Have you ever met a fictional character whom you wished to slap? ~~ hey, girl, get yourself out of that bed and from under your married-with-children/old enough to be your father boss because you should know by now that this is not going to end well ~~
That’s what I was feeling on page one of the latest Novel Baker’s choice: The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. But before very long I truly found myself caring about this troubled Boston pastry chef, Livvy, and wondering what could be done to help her and her loving dog, Salty.
I must admit to a certain initial resentment of the portrayal of small town New England as a place where secrets and old grudges guide choices and behavior and moods, and where everyone’s business is everyone’s business. Upon reflection I realized I was just reluctant to acknowledge the tiny bit of truth in this characterization . . . I mean it’s a truth I don’t mind discussing with my sister about the little childhood town from which we both escaped, but it’s a secret which is not to be revealed to the world! 🙂 Livvy has escaped in the other direction, from the big city of Boston where she has caused a slight, um, catastrophe in her restaurant, three hours and light years away to the mythical Northeast Kingdom town of Guthrie, VT. Of course the name of the town instantly caused me to start singing Alice’s Restaurant (where you can get anything you want) and conjured up visions of This Land which should be Your Land and My Land, but there are big problems here, and I wasn’t sure I wanted this town of Guthrie to be My Land.
However, luckily for Livvy, her financial situation makes it necessary for her to stay in Guthrie and to accept the job of dessert chef at the Sugar Maple Inn, where she is needed to create a perfect, blue ribbon worthy apple pie. The Inn’s kitchen, filled with real world baking tools, does not impress Livvy, and I started thinking she needed an attitude adjustment. (In case you don’t know what a ball-bearing rolling pin from a cartoon looks like, here’s mine, given to me as a shower gift way back in 1980.)
With a bit of lip along the way and some city dweller’s arrogance towards the locals and small town lifestyle, she manages to find out what she needs to straighten out her life, and both she and the town are the better for her presence. And we are treated to much good advice as to the proper way to bake a pie and make a crust, and the characteristics looked for by State Fair judges!
I would not recommend reading this book on an empty stomach or if you are planning to still meet your New Year’s weight loss resolution. The delights produced in the tiny Vermont kitchen actually made me drool. Pumpkin crème brulée, chocolate torte, poached pears, and much more! But Vermont is maple syrup land, and the Sugar Maple Inn and the sugarhouse where Livvy stays inspired me to bake something with maple syrup for you.
And while this pie of mine would not win the blue ribbon for its looks, if a judge was willing to ignore the puff pastry which pulled away from the filling and the uneven browning on the top, I would definitely be in the running for its sheer deliciousness!
I started with a recipe for green apple and blueberry tart, then, using Livvy’s advice in the book, I substituted three types of apples: green, gala and macs. Then, (my own inspiration ~~ blogging has made me a braver baker) 🙂 I exchanged the white sugar for maple syrup. Much more appropriate for a Vermont based book, yes? To do the substitute, use half as much maple syrup as other sugars and decrease the liquids. (I halved the lemon juice from 2T to 1T.)
Try not to judge by appearance and just imagine Maple Apple Blueberry Tart:
Oooooh so good! Muffins are another one of Livvy’s special treats which she uses to capture the hearts and trust of the locals. Mine are made using this delicious Summer Berry Muffin recipe from another wonderful baker, Kitty. Visit her for the scrumptious recipe.
Strawberries, blueberries and blackberries make them juicy and, I’m pretending, healthy!
Louise Miller, the author, is actually a Boston pastry chef but says she identifies not with Livvy but with another character in the book. I spent some time thinking about who it might be, and I’m hoping it might be Salty, the life-loving, friendly, comforting dog Livvy found abandoned near the Gloucester, MA fisherman statue. He may suffer from separation anxiety but he seems to have the insight needed to heal and comfort and help others who need saving, and his joy is contagious. He also gets to gobble up treats from the kitchen.
Besides the luscious food there are also descriptions of scenery and aromas and table settings. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to sit in the barn for the Harvest Dinner, with centerpieces of mason jars filled with sunflowers, goldenrod, black-eyed susans, tiny pumpkins and crab apples, with white lights hanging from the rafters? (These lights actually stay on my dining room sideboard all year so I didn’t need to make a foray into my steamy attics … more on that later!)
This book is an excellent, pleasant beach type read as the plot moves along quickly and there are many characters to love or despise, but it would be a mistake to reduce it to just that. It is a very well written book, filled with themes of abandonment, friendship, trust and comfort, and those images of food and scenery that will make you want to leap into your car and head for Vermont. And Guthrie? Well, after getting to know these characters, I am planning to buy that little sugarhouse when it hits the market next time.
And in the “Not As Irrelevant As You Might Think” category: While I was preparing this post the man who lives in my wall started shouting at me “Fire! Fire! Leave the premises now!” Luckily, before the alarm company could dispatch the fire trucks it was determined that the extreme and unpleasant weather we are experiencing caused our attic temps to heat up under the cedar shingled roof to such a degree that the heat sensors in the attics were triggered. Never a dull moment and once again I am reminded that while the man in the wall spikes my blood pressure every time he shouts, he is also my friend. Livvy needs him. (read the book 🙂 )
So, tell me, have you escaped from or to somewhere? Or do you plan to? Would you like to vacation at the Sugar Maple Inn? I would!
visit the Novel Bakers for some deliciousness
joining the fun at Rattlebridge Farm!