The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Thanks to MC for the photography.

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 – Dracula means dragon in Romanian.

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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 told in the form of 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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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Thanks to TB for the photography.

It’s October! The month of peculiar things that go bump in the night, the season of the witch, of ghosts and haunted houses, of vampires and demons. And very appropriately, we kick off this month of Halloween-themed blog posts with the bad-ass granddad of all vampires books, Dracula, and its romantic, ghastly hero Count Drakulya, based on the historic Vlad the Impaler of Romania.

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You should look up the historical Vlad sometime. He was a real bastard of a human being, and he’s called the Impaler for a reason…….his favorite method of dealing with enemies (both his fellow countrymen and foreign soldiers) was impaling them on a huge stake and sitting among the bodies while drinking wine. Nice guy.

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But it’s the vampire legend created by Stoker that has fueled my imagination for years. I love vampires, with the exception of those pasty, pallid creatures in that silly Twilight series. But Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Kostova, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and my Irish buddy Bram Stoker here have all created truly creepy blood-sucking creatures that have stood the test of literary time.

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You know the story of Dracula and Mina and Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing and Renfield, so I won’t go into detail about it. But what I find fascinating about Stoker’s vampire is that he has stood the test of time better than any other night creature. There is obviously something about Count Dracula that has perpetually captured general fascination. All the writers above have used the template of Dracula for their books, and there are vampires everywhere in modern culture.

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There’s also that psycho-sexual element of the vampire in general that makes it so seductive – penetration of the other person (with teeth, you perverts), exchange of bodily fluids, biting on the neck. Dracula is also seeking his great love, which he finds in Mina. It’s incredibly romantic,and horrifying at the same time, this parasitic sucking of the blood and living off the essence of human beings…..which is what love can be at times. You can see why Dracula makes a totally sexy and hot anti-hero, even if he does leave you dead on the floor.

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When I was re-reading this book a few days ago, I noticed the detailed mentions of Eastern European food by Jonathan Harker’s character while on his way to meet the infamous Count Dracula in Transylvania. He notes something called mamaliga, which is a type of oatmeal or polenta; robber steak, which appears to be a type of kebab; and paprika hendl, which turns out to be chicken paprika. I think Jonathan was a secret foodie, personally.

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“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for  Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

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I’d eaten chicken paprika a few years ago, though it was made with canned soup and wasn’t particularly good. But now, recreating this dish, I’m giving it my own twist with fresh ingredients, smoked paprika, cayenne for some heat, some red pepper strips, and lots of garlic because I like smelling like a stinking rose, and because garlic repels vampires. You just never know what might be hovering at your window this time of year, waiting to sink its fangs into your neck.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on a post from T.S. Bazelli’s very interesting blog, but of course, with the requisite additions by yours truly.

INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil

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2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika (yes, I know it’s not Hungarian, but they have vampires in Spain, too, don’t they?
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 onion, cut into long strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup water
Egg noodles

METHOD
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron pan and brown the chicken pieces for about 5 minutes. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add the butter, onions, red bell pepper, garlic, flour, paprika and cayenne pepper. Stir briskly to get rid of any lumps the flour may create, and to get rid of any lingering floury taste.

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Add the tomato bouillon cube here so that it adds a savory note to the mixture. Chicken paprikash can be a bit bland if you don’t spice it up. You could add tomatoes, but that’s your call. The bouillon cube will add the desired tang without overwhelming the overall taste of the dish.

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Add the chicken stock and the water, and bring to a low bubble.

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Add the chicken pieces, stir around to mix everything, cover and leave to simmer gently for half an hour or so. Check occasionally to make sure everything is cooking but not burning. After the first 30 minutes, remove the lid so that the liquid can evaporate somewhat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

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Add in the egg noodles, so they can absorb some of the liquid, which helps both with the dish’s texture and the flavoring of the noodles themselves.

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Add in the sour cream, stir together, and leave on very low heat another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so the cream doesn’t curdle.

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Serve, preferably on blood-red plates with blood-red wine in goblets, candles burning, and the menacing shadow of Count Dracula stroking your neck as you eat.

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It’s a delicious dish, richly spiced with the smoky paprika and the hint of cayenne giving it heat, and the offset of the sour cream. The red peppers and onion aren’t overly cooked and still have a bit of crunch, and the garlic gives the added oomph that garlic does. Definitely something to make again!