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/

A Melbourne Cafe Care Package

John (a resident Chicagoan) and I have been exchanging care packages for a few years now. Receiving a big ol’ parcel from the other side of the world that’s brimming with (mostly edible) goodies is very good for the soul, and I highly recommend you find someone with which to take part in such trade. In previous correspondence, I’ve sent the likes of Arnott’s Tim Tams, Mint Slice and Shapes, Milo, Cadbury chocolate and Allen’s lollies. In return – Lucky Charms, Reese’s everything and Ghirardelli Squares abound. The Ghirardelli Squares, especially; I think John has found that these serve as a far more interesting alternative to packing peanuts. I’m very much inclined to support this notion.

This particular care package, however, has been quite a while in the making. For this one, I wanted to get a little more local than the same old ‘Aussie stuff’. I freakin’ love Melbourne, and that’s what I wanted to show off in this parcel. It’s no surprise that the care package very naturally took on a ‘Melbourne cafe’ theme. Cafes are the cogs of this city. An influx of Italian migrants after World War II sparked a passionate, inner-city coffee culture – and coincided rather nicely with the proliferation of the modern-day espresso machine. We’ve been working on a seriously good thing for decades. Heck – we’re one of the few places in the world to give Starbucks the boot.

And so, this little gift is my ode to the Melbourne cafe. John – enjoy! 

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Market Lane | Seasonal Espresso, 250g

Obviously, I had to provide the means for a good cup of Melbourne grade coffee. I’ve been a little infatuated with Market Lane coffee lately; over the past few weeks I’ve found myself sipping at both the Therry St and Prahran Market cafes. The coffee is smooth and delicious. I feel myself in the midst of my first true allegiance to a particular coffee roaster. Their cups brandish a simple philosophy: “We love to make coffee for the city that loves to drink it.” For you, John – I’ve included a bag of Market Lane’s Seasonal Espresso beans (Uh, yeah. You’re gonna need to buy yourself a coffee bean grinder. Merry Christmas!). As I meticulously bubble-wrapped every item in this parcel, the aroma of these beans almost drove me mad. I mean, listen to this – ‘Notes of ripe cherry, orange and chocolate fudge.’ Seriously. 

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 T2 | Melbourne Breakfast, Teabags 25pk

‘A deep and warming tea with a hint of sweetness, reminiscent of Melbourne. Full bodied with a touch of vanilla. An essential tea.’ Yes, Melbourne is a city of coffee drinkers – but we’re pretty damn solid on the tea front too. T2’s Melbourne Breakfast was the obvious choice here. I’m not sure if it’s just my Melbourne bias here, but this is one of my favourite T2 teas (there are over 200!). T2 popped up on Brunswick Street in Melbourne’s Fitzroy back in 1996, and is now a bit of a giant in the boutique tea world. The first U.S. store even opened in New York just a couple of months ago. So whether Melbourne or New York is next on your (extensive) travel list, John, definitely drop in to T2. So much to smell, sip and savour! 

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MörkMörk Original Dark 70%, 250g

This. Really, this is where John’s little Melbourne cafe care package sprouted from. The duo behind Mörk – one part Melbourne specialty coffee scene, one part Swedish chocolatier – combine to create the best powdered hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. The pair take their hot chocolate seriously, using only the finest and purest ingredients: ‘cocoa powder, 100% cacao liquor from Sur del Lago in Venezuela and sweetened only with unrefined coconut blossom sugar’. It’s pretty sensational. Nothing like the sickly sweet stuff that’s usually the norm on cafe menus. My usual Mörk dealers are the lovely folks at Twenty & Six Espresso, though I picked up this sexy cardboard canister at the very cool Melbournalia on Bourke Street. 

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KeepCup | ‘Brew’ Glass Coffee Cup, Medium (12oz/340ml)

With all of these wonderful Melbourne beverages, it seemed pertinent to provide something from which to drink them. KeepCup is a pretty nifty little Melbourne invention, kickstarting a revolution of the reusable coffee cup. For one, they’re stylish; this positive aesthetic has played a huge part in KeepCup’s success and people’s desire to, you know, actually keep using them. And then there’s the design: they’re made to seamlessly fit in with standard volumes at cafes, plus fit right under the brew head of an espresso machine. Barista-friendly! The new ‘Brew’ series with a glass cup design is absolutely gorgeous, and I knew as soon as I saw it that John would be receiving one. I’m so jealous of this KeepCup, in fact, that I’ve decided I must absolutely buy one for myself. 

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Gânache Chocolate | Cafe Latte Pralines

What would a steaming hot cuppa be without a little something to nibble on? I stretched my mind far and wide trying to think of the perfect little sweet treat to include in this parcel – when suddenly it came to me. I’d seen these beautiful Gânache pralines photographed on blogger Iron Chef Shellie‘s Instagram account months back. What could be more perfect than handmade chocolates (cafe latte flavour, no less!) stamped with our iconic W-Class trams? 

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Make Me Iconic | Iconic Mini Tram

And lastly, a little extra dose of the W-Class tram for good measure. It’s the most Melbourne way to get to all of those excellent Melbourne cafes, after all.

I’ve received word that this care package made it safely to its destination on Christmas Eve. May these tasty tidbits from Melbourne keep you warm this Chicago winter, John! Those who follow me on Instagram will know that John, the scoundrel that he is, has already gone and one-upped me in the parcel exchange. Guess it’s time to start plotting again!

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