A couple of months ago, I asked my husband if he’d be interested in reading one of my romance novels. Since he’s usually game for pretty much anything and already a genre fiction reader, he agreed. Admittedly, I didn’t expect much. I figured he might read one, get the general gist and then leave me to my own romancey devices. That was not to be.
The book was Hard Day’s Knight by Katie MacAlister. It proved the perfect introduction to romance in my husband’s particular case. My choice was tailored to a particular interest of his (Renaissance Faires) and answered how I knew so much about the then-topical subject of jousting (since he was running a medieval-style tournament for our D&D group at the time). He devoured the book in three days and then asked me for more.
Pepper Marsh, unemployed computer programmer, has agreed to join her cousin CJ at a Renaissance Faire for a little R&R before going back home to continue job hunting. Her cousin is a member of the Legion of Wenches, whose bawdiness might be out-matched only by the romance writers and readers who make up my Twitter feed. CJ is also affianced to a member of a jousting team, the Three Dog Knights, headed up by jouster, farrier and alpha male extraordinaire Walker McPhail.
I suppose this book could be best described as romantic comedy. It’s definitely a step beyond chick lit, which tends to gloss over the sexy parts. Plus it is deliberately funny; almost Bridget Jones-esque in its campy slapstick humor. Someone is always falling off a horse and there’s a cat that causes all manner of hijinks. There’s also a considerable amount of jousting detail as Pepper sets out to defend the honor of all womankind by learning to sit a horse in armor and aim a lance. Walker is the almost unchallenged jousting expert, though he’s having some typically alpha emotional difficulties as a result of the fall-out from seriously injuring another jouster during competition.
Though this is a very light-hearted book, there’s one aspect of it that I found both serious and well done. Pepper is a typical urban feminist. She works in a male-dominated field and has mostly been with sensitive nerdy guys romantically. Walker is a rural agricultural worker who spends his free time wearing armor. He is neither sensitive nor nerdy. As their romance progresses, Walker is inclined to coddle Pepper as a precious female even though she is perfectly capable of making her own way in the world. And though she and Walker do find happiness, there’s a learning curve for both of them in figuring out how to communicate effectively that felt especially realistic to me, even if the plot did veer into the typically romantic comedy territory of I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-love-you.
Hard Day’s Knight is probably not a book for everyone: the utterly goofy humor, nerdy subject matter and slightly dirty sex won’t be what everyone expects from romantic comedy. But I found Pepper charming and Walker devastating (in both his hotness and his obvious vulnerability). Any woman who has tried somewhat unsuccessfully to pry vocalization of feelings loose from their alpha will find poignancy here.
My husband has since branched out in his romance reading. He’s read several books by Laura Kinsale, is currently reading one by Elizabeth Hoyt and has agreed to a Victoria Dahl. But I will always have a special love for Katie MacAlister for kicking off our romantic adventures.
In honor of both the setting of the book and it being one of my husband’s favorite dishes, I decided to pair Hard Day’s Knight with a recipe for beef-stuffed Cornish pasties. I suppose I could have gone with some more traditional Faire food, but who really wants to eat turkey drumsticks and stuff-fried-on-a-stick at home? Nevertheless, this simple peasant-type food seemed to capture the essence of the semi-historical nature of Renaissance Faires.
|Ingredients for six pasties.|
Historically, pasties (pastry crust with some sort of meat and vegetable-based filling) were made by wives for their Cornish coalminer husbands to carry into the mines and eat for their breaks during the day. The crust was generally tough and substantial so it wouldn’t break open in the tea towel or lunch pail in which it was carried. That said, most of us will eat these at home on a plate or take them to work for lunch in Tupperware so this crust is a little more delicate than a traditional pasty crust. The filling is crazy simple with just beef, potato, onion, carrot and some salt and pepper.
|Ingredients for 24 pasties.|
I generally double or even triple this recipe. If I’m going to drag out the rolling pin and mess up my counter, I want to make more than six pasties. If you’re less ambitious and not trying to feed a hungry jousting team, the original recipe works just fine.
But in favor of going with my expanded recipe below, these freeze awfully well. Once they’ve been fully baked, just put them on a cookie sheet until frozen and then bag up together or individually and reheat for lunches or a quick weeknight meal. I recommend about 25 minutes in a 350 degree oven for reheating frozen ones.
adapted from Emeril Legasse for Food Network
Makes: 12 pasties
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 ounces cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 ounces lard or vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
2 egg yolks
12 tablespoons cold water
1 pound, 4 ounces ounces chuck steak, trimmed and cut into scant 1/4-inch dice
2 small onions, very finely chopped
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 small potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1) Sift the flour, confectioners’ sugar, and salt into a mixing bowl and add the butter and shortening. Using your fingers, 2 knives, a food processor or a pastry blender, cut the butter and lard into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles fine crumbs.
2) In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and water together and add to the flour mixture. Mix quickly, but thoroughly, until mixture just comes together to form a dough.
3) Knead briefly until pastry is smooth with no cracks; the trick to making this delicate pastry easy to work with is kneading it just enough so that it can be rolled out and manipulated without breaking but yet retains its lovely crumbly texture. Press into a flattened disk shape and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight before proceeding.
4) Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and unwrap. Allow to soften slightly, then place on a lightly floured work surface and roll the pastry to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Using a small plate or saucer as a guide, cut out 6 (6-inch) rounds. (Scraps may be combined and reformed if you cannot get 6 rounds out of the first batch.) Stack the pastry rounds onto pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper (with pieces between each round to keep them from sticking together) and refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
5) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Remove the pastry circles from the refrigerator.
6) In a mixing bowl, combine the meat, onion, carrot, potato, salt and pepper and mix until thoroughly combined.
7) Place the pastry circles on a clean work surface and place about 1/2 cup of the filling in the center of 1 side of the pastry. Using the beaten egg, brush the edges of the pastry and then bring the unfilled side over the filled side so that edges meet. Press edges together to seal and then crimp using your fingers or a fork. Repeat with the remaining turnovers and then transfer to a baking sheet. Brush the tops of the turnovers with the remaining egg and then cut several slits into the top of each pastry.
8) Bake for 20 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown around the edges. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and continue to bake until the pasties are golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.