The Nature of Fragile Things

THE BOOK:

Sophie arrived in San Francisco on her wedding day. She went from the station to City Hall. where she became Sophie Hocking, Martin’s (with the mysterious eyes,) wife. Martin claimed that his wife died, leaving five year old Katherine motherless and silent. Sophie hoped that over time, Kat would come to love her, but until then she was happy to take care of the child. Martin traveled a lot for his work, assessing risk for an insurance company, so Sophie and Kat had plenty of time to bond. When the 1906 earthquake struck, all the characters’ lives changed drastically. Homes were destroyed and fires were raging as Sophie and her small band, including Belinda and baby Sarah, found refuge at Golden Gate Park where the military set up tents for temporary housing. When it was safe to travel the foursome made their way to Belinda’s Lorelei Inn in San Rafaela. Intimations of Sophie’s secret past were made throughout the narrative that were revealed in a neat ending. I especially liked the historical setting of the natural disaster. Had there been a Richter scale at the time(it was invented in 1935), the quake might have registered 7.9. Fires continued for 3 days, destroying some 28,000 buildings, killing approximately 3,000 people, and rendering half the city’s population homeless.

THE BEAUTY: Catastrophe brought together four people whose lives would forever be entwined. The accident of birth gives us one family, and opportunity gives us the family we choose. Sophie, Kat, Belinda, Sarah and Elliott love and care for each other. Family.

THE FOOD: Sophie reminisced a lot about her family in Ireland, usually to cover awkward silences or to relax others into being more comfortable in the company of those they hardly knew. She talked frequently about her grandmother’s barmbrack, a fruity bread that Sophie enjoyed.

Irish Barmbrack

1 C dried currants
1 C raisins or sultanas
1 C strong black tea (cold) (optional: add a splash of Irish whiskey or brandy
2 tsp active dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
¾ C lukewarm milk
3 C all-purpose flour
⅓ C sugar 
1 tsp mixed spice (recipe follows)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, slightly beaten
zest of one lemon
⅓ C finely chopped homemade candied orange peel (recipe follows)

Place the currants and raisins in a bowl and pour over the cold tea. Let soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.  Drain and reserve the liquid for later.

Stir the yeast and teaspoon of sugar in the lukewarm milk.  Let it sit for 10 minutes until nice and frothy.  

In a stand mixer place the flour, sugar, spices and salt and stir to combine.  Make a well and add the melted butter, egg, lemon zest and yeast mixture.  Use the dough hook to knead until just combined.  The dough will be very thick (do not add more liquid at this point because the wet currants/raisins will be added).  Add drained currants and raisins and candied orange peel. (Reserve the liquid!)  Knead until combined, adding some of the reserved currant/raisin juice until a soft dough forms.  Scrape down the dough from the sides of the bowl.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for 90-120 minutes or until doubled in size.  

Punch down the dough. place the dough in a greased 9×5 inch loaf pan.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for another hour or longer until nearly doubled in size.  

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  

Bake the barmbrack on the middle rack for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.  

Remove from oven and while hot brush the loaf with the reserved currant/raisin juice for more flavor, moistness and a nice sheen and let cool.

Slice and serve.  Barmbrack is especially good toasted and spread with butter.

Mixed Spice (makes about ¼ cup of mixed spice)
1 T ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp ground mace

Combine all spices in an airtight glass jar and keep store in a dark cool place for up to several months.
 
Candied Orange Peel 
Yields approximately 8 ounces of candied citrus peel depending on peel thickness.

4 Valencia or Naval oranges 
2 C sugar
1 cup water

Fine granulated sugar for coating

Slice both ends of the oranges. Cut the peel on each into 4 or more vertical segments, depending on the size of the fruit. Peel off each segment of rind. You can remove a little of the white pith, though not necessary. The pith is bitter but the blanching process below will help reduce the bitterness. Note that if you remove the white pith, the thinner the peels are the harder and more leathery they will be when they’re candied.

Slice the peels into ¼ inch wide strips. Boil the peels in a pot of water for 15 minutes. Drain the peels in a colander, rinse and then drain again. Discard the water from the pot. Repeat this process one or two more times to reduce the bitter flavor.

Add the 1 cup of fresh water and the sugar to the pot and bring it to a boil. Boil it for a couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Add the citrus peels, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peels become translucent and the syrup becomes lightly syrupy (on a candy thermometer this will be be approximately soft ball stage).

Use a slotted spoon to remove a few of the peels at a time and let the excess syrup drip off for a few seconds. Place the hot, wet peels in a bowl of sugar or a ziplock bag with sugar in it and toss/shake to coat.

Spread the candied citrus peels out on a wire rack to cool and dry completely, 1-2 days.

Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, the candied citrus peel will keep for at least a month. They’ll keep even longer in the fridge and for a few months frozen.

Note:  If you find your candied citrus peel gets hard after a while don’t worry – they will soften up beautifully as they bake in whatever recipe you add them to!

Note:  To keep the candied peels even softer you can limit the drying time, skip the final sugar coating step and put the peels in a ziplock bag and either refrigerate or freeze them.

It’s kind of like fruit cake, only cakier, which is a good thing. Delicious!

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