The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t read this book until just a few months ago, and I could kick myself for not having devoured it sooner. Such a marvelous universe, this alternate world of circuses and magic and love. It actually put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that sense of whimsical magic and a slightly odd world similar to our own, but one much more unusual, spellbinding and mystical.

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Celia and Marco are the proverbial star-crossed lovers, though in this case, they are also opponents in a seemingly eternal game of spells and magic set in a mysterious circus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated with the circus. It’s always had a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter sense to me, the striped tents, the calliope music, the death-defying feats of acrobats and contortionists swinging high above or twisting themselves into improbable shapes…..and the ringmaster himself, whip in hand. (In fact, if you’re into circuses and the unusual and/or supernatural, you’ll love the podcast The Magnus Archives, which has a very creepy and weird circus as a main storyline, so give it a listen if so inclined.)

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The circus itself appears overnight, with its attendant staff. Black and white and red are its colors, and it is the backdrop for Marco and Celia, who initially do not realize they are meant to be in opposition to each other, to perform their illusions and spells. They have been trained since they were children for the competition by their respective father figures, both of whom are total and complete bastards. Of course, they fall in love but it’s not a love that is easy nor does their path run smoothly. Well, it never does, does it?

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It’s not a romance, though the love story at its heart is pivotal for the book. With the circus called Le Cirque des Rêves – Circus of Dreams – it would be more accurate to say it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike swathe of crimson velvet words, ice clouds of images, mystical spells that turn clothing into birds, and just an overall sense of magic and mystery. Even the more minor characters are lushly described, and all play a key role in how the ultimate destiny of the circus comes about. Chandresh is one of these side characters who plays a huge part in the outcome. He hosts divine midnight dinner parties for many of the book’s magicians, bringing together the main characters in some of the most sumptuously described food passages I’ve read in ages.

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The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.

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So the figs. Oh, the figs. A delicacy that I can only get a few times in the early autumn, I had to do something with this amazing fruit that I love so much. Not being much of a sweets eater, I thought something more savory would be delightful. Hence, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese and glazed with a bourbon-butter sauce seemed a simple, yet delectably delicious way to enjoy this amazing fruit.

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INGREDIENTS
6 fresh figs
12 slices prosciutto
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Slice each fig in half lengthwise, to make 12 fig halves.

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Using a melon baller, scoop out some of the fig.

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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Repeat with the other figs, and lay out on a baking tray.

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Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the prosciutto crisps and you can smell the mingled scents of sweet fig, salty prosciutto. and and savory cheese oozing together.

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While the figs are baking, melt the butter and brown sugar and add the bourbon. Cook on high and make a reduction of thick, luscious brown syrup.

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Remove figs from oven, and gently pour the bourbon syrup over them, and sprinkle over some sea salt. Allow to cool, and cram down your throat. You could say they’re magically delicious!

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Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

I think I’ve mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for most non-fiction books before. However, I discovered Sharon Bennett Connolly’s amazing blog, History, The Interesting Bits, a few years ago, and her subsequent book, Heroines of the Medieval World, so hooked me into her writing that I immediately ordered the book and was sucked into the medieval universe of little-known historical women who accomplished some pretty amazing things.

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Bennett Connolly has that knack of turning everyday, ordinary, day-to-day lives into something greater and larger than all of us. What I particularly love about this book is that it tells stories of women who actually existed, had kids, raised families, married (often multiple times), maintained homes, and who made a name for themselves within a world that essentially viewed them as property. There are, of course, the very well known medieval heroines such as Joan of Arc, Heloise d’Argenteuil (she of Abelard and Heloise romantic fame), Hildegarde of Bingen, and a dear and personal friend of mine from Catholic school, St. Julian of Norwich who wrote Revelations of Divine Love and was the first Catholic mystic I ever read……..though not the last.

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There weren’t any specific food mentions in this book, but being that it’s about women and their traditional role in a culture and society, of course cooking and food preparation was likely the most essential task in their lives, after giving birth, of course. And it gave me some leeway in choosing what I wanted to make. Bennett Connolly’s heroines lived in medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, Wales and Germany, so you have a marvelous variety of food right there to choose from AND the marvelous variety of female heroines. And my favorite heroine in this book has to be the little-known Venetian writer Christine de Pisan. One of the very first women who was actually paid for her writing – imagine that! – she was born in Venice, Italy in 1364.

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Her father was a court astrologer and physician for the Venetian court until he accepted a position with the French court and the family moved there in 1368. So though native to Italy, she was very French in her outlook, political views, and most especially in her writing. Her husband died in 1389, leaving her with three children. In order to support them, she turned to writing and produced her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, an image of which is shown below.

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As Bennett Connolly describes:
The book tells of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew, and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. It included the lives of female saints who remained steadfast in their devotion to God in the face of martyrdom. City of Ladies was Christine’s response to the misogynistic portrait of womankind that was present in many works of the era, in which women were blamed for the misery in which men found themselves.

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That doesn’t sound at ALL familiar now, does it?

Anyway, I found this marvelous website dedicated to medieval recipes from various countries in Europe – www.medievalcuisine.com – and found one from Italy that sounded delicious. So in honor of Christine de Pisan and all the women of medieval times, I present cheese and pinenut fritters – fritelle da Imperadore Magnifici – which would have been commonly eaten as a sweet dish in the Roman and Venetian regions in the time of de Pisan’s life. I tweaked to make it more savory and added my own flavoring twists as I always do.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
4 sage leaves, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 egg whites
2 generous handfuls of pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until they brown and give off that nutty scent. Set aside.

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Mix the cheeses together, and grate in the garlic.

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Gently whisk the egg whites before adding to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the toasted pine nuts and the finely minced sage, and then add in the flour and the salt, stirring everything together.

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Heat the olive oil until shimmering, and one spoonful at a time, scoop the cheesy batter into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, and drain on paper towels. Eat while still hot.

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These are quite delicious, not overly salty and very rich, so you’ll probably only want one or two. And though the flavorings are my own, the basic method is essentially medieval, and are authentically Italian. Just like Christine de Pisan!

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Sexy Sunday! Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

DISCLAIMER! The following post contains explicit sexual language and profanity. You’ve been warned!

Welcome to the second installation of Sexy Sunday, my monthly collaboration with fellow blogger The Bookworm Drinketh, in which we read a book infamous for its sex scene or scenes; she writes a review and does her usual cocktail-to-go-with, and I write a review and do a food post inspired by the book. It’s as much fun as it sounds, kids! Here is The Bookworm’s Sexy Sunday take on today’s book.

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Today’s book of choice is Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, which on superficial review is lesbian cross-dressing dance-hall girls in Victorian England. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The heroine of the story, Nan King, works in her father’s oyster shop on the coast in Kent with the rest of her family.  Yes, oysters and lesbians. Well, no one ever accused Sarah Waters of subtlety in her early works.  At least they weren’t full-on fish mongers.

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Anyway, Nan has a great attraction to musical theater, and when she meets Kitty Butler, a lovely young singer who is performing at the theater in Nan’s hometown, she is starstruck and uber horny. The two go off together to London, where Nan becomes part of Kitty’s singing act. They dress up as men, though it’s obvious they are both women, and their affair starts. But, in the way of all first loves, Nan and Kitty’s romance goes sour. Kitty realizes that she does not want to be seen as a “tom,” as lesbians were called in those days. She loves Nan but isn’t strong enough to fight against societal expectations, so she has an affair with, and marries Walter, who had been her agent. Nan, of course, is devastated and heartbroken, and so begins her career as a cross-dressing call girl who only gives handjobs and blowjobs to men as she struggles with her grief over Kitty. Then, Nan meets the woman who will totally fuck up her life, but in a really seductive and sexual way.

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Nan becomes the “kept girl” of the wealthy Diana, who turns her on to adult pleasures she’s never experienced before. Nan is fully in lustful thrall of Diana, who essentially treats her like a fuck slave. Which she is, really. This is the sexiest part of the book, in my opinion. And I’m not even attracted to women! But damn, this scene was arousing, when Diana instructs Nan to go into a trunk in her room and fetch her…………..something.

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It was a kind of harness, made of leather: belt-like and yet not quite a belt, for though it had one wide strap with buckles on, two narrower, shorter bands were fastened to this and they, too were buckled. For one alarming moment I thought it might be a horse’s bridle; then I saw what the straps and buckles supported. It was a cylinder of leather, rather longer than the length of my hand and about as fat, in width, as I could grasp………It was, in short, a dildo. I had never seen one before; I did not know, at that time, that such things existed and had names. “Put it on,” she called – she must have caught the opening of the trunk – “put it on and come to me.”

You so know where this is going, right?

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“Come here,” said the lady when she saw me in the doorway, and as I walked to her, the dildo bobbed harder. I lifted my hand to still it; and when she saw me do that she placed her own fingers over mine, and made them grasp the shaft and stroke it. Now the base’s insinuating nudges grew more insinuating still; it was not long before my legs began to tremble and she, sensing my rising pleasure, began to breathe more harshly. She took her hands away…..and gestured for me to undress her.

Oh yes, it’s going there.

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With my hands still clasped in hers, she led me to one of the straight-backed chairs and sat me on it, the dildo all the while straining from my lap, rude and rigid as as skittle. I guessed her purpose. With her hands closed-pressed about my head and her legs straddling mine, she gently lowered herself upon me; then proceeded to rise and sink, rise and sink, with an ever speedier motion. At first I held her hips to guide them; then I returned a hand to her drawers and let the fingers of the other creep round to her thigh, to her buttocks. My mouth I fastened now on one nipple, now on the other, sometimes finding the salt of her flesh, sometimes the dampening cotton of her chemise.

And here we go. Takeoff!

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Soon her breaths became moans, then cries; soon my own voice joined hers, for the dildo that serviced her also pleasured me – her motions bring with it an ever faster, even harder pressure against just that part of me that cared for pressure best. I had one brief moment of self-consciousness, when I saw myself from a distance, straddled by a stranger in an unknown house, bucked inside that monstrous instrument, panting with pleasure and sweating with lust. Then in another moment I could think nothing, only shudder; and the pleasure – mine and hers – found its aching, arching crisis, and was spent…….At length, she laughed and moved again against my hip. “Oh, you exquisite little tart!” she said.

It’s been said that if you learn something new each day, no day is wasted. Well, while reading this book I learned many interesting things, including the meaning of the phrase “tipping the velvet.” It means cunnilingus, going down on a woman, eating at the Y, any and all of those euphemisms. So the next time you want your lover to do some eating in, ask them if they want to “tip your velvet” and see what response you get.  🙂

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Being an oyster girl, Nan inspired me to make a tasty oyster dish. Yes, someone else did the hard work of shucking them. But I cooked them and wolfed them down. So good and definitely capable of making the passions rise. 🙂

INGREDIENTS
12 oysters, shucked, but with the shells kept nearby. Also keep the oyster liquor.
6 tablespoons softened butter
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon dried thyme
3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
Fresh chopped parsley

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F and line a baking tray with uncooked rice, to keep the oysters steady while baking.

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Arrange the oyster shells on the rice, and put each oyster back into its little shell. Add the finely minced garlic.

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Pour over the reserved liquor.

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Melt the butter, then add the breadcrumbs. Stir around until they are lightly brown.

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Add in a squeeze of lemon juice and the lemon zest, and stir again.

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Top each oyster with the lemony, buttery breadcrumbs and squeeze over more lemon juice.

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Bake for 10 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the breadcrumbs are a dark golden brown, remove from the oven.

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Arrange prettily on a platter and scatter over the chopped parsley. Eat while they’re still hot. They are so tasty and fresh, with that hint of salty sea brine and the sharpness of the parsley offsetting very nicely. YUM! And nary a tip of velvet in sight.

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