This month, and next, Debra of Eliot's Eats assigned the Cook the Books crew Honeysuckle Season by Mary Ellen Taylor.* This is a bi-monthly book group, so you have till the end of May to read it and join the party. You can read her invitation here.
Debra shared: "The book tells the tales of four women.
- Sadie, a moonshiner's wild child, is trying to help make ends meet while her older brothers are away fighting WWII.
- Olivia, a new bride, has escaped London and the Blitz by marrying a rich American doctor, one of the "landed gentry."
- Libby, a wedding photographer, returns to her hometown to escape a failed marriage and three failed pregnancies.
- Elaine, the current curator of the estate, is working hard to restore the once massive and elaborate gardens and greenhouse.
The place setting is a large estate in rural Virginia and the surrounding community. The time setting alternates between the 1940s and today.
These four women's lives are intertwined with a shared history that will be revealed. Besides revolving around these connections, the plot also deals with class stigma, the plight of the poor (especially women), eugenics and certain prejudices in the rural South in the 1940s.
There's plenty of food in the novel of the comforting, downhome kind and the author provides a few recipes at the end: Buttermilk Pie, Honeysuckle Syrup, and Lemon Cake."
And - even better - the book was free with Kindle Unlimited. So, I ordered it up and read it in an afternoon.
This book uses the (somewhat overused) literary strategy of two timelines: one that flashes back to the 1940s and one that's set in the present. Both timelines center around the historic Woodmont Estate in Bluestone, Virginia. I have no idea if that's an actual place, but it felt real enough. And, at the center of the Woodmont Estate is its greenhouse that's overgrown with honeysuckle vines.
Libby McKenzie returns to Bluestone after she suffers multiple miscarriages and her marriage fails. She comes back to care for her dying father, the beloved local pediatrician. At almost every turn, people gush, "Oh, your dad was my doctor and I loved him!" Libby is working on building her freelance photography business and is hired to shoot a wedding at the Woodmont.
It took me a little while to keep the characters straight and unravel the ties that bind - and, yes, there are many. But I definitely did not see the twist coming! I found this a mostly sweet story with ties to dark historical times when women could be diagnosed as hysterical and sterilized without their consent, to social realities of the moneyed white people being believed above the honest black people, and to the stigmas attached to a woman being able to bear a child or not. So, there were some heavy subjects, but I did like the book overall and am glad that Debra picked it for #CooktheBooks because I wouldn't have picked it up otherwise.
I was so intrigued by the dynamics in the moonshine timeline, including bribing the Sheriff to keep their business going during Prohibition.
"'Is Sheriff Boyd going to give us trouble?' Sadie asked. 'He and I struck a deal.' Johnny removed two of the biggest jars from the milk crate. 'What kind of deal?' 'I give him two jars of the honeysuckle white lightning, and he looks the other way.'"
And this moonshine tradition made me chuckle. "Sierra shook her head, as if concerned. 'It’s the moonshine graveyard, which is a bit of a tradition in these parts. If you want good luck on your wedding day, then you bury a bottle of hooch in the garden.'"
Margaret served a hummingbird cake for dessert and made cinnamon rolls that Elaine finished baking for the crew. "The oven timer chimed, and Elaine rose and, using mitts, removed the two steaming dishes. One appeared to be bread, and the other cinnamon rolls. 'Margaret left these for me last night with instructions to put them in the oven at seven. I thought you or the crews would be hungry. There’s also coffee here. Help yourself.'"
In the end I was inspired into the kitchen by Sierra's cakes and some dried honeysuckle blossoms I had. It's not quite honeysuckle season here, but I will try to experiment with the fresh flowers come summertime.
I was set to deliver a birthday feast to one of my best friends - including a birthday cake - and my boys objected to not getting to try any. "Mom," they complained, "we always get a piece of Aunt Jenn's birthday cake." When they come here for dinner you do, but I'm taking this to her house. The conclusion of the conversation: I needed to make two cakes. One to take to her. And one for us to keep here.
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 Tablespoon dried honeysuckle blossoms
- 1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, softened, plus additional for greasing pan
- 1 cup organic granulated sugar
- 2-1/4 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or paste
- 3 large eggs
- Also needed: three 6-inch cake pans, parchment paper, plastic wrap
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 Tablespoon dried honeysuckle blossoms
- 1 cup organic granulated sugar
- 2 cups butter, softened
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or paste
- Also needed: blue and yellow food coloring, as needed (I prefer vegetable and fruit-based dyes and wanted a variety of green and yellow frostings), piping bag
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until lightened and fluffy, approximately 3 to 5 minutes.
In a mixing bowl, stir together buttermilk, vanilla, honeysuckle water, and eggs. In another mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
Alternating the buttermilk mixture and the flour mixture, add those to the butter bowl and beat until incorporated and smooth.
Spoon batter into prepared pans, smoothing top, then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, approximately 25 to 30 minutes as the layers are fairly thin. If you are frosting the cake to serve that day, just let the cake layers cool. If you are frosting the cake the following day (which is what I did), wrap the cooled layers in plastic wrap and keep in the freezer. Just pull out the layers to defrost while you make the buttercream.
Place water in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the honeysuckle blossoms and steep until cool. Strain out the petals and set aside.
Place egg yolks in a mixing bowl and beat on high until they are thick, pale, and ribbon off the whisks.
Combine 1/3 cup of the honeysuckle water and sugar in small saucepan. You can attach a candy thermometer to the side; I just kept testing until it reached soft-ball stage. If you're using a thermometer, heat until it reaches 238 degrees Fahrenheit. For testing otherwise, dip a spoon into the syrup, then into ice cold water. The syrup should immediately set up into a soft ball. Mine took about 8 minutes to reach the correct consistency.
Once the syrup is ready, remove it from the heat. While one hand hold the mixer, use the other hand to pour the syrup into the yolks. When all of the syrup is added, turn the mixer up to high and beat until the yolks have doubled in size and have reached medium peak stage. The bowl should be cooled and just lukewarm to the touch. Mine took about 9 minutes.
Begin adding butter, two tablespoons at a time, mixing well after each addition. The more butter you add, the more firm the buttercream will be. Once your buttercream resembles what you think of as buttercream, add in vanilla extract or paste.
Once the cake layers have cooled completely, place the bottom layer on your serving platter. Add a dollop of buttercream and spread to the edges, then place another layer on top. Repeat, then smooth the buttercream over the top and along the sides. Reserve some of the "original" color of buttercream for final details.
Once the cake was completely covered, I add in some green food coloring to the remaining buttercream to create a darker color. I used that to frost a small bit of the sides as the first (and lightest) ombre layer. Then I removed a small bit of buttercream before adding more food coloring. So, I frosted my way up the side of the cake while setting aside a little bit of each color. You can see the colors here.
The darkest green went over the top.
Then I made a design - like a chrysanthemum - with the different greens.
Click to see what everyone else read in April 2021: here.