A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bildüngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. 🙂

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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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 Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Thanks to KMQ for the photography.

We continue with our month-long Halloween theme and a particular favorite book of mine. I’m always excited to reread “The Witching Hour” which is on my top 10 absolute most favorite books in the world.

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I first discovered Anne Rice one summer when I was 12, visiting my aunt and uncle in Douglas, Arizona, a small town on the border of Mexico. I was wandering around the historic downtown area, happened upon the bookstore (of course) and while browsing, came across this luridly gold and red book cover titled “Interview with the Vampire.” I was hooked on this marvelous author from that day forward, and this one  remains high on my list of desert-island reads.

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Anne Rice has a lush, prosaic style of writing. She’s a sensualist, as is obvious in her descriptions of light, darkness, death, blood, spirit encounters and lovemaking. All of these descriptions are sprinkled throughout The Witching Hour, but though she is very much a sensualist, I don’t get a sense that she’s a foodie sensualist. What food descriptions there are in her books are not very detailed or ornate, compared to her luxuriant descriptions of other things. It makes sense, of course, because many of her books center around vampires, and they only ingest blood. But her witches seem to be more focused on wealth and luxury and power……..and there’s nothing wrong with that, either!

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This is an epic book, telling the story of one New Orleans family, the Mayfairs, and its history going back 13 generations. Each generation has an heiress to the huge family fortune, and each of these women are witches. These women can control spirits, at times read people’s minds and otherwise interact with the spirit world, and in fact, each generation has been haunted by a spirit called Lasher, who has helped the family amass its immense wealth and yet has caused much harm and damage.

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Just the history alone in this book is enough for any devoted history buff. Just the descriptions of the city of New Orleans are enough for any devoted architectural buff. And the depiction of the romantic relationship between Rowan, the last in the line of Mayfair Witches, and Michael, whom she rescued from drowning, is both sweetly sentimental and roughly erotic, as they seem to have a deep passion for each other emotionally and physically.

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In one scene, he has come back to New Orleans and is reveling in his stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which he remembers visiting as a child. He and Rowan have cemented their physical relationship with a passionate night of lovemaking – always wonderful for working up an appetite! – and orders the ultimate Southern breakfast.

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“He called Room Service. ‘Send me a big breakfast, Eggs Benedict, grits, yeah, a big bowl of grits, extra side of ham, toast, and a full pot of coffee. And tell the waiter to use his key.”

Michael, a true Southern gentleman, obviously loves his grits.

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I tweaked Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for shrimp and grits, combined with a creamy sauce loosely based on this one at myrecipes.com, but with a few flavor tweaks of my own. I added the green bell pepper because it is a staple of Southern cooking, and a dash of turmeric in the grits to add to the lovely golden color.

INGREDIENTS
1 teaspoon of sea salt

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1 cup of quick-cooking grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of combined Parmesan and sharp cheddar cheeses

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1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large asparagus spears, cut into chunks
1 small green bell pepper, also cut into chunks
12-15 raw shrimp, deveined and shelled
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
4 eggs

METHOD
Add the sea salt to 5 cups of water. Cook at high heat and bring to a fierce boil.

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Slowly pour in the cupful of grits, stirring to mix thoroughly. It will bubble up quite a bit so lower the heat immediately after pouring in the grits. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at very low heat.

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The grits will have thickened into a texture like porridge. It’s a good idea to whisk for a few minutes at this stage, since grits tend to be lumpy.

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Add in the cheeses and stir to mix.

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Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some pepper if so desired. Pour the cooked cheesy grits into a glass pan, and refrigerate for a few hours.

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Saute the asparagus and green bell pepper together, with some butter, olive oil, salt and pepper for flavor. Add the shrimp to the cooked vegetables, and cook until the shrimp are pink. Remove immediately from the pan.

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In the same pan, add the butter, flour, chicken broth, and half and half. Whisk together to make a thick cream. Taste for seasoning and flavor. Add the sherry, which will give the cream a nice, creamy, ecru color.

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Add the cooked shrimp, asparagus and green pepper to the cream sauce, stir to combine the flavors, and cover to keep warm.

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Poach four eggs, four minutes each. Set aside.

Take the chilled grits from the refrigerator. Cut circles out, using a small glass or coffee cup. It’s the same principle as making polenta, if you’ve made polenta, that is.

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In the same pan you used for the cream sauce, cook the grits patties 3-4 minutes a side, until golden brown.

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Put two grits patties on a plate, top each with a poached egg, and spoon over the lusciously flavored and scented cream sauce.

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It’s a lovely dish, suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I feel certain Anne Rice’s witches would not turn me into a frog if they tasted this dish made in their honor.

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