I recently had a chance to catch up with Texas’s own Nikki Loftin, author of the Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. Sinister Sweetness, a book for middle grade readers, is a delicious re-telling of a fantastic folktale, Hansel and Gretel.
In the book, Lorelei’s middle school burns down and in its place arises a school so sinisterly sweet you’d never know witches run it. This book fits snugly in the time of autumn and school beginnings and joyous kitchen baking smells.
What inspired you to write Sinister Sweetness?
Since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by fairy tales. My favorites were the original Grimm ones, especially the dark stories full of mystery and magic. I think I read my favorite, Hansel and Gretel, a thousand times, contemplating ways to eat that witch’s candy house without getting caught.
After years of teaching and working with delectable – I mean, delightful – children, it seemed natural to choose a school as the setting for my debut novel, base the story on my favorite fairy tale, and have some very hungry teachers on staff at Splendid Academy.
This isn’t just a book for middle grade readers, it’s a modern take on a folktale that parents and children should read and enjoy together. What is the truth that you hope readers take away from the book?
My first intention in writing anything for kids is to create a story they will want to read, one they would stay up late at night, flashlight on under the covers, to finish. Still, the real world is full of frightening things – and kids already know this. So I hope that my young readers will realize that like the main character Lorelei, they can be brave and strong and courageous, even if there’s no one else around to help them.
And I hope adults who read it with their kids will see the message I put in there: Listen to your kids. Believe them when they tell you something’s wrong. There may not be a witch in the woods, but real life can be hard enough! Your support and understanding could make your little ones’ lives end up happily ever after. (Of course, I think parents who read with their kids are already on the right track! I still read out loud with my ten-year-old son. It’s one of my favorite things to do.)
Your book is filled with delicious food to eat, such as marzipan, grandmother’s fried chicken and heaping mashed potatoes. Are any of these inclusions inspired from the days of your youth?
Yes! My grandmother lived in Houston, and when my parents would bring us kids to visit her, she would make the most amazing fried chicken in the world – even thinking about it now makes my mouth water! There were always mashed potatoes, too, and homemade biscuits, and sometimes homemade fresh peach ice cream. I miss her and her cooking so much.
The marzipan is another story! It’s my eldest son’s favorite sweet, and I included it for him. I remembered reading somewhere, years ago, about chefs in medieval times who got very ill making marzipan, since they were exposed to unhealthy amounts of naturally-occurring cyanide in the process of grinding the bitter almonds. It seemed perfectly creepy, the sort of sweetly sinister detail that would work for my book. (Don’t worry, we use a different kind of almonds to make marzipan today!)
Who is your favorite chef, and why?
I love Jamie Oliver, and Paul Qui has changed my life (and pocketbook) forever with his amazing dishes at Uchiko here in Austin… but, honestly? I have to go with Rachel Ray, mainly because she makes me feel like throwing together a meal in a half hour is attainable and admirable. I can make one of her creations even when I’m on a deadline for my next novel! I love to cook (although I’m especially fond of baking), and it’s important to me to have good meals for my family. Since my life got so full of edits and revisions, I’ve used a bunch of Rachel’s recipes, and they’ve all been great.
What was the first thing you learned to cook, and how did it turn out?
I started baking on my own when I was about ten. I think my first recipe was gingersnaps, from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. (I still have it! I even have my notes in there, in my nearly illegible kid-scrawl: Add a pinch of allspice! Stop eating all the dough!) The cookies that made it onto the pan were good, if I remember correctly. But let’s face it, even a bad cookie is better than no cookie at all.
Do you have a go-to sinister sweetness when you’re in the mood for a sweet treat?
Oh, you mean every day of my life? When I’m writing, I head for a Lindt extra-dark chocolate bar, either with orange and almonds, or sea salt. If I’m nervously waiting for notes from my editor or agent, I bake and eat chocolate chip cookies, blueberry banana muffins, and/or blackberry cobbler. I call myself a stress baker, and it’s true – the more stress, the better my kitchen smells!
I’ve written a deceptively easy recipe in honor of the uncommon heroine, Lorelei, using Lorelei’s favorite, marzipan. It’s an ingredient that’s no longer commonly found in our kitchens, but should be. I’d like to think Lorelei would approve.
Lorelei’s Pear and Marzipan Puff Pastry Galette
3-4 Anjou pears (about 2 lbs total)
1 tube of marzipan (7 oz)
1 sheet of puff pasty
1 egg and a little water (for egg wash)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 400.
Core the pears, then cut in half and slice them thinly, lengthwise. Toss to coat in the sugar and salt.
I buy my puff pastry frozen. Let it thaw, then roll the puff pastry dough out in a 14″ by 14″ square. Sprinkle with flour during the rolling process to keep it from sticking. Place the dough on a sheet of parchment paper in the center of a large baking sheet.
Soften the marzipan a bit in the microwave to make it pliable–ten to fifteen seconds should do. Roll the marzipan out in a 9″ by 9″ square. Then place the marzipan square in the center of the dough.
Arrange the pears in the pattern and on top of the marzipan as shown in the photo. Then fold the dough over the outer edges of the pears.
Beat the egg with a little water, then brush over the dough. This will give it the beautiful, browned finish. Pop it in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until browned and pears are cooked through. Warm a bit of apple jelly in the microwave and then brush it over the pears when the galette has cooled a bit. This will give it a glossy finish.