Book-Inspired Baking * Reviews + Recipes * Laura Sackton

One of the best things about reading is all the doorways it opens. Reading can be a visual or aural or tactile experience, depending on the kind of reading you’re doing. But beyond the immediate experience of absorbing words into your brain, via sound or touch or sight, there’s all the sensory experiences that reading evokes. Some books elicit a strong emotional response. Others make me feel a particular way in my body — angry or excited or overwhelmed. Often, a book makes my other senses come alive. A particular passage in a novel reminds me of a sticky summer day, the sweat heavy on my back. A poignant essay about the natural world evokes the bright scent of a snowy afternoon. Characters, descriptions, ideas, scenes — all the building blocks that make up books — awaken vivid memories of all the ways I experience the world.

Because I am a baker and a food lover, books often remind me of particular foods, recipes, and meals. Below, I’ve paired three book reviews with recipes that evoke some essential quality of that book. Infinite Country is a novel about the complexities of doorways. I’ve paired it with a recipe for rye biscuits, a kind of doorway-into-baking recipe. Kink is an anthology of short stories, which I’ve paired with multigrain chocolate chip cookies, their own kind of anthology. Finally, I’ve paired Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), a book that plays with structure in magical ways, with a recipe for a savory galette — a pastry that also works a kind of structural magic.

 

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country book cover featuring parts of a snake, raptor, wild cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family sagas might be my very favorite kind of fiction, and this one is basically perfect. For some reason I thought it was going to be long (so many family sagas are), so when I picked it up at my library I was surprised by its slimness. I then proceeded to read it in two sittings, and I am still in awe of how much story Engel packs into 190 pages.

The novel follows a Colombian family as they navigate the horrifying realities of US immigration policy. Mauro and Elena immigrate to the US with their young daughter, planning to save money and eventually return home. But one thing leads to another, they have two more children in America, and soon, they’re separated. Elena remains in the US with their two older children, while Mauro raises their youngest daughter in Colombia.

At one point, a character observes that “everyone has a secret self truer than the parts you see.” Later, she states: “A life rendered will always be incomplete.” This book feels like an embodiment of both of those truths. It’s a story about how borders destroy lives, the violence of separation, what happens when doorways solidify into walls, and how the cruel bureaucracy of immigration affects the daily lives of a mixed-status family. But it’s not melodramatic or sensational. It’s a deeply human story, captured imperfectly on the page, because all captured stories are incomplete. Engel’s prose is beautiful and flowing. I wanted to savor every other sentence, but those gorgeous sentences never got in the way of the story. The whole book shimmers with depth and possibility. I could sense the stories Engel chose not to share, the untold bits, the parts of these characters too vulnerable and raw to bring to light. It’s an expansive novel, sparingly told.

It is also littered with doorways — broken, barred, sometimes open. “Leaving is a kind of death,” Engel writes, and then she pens those deaths onto the page. There are separations and rebirths. There are so many what ifs. Every character wonders what might have been. This is a human tendency, but the what-ifs hold different consequences for those living between countries, for undocumented people.

“I often wonder if we are living the wrong life in the wrong country. If the reason I have felt so out of place is because I, like the narco animals, have no biological or ancestral memory of this strange North American landscape or its furious seasons. These mountains and rivers are not mine. I haven’t yet figured out if by the place of my birth I was betrayed or I am the betrayer, or why this particular nation and not some other should be our family pendulum.”

It’s haunting, the way Engel so often blurs these boundaries. At one point, Mauro is working as a handyman for a family in Colombia, and he sees his family superimposed on the family he’s working for, living their life. For a moment, this life not lived becomes real. The whole novel is full of these ghosts — lives not lived, choices not made. Many of these ghosts exist because of how Maura and Elena’s lives have been shaped by immigration policy. But not all of them. This is a human novel, full of romance and teenage angst, family drama and self-discovery. It is brutal at times, but it is not exclusively so. Engel is as adept at writing joy as she is writing grief.

I could have transcribed most of the book, but instead I’ll leave you with this passage:

“I’ve had borders drawn around me all my life, but I refuse to be a bordered person. I hate the term undocumented. It implies people like my mother and me don’t exist without a paper trail. I have a drawer full of diaries and letters I never sent to my grandmother, my father, even to my younger sister that will prove to anyone that I am very real, most definitely documented; photos taped to our refrigerator, snapshots taken at the Sandy Hill house or other friends’ fiestas, the Sears portraits our mother used to dress us up for every year…Don’t tell me I’m undocumented when my name is tattooed on my father’s arm.”

Craggy Rye Biscuits

photo of golden brown craggy rye biscuits on a wood table.

This bake is a twofold doorway: a doorway into baking, because biscuits are one of the easiest things you can make, and a doorway (I hope) into the wonderful world of rye flour. This particular recipe came about because I wanted biscuits this weekend, and the first flour I found happened to be rye. Making rye biscuits sounded much nicer than digging around for a different flour, so that’s what I did.

These are not elegant. They’re also not flaky like traditional biscuits. They’re craggy and crumbly and full of flavor. They’re wonderful warm with butter. They’re also the perfect vehicle for a tuna melt, as you can see in the picture above.

Ingredients:

  • 218 grams (2 cups) whole grain rye flour
  • 1 Tbs baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 10 Tbs (141 grams) cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 3/4 cup milk, plus 1-2 Tbs more as needed

Preheat the oven to 400. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and blend with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal with plenty of small pea-sized pieces of butter. Add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon just until the dough comes together. If the mixture is still too dry, add a bit more milk a tablespoon at a time.

Scoop the dough into eight mounds and drop them on the prepared baking sheet. Oddly shaped scoops are just fine. Bake for 20-24 minutes, until the tops of the biscuits are golden brown. Let cool slightly before slicing (or breaking apart, these will crumble).

 

Kink edited by Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon

cover of Kink: Stories featuring a black cover with red and purple lettering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read this book about a month ago. Before sitting down to write this review, I decided to see how many stories I could remember without opening the book. I was honestly shocked by how many it was:

  • Zeyn Joukhadar’s lush and beautiful story about a trans couple and their straight peeping-tom neighbor. I can still see this couple’s kitchen and feel the ease and care with which they share space.
  • Roxane Gay’s very short story about a woman and her wife, the sex they have, the faces they present to the world, the faces the present to each other, the faces they keep to themselves. I’m still wondering how she packed so much character into so few pages.
  • O. Kwon’s story about a couple who seeks help from a professional dominatrix. Kwon writes so poignantly about silence and desire.
  • Peter Mountford’s story about a couple visiting an old friend, wondering if (and how) to come out about their kinkiness.
  • Larissa Pham’s story about a young woman’s weekend getaway to Vermont with her older boyfriend, and the ways it changes their relationship.
  • The longest story in the book, Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” (also the longest title). It has a strangeness similar to some of the stories in Her Party and Other Parties. For thirty-five of its fortyish pages, I wasn’t into it. It was disorienting and dreamlike and upsetting. I was already composing my review in my head: “too bad the longest story in the book was my least favorite!” And then, in the last few pages, everything changed. Machado worked some magic that left me breathless. I’m still thinking about it today.

Generally I have a lot of trouble remembering short stories after I read them. It’s not uncommon for me to read a collection and only remember one of the stories, at best. I stopped reading short story collections for a while because of this (and wrote about it). Something about all those stories squished together makes them run together in my mind, and I rarely end up loving a whole collection. But I absolutely loved this one, and the fact that so many of the stories are still so clear to me is proof.

All the stories in this book are about desire and intimacy and the strange terrain of longing. They’re mostly contemporary, but there are also some dystopian and historical ones. Two thirds of them are about queer and trans people. They explore many kinds of kink in many different contexts. There is definitely explicit sex in some (though not all) of them, so if that’s not your jam, maybe skip this one. But they’re not all about sex, and that’s something I really appreciated; kink isn’t always about sex, either.

When I was taking a lot of creative writing classes in my early twenties, one of the things teachers said over and over again was: you have to know what your character wants. And while I no longer think that all fiction needs to follow this rule, there’s no denying that desire is a driving force in our lives. Maybe that’s part of what makes these stories so propulsive. Every one of them is about desire. Sexual desire, yes, but also the desire to be seen and known, to be useful, to be cared for. The desire for power, autonomy, control, rest. Some of the stories are about a specific concrete desire, and others are about more complex desires, ones that are harder to see, that emerge over time. I truly think there’s a story in this book for everyone, because they’re all about the thorny work of trying to unravel what the hell we want and how to get it.

Multigrain Chocolate Chip Cookies

extreme closeup photo of multigrain chocolate chip cookies.

(Adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

Look, I know everyone has their favorite chocolate chip cookie. I’m not trying to change any minds here. This one happens to be mine. Just like a good anthology, it’s got a little bit of everything. Also like a good anthology, everything in it fits together seamlessly.

These cookies are crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. I honestly can’t tell you exactly what the combo of flours does, but it’s magic. Is it cliche to say that blending buckwheat and whole wheat flour adds a depth of flavor? Well, it does. Then there’s the crunch from the kasha and finely chopped pecans. I don’t like big chunks of anything but chocolate in my chocolate chip cookies, so I love the crunchy-but-not-chunky texture of these.

I’ve made these cookies with many different flour combinations. Dorie’s original blend of AP, whole wheat, and buckwheat is still my favorite, but they’re also great with rye. This is definitely a cookie you can experiment with.

Fun aside: I didn’t know what kasha was until I made these cookies. It’s roasted buckwheat groats! I now have it in my pantry at all times, but I’ve never used it for anything other than these cookies.

Ingredients

  • 68 grams (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 68 grams (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour
  • 60 grams (1/2 cup) buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 7 Tbs. (99 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 134 grams (2/3 cup) brown sugar (I like dark brown, but either kind is fine! I also often reduce this to 120 grams)
  • 100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 60 grams (1/4 cup) kasha (Dorie recommends Wolff’s medium granulation and I concur, though I am by no means a kasha connoisseur)
  • 60 grams (2/3 cup) pecans, toasted and finely chopped
  • 7 ounces (196 grams) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • flaky salt for sprinkling

In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and baking soda.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using handheld beaters, beat together butter, both sugars, and salt on medium speed. Continue mixing for 3-5 minutes, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add the egg, and then the egg yolk, beating between each addition.

Turn off the mixer and add the flour mixture all at once. Mix on low speed until most of the flour is combined (there should still be a few floury streaks). Add the kasha and pecans, and pulse a few times (you can also do this with a sturdy wooden spoon). Finally, add the chopped chocolate and pulse again, just until everything is blended.

Scrape the dough into a bowl and refrigerate for an hour. Longer is fine, too—the cookies just won’t spread as much. You can also shape the dough into balls, freeze them, and bake them right from frozen.

Preheat the oven to 375. Using a tablespoon, scoop out mounds of dough. I like to roll them into balls between my palms. Place them on parchment-lined baking sheets about 2” apart. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt.

Bake for 9-12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. The cookies will be just brown on the edges and still soft in the middle. Don’t worry if they seem underbaked—that’s how they should be! They’ll firm up a bit as they cool.

I have enjoyed these cookies for at least a week after baking, though they are absurdly good when still just a smidge warm.

 

Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

cover of Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) featuring dark blue cover with drawings of an armadillo, a human heart, a squid and lipstick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get ready for some truly weird and wonderful structural magic: this novel is written in the form of a fictional encyclopedia. The narrator of the novel, and the writer of this encyclopedia, is a trans woman mourning the death of her best friend, Viv, also a trans woman. Viv was obsessed with a fictional TV show, Little Blue, which became a central part of their friendship. After Viv dies, her grieving friend decides to write this encyclopedia about Little Blue to keep her memories of Viv alive and find a way to live with her grief.

I can’t explain how powerful and enchanting this form is. Near the end of the book, our narrator writes:

“The joy of having known you is starting to paint over the pain of having lost you. And when I miss you most, I can absorb myself in something you adored. Suede. Little Blue.”

This book is full of that absorption, and it’s remarkable how deeply you get to know both Viv and the narrator through reading this encyclopedia. The show itself is strange and compelling—a small town drama set on a remote island. The complexity of this fictional world is incredible. As you read, you become totally invested in and intrigued by this detailed, intricate, made-up series. And not just the characters and settings in the show itself, but the fandom surrounding it, its history, and most importantly, the role it played in the lives of Viv and the narrator.

It’s such an honest and poignant way to write about grief. It’s so apparent that writing about Little Blue is the only way our narrator knows how to live in the wake of Viv’s death. It gives the whole story this breathtaking intimacy. The narrative has a spellbinding force even though it’s a character-driven book.

The whole book is an ode to trans friendship. Viv was straight and our narrator is queer; it’s clear she was in love with Viv. But this is not a sad story about unrequited love. It’s about the importance of friendship in all of its messiness, even if it isn’t always pretty or easy. The narrator captures all the tiny details that make up a friendship and the pain of losing them:

“If you spend hundreds of hours with someone, you have a catalogue of tiny memories. As you live your life, those tiny memoires snap and crackle your synapses. It can be overwhelming, like the world is already overlaid with experience. When I was picking up a lightbulb in the drugstore today, I was reminded of being in the exact same store with Viv while she filled a basket with twenty or thirty items.”

She goes on to describe doing errands with Viv. The book is filled with scenes like this: moments that trigger memories, a fluid movement between the past and the present, all of it adding up to this complicated, nuanced portrait of a person and a friendship. By the end of the book, I felt so close to Viv. I could picture her lounging in her apartment, recall a thousand mundane conversations she had, recite her opinions about Little Blue. That’s part of why this book is so emotionally powerful. The writing is so present: it’s fresh, playful, funny, sly, sad, yearning, open. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Viv, and thus to be heartbroken by her death.

One more thing, and it’s a big one: this book is so celebratory! It’s about a trans woman mourning her dead friend, but it’s not about Viv’s death. It’s not a tragic story. The narrator explicitly states this:

“I’ve been hesitant to talk about how Viv died, but I think it’s important to say that Viv didn’t commit suicide. That being said, if you don’t already know how she died, I won’t disclose the details. We aren’t defined by how we happen to die.”

The whole book is an utter and absolute refusal of the idea that trans women are defined by their deaths, that their deaths are more important than their lives. So often so much emphasis is placed on the violence done to trans women. And while it’s obviously important to talk about that, so we can end it, it is also a kind of erasure. This story is the opposite of erasure. It’s a writing-in. It’s about the specific loves and heartbreaks and obsessions and mistakes of two trans women. It’s about grief, but it’s not about death.

Caramelized Onion & Sweet Potato Galette

photograph of a caramelized onion and sweet potato galette with a golden pastry crust, shot from above.

Makes one 12” galette (approximately)

I love pies, but we’re talking structural magic here, and as far as structural magic in pastry goes, galettes are where it’s at. You roll out some dough, put some stuff inside, and fold it up. Then you end up with a delicious combo of flaky pastry and tasty filling without any crimping or sealing or perfect-making. It’s magic, alright.

This galette is simple and filling. Don’t skimp on the garlicky mustard—it’s the best part!

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • 2 sticks (16 Tbs/227 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 295 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 2-4 Tbs ice water

For the filling:

  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium sweet potato, sliced into thin rounds
  • 6 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 Tbs mustard
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 4 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn or cubed
  • Parmesan, to taste
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • sesame seeds (optional)

To make the crust: Put some cold water in a bowl with ice and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, and butter with your fingertips. To keep the dough from getting too warm, dip your fingers in the ice water every now and then. Mix until it resembles coarse sand (some larger chunks of butter are okay). Add the water a little bit at time, mixing with your fingertips between each addition. When the dough mostly holds together, dump it on the counter and knead it a few times to gather into a ball. Flatten into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge. (You can do the mixing in a food processor.)

To make the filling: Preheat the oven to 400. Arrange the sweet potato slices on a baking tray in a single layer. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast until just tender, about 15 minutes. You can leave the oven on.

Meanwhile, caramelize your onions. Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onions over medium heat until glistening, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to low, and continue cooking until you like the way they look, 10-20 minutes more.

Combine the pressed garlic, mustard and olive oil in a small dish and mix well.

To assemble the galette: Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface. You want a vaguely circular shape, but don’t worry about it too much. You’re aiming for something about 24” inches in diameter. When you’re satisfied, transfer the rolled dough onto a baking pan.

Spread the garlic-mustard mixture in a circle in the center of the dough, leaving a roughly 3” border. Spread the caramelized onions on top. Layer on the sweet potatoes in concentric rings. Scatter the mozzarella on top, and grate some Parmesan over it all.

Fold the excess dough over the filling. It’ll look uneven—as it should! It’s okay to fold the dough over itself; it’ll look pleated. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and scatter sesame seeds on top. Bake at 400 for 40 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

*These recipes, reviews, and photographs where previously published in the Books & Bakes newsletter.

—About the Author—

Laura Sackton is a queer baker, book nerd, and freelance writer. You can find her work at Book RiotAudiofile, and elsewhere. She writes a weekly newsletter all about books and treats, Books & Bakes. In addition to reading all the queer lit she can get her hands on, she’s in the process of finding every swimming hole there is near her home in Western Massachusetts.