The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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

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

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

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The 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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Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King

I’m back, and I greatly appreciate everyone’s patience and kind comments asking when I would get my ass back into the blogging world. Well, yesterday was the day. I’m officially moved into my gorgeous new house, which has the most beautiful kitchen, so Food in Books has returned.

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Having lived in controlled chaos surrounded by boxes of packed-up books and kitchenware over the past month was a challenge, and I kept myself sane by picturing the first literary meal I would cook in my new kitchen. While at the library last week I discovered Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome and of course, with a title like that, I had to read it.

It is the fictionalized story of Apicius, the earliest-known cookbook author. Apicius lived during the reign of Caesar Augustus and then Tiberius Caesar, and is known for writing what is known as De re coquinaria, the earliest collection of recipes known.  The historical detail is amazing, and the few known bits of information about the actual life of Apicius are woven seamlessly into the novel. Actual Roman condiments such as liquamen – a type of fish sauce – and silphium – a now-extinct type of fennel, and so many others – are demonstrated in the book recipes, which was very cool. Foodie nerd porn literature!

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The final feast cooked by Apicius’s cook, a free slave named Thracius, is a magnificent masterpiece of all known cuisines of ancient Rome. There are peacocks roasted and re-dressed in their own feathers, flamingo steaks, stuffed and fried baby birds; and roasted asparagus in mustard sauce. As tempting as it was to try and go all-out Roman and recreate the feast, I didn’t. Flamingos aren’t in season, you realize.

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Asparagus in mustard sauce seemed doable, especially in light of the fact that being in modern times, I didn’t have to hand-grind mustard seeds into a paste and season to create the condiment. I cooked the asparagus with roasted garlic lemon chicken, which went deliciously well with the tangy, roasted asparagus dish. The ancient Romans would be pleased, I think.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb fresh asparagus
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons organic mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and rinse well.

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Roast for up to 30 minutes, until they get those nice brown, charred bits.

In a large measuring cup, mix together the red wine vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. This is very much to taste, so adjust to your liking.

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Drizzle the sauce over the roasted asparagus, serve with the chicken, and wolf down with the greed of an ancient Roman senator.

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And last but not least, a huge thanks and shout-out to Jen at http://www.readrantrockandroll.com for nominating me for another blog award. Jen, who also goes by the very cool moniker of Mischenko (sounds like a sexy Russian spy, doesn’t it?) writes about music, movies, books, gaming and food, in addition to modern culture, so I highly recommend her blog. https://readrantrockandroll.com/2017/07/30/award-real-neat-blog-award-1-2/

 

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

Having just finished binge-watching Versailles on Netflix, I can say, hand over heart, that I would have made a DAMN fine royal mistress to Louis XIV. I could totally pull off silk gowns, elaborate jewels, illicit love affairs, intrigue……….sounds like my dream life! If anyone knows a king out there who’d appreciate my cooking, do send him my way.

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Watching the exploits of the young French king and his mistress The Marquise de Montespan made me remember this fine gem of a novel, The Oracle Glass, set during the years of the King and La Montespan’s notorious affair. The book is so finely drawn that you almost feel yourself in the King’s morning levee, watching his most intimate bodily functions as though they were performed by God himself. Which, I suppose, was the idea.

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The book’s heroine, young Genevieve Pasquier, is booted from her once-grand family home into the streets of Paris where she is found and apprenticed by Catherine Montvoisin, known for helping other “down and out” women.” However, La Voisin, as she was called, is not just any altruistic soul. She’s a witch, a practitioner of Dark Arts, an abortionist, and a poisoner of the highest order. Genevieve is taken in because she has a psychic ability to read the oracle glass, a large crystal bowl filled with water, in which she can see the future, and La Voisin takes advantage of this talent for her own nefarious purposes. La Voisin gets Genevieve accepted in court circles by having her pretend to be a 200-year old widow whose life is preserved through a pact with the Devil, and so she becomes involved with court politics when she is asked to become the Marquise de Montespan’s glass reader.

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The actual “Affaire des Poisons” – go ahead, Google it – is a major piece of French history during the reign of the Sun King, and the Marquise de Montespan figures very prominently, as well as numerous other members of French royalty and nobility. But it’s the entertaining fictional character of Genevieve who was my favorite. I could relate to her because she and I have much in common – we are voracious readers, analytical overthinkers, armchair philosophers; and we love the finer things in life such as beautiful surroundings, elegant clothes, and handsome men who are highly intelligent. In one area, though, we differ. Genevieve’s sweet tooth nearly gets her poisoned when she crosses La Voisin, who slips her some tainted marzipan.

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Marzipan – almond paste – is Genevieve’s weakness, but not having much of a sweet tooth myself, I still thought it would be a fun challenge to make marzipan from scratch and then use it to make a decadent marzipan cake frosted with chocolate ganache and cherries. So I did, having my own bit of kitchen witchcraft today. NOTE: the marzipan should be made a day in advance so it can chill overnight.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marzipan:
1 and 1/2 cups finely ground almond flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 egg white, room temperature

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For the cake:
1 and 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
Butter spray and a dusting of flour
1 cup marzipan, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the ganache icing and cake topping:
3/4 cup dark chocolate pieces, 70% cocoa solids
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup pitted cherries or half a can of cherry pie filling

METHOD:
Add flour and powdered sugar into a food processor and pulse until combined.

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Add the almond extract and rose water and pulse again, then add the egg white and process until you have a thick doughlike paste.

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Turn out the almond dough onto some plastic wrap, seal it and form it into a cylinder. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to use, leave out of the fridge an hour so it’s at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with butter spray and lightly flour it.

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Mix the almond paste and sugar on low in your most awesome Kitchen Aid, using the paddle attachment.

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Add the butter, then incorporate the eggs and yolk, one at a time.

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Add the almond extract.

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Whisk together the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl, and gradually add to the wet ingredients. Pour the mixture into the buttered, floured cake pan.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, checking occasionally. Let it cool completely before icing it.

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Place the cream in a small saucepan over very low heat, until small bubbles just form around the edge. Add the chocolate pieces and the almond extract, whisk in, turn off the heat, and leave covered for up to 15 minutes. Then, whisk together until the ganache thickens and forms a gorgeous chocolate frosting.

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Frost the top of the cake, sprinkle the edges with slivered almonds, and decorate the center with the cherries. Vive la France! Louis XIV would add me to his list of mistresses once having eaten this tasty dessert, I do believe.

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