The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Photography by me.

The reason I love Sarah Waters’ books is because there is always a sense of pervasive menace throughout her pages. Her settings are innocuous: British post-war, large rambling houses, upper-class families who have fallen on hard times and must economize in ways they never had to before, and a way of life that has always seemed incredibly romantic. These are environments that you’d expect to be comforting, old-fashioned and a little bit staid, but in The Little Stranger, the  house is haunted by dread, darkness and spirits……though not quite in the way you’d expect.

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I realize, of course, that none of these houses had central heating, that it rains incessantly on the British Isles, and that these once-wealthy families probably didn’t have enough money for firewood to heat the houses. Living there would have been a misery, I’m sure. But there is just something that draws me to this way of life that probably doesn’t exist any longer. I am an Anglophile, when I’m not dreaming of Italy…….so maybe you can call me, in the words of one of my cooking heroes Anna del Conte, a “Britalian.” I like that term.

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Told in the viewpoint of their family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother was once a maid at the house in more affluent times, he has always been obsessed with the house and Ayres family who live there. As society has turned on its head after WWII, he soon becomes close friends with the family, something that would never have happened in earlier years. He grows fonder of Caroline, the Ayres daughter, and they begin a relationship.

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All seems well, and yet………..there’s that menacing sense, again. Very strange things begin to happen. Mrs. Ayres gets terrifyingly locked in the nursery where her first daughter died as a little girl. The family dog, a gentle and sweet canine, mysteriously attacks a neighboring child. Bell pulls ring in the middle of the night from rooms where no one has been for over 20 years. Handprints from a child appear on the walls in rooms where children haven’t set foot in decades. Again, that pervasive sense of something waiting, lurking, stalking.

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Sarah Waters can create atmosphere in a single sentence. But what I love about her books, aside from the setting and her atmospheric abilities, is simply the way she describes the rituals and niceties of British society. Tea is a constant and a comfort to the family, one of those rituals they hold onto to give structure to their lives even as the world around them seems to be crumbling daily.

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So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family………”Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!” said Mrs. Ayres, as the plates were handed out. “Or even a really good biscuit.”

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I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for scones. I had a mad crush on a man named Cord McQueen many years ago, who was a very accomplished cook and baker. He owned a coffee shop and I used to go in to get my vanilla coconut latte and a scone, and just drool over him. Aside from being handsome and charming and intelligent, the man could cook. Dream Man material for sure! Anyway, he made scones that were out of this world. Not overly sweet, perfect texture to hold together, and yet crumble off if you wanted to dip a chunk into your coffee, and he always used cranberries, my personal favorite. I’d forgotten that he had written down his scone recipe for me and discovered it recently, so using his method and having both dried cranberries and fresh blueberries on hand, I gave scones a whirl. This method makes 12 scones.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of two clementines or one medium orange
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment or lightly spraying with baking spray. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cranberries, blueberries, sugar and orange zest.

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In your most wonderful and awesome Kitchen Aid, add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix well. Add in the cubed butter a few chunks at at time and mix with the pastry hook attachment until the texture is crumbly.

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Add the cranberry-blueberry mixture to the flour and butter mixture, and mix a couple of times.

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Add the buttermilk and mix together until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 10-15 minutes.

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Roll out the dough on a floured surface, somewhat thickly, and cut out rounds using a floured biscuit cutter.

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Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

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Ideally, I would have attempted clotted cream to go with, but decided that was making things very stressful for myself. Besides, there is nothing wrong with buying a jar of ready-made genuine Devon clotted cream from your friendly neighborhood Cost Plus World Market, which I did.

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Serve the scones in proper British style, with cream and black cherry preserves. Sooooooo yummy! Not too sweet, with the tart cranberries nicely offsetting the sweeter blueberries, and the orange zest adding a zip of citrus.

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And a very happy birthday to me, this 12th of March!

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The Shining by Stephen King

Thanks to CHC for the photography.

I don’t think Stephen King has ever been accused of being a foodie, though he is most certainly the most visceral writer I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been reading his books since my early teens, starting with The Shining, as well as many others. But the story of the Torrance family remains my absolute favorite of all of his books. I have a thing for books that make the setting, the place, the hotel or house, as much a character as the people. Shirley Jackson did it with great style in The Haunting of Hill House, which I blogged about a few months back if you want to give it a whirl. Edgar Allan Poe did it with The Fall of the House of Usher. And then there’s the Overlook Hotel.

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Jack Torrance is one of the more interesting characters in literature. He is, for the most part, in tune with his own worst instincts……except for when he drinks. His intelligence makes him arrogant, yet he does truly care for his family. But it only takes a small chink in one’s armor for the enemy to pierce us, and this is what the spirit of the hotel does to him. It gets into Jack’s soul, tempts and taints him with liquor and with his violent, shadow side, and all goes to hell. His son, Danny, is the polar opposite. He is already in touch with his own shadow side, in the form of Tony, his “imaginary friend,” who is the actual, psychic side of Danny’s mind. In a sense, though their conflict takes violent place very much in the physical realm, the conflict is also mental, as both Jack’s and Danny’s emotionally tortured psyches also do battle.2016-10-09-19-39-45_resized

If you’ve read this book (or seen the Kubrick film), you know the story trajectory and I won’t bore you with a lengthy description. In a nutshell, the Torrance family is on their financial last legs and Jack Torrance accepts a job to be the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, just he, his wife Wendy and their son, Danny, who is psychic and whose power is referred to as “the shining.”

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I will say, however, that Kubrick’s notoriously misogynistic tendencies turned the film character of Wendy into a shrieking, nagging, needy harridan whom you almost wanted to see get chopped to bits. In the book, she’s tough, resourceful and sharp, still a bit on the weak side as she herself acknowledges. But it’s she who mostly saves the day in the book. Her transformation at Kubrick’s hands in the film makes her nearly unrecognizable, and which is annoying, because it’s certainly possible to have feelings of weakness and inadequacy and still find your inner strength and kick ass. Which Wendy does.

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Rereading this book in the here and now was fascinating. It was published nearly 30 years ago, and there are some seriously dated references that are hugely entertaining to read about. For example, when Halloran, the seasonal cook, is showing the family around the kitchen and letting them see the bounty of food he’s left them to get through the winter, he mentions something called a “Table Talk pie.” According to Google, it’s a prepackaged miniature fruit pie that was sold along the east coast. Another scene, kind of the calm before the storm, is when Wendy goes downstairs to make Danny some lunch after he’s seen the woman in Room 217 and Jack has started his spiral into menacing madness. She prepares canned tomato soup and a cheese omelette in a state of of nerves and terror.

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“She opened the can and dropped the slightly jellied contents into a saucepan. PLOP. She went to the refrigerator and got milk and eggs for the omelet. Then to the walk-in freezer for cheese. All these actions, so common and so much a part of her life before the Overlook, had been a part of her life, helped to calm her. She melted butter in the frying pan, diluted the soup with milk, then poured the beaten eggs into the pan. A sudden feeling that someone was standing behind her, reaching for her throat.”

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It reminded me of when I was a little girl and my paternal grandmother, Nana Baca, would make me canned soup and bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. Good stuff! I don’t buy canned soup these days, just because I prefer the taste of homemade (and it’s healthier, too). But I decided a reworking of the classic canned tomato soup and cheese omelette was in order here.

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Nothing goes quite so well with tomatoes as basil, and a creamy tomato basil bisque fit the bill perfectly, along with a cheese and broccoli egg frittata, which is like an omelette for kitchen idiots like me who can’t do the omelette flip without dropping the eggs on the floor. Basically, you mix the egg with the steamed broccoli, cooked ham, milk, sharp cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, put into a skillet and heat until the bottom has set, then put into the oven under broiler until the entire concoction sets. Super easy and you don’t have to worry about doing the damn omelette fold.

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Here is the soup method that worked for me, based on my own trial and error of making this soup for over 10 years. I think I’ve got it down pat, but feedback is always appreciated.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can San Marzano-style crushed tomatoes

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4-5 ripe Campari tomatoes
1 medium white onion, finely diced

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4 baby carrots, very finely diced
1 small can tomato juice
1 cup sherry
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream

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2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves

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METHOD
In a skillet, saute the onion and carrot together in the butter and olive oil. The reason for adding carrot is because oftentimes, tomatoes can be overly acidic and adding sugar eliminates that acid. However, it’s much healthier and tastier to add carrot, which has natural sugar and offsets the acidity just as well.

Roughly chop the Campari tomatoes, and add them, along with the the canned San Marzano tomatoes, to the onion and carrot. Stir to combine.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and the tomato bouillon cube. Taste again. Add in the can of tomato juice here.

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Add in the sherry at this point, taste yet again for seasoning, toss in some of the fresh basil, and add salt and pepper if needed. It may or may not need it, depending on your taste palate.

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Let everything simmer together for a good 40 minutes. Then bust out the stick blender and go to town! Blitz it all until you have a soup the color and consistency of red velvet. Yum!

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At this point, add the heavy cream, swirling in gently and stirring. Turn off the heat, cover and let the flavors mix.

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Taste for seasoning, though it probably won’t need anything. Decant into small bowls, garnished with the rest of the fresh basil, and serve alongside the frittata. Eat with happiness. Be happy you’re not trapped in a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel with a madman and ……..horror of horrors………CANNED SOUP!

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Help For The Haunted by John Searles

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

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

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

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

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

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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