Books and Baking: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

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In 2014, my first year of rating books on Goodreads, the highest rating I ever awarded a book was four stars. I enjoy Goodreads’ rating system a lot: ★ – did not like it,  ★★ – it was ok, ★★★ – liked it, ★★★★ – really liked it, and ★★★★★ – it was amazing. I read some wonderful books last year, but nothing that truly earned five stars for me. The thought crossed my mind – was I, perhaps, being a bit picky? Well, it took but the first book of 2015 to assuage those doubts. Five stars must be saved for those rare pieces that strike you deeply; the word ‘amazing’ given in sincerity rather than unimaginative overuse. I’d almost forgotten what that five star feeling was. It was then that I picked up Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Burial Rites is a fictional telling of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Sentenced to death for the murder of two men in 1828, she is sent to work on a local family’s farm to wait out the long months before a yet unnamed day of reckoning. As the seasons turn, Agnes’ appointed religious guide, as well as her reluctant guardian family come to know a woman more complex than the savage murderess they’ve been led to believe she is. Peppered with actual government documents from the sentencing, Kent alternatively writes a raw, gripping and utterly moving tale for an otherwise voiceless figure of Icelandic history.

What really drives this novel is Kent’s depiction of the landscape and livelihood of Iceland itself. The author describes Burial Rites as her “‘dark love letter’ to Iceland”, and it is a powerful romance indeed. With even a few pages hungrily devoured on the morning tram, the Nordic country leapt cold and crisp off the page and I felt plunged into Agnes’ world in an instant. Iceland is the beautiful and brutally chilling character motivating every other being in this story. Despite the heavy, haunting nature of Burial Rites, I find myself incredibly compelled to make Iceland my next grand adventure. 

Kent’s own story as a writer is one that both inspires and flusters me (in the best possible way). A young Australian (yes!) writer, she penned Burial Writes as the creative component of her PhD in 2011. It was sparked by her visit to Iceland during high school as a Rotary exchange student, where she first learned of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution. She would later return on a funded research trip in 2010. Kent submitted her draft of Burial Rites to Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and won, leading to the publication of her debut novel. It’s gone on to become a bestseller and continued award-winner around the world. 

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The baked companion of Burial Rites came to me almost like a gift. Just days before I finished this book (I eked out the last few pages almost painfully, not wanting it to end), I stumbled across this ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake‘ at The Sugar Hit, a fabulous blog I follow. Now, Agnes’ story hardly involves any happy marriages – in fact, far from it – but the Iceland connection seemed too good to ignore. In any case, the original meaning of the ‘Happy Marriage’ in Iceland’s classic hjónabandssæla (oh, what a delightful language to wrap one’s tongue around!) appears to have been lost. It seems we have to create our own story for this too.

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I’m going to send you over to The Sugar Hit for this recipe, because Sarah’s blog and photography is just too delightful not too share. I urge you to make this ‘cake’ – it’s easy and thoroughly delicious, and truth be told was exactly the baking win I needed (I’ve had a couple of kitchen dramas lately!). I didn’t make the jam filling from scratch, as Sarah does, both because I wanted a quick creation to whip up on a work night, and because I found a a scrumptious-sounding Rhubarb and Red Berry jam from Anathoth Farm at my supermarket. I can wholeheartedly confirm it does the trick!

Sarah also links to a couple of other bloggers’ posts on Icelandic travel, which I highly recommend you take a peek at too. Combine that with Burial Rites and a slice of hjónabandssæla? I’ll see you on the next flight bound for Reykjavík. 

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Books and Baking: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

I started to use Goodreads last year, mostly with the idea of kickstarting and tracking a good reading habit again. I finished the year on 15 books – which really doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s probably the most committed I’ve been to reading intently in a good few years. I’m quietly chuffed to have made it to 15, to be honest! It has certainly helped that my college girlfriends and I started a book club, an exercise that has benefitted both my reading and my friendships in quite magical ways. 

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Lucky number 15 was Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, which was to be our book club’s first novel up for discussion in the new year. I nominated this book after spying it on a number of bookish ‘2014 in review’ type posts; it was a page-turner with an exciting revelation. After a couple of memoirs, fantastic though they were (Lena Dunham’s ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ and Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’), this felt like the perfect change of pace for us.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story told by Rosie, who once had two siblings but now, seemingly, has none. It explores themes of family, memory and largely hinges on a revelation that (rather refreshingly) comes quite early in the book. I didn’t pick the reveal, so I won’t say too much because it really is a good little surprise. For me, the book gets a solid three stars: I liked it. It was the page-turner I needed it to be. I was compelled to discover the fate of Rosie’s family, and the nature of the revelation itself makes for some very interesting material throughout the novel.

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My chosen baked counterpart to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is yet another recipe from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking: Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins. The (rather vague) connection to the story lies in the revelation – so if you haven’t read the book and plan to, just don’t think about this too much, okay? And if I have spoiled it for you (sorry!), at least take consolation in this: these muffins are delicious. Way better than the book. So just make the muffins instead. x

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Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins
Yields 12
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Ingredients
  1. 1 1/2 cups mashed, very ripe bananas (4-5 medium bananas)
  2. 1/2 cup sugar
  3. 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  4. 1/2 cup (113g / 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  5. 1/4 cup full cream milk
  6. 1 large egg
  7. 1 1/2 cups plain flour
  8. 1 tsp instant coffee granules/powder
  9. 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  10. 1 tsp salt
  11. 1 cup (170g / 6oz) dark chocolate chips
Instructions
  1. 1. Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F). Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray, or cheat and line with paper patty pans like I did.
  2. 2. Stir together the bananas, sugars, butter, milk and egg in a medium bowl.
  3. 3. In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, instant coffee granules/powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the middle and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  4. 4. Divide the mixture evenly between the 12 muffin cups. Bake in the centre of your oven for 20-25 minutes. You'll be able to tell they're done when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffin comes out clean.
  5. 5. Place pan on a cooling rack and leave for at least 15 minutes, before removing the muffins from the pan to finish cooling on the cooling rack.
  6. 6. Enjoy!
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Little Wanderings http://littlewanderings.com/

Books and Baking: The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

I recently found myself in quite a serendipitous state of baking and bibliophilic harmony. I believe I’d just taken my first tray of Swedish Butterscotch Sea Salt Cookies out of the oven, when I suddenly realised: “Well! This is rather appropriate.”

My copy of Jonas Jonasson’s The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – a delightfully absurd story of a Swedish centenarian’s present and (as it turns out, quite significant) past adventures – lay on the coffee table, the victim of an impending Book Club speed-read. It was in fact the first book of a newly established Book Club – one involving a lovely ol’ bunch of friends from uni, plus copious amounts of cheese and wine. I do highly recommend such an arrangement. Very good for the soul indeed.

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And so it became apparent, of course, that I would have to bake another batch of Swedish Butterscotch Sea Salt Cookies for said Book Club. Even moreso, because I left the house and absentmindedly left the first batch out on cooling racks for the rest of the day. Oh, it was a sad, sad moment returning to those biscuits. So recently a glorious, crunchy treat! Now so soft and stale, having been so carelessly denied an air-tight confine. Luckily, upon further baking I can confirm that speedy transferral to an air-tight container after cooling keeps these biscuits fresh and crunchy for days.

The recipe comes from Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella, and I highly recommend giving it a go – even if you’re not currently devouring a good bit of Scandinavian literature. They’re quite possibly the easiest biscuits I’ve ever made, and the only ingredient I had to duck out for was golden syrup. The simple butterscotch taste, a hint of sea salt and that beautiful crunch make for a devilishly addictive biscuit, mind you. I was seriously unable to eat any less than three at a time. Thankfully they went down a treat at Book Club, and I was only forced to take care of a few leftovers…

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