Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bildüngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. 🙂

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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Help For The Haunted by John Searles

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I like my horror stories with a side of intelligence, and Help for the Haunted delivers in spades. It’s a quintessential coming of age story set in Maryland in the late 1980s. The premise: a young girl, Sylvie Mason, witnesses her parents’ murder one snowy night. But Mom and Dad are not your ordinary, everyday parental units. They offer help to the haunted, or rather, are demonologists. Sylvie and her older sister, Rose, a moody, sullen teenager until she is one day sent away to school, have grown up in this unusual family dynamic, meeting the haunted, possessed people that come to their parents for help and being around the haunted objects their parents occasionally bring home to store in their basement. Their parents are called that fateful night to meet Rose, who has run away from school, and Sylvie goes with them. But what she thinks she sees and what the truth is, are not as simple as you would think.

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This was a genuinely creepy and eerie book, but it was also touching and evocative of those teenage years when you’re not sure of yourself or your place in the world. The dynamic of the two sisters was familiar territory for me, reminding me very much of my sister Krista and I growing up together, fighting and arguing, being simultaneously bossed around and protected by her. At its heart, as frightening as this book is, it’s ultimately about family and those ties that bind and strangle us, and yet at the same time, make us stronger and more resilient. Anyone who’s had sibling or parent issues can definitely relate.

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In one passage, Sylvie describes a rare family moment of peace. Her sister Rose is behaving herself for once, her parents are home from their ghostly endeavors, and it’s Rose’s birthday. Their mother always made them something called a Lady Baltimore cake, an annual tradition.

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“In late September, Rose’s seventeenth birthday arrived. Since Rose had been attending confirmation classes at Saint Bartholomew, my parents invited the new parish priest to dinner. Every birthday, my mother baked a Lady Baltimore cake, which, despite the name, she told us was not a Maryland tradition but a southern one.”

A Lady Baltimore cake is essentially a layered, tiered white cake with egg whites beaten into the batter to add lightness, and a special white frosting. The cake tiers are separated by this white frosting, into which has been mixed walnuts, maraschino cherries and raisins. Then the whole tiered cake is iced in white. Now, I hate raisins, I don’t care for maraschino cherries, and I am not a fan of thick, heavy cake frostings. And I hate plain white anything. Boring. White is from the Devil. So I hope the ghost of Lady Baltimore, whoever she was, doesn’t come haunt me for tweaking this classic American cake recipe. Because I did, so there.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

For two cake layers: (adapted from the classic cookbook The Encyclopedia of Cookery)
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
3 eggs
2 egg whites, beaten until stiff

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Sift the flour into a large bowl with the cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, butter, vanilla, and then slowly add in the sugar, stirring to incorporate. Slowly add in the bowl of dry ingredients, alternating with the milk, a little at a time until everything is evenly mixed together. Slowly fold in the beaten egg whites, and stir again so that everything is well mixed together and you have a smooth, creamy texture. Like this.

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Pour into two round cake pans, greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes, remove and let cool for at least 2-3 hours, if not overnight. They are much easier to frost when completely cool; if not, the frosting will melt and you will have a God-awful mess to clean up.

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While the cake layers are cooling, prepare the fruit filling and whipped cream icing.

For the icing:
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup limoncello or lemon juice (my twist)

Whip the cream until it’s stiff. Add in the sugar and the limoncello and mix together again until nice and smooth and white and creamy and luscious and unctuous………. Oh sorry. I got carried away there.

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For the fruit filling:
Hulled strawberries
Blueberries
Raspberries
Blackberries
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 cup of limoncello

Add the limoncello to the mix of berries and nuts in a bowl and leave to macerate for at least an hour, if not longer.

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Add the spiked fruit to half the whipped cream, mix together and chill for another hour, along with the plain whipped cream.

Assemble the cake. Flip one of the cooled cake layers over so that the flat bottom is now on the top. Spread a generous layer of the fruit, nut and whipped cream mixture.

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Top with the other cake layer. Cover the top and sides of the tiered cake with the remainder of the plain whipped cream. (As you can see, I am not the greatest cake handler and there were some issues with transferring one of the cake tiers to the cake stand…………nothing that a good dollop of whipped cream icing won’t cover!)

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Since I was in a patriotic mood, I decorated the pristine white top of the cake with red strawberries and blueberries, evoking the American flag. Yes, I know a true, classic Lady Baltimore cake should be pure white on the outside, and yes I know I shouldn’t quit my day job to become a cake decorator, but it’s July 4th weekend! I HAD to decorate it in red, white and blue. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it, but here’s a picture of the white cake before decorating, for you purists out there.

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When you cut into the cake, the white layers will contrast gorgeously with the whipped cream and fruit/nut filling. It’s really quite lovely, almost too lovely to eat. But we managed. A little champagne didn’t hurt, either.

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Here’s to the ghosts of our Founding Fathers and to the United States of America! Happy July 4th!