Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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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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The Waiting Room by F.G. Cottam

F.G. Cottam is my new favorite author of horror, supernatural and paranormal fiction. He’s published several works, and I’d previously blogged The House of Lost Souls, which was the first book I read by him and the one that hooked me into his elegant, spare and eerie style of writing. The Waiting Room is a unique and creepy ghost story that incorporates elements of time travel, though not in a sci-fi way.

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The main character of Martin Stride reminded me a bit of Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, just in appearance and description. He’s been seeing and hearing ghostly apparitions on his large estate, his kids are having terrifying visions and dreams, and he consults TV ghost hunter Julian Creed for assistance, which is where the book starts. Creed is, of course, a total charlatan though a very good one, but when he actually experiences the terrifying haunting for himself, his entire perspective shifts.

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Elena is Julian’s assistant, and I loved her character. I think one of the main reasons I like Cottam’s books overall is because he writes so eloquently in the voice of his female characters and they are multilayered and intelligent. Sometimes, male authors try to write in the female voice and it can be jarring and usually irritating to me, but Cottam’s characterization of Elena and of Martin Stride’s wife Monica are incredibly well-done. Elena and Julian had previously been romantically and sexually involved, and though you don’t get the details, you know something bad happened that caused a personal, though not professional, rift. How they find their way back to each other is both romantic, sad, and plays a pivotal role in the book’s unusual but sad and uplifting ending, if that makes any sense.

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The haunting itself is fascinating, caused by the grieving parents of a wealthy WWI veteran who died. His parents are into the paranormal and decide to try some necromancy to bring him back. Big, big mistake. Big. Huge. If you’ve ever read the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which is one of the only stories that truly frightened me so badly that I had to sleep with the lights on, you’ll get an idea of why this is so not what to do with the dead.

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In an early sequence when Martin first encounters the haunting, he is out on his estate picking up apples from where they’ve fallen on the ground, bringing them home to his wife as she is baking pies. His estate contains an old, unused rail line and a dilapidated train station waiting room from the first World War, and it’s here that the specter appears.

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The waiting room lay to the east of the house, to its rear. One evening about a fortnight prior to seeking his meeting with Creed, Stride had been gathering windfalls in the orchard, which was situated a few hundred yards on from the kitchen garden. The orchard was small and ancient and the apples of a unique variety. They were good to the taste, but tart enough for baking, too.

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I had several apples gathered from friends’ trees and decided that it was time for me to tackle that old classic, apple pie. So here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts. Pre-bake one of the crusts and keep the other cold until ready to bake. You’ll see why below.
6 apples of any variety. I used 3 tart Granny Smith, 3 red and 1 Golden Delicious
1/2 cup of lemon juice
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 egg

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Peel, core and slice the apples.

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Put in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar, stir to mix and leave to macerate for up to 30 minutes.

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Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and pour in the apple mixture. Cook for 10-12 minutes until the fruit softens.

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Add the flour, the salt, the vanilla and nutmeg, stir, then cook gently for a few minutes until it forms a thick, caramely sauce.

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Pour the mixture into one of the empty pie shells.

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I’ve said before that no one is ever going to ask me to quit my day job to decorate cakes and pies, and they are right. I couldn’t work with the second, cold pie crust as it started breaking, so I got fancy and cut out heart-shaped dough pieces to cover the top of the pie. You can see how well it worked………not.

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Whisk the egg with a bit of water, and brush the egg wash over the top of the pie crust hearts.

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Bake for 45 minutes.

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Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or alone. Very tasty!

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Sexy Sunday! Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

WARNING! Today’s post contains explicit sexual language and profanity. Isn’t that awesome?

Today marks the first collaboration I’ve done with a fellow blogger, and I can’t tell you how simultaneously excited and amused I am to be doing this. The genesis of Sexy Sunday came from a post that Nicole at The Bookworm Drinketh (and my blogging soul sister) when we got to talking on a blog comment thread and had the idea of doing something together. She’d blogged one of those wanna-be sequels to Pride and Prejudice, and I made a snarky comment about chick-lit and how the only sequel to Pride and Prejudice that I’d ever been able to stomach had sex -and I mean, LOTS – of sex, which was the only redeeming quality in said book. One thing led to another and we decided to collaborate on a monthly post titled “Sexy Sunday,”  in which we’d read a book infamous for its sex scenes; I would do a foodie post based on the book and she’d do a cocktail post based on the same book. And here we are.

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Nicole and I will be doing a Sexy Sunday collaboration the first Sunday of each month on a book that features some truly hot, bizarre, insane or downright weird sex…….so please, do join us in our monthly deviance 🙂 And once you’re done reading and commenting on today’s perverted post, head over to Nicole’s website and read her post on this book.

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So, Portnoy’s Complaint. I am no prude.  Ask any of my ex-boyfriends…..or actually, maybe you shouldn’t. OK, this book, as funny as it is in many parts, is just gross. I’m sure it has all this deep cultural, philosophical and psychological meaning. However, being that the main character Alexander Portnoy, though a grown man of 33, is also dealing with memories of his very Jewish-on-the-East-Coast teen years, in which he literally wanted to fuck every single thing in the world, it’s essentially well-written smut.

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Seriously. There’s a lot of mom/castration guilt referred to in this book as he does this massive information dump to his therapist (and really, can you get more East Coast Jewish than dumping all your twisted teenage masturbation sex fantasies to a shrink?) so you could argue that it’s uber-Freudian on one level. Personally, I see it as a grown man’s never-ending whine about how he wasn’t suckled enough as a baby and has turned this oral fixation outward and becomes – inwardly – a raging sex maniac. In short, it’s EVERY TEENAGE BOY’S STORY. I do wonder how this book was lionized by so many when I personally didn’t find it all that great, but perhaps if the majority of people who reviewed it were themselves men reliving their horny youth, it makes a twisted kind of sense.

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Roth died this past May, and though eulogized as the last of the great white literary lions along with Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, I think he – and yes, I’m going there – blew his literary wad with this book. However, I don’t like misogynists and the one thing that stands out in this book and his other works is his deep and abiding contempt for women, even as much as he sexually desires them. Well, many men see women like that, and it’s understandable if you’re looking at things from a Freudian viewpoint. That being said, it’s also incredibly self-indulgent as an adult to blame every single woman who comes through your life for the actions of one, whether it’s blaming women for how your mother treated you as a child; or making post-marital relationships pay the price for what one horrible ex-wife did while you were married. (And yes, RP, I’m talking to you.)

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As Woody Allen once proclaimed, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” (Another East Coast Jewish male….coincidence? I think not.)  Anyway, in addition to the massive amounts of masturbation, self-love, onanism, jerking off, spanking the monkey and all the other euphemisms for getting oneself off,  there are also some interesting mentions of food in conjunction with Portnoy’s fetishes. Warning: this passage is quite explicit.

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At the Saturday afternoon movie I would leave my friends to go off to the candy machine – and wind up in a distant balcony seat, squirting my seed into the empty wrapper from a Mounds bar. On an outing of our family association, I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment…….what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. “Oh shove it in me, Big Boy,” cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. “Big Boy, Big boy, oh give me all you’ve got,” begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden………”Come, Big Boy, come,” screamed the maddened piece of liver that…….I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and……….violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

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See? I told you. Anyway, don’t you just crave some type of apple dessert after reading that passage? Me, too! Portnoy’s mother, in addition to her many other quirks, is constantly referred to as an amazing cook, baking a cake that tastes like a banana, so here goes with my foodie take, an apple and banana cake. I left off the cream frosting, though, as I’m sure you can understand why.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 large apples, any type. I chose a Gala, a Red Delicious, and a Granny Smith.
3 large, ripe bananas, mashed
1 stick butter or 8 tablespoons or 1/2 cup, melted
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans

METHOD
Peel two of the apples, core all three of them, and chop them. I left the Gala unpeeled, to have those pretty red bits peeking out.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda in a large bowl.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, gently mix together the vanilla, the eggs and egg yolk, and add the melted butter.

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Fold in the chopped apples and mashed bananas.

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One spoonful at a time, add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix together, using the paddle attachment, then add the pecans and mix again.

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Spray a 9 x 13 springform pan with baking spray and use a pan liner if you have one.  Pour in the batter and bake for 60-65 minutes. It’s a moist cake, so bake a bit longer to ensure the center is cooked completely through. The ol’ toothpick test works well here.

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Let cool.  My cake, unfortunately, did not cook completely through the center, so I had to cut out a large circular chunk, and being the creative person I am, I filled in the space with fresh raspberries. As I’ve said before, no one is ever going to suggest I quit my day job and decorate cakes full time. And I am ok with that. Serve plain, or if you must have cream with your apples a la Alexander Portnoy, go full-on phallic and spray some Redi-Whip on top. Go on, big boy!

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Beauty by Robin McKinley

As I’ve shared before, I am a sucker for fairy tales. Whether it’s the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, or Robin McKinley, the tales of kings, queens, princesses, trolls, talking animals, enchanted castles, and beasts have fascinated me since I was a little girl. But of all my favorites, the timeless story of Beauty and the Beast captured my imagination and still fascinates me this day.

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I mean, how much more profound can you get than a story about seeing past someone’s facade to their true heart and soul, and true love showing you the beauty inherent inside us all? I think in our looks-obsessed world, this story is even more timely than ever before. We live in a world where we swipe right if someone’s appearance doesn’t immediately grab us, we open up our hearts and share deep, poignant things about ourselves via IM with virtual strangers whose looks we like but whom we really know nothing about, and we mistake beauty and fame for personality, accomplishment, and intelligence. And I think as a society, we are more lonely than ever before because we judge so many things by how they look and not how they really are.

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The story of Beauty is retold in this marvelous book by Robin McKinley, and takes many of the traditional tropes and turns them upside down. Yes, there are three sisters but they all love one another. Beauty herself is considered plain compared to her two stunning sisters Grace and Hope; and when she goes to live with the Beast, she is nervous that he won’t be pleased with her appearance – a nice little twist as the Beast himself is at first very frightening. The enchanted rose, of course, makes its appearance in various ways, my favorite being that when its petals start to fall, they turn to gold and clink when hitting the floor or table. I love that!

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The illustration above is from my most treasured childhood book “Beauty and the Beast” illustrated by the amazing Mercer Mayer, which is also featured in the first photo. The illustrations are beyond gorgeous, rich, sumptuous, full of color and life.

Overall, the tale is the same – Beauty’s father loses his money, the family must move to the country, he encounters the Beast when returning home after hearing his fortune might be restored and takes a red rose from the Beast’s garden for Beauty, and Beauty goes to live with the Beast to appease  him. The Beast is, of course, under an enchantment, though in McKinley’s retelling, it’s not because he was an arrogant, vain, wealthy prince who refused to help others, but instead, he is under a sort of family curse.

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I like this version because Beauty is a total nerd bookworm who prefers the company of her armchair, a mug of hot chocolate and a book to any kind of company or society. That is so me! And when she goes to live with the Beast, he showers her with gorgeous clothes, beautiful shoes, jewels of all kinds, an enchanted stable for her beloved horse Greatheart, and food that would boggle the mind.

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That wonderful table would never have offered me the same dish twice; but while I reveled in the variety, I also sometimes demanded a repetition. There was a dark treacly spice cake that I liked very much, and asked for several times. Sometimes it burst into being like a small exploding star, several feed above my head, and settled magnificently to my plate; sometimes a small silver tray with a leg at each of five or six corners would leap up and hurry towards me from a point far down the table.

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Being a foodie, I of course loved the descriptions of the feasts, and though there was not a lot of specific food description, the passage above where Beauty talks about her favorite spice cake that the Beast’s invisible servants make her, was so charming and sounded so yum that I was inspired to make my own version – a cinnamon almond cake! Inspired by Nigella Lawson’s gluten-free clementine cake made with ground almonds instead of flour, this is my own spicy version.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup almond flour
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons almond extract

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and melt the butter in the microwave.

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Mix together the ground almonds, almond flour, sugar, ground cinnamon and baking powder in a bowl.

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Crack the eggs into the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and mix slowly together.

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Add the melted butter, the vanilla and almond almond extract and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, add the almond flour and cinnamon mixture to the eggs and butter and mix at medium speed until you have a dark reddish-brown batter with bits of almond peeking out.

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Pour into a buttered and lined cake pan and bake for 40 minutes, checking at the half-hour mark to make sure it hasn’t burned. The toothpick trick will let you know when it’s done.

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Allow to cool before serving, and enjoy with morning coffee or tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. Either works with this spicy, delicious cake. The almonds keep it light and give it a wonderful flavor, and it is super moist, gluten-free and would also be good with whipped cream on top. Tasty enough to melt the heart of the most hardened Beast.

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The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy Reichert

I fully admit that this would never have been a book I’d deliberately choose to read, falling as it does into my category of chick lit. And we all know how I feel about chick lit. However, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake (what a twee title!) was actually fairly decently written, though with a fair amount of purple prose that made me cringe. Think Harlequin Romance meets Epicurious.

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I will come clean and admit that I only found this book because I was actually searching online for recipes for homemade coconut cake as a thank-you for a friend who recently house-sat and dog-sat for me when I was out of town. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I’d never made coconut cake, or even had it in real life, truth be told, so I didn’t know what all was involved. This title popped up on one of the Google searches and it seemed like the perfect way to combine a new cooking experiment with a book blog post.

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Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it’s the story of a young restaurant owner, Lou, a/k/a/ Elizabeth, who superficially has the perfect life. Her restaurant is doing well and looks about to take off into the stratosphere; her fiance is wonderful and supportive and loving, etc. Except her fiance is a cheating jerk, and on the night she finally finds this out, she is so devastated that it shows at the restaurant. The food is bad, the environment unwelcoming……and a famous restaurant critic known for his vicious reviews writes one so negative that it cuts off her restaurant’s ascent at the knees.

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Depressed after the review comes out, she finds herself getting hammered in a local bar and meets Al, an Englishman and frustrated writer who, unknown to Al, supports himself by writing restaurant reviews under an assumed name while waiting for his big writing break. I’m sure you can guess who the reviewer is who skewered Al’s restaurant. So, while his career starts to skyrocket, hers starts to plummet, yet they have forged a romantic connection, and not realizing who the other one is, start exploring the international festivals and varied restaurants of Milwaukee.

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I’d call this book fluffy, both because overall it’s a light read with a predictable ending – she finds out who he is and has to decide if she’ll give him another chance, blah blah blah. But fluffy also in homage of the delicious fluffy coconut cake recipe that ties up all the loose ends, finishes the book, and which is today’s food and books blog post.

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Well, obviously it had to be a coconut cake! What did you think it was going to be, a beer-butt chicken? Yes, it’s set in Milwaukee but they do have other things besides beer. So I’ve heard.  🙂 Anyway, I used the recipe at the end of the book, with my own flavoring tweak of adding rum, because there is nothing that can’t be made better in life with the addition of booze. (Anthony Bourdain knew this. God, I hope he’s having a boozefest up in Heaven right now.)

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake:
5 egg whites, room temperature
1 whole egg, room temperature
3/4 cup cream of coconut
1/4 cup coconut milk (shake the can well to mix it up)
1 teaspoon rum
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces

For the frosting:
2 tablespoons coconut milk
1 teaspoon rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup cream of coconut
3 cups powdered sugar
2 cups coconut, toasted in a dry pan for a few minutes until slightly brown

METHOD
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325F, and oil or butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Whisk together the egg whites, the cream of coconut, the coconut milk, the whole egg, the rum and the vanilla in your most fabulous red Kitchen Aid. Set aside.

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In another bowl, mix together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder and salt.

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Add the softened butter to the egg mixture and mix together one piece at a time, using a medium-low setting.]

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One spoonful at a time, add in the flour and sugar mixture, again slowly incorporating using a medium-low setting. Mix until a nice, thick, creamy batter forms.

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Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans, and bake for 25 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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For the frosting:
Stir together the coconut milk, the rum and vanilla, and the salt together until the salt dissolves.

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Beat the butter and powdered sugar together until smooth. This will probably take a good 8 minutes using the medium setting on your Kitchen Aid.

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Pour in the coconut milk mixture and beat until smooth and fluffy, probably 5 minutes.

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Frost the bottom cake layer across the top, and add a sprinkle of toasted coconut.

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Put the top cake layer onto the bottom cake layer, and frost with the remaining mixture. Sprinkle the remaining toasted coconut across the top and on the sides.

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Display on a fancy cake stand before letting people devour it.

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Jane Eyre: An Autobiography by Charlotte Bronte

I ain’t gonna deny it, Mr. Rochester is SEXY! Oh my lord almighty. Dark, mysterious, distant and yet romantic, rides a horse, is sarcastic, dresses in black. I could bang Mr. Rochester like a screen door from here til August……though it may also have to do with the fact that my very first big-screen Mr. Rochester was played by the ever-so-sexy Timothy Dalton, whom I adored as James Bond, and with whom I could have happily stayed in bed all day as his character Sir Malcolm Murray in Penny Dreadful.

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Oh, the plotline? Ahem. (fanning myself)

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It’s one trial after tribulation for poor Jane Eyre. Set in Victorian England, Jane Eyre is orphaned as a child, and goes to live with her horrible aunt and horrible cousins. She is later sent to a horrible boarding school with mostly horrible teachers and a horrible headmaster. She does become friends with Helen, who of course, dies horribly and leaves Jane alone. Jane grows up and becomes a model student, and has such good school credentials that she is able to apply for governess positions. She is hired to work caring for a little French girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall. The master of Thornfield Hall is the moody, brooding, sarcastic, attractive (of course he is!) Mr. Rochester. And the fun begins.

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Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester – who wouldn’t in that setting? – and they end up becoming engaged. But there is a mystery at the heart of Thornfield Hall, that being Mr. Rochester still has a wife, albeit a lunatic nutcase named Berthe whom he keeps in the attic with a nurse, medications, padded walls, etc., so she can’t escape and cause harm. But the truth comes out on Jane and Mr. Rochester’s wedding day.

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If you have any kind of a heart or sense, you’ll figure out how it all ends. But as with all good books, the pleasure lies in the journey and not the destination. I’d held off reading it for many years, partly because I already knew the storyline from the numerous movie and TV versions out there, and partly because I was expecting lugubrious, long-winded prose that went on for pages before moving the story forward. Not so, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless the book is. Jane is a great character, self-aware and self-effacing, yet honest with herself and others.

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Being set in Victorian England, the usual food mentions abound. Tea, bread, cakes, butter, eggs, roast beef, potatoes, etc. There’s a passage when Jane and Adele are waiting for a large party to start at Thornfield Hall, when Mr. Rochester has purposely invited Blanche Ingram and pretends to fall in love with her, to somewhat torture Jane. Jane and Adele await their summons as they enjoy a nice meal.

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“Do you think Mr. Rochester will send for us by-and-by, after dinner?” “No, indeed, I don’t; Mr. Rochester has something else to think about. Never mind the ladies to-night; perhaps you will see them to-morrow. Here is your dinner.” She was really hungry, so the chicken and tarts secured to divert her attention for a time.

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Not being a sweets person, I thought about savory tarts. Doesn’t that sound yum? Savory chicken tarts with mushrooms and tomatoes were what I decided upon, because those are three of my favorite things, and also because I was watching a rerun of those classic eccentric British cooks, The Two Fat Ladies, and one of them made mini savory tarts topped with tomato. So I was inspired to recreate it in my own way.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of butter, ice-cold and cut into cubes
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Ice water, as needed
3 chicken thighs, poached
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 shallot
1 tablespoon each of dried parsley, dried thyme, dried rosemary and dried sage
2 heirloom tomatoes, room temperature
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

METHOD
For the tart pastry, add the flour into the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid. Add the salt, and cube by cube, mix in the ice-cold butter with the pastry hook attachment so that it gradually amalgamates. You want somewhat of a rubbly texture.

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Add in the egg and increase the mixing speed.

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Add in a dash or two of ice water, and watch the pastry hook mix the dough until it forms a ball. You will likely need to increase the mixing speed but just watch. It’s like magic.

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Dump out the pastry ball onto some plastic, mold it so it’s round, wrap it up, and refrigerate for at least an hour, if not more.

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Poach the chicken thighs for about 30 minutes, and allow to cool before cutting into chunks.

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Saute the mushrooms and shallot with the dried herbs and some garlic powder. Let cool, and mix with the chicken.

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Roll out the pastry dough, and cut out small rounds. Press into a tart pan but don’t stretch the dough. (And you can see why no one has ever said to me “Vanessa, you should really give up your day job and bake tarts!”)

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Fill each tart pan with a mix of chicken, mushroom and shallot, top with tomato slices and sprinkle over some cheese.

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Bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown and luscious. Let cool a bit and remove from the tart pans. Then imagine Mr. Rochester himself feeding them to you, delicious bite by delicious bite. Oh my!

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Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

I am not normally into short stories, even by my favorite authors. Stephen King is the notable example, because he puts so much characterization into his short stories and novellas that they stand on their own. Case in point, my absolute favorite short story by King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” is a beautiful, and heart-wrenching read, and it crams so much personality into a small space. And nary a ghost in sight, other than the spirits of regret, pain, revenge, and ultimately, yes, redemption. Gwendy’s Button Box follows a similar trajectory, though it’s a relatively short read.

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In this story, Gwendy is a 12-year old girl who unexpectedly meets The Man in Black – one Richard Farris by name – one summer in Castle Rock. Yes, Castle Rock is back, and comparatively unthreatening this time around. The Man offers Gwendy a box that dispenses chocolate drops that she learns, as time goes on, enhance everything about her life. But as with every gift in this world, there is a price to be paid and the price for Gwendy caretaking this box is that it also has buttons. There is a red button, a black button and other buttons that, as Gwendy learns to her horror, are connected to specific countries and regions around the world. The buttons, if pushed, cause things to happen. Don’t, no matter what happens, press the black button, though. So of course, she does……..

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The book follows Gwendy from pre-teens to her 20s and shows glimpses of her life beyond. I couldn’t help but wonder how the other kids fared when they had to take over watching the box. But I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a great story, a quick read, but very engaging and classic King in his characterizations.

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What’s cool about this book, as with any other book set in Castle Rock, is seeing the references to other books and events. I love how King always put in little “Easter eggs” for his fans. The Man in Black is, after all, no stranger to either Castle Rock or King devotees, although here, he seems somewhat benign. Until you get farther in and realize exactly what kind of box he’s actually given Gwendy.

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I tried to think of recipes for actually making chocolate drop candies, but what came to mind are Hershey kisses. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than those. They are perfectly sized, pre-wrapped, and have portion control built in.

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So I began pondering how I could incorporate Hershey kisses into something, and chocolate drop cookies came immediately to mind. So here are mine, based on this Allrecipes method but with a couple of small tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2-3 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Hershey kisses. for topping

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

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Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, sieve in the dry ingredients to the wet in the Kitchen Aid, and mix together until a nice, chocolately cookie dough forms. You don’t have to use the sieve, but I find it gives baked goods a much smoother and nicer texture and they bake more evenly.

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Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, or if you have an ice-cream scoop (I do not, but it’s in my Amazon shopping cart), scoop out 1-inch balls, and place on parchment sheet-covered cookie pans. And only because I remember my grandmother Nana Jean doing this when she made cookies, I pressed my thumb into the middle of the dough, to make a well for the chocolate drop.

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Bake for 11 minutes and immediately remove from oven.

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Press one chocolate Hershey Kiss in the center of each cookie while still hot, so it melts a little and adheres to the cookie. Let cool and enjoy.

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They are nice and rich, not overly sweet but very moist and tasty and capable of either killing the world or saving it. The Man in Black would surely approve.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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