Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Those of you who know me know of my deep and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he is a well-known New Mexico writer who wrote what many consider the seminal work of Chicano literature – Bless Me, Ultima. His work tends to focus on the lives of his fellow New Mexicans, and he has made forays into children’s literature as well. He’s written poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but it is his fictional novels that reveal his heart and soul, as well as the intense love he has for his home state and in particular, for the city where we both reside, Albuquerque.

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His novel Alburquerque – yes, you read that correctly with the extra “R” – is a love story and homage to this unique character of a city. It tells the story of Ben Chavez, a writer and professor and his connection with a young boxer named Abrán Gonzalez, but that is only part of the tale. The story takes place against the backdrop of a nasty mayoral race, and incorporates a beautiful love story between Abrán and Lucinda, an adopted boy’s search for his birth father, the spiritual beliefs and mingled faith of the Catholics of Northern New Mexico, and the unique politics of Albuquerque.

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I love this book so very much, not just because I love Rudolfo Anaya, but because it so perfectly describes my city. From the stunningly blue springtime skies to the cottonwood trees along the bosque trails that frame the Rio Grande River, from the tall buildings of Downtown to the seasonal matanzas, from the mountains of the many small towns of Northern New Mexico to the gorgeous homes of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Anaya not only knows Albuquerque inside and out, he clearly adores this city.

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The story takes place right around Easter, and rereading it, I was struck by the beautiful description of the traditional Good Friday trek to El Santuario de Chimayó. Chimayó is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, and is world-famous for its church and for its holy dirt, which pilgrims take with them as a blessing. The dirt is believed to have healing powers and people come from around the world to see it. On Good Friday, devout Catholics trek on foot from surrounding towns, sometimes walking over 100 miles to show their faith and devotion. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus emergency, the trek was cancelled. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I understand the importance of this annual pilgrimage to the faithful, as well as the cultural identity we New Mexicans have with Chimayó. I pray that next year we can renew this wonderful tradition.

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Then, of course, there is the New Mexican food that is described in luscious detail by Anaya. Red chile enchiladas, tortillas, the scent of fresh green chile roasting, the tart zing of a margarita, and then there is this passage, describing the smells of food cooking as Abrán walks into the house where his mother Sara is cooking.

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Sara was up when he got home. The house was warm and welcomed him with the smell of tortillas on the comal and fresh coffee brewing. She called from the kitchen, where she was making Lenten food for Good Friday: tortillas, tortas de huevo, spinach mixed with beans and a pod of red chile, and natillas for dessert.

New Mexican Catholics have a traditional Lenten meal that we eat on Good Friday. It’s meatless, and almost always comprises salmon patties, torta de huevo with red chile,  (tortas de huevo are savory little egg cakes),  quelites (wilted spinach greens) mixed with cooked pinto beans, tortillas, and for dessert, natillas. Natillas is a delicious vanilla custard dusted with cinnamon and is very central to any New Mexican’s Lenten meal. So that’s what I made, using my own Nana Jean’s tried-and-true method. She used to make the Good Friday dinner every year, and my sister and I took up the tradition after she died. This year, sadly, we are all social distancing so no point in making all that food when we can’t be together to share it. But natillas are so delicious that I decided a bowl of them would be a good distraction from everything going on right now.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

METHOD
Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk, cornstarch and sugar over medium heat, stirring very frequently. The sugar burns easily so don’t leave it.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites and add the yolks to the milk mixture. Set aside the egg whites.

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Whisk the mixture for the first couple of minutes, so the cornstarch is better incorporated, then stir with a wooden spoon.

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Add the vanilla and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens into a custard. Remove from the heat.

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Whisk the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks.

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Fold the whipped egg whites into the custard mixture in a large bowl.

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Sprinkle with cinnamon and chill overnight.

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Heavenly to taste, light and sweet but not overly so, and just completely the taste of New Mexico Eastertime!

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Possession by A.S. Byatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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

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

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

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

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

Food in Films – Amélie

I decided to do a little something different for this blog post. Many people have suggested different recipes or dishes to me that they saw in a film version of a movie, and I loved the idea but wanted to stick with my original concept of creating food either directly mentioned in a book or inspired by a book. However, my dear friend Jade gave me some delicious fresh plums from her tree, and I happened to reorganize my DVD collection over the weekend and came across one of my most favorite films of all time, Amélie. Or as it is titled in French, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.”

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I love love love this movie beyond most any other film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot because I love films as much as I love books. Set in the beautiful Montmartre area of Paris, Amelie is a lovely young lady who has lived very much in her own little world since childhood, a world that started out with  teddy bear-shaped clouds, imaginary friends, and that childhood egomania where you believe that your actions affect things like world wars, sports outcomes, natural disasters, etc. This strange world was created as a result of being raised as an only child by two very neurotic parents, and this has essentially made her, even as an adult, stay enclosed and cocooned in this magical, if lonely, life she’s invented for herself.

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A chance discovery of a child’s treasure hidden for years in her apartment that she is successfully able to return to its owner causes a chain reaction of events, both in the lives of those around her as well as herself. She starts doing small deeds of goodwill for other people but in some amazingly unusual ways, like taking a blind man through a visual tour of Montmartre, romantically connecting two regulars at the cafe where she is a waitress, putting together “fake” posthumous letters for the grieving widow whose husband abandoned her, taking her father’s garden gnome and having him send photos of himself traveling the world to inspire her widowed father to get out and experience the world, and my personal favorite, befriending her unusual neighbor who cannot leave his apartment due to a very odd medical condition that makes his bones so frail that the slightest bump will injure him.

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Amelie is a very personal film for me, because I can so much relate to her character. I live very much in my own mind most of the time, and it can be hard to connect romantically, perhaps because I’ve been so hurt. I know we all have been hurt by love, and other people seem to have such an easy time reconnecting after relationship break-ups. Sometimes I feel like a freak because I’ve had such a hard time. It would be wonderful to meet someone and connect with them, but at the same time, I don’t want to be with someone just to be with someone. I want a special connection with someone, and if that’s not meant to be, that’s ok, but I also don’t want to settle for someone I don’t truly have special feelings for. As my Nana Jean used to say in Spanish “mejor sola que mala acompañada.” Better alone than in bad company.

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I think Amélie is somewhat the same. She is such an unusual and unique creature that she needs to find someone as unusual and unique as she is. When she meets Nino Quicampoix……well, “meets” is maybe not the word for it. She sees him collecting torn-up photos from underneath photo booths in metro centers and finds this so oddly charming that she immediately concocts an entire story for his life and why he collects the photos. When she finds his scrapbook of all these photos put back together, she goes on a quest to find him and return it to him, wanting to meet him but at the same time so frightened to meet him in person and engage with him in real life that she creates these elaborate intersections where their paths cross but they never really connect due to her fear of him not liking her as she is. I can relate to that so very much that it’s almost frightening.

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So there were two food’n’flix moments I thought of recreating. The first is early in the film when the narrator is talking about Amelie’s love of small pleasures, such as dipping her hand into a barrel of dried beans, finding shapes in clouds, and breaking a crème brûlée with a spoon (and which is a very underrated pleasure!) The other is at the end, when Nino comes to find her baking a plum cake in her apartment and imagining their life together. It’s such a sweetly beautiful moment when she finally lets him in and he kisses her, after all of her own self-doubts and fear of connection to another person. I opted to go with the plum cake due to having been given a large bag of them fresh from my friend Jade’s tree, and the fact that I don’t have a torch to make the requisite crust on a crème brûlée….and who the hell makes a crème brûlée without a crust you can break with a spoon? Not this girl! So a luscious plum cake, spiced with crushed cardamom and made tenderly delicious with some vanilla Greek yogurt was what it had to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom pods mixed into 1 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound plums, pitted and quartered

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a bowl.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar  until fluffy.

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Add the egg and vanilla and mix on low.

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Gradually add in the flour mixture, mixing slowly, and alternate with a spoonful of the cardamom-spiked vanilla yogurt until all is smooth and combined. The batter will be thick, and that is what you want.

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Butter a 9-inch springform baking pan and pour in the thick batter, smoothing with a spatula.

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Arrange the sliced plums on top, skin-side up, in a circle so that they cover most of the batter, and sprinkle over the remaining two tablespoons of sugar.20190826_112910

Bake for 60 minutes, checking at the 45 minute mark, or until golden brown on top. Make sure the center has set and completely baked, then let cool, and serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a smidgen of whimsical romance. Vive la France!

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Beauty by Robin McKinley

As I’ve shared before, I am a sucker for fairy tales. Whether it’s the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, or Robin McKinley, the tales of kings, queens, princesses, trolls, talking animals, enchanted castles, and beasts have fascinated me since I was a little girl. But of all my favorites, the timeless story of Beauty and the Beast captured my imagination and still fascinates me this day.

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I mean, how much more profound can you get than a story about seeing past someone’s facade to their true heart and soul, and true love showing you the beauty inherent inside us all? I think in our looks-obsessed world, this story is even more timely than ever before. We live in a world where we swipe right if someone’s appearance doesn’t immediately grab us, we open up our hearts and share deep, poignant things about ourselves via IM with virtual strangers whose looks we like but whom we really know nothing about, and we mistake beauty and fame for personality, accomplishment, and intelligence. And I think as a society, we are more lonely than ever before because we judge so many things by how they look and not how they really are.

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The story of Beauty is retold in this marvelous book by Robin McKinley, and takes many of the traditional tropes and turns them upside down. Yes, there are three sisters but they all love one another. Beauty herself is considered plain compared to her two stunning sisters Grace and Hope; and when she goes to live with the Beast, she is nervous that he won’t be pleased with her appearance – a nice little twist as the Beast himself is at first very frightening. The enchanted rose, of course, makes its appearance in various ways, my favorite being that when its petals start to fall, they turn to gold and clink when hitting the floor or table. I love that!

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The illustration above is from my most treasured childhood book “Beauty and the Beast” illustrated by the amazing Mercer Mayer, which is also featured in the first photo. The illustrations are beyond gorgeous, rich, sumptuous, full of color and life.

Overall, the tale is the same – Beauty’s father loses his money, the family must move to the country, he encounters the Beast when returning home after hearing his fortune might be restored and takes a red rose from the Beast’s garden for Beauty, and Beauty goes to live with the Beast to appease  him. The Beast is, of course, under an enchantment, though in McKinley’s retelling, it’s not because he was an arrogant, vain, wealthy prince who refused to help others, but instead, he is under a sort of family curse.

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I like this version because Beauty is a total nerd bookworm who prefers the company of her armchair, a mug of hot chocolate and a book to any kind of company or society. That is so me! And when she goes to live with the Beast, he showers her with gorgeous clothes, beautiful shoes, jewels of all kinds, an enchanted stable for her beloved horse Greatheart, and food that would boggle the mind.

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That wonderful table would never have offered me the same dish twice; but while I reveled in the variety, I also sometimes demanded a repetition. There was a dark treacly spice cake that I liked very much, and asked for several times. Sometimes it burst into being like a small exploding star, several feed above my head, and settled magnificently to my plate; sometimes a small silver tray with a leg at each of five or six corners would leap up and hurry towards me from a point far down the table.

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Being a foodie, I of course loved the descriptions of the feasts, and though there was not a lot of specific food description, the passage above where Beauty talks about her favorite spice cake that the Beast’s invisible servants make her, was so charming and sounded so yum that I was inspired to make my own version – a cinnamon almond cake! Inspired by Nigella Lawson’s gluten-free clementine cake made with ground almonds instead of flour, this is my own spicy version.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup almond flour
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons almond extract

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and melt the butter in the microwave.

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Mix together the ground almonds, almond flour, sugar, ground cinnamon and baking powder in a bowl.

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Crack the eggs into the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and mix slowly together.

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Add the melted butter, the vanilla and almond almond extract and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, add the almond flour and cinnamon mixture to the eggs and butter and mix at medium speed until you have a dark reddish-brown batter with bits of almond peeking out.

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Pour into a buttered and lined cake pan and bake for 40 minutes, checking at the half-hour mark to make sure it hasn’t burned. The toothpick trick will let you know when it’s done.

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Allow to cool before serving, and enjoy with morning coffee or tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. Either works with this spicy, delicious cake. The almonds keep it light and give it a wonderful flavor, and it is super moist, gluten-free and would also be good with whipped cream on top. Tasty enough to melt the heart of the most hardened Beast.

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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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The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

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

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

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

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

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

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

METHOD
For the crumble topping:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Add the crumble mixture over the top of the peaches.

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

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

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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 Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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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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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.