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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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
1/2 pint of whole milkDSC_0102
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.