A Roman Tale by Carroll Baker

I don’t screw up in the kitchen much, so when I do, it’s usually in a spectacular fashion. Today was no different, and I think it must be the universe’s way of getting back at me for daring to read some total fluffy, smutty trash. But it’s set in Italy, I told myself as I opened the book and fell into the 1960’s world of Rome. Well, sometimes a girl just needs some smut in her life, and A Roman Tale delivers. But oh the kitchen fuck-up!

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Anyway, this book combines lots of sex, the film industry, Italy, and some not-so-cleverly hidden allusions to famous actors and actresses into a – heh heh heh – fantastical roman á clef. Get it? A Roman Tale? Roman á clef? Oh, never mind me and my bad pun. Another punishment for screwing up so royally in the kitchen.

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The main character, Madeline Mandell, who is supposed to be based both on the author and actress Carroll Baker and of course, the inimitable Marilyn Monroe, moves to 1960’s Rome – the “La Dolce Vita” years – after her Hollywood career tanks. She’s known as “Venus” due to her sexy image, though the reality is that she’s essentially frigid due to her jerk of a former husband. She hopes the move to Rome will both reignite her movie career and allow her all the sexual experimentation she missed out in in the United States.

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She is befriended by three international actresses – Astrid, Helga, and Cleo (who are supposedly based on Ursula Andress, Anita Ekberg, and Sophia Loren), and starts an Italian film. She is introduced to the debonair Umberto Cassini, who of course she becomes infatuated with and he with her. The parallels to Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita (and one of my top 5 favorite films of all time) are unmissable.

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But of course, nothing ever goes smoothly and the fly in the ointment is the British actress Serena Blair (likely based on Audrey Hepburn), who is pulling some machinations behind the scenes to get all four coveted roles in an upcoming major film, Boccaccio Volgare, that Madeline, Astrid, Helga, and Cleo are vying for.

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It’s pure fun and escapism, this book, adorned with descriptions of beautiful gowns, gorgeous mansions, significant amounts of wild sexual escapades including a group orgy, girl-on-girl, masturbation, a little back-door action and of course, the final lovemaking scene between Umberto and Madeline that (SPOILER ALERT!) literally ends with them living happily ever after when they are married. Other storylines are interspered as well, involving the many and varied sexual escapades of nearly every single character in the book, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that. I’d say it’s good clean fun, but it’s actually really trashy, not particularly well-written, extremely smutty, fun.

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Hey, a little smut never hurt anyone!

Rome, of course, is the star of the book and all the stunning landscapes of The Eternal City are described in mouthwatering detail…….La Bocca della Veritá, Piazza Navona, The Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Fontana di Trevi, Palatine Hill, and so much more. I think I stuck with the book mainly for the location descriptions, though the sex and the food helped whet my appetite. For cooking, of course! 🙂

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A subplot involves a young Italian starlet named Pina who seduces most of the men and infuriates most of the women at her extravagant wedding. Umberto squires Madeline and they share in the mammoth five-course feast, featuring several pastas and many other delectable-sounding dishes.

After the spaghetti alla primavera, there was tagliatelli with cream and peas, penne with cheese and asparagus, ravioli with cognac and truffles, and then the antipasto assortment. The main course was roast pork with kidneys, sausages, roast potatoes, and spinach puffs.

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Having decided this was a great excuse to play with the pasta maker attachment for the Kitchen Aid and make fresh homemade pasta from scratch, I decided to recreate the penne with asparagus mentioned as part of the wedding feast. It did not come out well, as I will detail below. And for the record, do not ever let anyone tell you making homemade pasta is easy, at least the first time around. It isn’t. Wear an apron because if not, you’ll have flour all over you. ALL OVER YOU. Also, it’s way messy. Like, use every pan and stirring implement and utensil in the kitchen messy. (This is the aftermath of my kitchen post-making fresh pasta.)

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INGREDIENTS

For the pasta:
3 eggs, cold
2 and 1/2 cups 00 flour
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the sauce:
1 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into roughly 1/2″ chunks
1 shallot
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
6-7 strips pancetta
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup water from the boiled pasta
Parmesan cheese to taste

METHOD
Measure out the flour onto a flat surface, and make a well in it.

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Crack in the eggs, and mix them into the flour using a fork.

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Once the eggs are incorporated, start kneading by hand. You may have to add some warm water if your dough mixture is too dry and crumbly.

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Roll and knead the dough until it coheres, then form it into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to an hour, if not longer.

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Put on a large pot of water to boil and add some sea salt. While the water is heating, chop the shallot and garlic and add to a pan with the olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

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Finely chop up the pancetta and add to the shallot and garlic, and fry until it starts to get crispy.

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Pour in the heavy cream and the wine, and bring to a very low simmer, then toss in the asparagus chunks.

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Cover and let cook slowly over low heat, and flour a flat surface. Unwrap the pasta dough and start rolling it out into a round disc shape.

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When it’s about a half-inch thick in diameter, cut into pieces, roll into small balls, and start feeding them into your pasta machine.

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I attempted penne. You can see that, in this case, concept far outweighed execution……other than my desire to execute myself over the travesty that was my homemade pasta. But at least my cute dog is in the pic, to distract you.

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Put the freshly cut pasta into the boiling water on the stove and cook. In theory, the pasta should cook within a couple of minutes. In reality, my pasta cooked and cooked and cooked and softened after maybe 10 hard minutes of boiling. I still can’t figure out what I did wrong, but luckily I’m a seasoned kitchen hack so I had a packet of ready-made fettuccine on hand.

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Add the fettuccine to the boiling water, and cook for 8 minutes until al dente. Add about half a cup of the pasta water to the asparagus sauce and let simmer a few more minutes.

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Grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Plate and serve. So although my penne was somewhat of a disaster, it actually tasted quite nice. The texture was quite thick, so I think I probably should have rolled it out thinner or perhaps refrigerated it longer. Regardless, I served my sad penne with the perfectly cooked fettuccine, swirled in the pan of creamy asparagus and pancetta.

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It might have looked somewhat frightful, but it actually was delicious. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was in Rome having smutty sex rather than eating what my friend Janet called “pasta and dumplings.” (sigh)

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Last Supper, that immortal painting by the equally immortal Leonardo da Vinci, always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella can be in the form of a soup, but is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. A traditional panzanella salad is delicious anytime of the year, and is also an excellent way to use up any bread or tomatoes you have lying around.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light lunch, but don’t forget the wine. Jesus would never forgive you, nor would Father Leyre.

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Sexy Sunday! Exit to Eden by Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS VERY EXPLICIT SEXUAL REFERENCES AND LANGUAGE! LUCKY YOU!

So Nicole at The Bookworm Drinketh and I are doin’ the sexy again…….no, not like that, you perverts! We’re revitalizing our blog collaboration Sexy Sunday, where we read a book notorious for its sex scenes, she blogs it in conjunction with a cocktail recipe, and I blog it in conjunction with a recipe. And yes, I know it’s Monday – I finished the blog and cooking yesterday so it still is technically a Sunday post…..I just don’t know how to schedule blog posts, apparently. 🙂 This is why I blog and cook and write, instead of work as an IT tech. Anyhoo………..

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By now, if you don’t know that Anne Rampling is actually Anne Rice, you must have been living under a rock. Anne Rampling is notorious for this steamy erotic novel that combines love with some very hot S&M sexual escapades. I think part of why I love this book so much, other than the fact that much of it is set in New Orleans (my favorite city in the world), is because the female protagonist is as open and shameless about her sexuality as is the male. She has fantasies, she has desires, and the beauty of it all is that her job is to indulge the sexual fantasies and desires of others, as well as herself. There’s no judgement, no shaming about female sexuality, and I just love that, particularly because when this book was written, in 1985, female sexuality was barely coming to forefront in literature. I mean, you had The Story of O, but beyond that, there was really nothing on this level of both sheer eroticism and erudite literary quality. Now, of course, you see books everywhere that purport to celebrate female sexuality – and I’m talking to you, Fifty Shades of Grey – but that in reality, are just badly written, purple-prose garbage. This book is the big, bad granddad of them all. Writers of erotica, take notice.

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The storyline is thus: Lisa runs a private resort island called The Club that caters to extremely wealthy  men and women who want to live out their most extreme and repressed sexual desires  revolving around sadism and masochism. Not to the point where anyone is really hurt, you understand, but gives people the opportunity to be sexual masters or sexual slaves as they so desire, indulging their wildest impulses with men, women, groups, etc. There are sports, activities, equipment, anything and everything that you’d find in a regular beach resort, except that this place is exclusively for fucking anyone you can get your hot little hands onto, in as many ways and within as many hot scenarios as possible.

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Elliott comes to The Club as a willing slave. He’s photojournalist who’s been through the wringer emotionally, having witnessed and photographed war, violence, torture, and abuse. The Club is essentially his way of dealing with all the violence he’s seen over the years, processing it all by giving himself a safe place in which to experience being out of control. If you think about it like that, acting out all your uncensored sexual fantasies in a completely safe and totally judgement-free environment, is a way better way to sublimate negative urges than drinking, drugs, or abusing yourself or others.

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Of course they fall in love, because that’s what’s at the heart of the book. They are both highly intelligent, literate, well-traveled, extremely sexual beings. And they have some pretty hot, wild, reverse-role sex on the island.

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“It’s worse than being whipped, isn’t it,” she purred, “being tortured with pleasure?”……. She’d picked up something from the dresser. It looked at first glance like a pair of flesh-colored, leather-clad horns. I opened my eyes to see it clearly. It was a dildo in the form of two penises joined at the base with a single scrotum, so damned lifelike the cocks seemed to be moving of their own volition as she squeezed the soft massive scrotum……It was marvelously well defined, both cocks oiled and gleaning, each with carefully delineated tips……”Ever been fucked by a woman, Elliott?” she whispered, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. Her face was moist, eyes large and glazed………She lowered the phallus and pushed one end of it up and into herself, her whole body moving in a graceful undulation to receive it, the other end curving outwards, and toward me just exactly as if she were a woman with an erect cock……..Then came that exquisite feeling of penetration, of being opened, that gorgeous violation as the oiled cock went in. Too gentle, too delicious, up to hilt, and then rocking back and forth, and a low buzzing pleasure coursing through all my limbs from that one heated little mouth. God, if she had only rammed it, made it a damned rape. No, she was fucking me…..she worked it like it was part of her, the soft rubber scrotum warm against me, just liker her hot naked belly and her hot little thighs. My legs had spread out. There was that overpowering sensation of being filled, being skewered, and yet that rich, exquisite friction. I hated her. And I was loving it…….She knew where she was driving it, rocking it. I was going to come, jerk right into the air.

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Whew! Let me fan myself a sec.

Then Lisa goes a little nuts and takes Elliott by private jet (and against Club regulations)  for a romp in New Orleans, where they proceed to have even more, hotter and intense sex, along with exploring the city and having adventures both in and out of the bedroom. Well, hell. Tons of sex. Hot main characters. Delicious food and my favorite city in the world. OF COURSE I love this book. In one of my favorite passages, Elliott takes Lisa to what I think is the best restaurant in New Orleans, the famous Pascal’s Manale on Napoleon Avenue, and they proceed to down platefuls of Manale’s amazing barbecue shrimp with bread and it sounds just delicious!

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And then came the barbecue shrimp, which was nothing short of fantastic, and she started in at once. I don’t think I could love a woman that couldn’t eat this barbecue shrimp. First of all the dish isn’t barbecued at all. It’s a mess of giant whole shrimp, with their heads on, baked in the oven in a deep dish of peppery marinade. They bring it to the table just like that and you tear off the heads of the shrimp and peel them and eat them with your fingers. It turns you into a gourmet, then a gourmand, then a barbarian. You can enjoy it white wine or red, it’s so peppery, but the best way is with beer………..

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Living in the Southwest, it’s difficult if not impossible to find Gulf Coast head-on shrimp, which form the basis of Manale’s shrimp dish. It’s the head that gives the dish so much extra flavor, with all that extra fatty tissue. But I did a bit of research and found this awesome version on the NPR website  which uses headless shrimp and offers added flavor variations to make up for the loss.

INGREDIENTS
1 pound headless raw, thawed shrimp, shell-on
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup Louisiana hot sauce – my twist
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil

METHOD

Wash and pat dry shrimp.

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Mix together all the dried spices with the garlic, the Lea and Perrins, and the Louisiana hot sauce in a large bowl.

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Pour the olive oil over the shrimp, and add the white wine.

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Add the oily, winy shrimp to the bowl of spices and stir to mix well.

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Add a large pat of butter to a hot skillet and dump the spice-flecked shrimp.

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Cook over high heat until the shrimp are pink and plump and finished. Don’t overcook the shrimp because they will become rubbery. And who the hell wants a rubbery shrimp?

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Serve the shrimp in a soup bowl. Eat with lots of napkins, some good hard-crusted bread for dipping up the delicious sauce, and either some cold white wine, room-temperature red wine, or an ice-cold beer. Hell, have all three! We’re not picky in this house.

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“Tell Me a Story” Podcast Interview about Food in Books

Hey, check out my interview with the wonderful Annette Rochelle Aben on her podcast!  Tell Me a Story

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The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre in the world, and anything set in my spirit country of Italy even more so. This marvelous book, The Chef’s Secret, not only meets both of those criteria, but it’s also about FOOD! And FORBIDDEN LOVE! and MYSTERY! And MORE FOOD! OK, I’ll calm down now, but you see why I am so excited about it. Aside from the fact that the author, the wonderful Crystal King, asked me to be part of the book’s publication by submitting a recipe for the companion e-cookbook, this book itself is so beautifully written, so full of familial and romantic and culinary love, that I, too, fell in love with it.

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Have you heard of Bartolomeo Scappi? Before Julia Child, before Jacques Pépin, before Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten and (my dearly departed future ex-husband) Anthony Bourdain, before the heyday of modern celebrity chefs, there was the immortal Scappi. He was personal chef to numerous cardinals and Pope Pius IV, was known to cook such exotic items as peacock, alligator and even fried chicken, and came to world fame when his meisterwork Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. Though little is known about his personal life, this book tells the fictionalized account of his life in Renaissance Italy. And what a life it was!

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Scappi has just died in the opening pages, and his nephew Giovanni is mourning him terribly. Giovanni is the son of Scappi’s sister, and has been apprenticed to learn everything there is to be learned from his culinary genius uncle, and in fact, Scappi leaves him the bulk of his fortune, estate, and his collection of recipes that are hotly pursued and contested by rival chefs of the time. Among the papers he leaves to Giovanni is one book he requests be destroyed without being read. Well, in what literary world do you think THAT is going to happen? Of course Giovanni reads it, finding that it is written in a secret code, and attempts to decipher the mystery at the heart of his uncle’s life – the identity of the woman for whom Scappi had a deep, beautiful, abiding and forbidden love, whom he called “Stella” to protect her identity, and that colors the rest of Scappi’s life, and affects Giovanni in unexpected ways.

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Of course, this book brims over with luscious food passages and descriptions of simple meals, feasts, instructions on various kitchen utensils and equipment, table setting suggestions, and my personal favorite – roses carved from radishes by Scappi to show his love for “Stella.” But my own inspiration for the recipe I am detailing below and that was part of the wonderful e-cookbook, actually came from the passage when Giovanni meets Doctor Boccia in the street after Scappi’s death, and Boccia affectionately calls him “polpetta,” his endearing nickname for Giovanni reminding them both how they met when Giovanni was a young chef’s apprentice making meatballs.

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I was also incredibly touched, perhaps because I lost my mother to cancer during the time I was reading the book and developing this recipe, when I read the moving journal passage by Scappi’s affectionate family nickname for Giovanni – “little onion, cipollino.” Both affectionate names for Giovanni showed how loved he was by these figures in his life, which is the heart of the book after all.

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In Italian, what I made could be called polpette di vitello con pinoli, e cipolla con una riduzione di aceto balsamico, which has a lovely and poetic ring to it, in my humble opinion. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s go make some meatballs and onions in a balsamic reduction!

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For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper
2 large eggs, room temperature

Heat the oven to 400F. In a dry, hot pan, toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown and give off a nutty scent. Don’t let them burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you mix the other ingredients.

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With your hands, mix together the beef and pork. Add in the garlic, the parsley and the sage, and mix again.

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Add in the 1/4 cup of Asiago cheese and the cooled pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

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Add the eggs, and mix together again with your hands.

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Form small balls and lay them on a parchment-covered baking tray. Bake for 25 minutes.

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For the cipolline onions:
12 cipolline onions
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Lower the oven temperature to 350F. Peel the onions, trim the stems, cut them in half, and rinse them. Pat dry.

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Finely mince the rosemary.

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Heat a cast iron pan over medium high heat and and add the butter, the onions and sprinkle over the rosemary. Cook for 5-7 minutes on the stove.

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Transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until they brown and soften.

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For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar. I used a Pinot Noir balsamic vinegar.
1 crushed clove of garlic

Pour balsamic vinegar into a metal saucepan, and add the crushed garlic clove.

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Boil on medium for roughly 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will reduce to a thick, syrupy glaze. Don’t leave it because the sugars in the balsamic vinegar can burn.

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Remove the garlic clove, and let cool slightly. Pour over the meatballs and cippoline onions. Eat immediately, with a glass of good red wine, and the spirit of Bartolomeo Scappi watching over you.

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Book Giveaway to Celebrate 500 Followers and Being Published in a Cookbook!

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Very excited to have reached 500+ followers this past Sunday! Thank you to everyone who reads my blog, follows it, and comments. Your support is truly appreciated, and I’m grateful every day that I’ve found this platform to share my writing, books I love, and food I enjoy cooking.

I’m also very excited to announce something I’ve had to keep under wraps for a couple of months. Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow, which I blogged about previously, has her second book out today, called The Chef’s Secret, and as part of the advance publicity for this new book, she published an e-cookbook made up of recipes from chefs around the world, and food bloggers, including yours truly! I am so honored and happy to have been asked to contribute a recipe based on the food in this amazing book!

To celebrate both this milestone for my blog, and for being part of the companion cookbook, which is available in e-format only, I am doing another book giveaway.  The winner of will not only get a hard copy of The Chef’s Secret, but will also receive an e-copy of the cookbook!

I will also randomly choose 10 of my longtime blog followers to receive an e-copy of the cookbook; and to top it off, the next 10 people to follow my blog will ALSO receive an e-copy of the cookbook! Just my way of saying thank you and showing my gratitude for everyone who supports Food in Books!

Thank you again for all your support since I started this blogging journey back in 2016. It’s opened me up to new literature, new foods and cooking methods, and most importantly, to all of you. I’m grateful for the support I’ve received from fellow bloggers, and for the new friends I’ve made along the way. Here’s to you all!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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Happy holidays from Food in Books!

I want to wish everyone a happy, safe and healthy holiday season, with lots of love, good books and great food!