A Brief Review
Overall, I enjoyed this read. It may come off as dry because it’s so history-heavy; however it is anything but. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is full of compelling characters, twists and turns, and social commentary that is still largely applicable in the modern world. That being said, some of the book’s plot elements are not resolved by the end. I’m not sure if Burton intended this, but I was somewhat dissatisfied by the, in some ways, abrupt ending.
About the Book
My favorite thing about reading historical fiction is learning about other cultures through compelling stories. The Miniaturist certainly delivers this experience. Set in 1686-87 Amsterdam, this novel takes the reader on a ride through the class, gender, race, and sexuality realities of the period. We experience a world of rich sea traders, hypocritical church goers, and secretive servants through the eyes of Petronella (“Nella”), a young, Dutch country girl who becomes the bride of one of the richest merchants in Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt.
Nella quickly learns that her marriage will never be what she envisioned or expected it to be, especially when her husband bestows a peculiar and juvenile wedding gift upon her—a miniature replica of the Brand home. Desperate for something to do, Nella calls upon a miniaturist to fashion some tiny versions of some of her home’s elements to furnish her house. The miniaturist delivers, almost too successfully. The tiny replicas’ resemblance to their real-life counterparts is more than uncanny, and by engaging the miniaturist’s services, Nella finds that she’s opened more doors than she ever intended.
An understanding of the major players in this novel will help inform some of my commentary that accompanies the recipes below:
- Petronella Oortman (aka Nella, Petronella Brandt): Nella is an eighteen year-old Dutch country girl who dreams of a picture-perfect, traditional married life. Once she’s married, however, she starts to question those dreams.
- Johannes Brandt: Nella’s husband, Johannes, is a wealthy sea merchant who is quite socially elevated. His success hides a secret that threatens his family’s livelihood—and his life.
- Marin Brandt: Marin is Johannes’s sister who never married but stands firmly as the female head of the Brandt house, despite the position technically belonging to Nella. Marin is extremely judgmental, strict, and pious, or at least that’s how she presents herself.
- Otto (aka Toot): Otto is a former slave from Suriname, and he serves as Johannes’s manservant. More than that, he is kind and perhaps more than anyone knows what it means to stand out in society. He never had the luxury of hiding who he is.
- Cornelia: Cornelia is the Brandts’ other servant. She was born an orphan and is the spirited, gossipy glue that holds the Brandt family together.
A Word About Sugar
Throughout the novel, sugar is constantly referenced as a commodity for the wealthy, an extreme indulgence so delectable, it can compromise your piety. Given the Brandt’s elevated social status, it’s no surprise that many of the foods displayed in this book are sugary sweets. Sugar is also at the heart of contradiction, of which there are many in this novel. Sugar is indulgent, and overindulgence is sinful. Yet, those who condemn it for its sinful temptation have no qualms getting rich by trading it. Just like in the modern world, hypocrisy and double standards abound.
One of the first requests Nella makes upon arriving at the Brandt household is for some marzipan, which Marin swiftly shoots down.
‘Do you have any marzipan?’
‘No. Sugar is—not something we take much of. It makes people’s souls grow sick.’
‘My mother used to to roll it into shapes.’The Miniaturist, page 14
Nella has been thrust into the complex and oftentimes harsh world of upperclass Amsterdam, as a high-society wife, no less. Marzipan is a tether to her youth, now seemingly behind her. Marin’s denial of that sweet treat seems to mirror Nella’s transition from childhood to her life as lady of the Brandt house.
Marzipan is a moldable concoction of sugar and almond paste that has been used as flavoring or sweet decoration for centuries. It is featured in many cultures, and its origin is disputed. Iran, Germany, Spain, and Italy all claim to be the originators of the sweet treat. The Institute of Culinary Education’s blog explains that marzipan as we know it today’s name has a Romance language origin, eliminating Germany as its place of origin. Spanish Food’s site explains that though the commonly understood marzipan is European in origin, it is likely derived from an Arabic version of the almond confection, as referenced in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle-Eastern folktales dating back as early as the eighth century. The story of Aladdin was born from One Thousand and One Nights, which is known in the English-speaking world as Arabian Nights.
I love when food connects cultures and literature.
Making Marzipan Fruits
One particularly whimsical use for marzipan is molding it into various shapes for decorating cakes and other treats. Foods and common household items were common traditional shapes for marzipan molding, and I’ve recreated that here by making adorable little fruits!
Though its history may be complex, making marzipan is relatively simple. Basically, you just combine some form of pulverized almonds with sugar, egg, and some flavorings until you get a flexible dough that resembles something like this:
Once it’s firmed in the fridge, you can use it to shape sweet decorations in any form you can think of!
Here’s the final product:
Here’s the full recipe I used:
- food processor
- 1½ cups almond flour
- 1½ cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 1 teaspoons rose water* *If you don't like rose water's floral flavor, you can use regular water instead.
- 1 egg white* *Eating raw egg white may pose a risk of illness. To avoid using raw egg, two tablespoons of pasteurized egg whites (such as many of the varieties that come in a carton) may be used instead.
- Pulse the almond flour and confectioners' sugar in your food processor until very well combined (no lumps).
- Add almond extract and rose (or regular) water. Pulse twice.
- Add the egg white and process until dough forms. We're looking for a dough that holds together that isn't too wet and sticky. If it is a bit too wet, add a mix of almond flour and sugar in very small amounts until it isn't sticking.
- Knead your dough a couple times, and then roll it out into a log. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate.
- It will be a nice firm and moldable consistency after about an hour in the fridge. It will also keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge and several months in the freezer.
Driekoningenbrood (Traditional Dutch King Cake)
What’s King Cake?
Listen, I’m from southern Louisiana. I’ve had more than my share of king cake. I look forward to Mardi Gras season every year for when these decadent confections become available like everyone else in this state. But while Louisianians do king cake well (some might say the best), we’re not the only culture whose cuisine includes a king cake (also known as Epiphany cake, three king’s cake, or Twelfth Night cake). That’s because king cake is part of the widespread Christian tradition, connecting the end-of-Christmas Epiphany season to the pre-Lenten celebrations leading up to Mardi Gras—a day of complete decadence before the somber and restrictive Lent season begins.
King Cake in the Novel
In The Minaturist, Marin holds herself out to be the picture of piety. As discussed above, she says that sugar makes the soul sick, and she constantly preaches self-restraint (though we learn that there are reasons for cultivating this image and perhaps Marin does not always practice what she preaches). Twelfth Night is where the restrictive religious conventions of 17th century Amsterdam conflict with the need for celebration in the name of Jesus. Such a contradiction repeats again and again in this novel—sugar is a sin, but we make our fortune selling it; I’m gay, but I will condemn my lover to death for the same; we must not flaunt our wealth…until we have dinner guests—these are just some of the double standards and contradictions Nella learns are a part of existing in society.
Johannes continually shows his frustration with these societal hypocrisies. He often challenges Marin on her need to keep up appearances (but as an unmarried woman during this time period, appearances are survival), and he often shirks them outright. More than once, Marin insults Johannes’s willingness to indulge by comparing him to “those Papists in Italy.” Despite Marin, the Brandt household does celebrate Epiphany, as Cornelia explains to Nella:
‘Christmas soon,’ Cornelia says, ‘and then—Epiphany.’ Her voice hints at a private bliss.’
‘What’s so special about Epiphany?’
‘The Seigneur lets Toot and me dress up like lords and eat at his table. No chores all day. Of course,’ Cornelia adds, ‘I still have to make the food. Madame Marin doesn’t let it go that far.’
‘Of course not.’
‘I’ll make a king’s cake too,’ Cornelia says. ‘Hide a coin in the mix. Whoever bites it will be king for a day.’The Miniaturist, page 184
The king’s cake Cornelia mentions is likely driekoningenbrood (literally, “Epiphany bread”). This is a time-honored Dutch confection that is more similar to bread than a cake (interestingly, it seems that many king cake iterations are as well, but that a whole other research paper).
This one’s a bit more complicated than marzipan. I’ll post the full recipe below, but I will say that I made a few blunders. I cut into it soon after taking it out of the oven (rookie mistake), and I’m not sure I let my dough rest long enough prior to banking. Despite these mishaps, this was some killer sweet bread! I also got a little fancy and added some shaved almonds to the top.
Here’s the full recipe:
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup white suger
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- ⅓ cup warm milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 lemon's zest
- 8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter
- 2 egg yolks
- ¼ almond paste* *I used some of the marzipan from the previous recipe.
- 1 large bean This is to insert into the cake. Whoever bites down on it is king for the day!
- Combine the flour, salt, and lemon zest.
- Separately, follow the yeast's activation instructions using the warm milk. Once it's proved, add it into the flour mixture.
- Mix in pea-sized pieces of the almond paste/marzipan and add to the dough along with the egg yolks. Knead briefly.
- Add in the melted butter and knead for 5-8 minutes or until it's smooth and pliable.
- Let the dough rest in a covered and oiled bowl for an hour or until it's doubled in size.
- Punch down the dough and shape it into a round. On the underside, insert the bean. Cover the dough again on a baking sheet and let it rise for another 45 minutes to an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Score the dough in a starlike pattern. Bake for approximately 40 minutes or until fully cooked.
Olie-koecken (Dutch fried dough)
Speaking of old dishes, it seems nearly every culture has a version of the always delicious fried dough. The Dutch are no exception with olie-koecken (“oil cakes”), a treat Cornelia whips up while spilling some Brandt family drama to Nella:
Cornelia stands up. ‘I can’t tell you all this without having something to keep my hands busy. I’ll make some olie-koecken.’ She gathers together a bowl of almonds, a handful of cloves and a cinnamon jar. As she starts crushing the nuts and cloves, the maid’s whispering, and air of secrecy and conviction, tastes more delicious to Nella than the pastry on her plate.The Miniaturist, page 158
Now this is a dish I’m familiar with. In 17th century Amsterdam it’s called olie-koecken, but here in Louisiana it’s called a beignet. Okay, beignets tend to be slightly different, but both of these dishes are the same at their cores—fried dough.
With these, be sure to pay attention to your oil temperature. If it’s too hot, they’ll cook too quickly on the outside, and the inside will be a bit raw. Also to that point, it’s helpful not to make them too large to avoid raw insides and ensure even cooking as well. They will be completely browned when they’re done.
Also, the book mentions that Cornelia soaked raisins before using them in her olie-koecken, so I soaked my raisins in brandy for a couple hours before using them in the dough. That definitely added a little kick!
Here’s the full recipe:
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- ¾ cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1¾ cups buttermilk
- 2 eggs (beaten)
- 1 cup raisins* *I soaked my raisins for a couple of hours in brandy prior to using in this recipe.
- 1 quart oil (for frying) I used canola oil.
- Sugar (confectioners' or white) for dusting
- Heat oil to approximately 375 degrees.
- Mix all dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
- Add buttermilk and eggs to the dry mixture and combine. This will form a thick and sticky dough.
- Fold in the raisins.
- Drop pieces (about a heaping spoonful) of the dough mixture into the hot oil and cook until golden brown.
- Dust with your sugar and serve warm.
Have you read this book and have some opinions about it or what I’ve said here? Even better, have you tried these recipes before? Or, best of all, are you Dutch and have some pointers or insight to these dishes? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading. 🙂