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 Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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A Scandal in Bohemia (Sherlock Holmes) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Thanks to JRB for the photography.

Who doesn’t love the adventures of the erstwhile Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson? So ingrained in our culture are these two literary detectives that the image of a deerstalker cap and pipe, the phrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” and the address 221-B Baker Street in London, need no other explanation.

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I first read the stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was eight, finding a leatherbound collection of tales in my father’s library. As my readers probably know, I inherited his books when he died, and among his wonderful treasures was the collection of tales about Holmes and Watson.

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SPOILER AHEAD! My favorite Holmes tale is “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” just because it’s such a great story, and of course, I love dogs, so it was sad at the end when the poor “demonic” hound was killed. My second favorite Holmes tale is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” because this is where we meet Irene Adler, the only woman to gain a hold on Sherlock Holmes’ mind and heart. In fact, the opening line of this story says it all……..“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” I think we all have that one person in our lives who is THE person for us. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, why certain people get such a hold in our hearts and minds, but hell, if a detective with a mind like a steel trap can have feelings like that, the rest of us mere mortals should be excused for having those emotions, too.

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Anyway, the storyline is pretty basic. The King of Hungary comes to Holmes’ house in disguise and hires him to get back a photo of he and the self-same Irene Adler, with whom the King had an affair a few years earlier. Now engaged to a young woman of a very prim and proper family, the scandal that would ensue should it be known the King had a liaison with such a woman as Irene Adler would be momentous. So Holmes and Watson proceed to find out where Irene Adler is, follow her through a few adventures, and in the process, Holmes falls in love with her, though it’s never explicitly stated. She is able to outwit him at the end, earning his respect and regard and of course, his eternal infatuation with her.

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I always like it when a woman outwits a man. It’s the feminist in me. Anyway, when Holmes recruits Watson to find Irene Adler with him, they first have a nice little repast, as Holmes has been so wrapped up solving mental puzzles and taking cocaine that he has forgotten to eat. Yes, our detective was a cocaine addict. You didn’t know that?

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“I heard no more. They drove away in different directions, and I went off to make my own arrangements.” “Which are?” “Some cold beef and a glass of beer,” he answered, ringing the bell. I have been too busy to think of food, and I am likely to be busier still this evening. By the way, Doctor, I shall want your co-operation.”

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I don’t like cold beef, and am not much of a beer drinker. But, beef cooked in beer? I could totally get behind that. Carbonnade is a very well-known method of cooking meat in beer, because it tenderizes the meat so beautifully, and if you use a Belgian ale, you have carbonnade a la Flamande. Yeah, whatever. It sounded good. This is the method that worked for me, based on Saveur.com’s delicious recipe, but with some flavoring tweaks of my own, and using Belgian “saison” ale recommended by my good friend Jake, who is a liquor guru and an overall pretty cool guy.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2″ x 12″-thick slices
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper for seasoning
14 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
4 slices bacon, finely chopped

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6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced into thin half moons
1 shallot, cut similarly

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2 cups Belgian saison ale
1 cup beef stock
1 beef bouillon cube
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Handful fresh parsley
3 bay leaves

METHOD
Season beef with salt and pepper in a bowl. Then, toss the meat in the flour so it’s lightly coated.

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Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the meat and brown it. You will probably need to brown in 2-3 batches, for about 8-10 minutes per batch.

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Set meat aside on a plate, and add the bacon to the pan. Cook for the same amount of time, so that the bacon fat renders down. The smell is heavenly!

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Finely mince the garlic, and toss that into the pan, and fling in the onions and shallots. Again, a scent from heaven.

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Put in half the Belgian ale, stir a bit, and scrape any bits from the pan bottom, which will add to the flavor. Reduce the beer for about 5-6 minutes.

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Add the meat to the pot, and pour over the rest of the ale. It foams up so beautifully, and the hoppy smell just adds a perfect note to the meat.

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Put in the stock, the bouillon cube, the brown sugar, the apple cider vinegar, the herbs and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, give it a stir, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Add the mustard and Worchestershire sauce about 15 minutes before serving.

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Decant into bowls, and serve with some nice, crusty bread and lovely red wine. The vinegar and sugar really add a delicious and unique note that contrasts beautifully with the beer, which tenderizes the meat wonderfully well.

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As Holmes himself might say, it’s elementary, my dear readers!