Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

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In rereading Casino Royale, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

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James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

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Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

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“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

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This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

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Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

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Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

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Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

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The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

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The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

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I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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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 Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Though an interesting read, it was also occasionally difficult to continue The Sea, The Sea, so convoluted are the mental musings of Charles Arrowby, the main character. I never fully connected to him or any other character, though the setting – an isolated house on a cliff overlooking the ocean – sounds appropriately Gothic and Romantic and just where I would like to spend my summer vacation. Minus the sea dragons, of course.

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Charles is a pain in the ass, quite frankly. He’s arrogant as hell, he writes about the most mundane things in his daily life as though they were momentous occasions, and he suffers under grand delusions that he is adored and that everyone sees the world in the exact same way he does – with him at the center of everything. Although, as he starts having his “delusions,” I felt a bit sorry for him; and when he becomes convinced that his first love, Hartley, still carries a torch for him (even though she’s been married for years, has children and shows no desire to rekindle the flame), I felt like he was crossing the line into total madness.

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I think it’s safe to say that the sea is supposed to be something of a parallel for Charles’s moods. It’s calm, he has his moments of calmness. It rages and wreaks havoc………so does he in the lives of those he claims to care for. It’s a fascinating read, if you can work through all the daily detail and the inner workings of a rather twisted male mind (though I’ve yet to meet a male mind that wasn’t twisted). But the luscious descriptions of food and meals that he eats and details in his diary were his saving grace and provided me with a lot of cooking inspiration.

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Lentil soup with chipolata sausages and onions and apples! Scrambled eggs with frankfurters and grilled tomatoes with garlic! Corned beef with red cabbage and pickled walnuts! Baked potatoes with cream cheese and lemon! Macaroni and cheese with garlic, basil, olive oil, more cheese and courgettes (which are zucchini – I had to look that one up.) Anchovy paste on toast with baked beans, tomatoes, celery, lemon juice and olive oil!  He also drinks wine by the gallon, so he isn’t completely without good qualities. And the man loves his food. As do we all.

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“Of course reading and thinking are important, but my God, food is important, too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

I love lentil soup, and recently found a delicious one, and here’s the wonderful recipe, on Chocolate and Zucchini’s most excellent blog. I used it as a base, but as usual, with my own added taste tweaks. Having recently purchased my first stove-top grill pan, some grilled shrimp also seemed to be in order. And with that vacuum-sealed bag of fresh, peeled chestnuts waiting in my pantry……..It was meant to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, peeled
4 cloves of garlic
1 rib of celery
1 and 1/2 cups lentils, any type
3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 and 1/2 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups shrimp, deveined and thawed, but still with their tails attached
Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour

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METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor, or with a mezzaluna. I love using my mezzaluna. It makes even a total klutz like me look like I know what I’m doing.

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In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and onion, sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and cook on low for about 10 minutes. The smell will rise up and hit your nose like savory heaven! Then, add the fresh herbs and stir for another five minutes.

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Add the bay leaves and the lentils and give them a good stir, so they get covered with the oil, butter and cooked veggies.

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Add the chicken broth and the bouillon paste. Stir gently, lower the heat, cover with a (preferably see-through) lid, and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes.

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After half an hour, add the chestnuts. Cook another 30 minutes.

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I know it’s hard, but try your hardest to resist taking the lid off and stirring the lentils while cooking. Try really hard. When they keep getting hit with air and being stirred during cooking, they get mushy. So just don’t. Have a glass of wine to distract yourself if you must.

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You can either use a stick blender or a regular blender to puree this soup into a thick, luscious, unctuous mix. I chose the stick blender simply because it’s easier to clean, and I enjoy watching the puree process. I’m weird like that.

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Cover the pureed soup to stay warm, and heat your grill pan. Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper onto the shrimp for seasoning. Then, thread 5-6 shrimp on a waterlogged skewer, and grill in the heated grill pan. Watch the shrimp closely and when they get pink and striped like a tiger, immediately remove.

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Cook the bacon in the same pan, and when cool, crumble.

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Decant the soup into bowls and add a swirl of heavy cream to each one. Garnish with the beautiful grilled shrimp, and bacon, unless you’re a vegetarian……and if you are, my sincere condolences.

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Eat, in Charles Arrowby style, with great enjoyment and copious amounts of red wine.

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The soup is lovely, well seasoned, and the shrimp add a delicious, saline note that wonderfully offsets the richness of the chestnuts and the earthiness of the lentils. Soooooo good, and rewarms beautifully and deliciously the next day, too.

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

roasted chileDedicated to my wonderful Nana Jean. I miss you more than words could ever express.

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

2016-09-04 17.53.34_resized.jpg It’s a true slice of New Mexican history, a beautiful small village tucked against mountain ranges, and for me, epitomizes what is so very special about my home state.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Saute the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas.

Mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat.

I think my Nana would be proud!

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The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

What I found fascinating about The Dead House is the fact that it’s narrated in first person by a character who is not the focus of the story, but whose own story is as much a part of the overall arc as the main character. Mike is an art dealer and his best friend is Maggie, an artist whom he represents. She’s been recently from the hospital after having been savagely assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. She finds an old cottage in the Irish countryside, starts fixing it up in anticipation of painting something new, and invites Mike, his future wife Alison, and another friend and they spend the weekend exploring, drinking, cooking, laughing, and on the last night, playing with an Ouija board. Because what else would anyone want to do in a seaside cottage on the isolated Irish coast in a country that boasts its fair share of ghosts, spirits, pagan gods and other creepy things? And of course, we all know that when we are dumb enough to play with the supernatural, it almost always plays back with us.

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Maggie becomes even more isolated at the cottage as whatever spirit that was summoned by the Ouija board starts spending more and more time in her company. Ack! Mike, whose relationship with Alison is developing and which is described in lovely and realistic detail of a true love match (but in a way that’s not mushy or sappy, thank God), and when he goes to visit Maggie yet again and sees how her world is deteriorating, all else goes to Hell. Literally and figuratively.

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The aspect of the story I found difficult was the fact that Maggie, although the de facto focus of the story, is never truly given a personality or background. We know she’s an artist, we know she’s drawn to men who don’t treat her well, we know she’s somewhat of a lost soul, we know she’s a creative type with an odd connection to the stranger things in life, but we never really understand why she is the way she is. Mike talks about Maggie from almost an emotional remove, perhaps it’s because what happens to Maggie ultimately ends up affecting his own life……….but enough spoilers.

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Overall, I loved this unique ghost story, heavy with the menacing sense that Ireland’s history is still with us today and is as scary and haunting as it was hundreds of years ago when blood sacrifices to their pagan gods were the order of the day. Also, O’Callaghan writes so beautifully about the nature in Ireland – the rocks, the glint of sunshine on the ocean, the various trees and flowers and plants that make the countryside into such a picture-perfect place.

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Before the sh*t hits the fan with the Ouija board, the four friends spend one evening making a communal meal of spaghetti Bolognese, or spag bol, as it is called in the United Kingdom. I thought a nice potful of Bolognese sauce was in order, so that’s what I made,  based on the late, great Antonio Carluccio, who insists there be no herbs whatsoever. And yes, I know it’s weird to make an Italian classic from a book set in Ireland. Don’t write in.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken livers
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots, finely chopped
2-3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 head of roasted garlic
3 ounces ground beef
3 ounces ground pork
1 cup pancetta, finely chopped
4 generous tablespoons good-quality tomato paste
1 glass dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Firstly, soak the chicken livers in milk overnight in the refrigerator. Please trust me here. They add such a depth of savory flavor that is so delicious and when cooked and mashed in the sauce, thicken it deliciously.

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Rinse the chicken livers, pat dry and fry in butter for about 5 minutes per side. Let cool.

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Melt the oil and butter together in a large pot, and add in the chopped carrot, celery and onion. Saute for about 5 minutes, then squeeze in the roasted cloves of garlic. The smell is out of this world good!

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Add the ground pork, ground beef, and pancetta, and stir together so that the juices from the meats mingle with the flavor of the vegetables. Let cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so things don’t stick. You want to cook it until it’s almost dry, as this adds to the texture.

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Pour in the tomato paste, and stir around. The color is like a deep brick red, very different than the color you get from cooking with crushed tomatoes.

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Pour in the red wine and the chicken stock, and stir to mix. You will still have a thick texture, but the wine and stock thin it and add to the flavor.

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After 10 minutes, add in the chicken livers, and using a wooden spoon, mash them against the side of the pot to thicken the sauce.

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Turn the heat to low, stir again, cover and let simmer gently for up to 2 hours, checking on it occasionally. Add in more wine or stock if necessary.

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Serve with spaghetti for a true British spag bol, tagliatelli which is much more traditional in Italy, or if you’re not eating carbs like me, eat with a pile of zucchini noodles, which are excellent! The sauce itself is so good, complex and thick and rich, yet with a hint of sweetness. Delicious!

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This book, Little Women, has an incredibly special place in my heart, for many reasons. The first is that my edition, shown here, was bought for me by my father David, for my 12th birthday many years ago, in which he wrote me a deeply loving message, which I still read when I am feeling down, as I have been lately.

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The other reason I love this book is because it reminded me so much of me and my sisters growing up. My oldest sister was so much like Meg in the sense of being motherly/bossy and always directing what we should do. I was Jo, the bookworm who preferred solitude and writing and the company of animals. My younger sister always reminded me of Amy, pretty, outgoing, somewhat spoiled but with a heart of gold.

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The language is somewhat outdated, but I remember suspending my disbelief, so words I didn’t understand were transformed as part of the larger emotional narrative. My heart broke when – spoiler alert! – Beth died. In fact, I just watched that episode of “Friends” when Rachel has Joey reading Little Women, and when he comes to the part where Beth dies, he has to put the book in the freezer. Hilarious! That episode is hilarious, to be clear, not Beth dying.

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Though there are numerous food segments to choose from, the one with Jo putting salt on the strawberries being a personal favorite – and not just because I made that very mistake myself once upon a time when trying to impress a man….hahahaha! – I love the chapter when Jo and Laurie become friends after she comes to cheer him up with a visit, complete with Beth’s kittens in one hand and a delicious sweet treat in the other.

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“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love and was glad if I could do something for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

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Blancmange is a white custard dessert flavored with vanilla, similar to Italian panna cotta. I love almond, so I tweaked to give a more almond taste.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole-fat milk
2 tablespoons vanilla (clear if possible)
1 tablespoon almond extract

METHOD
Mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup of the milk. Set aside.

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In a small, heavy-bottomed pan or double boiler, heat the rest of the milk over low heat. Don’t let boil, but when you see tiny bubbles forming at the edges, you’re ready.

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Whisk in the cornstarch, sugar and milk mixture, stirring constantly. The whisking and stirring will get rid of the cornstarch flavor and also keep the sugar from burning, and will assist in thickening.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about an hour. Add in the vanilla, stir together, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

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I served mine in individual ramekins, and decorated with red edible glitter because I live to bling. It is delicious, light and smooth and comforting, but with those flavors of vanilla and almond complementing each other so well.

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