Monday, June 30, 2014

Wild at Heart Trout Meunière

Over the past few months, I've gotten rather picky about newer historicals. I'm not immune to a good romp through drawing rooms and gaming hells, but there usually has to be some distinguishing factor like a really broken hero (see last Thursday's post) or a bluestocking heroine. Even writers who are doing Very Different Things seem to me to be doing Very Different Things for the sole sake of being different. The plots and characters are intriguing, but the emotions fall flat. I mean, go ahead and make your point, but you also have to make me fall in love.

As a result, I've been delving into backlists to find older historicals, often by writers who aren't writing any more, or aren't writing romance. Patricia Gaffney is one of those writers. This interview with her at Dear Author from 2011 gives great background on her books and career progression so I don't need to repeat all that here. Wild at Heart was written as a response to Alice Hoffman's Second Nature. Gaffney didn't like that it didn't have a happy ending so she wrote her own version. The fact that I never read Second Nature didn't dim my enjoyment of Wild at Heart. Probably mostly because I'm a sucker for a hero who can't communicate. Not because he's an emotional nitwit, but because he has literally forgotten how to speak.

The book is set in a suburb of Chicago in 1893, the year of the Chicago World's Fair, already distinguishing the book from the cookie cutter pseudo-Regency, quasi-Victorians that have occupied historical romance shelves lately. From the beginning of the novel, we are given to understand that the hero was abandoned in the woods as a child and grew up around animals (yes, cliched wolves, but also bears, badgers, birds and foxes). This has given him strange mannerisms, odd food preferences and, as mentioned, a lack of will to utilize human speech. He is being studied by the heroine's father, an anthropologist who wants to use him to to determine something about man's inherent sinfulness. The heroine has doubts about both the efficacy and morality of this course of action and her empathy leads her to befriend him early on.

Sydney is a widow whose marriage was pleasant, but not earth-shattering. She is being courted tenaciously by her father's research assistant, but she's finally looking for something more in a man and finds it in the wild, yet curiously attentive hero. I can't go into too much detail about the plot of this book because the romance is inextricably woven into the fabric of discovering who the hero was before he ended up in the woods and who he's becoming by the end of the novel.

What struck me most about Wild at Heart was the degree to which it reminded me of the best science fiction and fantasy, using cultural outsiders to question things that we take for granted. In this case, there is an obvious criticism of cultural mores surrounding female sexuality, the treatment of animals and to a lesser extent, materialism. It elevates the transformative power of art and highlights the limitations of Modern, rationalistic scientific exploration. But it's not all about the message. The relationship that blossoms between Syndey and the hero is one of love, trust and sacrifice. Also, a sexuality that has nothing to do with intellectualism or anything but the mutual indulgence in sensation.

This is just a tremendous book and deserves a permanent place on the shelf of any romance lover. 

Wild at Heart also has a tremendous sense of humor. There is an element of ridiculousness to the idea of a young man being found in the woods and given the heaviness of some of the plot, it's good that Gaffney spins some amusing scenes, like one where the hero has seen Sydney's ardent admirer give her a bouquet of flowers and decides to give her a present of his own. Which turns out to be a dead whitefish.

Even Sydney's uptight, snobbish Aunt Estelle would appreciate this easy, delicious preparation of simple butterflied trout. Chicago in 1893 was trying to assert itself as the New York of the West and this cosmopolitan dish would have been perfect for its upscale hotels.

The key to this dish is to get the oil very, very hot to cook the fish and then to let the pan cool down before adding the butter to make the sauce. That means no cast iron. Just your non-stick or stainless steel is fine here. I turned on the exhaust fan and opened a window for this one since it does get a little smokey.

This dish is fancy enough for company, but comes together so quickly that you might actually get to enjoy your guests! I made it for four people and didn't even need extra flour or sauce so if you're doubling the recipe, just buy more fish. I served it with quartered new potatoes roasted in rosemary and olive oil and steamed green beans. There's a lot of butter going on here so I'd recommend sides that aren't too heavy. 

Trout Meunière
adapted from The Paupered Chef
Makes: 2 servings
Time: 10 minutes

1 trout, butterflied and laid flat
salt and pepper
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons oil with a high smoke point like canola or grapeseed oil (NOT olive oil)
4 tablespoons salted butter
3 tablespoons minced parsley, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon lemon juice (juice of half a lemon)

1) Salt and pepper both sides of fish. Put flour in a large shallow dish and coat fish on both sides, shaking off the excess.

2) Heat oil in a medium skillet until smoking. Add fish to skillet, skin side up, and cook for 2-3 minutes depending on thickness of filet. Flip fish and cook for 1 additional minute. Remove fish to plate and tent with foil.

3) Let pan cool for 1 minute. Carefully wipe out hot pan with paper towels. Put butter in pan and melt. Watch it closely, allowing it to brown. It should take about 3 minutes.

4) Add the parsley and shake to coat. Take the skillet off the heat and add the lemon juice to keep butter from browning further.

5) Pour over fish, garnish with reserved parsley and serve immediately.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Most Broken of all the Broken

The other day, my proclivity for loving really, really broken characters and gleefully watching as an author puts them through the wringer came up in a conversation on Twitter. The context was Jackie Ashenden's Having Her, in which a hero with a schizophrenic mother and a heroine with a struggling business and virginity issues tumble into a fairly surprising relationship for a "best friend's older brother" trope book. Then everything falls apart in a bunch of really bad ways. And it doesn't get better until about 95% of the way through the novel. I adored it.

As much as I would like to say that it's fun for me when both the characters are a mess, what I love is screwed up heroes. My top three heroes ever are 1) the Duke of Jervaulx from Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm, 2) S.T. Maitland from Laura Kinsale's Prince of Midnight and 3) Rob from Cara McKenna's Unbound. For those keeping score, that gives us a three out of three on "avoiding his life," a hero who keeps falling down, a hero who can't actually speak for a good part of the novel and a hero whose profound issues I won't reveal because I know someone who reads this blog hasn't read it yet. Self-possessed, omnipotent alphas these are not.

In romance, this works partly because no matter how much characters screw up, there is redemption and healing in the end. They eventually get their acts together with the help of the heroine and everyone gets their happily ever after. Even the worst put-together people who make the most horrible mistakes in the most fraught situations can still be dreamy objects of someone's affection.

While I appreciate the romance heroes who make everything okay by virtue of their very presence, they're not the ones that get my heart pumping. Mary Balogh does this with Wulfric Bedwyn. Any time he shows up, the reader just knows everything is going to be okay, often with just the lifting of his quizzing glass. And in Grace Burrowes books, I've started referring to certain endings as "Deus ex Moreland" because the Duke, the Duke's heir and their primary investigator/spy all seem to have the power to put to rights any situation a character finds him or herself in, no matter how perilous or scandalous. And to be clear: I'm actually charmed by this. These books make up my favorites for when I just want a little light reading. But charmed is not the same as head over heels in deep obsession.

Oh, and let's make another distinction. I'm not talking about heroes who had a bit of a sad childhood because they were orphans, got bullied in school or had murderous relatives. Or they're afraid of ruining a friendship or because duty calls them elsewhere. Those are pretty standard romance reasons for having trust issues, confidence problems and not flinging themselves headlong into the arms of their heroine. It's the bare minimum for the standard of conflict in a romance novel. There are a lot of great books where these set-ups worked wonderfully, but the fact is, they'll never make my top five.

In the case of Having Her, Vincent Fox actually has his life pretty much together. He has a thriving business, a best friend, a good relationship with his sister (if not his parents) and he's building a home. But he's hit a wall that seems precipitated by his mother's latest  mental health crisis, his sister's move and a business expansion. I think a psychologist would call this an adjustment reaction. And what he uses to bring himself through it is very wrong indeed. His destructive impulses are impressive. I was angry with him for most of the book, which paradoxically is why I liked him so much when he got it together again.

So give me your felonious heroes. Heroes with PTSD. Heroes missing limbs. Suicidal heroes. Heroes with addictions, scars and blindness. Any time you can find a new way to break a hero and then fill the broken place with love, I'm all in.

Speaking of broken heroes, tune in Monday for my review of Patricia Gaffney's Wild at Heart, a story of a "lost man" found in the woods without the ability to speak and the manners of a wolf. See? Broken. I thought it was great.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Never Been Kissed Weeknight Chili

The second book of Molly O'Keefe's Boys of Bishop series, Never Been Kissed (pre-order now for release on July 1st), is an intensely personal journey of two very different people helping each other find love. When the book starts out, the heroine has been kidnapped by pirates. The hero rushes to her rescue, arriving in time to save her from both the pirates and her scary political mother. On the face of it, it's a pretty crazy premise for someone like me who's never been the least bit tempted by romantic suspense. Luckily, the story comes back down to earth very quickly.

When Ashley Montgomery and Brody Baxter arrive in Brody's adoptive hometown of Bishop, Arkansas to allow Ashley recuperate out of the both the public eye and the not-so-nurturing bosom of her wealthy, political family, any hints of suspense fly out the window. The story becomes a journey of healing. Ashley has already been dismantled by her kidnapping and the subsequent less than supportive reaction of her family. Brody has never fit in anywhere or been close to anyone, having been adopted shortly before a difficult moment in his adoptive family's history. He's not used to relying on anyone or have them rely upon him but for the most concrete needs: money, personal safety, physical labor. Add in the fact that Brody and a young Ashley had met before when he was a bodyguard for her family and the tension in this book is off the charts.

I struggled with the emotion here because it was just so believable. O'Keefe doesn't allow the reader any distance. There is a subplot that eases the dramatic tension somewhat, but I'll get to that in a moment. I'm not a crier by nature, but I felt so badly for these characters at one point in the story that tears were inevitable. Ashley and Brody both have such tremendous personal pain and so many defensive layers built up around their psychological wounds that they have become more like thick scar tissue. And in true small town romance fashion, it takes a village to help them work through that and bring them together. Brody's strained relationships with his father and brother are as much a part of his healing as his relationship with Ashley. And Ashley finds a context for her life independent from her high profile family through her interactions with Brody's dad.

There is so much need in this book for love and forgiveness: Brody and Ashley, Ashley and her family, Brody and his family. And the fact that all of these relationships experience redemption I think is what kept this book from being depressing. I'm not normally a lover of angst in my romance, but when the problems are as common and real as the ones these characters experience, it made my heart happy to see them work through it. Like, Wild Child, the first book in this series, Never Been Kissed is one of my very few five star contemporary romance reads. I'm looking forward to more from Molly O'Keefe.

As a foil to Ashley and Brody's relationship, Brody's brother and bar owner Sean and diner owner and chef extraordinaire Cora have a much less fraught romantic road to travel. In this sweet subplot, Sean and Cora have set each other up as rivals for the past year, sniping at each other instead of working together to improve the Main Street business scene of their tiny downtown. Cora agrees to teach Sean how to cook, taking his chili from inedible to delectable. And it's not surprising that they discover their mutual attraction in the process.

This chili and I were fast friends when I worked in an office, commuted two hours in awful DC traffic and still had to cook dinner. It takes about 40 minutes total, most of which is hands-off so you even have time to bake cornbread if you're so inclined. Not quite the all-day brisket affair I imagine Cora undertaking, but it's nice to have recipes like this in your back pocket for busy weeknights.

Nowadays I make this for game nights with our friends. We have a few friends who aren't big into spicy food so for them I scale back to 1/3 cup of chili powder and use 2 cans of fire-roasted tomatoes instead of adding a can of Rotel. Just those simple substitutions mellow it out a lot.

Since this isn't your typical simmer-all-day chili recipe and it's not as complex flavor-wise, you shouldn't skimp on the toppings here. I like to serve it with sour cream, shredded Cheddar cheese, diced raw onion and diced jalapeño peppers.

As for the corn bread, I may live in the South now, but I'm a California girl at heart. So crisp, salty Southern style corn bread doesn't really work for me. This is a fluffy, cakey, Northern-style corn bread. Dish chili over it, crumble it up and put it on top or just spread it with butter and honey.

Easy Weeknight Chili
adapted from Real Simple Magazine
Makes: 6-8 Servings
Time: 40 minutes (20 minutes hands-on time)

2 to 2 1/4 pounds lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable or beef broth
1/3 to 1/2 cup chili powder (depending on tolerance for spice)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 - 14 1/2 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 - 10 ounce can Mild Rotel tomatoes and green chiles
2 - 15 1/2 ounce cans kidney beans, drained (I prefer Goya as many other brands have high fructose corn syrup in them)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
optional toppings and sides: grated Cheddar, sour cream, minced jalapeño, cornbread

1) Place a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Drain off any fat and return beef to the pan.

2) Add the onion, stirring well, and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.

3) Gradually add the broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the Dutch oven; bring to a boil.
Stir in the chili powder, cumin, Rotel and tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for 10 minutes.

4) Add the beans, salt, and vinegar, stirring well. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes more. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if desired.

5) Serve with the Cheddar, sour cream, jalapeño, and cornbread (recipe below).

Northern-Style Cornbread
Makes: 16 small squares
Time: 30 minutes (10 minutes hands-on time)

1 cup fine or stone ground corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oil
2/3 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
vegetable oil spray

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2) Combine corn meal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium size bowl.

3) Combine oil, milk and eggs and whisk until combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.

4) Spray a 9x9x2 inch pan with vegetable spray and add batter to pan.

5) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the cornbread comes out with just a few crumbs attached.

I keep baby spoons and toothpicks right by the stove for tasting and testing.

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bourbon Caramel Pecan Cinnamon Buns

Here at Cooking Up Romance, I post a romance novel review with a matching recipe on Mondays and then Thursdays usually mean a brief essay on some topic tangential to my interest in romance like how to find great writers on Twitter and why romance gets so little literary credit. This week though, my brush with romance was actually a recipe rather than some profound philosophical discourse (ha!).

I was testing out a recipe for chocolate ice cream with a bourbon caramel swirl and it left me with a lot more caramel than I had an immediate use for. Enter Shari Slade, Queen of Temptation. She suggested pouring the caramel in the bottom of a pan of cinnamon rolls, which as a solution to my caramel problem seemed like a super one.

Do you know Shari? She just released a wildly delicious book with Amber Lin called Three Nights with a Rock Star , which is basically the romance equivalent of Bourbon Caramel Pecan Cinnamon Rolls: sweet, decadent and totally addictive. I thought it was great, but if you want a full review, you can see mine here at Goodreads. Seriously, go buy the book.

So...these cinnamon rolls. I knew they'd be good, but I really didn't know that they'd be this good. The bourbon in the caramel is subtle, acting like a secret ingredient for awesome. Seriously, I sent most of the batch to work with my husband and I got an actual marriage proposal. Delivered by my husband. By the time they were gone, people were offering to drive seven hours to snag some. So they're pretty delicious.

I started with this recipe for cranberry orange rolls from Smitten Kitchen for the dough. I kind of winged it when it came to quantities of brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans and caramel to use since I never intended to post the recipe. So I had to make them again in order to double-check quantities and rise times. Twenty-four cinnamon rolls in two days. Whoopee! Now that's what I call wild.

You'll probably need a glass of milk or cup of coffee to go with these. Or, you know, you could just go with bourbon. I suspect I can guess what Shari would say about that.

Bourbon Caramel Pecan Cinnamon Buns
adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Food & Wine
Makes: 12 buns
Total Time: 5-6 hours (1 hour hands on time), can be refrigerated overnight for morning baking

4 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted, plus additional to grease pan
3/4 cup buttermilk (I used powdered buttermilk: 3 tablespoons added to 3/4 cup of 2% milk)
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting counter
1 packet instant dry yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt
1 teaspoon oil for bowl

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup bourbon (or whiskey, or rye)

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans, 4 tablespoons reserved

1) To start the dough, in the bottom of the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yolks, whole egg, sugar, melted butter and buttermilk.

2) Add 2 cups of the flour along with the yeast and salt; stir until evenly moistened. Switch to the dough hook and add the remaining 1 3/4 cups flour and let the dough hook knead the mixture on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes. The dough should be soft and moist, but not overly sticky.

3) Scrape the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Let dough rise at room temperature until doubled, which will take between 2 and 2 1/2 hours.

4) While the dough rises, make the caramel. In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, bring the sugar, water and corn syrup to a boil over high heat. Cook until the sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking, without stirring, until it turns golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream. It will boil up like crazy. Let cool for 1 minute, then stir in the bourbon. Bring the mixture to a boil over moderate heat and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Let the caramel sauce cool.

5) To prepare the filling, in a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon and pecans, reserving 4 tablespoons pecans.

6) To assemble the buns, butter two 9-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper, then butter the paper as well.

7) Turn the risen dough out onto a floured work surface and roll it into a rectangle that is 18 inches wide (the side nearest to you) and 12 or so inches long. Spread the dough with the softened butter using a knife or spatula. Sprinkle it with the brown sugar mixture.

8) Roll the dough into a tight, 18-inch long spiral. Using a sharp serrated knife, very, very gently saw the log into 1 1/2 inch sections; you should get 12. Don't press down with the knife or you'll squish the spirals.

9) Pour 1/2 cup of caramel in each cake pan and scatter with 2 of the reserved tablespoons of pecans in each pan. This is my rule with making stuff that has nuts in it: for allergy purposes, when I can, I always put some on top so people know what they're getting.

10) Arrange the buns in your cake pans. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 2 hours on the counter or refrigerate overnight (up to 16 hours).

11) To bake the buns, if they've been refrigerated, take your buns out of the fridge 30 minutes before you'd like to bake them, to allow them to warm up slightly. Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake your buns until they're puffed and golden (the internal temperature should read 190 degrees), 20-25 minutes.

12) Transfer pan to a cooling rack and let cool 5 minutes. Invert the pans onto the cooling rack. If any of the caramel gets trapped in bunless corners, just scrape it up while it's warm and spread it back on the inverted buns. Allow to cool for 5 more minutes. Serve warm.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Immortal Warrior Honey and Wine Poached Apricots

As I mentioned last week, I've found some wonderful new-to-me writers via Twitter. Among these is Lisa Hendrix, writer of the Immortal Brotherhood series. The series is an interesting conflation of history, fantasy and romance, which are pretty much my three favorite things. Labeling these paranormal romances really doesn't do them justice, but if paranormal they must be, they're the first ones I've ever really liked.

The premise of the series is that during the early Viking raids on Britain, a warrior named Brand led his men into battle against a witch named Cwen. When Cwen sent her son against them and he was killed, the witch cursed Brand and his remaining living men, forcing them to spend the whole day or the whole night as a beast. She also made them immortal in order to prolong the torture forever.

When we join the story in Immortal Warrior, Sir Ivo de Vassy has been created the new Lord of Alnwick by King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. At least, he is at night. During the day, he turns into an eagle and he is determined not to let the newly-powerful Church burn him as a demon so he hides his nature. He has been rewarded by the King with both land and a bride, the granddaughter of the former, now disgraced Lord. Our heroine Alaida is not the kind of woman to sit back and quietly accept the dictates of those around her and at the start of the story, she has been hanging onto her lands, manor and virtue under very the difficult circumstance of her male relatives and protectors having been arrested and imprisoned for treason. She has a keen sense of responsibility to her people and she can't quite abandon that, even when it means taking the King's man as her husband and lord.

The romance starts with a forced marriage, but it's not all sunshine, roses and some kind of external plot device from there, which would have been easy when there's a robust and overarching plot to work with. These two have some serious issues to overcome and have to grow together. Even with several other important secondary characters, two of whom we have to assume might eventually get their own book, I never felt short-changed by the relationship between Ivo and Alaida.

There are a thousand things to love about this book. Ivo and his friends are portrayed as if they really could be a couple hundred years old. They have the loneliness, weariness, wisdom and humor that seem inescapable to me in characters who have seen that much of life and death, but that most writers of immortal characters ignore in favor of perpetual angst. Also, Alaida is a strong, independent woman who is nevertheless honestly bound by the limitations that the laws and mores of her era place on her. Though it's painful to consider a woman being given as a bride by a king she barely knows to a man she knows not at all, ignoring the reality of the society where the story is set is not at desirable to me as a reader and this book rings true to me in a way few other recent historicals do. Finally, the way Ivo handles Alaida places him above the expectations of his time in a way that is both romantic and yet not anachronistic. He's just the right mix of warrior and tender lover. Hendrix even uses the cultural differences between the Norse and the Normans to explain some of his behavior.

Speaking of culture, I am consistently impressed with the research that has gone into these books. Politics, law, religious dogma, building and transportation, and yes, cuisine, are all things that Hendrix has taken into account. However, it manages to provide a foundation for the story and never ends up reading like a textbook, which can sometimes happen when a writer wants to impress readers with their knowledge of historical trivia. And since each book in this series takes place a couple hundred years after the previous, this is a tremendous accomplishment.

This first book contains a bit more in the way of exposition than the subsequent ones in the name of world-building and the introduction of important characters like Brand, the former war leader who turns into a bear during the day, and Ari, the story-teller and seer who turns into a raven at night. It makes for a book that runs a little slower than the subsequent two, but it's utterly necessary in order to establish the overarching story arc. That's handled masterfully, by the way. It's present, but never dominates the character development and ultimate unification of the primary couple.

In some ways, it's harder to write a review of a book I adore and have no criticisms of than it is one that contains significant flaws. Hendrix is just a tremendous talent and I can't wait for more books in this series.

I am not a historian, culinary or otherwise. So when I said I was making a foray into Anglo-Saxon cooking, I was kind of fibbing. Hendrix does make reference to apricots stewed in honey and wine, but I'm not sure poaching is strictly period-appropriate. Also, vanilla, that most prosaic and ubiquitous of baking ingredients, wasn't popular in England until the late 18th century. While the use of vanilla in this recipe is admittedly taking full advantage of creative license, I tried the apricots without it and it was entirely too one-dimensional for my modern palate.

However, the history of yogurt is much more ancient. The historical record traces yogurt production back to Central Asia in about 9000 B.C., though with the presence of milk and the absence of refrigeration, things like the invention of yogurt seem almost inevitable. And indeed skyr, the thick Icelandic yogurt I have here, appears to have been invented in the 9th century, about the same time the Vikings were settling Iceland. So if the Normans didn't yet have yogurt, I'm going hijack Ivo and company and say they brought it with them. If you can't get skyr where you live, just use Greek yogurt.

Because this preparation is simple, quality is important here. So local honey, a decent quality wine and something other than thin store-brand yogurt should be the order of the day. Apricots are just coming into season so this is exactly the right time of year for poaching them. Picking out firm, but not rock-hard ones will yield the best result.

Honey and Wine Poached Apricots with Honeyed Skyr
Makes: 8 servings
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour (mostly refrigeration)

8 apricots, halved and pitted
2 cups dry white wine (I used Viognier)
8 tablespoons honey
1/2 vanilla bean, slit open and seeds scraped

2 cups plain skyr, Greek yogurt or other thick yogurt
2 tablespoons honey

1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted

1) Combine wine, vanilla bean and seeds and honey in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat.
2) Add the apricots, completely submerging the fruit.

3) Simmer gently, until they are just tender but not falling apart, about 2-5 minutes. My firm fruit took 3 minutes.

4) Using a slotted spoon, transfer the apricots to a dish.
5) Let remaining liquid simmer over medium-high heat until reduced by half and lightly syrupy, about 12 minutes. Strain to remove any escaped apricot pulp.
6) Allow the apricots and syrup to cool, then refrigerate.
7) Combine the yogurt with the remaining honey.

8) Serve 2 apricot halves in a shallow bowl with 1/4 cup yogurt, top with one teaspoon hazelnuts and a scant tablespoon of the reserved syrup.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Romance with Twitter

Today I want to talk about Twitter. A few months ago, I had maybe four romance novels on my "to read" list. I pretty much limited myself to my very favorite authors, reading all of their books until I ran out and then scrambling to find a new author's backlist to pillage. Romance Novels for Feminists helped a little by shoving me toward some new authors I wouldn't hate (because: feminist), but I read a lot so I often found myself checking random romances out of the library, hating them and vowing never to try anyone new ever again.

Then came Twitter. I noticed on a couple of my favorite authors' websites that they're on Twitter quite a lot. And since I hate email newsletters and most authors are bad about sending them out anyway, I thought joining Twitter might be a good way to ensure that I would hear when they had a new book coming out. And that worked.

But do you know what else happened? I "met" some new authors. They followed me and I followed them and we started tweeting at each other long before I ever read their books or even a review of their books. And I started filing away the names of tweeters who seemed to share my convictions on what makes good romance to check into when a free spot opened up in my reading schedule.

It has worked so much better than I ever anticipated. There are so many great writers whom I now love that I doubt I ever would have found if not for Twitter. Great writers in romance sub-genres I didn't even know existed: nerdy BSDM erotic romance, supernatural medieval romance, steampunk romance. Things that if I had known existed, I would have been on in a hot second.

So if you're a reader, I'd definitely recommend the following: 1) follow the authors you like, 2) follow some of the writers they follow and 3) pay attention to who they talk to and then follow some of those people. My three favorite new-to-me writers were found just this way. Delphine Dryden seemed to spend a lot of time chatting with Charlotte Stein, who I already loved. Lisa Hendrix tweeted me about the Wonder Woman panties I posted. Isobel Carr has protracted conversations with a number of writers I enjoy about topics that I would deem "theory of romance" which is endlessly interesting to me. I've now read and loved all of their books.

And if you're a writer, I'd recommend a similar approach to find readers who might buy your books: 1) follow and converse with readers and reviewers who tweet at you, 2) tweet about your books, but 3) don't tweet only about your books. I've unfollowed a couple of writers whose tweets are too far toward the self-promotional end of the spectrum. I definitely want to see reviews of your work and buy links, but not every day, all day. That doesn't tell me who you are as a person or even as a writer. If I like you, I am totally capable of finding your books.

The reason this approach has worked for me is that I got a sense of who these writers are prior to seeking out their books. And while that's not a complete guarantee that I'll like a writer's style, it does seem to generate better results than picking library books at random.

Speaking of better results, pop on by on Monday for my first foray into Anglo-Saxon cooking for Lisa Hendrix's Immortal Warrior. It combines fantasy and romance with history. I am completely enamored.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hard Day's Knight Beef Pasties

A couple of months ago, I asked my husband if he'd be interested in reading one of my romance novels. Since he's usually game for pretty much anything and already a genre fiction reader, he agreed. Admittedly, I didn't expect much. I figured he might read one, get the general gist and then leave me to my own romancey devices. That was not to be.

The book was Hard Day's Knight by Katie MacAlister. It proved the perfect introduction to romance in my husband's particular case. My choice was tailored to a particular interest of his (Renaissance Faires) and answered how I knew so much about the then-topical subject of jousting (since he was running a medieval-style tournament for our D&D group at the time). He devoured the book in three days and then asked me for more.

Pepper Marsh, unemployed computer programmer, has agreed to join her cousin CJ at a Renaissance Faire for a little R&R before going back home to continue job hunting. Her cousin is a member of the Legion of Wenches, whose bawdiness might be out-matched only by the romance writers and readers who make up my Twitter feed. CJ is also affianced to a member of a jousting team, the Three Dog Knights, headed up by jouster, farrier and alpha male extraordinaire Walker McPhail.

I suppose this book could be best described as romantic comedy. It's definitely a step beyond chick lit, which tends to gloss over the sexy parts. Plus it is deliberately funny; almost Bridget Jones-esque in its campy slapstick humor. Someone is always falling off a horse and there's a cat that causes all manner of hijinks. There's also a considerable amount of jousting detail as Pepper sets out to defend the honor of all womankind by learning to sit a horse in armor and aim a lance. Walker is the almost unchallenged jousting expert, though he's having some typically alpha emotional difficulties as a result of the fall-out from seriously injuring another jouster during competition.

Though this is a very light-hearted book, there's one aspect of it that I found both serious and well done. Pepper is a typical urban feminist. She works in a male-dominated field and has mostly been with sensitive nerdy guys romantically. Walker is a rural agricultural worker who spends his free time wearing armor. He is neither sensitive nor nerdy. As their romance progresses, Walker is inclined to coddle Pepper as a precious female even though she is perfectly capable of making her own way in the world. And though she and Walker do find happiness, there's a learning curve for both of them in figuring out how to communicate effectively that felt especially realistic to me, even if the plot did veer into the typically romantic comedy territory of I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-love-you.

Hard Day's Knight is probably not a book for everyone: the utterly goofy humor, nerdy subject matter and slightly dirty sex won't be what everyone expects from romantic comedy. But I found Pepper charming and Walker devastating (in both his hotness and his obvious vulnerability). Any woman who has tried somewhat unsuccessfully to pry vocalization of feelings loose from their alpha will find poignancy here.

My husband has since branched out in his romance reading. He's read several books by Laura Kinsale, is currently reading one by Elizabeth Hoyt and has agreed to a Victoria Dahl. But I will always have a special love for Katie MacAlister for kicking off our romantic adventures.

In honor of both the setting of the book and it being one of my husband's favorite dishes, I decided to pair Hard Day's Knight with a recipe for beef-stuffed Cornish pasties. I suppose I could have gone with some more traditional Faire food, but who really wants to eat turkey drumsticks and stuff-fried-on-a-stick at home? Nevertheless, this simple peasant-type food seemed to capture the essence of the semi-historical nature of Renaissance Faires.

Ingredients for six pasties.

Historically, pasties (pastry crust with some sort of meat and vegetable-based filling) were made by wives for their Cornish coalminer husbands to carry into the mines and eat for their breaks during the day. The crust was generally tough and substantial so it wouldn't break open in the tea towel or lunch pail in which it was carried. That said, most of us will eat these at home on a plate or take them to work for lunch in Tupperware so this crust is a little more delicate than a traditional pasty crust. The filling is crazy simple with just beef, potato, onion, carrot and some salt and pepper.

Ingredients for 24 pasties.

I generally double or even triple this recipe. If I'm going to drag out the rolling pin and mess up my counter, I want to make more than six pasties. If you're less ambitious and not trying to feed a hungry jousting team, the original recipe works just fine.

But in favor of going with my expanded recipe below, these freeze awfully well. Once they've been fully baked, just put them on a cookie sheet until frozen and then bag up together or individually and reheat for lunches or a quick weeknight meal. I recommend about 25 minutes in a 350 degree oven for reheating frozen ones.

Cornish Pasties
adapted from Emeril Legasse for Food Network
Makes: 12 pasties
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 ounces cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 ounces lard or vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
2 egg yolks
12 tablespoons cold water

1 pound, 4 ounces ounces chuck steak, trimmed and cut into scant 1/4-inch dice
2 small onions, very finely chopped
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 small potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1) Sift the flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt into a mixing bowl and add the butter and shortening. Using your fingers, 2 knives, a food processor or a pastry blender, cut the butter and lard into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles fine crumbs.

2) In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and water together and add to the flour mixture. Mix quickly, but thoroughly, until mixture just comes together to form a dough.

3) Knead briefly until pastry is smooth with no cracks; the trick to making this delicate pastry easy to work with is kneading it just enough so that it can be rolled out and manipulated without breaking but yet retains its lovely crumbly texture. Press into a flattened disk shape and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight before proceeding.

4) Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and unwrap. Allow to soften slightly, then place on a lightly floured work surface and roll the pastry to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Using a small plate or saucer as a guide, cut out 6 (6-inch) rounds. (Scraps may be combined and reformed if you cannot get 6 rounds out of the first batch.) Stack the pastry rounds onto pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper (with pieces between each round to keep them from sticking together) and refrigerate while you prepare the filling.
5) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Remove the pastry circles from the refrigerator.

6) In a mixing bowl, combine the meat, onion, carrot, potato, salt and pepper and mix until thoroughly combined.

7) Place the pastry circles on a clean work surface and place about 1/2 cup of the filling in the center of 1 side of the pastry. Using the beaten egg, brush the edges of the pastry and then bring the unfilled side over the filled side so that edges meet. Press edges together to seal and then crimp using your fingers or a fork. Repeat with the remaining turnovers and then transfer to a baking sheet. Brush the tops of the turnovers with the remaining egg and then cut several slits into the top of each pastry.

8) Bake for 20 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown around the edges. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and continue to bake until the pasties are golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Artistic Value of Romance

Recently there has been (another) spate of denigration of romance novels by the male commentariat. Honestly, I don't click on their links or engage in argument with them. They are trolls and thou shalt not feed them. But I am aware of the articles and the ridiculous claims contained therein because I think if you're in the romance fandom, it's hard to ignore. It's like the Kardashians. I'd have to wear blinders to avoid knowing who they are and what they stand for.

Then there are standard arguments against the nay-sayers, which often go something like this: 1) romance is the best-selling genre with so many billions in sales, 2) they elevate the female perspective and honor feminine desire and 3) you just can't handle that, can you?

And while all these things are true, they also somewhat miss the point. For readers, romance isn't a profit center or a feminist manifesto, at least not primarily. People read for lots of reasons: 1) to be enlightened and educated, 2) to be entertained or escape into a reality that is less dull than their own and/or 3) to partake of fine art. I'm here to argue that romance does all these things well despite what anyone may say to the contrary about our girly smutty books.

First, let's talk education. Just this week on Twitter, I have taken part in discussions of proper forms of address in Regency England, how reader consent functions in a novel and Anglo-Saxon cuisine. My husband, who is an inveterate history buff, is well used to my inquiries regarding this or that English king or when firearms became accurate and readily available. And everything I know about jousting, I learned from Katie MacAlister's Hard Day's Knight (we'll talk more about that next week).

What I'm saying is that romance brings me to subjects it never would have occurred to me to be interested in otherwise. I've never memorized the kings of England because frankly, I didn't care. But when he's giving my beloved heroine as a war prize, you better believe I want to know exactly who that bastard was. And it's not just historicals that offer potential for education. Cara McKenna's latest book Hard Time talks about life in prison beyond bad food and gang rape. It's not a charade of life in prison or someone's worst fear of what it might be like. It's the everyday reality. Plus it might seem obvious, but romances teach us about ourselves and each other. Relationships are all literature is ever about anyway. Romance just makes it explicit.

Among literary critics, there also seems to be a bias against literature that is entertaining as if every book we read needs to be improving. We want to be entertained by television and movies and music, so why not books? For every Hannibal, there is a Dancing With the Stars. Tchaikovsky existed alongside (some very ribald) sea chanties. All are entertaining, but bring different pleasures to the table. The romance novels I love have snappy, entertaining dialogue. Stuff goes wrong. People get embarrassed. Or angry. Or horny. All these emotional reactions are honest, true and, yes, entertaining. We get to feel in a safe space. Much like we feel guilt and horror at Twelve Years a Slave, we get to feel self-conscious and fearful and tender and loving in a romance novel as we puzzle out the awful things we humans do to each other every day.

Finally, let's talk about the craftsmanship involved in writing romance. Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm was not only complex in terms of plot, but she had to consider how a person affected by a stroke would think and talk and then how she could convey his getting better. That strikes me as a very difficult writing problem, one that was handled skillfully. Lisa Hendrix re-sets each book in her Immortal Brotherhood series a couple hundred years after the previous one, giving attention to minute details of technology and life during each era. Writers like Elizabeth Hoyt and Mary Balogh are masters at crafting dialogue that showcases their extraordinary wit. Hard Time explored issues of prison life that those of us who have never been incarcerated don't think much about. Romances that are not well written do exist. My point is that there are also romances that are well written and they're not a minority.

Romance is legitimate artistic expression by any measure I can offer. Romances provide educational opportunities, both intellectual and emotional. Entertainment in fiction is a legitimate artistic goal. Romances with beautiful language and unique construction exist. But of course, you actually have to read them in order to realize that.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Lumberfox Nutella Crème Brûlée

When Ava Lovelace's geeky erotica novella The Lumberfox opens, it's winter in Atlanta and it's snowing. Hard. And if you've ever been anywhere near the South when it decides to snow hard, you pretty much know that we're, well, ill-equipped to deal. So it's no surprise when heroine Tara and hero Ryon get into a fender bender. And if it's a little more surprising that Ryon turns out to live nearby and Tara agrees to go home with him, well, all is forgiven by the end of this smoking hot and utterly charming novella of geek romance gone wild.

Ryon Brubaker, our foxy lumberjack type hipster geek, is a brewmaster and executive chef. Tara, our determined geek girl, is a web designer for Cartoon Network. When Ryon rear-ends her in the middle of a snowstorm and their sexual chemistry is immediately apparent, he wisely points out that going home with him to crème brûlée and a warm fire would be infinitely more comfortable than Tara spending the night in her car once she inevitably runs out of gas in the awful traffic. So she demands that he talk to her mom and give her his driver's license number over the phone, an intelligent and creative way of getting around what otherwise might have seemed an abrupt and dangerous choice on the part of the heroine.

Sometimes it seems like a book has been written just for you and that's totally how I felt about this one so I'm not sure how objective I can really be. The protagonists make constant inside joke geek references on everything from Star Wars to Firefly to Hunger Games. Since I met my husband playing Dungeons & Dragons, this was super amusing to me, but to a non-geek might be a little confusing. The mutual appreciation for geek culture is an important plot point here though because it goes a long way toward explaining the characters' immediate affinity for one another. Bonding happens fast between Browncoats.

What follows is some of the hottest and most respectful sex I've ever seen in pixels. I counted up the times Ryon asks Tara's permission to continue or checks in to be sure she's still on board and it ended up being fourteen, I think. Each one is slightly different and I don't want to give the sense that it gets repetitive because it totally doesn't. It just takes this encounter, which could have been stock fantasy material, and makes it simultaneously more interesting and much hotter. Oh, and when I say this novella is smoking hot, I mean really, really hot. This is erotica and it's pretty explicit. And so, so good.

And, speaking of hot, oh gawd, the FOOD. Ryon brews beer and cooks and bakes for a living. Over the course of the story, Tara is offered roasted chicken with veggies, chocolate truffles, Nutella and strawberries, waffles, hot cocoa, grilled cheese, home-brewed beer and crème brûlée. Gracious, what woman wouldn't fall head over heels? There are also a couple of food-related metaphors including the sentence, "But he didn't make a move for the door--just looked at her like she was a steak dripping with butter." So as a bonus, here's my favorite recipe for steak dripping with butter.

There are supposed to be three of these Geekrotica novellas in the series. The second, The Superfox, wasn't my cup of tea, but the third one can probably be expected by the end of the summer once Ava Lovelace (aka Delilah Dawson) is finished with some other projects. I think it's safe to say that about an hour after it's available, I'll have already finished it. Can't wait!

Ryon is the kind of professional who apparently just keeps crème brûlée in the fridge for unexpected guests. This is not wholly unsurprising as it's fine to make it three days ahead and just finish it when you're ready to serve. However, crème brûlée is one of those desserts that often intimidates amateur bakers. First, there are special tools involved: a stand mixer, a kitchen torch and a thermometer. Then there's the problem of needing the right technique to boil cream, temper eggs and bake in a water bath. I get why people find it a little scary. But it's not rocket science and if you mess up, nobody dies. You can use a whisk instead of a mixer and get a cheap kitchen torch at Bed Bath and Beyond for under $20. Maybe it's a geek thing, but playing with fire? How could you turn that down?

If you can't find or don't like the chocolate-hazelnut marvel that is Nutella, that's okay. You can leave it out without other modifications to the recipe. But I still think you should read Lumberfox to find out why this just HAD to be Nutella crème brûlée. I'm not going to deny that this dessert is fussy. But in the process of Googling around to find some tips and tricks to make crème brûlée a little more fool-proof, I hit on some super ones that should make this classic dessert easier for even less experienced bakers. I've included some photos and additional instructions under the recipe if you're interested.

Or of this is all just too much for you, you could obviously still go this route.
I recommend you eat this one in bed. Preferably not by yourself.

Nutella Crème Brûlée
adapted from Tasty Kitchen
Makes: 8
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours

4 cups heavy cream
1 whole vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
4 tablespoons Nutella, melted in the microwave for 30 seconds
4 teaspoons raw or turbinado sugar, divided
Fresh strawberries (optional)

1. Preheat your oven to 330 degrees. In a large saucepan, add your cream. Slice the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the insides. Add the bean and the insides to the cream. Heat over medium high heat until it comes to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. While cream is cooling, add the egg yolks and sugar to the mixer (or use a wire whisk). Using your whisk attachment, whisk until mixture is creamy and has a light color. Remove vanilla bean from the cream and discard. Temper the egg mixture into the cream mixture (see below for instructions on tempering). Strain if desired. Add in the melted Nutella and continue mixing until everything is combined.

3. Pour mixture into ramekins, filling to the interior line on the ramekin. Place the ramekins into a large ovenproof dish or roasting pan with a tea towel in the bottom to stabilize the ramekins. Place the dish into the oven. Fill the dish with warm water so that the water level reaches halfway up the sides of the custard. This creates a water bath so that it will cook evenly. Bake for approximately 40 to 45 minutes, until the center is slightly jiggly and the sides are firm or the centers of the ramekins reach 160-170 degrees on an instant read thermometer.

4. Remove the ramekins from the water bath with tongs. Transfer to a baking sheet and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours or until the mixture sets up completely. Can be made up to three days ahead.

5. Remove the crème brûlée 15 minutes prior to melting your sugar. Dust the tops of each ramekin with 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, rolling the edges so that the sugar is distributed evenly. Using your kitchen torch, scorch the tops. Allow to rest five minutes prior to serving.

6. Garnish with fresh strawberries, sliced and fanned, and serve.

Here's some more tips in case you've never made crème brûlée before.

First, don't burn your cream. It's better if you can just stand there while the heat is on and stir occasionally until it starts to boil. And as soon as it does, take it off the heat and pour it into a heat-proof bowl, preferably one with a pour spout. I like vintage Pyrex, which you can almost always find in thrift stores. Waiting for your cream to finish boiling also gives it time to cool while you deal with your eggs.

Separating eggs is a basic baking skill and I do it a lot. I use a very specific setup though because even though it doesn't matter too terribly much if you get a little egg white in your egg yolk for this recipe, anything that you make with the leftover egg whites (like meringues, macarons or royal icing) will care very much about a little bit of egg yolk. I separate the eggs one at a time into an egg white holding pen and then dump them into a final container once I'm sure they're not yolk contaminated.

Next, this is not a time for the underbeating of eggs (which you know should be at room temperature, yes?). In most baking, undermixing is actually a good thing. Not here. When you whisk together your egg yolks and sugar, you want the hint of a froth in addition to your "lighter color" which I think is harder to judge empirically than the presence of a few frothy bubbles or some culinary school style "ribbon stage".

When it comes time to "temper" your eggs, most modern recipes seem to have no idea what this means. Here's the thing: tempering eggs doesn't just involve whisking continuously as your pour cold eggs into hot cream. That's a recipe for scrambled egg lumps in your custard. No. What you want to do is take six tablespoons of hot cream (one at a time) and whisk them into your cold eggs. This warms the eggs to the point where they won't scramble in the hot cream. Then you pour your egg mixture into your hot cream while whisking continuously. You can even strain the final product if you want just to be sure there are no eggy lumps, but it probably won't be necessary if you do your tempering right.

Then when it's time to bake, add the ramekins to the roasting pan (with a tea towel spread over the bottom underneath the ramekins), put the roasting pan in the oven, and then add the hot water to the pan using a pitcher. That keeps water from sloshing into the ramekins as you move the pan, which is good because water in your custard will definitely keep the crème brûlée from setting properly.

In crème brûlée recipes, you will often see reference to "set on the outside and jiggly in the middle" as when you want to pull out your cups. That's not precise enough for me and often leads to my custard not being properly set. Big heartbreak when you discover it THREE HOURS LATER after proper refrigeration. So instead, just use a thermometer and remove them from the oven when the temperature reaches 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit.

There! I hope that helps take a little of the fear out of making crème brûlée the way Lovelace used Ryon's use of affirmative consent to take the fear out of erotica. Go on, try it. You might like it.
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