Thursday, July 31, 2014

Honey Tasting for Honey-Champagne Vinaigrette

There are phrases that get repeated in romance novels all the time. I've never been sure whether these are genre markers or what, but they're part of what non-romance readers find irritating about romance. They're not quite purple prose: they're not flowery enough for that. But maybe lavender?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about "man smell". Today, let's talk about heroines who taste like honey. Have you noticed this descriptor? Whatever the hero is talking about tasting, he frequently describes the flavor as that of honey. I can only assume this must be a metaphor. That said, I'd like to leave aside the question of whether heroines really do taste like honey and instead talk about honey itself in preparation for Monday's review of Ruthie Knox's book Truly, the hero of which is a beekeeper. The book will be released Tuesday.

I've got two dishes for Monday, a soup and a sandwich, both involving honey. Plus, if you scroll down, you'll see that I've included a recipe for a honey-based salad dressing. And since the book makes a big deal of honey from different places and different seasons tasting different, I decided to take advantage of the embarrassing bounty of local honey available in Virginia and do a mini-tasting. Fair warning: this is a foodie-obsessive kind of post. But I thought it was interesting and it's my blog. So there.

As a regular feature of my pantry, I keep Clover honey around, but I've never had a particular flavor reason for it. It's just what the farmer who delivers my milk and eggs carries so that's what I buy. I also picked up a Buckwheat honey and an Alfalfa honey at Whole Foods and a Wildflower honey at the farmer's market, just to see if they really do taste different. Here's a spoiler: oh boy do they ever.

I tasted each honey with goat cheese and challah bread because that's what I was planning on using in my sandwich recipe. I worked in a winery for three years in my early 20s. Even though I still wouldn't consider myself an expert, I did learn a few things about tasting stuff. If I'd had a plain cracker like an oyster cracker or a saltine, I would have used that as a palate cleanser, but it had already been a two-trips-to-the-grocery-store kind of day and I really didn't want to go back. So I just used a sip of water instead.

So here's where I go obsessively off the deep end and tell you all about the different honeys. Just skip this paragraph to get to the salad dressing if you think this is nuts. The Buckwheat honey (right) is almost molasses-like, both in color and flavor. It's got a burnt caramel note and is very warm and rich. Our regular Clover honey (second from right) is actually kind of fruity, which I never noticed before, but is really obvious in comparison to the other varieties. The Alfalfa honey (left) is light and crisp, almost like a super sweet green apple. And the Wildflower honey (second from left) is somewhere in between the Clover and the Alfalfa. It was the most neutral honey I tried, which actually made it the least interesting. It ended up being the only one I didn't use.

I rarely buy bottled salad dressing any more. Fresh-made just tastes better, it's better for you and you can control exactly what goes into it. A tiny food processor helps, but if you have three hands or a really heavy bowl, you can make vinaigrette just as easily with a wire whisk. Since my husband was out the night I made the dressing, I used my food processor. Oh, and this particular salad was just arugula, a couple slices of Empire apple and some toasted chopped hazelnuts.

Stop by on Monday for the soup and sandwich recipes and my review of Truly!

Honey-Champagne Vinaigrette
Time: 2 minutes
Makes: 1/2 cup dressing

2 tablespoons alfalfa honey (or your favorite honey)
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1. Whisk together the honey & vinegar. Add the olive oil slowly, whisking constantly or with the food processor running until combined.

2. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to one week. May need to shake or whisk dressing to recombine since it will probably separate in the refrigerator.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Looking for Trouble Chinese Take Out

Victoria Dahl kicks off a new series this week with Looking for Trouble (which comes out tomorrow). It centers around a group of friends we first met in the last series. In fact, if you intend to pick up this one, it helps to have read Too Hot to Handle, which features the story of Merry Kade and Shane Harcourt, who is the brother of Looking for Trouble's hero Alex. You'll be able to follow the story if you skip the other book, but like Mary Balogh's Slightly series, it's awfully nice to have a handle on some of the secondary characters going in.

Speaking of Alex Harcourt, he hasn't been back to Jackson in a decade. Unable to deal with his mother's mental illness and his brother's enabling of her bad behavior, he has chosen to absent himself from their lives. Now he's back for his father's memorial service, and none too happy about it. At least until he meets Sophie Heyer.

Sophie is a librarian in town and a friend of Lauren Foster, the super hot heroine of the novella Fanning the Flames (still available for free, I think). Her mother and Alex's father had a scandalous affair and when they disappeared on the same day, it left a huge hole in both their lives. Since it was pretty big news for a pretty small town, everyone is still talking about it. Plus Alex's mother isn't any help, continually labeling Sophie the exact same kind of trollop as her mother, which is plainly unjust and wrong.

I don't know what it is with heroines lately. Even though the plot revolves more around Alex, his brother, his mother and his commitment issues, it was Sophie's character growth I found most interesting here. Leaving out her qualms about Alex, she has a complex relationship with herself. Sophie desperately wants to let loose: she wants to travel, she wants hot sex with hot men, she wants more than her small town library job. This is not helped by the constant slut-shaming she receives from town members, largely thanks to Alex's mother's interpretation of the events surrounding her mother 20 years before. Even her clothing telegraphs her ambivalence about herself: all modesty and primness outside, fiery hot lingerie and garter belts inside.

The source of much of the conflict in Looking for Trouble revolves around Sophie and Alex keeping their fling a secret from the rest of the town. They know that if they are linked together, it will start up even more talk than the actions both their families caused in the past and continue to cause in various ways throughout this book. Sophie is very concerned about her reputation and how it reflects on her father and brother. Alex is uncertain that he wants a relationship with anyone at all, thanks to the dysfunction of his family. This feeling of small worldness is highlighted by the inclusion of characters from both previous books and the short Fanning the Flames that kicked off this series earlier this month.

Looking for Trouble is quality Victoria Dahl. If you've liked her other books, you'll definitely like this one. But don't skip out on Lauren and Jake's story in the short freebie. The older hero and heroine make for some seriously smoking hot chemistry. I can only hope this represents a trend in Dahl's work, as Fanning the Flames might be the best thing of hers I've read yet.

I've gotten pretty inventive when it comes to creating recipes for the various romances I read, even when there's a dearth of food in the actual novel. When it came down to food in Looking for Trouble, though, the choices were pretty much vast quantities of Scotch or grabbing Chinese take out on the way home from the grocery store. Since I couldn't quite see consuming half a bottle of Scotch in lieu of dinner, Chinese take out it was. If you want to make a different choice though, far be it from me to judge.

One of the things I loved about this book was seeing the relationship between brothers Shane and Alex get reestablished. The scene where Merry brings home take out and they spend time together for the first time in a decade was particularly touching.

Plus everyone can use a break from cooking every once in a while. Even me.

I don't think I'm unduly picky, but what is it with trying to find quality Chinese food? So much of it is greasy, salty and MSG-laden. However, we actually sat down and did some research this time, and found a pretty darn good spot near our favorite grocery store. Yelp actually knows what it's talking about!

I think I see more Chinese take out in our future.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Snack Time, July 26, 2014


Saturday Snack Time is a little collection of fun things I found online during the week and I thought were worth sharing. Oh, and that delectable thing above is an oatmeal carmelita. It's evil. Don't Google it. Let's get snacking, shall we?

1 | I know you love bourbon as much as I do. Right? Don't even pretend you don't. So let's all have this Bourbon Slush Punch.

2 | Feminism in 2014 from the perspective of a Millennial fashion blogger. It's good, don't worry.

3 | Another moment from the "all my friends are Canadian" file.

4 | Have you seen Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries yet? This article was all over this week.

5 | This woman is amazing. Just mute the commentators.

6 | Normally I can't stand those contrived "character interviews" used for book promo, but these were actually kind of fun.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book BFFs

 Are you familiar with the concept of "book boyfriends"? Picking out a particular hero and referring to him as your book boyfriend seems like pretty common practice among romance lovers. My first was probably the Phantom of the Opera. Even in high school I loved me a tortured hero. The reality of tortured boyfriends is much less fun though so I love the book boyfriend concept. Let my fiction-loving self deal with the drama.

But it wasn't until recently that I ran across a heroine I loved so much that I wished she were my BFF: Magalie Chaudron from Laura Florand's The Chocolate Kiss. The hero of that book, Philippe Lyonnais, seems to be the hero among heroes for Florand's fans. And while of course I found him compelling, it was Magalie that kept me enraptured by this particular book. Not only is she possibly literally magical (so fun), she cooks in a teensy kitchen and loves boots.

Perhaps I was primed for this by my recent brush with another heroine I loved: Emily Bartwell from Jeffe Kennedy's new erotic romance Going Under. But unlike with Emily, Magalie and I actually have things in common. We could go running together, hang out in her tiny, chocolate-filled kitchen, go shopping for killer boots for ourselves and sweaters for our guys. She could tutor me in idiomatic French while my dog and I hang out in the Maison des Sorcieres. And I could fill in at the counter while she visits Philippe down the street...

Um...sorry. I kinda wandered off there.

In reading through reviews trying to decide what books to buy, one of the things I've noticed is that many reviewers are harder on heroines than they are on heroes. For example, Laura Kinsale's The Prince of Midnight features quite an arrogant hero, but it's the prickly heroine who seems to bear the brunt of the character criticism. And frankly, I think that's unfair. She's just lost her entire family. He lost his balance and self-confidence. Leigh needs a cup of hot chocolate, a soft blanket and an Anna Kendrick movie marathon. Instead, she gets called a heart-hearted bitch? Come on, we don't really talk about other women that way, do we?

So let's hear about some book BFFs. What heroines have you particularly loved? Why? Do you fantasize about hanging out with your favorite romance heroine? Please tell me I'm not the only one.

Monday, July 21, 2014

East of Ecstasy Bourbon Peach Ice Cream

I admit it. My reaction to most paranormal romance has been eye rolling. It's ridiculous because I love fantasy and even some horror; my first "book boyfriend" was the Phantom of the Opera. It's also unjust to dismiss an entire sub-genre because of some horrible covers you once saw fifteen years ago. For the record, I feel the same way about most romantic suspense. Also unjust. I'm working on it.

However, if most paranormal romance is like the Hearts of the Anemoi series by Laura Kaye, I'm well on my way toward revising my opinions. The premise of the series is that the Anemoi are wind and weather gods. Each hero represents a different wind and a different season of the year: winter, spring, summer and in the case of East of Ecstasy, fall. The heroines are all at crossroads in their lives, most having lost someone they loved to accident, death or disease. In each case, they are back on their feet, but maybe still a bit wobbly, making them both receptive to a divine hunk of man appearing in their lives and surprisingly non-skeptical of their love interests' supernatural natures. In East of Ecstasy, we get the resolution of the entire series so don't run right out and buy just this one: these aren't stand-alones.

Devlin is the son of the god of the East Wind, the dangerously mentally unhinged super-villain of the series. Remember when we talked about really broken heroes a few weeks ago? Well, apparently I hadn't seen broken until I saw a broken god. Devlin is so broken that heroine Anna even coins a term for him: Tall, Dark & Angsty. My husband promptly abbreviated that TDA. So if you ever see me refer to a TDA hero again, you'll know what I'm talking about. As for Devlin, I'll just say this: he had a very rough childhood and adulthood hasn't been any kinder. I don't want to go into too many specifics because it's pretty integral to the romance, but when he arrives in the heroine's doorstep, he's literally starving. I suppose given the blog I write, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that I have a pretty visceral reaction to starving people. That reaction apparently also extends to fictional characters. Devlin just has so much emptiness to fill. And when yawning emptiness meets vast power, it's clear that not only this relationship, but the entire world may hang in the balance of him getting it together.

By contrast, Anna is quite self-aware and capable. She does suffer from a chronic pain disorder, but manages to take care of her father, who has Alzheimer's, and also manages a thriving career as an artist. That's actually something I appreciated in the entire Anemoi series. Though the heroines all have challenges, they come across as capable, confident and not particularly needy. I guess one of the perceptions I had of paranormal romance was that the heroines always need saving. But these heroines do an awful lot of their own saving, both of themselves and their heroes. Plus Anna is not all she seems, but that's a big part of her story arc so in the interest of not going all spoilery, I'm going to leave it at that.

The plot is more epic than the previous three books, which all seemed more personal and much more about the romance than this last one, which not only had to resolve the romance between Devlin and Anna, it had to resolve the entire series, including dealing with Eurus, Devlin's super-villain father. I'll be honest, the love story in East of Ecstasy did get a little tiny bit overshadowed by the epic battle I knew must be looming, but because Devlin and Anna were such a strong pair, it was easily my favorite book of the series. Watching Devlin come into his own in every respect was immensely satisfying and in the end, it's really Anna who saves the day.

Hearts of the Anemoi wasn't a completely perfect series, but it was close enough that it guaranteed I'll be trying more paranormal romances in the future. And more Laura Kaye too; I already read Hearts in Darkness, her indecently hot contemporary erotic romance set practically in my backyard. If you're new to Laura Kaye and unwilling to commit to a four-book series, start with that one. It's cheap, short and will absolutely hook you on her style.

It's the snow demigod who kicks off the series, Owen, who loves ice cream with a passion, but the frozen treat does manage to make an appearance in nearly every Anemoi book. Particularly peach ice cream, which is Owen's heroine Megan's favorite. There's also a neighbor character who first pops up in the third book who constantly tests out her new ice cream concoctions on the gods next door. And poor Devlin. He's so happy any time someone sits him down and feeds him. He loves everything. It's completely heartbreaking.

I always assumed it was much more difficult than it really is, but if you can make custard and are willing to invest in one piece of special equipment, you can make ice cream. You'll need an ice cream maker or stand mixer with a freezable bowl attachment for this recipe. Also, the bowl really does need to freeze overnight and your custard needs to chill overnight. Rushing either of these steps will result in frustration.

Anyway, peaches are at the height of their season right now in the middle of summer and our farmer's market has tree-ripe luscious peaches by the score. You'll need a pound and a half or so of them. I used five medium size ones, resulting in about 3 cups of peach puree. If you get a bit less, that's fine too. You'll beef up the peach flavor with some peach schnapps.

Speaking of the alcohol, which includes both peach schnapps and bourbon, there is no Anemoi-esque reason for it. I just found some super cool instructions for adding significant quantities of alcohol to ice cream using unflavored gelatin and wanted to try it out. Surprisingly, it worked. I expected the ice cream to be meltier than normal non-alcoholic ice cream, but that wasn't the case. The gelatin really does seem to stabilize it somehow. I haven't tested this recipe without the alcohol and gelatin so I'm not sure what kind of results you might get from leaving it out.

Finally, this ice cream is beyond amazing. I have a pretty tough resistance toward my own creations. I mean, I bake something nearly every day and it takes something extra special to keep me eating it after smelling and tasting it for sometimes hours while I made it. This ice cream? This needs or leave my house immediately or I'm going to eat all of it all by myself, one spoonful out of the freezer at a time.

Someone save me please?

Bourbon Peach Ice Cream
adapted from View From Great Island and Gizmodo

Makes: 1 quart
Time: 48 hours (Hands on: 1 hour)

1 1/4 pounds ripe peaches (about 5 medium), peeled and pitted
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups half & half
2/3 cup white sugar
4 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 packet unflavored gelatin
3/4 cup bourbon, cold
2 tablespoons peach schnapps, cold

1. Place the freezer bowl for your stand mixer or ice cream maker in the freezer and let it freeze at least overnight. Put your bottles of bourbon and peach schnapps in the fridge to chill.

2. Roughly chop the peaches and puree in a food processor or blender until completely smooth, should yield 2 1/5 to 3 cups peach puree. Stash this in a bowl in the fridge for a few minutes.

3. In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream and half & half until hot enough that it's too hot to keep your finger in it, but not boiling, stirring frequently.

4. In a heat proof bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until completely combined and lightened in color.

5. Temper half a cup of the hot liquid into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Then whisk the tempered mixture back into the saucepan and heat over medium heat until thickened enough that it coats a spatula and drawing a line across the spatula with your finger creates a nice, hard line with no drips.

6. Remove the thickened mixture to a heat proof bowl and whisk in the vanilla extract and peach puree. Refrigerate overnight.

7. When ready to freeze your ice cream, put a 1/4 cup of cold water in a small bowl and whisk in the unflavored gelatin. Whisk in the cold bourbon and peach schnapps. Add this mixture to the chilled peach mixture, pouring it through a fine sieve to catch any large lumps of gelatin. Whisk to combine.

8. According to the manufacturer's directions on your ice cream maker, churn the mixture for 20-30 minutes until it resembles slightly melty soft serve. Remove from freezer bowl with a silicone spatula to a large, shallow container and place in freezer. It will freeze to a more standard ice cream consistency over the next 6-8 hours.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Snack Time: July 19, 2014

Saturday Snack Time is a little collection of fun things I found online during the week and I thought were worth sharing. Let's get snacking, shall we?

1 | I made this grilled corn pico de gallo for our D&D group today. Yummy.

2 | I've got eight egg whites chilling in my fridge from making ice cream this week. That means it's time to make more macarons. I'm hoping the tips from this post keep me from wanting to hurl meringue across my kitchen.

3 | This service notifies you when certain ebook titles go on sale. So handy! h/t @mharvey816

4 | Great books featuring Dominant women are hard to find. Romance Novels for Feminists has found a few, including Have Mercy, which I reviewed this week too.

5 | And because this week was all about Shelley Ann Clark anyway, here she is talking about some of her favorite romances.

6 | Finally, the art of taking archaic misogyny and turning it into something wonderful.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Scent in Romance

My husband bought me a surprise present last weekend when we were at Anthropologie, the sneaky man. That's it above. It's warm and woodsy with a hint of vanilla that's perfect for me. And it got me thinking: how many times have you seen a reference to scent in a romance novel? All the time, right? I can't remember whose series it was (Grace Burrowes maybe?) who gave each of her heroes and heroines a signature scent, sometimes in some interesting combinations: oranges, lavender, vanilla, cedar. In the series I just read by Laura Kaye (Hearts of the Anemoi, which I'll talk about in more detail next week), the heroes are all associated with a season and both hero and heroine have a scent that matches the hero's season. And of course, we're all aware of "man scent".

This is interesting to me because scent isn't something we're aware of a lot of the time. Scent registers when we smell something particularly good like baking cookies or particularly bad like pond water wet dog. A few months ago, my husband went back to my home town on the Central Coast of California. While there, we wanted to pick up a present for some friends of ours and we stumbled into a shop that specialized in local products: everything from soap and block-printed linens to sauces and spice blends. Our friends love tea so we were smelling all the teas when one of them socked me in the gut. The scent was Paso Robles: sage and lavender, but other things I couldn't readily identify. Until that moment, I didn't realize that Paso had a scent.

It's that concept of man scent that I'd like to explore. I ran across it again recently in an earlier Victoria Dahl work, which I forgive and don't feel weird calling out because she has gotten so so very good in the intervening years that it's basically the only criticism I can level at her. She said something similar in her new novella, Fanning the Flames, though this one worked for me while still remaining vague on the finer points of scent: "He smelled the way a man should smell when he was in your bed and working hard for it." [Loc 67] Nearly all romance writers use the man scent device. If it doesn't pop up in a book, I'm surprised at this point. Why? I have some theories. Four, actually.

The first theory is that writers are lazy. Maybe they don't know what to write as an introduction to further intimacy. Maybe they can't distinguish what makes a man smell good. The second is that they experience some form of sensory deprivation. Maybe they don't realize that all men smell different. The third theory is that it's a joke that romance writers are all in on and I'm not. My final theory is that scent is a very personal thing and they don't want to turn a reader off to a hero by giving him a smell that might be objectionable. I can't come up with any other reasons. Am I missing something?

Because I've gotta be honest, I think all of those reasons are dumb. I know writers aren't lazy. It takes a special kind of crazy to be willing to muck around in your own head as much as writers do. Writing, editing, copy-editing, etc. takes a lot of time and effort. Nor do I believe that writers are somehow unobservant. Maybe it's a charming conceit that good writers are all incredibly observant, but it doesn't seem so to me.  And those powers of observation must extend into realms beyond the visual. I also don't really believe that it's a joke, unless it's like one of those Onion stories that people occasionally pass around not realizing that it's satire.

The final theory is maybe a little more believable. My husband mostly smells like soap, which is fine by me and probably also universally appealing. There are certain colognes that trip my circuits. Calvin Klein's Obsession is one that gets me, but referring to a cologne by name in a book probably wouldn't be super helpful unless it's scratch-and-sniff like a Macy's catalog. That said, I once had a boyfriend who worked in a bar and smelled of cigarette smoke, Big Red gum, leather and Jack Daniels. Some people would think that smelled terrible, but I loved it. And if a writer described a hero that way, the reviewers would all go, "Ew, he smells like cigarette smoke? Disgusting. You totally lost me there. DNF." But writers who have written red-haired heroes or villainous heroes or short heroes or heroes with a little bit of a belly might get the same reaction.

So I understand why writers would stick with safe things like pine needles, citrus and rosemary, but there are a lot of other man smells. Heroes who work on cars or motorcycles should smell like gasoline and motor oil.  Shouldn't a man who swims or surfs smell like chlorine or salt water? Guys who have been working out should smell like sweat. Or at the very least, some kind of deodorant. And office-working billionaires do smell subtly expensive: like an upscale hotel. I can't be alone in finding any or all of these things sexy on the right guy. Man smell seems like an unnecessarily safe choice.

So please, no more "man scent". I don't know what that means. It isn't interesting. It isn't alluring. Tell me what he smells like instead. Whether that particular scent gets me hot or not, it tells me something about the hero that I want to know. Man scent does not.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Have Mercy Chicken Waffle Sandwiches

It's books like Have Mercy that make me sad more people don't read erotic romance. Shelley Ann Clark may be a first-time author, but this book doesn't read like a first effort. It's super hot, it's tightly written and Clark conveys truth about humanity and feminism that will stick with me for a long time to come.

Emme is a star on the rise. She reminds me a little of Vanessa Carlton, Adele or Lana Del Rey. She has a sexy, sultry, bluesy sound that seems perfect for this moment in music. On stage, she's magnetic. But she is not the same person off stage as she is on stage. Early in her career, she was a back-up singer for a popular band that subsequently broke up. And as legend had it, it was her fault. She has so much potential and the will to grasp it, but fear of how others will see her if she really takes the reins of her career and her desires paralyzes her.

Tom has barely had a life at all. His entire existence has been spent caring for others, particularly his alcoholic sister. He has always had to be the strong one, the responsible one. He inherited his father's bar and his father's house when it was never his ambition to obtain either. His true love is music and he's a phenomenal bass player. So when Emme approaches him to tour with her up-and-coming band, he desperately wants to say yes, but doesn't feel he can. Even when he commits, it isn't all the way.

When they go out on tour together, their mutual attraction has them taking tentative steps toward each other pretty early on, but both have issues outside the relationship holding them back. When they eventually do let their sexual relationship develop, the way it plays out may not work for every reader, particularly if the woman taking the lead in a mild BDSM scene is new to them. But there's a reason why this is important, and it's not just to hit readers' kink buttons. (That said, those with that particular kink button will find this story very satisfying indeed.)

At first, Emme allows herself to be painted as a victim, even in her own mind: of her mother's disapproval, of her suspicious neighbors, of her bandmates' paranoia, of the lead singer of the band she "broke up" and of the music industry gatekeepers who can't let her just be an artist. They want to label her a chunky homewrecker who uses her feminine wiles to distract from her lack of talent. It takes almost the entire duration of the book for Emme to realize that this is all, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. More importantly, it's bullshit that she can turn back on itself and use to her benefit.

And it's her sexual relationship with Tom, along with his unflagging confidence and pride in her, that teaches her about how to take the power she wields as an artist on stage and as a capable professional offstage and extend that into her interpersonal relationships. It takes a special kind of man to provide that support. For Tom to acknowledge that Emme has a deep well of strength of her own and to accept that and celebrate it and lean on it shows Have Mercy's true colors. It's not just about the femdom sex or the sultry blues club atmospherics. It's about revolutionizing the way we women see ourselves: powerful, talented, and in control of our own lives and destinies.

Touring musicians eat pretty terribly. My brother was the tour manager for a punk band when he was in his 20s and the main thing he wanted when he got off the road was home-cooked food. So it's not that surprising that the only major reference to a meal in Have Mercy takes place at a Waffle House, that bastion of highway-exit breakfast mediocrity.

It still manages to be a pivotal scene. In it, Emme acknowledges that the music industry would rather she be waifish than rock the curvy retro pin-up vibe she has. In this scene she baldly states that her body needs fuel and can't run on champagne, olives and air. And since this takes place immediately before she moves to take Tom for the first time, Emme's insistence on having the body she wants and not the body others would prefer her to have doesn't seem like an accident.

I had a couple failed batches of waffles before I hit upon this one. I found a few common denominators among the successful waffle recipes I tried. First, I had to turn my waffle iron up as hot as it would go before I got a sufficiently crispy waffle. Second, when I tried to cut back on the butter (which in this case would be desirable for more than maintaining a girlish figure because it gets all over your hands), the waffles turned spongey. Third, it didn't seem to matter whether I used milk or buttermilk, but this was not the time for any kind of buttermilk substitute. I tried it and it was just...gross. So get a quart of buttermilk. Between the chicken and the waffles, you'll use most of it anyway.

I served these sandwiches with some homemade sweet potato fries and Sriracha mayo dip. This is the recipe I use. Don't skip the step that has you soaking the cut sweet potatoes in water. I made the deep fried version since my oven was occupied with chicken, but that means you need to dry them quite thoroughly. Very hot oil and water are a bad combination. The recipe says cook for "several minutes" but my cook times have been consistently longer; about 10-12 minutes.

When you're done with these, you'll have butter-slicked fingers and you'll be dripping BBQ sauce. You'll want some napkins handy. But sometimes messy is fun, right?

Chicken Waffle Sandwiches
adapted from How Sweet Eats and Joy of Cooking
Makes: 4 sandwiches
Time: 2 hour, 45 minutes (Hands on time: 45 minutes)

2 chicken breasts, cut in half length-wise
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 cups panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
high heat cooking spray (not olive oil)

1 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs, well beaten

1 large tomato
4 leaves lettuce of your choice
1/3 cup BBQ sauce (I like Smokey Bones)

1. Cut chicken breasts in half length-wise and put them in a shallow dish. Pour 1 cup buttermilk over them and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a wire rack on top. Spray the rack with cooking spray.

3. Combine the panko bread crumbs, fine bread crumbs, flour, onion powder, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk and dredge in the bread crumb mixture. Press the bread crumbs so they adhere.

3. Put the chicken on the wire rack and spray with cooking spray on top so they crisp in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Flip the chicken, spray the other side and bake for another 10 minutes.

4. While the chicken cooks, start on the waffles. Heat the waffle iron.

5. Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, eggs and melted butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Whisk until combined. The batter will be lumpy.

6. Spoon 1/2 cup of batter (or different amount according to your waffle iron's instructions--mine takes 2 cups) into the hot waffle maker. Close the lid and bake until the waffle is golden.

7. Place a slice of tomato, a piece of lettuce, a piece of chicken and a bit of BBQ sauce on each waffle. Top with another waffle and serve immediately.

8. If for some reason you can't serve immediately or you're making more than 4 sandwiches, I had good luck with reheating the fresh or frozen waffles in my toaster. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saturday Snack Time, June 12, 2014

Saturday Snack Time is a little collection of fun things I found online during the week and I thought were worth sharing. This week, I've also got a quick review of a book I read recently and liked, Delphine Dryden's Sex on the Beach, which comes out on Tuesday. Let's get snacking, shall we?

1 | These sticky sesame chicken wings from Smitten Kitchen look terrific.

2 | For my review this week of Laura Florand's The Chocolate Thief, I was tempted to make s'mores instead of raspberry tarts. These would have been a good choice.

3 | Loved this article on how anesthesia works.

4 | Women are not crazy.

5 | How do we learn about sex? How did books shape our perspectives? From Amber Belldene on Wonkomance.

6 | Delphine Dryden has a book out this upcoming week and because I know my Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and am basically a big nerd, I got to read it early. Sex on the Beach runs in parallel to Mai Tai for Two, which I reviewed back in May, which is a pretty interesting story device. I'm not usually one for vanilla contemporaries with a low dosage of angst, but I found this book just as charming as its predecessor. Amanda and Jeremy are navigating family and careers and basic differences about how to solve problems when both people are used to making decisions on their own. It's messy, it's real and, oh, because it's Dryden, it's also hot. Like Mai Tai for Two, this book is subtly brilliant in that the only thing it's about is a relationship between two people: a real relationship that seems to have hit a bump on the road to marriage. The cheerful Hawaiian setting, the newly-hot hero and the lack of a tidy, perfect ending just hit all the right notes for me. Pick it up as next weekend's quick summer poolside read.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Failure and Confidence

Last week when I was interviewed by Lady Smut, Kiersten Hallie Krum asked me a bunch of interesting questions, but the one that stuck with me was if I had any funny failure stories to share.

I said that it was rare for me to have a failure any more, but I'm not sure that's strictly true. I think I've changed my definition of what failure is. Sure, I've had my fair share of hilarious kitchen disasters. I nearly gassed myself with pureed onion and the wrong kind of curry one time several years ago. I set oatmeal on fire when I was eight years old. I over-salted a batch of eggplant so badly that now I only buy the tiny ones because they're tender enough already (yes, that was scarring). And it's true that those kinds of failures have become increasingly rare as I've gained experience and confidence.

That said, I do an awful lot of kitchen experimentation. Last week, I made three sauces to go with sea scallops for my review of Jeffe Kennedy's Ruby. I made the cilantro sauce twice, the chocolate sauce three times and the mango sauce four times. The first step was to be sure the sauces all worked and tasted good on their own. Putting the cilantro yogurt sauce in the fridge overnight with the lime added at the food processor stage resulted in a curdled sauce the next day. The first batch of the chocolate sauce involved balsamic roasted strawberries that smelled terrific and tasted terrible. The mango sauce worked like a charm the very first time, but mellowed too much in the fridge overnight. And when it came time to serve them all together, it got lost in the other two and didn't pair well so I had to start over with a different base. And yet, I don't count the first six tries as failures. They were merely steps on the way to the final product. Like revisions on a novel. I even had editors: my husband and a couple of friends who came over for dinner.

The first time it occurred to me that I might have stumbled across a "right way" of doing recipe development was when we saw Chef earlier this week. There's a scene where Jon Favreau's character is creating a new menu and there are ingredients and tupperware containers scattered over the kitchen. My husband leaned over to me in the theater and said, "Well, that looks familiar."

On Tuesday, Delphine Dryden wrote a post at Wonkomance about a story she had started years ago and that lived in the back of a desk drawer until she came back to it recently. I'm not a writer, but I did glean something from her post: it's important to fail. Pushing myself to cook based on inspiration outside my own head makes me a better cook. Not only would I have not likely succeeded at something as complicated as coming up with my own sauce recipes years ago, I wouldn't even have attempted it. Until I did it last week, I didn't even know I could. Until I saw that movie, I didn't know that I was doing it right, whatever that is.

Which brings me to my point. I'm not a writer. I'm a cook. But as creative people, and especially as female creative people, I'm not sure we give ourselves enough credit. I've read a bunch of Delphine Dryden's books. And let me just say that she knows what she's doing. And it's hard for me to type this, much less say this, but I know what I'm doing too. And not only do I know what I'm doing, I'm getting even better.

There are lots of people out there with more experience, better training, better ideas, but your story arc is yours. And you do know what you're doing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Chocolate Thief Raspberry Tarts

When I started Cooking Up Romance a couple of months ago, there were a few books that people kept pointing me toward and saying I absolutely had to read, largely for their sheer volume of food. Laura Florand's Chocolate Series was at the top of that list. And they were totally right. The Chocolate Thief is a tasty romp through the chocolatiers, restaurants and streets of Paris.

Heroine Cade Corey is the successful, capable scion of an old Maryland chocolate-making family. With Hershey just over the border in Pennsylvania, I couldn't help but draw parallels as the beloved American Hershey bar receives very little respect in Europe. But Cade has an idea for bringing Parisian artisan chocolate to the masses--if only she can find a French chocolatier who will cooperate by lending a name and a recipe.

Hero Sylvain Marquis is the best chocolatier in Paris, creating chocolates so exquisite that though she has been around copious amounts of chocolate her whole life, Cade can't stop eating his when she first tastes them. Unfortunately, Sylvain also has a terrible temper and a complete abhorrence for her idea. He makes her cry when she first approaches him, then makes fun of her when they meet again, finally driving her to break into his shop to see if she can find what she wants. Plus, he's nerdy and sexy, which is pretty much my favorite combination of hero traits.

Though at first Cade and Sylvain get along like chocolate and water, he is eventually captivated by her love for chocolate and she is seduced by his knowledge and skill. With chocolate, people. Heads out of the gutter please. Though, it should be said that his skills in other areas aren't at all tepid. In fact, he has mastered the art of seduction by chocolate, a particularly neat twist by Florand.

For any lover of chocolate, or of Paris, this book is an absolute must-read. Even if the characters weren't utterly charming and the plot didn't provide a number of unique twists, they would be worth it for the food alone. I've just gotten the second one and I can't wait to devour it. Also, I'm not sure how long this sale is going on, but right now you can get the Kindle edition of the 4th book in the series, The Chocolate Rose, for free on Amazon!

Early in the story, when Sylvain is still utterly contemptuous of Cade's American-ness, she encounters him in a bakery early one morning. Flustered and determined to try something utterly French, she picks out a raspberry tart for her breakfast, earning the scorn and derision of both Sylvain and the baker. Though, upon reflection, Sylvain decides that she looks pretty cute with her raspberry tart, even if it is a ridiculous breakfast.

The raspberry tart in the book is described as having a golden crust, pale custard and sweet, fresh berries. Sadly for me, I find pastry cream a little bit boring and even though it's peak raspberry season, I didn't find the tart flavorful enough on its own. That said, the book is called The Chocolate Thief. And it's in a series all about chocolate. So I didn't have a hard time giving these a non-traditional twist with a little bit of chocolate.

As for the tart dough, you're going to need a kitchen scale. You've got one, right? If not, they're about $25. Don't be intimidated. I actually find it easier to bake by weight than by volume. It's just much more accurate! This tart dough is the best one I've used: super forgiving, doesn't require refrigeration and no need to use foil, parchment or any kind of pie weights. It's kind of miraculous and therefore worth the purchase of a scale if you don't have one.

Also, I've included a full-scale recipe for the chocolate sauce I used. You'll have TONS left over. Just store it in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap touching the surface. You can microwave it for just a couple seconds a spoonful at a time and drizzle it on crepes, ice cream, waffles, pound cake or just someone you like a lot. Or they can drizzle it on you. I mean, you just made them a freaking raspberry tart.

And as long as we're being decadent, go ahead and have one of these tarts for breakfast. I won't tell if you don't.

Raspberry Tarts with Pastry Cream and Chocolate
adapted from Brave Tart and America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Makes: 6 four-inch tarts
Time: 3 1/2 hours (1 hour hands on time)

Pastry Cream
2 cups half and half
1/2 cup sugar, separated
pinch salt
5 large egg yolks, room temperature
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces and chilled
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Tart Dough
3 ounces white sugar
6 ounces unsalted butter (NOT tablespoons--don't mess that up), plus extra for pans
9 ounces flour, sifted
1 generous pinch salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
powdered sugar for rolling

Chocolate Sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
pinch salt
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine

18 ounces fresh raspberries

1. For the pasty cream, bring the half and half, 6 tablespoons of sugar and the salt to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar together until smooth. Sift in the cornstarch to prevent lumps and whisk until smooth.

3. Reduce heat to medium. Slowly whisk about 1 cup of the simmering half and half mixture into the yolks to temper (for more on tempering, see my creme brulee recipe). The slowly whisk the tempered yolks back into the simmering half and half mixture and return pot to heat. Whisking constantly, return the mixture to a simmer and cook until thickened and a few bubbles burst the surface, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter and vanilla. Transfer to heat proof bowl and cover with a layer of plastic wrap flush to the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold, about 3 hours.

4. For the tart crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease six 4" tart pans.

5. Cream together the butter, salt and sugar either in a stand mixer or with a pastry blender until combined. Add sifted flour with mixer on lowest speed or mix by hand for two minutes. The mixer will still be pretty crumbly, but don't worry.

6. Knead lightly by hand against the side of the bowl until a smooth dough forms. Scatter powdered sugar over rolling surface. Turn out dough onto surface and roll to 1/8" thickness. Cut into four sections and press into tart pans, pinching off excess and pressing the sides up a little over the top to compensate for any shrinkage during baking. Re-roll scraps and cut into two more sections and press into tart pans. Don't worry if the dough tears. Just piece it back together. It will still be fine. Prick dough all over the surface with a fork (bottom and sides both).

7. Bake until lightly browned, about 14 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes on a rack before removing from pans. Allow to cool completely.

8. For the chocolate sauce, bring the cream, corn syrup, butter and salt to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Off the heat, stir in the chocolate, cover and let stand until the chocolate is melted, about 5 minutes. Uncover and whisk gently until smooth.

9. Add 1 tablespoon of warm chocolate sauce to the bottom of each tart shell. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow the chocolate to set.

10. Add 4 tablespoons of pastry cream to each tart shell.

11. Starting in the middle and working your way out, add three rings of raspberries to each tart shell. Drizzle each tart with warm chocolate. Tarts keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

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