A Sweet Thanksgiving Pt.1

Just because Paul and I ‘eat sensibly’ during the week doesn’t mean that we don’t treat ourselves at the weekends. And this weekend was no exception. In fact, I probably went a little OTT with the sweet treat, making not one, not two but three puds!
OK, so one of them had to be made for Paul’s pumpkin Thanksgiving treat. The other two, well, I just felt like making them.
Here then, is the part one of our Sweet Thanksgiving Weekend one off series: Cafe Sperl’s Plum Squares.
The recipe, taken from Diana Henry’s wonderful Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, has been tempting me for some time. I haven’t done a lot of baking for a while and this recipe seemed like a gently re-introduction into the fine world of blending cream, sugar and flour to produce something sublime.
This recipe involves a vanilla scented shortcrust base that is easily whipped up in the food processor (although could be mixed up by hand), chilled for half an hour and then pressed into a baking sheet. It is then topped with stoned and halved plums or damsons, sprinkled with a generous amount of sugar and baked until fruit is verging on sweet, sticky collapse. The fruity shortbread is then glazed with hot apricot jam, left to set and cut into squares.
Aside from the dazzling, gem-like finish, this is otherwise a fairly unassuming looking cake/biscuit(?), with a flat base. Once you bite through the sticky tart and sweet fruit into the fragrant crumbly pastry, you are transported (with a bit of imagination) to a baroque-style café in Vienna, sipping hot chocolate and watching children sweep by in velvet coats on ice skates.
There is something timeless about these simple sweetmeats, so easy to make and yet incredibly complex on the taste buds.

I used some frozen plums left over from late Summer, but you could also use slices of pear or apple, fresh blackberries, greengages or gooseberries. The fruit doesn’t need to emit too much liquid as it cooks, lest you should suffer a soggy bottom, although a light dusting of fine cornmeal (polenta) on the base before you layer up the fruit should soak up too much ooze if you really fancy trying it with strawberries or raspberries.
A simple, sweet treat that can be made the day before you want to serve it, looks just as charming served casually with a cup of tea or coffee as with a generous slug single cream for a decadent pudding.

CAFE SPERL’S PLUM SQUARES (from Diana Henry’s Roasted Figs, Sugar Snow)
Ingredients:
200g Plain Flour
100g Butter, not fridged
175g Caster Sugar
Salt
1 Egg Yolk
1 Tsp. Vanilla Extract
675g Plums or other soft fruit, de-stoned if necessary
2 tbsp Sugar
200g Redcurrant or Apricot Jam
METHOD:
To make the base, place the flour and butter in a food processor fitted with the plastic blade and process until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and salt, mix again.
Add the egg yolk and vanilla and process until it forms a rough ball.
Scoop out of the processor bowl, form into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and chill for half an hour.
Preheat oven 180c.
Halve the plums and de-stone.
Into a lined baking sheet 8 x 12″ square, press the dough out.
Press the plums into the dough rectangle in rows, making just one layer.
Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and bake for 35-45 minutes until the fruit is soft, sticky and caramelised. The pastry, where exposed, should be a golden brown colour.
Leave to cool.
Melt the jam with a little water and brush generously over the fruit. It should be gleaming and glossy.
Leave to set, then cut into 3″ squares, larger or smaller if you’d prefer.
Enjoy!

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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