So yes, this is totally a chick-lit book. I admit it. I also admit that I rather enjoyed it. So go ahead and judge me, all you literary snobs. Oh wait, I’m the literary snob! I forgot! Anyway, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is totally a rip-off of Alice Hoffman’s wonderful book Practical Magic, so if you’ve read that one or seen the movie with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, you get the premise. Garden Spells tells the story of two sisters, Claire and Sydney Waverly, both of whom have magical powers in some way. Claire, the eldest, is of course the “practical” one. She stayed in the family home where there is a garden she tends and from which she creates tinctures, oils, and wonderful food and drink made from her herbs, plants, and flowers…….all of which have some sort of healing or otherwise magical properties to them. Sydney, being the younger, is of course the wild child who ran off with some guy when she was young, traveled, had many adventures and many affairs, and ends up returning home with her young daughter Bay, fleeing Bay’s psychotic father.
Sydney and Claire are quite different, both in looks, temperament and general outlook, which you’d expect being different people as well as sisters. They are descended from a long line of women who have some type of preternatural gift, their own magic, if you will. Their great-aunt Evanelle is gifted with the ability of second sight, though hers manifests in giving random people random objects that she knows they will someday need, and this gift of hers ends up being pivotal when, inevitably, Sydney’s crazy ex returns bent on revenge. Sydney’s daughter Bay has a gift of sensing people’s thoughts and emotions and adjusting herself to any situation. Sydney’s magic is in hairdressing. Her skill is such that she is able to not only make her customers see themselves as truly beautiful, others do as well. And Claire, of course, has the gift of not just cooking but also understanding how specific plants, herbs, spices, and flowers affect both food and individuals.
Probably my favorite character in the book is the enchanted apple tree in the Waverly’s backyard. The apple tree constantly flings apples at people, trying to entice them to eat the fruit. The problem is that, once you eat an apple from this magical tree, you will see either the best or worst thing that will ever happen to you and you will have to live with the knowledge of that and be constantly either waiting for the terrible event to happen, or live with the knowledge that once that wonderful event happens, nothing else in your life will ever be quite as good. There is something beneficial to not knowing what the future holds, I think. And this aspect of magical realism is part of why I did enjoy the book, thought it is not my usual cup of tea. I suppose that hint of fairy-tale ending was appealing as well.
The book itself is well-written, though it’s obviously not high literature. But sometimes reading something that isn’t heavy lifting can be fun and entertaining. I find the trope of the two sisters kind of boring, especially since this particular one has been done to death over the years. The calm, sensible, practical oldest sister who ends up finding passion and love and casts off her practicality to find her inner sex goddess, and the wild, crazy younger sister who ends up learning that being calm and sensible and practical will get her the things she wants in life…..yes, we have all seen this play out in numerous books and movies over the years. Well, I suppose clichés exist for a reason – because they work. This book was a light and enjoyable read, the literary equivalent of a house salad with a side serving of Ranch dressing. Familiar, still tasty and sates your hunger, but ultimately not something you would choose to return to on a regular basis.
The best thing about this book was the food and the comparable herbs and flowers that Claire uses to enhance her culinary creations. In addition to describing the various uses for various herbs, there are mouth-wateringly luscious descriptions of heavenly meals such as fennel chicken, cinnamon and nutmeg-stuffed squash blossoms, a white cake decorated in real violets, chicken and water chestnut casserole with snapdragon seed oil, olive sandwiches with sweet potato fries, pork tenderloin stuffed with nasturtiums, chives and goat cheese, and my favorite, lavender bread with herb butter. I am drooling as I type these food descriptions. so you can imagine how luscious they are in the book. The scene where Sydney wakes up the morning after she and Bay escape from her ex and finds her sister and daughter happily cooking in the kitchen made me crave a slice of lavender bread immediately.
Sydney went to the coffeepot and poured a cup. “How’s Evanelle?” “She’s fine. She’s anxious to see you. Have some lavender bread. Bay and I have been eating on that last loaf there. There’s some herb butter too.”……Sydney tried to slice the bread slowly but she was so hungry she ended up tearing most of it off. She spread some herb butter on the bread and closed her eyes. After her third slice, she started walking around the big kitchen. “This is impressive. I didn’t know you could do this.”
My method for no-knead lavender bread is below, though of course, as is my wont, I enhanced the flavor with some garlic and rosemary from my garden, and of course I had to use some of my homegrown sage to make lavender butter. Yum!
2 cups lukewarm water
1 packet active dry yeast
4 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dried culinary-grade lavender
6-7 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
4-5 sprigs of fresh rosemary
In a large bowl, combine the water and the yeast and stir to mix.
Add one cup of the flour and the salt to the water-yeast and stir to mix.
Add in your lavender and garlic and stir to mix again.
Strip the rosemary leaves off the stems, finely chop them, and add them to the mix.
One cup at a time, add in the remaining 3 cups of flour and stir. You will see that the dough starts to form and get shaggy. That is what you want.
Cover the dough with plastic wrap and a dish towel and set aside in a warm place for 2-3 hours, until the dough has risen in size.
Heat the oven to 425F and when hot, put in your cast iron pan to get it hot. Leave in the oven for 15 minutes.
Take the cast iron pan out of the oven and using a wooden spoon, add the dough into the hot pan. The dough is a bit sticky. This is normal.
Form the dough into a round shape inside the pan, sprinkle over sea salt and more dried lavender, and drizzle with some garlic olive oil.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, until there is a golden crust on top of the bread.
Remove from the oven, let cool and eat, alongside some sage herb butter. So delicious, simple and yet elegant. I think even adding Parmesan cheese would be lovely.