Monday, September 29, 2014

Glitterland Cottage Pie

Alexis Hall's Glitterland is a flawless gem of a novel. Certainly the best thing I've read all year. Maybe one of the best things I've read ever. When I start ranking books in my head, it approaches Prince of Midnight, my favorite Laura Kinsale book and Stardust, my favorite Neil Gaiman book. So I think I must have really liked it a lot. I liked it for what it is, a love story about two guys who are super different and yet still manage to find common ground in each other. I liked it for what it represented to me with its themes of forgiveness and redemption. I liked it for how it did both those things, with language that is elegant, funny, erudite and witty. I'm not sure what else one could look for in a book. So, yeah. Flawless.

Ash Winters is a novelist, a former Golden Boy of the British literary scene turned detective fiction writer with a trust fund and a Cambridge education. The detective books he writes keep him busy, but he thinks the work is beneath him. However, the state of his mental health makes him feel like he can't do anything else. Simply put, Ash is a mess and has been one for so long that he may even think he's more of a mess than he is. Technically speaking, he's bipolar, which manifests in manic highs and depressive lows, but he's also agoraphobic and suffers from anxiety. For much of the book, he comes off as selfish, callous, snobby and insecure. He feels awful about himself much of the time and some readers may not readily sympathize with him. But if you've even been on the inside of depression, his struggles will be intimately familiar. Like this:

In all these years, this is all I have learned: Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.

If opposites attract, then it makes perfect sense that Darian Taylor and Ash would want each other. Darian is an "orange glitter pirate" with an Essex accent, a lower class upbringing and little formal education. Between his fake tan, his sequined wardrobe and his modeling career, Darian is the last person Ash could have seen himself falling for. But right from the start they have an explosively hot sexual connection and even though Ash would prefer to dismiss the experience and call it a one night stand; Darian is more honest about how rare and special they really are together. Ash gives Darian the brush-off, but charming, simple Darian isn't easily dissuaded. He likes Ash and isn't willing to give up on him quite that easily.

The entire plot of the novel revolves around the differences between the two main characters. Different social classes, different hobbies & interests, different education levels, different work and friends and family situations. Ash is jaded, cynical and experienced while Darian is fresh, hopeful and innocent. Ash has largely isolated himself from the people who care about him. Darian has a cadre of close friends and lives with his grandmother. Though on the surface, Ash's life might seem the ideal one with his posh apartment, bespoke wardrobe and fancy education, it's Darian, who lives with his grandmother, loves reality television and is secure enough to wear a Union Jack onesie, who seems to have mastered the whole living thing. And Darian is gracious and patient in a way Ash has never learned to be, most especially with himself.

But even Darian can be pushed too far. Three-quarters of the way through the book, Ash finally succeeds in pushing Darian away. Once they're separated, Ash realizes two important things, one which is typical of romance novels, the other which really isn't. The typical thing he realizes is that he doesn't want to live without Darian. The atypical thing Ash discovers is that he has to let Darian make his own choices about what he can handle instead of making Darian's choices for him by persistently claiming that he will make Darian miserable and by minimizing their relationship. He has spent so long trying to control every variable in his environment in order to lessen his anxiety that allowing himself to let go of this one thing represents a huge step for him.

I enjoyed this story all the way through. It's hilarious and sexy and sweet all at once. The language is breathtakingly poetic in spots. But what has stuck with me in the few weeks since I read it was how tremendous the ending was. Ash undertakes a necessary journey of redemption, despite the pain and anxiety and embarrassment it causes him and Darian receives him with such generosity. The way Darian reacts to Ash's fumbling, groveling apology is miraculous, wise and generous. Of course Ash doesn't deserve it, but he gets Darian's forgiveness and love anyway. The miracle of that ending is what will keep me rereading this book for years to come.

I've got no idea where this recipe came from. I make it at least once or twice a month, mainly because my husband really likes it and I cook dinner for our Dungeons & Dragons group when we play and they like it too. I mean, what's not to like? It's basically meat and potatoes. I grew up next door to a British family who had a daughter just a year younger than me and we were constantly back and forth to each other's houses, mainly through the fence that divided our backyards. I remember my neighbor frequently making cottage pie for tea, which is the perfect thing for kids to eat at the perfect time of day. I think I searched this particular recipe out while I was at university, but I've been making it from memory for so long that I don't even think I could lay hands on whatever paper copy I might have had way back when.

This is pretty similar to the dish Darian cooks for Ash in Glitterland, with slight modifications. Darian's recipe even appears in the back of the book. The main difference between the two is the absence of grated cheese here, which is amusing to me because Darian makes fun of Ash for not being able to properly operate a cheese grater. For the record, I can't grate cheese either. I'm a fairly accomplished cook, but every time I pull out a cheese grater, I end up grating my fingers. I have actual scars from doing this. I will get the food processor dirty to grate a 1/4 cup of cheese because I loathe bleeding into my guests' food.

I've nearly always made this recipe with ground beef, but you can certainly use two pounds of whatever ground meat you'd like. In the past I've used ground lamb because my husband likes it, ground turkey and more veggies when I was feeding health-conscious people, and ground elk when a friend brought us some from a hunting trip. So this is a pretty flexible recipe.

Between the association with my childhood and the fact that it's an easy recipe I can make quickly from memory with stuff I always have in my pantry, this is definite comfort food. Which makes it pretty funny that Ash calls his fancy friend Max for a salad recipe and produces some froofy thing involving pears and blue cheese that doesn't go well with this dish at all. It's not unlike this recipe, only with pears instead of apples and cheese instead of hazelnuts. Hall reflects that they had "served each other a metaphor": Darian's simple comfort food and Ash's complex and weirdly inappropriate salad meant to impress. Rather, plain lettuce, chopped tomatoes and some generic salad dressing are probably what's called for here. At most, maybe a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing if you insist on being fancy, which I did (I'm much more like Ash than like Darian), so this one from Alton Brown is what's pictured here. I cut the recipe in half for two because it doesn't keep.

Oh, and one other thing: I often don't bother to make mashed potatoes from scratch like I did here. I sometimes just get two pounds of refrigerated mashed potatoes from the deli case, heat them up and spread them on top. That cuts the preparation time by about half an hour so if you're in a hurry, just do that.

See, I'm not a total snob.

Cottage Pie
Makes: 8 servings
Time: 1 hour (Hands on time: 45 minutes)

2 pounds Russet or other non-waxy potato, peeled & cut into 1" chunks
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, melted
1/2 cup half & half, hot

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 carrots
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
2 pounds ground beef
2 packets brown gravy mix
2/3 cup water
1 cup frozen peas
salt & pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Add potatoes and a pinch of salt to a large pot and cover with water by about 1". Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Heat the half & half over low heat while you prepare the filling.

3. While potatoes simmer, peel and dice carrots and onions. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When olive oil is shimmering and fragrant, add the carrots and onions and cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for and additional 30 seconds.

4. Remove carrots, onions and garlic to a 9x13" glass or enamel baking dish (enamel is better because you can finish the dish under the broiler, but I don't have the right size--so sad for me). Add the ground beef to the same skillet and cook until browned, about 5-7 minutes. Drain the fat from the meat and return to the heat.

5. Return the carrots, onions and garlic to the skillet. Add the brown gravy packets and water to the skillet and mix thoroughly. Allow to simmer for 3-4 minutes until all water has been absorbed. Add the frozen peas and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes. Remove mixture to the baking dish.

6. By now the potatoes should be done, or close to it. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Using a food mill or potato masher, mash the potatoes until smooth. Add the melted butter and combine. Add approximately 3/4 of the half & half to the mashed potatoes and combine. Add more half & half as necessary to achieve the desired consistency.

7. Smooth mashed potatoes over the top of the ground beef mixture. Bake for 15 minutes. If you're using an enamel baking dish, you can finish the dish under the broiler for another two minutes to achieve a slightly browned and crisp top. Don't do this if you're using a glass baking dish as the heat of the broiler can cause the glass to explode.

8. Serve with salad of your choice.

Disclosure: I received Glitterland from the publisher for review purposes. The book's editor, the book's author and I follow each other on Twitter.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Religion & Romance: a Non-Theoretical Perspective

Aside from the first romance novels consumed in utter stealth beneath my covers after midnight while still in high school, I've always been a pretty open romance reader. I mean, I'm not shy about cracking a vintage Harlequin while waiting for the bus or pulling out my Grace Burrowes at the doctor's office. My female friends have always known I read romance in addition to the fantasy and science fiction and YA that are our bigger points of reading overlap.

But when it comes to men, I'm a lot more shy. Most of the guys I play Dungeons & Dragons with don't know about my romance obsession. I'd guess they probably wouldn't be judgmental about it, but I'm not really sure. It's like our Christianity: it just doesn't come up all that often.

Speaking of my faith, it's not something that comes up terribly often here on my blog or on Twitter either. I'm more of an evangelist for Laura Kinsale than I am for Christ. But in the upcoming week I'm going to talk a bit (ha, okay, a lot) about Alexis Hall, who is a queer man writing m/m romance and I figure it might come up. Not because it seems weird to me, but because it will probably seem weird to some other people that I loved his book Glitterland so very much. People make assumptions about Christians and think it's a monolithic religion. It's not. It's so not. I have very little in common with Pat Robertson or any other conservative evangelical theologically other than a mutual belief in God.

I was raised Catholic in the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm a feminist and a political progressive and I walked away from the church at 15 over issues with the church's position on birth control and the ordination of women. I'd been reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce by then and I knew full well that there was no reason for any of the church's positions except to use traditional gender roles to reinforce traditional power structures and I didn't want any part of it.

When I wandered back to the church a few years ago, it was because even though I considered myself spiritual, I had a hard time exercising that spirituality without the structure of organized religion. But I was very, very careful not to put myself into any box that didn't mesh with my understanding of Christ's teachings, none of which involved the shunning, exclusion or persecution of sinners. Christ was much harder on the self-righteous Jewish religious and political elite than he was on the woman at the well. And I was very careful not to align myself with any group that wanted to label certain categories of people sinners while reserving the label of righteousness for themselves.

My specific theological positions are less important here than the bottom line, which is probably what you're looking for if you've gotten this far. And the bottom line is that I believe that we were put here for a higher purpose and that the purpose is for us to help each other muddle along together however we can. Because life on Earth isn't always easy or pretty and we're not fulfilling our purpose if our primary goal isn't to help each other. Also, which is a little more distinctively Christian (or at least theistic), that when I succeed in doing so I honor God. That purpose does not include leveling judgment at LGBTQ people. In fact, it excludes it. If I were told by the church that I had to, I couldn't do it. I've walked away from that twice and I'd do it again.

I don't read romance as a political or religious statement. I read it because I like stories with happy endings about people falling in love. I also don't belong to my church for political or religious reasons. I do it because life, especially life in America in the early 21st century is isolating and selfish and acquisitive and I'd rather not be like that. And so I'm a member of a community that encourages me to be otherwise. I'll be talking more specifically about Glitterland next Thursday and the following Monday, but for now, just know that in Ash I recognized myself in my brokenness and desperation and in Darian, I recognized Christ as I know Him. If I'm honest, I'm unable to process that story any other way. I can tone it down. I can use non-Christian, non-theological terms to express what I thought about it and how I felt about it. I've been doing it for a week, in fact: talking about mental illness, intellectual snobbery and class differences. But that was the intellectual taking over. The gut-level reaction was a relieved sigh: that love and redemption is offered to everyone, even the most messed up and selfish of us.

There has been a conversation this week taking place at Dear Author and a few other places about religion as texture or context for character relationships. And while I'm all for less superficiality in our examinations of work, philosophy, ethics and other cultural and contextual elements of romance, the fact is that in the best books, it's all there. We might wish for more of the best books, but that has been ever the struggle, right? There's superficial sci fi, fantasy, mystery, "literature" and every other genre. The key is relishing the good stuff where we find it and being enlightened enough to know when we have, whatever the form, for whatever our definition of enlightenment.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reawakening Peaches and Cream Jello Mold

Disclaimer: If zombies, threesomes or Jello salads make you squirm (and not in the good way), you may want to back out of this post immediately.

The book I'm discussing this week is probably one of the weirdest things I've ever read, romance or otherwise. It's by Charlotte Stein, whose work I have long enjoyed, but curiously never written about here. In general, Stein's work is on the wonky end of the romance spectrum. She often writes about self-effacing women and men with messy, complicated desires. It seems her books are mostly written from the first person perspective of the heroine, which normally drives me batty, but from her actually works for me, probably because her heroines are not given to long introspective monologues so much as they are quick jabs of humor, most often directed at themselves.

Reawakening is no different from Stein's other works really. Except that it's a ménage book. And it takes place during a zombie apocalypse. I'd read one other ménage by Stein, but at the end, it's clear that one of the characters was a temporary foil to the hero and not going to be a permanent parts of their lives. In this book, the two heroes and the heroine are, as far as we know, the last unzombified humans on earth. If they all happen to be attracted to each other and down with communal boinking, well, at least that's not the craziest thing that happens in the book. Not to say that a relationship with more than two people is crazy. It's not. It's just that in the ménage romances I'm most familiar with, the characters think they're crazy for wanting what they want and that's the extent of the romance plot. I was ecstatic to find something rather different happening here.

The great thing about this book is that even though the threesome live in relative safety on an island in the middle of a lake, they're surrounded by zombies, nearly everyone else is either dead or a zombie and they might die any time, which makes the whole problem of how to break all of this to their parents a non-issue. There are still communication gaps, but at least they're related to insecurities held by each character and not jealousy, which gets very worn once you've read more than one of this type of book.

The other facet of why I appreciated this book is that if you've watched or read any horror, the sexually active girl is almost guaranteed to get dead at some point, probably while wearing a bra and panties. Stein bats that idea around like a kitty with a woolen mouse filled with catnip. Of the three characters, June, Jaime and Blake, June has had the most personal experience defending herself against zombies. Over the course of the book, she conks one on the head with a door, another with a bottle of windshield washer fluid and shoots another zombie in the head without hesitating or flinching. She's a badass. The guys may be able to run faster and lift more and have more useful long-term survival skills like operating a generator, but June is the one you want by your side when the monsters come calling. That's not to say she's not suffering from PTSD--they all are to some degree--but she's managing pretty well with the new reality considering it never seemed like she was anything special before the zombies arrived. The title is also a play on her reawakening sexuality, which has been suppressed in a world where nakedness is dangerous and survival takes precedence over any need higher up Maslow's chain.

Between the slight scariness that kept me on edge the whole book (even during the sexytimes, when I still couldn't quite forget the threat of danger), the m/m/f loving and the self-deprecating voice of a formerly overweight heroine with confidence struggles, a lot of people might not pick this one up and that would be a mistake. While each of these things has annoyed me in the hands of lesser writers, Stein pulls the reader into this world where all the rules are gone and three people who love each other get to remake it in their image. It's uplifting, in the end, leaving the reader hopeful that through their kindness, competence and love for each other, they can find other survivors and build up a world that's maybe a little better than what existed before. I thought it was delightful.

Practically the first thing June eats once she has been rescued by the heroes is canned peaches, which seem like a total luxury to her. Makes sense since she's been chased by zombies for the past two years. Luckily, it made it easy to know exactly what I would make if I could get through the book without freaking out. Because if canned peaches survive the zombie apocalypse, you just know that Jello does.

This recipe is totally zombie apocalypse friendly. The ingredients are all canned or otherwise securely packaged. It involves no fresh food at all. The water is all boiled and even the peach schnapps are pretty indestructible. Schnapps are basically flavored sugar water with 15% alcohol. It actually made me wonder why the heroine was sad about Budweiser. Hard alcohol lasts forever! Surely there was a liquor store to knock over somewhere. Though sad hero in the shower with a beer is a more likely picture than sad hero in the shower with a Fuzzy Navel, which is the only thing I can ever recall doing with peach schnapps besides this Jello and the ice cream I made a couple months ago.

This actually wasn't my favorite thing I've ever made, but even for non-fans of Jello molds, both my husband and I ate it and thought it was okay. If you're a huge Jello salad fan (and I know you're out there), this is probably epic.

Lucky for me, someone else already did the heavy lifting on this recipe, which is why you're getting blather instead of serious recipes tips. The one bit of advice I have is that Jello molds are readily available in American thrift stores if you don't already own one or two or three. The aluminum ones are apparently better than the plastic ones, which makes sense because they'll cool down faster. I got lucky and found the exact same mold the recipe writer was using, but any 9 cup mold will work. Otherwise you'll have to do math. Plus the original recipe didn't say anything about timing so I've adjusted it here to include how long the various layers need to be in the fridge. Definitely visit the above link as there are a number of excellent tips there that I am not reprinting here.

Plus, it's seriously pretty, especially for post-zombie apocalypse food.

Peaches and Cream Jello Mold
lightly adapted from The Kitchn
Makes: 12-16 servings, depending on serving size
Time: 5-6 hours (hands on time: 30 minutes)

2 (3 oz) packages of peach flavored Jello
3 1/2 cups boiling water, divided
1 1/4 cups cold water, divided
3/4 cup peach schnapps (or substitute cold water for non-alcoholic version)
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (15 oz) can sliced peaches in syrup (mine was 29 ounces in juice, which I don't recommend)
2 envelopes Knox unflavored gelatin

1. In a medium bowl, stir 2 cups boiling water into both packages of peach gelatin for 2 minutes until the gelatin is fully dissolved. Stir in 3/4 cups cold water and 3/4 cup peach schnapps. Refrigerate until gelatin thickens to the consistency of raw eggs, about 30-45 minutes.

2. Drain peaches well and arrange them in a formation in the bottom of the mold. Reserve the syrup from the can. Spoon the thickened peach gelatin into the mold over the arranged peach slices. Refrigerate until the gelatin is set but not firm (gelatin should stick the fingers when touched), about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, sprinkle 2 packages of unflavored gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water and allow the gelatin to absorb the water. Stir in 1 1/2 cups boiling water for 2 minutes until gelatin is fully dissolved. Stir in sweetened condensed milk and peach syrup until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate mixture until slightly thickened (about 30-45 minutes--can be done while the bottom layer firms) then gently spoon into the mold over the peach gelatin layer. Refrigerate overnight or until firm, about 4 hours.

4. To unmold your Jello mold, fill a sink or basin with warm water. Dip the mold just to the rim in the warm water for about 10 seconds. Lift from water, hold upright, and shake slightly to loosen the gelatin from mold. Place a cold, moistened plate over the top of the mold and invert the plate and mold together. Carefully lift the mold, if gelatin does not release dip the mold in warm water and try again.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Afternoon Delight Chocolate-Chile Lava Cakes

When I first heard about Anne Calhoun's Afternoon Delight (out tomorrow) on Twitter a few months ago, I was super eager to read it just based on a single phrase: food truck. I've read several of Calhoun's books and she has never disappointed. Add in a heroine with a food truck and a sexy paramedic hero and I was beyond sold.

Tim is a New York City paramedic, drawn to the adrenaline and speed of the job, hardly pausing even to taste the food he wolfs down between calls and definitely not slowing down enough to develop anything like a relationship with anyone. Sarah is a recent transplant to the city and feeling ambivalent about it. She's from San Francisco, which is equally cosmopolitan, but paced differently than New York. Having been born in San Francisco and spent several years shuttling between New York and DC while dating a guy who lived there, I could definitely relate. New York's energy is like nothing else and the city's charms and faults have been thoroughly captured in this book.

While Tim is a New York native, Sarah has moved in order to help her friend start a food truck business with a lunch-focused menu called Symbowl. When Tim and Sarah meet, it's because she has just watched him bolt a hotdog without even tasting it. She and her friend haven't quite gotten the menu right yet so Sarah steps out of the truck to have him taste her latest creation, a spicy sauce for their versatile bean and rice bowls. And boy do things get hot from there. It's also what inspired me to infuse the chocolate lava cake I'm featuring here with chiles, even though the one Sarah makes for Tim in the book is a more traditional take.

Tim and Sarah then embark on a creative erotic adventure full of unconventional sexy games of chastity and denial. Though this isn't a dominance and submission type book, Sarah is confident and bossy, knowing exactly how far and how fast she can push Tim, winning each sexual challenge she issues easily. Tim, not accustomed to being kept so off-balance, tries to win back some of his own, but it's almost too late. In his quest to remain cool and aloof, he nearly loses his chance with Sarah, who it's clear is the best thing to happen to him in forever.

Afternoon Delight is an unusual and interesting read, not just for the food, which I anticipated would be fun for me, but also for the games Sarah and Tim engage in. I read an awful lot of erotic romance and I haven't read anything like this. There's just the right amount of heat and angst and ups and downs to this relationship, making for a very enjoyable read.

Chocolate lava cakes are one of those things that people often see in restaurants and assume would be terribly difficult to make at home. That's not really the case despite the fact that if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I had a bit of trouble with these last week. Take my word for it though, it was all user error. This is a simple and impressive dessert that will have guests wishing for more than just a single serving.

There are two ways to make chocolate lava cakes (also sometimes called molten chocolate cakes). The first is to underbake the batter. But with undercooked egg involved, it's not really the safest choice. It's also not the most delicious choice. The second way to make these is to use frozen chocolate ganache in the center. The advantage of this option is that you can flavor the centers any way you want, either by infusing the milk, which is what I've done here with chiles and cinnamon, or adding extracts or other flavorings to the ganache. Basically any truffle filling you can imagine can also go in the center of these cakes.

There is really just one tricky spot in the recipe--folding the egg whites and flour into the chocolate mixture. It's very important to do it by hand and not to use a mixer, which will overbeat the batter and deflate the egg whites completely. Since there is no other leavener in this batter, it's important to keep the egg whites fluffy. This is the first time I've tried doing a video, but I've included one below so you can see the folding motion I use to incorporate the egg whites. And you can hear my voice! Which is weird. But there you go.

Finally, despite the fact that in the book, Sarah has Tim take home and reheat the leftover cakes, it's not something that works very well with these. I'd recommend serving them immediately out of the oven after cooling for five minutes. They can't really be made ahead or they will deflate and the ganache centers will become less liquid, eventually soaking into the batter around them.

But it's not a bad price to pay for something so decadent and delicious!

Chocolate-Chile Lava Cakes
Makes: 6 servings
Time: approximately 5 hours (hands on time: 45 minutes)

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 dried arbol chiles (or other dried red chile with Scoville rating of 15,000-30,000) + more for garnish (if desired)
1 cinnamon stick
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 teaspoons instant coffee powder
1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon softened butter (for ramekins)

3/4 cup + 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, sifted
1/8 teaspoon salt

3 egg yolks, 4 egg whites, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon white sugar, separated

2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar + more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the cream, 2 chiles and cinnamon stick over medium heat until bubbles just form on the surface. Remove from heat, cover and allow to steep for 30 minutes.

2. Once cream is done steeping, strain out chiles, cinnamon stick and any loose chile seeds and heat again until candy thermometer reads 120 degrees. Place chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl and pour cream over. Allow to sit for 10 minutes, then stir until all chocolate is melted. Refrigerate for 1 hour until ganache solidifies into a scoopable consistency.

3. Prepare a cookie tray covered with aluminum foil. Using a melon baller or small cookie scoop, scoop out 12 ganache balls, approximately 1" to 1 1/4" in diameter. Place on prepared cookie tray, cover tightly with plastic wrap and freeze until solid, approximately 3-4 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare six ramekins by thoroughly coating with softened butter. Set the ramekins on a cookie tray. Heat chocolate, coffee powder and water over low heat until chocolate is melted. Whisk to combine and remove from heat to cool slightly.

5. Thoroughly combine flour and salt and sift into a bowl. Set aside. Using a stand mixer or electric beaters, beat the egg yolks until lightened in color. Add 1/2 cup sugar and beat until combined. Add the vanilla extract and whisk together. Pour the chocolate mixture into the egg yolk mixture and whisk thoroughly. Remove from stand mixer.

6. Using electric beaters, beat egg whites and remaining tablespoon of sugar until stiff peaks form. Adding one-third of the egg whites and one third of the flour to the chocolate and egg yolk mixture, fold gently until combined. Repeat until all flour and all egg whites have been added to the chocolate mixture. Try not to deflate the egg whites as you fold as this is what will provide the lift to the finished cakes.

7. Remove ganache from freezer. Fill the ramekins half full with batter. Add a ganache ball to each ramekin and cover with remaining batter. Ramekins will be fairly full.

8. Bake for 15-17 minutes until the cakes are puffed about half an inch above the surface of the ramekins. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

9. While the cakes cool, make the whipped cream. Combine the heavy whipping cream, powdered sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and whip until stiff. Plate the cakes with a dusting of powdered sugar and either scooped or piped whipped cream.

Disclosure: I received Afternoon Delight from NetGalley for review purposes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

My Kitchen Rules

I have some rules for my kitchen. I mean, I guess not every cook is like this, but all the serious home cooks I know have pretty much the same ones. It's pretty funny how similar we are actually. The reason I mention this is that sometimes I read books about chefs and, well, side-eye them. Because sometimes it's pretty obvious that the writer has never cooked before and the book was edited by someone who maybe doesn't even have a kitchen. But rather than go all rantypants about it, I figured I'd just list out some of the very common, very normal rules I have for my kitchen. If you don't cook, you'll probably think that I'm crazy and obsessive. That's because I am.

1. Don't start cooking unless the kitchen is clean.

Yes, I have multiples of everything including sets of bowls, measuring spoons, pans and beaters, but unless I (or, more commonly, my husband) wash them right away, it's very difficult for me to get down to any kind of serious kitchen work. This is not helped by the fact that we have a galley kitchen with limited counter space, but even with people who have lots more space than I do, this is a very common rule. Cooks don't leave sinks full of dishes lying around. It's too much of a hassle.

2. Don't touch me when I'm cooking.

I guess some people have fantasies about their significant other nuzzling their neck while they stir a pot. However, I usually have at least two burners, my stand mixer and the oven on whenever I'm cooking and that takes concentration. So unless you want me to burn my caramel, walk into you with a pot of hot sugar and egg whites or bang you on the knee with the oven door, just stay out of my way. Unless I'm making nothing more complicated than tea. Then you may nuzzle.

3. Never, ever run out of butter, sugar, eggs, flour or any herbs or spices.

At any given time, I have 10 pounds of all-purpose flour, 10 pounds of white sugar, 2 dozen eggs, 4 pounds of unsalted butter and back-ups of every commonly used herb or spice in my kitchen. Serious bakers do not run out of butter mid-recipe. Having less than a pound in the fridge triggers anxiety attacks. I might not have the exact ingredients I need for making something exotic, but I can always, always make pancakes, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta with red or white sauce and chocolate chip cookies. Always.

4. Do not stick your finger in my pot.

I don't care how good it smells. If you stick your finger in my pot, you don't get any. First, it's unsanitary. Second, it's not done yet and you don't know enough to be able to tell how it's going to taste when it's finished. Third, there are a dozen tasting spoons sitting right by the stove. If you absolutely cannot refrain from entering my kitchen and tasting what I'm cooking, use a spoon. And not the one I'm stirring with! I'll hit you with it! And then I'll make you wash it.

5. No sex in my kitchen.

Counters are covered in crumbs and sticky goo. Stovetops and ovens are hot. Ingredients are in the way. Small appliances with sharp parts and heavy bases do not like falling off counters. Projects will burn. Stuff will spill. You'll get a yeast infection. So no. No sex in the kitchen. Use the dining room table if you must.

6. No, you can't help.

I know you mean well, but you can't help me. Sit down, have a drink, eat the snack I will have inevitably provided. I'll feel like I have to give you a job and you won't do it right and you'll be in the way and I'll just get annoyed. So yeah. Sit. If I want you to taste something or give you a beater or spoon to lick, I'll bring it to you.

7. Don't lie to me.

If I ask you how something is, do not lie to me. I want to know if you love it. I want to know if you think something is bland or missing. If I tell you something is missing, don't try to reassure me that it isn't. I really do know! And then next time you have whatever it was and I tell you I've perfected it, you will inevitably agree with me that it really is better this time. So just trust me and help me out. I don't want your reassurances. I want your criticism.

So if I've come down hard on a kitchen-y book, these are some of the reasons why. That said, I love romances involving food. In fact, I'm reviewing one on Monday, Anne Calhoun's Afternoon Delight. I loved it. She didn't violate my rules.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Private Politics Ben's Chili Bowl Copy-Cat Chili Dogs

[Elisabeth here. I gushed so effusively about Liam, the hero of Emma Barry's latest DC-set romance, that my husband pestered me until I let him read it. I asked if he had any thoughts he wanted to include in my review. As it turned out, he had lots of thoughts. So I just let him write it. I'll pick back up with the recipe after his thoughts about the book.]

If you had told me two years ago that I would be an avid reader of romance novels, I would very likely not have believed you. And if you had told me, right after Elisabeth persuaded me to start reading my first romance novel (for the record, Hard Day’s Knight by Katie MacAlister) that I would be writing a romance novel review for her blog, I would have definitely been skeptical. But my wife knows me well, sometimes better than I know myself. She knows that I like a good story, even though I wasn’t much of a fiction reader when we first met. To borrow a phrase from the Most Interesting Man in the World, I don’t often read fiction, but when I do, I demand good stories and fully-rounded characters. The romances Elisabeth has steered me towards definitely meet that criteria, and today’s review, Private Politics by Emma Barry, is no exception.

Private Politics is the second of a series of romances by Barry set in contemporary Washington, DC, but it can be read as a stand-alone. The heroine, Alyse Philips, is the daughter of a wealthy New York City family who is forging her own path in DC as the star fundraiser for a non-profit. She wants to do something with her life that she finds meaningful instead of the plans she suspects her family has for her (move back to NYC, settle down with an ambitious up-and-comer alpha male, and follow the typical socialite life). But her plans start to go awry when she discovers some suspicious discrepancies in the charity’s books during an annual audit. Torn between protecting her perceived reputation (including her prospects for continued DC employment and therefore independence from her family) and the growing doubts about the legality of her current employer, she ends up working with Liam Nussbaum to get to the bottom of things.

Liam is a political blogger and budding investigative journalist. He’s an acquaintance of Alyse’s, and has been nursing a crush on her for six months. However, he considers her unattainable – she’s beautiful, successful, and desirable, all qualities he believes he lacks. From the beginning of his involvement with Alyse’s problem, Liam is torn between his natural desire to help her and help set things right, and his struggle to hide his growing desire for her. As the case gets deeper, and Liam and Alyse get more involved with the scandal and each other, she starts to key into Liam’s better qualities – his honesty, his enthusiasm, his political street-smarts – and begins to develop a crush on him as well. At which point… well, I won’t spoil the details, but it’s a romance novel. You can work out the end results.

So what made this book in particular so intriguing to me – enough so that I agreed without hesitation to write this review? First, I immediately related to Liam. He’s definitely not your typical Fabio-body-Greek-tycoon-expense-account-Casanova-charm mutant hero found in many romance novels. (Or so I’m told – Elisabeth has fed me on a steady diet of novels with quirky heroes). But he’s probably the character who has come closest thus far to being someone like me in real life – someone who doesn’t have six-pack abs, isn’t rich, and is actually somewhat in awe of the lady love of his life. I got his point of view immediately, even the bad parts (he wavers between holding himself aloof from Alyse to doing the emotional dump truck on her and back again). Which brings me to the second point – the sexual relationship between them looks (and reads) real to me. They don’t immediately go from zero to mutually-assured-simultaneous orgasms. Their first encounters are, well, messy, and it takes them some time (and conflicts) to work through that. Third, the tension ran right up to the end of the book. In fact, the conflicts in Private Politics were painful enough for me to have to take short breaks afterwards to reorient myself, but in this case it didn’t seem too forced. The final resolution fit quite well with who Liam and Alyse are shown to be in the story – and being able to craft a story that honors the personalities of the characters is a great thing.

In short, I liked Private Politics very much, and heartily recommend it. So I guess, counter to all of my prior expectations, I am a romance reviewer after all. But there is one thing I am NOT, and that is a first-class chef. So for the food porn side of the post, I will turn things back over to my lovely Elisabeth.

Hi! Elisabeth again! That was fun, huh? I can't promise you'll see him a lot, but I thought his perspective on this one was even better than mine. I also really loved the book. I've been gushing about it to anyone who would listen, actually. But to get to the recipe, before three weeks ago, I hadn’t eaten at Ben’s Chili Bowl in 10 years. It’s one of those things you do a lot in your 20s when you live in DC, but eventually you get a decent apartment with a good kitchen and you stop going out drinking five nights a week. However, thanks to this review, the staff at the new Arlington location now know me on sight. I’ve eaten there four times in two weeks.

The process behind coming up with this recipe was completely whackadoodle in case you hadn’t figured that out already. I'm obsessive and this recipe played right into that. I Googled around, hoping that someone had come up with a reasonable approximation for the chili sauce Ben’s serves on their half-smokes. I was kind of surprised when most of what I found didn’t seem to match what I was seeing and tasting. But then, I’m really not an expert at this restaurant copy-cat recipe stuff. So what you’re getting here is my best guess.

As for what I ended up with, for one thing, half-smokes are not hot dogs. They’re half beef, half pork smoked sausages. I don’t know if they’re seriously a DC thing or what, but I had to go all the way to Eastern Market to find them as my local Northern Virginia butchers were completely unhelpful. German sausages? Oh yeah. Eight types. Half-smokes? Nope. But I bet if you ask your local butcher for some kind of smoked sausage, you’ll be happy enough with the result.

Most chili consists of some combination of beef, tomato product, beef stock, chili powder, onions, garlic and other spices. My normal everyday chili has actually already made an appearance here on the blog for Molly O’Keefe’s Never Been Kissed. But the Ben’s Chili Bowl chili sauce doesn’t have beans in it. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have anything healthy in it at all. I’m pretty sure the onions are of the dried sort, the garlic is likely garlic powder and the 80/20 ground beef really isn’t optional. What the recipes I found online did get me was the addition of masa harina, which is a cornmeal product used to make corn tortillas. There’s definitely something corn-related in it because I can taste it and rubbing the sauce around on a plate yielded some undissolved lumps of it. Most grocery stores have it in the Latin American section, but if yours doesn’t, I suppose you could try using fine ground cornmeal?

As for the rest, I used this Youtube video as a jumping off point and then guessed and tasted, and tasted and guessed from there. I honestly think I came up with a pretty reasonable approximation as I tasted my version and Ben's side-by-side. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty flavorful chili sauce, so even if it isn’t exact, it should make a decent dinner.

And when Alyse and Liam grow up, they can move out to the suburbs and make it at home instead of having to drive all the way into the city (well, except to buy the damned half-smokes).

Ben's Chili Bowl Half-Smokes with Chili Sauce
adapted from Tom's Test Kitchen
Serves: 6 reasonably, 4 obnoxiously

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons dehydrated onion
2 teaspoons beef bouillon powder
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon red curry powder

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons masa harina

1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 cups water, divided
1 pound ground beef (80/20)
sea salt to taste

6 mild half-smokes
6 white hot dog buns
French's yellow mustard
1 small onion, chopped

1. Mix the first 10 ingredients together in a bowl. Whisk in 1 cup water, making sure all the spices are evenly distributed and there are no lumps.

2. Put the ground beef in a pot with remaining 2 cups water. Stir the beef and water to break up the beef into very fine bits. You don’t want any ground beef chunks. Bring to a boil.

3. Add the spice mixture, bay leaf and tomato paste, stir to combine well. Turn down the heat to low and simmer [4/25/15: uncovered] for 60-70 minutes or until chili sauce is still loose, but not liquidy with unabsorbed water. Adjust salt to taste, keeping in mind that the half-smokes are pretty salty on their own. I didn't add any additional salt.

4. With about 15 minutes left in the cooking time, put your half-smokes on the grill. I don’t have a grill so I do what I usually do with sausage, which is to put the half-smokes in a frying pan on the stove with about 1/4 inch of water in it over medium-high heat. Cover and allow to steam for 5 minutes. Remove cover for remaining 10 minutes, allowing the water to boil off and the sausage to brown, turning once. They should be black on two sides when ready to serve.

5. Place a hot dog bun on plate. Add one sausage, about a tablespoon of chopped onion, a drizzle of plain yellow mustard and about half a cup of chili sauce. It will be very messy. Serve with ridged potato chips for scooping up extra chili sauce that falls out.

Disclosure: Private Politics was given to me by the author for review purposes. The author and I also have a friendly relationship on Twitter.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Man and the Hero

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the Romancelandia blogosphere about Alpha Males and Beta Males and Theta Males and Gamma Males. Am I missing any Greek letters there? And while I understand the marketing reasoning behind each of these category distinctions (especially for those of us who read romance for the heroes and have specific preferences), I have a hard time drawing such hard distinctions in real life men. And probably not coincidentally, the books I love best also seem to have trouble making those hard distinctions.

The man I know best, of course, is my husband and I really don't know how to categorize him according to a romance novel character distinction. In general, he's an easy-going guy. Pretty much the most easy-going guy I've ever known. He's affectionate, attentive, caring and responsible. But put him between a bully and a victim and he's pretty fierce. He also reads romance and his take on the heroes is pretty interesting. In fact, he wrote the review portion for next Monday's review of Emma Barry's new book Private Politics so that should be interesting. The only editing I did was for typos and editorial style (though I still wrote the recipe part).

Looking back in my dating past, most of the guys I dated were similarly not easily categorized. Even among those who were military (and there were quite a few of those, living as I do in the DC area), bouncers, cowboys, motorcycle riders or other similarly Alpha-sounding types, there was really only one true Alpha in the bunch. That may say more about me and the guys I chose than the guys themselves, of course. Even people I only know casually have observed that I don't seem like the kind of girl one could trod upon. But my own personal Alpha and I were the longest relationship I had before I met my husband. He was a cowboy-pilot-motorcycler who once literally put his body between me and danger. He also made my lunch every day before I left for work and loved shopping for clothes with me. I'm just not sure how that fits into most romance novel conceptions of the Alpha.

A really good example of a book I love best is Unbound by Cara McKenna. Rob, the hero of that book, at first appears to be the quintessential Alpha backwoods warrior. He's gruff, speaks little, chops wood, shoots arrows, fishes and lives off the land. In his previous life, he was a hard-charging Type-A bar owner capable of endless amounts of seduction. But he has a whole different side that he keeps hidden from the world, the heroine and even himself as much as possible. What interests me most about Unbound is just how much damage the Alpha-Beta false dichotomy has wrought in Rob, who felt forced to turn to alcohol and, subsequently, complete withdrawal from society in order to function. It's something that a lot of modern men seem to have experienced, if not to that extreme degree.

Yes, I know romance novels are all fiction. I just worry sometimes (even independent of my husband's reading, which does put a whole different spin on things) about that whole Alpha-Beta spectrum as an essentially patriarchal tool. Even without knowing the specific views of the researchers on the wolf studies in the 1950s that yielded the language we now use, whether male or female, there were certain assumptions about gender roles underlying work undertaken in that time period. Alpha meant in charge, a leader, an enforcer. Beta meant access to inferior or no mates, secondary access to food and a constant struggle to attain Alpha status. That whole paradigm assigns value to Alpha status. Plus the way the Beta distinction as it is now used by the PUA (pick-up artist) and men's rights communities seems to enforce that idea. The only greater insult than calling a man a Beta is calling him feminized or referring to him as a woman.

I have written about romance novels and the romance fandom being a safe space for me, as free from the pressures of patriarchal conventions as I can make it. It's largely free of male bias. Authors, editors, bloggers and reviewers of romance are nearly all female. I'm incensed when a book I read (ahem, Skye Jordan) or an article like that stupid Vice one about fisting intrudes into that safe space. It's tempting for me to say, well, romance isn't for men; it's for women. And it's one of the very few things that is. Who cares about how men are portrayed in romance when the rest of the world cares so little about how women are portrayed in everything else?

So why can't my brain just leave this idea well enough alone?
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