Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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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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‘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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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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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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