Book pairing: "The Summer Before the War" by Helen Simonson & strawberry pinwheels with a chocolate-hazelnut surprise
Conflict is a constant even in the many chapters before the titular war appears in Helen Simonson's latest novel. But in most of the book, battles are waged mainly with a well-placed retort rather than a shell.
The Summer Before the War follows young Beatrice Nash, a bookish woman vowed to spinsterhood who, following the death of her beloved father, follows an opportunity to teach Latin all the way to the quiet seaside village of Rye, in Sussex, England. Once there, she must navigate the social trenches marked by allegiances either to Beatrice's benefactor, Agatha Kent, or the mayor's wife, Bettina Fothergill.
None of them yet knows that World War I is around the corner, and its approach only heightens the competition to reign over pageants and committees.
Beatrice's side in this conflict centers around Agatha's family. Her nephews — the serious and formal surgeon Hugh Grange and dramatic and romantic poet Daniel Bookham — and diplomat husband round out an unexpected support system and offer opportunities for adventure and romance. (Beatrice may protest against the institution of marriage, but this wouldn't be a book to satisfy Downton Abbey fans if she were able to resist love altogether.)
Female independence is a major theme in this mostly steady and always charming novel. Over and over, the story's more progressive women — including the second wife of a divorced man and a motorcycle-riding photographer — find ways to band together. But even they have their limits.
On a small scale, the appearance of suffragettes at a local town meeting scandalizes Agatha and others. More importantly, several women turn their backs on a young woman impregnated under horrifying circumstances. The Summer Before the War presents these issues with colorful context, in a way that reminds us how much women have left to do even today.
Love is not forgotten amidst the war's approach and arrival. In fact, several love stories emerge during the summer and erupt along with the fighting, as men ship off to the front and women maintain life at home. But Simonson delivers those storylines alongside other important themes, not overshadowing them.
Summer, already the sweetest season, is particularly precious in 1914 as the residents of Rye attempt to capture the perfect weather, food and company before shipping their boys off. One of the most memorable scenes is of a summer fair visited by a Royal Air Force flyby, featuring a beautiful and beaming pilot — a scene so wonderfully written, it feels like I watched it in my head instead of reading it.
I attempted to recreate those few, free days of summer with strawberry-studded pinwheels. The four-pointed pastries mimic plane propellers, but can also represent the four members of the Kent family who take in Beatrice as the strawberry center. Whichever way you interpret them, these pinwheels offer an indelible taste of summer fun.
STRAWBERRY PINWHEELS WITH A CHOCOLATE-HAZELNUT SURPRISE
Makes about 18 pinwheels
- 2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
- 18 strawberries, small
- 3 tablespoons chocolate-hazelnut spread
- Confectioners sugar
Preheat oven to 400ºF.
Cut each puff pastry sheet into 9 individual squares and arrange on three baking sheets. Using a sharp knife, slice each square from the corner to near the middle of the square. Repeat with all corners, leaving about square centimeter of pastry intact in the middle.
Now your square is divided into four triangles; fold the outer point of each triangle into the middle of the square and press down to secure. Repeat with all squares.
Using a small knife or the handle of a spoon, spread a small amount of chocolate-hazelnut spread under the loop created by folding the triangles toward the middle. Use as much or as little as you prefer.
Place one strawberry in the center of each pinwheel. If your strawberries are large, slice off the tips and place those in the middle, reserving the remains for parfaits or smoothies.
Bake the pinwheels for about 14 minutes or until puffed up and golden brown. Cool slightly on wire racks then sprinkle with confectioners sugar.
Recipe inspired by Blueberry Pastry Pinwheels from Buzzfeed