Sunday, May 31, 2015

Possession, 1979 Harlequin Romance #2U5S


Possession, a 1979 Harlequin Presents by Charlotte Lamb, is similar in some ways and different in others from last's week's 1979 Harlequin Romance, Sea Lightning. We still have an overbearing hero with a little too much confidence in his personal allure. He is in a position of authority over the heroine (actually her boss...again). He's ridiculously sexist and assumes the heroine is available to him sexually because of her behavior with other men and her attractiveness. If you read last week's post, this probably all sounds familiar.

But we've changed lines now from Harlequin Romance to Harlequin Presents. And Possession, trope-wise, winds up in the arranged marriage/marriage of convenience lane rather than the enemies-to-lovers of Sea Lightning. This seems to be an important distinction in early Harlequins. It raises the possibility of married-people sex, which given the time frame and publisher conservatism at Harlequin in this era, seems infinitely more acceptable than pre-marital sex.

And married people sex is what we get in Possession. While hero Dan Harland and heroine Laura Belsize are not yet quite in love, they do get married and have explicit sexual relations. Now, when I say "explicit" I don't mean the pumping and gasping of today's erotic romance. But it's also a far cry from punishing kisses, a breast grope and a fade-to-black. We'll get to all that in a minute though as it happens about two-thirds of the way through the book.

First, one place where I'm starting to notice a divergence in the way physical intimacy is portrayed in these older categories is in the characters' experiences with people not their potential partners. These days, it seems like neither hero nor heroine is permitted any kind of sexual contact with a different character, while in the older books, I'm not sure I've read one yet that didn't have some element of a love triangle involving at least kissing. In Possession, we get several such relationships. On page 9:

When they returned that night it was almost three in the morning. Max opened the flat door for her and then kissed her hard for a long time, his mouth warm and expert on her own.

'Renata will wake up ... no, goodnight ...'

Reluctantly he kissed her again and walked away, and she closed the door, leaning against it, laughing softly under her breath, because it really had been the most wonderful evening.

So not only does Max, a relatively minor suitor, get to kiss the heroine, the implication is that she likes it. It's "warm and expert". And so in addition to the ratcheting up of sexual content from the Harlequin Romance from last week, in this Presents from the same year, we also get a total absence of guilt. Finally, when the heroine says stop, this guy Max actually stops. He's "reluctant" but he abides by her wishes. We might assume from this that the Presents heroine has a bit more agency with regard to sexual matters?

Well, not quite. As the story progresses, it comes out that hero Dan has virtually taken over Laura's family business. Laura's ne'er-do-well father Jimmy has been in an accident and her grandfather is old and becoming frail. Despite Laura's modern, career-girl notions, her grandfather appears to think that she is too young to take over the business and appoints Dan as trustee. If he could appoint Dan as her husband, he'd do that too and eventually the desire to please her grandfather drives her to agree to wed him. Her father is also pushing her into marriage because it allows her to keep an eye on "the enemy" since he is certain his father wants to cut him out of the business entirely. The daughter is basically sold into marriage to secure the family's business, if not entirely against her will, then certainly against her inclination.

And that brings us to another interesting element of Possession: Laura's disinclination to marry. We are told that she has "a positive phobia about possessive relationships" and "liked to be fancy free, not tied down" (page 51). There are several other instances of Laura thinking or saying similar things and it emerges as the main stumbling block to a relationship in the novel.

We still don't have the hero's perspective here, but a reader familiar with the trajectory of these category romances will pick up on the fact that the hero is emotionally committed long before the heroine. This exchange from page 87 hints at what I mean:

'Arrogant, ambitious men usually get their comeuppance,' she said, turning away.

He followed her over the stony ground. 'And usually at the hands of an even more ruthless woman,' he suggested.

Doesn't that just read like poetry? In the confined space of the best category romances, every word has to mean something and this passage has her turning away and him following her over rough terrain while admitting the power she has over him. The book it put me most in mind of is actually Gone With the Wind: where the hero, reluctant to show his soft underbelly to a fearsomely confident, flirtatious heroine, resorts to sardonic wit and their magnetic attraction to eventually win her. Of course, he's more successful at it than Rhett Butler was.

When Laura's grandfather takes a turn for the worse and her father falls in love a woman who has been nursing him after his accident, Laura finally agrees to marry Dan and they go on their honeymoon. It's here where they eventually fall into bed on page 139.

'I'm not going back to England until you're my wife in every sense of the word,' he said thickly.

Her eyes widened. 'Marcus needs you ... the firm ...'

'Damn the firm,' he snapped, his features harsh. The grey eyes flickered over her hungrily. 'I've played a waiting game for months, but I'm not waiting another day, Laura. I want you, and you're going to let me make love to you before you leave this room again.'

The fierce determination in his voice left her helpless. She weakly closed her eyes. He lay watching her without moving for a few moments, then his hands moved down, slowly touching her, running down over her body smoothly, stroking and caressing. She abandoned thought of everything but the sweetness of the sensations his hands were arousing in her. [...] He drew away and bent to kiss her breast and she buried her face in his throat, kissing it hotly, moaning incoherently, a piercing tension in her body, aching along her taut bones, a frenzy singing in her blood.

The passage goes on for another five pages, alternating between description and Laura's revelations about what this might mean for her and Dan. And while she does say no at three points, the scene plays more like dubious consent than non-consent. Though the point where Dan calls Laura a  frigid bitch is a particularly low one. That said, her nos seem more emotional than physical in context.

That would not have mattered so much since she admitted grimly that she wanted him, too, that he was not going to take a thing she did not want to give him, but in that very fact lay the seed of her fear and panic. [...] She was afraid of her own desperate need for love.

Laura begins to worry that she could care for Dan and, musing on her lonely childhood, recalls the lesson that it's dangerous to care for anyone--that caring results in "rejection, humiliation, pain" (page 143). Now, in a real life encounter, Dan would have clearly stepped over the line. Frankly, anyone who called me a frigid bitch would not be getting into my pants. But within the context of their relationship, the scene, and the childhood backstory IN THE MIDDLE OF THEIR SEXUAL ENCOUNTER, I'm not so sure. The resulting climaxes and denouement are actually tender (page 144).

She fell into a silence, a warm, lazy, languid ease which was like the peace of a summer's day. Dan's head dropped on her body, his breathing slowing, his heart settling to a quieter pace. His hands stroked her body gently. She lay, eyes closed, her arms around his neck, feeling the tension, the panic, drain out of her toes.

Of course, their bliss is short-lived. Dan thanks her for their encounter and she reacts poorly, setting the stage for a third act where both feel betrayed before coming back together again.

Possession was an interesting read for me, mainly because it's the first category sex I've read for this survey (and, not so incidentally, signals a need to back up and read some earlier works), but also because it's the heroine holding up the loving-and-caring show, not the hero. If it's possible to show a hero in hot pursuit without being inside his head, that's what we've got here. It also exposed some of my assumptions about what sexual content in a book this early would look like: that it would involve more love and less direct language. Wrong. Though the couple being already married didn't surprise me at all.

Next week, I tackle Sara Craven's Harlequin Presents Flame of Diablo, which Jenny Haddon suggested might be the first Mills & Boon sex scene. Like Possession, it was published by M&B
 in 1979, but it's actually later by Harlequin reckoning: 1980. So it will be interesting to see whether 1979 was just a turning point or whether I really do need to go back further to see the advent of sex scenes that aren't almost impenetrably vague.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Guest Post: Food & Romance at Read a Romance Month



I'm guest posting over at Read a Romance Month's blog today, sharing some thoughts on food and romance, plus trying out a recipe from Brenda Novak's new cookbook to raise funds for the American Diabetes Association. I made the crepes from the book and they turned out great. I also got a sneak peek at the rest of the cookbook and all the recipes look really good. Plus, it's for a good cause and there's a giveaway of a couple of my favorite foodie romances, including Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner and Alexis Hall's latest, For Real. 


And just to entice you to go read the post, I'm including a bonus recipe here. Brenda suggested filling the crepes with fruit or goat cheese and blackberry jam. But I happened to have some whipping cream left over from another recipe so I decided to see if I could make goat cheese whipped cream. Doesn't that sound good? Turns out...it is good. Really good. Good enough that I pretty much think that breakfast should always include honeyed goat cheese whipped cream. And fresh farmer's market strawberries.

Pretty please?

Honeyed Goat Cheese Whipped Cream
Makes: 6 servings
Difficulty: Intermediate

4 ounces soft goat cheese, room temperature (very important--goat cheese cannot be too cold or the whipped cream will separate)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 teaspoons honey

1. In a medium bowl, combine goat cheese, powdered sugar, honey and 1/4 cup of the whipping cream. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed until smooth. Add the remaining whipping cream and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.

2. Serve with crepes or french toast for breakfast or with crepes and fresh berries for a light spring dessert.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Into the Shadows Bourbon Chocolate Milkshakes


So this is a secret baby book. I hate secret baby books. HATE. I hate them so much that my review policies caution people against sending them to me.

Except...I loved this secret baby book.

Into the Shadows, the third book in Carolyn Crane's Undercover Associates series, features undercover Associate Thorne, who isn't really an official part of the group. He's a self-contained unit, tasked with taking down a large criminal syndicate and the highly placed government officials shielding it, from the inside. Vengeance for his sister's murder years before is what drives him and he's spent years getting to a place where he can kill the last guy involved in her death. Heroine Nadia is the daughter of Thorne's former boss, who died two years before. While Thorne was working for Nadia's dad the two of them were an item and unbeknownst to Thorne, Nadia got pregnant shortly before they broke up. Fast forward to the present and their son, Benny, is almost two years old.

The major reason I loved this book is Thorne. Thus far, the Associates books have worked well for me largely because of the heroines. And Nadia is terrific. She's fierce, protective and smart. She has her own goals that have nothing to do with the hero. In fact, she never expected to see him again. She was heartbroken when he left, but she has gone on with her life and I loved her for it. But it's tortured, messed up Thorne who made this book for me. He thinks he's a bad guy, a thug and unworthy of love. He doesn't trust anyone. He can't take a compliment. Both he and Nadia think he'd be a terrible father. The only reason he and Nadia ever got together in the first place is that she told him to fuck off. And while Nadia has some of her own demons to slay, it's Thorne's emotional journey toward being able to accept the love and intimacy Nadia offers that made this story so gripping for me.

Previous stories in this series have been quite epic. In general, the protagonists have been saving the world, or at least a bunch of innocents, from certain destruction. Into the Shadows is a much more personal, intimate, family-oriented plot. Thorne's issues stem largely from his dysfunctional childhood. Nadia's wasn't much better. And the two of them have to band together to save both Nadia's mother and their son. The result is a poignant, closely-written, emotional book. Honestly, I had no idea romantic suspense could be this good.

So if you aren't reading the Associates series, you should start, even if you're not that into romantic suspense. Maybe not with this one since you'll have more background on the secondary characters if you read them in order (and the fourth book just came out this week), but yeah. Start today.


The connection between bourbon chocolate milkshakes and Into the Shadows will probably not be apparent to anyone but me. But there are several key scenes involving whiskey and one right at the very end of the book involving some ice cream.


So I'll just say this: what are milkshakes but ice cream that has been melted strategically?

This recipe couldn't be easier. Just put everything in a blender and blend until smooth. The only bit of advice I have is that actually, the quality of the ice cream seems to be more important than the quality of the bourbon. Though I used pretty good bourbon here because I just don't really buy bad bourbon. This isn't the time to go generic on the ice cream though. You want the creamy richness of premium chocolate ice cream. I've found that if I use the cheap stuff it just takes more of it to get the consistency right because it has more air whipped in. So yeah. Häagen-Dazs or your favorite local artisan brand is the way to go.


Oh, and try not to fall over when you drink this much alcohol and sugar through a straw.

Bourbon Chocolate Milkshakes
Makes: 2 16-oz shakes
Difficulty: Easy

4 ounces bourbon
4 ounces chocolate syrup
3 1/2 cups good quality chocolate ice cream

1. Put all the ingredients in a blender. Blend on low speed for 15-30 seconds. Pour into glasses.

Disclosure: I am friendly with Carolyn Crane on Twitter and often receive ARCs from her, but I purchased Into the Shadows myself.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sea Lightning, 1979 Harlequin Romance #2U5S



So if you read yesterday's post on my Utterly Unscientific Summer Saturday Series Sex Survey, you know that today I'm going to be writing about Sea Lightning by Linda Harrel, a Harlequin Romance published in 1980, but originally put out by Mills & Boon in 1979. One note: when I say Harlequin Romance, I'm referring to the specific line at Harlequin, not a general term for romances or even a general term for Harlequins. Throughout this survey, if it's capitalized, it's the name of the line.

First, a little bit about Harlequin. I'm no kind of expert, but here's what I've been able to garner from Wikipedia and various romance bloggers. While Harlequin as a company started in 1949, their partnership with Mills & Boon, a British publisher of romance novels, didn't start until 1957. My understanding is that Mary Bonnycastle, the chief editor at Harlequin, had a real resistance to printing the more sexually explicit material found in some Mills & Boon titles and would reject reprinting books that didn't meet her decency standards. Here's what I don't know: how long did that control last? And what lines did it cover? I've got a hold on Pamela Regis' book A Natural History of the Romance Novel at the library, but it hasn't come in yet. I have to get the Joseph McAleer Mills & Boon history from interlibrary loan so that will likely take longer.

My personal experience with the Harlequin Romance line has been mostly kissing with the occasional breast grope all the way up through the late 1970s. The Harlequin Presents line, which started in 1973, I understand is slightly sexier, with Anne Mather, Charlotte Lamb and Violet Winspear particularly having the reputation for books that run toward more sexual tension. But the actual sex acts depicted in the ones I've read have been limited to vague allusions to sex after marriage--basically the romance novel equivalent of television's "one foot on the floor" Hays Code. We get wives in nighties and perhaps some vague post-coital cuddling, but no actual sex, certainly not in the way we've come to expect as modern Presents readers. I've only read about a dozen of each of these lines though from the time period I'm covering now (my reading in the past has run to older titles) and never made a careful or chronological study of them so that's what I'm interested in exploring this summer.

Sea Lightning by Linda Harrel is a good place to start because it's pretty typical of the earlier Harlequin Romances I've read. Heroine Jensa Welles is a professional illustrator sent to Argentina by her former teacher and mentor to work with marine biologist Adam Ryder on a scientific book of whale behavior and migration patterns. Right off the bat, we get straight to the reason I so love these older category romances. On page 28 & 29:

'I shouldn't think you'd be bothered by much human company no matter where you lived--you're not exactly welcoming yourself, you know,' she muttered, holding on to her seat for dear life.

'I could be...if I take into account the purely decorative advantages of your presence.'

The suggestiveness in his voice stiffened Jensa's back and sent a slight prickle running down her spine. She turned her head to one side and stared out at the broadening desert. He was still trying to unnerve her. And she had to admit that he was very close to succeeding.

...

Jensa caught her breath and felt her eyes widen. 'You're an overgrown child, Adam!' she snapped. 'You think all this bluffing is going to panic me, providing you with some petty, small-minded amusement.'

Not only has Adam called into question her professional competence by this point (purely on the basis of her sex--and says so outright), he has ordered her to return home, threatened her with the primitive conditions at the research station, made suggestive comments about her appearance and now these more overtly sexual threats. It's textbook sexual harassment, almost a caricature it's so bad. And it continues through much of the book. As a modern reader, it's unpleasant, jarring and offensive. If it occurred in a contemporary romance novel today, it would likely get an automatic trip to DNF-land from me except for one thing: Jensa stands up to him, verbally protesting his language and behavior. He doesn't change it, but she said something, which is pretty brave considering he already doesn't want her there and she basically has no recourse, legal or otherwise.

Now for the sex. There isn't any. I wouldn't even call the novel particularly thick with sexual tension. It's more thick with Adam wanting, Jensa denying and feeling quite guilty and embarrassed when she does find herself experiencing desire. Adam makes several references to the fact that since Jensa is a beautiful woman, she must have quite a lot of sexual experience, for whatever beauty has to do with desire or promiscuity. For example:

With that cynical announcement, he leaned his body over her and pressed her back on the sofa, covering her mouth with his, brutally forcing it open. When at last he finally released her, he said, 'I did that to shut you up--you push me too hard, you know.'

He withdrew his body from hers, leaving her shaken and unable to reply. But when she looked up into those cold, mocking eyes, her response came in full. She brought her hand across his face with a sharpness that drew colour to his cheek and pain to her hand.

His hand flashed out and caught her wrist, pinioning it to the seat. 'An appropriate reaction, Miss Welles, and well done. But I know women who look like you love such attention...even though they all feel obliged to go through with these little charades of mock outrage.'

There isn't a single word in those paragraphs that isn't horrifying to this modern reader. He physically restrains her. He kisses her against her consent and does so to shut her up. Nor is it a gentle kiss. He's condescending about all of it. Finally, he makes the ridiculous assumption that beautiful women desire that kind of sexual attention, but want to make him work for it. If anyone needs a primer on how rape culture works, this is pretty much it. Oddly though, Adam has a fairly veiled sexual relationship with an Evil Other Woman in the novel, but she remains largely unjudged for her behavior. One assumes that beautiful women who conform to his sexual expectations are excepted from his wrath.

Of course, Adam hasn't really had a female role model in his life. His high-flying society mother left his dull, dreary, scientist father when he was very young. This seems to be held up as an explanation for his behavior, but also a the main sticking point in his personal development as human being. It's quite Oedipal really. Jensa suggests at one point that he should consider reconciling with his mother, which he eventually does, off-stage. And after that, his behavior changes. There's an ethos that even now permeates some romance novels: that the savage, uncontrollable male is tamed by the love of his heroine. That's not quite what happens here, not directly. At least, the change to his behavior seems to come from reconciling with his mother, though of course it's at Jensa's suggestion.

Toward the end of the novel, Adam's gives Jensa full credit for her contribution to both his conference presentation and an enormous win in his efforts at whale habitat conservation. Though they part on bad terms shortly before the end of the novel (yes, of course they get together in the end), Adam includes Jensa's business contact information on his conference materials even though he isn't obligated to. He and other men are depicted as having quite a lot of respect for her professional abilities. It was just as satisfying for me as a reader that Jensa earns professional respect in the end as it was that she earns the sexy scientist's love.


There's some more fairly uncomfortable kissing that ranges from violent and expressly unwanted by Jensa to merely forward and only reluctantly abandoned by Adam (a total of four at my count). And yet, the last kiss in the novel tells a different story.

He looked at her expectantly. Slowly, tentatively, he reached out to her again, and this time she did not resist. 'I love you, Adam. I love you so very much,' she whispered as he pressed her to him. He kissed her then in that way that brought her breath in short, exquisite gasps.

...

He brought her to him once again. There was silence in the room for long moments after that. Finally, as Adam withdrew his lips from a hungry caress of her neck, he whispered, 'You and I must go and do that sightseeing. A hotel room is decidedly not the place where we should be right now! Our time will come--and soon, my darling.'

Yes, she thought, looking up at hi in wonder and in joy. She knew that neither he heart nor her body had betrayed her, after all, in urging her to love this man. With him, she would be safe and cherished, always.

So here's the thing: despite Adam's horrific attitudes early in the novel and the brutal kisses he inflicts on her (which of course she sort of likes even if she's loath to admit it even to herself), Sea Lightning was quite a good novel. Even though Adam's redemption happens very quickly, it's sufficiently complete (and has the additional factor of reconciling with his mother) that I actually sort of believe that they might really be alright together. There's also an amusing discussion of potential future children and how Jensa will continue to work while the kids are educated in a very the-world-will-be-your-classroom manner.

In other words, Sea Lightning answers both sexual and professional questions for women in ways a modern reader, thanks to a broader acceptance of feminist principles, would never even think to ask them. While the perspectives on sex aren't modern ones by a long shot since the "loose woman" doesn't get the guy and the virtuous heroine does, and Jensa feels guilty about any desire she experiences throughout the novel, at least by the end the hero is respecting her sexual boundaries and acknowledging her professional competence.

I'll be reading in chronological order throughout the summer so the next book on the list is Charlotte Lamb's Possession, a Harlequin Presents from 1979. Let's see if changing lines makes any difference to social mores or sexual content.

And don't forget that readers can contribute to both my 2U5S spreadsheet in a public Google doc and the link party on the 2U5S main page. Come, share the old category love.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Utterly Unscientific Summer Saturday Series Sex Survey #2U5S



It's Memorial Day weekend here in the States which means the traditional start to the summer season is upon us at least culturally if not meteorologically. I haven't done so many essay-type posts lately, mostly because I've been trying to concentrate on improving my photos and recipes, but I sort of miss doing those more free-form pieces. And so when a question I asked on Twitter earlier this week seemed to spark some interest, I decided to go ahead and make a summer project of it.

The question went more or less like this: When did sex start becoming a major feature of category (aka series) romance? I'd just read and reviewed Roses Have Thorns by Karen Leabo, a Silhouette Romance from 1989, and there was hardly any sexual contact it in at all--just a few kisses and one over-the-blouse nipple pinching. It just got me wondering how we got from there (if there is really where it started, which we all had our doubts about, as you'll see below) to where we are now, which has some kind of sex from fade-to-black to explicit in most major category lines.

According to a number of folks who have been around the romance business a lot longer than I have, it seems that the sex-on-page turning point happened long before 1989 and that the Silhouette Romance line or even that particular author chose to add none. Editor Jenny Haddon suggested that perhaps Sara Craven's 1979 Mills & Boon title Flame of Diablo had the first on-page sex while Sarah Frantz Lyons recalled that a significant first might have been a Violet Winspear book. I have the Craven on order and it should be here next week. I'll have to look into the Winspear thing though as the one I have of hers is from 1981.

But it got me thinking on a larger scale about the sexual content of category romance novels and how we got from a few chaste kisses in the Harlequin Romances of the early 1970s to the current situation that can allow for anal sex in some racier category lines. And not just penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex--what about oral sex, masturbation and other forms of sexual touching? Since I love old category romances and have a bunch of them already laying around my house unread, I thought, well, wouldn't it be fun to do an utterly unscientific summer Saturday series sex survey (2U5S)?

I'd love to find some more books outside the Harlequin Presents line, but currently I have a selection of 16 books with publication dates from 1979 to 1990. The reason I chose those dates is that it encompasses both Craven's 1979 book and a 1990 Anne Stuart book that lots of people seem to have found memorable for a particular oral sex scene. Though if I hear of a category/series romance with "full docking procedures" (Haddon's term, which cracked me up and that I will use ad nauseum so fair warning) that has an earlier publication date, I'll be happy to revise my criteria. Speaking of full docking procedures, I decided to define "sex" as orgasm achieved via manual, oral or genital stimulation. This may not be a good definition for sex in general, but it seemed a good enough definition for romance novel sex. If this were a real survey, I'd have to go into more detail about that and come up with a more clinical definition. But whatevs. Utterly unscientific.

Thus far I have books published by Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Romance, Dell Candlelight, Loveswept and Silhouette Romance. I think many of the Harlequins I have are actually reprints of Mills & Boon titles so those would also qualify. I just don't often see them here in the US. I have two books each by Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather and Iris Johansen, but the other authors are all unique.

I have set up a spreadsheet to track my reading and the sexual content therein. In addition to basic identification data, I developed a few categories of sexual content as well as some additional data that seemed tangentially related like whether the characters are explicitly named virgins and the type of language used to describe sexual acts and body parts (vague: he entered her, euphemistic: his sword entered her sheath, and precise: his penis entered her vagina). The spreadsheet is public, meaning anyone can edit, so if you want to read along and have books that would qualify, feel free to add them. I just ask the following: no historicals, no single title romances, no books outside the prescribed time period and if you add a title from a line not named above or have a category romance with sex and an earlier publication date, please email me so I can add it to my own to-buy list. All the books I intend to read are on the spreadsheet though I may revise if I can balance out the publisher & author distribution via new purchases. Our weekend forays into the Virginia hinterlands tend to yield some pretty good category hauls.

So...it's not completely unscientific, I guess. I'm a Virgo after all. I really can't help it.

Anyway, tomorrow I'll post my first 2U5S book, Sea Lightning by Linda Harrel. No food, just romance. And my weird musings about the sexual content of 1980s-ish category romance.

Finally, if you want to read along or pick up some other early-ish category romances (again, not single title, not historical, not books outside the date range of 1979 to 1990), I've included a blog link-up thing below. I'll link here from each of the review posts so if you want to read just one or a bunch over the course of the summer other folks interested in this stuff can find your post too. Feel free to link up GoodReads reviews, blog posts or articles. Just be sure only to link content written by you. Sorry, but I'll delete posts that don't conform to the guidelines above.


An InLinkz Link-up

Happy summer!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Beyond Innocence Bourbon-Sage Chicken Pot Pies


OMG A BEYOND BOOK WITH FOOD IN IT.

Sorry, just had to get that out of my system right up front. I'll explain in a bit.

The Beyond series is a long-running Kit Rocha series and these aren't standalone books so forgive me if you haven't read any of them. You'll just have to go back to the beginning and read at least all the main novels, but that shouldn't be a hardship as I think these books are terrific and the first one is usually free at most ebook retailers. The series premise is a dystopian near future where a central capital city called Eden rules over the outlying Sectors, leaving scraps and desperation to the remainder of the area's population. We join the O'Kane gang, which distills and runs whiskey to Eden and the other Sectors, and their leader, Dallas O'Kane, in exploits both political and, frankly, sexual. These books are smoking hot, kinky, extra dirty and full of angst so, well, you've been warned.

I've had some criticisms of this series in the past. Not major ones, but all the myriad characters having similar kinks had started to feel a little repetitive and unlikely five full-length books and almost as many novellas in. But with the most recent one, Beyond Innocence, two O'Kane outsiders get caught up in the larger political landscape Dallas has been forced by circumstance to take an interest in, bringing Jared, a high class male prostitute, and Lili, the widow of the brutal, late leader of another Sector into each other's orbits. Both are needing a change and healing and trying to figure out their place in the O'Kane hierarchy. It's a romance with a lighter touch than previous books and the kink is strictly limited to a surprisingly romantic fivesome, making Beyond Innocence one of the series stand-outs for me thus far.

While Jared has about as much sexual experience as any human being ever, he has been playing the part of the debonair faux-suitor to Eden's female elite for so long that he doesn't know who he is any more. When his best fried Ace is injured during a fight, he decides the time for sitting on the sidelines has past and starts using his connections to help Dallas. Lili has been a trophy wife her entire life, spending her time drugged on her late husband's product. While she has physically escaped Sector Five, the freedom and pleasure to be found in Sector Four is completely outside her experience, to the point where she can't believe it's not just all an elaborate charade. The way these two find themselves and find each other via food and music and other very normal human pursuits is a departure, but a welcome one.

It's totally possible to read these books as dirty, kinky, violent dystopian romance, focusing in on the O'Kane orgies and brutality. But that's not all they are. Beyond Innocence does a great job of thematically leading us into Book 7, which will be the last one of the series [EDITED TO NOTE: okay, so not the last one, just the last one that's currently up as "coming soon"]. The thing I have appreciated most about this series is the thorough exploration of femininity and masculinity, gently poking at the assumptions we make about the nature and scope of what we consider powerful. For example, Jared is perfectly capable of violence, but that's not where his true power lies--he specializes in information. And Lili has no capacity for violence at all, yet winds up solving a problem that the others can't, using her "trophy wife" knowledge and contacts to save the day. And throughout the book, her value to the O'Kane gang is that of someone who can actually cook, a traditionally under-appreciated "feminine" trait and task.

The role of women in these books has significantly evolved since the first one. And Rocha seems to be leading us full-circle since one of the heroes in the seventh book is a doctor--a healer rather than a killer. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts about this at the series conclusion, but for now, for fans of the series, Beyond Innocence is a fabulous addition.


So Bree Bridges, one half of the "Kit Rocha" duo and I have joked a bit back and forth about the fact that their characters never eat. There are like two instances of actual food being consumed prior to Beyond Innocence and one of them is a burnt grilled cheese sandwich. So when I found out that Lili likes to cook, I was like this:


In the book, Jared gives Lili a piano, prompting her to make him cookies, then invite him to dinner. So one of the first meals she makes in the book is chicken pot pies, which sounded terrific to me. And for some reason, I woke up at four in the morning shortly after reading the book and the first thing that popped into my head on waking was these bourbon-sage chicken pot pies. Probably because of the while whiskey-running thing the O'Kanes have going on.


These basically worked out great the first time. I kept tasting the filling though and thinking, "Well, maybe just a little more bourbon." Because what couldn't use just a little more bourbon? I mean, right?



I've written the recipe below as if you'll be starting with raw chicken. But if you have leftover cooked chicken on hand or want to grab a rotisserie bird to speed up the process, you can totally do that. You could also use refrigerated or frozen pie crusts, but I also have a recipe here (with more bourbon in it, natch) to make them from scratch. So it's your choice really. But if you go the pre-prepared route, you'll need two crusts and you're still going to have to roll the out and cut them to fit your pot pie pans.




Though in case there is any doubt in your mind, these are totally freaking fantastic as written and well worth the (sorry, somewhat considerable) effort. So, so worth it.


Bourbon-Sage Chicken Pot Pies
Makes: Four 5" pot pies
Time: 3 hours
Difficulty: Intermediate

Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup bourbon, cold
1/4 cup ice cold water

Filling
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup whole milk, room temperature
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons bourbon
salt & pepper to taste (I used 2 teaspoons salt & 1/2 teaspoon pepper, but I use unsalted homemade chicken stock so you may need more salt)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small russet potato, peeled and chopped
3 sprigs sage, minced fine

1. For the crust, process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until crumbs start to collect into clumps, about 15 seconds (there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle bourbon and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.

3. Divide dough into two balls, one slightly bigger than the other and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.


4. For filling, poach the chicken breasts. Put the chicken breasts in a medium saucepan and cover almost to the top with water. Heat to a boil, then partially cover and turn down the heat until simmering. Cook for 12 minutes or until chicken juices run clear when pricked with a fork. Darin and and set chicken aside until cool enough to handle.


5. In the same pan (no need to clean), melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter over medium heat. Add 1/3 cup flour a bit at a time, whisking constantly. Allow to cook, still whisking, for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Whisk in chicken stock, making sure no lumps form. Whisk in milk. Return to heat and allow to cook until bubbles start to form and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and whisk in bourbon. Chop up chicken and return to pan with sauce.



5. In a medium frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add carrots, parsnip, potato and onion. Cook over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes, until onion is softened. Add sage and cook an additional 30 seconds. Add vegetables to chicken mixture.

6. Preheat the over to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.


7. Remove the crust from the refrigerator and, starting with the slightly larger ball, roll out on a floured surface, about 20" by 20". Turn one of your pot pie pans face down on the dough. Cutting about 3/4" of an inch away from the edge of your pot pie pans (I just eyeballed this). Repeat three more times and set aside with wax paper in between each circle.


8. On a refloured surface, roll out the remaining dough and cut exactly around the edge of a pot pie pan, about 16" by 16". Repeat three more times.

9. Press larger dough circles into pans, letting excess overhang the edge. Fill each pan with 10-12 ounces of the filling (this will somewhat depend on how large your chicken breasts and vegetables were and how much your sauce reduced while cooking--just try to make it pretty even). Top with smaller dough circles and crimp the edges together, rolling the excess in toward the center of the pan to create a good seal. Prick the top of each pie with a fork to let steam escape and place on a cookie sheet.

10. Bake pot pies for 40-45 minutes until crusts are golden brown. (FYI, I took these out of their pans for photos, but I don't recommend that. They kinda...collapsed. Just leave them in the pan for serving.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Roses Have Thorns Lasagna 2015 TBR Challenge



It's TBR Challenge time again! This month's theme was "Kickin' it Old School", which is most definitely not a problem for me as the vast majority of my TBR pile is acquired via used bookstores and thrift stores and it would be a rare book that isn't more than ten years old. So I literally picked a random category off the stack and got to it.

What I ended up with was Roses Have Thorns by Karen Leabo, a Silhouette Romance from 1989. I couldn't even find it on Amazon. I bought it in a thrift shop in the Shenandoah Valley. I've mentioned during TBR Challenge posts before that I really like old category romances. They're little 50,000 word snapshot of the progress of women's rights, romance novel history and changing social mores. I find them fascinating. But I've veered wildly between relatively recent Harlequin Blaze books and 1970s Harlequin Presents in the past. This may even have been my first Silhouette and I seem to have found another waypoint in the development of the modern romance novel with the 1989 publication date.

When I read 1970s category romances, I know what to expect. It will be third-person limited perspective in the mind of the heroine. The hero will usually be mysterious, rich and opaque. There will be an interfering old relative who will eventually die and leave the heroine all their (sometimes questionable, sometimes considerable) wealth. There will be limited kissing, but no other sexual contact. This is all good. This is what I expect. But clearly sometime between 1979 and now, the contemporary category romance acquired, well, LOVIN'.

In Roses Have Thorns, Rosalie DiMarco is a pastry chef in a fancy French restaurant when food critic Max Callaghan comes to do a review. When she appears at his table to make crepes suzette, she remembers, but he does not, that she once dropped a plate of lasagna in his lap while working as a server in her uncle's restaurant. She was forced to quit her job and her close-knit Italian family still bears a grudge against the man who "almost ruined" her uncle's business. Her and her family's resentment make up pretty much the entire conflict of the book. And it's a perfectly well-constructed, plausible plot. You might not think so if you're not Italian, but trust me, there isn't a thing that happens in this book that I couldn't see happening on the Italian side of my own family. All in all, though, it's not terribly angsty or remarkable. It's just a plot.

The interesting elements of Roses Have Thorns come from its moment in romance history. First, the book is hopelessly dated through no fault of its own. With references to answering machines, yellow pages, rented beepers and something called a VDT that Max uses in his job (a computer thing? a printer thing? I really don't know.), the out-dated technology actually makes this book seem more dated than some of the 1970s categories I've read, just because those are largely technology-avoidant. Second, the perspective is updated here. We get inside the heads of both hero and heroine, sometimes within a couple paragraphs of each other (hello, head-hopping), but it does end up reading in a more modern way than earlier books, which are always confined to just heroine-perspective.

But the biggest difference, and what surprised me most, was that there wasn't any sex in the book at all. There was some kissing, for sure. And more than in earlier category romances. But one touch of the hero's hand to the heroine's nipple sends them both scurrying for the hills. Even post-engagement, where I might have expected a brief, but sweet fade-to-black scene? Nothing. There are no allusions to sex being had at all except in the hero's attitude, which is that he must be emotionally involved with a woman before engaging in that level of physical intimacy. I don't get the impression that either of them are necessarily virgins, but neither does the book explicitly state one way or the other. The thing is, the whole question of sex feels like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire novel for this modern reader. I found myself thinking, "Now? Wait, no. Oh, now then? No. After the engagement party? No. Hm."

This is entirely down to my own expectations and no fault of the author's, I'm sure. I'm almost certainly bumping up against some sharp transition in the way romances were conceived and written, possibly just within Silhouette's line, but also possibly an actual transition time? I don't know. I'm glad I read this for TBR Challenge though, where some real category romance experts may be able to help me out with an answer.

Roses Have Thorns was a perfectly accept sweet romance with a well-plotted story and two characters with interestingly-complex family relationships. I don't know that I'd necessarily say run right out and get it, but if you're interested in a survey marker in the map of modern romance, it's a fine book with nothing problematic or objectionable in it.

But please put my out of my misery! Just what was going on with the sex at Silhouette in 1989?


Practically from the first page of Roses Have Thorns, I knew I'd be making lasagna for this review. I mean, the flashback to Rose accidentally dumping an entire plate of lasagna in Max's lap the first time they met? That's just priceless.


Plus, a couple months ago, I shared my family recipe for homemade tomato sauce and this is agreat way to use a bunch of it. You don't have to use homemade here of course though. A large jar of store-bought will work just fine and that's honestly what I do normally.


And speaking of my family, this recipe is pretty funny because even though I'm a quarter Italian, this isn't a family recipe. Somehow I acquired this recipe from my college roommate, who is Canadian and a second-generation immigrant from Southern China. Her mother is the best cook ever, but she only cooks Chinese food. So I texted my roommate to find out where she got this recipe and it turns out that it came from her Baltimore Jew college ex-boyfriend who grew up in Baltimore's Little Italy. How the world turns.


I've put my own spin on it over the years though. The homemade sauce isn't anything we ever did in school, nor is the fresh mozzarella. And at the time, neither one of us cared for ricotta cheese so we usually used cottage cheese. That seems strange now as we both developed a taste for really good cheese of all types while living in DC during college via a little French bistro we liked to visit. And we frequently made a veggie version that substituted drained frozen spinach and sliced zucchini for the ground beef. I still do that sometimes at the height of summer. And if you want to do the cottage cheese substitution for more protein and less fat, you can use the same amount, just drain it well first.


And try really, really hard not to dump it in anyone's lap.


Lasagna
Makes: 12 servings
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1 hour

12 lasagna noodles
cooking spray
generous pinch salt
1 pound ground beef
32 ounces tomato sauce (either homemade or store-bought from a jar)
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
15 ounces ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
additional tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of water and the salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the lasagna noodles and cook according to package directions. If there is a range of times (i.e. 9-11 minutes), use the shorter time. When cooked, drain noodles in a colander and leave until cool enough to handle.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and spray a 9x13 inch pan with cooking spray.

3. Over medium-heat heat, brown the ground beef (until no pink remains), about 6 minutes, draining off any fat that accumulates. Turn off heat. Add the tomato sauce and stir to combine.

4. In the prepared pan, put down a super thin layer of tomato sauce, just a 1/4 cup or so. Add the first layer of 4 noodles, overlapping the edges slightly. Cover with half the ricotta, then a third of the sauce, then a third of the mozzarella. Add the next layer of noodles, remaining ricotta, another third of the sauce and third of the mozzarella. Add the final layer of noodles, the remaining sauce, the remaining mozzarella and the grated Parmesan.

5. Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes or until cheese is all melted and the sides are bubbling. Allow to rest of 10 minutes before slicing and serving, topping with additional tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joint Review of Grace Draven's Radiance & Entreat Me at The Immersed Reader + Giveaway Winner!


A quickie post to say that I'm visiting with Ana Coqui at Immersed in Books today. We read Entreat Me and Radiance, both by Grace Draven and chatted about both books. I liked one better than the other. For what we thought about these fantasy romances, check out Ana's blog.

Also, Blogiversary Week is over for the year and this morning I drew the winner of the $50 Amazon giftcard. Congratulations, Lorn L. You win! I'll be emailing soon to find out your ebook store preference.

And thank you again to everyone for reading and commenting and loving romance and food right along with me this past year. You're the best!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Blogiversary Week Review: FIT Homemade Granola



If you still haven't entered to win the Cooking Up Romance Blogiversary Week $50 Amazon gift card, you have just a couple more days!

From a narrative perspective, I've always thought that a personal trainer would make an excellent romance dominant. I mean, you have this person whose job it is to push physical and mental limits while still knowing when to back off so no one gets hurt. The best ones have a certain style: part encouragement, part toughness and applying both appropriately. And if there's the potential for physical attraction, often just a little bit of innocuous flirting. Unfortunately, a lot of BDSM romance seems to regard the role of the dominant as being an asshole who is maybe even vaguely threatening. Not that there isn't a place for that kind of story, but it's a little frustrating to see the same basic character repeated in every book. Rebekah Weatherspoon's FIT trilogy takes a different approach, making for a fresh sort of read.

In FIT, the first of a linked trilogy that saw its last book released this week, personal trainer Grant Gibson takes on Violet Ryan as a client after Violet has a horrible experience in a group fitness class that reduces her to tears. Violet is a producer on a foodie reality show and between her job and her friend Faye encouraging her to make bad lifestyle decisions, she's put on a bit more weight than she's comfortable with. But the fitness instructor recommends Grant as a personal trainer, wisely thinking that he might have an approach that will suit her.

There are a lot of things to love about this book. First, Grant isn't your typical romance dominant. Sure, he's in charge in the bedroom, but he's got the kind of self-assurance that is actually sexy versus the overbearing bossiness that seems more common in these types of books. He's less about barking orders than he is about rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior in a way that's both welcome to Violet and believable to the reader. And the way he uses sexual rewards to motivate Violet is super fun to read.

Another thing I loved about this book is that it displays some self-awareness that this is actually an ethically questionable scenario. It's not one that I personally have a lot of resistance to, but it was nice to see the issue addressed of whether the games they're playing together are appropriate in light of their professional relationship. And that tension resolves in an interesting way too.

Finally, FIT doesn't shy away from the difficulties inherent in portraying a woman who wants to lose weight. I thought there was a really good balance between her reality and her desires--it's a story that can come off as fat-shaming, but the way it was handled really worked for me.

FIT is a good, short read. Save it for the treadmill at the gym! Just...don't get too distracted and hurt yourself. Cuz parts of it are pretty...um...distracting. Hot stuff! I recommend it.


A few weeks ago, I did something I'd never really done before. I had this recipe I wanted to share and so I started asking around in Twitter for hippie romances, having grown up as a Bay Area kid who pretty much subsisted on fruit leather and granola. Not fruit roll-ups, those corn syrup filled parodies of food or chocolate-dipped chewy granola bars. Nope. The no-sugar-added stuff we could only buy at our health food co-op. But hippie romances are kinda few and far between. So I was super pleased when I tripped over a granola mention in FIT not too long after.


Homemade granola is a little bit time consuming because it has to cook for an hour and 15 minutes and you have to stir it every quarter hour, but it makes a pretty big batch and keeps for up to a month in a sealed container on the counter. And other than the time factor, it's super easy.


This may be only a "me" problem, but all the baking I do frequently leaves me with random ends of bags of nuts and dried fruit. Not enough to do anything substantial with, but it's not like they're roasted and salted so they're not super delicious on their own. I basically throw whatever tree nuts and dried fruit I have on hand into this granola. So it's super flexible. Basically whatever you like will probably work, though I'd chop up stuff like dried apricots, dates or figs.


And in a couple months, I'll show you something else you can do with this granola. But I'm gonna be super sneaky and cagey and not tell you what this is yet. Cuz it's a sekrit. Shhhhh.

Homemade Granola
Adapted from Alton Brown's Granola Recipe

3 cups rolled oats
2 cups whatever tree nuts happen to be on hand or on sale (slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, chopped pecans, hazelnuts or a combination)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried fruit (raisins, blueberries, cranberries or a combination) OPTIONAL


1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, combine the oats, nuts and brown sugar. Stir well, making sure brown sugar is well incorporated.

3. Next add oil, maple syrup and salt. Pour onto 2 sheet pans. Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to achieve an even color. At the 15 minute ark, add the dried fruit (if using).

4. Remove from oven and transfer into a large bowl. Let cool and then cover tightly. Keeps up to one month tightly sealed.

Disclosure: Rebekah Weatherspoon and I follow each other on Twitter, but I bought FIT for myself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blogiversary Week: The Gag Reel

If you missed it the first two days of this week, it's Cooking Up Romance's first blogiversary! I'm celebrating by giving away a $50 Amazon Giftcard, which you can enter to win here.


If you've ever looked at one of my photos and thought, "Aw, how come my food doesn't look that good?!?" this post is for you. Because not everything works for me either. I just tend not to publish my failures. Although if you follow me on Twitter, you probably have a sense of how often I burn myself doing something stupid. It's...a lot.


Not every oops involves injury though and there has been a bloggy learning curve. For instance, whenever I open up the folder where I store all my Cooking Up Romance photos, right in the upper right hand corner--the first thing I see--is a folder entitled "all the f*cking tarts". You can probably guess how I was feeling by the time I finally published my review of Laura Florand's book The Chocolate Thief. Those sexy French pastry chefs sure set a high standard! But the main problem was that I hadn't figured out the settings on my camera yet and got, well, this.


In case you can't tell, that's out of focus, the color balance is wrong, the composition is terrible and the wrinkled placemat was a particularly nice touch, I thought. But I didn't look at the photos until we'd eaten all the tarts. I had to make them all over again in order to get better photos. I've gotten better, thank goodness! And lesson learned. Look at the photos BEFORE eating the food.

Then there are the recipes I love and everyone else hates.


Aren't those adorable little petit fours? When Alexis Hall's Liberty and Other Stories came out at the beginning of the year, I made three batches of what I thought were going to be the perfect quirky petit fours. Unfortunately, I sent them to work with my husband and they were...well...just a little too quirky. Turns out nobody else liked the combination of Lapsang Souchong (a smoky flavored tea) and vanilla buttercream as much as I did.

Still pretty though.


Here's a fun one. I was super inspired by Jackie Ashenden's hero in Living in Shadow. He's from West Africa originally and I thought it might be interesting to try making some traditional West African cuisine. I was drawn to a recipe on an ex-pat site that suggested making pepper sauce for plantain fritters out of 20 Scotch bonnet peppers. Not 2, but 20. Two. Zero. That's a shit ton of EXTREMELY HOT PEPPERS.

Um. I thought I was going to die. Or permanently kill off all my taste buds or something. I've got a pretty good tolerance for spice, but that one? Well, let's just say it exceeded it. The final recipe ended up with ONE Scotch bonnet pepper. And it was still pretty hot. OUCH.


Then there are the recipes that are delicious and perfect...and resemble a scene from Sweeney Todd. There have actually been several of these, the most egregious of which was the duck with citrus cherry port sauce I made for my review of 1960s romance Nurse Janice Calling. Once you see the bloody pulp and blood spatters, you can't unsee it. Go ahead, thank me.

*insert horror movie sound effects here*

Finally, there was the time I dropped my phone onto a tray of just-piped meringue dessert cups. I didn't take a photo of that one though. You'll just have to take my word for it. My vast and creative vocabulary of four-letter and other not-for-polite-company words.


What about your impressive kitchen disasters? Come on--tell me about the time you set the stove on fire. (I've totally done it, just not in the past year.)

Confession time!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Blogiversary Week Review: Taken Honey-Pepper Salmon



Don't forget to enter the Cooking Up Romance Blogiversary Week Giveaway for a $50 Amazon Giftcard!

Pretty much any romance involving a kinky bookseller is always going to get my vote. And if it's by Charlotte Stein? Double vote! Can we vote twice? Whatever, I just did.

Taken, a recent offering by Stein, features Rosie Callahan, a young woman still in college, and Johann William Weir, a rare book dealer. In a prank-gone-wrong, Rosie is captured by the bookstore owner and chained up in his basement, a setup that sounds completely sinister and is actually totally comedic.

There's a lovely counterpoint in this book between the devilish elements of dark romance and the vulnerability, insecurity and humor both hero and heroine display over the course of the book. Both of these characters are more capable and better wrapped than they think they are, especially when it comes to each other. It takes this absurd situation to allow them both to unlock desires they either didn't know they had or weren't comfortable indulging. Plus there's an age gap here, which is my favorite thing in romance.

But the best part of Taken is just how slyly it references those 80s and 90s historicals that feature the kidnapping of the heroine by the hero. In those books, the heroine is often an innocent, but feisty young virgin and the hero an experienced, powerful Highlander or pirate or whatever. I loved the heck out of those books in high school and often find myself, to some degree, chasing that high when I dip into older historicals. But what worked for me at 17 isn't the same as what works for me at 36. Now the consent issues in those books bother me, keeping me from being as fully immersed in the story and the romance as I'd wish.

Taken captures all of that dark, powerful older man magic, but gives him to a heroine who is equally experienced and comfortable with her sexuality, if not everything about her looks. And while she is in theory chained up against her will, it's crystal clear from very early on in the story that she is way on board with every element of their quirky, unspoken and un-analyzed role-playing. It's the hero who is ambivalent about the things he wants, needing the heroine's push to indulge his darkest fantasies. It's the first time I've experienced a modern writer evoking the same feel of those barbarian encounters, never mind in a contemporary, without turning the heroine into a push-over or the hero into an ass. And doing it in a way that didn't conflict at all with my desire for the heroine's enthusiastic consent.

So the bottom line is that I adored Taken. It's a story with a new plot and an old feel, told in the inimitable style of one of contemporary romance's most interesting writers. It's even way more romantic than it had any right to be, what with the bubble baths and wine the and hacksaws and handcuffs. A thoroughly engaging, surprising and, of course, sexy read.



This recipe has absolutely nothing to do with the book. The couple do actually eat, um, something, I think? But when I discovered that hero was loosely based on the character Monroe from the television show Grimm (an homage more than a literal representation since Monroe is, like, a vegan werewolf and Johann...isn't), I absolutely had to share my very favorite ever salmon recipe, one I've been making for years.


One of the very memorable early scenes involving the Grimm character has him insisting on getting the recipe for "honey-pepper cedar plank vegan salmon" from the main character's girlfriend as a terribly ineffective diversionary tactic. It's a very awkward scene and reminded me a lot of how Johann acts in Taken. And seriously, if you haven't seen the show, he makes the whole thing.


Monroe, like Johann is such a delicious combination of competence, knowledge, experience and utter fumbling awkwardness that's it's impossible for me to completely separate the two. Knowing the inspiration for the character and Grimm being my one of my favorite television shows made this book all the more fun for me.


As for the recipe, it's crazy easy. Just a simple pan-fried salmon and a honey-cayenne pepper sauce that goes well with pretty much any kind of fish, veggies and (my favorite) as a dipping sauce for sweet potato fries. So if you have any left over or just want to make salmon for two, you might consider making the full sauce amount. I keep in it in the fridge in a squeeze bottle and put it on everything.


Oh, and this is a pretty intensely spicy sauce so if you're a person who likes things a little less hot, cut the cayenne pepper in half. You've been warned!

Honey-Pepper Salmon
adapted from InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook
Makes: 4 servings
Difficulty: Easy

4 6-ounce salmon filets
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tsp minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (for a less spicy sauce, use 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. Salt and pepper the salmon filets. In a medium-sized skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering and fragrant. Starting naked side up if your salmon filets have skin, cook salmon for about 5-6 minutes each side for 1-inch thick filets. If yours are thicker or thinner, they may require more or less time.

2. In a small saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add honey, mustard, cayenne pepper and coriander, whisking to combine. Remove from heat and whisk in and lemon juice. When salmon is done, drizzle a tablespoon or two over each filet and serve.

Disclosure: Charlotte Stein and I follow each other on Twitter, though I bought Taken for myself.

Monday, May 11, 2015

First Blogiversary Thanks & Giveaway



There's something about milestones that get people thinking. And thanking. There's nothing inherently different this week than any other week, except that now I've been writing Cooking Up Romance for a full year as of May 10th. Oh, and I'm doing a giveaway this week to say thanks for reading! Scroll down for that.

I never imagined how readily and warmly I'd be accepted into this weird little community we call Romland. But right from the beginning, writers Shari Slade, Alexandra Haughton and Amy Jo Cousins befriended my little egg self on Twitter with zero followers and zero clue. Since then I've started beta reading for Shari (which is literally the best thing about this whole blogger-reviewer business), bonded over musical theater with Lexi and spent many happy Thursday evenings rewatching West Wing with Amy Jo and my #westwingclub buddies.

I've become fast friends with reviewers Maria Rose and Ana Coqui, sharing the ups and downs of life, of good books and bad ones. You gals keep me (reasonably) sane.

Writers Emma Barry and Amber Belldene have been invaluable in beta reading the essays and guest posts I've written over the past year, pointing out flaws in my logic and writing and alerting me to on-coming cliffs to avoid. And Megan Mulry for always making me feel like I have something to say that matters.

Seeing a photo of Sarah Frantz Lyons' beautiful tattoos on Twitter brought me her profound wisdom and intelligence. This year would have been a much sadder one without her friendship, not the least because that acquaintance brought me a newfound love of queer romance. And shortly thereafter Alexis Hall, whose books and whose insights on the romances we read together for AAR have enriched my soul. And sometimes left me laughing in a heap on the floor.

And finally, Bree Bridges, who brought me Dragon Age. Nuff said.

I've also discovered buckets full of new-to-me writers over the past year--most notably Delphine Dryden, Carolyn Crane, Rose Lerner, KJ Charles and Jeffe Kennedy--whose very different, but brilliant romances remind me of the enormous potential of this genre every time I pick one up.

Also fun has been the guest posts I've both been invited to write and foisted upon people. I did a post for Wonkomance, one of my very favorite romance blogs. I've guest posted several times with Alexis on All About Romance, an amazingly long-lived and positive community of romance lovers, bloggers and commenters that continues to be my go-to place for reviews and best-of lists of every kind of romance. I wrote about February's Popular Romance conference at the Library of Congress for Romance Novels for Feminists, the blog that got me into blogging in the first place, which then got picked up on Teach Me Tonight, the blog for popular romance academics, which still feels like a crazy huge honor because those people are just so darn smart. And I got to do a Valentine's Day menu for the Romantic Times website, which still kinda makes my eyes bug out of my head.

None of this would be possible of course without my husband, who puts up with my annoying extroverted-thinker tendencies when I have to tease out a particular post, Chipotle runs when I've got a book I absolutely must finish or when it gets too dark to take photos of whatever I had intended to serve for dinner and the occasional repeat of a meal three days in a row while I refine my recipes. Oh, and his coworkers, who eat all the baked goods so I don't have to. I love you, darling. And sorry, yes, we're having salmon again tonight.

Last, but not least, it brings me such joy to see people pick up the books I've recommended and try the recipes I've invented. Your tweets and comments are what keeps this fun for me. So all my thanks to readers new and old.And to show just how much I like all of you, I'm giving away a $50 Amazon gift card. This giveaway is available worldwide and can be transmuted to a giftcard to the ebook retailer of your choice, which I'll work out with the winner, to be chosen at random at 11:59 pm EDT on May 18th, which gives you a whole week to enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
 
Cake photo above from this post about Queer Romance Month.

Friday, May 8, 2015

AAR Guest Post + Next #DCRom Gathering + Sweet Disorder Pound Cake



Just popping in today to say that my monthly joint review with Alexis Hall is up at All About Romance today. We rave over Rose Lerner's Sweet Disorder and, as I mentioned in our review, I just couldn't get over how much amazing food is in it. I've already used it as inspiration for three different recipes, but since one wasn't mine and one was only very loosely inspired by the book, today I'm sharing pound cake.

But first, a group of Washington, DC adjacent romance-loving folks have decided to get together once a month in person to eat, drink and chat about the books we love. I've hashtagged it #DCRom on Twitter, which is super uninspired, but works, I guess. The plan is to get together on the third Tuesday of every month at Northside Social, the coffeehouse and wine bar in Arlington, Virginia. The next one will be Tuesday, May 19th from 6-8 pm. If you want reminders closer to the date, email or tweet me and I'll add you to my totally ad hoc list that will not be used for any other purpose but reminding folks of gatherings.


And now, pound cake.


One of the more amusing aspects of Sweet Disorder is when confectioner Mr. Moon, the heroine's prospective Whig groom, tries to tempt the sweet-averse Phoebe into trying his various treats. One of those is a pound cake that he describes as tasting of tea and lavender with a lemon glaze. Lucky for me, I happen to have had some leftover lavender sugar from making these cookies, a bag of Black Dragon Pearl tea that's been hanging out in my cupboard since December and a notion for a light lemon syrup that would work kind of like basting a fruitcake in alcohol.


I have no illusions that this is in any way historically accurate. But that's never been my goal. But what came out of the oven on the very first try was something like a cup lavender black tea flavored with lemon, albeit in cake form. I had no notion it would work on the first try and I didn't take pictures.


So I had to make (and eat) it again. I swear. Such hardships I endure for you people.


Lavender and Black Tea Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze
Makes: 12 servings
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 heaping tablespoons black tea
1/2 teaspoon culinary lavender
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) melted unsalted butter
cooking spray
parchment paper

1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray, line with parchment sized to fit the pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, combine sugar, tea and lavender and run until tea is pulverized--not dust, but no big pieces either. Add flour, baking powder and salt and pulse to combine. Add eggs ones at time, pulsing to combine. Add vanilla extract. Remove to large bowl.

2. Add melted butter and mix until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Cook for 50-55 minutes until a skewer inserted in the cake comes out clean.

3. Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice until combined. Set aside.

4. Allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Unmold the cake and poke holes in it all over with the skewer. Baste the cake on all sides with a pastry brush until the syrup is used.

5. Allow to cool completely, then slice and serve.

Disclosure: Rose Lerner and I have a friendly relationship on Twitter, but I bought Sweet Disorder myself.
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