What strikes me about this one in particular and McEwan’s books in general is how concise they are, but also, how complex. As I read the protagonist, Fiona Maye’s thoughts about the cases she was working on as a Family Court Judge, juxtaposed with her thoughts about her marriage, I marvelled at how on the one hand, she could be objective, logical and confident, but in the very next moment, vulnerable, emotional, and insecure. McEwan’s ability to convey a lot of content in a short space leads me to believe he’d be a wonderful poet. (I checked, but could find no poetry by Ian McEwan.) This is a book about a marriage, and a career. Fiona and her husband, Jack, have grown apart. When the book opens, Fiona is still reeling from a conversation she just had with Jack, about how to fix their foundering marriage. At the same time, she was pondering the cases she would address on behalf of the children caught up in their parents’ divorce, at work the following day. While her work was challenging, and often grim, she felt that she brought reasonableness to otherwise hopeless situations. Reading Fiona’s thoughts about her work made me realize how difficult and important the work of a Family Court judge is. And then there’s the key “decision” that Fiona makes that nearly unravels her professionally and personally. I do love McEwan.
One of the Fiona’s cases involved a gravely ill 17 year-old boy hospitalized by a rare form of leukemia. She had to make a ruling on treatment because his parents disagreed with the hospital. Before making her judgment, Fiona wanted to meet the boy so that she could ascertain his degree of understanding of his medical condition and the consequences of the hospital’s treatment plan in contrast to his parents’ preference. Adam had been learning to play the violin while in the hospital, and was eager to play his latest piece for Fiona. When she recognized it, she began to sing along with his playing. This YouTube clip was among the most beautiful I found.
Down by the Salley Gardens
by William Butler Yeats
Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.
In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.
Before relations between Fiona and Jack had become strained, they used to relish their Saturday mornings together, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, reading the newspapers and listenings to Radio Three. Accompanying coffee, there was warmed pain aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit St., which is apparently a toney street of upscale stores and bakeries.
Makes about 1¼ pounds
1 tsp sugar
¼ C warm milk or water (105°F)
1 (¼-ounce) package active dry yeast (2½ teaspoons)
½ C sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
¼ tsp salt
3 T sugar
1 T hot milk or water
3 large eggs
1½ C sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1½ sticks (¾ cup) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch slices and well softened
Special equipment: a standing electric mixer with whisk and dough-hook attachments
Stir together sugar and milk in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir flour into yeast mixture, forming a soft dough, and cut a deep X across top.
Let starter rise, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature, 1 hour.
Combine salt, sugar, and hot milk in a small bowl and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.
Fit mixer with whisk attachment, then beat 2 eggs at medium-low speed until fluffy. Add sugar mixture and beat until combined well. With motor running, add in order, beating after each addition: ½ cup flour, remaining egg, ½ cup flour, about one fourth of butter, and remaining 1/2 cup flour. Beat mixture 1 minute.
Remove bowl from mixer and fit mixer with dough-hook attachment. Spread starter onto dough with a rubber spatula and return bowl to mixer. Beat dough at medium-high speed 6 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic. Add remaining butter and beat 1 minute, or until butter is incorporated.
Lightly butter a large bowl and scrape dough into bowl with rubber spatula. Lightly dust dough with flour to prevent a crust from forming.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise at room temperature until more than doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.
Punch down dough and lightly dust with flour.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough, punching down after first hour, at least 12 hours. Dough may be chilled up to 3 days. Punch down dough each day.
Raisin Brioche Pastries (Pains aux Raisins)
Makes 11 buns
1¼ pounds cold Brioche Dough
1 C raisins
1 C boiling-hot water
For pastry cream
1 C whole milk
3 large egg yolks
⅓ C sugar
1½ T cornstarch
½ tsp vanilla
½ T unsalted butter
¼ C apricot preserves
2 T water
Make brioche dough the day before making pastry and chill. Just before making pastry cream, soak raisins in boiling-hot water until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain, pressing out excess liquid, and cool to room temperature.
Make pastry cream:
Bring milk to a simmer in a 1½-quart heavy saucepan. Whisk together yolks, sugar, and cornstarch in a bowl and gradually whisk in hot milk. Return mixture to pan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture begins to boil. Simmer, stirring, until thickened and smooth, about 3 minutes.
Transfer to a clean bowl and stir in vanilla and butter. Cover surface with plastic wrap and cool to room temperature.
Roll out brioche dough on a well-floured surface into an 18- by 11-inch rectangle with a short side toward you. Spread pastry cream evenly over dough, leaving a ½-inch border at top edge. Sprinkle raisins evenly over cream. Roll up dough, starting from bottom, to make a log 11 inches long and about 3½ inches in diameter. Moisten top edge with water and press to seal closed.
Transfer to a cutting board or baking sheet and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Chill until firm, about 1 hour. This step was not easy. The dough was so soft and filled with cream and raisins, I couldn’t pick it up, so I coaxed it little by little off the pastry cloth onto a baking sheet.
Cut chilled log into 11 (1-inch-thick) rounds and arrange about 2 inches apart on 2 buttered baking sheets.
Let pastries rise in a warm place, uncovered, 1 hour. (They will increase slightly in size and feel very tender to the touch.)
While pastries are rising, preheat oven to 425°F.
Bake in batches in middle of oven until tops are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer pastries to a rack.
Simmer preserves and water, stirring, 1 minute. Pour through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids. Brush glaze onto pastries.
Uncut log can be chilled overnight if desired.
Pains aux raisins can be frozen 1 month, thawed, and reheated in a 350°F oven. However, the pastries really are best when eaten the day they are made.
The 11″ by 18″ rolled-out pastry with the pastry cream spread on it and the raisins distributed evenly. On the right, the rather uneven log that was so difficult to move. After I cut the individual 1 inch rounds and let them rise, they were the round shape you see below.
The finished product, and yes, I am very proud of this. It tasted like it came from a bakery. It was a lot of work, and while I’ll save the recipe, I’m not sure when I’ll be in a hurry to make it again. Unless Jim begs. Or requests. Also, I planned my time so poorly that the second batch came out of the oven at 11 PM. Bakers need to schedule carefully so they’re not up all night.