The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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

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

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

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

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Friday, May 25 was the anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. For anyone who loves sarcasm, satire, and snark, this book is a must-read. I was introduced to this book in a way a lot of geeky types are – by someone far, far nerdier than I.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?

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I remember devouring this book in junior-year Honors English class, after I had finished an exam before everyone else, and was bored. When I inadvertently burst out laughing while reading, the teacher tried to take the book, saying she didn’t appreciate me reading “pop fiction.” My response was “how can you call yourself an English teacher and consider this book pop fiction?” Needless to say, I had some explaining to do to the principal later that day.

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Basic book premise for you non-nerds who have not had your brains edified by reading this book: Arthur Dent is rescued from having his house destroyed by the arrival of his friend, Ford Prefect. Ford is revealed to be a space alien who takes Arthur on an intergalactic adventure when it is revealed Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. Intelligent mice, and aliens, robots and computers with names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, Deep Thought, Veet Voojagig, take us on this hilarious journey through the universe to find the the computer which has the answer to life itself.

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It’s 42. Don’t ask.

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Anyway, the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox, erstwhile president of the galaxy, is the inventor of a drink so out-of-this-world strong…….pardon the pun, that its effect is described as “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped ’round a large gold brick.” Or this other, most poetic description – “the alcoholic equivalent to a mugging; expensive and bad for the head.”

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The aptly named Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster sounded most intriguing – see below – so I did some research into how one creates this masterpiece of a cocktail that will knock you on your ass.

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Take the juice from one bottle of the Ol’ Janx Spirit.

Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V — Oh, that Santraginean water… Oh, those Santraginean fish!

Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzine is lost)

Allow four liters of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia

Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odors of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet, and mystic

Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink

Sprinkle Zamphour

Add an olive

Drink… but…..very carefully…

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This is the pared-down method that worked for me, based partly on this post at the Feastygeeks.com blog, which is nerd heaven for us geeky kids; and partly from Wonderland Recipes.com. I skipped the Algolian Suntiger teeth, though. They’re hard to find this time of year.

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INGREDIENTS
Handful of crushed ice
1 ounce bourbon whiskey
1 and 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce sour apple mix
2 ounces blue Curacao
2 ounces lemon juice
1 lemon slice

METHOD
In a cocktail shaker, mix crushed ice with the bourbon whiskey, the gin, the sour apple, the Curacao, and the lemon juice, and shake well.

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Garnish with a slice of lemon, and if you’re feeling fancy, peel off some of the lemon peel and twist before dropping into the drink, to get some of the lemon oil and essence.

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I highly recommend following the ratios above, lest you find yourself shitfaced and on the floor wondering how you got there.

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Drink, but VERY CAREFULLY! Here’s to you, Douglas Adams, and thanks for all the fish!

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey is known worldwide for his illustrations for the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.E. Eliot, for his stage decorations and costume design of Dracula several years back, and of course for the opening introduction to PBS’s long-running TV series Mystery, as well as countless others. I think his work is instantly recognizable, even if you don’t know his name.

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Gorey is probably one of my favorite authors and illustrators in the world. If you ever read his twisted take on the alphabet, namely, The Gashleycrumb Tinies, you will either be horrified or die laughing.

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The book basically gives a short vignette for every letter of the alphabet, involving a child who comes to a gruesome death. I’m sorry, but I am one of those who finds this book so hilariously funny. I don’t know what it is, the combination of his dry, witty tone or the illustrations of these kids getting eaten by bears, falling down stairs, hacked to pieces with an ax, or what have you. My personal favorite, and not just because it has a food reference, is poor Ernest. As you can see, he is done for.

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Yes, I am a twisted person too. But seriously, if you have any kind of a sense of humor, you will laugh as hard as I did when reading this.

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Peaches are gorgeously in season right now, with the stands at the farmers markets overflowing with their juicy red and gold fuzz. It seemed like an appropriate time to make a skillet peach crisp, as I’ve been wanting to try baking in my cast iron skillet for awhile now. So, this is the method that worked for me, based on the Epicurious recipe but with, as always, a few flavoring twists of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup crushed pecans
1 tablespoons butter at room temperature
8 ripe peaches, cut into medium-thick slices
1/2 cup bourbon (my twist!)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup regular sugar
Zest of half a lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract

METHOD
For the crumble topping:

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, brown sugar and salt in your most awesome red Kitchen Aid.

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Gradually mix in the butter a few cubes at a time, using the pastry hook attachment, until you get a clumpy dough. You want those buttery chunks. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Slice the peaches and let them marinate in the bourbon for about 30 minutes.

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Preheat the oven to 350F. While it’s heating, toast the pecans in a dry skillet until they darken and you can smell the toasty scent. Set aside to cool.

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Butter the bottom and sides of a 10″ cast iron skillet.

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Add the toasted pecans, the two sugars, the lemon juice and zest, and the spices, to the alcoholic peaches, and stir together. Leave for 10 minutes, then pour into the buttered skillet.

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Add the crumble mixture over the top of the peaches.

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Bake for up to 30 minutes, checking to make sure it doesn’t burn. When the peach juices start bubbling out around the edges and you can smell the fruity scent, it will be done.

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Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 10-15 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream. But please, I beg of you, don’t eat too quickly and choke on the peach, like poor, sad, doomed Ernest. (snicker)

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

For MGC, who turned me on to Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Here’s to you, my dear.

I’ve often thought F. Scott was the man of my dreams, albeit 50 years too early. The man could write, loved to drink, was a party animal, and as handsome as any man I’ve ever seen. I mean, what else is there in life? I could totally have been his Zelda!

F Scott Fitzgerald
 

Fitzgerald is, in my humble opinion, the quintessential author of the Jazz Age, that gilded pre-war time of parties, sexual freedom, sparkly dresses and headbands bedecked with feathers, the “Charleston,” and sheer excess. Nowhere is this dazzling and dark era brought so beautifully to life than in The Great Gatsby. I had a crush on Jay Gatsby after reading this book in my older teens, and fed by watching Robert Redford play him to perfection in the original film. But as I get older and read this book over and over, I find myself increasingly……not disliking him……….but wanting to shake some sense into him. However, since I know what it’s like to carry a long-time torch for someone who’s not a part of my life, I can understand. Or perhaps I understand all too well and that’s why I want to slap some sense into J.G. – figuratively smack some sense into myself as well?

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I digress. One of the pivotal, and my favorite, scenes in the book is when Gatsby whisks his lover Daisy off to New York City to escape the heat, along with her horrendous husband Tom, her cousin Nick who is the de facto narrator of the book, and Tom’s quasi-girlfriend Jordan. They end up at the Plaza Hotel, drinking mint juleps and getting crazier in the heat, until tempers explode and truths are told that change everyone from that point forward.

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In honor of the Kentucky Derby, and my love for Jay Gatsby and this book, here is a lovely little recipe for that old Southern favorite, a mint julep. This method, which worked VERY well for me, serves one, so feel free to increase ratios as needed.

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INGREDIENTS

1 highball glass
1 spoonful of sugar
1 spoonful of water
7-8 fresh mint leaves

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Enough crushed ice to fill the highball glass
Bourbon whiskey of your choice. I love Marker’s Mark, so that’s what I used here.
Dash of nutmeg
Fresh mint leaves for garnish

METHOD

Add the sugar to your highball glass. Add the water to just dampen the sugar. Don’t souse it. This is about what you want.

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And know that this is truly for a bourbon whiskey lover, as the amount of sugar doesn’t really cut the liquor flavor. So use a bourbon you really like, or add more sugar and a bit more water.

Add in the mint leaves and muddle them a bit, if you have a cocktail mallet. If not, the back of a spoon should work. You want to release the oils in the mint. Add three or four more fresh mint sprigs to the sides of the glass.

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Put in the crushed ice to the top. You essentially don’t want there to be room for anything except bourbon. Did I mention this drink will knock you on your ass?

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Fill the glass with bourbon whiskey. It’s actually a very pretty color if held in sunlight. If this amount of bourbon freaks you out, use half that amount and add a bit of water. It won’t taste the same, but you also won’t find yourself lying on your kitchen floor drunkenly singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not that that’s ever happened to me. I’m just saying it for YOUR sake.

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Add a small dash of nutmeg over the top, which takes this cocktail to another level flavorwise, and garnish with the remaining mint leaves.

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Sip and enjoy, preferably with a good friend while wearing a Derby-esque hat and watching the ponies.

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