Vassa in the Night
by Sarah Porter
Publication: Sept. 20, 2016
Genre: YA fantasy
My rating: 5/5 stars
Spoilers: none you wouldn't read in the synopsis
This novel is a reimagining of the Russian folk tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, which I read a long time ago. I don't remember enough to know how many of the details were included in the book, but I know that the author captured the unnerving surrealism of the original story perfectly! That's a good thing, in my opinion. True to any fairy tale, there are weird things -- an animated doll, disembodied (but living!) hands, a store with chicken legs, and more. On a grander scale is the oddity of nights that are increasing in length until they feel like whole days; this becomes acutely awful when the main character, Vassa, is coerced into working for three nights for a shop owner whose go-to reprimand is decapitation. (This is the kind of story where it's hard to say much more without spoiling important things, so I'm going to be vague and brief from here on. Sorry.)
Vassa spends a fair amount of the story alone, which leads to lots of introspection. I'm the kind of reader who prefers books full of action rather than self-examination and philosophy, but Vassa is just the right combination of tough and broken to make her thoughts worth hearing. While this book has the standard good-vs-evil (or at least benevolent weird vs. malevolent weird) conflict typical to fairy tales, it's really the story of Vassa untangling her past and becoming secure in her present. Again, not my kind of book, but it worked fantastically in this case.
Reading this book for a long stretch of time felt a bit like falling into a well-developed dream; while the rules of the world are odd, they're consistent enough to trick you into thinking everything that's happening makes sense when it categorically does not. Vassa in the Night is both beautiful and horrifying, the written version of a Salvador Dali painting.
The novel also excelled in technical, non-abstract ways. The plot was solid despite (because of?) Vassa's soul-searching, the pacing was tight, and the tension built anticipation. As discussed above, Vassa grows as a character even in the space of three (admittedly long) nights. The setting is well-developed; the prose is imaginative but fairly concise.
Last but not least: the cover! This is one of my favorite covers of books I've read this year. Like the novel itself, the cover font is unexpected and appealing. Elements of the story appear in the cover art, and the overall effect is visually pleasing. If I had a place to keep more books, I'd buy a physical copy of this one!
I'd recommend this book to readers who love folk tales and aren't afraid to give their imaginations some exercise. Now, the recipe! It's weird, just like the book.
Recipe: Lagoon Toaster Tarts (a.k.a. pineapple pastries with sea salt frosting)
Lagoon-flavored toaster tarts are one of the odd products for sale at BY's, the dancing, chicken-legged convenience store where Vassa spends three nights as an unwilling employee. The book doesn't give much description beyond "aqua frosting and pastry that pops like sugared seaweed," but I extrapolated a bit and ended up with a Pop-Tart-esque pastry with pineapple curd filling and a basic salted sugar glaze. I chose pineapple for the main flavor because a) it's complemented well by salt, and b) I apparently associate lagoons with tropical flavors because the only one I've visited is in Laie on Oahu. This recipe is in three parts, and while each is quite simple, it may help to know that any/all of the components can be made in advance and saved for later assembly. [Oh, and you can reheat these in a toaster oven (not an upright toaster), but I wouldn't recommend it. Who wants warm pineapple curd, anyway?]
If you have a go-to recipe for pie crust, you can use that here - just make enough dough for two regular pie crusts. This is my favorite pie crust recipe, adapted to yield a dough that's easy to work with and produces a flaky, tender result when baked. I find it easiest to "cheat" and make this in a food processor, but you can use a pastry cutter, two forks, or your fingers to cut the butter into the flour.
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
12 tbsp butter, very cold
1/3 cup buttermilk
2 tsp cider vinegar (optional)
Cut the butter into cubes and stick it in the freezer while you get out the other ingredients. Stir the flour and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Scramble the egg in a small bowl. If using a food processor, add half the flour mixture, followed by the butter and the rest of the flour mixture. Pulse a few times until there are no large pieces of butter left. (If you're using other means, cut/rub the butter into the flour mixture until it's crumbly.) Add the egg, buttermilk, and vinegar (if using), and stir or pulse until combined. Slowly add cold water until the dough comes together into a cohesive lump, but try to stop before it becomes sticky. (It's not the end of the world if this happens; you'll just have to use a lot of flour to roll it out.) Wrap the dough ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour (or freeze for up to three months and thaw in the fridge before using).
'Curd' in this context refers to a dessert spread made with sugar, eggs, butter, and the fruit juice of your choice. Lemon curd is most common, but I've used lots of weird fruits, up to and including passionfruit.
1/2 cup pineapple juice (canned or fresh; I made this when pineapple was out of season using a small Dole can that was slightly more than half a cup and it turned out fine)
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
4 tbsp butter
Combine the juice, sugar, and yolks in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir or whisk constantly until the mixture bubbles and thickens (it'll take about 15 minutes and won't look like it's doing anything for a long time, but keep stirring or the eggs will scramble). Add the butter and stir until melted, then remove from heat. Pour through a mesh strainer into a heatproof bowl, then cover with plastic wrap (press it down on the surface of the curd to keep it from forming a skin as it cools) and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours. The curd will keep in the fridge for up to a week; I wouldn't recommend freezing it.
2 cups powdered/confectioner's sugar
food coloring (blue and green)
Stir a few tablespoons of water into the sugar in a medium bowl, adding water until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. Starting with a TINY amount, gradually add salt to taste, stirring well after each addition. If you want to swirl colors, divide it into small bowls and mix in food coloring. If you're making this ahead, mix it in small sealable containers and keep them in the refrigerator for up to a week, bringing them to room temperature before using.
Preheat the oven to 375°F and grease or line a baking sheet. Roll the pastry dough out on a floured surface. You'll want to get it as thin as possible (within reason; don't frustrate yourself trying to get it paper-thin or anything). Basically, it should be a bit thinner than you'd want for a pie since there'll be two layers with relatively little filling. Using a sharp knife or pizza wheel, cut the dough into shapes (rectangles are "traditional", assuming a toaster pastry can be traditional). I found 3x5-inch rectangles to be workable, but you can go larger or smaller -- just make sure to keep an eye on them, since the baking time will change.
Spread or brush a very thin layer of the curd over half the dough pieces; this will help the layers of dough stick together at the edges. Over the thin layer, spoon a thick line of curd for the filling, leaving at least a quarter-inch of space at each edge. Top with another piece of dough and press the edges down with your fingers. Take a fork and press the tines all around the edges to seal. Place pastries on the baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until parts of the top crust are pale brown. (For most other pastries, you'd cut slits in the top, but filling is going to escape somewhere and it's better that it comes out the sides so it won't make frosting difficult later.)
Remove pastries from baking sheet and cool COMPLETELY. Once they're cool, frost them! You should be able to apply globs of frosting with a spoon and spread them fairly easily; if the consistency is off, add water or powdered sugar as necessary. While the frosting is still somewhat liquid, sprinkle with a pinch of coarse salt and any decorations you want. (I used little gold stars; if you've read the book, you might remember how those are significant!) Enjoy!