The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

Ah Hamlet, the tragic and doomed Prince of Denmark, whose family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. What I always liked about Hamlet is that his twisted family dynamic makes my own family look rather normal in comparison. Or maybe it goes to show that we all have messed-up family dynamics, and sometimes, as in Hamlet’s case, we can be one of the most messed-up members within it.

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I read the play in its entirety in 11th grade Honors English class, and it also helped seeing movie versions and having those characters brought to life by various actors, but when I saw Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, glorious, 4-hour long movie, that was possibly when I fell in love with Hamlet and all his arrogant, sad, romantic pain.

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He wants so much to do the right thing and avenge his father, and who can blame him?  What I could never understand was his turning on poor Ophelia. Talk about doomed love. That poor girl, all she wanted was to love him and help him and his perception of the world around him and his anger toward women – his mother particularly – twists his love for her and makes himreject her. And in her despair, she commits the ultimate act of pain and drowns herself.

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His rage at his mother’s betrayal is the pivot point from which most of the major actions happen. Hamlet is so angry at her weakness and for marrying his uncle so quickly after the death of his father, and he scalds her with his words. The guy could cut with his tongue, that’s for certain, and when he uses the analogy of the food served at his father’s funeral as being part of the wedding feast, it’s the ultimate food play on words.

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Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven or ever had I seen that day, Horatio! My father, methinks I see my father.

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Baked meats were often encased in pastry, called coffins, in Elizabethan times, when The Bard wrote his masterpiece. In an upscale Elizabethan kitchen, many spices would be used to flavor the meats, including nutmeg, pepper, onion, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. I opted to make baked chicken mini pies – baked chicken in a “coffin”, using a pastry method taken from Elizabethan times via Tori Avey’s awesome food site, and making filling spiced with paprika, a tiny hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, mushrooms, heavy cream, and a bit of Parmesan cheese, which I had lying around and needed to use.

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INGREDIENTS
For the pastry dough:
1 cup of cold water
1 stick of butter, cut into cubes
3 cups flour
2 egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
3 chicken thighs, poached or roasted, and finely cubed
1 cup wilted spinach
1 cup mushrooms, also wilted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 egg, beaten with salt and a bit of water

METHOD
Put the flour and salt into the bowl of your most awesome Kitchen Aid mixer, and gradually add the butter chunks. Mix using the pastry hook attachment at medium low speed.

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Add the egg yolks and mix to incorporate.

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Keep mixing on low, and gradually add the water, until the mixture forms a ball of dough. Wrap in plastic, let rest for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat the oven to 375F. While the dough rests, combine the spices with the cooked chicken, the mushrooms and spinach, and the heavy cream in a saucepan. Stir until well warmed through, taste for seasoning, and sprinkle in the Parmesan.

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Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each quarter out into sheets of roughly 1/2 inch thickness. Cut rounds using a biscuit cutter.

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Fill each round with the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture.

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Rub some water around the dough edge, and press over another pastry round to form a little pie. Press the edges with a fork tine to seal, and brush with beaten egg mixed with a bit of water and some salt.

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Bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown and you can smell the spices and chicken. Very tasty, just as the Bard would have wanted.

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One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) as retold by Hanan al-Shaykh

I don’t know about you, but when I think of One Thousand and One Nights, or as it’s more commonly known, The Arabian Nights, what comes to mind are exotic tents in the desert surrounded by turbaned thieves, camels with tasseled saddles, beautiful dancing girls draped in veils in emerald green, ruby red, and turquoise blue, exotic dishes garnished with seeds and nuts and herbs, and at the center of it all, the Pasha himself, waiting to be appeased with stories.

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Genies in bottles granting wishes, Sinbad the Sailor on the high seas battling monsters, flying carpets, Aladdin and his magical lamp, Ali Baba and his crew of 40 thieves, viziers and caliphs, all are told over a series of – yes, you guessed it – 1,001 nights when Scheherazade tells her tales to avoid being killed by her husband. The idea is that he will want to know what happens next, so he won’t kill her. Their story is the framing tale that supports the other tales, some of which have stories within stories within stories.

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I hadn’t realized that Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and others, were originally from this book, which was such a pleasure to read. The book is divided into segments for each night that Scheherazade weaves her literary magic, by story. However, I warn you that these stories are not for children, so don’t be expecting the Disney version of Aladdin, with singing monkeys and a blue genie. These tales are violent, somewhat misogynistic, often brutal and cruel, and also highly erotic……which makes sense as Scheherazade is one of many harem wives to the Pasha.

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One of the more entertaining stories is that of the Two Viziers, in which the character Badr-al-Din is supposed to have cooked a pomegranate dish for the royal household, and it is not up to par.

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The following night Shahrazad said: It is related, O King, that Ja’far said to the caliph: Badr al-Din said, “Because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper, you have beaten me, smashed my dishes, and ruined my shop, all because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper!”

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Goodness, the poor man! I’ve occasionally screwed up a dish that I was cooking for others, but luckily no one has beaten me for it……yet.  🙂  Anyway, a pomegranate dish with pepper sounded both exotic and like a culinary challenge, so I did some research and found a traditional Middle Easter recipe called fesenjan, which is spicy chicken baked in a pomegranate sauce. Being that this is the season of pomegranates, and with my love of those tasty little cluckers, and in honor of this classic book, I made pomegranate chicken. And yes, I added plenty of pepper!

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, skin on
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups walnuts
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate anils
Fresh thyme

METHOD
First, make the pomegranate syrup. Pour the pomegranate juice into a small sauce pan, bring to a boil, and cook about 30-45 minutes, until it thickens into a syrup. Add a bit of salt and lime juice and allow to cool.

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Heat the oven to 325F.

In a flat pan, toast the walnuts until just brown and giving off that toasty, nutty scent. Remove from heat and roughly chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

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In a separate pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and chili flakes and cook another 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.

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Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and brown them about 7 minutes on each side. You may need to brown them in batches. Don’t crowd them into the pan or they won’t brown properly.

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Put half the onion-garlic mixture into a large Dutch oven, place the browned chicken thighs on top, then put the remainder of the onion on top of the chicken, and dot with the chicken bouillon paste.

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Pour over the pomegranate molasses, and then add the chicken stock.

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Cover the dish and bake for an hour, checking to make sure it isn’t dry. If it is, add a bit more chicken stock. Allow to cool and serve over any rice of your choice – I used Japanese black rice – and garnish with pomegranate anils and green thyme sprigs. It is so pretty that you almost don’t want to eat it………almost.

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In terms of medieval books, The Canterbury Tales is right up there with Dante’s Inferno as my top favorites. Unless you’re a trained medieval scholar, however, I would strongly recommend reading a more modern English translation of the book, since the medieval English of Chaucer is quite difficult to read.

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The entire book essentially revolves around food, in particular because the overall framework of the book is a storytelling competition, the reward for which is a magnificent feast. Several disparate individuals stop to stay the night at the Tabard Inn in London on their way to the cathedral at Canterbury, on a religious pilgrimage. Harry Bailly is the innkeeper and suggests that the pilgrims all tell a story to pass the time on the journey – the best one wins.

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The pilgrims, among them The Prioress, The Summoner, The Knight, The Miller, The Wife of Bath, The Reeve, The Man of Law, and The Friar, are introduced in a long prologue that describes their various attributes. Then the book is broken into sections consisting of each pilgrim’s tale, as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and are by turns, funny, romantic, adventuresome, bawdy, and at times very sexually explicit.

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Any Chaucer scholar or reader of this book understands the role that food played in this historical context. Food was a clear marker of wealth and social rank. Bread was a customary food across all economic groups, but the wealthy ate finely milled white bread (which was also very unhealthy, not having any nutrients in it.)  Those of the peasant rank ate the brown wheat bread that was healthier but also still with grit and small rocks in it. Wine was to be had by most people, but again, the quality depended on your ability to pay.

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I always liked the description of the Franklin, being referred to as “Epicurus’ own son,” meaning that he greatly enjoyed his food. Part of the lengthy introduction of the book, which is a heavenly description of fish, meat pies, wine, chicken, fat partridges, dainties (candies or pastries), bread and ale. Then, The Summoner is described in foodie terms, as he likes garlic and onion and red wine, which were considered to be unhealthy, so as such, so he is considered in a negative light.

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So, a combination of chicken, wine, spices, and the previously mentioned garlic and onion, seemed in order, and for me, that means coq au vin. With so much leeway in this recipe, I used my own method that’s based on the great Jacques Pépin’s marvelous recipe, using a bit of spice that would have been used in medieval cooking, and served with a salad of arugula, roasted beets, blue cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, bone in and skin off
1 bottle fruity red wine, like Grenache or Beaujolais
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 strips pancetta, cut into pieces
1 large yellow onion
8 baby carrots, cut lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slivered
15-20 bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (substitute for mace, a well-known medieval spice)
Egg noodles (optional)

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METHOD
Marinate the chicken in the red wine, garlic and herbs for up to 6 hours. Reserve the marinade.

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Fry the pancetta in the olive oil, then add the chopped-up onion and cook it for 10 minutes.

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Toss in the carrots and the mushrooms here, stir again, and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the chicken pieces, pour in the marinade, and add the bay leaves. Mix everything together, and add the nutmeg.

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Pour over the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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For the last 45 minutes of cooking, add some egg noodles, which will absorb some liquid and thicken it. Taste again and season as needed.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey is known worldwide for his illustrations for the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.E. Eliot, for his stage decorations and costume design of Dracula several years back, and of course for the opening introduction to PBS’s long-running TV series Mystery, as well as countless others. I think his work is instantly recognizable, even if you don’t know his name.

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Gorey is probably one of my favorite authors and illustrators in the world. If you ever read his twisted take on the alphabet, namely, The Gashleycrumb Tinies, you will either be horrified or die laughing.

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The book basically gives a short vignette for every letter of the alphabet, involving a child who comes to a gruesome death. I’m sorry, but I am one of those who finds this book so hilariously funny. I don’t know what it is, the combination of his dry, witty tone or the illustrations of these kids getting eaten by bears, falling down stairs, hacked to pieces with an ax, or what have you. My personal favorite, and not just because it has a food reference, is poor Ernest. As you can see, he is done for.

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Yes, I am a twisted person too. But seriously, if you have any kind of a sense of humor, you will laugh as hard as I did when reading this.

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Peaches are gorgeously in season right now, with the stands at the farmers markets overflowing with their juicy red and gold fuzz. It seemed like an appropriate time to make a skillet peach crisp, as I’ve been wanting to try baking in my cast iron skillet for awhile now. So, this is the method that worked for me, based on the Epicurious recipe but with, as always, a few flavoring twists of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup crushed pecans
1 tablespoons butter at room temperature
8 ripe peaches, cut into medium-thick slices
1/2 cup bourbon (my twist!)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup regular sugar
Zest of half a lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract

METHOD
For the crumble topping:

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, brown sugar and salt in your most awesome red Kitchen Aid.

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Gradually mix in the butter a few cubes at a time, using the pastry hook attachment, until you get a clumpy dough. You want those buttery chunks. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Slice the peaches and let them marinate in the bourbon for about 30 minutes.

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Preheat the oven to 350F. While it’s heating, toast the pecans in a dry skillet until they darken and you can smell the toasty scent. Set aside to cool.

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Butter the bottom and sides of a 10″ cast iron skillet.

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Add the toasted pecans, the two sugars, the lemon juice and zest, and the spices, to the alcoholic peaches, and stir together. Leave for 10 minutes, then pour into the buttered skillet.

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Add the crumble mixture over the top of the peaches.

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Bake for up to 30 minutes, checking to make sure it doesn’t burn. When the peach juices start bubbling out around the edges and you can smell the fruity scent, it will be done.

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Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 10-15 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream. But please, I beg of you, don’t eat too quickly and choke on the peach, like poor, sad, doomed Ernest. (snicker)

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Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

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I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

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Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

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“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

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Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

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These are the methods that worked for me.

For the potted shrimp, based on the Serious Bites recipe, but with a few tweaks of my own:

INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter

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Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

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In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

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Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

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For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
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2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

In a double boiler, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

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In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

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Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

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Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

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Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.