Food in Films – My Big Fat Greek Wedding

I haven’t felt much like posting over the past few weeks. The ongoing coronavirus situation continues to scare me, even though I am doing all the recommended things the CDC has instructed: social distancing, frequently washing my hands, covering my cough, cleaning and disinfecting frequently-used items and surfaces, checking on elderly neighbors, and trying not to panic but instead be prepared. I have limited my reading of the news to the simple facts of new cases, what to expect from our Governor in terms of closures and service limitations, and I am cooking like a madwoman to feed my elderly neighbor who is blind, my grandmother who is 95 and in fragile health, and other family members who are also self-quarantined…..and to keep myself calm. I am also watching quite a lot of Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in fact, last night decided to rewatch a film I hadn’t seen in years and didn’t find terribly funny at the time – My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

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Well, hell. It’s hilarious! I don’t know what was wrong with me when I first saw it but on second viewing I literally snarfed wine as I watched the shenanigans of her loud, obnoxious, and loving Greek family. If you haven’t seen the film, the basic premise is this: Toula Portokalos is a frumpy, 30-year old woman living at home with her very traditional Greek family. Her father, Gus, is uber-proud of their Greek heritage, having their house painted in the blue-and-white colors of the Greek flag. He and his wife Maria own the Greek restaurant Dancing Zorba’s, where Toula works as a waitress. One day, she sees Ian Miller and falls for him, though she is so socially awkward that her attempts to talk to him fall somewhat flat. She soon starts to stretch her wings by taking computer classes, which in turn help her confidence to the point where she gets a haircut and a makeover, buys new clothes, and convinces her father to have her work at her Aunt Voula’s travel agency. She meets Ian again, they fall in love and he proposes. But…….no one in her Greek family has ever married a non-Greek, so bringing this outsider into the family has some complications.

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The fact that Gus goes around with a bottle of Windex claiming it as a cure-all for any and all health issues took me back to my great-grandfather Reymundo who fixed anything and everything with duct tape and baling wire, and my great-grandmother Antonia who sprinkled holy water on everything as her own cure-all. The scene where Toula’s brother and cousins keep teaching Ian inappropriate phrases in Greek knowing he doesn’t understand brought back memories of my own male cousins totally messing with one of my female cousins’s future husband. Aunt Voula’s horror at finding out Ian is a vegetarian brought back memories of me introducing a college friend (and vegan) to my grandmother and her offering him beans and chile – that were cooked with pork. 🙂

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I suppose part of the humor of this film is the familiarity. So many of us come from large, loud, “ethnic” (for lack of a better way to put it) families that are like this. My own paternal side of the family lived in what we call the “compound,” with three family houses next to one another on the same three family-owned acres and as kids, we’d run between all three, visiting our great-grandparents, our aunt and uncle and then back to our grandparent’s house. The familiarity of how the Portokalos family is portrayed was as comforting as it was funny, which is what we all need in this very nerve-wracking time. Comfort and humor go a long way toward calming and settling the soul.

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Possibly the funniest moment in a movie filled with laugh-out-loud moments is when Ian’s very reserved, Caucasian parents come to meet Toula’s parents – and the rest of their enormous Greek family – after the engagement, and Ian’s mother brings a Bundt cake. Maria and Gus have never seen a Bundt cake before, and the ensuing language culture clash is beyond funny!

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So of course I had to make a Bun-Bo-Bunk-Bonk-Bundt cake! I have my grandmother’s Bundt cake pan that she used to make all of our birthday cakes every year, and my favorite being her traditional rum cake with pecans and a sugar glaze, I decided to recreate that. DISCLAIMER: I am not one to EVER use a cake mix from a box, but in the spirit of tradition and comfort, I followed my Nana Jean’s recipe to the letter and it involved a yellow cake mix. (sigh) Don’t judge me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 box of yellow cake mix
1 packet vanilla instant pudding mix
4 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1 cup golden rum
1 generous cup chopped pecans

For the sugar glaze:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup golden rum

METHOD
Heat the oven to 325F and spray your Bundt cake pan with baking spray.

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In a large mixing bowl, combine the cake mix, the pudding mix, the eggs, the oil, the rum, and the nuts.

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Pour into the Bundt pan and bake for an hour.

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Let the cake cool while you make the glaze. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add in the water and sugar, stirring constantly. Don’t leave it as the sugar burns very easily. Boil for about 5 minutes, stirring all the while, until it thickens, then add the rum.

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Drizzle over the Bundt cake.

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If you so happen to have one, garnish with a lovely potful of flowers! Just like Mama Maria!

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The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of the most verbose and least credible narrators I’ve come across in recent literature, the hero of The Debt to Pleasure, one Tarquin Winot, is a total and complete food snob. He opens the book with the line “This is not a conventional cookbook,” and no, it most certainly is not. Just as Tarquin himself is not a conventional foodie, though he is  highly intelligent, erudite and a horrible egomaniac. Here’s one of my favorite of his lines that tells you who you’re dealing with: “I myself have always disliked being called a ‘genius’. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.”

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Reading this book was a bit of a slog for me, though I enjoyed it thoroughly, because of the sheer amount of long, run on sentences and wordiness of each chapter. The book is broken into seasonal chapters, opening with Tarquin giving a few suggested menus for Spring, Winter, Summer and Fall…..though not in that order. I was put in mind of Nigella Lawson’s first book How To Eat, where she talks about the concepts of French cooking and how they informed modern British palates and food. Tarquin is an Englishman currently living in France, and as the story gradually unfolds, you start to see the dark and sinister undertone to his words. Little by little, you realize exactly who he is and what he has done. It’s a lovely slow burn.

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He is a food philosopher, beyond anything else. When talking about seasonal food and what is appropriate for spring, he waxes philosophical on the theme of lamb and how it ties in with the concepts of rebirth, sacrifice and why it’s eaten both in the springtime and around Easter. This is not new for any foodie or student of history, but his greatly entertaining way of expressing himself makes reading about the blood of the lamb so very unique.

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He waxes rhapsodically about the delights of food in such a delicious, mouthwatering way that you can’t help but feel your tummy growl in response. He is also the biggest prick when it comes to everything and anything else, as evidenced by this zinger: “I could forgive her many things, but his Welshness is hard to bear.” Ouch! Also, hilarious! But it was this passage that enticed me into making a delectable chicken dish that I got from Nigella herself, coming directly after his musings about lamb in springtime and how certain culinary constructs lend themselves very well to certain and specific food pairings:

“These combinations have a quality of a logical discovery: bacon and eggs, rice and soy sauce, Sauternes and foie gras, white truffles and pasta, steak-frites, strawberries and cream, lamb and garlic, Armagnac and prunes, port and Stilton, fish soup and rouille, chicken and wild mushrooms; to the committed explorer of the senses, the first experience of any of them will have an impact comparable to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet.”

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INGREDIENTS
12 organic chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
2 large lemons
1 large head of garlic
1 cup white wine (I used chardonnay)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dried thyme
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Sea salt and cracked black pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and lay the room-temperature chicken pieces into a large baking tray. I got to use one of my Christmas gifts for this dish – my gorgeous stainless steel Le Creuset roasting pan!

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Quarter the two lemons and tuck them in and around the chicken pieces.

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Break the garlic cloves from the head – leaving them unpeeled – and dot them around the chicken and lemon chunks.

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Pour the white wine and then the olive oil over the chicken, lemon and garlic pieces, and sprinkle over the dried thyme.

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Season generously with salt and pepper, and dot the fresh thyme sprigs around the pan. Cover with foil, and roast for two hours at 375F.

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At the 2-hour mark, turn the oven up to 450F and take the foil off the chicken. Roast another 30-45 minutes, until the chicken skin gets crispy and bronze and the garlic and lemon are steaming and caramelized. Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and ponder the philosophy of food.

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House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Fairy tales are probably my favorite genre of book in the world, though like all my other favorites, I am very picky about which ones I read. The prose has to be quality and the elements of each individual story must be present, though I love it when they are presented in a new and different way, or with a twist. And my favorite fairy tale of all time has to be the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I mean, how can it get any better than 12 daughters of a king who, every night, dance through their expensive shoes and refuse to explain how, an errant knight who finds a way to become invisible, and a magical world of golden trees, diamond branches and a ballroom both magical and terrifying? So when I was recently listening to the podcast Books in the Freezer (also, how can you not love that name and the Friends reference) and they mentioned the book House of Salt and Sorrows as being part of the horror-fairy tale genre and as a retelling of my favorite fairy tale, hell yeah I immediately ordered it from Amazon!

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I actually have a very old fairy tale book of the story itself, kept from childhood when I purloined it from my school library. I know, I know, that’s a lousy thing to do but in my defense……..well, I have none. But I have the book over 30 years later and I still swoon over the gorgeous illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Feel free to judge me for being a library book thief. But just feast your eyes on these stunning images from my childhood book!

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In a nutshell, this book is told from the viewpoint of Annaleigh, one of 12 daughters of Duke Thaumas. Four of his daughters have already died under horrible – and mysterious – circumstances, and Annaleigh starts to suspect there is more to their deaths than meets the eye. The kingdom and universe created in this book are marvelous, and perhaps one of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the strong use of ocean symbolism and metaphor. There is an entire mythology of gods that rule over the world, and Annaleigh’s people are called People of the Salt and the sea, and everything related to it, including salt, are intensely tied into their lives.

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The elements of the shoes are one of the major plot points, as well they should be. The enchanted forests of gold, silver and diamonds are also part of the tale, as is the knight who helps discover the mystery behind the shoes and the subsequent enchantment over the daughters of the Duke. There is also, as there should be in any fairy tale story, a stepmother whose intentions are seemingly innocent, and although I did figure out her role in the entire mystery about halfway (as will any discerning reader), there is a little unexpected twist at the end that I appreciated.

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Probably the most fascinating aspect of the universe created in this book is how it mirrors so much of ancient Greece and Judeo-Christianity in terms of gods, religion, rites and superstitions. The role of the priest, when burying the dead, is called the High Mariner. Bodies are not buried underground, but instead, put in wooden coffins in a cave where the sea will take the body back…….just like ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or in this case, from salt you came and to salt you will return. The god who rules over the sea is called Pontus and is visualized as a giant octopus. Water imagery is everywhere in book, images of fish and mermaids and seahorses and octopi and every ocean-living creature you can think of.

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The enchantment of the 12 daughters of the Duke results in some truly creepy results. The ghosts of the four previously dead daughters start to be seen around the castle, and they are not the restful souls you might expect. Even I, a horror aficionado, was skeezed out a bit by the description of these wraiths. Annaleigh resists the longest as she continues to investigate her sisters’ deaths and as a result, is haunted by horrific visions of being drowned by a vast sea monster. In fact, though this is not what you’d expect as a food-inspired moment, it actually did inspire me but then, I’m a black-hearted bitch sometimes and the scary stuff often inspires me. As it did here.

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I tried to scream for Camille but was suddenly yanked under by an unseen force. The dark water raced into my mouth, filling it with a brackish bite as I sputtered out a cry for help. I pushed upward, gagging on the fishy tang. It was a surprisingly familiar taste. One of Cook’s favorite dishes to make in the summer months was a black risotto, full of clams, shallots and prawns. The rice was an exotic obsidian, dyed with squid ink.

Yes, I was inspired to make squid-ink risotto with seafood by a passage where a young woman is nearly drowned. I’m evil like that.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups seafood stock
2 cups clam juice
1 cup Pernod (you could use white wine but Pernod adds a delicious aniseed note that goes well with seafood)
2 squid ink packets
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 shallot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 can cooked clams

METHOD
In a medium sauce pan, combine the seafood stock, the clam juice and the Pernod, and bring to a low boil.

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Squeeze one packet of the squid ink into the hot liquid to dissolve, until the stock is as black as your heart. Leave to simmer on very low heat.

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In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt, and saute until soft, about three minutes.

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Add in the rice and stir, toasting it for about 2-3 minutes. This step is called la tostatura and is meant to toast the rice and give it a bit more flavor.

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One ladleful at a time, gradually add the hot, jet-black seafood broth into the rice, and stir with a wooden spoon until each ladleful of liquid is absorbed. Stir continually to allow the rice to absorb the broth. You cannot do this quickly, people. The idea is that slow incorporation of the liquid results in a lovely, creamy rice texture that is what makes risotto. Expect to stand and stir for about 30 minutes. It’s very Zen, actually.

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While you are stirring, heat the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil in a grill pan and when hot, grill the clams just a minute, then grill the shrimp until pink.

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Taste your risotto for texture and seasoning. You want it al dente – creamy but with a bit of a bite.

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Season with salt and pepper as needed and plate, first with a layer of black rice and then with the clams and shrimp. The taste of the blackest ocean is so salty and delicious on the tongue that you could drown in it.

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Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

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I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

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Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

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“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

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Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter
Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

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In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

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Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

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For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
1/2 pint of whole milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

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In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

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Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

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Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

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Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David Martín, and Fermín Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile Fermín and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including Martín, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I suppose this book would fall under the category “chick-lit” which I generally loathe. However, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary years ago and remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and the film version with Renee Zellwegger, was similarly hilarious and heart-felt. It’s still as funny today and I found myself snickering yet again as I reread it last week. I suppose many of us who were singletons in our mid-30s could definitely relate to many of the themes in this book – wanting to find a relationship, parental issues, being stuck between two different lovers, trying to find the right job – but for me, the underlying theme that stood out to me then and now was the concept of loving yourself and finding someone who was going to love you just as you were, warts and imperfections and cellulite and all.

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We live in a society that idolizes appearance. We all want to look our best. These two elements combined have created a sense that if we don’t look homogenized, have long straight hair, have the perfect relationship, or be a size 6, that we are not worthy, not valuable, not lovable, not NORMAL. I think why this book resonates is because it shows that when you do kill yourself to look/be “normal” or all those catchphrases that society tells us we must adhere to, oftentimes we end up looking worse, feeling worse, not being true to ourselves. When we accept our faults and our quirky unique weirdness is when we are our true selves and when we are able and open to loving ourselves.

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The book, in a nutshell, is the adventures of Bridget Jones, 30-something, still single, and her quest for the perfect job, perfect weight, and perfect man. What makes it so hilariously funny is that she is about as far from perfect as you can get – in other words, she is just like us. She is funny as fuck, totally relateable as she goes from one disaster to another, constantly trying to stop smoking, quit drinking, drop pounds, etc.

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The film version is excellent, too, and actually I prefer her mother in the movie. Bridget’s mom in the book is a horrendous human being. She isn’t even funny. In the film, Gemma Jones plays her with a ditzy sympathetic self-centeredness, but the book Mrs. Jones is just a selfish, self-centered nightmare who really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. She was quite an unpleasant character. Other than that, the book was most amusing.

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So of course Bridget is a walking disaster in the kitchen, which lends itself to possibly the funniest scene in the book, when she decides to cook herself and her friends a lovely birthday dinner. Of course, being Bridget Jones, it gets completely fucked up, and made even more hilarious by the fact that Mark Darcy shows up at her house as she is attempting her culinary masterpiece.

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7 p.m. Just got home. Right. Calm, calm. Inner poise. Soup will be absolutely fine. Will simply cook and purée vegetables as instructed and then – to give concentration of flavor – rinse blue jelly off chicken carcasses and boil them up with cream in the soup.

8:30 p.m. All going marvelously. Guests are all in living room. Mark Darcy is being v. nice and brought champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Have not done main course yet apart from fondant potatoes but sure will be v. quick. Anyway, soup is first.

8:35 p.m. Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.
….
Horror-struck, took mouthful myself. It was, as he said marmalade. Realize after all effort and expense have served my guests:
Blue soup
Omelette
Marmalade

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Now, making an actual blue soup would be totally fun but I can’t imagine it would taste very good. So I decided to go another route and incorporate blue cheese into a spinach soup, and it was a most inspired decision, if I do say so myself.

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INGREDIENTS
5 ounces fresh baby spinach, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup half and half (or full-fat milk)
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
1-2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blue cheese crumbles

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the flour to brown it, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn.

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Add the milk and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. You don’t want lumps so stirring continually is a good thing, and better yet, if you do it with a glass of wine in hand, you’ll feel confident and competent in the kitchen, just like Bridget Jones!

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Add the spinach, garlic cloves and salt and pepper, and stir.

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Add in the chicken broth, the chicken bouillon paste and the white wine, cover, and let simmer about 25-30 minutes.

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Tumble in the blue cheese crumbles and let melt into the hot soup.

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Decant into bowls and serve with more wine, in true Bridget Jones fashion. So good, rich and warming and decadent. Yum!

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I thought it would be fun to blog about books I loved as a kid that also scared the crap out of me. I clean out books on a fairly regular basis because I buy so many of them, and I donate many to Little Free Libraries around my city. So while cleaning out my books the other day, I came across a stack of children’s and young adult books I’d kept for years and had some pleasant nostalgia when I saw The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. It features the character Johnny Dixon, a young boy who lives with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. He’s a bookworm, kind of nerdy, loves to read and loves radio drama, and loves chocolate. Well, we can all relate to that!

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Johnny is befriended by Professor Roderick Childermass, who is a hilarious character. He reenacts famous sea battles with plastic ships in his bathroom, is a professor of history who is extremely opinionated, plays chess like a wizard, and makes a mean chocolate cake. Naturally, he and Johnny become pals, which is fortunate because when Johnny discovers a mysterious book and a blue figurine in the cellar of his church that once belonged to the evil priest Father Remigius Baart, the curse comes back to haunt Johnny. A blue ushabti figurine – ushabti are small figures found in ancient Egyptian tombs with mummies usually representing servants expected to do certain agricultural labors required of the deceased in the land of the dead – contains the actual curse and when Johnny takes both the book and the figurine, all hell breaks loose.

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An example of ushabti figurines.

My edition also features the unique artwork of Edward Gorey, who I absolutely adore! Anyway, this book was a wonderful nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to the days when I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight after my mom and stepdad had gone to bed and I was supposed to be asleep. I think I always particularly loved the friendship between Johnny and Professor Childermass, because I always was in search of an adult who would treat me as a peer and not a a kid, and these two definitely bond as friends over chess and chocolate. This is one of my favorite passages:

Johnny excused himself and went across the street. He had a great time that evening. The professor was a crafty and merciless chess player. He was every bit as good as Johnny was, and maybe even a bit better. As for the cake….well, Johnny had theories about chocolate cake. He felt that the cake part of the cake was just an interruption between the layers of frosting. As it turned out, the professor’s opinions about cake were similar to Johnny’s. The cake he served had three or four thin layers and the rest was a huge amount of good, dark, thick, fudgy frosting. And he served second helpings, too.

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In honor my sister’s birthday, I tried my hand at a four-tier, old-fashioned chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with focus on the ganache frosting. I decorated it for Halloween, in honor of this high holy season of horror!

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INGREDIENTS FOR THE GANACHE FROSTING
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups dark chocolate chips, 70% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto

METHOD
Make your cake tiers with whatever chocolate cake recipe you have to hand. Make sure they are completely cool before frosting them.

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In a metal saucepan, heat the heavy cream until small bubbles just start to form around the sides and you see steam rising. Don’t overheat the cream or it will curdle. Turn off the heat immediately.

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Pour in the chocolate chips and make sure they are covered by the hot cream. Add the almond extract, the vanilla extract and the Amaretto. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Remove the lid, and whisk the mixture for 5 minutes. You’ll see the chocolate ganache start to amalgamate as you continue to stir, thickening into a luscious frosting.

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One layer at a time, frost the top of each cake layer and stack them on a cake stand, until you have this magnificent layer cake. Proceed to frost the cake top and sides.

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Decorate however you want. I tried to find little blue mummies but could not, so I just went full on Halloween instead. The result? Cute, kitschy, and ultimately delicious!

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Just look at those fudgy layers! Johnny Dixon would be proud!

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