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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My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This book took me five years to read, but not because it’s particularly long or boring. No, My Name is Red is one of the most entertaining and complex murder mysteries I’ve ever read. The book is told from 12 different viewpoints, including the murder victim himself – a painter in the Sultan’s palace; a Jewess matchmaker; the daughter of the house Shekure; her suitor Black; a dog painted on a wall; three of the murder victim’s colleague painters; Satan himself; the murderer; and the color red. Hence the title.

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I’ve read many books set during the Ottoman Empire, that is, Istanbul in the 17th century, but this is by far my favorite. It’s a murder mystery, a love story, and a very Byzantine – pardon the pun – treatise on the power and nature of art and symbols, politics and religion, and the meaning those concepts hold in everyday life.

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I am not an expert on the Islamic religion, but from this book, I took that representing the human form was required to be highly stylized – to be depicted as Allah would see the individual, not as the artist would – and that depicting anything from the Koran is deeply disrespectful and forbidden because of the fear that the image would be worshiped instead of God. It’s interesting, because I have a Jewish friend and a friend who practices Islam, and the three of us have had long and intense discussions about the nature of religion and God/Jehovah/Allah, and how different religions and cultures have their own ways of depicting the divine.

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The long and very complicated -and let’s face it, mostly warlike – relationship between the Jewish religion, the Christian/Catholic faith, and the beliefs of Islam do have some fascinating parallels and commonalities. They have as many points of differentiation, however, and it was so interesting to read this book and see how art and artists, in particular, were revered and feared in 18th century Istanbul as artists during the Renaissance, but for such different (and similar!) reasons.

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Esther, the matchmaker, is a Jew and carries love letters between Shekure and Black, the two main characters whose love story is a pivotal part of the book. One of my favorite voices in this book, Esther describes this beguiling passage about her own self-perception and the marvelous foods eaten at various ceremonial events.

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I love social gatherings because I can eat to my heart’s content, and at the same time, forget that I’m the black sheep of the crowd. I love the baklava, mint candy, marzipan bread and fruit leather of the holidays; the pilaf with meat……………

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I’ve been wanting to try and make baklava for ages now. I warn you, working with phyllo dough is a pain in the ass. It’s ultimately worthwhile, but my God, it’s fiddly. I would recommend having everything completely ready before you even start working with the phyllo, because it dries up so quickly. I also wanted to try my hand at a good pilaf dish, so I found a yummy recipe on Nigella Lawson’s website.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the old family recipe given to me by a Greek-Turkish acquaintance. The addition of the orange flower water and vanilla are mine. Though I didn’t give a method for the saffron chicken pilaf, the recipe calls for not just the saffron in the rice cooking liquid, but also some bruised cardamom pods. Cardamom is a new spice for me, but a definite favorite! It smells so lovely, light and floral and perfumey and adds such a unique note to the rice, as does the brilliant gold of the saffron threads.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups water
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 tablespoon orange flower water
2 tablespoons vanilla

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1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
4 generous tablespoons cinnamon
2 packets phyllo dough
1 and 1/2 cups melted butter

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a pan . Cook over medium-high heat until it boils. Keep it boiling for 5-6 minutes, whisking occasionally.

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Add the rosewater and orange flower water. Remove from the heat, stir again, and decant into a pitcher. Add the vanilla, stir, and put into the refrigerator to cool completely, where it will form a thin syrup.

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Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the cinnamon with the pecans and walnuts.

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Dampen several paper towels and squeeze out the excess water. Unroll one packet of phyllo dough onto several damp paper towels. Cover immediately with the other damp towels.

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Spray a baking tray with butter spray. Carefully unroll two sheets of phyllo dough onto the baking tray, and brush with melted butter. Continue layering two sheets at a time, brushing each with butter, until you use all the phyllo sheets. (Remember to keep the unused phyllo covered at all times with damp paper towels, to avoid a world of hurt.)

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Sprinkle over the cinnamon-dusted nuts. You may have to press them into the phyllo dough with your hands to make them adhere.

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Repeat the phyllo layering with the second package of dough. Spread two or three sheets over the nuts, brush with melted butter, and continue in this vein until the second package is used up. Pour over the last of the melted butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon.

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Cut across in diagonal lines, then repeat crossways so you form diamond shapes. This is FAR easier in concept than it is in practice. Wear an apron, that’s all I’m saying. Bake for 35 minutes and remove from the oven to cool slightly.

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Pour over half the cooled syrup, let soak in for a few minutes, the pour over the rest. Let sit for 30 minutes, then scarf down.

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The saffron chicken pilaf was simple: cubed chicken thighs marinated in Greek yogurt, lemon juice and a bit of cinnamon and browned and rice cooked in saffron- and cardamom-infused chicken broth, mixed together in a skillet with toasted almonds and fresh green parsley. A divine treat to go with the baklava!

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