The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This is one of those epic books that feature a cast of thousands, exotic locations that span the globe, stories within stories within stories…………and Count Dracula. I mean, how can it possibly get better than that?

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Being a former Goth girl, I still have a fondness for the darker side of things. Vampires, crucifixes, ghosts, vintage clothing and jewelry, steampunk-Romantic styles, and movies and books that feature such themes as death, spirits, things that go bump in the night and of course, passionate romance. Though I have to (somewhat) conform in my day-to-day life where I play a bureaucrat, my heart is always in the coffin with Count Dracula. Love, love, love Dracula and vampires in general.

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The Historian‘s premise is simple. It postulates that Dracula – Vlad Dracul – is not just a vampire in a book, but is actually alive and well and has been preying on people across centuries and throughout continents. A young scholar named Paul is given the charge to find Dracula when his graduate advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappears under ominous circumstances. Mixed up in this puzzle are antique, leather-bound books, each bearing the distinctive stamp of a dragon. Because, of course, in Romanian, “Dracula” means dragon. Well, of course it does!

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Paul becomes enmeshed in both the search for the blood-drinking Count and with the lovely and stoic Helen, whose Eastern European lineage connects her with the Count in ways no one would imagine. Told from the viewpoint of Paul and Helen’s daughter – with a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as her name is never revealed – the story has multiple levels, told in three different timepoints and utilizes the epistolary style extremely well, as the prose passages are highlighted by journal entries, letters, telegrams and book passages. It’s a book for book lovers, if you know what I mean.

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This is my ultimate type of book. Long, detailed, globe-trotting, with amazing descriptions of architecture, literature, love, and food from countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and oh so many others! My favorite of all of them was when Paul takes his daughter to visit friends in Italy, and they are served an Italian torta, which is a flourless cake made with ground nuts in place of flour.

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Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up a torta I’d been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous recipe at Proud Italian Cook’s awesome food blog, but of course with my usual tweaks. I used both hazelnuts and almonds, because I love the flavors together, I added some almond extract and some amaretto, and for more flavor, I toasted the nuts before grinding them in my food chopper. Nom nom nom!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup of ground hazelnuts and ground almonds, to make a nut flour
1 cup sugar
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or above
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream, whipped with sugar, amaretto and lemon
Hulled strawberries for decorating

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Lightly butter or oil an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in a dry pan until they darken and you can smell the nutty scent.

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Grind up the nuts in a food processor, so that you have a rubbly texture. The smell is out of this world!

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Break the chocolate into shards or chunks, and melt in a Pyrex bowl set over a pan of boiling water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally

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Add the butter to the melting chocolate, and add in the almond essence and the Amaretto.

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Separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites in your most awesome Kitchen Aid so that you get a cloudlike texture. If you wipe the inside of your Kitchen Aid bowl with lemon first, it really helps make the egg whites puff up.

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Whisk the egg yolks and add to the ground nuts. Add in the sugar.

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Mix the gooey, yummy, melted chocolate into the nut mixture.

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Fold the egg white mixture into the chocolate-nut mixture, using the figure-8 hand method. This method ensures air gets into the batter, making it even more light and fluffy and less apt to sink in the center, though it probably will sink. That’s just life. And cakes.

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Scrape the luscious batter into the cake pan, and bake for 18 minutes. Yes, I said 18 minutes, because that is apparently the timeframe used by the majority of the Italians I know, who make this cake regularly. I don’t ask questions of the experts, I just do what I am told.

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Allow the cake to cool for up to 1 hour before taking out of the cake pan. It likely will sink in the center as it cools, and you will just have to accept that, pick up the pieces of your shattered life, and move on.

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Serve the cake garnished with lemony whipped cream and strawberries. The cake’s richness needs an offset, and the citrus contrast in the cream is perfect with the nutty denseness. Plus it looks so pretty!

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It is a luscious cake, gooey and rich and almost melting in the center, but with the exterior forming almost a crust. Texture-wise, it’s like heaven. Flavorwise, it’s like heaven. Aesthetically, it’s like heaven.

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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.

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“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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INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter
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

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

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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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.

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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.

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

Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I thought it would be fun to blog about books I loved as a kid that also scared the crap out of me. I clean out books on a fairly regular basis because I buy so many of them, and I donate many to Little Free Libraries around my city. So while cleaning out my books the other day, I came across a stack of children’s and young adult books I’d kept for years and had some pleasant nostalgia when I saw The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. It features the character Johnny Dixon, a young boy who lives with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. He’s a bookworm, kind of nerdy, loves to read and loves radio drama, and loves chocolate. Well, we can all relate to that!

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Johnny is befriended by Professor Roderick Childermass, who is a hilarious character. He reenacts famous sea battles with plastic ships in his bathroom, is a professor of history who is extremely opinionated, plays chess like a wizard, and makes a mean chocolate cake. Naturally, he and Johnny become pals, which is fortunate because when Johnny discovers a mysterious book and a blue figurine in the cellar of his church that once belonged to the evil priest Father Remigius Baart, the curse comes back to haunt Johnny. A blue ushabti figurine – ushabti are small figures found in ancient Egyptian tombs with mummies usually representing servants expected to do certain agricultural labors required of the deceased in the land of the dead – contains the actual curse and when Johnny takes both the book and the figurine, all hell breaks loose.

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An example of ushabti figurines.

My edition also features the unique artwork of Edward Gorey, who I absolutely adore! Anyway, this book was a wonderful nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to the days when I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight after my mom and stepdad had gone to bed and I was supposed to be asleep. I think I always particularly loved the friendship between Johnny and Professor Childermass, because I always was in search of an adult who would treat me as a peer and not a a kid, and these two definitely bond as friends over chess and chocolate. This is one of my favorite passages:

Johnny excused himself and went across the street. He had a great time that evening. The professor was a crafty and merciless chess player. He was every bit as good as Johnny was, and maybe even a bit better. As for the cake….well, Johnny had theories about chocolate cake. He felt that the cake part of the cake was just an interruption between the layers of frosting. As it turned out, the professor’s opinions about cake were similar to Johnny’s. The cake he served had three or four thin layers and the rest was a huge amount of good, dark, thick, fudgy frosting. And he served second helpings, too.

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In honor my sister’s birthday, I tried my hand at a four-tier, old-fashioned chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with focus on the ganache frosting. I decorated it for Halloween, in honor of this high holy season of horror!

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INGREDIENTS FOR THE GANACHE FROSTING
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups dark chocolate chips, 70% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto

METHOD
Make your cake tiers with whatever chocolate cake recipe you have to hand. Make sure they are completely cool before frosting them.

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In a metal saucepan, heat the heavy cream until small bubbles just start to form around the sides and you see steam rising. Don’t overheat the cream or it will curdle. Turn off the heat immediately.

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Pour in the chocolate chips and make sure they are covered by the hot cream. Add the almond extract, the vanilla extract and the Amaretto. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Remove the lid, and whisk the mixture for 5 minutes. You’ll see the chocolate ganache start to amalgamate as you continue to stir, thickening into a luscious frosting.

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One layer at a time, frost the top of each cake layer and stack them on a cake stand, until you have this magnificent layer cake. Proceed to frost the cake top and sides.

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Decorate however you want. I tried to find little blue mummies but could not, so I just went full on Halloween instead. The result? Cute, kitschy, and ultimately delicious!

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Just look at those fudgy layers! Johnny Dixon would be proud!

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‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

It’s my favorite time of year – the season of the witch! Yes, kiddos, Halloween is nearly upon us and as I do every October, I blog books that are scary, supernatural or just plain weird, and this month is no different. And of course, no scary book blog would be complete without the Big Bad Granddad of horror fiction – the inimitable Stephen King.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the storyline. An updated version of Dracula, it features writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot – colloquially known as ‘Salem’s Lot – to write a book about the horrific experience he had at the town’s haunted mansion, called the Marsden House. Unbeknownst to him, the house has recently been purchased by a mysterious antiques dealer named Straker and his business partner, and strange deaths and disappearances start happening all throughout town. Ben joins forces with Matt Burke, a local teacher, and young Mark Petrie, whose friend Danny Glick (shown above) is one of the first to die. They figure out that Straker is the human servant of a vampire who is living in the Marsden House and creating more and more vampires with each person he kills. It’s one of King’s very first novels and is creepy as all get-out, more so now reading it as an adult.

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And for those of us whose childhood was forever traumatized by the 1979 film version of this scary-as-shit book, who can ever forget little Ralphie Glick at the window? Holy fuck! The ultimate creepy kid in a horror flick.

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One of the more disturbing subtexts involves the McDougall family, Roy and Sandy who are little more than teenagers, and their unwanted baby Randy. Sandy, a lousy teen mother, casually abuses Randy and Roy mostly ignores it, until he can’t anymore. This internal dialogue tells you exactly what he thinks of his wife and his life.

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He went up to the door, still steaming. His leg hurt where he had bumped it. Not that he’d get any sympathy from her. So what was she doing while he was sweating his guts out for that prick of a foreman? Reading confession magazines and eating chocolate-covered cherries or watching the soap operas on the TV and eating chocolate-covered cherries or gabbing to her friends on the phone and eating chocolate-covered cherries. She was getting pimples on her ass as well as her face. Pretty soon you wouldn’t be able to tell the two of them apart.

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Depressing as this subplot is, the thought came to me that chocolate and cherries together would make a delicious dessert, so I present chocolate pie in a chocolate crust topped with cherries and whipped cream, based on the Pioneer Woman’s classic chocolate pie, with a small flavoring tweak by me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 Oreo pie crust, pre-baked for 15 minutes and cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
4 egg yolks, room temperature
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A can of cherry pie filling, or fresh cherries if you can find them
Whipped cream for topping

METHOD

Whisk together the sugar, the cornstarch and the salt in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the milk.

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Add the egg yolks, and whisk again until everything is well combined.

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Stir over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until it barely comes to a boil and thickens. Don’t leave it, because the sugar can burn very easily. Just keep stirring and you’ll see it come together, into a thick pudding texture.

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Remove from the heat. Add in the chopped chocolate and the vanilla and almond, and stir together.

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Add in the butter and watch it melt and make the texture rich and glossy.

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Pour the pudding into the pie crust and chill in the refrigerator a minimum of 4 hours uncovered.

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Cut into slices, garnish with whipped cream, and top with cherries. Eat and pretend there’s not a floating vampire boy staring at you through the window, gently scratching the glass with his fingernails asking to be let inside.

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Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

I am not normally into short stories, even by my favorite authors. Stephen King is the notable example, because he puts so much characterization into his short stories and novellas that they stand on their own. Case in point, my absolute favorite short story by King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” is a beautiful, and heart-wrenching read, and it crams so much personality into a small space. And nary a ghost in sight, other than the spirits of regret, pain, revenge, and ultimately, yes, redemption. Gwendy’s Button Box follows a similar trajectory, though it’s a relatively short read.

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In this story, Gwendy is a 12-year old girl who unexpectedly meets The Man in Black – one Richard Farris by name – one summer in Castle Rock. Yes, Castle Rock is back, and comparatively unthreatening this time around. The Man offers Gwendy a box that dispenses chocolate drops that she learns, as time goes on, enhance everything about her life. But as with every gift in this world, there is a price to be paid and the price for Gwendy caretaking this box is that it also has buttons. There is a red button, a black button and other buttons that, as Gwendy learns to her horror, are connected to specific countries and regions around the world. The buttons, if pushed, cause things to happen. Don’t, no matter what happens, press the black button, though. So of course, she does……..

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The book follows Gwendy from pre-teens to her 20s and shows glimpses of her life beyond. I couldn’t help but wonder how the other kids fared when they had to take over watching the box. But I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a great story, a quick read, but very engaging and classic King in his characterizations.

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What’s cool about this book, as with any other book set in Castle Rock, is seeing the references to other books and events. I love how King always put in little “Easter eggs” for his fans. The Man in Black is, after all, no stranger to either Castle Rock or King devotees, although here, he seems somewhat benign. Until you get farther in and realize exactly what kind of box he’s actually given Gwendy.

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I tried to think of recipes for actually making chocolate drop candies, but what came to mind are Hershey kisses. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than those. They are perfectly sized, pre-wrapped, and have portion control built in.

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So I began pondering how I could incorporate Hershey kisses into something, and chocolate drop cookies came immediately to mind. So here are mine, based on this Allrecipes method but with a couple of small tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2-3 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Hershey kisses. for topping

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

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Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, sieve in the dry ingredients to the wet in the Kitchen Aid, and mix together until a nice, chocolately cookie dough forms. You don’t have to use the sieve, but I find it gives baked goods a much smoother and nicer texture and they bake more evenly.

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Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, or if you have an ice-cream scoop (I do not, but it’s in my Amazon shopping cart), scoop out 1-inch balls, and place on parchment sheet-covered cookie pans. And only because I remember my grandmother Nana Jean doing this when she made cookies, I pressed my thumb into the middle of the dough, to make a well for the chocolate drop.

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Bake for 11 minutes and immediately remove from oven.

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Press one chocolate Hershey Kiss in the center of each cookie while still hot, so it melts a little and adheres to the cookie. Let cool and enjoy.

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They are nice and rich, not overly sweet but very moist and tasty and capable of either killing the world or saving it. The Man in Black would surely approve.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

This has got to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some weird stuff in my life. I love books about libraries, about other books, about the sheer pleasure of learning and knowledge and reading. So when I saw the title of this book, The Library at Mount Char, I had to buy it. Little did I know what I was in for.

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Brutal and amazingly intelligent are the best descriptors. I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of American Gods with a dash of The Name of the Rose and with a twist of American Psycho, and maybe some of The Magicians thrown in for good measure. Yes, there’s a library and yes, there are gods on this earth and yes, there are some majorly psychotic characters in this book. Carolyn is our protagonist and tells the story of her and her siblings who are taken by their “Father,” who is what we’d consider God, to study. They study for years in the Library and cannot study outside of their own subjects of expertise. Then, Father goes missing and the kids are on their own, wreaking havoc, killing, having insane sex, bringing the dead back to life, communicating with animals. And there are some bad-ass lions. But there is method to the insanity that is this book.

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It’s pretty rough in some places, I’ll warn you now. If death and dismemberment, human sacrifice, and killing and reanimating bother you, this book isn’t for you. But if you have a strong stomach, love black humor and esoteric knowledge and want to read something totally unique and bizarre that makes you think and that will stay with you long after you’ve finished, this might be your book. Just balance it out with some Danielle Steel or a nice Disney flick afterward.

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At one juncture, after Father has done his vanishing act, Carolyn and her wholly bizarre siblings find themselves living with Mrs. McGillicutty, in one of the funnier and more bizarre scenes in the book. Mrs. McGillicutty is as sweet and wholesome and clueless as they come…….and she bakes some damn good brownies.

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“Would you like a brownie?” Mrs. McGillicutty asked. Steve opened his mouth to say No, thanks, but what came out was “Don’t mind if I do!” Three weeks of jail time had left him with an appetite. Plus, the brownies were ridiculously good. Mrs. McGillicutty brought him some milk as well. When he was done, he turned to Carolyn. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a cigarette?”

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I hadn’t baked any desserts since I moved, and working in this new kitchen is still quite a thrill. This is the method I used, based on this recipe from Gimme Delicious, one of my fave recipes sites, but of course, with my usual flavoring tweaks and in this case, I omitted the chocolate ganache. These brownies are to die for!

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INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup flour
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 cup Ghirardelli chocolate chips, 60% cocoa solids or higher
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil or butter a glass baking pan. Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.

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Melt the butter and chocolate chips together in another large bowl. Add in the vanilla and the walnuts and stir together.

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Add the sugar to the chocolate mixture, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the yolk last.

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Add the flour mixture to the chocolate and sugar mixture, stir again well, and pour into your oiled baking pan. Bake for 25 minutes, checking to make sure you don’t overbake the brownies, which dries them out. And who wants a dry brownie, I ask you?

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The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

Having just finished binge-watching Versailles on Netflix, I can say, hand over heart, that I would have made a DAMN fine royal mistress to Louis XIV. I could totally pull off silk gowns, elaborate jewels, illicit love affairs, intrigue……….sounds like my dream life! If anyone knows a king out there who’d appreciate my cooking, do send him my way.

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Watching the exploits of the young French king and his mistress The Marquise de Montespan made me remember this fine gem of a novel, The Oracle Glass, set during the years of the King and La Montespan’s notorious affair. The book is so finely drawn that you almost feel yourself in the King’s morning levee, watching his most intimate bodily functions as though they were performed by God himself. Which, I suppose, was the idea.

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The book’s heroine, young Genevieve Pasquier, is booted from her once-grand family home into the streets of Paris where she is found and apprenticed by Catherine Montvoisin, known for helping other “down and out” women.” However, La Voisin, as she was called, is not just any altruistic soul. She’s a witch, a practitioner of Dark Arts, an abortionist, and a poisoner of the highest order. Genevieve is taken in because she has a psychic ability to read the oracle glass, a large crystal bowl filled with water, in which she can see the future, and La Voisin takes advantage of this talent for her own nefarious purposes. La Voisin gets Genevieve accepted in court circles by having her pretend to be a 200-year old widow whose life is preserved through a pact with the Devil, and so she becomes involved with court politics when she is asked to become the Marquise de Montespan’s glass reader.

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The actual “Affaire des Poisons” – go ahead, Google it – is a major piece of French history during the reign of the Sun King, and the Marquise de Montespan figures very prominently, as well as numerous other members of French royalty and nobility. But it’s the entertaining fictional character of Genevieve who was my favorite. I could relate to her because she and I have much in common – we are voracious readers, analytical overthinkers, armchair philosophers; and we love the finer things in life such as beautiful surroundings, elegant clothes, and handsome men who are highly intelligent. In one area, though, we differ. Genevieve’s sweet tooth nearly gets her poisoned when she crosses La Voisin, who slips her some tainted marzipan.

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Marzipan – almond paste – is Genevieve’s weakness, but not having much of a sweet tooth myself, I still thought it would be a fun challenge to make marzipan from scratch and then use it to make a decadent marzipan cake frosted with chocolate ganache and cherries. So I did, having my own bit of kitchen witchcraft today. NOTE: the marzipan should be made a day in advance so it can chill overnight.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marzipan:
1 and 1/2 cups finely ground almond flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 egg white, room temperature

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For the cake:
1 and 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
Butter spray and a dusting of flour
1 cup marzipan, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the ganache icing and cake topping:
3/4 cup dark chocolate pieces, 70% cocoa solids
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup pitted cherries or half a can of cherry pie filling

METHOD:
Add flour and powdered sugar into a food processor and pulse until combined.

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Add the almond extract and rose water and pulse again, then add the egg white and process until you have a thick doughlike paste.

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Turn out the almond dough onto some plastic wrap, seal it and form it into a cylinder. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to use, leave out of the fridge an hour so it’s at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with butter spray and lightly flour it.

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Mix the almond paste and sugar on low in your most awesome Kitchen Aid, using the paddle attachment.

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Add the butter, then incorporate the eggs and yolk, one at a time.

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Add the almond extract.

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Whisk together the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl, and gradually add to the wet ingredients. Pour the mixture into the buttered, floured cake pan.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, checking occasionally. Let it cool completely before icing it.

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Place the cream in a small saucepan over very low heat, until small bubbles just form around the edge. Add the chocolate pieces and the almond extract, whisk in, turn off the heat, and leave covered for up to 15 minutes. Then, whisk together until the ganache thickens and forms a gorgeous chocolate frosting.

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Frost the top of the cake, sprinkle the edges with slivered almonds, and decorate the center with the cherries. Vive la France! Louis XIV would add me to his list of mistresses once having eaten this tasty dessert, I do believe.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it several times. Though it’s a very irreverent re-telling of the life of Jesus, I didn’t find it at all disrespectful. It is a fictional retelling, of course, but very much grounded in historical research and definitely holds to the details of Jesus’s life that are in the Bible.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is the story of the life of history’s most famous person told by his best friend and sidekick. Josh – Joshua bar Joseph and who would later come to be known as Jesus Christ – is a serious-minded kid, as you’d guess. Biff, his best friend, is the opposite: loud, rabble-rousing, a total smart-ass, and a total womanizer. He’s pretty awesome.

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Being raised Catholic and to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his humanity, reading this book and seeing another version of Jesus as a man, with the same hopes, fears, desires, and cares, is truly beautiful. The Gospels often portray Jesus in such conflicting terms, though I do realize they were written very much as propaganda to further the newly-hatched Christian religion, but for me, seeing the disparate elements of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so seamlessly melded into Josh’s character made me relate even more to him.

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The story is told in two timeframes: the life of Josh and the many adventures he and Biff have; and Biff in the present time writing his Gospel of memories and adventures with Josh. The boys travel with their families to Jerusalem for high holy days, encounter Roman soldiers, meet Mary Magdalene  -Maggie – and fall in love with her, and go in search of the three Magi who came to see Josh at his birth. Much of the book is their quest to find Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – respectively, in Afghanistan, China, and India. Josh learns from the three wise men the tenets of the Tao; the Zen school; and Buddhism, which all affect his later ministry. Biff learns the art of the Kama Sutra, the skills of martial arts and how to kill with a touch, how to create weapons, and how to charm women. In other words, all the things that Josh, as the Son of God and Bringer of Peace, can’t know. They make a great team, as they perfectly complement each other – yin and yang, carnal vs. spiritual.

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Possibly one of the most hilarious and touching moments in this book, and some clever foreshadowing, is when the origin of the Easter Bunny is explained, as a drunken Josh sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem near Passover, cuddles baby rabbits, and declares “Henceforth and from now on, I decree that whenever something bad happens to me, there shall be bunnies around.” It’s characteristic of the book as a whole – so funny and yet poignantly moving because we all know what is going to happen to Josh. And so it does.

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In modern times, Biff is brought back from death to write his own gospel by the angel Raziel, who is sent by one of the archangels to fetch him. The archangel gives Raziel his instructions and something else to do.

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“Go get the good news, Raziel. Bring me back some chocolate.” “Chocolate?” “It’s a dirt-dweller snack……..Satan invented it.” “Devil’s food?” “You can only eat so much white cake, my friend.”

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Being Easter Sunday, a chocolate Devil’s Food Cake seemed extremely appropriate for my family lunch, especially because my very Catholic grandmother was there, and the look on her face when I told her what we were having for dessert, was priceless. To her credit, she then started laughing, so she gets points for having a sense of humor AND for tolerating me as her granddaughter.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my idol Nigella Lawson’s delectable Devil’s Food Cake recipe, with the requisite flavor tweaks by the Easter Bunny.

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling-hot instant espresso
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting
1/2 cup instant espresso, cooled
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
10 ounces of dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F, spray two baking pans with butter spray, and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Then, mix the cocoa powder and the sugar with the boiling hot espresso.

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Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.

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Mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda together in another bowl.

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Add the vanilla and almond extracts to the butter-sugar mixture, stir to mix, then add the eggs.

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One cup at a time, add the flour to the butter-sugar, stir to mix well, then add the next cup of flour. Do this until all the flour is combined.

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Mix in the chocolate-cocoa-espresso combination, and whisk until well combined and makes a smooth and chocolatey batter.

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Divide the batter between the two baking pans, bake for about 20 minutes, and check on them twice to make sure they are not overbaking. That would suck.

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While the cakes are baking, put the cooled espresso, the brown sugar, and the butter into a small pan over low heat.

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Once bubbling, add the chocolate pieces and whisk until they melt and are mixed together into the butter and thicken into a frosting.

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Let the cakes cool completely before attempting to frost them. Please trust me on this. I’m saving you many dropped F-bombs with this advice. Set one cake round on your fancy cake display and frost the sides and top.

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Set the other cake round on top of the frosted one, and proceed in the same manner. Then, just eat, with a choir of heavenly angels singing in your ear.

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.