In 1967, 26 year-old Odelle Bastien was unhappily working in a shoe store in London, dreaming of becoming a writer. An immigrant from Trinidad, she had spent the last five years applying for all manner of jobs, only to be turned away when she showed up for the interview. Then, one June day, a letter changed Odelle’s life. Marjorie Quick of the Skelton Institute not only offered her a job as a typist, but acknowledged the accompishments listed in her curriculum vitae. Finally, Odelle felt that she was coming closer to what she had been taught were Important Things: culture, history, art. Odelle was reserved, living simply with her college roommate, Cynth. In the workplace, she was quiet, suspicious even, of her employer’s motives, so she kept the details of her life to herself. As the title suggests, a muse can be the difference between creating art or not creating it. A muse can be inspiring or encouraging, helping the artist find their voice and the confidence to keep making art. There were several muses in the novel, highlighting how important it is to have someone believe in you, and believe in your work, but Odelle’s muse was the most interesting part of the story.
One of the characters, a female artist, admired the work of Gabriele Munter, a German expressionist, who lived from 1877 to 1962. After her parents died, she and her sister spent 2 years visiting extended famiy in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, before returning to Germany to study art. Because she was wealthy, she lived a free life unrestricted by the conventions that constrained other women of her era. She initially had a professional relationship with Kandinsky that later blossomed into a personal relationshp that lasted a decade. This work, entitled “Breakfast of the Birds” is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
The action alternates between 1967 London and 1936 Spain. The Schloss family met brother and sister Isaac and Teresa Robles in the Spanish countryside, when Harold brought his wife and daughter there at first to get away from the bustle of the city to help his wife, and later to escape the political madness enveloping Europe at the time. Harold owned a gallery in Paris, and Isaac was a painter, so an alliance between the two was quickly formed. Teresa cooked and took care of the house. One afternoon, Isaac joined Herr Schloss, Harold’s wife, Sarah, and Olive, the Schloss’s 19 year-old daughter, for tea to celebrate Isaac’s success in Paris. Teresa served polvorones, a kind of shortbread cookie.
I’m not a confident baker, primarily because I don’t have much success with recipes that call for creaming butter and sugar. This recipe claimed to be really easy, so I took a deep breath and googled “how to soften butter in a cold house.” Since the recommended method was to bring it to room temperature by putting it on the counter for about an hour, I put the heat up to warm the house. After an hour, the butter wasn’t soft, so I beat the butter with the paddle on my stand mixer. Better, but still not creamy, so I beat it some more, and some more. Finally added the sugar, made the dough, and continued to follow directions. The cookies were supposed to be golden brown on the bottom and just pale golden on top after 18 minutes in the oven. They weren’t. I kept checking them and putting them back in the oven for an additional 18 minutes before cranking the heat up to 350 for 6 more minutes. They still weren’t pale golden on top, but out they came. I nudged one with the spatula to see the color of the bottom, and the cookie fell apart. So I just let the cookies sit on the pan until they cooled a bit. Bottom line- they were fabulous! I went from I’m-never-making-these-again to OMG-these-cookies-are-soooo-good. in just one delectable bite.
Don’t give up. These things are worth the effort.
Yield: makes about 4 dozen
1½ C walnuts, divided
pinch of fine salt
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
½ C granulated sugar
½ C confectioners’ sugar, plus more for serving
Ground cinnamon, for garnish (optional)
Put ½ cup of the walnuts and the salt in a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Roughly chop the remaining 1 cup walnuts.
Position two oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325º F.
Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the granulated sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the flour, then the ground and chopped walnuts. Divide the dough in half, forming each half into a ball. Wrap separately in plastic and chill until cold, about 30 minutes.
Put the confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl.
Working with half of the chilled dough at a time and keeping the rest in the fridge, roll the dough by 2 teaspoonfuls between your palms into balls. Arrange the balls on a large baking sheet, spacing them ½ inch apart.
Bake the cookies until golden brown on the bottom and just pale golden on top, about 18 minutes. Cool the cookies for 5 minutes on the baking sheet. Toss the warm cookies in the powdered sugar. Transfer the sugar-coated cookies to a rack to cool completely. The cookies can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container. You need to make sure they are cooled before storing them, otherwise they will get soggy. Sift additional powdered sugar and cinnamon over the cookies if desired before serving.
A great success!