Smart Cookies by Holly Hepburn
Authors are often asked how much research we do before writing a book. It’s a thing we all do, although some of my friends are more of the ‘make-it-up’ school of writing than others. And I fall into the ‘research-to infinity’ category, which has seen me striking sparks from white-hot iron in a genuine blacksmith’s forge, walking the South West Coast Path from Mawgan Porth to the fictional town of Polwhipple to make sure my character, Gina, could also do it, and visiting an apiary to observe the bees and their hives. I like to know a lot about a subject before it goes into a story – accuracy and authenticity matter, although I’m not afraid to bend the truth when it suits me. And I pay extra-special attention when I am writing about food.
It’s no accident that my books always centre around some kind of deliciousness; I love to eat and drink. That’s how I found the inspiration for what would become Castle Court – I visited the wonderful Kingly Court in London, just off Carnaby Street, for something to eat and immediately wanted to write about it. And when I knew that my characters were opening their own business, I deliberately chose something I would enjoy researching: biscuits.
The obvious place for a budding biscuit maker to begin is with the experts, and where better than at the Biscuiteers flagship store in Notting Hill? First of all, I popped in for an afternoon tea, just to get a feel for the place and to soak up the atmosphere. And then I booked onto one of their many icing courses, so I could observe first-hand how to create brilliant biscuits.
I learned that you need two types of icing – line and flood – in a variety of different colours. I learned (from chatting to Marie, who was generously teaching us her secrets) that icing is tricky and temperamental and time-consuming to get right. And I learned that you need a steady but confident hand to show that icing who’s boss. By the end of my two-hour course, I’d iced around eight biscuits and been certified a Biscuiteer. I even got a certificate that said so and my very own apron.
But being a stickler with research, it wasn’t enough for me to simply ice the biscuits someone else had made: I wanted to make sure I could bake them too. And that’s when I discovered exactly how committed you need to be to create your own iced biscuits – the dough needs to be chilled, then cut into shapes, then chilled again, then baked, then cooled. Then the cold biscuits are iced, then baked again at a much lower temperature, then cooled for the last time. Only then are they ready to be eaten
It all sounds like hard work but get this – the dough part is so much easier than the icing preparation. Don’t forget that you need two types of icing in lots of colours – by the time you have finished, your kitchen will probably look a lot like Jackson Pollock has just whipped through with a leaky piping bag or six. This is normal.
What I’m trying to say here is that I found making my own biscuits a tiny bit fiddly, but it gave me an invaluable insight into how my characters, Cat and Sadie might feel; anyone who has read the descriptions of Sadie’s kitchens as she creates her Smart Cookies masterpieces will recognise that I’ve stood in her shoes. And I’m still learning – who knows, maybe one day I will crack the secret and become a super-icing whizz. Or maybe I’ll just employ a sous chef to do all the prep for me. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my technique. And eating the results. Because that’s an important part of my research too.
See? Research isn’t all bad.
Love Holly x
Part Four of the Castle Court series - Starry Skies – publishes on 1st May in eBook and is available to pre-order here.