Simon Jenkins' A Short History of England & Cherry-Pistachio Biscotti
Historical non-fiction has never been my domain. Creative non-fiction? Hit me with it. Literary fiction? I'm all over it. Genre fiction? Let's do this thing. But lately I've been trying to diversify my reading list, and for me that has meant finding some non-fiction I could make a commitment to finish. A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins achieves what it advertises, giving an overview of the political history of England from 410 A.D. to the present in 295 pages.
Telling England's lengthy (and often bloody) political history so deftly and briefly crystallizes Jenkins' central point: The theme of England's story has not changed much since it began, and that theme has been that England's ruling body, whether that body be a monarch or Parliament, rules only with the consent of the people.
In order to get through 1,600 years in less than 300 pages, many complex events have been distilled into a mere sentence or two, so Jenkins' summaries certainly carry a hefty level of history-is-written-by-the-victors bias. But the benefit of reading only this conveniently packaged version of events is that you are able to see the repetitions that occur over time. In nearly every generation the English both fight the French and later call upon the French to become an ally in an attempt to oust an unwanted King from the throne. Who the monarch chooses to take as a spouse — or not — has implications far beyond marital bliss. The need for consent to rule plagues nearly every monarch as they encounter the need for more money, whether simply to fund opulent spending or to continue yet another war on the continent. These are obviously reductive statements, but this was a reductive history, a smash and grab roll of this happened and then that, pulling the reader through years in each page, and giving exactly what was promised.
In the midst of England's tumultuous self-discovery, one of the most delightful parts of A Short History of England is the trivia nuggets Jenkins sprinkles in between beheadings and political downfalls. When Charles Stuart, son of Charles I, invaded England with the Scots in 1651, after the battle was lost “Charles fled the field and hid for a night in an oak...before escaping to France disguised as a servant. Thousands of pubs were later to be named the Royal Oak.” In the 1820s Robert Peel founded “an unarmed metropolitan police force for London. Its constables were dubbed 'bobbies' and 'peelers' after him.” And Jenkins also does not skimp on quoting the delightfully Draconian suggestions for punishment. When the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, “It was proposed that bankers who had loaned against the shares 'be tied up in sack filled with snakes and tipped into the murky Thames.'”
Overall, A Short History of England was an enjoyable read. If you are interested in England herself, you will enjoy how Jenkins smoothly traces the lines of her history, and if you aren't, it's still worth reading if only to understand how many pubs' names are rooted in scandals or battles.
For A Short History of England I decided to make cherry-pistachio biscotti. Just because it's dry, doesn't mean it isn't delightful to consume, and there may even be a few sweet surprises along the way.
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pistachios
- 1 cup unsweetened cherries
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) one large (about 18" x 13") baking sheet.
In a medium-sized bowl, beat the butter, sugar, salt, flavor, vanilla, and baking powder until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Beat in the eggs; the batter may look slightly curdled.
At low speed of your mixer, add the flour, stirring until smooth; the dough will be sticky.
Stir in the pistachios and cherries.
Divide the dough in half, and plop both halves onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving space between them.
Shape each half into a long rectangle about 10 1/2" x 2" wide x 3/4" tall; remember, you need to leave space for expansion between the pieces of dough.
Straighten the rectangles, and smooth their tops and sides; a wet spatula or wet bowl scraper works well here.
Bake the dough for 25 minutes. Make sure the loaf is not still wet dough in the center, or it will ooze when you try to slice it. Remove it from the oven.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.
Wait 5 minutes, then use a sharp chef's or serrated knife to cut the biscotti crosswise into 1/2" to 3/4" slices. Or cut the biscotti on the diagonal, for fewer, longer biscotti. As you're slicing, be sure to cut straight up and down, perpendicular to the pan; if you cut unevenly, biscotti may be thicker at the top than the bottom, and they'll topple over during their second bake.
If you've used parchment on your baking sheet, remove it; save it for another day. Place the biscotti on the baking sheet, on edge; they can be very close together.
Return the biscotti to the oven, and bake them for 35 to 40 minutes, until they feel very dry and are beginning to turn golden. They may still feel a tiny bit moist in the very center, if you break off a piece; but they'll continue to dry out as they cool. You'll want to start checking the biscotti around the 30-minute mark; the ones on the ends of the pan, or any smaller biscotti, may be ready to come out of the oven earlier than the larger/middle-of-the-pan biscotti.
Remove the finished biscotti from the oven, and cool them right on the pan.
Note: I used frozen unsweetened cherries that I had thawed, but you can also used dried cherries, or substitute dried cranberries. Using actual cherries instead of dried ones also added extra moisture to my dough, so I ended up needing to bake it longer at both times it was in the oven.
Adapted from King Arthur Flour