse, but it doesn’t feature especially prominently until the very end, when it is revealed to be a unicorn. I suspect it’s intended to stand in for the pursuit of virtue or some such thing given the context, but it also gave me a good excuse to do something that I’ve wanted to do for a while: make an obnoxiously pink and blue cake covered with candy. Which is apparently how my weird baker’s brain decided to translate “unicorn”.
No, I don’t know why this particular cake idea wouldn’t leave me alone. That said, it’s delicious.
Usually when I make cakes, I use Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, which can be a bit of a challenge for inexperienced bakers. For this cake I used a German buttercream, a step up from the normal butter + powdered sugar + milk that many American bakers use and that has ruined buttercream for at least a few generations of cake-eaters. Since German buttercream uses a custard base rather than a sugar syrup base, it’s a little easier to make and it was perfect for this cake because in its vanilla form, it tastes a bit like French vanilla ice cream.
The cake itself is comprised of two strawberry layers and a vanilla layer, which all use the same homemade cake mix as a base. What really makes this cake fun though is the candy decoration on top. I just chose a random assortment of candies from our local mall’s candy store, Lolli & Pops. I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the use of cotton candy as a decoration unless you’re serving the entire cake immediately (like at a party) because the humidity in my kitchen deflated it rather quickly, but even after it lost some of its fluff, it was still delicious. And though literal-minded youngsters might not be amused by the lack of an actual unicorn, it’s fully colorful enough for a child’s birthday cake.
So. Strawberry cake with blue vanilla icing, multicolored marshmallows, sprinkles and cotton candy equals unicorn cake. Now you know.
- 2 ¾ cups cake flour, sifted
- 1 3-ounce box strawberry gelatin
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1/2 cup powdered buttermilk
- 1 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 15-ounce package frozen strawberries in syrup, thawed and pureed
- 1/4 cups water
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs
- Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (reserve pod)
- 1 ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons cake flour, sifted
- 1 cup white sugar
- ¼ cup powdered buttermilk
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons water
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 2 egg whites (reserve the egg yolks for the buttercream)
- Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (reserve pod)
- 16 ounces whole milk
- 2 vanilla bean pods
- 10 ounces sugar
- 1½ ounces cornstarch
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 32 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
- Blue food coloring
- 1/2 bag multicolored cotton candy
- 1/4 bag multicolored mini marshmallows
- Multicolored sprinkles
- Various other colorful candies, approximately ½ cup
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease three cakes pans, add a parchment round to each and then grease and flour the pans. Set one pan aside to be used later.
- In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour, gelatin, sugar, powdered buttermilk, baking powder and baking soda and whisk thoroughly.
- In a large bowl, combine the pureed strawberries, water, vegetable oil, eggs & vanilla bean seeds and whisk thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix with an electric mixer for two minutes.
- Split evening into prepared pans and bake for approximately 20 minutes.
- In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour, sugar, powdered buttermilk, baking powder and baking soda and whisk thoroughly.
- In a large bowl, combined the water, vegetable oil and vanilla bean seeds and whisk thoroughly. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix with an electric mixer for two minutes.
- With clean electric mixer beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining egg whites.
- Pour the batter into the remaining prepared pan and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes.
- In a medium pot, bring the milk and reserved vanilla bean pods to a simmer. Shut off the heat and allow to stand at least 1 hour. After 1 hour, scrape the vanilla goo from the pods and add to the milk. Discard the pods.
- Return the milk to a simmer. Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, eggs and egg yolks in a medium bowl.
- Whisk half a cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture to temper it. Continue whisking in the remainder of the hot milk until it is all combined. Return the mixture to the pot.
- Whisking constantly over medium heat, cook the mixture until it is thick and bubbles break the surface. Continue whisking and cook for one minute more. Remove to a stand mixer.
- Beat the custard with the whisk attachment on medium speed for approximately 7 minutes or until room temperature. It’s very important that the custard not be at all warm for the next step so wait until the bowl is completely cool before proceeding.
- Add the room temperature butter 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture is creamy and all combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the salt and whisk for one minute more.
- Remove one third of the frosting to another bowl. Add a few drops of blue food coloring to the mixer bowl and whisk until the color is evenly distributed. Add more to get the desired color.
- On a cake plate or cake stand, put a daub of white frosting on the plate to hold the cake in place. Place one strawberry layer on the plate. Top with half the white frosting and smooth with an offset spatula. Top with the vanilla cake layer and the remainder of the white frosting. Crumb coat the cake with 1/3 of the blue frosting. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
- Frost the cake using the remainder of the blue frosting.
- When ready to serve, top with cotton candy, marshmallows, sprinkles and other candy as desired. Serve immediately or the cotton candy will tend to deflate.
- I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: I can't recommend topping the candy with the cotton candy in advance. Where I live is especially humid so it's possible that folks in drier climates (say, Arizona), won't have a problem, but the humidity deflated the cotton candy when left out for several hours. So just wait to top it with candy until it's ready to be consumed.