In my humble opinion, the greatest strength of a work of fiction can be found in its world-building. I especially love when a story is more than just a jumble of eloquent words, but is actually something tangible–with descriptions and explanations and all sorts of fiddly errata that makes a world a world. (But there is a strong difference between “wow, cool world building” and “bloat”, but that’s a topic for another day)
Maggie Stiefvater is one uthor who is quite skilled at bringing life to her fictional worlds–and has even gone above and beyond the call of authorial duty. She has not not only created a fantastic, fictional food-stuff that features as a sweet reprieve from the violence found in her YA novel, The Scorpio Races, but she has also provided fans with a recipe to make her invented “November Cakes”.
Pretty sweet, huh?
I feel compelled to give a pretty brief summary of The Scorpio Races and why it’s a YA novel to look out for, especially if you grew up loving some of those musty old “horse riding adventure” type reads.
Based on old legends of water horses–like the kelpie, which by the way, takes great joy in drowning people because why not–the Scorpio Races takes place every November on the (fictional) island of Thisby. No one knows exactly why these demonic water creatures are drawn to Thisby’s shores, but there must be something about the tantalizing thrill of running a race on mounts that are nearly uncontrollable forces of nature with a love for flesh, because they run this race annually. Tourists and locals alike flock to this annual blood bath–drawing in gawkers, fame, and money for the racers who have the courage and male bravado to train these beasts and attempt the race.
This year, however, the stakes are raised higher as young Kate “Puck” Connolly enters the race as the first female competitor since the race’s conception. Driven by the desire to protect her family with monetary security, Puck will risk her life and limb to make it across the finish line. However, even if she’s got spirit and the horse-riding skills, she doesn’t have the experience of the older racers–such as four-time winner, Sean Kendrick, to make it out of the race alive. Sean seems to walk out of myth just like these deadly horses, with an eerie understanding of their nature and the ability to calm them with song–he has everything to lose and everything to gain by winning this race, too.
But whether through fate or dumb luck, this unlikely duo forms a (grudging) friendship–even though only one can win that much-coveted prize money that will solve all their problems…
In The Scorpio Races, Stiefvater presents a pretty solid, immersive fictional world. Thisby wonderfully has that “sleepy town” feel, and a cast of characters with engaging personalities that bring the town to life. And one of the main fixtures of the town that she pretty much stressed while writing is the village bakery–which stands as a sweet reprieve from the book’s violence. Demonic horses attacking normal livestock and people from the end of October to the end of November? Sure it stinks, but at least we can have some semblance of normality through the mundane joy of getting a November Cake. And for a kid down-on-their-luck, like Puck and her family, there’s nothing better than grabbing one of these coveted cakes for all sorts of spoilery-and-feels reasons.
Now, while treats like the November Cake are wonderful all on their own as words on print, these sort of fictional foods are only ever better when made tangible. And, unlike some other foodstuffs like turnip-n-tater pie that requires some fiddly experimentation, Maggie Stiefvater has done some of the experimentation for us and has come up with her own, official recipe for these sinfully delicious cakes.
I will warn you that they’re not health food (Far and away from it) and that maybe they’re a little bit sweeter after reading the book–but if you’re looking for a bright, hearty treat to make use of your oven while the weather is cold, please give this recipe a try! (I have also added a few additions to the original recipe, heheh)
The Cast of Characters:
For the cake:
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 + 2 tbs vegetable oil
- 1 tbs butter
- 3.5 cups of flour (and a little extra, trust me)
- 3 tsp (1 packet) Active Dry Yeast
- 3 tbs sugar
- 1.5 tsp salt
- 2 eggs, room temperature please
For the filling:
- 3 tbs melted butter
- 1/4 tsp orange extract
- Allspice and coriander
For the glaze (You MUST make this glaze, MUST):
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 tbsp whipping cream
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup honey (We actually used less than 1/2 a cup–the amount kind of scared us)
- A spoonful of molasses
For the icing:
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tbs water
- 1 tbs melted butter
Note, you can find the full directions written by Maggie herself here at her official website; as such here’s how a friend of mine and I followed it. Honestly the only things that we really tweaked had to do with adding a few extra flavorings and cutting back on the honey in the glaze; shocking, I know.
For the cakes:
- Microwave the milk, water, oil, and butter for two minutes; make sure it is not too hot to kill off the yeast or curdle the eggs.
- Crack the eggs into the liquid and stir to combine.
- Then, in a large bowl, combine 1.5 cups of flour, the salt, the sugar, and the yeast–and the liquid and stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Then add remaining 2 cups of flour, one cup at a time.
- Maggie suggests using a standing mixer, however since we did not have such a useful tool at hand, we ended up using a hand-held mixer and–with the mixer on low–we beat the batter for 4 minutes. It will create a very stick, very tacky dough that won’t “ball” up–that’s okay, just make sure that the ingredients are well-incorporated with no flour lumps.
- Transfer to a greased-and-floured mixing bowl and leave to rise for an hour in a warm oven; cover your bowl with a wet towel to protect the dough/keep it moist as it rises (Turn your oven on to 100 degrees, then shut off, and set your bowl in–now go and throw a party, watch some YouTube videos, etc. etc.)
- After 1 hour, remove dough to a floured cutting board and roll out (or squish out) into a vaguely rectangular shape that should be about 12 x 20″ — or until it fits the cutting board.
- Now sprinkle the dough liberally with the all spice and coriander and then pour on the rest of the filling mixture (the orange extract and all that butter). Roll up this slimy mess into a tight roll, and then cut into rounds.
- Place rounds in a greased muffin tin (We got one muffin tin out of this recipe) and you can let these cut-ups rise for another 30 minutes. Or, in a fit of pique and hunger, you can preheat your oven for 400 degrees and put your buns in the oven for 14 minutes.
Tip these bad boys out once they’re done and golden brown, and then get ready for the next few fiddly steps…
For the glaze (Which you must make, skip the icing if the sugar scares you but do not scrimp on this gorgeous glaze):
- While the rolls are cooling prepare this divine glaze–into a pot stir up the butter, sugar, honey, and molasses with continuous vigorous stirring.
- Once your mixture boils/thickens up into a delicious dark goo, stir in the whipping cream and vanilla and keep stirring until a beautiful dark brown color.Now, your buns should be cool enough to touch, and while your glaze is hot, dip the tops of your buns down into the glaze. Swirl it around, make sure the glaze gets on nice and thick; it will dip into the crevices of the rolls and imbue them with toffee-like goodness. And if you’re feeling extra frisky, you can pour the rest of the glaze all over the buns so that they are a sticky, spicy mess.
And if you’re really going to go for the gold here, you can throw on some icing on top.
For the icing:
- Combine all ingredients until icing is “thin” enough or “thick” enough, however you please, then with your spoon drizzle on top of your buns in a zig-zag pattern. And then dig in!
We served our November Cakes with plenty of hot, black tea and it was an instant hit! Very sweet, of course but with the bright taste of orange coupled with the spices–pure heaven, really. Also, I find they taste better the next day after the glaze cools completely and just imbues the buns with their flavor. Also, be sure not to eat these around strange horses that try to convince you to walk off of cliffs, go into the ocean, or that have razor sharp teeth…
And that’s all there is for this exciting edition of Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them! Tune in next time when we bring more fantastic (and hopefully healthier) fictional food to life!