Looking at the way I write, I find that food plays an important part in all my books. It’s never centre stage, but it often underlines how my characters are feeling, or is symbolic of what is going on in their lives.
In “House of Shadows” my time slip novel Jo Docherty has an issue with food. When anxious or stressed, she cannot eat and at the beginning of the book she is struggling with the aftermath of yet another miscarriage and what feels like a failing marriage. Moving away to her studio in the grounds of Kingsfield House she is haunted by a girl in a blue dress, the girl who she played with as a child, but who lived two centuries before Jo was born.
As the past encroaches and the sense of menace grows, Jo looks for help. Helene and Cecile have an insight into the occult and the danger that lurks in Kingsfield House, giving Jo hope that somehow she will be able to deal with what she must face. It is at this point that Jo bakes her Florentines.
“In the brightness of an early summer morning, Jo weighed out sultanas, raisins and oat flakes. She chopped glace cherries and licked the sweet redness from her fingers. She mixed in plump hazelnuts and nibbed almonds and measured out two tablespoons of butter, which she heated in a pan. Warming a spoon in hot water, she dipped it into the tin of golden syrup and watched as it slid slowly and sensuously to join the melting butter. Yellow became gold, gold became brown. She tipped the warm liquid into the dry ingredients and stirred. Wrinkled fruit glistened, oats took on a glossy sheen, the rich smell of syrup rose to her mouth. The cherries glowed like rubies in amber. Humming tunelessly under her breath, she smoothed the mixture into the baking trays and reached for the phone. She’d try Helene and Cecile again. She’d found their numbers before she’d finally gone to bed in the early hours and if they didn’t answer she’d text. If they replied then she’d ask them round for coffee and cake and ask their advice as to what she should do.”
Of course things do not work out as she planned and it someone else who will be sharing those delicious little biscuits, studded with nuts, dried fruit, embedded in oats and resting on a layer of deep dark chocolate.
It’s a while since I wrote “House of Shadows” and some time since I’ve baked Florentines but here is the recipe.
The perfect Florentines
60g demerara sugar
60g candied peel, chopped
45g dried cranberries or sour cherries, roughly chopped
45g soft dried figs, roughly chopped
20g pistachio kernels, roughly chopped
60g blanched almonds, cut into slivers
15g plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp double cream
200g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark four and line two baking trays with lightly greased parchment paper.
Melt the butter and sugar together in a pan over a medium heat until combined. Put the fruit and nuts in a bowl, sift over the flour and toss together until the flour is evenly distributed.
Take the pan off the heat and stir in the salt and cream, then stir into the fruit and nuts. Dollop rounded teaspoons of the mixture on to the baking trays and flatten out as much as possible without leaving holes, making sure they are well spaced out on the trays.
Bake for about 10-12 minutes until golden brown all over, then leave to cool on the tray.
When cool, melt half the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Stir occasionally until liquid.
Carefully dip the underside of each florentine in the chocolate and leave to cool and set, then repeat. If you want to be really authentic, you can use a fork to make a wavy pattern in the setting chocolate at this point. Leave to harden completely before serving or storing in an air-tight box.