Another Book: Modern Persuasion by Sara Marks

Another book and another recipe! Don’t forget to scroll down after the review itself for a few extras, including a link to a delicious Poppy Seed Babka (yeasted coffee cake) and a raffle for some fun prizes, thanks to the author.

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Modern Persuasion by Sara Marks

Once again, I’m delighted to host a stop on a blog tour celebrating the release of a new novel. This time, author Sara Marks has chosen not Pride and Prejudice, but Persuasion as her inspiration. I have to admit that I love Persuasion; it’s probably my favourite of Jane Austen’s novels. I love the very notion of second chances, of being able to right a past wrong. I love the character of a self-made man, who has risen to his fortune not because of a lucky accident of birth, but due to his own actions; a hero who is able to overcome his resentment to examine his heart and strive for what he truly desires. I love the heroine, whose unhappy past teaches her the necessity of self-reliance, and whose sensible and caring nature allows her to see through artifice to finally achieve her happy ending.

With this in mind, I happily dove into Modern Persuasion, excited to see how Ms. Marks re-imagined the story in a modern setting. She has set the novel – most appropriately – in the world of publishing, the action swirling around the frenzied activity of an author’s book tour. The author is Frederick Wentworth, a successful screenwriter and author; the editor-cum-publicist accompanying on the cross-country tour is Emma Shaw, who broke his heart eight years before. Many of our favourite characters are present, including a lovely portrayal of Emma’s father and sisters, and we see how well the self-absorbed Sir Walter Elliot is translated into the twenty-first century.

For the most part, the novel works very well. Ms. Marks’ characters are realistic and fleshed out, while remaining true to Austen’s originals, and the plot about forced reunions and second chances is seamless and unforced. She writes well and smoothly, bringing the details of the world of publishing to life.

Where the novel falters a bit is in small details that don’t quite match up – I liken this to the continuity girl on a movie set taking a nap. A detail here doesn’t quite mesh with a detail there, or a description is countered by another further along in the text. Wentworth’s fabulous letter also disappoints a bit, because it repeats so much of the material of the rest of the book; I understand the author’s vision in creating the letter she does, but for me, this is a case where brevity and intense emotion would have spoken more eloquently than long description.

These quibbles aside, this is a lovely interpretation of Persuasion, and if you’re a fan of the original (and perhaps even more so, if you’re not – YET) you won’t be disappointed by this first publication of an author of whom I hope to read more in the future.

Now… a few extras.

About the author:

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Sara Marks

Sara Marks is an author, knitter, Wikipedian, and librarian from Massachusetts. After over 10 years of participating in National Novel Writing Month, she is releasing her first novel, Modern Persuasion, with Illuminated Myth Publishing. When she isn’t writing, she is an academic librarian at University of Massachusetts Lowell. She has a masters degree in library science and another in Communications. She spent 6 years as a member of Toastmasters International where she twice earned the status of Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest status members can achieve. She is one of the local organizers for National Novel Writing Month.

Five Fun Facts about her:

  1. Sara worked as a clown in college.She would go to birthday parties and local events in Miami to paint faces and make balloon animals.
  2. Sara failed out of college before returning hometo find a new path in life.It took her 7.5 years to get her B.A.She is a firm believer in being able to fix your mistakes and getting second chances.
  3. Her dog, Cedric, was named for Cedric Diggory, her favorite character in Harry Potter.In reality, the dog is a Slytherin.
  4. Every year, since 2004, Sara has participated in National Novel Writing Month.She has won every year, except 2005 when she lost by 1,000 words.
  5. Sara has been a Wikipedia editor for over 10 years.

A Recipe!

Much of the novel takes place in New York City, where there are bakeries and edible treats galore! I thought long and hard about what would go well with this story, and nearly decided to find some yummy Chinese dish, relating to a scene in the novel. In the end, after chatting with Ms. Marks, we decided on something that goes well with a book, a cozy corner in which to read, and a cup of tea. In fact, this would go well with Frederick’s favourite – a venti earl grey tea with raw sugar! Emma remembers his order well from their time together so long ago; I bet she often had it with babka from one of the Manhattan bakeries – maybe Moishe’s down south of Delancey, or Orwasher’s in the Upper East Side. (Note – these are not recommendations, although I’m sure they’re great places. My info comes purely from a Google search!)

And so… without further ado, follow this link to the world’s yummiest Poppy Seed Babka.

And, of course, the Giveaways!

Ms. Marks is generously giving away two prizes on this blog tour.

Giveaway 1: An ebook of Modern Persuasion in the format of the winner’s choice! Comment on this post and tell me about one of your second chances, and how that worked out. A second chance at love, an old friendship that you revived, a second chance at a job, or even better luck with a plant the second time around! I won’t judge your tales, but I’ll pick a name randomly by midnight, EST, June 4, 2017.Blog Tour Knicknacks

Giveaway 2: Fredrick’s book tour knick knacks and autographed paperback copy. Since part of the story happens on Fredrick’s book tour, Ms. Marks has selected touristy knick-knacks from each of the cities they visit. The winner will get the entire collection of knick knacks and an autographed paperback copy of the book. This raffle is limited to US participants (sorry, all my non-American readers). To enter, people will need to sign up for Sara Marks’ mailing list, where they will be added to the raffle and will get a short story related to Modern Persuasion: “Mary and the Anti-Feminist”. The raffle opens on the 22nd and ends on June 5th.

You can enter here at the Rafflecopter site, or through Sara Marks’ website.

Modern Persuasion can be purchased at Amazon.

Poppy Seed Babka… and a link to a new book!

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On your plate

When author Sara Marks asked me to host a stop on the blog tour for her first publication, Modern Persuasion, the first question that came to my mind was what sort of recipe I’d link with it. Not having read the novel at that point, I wondered: What would they eat? Would there be a scene where the characters had a picnic by a pond? Or would they be grabbing street food from a cart in New Dehli, or maybe sipping martinis, James Bond-style, at a swanky bar in Monaco? And so I gobbled up the book with food in mind.blogtourbanner_mp

I nearly decided to find a delicious Chinese-inspired dish to reflect a scene where the characters eat Chinese take-out in Central Park, but thought I’d check with the author to see if she had anything in mind. Well, it turns out she did!

Much of the story takes place in New York City, where there are bakeries a-plenty. Further, the actions centres around a successful screenwriter and his book tour, during which copious amounts of tea and coffee are consumed. If the characters are drinking that much tea and coffee, I thought, they surely must want something to nibble along with it, and Ms. Marks suggested bringing in something from one of those above-mentioned bakeries, namely babka! (A babka, for those not in the know, is a delight that’s part-way between bread and cake, a concoction of layers of sweet dough and delicious filling, rolled out and twisted and totally delicious. Variations include chocolate, nut, and poppy seed.)

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Now, I am an incurable chocoholic, but I will willingly confess that a good poppy seed filling is enough to make me put chocolate aside with no backward glances.  And I have a wonderful recipe for the sweet brioche-like dough, thanks to the amazingly talented Michal R, whose recipes never fail to inspire me. Put these together, and you have a poppy seed babka to die for! Enough of this stuff and the book tour would never have left NYC! (Good thing it did, though, otherwise it would have been a rather short novel.)

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Babka isn’t a quick or easy dish to make. It involves several steps and a whole lot of time, mostly waiting for things to rise or cool. But it is worth every second. And so, without further ado….

Poppy Seed Babka

Note: Start this the day before you want to bake it. It needs to rest in the fridge overnight.

The Dough

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Assembling some ingredients

  • 1 TBSP dried yeast – the instant kind is easier, but regular is fine. See below for extra comments on using it
  • 70 grams lukewarm milk or water (if you want it to be dairy-free)
  • 500 grams (1.1 lbs / 4 cups) sifted flour
  • 140 mL (5 fl oz) milk – just slightly warm to the touch, but not hot!
  • 100 grams (3.5 oz) sugar
  • 100 grams butter (3.5 oz), at room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Lemon and orange zest, grated from one lemon and half an orange
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  1. If you’re using regular dried yeast, dissolve it in about half of the warm milk with a bit of sugar, and wait for it to begin to bubble. This should take 10 – 15 minutes. Then add to a mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients and proceed to step 3.
  2. If you’re using instant yeast (teeny-tiny granules of yeast), just toss everything into a mixing bowl.
  3. Mix everything well, and knead for 10 minutes (using your hands or a dough hook), until the dough is very smooth and supple. As with any yeasted dough, the consistency of the dough is more important than the exact proportion of flour and liquid, so add one or the other as needed to get it right. The ideal dough should be very soft and pliable, but still able to hold its shape. It should be shiny and very smooth, and when it is properly kneaded, you should be able to stretch a small piece to form a thin translucent membrane.
  4. Form into a boule (fancy French baking term for pulling it into a tight ball), spray lightly with oil, cover and let rise for an hour. Punch it down, cover with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge overnight.

The Poppy Seed Filling

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Poppy seeds

  • 300 ml (10 fl oz) milk or milk substitute
  • 200 grams (7 oz) sugar
  • 100 grams (3.5 oz) honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • grated lemon zest from one lemon
  • 350 grams (about 12.5 oz) poppy seeds
  • Up to 250 grams (about 9 oz) finely ground butter cookies or something similar (see note below)
  • 100 grams (3.5 oz) butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
  1. Using a coffee grinder, grind the poppy seeds till fairly well processed. You don’t want a paste, but you do want them obviously ground.
  2. Place milk, sugar, honey, vanilla and lemon zest in a saucepan and heat on medium heat till the sugar and honey dissolve and the milk starts to boil. Lower the heat and add the ground poppy seeds. Let cook on low for about 5 minutes more, then start adding the cookie crumbs.
    NOTE: the cookie crumbs are to help absorb the extra liquid, to make the filling the right consistency to spread. Start with a little and add more as needed, keeping in mind that the mixture will thicken as it cools. Also, it doesn’t have to be cookie crumbs. Extra pastry will work, as will ground-up ice cream cones or even finely-ground rice cake if you want to keep the filling gluten-free. For the batch I made for this blog post, I actually used some matzah cake meal I had left over from Passover, and it worked out just fine.
  3. Mix well and remove from heat. Stir in the butter cubes and let them melt into the mixture. Refrigerate overnight.
  4. For me, the hardest part of this recipe is leaving it in the fridge and not just eating it all right now. Be strong. You can do it.

Putting it together

This is my method for a large eye-catching babka. You can also just roll it out into thin layers with filling in between, cut it to fit two loaf pans, and bake it like that.

  1. Take everything out of the fridge a couple of hours before you start to work. You want the filling to soften a bit, and you want the dough to be cool and pliable, but not cold.
  2. Prepare a baking pan. I like to do this in a large spring-form pan. Cover the base with a piece of parchment paper that overlaps the base by a bit on all sides.
  3. Divide the dough into three even sections. Roll or stretch the first into a circle about the size of the base, and place it onto the parchment-covered base. (It might be easier to do this on a second piece of parchment; I like the insides a bit sticky, so I prefer not to flour my surface, but do what works for you.)
  4. Cover the dough with half of the filling and spread evenly, leaving a bit of a border at the edge of the circle.
  5. Repeat with the second section of dough, and the rest of the filling. Top with the final circle of dough. Pinch the edges closed around the rim.
  6. Mark out a small circle about 8cm / 3 inches in diameter, in the centre of the circle of dough. A drinking glass should give you what you need. With a sharp knife or a cleaver, cut the cake into quarters, leaving the centre circle UNCUT. Repeat by cutting each quarter in half, and then half again. You should end up with a large circle with a solid small circle in the middle, with the outer section sliced into 16 strips. Dampening the knife between each cut helps deal with the stickiness.
  7. Taking the outer edges of two adjacent strips, twist them toward each other so what had been the top is now upside down, on the surface of the base. (It’s easier than it sounds. Just grab and twist. Really.) Repeat all around, until all the strips have been twisted. It should give you a lovely design of dough and filling. Check out the photos below. They might help.
  8. Carefully slide the base of the spring-form pan into the edge, letting the parchment fold up inside. This will let the cake release easily from the pan once it’s done.
  9. Spray the top lightly with oil and let rise in a warm spot for an hour or so. I like to use the inside of the oven, with a bowl of steaming hot water to keep the air warm and moist.
  10. Remove from oven, and brush some beaten egg or a bit of milk over the top if desired. Preheat the oven to 350F, and when the oven is hot, bake the pastry for 40-60 minutes.
  11. Remove the side of the pan, allow to cool, and devour.

Shepherd(less) Pie

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I have vague memories from when I was very young of eating Shepherd’s Pie. I never enjoyed meat, but those layers of fresh green peas and creamy mashed potatoes stayed with me for years and years. Luckily, there are any number of delicious ways to recreate this traditional dish for a meatless diet, and this is my current favourite.

I initially adapted this version from a Passover recipe. I still make it at Pesach, and I get a lot of comments and requests for the recipe (so… ta-da!!!!! Here it is!). But a word of warning: my Pesach includes kitniyot, as does this pie. If you’ve also moved over to the dark side and are ready to enjoy Pesach food again, give this a try! If not, try it during the rest of the year. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, ignore this whole paragraph and start cooking.

You can easily make this vegan, by omitting the egg, and/or gluten-free, by omitting the matzah meal. It won’t change the taste, but the bottom layer won’t hold together quite as well. You could try sneaking in a bit of potato starch to see if that helps, but I really don’t think it’s a problem at all.

Also, I often cheat and use potato flakes for the potato layer, because it’s Pesach and I have enough stuff to cook. I won’t judge you.

Disclaimer: No shepherds were harmed in the creation of this recipe, although a whole bunch of chickpeas met their delicious end.

Pesach Shepherd’s Pie

  • 3 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1 small orange or yellow bell pepper, diced small
  • 2 stalks celery, diced small
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • 2 tsp each dried basil and oregano, or 1 tsp each fresh
  • 3 medium carrots, shredded
  • 1 zucchini, shredded
  • 1 ½ cups cooked chickpeas
  • ½ cup matzah meal
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups peas and corn, in any proportion you like. If you use frozen, that’s fine, but thaw them before using them.
  • 2 ½ cups potato flakes or 5 white potatoes, boiled till soft and mashed
  • Milk, butter and salt as desired for the potatoes. Replace these with water and oil or margarine to keep it pareve or vegan
  • Paprika to sprinkle on top.
  1. Prepare a 9×13-inch pan with a spray of oil or parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  2. Saute the onion, bell pepper, celery, salt and pepper in oil till soft. Add the carrots and zucchini, and then the chickpeas and herbs. Test seasonings, then add matzah meal and egg if you’re using them.
  3. Spread this into the prepared 9×13-inch casserole dish. Top with the peas and corn and spread these evenly.
  4. Make the mashed potatoes. If you’re using flakes, about 3 cups of boiling water will do. You want the potatoes fairly soft and easy to spread. Add butter, milk, salt, etc, until you’re happy with the taste.
  5. Very carefully, spread the potatoes onto the pea/corn layer. I usually do this in several thin layers, because the first one will mess up all those peas that you’ve so carefully arranged. The second layer will only mess it up a bit, and the third layer will be all potato. Dust paprika lightly on top of the potato layer.
  6. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes.
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All gone!

Heads-up on a good book deal

If you read and enjoyed Ginger Monette’s Darcy’s Hope saga, you might want to check out a novel she has on sale until April 20, 2017. Tree of Life ~ Charlotte & the Colonel tells the tale of two childhood friends who find each other as adults… but is it too late?

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I read this book too long ago to review properly now, but I do recall enjoying it very much. As always, Ms. Monette’s writing is beautiful and her story is compelling and psychologically deep.

Be warned: there is a strong religious / Christian theme running through the novel. It isn’t offensive in any way, and it is well in keeping with the time period and the characters, but I know it’s not to everyone’s tastes. I did know this when I first read the book a couple of years ago, and having that information up-front meant it wasn’t a problem at all for me. I appreciate it when authors are clear about their ideology and framework, rather than sneaking stuff in.

Regardless…. it’s a very good story and worth the time to read it! Here are some links:

More info on Facebook

Amazon US               Amazon Canada               Amazon UK

Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Norris by Alexa Adams

A newcomer to the world of Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) might be excused from thinking that the great lady only wrote one novel – Pride and Prejudice. The vast majority of works in the world of JAFF focus on Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and for good reason, for theirs is a classic tale, an archetype of the story of mistaken first impressions and the coming together of two very different but complementary souls. Further explorations might lead a reader to variations based Austen’s other works, and such deviations can prove most enriching indeed. For lurking in these other tales are some wonderful stories and a myriad of fascinating and exquisitely-drawn characters.

Of the six published novels Jane Austen left us, Mansfield Park is one of the less-admired and certainly less-fan-fictioned. In many ways this is understandable, for the story of a young girl growing up with much wealthier cousins does not translate as well to modern interpretations, and the protagonist, quiet and retiring Fanny Price, takes a lot longer to get to know and love than the scintillating Elizabeth Bennet or the impulsively romantic Marianne Dashwood.

But this is also a pity, for there is so much in Mansfield Park to stir our emotions and imaginations. I, for one, have rather strong feelings about the novel, and if I ever feel my writing chops are up to the task, I have a story that I’d love to tell. Others with greater skills than my own have also set their pens to exploring and enlarging upon the tale, and Miss Austen has kindly given us a wealth of wonderful characters with whom to spend our times and exercise our creative juices.

One of these characters, all so beautifully and carefully drawn, is Fanny’s vile aunt, Mrs. Norris. She is a most unsympathetic character, full of self-serving schemes and self-aggrandizing manipulations. Not too long ago, talented author Alexa Adams set herself the task of trying to understand Mrs. Norris, to see what led a well-born lady to become so horrid a character.

The result can be seen in Becoming Mrs. Norris: A Mansfield Part Prequel. This is the third instalment of a series of Twisted Austen novellas which Ms. Adams has written in the dark spirit of Halloween. I was not certain what to expect, but to my great delight, I found myself transported by Ms. Adams’ beautiful prose to a world where I (gasp!) actually came to sympathize with the awful aunt. And, with that, here is my review.

Becoming Mrs Norris

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Becoming Mrs. Norris: A Mansfield Park Prequel (Twisted Austen Book 3) by Alexa Adams

Well, I never thought I’d find myself feeling sorry for Mrs. Norris! In her novella Becoming Mrs. Norris, Alexa Adams explores the events that might have created such a nasty woman as Fanny Price’s despised aunt. Set about thirty years before the events of Mansfield Park, this story paints a sad tale of cruelty and sacrifice, and of the spirit and strength required to rise above what life doles out. If we do not end up liking the manipulative aunt from Jane Austen’s novel, we do understand her somewhat better, and perhaps even sympathize with her just a bit.

As always, Ms. Adams’ writing is lovely. (If you haven’t read The Madness of Mr. Darcy, do yourself a favour). The prose flows beautifully from her pen, and her style captures the elegance and wit of Jane Austen’s own. Her characters work well in the story, while remaining true to how they appear in Mansfield Park. They are real and realistic, and you can easily feel you know them as well as the people you meet around town.

If I have criticisms, they are few. The ending seemed somewhat abrupt, and I would have loved some more insight into how poor Miss Ward’s awful experiences as a young woman twisted inside her after what seemed to have been a good marriage to a good man. Still, if you have ever wondered about the nasty creature that is Fanny Price’s aunt, wonder no more and read this story! It’s definitely time well spent.

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For more about Alexa Adams, check out her website at http://alexaadams.blogspot.com/.  There are some fascinating article, neat links, and a bunch of fun things to read.

Becoming Mrs. Norris can be purchased at the usual places, including Amazon (US, Canada, UK).

For Purim: Besan Burfee ~ Chickpea Fudge

Purim is around the corner, just days away, sneaking up on those of us who aren’t quite so prepared, ready to pounce. This is the holiday when we commemorate the courage of a brave woman – Queen Esther – who risked her life to save her people from the evil plans of an unscrupulous and power-hungry politician in long-ago Persia. To celebrate, we dress up in costume, hold parties, donate to the needy, and exchange gifts of food with friends. You can read more about Purim and the various traditions associated with it here.

The food most often associated with Purim is Hamantashen, those triangular pastries stuffed with an ever-expanding selection of fillings. Poppy seeds are a favourite, as are fruit and chocolate; some filings are even savoury, to be served as a snack rather than a sweet. Last year, I discovered a Persian delight called Nanbrangi.

This year, I wanted to find another less-common treat that still resonated with the holiday. I thought for a while about the story of Purim, and about what foods might be a good fit thematically while still being delicious – always my first requirement. I remembered that in the story, King Ahasuerus is said to reign from Hodu to Kush – from India to Ethiopia. I’ve been known to dabble in Indian food (alright, I’ve been known to make a complete glutton of myself around Indian food), and I sudden realized that I had the perfect recipe already.

We usually make this treat at Chanukah, since it is heavily oil-based, but it’s a treat at any time of the year, and will make a great addition to my baggies of treats that I’ll be giving to friends in a few days time. The name of this treat? Besan Burfee.

Besan WHAT? you ask. Never mind the name, in any language. This might sound like the sort of thing your well-meaning parent made to try to trick you into eating more veggies, but this is a genuine treat! Think rich and yummy and a bit nutty, with those tantalizing flavours of cardamom and pistachio hovering at the edges of your taste-buds, coaxing you, “have another piece, c’mon, just one more.”  If you’re still not convinced, think of the mouth-watering temptation of peanut butter fudge, but without the allergy concerns.

This recipe is vegan and gluten-free, and can be made nut-free as well if you leave out the pistachios. But don’t, unless you have to, because they’re part of what makes it so delicious.

The main ingredient is chickpea flour, which used to be tricky to find. These days, in our multi-ethnic cities and with our large supermarkets, its much, much easier to come by. You might find it in the Asian or Indian food aisle, labelled Besan, or you can look for it in areas that cater to the Italian population, where it’s called Farina di Ceci.

A couple of notes:

  1. You don’t need a food thermometer for this recipe, but it makes it so much easier and prevents burned fingers. These thermometers aren’t expensive (I got mine for about $12 a couple of years ago), and are more useful than you’d imagine.
  2. I use a silicone cake dish for this recipe. The silicone bends so the squares don’t break when you cut them, and it’s non-stick so the little squares of fudge pop right out without sticking to the pan.

Enjoy!

Besan Burfee (Indian Chickpea Fudge)

  • 1 ½ cups chickpea flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom seeds
  • 2 – 3 TBSP unsalted pistachios, lightly crushed (I roast mine lightly, because I prefer the flavour. Your choice.)

Sift the chickpea flour. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the chickpea flour. Stir and fry 2 – 3 minutes until it turns a darker shade and tastes fried and not raw. Put into a large bowl, stir once and allow to cool.

Make a syrup with 1 cup water and 2 cups sugar by boiling these together for about 20 minutes, until the syrup reaches the one-thread consistency (put a bit between your finger and thumb and separate them slowly; the syrup should form a single thread between them). If you have a candy thermometer, this is about 230-234F. My preference is 232F, since a lower temperature makes for gooier fudge, and higher makes the fudge a bit crumbly.

Pour the hot syrup into the cooled chickpea mixture. Add the cardamom and nuts and mix well. Keep stirring until the mixture starts to set slightly. Pour into a 9-inch square cake pan, tilt so the mixture flows to the edges, and allow to cool. Cut into small cubes.

This is VERY sweet, so make the cubes small.

Book Review: Darcy’s Hope at Donwell Abbey…. And another recipe!

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A few months ago, I was honoured to host a stop on Ginger Monette’s blog tour for her recently-released novel Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes (you can read that review, and find the link to the very yummy poppy seed brioche recipe, here). I was even more honoured when she asked if I would take part in the tour for the continuation of that novel, and I jumped at the opportunity. Her books are a pleasure to read and a pleasure to write about.

One of the things I enjoy about reviewing books is the opportunity to get to know some of the authors a bit and talk to them about various aspects of their novels. In the case of Donwell Abbey, the conversation revolved around food, because what good is a book review on a food blog without a recipe to go with it? Ms. Monette mentioned a scene in her story in which the characters are eating lemon squares, and thus an obsession began to find the perfect lemon square recipe. You can read all about that adventure here. If you try them, you can let me know if you’ve had better.

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You can follow the blog tour with all its various stops through this link or by clicking on the banner below, and if you’re in the US, don’t forget to check out the raffle at the bottom of the page for a giveaway of some yummy Downton Abbey Tea. (Hint: tea goes extremely nicely with lemon squares.)

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Darcy’s Hope at Donwell Abbey

In the first book of Darcy’s Hope, author Ginger Monette gives us a gritty and poignant retelling of Pride and Prejudice set against the churning backdrop of the First World War. At the conclusion of Beauty from Ashes, all seemed well as Elizabeth was heading to Pemberley to await Darcy’s return from the theatre of war for his Christmas leave. But during war, there are all too often nefarious forces afoot that ruin the soundest of plans. This is where the second novel of the two-part series begins.

In and amidst these tumultuous events, Elizabeth Bennet is unwittingly swept up in a web of treachery, treason, and deceit, and finds herself forced to abandon the one man she has ever truly loved. By remaining under his protection and at his side, she fears that the stain of guilt that has been cast upon her by others will endanger her beloved Darcy’s reputation – and perhaps even his life! Feeling she has no other choice, she runs away from her safe haven, leaving no clues as to her destination. Terrifying events soon convince her that her choice was not only right but necessary, and she redoubles her determination to vanish forever.

Darcy is devastated by the disappearance of his cherished Elizabeth, and all thoughts of finding her haunt him ceaselessly. He wishes only to search for her, but his duties as a captain in the army must take precedence, leaving him on the front lines, facing a ruthless enemy. He is still reeling from this loss when a horrific attack leaves him critically injured and he is sent home, barely alive, to recover at the soldiers’ hospital at Donwell Abbey. Lost in a world of pain and despair, the only thing that gives his life any meaning is the caring touch of his nurse, who reminds him so much of his lost Elizabeth. He starts to develop feelings for her, but Elizabeth is still out there somewhere…

While continuing the saga of the characters from the first volume, Donwell Abbey traces their trials and tribulations after the conclusion of the story as set out in Jane Austen’s beloved classic. Allowing her imagination free reign, Ms. Monette is able to throw Elizabeth and Darcy into entirely new and challenging situations as they face obstacle after obstacle to their ability to reunite and finally find happiness.

Traditionally, continuations of classic stories rely on two things: an interesting storyline and the continuity of established characters. Ms. Monette succeeds on both levels. Her story is realistic and engaging, drawing in the reader with her creative plot and vivid descriptions, both of the setting of the story as it occurs and of the several flashbacks. At the same time, she allows her characters to grow and evolve in a natural way, while always remaining true to both Austen’s archetypes and her own characters as she limned them in Beauty from Ashes. They are real and human, completely believable, and true to themselves.

“So,” you say, “a good story is nice, and good characters are nice, but I judge a book by how well it’s written. Tell me about the writing.” Alright. I have a couple of anecdotes to share in that regard. When I first picked up this book, I thought I would read through the first couple of pages to get a sense of where the story began, fully intending to pick it up and start reading seriously the next day. Well, two hours later, I finally forced myself to put it down, because it was well past midnight. Similarly, I read a lot while at the gym. I sit myself down on the exercise bike and try to keep myself amused with a book for the next half hour as I pedal myself to exhaustion. With this novel, however, I was so engrossed that I have no idea how long I spent on the bike that day, since both the half hour of pedalling and the five minutes for cool down had both long elapsed. Suffice it to say, I was engrossed!

Quibbles… It’s hard to think of a quibble. Perhaps there were one or two obstacles on the path to Happily Ever After that were not quite necessary, but without obstacles, a story won’t take you anywhere. I loved the inclusion of cameo roles by other favourites from literature, such as John Thornton, Margaret Hale, Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood, and I would have loved more of their stories. But a little bird may have suggested that their stories are still to come. Dare we hope?

I’m not a fan of rating creative works on a scale of one to four or five, since I don’t like reducing an author’s efforts to a number of stars, but I will say that I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. If you enjoy historical romance (or even if you don’t yet), give this one a try. You won’t be disappointed at all.

Note: Donwell Abbey may be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel, but readers may experience some minor confusion without the context of the mystery of Darcys Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes.

You can get in touch with author Ginger Monette through her website or Facebook page or on Goodreads.

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If you’re in the US, you can enter a raffle to win one of three tins of Downton Abbey Legacy Tea! The rafflecopter widget won’t show up on this page, but this link should take you to where you can enter. You can get extra entries too by commenting, sharing, or signing up for Ms. Monette’s newsletter or Facebook page. You can enter here:

Rafflecopter giveaway

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You can purchase Darcy’s Hope at a Donwell Abbey at any one of a number of booksellers through this link: books2read.com/u/3yP2Le

 

 

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To purchase the first volume, Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes, use the following link: https://books2read.com/u/47kXOj

 

 

Lemon Squares… and a book review

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When I was asked to host a stop on Ginger Monette’s blog tour for Darcy’s Hope at Donwell Abbey, the first question I had was “what did the characters eat?” My initial thoughts of a wounded soldier recovering near his wealthy family’s estate in England involved images of scones and cream teas. I thought of writing about the delicious scones I make whenever the mood strikes. But then, while chatting a bit with the book’s author, she mentioned that there in a scene in her novel where the characters enjoy lemon squares.

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You have to read the book to see where the lemon squares come in!

“Aha!” I thought. “I make lemon squares, and fairly good ones too.” But fairly good wasn’t quite good enough, and so I embarked upon a quest for the Perfect Lemon Square. (Did you hear heavenly music when I said that? (Try this: The Perfect Lemon Square)

To be fair, most of the recipes I tried were almost identical, so it seems that the Perfect Lemon Square has almost been achieved, but I still did some tweaking of my own. My poor family was forced to consume batch after batch, as I tried adding baking soda, or removing it, or seeing how many lemons created the ideal blend of tart / sweet. How I made them suffer. I don’t believe they ever want to see another lemon square, at least till next time I make them.

Now, lemon squares, especially perfect ones, are best enjoyed with tea and a good book. For both of those, check out this link to the book review that spurred this obsession. At the bottom, you’ll find a raffle for a tin of tea (for Americans only, I’m afraid). The raffle is open till February 28, 2017.

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This is from an earlier attempt. Yummy, but a bit gooey. This was one thing I was trying to fix.

The Perfect Lemon Square

Nothing’s really perfect, but these come close.

Crust:

  • 1 cup pastry flour
  • ½ cup cold butter
  • ½ cup icing sugar (confectioners sugar)
  • Pinch salt

Filling:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • Zest of 2 lemons (about 1 TBSP)
  • Juice of 2 lemons (about 4 – 6 TBSP)
  • 4 scant TBSP flour
  1. Line a 9×9-inch baking tin with parchment paper or tin foil, and press into the pan to get a perfect fit. Spray lightly with oil or a non-stick spray. This will help it all come out nicely after it’s baked.
  2. In a food processor or with a pastry cutter (or two knives, even), combine all the crust ingredients and process until it’s a uniform crumbly mixture. It will look like sand. That’s okay. Press into the bottom of the lined tin. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until just golden
  3. While the crust is baking, beat the eggs in a mixer until they are very light and fluffy. This might take a couple of minutes. You want to get a lot of air in them. Add the sugar and keep beating. The mixture should be very light and creamy-looking. Add the zest and juice and the flour and beat again to combine.
  4. When the crust is ready, remove it from the oven and pour the lemon mixture onto the hot crust, then return it to the oven. Bake for another 25 minutes (but check it after 20, just to make sure it’s not burning). Remove from the oven and let cool for an hour or so. Chill in the refrigerator.
  5. When cold, carefully remove the bars (in their tin-foil shell) from the cake pan. I sometimes just turn the whole thing upside down over a cookie sheet, and then flip it again. Slice it into equal squares, your choice of size. 1-1/2-inch is a good size but you can see what you feel like. The squares should peel easily from the foil or parchment. They are easier to cut with a wet knife, so try that if they seem soft and mushy. Sprinkle with a dusting of icing sugar if desired. Hide from your family so you can eat them all.
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Ready to enjoy with a cup of tea and a good book

Not your Uncle Malcolm’s Haggis

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Each year, we look forward to hosting a Burns Night with some good friends, and the highlight is always the haggis. Or at least, that’s what I like to think, since I’m the chef.

But this isn’t your traditional haggis, for we are vegetarian, and haggis is about the most non-vegetarian dish I can think of. Luckily, somewhere along the road, somebody got creative and this treat was born.

I posted the recipe a few years ago, but it was hidden in the body of a longer post, and it really deserves a bit of the spotlight. So, in preparation for this year’s event, I dug out my camera and took some photos of the work-in-progress. For the final product, you’ll have to check back tomorrow, when I’ll finish the wee beastie and show you what it looks like just before being devoured.

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Notes:

  1. For the group we have over, I double the quantities in the recipe below.
  2. I don’t cook with the fine single malt I like to drink, so please forgive the Famous Grouse. Cheers!
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Assembling some of the ingredients

Yuba-Wrapped Vegetarian Haggis

From Fresh From the Vegetarian Slow Cooker (Robin Robertson, The Harvard Common Press, 2004)

  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, finely shredded
  • 4 ounces white mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 ¾ cups vegetable stock or water
  • ¾ cup rolled oats
  • 1 ½ cups cooked kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2/3 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 TBSP minced fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 TBSP Scotch whisky (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp tamari or other soy sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp dried thyme
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 large sheet fresh or frozen yuba (bean curd skin), thawed if necessary
  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots, cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and stock, stir in the oats, reduce heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
  2. Mash or coarsely chop the kidney beans and stir into the oat mixture. Add the nuts, parsley, whisky (if using), tamari, thyme, nutmeg, and cayenne, and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Mix well to combine.
  3. The bean curd should be soft, not brittle. If it is brittle, soak in a shallow bowl of water for a few seconds to soften. Line a lightly oiled 4-quart slow cooker with the yuba and spoon the stuffing mixture inside. Fold the yuba sheet over onto the mixture to enclose it. Cover and cook on Low for 4 hours.

NOTE from me – never having found yuba, I just make a soft pastry (like for samosas) and roll it as thinly as I can without worrying about it breaking. It’s easier to use if the filling is cold. I use that instead of the yuba, and bake the whole thing in the oven. (Try 400F for about an hour.) The pastry is then crispy, instead of soft, but we like the texture.

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You mean I’m not just supposed to drink this?

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All the ingredients added, ready to mix

Added the next day: And… the finished product!

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Addressing the Haggis

Chai-Flavoured Biscotti

Every year, as December approaches, I start planning my annual Christmas Cookie Collection, the assortment of baked treats that my husband takes to his various staff and colleagues at work, as part of the gift exchange there. No matter what one’s religion, there’s always room on one’s faith for a home-made cookie or twelve. Some recipes remain on the list from year to year, while others come and go. One of my favourite parts of the whole cookie-baking-extravaganza is the licence to experiment with new and wonderful treats, whether from the newspaper’s cookie calendar, from cookbooks, or from my imagination.

(For some recipes from a few years ago, see this old post here.)

This year, as I started my baking, I realized that I had not done the shopping trip necessary to procure all my ingredients, but the need to bake was strong. And so I took stock of what was in my pantry and got creative. I love cooking foods from different cultures around the world, and I also enjoy mixing cuisines and traditions. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my favourite Chanukah treats aren’t latkes or sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), but samosas! With that in mind, this is what I did.

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I had some crystallized ginger that my son brought home a few weeks previous, and my spice rack is always full and expansive. And so I thought – Chai Biscotti with chopped ginger inside! I mixed and I stirred and I tasted and adjusted, and the results were so yummy that I had to make a second batch to take along to a family gathering yesterday. These are great in tea, coffee, and even hot chocolate.

I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

Chai-Flavoured Biscotti

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 TBSP baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup crystallized ginger (candied ginger), chopped into small pieces
  • 3-1/4 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
  • 2 TSBP white chocolate for the drizzle (optional)

In a sturdy mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until the mixture is light and a bit frothy. Carefully pour in the oil, mixing thoroughly to incorporate. Add the baking powder and spices, and then mix in the flour and ginger, till well-blended, but not mixing more than necessary.

Prepare a baking sheet with some parchment paper or a silicon sheet, and preheat the oven to 375F. Separate the biscotti dough into two equal (or as close as you can manage without stressing out about it) portions, and shape each blob of dough into a long log, about 3 inches wide and half an inch high. This is a lot easier with damp hands, because the dough is sticky!

Bake at 375F for 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven, but leave the oven on. As soon as you can handle the baked logs, slice them carefully crosswise into biscuits about 1/2 inch across. Arrange the slices on the cookie sheet (and you’ll probably need a second one as well), so they’re standing upright, with about a half-inch to an inch between them. Return to the oven and bake again (“biscotti” means “baked twice”) for another 10 minutes.

When they’re out of the oven, if you like a drizzle, melt the white chocolate carefully with a scant teaspoon of veggie oil, and using the tines of a fork, scoop up some chocolate and let it drizzle across the cooling biscotti. Do not eat in a single sitting.

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