Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Butcher's Great Granddaughter Meets the Baker's Daughter

Guten tag! The current book selection for the awesome online foodie book club, Cook the Books, is Sarah McCoy's "The Baker's Daughter". I am a butcher's great grand-daughter, by the way, hence the title of this post, and I have a couple of his knives and the hand scars from using them to prove it. No candlestick makers in the family tree, though.

McCoy's novel takes place in Germany, during the waning years of World War II. The main heroine is Elsie Schmidt, a teenaged daughter in a hard-working family of bakers, who are in favor with a local Nazi soldier who is sweet on Elsie. While she doesn't return the ardor of his affections, she is aware of how important it is for her family to continue the relationship. She has an older sister, Hazel, who had an out-of-wedlock son with another soldier who was killed they could marry and before the baby was born. Hazel was enlisted in the Lebensborn program, a strange breeder program whose stated purpose was to produce healthy Aryan stock, but seems also to have served as a handy brothel for Nazi soldiers. Elsie shelters a runaway Jewish boy in her bedroom attic after he appears one night being hunted down by local militia.

These scenes from 1945 are interspersed with contemporary scenes in Texas, where Elsie has emigrated and is now an elderly woman. She has a German-style bakery on the Texas-Mexican border, and her back story is now sought by a dithering magazine journalist named Reba. Reba's boyfriend Riki is a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and there are some storyline parallels about ethnic intolerance during both time periods that are encompassed by the book.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and found Elsie's character and that of her paramour, Josef, very well-developed. Other characters felt like over-the-top caricatures, like the sadistic Nazi Major Gunther Kremer, or were just plain tiresome in their indecisiveness, like Reba. However, there is a wealth of detail in describing the scenes at the bakery and a poignant Kristallnacht scene, and I particularly enjoyed the author's skill in portraying the shifting relationship between Elsie and a cantakerous old bakery customer, Frau Rattelmuller.

This book was a satisfying read and there were lots of great Eastern European bakery items to contemplate (and a few recipes capping the end!). For Cook the Books, I was inspired to make a good rye bread, something which is a difficult challenge when one bakes for a celiac, as rye is one of those wheaty cousins that must be avoided. The taste and heft of a good rye bread slice (particularly when toasted) is hard to resist, so I perused my cookbooks and the Internet to find a good gluten-free rye bread recipe.

I found one at the blog Angela's Kitchen, and amazingly enough, I had all of the many required ingredients, save for anise seed. I substituted star anise instead, and the results were delicious. The bread has a complex and hearty flavor and the crumb was excellent. It was a lot of work, and required an arsenal of various flours, thickeners and gums to replace the traditional wheat and rye flours, so next time I would double the recipe and make two loaves.

A roundup of the Baker's Daughter posts will be held after tomorrow's posting deadline. Heather of Girlichef picked this savory title for our group to read and has secured the author herself, Sarah McCoy, to serve as Guest Judge to read through the submissions.

I'll be the host at the helm for the next two months at Cook the Books, where we will be reading Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle". Please feel free to join us in reading this great book and then blogging up your thoughts and a dish inspired from its pages. There's no requirements to join other than submitting your posts by the deadline of November 25, 2013.


Camilla M. Mann said...

I love that you made a gluten-free version. I am not gluten-free, but many friends are and I am always searching for a fail-proof recipe, i.e., one that someone has actually made - and liked - not just me trying to substitute things. And thank you for next month's pick. I am thoroughly enjoying it so far.

Debra Eliotseats said...

Ambitious and delicious bread recipe. The texture on it looks perfect.

Alicia Foodycat said...

That bread has a beautiful crumb!

Rachel said...

Thank you friends! This loaf was really tasty. Notice I use the past tense....;0. Have to make it again soon.

Simona Carini said...

i had to smile when I saw your choice of recipe, because I recently made Swedish rye bread. I can imagine what a challenge it is to make a gluten-free rye bread, rye flour having such a distinct flavor. Your loaf makes me want to try! I also got a bit impatient with Reba and not only for her indecisiveness.

Claudia said...

Making a gluten free rye bread with a good texture, what a challenge in itself. Kudos to you Rachel. I got some rye sourdough starter and making the bread is on my to-do list.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Wow! I am so impressed that you found and made a GF version of rye bread. It looks fantastic. Great post too--I always enjoy reading your thoughts on the books we read.

I am looking forward to revisiting Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! ;-)