The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is my favorite author after Umberto Eco, writing as he does in the most lucid, erudite, intellectual and bawdy style that sucks you into the vivid, dirty, and virulent world of Victorian, post-Industrial England. His settings are the traditional British country house or vicarage, manor or townhouse, and his Dickensian-named characters show off the best and worst qualities of humanity. For all their quiet, tea-drinking mannerisms and genteel ways of speaking, these characters are among the most inept, foolish, clueless, stupid, venal and cruelly malign in modern literature.

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In Palliser’s twist on the traditional Christmas ghost story, The Unburied, Dr. Edward Courtine comes to the small British town of Thurchester to see his old school “friend” Austin Fickling for Christmas, and to see the town’s historic church and related records. Of course, being a church, there is a ghost. And a historical mystery. And then a murder, which happens moments after Edward and Austin visit the victim. How it all turns and twists together creates a memorable murder mystery/ghost story/ Christmas tale that will make you view the holiday season in a less-than-thrilled light.

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It is very much written in an academia tone, but it moves at the pace of a whirlwind, so anyone who enjoys British literature, the books of Charles Dickens, or even history, will enjoy this book. The sense of menace creeps up on you very subtly, and there are occasions when you – ok, when I – found myself snapping at Edward’s stupidity. “Hello, the answer is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!” I caught myself shouting before I pulled it together and reminded myself it’s just a book.

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In an early scene, Edward dines with Austin, with whom he is staying, in a horrible, freezing cold old house that is where the mystery kicks off. Austin is acting quite passively-aggressively nasty to Edward as he prepares their meal of chops and onions……not well, I would add.

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“After your long journey,” he went on, “I thought you’d like to stay in tonight, and I’ll cook our supper.”  “As you did in the old days,” I exclaimed. “Do you not recall? When we lodged at Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?”…………. Austin nodded. “Do you remember your ‘chops St. Lawrence’ as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint.”

Pork chops with caramelized onions in a mustard-cream sauce seemed just the ticket on this chilly night, plus they are simple to make and best of all, delicious. This is the method that worked for me, based on my own recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
4 pork chops, bone out, 1/2 inch thick each
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grain Dijon mustard
4 red onions, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD

Heat the oven to 400F.

Start with the onions. Put the olive oil and butter into a nonstick skillet and melt. Add the onions, and stir so all is glossy and covered. Sprinkle over the sugar, then let the onions cook slowly and brown underneath, stirring occasionally. This will probably take you a good 45 minutes, if not longer.

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At the 30-minute mark, pour in the red wine. Continue stirring and cooking.

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At the end of the cooking, you will have a pile of deliciously warm, brown-tinted caramelized onions that are sweet and have a marvelous soft texture.

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In the same pan heated to medium-high, add the pork chops, and season with salt and pepper. Sear each side for 5 minutes, then put the cast-iron pan with the chops into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let the chops rest, and put the pan back on the stove over a medium burner.

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Add the grain Dijon mustard and stir around. Then pour in the heavy cream and let it thicken and cook. Don’t let it curdle.

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To be quintessentially British, serve the sizzling hot chops with the Dijon-cream sauce poured over, the onions piled glossily on one side, and some classic mushy peas on the other. Sooooooo good and easy, too!

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The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam

In October, my thoughts don’t turn to pumpkin spice láttes, autumn leaves falling gently to the ground, or the evocative scent of woodsmoke. No, when the fall brings that nippy chill to the air, this girl thinks haunted houses, ghosts, spirits (the non-alcoholic kind), and of course, Halloween!

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Being the season of the witch and all things creepy and supernatural, The House of Lost Souls is the perfect book to curl up with and frighten yourself. The first book by author F.G. Cottam that I ever read, it’s a quick read that brings vividly to life the literal and figurative spirits haunting Paul Seaton in modern-day London.

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Paul spent 10 years of his life trying to forget the horrors he experienced at the Fischer House, where he ventured in search of information about the elusive Pandora Gibson-Hoare, a 1920s photographer who is the topic of his girlfriend’s university thesis. In his research, he learns of Pandora’s involvement with the occult, Aleister Crowley – because what occult book DOESN’T feature Crowley – and Pandora’s ill-fated attempts to stop the evil at the Fischer House in the years before WWII. He is sucked back into the drama by Nick Mason, whose younger sister went to the Fisher House as part of her own university studies and who also experiences terrifying events that nearly drive her to suicide.

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Not your typical haunted house tale, the story focuses on the demons and ghosts that haunt us as individuals, and the choices we make as a result.  There is some musing on the ephemeral nature of evil and how it translates to concrete action in the material world. In other words, “we are spirits, in the material world,” with apologies to Sting. But we are all haunted in some way, I think, just as Paul is. He’s an Everyman character in that he’s not particularly heroic or brave. He’s driven as much by guilt from the past as he is curiosity about the exact nature of evil and the Fischer House, and an obsession for the long-dead Pandora.

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In his early days of research as a journalist, when he is on the trail of Pandora’s final days, he bribes a fellow reporter Mike for information on her death with a lunch at Arthur’s Cafe, known for its delicious mixed grill dishes.

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In the beige decor and stifling heat of the cafe, Mike worked through the mixed grill Arthur had ordered on his behalf while Seaton neglected a plate piled high with meat lasagne. He sipped from his glass of Coke.

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Not having ever had a mixed grill, I learned it is typically a dish that includes two or three grilled meats such as chops, steak, and sausage, grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, and possibly grilled mushrooms and a fried egg. I chose instead to make a mixed grill that included grilled steak, a grilled pork chop, a grilled sausage, and grilled tomatoes and onions, because to me, there is nothing as delicious as a huge pile of grilled onions atop a nice slab of meat.

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Vegetarians, turn away now. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 sausage link of your choice
1 5 oz. tenderloin steak
1 5 oz. pork chop
1 large Beefsteak tomato
1 large white or yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter

METHOD
Heat the butter and melt it in a stovetop grill with ridge marks. This is preferable for stovetop cooking, as your food gets those nice cooking ridge marks. Add your sausage. Yes, it’s very phallic. Don’t write in.

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Add your steak.

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Add your chop. Sprinkle salt on the chop and the steak, and dab a bit of butter on all three meats.

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Cook on medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, turning every 5-7 minutes to ensure even cooking and those aforementioned grill marks. How well cooked you want your meat is completely up to you, so you may want to adjust heat or length of time, or take one piece off the grill while cooking others.

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Remove the meat to a plate to rest and let the juices run back in, and slice your onion into thick rings. Add to the smoking hot grill. Being so thick, they will take a bit of time to cook, so be patient.

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Slice the tomato into thick rounds, roughly the same size as the onions. Lay them on the grill, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, turning twice to get even grill marks.

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Assemble your plate of British goodness and apply directly to your face. And yes, that is indeed a little pug in the top photo. It’s my new fur baby Roxie, whom I adore and love to pieces. October, in addition to being the Season of the Witch, is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, so I adopted her. She’s awesome!

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Another photo of my Roxanna Banana, also known as Roxy, and one of me, very happy to have her with me, as you can see her loafing in the background.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

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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.

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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.

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

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

Dedicated to RP, without whom this book would not have the meaning it does. Thank you for the life lessons.

 

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because I didn’t have a spare kidney to sell this week to buy one. As well, I had some wonderful dried mushrooms stashed in my refrigerator, waiting for a moment of inspiration, and it struck me that their reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped

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3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine. I used Cabernet Sauvignon
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

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

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

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

Shrimp in colander

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

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

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

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These are the methods that worked for me.

For the potted shrimp, based on the Serious Bites recipe, but with a few tweaks of my own:

INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a double boiler, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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

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

Creme Anglaise

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

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

Chocolate floating island

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