The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
A precocious girl is inspired to solve a murder near her doorstep, and we were inspired to create a recipe from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.
Don’t care about the book review and want to go right to the recipe for the pie? Get out. Just kidding. Click here.
Imagine writing your first novel at age 70, and receiving an award for it before you have even completed it! That’s what Alan Bradley did with his debut novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in the mystery series starring Flavia de Luce, a precocious 11-year-old in rural England.
Set in 1950, the story centers around this aspiring chemist who stumbles upon a not-quite-dead body in the garden of her family manor Buckshaw. Just prior to this, a disturbing visitor had arrived on their doorstep– a dead jack snipe, its beak piercing a stamp. Flavia, however, isn’t disturbed by these occurrences. Her sense of adventure is piqued and she immediately takes it upon herself to solve the mysteries.
I am no stranger to young sleuths. I cut my teeth on Encyclopedia Brown, and was Nancy Drew’s most ardent fan. With the current emphasis on empowering young girls, a protagonist like Flavia seems very timely.
Despite this, I. just. couldn’t. The story itself was not painful to read. The writing is textbook, as is the mystery. It reads like a classic “who-dun-it,” all wrapped up in a neat bow at the end. I thoroughly enjoyed the backstory of stamp-making, as well as tracking the journey the postage stamps made in the book. Flavia did not win me over, however. She is impossibly precocious for an eleven-year-old. Her breadth of knowledge is far too wide, her presence of mind too mature. Had she been 16 or 17, I may have been able to allow it. Typically, I am eager to suspend reality for the purpose of a good narrative, but I was not able to this time. Judge for yourself, though, because the Flavia books are crazy popular, and I am likely in the minority with an unpopular opinion.
You may be wondering why it is called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I do love a well-titled book, and this one will likely keep you guessing throughout the whole book, and maybe beyond. There is a pie involved, and it is the recipe that seems most fitting to make to go along with this story.
The matronly cook/housekeeper of Buckshaw, Mrs. Mullet, does not always hit the mark with her cooking, at least according to the de Luce family. In particular, she makes a custard pie that they routinely boycott. I happen to love custard pie, and made for you a version that might just do some damage to an unsuspecting diabetic.
The Salted Caramel Custard Pie inspired by the book
Because of the unique title, I decided to put a twist on a classic custard pie recipe and coat the bottom of the crust with salted caramel. The same salted caramel is drizzled on top with a sprinkling of toffee bits, making the overall flavor something akin to butterbeer, for my fellow Harry Potter fans.
Pastry chef I am not, so I typically rely on Pillsbury to make my pie crust for me. After an afternoon of binge-watching the Kids Baking Championship on the Food Network with my four-year-old son, he’s been asking to have time alone in the kitchen to bake for us. Haha! Nice try, kiddo.
I will make more of an effort to let him cook with me, and so decided to make this pie completely from scratch with his assistance. Flavia herself might enjoy cooking, as there is a lot of chemistry involved. Years ago, I was fascinated by the cookbook CookWise by Shirley Corriher. It would probably help me discover, for instance, why my rice always sticks to the bottom of the pan.
Anyway, back to that salted caramel pie. I somehow remember from high school home economics that the best pie crust has a blend of both butter and shortening. Butter for the flakiness and shortening for smoothness??? Food chemistry again. I’m not a fan of partially hydrogenated oils, though, so I went with an all-butter crust. The chemistry of pie crust is simple: keep all of your ingredients super cold, and process as little as possible. (A food processor works great for this.)
After the crust was in the pie plate and chilling, I mixed together a simple custard pie filling. I also made a decadent salted caramel on the stovetop, and coated the bottom of the pie crust with it, chilling it in the fridge for at least 10 minutes before pouring the custard filling over it.
Before serving, I drizzled more salted caramel over the top and sprinkled it with toffee bits. The hardest part of this recipe is having the will-power to let it cool completely and chill it in the fridge before serving. Worth the wait, though!
I can’t say that I would have read the rest of the Flavia de Luce mysteries after this first experience. However, members of my Reading Challenge have vouched that the subsequent books are better than the first.
While researching the book, I found that it either has been made, or soon will be made into a British mini-series. (I couldn’t find out if it has actually been produced. Drop me a line in the comments if you know!) Depending on the actor’s portrayal of Flavia, I think I would be interested in watching this. I do love how the Brits do TV.
Reading this book added another to my TBR. Flavia is passionate about poisons and utilizes her knowledge in creative ways, as her sisters can tell you.
Do you have a non-fiction reading goal this year? The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is part true crime, part scientific history, part thriller about two forensic pioneers who track the trail of the “perfect crimes.” If you binge-watch shows like CSI and Criminal Minds, or like Flavia have a morbid fascination with lethal injections, The Poisoner’s Handbook is for you.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was my February read for the 2018 Literary Feast Reading Challenge. There were a lot of great books to choose from with the category “choose a book with a food in the title.” I think the most popular pick in the group was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. You can also read about my January choice here. Want to know more about the challenge? Click here. Ready to join the Facebook group and discuss your books in a community of amazing readers? That’s this link.
I hope to see YOU there soon!
Continue to the recipe!