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.

2018-03-11 08.46.31_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.31.06_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.38.36_resized.jpg

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?

2018-03-14 19.39.01_resized.jpg

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.

2018-03-14 19.33.54_resized

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!

2018-03-14 19.50.00_resized.jpg

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.

2018-03-14 19.39.44_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.37.17_resized

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

2018-03-14 19.35.21_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.34.38_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.29.58_resized

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.

2018-03-14 19.29.12_resized

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

2018-03-14 19.49.29_resized.jpg

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Photography by me.

The reason I love Sarah Waters’ books is because there is always a sense of pervasive menace throughout her pages. Her settings are innocuous: British post-war, large rambling houses, upper-class families who have fallen on hard times and must economize in ways they never had to before, and a way of life that has always seemed incredibly romantic. These are environments that you’d expect to be comforting, old-fashioned and a little bit staid, but in The Little Stranger, the  house is haunted by dread, darkness and spirits……though not quite in the way you’d expect.

2017-03-12 11.08.32_resized.jpg

I realize, of course, that none of these houses had central heating, that it rains incessantly on the British Isles, and that these once-wealthy families probably didn’t have enough money for firewood to heat the houses. Living there would have been a misery, I’m sure. But there is just something that draws me to this way of life that probably doesn’t exist any longer. I am an Anglophile, when I’m not dreaming of Italy…….so maybe you can call me, in the words of one of my cooking heroes Anna del Conte, a “Britalian.” I like that term.

2017-03-12 10.42.50_resized.jpg

Told in the viewpoint of their family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother was once a maid at the house in more affluent times, he has always been obsessed with the house and Ayres family who live there. As society has turned on its head after WWII, he soon becomes close friends with the family, something that would never have happened in earlier years. He grows fonder of Caroline, the Ayres daughter, and they begin a relationship.

2017-03-12 10.40.35_resized

All seems well, and yet………..there’s that menacing sense, again. Very strange things begin to happen. Mrs. Ayres gets terrifyingly locked in the nursery where her first daughter died as a little girl. The family dog, a gentle and sweet canine, mysteriously attacks a neighboring child. Bell pulls ring in the middle of the night from rooms where no one has been for over 20 years. Handprints from a child appear on the walls in rooms where children haven’t set foot in decades. Again, that pervasive sense of something waiting, lurking, stalking.

2017-03-12 10.41.17_resized

Sarah Waters can create atmosphere in a single sentence. But what I love about her books, aside from the setting and her atmospheric abilities, is simply the way she describes the rituals and niceties of British society. Tea is a constant and a comfort to the family, one of those rituals they hold onto to give structure to their lives even as the world around them seems to be crumbling daily.

2017-03-12 10.40.05_resized.jpg

So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family………”Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!” said Mrs. Ayres, as the plates were handed out. “Or even a really good biscuit.”

2017-03-12 11.04.12_resized.jpg

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for scones. I had a mad crush on a man named Cord McQueen many years ago, who was a very accomplished cook and baker. He owned a coffee shop and I used to go in to get my vanilla coconut latte and a scone, and just drool over him. Aside from being handsome and charming and intelligent, the man could cook. Dream Man material for sure! Anyway, he made scones that were out of this world. Not overly sweet, perfect texture to hold together, and yet crumble off if you wanted to dip a chunk into your coffee, and he always used cranberries, my personal favorite. I’d forgotten that he had written down his scone recipe for me and discovered it recently, so using his method and having both dried cranberries and fresh blueberries on hand, I gave scones a whirl. This method makes 12 scones.

2017-03-12 10.44.14_resized

INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of two clementines or one medium orange
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment or lightly spraying with baking spray. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cranberries, blueberries, sugar and orange zest.

2017-03-12 10.45.07_resized.jpg

In your most wonderful and awesome Kitchen Aid, add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix well. Add in the cubed butter a few chunks at at time and mix with the pastry hook attachment until the texture is crumbly.

2017-03-12 11.04.42_resized

Add the cranberry-blueberry mixture to the flour and butter mixture, and mix a couple of times.

2017-03-12 11.05.43_resized.jpg

Add the buttermilk and mix together until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 10-15 minutes.

2017-03-12 11.06.42_resized

Roll out the dough on a floured surface, somewhat thickly, and cut out rounds using a floured biscuit cutter.

2017-03-12 11.09.34_resized

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

2017-03-12 11.10.30_resized

Ideally, I would have attempted clotted cream to go with, but decided that was making things very stressful for myself. Besides, there is nothing wrong with buying a jar of ready-made genuine Devon clotted cream from your friendly neighborhood Cost Plus World Market, which I did.

2017-03-12 10.41.57_resized.jpg

Serve the scones in proper British style, with cream and black cherry preserves. Sooooooo yummy! Not too sweet, with the tart cranberries nicely offsetting the sweeter blueberries, and the orange zest adding a zip of citrus.

2017-03-12 11.13.21_resized

And a very happy birthday to me, this 12th of March!

2017-03-12 10.43.21_resized

Help For The Haunted by John Searles

2016-07-03 12.15.05_resized

I like my horror stories with a side of intelligence, and Help for the Haunted delivers in spades. It’s a quintessential coming of age story set in Maryland in the late 1980s. The premise: a young girl, Sylvie Mason, witnesses her parents’ murder one snowy night. But Mom and Dad are not your ordinary, everyday parental units. They offer help to the haunted, or rather, are demonologists. Sylvie and her older sister, Rose, a moody, sullen teenager until she is one day sent away to school, have grown up in this unusual family dynamic, meeting the haunted, possessed people that come to their parents for help and being around the haunted objects their parents occasionally bring home to store in their basement. Their parents are called that fateful night to meet Rose, who has run away from school, and Sylvie goes with them. But what she thinks she sees and what the truth is, are not as simple as you would think.

2016-07-02 16.42.37_resized

This was a genuinely creepy and eerie book, but it was also touching and evocative of those teenage years when you’re not sure of yourself or your place in the world. The dynamic of the two sisters was familiar territory for me, reminding me very much of my sister Krista and I growing up together, fighting and arguing, being simultaneously bossed around and protected by her. At its heart, as frightening as this book is, it’s ultimately about family and those ties that bind and strangle us, and yet at the same time, make us stronger and more resilient. Anyone who’s had sibling or parent issues can definitely relate.

2016-07-03 12.12.33_resized

In one passage, Sylvie describes a rare family moment of peace. Her sister Rose is behaving herself for once, her parents are home from their ghostly endeavors, and it’s Rose’s birthday. Their mother always made them something called a Lady Baltimore cake, an annual tradition.

2016-07-02 16.45.07_resized

“In late September, Rose’s seventeenth birthday arrived. Since Rose had been attending confirmation classes at Saint Bartholomew, my parents invited the new parish priest to dinner. Every birthday, my mother baked a Lady Baltimore cake, which, despite the name, she told us was not a Maryland tradition but a southern one.”

A Lady Baltimore cake is essentially a layered, tiered white cake with egg whites beaten into the batter to add lightness, and a special white frosting. The cake tiers are separated by this white frosting, into which has been mixed walnuts, maraschino cherries and raisins. Then the whole tiered cake is iced in white. Now, I hate raisins, I don’t care for maraschino cherries, and I am not a fan of thick, heavy cake frostings. And I hate plain white anything. Boring. White is from the Devil. So I hope the ghost of Lady Baltimore, whoever she was, doesn’t come haunt me for tweaking this classic American cake recipe. Because I did, so there.

2016-07-02 16.42.05_resized

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

For two cake layers: (adapted from the classic cookbook The Encyclopedia of Cookery)
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
3 eggs
2 egg whites, beaten until stiff

2016-07-02 16.45.52_resized
METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Sift the flour into a large bowl with the cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, butter, vanilla, and then slowly add in the sugar, stirring to incorporate. Slowly add in the bowl of dry ingredients, alternating with the milk, a little at a time until everything is evenly mixed together. Slowly fold in the beaten egg whites, and stir again so that everything is well mixed together and you have a smooth, creamy texture. Like this.

2016-07-02 16.43.26_resized

Pour into two round cake pans, greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes, remove and let cool for at least 2-3 hours, if not overnight. They are much easier to frost when completely cool; if not, the frosting will melt and you will have a God-awful mess to clean up.

2016-07-02 16.41.27_resized

While the cake layers are cooling, prepare the fruit filling and whipped cream icing.

For the icing:
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup limoncello or lemon juice (my twist)

Whip the cream until it’s stiff. Add in the sugar and the limoncello and mix together again until nice and smooth and white and creamy and luscious and unctuous………. Oh sorry. I got carried away there.

2016-07-03 08.15.46_resized

For the fruit filling:
Hulled strawberries
Blueberries
Raspberries
Blackberries
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 cup of limoncello

Add the limoncello to the mix of berries and nuts in a bowl and leave to macerate for at least an hour, if not longer.

2016-07-02 16.47.21_resized

Add the spiked fruit to half the whipped cream, mix together and chill for another hour, along with the plain whipped cream.

Assemble the cake. Flip one of the cooled cake layers over so that the flat bottom is now on the top. Spread a generous layer of the fruit, nut and whipped cream mixture.

2016-07-03 08.18.19_resized

Top with the other cake layer. Cover the top and sides of the tiered cake with the remainder of the plain whipped cream. (As you can see, I am not the greatest cake handler and there were some issues with transferring one of the cake tiers to the cake stand…………nothing that a good dollop of whipped cream icing won’t cover!)

2016-07-03 08.19.26_resized

Since I was in a patriotic mood, I decorated the pristine white top of the cake with red strawberries and blueberries, evoking the American flag. Yes, I know a true, classic Lady Baltimore cake should be pure white on the outside, and yes I know I shouldn’t quit my day job to become a cake decorator, but it’s July 4th weekend! I HAD to decorate it in red, white and blue. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it, but here’s a picture of the white cake before decorating, for you purists out there.

2016-07-03 12.16.06_resized

When you cut into the cake, the white layers will contrast gorgeously with the whipped cream and fruit/nut filling. It’s really quite lovely, almost too lovely to eat. But we managed. A little champagne didn’t hurt, either.

2016-07-03 12.13.27_resized

Here’s to the ghosts of our Founding Fathers and to the United States of America! Happy July 4th!