Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t know about you, but I have an incredibly developed sense of smell. Annoyingly so at times, because I can pick out the scent of body odor from 50 feet away. My sister always tells me I have the “nose from hell” and there are times when it feels like hell to be able to smell so intensely. However, the flip side is that I can also smell wonderful, heavenly scents from miles off, like someone brewing fresh coffee, the scent of someone baking a few streets away, the difference in wine bouquets (and if the wine has turned and become oxidized) and many other smells that make up daily life.

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If you think about scent, it’s perhaps the most immediate and visceral when it comes to memory association. I smell certain scents, certain perfumes or colognes, and I am immediately transported to certain places in my past. Smell can be considered a type of defense mechanism when it comes to food because if we can’t visually determine if something is “off,” one good whiff of it can keep us from food poisoning. So can you imagine either not having any sense of smell, or in this case, having the most intense sense of smell ever?

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti-hero of this book, born in a fishmonger’s market in Paris in the mid 1700s. (Can you get more French than that?) He is ordinary in every way other than the fact that he has no scent to him whatsoever but he has an abnormally developed sense of smell, so intense in fact that he is able to discern the individual scents of people as well as objects. He becomes a perfumer, working for various powerful people as he develops his own obsession in creating the ultimate scent.

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The kicker? He must kill the people who emit the scents that he finds so enticing and irresistible. Of course, they mainly tend to be young virgins because their scent is so pure to him that he must have it. So begins his career as a murderer in tandem with creating perfumes to sell to the public. His scent obsession is creepily psychosexual as he deeply inhales every single part of the women he kills, including their genitalia.

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Grenouille is so talented at creating scents that he is able to create the scent of anonymity, so that he is able to navigate the world around him, picking out the scents of virginal young women and murdering them to keep their scent, without being noticed. He is eventually so inconspicuous that people who normally wouldn’t give away their own breath have no problem giving him everything he needs or wants.

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Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick……

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Of course, Grenouille gets his come-uppance in the end, after he’s arrested and purposely emits a scent he’s created that not only makes everyone adore him and have a major orgy in the streets outside his prison cell, but in the end, he is literally consumed by his scent. I won’t go into detail but it’s pretty intense and fairly visceral. This pear and walnut tart should provide a nice offset to his ultimate end.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup toasted walnuts, divided
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 and 1/4 cups flour plus two tablespoons
2 eggs, one separated out by yolk and white
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup brandy or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 medium sized Bosc pears

METHOD
Mix half the sugar, half the toasted walnuts and salt in a food chopper and process until you have a flour-like texture.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and using the pastry hook attachment, add the flour, the sugar-walnut mixture, and mix together, gradually adding in one butter cube at a time until a rubbly dough forms.

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Add in the yolks and mix again, scraping the sides as needed, until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

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Heat the oven to 400F and press the dough into each mini tart pan. Mine are non-stick with removable bottoms, which makes life so much easier.

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Line each tart crust with foil and add some lentils or beans or baking weights to each and blind-bake for 15 minutes, then let cool. (NOTE: Don’t forget to line with foil like I did, dummy that I am. I spent 15 minutes picking lentils out of the blind-baked crust. Yes, I’m a moron at times.)

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Mix together the other half of the walnuts and sugar in the food chopper, until you have a coarse texture, then add in the butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix again until smooth.

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Slice the pears lengthwise and put in a large bowl with the sugar, brandy and lemon juice for about 15-20 minutes, until the pears start to release their juice. Drain.

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Spread the walnut filling into each tart pan.

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Arrange sliced pears over the walnut filling in each pan so they overlap. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s worst cake decorator and we can include tarts in that category. But hey, at least you know mine are homemade, right?

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Put a small sprig of rosemary on each tart, arrange the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

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Once completely cool, push each tart out of the pan from the bottom and serve. The smell of toasted nuts and baked pears spiked with rosemary is out of this world, and likely would invoke the murderous instincts of Grenouille.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Friday, May 25 was the anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. For anyone who loves sarcasm, satire, and snark, this book is a must-read. I was introduced to this book in a way a lot of geeky types are – by someone far, far nerdier than I.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?

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I remember devouring this book in junior-year Honors English class, after I had finished an exam before everyone else, and was bored. When I inadvertently burst out laughing while reading, the teacher tried to take the book, saying she didn’t appreciate me reading “pop fiction.” My response was “how can you call yourself an English teacher and consider this book pop fiction?” Needless to say, I had some explaining to do to the principal later that day.

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Basic book premise for you non-nerds who have not had your brains edified by reading this book: Arthur Dent is rescued from having his house destroyed by the arrival of his friend, Ford Prefect. Ford is revealed to be a space alien who takes Arthur on an intergalactic adventure when it is revealed Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. Intelligent mice, and aliens, robots and computers with names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, Deep Thought, Veet Voojagig, take us on this hilarious journey through the universe to find the the computer which has the answer to life itself.

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It’s 42. Don’t ask.

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Anyway, the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox, erstwhile president of the galaxy, is the inventor of a drink so out-of-this-world strong…….pardon the pun, that its effect is described as “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped ’round a large gold brick.” Or this other, most poetic description – “the alcoholic equivalent to a mugging; expensive and bad for the head.”

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The aptly named Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster sounded most intriguing – see below – so I did some research into how one creates this masterpiece of a cocktail that will knock you on your ass.

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Take the juice from one bottle of the Ol’ Janx Spirit.

Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V — Oh, that Santraginean water… Oh, those Santraginean fish!

Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzine is lost)

Allow four liters of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia

Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odors of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet, and mystic

Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink

Sprinkle Zamphour

Add an olive

Drink… but…..very carefully…

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This is the pared-down method that worked for me, based partly on this post at the Feastygeeks.com blog, which is nerd heaven for us geeky kids; and partly from Wonderland Recipes.com. I skipped the Algolian Suntiger teeth, though. They’re hard to find this time of year.

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INGREDIENTS
Handful of crushed ice
1 ounce bourbon whiskey
1 and 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce sour apple mix
2 ounces blue Curacao
2 ounces lemon juice
1 lemon slice

METHOD
In a cocktail shaker, mix crushed ice with the bourbon whiskey, the gin, the sour apple, the Curacao, and the lemon juice, and shake well.

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Garnish with a slice of lemon, and if you’re feeling fancy, peel off some of the lemon peel and twist before dropping into the drink, to get some of the lemon oil and essence.

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I highly recommend following the ratios above, lest you find yourself shitfaced and on the floor wondering how you got there.

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Drink, but VERY CAREFULLY! Here’s to you, Douglas Adams, and thanks for all the fish!

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Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

I am not normally into short stories, even by my favorite authors. Stephen King is the notable example, because he puts so much characterization into his short stories and novellas that they stand on their own. Case in point, my absolute favorite short story by King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” is a beautiful, and heart-wrenching read, and it crams so much personality into a small space. And nary a ghost in sight, other than the spirits of regret, pain, revenge, and ultimately, yes, redemption. Gwendy’s Button Box follows a similar trajectory, though it’s a relatively short read.

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In this story, Gwendy is a 12-year old girl who unexpectedly meets The Man in Black – one Richard Farris by name – one summer in Castle Rock. Yes, Castle Rock is back, and comparatively unthreatening this time around. The Man offers Gwendy a box that dispenses chocolate drops that she learns, as time goes on, enhance everything about her life. But as with every gift in this world, there is a price to be paid and the price for Gwendy caretaking this box is that it also has buttons. There is a red button, a black button and other buttons that, as Gwendy learns to her horror, are connected to specific countries and regions around the world. The buttons, if pushed, cause things to happen. Don’t, no matter what happens, press the black button, though. So of course, she does……..

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The book follows Gwendy from pre-teens to her 20s and shows glimpses of her life beyond. I couldn’t help but wonder how the other kids fared when they had to take over watching the box. But I don’t want to spoil it. It’s a great story, a quick read, but very engaging and classic King in his characterizations.

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What’s cool about this book, as with any other book set in Castle Rock, is seeing the references to other books and events. I love how King always put in little “Easter eggs” for his fans. The Man in Black is, after all, no stranger to either Castle Rock or King devotees, although here, he seems somewhat benign. Until you get farther in and realize exactly what kind of box he’s actually given Gwendy.

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I tried to think of recipes for actually making chocolate drop candies, but what came to mind are Hershey kisses. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than those. They are perfectly sized, pre-wrapped, and have portion control built in.

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So I began pondering how I could incorporate Hershey kisses into something, and chocolate drop cookies came immediately to mind. So here are mine, based on this Allrecipes method but with a couple of small tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2-3 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Hershey kisses. for topping

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

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Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, sieve in the dry ingredients to the wet in the Kitchen Aid, and mix together until a nice, chocolately cookie dough forms. You don’t have to use the sieve, but I find it gives baked goods a much smoother and nicer texture and they bake more evenly.

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Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, or if you have an ice-cream scoop (I do not, but it’s in my Amazon shopping cart), scoop out 1-inch balls, and place on parchment sheet-covered cookie pans. And only because I remember my grandmother Nana Jean doing this when she made cookies, I pressed my thumb into the middle of the dough, to make a well for the chocolate drop.

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Bake for 11 minutes and immediately remove from oven.

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Press one chocolate Hershey Kiss in the center of each cookie while still hot, so it melts a little and adheres to the cookie. Let cool and enjoy.

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They are nice and rich, not overly sweet but very moist and tasty and capable of either killing the world or saving it. The Man in Black would surely approve.

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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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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This book, Little Women, has an incredibly special place in my heart, for many reasons. The first is that my edition, shown here, was bought for me by my father David, for my 12th birthday many years ago, in which he wrote me a deeply loving message, which I still read when I am feeling down, as I have been lately.

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The other reason I love this book is because it reminded me so much of me and my sisters growing up. My oldest sister was so much like Meg in the sense of being motherly/bossy and always directing what we should do. I was Jo, the bookworm who preferred solitude and writing and the company of animals. My younger sister always reminded me of Amy, pretty, outgoing, somewhat spoiled but with a heart of gold.

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The language is somewhat outdated, but I remember suspending my disbelief, so words I didn’t understand were transformed as part of the larger emotional narrative. My heart broke when – spoiler alert! – Beth died. In fact, I just watched that episode of “Friends” when Rachel has Joey reading Little Women, and when he comes to the part where Beth dies, he has to put the book in the freezer. Hilarious! That episode is hilarious, to be clear, not Beth dying.

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Though there are numerous food segments to choose from, the one with Jo putting salt on the strawberries being a personal favorite – and not just because I made that very mistake myself once upon a time when trying to impress a man….hahahaha! – I love the chapter when Jo and Laurie become friends after she comes to cheer him up with a visit, complete with Beth’s kittens in one hand and a delicious sweet treat in the other.

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“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love and was glad if I could do something for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

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Blancmange is a white custard dessert flavored with vanilla, similar to Italian panna cotta. I love almond, so I tweaked to give a more almond taste.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole-fat milk
2 tablespoons vanilla (clear if possible)
1 tablespoon almond extract

METHOD
Mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup of the milk. Set aside.

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In a small, heavy-bottomed pan or double boiler, heat the rest of the milk over low heat. Don’t let boil, but when you see tiny bubbles forming at the edges, you’re ready.

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Whisk in the cornstarch, sugar and milk mixture, stirring constantly. The whisking and stirring will get rid of the cornstarch flavor and also keep the sugar from burning, and will assist in thickening.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about an hour. Add in the vanilla, stir together, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

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I served mine in individual ramekins, and decorated with red edible glitter because I live to bling. It is delicious, light and smooth and comforting, but with those flavors of vanilla and almond complementing each other so well.

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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Happy New Year! To start off 2018, I take us back to Venice, dear readers. But it’s not the Venice of dreams and watery, lyrical descriptions. This 16th-century Venice, elegantly depicted In The Company of the Courtesan, is a hard, rough place, stinking of rotten canal water and fish, and is as often the deathplace of dreams as it is the making of them.

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I’ve always found stories of the Venetian courtesans fascinating since I saw the marvelous film Dangerous Beauty, based on the biography The Honest Courtesan, which details the life and literary ambitions of Veronica Franco, a poet and courtesan in the late 1500s. This book, also about a courtesan in Venice, is told from the point of view of Bucino, an endearingly grumpy and intelligent dwarf who is the servant, companion, household capo, and most importantly, friend of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini, whose beauty, intelligence and charm are sharply contrasted by Bucino’s looks.

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After Fiammetta and Bucino arrive in Venice, wounded in body and spirit after the brutal Sack of Rome, they find her mother dead, and the evil housekeeper skimming the till. Fiammetta befriends Elena Crusichi, also called “La Draga,” who is a healer and beautician of some repute. Bucino sells some of their hidden gemstones to get them back on their feet and one afternoon, he thinks to buy some sugared fruit for Fiammetta, to cheer her up. In one of the most charming passages in the book, they reminisce about the kinds of foods they most wish for and miss from their heady days in Rome, when Fiammetta had hired one of Rome’s best chefs for her courtesan’s kitchen.

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“You know what I miss most of all, Bucino? The food. I am so hungry for taste every day that if I were still intact, I would sell my virginity for a good dish of sardines fried in orange and sugar. Or veal with morello cherry sauce and squash baked with cinnamon and nutmeg.”  “No, not veal, wild boar. With honey and juniper. And a salad of endives, herbs and caper flowers. And for dessert…” “Ricotta tart with quinces and apples.” “Peaches in grappa.” “Marzipan cakes.” “Ending with sugared fruits.” “Oh, oh.” And we are laughing now. “Help me. I am drooling here.” I pull a grimy paper from my pocket and uncover the remains of the sugared pears I bought in the piazza. “Here. Try this.” I say. And I lift it up to her. “Here’s to the best whore and the best cook under the same roof again.”

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Sugared pears –  also known as candied pears or caramelized pears – are a classic Italian recipe, and can be eaten as a dessert, or with a strong Gorgonzola cheese. This is the method that worked for me, based on Chuck Hughes’ recipe. With, of course, my own flavor tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 red pears
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup regular sugar or brown sugar
1/3 cup Pinot Noir red wine
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, and slice the pears into lengthwise quarters, removing the seeds and stems. Add the pears to the butter in the pan.

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Gently cook, turning occasionally, for about 5-6 minutes, until they start browning a bit. The smell will indicate they are cooking, too.

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Sprinkle over the sugar and continue cooking until the sugar starts to caramelize.

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Pour over the red wine and let bubble up for another 5 minutes.

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Remove the pears to a plate to cool,and add the lemon juice to the red wine and sugar in the pan. Increase the heat to high, and reduce the liquid, so it thickens and becomes somewhat syrupy, approximately 7 minutes.

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Pour over the pears, grate over the lemon zest, and enjoy either with vanilla ice cream or with a nice wedge of strong blue cheese. It is so delicious, and a perfect sweet start to the new year.

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Havisham by Ronald Frame

One of the great literary devices is the retelling of a traditional tale from the viewpoint of the “villain.” I remember being in  7th-grade English class and getting an A+ for rewriting “Hansel and Gretel” from the wicked witch’s viewpoint, because, as Miranda in “Sex and the City” points out, “the witch in Hansel and Gretel – she’s very misunderstood. I mean, the woman builds her dream house and these brats come along and start eating it.”

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I digress slightly, but the idea of the villain of the piece telling his or her side of things has always fascinated me. And in this case, Havisham tells the story from an alternate POV from Charles Dickens Great Expectations marvelously well. We all know the story of the loony old Miss Havisham of Satis House: jilted by Mr. Compeyson on the day of her wedding and mourned him by staying in her tattered wedding gown the rest of her life;  adoptive mother of Estella and turning her heart to stone against all love, including that of Pip, Dickens’ most well-known literary character.2017-09-04 05.47.15_resized.jpg

Miss Havisham is named Catherine in this book, and her back story is filled in using the details from Great Expectations. I found myself pitying her, trapped as she was under the thumb of her overbearing father, the housekeeper Mrs. Bundy and Mrs. Bundy’s nasty son Arthur who – another spoiler alert – turns out to be her half-brother. Things improve somewhat when she goes to live with the Chadwycks and gets the education and learning she has so longed for, but when she meets Charles Compeyson, that’s when the book takes us back into familiar territory.

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When Catherine Havisham initially goes to live with the Chadwycks, she blossoms and all her senses are engaged. She loves music, the scent of flowers, and in particular, enjoys her food in a way that likely most Victorian young ladies would not be allowed to.

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I ate my veal escalope heartily and diluted my wine with very little water…….I devoured all the fragrance in the bowl of roses……..I couldn’t decide between syllabub and strawberry fritters and took both…….I laughed as easily at my wit as all the others did.

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Syllabub has such an exotic ring to it, though it is really the most simple of all desserts. Mine is a hybrid of Nigella Lawson’s classic version in her wonderful cookbook “Nigella Express.” Flavoring additions by yours truly, of course.

INGREDIENTS
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup amaretto or other nut liqueur
1/3 lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 dozen mixed berries
3-4 amaretto cookies

METHOD
Whip the cream for a good 5-7 minutes, until it stiffens and holds a point. Like this.

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Add the sugar a little at at time and mix again.

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Add in the amaretto and taste again. You want to do this slowly again, to ensure you don’t liquefy the cream too much.

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Pour in the lemon juice, the almond extract, and the vanilla, and mix again.

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It’s a matter of individual taste here, so add more sugar, more amaretto or more lemon according to your tastebuds. Refrigerate the cream for at least 2 hours before serving.

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In pretty glasses or serving bowls, start layering. Add a dollop of the beautifully scented cream, crumble some cookie shards, and top with a few raspberries. Repeat until you have a gorgeous glassful of cream, cookies and fruit.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

This has got to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some weird stuff in my life. I love books about libraries, about other books, about the sheer pleasure of learning and knowledge and reading. So when I saw the title of this book, The Library at Mount Char, I had to buy it. Little did I know what I was in for.

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Brutal and amazingly intelligent are the best descriptors. I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of American Gods with a dash of The Name of the Rose and with a twist of American Psycho, and maybe some of The Magicians thrown in for good measure. Yes, there’s a library and yes, there are gods on this earth and yes, there are some majorly psychotic characters in this book. Carolyn is our protagonist and tells the story of her and her siblings who are taken by their “Father,” who is what we’d consider God, to study. They study for years in the Library and cannot study outside of their own subjects of expertise. Then, Father goes missing and the kids are on their own, wreaking havoc, killing, having insane sex, bringing the dead back to life, communicating with animals. And there are some bad-ass lions. But there is method to the insanity that is this book.

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It’s pretty rough in some places, I’ll warn you now. If death and dismemberment, human sacrifice, and killing and reanimating bother you, this book isn’t for you. But if you have a strong stomach, love black humor and esoteric knowledge and want to read something totally unique and bizarre that makes you think and that will stay with you long after you’ve finished, this might be your book. Just balance it out with some Danielle Steel or a nice Disney flick afterward.

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At one juncture, after Father has done his vanishing act, Carolyn and her wholly bizarre siblings find themselves living with Mrs. McGillicutty, in one of the funnier and more bizarre scenes in the book. Mrs. McGillicutty is as sweet and wholesome and clueless as they come…….and she bakes some damn good brownies.

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“Would you like a brownie?” Mrs. McGillicutty asked. Steve opened his mouth to say No, thanks, but what came out was “Don’t mind if I do!” Three weeks of jail time had left him with an appetite. Plus, the brownies were ridiculously good. Mrs. McGillicutty brought him some milk as well. When he was done, he turned to Carolyn. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a cigarette?”

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I hadn’t baked any desserts since I moved, and working in this new kitchen is still quite a thrill. This is the method I used, based on this recipe from Gimme Delicious, one of my fave recipes sites, but of course, with my usual flavoring tweaks and in this case, I omitted the chocolate ganache. These brownies are to die for!

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INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup flour
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 cup Ghirardelli chocolate chips, 60% cocoa solids or higher
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil or butter a glass baking pan. Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.

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Melt the butter and chocolate chips together in another large bowl. Add in the vanilla and the walnuts and stir together.

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Add the sugar to the chocolate mixture, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the yolk last.

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Add the flour mixture to the chocolate and sugar mixture, stir again well, and pour into your oiled baking pan. Bake for 25 minutes, checking to make sure you don’t overbake the brownies, which dries them out. And who wants a dry brownie, I ask you?

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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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The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Welcome to December, and a month of holiday-themed books and food!

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Those who know me know my great and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. He’s called the Godfather of Chicano literature for a reason, and it’s his novel Bless Me, Ultima, that catapulted him and our beloved home state of New Mexico, to global fame. He brought the life and times of New Mexicans to a worldwide stage, and showed that, no matter our background, heritage, race, gender, religion or beliefs, we all share the same hopes, fears, desires and hurts. Rudy is also a personal friend, an amazing humanitarian and human being, and as I always say jokingly, had I met him 40 years ago and were we closer in age, I would have married him.

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He writes in a mild, gentle manner that hides a voice of power and strength. He promotes love, standing up for yourself and those weaker than you, spirituality, passion, sensuality, and self-awareness. He is a poet, an educator, a shaman of words, and I adore the man, what can I say?

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Me and my idol.

One of his books I love reading around the holidays is The Farolitos of Christmas. The story is simple, a little girl named Luz, which means “light” in Spanish, is getting ready for Christmas in her small town of San Juan in Northern New Mexico, during WWII. She lives with her mother and her grandfather, with whom she is very close. Her grandfather, every year since before Luz was born, made the traditional farolitos, little woodpiles lit to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and also to light the way of the children acting in the annual Nativity play called “Las Posadas.” Luz’s grandfather is recovering from the flu and is not strong enough to cut all the wood needed for the farolitos, so one day, while buying sugar for her mother’s biscochito cookies, Luz comes up with the ingenious method of pouring sand into paper bags, putting a candle inside each bag, and lighting it. That way, the wind cannot put out the light, the way is lit for the Christ Child, and Christmas can be celebrated at last.

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Side note: if you ever want to see two New Mexicans argue, ask them which word is correct: luminaria or farolito. Then sit back and enjoy the drama.

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Aside from being such a wonderful children’s book, this story is close to my heart because it portrays things that I have grown up around and been part of since childhood. The concept of farolitos, or luminarias, has been part of my heritage and culture always. It would not be Christmas in our family, in our state of New Mexico, and indeed in our Hispanic New Mexican culture, if we didn’t have the traditional holiday dishes of posole, tamales and biscochitos. And then, of course the theme of Luz’s closeness to her grandfather resonated powerfully, as I was raised by my Nana and was closer to her than perhaps any other person on earth. I miss her so very much.

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My beautiful Nana Jean

My Nana made the best biscochitos, though I’d guess every New Mexican says that about their grandmother. Being so close to my own, making her traditional Christmas cookie made me feel close to her. She was always the one who made Christmas special, decorating, making her holiday candy and cookies, putting up her lavish Nativity scene, decorating the tree with all the wonderful homemade ornaments she’d made over the years.

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With her gone, the heart has somewhat gone out of Christmas for me, though I try every year to rekindle that holiday spirit. I am particularly down this year, for a variety of reasons both personal and political, but what keeps me going is the reminder that, despite and because of everything, life does indeed go on. And so I reconnect with my own life force by doing the thing that always brings me joy – cooking for others. Though I do admit to shedding some tears as I read her recipe and got started. But that is life, is it not? Joy and pain, sometimes at the same time.

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This is the method that I used. It’s my Nana’s recipe, unaltered with the exception of the addition of 1/3 cup of amaretto, and only because I love the almond taste. But other than that, it’s our traditional family recipe. Because how can you improve on perfection?

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups Crisco
1 cup lard
3 large eggs, room temperature

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2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons anise flavoring
1 teaspoon vanilla
10 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

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1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup whiskey
1/3 cup Amaretto
Sugar and cinnamon mixed together

METHOD
Cream the lard and shortening together.

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Add the eggs and sugar. Cream again.

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Add in the anise and vanilla. Mix together again.

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Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl. Gradually incorporate it to the lard/egg mixture, slowly mixing together.

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Slowly pour in the whiskey and the Amaretto to the forming-dough, continuing to mix slowly until you have a nice, round ball of dough.

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Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least an hour. When ready to bake, take out the dough, and heat the oven to 400F. Dust a counter or other surface with flour and start rolling out the dough.

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Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or with a coffee cup.

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Dip each cookie shape into the sugar-cinnamon mixture.

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Lay out on cookie sheets, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cookies are golden-brown.

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Allow to cool, and enjoy. Or you could do what my Nana always did, and share generously with family and friends. ‘Tis the season, after all! These are delicious as snacks, served to guests with some tea, eaten with early-morning coffee, or eaten Italian-style dipped in red wine. Really, they are good at anytime of the day. But it’s not a New Mexico Christmas without homemade biscochitos.

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Here’s to my Nana Jean. Merry Christmas!

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