Anatomy of a Birthday Cake VI 2

July 6, 2017

 

I just realised the last time I posted in this birthday cake series was a year ago. Oops. Guess I missed a kid’s birthday in between. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t recall what cake we made Little e–because she had a cake, you can be sure of that. It was good, I’m sure. Probably so complex I couldn’t find a spare second to take out the camera and get decent process photos.

This year, The Tiger was too busy playing cars and having Paw Patrol adventures on the living room floor to tell me what cake he wanted (or, actually, in reply to the question, he said, “Train. Boat. Dine-saur. Have a snack?”). So I made an executive decision. Actually several.

1. It would be a lion. I have no idea why.

 

 

Since we just moved and haven’t fully unpacked the kitchen (our old place was bigger), I simply could not locate the large sheet pan I use for birthday cakes and spend a crazed ten minutes wondering how on earth I was going to manage. Enter one life-saving revelation: cupcakes. Suddenly I was (quietly) brilliant. A round layer cake in the middle and a circle of cupcakes around it to make it larger–and serve as the mane! And the ears! I fricking was brilliant! And Google showed me several other brilliant people who had had the same brainwave. I felt kinship with these anonymous folk.

2. It would have ermine icing.

I knew I wanted to cut back on as much sugar as possible but still make a sponge cake and a generous amount of icing. I started experimenting with a kind of icing I’d had years before, when visiting my sister in Ohio when she was at university. It’s called ermine icing or boiled milk frosting (to which I say the former name definitely gets my vote, since ermine are possibly the cutest kind of weasel there ever could be). It’s an unusual concotion and method for someone used to buttercreams, but oh my goodness, does it make a nice light icing–and with much less sugar, since the sugar is not the ingredient providing structure; the milk and flour are. Yes, milk and flour. Are you still with me?

I added a freeze-dried mango powder I’d been saving for ages, which Hannah had sent me upon my astonished comment that such a marvel existed. For the mane I added almost a whole melted bar of Lindt milk chocolate (chocolate-mango icing: yes please, right?) to the remainder after covering the lion’s face.

3. It would feature a mango curd filling. Just because.

 

 

And even though it was, as usual, a mad dash to the end and I was still finishing the piping as our guests arrived, it did, as usual, work out. And it was tasty. Thank goodness (as usual).

Cake: Nigella Lawson’s buttermilk birthday cake (also see this cake I made last year)

Icing: Ermine Icing from The New York Times but flavoured with freeze-dried mango powder (sent lovingly by Hannah!)

Filling: Mango curd from Smitten Kitchen.

Whiskers, etc: natural liquorice, half-square of milk chocolate (nose) and dried cherries (eyes)

 

XO

Ria

 

 

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Come with me to Brittany… 2

July 1, 2017

 

I recently received this lovely note from a reader, Sandi, regarding A French Wedding: ‘Wonderful book. My husband was from Brittany and we enjoyed Douarnenez every summer. His Aunt’s seafood platter and Kouign-Amann was amazing. Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories.’

 

It’s such a joy (and relief) to hear from readers who give the thumbs-up on your depiction of a setting. Because places are so dear to us it’s impossible to completely capture them in a way that will satisfy everyone. This was always going to be a challenge for the location of Douarnenez, where A French Wedding is set – trying to get it right for those who know and love Brittany as much as I do, painting the right kind of picture for those who haven’t yet been. Too much fondness applied and it becomes too saccharine, a pinch too much cynicism and fictional Brittany is suddenly bleaker than its weather.

 

 

As I mentioned in my last post about it’s famous pastry, the more I learned about Douarnenez – its tiny size, its rugged geography, its fishing industry, its history and folklore – the more I knew it was where A French Wedding needed to be set. Douarnenez is exactly where Juliette would come from and where she would go back to after living in Paris, bereft and in search of, well, herself. And, of course, Max – British, wealthy, famous and similarly lost – would buy a cottage on the coast and transform it into the kind of holiday house worth showing off to friends – full of glass and brass and large wooden tables ready for entertaining.

 

 

I took these photos of Douarnenez on a research trip back in 2015, with my family in tow. We had just come from Korcula in Croatia, where the Adriatic sea glittered and the sun shone white and hot, so Douarnenez was a stark contrast. Always a fan of the underdog, I loved the town. I loved the stone houses in the village clustered around the oily marina, the gulls riding the thermals, even the brooding grey of the sky. We stayed in an incredible, ancient home – Manoir de Kerdanet – run by Sid and Monique, eating Far Breton for breakfast and sipping local cider in the evenings while Monique told us the local myths and history. We went to the local markets and ate all the local produce we could find including cheeses, salt-marsh lamb and the incomparable kouign-amann. One night we went out to a restaurant perched on a cliff’s edge and devoured fresh lobster baked in glossy copper pots, as the mist rolled in towards us.

 

The trip was validation that I had chosen the right place for Max to celebrate his fortieth birthday and set the story for A French Wedding. I had been seeking somewhere small, coastal, historical, unpolished and real, wild even – and Douarnenez ticked all the boxes.

 

Have you been to Brittany? Did you love it?

Love,
Hannah

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The Window They Give Us 5

June 22, 2017

It wasn’t hard to think of a subject to explore from A French Wedding because, while there are many I could chase down a rabbit hole (Pastries! Seaside villages! Lost loves!), there was one that whispered to me the whole read through: old friends. The people who knew you when, and know how you’ve changed. They hold a key to your development just by having witnessed its progression in a way you’ve never had access to. There’s something so disarming and vital about that.

 

 

Two thoughts came to mind as I read. One comes from Glennon Doyle, who signs many of her social media posts with We belong to each other. The other is from my grandmother: If only we could see ourselves as others see us.

The characters in A French Wedding are at that bittersweet moment when you’re staring at half your life behind you, wondering how you could have been that young person your friends remember. Rosie questions her choices in marriage, Max wonders why he’s waited so long to tell Helen how he feels, Juliette is bewildered by how she got to where she is, haunted by her past. In the course of the story, they all get parts of themselves refracted and bounced back to them by those closest to them—the people who have loved them for ages, listened and helped and infuriated. I kept thinking about this—the idea that we can’t be complete unless we are connected to others. And that if we could only see what others see in us, we might give ourselves a break, we might be able to still the demons of self-destruction or torment. All this sat with me after I finished the last page.

So I asked a few dear friends, women who’ve know me since I was just fledged, to reflect back to me their memories of how—and who—I’d been in my early twenties. And their responses were like a window into a forgotten part of me. A window with a completely familiar, but somehow shocking, view. Oh right. I was like that. Huh.

They said I was feisty, self-assured, driven. Spontaneous. Full of energy. Hardworking, in it 100%. Slightly obsessed with my hair.

 

 

I realized how long it’s been since anyone offered me adjectives about myself.

I am tired now. My spontaneity has been worn paper-thin by my little ones. My confidence comes and goes in tides. Sometimes there is no feistiness in my life except for Feist. So hearing this feedback is bittersweet—where has that young woman gone and how quietly did she disappear? But I’m so grateful to hold these descriptors up against my skin and see how they look, now that I’m here. They still work on me, I think, maybe with a little maneuvering.

Those dear friends and I, we belonged to each other then, and even though we are now separated by distance and busyness and the mind-traps of life, we still hold each other up. I’m so grateful to them for answering and sharing and pushing me forward.

And this is what A French Wedding stirs in me the most. Remembering who we were, helping others do the same, and stumbling along as pieces of ourselves grow and expand and slough off.  I’m so glad this story is out in the world; it’s reminded me to be grateful for the friends who make up my world. Thank you, Christina, Kirsti, and thank you, Hannah, for writing the words that inspired these thoughts.

 

XO

Ria

 

A French Wedding, published by Doubleday, launched June 6th in the U.S. and Canada. For the month of June we are  celebrating the themes of the book with posts about France, feasting, friendships and family.

 

To win two copies of the book – one for you and one for your favourite reading partner – go to the Fork & Fiction Instagram or Facebook page and don’t forget to tag a friend. Winners drawn and announced Sunday 25th June.

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The french pastry you’ve never heard of. 5

June 14, 2017

 

Is it a croissant? Is it a brioche? Is it a kind of donut?! Nope, it’s kouign-amann.

 

My romance with kouign-amann began with a hunt for the setting for my next novel. Already a Francophile I had a few ideas about where I wanted to set A French Wedding but needed a specific location. The story of a group of old college friends, gathering together to celebrate the fortieth birthday of one of their own – musician Max, who relocated from London to Paris – required a setting that wasn’t too flashy, a bit rough around the edges. Not too far from Paris (an easy drive for a man who likes fast cars) and by a beach but not one that is too pretty or too full of tourists. A village where people turn when a foreigner walks in the door to the pub, who have unpolished, unpretentious lives, who buy their food from the local market not because it is trendy but because it’s what generations before them did, because it is practical. Real people.

 

Dordogne and Brittany were top of my hit-list, two of my favourite regions in France. Dordogne was quickly ruled out because of the lack of beach. Why I needed a beach I’m not quite sure; but the story just didn’t make sense to me without one. Armed with my laundry list of needs, I met with a friend of a friend, a French teacher, Veronique, and discussed my desire for just the right setting. Perfectly, Veronique turned out to be from Brittany. We hunched over a map as she described the various parts of Brittany. The Finistere region is so west it is considered to be “the end of the world” and I loved it immediately from Veronique’s descriptions. Small, rugged villages with locals who fish for sardines, with inclement weather and few tourists. I scrawled down all the places Veronique mentioned. One of those villages, Douarnenez, is known for a particular kind of pastry – kouign-amann. To say that my ears pricked up at this is an understatement.

 

 

Kouign-amann originated in Douarnenez. It is made simply with butter, sugar and dough, but tastes, like all simple, traditional French treats, exquisite. Sweeter and toothier than a croissant, less bready and more caramel than brioche. Unfussy and delicious. The name translates to “butter cake” in the local Breton language and kouign-amann can be found in most bakeries and at local weekend markets. During a research trip (more on that soon!) we visited Treboul market in Douarnenez and encountered a row of sizzling cast iron saucepans, each filled with kouign-amann, the contents still bubbling and blistering with butter and sugar. The smell was unreal. Though sometimes served in individual portions, like the one pictured above, all the kouign-amann I ate in Douarnenez were wedges cut from a larger circle. They were dense and sweet and crisp-topped. The pieces I couldn’t manage to finish left dark, grease shadows in their paper bags. My husband, Matt, wasn’t too sure about travelling to the other side of the world motivated by a pastry. But after eating his first kouign-amann declared that “this might be the best thing I have ever eaten”.

Have you heard of kouign-amann? Have you tried it? Are you part of the smug club that knows and loves it?

 

With love,

Hannah

 

A French Wedding, published by Doubleday, launched June 6th in the U.S. and Canada. For the month of June we are going to be celebrating the themes of the book with posts about France, feasting, friendships and family.

 

To win two copies of the book – one for you and one for your favourite reading partner – go to the Fork & Fiction Instagram or Facebook page and don’t forget to tag a friend. Winners drawn and announced Sunday 25th June.

 

*Kouign-amann tips! For Auckland / NZ-based folk I recommend the kouign-amann at Rendez-vous café, located next to The Pumphouse theatre in Takapuna. For Sydney / Australia-based folk I recommend the kouign-amann from Sonoma bakery. The latter is served “American style” – in individual portions with custard and a little jam.

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A French Wedding – She’s here! 4

June 7, 2017

Here at last, A French Wedding has hit the bookshelves in the U.S. and Canada. I had absolutely nothing to do with the beautiful cover so it’s not immodest of me to say “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” Don’t you just want to pull out a chair and join the scene, under the trees and the festoon lights?

 

 

I am hugely indebted to the team at Doubleday and Penguin Random House who not only made the cover gorgeous but helped make the contents shine as well. I have been so supported by Melissa Danaczko and Margo Shickmanter who are a dream duo to work with – wise, encouraging, funny and kind. Add to that all the copyeditors, proofreaders, typesetters, designers, supporters and cheerleaders who worked so very tirelessly – I really could not have wished for a better crew. I’m very grateful to Catherine Drayton, my agent with Inkwell Management, who played matchmaker and set us up (I’m underplaying it here, she does a great deal more but she does it with such competent, no-fuss grace that she makes it seem easy).

 

It requires a lot of work, from many people, to get a book onto shelves. I am so thankful for each and every person who played a role in getting A French Wedding to her readers. I’ve already had photographs of the book on shelves in Calgary and New York City. I love seeing where my books end up so please feel free to send me a snap via the contact form, Facebook or Instagram. Word is that A French Wedding makes a great companion for a summer holiday…

 

To celebrate A French Wedding and to get a copy onto your bookshelf I have two books from Doubleday to give away to U.S. / Canadian readers. It’s super simple. All you have to do is head to our Facebook page or Instagram page, like or follow and tag in your favourite book buddy in a comment. This novel is all about friends so don’t forget that last part – you could make someone very happy.

 

With love and thanks to all those who continue to make this writer’s dreams come true,

Bons baisers, 

Hannah x

 

P.S. For my dear New Zealand and Australian readers, who had A French Wedding, published by Pan Macmillan Australia well before their North American counterparts had their own version, thank you so much for all your support and apologies for any confusion. I’m going to try and figure out a personal giveaway for you folk, of this lovely edition with its gorgeous hardback cover, because, well, I love ya. So please stay tuned! x

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