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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‘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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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 Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy Reichert

I fully admit that this would never have been a book I’d deliberately choose to read, falling as it does into my category of chick lit. And we all know how I feel about chick lit. However, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake (what a twee title!) was actually fairly decently written, though with a fair amount of purple prose that made me cringe. Think Harlequin Romance meets Epicurious.

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I will come clean and admit that I only found this book because I was actually searching online for recipes for homemade coconut cake as a thank-you for a friend who recently house-sat and dog-sat for me when I was out of town. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I’d never made coconut cake, or even had it in real life, truth be told, so I didn’t know what all was involved. This title popped up on one of the Google searches and it seemed like the perfect way to combine a new cooking experiment with a book blog post.

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Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it’s the story of a young restaurant owner, Lou, a/k/a/ Elizabeth, who superficially has the perfect life. Her restaurant is doing well and looks about to take off into the stratosphere; her fiance is wonderful and supportive and loving, etc. Except her fiance is a cheating jerk, and on the night she finally finds this out, she is so devastated that it shows at the restaurant. The food is bad, the environment unwelcoming……and a famous restaurant critic known for his vicious reviews writes one so negative that it cuts off her restaurant’s ascent at the knees.

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Depressed after the review comes out, she finds herself getting hammered in a local bar and meets Al, an Englishman and frustrated writer who, unknown to Al, supports himself by writing restaurant reviews under an assumed name while waiting for his big writing break. I’m sure you can guess who the reviewer is who skewered Al’s restaurant. So, while his career starts to skyrocket, hers starts to plummet, yet they have forged a romantic connection, and not realizing who the other one is, start exploring the international festivals and varied restaurants of Milwaukee.

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I’d call this book fluffy, both because overall it’s a light read with a predictable ending – she finds out who he is and has to decide if she’ll give him another chance, blah blah blah. But fluffy also in homage of the delicious fluffy coconut cake recipe that ties up all the loose ends, finishes the book, and which is today’s food and books blog post.

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Well, obviously it had to be a coconut cake! What did you think it was going to be, a beer-butt chicken? Yes, it’s set in Milwaukee but they do have other things besides beer. So I’ve heard.  🙂 Anyway, I used the recipe at the end of the book, with my own flavoring tweak of adding rum, because there is nothing that can’t be made better in life with the addition of booze. (Anthony Bourdain knew this. God, I hope he’s having a boozefest up in Heaven right now.)

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake:
5 egg whites, room temperature
1 whole egg, room temperature
3/4 cup cream of coconut
1/4 cup coconut milk (shake the can well to mix it up)
1 teaspoon rum
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces

For the frosting:
2 tablespoons coconut milk
1 teaspoon rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup cream of coconut
3 cups powdered sugar
2 cups coconut, toasted in a dry pan for a few minutes until slightly brown

METHOD
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325F, and oil or butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Whisk together the egg whites, the cream of coconut, the coconut milk, the whole egg, the rum and the vanilla in your most fabulous red Kitchen Aid. Set aside.

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In another bowl, mix together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder and salt.

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Add the softened butter to the egg mixture and mix together one piece at a time, using a medium-low setting.]

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One spoonful at a time, add in the flour and sugar mixture, again slowly incorporating using a medium-low setting. Mix until a nice, thick, creamy batter forms.

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Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans, and bake for 25 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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For the frosting:
Stir together the coconut milk, the rum and vanilla, and the salt together until the salt dissolves.

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Beat the butter and powdered sugar together until smooth. This will probably take a good 8 minutes using the medium setting on your Kitchen Aid.

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Pour in the coconut milk mixture and beat until smooth and fluffy, probably 5 minutes.

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Frost the bottom cake layer across the top, and add a sprinkle of toasted coconut.

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Put the top cake layer onto the bottom cake layer, and frost with the remaining mixture. Sprinkle the remaining toasted coconut across the top and on the sides.

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Display on a fancy cake stand before letting people devour it.

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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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Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

I was going to avoid any type of love story for Valentine’s Day this year, but I decided that was rather cynical of me, since expressing love for someone is one of the best and bravest things anyone can do in this world. That being said, I loathe and despise mush. I love genuine gestures of caring, friendship and love that are spontaneous and come from the heart, and that oftentimes, are completely unplanned, but sappy gush? Hell no.

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A kiss on the hand, a light stroking of hair, an unexpected embrace, even a quick smack on the ass while I’m cooking – these gestures of affection are so treasured by me when they are given. But sappy, slobbery words of love, declarations of undying love, promises of never-ending romance………meh. I suppose that stems from watching my father – married five times and engaged to two different women at the time of his death – doing the romantic number to all his wives and girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. We’re talking roses, jewelry, cards, the works, and yet, he was never faithful to any of them. I suppose that has made me somewhat cautious of the grand romantic gesture.

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Regardless, Love in the Time of Cholera has become one of my absolute favorite love stories in the world. It’s romantic, yes, but it is also unconventional, sexually explicit, funny, dark, painful, and beautiful. The love story at its heart spans 50 years, goes from youthful obsession to accepting love, from being young to growing old and still maintaining that deep, abiding love for another. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love when in their teens, but her father refuses to allow her to marry him. She instead marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, older, wealthier, and somewhat of a local hero. Florentino maintains his love and adoration of Fermina for 50 years, going through affair after affair after affair, numerous sexual exploits, varying relationships – 622, to be exact – yet in his heart and soul, he is faithful to his Fermina because he only loves her. When Dr. Urbino dies in the first chapter, after their 50+ years of marriage, Fermina sees Florentino at the funeral where he declares his perpetual love for her, and sets out to woo her again. Thus begins the story.

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Florentino’s love for Fermina is compared to the cholera – feverish, never-ending, destructive, devastating. Those of us who have had the fortune and misfortune to have a love so encompassing, enveloping and overwhelming can agree – love is passionate, maddening, destructive, and ultimately, redeeming.

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The other reason why I love this book so much is because the daily, grinding reality of marriage is so well described. Dr. Urbino doesn’t truly love Fermina, though he is a good husband in many ways. But the daily rituals of cooking, eating, lovemaking, washing clothes, going to work, knowing the other person so well, understanding their love of cafe con leche, their hatred of a certain song, their taste in jewelry, the way they get dressed or comb their hair…………it is in these elements that that connection is created.

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In this story, one of Fermina’s most amusing quirks is her hatred for eggplant. She despises this vegetable, and the book is littered with references to her disgust, at one point comparing it to purple poison. And one of the most touching scenes is when she initially accepts Florentino’s youthful marriage proposal with a note stating:

Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.

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And speaking of my father, one of the things he loved to do was cook, and he was quite an excellent one. His specialty was eggplant Parmigiana, which I thought was highly appropriate in this context. This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous Anna del Conte’s recipe in Gastronomy of Italy, one of my absolute favorite cookbooks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large eggs
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch slices, salted for an hour then rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 16-oz container ricotta cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1 jar homemade marinara sauce (I got mine from Tully’s Italian Deli)
2 cups mixed grated mozzarella and fontina cheeses

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon water in a shallow dish. Combine panko and 1/4 cup Parmeggiano-Reggiano in a second shallow dish.

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Dip eggplant slices first in the egg mixture, then in the panko mixture, and shake off the excess.

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Heat canola or peanut oil in a large skillet, and brown the eggplant slices, turning once to brown both sides. Drain on paper towels.

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Make the filling. Combine the chopped basil, the crushed red pepper, the garlic, the ricotta cheese, the egg, and the heated-through marinara sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Spoon about a half-cup of the marinara sauce mixture in the bottom of a glass Pyrex baking dish, and put a layer of eggplant slices onto the red sauce.

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Do one more layer, finish with the last of the marinara sauce mixture, cover with tinfoil and bake another 30 minutes. Remove foil and top with mozzarella and fontina. Bake another 15 minutes until the cheese is golden and melted.

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Serve alone or with pasta. I chose spinach noodles because I love the color and the taste.

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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Written by fellow blogger James J. Cudney, whose awesome blog This Is My Truth Now is among my favorite sites,  Watching Glass Shatter was a lengthy and awesome read about family secrets, family dysfunction, and ultimately, family bonds and love that keep people connected, even during some of the worst times.

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The premise of the story is thus: Ben Glass, the patriarch of the family, has just died. His widow Olivia – who I totally picture as Helen Mirren – learns of a potentially devastating family secret Ben kept from her. You learn one of the secrets early on in the book, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t reveal it. However, it is the impetus for Olivia to get to know all five of her sons in more depth, and as a result, learns that they each have secrets of their own.

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I like the analogy of glass shattering as representing the calm family facade that Ben and Olivia maintained throughout their marriage and the play on the word as it is also the family surname. Olivia reminded me a great deal of my own grandmother, very stoic and calm, sometimes cold in her manners, but with this smooth facade hiding lots of emotion and love.

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Each of the sons – Teddy, Matt, Caleb, Zach, and Ethan – have their own distinctive personalities and voices that come through very clearly, sometimes irritatingly so, because they are far from perfect. Yet, as I kept reading, I started understanding and even relating to each of them in their quest to maintain that Glass family facade. I liked Ethan the best because he is so close to his mother and seems initially to be the only son that truly cares for her well-being.

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In one early pivotal scene, Olivia’s sister Diane serves them both breakfast after the funeral, in Olivia’s elegant, calm, and beautifully decorated dining room. The room is very much like Olivia – almost untouchable in its exquisitely detailed beauty, and the appropriately elegant breakfast of gourmet coffee, juice and quiche that is described so delectably made me salivate just reading this scene.

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Grabbing a quiche out of the refrigerator, she sliced two giant wedges and put them in the broiler to warm up. While the coffee dripped, Diane set two places at the breakfast nook in the corner, her favorite spot in her sister’s house……..She checked the quiche, savoring the golden-brown crust and bubbling Gruyere, her nose tempted by the comfort it offered.

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Quiche Lorraine is that classic French dish that combines Gruyere cheese, eggs, and bacon into something heavenly that angels could eat happily.  I had some caramelized onions leftover, so I added those to the mix. And yes, I used, premade Marie Callender pie crust instead of making it from scratch. Don’t judge.

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INGREDIENTS
2 premade pie crusts (or go all out and make your own!)
6 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
8 slices of bacon
1 cup caramelized onions
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and prick the crusts in the center with a for, then blind-bake them for 10 minutes. Let cool.

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Cook the bacon, and when slightly cooled, crumble and sprinkle into the bottom of the piecrusts.

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Add a layer of onions on top of the bacon in the crusts.

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Beat the eggs together with the cream, the Gruyere, and the nutmeg, and add salt and pepper. The Gruyere is salty, so don’t go overboard with the salt.

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Pour the egg mixture on top of the bacon and onions in the piecrusts, and bake for 25 minutes. Check for texture and remove from the oven if it’s not wobbly anymore. If it’s still a bit wobbly, leave another 2-3 minutes.

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Let cool and serve. I personally think quiche is the most perfect dish in the world, and this recipe hasn’t changed my mind. DELISH!

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Underrated by Josh Abraham

I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, mainly because I read to escape reality……particularly these days, when the world around us seems to be going insane. But having discovered this pop culture gem, Underrated, while waiting at my dentist’s office, I changed my mind. Slightly.

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Josh Abraham takes some of the most classic pundits of modern culture that everyone loves to hate – Good Times, Jay Mohr, diet Dr. Pepper, The Godfather III (and for that, I thank him heartily because I happen to think that movie was pretty all right – save the hate mail, please), and that classic American slab of comfort food known as meatloaf. And what could be more underrated than meatloaf?

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I go back to my original statement about The Godfather III. HELLO! It’s still an amazing film. It’s Coppola, for God’s sake. He could film someone reading the history of ground beef and it would be amazing.  Abraham details why this film should not be given short shrift – for all the reasons I always thought! Lack of quotable lines combined with none of the old-school characters combined with Sofia Coppola…….who, IMHO, was not that bad, and thank God she wasn’t that great because then we wouldn’t have her directorial awesomeness in Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, or Marie Antoinette.

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But the piece on meatloaf is what got me thinking. Goddammit, I LOVE meatloaf! It’s classic American fodder food and seriously, if you screw up meatloaf, you are beyond help.  Anyway, my deeply buried love for meatloaf reasserted itself after reading this book, and I decided that a nice loaf would be the perfect blog post. If you don’t like meatloaf, well, go order a pizza, then.

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Ok, so meatloaf isn’t the most exciting of dishes. It’s also perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing of foods, either. But this version, perfected after many variations and experiments, is really, really good. The key is using half pork sausage, which adds more flavor and keeps the ingredients moist, even after baking. Trust me!

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
7 baby carrots
1 celery stalk
1 red onion
6 cloves garlic
Tablespoon each of fresh thyme, fresh parsley and fresh oregano
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork sausage
3 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
2 eggs
1 heaping cup of Panko breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Teaspoon mustard
4 tablespoons tomato sauce

METHOD

Heat the oven to 375F. Melt the butter and olive oil in a large pan over medium heat on the stove. Finely chop the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs and add to the pan. Saute for 10-12 minutes.

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In a separate bowl, add the two ground meats, the eggs and the Worchestershire sauce.

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Pour over the breadcrumbs.

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Let the vegetable mixture cool in the freezer for 15 minutes, then add to the eggs, breadcrumbs and meats.

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Add the mustard and the tomato sauce to the mixture, and then mix everything together well, using your VERY clean hands. Pat into a loaf tin.

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Bake for an hour. Let cool. Cram down your throat. It’s that good –  and totally underrated! If you want to go full-on retro, serve with peas and macaroni and cheese, the old-school kind from the box. Good stuff!

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The Alienist by Caleb Carr

The story of the United States is varied and unique, as any historian will tell you. We have the story of the indigenous Native Americans, the British pilgrims, the ancient Vikings, the Irish, German, Polish, and Scottish immigrants who came in a wave to this country between the mid-1700s and late 1800s, and the the Spanish conquistadores who brought their religion – by force, mostly – to the Southwest Pueblo and Plains Indians, to name just a few of the groups who make up this vast melting pot that is America.

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With these diverse groups came diverse religions, cultural beliefs, histories, folklore, and food. What all of these cultures and people have in common is the fact that, no matter where you come from or what you believe in, there is still the criminal mind among them all.

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Caleb Carr, one of my most favorite historian authors in the world, gave us what I consider his masterpiece in “The Alienist,” which details the story of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his band of crime-fighting allies in 1890s New York City, a place of huge waves of immigrants, incredible racism and poverty, and during the tenure of Teddy Roosevelt’s stint as Police Commissioner for that city.

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It’s a murder mystery, a treatise on early scientific methods in policing, fascinating psychological analysis, excellent historical fiction, and an unusual love story all rolled into one. Told from the POV of John Schuyler Moore, a journalist who is recruited by Dr. Kreizler to be part of the team to solve a series of increasingly gruesome child murders, the industrial feel and outlaw mentality of that era in NYC history is vividly brought to life. Moore is a great narrator, detailed yet very amusing at time, and his journey from disbelief to staggering endorsement of Dr. Kreizler’s methods echoes the mentality of most people back in that time and place.

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As much an excellent historical portrait, the clothes, architecture, transportation, and food are also described vividly. One of their favorite restaurants to eat at, and a New York institution, is Delmonico’s. Delmonico’s is still in operation, though it’s gone through many different variations, and of course, there is the famous Delmonico steak. But Delmonico’s provides the crime-fighting team with amazing meals, including one at a very heart-wrenching and sad period in their investigation.

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With unfailing psychological insight, Kreizler had selected for our breakfast the only place in New York where I might have been able to either collect myself or eat anything at all. Alone in the silent main dining room at Del’s, with the light that came through the windows soft enough to allow my shattered nerves to begin to heal, I actually managed to consume several bites of cucumber fillets, Creole eggs…………..\

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Along with Creole Eggs and cucumber fillets, fried potatoes and artichoke hearts are mentioned as part of this poignant breakfast, so that’s what I made. My Creole eggs were based on the great Louisiana chef Emeril Lagasse’s recipe, with my own tweaks for taste. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
1 green pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
6 eggs, room temperature
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

METHOD
Saute the green pepper, onion, mushrooms, celery and bay leaves in a bit of olive oil for about 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes, and simmer together on low heat for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and if necessary, salt and pepper. Simmer another 45  minutes, stirring to keep from sticking or burning.

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While the sauce is simmering, start frying your potatoes.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Spread the tomato sauce across the bottom of four ramekins.

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Crack two eggs into each ramekin, so they rest atop the tomatoes. Add a bit more salt and pepper.

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Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs, then the cheese, and bake for 20 minutes, until the eggs set.

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Remove from the oven, and allow to cool. The cheese puffs up like a miniature souffle – very elegant – and gets bubbly and golden brown.

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Serve with fried potatoes, artichoke hearts, and cucumber fillets for a tasty Sunday afternoon treat. I do feel the great Dr. Kreizler would approve!

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