Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Power of Happily Ever After

Genre fiction of any sort has a certain power. It's the power to sneak serious thinking into "mindless, fluffy, badly written" books. It's what part of what Very Serious Literary People do not understand about why smart people sometimes read "dumb" books. Part of it is escapism (which I don't view as a derogatory term): the ability to turns our brains off for a while and coast. But not every work of genre fiction, including not every work of romance, is best understood that way. It's the ability to get a reader to let down whatever guards they have, let go of whatever biases, prejudices or preconceived notions they have about how the world works and experience difficult topics and themes from a perspective of non-judgment. Even if they don't realize they're doing it. When an author really grabs you and pulls you into a story, you accept all sorts of things that your rational mind knows are "not true".

In science fiction, this power comes from shifting the setting of the story from our world to another, even if it's only a variation in time, space or history. In fantasy, the power comes from concocting an entirely new world based on different physical rules and social mores. Sometimes these are exaggerated versions of ours, like in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Sometimes they establish behaviors as normal things that are seen or were seen as "abnormal" as in the case of the same-sex relationships in Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. I'm sure mystery and horror have their own powers considering people like Dorothy Sayers, who wrote mystery, and Stephen King, who writes horror, have never struck me as stupid people or bad writers. I don't read those genres (I've read other things by both authors), but they must have a similar attraction given how many smart people I know do.

So what about romance? It's tempting to ascribe some of the same power of fantasy to paranormal romance and that of alternate history to Regencies and Victorians. However, no matter the sub-genre,  romance's defining characteristic and special power is the happy ending.

The happy ending allows romance to explore difficult topics from a safe and comfortable distance. The 12,000 of us who follow Victoria Dahl on Twitter are keenly aware of her stance on sexism, but she presents her positions much more widely and much more subtly through her books. She's able to tackle issues of divorce, infidelity, spousal abuse and fears about aging within a context that keeps the reader feeling secure because we know no matter what happens, by definition, everything is going to be alright in the end. In the hands of a writer of literary fiction, these and other topics might simply prove too serious or too terrifying for a reader to face down, particularly one who has personal experience with these issues.

In the hands of writers like Dahl and many others, these problems are not just a reason to keep the couple apart for 300 pages. Mainstream romance reaches readers of all kinds of backgrounds, world views and political stripes. People who might view addiction as a moral weakness, kink as a mental illness or verbal abuse as a just and reasonable parenting technique get a different perspective. Now, sometimes this breaks down and readers complain about couples who don't deserve their HEA; sometimes for reasons of stupidity or cruelty on the part of a character, but sometimes for how the writer handles these larger societal issues.

I don't want to make it sound like every writer is out to publish moral and political screeds in the guise of love stories. The amazing thing about romances is that they evince so much empathy for all sorts of different people with all sorts of different failings. Many of them do it from within our cultural framework. Though many characters display the defining sarcasm, snark and smarm of our age, writers and readers of romance are able to slip into a world of eternal optimism and look at it from that perspective for a while, even if it isn't normally our default setting.

Happily ever after can be a means of exploring topics and themes which might otherwise seem too tough or too trivial from within the context of a story in which the anxieties of ultimate failure, rejection and death have been removed. It's romance's super power.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Chocolate Kiss Gâteau Lion d'Or

Laura Florand is one of those exceedingly reliable authors who always manages to write a book that I know I will adore. I've only read three of hers thus far (I'm rationing them), but each one has been utterly charming and full of amazing culinary inspiration.

The Chocolate Kiss is no exception. It takes place in the Paris of The Chocolate Thief and we get a few glimpses of the happy couple, Sylvain and Cade, in this book. However, The Chocolate Kiss brings us out to the Île Saint-Louis, a small neighborhood of Paris. Magalie Chaudron (aka my book BFF) lives and works there in her aunts' tea-shop: La Maison des Sorcières. After a childhood spent being shipped between her mother in Provence and her father in upstate New York, Magalie has never felt at home anywhere. But she thinks that she just might learn to belong here, until the entire existence of La Maison des Sorcières is threatened by the prospect of the hottest pastry chef in Paris opening a new shop on the Île Saint-Louis.

Philippe Lyonnais is Paris royalty. Not only does he come from a generations-long line of exceptional pastry chefs, he is charming, gorgeous and in every way larger than life. He is so far above mere mortals that when Magalie demands that he steer clear of the Île Saint-Louis for his new shop, he tells her that he doesn't consider La Maison des Sorcières competition. This enrages Magalie and kicks off a battle of business, wit and temptation-by-treat that slowly ratchets up the tension in this story, both sexual and otherwise.

Every time Magalie and Philippe appear on page together, I found myself holding my breath. Their banter is top-notch as they trade insults designed to wound. This is particularly tough on Philippe, who realizes much earlier than Magalie that the friction in their relationship isn't just one of business rivals. But his pride and her defensiveness keep getting in the way. And the way they treat each other's baked goods! I swear, I was more relieved when Magalie tried one of Philippe's macarons than I was when they finally tumbled into bed.

The secondary characters of Aunt Geneviève and Aunt Aja, as well as Philippe's employees and the customers of the tea-shop are also exceedingly well-drawn. They form the basis for the little community surrounding the two lovers, providing outlets for their talents, encouragement when they're acting particularly pig-headed or despondent and giving this magical book its sense of place.

I adored The Chocolate Kiss. Magalie is my favorite heroine ever and Philippe is beyond dreamy. The heat the two of them generate together and the cast of colorful supporting characters will keep me returning to this book year after year. If you haven't read it, or anything else by Florand for that matter, run off to wherever you get your books and rectify that immediately.

Let's start with the important stuff. I totally made up the name of this cake so don't bother Googling it. It doesn't exist. Yet. Except when I'm a world-famous Parisian pastry chef I will *make* it famous.

That's a joke. I'm not that ambitious.

Actually, what happened is that I went to type "Lemon Almond Cake with Lavender Pastry Cream Filling and Honey Swiss Meringue Buttercream" into the title line and it looked a little long. So I made up the name and asked Kay (aka Miss Bates) of Miss Bates Reads Romance to help me translate it into French. When you read the book, you'll get the reference. Any errors in French are, of course, mine.

I wouldn't exactly call this cake a beginner project, mainly as a result of the Swiss Meringue Buttercream (henceforth SMB) frosting. Maybe an intermediate project? It took me two or three tries to get SMB right back in the day (I'm a self-taught baker). Finally I stumbled upon this tutorial, which shows the two main things that can go wrong with SMB, namely the "curdled" stage and the "too liquidy" stage. My problem had always been the curdled stage, which resembles cottage cheese. I assumed I had done something wrong when it hit that point. As it turns out, it's totally normal. Just keep whipping.

Then you have to frost a three-layer cake. My biggest tip? Lots of refrigerator time. Refrigerate the cake layers before you cut the domes off, refrigerate the layers once they get their custard dam (you'll see), refrigerate after the crumb coat and refrigerate after the final frosting layer. It's time-consuming but worth it because the layers won't slide all over in the refrigerator and the pastry cream won't squeeze out the sides when you cut it.

Oh, and you'll notice the absence of chocolate in this cake. The macaron that Philippe makes for Magalie has lavender, honey and chocolate. I'm not the genius baker Philippe is and I couldn't figure out a way to keep the chocolate from overpowering the subtle lavender and honey flavors in a cake so I gave up and used lemon. Call it artistic license.

Lavender Pastry Cream
adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
2 cups half & half
1 tablespoon culinary lavender + extra for top of cake (optional)
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
6 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons white sugar, divided
pinch salt
5 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled

1. In a medium saucepan, over low heat, heat the half & half, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, lavender, vanilla scrapings, vanilla pod, and salt and allow the lavender to infuse for 30 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

2. As the half & half mixture begins to simmer, in a separate bowl, whisk the eggs yolks, cornstarch and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar together until smooth.

3. Strain the half & half mixture through a fine sieve into a heat-proof measuring cup, removing the lavender and vanilla pod. Slowly whisk about 1 cup of the simmering half & half mixture into the the yolks to temper. Then slowly whisk the tempered yolks back into the simmering half & half mixture and reduce heat to medium. Whisking constantly, return the mixture to a simmer and cook until thickened and a few bubbles burst on the surface, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap flush to the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold, about 3 hours.

adapted from Taste of Home
3 cups sugar, divided
3/4 cup slivered almonds or 3 ounces almond flour
3/4 cup lemon olive oil
1 stick unsalted butter, softened + more for pans
6 eggs
zest of 2 Meyer lemons
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
12 ounces sour cream
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons half & half
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour 3 8" cake pans lined with parchment rounds. Place 3/4 cup sugar and almonds or almond flour in a food processor and process until finely ground.

2. In a stand mixer, cream olive oil, butter and remaining 2 1/4 cups sugar; beat in almond mixture until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. In a small bowl, combine sour cream and half & half. In another bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Alternately add sour cream mixture and flour mixture to butter mixture, beating well after each addition.

4. Pour into prepared pans. Bake for 28-32 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack to cool completely.

The "curdled stage". Don't worry. Just keep whipping

See? All better.

Honey Swiss Meringue Buttercream
adapted from Sweet Hearth Bakery Blog
8 egg whites
1 1/2 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoon white sugar
6 1/2 unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2" slices
7/8 cup honey (I used a 1/2 cup and a 1/3 cup of alfalfa honey)

1. In a saucepan or double boiler, heat 1" of water over medium heat. In a metal mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, combine egg white and sugar with a whisk. Make sure the top of the water doesn't touch the bottom of your pan. Whisking constantly, heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and eggs are quite hot. With experience, you'll be able to smell when it's ready, but if this is your first time, use a candy thermometer and remove from heat when it hits 160 degrees.

2. Using the whisk attachment on your stand mixer, whip egg white mixture on high for 10-15 until firm peaks form. By this time, the eggs whites should have returned to room temperature. If not, keep whipping on medium until they are at room temperature.

3. Add butter slices one at a time, whipping at medium speed until fully incorporated. There may be a stage midway through adding the butter when the entire mess looks curdled and inedible. If that happens, just keep whipping. It really will come back together. When all butter slices have been added, add the honey, turn up speed to high and whip for 3-5 minutes. If the mixture is liquidy at this point, refrigerate until it firms up and rewhip before using.

Cake Assembly

1. Once cooled, refrigerate tightly wrapped cake layers for 30 minutes. Remove from fridge and slice off the domes, reserving for cake pops, rum balls or hungry husbands who just got off airplanes.

2. On your decorating stand or cake plate, place a small dollop of frosting on the plate to keep the first layer  from sliding around while you decorate. Place the first layer on the plate. On another plate without frosting, place the second layer.

3. Using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2" piping tip, pipe around the cake, getting as close to the edge as you can. Repeat with the second layer. Refrigerate both layers for 15-20 minutes or until frosting is firm to the touch.

4. Place a generous 1/2 cup of pastry cream on the first layer (the one on your cake plate). Using a spoon or the bottom of your measuring cup, even it out over the surface of the cake. Place the second layer on top of the first layer and repeat with another generous 1/2 cup of pastry cream. You may have a tiny bit left over, but resist the urge to overfill the cake--definitely don't exceed the capacity of your custard dam. Place the third layer on top of the second layer.

5. Using approximately 1 cup of frosting, coat the cake with a very thin layer of frosting, filling in the sides where there are gaps and creating an overall smooth base for the final frosting layer. If you wipe off excess frosting, do not return it to the original frosting bowl to avoid getting crumbs in your final coat. Refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.

6. Using most of the remaining frosting and a 10" offset metal spatula, complete your final frosting layer. You may not use all the frosting. Keep remainder in an airtight container for up to one week and use to fill macarons.

7. If desired, sprinkle extra lavender in a circle on the top of the cake for decoration.

* For the record, I had to make two batches of frosting, which is why my cake is a little discolored-looking. I fixed this in the final recipe so your frostings will be the same color throughout. Just an interesting lesson in how different butter colorings can be.

Now that I've done it successfully a bunch of times, it's pretty easy, but I was so frustrated with Swiss Meringue Buttercream at first. Like Magalie trying to make macarons. You'll also notice here that I didn't attempt macarons. So have you made Swiss Meringue Buttercream frosting? Or perfect macarons?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nurse Janice Calling Roast Duck with Citrus Cherry Port Sauce

If I ever enjoy an older romance, I expect it to be the sort of enjoyment a person gets from things that are wacky and adorable. I don't ever really expect them to be exactly good. But Nurse Janice Calling, despite the retro cover, the awful title and the 1964 publication date, was a darn good romance read.

Janice Carlisle has returned to Bomfort, a small town in New England. Though she held a position as a nurse in another town, a former crush, Dr. Adam McBain, is widowed and practicing there, prompting her to return to where she grew up. However, before Adam even re-crosses her path, she meets surgeon Dr. Ed Sheldon, though at first she believes him to be a car mechanic. Also in the picture is her new boss, the "directress" (yes, that's her title) of the private nursing company where Janice works, Mrs. Ruth Hoxsie, who is also widowed. Unfortunately for Janice, Ruth and Adam are already a couple, but that won't stop Janice from making her move.

A rather inauspicious set-up and one that could have gone in any number of horrible, awful, no-good, very bad directions, but well, it didn't. In fact, if we're talking feminist romance, Nurse Janice succeeds on many fronts, a huge surprise for me given the early publication date. Janice is a competent nurse with a female boss who demands a lot of her. At first Janice thinks it might be jealousy over Adam's attentions to her, but it's really just that Ruth expects a lot of her employees. There are also plenty of conversations between Janice and her patients, showing her at work doing public health nursing. I'm not a medical expert, but the nursing details seemed plausible at least. Plus, there's a quirky sub-plot involving one of Janice's patients, his benefactor and a professional gambling ring that's very well done.

As for Ed Sheldon, he has suffered some professional set-backs that have cost him some confidence. But when the details are revealed to Janice and she confronts him about them, he doesn't react especially badly. He thinks she doesn't understand the magnitude of his problem, but he isn't condescending or dismissive. Just a bit defensive, which seems pretty reasonable in light of Janice's tough love approach. We also get limited third person perspective here and the addition of Ed's thoughts bring a lot to this romance. Instead of the completely opaque hero of the 1970s romances I've read, getting a sense of how much Ed likes and respects Janice early on is a strong recommendation for this book over others I've read. An example:

Janice turned, and for an instant her face revealed her true feelings. Ed was almost sorry that he had intruded. What right had he to force his attentions on anyone?

Finally, Nurse Janice has a delightfully dry New England sense of humor. The character seemed at times to have been yanked from a Katharine Hepburn movie. Take this interaction with Ed:
Ed Sheldon glanced over at Janice and said, "That's hard to believe. Miss Carlisle looks capable of handling boys...of all ages."

Clint laughed and said, "Come to think of it, Jan did have a terrific left hook when we were kids."

"And now?" asked Ed.

"May you never find out," said Janice smoothly.

This is a pretty chaste romance. The hero and heroine kiss a couple of times, but their attraction is undeniable and their happy ending is not surprising. There is no mention of Janice quitting her job or staying home to raise babies either. Seriously, it's like this book was sent back in time from a much more enlightened age. More enlightened even than ours sometimes seems.

Here's the fun thing. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read Nurse Janice Calling for free. The cover isn't the same as the one I have, but it's the same book. Otherwise, it will cost you $2.99. Honestly, I think it's worth the $3. I really enjoyed it.

Not every woman in Nurse Janice Calling has a job outside the home. Janice's friends Clint and Diane appear to be happily married with twin boys. Clint manages their rental property and Diane watches the kids and throws dinner parties. However, it's taken as a given that Clint loves, cares for and maintains equal responsibility for parenting their sons. How great is that?

But back to the dinner parties. Guess what else came out in the 1960s? Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If you don't own a copy of this book and you're even semi-serious about cooking, you should really get one. Granted, there is an entire chapter on aspics (you should skip those), but mostly it's chock-full of perfect recipes and stellar technique and will help you cook almost any basic food. Between this and Joy of Cooking, you can roast any vegetable, cook any cut of meat or perfectly execute nearly any fancy dessert.

Last Christmas, I decided to roast a duck. I had no idea how to roast a duck, but frankly, that's never really stopped me from doing anything in the kitchen. As it turns out, it isn't very different from roasting a chicken. If you can roast a chicken (check this post if you can't), you can roast a duck. But while you should try very hard not to tear chicken skin before roasting, you absolutely must prick or slice duck skin. That's what allows the skin to get all crispy.

At first, I was fairly alarmed by the amount of fat rendered. That is, until I discovered that you can save duck fat in the freezer and then use it to make the best french fries ever. Duck fat french fries were kind of a trend in restaurants a few years ago and lemme tell you, they are just as good as advertised.

For a summer meal, I served it with roasted fingerling potatoes and a butter lettuce salad with goat cheese and carmelized walnuts. I used this maple syrup I have that's aged in brandy barrels. So amazing. Definitely worthy of any 1960s housewife's dinner party. Just don't forget the personal ashtrays and brandy for after dinner.

Roast Duck with Citrus Cherry Port Sauce
adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Food Network
Time: 1 hour 40 minutes to 2 hours (approximate roasting time 1 hour and 30 minutes)
Makes: 4-5 servings

5 1/2 pound duck
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1/8 teaspoon pepper
pinch dried thyme
1 small onion, sliced

1 teaspoon reserved duck fat
1 large or 2 small shallots, minced
1/4 cup ruby port wine
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, plus 1 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 cup pitted frozen black cherries, thawed and roughly chopped

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Season the inside of the duck with 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, herbs and the sliced onion. Secure the legs, wings and neck skin to the body. Prick or slice the skin around the thighs, back and lower breast. Dry the duck thoroughly.

2. Place the duck breast up in a roasting pan just large enough to hold the duck easily and roast for 15 minutes until lightly browned.

3. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and turn the duck on its side. Regulate heat so duck is always making cooking noises, but fat is not burning. Remove fat occasionally using basting bulb and set aside for other uses. Basting the duck is not necessary. Reserve 1 teaspoon fat for the sauce.

4. After 30 more minutes, turn the duck on its other side. After an additional 15 minutes, turn the duck back breast side up and salt with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook approximately another 15 minutes or until thermometer inserted in thigh reads 165 degrees. Remove from oven, discard trussing strings and allow duck to rest 10 minutes while you prepare the sauce.

5. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Take 1 teaspoon duck fat and add it to the skillet. Add the shallots and saute until translucent. Pour in the port wine and orange juice, and scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the orange zest and chopped cherries and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes to reduce the mixture and thicken, mashing the cherries with the back of a wooden spoon to extract flavor as they cook.

6. Slice the duck as you would a roast chicken and top with sauce before serving.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Trust-Worthy Romance

Trust is an interesting phenomenon. In love or friendship, it's what lets people relax, let down their guards and just enjoy each other for who they are without worrying about being judged, hurt or ridiculed (except in good fun, of course). In romance novels, one or both characters' lack of it is often the main obstacle to a couple's happiness. A lack of trust creates such significant conflict between people that it carries practically the entire genre.

This week has been an interesting one in terms of my reading. I started and finished a book I had no expectation of liking, I finally slogged my way through the remainder of a book I despised (you can see my review here) and I took refuge in a book I knew I would almost certainly enjoy. The first was Nurse Janice Calling, "A Candlelight Romance" from Dell that was published in 1964. I'll have a full review of that for you on Monday since I really enjoyed it, but going in, my trust level of this particular book was low. I've not had a wealth of great experiences with older romances, from the cultural misogyny and sexism displayed in older works and downright rapey sex scenes to unsatisfying resolutions of the primary love story. I was pleased to discover a book that in some ways was more enlightened than even a lot of contemporary romances I've read.

Speaking of unenlightened contemporary romances, the one linked above is a good example of that. I don't want to relive the hell of that book, which is why I've linked my Goodreads review above, but thanks to that book, I now feel the same way about Skye Jordan as I do about Kathleen Woodiwiss, who has been crossed off my list for all time, and Mary Jo Putney, who I put in the "trust but verify" category of authors whose books I have enjoyed, but whose occasional forays into rapey sex make me nervous (Silk and Shadows - h/t to @GrowlyCub for furnishing me with the title). I recall finishing that book, but I haven't picked up a Putney since. I have no problem with rape in romance novels. Men rape women every day. It's just one of those things that I can only forgive from the very rare hero and thereby the very rare writer. Feel free to argue with me about Woodiwiss and Putney, by the way. I'm happy to consider new points of view and information outside my experience.

And then there are the writers I trust implicitly: Laura Kinsale, Cara McKenna and Charlotte Stein. None of these women write "easy" books. There's always a character or a situation or some deep, dark angst in their novels that walks the edge of whatever limits I have as a reader. Midsummer Moon is a bad example of a Laura Kinsale book and one I would never give to a newbie, mostly because it's relatively angst-free, happy and amusing. But I didn't know that going in. Nevertheless, in a week of intense news from the outside world, Kinsale was the first writer I reached for. But when a scary character or borderline sex or profound intensity come up in any of these writers' novels, I don't feel any anxiety about it. I'm secure in the knowledge that I'm in good hands.

I think this is the reason many of us read romance in the first place: the happy ending is guaranteed. No matter if it's unconvincing or presented as "happy for now", we all know what's coming. There's a lack of anxiety in romance--not throughout the stories, which run the gamut of all sorts of emotions--but in the end. As Sonny says in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not yet the end." We trust that in romance, this will always be true.

Which writers do you trust? Who do you reach for when everything else is crazy?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Living in Shadow Plantain Fritters

I love Jackie Ashenden's books. I love that many are set somewhere other than the United States. This one, for example, is set in New Zealand. I love that her characters are messed up and often kinda kinky, but that the two things are not directly related. And her characters never eat, which leaves me free to do pretty much exactly what I want when it comes to pairing her books with recipes.

Living in Shadow is an erotic romance featuring an older heroine and a younger hero, who is actually her student. I'll just be up front here and say that this book is dark, intense and contains some light BDSM so if edgy is not your thing, this might not be the one for you. Likewise, this book contains rape triggers, though no actual rape takes place during the timeline of the book.

The heroine, Eleanor, is a university professor. She is a submissive who had a relationship with a Dominant in the past, but he seriously abused her trust. Ever since, she has distanced herself from her desires and from men in general. Hero Luc has a dark past involving his childhood in the Ivory Coast. At the beginning of the story, we know that he was orphaned and raised by his grandparents, but very early on, it becomes clear that this isn't his entire story. In typical big man on campus fashion, he has several women trailing after him, but after weeks of sitting in Eleanor's lectures, he has decided it's her that he wants.

The interaction between these two is so tentative at first. Partially because the relationship is taboo, but also because both Eleanor and Luc have emotional blocks. Eleanor needs to learn to trust again and Luc has to forgive himself for his past. But when they do get together, their chemistry is off the charts. It's not just about the sex though. Each of them needs something and coming together seems the only way for each of them to get it.

What I loved best about this book is what I always love about erotic romance done right. Luc is exceptionally tender with Eleanor, teaching her to trust him and eventually to trust herself again. Though he is somewhat new to the concept of dominance, it comes easily to him, a fact that worries him as much as Eleanor finds it encouraging. Watching these characters help each other tap their potential throughout Living in Shadow was just a joy. That might seem strange considering the intensity of the relationship and the fact of their dark pasts, but this book just made me happy. Despite their rocky start, you can't help but feel that these two are in it for the long haul.

A definite five star read for me. If I gave six stars, I'd give them to this one. I loved it that much. I'm also giving away an ebook copy of Living in Shadow below so scroll down and wait for the Rafflecopter widget to pop up to enter!

I'm being deliberately cagey about Luc's past, but suffice to say, he did grow up in the Ivory Coast. I've never had West African food and wasn't sure what to expect when I had the idea to explore Ivorian cuisine for this review. The Wikipedia page, with it's enormous, palm-sized snail, was hardly encouraging. Luckily, I stumbled across the defunct blog Global Grazers, which showcased some traditional recipes as well as gave some insight into the local food scene in Abidjan.

The recipe I found for a traditional pepper sauce for plantain fritters ended up being so intensely spicy that I had to give it away to some more adventurous friends. However, the plantain fritters by themselves were a little one-dimensional so I decided to keep to the same general idea, but tone down the spice. Therefore this sauce isn't precisely traditional, but it had the advantage of being edible. If you're into CRAZY spicy food, by all means try out the original. I wanted to die with just the amount on the tip of my pinky finger, but don't let me dissuade you.

The bouillon cubes used in this recipe are a Spanish-made brand called Jumbo that is apparently commonly found in West Africa. I'm lucky enough to live in an area where it's possible to track down such things thanks to our large population of immigrants and diplomatic staff, but if you're not in a major city, any basic bouillon cube will probably work. I didn't notice any particularly distinctive flavor imparted by the traditional brand.

The fritters themselves are incredibly filling. We ended up splitting a batch the first night I made them and that was dinner that night despite the plan to finish up some other leftovers we had. When we split them four ways (5-6 fritters each), it was a much more reasonably-sized appetizer.

I'm far from becoming any kind of expert on West African cuisine, but working through this recipe did make me wish for lots more books with diverse characters. Diverse characters make for fun with diverse food!

Plantain Fritters with Red Pepper Sauce
adapted from Global Grazers and Taste of Home
Makes: 4 servings as an appetizer (5-6 fritters each)
Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (Hand on: 35 minutes)

1 medium onion, halved
5 Roma tomatoes
2 red bell peppers
1 scotch bonnet pepper
1 head garlic, top third sliced off
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bouillon cube (Jumbo, if available)
pinch of black pepper
salt to taste

2 very ripe yellow plantains, peeled
1 small onion, cut into wedges
1 cup self-rising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of black pepper
Canola oil (or other high heat oil) for frying

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. On a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil, place halved onion, whole red peppers, whole tomatoes, whole scotch bonnet pepper and garlic and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil, shaking to coat. Cover with foil.

2. Roast vegetables for 1 hour or until garlic is soft. Remove and let sit until cool enough to handle. Place tomatoes and peppers in a zip-top bag while cooling to assist with removal of skins.

3. Remove skins and seeds from peppers and tomatoes. Remove skins from onion and garlic (hint: you can just squeeze out the garlic like toothpaste). Add bouillon cube and pepper. Puree in food processor until combined.

4. Add mixture to a medium saucepan with 1 cup of water. Heat over medium heat and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Using an immersion blender in the pan or returned to food processor, puree until completely smooth. Set aside to cool.

5. You're going to have to wash your food processor now. Sorry.

6. Place plantains in the food processor and process until smooth. Add the flour, onion, salt and pepper. Process until blended. Batter will be the consistency of banana bread batter.

7. In a medium skillet, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil to 375 degrees. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter, 5 or 6 at a time, into the hot oil. Cook for approximately 1 minute on each side or until golden brown and puffy. Drain on paper towels.

8. Plate fritters with a drizzle of sauce and extra on the side, if desired.

Disclosure: I received an advance copy of Living in Shadow from NetGalley and Jackie Ashenden and I follow each other on Twitter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hard-Bodied Heroes...And Not

If romance novels are to be believed, almost all men, at least, those worthy of attention, are hard-bodies. They all run and lift weights and work with their hands, even if they don't. Because they all look like the models on the covers, right?

I know that romance is all about the woman's fantasy and who doesn't like the idea of a super hot guy who is super into his girl? But just like women take all sorts of different shapes, women's fantasies are likewise probably more diverse than romances give them credit for. I think we've started to see a trend toward slight differences. After all, years ago, I doubt a hero regarded as super duper sexy would have a tattoo or a beard. Now both seem pretty common.

I do rather wonder where the heroes are who don't have slammin' bodies though. It's rare that I'm given license to picture a guy who is any less than cut. There is nerdy Ed from Delphine Dryden's The Principle of Desire and a couple others that turned up on Twitter when I asked, but the selection of slightly chubby heroes is definitely, ahem, slim.

Not that it necessarily stops me from picturing them that way. I must admit that when I picture Jeffe Kennedy's hero Bobby Prejean from Ruby, I don't picture him as tall guy with perfect abs. I picture him as just a little taller than Dani and with a hint of a belly. In my head, I wanted him to be a little squishier than your average romance hero is typically described. And here's the thing, he's one of my all-time favorite heroes. The belly he has in my head doesn't make him any less sexy. For me, since I like to cook, it might even make him a little more sexy.

In recent years, we seem to have given romance writers space to feature heroines who are more average in their proportions than your typical Victoria's Secret model. They find romance and sex and love just as readily as any lissome blonde. But that same diversity doesn't seem to extend to heroes. Do all of us seriously only fantasize about guys with perfectly honed muscles? For that matter, there are few heroes who are short, balding, graying or limited to not-quite-movie-star worthy looks.

So tell me, have you found a book where the hero isn't perfectly proportioned with huge arms and washboard abs? What about other physical "imperfections"? If not, would you read such a book?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Truly Honeyed Cauliflower Soup & Sandwiches

A few weeks ago, I read a string of hero-as-chef romances all in a row: The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand, Ruby by Jeffe Kennedy and this one, Truly by Ruthie Knox. I waited to review it until closer to the release date, which is this Tuesday. I'd read one other book by Knox in the past and fully expected to enjoy this one. I'm happy to report that it didn't disappoint.

May Fredericks is an essentially bright and sunny Midwestern Amazon. She has been dating a professional football player for several years and has just moved from Wisconsin to New York City to be with him. He chooses a special moment to ask her to be his wife. However, what should have been a big, romantic marriage proposal was more like Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice. I won't reveal what happens, but May decides it's time to take her life in a new direction, setting off on her own into the wilds of New York City and getting mugged in the process. Her experiences of New York thus far have not been exactly positive.

Ben Hausman is a divorced, washed-out chef with an anger management problem. He loves to cook, but the high pressure atmosphere of world-class kitchens has him constantly tense, livid and burned out. He's killing time with darts, painful literature and gardening for his friends' farm-to-table restaurant until, as he conceives it, he can deconstruct and then reconstruct his personality into something better and more worthy of good things. One thing he does love though is New York. He keeps beehives all over the city and makes borough-specific honey and honey-flavored products for the local farmer's market. And before she leaves New York for good, Ben wants May to have some good memories of the city to take back to Wisconsin with her.

From the very beginning of the story, May is quite clearly a good thing. She's relentlessly positive, even in the face of the implosion of her "perfect" relationship and getting her purse stolen with her cell phone, credit cards and ID in it. Her insecurities are deep-seated, but it doesn't take Ben long to work his way past them. And the third-person perspective at least lets the reader know that Ben is trying to be a good guy, even when he sometimes fails spectacularly. The secondary characters in Truly are also well-drawn, including May's sister Allie, whose wedding May eventually rushes back to attend in Wisconsin with Ben in tow.

The set-up for Truly is a little bit far-fetched, what with May going off to the apartment of a complete stranger within a few minutes of meeting him, but Knox does her best to make it seem reasonable. I had to keep reminding myself that I did some pretty inadvisable things in my 20s too. But once you get past that and into the meat of the story, the transformation of both of these characters into more confident, better adjusted, worthier versions of themselves makes for a very satisfying happy ending. And the way it comes about, through honest communication and learning to trust, was exactly what contemporary romance should deliver.

I received Truly via NetGalley, but I would have happily purchased it and I will continue to avidly look forward to future titles by Ruthie Knox. A definite must-buy!

Have I mentioned that I love books featuring chefs? They make for very creative recipe options. I never would have considered making honey and cauliflower soup on my own, but when Ben sold honey-flavored soups at the farmer's market, I knew I had to try it. And it turned out that I was not the first to think of it because I found this recipe online when I went looking. I know you're skeptical. Don't be. The roasted cauliflower with the curry and the buckwheat honey drizzled on top just sing.

However, the soup on its own would be a lot to take as a main dish. So I paired it with a simple arugula and hazelnut salad with honey-champagne vinaigrette and this easy grilled goat cheese, arugula and clover honey sandwich. I even tasted a few different honey varieties to figure out what would work best in each component to create this honey-themed tasting menu. You don't have to use a bunch of different honey varieties like I did, but it sure was fun.

As for tips, cooking the cauliflower longer than 16 minutes resulted in charred cauliflower so keep a close eye on your veggies. I'm also not a big salt person, but I found that this particular soup had me adding quite a bit more than I usually do so definitely taste it once it's been puréed to get the seasoning right. Also, I'd been eying immersion blenders for a while and when the first stab at this soup turned out a bit lumpy and unevenly puréed, I decided to go ahead and take the plunge. I'm so glad I did! The immersion blender is just the right tool for this job, puréeing the roasted cauliflower thoroughly and evenly. My regular blender didn't do a bad job, but the immersion blender was better.

As for the sandwich, I've had it twice since running out of soup so even if cauliflower isn't your thing, you might try this non-traditional grilled cheese sandwich. The sweet honey with the bitter, nutty arugula and tangy goat cheese on the fluffy, eggy Challah is pretty much currently my very favorite thing. I'll probably have it again for lunch today.

And don't forget the salad! It's not strictly necessary, but it keeps you from having to eat an entirely brown dinner.

Curry Cauliflower Soup with Honey and Arugula, Goat Cheese and Honey Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Makes: Two servings of soup & sandwich
Time: 35 minutes

Cauliflower Soup
1/2 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, diced
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup water
1/2 tablespoon buckwheat honey per bowl (for drizzling)

1) Preheat oven to 450°F. Spread cauliflower florets on a baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Roast until florets are browned, about 16 minutes, flipping once halfway through.

2) In a small stockpot, heat 1/2 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft and slightly browned. Stir in curry powder and cayenne (if using) and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add chicken stock, water, and cauliflower. Cover and bring to boil and then simmer 5 minutes.

3) Purée the soup with a regular or immersion blender until smooth. Return to pot if using a regular blender and reheat if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in bowls with a drizzle of honey and sandwiches, recipe below.

Arugula, Goat Cheese and Honey Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
4 slices Challah or other soft bread
salted butter, softened
2 handfuls arugula
2 ounces goat cheese
1 tablespoon clover honey

1) Heat skillet over medium heat. Butter one side of each piece of Challah bread. Evenly divide remaining ingredients between two pieces of bread and top with remaining slices.

2) Place in skillet and cook until cheese is warmed and bread is golden, about 3 minutes each side.

3) Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Saturday Snack Time, August 2, 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 | Missing San Antonio food? I wasn't even at RWA and I am.

2 | Your giant American refrigerator is making you fat and poor. I'm just gonna leave this here because I haven't decided what I think about it yet.

3 | Watch a blogger dismantle a rude commenter in the nicest, most polite and most effective way possible.

4 | Ha! Replace "Instagram" with "Cooking Up Romance" and this is me.

5 | The world of elite higher education is broken. Especially the part about the pathological fear of failure.

6 | Why survivalists and Galters will be naked come the apocalypse.

Have a great weekend! 
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