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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The Waiting Room by F.G. Cottam

F.G. Cottam is my new favorite author of horror, supernatural and paranormal fiction. He’s published several works, and I’d previously blogged The House of Lost Souls, which was the first book I read by him and the one that hooked me into his elegant, spare and eerie style of writing. The Waiting Room is a unique and creepy ghost story that incorporates elements of time travel, though not in a sci-fi way.

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The main character of Martin Stride reminded me a bit of Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, just in appearance and description. He’s been seeing and hearing ghostly apparitions on his large estate, his kids are having terrifying visions and dreams, and he consults TV ghost hunter Julian Creed for assistance, which is where the book starts. Creed is, of course, a total charlatan though a very good one, but when he actually experiences the terrifying haunting for himself, his entire perspective shifts.

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Elena is Julian’s assistant, and I loved her character. I think one of the main reasons I like Cottam’s books overall is because he writes so eloquently in the voice of his female characters and they are multilayered and intelligent. Sometimes, male authors try to write in the female voice and it can be jarring and usually irritating to me, but Cottam’s characterization of Elena and of Martin Stride’s wife Monica are incredibly well-done. Elena and Julian had previously been romantically and sexually involved, and though you don’t get the details, you know something bad happened that caused a personal, though not professional, rift. How they find their way back to each other is both romantic, sad, and plays a pivotal role in the book’s unusual but sad and uplifting ending, if that makes any sense.

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The haunting itself is fascinating, caused by the grieving parents of a wealthy WWI veteran who died. His parents are into the paranormal and decide to try some necromancy to bring him back. Big, big mistake. Big. Huge. If you’ve ever read the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which is one of the only stories that truly frightened me so badly that I had to sleep with the lights on, you’ll get an idea of why this is so not what to do with the dead.

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In an early sequence when Martin first encounters the haunting, he is out on his estate picking up apples from where they’ve fallen on the ground, bringing them home to his wife as she is baking pies. His estate contains an old, unused rail line and a dilapidated train station waiting room from the first World War, and it’s here that the specter appears.

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The waiting room lay to the east of the house, to its rear. One evening about a fortnight prior to seeking his meeting with Creed, Stride had been gathering windfalls in the orchard, which was situated a few hundred yards on from the kitchen garden. The orchard was small and ancient and the apples of a unique variety. They were good to the taste, but tart enough for baking, too.

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I had several apples gathered from friends’ trees and decided that it was time for me to tackle that old classic, apple pie. So here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts. Pre-bake one of the crusts and keep the other cold until ready to bake. You’ll see why below.
6 apples of any variety. I used 3 tart Granny Smith, 3 red and 1 Golden Delicious
1/2 cup of lemon juice
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 egg

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Peel, core and slice the apples.

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Put in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar, stir to mix and leave to macerate for up to 30 minutes.

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Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and pour in the apple mixture. Cook for 10-12 minutes until the fruit softens.

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Add the flour, the salt, the vanilla and nutmeg, stir, then cook gently for a few minutes until it forms a thick, caramely sauce.

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Pour the mixture into one of the empty pie shells.

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I’ve said before that no one is ever going to ask me to quit my day job to decorate cakes and pies, and they are right. I couldn’t work with the second, cold pie crust as it started breaking, so I got fancy and cut out heart-shaped dough pieces to cover the top of the pie. You can see how well it worked………not.

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Whisk the egg with a bit of water, and brush the egg wash over the top of the pie crust hearts.

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Bake for 45 minutes.

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Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or alone. Very tasty!

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Book Giveaway to Celebrate Food in Books Reaching a Milestone!

I officially hit 400 blog followers today! Woo hoo! A huge thank you to everyone who continues to support my little blog that could. I know 400 isn’t a huge number, but it means so much to know that my words reach that many people.

To celebrate, and to thank my followers, I’m having a book giveaway.  Which character from a book would you most want to cook dinner for, and why? I will choose a random winner and that person will get a copy of the marvelous Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook At My Table. I have this book, and it has some truly wonderful and tasty dishes.

Tips onMakingThe PerfectBreakfastFor Mom

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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Beauty by Robin McKinley

As I’ve shared before, I am a sucker for fairy tales. Whether it’s the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, or Robin McKinley, the tales of kings, queens, princesses, trolls, talking animals, enchanted castles, and beasts have fascinated me since I was a little girl. But of all my favorites, the timeless story of Beauty and the Beast captured my imagination and still fascinates me this day.

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I mean, how much more profound can you get than a story about seeing past someone’s facade to their true heart and soul, and true love showing you the beauty inherent inside us all? I think in our looks-obsessed world, this story is even more timely than ever before. We live in a world where we swipe right if someone’s appearance doesn’t immediately grab us, we open up our hearts and share deep, poignant things about ourselves via IM with virtual strangers whose looks we like but whom we really know nothing about, and we mistake beauty and fame for personality, accomplishment, and intelligence. And I think as a society, we are more lonely than ever before because we judge so many things by how they look and not how they really are.

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The story of Beauty is retold in this marvelous book by Robin McKinley, and takes many of the traditional tropes and turns them upside down. Yes, there are three sisters but they all love one another. Beauty herself is considered plain compared to her two stunning sisters Grace and Hope; and when she goes to live with the Beast, she is nervous that he won’t be pleased with her appearance – a nice little twist as the Beast himself is at first very frightening. The enchanted rose, of course, makes its appearance in various ways, my favorite being that when its petals start to fall, they turn to gold and clink when hitting the floor or table. I love that!

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The illustration above is from my most treasured childhood book “Beauty and the Beast” illustrated by the amazing Mercer Mayer, which is also featured in the first photo. The illustrations are beyond gorgeous, rich, sumptuous, full of color and life.

Overall, the tale is the same – Beauty’s father loses his money, the family must move to the country, he encounters the Beast when returning home after hearing his fortune might be restored and takes a red rose from the Beast’s garden for Beauty, and Beauty goes to live with the Beast to appease  him. The Beast is, of course, under an enchantment, though in McKinley’s retelling, it’s not because he was an arrogant, vain, wealthy prince who refused to help others, but instead, he is under a sort of family curse.

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I like this version because Beauty is a total nerd bookworm who prefers the company of her armchair, a mug of hot chocolate and a book to any kind of company or society. That is so me! And when she goes to live with the Beast, he showers her with gorgeous clothes, beautiful shoes, jewels of all kinds, an enchanted stable for her beloved horse Greatheart, and food that would boggle the mind.

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That wonderful table would never have offered me the same dish twice; but while I reveled in the variety, I also sometimes demanded a repetition. There was a dark treacly spice cake that I liked very much, and asked for several times. Sometimes it burst into being like a small exploding star, several feed above my head, and settled magnificently to my plate; sometimes a small silver tray with a leg at each of five or six corners would leap up and hurry towards me from a point far down the table.

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Being a foodie, I of course loved the descriptions of the feasts, and though there was not a lot of specific food description, the passage above where Beauty talks about her favorite spice cake that the Beast’s invisible servants make her, was so charming and sounded so yum that I was inspired to make my own version – a cinnamon almond cake! Inspired by Nigella Lawson’s gluten-free clementine cake made with ground almonds instead of flour, this is my own spicy version.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup almond flour
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons almond extract

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and melt the butter in the microwave.

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Mix together the ground almonds, almond flour, sugar, ground cinnamon and baking powder in a bowl.

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Crack the eggs into the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and mix slowly together.

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Add the melted butter, the vanilla and almond almond extract and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, add the almond flour and cinnamon mixture to the eggs and butter and mix at medium speed until you have a dark reddish-brown batter with bits of almond peeking out.

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Pour into a buttered and lined cake pan and bake for 40 minutes, checking at the half-hour mark to make sure it hasn’t burned. The toothpick trick will let you know when it’s done.

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Allow to cool before serving, and enjoy with morning coffee or tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. Either works with this spicy, delicious cake. The almonds keep it light and give it a wonderful flavor, and it is super moist, gluten-free and would also be good with whipped cream on top. Tasty enough to melt the heart of the most hardened Beast.

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