In my book, A Dancer’s Dream, one of Stana’s favourite Christmas traditions is eating gingerbread angels, and drinking tea with jam. If you’d like to have a go at recreating this treat – for yourself, or to share with family and friends – here’s how:
This recipe is based on Felicity Cloake’s gingerbread biscuit recipe, which is a big favourite in our house. If you don’t have an angel shaped biscuit-cutter, you could make snowflakes, stars, Christmas trees or any other festive shapes.
- Put 225g softened unsalted butter in a bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon
- Add 340g of soft brown sugar and beat again
- Add one beaten egg to the mixture. Continue to beat gently (don’t worry if it begins to curdle – just add in a little plain flour)
- Mix 340g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 3 tsp ground ginger and 2 tsp mixed spice in a separate bowl, and then add to the butter, sugar and egg mixture
- Stir until the mixture comes together in a smooth dough
- Spread out some clingfilm on your work surface, and put the gingerbread dough on top. Cover it with another piece of clingfilm, then roll flat with a rolling pin until the dough is about 3mm thick
- Transfer your dough onto a chopping board and pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes
- Heat your oven to 190 C and lightly grease your baking sheet(s)
- Take out the dough, remove the top layer of clingfilm and use an angel-shaped biscuit cutter to cut out your biscuits
- Arrange your biscuits carefully on the baking sheet, remembering to leave space between them, as they will spread when they are in the oven
- Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool
I like to eat my gingerbread angels just as they are, but you can also decorate them with white icing if you prefer.
Russian tea with jam
To accompany your gingerbread angels, try this traditional Russian way of drinking tea. You can use any loose-leaf black tea you like, but I like this Russian Caravan blend from my local tea/coffee producers Atkinsons.
- Boil some water in your kettle. Put a small amount of hot water into the bottom of your teapot to warm it, then discard.
- Put some loose tea-leaves into the teapot – use 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, plus an extra spoonful ‘for the pot’.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of berry jam to the pot – try strawberry, cherry, raspberry or blackcurrant.
- Leave the tea to brew for around 5 minutes, allowing the flavours to develop
- Using a tea-strainer, pour the tea into your cups. You can serve some jam in a little dish alongside your tea in case anyone would like to add another spoonful to their cup.
Drink and enjoy with a gingerbread angel on the side – perhaps while listening to the music of Tchiakovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, or leafing through your copy of A Dancer’s Dream?
(The picture below is from my own trip to St Petersburg a couple of years ago, when I was researching Spies in St Petersburg. Many Russian treats were sampled as part of the research process!)
After being published last month, it’s been so lovely to see A Dancer’s Dream being read and enjoyed. Today I thought I’d share some of the story behind this book, which actually began its life as a short story with a different title — Casse-Noisette, or otherwise, ‘The Nutcracker’.
This story, which first appeared in the anthology Winter Magic, took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ which itself has a complex backstory. The ballet which we all know today was originally inspired by a story called ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ written by the German writer ETA Hoffman in 1816, which had subsequently been adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 as ‘Histoire d’un casse-noisette’. A Russian doll-within-Russian-doll of inspirations, if you will!
The idea of writing about ‘The Nutcracker’ first came to me when I was asked to write a story for Abi Elphinstone’s anthology Winter Magic which was being published by Simon & Schuster. This new collection would bring together a host of wintery, festive stories, glittering with snowy and frosty magic. I knew at once that I wanted my story to be historical, and my first idea was that I might write about the frost-fairs that used to take place on the River Thames, back when winters were so cold that the whole river would freeze completely solid, and fairs would take place out on the ice. But when I mentioned this to the team at Simon & Schuster, they told me that another writer (the brilliant Emma Carroll) was already working on a frost-fair story! So it was back to the drawing board…
I began thinking about my favourite things about winter and Christmastime. There were lots of possibilities, but one tradition that I immediately thought of was going to the pantomime, the ballet, or the theatre, which we always did at Christmas when I was growing up. I especially loved ballet, so seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ was a particular festive treat – for me, the spellbinding story of Clara’s adventure on Christmas Eve, complete with its ballets of snowflakes and dancing sweets, really did seem to capture all the magic of this time of year.
I decided to find out a little more about the history of the ballet, and its origins. In particular, I began reading about the very first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ which took place just before Christmas in 1892, in the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. Immediately, I became very interested – because there were some surprising things to discover. Considering it’s now one of the most famous and beloved ballets in the world, ‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t actually get off to a very promising start.
For one thing, Tchaikovsky wasn’t initially very keen on writing a ballet based on the Nutcracker story. It was the choreographer, Petipa, who was set on the choice of the subject matter, and who devised a synopsis. Reluctantly, Tchiakovksy set to work, but then tragedy struck when he heard the news of the death of his beloved sister, Sasha. ‘Today… I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,”‘ Tchiakovsky wrote. In spite of his grief and sadness, he continued to work, perhaps even putting something of his lost sister into the character of Clara, and weaving in his own memories of childhood family Christmases.
Konstantin Ivanov’s original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker
Meanwhile, as rehearsals for the new ballet began, choreographer Petipa also experienced a tragedy when his 15-year-old daughter Evgenia died of cancer. Shortly afterwards he fell ill himself, forcing him to take leave for the rest of the season. His assistant had to step in and take charge of ‘The Nutcracker’ in his place.
Finally, when the ballet was at last performed for an audience including the Tsar of Russia, the reviews were mixed. ‘The Nutcracker’ was not immediately popular, and even got some negative responses from critics. Some of the dancers were criticised, others felt it was merely a ‘spectacle’ rather than a true ballet. It wasn’t until some years later that it grew in popularity, before eventually becoming the favourite Christmas ballet we know today.
Lydia Rubtsova, Stanislava Belinskaya and Vassily Stukolkin in the original production of The Nutcracker
One of the other things that caught my attention about this first staging of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that lots of the parts in the ballet were played by child dancers – including the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, which were played by pupils from the Imperial Ballet School. Children performing in ballet productions was not new – Petipa had included children’s dances in almost all of his ballets. However, it was very unusual to cast young dancers in leading roles. Clara, the girl at the centre of the story was played by a young dancer called Stanislava Belinskaya, who was just 12 years old at the time.
I was immediately interested in Stanislava. She was the first to play this incredibly famous and important role – and yet we know little about her. After this moment in the spotlight, she seems to fade away from dance history. Interestingly, one of her friends and classmates who wasn’t chosen to dance in the first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ went on to become one of the most famous dancers of all the time – the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Thinking about Stanislava (or ‘Stana’ as I decided to call her, which is the shortened form of her name) – and her classmate Anna – and what life might have been like for them at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century – soon sparked my imagination. I wanted to explore some of my favourite things about The Nutcracker ballet – the magical dream sequences, the cosy scenes of a family celebrating together at Christmas-time – and weave them together with some of the real history, including Tchiakovsky’s story. I imagined a home and a family for Stana – including her own beloved sister who was unwell – as well as trying to conjur up how it might have felt for her as a young dancer to step out onto the grand stage and perform in such an important role.
The finished story was first published in Winter Magic and a little while later, the team at Simon & Schuster said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book (following on from Abi Elphinstone’s story ‘The Snow Dragon’ which had already been transformed into a gorgeous illustrated story with artwork by Fiona Woodcock. I was especially thrilled to hear they’d asked one of my very favourite illustrators, Lizzy Stewart, to illustrate it.
It was amazing to see the story turned into the beautiful A Dancer’s Dream. Lizzy’s artwork perfectly brings to life snowy St Petersburg and the glittering Mariinsky Theatre. What a joy!
Check out my Pinterest board if you’d like to see some more images that helped to inspire this story
Or if you like ballet stories, check out my list of ballet-inspired children’s books over on Bookshop.org
In snow- covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker. But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?
Illustrated by Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize winner, Lizzy Stewart, this sumptuous and magical retelling of The Nutcracker will transport you on a journey far beyond the page.
Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon
Here in England we’ve just entered a second lockdown, with all non-essential shops (including bookshops) closed. But in the approach to Christmas, it’s more important than ever that we keep supporting our wonderful bookshops, if we want to keep them on our high streets!
If you’re in need of lockdown reading material – or if you have Christmas presents to buy – then make sure you check out Waterstones.com (with local shops offering a click and collect service, as well as delivery by post) or your local independent bookshops, most of which will offer books for delivery or collection. (Not sure if you have any independent bookshops locally? Check this list to find your nearest).
You can also now buy books via the brand new uk.bookshop.org which is a socially-conscious alternative to Amazon. It’s a good way to buy books online while helping to support independent bookshops – there are discounts, and books are sent directly to your door, but 10% from every sale goes to independent bookshops.
Even better if you buy directly from an indie’s page they’ll get 30% from the sale – and with bookshops closed for browsing, it’s a wonderful way to find book recommendations. Check out Storytellers Inc, Roundtable Books, Sevenoaks Bookshop or Tales on Moon Lane for some lovely examples. You can also visit my page, where you can find links to all my books.
If you’d like to do more to support independent bookshops (and pick up some very special Christmas treats!) you should also check out #SignForOurBookshops, a new campaign to help bookshops during November.
Instigated by the brilliant Holly Bourne, lots of authors and illustrators are offering signed and personalised bookplates if you buy from a local bookshop. Lizzy Stewart and I are pleased to be offering signed bookplates for copies of our new book A Dancer’s Dream – get yours if you order the book from any of these bookshops (first come, first served!)
(If any other bookshops would like some signed bookplates please do contact me and let me know!)
My latest book is out today! A Dancer’s Dream began life as a short story I wrote for the anthology Winter Magic which tells the story of the first performance of the classic Christmas ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’.
I loved writing the story and was delighted when the wonderful team at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book, with artwork by one of my favourite illustrators, the brilliant Lizzy Stewart.
The resulting book is a real treasure — exactly the right kind of thing to find under the tree on Christmas morning, or read together by the fire on Christmas Eve. As well as Lizzy’s stunning artwork, there’s glittering gold foil, and all kinds of beautiful detail. Here’s a little more about the story:
In snow -covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’.
But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?
A Dancer’s Dream is out now, and you can buy it now from Waterstones. There’s also a very special exclusive edition available only from independent bookshops, which contains a beautiful print signed by both me and Lizzy. Please do support a bricks-and-mortar bookshop if you can — it’s more important than ever to support our bookshops to keep them going on our high streets!
Alternativelty, order via Bookshop.org.uk – a fantastic new website which allows you to order books online, and have them sent to you at home, but which also helps to support independent bookshops. You can find my page here with links to buy all my books, as well as lots more books I recommend.
It’s been a while since I had time to post properly here on the blog! Writing the first draft of Taylor & Rose Book 4 is keeping me very busy at the moment, but I wanted to drop in to share a quick autumn update with a few new things that you can now watch or listen to online.
First up, I was delighted to talk to Lucas Maxwell of Glenthorne Library for the brilliant Booklings Chat podcast . We had a lovely conversation about Villains in Venice and more:
Next, I was very pleased to have the chance to interview fellow mystery writers Sharna Jackson, Robin Stevens and Serena Patel for the Make Your Own Mysteries event which was part of the brilliant Reading is Magic festival. You can catch up with the video here.
Finally, I chatted to Sarah Tyson of Books up North for her new podcast Books for your Library. We talked about A Dancer’s Dream, Christmas reading, and lots more. Have a listen here:
That’s all for now but I’ll be back again soon to celebrate the publication of A Dancer’s Dream... until then, happy reading!