Wait, what, really?
Is this how I know I’ve become a resident of Three Pines, at least in spirit, by my reaction to the ending of The Brutal Telling—the 5th book in Louise Penny’s best-selling Inspector Gamache series—being one of the same bewilderment and grief that grips the village in which most of the books have been so lovingly set? I can’t really say more without giving away the plot entirely, but here’s what I can safely say: the corpse of an unidentified man is found in Olivier’s Bistro, uncovering stories of greed and secrets that stretch back decades and span the globe from the glittering, vanished Amber Room of Prussia to the lonely mists of Ninstints in British Columbia.
And it isn’t just that I find it hard to accept the identity of the killer. The murder case feels oddly unsolved, and not in that unsatisfactory way that you get from second-rate mystery authors. I feel as if Louise Penny deliberately wrote it this way in order to lay the foundation for a really big shake-up in a following book, which I know she’s perfectly capable of when it comes to this series. I’m just vexed at the uncertainty of it all!
What I wasn’t vexed with, though: the wonderful recipes that go with this book! I was originally rather skeptical of the first, which sounded like a glorified French toast covered in muesli, but then, of course, I tried it:
*Makes 4 servings
Eight 1-inch (3-cm) slices challah, brioche, or other eggy, soft-textured dough (see note)
1 cup dry-textured muesli
½ cup (120 ml) milk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
To serve (choose any or all)
1. Arrange the bread slices on a cooling rack (or a plate) and let them get slightly stale overnight. This will give the finished pain doré an almost custardy texture.
2. Grind the muesli in a food processor to the texture of very coarse sand. Spread out the ground muesli on a wide plate.
3. In a bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon until smooth. Pour into a square 9×9-inch (23×23-cm) baking pan. Add the bread slices and soak for 4 minutes; turn and soak the second side for another 4 minutes. There should be very little egg mix left after soaking.
4. Heat the butter in a large 10-inch (25-cm) or so nonstick pan over medium-low heat until the butter is foaming. Carefully dredge both sides of the soaked bread slices in the ground muesli. Add the bread slices to the pan as you dredge them and cook, turning only once, until golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes. Serve warm with blueberries, powdered sugar, and/or additional maple syrup.
NOTE: If the challah or other bread you are using is large, say 4 inches (10 cm) high, you may only need 4 slices; one slice per serving. The rest of the ingredients will remain the same.
I originally mistook the note about the height of each slice to mean its thickness, which resulted in me needing to double the amount of the egg mixture I soaked the bread in after I soaked the first few slices and found they’d sopped up all the liquid. I then opted for blueberries and powdered sugar on my serving, while my lovely assistant, Karin, chose powdered sugar. I tried a bit of hers and can confirm that either way, it was super delicious!
Next up, I tried a sweet dish that was more familiar, and let me take a moment to note how annoying it is when people try to pass off anything but a sweet biscuit dessert as a genuine strawberry shortcake. This recipe, however, produced the genuine article:
*Makes 6 servings
For the berries
Two 1-pint baskets luscious red strawberries, hulled, and sliced
¼ cup (50 g) granulated sugar or demerara sugar
2 teaspoons brandy or pure vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
For the shortcake
2 cups (250 g) all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup (50 g) plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons (3 oz/85 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1. Set the oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put a metal bowl and whisk or beaters for a handheld mixer in the refrigerator to chill.
2. Prepare the berries: Grate the zest of the lemon into a bowl large enough to hold the berries. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Add the strawberries, sugar, brandy or vanilla, and salt. Toss gently until the sugar starts to melt. Let them stand at room temperature, tossing gently a few times while you bake the shortcake.
3. Make the shortcakes: Whisk the flour, baking powder, the ¼ cup of sugar, and the salt together in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender until the butter pieces are the size of small peas. Drizzle in the buttermilk and toss with a fork just until the dough holds together. It will be slightly crumbly and moister in some places than others.
4. Turn the dough out onto a dry, clean surface and work in any stray pieces with your hands, being careful not to overwork the dough. Cut the dough into 6 even pieces. Working gently and with floured hands, form each piece into a circle of dough roughly 4 inches (10 cm) wide by 1 inch (3 cm) thick. The tops should be very uneven. Line the shortcakes up on the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar over the tops.
5. Bake until the shortcakes are puffed and the tops are golden and flecked with brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the shortcakes to a wire rack (or leave them on the pan) to cool slightly.
6. Meanwhile, using the chilled bowl and whisk or beaters, beat the heavy cream until it forms medium-stiff peaks, 2 to 3 minutes.
7. Prepare 6 small serving plates. Split the shortcakes in half horizontally (a fork works well for this) and set the bottoms on the plates. Evenly divide the reserved strawberries over the cakes, then top the berries with whipped cream. Top with the shortcake tops and serve.
My only complaint about this recipe is that the book very clearly states that Peter adds vanilla (or, rather, has Inspector Gamache add vanilla) to the cream before whipping it, which would have made for an even more delicious treat! Both recipes produced delightful sweets, however, and I’m glad to be able to add these to my repertoire.
You guys, I’m still having such a hard time believing that that’s the end of this mystery, though! Perhaps there will be more answers in the next book, Bury Your Dead, which comes with a recipe for “French Onion Soup,” both of which I look forward to hungrily.
Tell me how you’re doing as you cook along with me from The Nature of The Feast, Louise Penny’s free cookbook accompaniment to her bestselling Inspector Gamache series!
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.