Many of you may know Kristin Hannah through her WWII historical fiction novel, The Nightingale, which was a huge hit when it was released a few years ago. It was the first of her novels that I’d read, despite her deep catalog. I found her storytelling to be powerful yet heart-wrenching, and though I loved it, I wasn’t exactly rushing to read another book that would wreck me. Yet, here I am.
In 1974, Ernt Allbright is adrift. After returning home from Vietnam, where he was a POW, he has become increasingly volatile and can’t hold down a job. He decides to pack up his small family -- his wife Cora, and their teenage daughter Leni -- and explore the wild frontier; they will become homesteaders in Alaska. Leni finds herself in a one-room schoolhouse with only one other person her age, a boy named Matthew.
Though daunting, the change seems good for her family at first. They learn to fend for themselves, live off the land. A handful of generous locals help to make up the rest of what the Allbrights don’t know or have, and somehow, they survive the first winter. But it becomes clear that the endless night of Alaskan winters isn’t a positive change for Ernt. Leni and her mother can’t depend Ernt and they can’t depend on others to look out for them. They have to make the hard decision to move forward and live on their own terms.
The good news is that The Great Alone didn’t exactly wreck me, but it definitely delivered on the powerful, heart-wrenching story part. Kristin Hannah is not easy on her characters. She draws them skillfully and then she bends them until they almost break. Like The Nightingale, the strong women in this novel shine. I don’t think I’ll wait so long to pick up one of her novels next time, but I do hope it’s a little bit of an easier read…
Leni’s favorite dessert is something called akutaq (pronounced a-goo-duck), commonly known as eskimo ice cream. The mention of the three ingredients as they sit down to it at Leni’s birthday meal intrigued me: strawberries, Crisco and snow. I learned later these are the “modern” ingredients. Traditionally, it was made with animal lard rather than Crisco, and it was eaten as an energy source.
I found a recipe on Spoon University, scooped up some snow from a recent snowfall, and set to work. It looks/sounds easy enough to make, but I actually found it a bit difficult. (I even restarted it once because I didn’t think I was getting the right result.) I watched a tutorial -- in which the Crisco isn’t melted -- and ultimately tweaked the recipe to what worked best for me. I’m still not 100% I produced exactly what I was supposed to, but I think it’s pretty close.
First, I prepped my berries. I used 1 cup of blueberries (which I left whole after rinsing) and 3 cups of chopped strawberries. I cut each better into roughly 4-6 pieces depending on its size. Then, I cut a stick of Crisco, 1 cup, into smaller pieces and tossed it into a pot to liquify.
Once the Crisco was melted (but still keeping the temperature quite low), I added 1 cup of sugar verrrrryyyy gradually, stirring all the while. The sugar is supposed to entirely dissolve, but after stirring for 20 minutes -- and starting over once -- I decided “mostly” dissolved worked for me. It’s hard to describe but it looked liquid-ish, still a little grainy. Sort of like wet sand.
I poured the mixture into a large bowl (because I used my Dutch oven, which holds heat too well) before adding the snow. I added half the snow and stirred it in. When it began to thicken, I added the second batch of snow, and stirred until it began to whiten.
The original recipe said to continue to stir until it’s “fluffy and as white as you can get it.” I’m not sure about you, but I struggled hard to get the mixture to become fluffy with just a spoon. So, I brought out the hand mixer and used it on medium-high speed until the mixture resembled frosting.
I folded the berries into the mixture and, voila!, the akutaq was complete.
I scooped it into 5 small bowls, and placed them in the freezer to chill.
I’ll admit I was a little nervous to take my first bite, despite the fact that the berries looked delicious. The flavor was actually better than I expected -- the coating tasted a bit like frosting and the berries tasted like berries. The texture of the coating wasn’t bad, but it took a little getting used to.
Still, I loved the experience of making this Alaskan dish! It’s a perfecting pairing for this epic Alaskan story.
Akutaq (Eskimo Ice Cream)
- 1 cup Crisco Vegetable Shortening
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup water berry juice or 2 cups loose snow
- 4 cups mixed berries
- Slice the Crisco into small pieces then add to a pot over low heat. (Non-stick is not recommended.) Stir slowly and constantly until liquid. Never let the mixture get hotter than is comfortable for your hand.
- Once the Crisco is melted into a liquid, gradually add in sugar while continuing to stir. Continue until all the sugar is mostly dissolved. (The remainder will dissolve when the snow/water is added later.)
- Once the mixture is all liquid, transfer it to a large bowl and continue to stir. Add in ¼ cup of water (or 1 cup of snow) to the mixture. As the mixture starts to cool it will thicken and get more fluffy and white. Then, add in the other 1/4 cup of water (or 1 cup of snow). If needed, use a hand mixer on medium-high for about 60 seconds to increase the fluffiness of the mixture.
- When the mixture is as fluffy and white as you can get it, fold in the berries.
- Form into desired shape or place in desired container and then put in freezer to firm for 1 hour before serving.
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