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The Casual Vacancy
Review and recipe by Donna Scocozza
If J.K. Rowling’s magical, mystical characters in the Harry Potter series had us soaring to reading heights on quidditch sticks, the doings and un-doings of the characters in her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, have us thudding back to earth with a mournful cry.
I was prepared for an “adult” novel, as Rowling’s pre-publication interviews had described the book, but I was not prepared for the depth of misery and the utter lack of relief from misery that the story portrays.
We are introduced to the town of Pagford, a small burg in West Country, England, on the evening the death of one of its most upstanding and well-regarded citizens, Barry Fairbrother. His death sends the townsfolk into a frenzy, and the reason is not what we might want to believe, given the description of the town’s pastoral and idyllic setting, which boasts an ancient abbey, a cobblestoned town square, and quite a nice tourist trade.
Barry’s death sets off a vicious competition for his seat on the parish (town) council. The book’s title refers to the term for a vacancy caused by an unexpected event such as a death or resignation. Through the contest, we are quickly drawn into the lives, loves, lies, deceptions and desperation of Harry, Barry’s former business partner; Colin and his family; and a host of other families and individuals.
The personality of each character is presented at its grittiest and most callous, and pitting the characters, whether adults or teens, against each other plays into the theme of class that runs through the plot line. This is made clear when those vying for Barry’s council seat fall into two two categories: those in favor of or those against keeping open a drug clinic in the poorer, rundown section of Pagford, an area known as “the fields.”
Even a dinner party hosted by Harry and his wife, usually thought to be a pleasant interlude, and which might have been a relief from all the bad karma, had a snarky edge to it. The one bright spot in the event was the description of Sylvie’s favorite standby dessert, Mississippi Mud Pie. It was such a surprise to find what I thought of as a truly American dessert smack in the midst of all this English-angst,
All this being said, I kept on reading, and while I can’t say it was the most enjoyable read I’ve had, I can say that there was something compelling enough about the story that I was genuinely sorry to come to the final page. And maybe that’s a kind of wizardly magic after all.
Deep-Dish Mississippi Mud Pie
Serves 10 to 12
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) cold unsalted butter
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon instant espresso, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup very cold heavy cream
1 tablespoon bourbon
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Chocolate curls for garnish, optional
1. For pastry crust, in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, pulse flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon a few times to aerate. Add shortening and butter; pulse just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
2. Slowly add water and pulse just until mixture begins to come together. Remove from processor to a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap; gather mixture into a ball. Flatten to a disk; wrap and chill 30 minutes.
3.On a clean, dry, lightly floured surface, pat pastry into a disk. With a floured rolling pin, roll pastry into an 11-inch circle. Fit into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Trim and even edge, leaving enough pastry, about 1 to 1 1/2-inches, to fold under and flute edge; chill pastry 30 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 375° F. Gently and lightly fit a piece of aluminum foil into the pie shell. Prick bottom and side with fork in a few places. Add pie weights or 1 cup of raw beans or rice. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven to a wire rack. Remove the foil and weights. Return to oven and continue to bake 15 to 18 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Reduce oven temperature to 350° F.
5. For filling, in a medium microwave-safe bowl, melt butter and chocolate on High 1 minute until butter is melted and chocolate is softened; stir to completely melt and combine.
6. In large bowl of electric mixer fitted with the wire whisk, beat eggs, granulated sugar, corn syrup, espresso, and salt on high speed 5 to 7 minutes until light colored and very thick (the mixture should fall from the whisk in ribbons when thick enough).
7. Gently fold chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Place the cooled pie shell on a cookie sheet. Pour the chocolate batter into cooled pie shell. Bake 34 to 40 minutes until the top is slightly puffed and crusty, and just set. If needed, shield edge of pie with aluminum foil or pie shield.
8. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely; chill until ready to serve.
9. For topping, in a chilled bowl of electric mixer fitted with chilled whisk attachment, whip cream with bourbon and sugar at high speed until soft peaks form. Spread cream evenly over pie. If desired, scatter chocolate curls over cream. Chill until ready to serve.