Seventeen year-old Petronella Oortman stood at the door of the Amsterdam home of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, and knocked. And knocked. No one came. This was not an auspicious beginning to married life. Even though she was expected, Brandt was not even in town to greet her when she arrived. Nella was shown to her room by Marin, Brandt’s sister, who in the early pages of the novel reminded me of Mrs. Danvers, with her curt comments and mysterious actions. Needless to say, I was hooked, even though I suspected that things would not end well for Nella. Marin was a real doozy. After sniffing Nella’s perfume (lily, a gift from her mother), Marin says, “You know what they say about lilies. Early to ripe, early to rot.” As Johannes traveled extensively for the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, Nella was subjected to Marin’s disdain on a daily basis. Seventeenth century Amsterdam afforded limited latitude about the proper occupation of women, so Nella was essentially a prisoner in her own home, which was more like a boarding house, since Marin took over the duties of wife that should have been Nella’s responsibilities under different circumstances. As distant as Johannes was, I liked him. I especially liked him when he said, “I find much of myself in food.” This was at a banquet, the first time he and Petronella appeared in public as man and wife, and their first real conversation. He went on to talk about how memory is connected to food and how food is a language in itself. It reminds me of the famous Brillat-Saverin quip, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That currently makes me leftover pizza from Santarpio’s.
Nella developed a relationship with the mysterious “miniaturist,” even though they never met. The miniaturist provided furnishings for the cabinet that Johannes had commissioned for her. It was a beautiful reproduction of their home. Society women flaunted their prominence and wealth by trying to outdo one another in furnishing the cabinets exactly like their actual homes. Nella was spooked by the accuracy of the items that arrived at her home unbidden. It seemed as though the miniaturist could see into her future.
Petronella Oortman was a real person whose cabinet is on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and was the inspiration for this book, a debut by Jessie Burton.
The burgomasters forbade the possession or making of puppets and dolls at Christmas, claiming that idolatry is an attempt to capture the human soul. Unable to make gingerbread men, the bakers, Hanna and Arnoud, made gingerbread dogs. I don’t have a dog cookie cutter, so I used shooting stars in honor of the star of Bethlehem.
YIELD: 24 5 inch tall cookies
3 C all-purpose flour
1½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 T ground ginger
1¾ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
6 T unsalted butter
¾ C dark brown sugar
1 large egg
½ C molasses
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest (optional)
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves until well blended.
In a large bowl beat butter, brown sugar, and egg on medium speed until well blended. Add molasses, vanilla, and lemon zest and continue to mix until well blended. Gradually stir in dry ingredients until blended and smooth. Divide dough in half and wrap each half in plastic and let stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours.
Preheat oven to 375º. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. (Dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, but in this case it should be refrigerated. Return to room temp before using.)
Place 1 portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle flour over dough and rolling pin. Roll dough to a scant ¼-inch thick. Use additional flour to avoid sticking. Cut out cookies with desired cutter. Space cookies 1½-inches apart. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 7-10 minutes (the lower time will give you softer cookies– very good!).
Remove cookie sheet from oven and allow the cookies to stand until they are firm enough to move to a wire rack. Cooled cookies may decorated.