Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Morning Bananas Foster Waffles

Strangely enough, all my family's Christmas food traditions are Christmas Eve based. I'm from San Francisco originally and Christmas Eve always meant cold Dungeness crab and french onion soup. Christmas Eve was always the best because we would sit around with our next door neighbors and sing carols and eat treats all afternoon. Our neighbors were British and they'd always bring over sausage rolls. I still make them from my neighbor's recipe, which involves boxed pie crust mix. I suppose some day I ought to make a proper crust for them, but nostalgia holds me back.

Christmas Day was always kind of hodge podgey though. My whole extended family lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and we would often visit multiple relatives up and down the Peninsula, even into the City and the East Bay. So as an adult, I've developed my own Christmas food traditions. The most important one and the one I do every year because it's the sort of thing that one really oughtn't eat all the time is Bananas Foster Waffles.

It's a pretty basic bananas foster recipe based on this one by Alton Brown, but banana liqueur tastes awful, orange zest is overkill and the recipe doesn't generate quite enough sauce for waffles so I've amended it over the years. I usually make the waffles and sauce at the same time, but if this is your first time making bananas foster, I'd cook the waffles before starting the sauce and stash them in a warm oven. If you're cooking for more than two, double the quantities, but keep the alcohol amount the same since you're setting it on fire. It will still taste fine.

And Merry Christmas from Cooking Up Romance! I hope you and your family and friends find joy in the day.

Bananas Foster Waffles
adapted from Food Network

Time: 12 minutes
Makes: 2 servings

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons water
2 under ripe bananas, sliced in half lengthwise
1/2 cup dark rum

1. Melt butter in a heavy skillet over low heat. Add brown sugar, allspice, nutmeg and water and stir until sugar dissolves. Bring sauce to simmer. 
2. Add bananas and cook for 1 minute on each side. Remove bananas from pan to a serving dish. 
3. Bring sauce to a simmer and carefully add the rum. If the sauce is very hot, the alcohol will flame on its own. If not, using stick flame, carefully ignite and continue cooking until flame dies out, approximately 1 to 2 minutes. If sauce is too thin, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until it is syrupy in consistency. 
4. Immediately spoon the sauce over bananas and serve. Serve with waffles. These ones work well.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas in the Duke's Arms Chocolate Cookie Mix

When I picked up Christmas in The Duke's Arms, I went into it with trepidation. I expected...well...Dukes. And while I don't have a problem with Dukes per se, I do have a problem with the sameness of Dukes: powerful guy, lots of wealth and responsibility, inevitably rakish, rarely seen doing any government work or estate business despite that I can only imagine those things took at least some amount of their time? I need not have worried. In fact, only one of the heroes in these novellas is a Duke. And even that Duke bears very little resemblance to the stereotypical romance Duke described above. Rather, the title refers to "The Duke's Arms" a pub that serves as one of the loose ties that hold these four stories together. There are others and we'll get to that below when I explain what candy canes are doing in a Regency romance review.

Each of these stories has something to recommend them. The main thing I appreciated about each is that they didn't try too heart to force the cheer and sentimentality. The first story, A Knight Before Christmas by Grace Burrowes, does have a number of fluffy bunnies, but as breeding rabbits, they hardly fit the stereotypical mold of the puppy-cover Christmas romance. This novella features the unconventional courtship of a widow and her deceased husband's man of business, himself a widower. The heroine, by virtue of an odd stipulation in her deceased husband's will needs to marry rather quickly and while the two have an affinity, there is an evil other woman holding up the show. The EOW trope is not one I'm fond of in general, but the way the conflict was resolved was hilarious; a farce, but one I enjoyed.

The second story, In The Duke's Arms by Carolyn Jewel, who I've heard wonderful things about, but hadn't read, features the only actual Duke of the bunch, a busy, distinguished fellow who tends to scare everyone around him, including his heroine. My favorite aspect of this story would be a bit of a spoiler, but suffice to say that I very much appreciated that the Duke of Oxthorpe is pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical historical romance Duke. He was socially isolated as a child and doesn't engage easily with other people. Heroine Edith Clay is very much the opposite as everyone likes her, except perhaps for her relatives. Seeing her wake up to the truth of Oxthorpe's personality and regard for her is a joy. And all those other Jewel books I've got languishing on my TBR just got bumped up several notches.

Licensed To Wed by Miranda Neville features another man bound by duty and ambition with designs on his now penniless childhood neighbor. In contrast to Jewel, I've read all of Neville's books and for the most part enjoyed them all. I was not at all disappointed by this one in which the poor orphaned girl who may never receive another offer of marriage rejects her dutiful, determined suitor out-of-hand right at the beginning of the story. Wyatt Herbert, Viscount Carbury, is a bit of a stick in the mud and a touch OCD, making to do lists of items, big and small, which get progressively funnier. Robina Weston is delightfully independent, but not excruciatingly so, making this clash of wills most enjoyable.

The final story, Spy Beneath the Misteltoe by Shana Galen, was the odd one out in a number of ways, a send-up of 007 Bond spy lore recast as a romance between two competitive spy colleagues. It didn't work quite as well for me as the other three novellas, but still had its charms, including the resolution to another plot thread running through the other stories, that of a highwayman terrorizing the road through the neighborhood in which the stories are set.

Christmas in The Duke's Arms had a little drop in price over the weekend as well. It's now 99 cents at Amazon so if you were holding off, now is the time to snap it up. If you're an historical romance reader looking for a short and sweet but not saccharine holiday read, I definitely recommend it.

One of the neat things about Christmas in The Duke's Arms is that not only do the characters in each story visit the book's namesake pub, many of them also end up at the same Christmas party at the home of Penelope Carrington. Since I'm not a big historical recipe developer, instead of coming up with a Regency treat that might appeal to a modern palette, I thought I'd just pull together a last-minute hostess gift idea for the holiday parties you might be attending in the upcoming week.

The whole mix-in-a-jar idea isn't new. But sometimes I've gotten gift cookie and cake mixes that 1) suffered from being in a jar because the order ingredients are mixed isn't ideal, and 2) require you to add so many things, you might as well just have baked it from scratch yourself. This recipe is super simple because all the gift recipient has to add are one stick of melted butter and a couple tablespoons of water. No eggs, no shortening or perfectly softened butter and no vanilla or other liquids. And since you just spread all the dough out in a slab, the instructions are pretty easy too!

This kind of project is helped by having a stash of craft supplies. I sew and do some paper crafting so I had the pinking shears, scrap fabric, hole punch, cardstock and twine on hand. If you had to go out and buy all that stuff, this might end up getting a little more expensive. Oh, and here's a printable gift tag/instruction sheet for the mix.

The ingredient list below is a total shopping list: the amount of each ingredient you'll need for 6 gifts. If you just want to do one gift, you can use the amounts in the first line of the assembly instructions below. Otherwise you're going to have to do some math. Sorry!

Chocolate Cookie Mix
adapted from The Washington Post
Makes: 6 gifts
Time: 1 hour

6-32 ounce wide-mouth mason jars with lids
6-6" squares of fabric
6-18"lengths of ribbon or twine
3 sheets cardstock
12 plastic sandwich bags or treat bags

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 teaspoons vanilla powder (also great for flavoring Royal icing because it doesn't turn white icing brown)
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 cups Dutch process cocoa powder
2 1/4 cups white sugar
3 cups brown sugar
9 cups bittersweet chocolate chips
3 cups crushed candy canes (approximately 32-36 6-inch candy canes)

To assemble gifts:

1. In each jar, from the bottom up, layer 3/4 cup flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla powder, 1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 cup cocoa, 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons white sugar and 3/4 cups chocolate chips. Put 1/2 cup crushed candy canes and 3/4 cups chocolate chips in two separate ziplock bags and put in on top of the mix.

2. Lay the top on the jar. Print and fold the gift tag/instruction sheet. Punch a hole in the upper lefthand corner. Using twine or ribbon, tie the tag to the neck of the jar. Lay one fabric square over the top of the lid and use the rim to screw down both the lid and the fabric.

To use mix:

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Ready an unlined baking sheet.

2. Take out chocolate chip packet and candy cane packet and set aside. In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine the remaining jar contents with ½ cup melted unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons water.

3. Leaving a 3-inch margin on all sides, spread dough into a rectangle that measures about 11-by-8 inches. Pat it into an even layer.

4. Bake 12-14 mins until top looks dull. When done, sprinkle the chocolate chips from the packet over the cookie slab. Let the chocolate chips sit for 5 mins to melt, then use a spatula to spread it. While chocolate is warm, sprinkle candy cane packet on top.

5. Let cool on baking the chocolate topping is firm, about 2 hours. Break each cookie slab into about two dozen 2- to 4-inch-long irregular pieces.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crock Pot Balsamic Chicken with Spicy Bourbon Bacon Honey Glaze

Today's post has nothing to do with romance. And that picture has nothing to do with this recipe. But this post is all food all the time. I tried out a new recipe from a favorite food blog a couple weeks ago and was quite pleased with the final product, but not with the amount of time it took (marinating overnight, grilling, making a glaze). Plus I, um, don't have a grill. But I love to make stuff in the crock pot when we have our friends over for game night. It keeps me sitting at the table instead of cooking in the kitchen. So I decided to translate this into a crock pot recipe.

Once I'd rejiggered the recipe, several of my Twitter buddies requested it. Of course, those same Twitter buddies are probably gonna hate it because the standout of this dish is really the spicy bourbon bacon honey glaze that I decided to go ahead and keep from the original recipe. Which means that this isn't a full-on crock pot recipe. That said, the crock pot part is so extremely simple and you're going to have to make rice or quinoa or something to eat with it anyway so this hardly even counts as an extra step. (I hope.)

Oh, and sorry for the lack of pretty food pictures, but I never really intended this to be a blog post. It was just...dinner. I do just cook sometimes without taking photos of it.


Crock Pot Balsamic Chicken with Spicy Bourbon Bacon Honey Glaze
adapted from The Food Charlatan
Makes: 4-6 servings
Time: 6 hours, Hands on time: 30 minutes

8 bone-in chicken thighs or 4-6 boneless chicken breasts

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons Barbeque seasoning (I used McCormick's the 1st time & a local one the 2nd time--just pick something with brown sugar in it--not sauce--the dry stuff in the spice aisle)
2 cups chicken stock

8 slices bacon, chopped
3 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup honey
4 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons hot sauce

1. Combine first four ingredients in a large crockpot. Cook on high for 6 hours.

2. Half an hour before chicken is done, brown the bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pour out bacon fat and reserve for another use. Deglaze the pan with the bourbon. It will steam so keep fingers and faces out of the way. Add honey, worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce to the bacon and whisk to combine. Simmer on medium-low for approximately 5 minutes or until sauce is reduced by half. Set aside until chicken is finished. Sauce will thicken as it cools.

3. Serve chicken over rice or other grain and top with sauce.

Monday, December 15, 2014

More Than A Man Gingerbread Men

I'm not a huge fan of Christmas romance in general. So it's really not surprising that my Christmas posts for the next few weeks will feature a couple historicals and, well, this. I guess it's sort of futuristic? I'd called it speculative fiction rather than sci fi though because there's no real science going on in this book. After all, I don't think anyone is necessarily working on technology to make fully formed husbands to order at all the mall: the matrimonial equivalent of Build-A-Bear. But that's just what happens at the Manporium in Elise Logan and Emily Ryan-Davis' More than a Man.

When Noelle goes to the mall to order her third husband, it's a bit of a scandal. Typically Manporium relationships are for life, but the particular traits Noelle had built into her first two husbands led to their early demises. Her trip is just one stop during a busy day of Christmas shopping though and the mall is packed with shoppers and husband-builders. So it's not that surprising when an overwrought buyer collides with Noelle, causing her to almost drop her communication device, getting her shopping list a little muddled with with her list of desirable husbandly traits. When a few weeks later Aya shows up at her door a little earlier thna expected, Noelle is thrown off balance and not just by his slightly untimely arrival.

As for Aya, well, he's just been built. He comes implanted with certain made up memories and experiences and habits, some of which Noelle requested, some of which seem unique to him. And then there are the unintentional consequences of Noelle's collision at the Manporium. Like the fact that he smells like gingerbread and has a Red Hot tongue, for starters, But it's clear from the beginning that Aya isn't some kind of pre-programmed robot who is just going to do exactly what Noelle expects and exactly what she has envisioned. Her previous Manporium experiences haven't prepared her for Aya's take-charge attitude or ability to grow and change and adapt independent of her wishes (almost like a real husband--ha!).

Though on the face of it More Than A Man is a silly romp through some kind of alternate reality where women buy self-designed husbands, It actually does have a broader point to make about how people go about selecting spouses. The Jerry Maguire ideal of "you complete me" is completely subverted here as Aya demonstrates not only what Noelle thought she wanted, but what she needs. Noelle wishes she were more of a risk-taker, for example, and she tried to build that trait into her previous husbands with disastrous results. But sex in unconventional places proves to rev her motor, not to mention Yes, there are tentacles. This betrays an adventurous streak that she should simply have claimed for her own rather than trying to invent a man to fulfill that need vicariously.

This is an erotic romance and it's definitely on the hotter end of the erotic romance spectrum. Readers will also have to be okay with Aya's, well, unconventional appendages. They're not just there for show, after all. But in a Christmas romance marketplace that sometimes seems overrun with puppies and children and sappy scenes in front of a roaring fire (if you like that, so sorry--it just isn't my thing), the gingerbread tentacle man does put a new spin on things.

When I pulled these cookies out of the oven, I turned to my husband and said, "Hm. I knew tentacled gingerbread men would be unconventional, but I didn't expect them to look quite so distressing." He came into the kitchen and said, "Well, that's unsettling." But don't let that deter you! Actually, you totally should let that deter you. In fact, the rest of this post isn't really about tentacled gingerbread men specifically. More, the theory of tentacled gingerbread men, from creative use of cookie cutters to the tools and techniques you need for proper deployment of royal icing (along with a new recipe I found that lets you make it in the microwave!).

Obviously, no one really makes tentacled man cookie cutters. But they don't really generally make Dora the Explorer cookie cutters or rainbow-with-cloud cookie cutters or any number of other shapes that an avid cookie decorator might want to create. So by using two different cutters: a gingerbread man and an octopus, I pieced together what I needed. Just press the pieces together so they stick and paint a little water over the top. When they bake, they'll be sturdy enough. If you cover the joints with icing, no one will ever know you didn't have a tentacled man cookie cutter just lying around.

Serious cookie decorators have developed serious technique for decorating cut-out cookies. I'm really a novice at it, but I do understand the theory. It starts with three different thicknesses of royal icing. The recipe below makes a nice stiff icing perfect for piping outlines and detailed work like the mouth and pupil dots on the eyes of these cookies. You can thin it with water a half teaspoon at a time until it's thin enough for flood icing--just pipe an outline and fill with the thinned icing, being careful not to overflow the banks of the outline. For these cookies, I also used a third thickness of icing--7-second icing--which is called that because when you drip it from a spoon into a bowl, the drips disappear into the rest of the icing in about 7 seconds. It holds its shape better than flood icing without piping and enabled me to make the eyes on these cookies.

As for supplies, I use 12" piping bags fitted with #3 tips and couplers for piping. You'll want as many disposable bags, tips and couplers as you have colors. For flood icing and 7-second icing, restaurant style squeeze bottles work really well. I get mine at Walmart for around a dollar each. You'll probably also need several small bowls for mixing up colors. Speaking of colors, I use gel food coloring that you can buy at craft stores and baking supply stores, as well as online. My local shop carries Americolor so that's what I use, but if you don't do this often and just want to use grocery store colors, that's fine. I just like the gel colors because it takes less to get more vibrant colors. Finally, you'll need a few toothpicks for clearing piping tips, pushing flood icing around on the surface of the cookie and making little corrections to your icing.

So if you're ready to take your Christmas cookie decorating to the next level, that's basically what you'll need. If you're new to it, I'd recommend staying fairly simple with just three or four colors and a simple design, which you can even sketch out on paper before you start. There are lots of good tutorials online about how to decorate really beautiful cookies. My personal favorites are Sweet Sugar Belle's. She has instructions for pretty much everything you'd ever want to imagine. And her cookies are gorgeous. It's well worth a look.

There is one small place where I'm going to have to part company with the serious cookie decorators though. Their preference for making royal icing in bulk is the use of meringue powder, which you can buy at craft stores and baking supply stores. I've used it, but I never really mastered the consistency issue and so my cookies were always pitted, with brittle, unattractive, unappetizing icing. Not like these, which are clearly masterpieces.

However, I always seem to have egg whites laying around from making ice cream and various custard fillings for cakes and pies and such. So I pulled out Joy of Cooking to see if it had an egg white royal icing recipe and it did! That said, it's a teensy tiny small recipe, not nearly enough for generating multiple colors. But since the fresh egg whites and microwave instructions were such a revelation, here it is with a slightly stiffer consistency ready for piping and in a much larger quantity. I had a great deal more luck with this icing than I've ever had with meringue powder based royal icing, which made this much more fun than my previous attempts.

Plus...tentacled gingerbread men. Yum.

Microwave Royal Icing
adapted from Joy of Cooking
Makes enough to cover 4 dozen designer cookies or 2 dozen child-decorated cookies
Time: 10 minutes

5 egg whites (roughly 6.25 ounces)
3 1/4 cups powdered sugar + 4 cups powder sugar, separated
a few drops of vanilla extract (for gingerbread cookies) or almond extract (for sugar cookies), optional
food coloring, optional

1. In a large microwave-safe bowl, whisk together egg whites and 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar until combined. Microwave on high, one minute at a time, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F on an instant read or candy thermometer. If you need to take more than one reading, wash the thermometer or dip in hot water before taking additional readings.

2. Remove from microwave and add 4 cups additional powdered sugar. With a hand mixer, beat on medium until icing is cool and holds stiff peaks. Add vanilla or almond extract as desired. Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface immediately after beating to prevent drying. Icing can be stored in a covered container for up to 3 days.

3. When ready to use, divide icing between smaller bowls and color as desired, covering when not in use as it dries quickly. Fill piping bags as needed, thinning the remaining icing for 7-second and flood icing.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Matter of Disagreement Lavender Earl Grey Tea Cookies

Back in October during Queer Romance Month, I picked up A Matter of Disagreement by E.E. Ottoman. The premise of the book grabbed me right away: two steampunk scientists have an academic difference of opinion regarding the future of their chosen field of mechanical animation. As plots go, it's a fresh one, and the conflict between the two main characters is not trivial. In fact, they are genuinely atrocious to each other for much of the novel. It's an incredibly sexy ramp-up that left me panting for the moment when they would finally succumb to their attraction to one another, among other things.

Andrea, Lord Ashcroft de Bourbon, is a gently-born scientist who has been effectively disinherited by his family because of his insistence on an academic career. Rather than lead an idle life as a lord, he obtains grants for his research until changes in his field make acquiring funding difficult. Those changes are largely the fault of the charming, erudite Marquis de la Marche, and Andrea bitterly resents him for it. To make matters worse, one of his favorite research assistants and a gifted scientist in his own right is going to be forced to take another position outside academia if Andrea can't come up with sufficient funding. Andrea is grumpy, short, pudgy and ill-understood by just about everyone. He’s really having quite a difficult time of it at the beginning of the novel.

Gregory, the Marquis de la Marche, is Andrea's scientific rival. His wardrobe is to die for and he’s also much more conventionally handsome, confident and dashing than Andrea. Their first meeting is one of the most appealing I've read this year. Though they have corresponded forever via opposing journal articles, they don't meet in person until they encounter one another in Gregory's laboratory during a party he should have been hosting up at his house. They are immediately attracted to one another, both physically and intellectually. It isn't until late in the conversation that they discover each others' identity, and Andrea goes storming off.

Andrea and Gregory are fantastically awful to each other throughout much of the novel, making their banter incredibly quick and clever. I was reminded of Elizabeth and Darcy in their worst moments, though these two are substantially more cutting. There's something so delicious about an enemies to lovers narrative. When they finally do get together, the sex is just as explosive as you might expect from two such passionate people. It's sexy and tender and humorous, just like the rest of the book.

The world-building in this book is also unique, particularly with regard to legal, scientific, and medical details, which normally get overlooked in steampunk fiction in favor of weaponry and other engineering marvels. I did feel there were a few areas where the world-building could have been more substantial. Details of society, magic, and engineering felt sketched in at points, so I'm looking forward to future books in the series shedding more light. But the information we are given supports Gregory's personal history, especially his transition. It isn’t until midway through the novel that we learn Gregory is trans*, which has implications in their society beyond gender identity, specifically in terms of inheritance law. And when Gregory recounts his story to Andrea, it marks a turning-point in their relationship for the better.

A Matter of Disagreement is one of those brainy romance reads that I wish were more common. It's terrifically romantic, but the scientific context, family politics and unrelentingly witty dialogue made it shine. And finally, and this is odd for me because I never comment on covers, but I just love this one. Romance covers are terrible pet peeve of mine. If all of them looked like this one though, I might buy more physical books.

My holiday baking is epic. I've stopped counting how many dozens of cookies I make because last year it freaked me out. I think it was 72 dozen or maybe 84 dozen? For the math-challenged, that works out to 864 cookies. Or maybe 1,008? That sounds about right. Anyway, it's a lot of cookies. They all get eaten every year though. And not by me!

For years I have made pretty much the same basic bunch of recipes: gingerbread cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, decorated sugar cookies, jam thumbprint cookies, chocolate peppermint bark, chocolate-dipped meringues, and my favorite, Earl Grey tea cookies. And usually one or two others depending on my mood and what kind of ingredients I have left over. I've got a recipe to try this year with cardamom and crystallized ginger that sound interesting, for instance.

So this is a tried and true recipe that I fussed with just a smidge. In A Matter of Disagreement, The Marquis wears an aftershave that smells of black tea and lavender, which immediately made me think of adding lavender to these Earl Grey tea cookies. For the record, I would completely fall all over anyone who walked around smelling like black tea and lavender. I mean, holy smokes, how hot is that?

Anyway, about a week before baking, I put 2 tablespoons of culinary lavender in 2 cups of granulated sugar and shook it every day until the whole thing smelled and tasted faintly of lavender. When it was time to make the cookies, I considered straining out the flowers, but decided against it since I make these in the food processor anyway and all the lavender would get pulverized along with the loose black tea. If you're using a mixer though, you might want to remove the flowers or at least pulverize them with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

It's a small amount of lavender when all is said and done, about half a tablespoon, so you just get a floral hint along with the tea flavor. It makes the cookies ever-so-slightly more complex. These might seem a little different, but they're really excellent. Whenever I give these to people, they're always skeptical and it always ends up being their favorite.

In fact, you might just want to triple this recipe before you even start. I always do.

Lavender Earl Grey Tea Cookies
adapted from Real Simple Magazine
Makes: 4 dozen
Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (Hands-on Time: 30 minute) + 1 week

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon culinary lavender
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Earl Grey tea leaves (approximately 6 tea bags)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon water
1 cup salted butter, softened

1. About a week before baking, add lavender to granulated sugar and mix to combine. Cover and set aside, shaking daily to redistribute the lavender.

2. Pulse together granulated sugar, Earl Grey tea leaves and salt in a food processor until tea and lavender are pulverized. Add flour and powdered sugar. Pulse briefly to combine. Add the vanilla, water and butter. Pulse together until a dough forms.

3. Divide the dough in half. Lay out two sheet of plastic wrap and roll the dough into 12" long logs. You can flatten each side for square cookies or leave round for circular cookies. Chill for a minimum of 30 minutes or as long as overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Prepare two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from fridge and slice approximately 1/3 inch slices. Place on baking sheets about 2 inches apart.

5. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly browned. Allow to cool on sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Cookies last up to a week, tightly wrapped.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Missed Opportunities in Weakness

Anyone who's been following this blog for awhile probably knows that I'll take a "beta" hero over an "alpha" hero any day, but that mostly I wish the distinction didn't exist. Actually, I don't think sociology upholds the dichotomy at all so outside of romance novels, the distinction really doesn't exist. It's arbitrary, unrealistic and damaging to everyone, regardless of gender. "Alpha" is shorthand for a certain kind of strength in heroes, an unambiguous, worldly, most often physical, but sometimes also economic power. And even when we talk about "beta" heroes, we talk about different kinds of strength: competence and kindness, for example.

But outside of sociological and feminist arguments against subscribing to socially-constructed and ultimately restrictive portrayals of masculinity, I think there are missed opportunities when we focus so intently upon strength. And it's not just in heroes. I noticed the other day while perusing Amazon's romance novel newsletter that whether in the blurb or the extent reviews, everyone is obsessed with "strong" heroines. I'm guessing this is code for all sorts of things: independence, smarts, competence.

But lately I'm also seeing ruthlessness, willingness toward violence, and selfishness. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself. In nearly every other genre, women are most often cast in the caring, nurturing, selfless role so having access to another narrative is bound to be empowering for romance readers and writers. In fact, I myself wrote a couple weeks ago about how in the most recent novella, the women of the Beyond series had seized their violent potential with both hands. It did and still does seem to signal progress in their ongoing struggle for equality, which I'm having trouble seeing as a bad thing in their environment.

I do think an opportunity for telling different kinds of stories is lost though when we approach every tale from the perspective of strength. If every hero and heroine must be intelligent, attractive, charming, likeable, morally upstanding, physically imposing and/or eternally capable, we seem to be missing an entire range of human experience. In fact, most of human experience. The part of human experience where we admit how little control we really have over anything not within a very narrow range of our own personal behaviors.

I just wonder how much of the sameness of some of the romance marketplace can be laid at the doorstep of a readership obsessed with strength. When hero and heroine both must be strong and independent and stubborn, a certain type of plot is bound to proceed from that. It starts to look like every book is a power struggle. Because it is a power struggle when both parties are relentlessly strong and independent. They may struggle against other things too, but they're bound to direct some of that stubbornness at each other, a particularly annoying facet of current romance novel conflict resulting in stubbornness for the sake of stubbornness. This isn't the entire explanation, of course. It's almost like writers have completely forgotten about the potential for the person versus nature option for conflict in favor of the often narcissistic person versus him or herself or the person versus person conflict detailed above. But I'll leave that discussion for another post.

If I look back on my best reads of the year, the books that stand out are ones where one or more characters have a weakness to contend with, sometimes on more than one level, sometimes a weakness that is also a strength depending on the context. The couples in Glitterland and Living in Shadow are both nearly wrecked by mental illness. Social bias profoundly influences what actions the characters in Think of England can take and what they can risk. Have Mercy and One Kiss with a Rock Star both have characters who defy societal expectations and pay a price for doing so. A lack of confidence drives the characters in Private Politics, particularly the hero. And in Prosperity, ruthlessness, selfishness and obsession play both as strengths and as weaknesses, but so do kindness, compassion and devotion.

Not all of these books were entirely perfect, but they were original. And in every one, there's also a kind of surrender: to hopelessness, to another person, to desires, to reality. There's an admittance of powerlessness and a lack of control. And though the characters often eventually reclaim or reinvent whatever strength they brought into the story, they're changed by submission (sometimes subtle), not by battling it out to the very end.

I often talk about a lack of context in terms of family relationships, spirituality, work and other non-romantic elements playing a role in the simplification of the romance story line. But the fear of weakness, of non-manufactured vulnerability, of allowing characters to do anything as long as it involves digging in their heels unyieldingly, well, that's some of what separates the chaff from the wheat as far as my reading is concerned.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Roulette Lamb in Roasted Garlic-Cognac Sauce

I love the old Harlequin Presents romances I pick up at thrift shops and used bookstores, mainly out in the hinterlands of Virginia: their heroine-centric perspectives, island and glamorous European settings, strong heroes who read like real people. But they are often just the slightest bit dissatisfying. Some endings seem rushed. The hero falls heads over heels in love and declares himself on practically the last page. Sometimes the heroine will leave her job or her family for a guy she's known for three weeks. And while I love the sexual tension in them, I have often wished for a bit more physicality than just a couple of kisses. So when I read Roulette by Megan Mulry, I was pleasantly surprised to find all the things I love about my old HPs, but made current and with the heat turned up.

Miki Durand has a very balanced, normal life at the beginning of the story. She has a stable job at which she excels, a steady boyfriend who wants them to move in together, an affordable, reasonable home in a nice neighborhood, friends who love her and two parents. Miki's parents are not especially stable, having never married and both lived lives on two different sorts of edges, prompting Miki to take the safe route in all her choices. Miki's father is a Russian businessman and her mother a French actress. At the opening of the novel, Miki's father is eager for her to take over the family business, but he dies shortly after her arrival for vacation in Russia, precipitating a series of events that have the potential to change Miki's life forever.

Rome de Villiers is a French businessman. His first two scenes in the book are utter perfection, first in a confrontational phone call with Miki about business dealings he'd had with her father and then again when they finally meet in person. The book is written in first person, present tense from Miki's perspective. This convention annoys me when it isn't done well, but here it is and it's essential to the story. Not having Rome's thoughts makes him even more delectable and even more desirable than your typical brilliant, sexy, billionaire playboy with a French accent. The mystery of not knowing what he's thinking really works in his favor, which it doesn't always in old HPs. And we get where he's coming from when it counts: namely, in his feelings for and actions toward Miki.

At no point does this story take a turn for the predictable. The romance genre conventions Roulette employs all get resolved in subtly unpredictable ways. There's a Russian mobster to be suspicious of for much of the novel who doesn't turn out to be who he seems. There's an "evil other woman" who isn't evil or, really, an "other woman". The heroine being the one goaded into taking over the reins of the family business instead of the hero was also a fresh take. Even Miki's wild, confident, brazen mother isn't exactly who we think she is. The typical scripts don't apply here and it's wonderful to watch all the characters, even secondary ones who probably won't be getting a book, develop from archetypes into people.

I thought Roulette was terrific, but there are a couple points I'll address because they'll hit some readers' hot buttons. For one thing, the hero and heroine spend a great deal of time apart. While sometimes this will cause my attention to wander, being inside Miki's head and preoccupied with business problems kept me engaged. The context of work at a grand, international scale is something Mulry has done well previously and it's a strength again in Roulette. In addition, there is cheating; it's not spouses, but it may still be a deal-breaker for some readers. It was a bold choice on Mulry's part and it works in the context of the book, highlighting not just the immediate attraction between Miki and Rome, but everything Miki has missed and lost by adhering strictly to the safest of societal conventions when she's capable of so much more. 

It's that final point that I think made this Mulry's strongest work to date. Even in a world where women have many more choices and opportunities than they did in the old 1970s Harlequins, many of us still feel like we've settled: given up careers for children and home or taken less money in exchange for flexibility. For highly educated women built to excel and trained to succeed at the highest levels, some social conditioning still operates: be strong, but be polite; work hard, but take care of your family; be a leader, but be restrained. Miki has a good life at the beginning of the book, but by the end, not only does she have her dream guy, she's affected her own life transformation from good to great. And we can't help but cheer her on.

This pan-broiled lamb chop recipe has been one of my go-to dishes for many years. In fact, I first made it the year after college for my then-boyfriend, a guy who actually ended up photographing my wedding to my husband. The world does go round, doesn't it? Anyway, he was (and still is) a serious foodie and stretched my culinary boundaries beyond the childhood staples of baked chicken, lasagna and stir-fry that had gotten me through school. I'd explored many of the fine restaurants in DC through the joys of parent visits and DC's Restaurant Week, but it had never occurred to me to try cooking anything more complicated at home.

I've come a long way since then. But since lamb is probably my husband's favorite meat, this recipe remains a favorite despite its relative simplicity. There are a couple keys to making this the best dish it can possibly be. First, the recipe in Joy of Cooking suggests that loin chops are just as good as rib chops. I'd say, well, bull pucky. For a dish this simple, it's important that the meat be the best quality possible so rib chops, preferably "frenched" (with the meat/membrane of the upper bone cut off) is what you're looking for here. I'd also use a quality brandy or Cognac since the flavor really comes through here and those typically aren't all that cheap.

Finally, it's totally reasonable to roast the garlic hours or even weeks in advance. Pureed, roasted garlic actually freezes well. Just add a splash of the roasting liquid when you puree and freeze by tablespoons in ice cube trays. It speeds up the preparation of this dish considerably and it doesn't hurt a bit to have frozen roasted garlic on hand for soups, stews, garlic bread and other sauces.

Since this sauce requires constant attention in the final minutes of preparation, I'd recommend sides that you can prep in advance or that come together rather quickly once the lamb is done. I served steamed green beans and bleu cheese mashed potatoes with it this time, but often use roasted, chilled asparagus with lemon in the spring (made ahead) and wild rice pilaf (comes together on the stove without much attention from the cook).

Oh, and since I didn't happen to have a bottle of 1982 Pauillac on hand, we went with a red blend from Romania, which a friend brought back for us from a recent trip. Truly a jet set meal!

Lamb in Roasted Garlic-Cognac Sauce
barely adapted from Joy of Cooking
Makes: 2 servings
Time: 1.5 hours (Hands on: 30 minutes)

Roasted Garlic
4 heads garlic
enough beef stock to come 1/3 up the sides of the garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 lamb chops (preferably rib or loin chops, 1” thick)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon butter

Roasted Garlic-Cognac Sauce
1/3 cup brandy or Cognac
1/2 cup beef or lamb stock
2 tablespoons pureed roasted garlic
1 to 3 tablespoons of softened butter
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 325.

2. Cut 1/3 of the tops off garlic heads. Place in 8x8 inch baking dish. Add chicken stock. Drizzle olive oil over garlic. Place a spring of thyme on top of each head. Cover with foil and bake until garlic is soft and tender, about an hour.

3. Season chops with the salt and pepper.

4. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat with olive oil and butter until the butter begins to brown. Arrange the chops in the pan, cooking ~4-5 minutes each side for medium-rare, one minute more for medium.

5. Remove the chops from the pan and set on a plate in a low oven to warm.

6. Pour any fat out of the skillet, retaining juices and browned bits. Heat skillet to high and pour in brandy, scraping up any browned bits and boiling for 1 minute. Add the stock and boil until reduced by half. Whisk in any lamb juices from plate and the pureed garlic.

7. Remove from heat and whisk in butter one tablespoon at a time. Then add the thyme and additional salt & pepper (start with 1/8 teaspoon of pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of salt). Serve over lamb.

Disclosure: I am friendly with the author and received a copy of Roulette from the publisher for review purposes.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Apples Should Be Red Egg Salad Sandwiches

Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson is a book I read months ago, a recommendation based on my love for Victoria Dahl's older couple novella, Fanning the Flames. I saved it for a Thanksgiving post though because the story takes place in the few days before the holiday. Plus it's a short, sweet, comedic read that would be a perfect little break from cooking and cleaning and entertaining the guests all of us Americans will have over the next few days.

The book features Beverly Anderson, recently widowed by her philandering, unappreciative husband and Tom Jenkins, a grumpy widower who has become quite insular and surly since the death of his wife. Beverly and Tom are actually in-laws whose children are married. Beverly is staying with Tom over the holiday as her home is fumigated for termites and their children, Karen and John, get a leaking pipe repaired.

The couple are in their late 50s/early 60s, both with life experience, lots of personal history and no end of quirks. Beverly, a twin-set and pearls type, wants to prove that nothing has changed in the wake of her husband's death and that she is just as perfect and put-together as always. Tom is a curmudgeonly, rough around the edges guy who constantly swears up a storm and delights in getting under Beverly's skin. A few days in close proximity to one another turn them from two polar opposites thrown together by family and circumstance into friends, lovers and eventually someday, maybe more.

I just loved this little novella. Over the course of the book, Beverly lets go of the pain her husband caused her and her expectations of Thanksgiving perfection, becoming the woman she didn't even know she could wish to be. And tough yet tender and considerate Tom will please any lover of gruff and sexy alphas. Oh, and it's laugh out loud funny the whole way through, with lots of wit, heart and tons of sexual tension.

Apples Should be Red is a perfect little plate of Thanksgiving deliciousness and if you haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, I recommend it heartily. And since it has all the hallmarks of a book that will improve with age, I think it might just become one of my holiday traditions.

I love it when romance writers use food as metaphors and Apples Should Be Red has a wonderful example. Beverly begrudgingly agrees to prepare lunch for Tom early in the novel, but what she offers isn't precisely to his very unfussy taste. Though the egg salad she describes doesn't ever get made, I'm with Beverly on this one. I like all kinds of crap in my egg salad, unlike Tom.

The most important thing about egg salad sandwiches is starting with good bread. I have a personal preference for challah when it comes to lunchtime sandwiches, but of course you can use anything you like. I figure pretty much everyone knows how to make egg salad, but I've included a recipe here for how to boil eggs and assemble it anyway since that's what I do. Besides, my version is particularly trashed up, almost like deviled eggs on bread.

There are endless ways to make egg salad, of course. You could use green onions or yellow onions in place of the red onion here. Or even chives if you have them handy. Beverly likes dill or parsley in hers and I know lots of people put sweet pickle relish in theirs. For the record, I am adamantly anti-pickle relish so please don't tell me if you add it to yours. Gross! I also on occasion add bacon to this if I happen to have some left over from other projects.

Finally, in a week when we're all probably doing more cooking than normal, I wanted to post something easy, light and filling. If you make up a batch today or tomorrow, you'll have lunch on hand while you're toiling away. I know I always forget to eat when I'm deep in the Thanksgiving kitchen groove so hopefully having something simple and quick in the fridge will serve as a reminder!

Oh, and serve these sandwiches with sliced RED apples, of course.

Egg Salad Sandwiches

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes (Hands on: 10 minutes)

8 eggs
3 tablespoons red onion, minced (about 1/4 of a medium onion)
3 tablespoons of celery, minced (about 1 celery rib)
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 generous pinch smoked paprika
8 slice of bread (something sweet and soft like challah preferred)
4 lettuce leaves (Bibb or Boston preferred)

1. Add eggs to a large pot and cover with 1 inch of cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When water is boiling, remove from heat and cover for 18 minutes. Drain and run eggs under cold water until cool.

2. While eggs cook, add onion, celery, mayo, mustard, salt, pepper and paprika to a medium bowl and stir to combine.

3. Peel and chop the eggs, about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch dice. Add to the bowl with the mayo and mix thoroughly.

4. Add a lettuce leaf and about 1/2 cup of egg salad to 4 slices of bread. Top with remaining bread.

Disclosure: Penny Watson and I follow each other on Twitter.
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