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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Brioche au Pavot ~ Poppy Seed Brioche… and a book review

I was inspired to play with this recipe by a book I was given to review. Ginger Monette’s lovely Pride and Prejudice variation – Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes – is set in a field hospital in Northern France during the First World War. It would not be unexpected for her characters to head into the closest village to find some patisserie at a bun shop, as letters home from English nurses of the time attested, or for the cook at the chateau which was transformed into the field hospital to create in what little spare time she had.

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Why this recipe? Well, first of all, it’s yummy. Really yummy. It’s amazing fresh, warm from the oven. It’s also amazing the next day, lightly toasted, with a thin smear of butter. It’s rich and tender and soft and did I say yummy? Second, with Remembrance Day fast approaching, poppy seeds seem to come to mind, as does the rich and tasty bread we so associate with French cuisine. The tie-in with the book I was reading seemed ideal. And did I mention that it’s yummy?

The pastry for this brioche isn’t quite a poor man’s brioche, nor is it a rich man’s, which would contain just enough flour to hold the butter together. Rather, it is rich and buttery enough to be delicious, while still being easy to work with. The raisins give the bread a chewy little extra; I soaked mine in some Sortilège, a Canadian maple whisky liqueur, but feel free to substitute your liquor of choice (rum… brandy…) or just a bit of hot water with a bit of lemon extract in it if you don’t use alcohol.

The recipe itself is adapted and translated by yours truly from a book we picked up in Quebec City a couple of years ago, Les meilleures recettes de pain autour du monde, published in 2015 by Marabou, in France. I was rather disappointed to discover that the cookbook was itself translated into French from its original English, because brioche really should be from a French book. Of course, being me, I changed the recipe quite a bit, so what you see here bears only a slight resemblance to the original, in whatever language it might have been printed.

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Check out the book review that inspired this creation. You need something to read while sipping café au lait and nibbling delicately on brioche. There’s also a bonus for anyone who purchases the book during the blog tour, until November 22, 2016, as well as a giveaway during the same blog tour.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, start your mixers!

Brioche au Pavot – Poppy Seed Brioche

  • 7g / 1 packet / 2 tsp dry yeast
  • 180ml / ¾ cup warm milk (just to body temperature)
  • 550g / 4.5 cups bread or all-purpose flour
  • 100g / 1/3 cup sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 120g / ½ cup butter at room temperature
  • 180g / 2 cups raisins
  • Liqueur or flavouring of your choice, optional
  • 1 egg for the egg wash
  • 30g / 2 TBSP poppy seeds
  1. Dissolve the yeast in some of the warm milk. Let sit about five minutes, until it starts to froth.
  1. In a mixing bowl, or the bowl of a mixer, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the egg yolks, butter and the yeast mixture, along with the rest of the warm milk. Mix till well incorporated and knead for 10-20 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and elastic. Form into a boule and spray the surface with oil (or rub with a thin coat of butter) to prevent it from drying out. Return to the bowl and cover with a clean cloth, then leave it to rise, about 1 hour, till doubled in size. If your kitchen is on the cool side, this may take quite a bit longer.
  1. While the dough is rising, plump the raisins in a small amount of hot water. Don’t use too much, because you don’t want to leech out all the flavour. After about 15 minutes, drain the water and add a bit of your chosen flavouring (rum, liqueur, flavour essence, etc) for the raisins to soak up. You don’t want this mixture too liquidy, so be stingy here.
  1. When the dough has risen, roll it out on a large flat surface. Divide it in two, and continue rolling each half to form a large rectangle, about 8 inches across by 12 inches long, at a thickness of about ¼ inch / 1/2 cm. Distribute the raisins evenly across the dough, leaving some space at the edges. Roll the dough up tightly, starting at a short edge, pulling it slightly as you roll, to keep the surface tension taut. This helps strengthen the gluten strands and gives a nice texture to the finished loaf. When you reach the end, pinch the raw edge and the bottom of the loaf together, so the raisins can’t escape. Do the same with the sides of the loaf. Repeat with the other loaf, and place then, seams down, on a parchment-covered baking sheet.
  1. Whisk your final egg and brush the surface of the loaves with the egg. Spray lightly with oil again and let rise about 1.5 hours, till doubled in size again. Brush once more with egg, then sprinkle very generously with poppy seeds, about 1 TBSP per loaf. Bake in a preheated 350F / 180C oven for 35-45 minutes. Cool on a rack, and eat at room temperature if you can wait that long. You don’t have to share.

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Book Review: Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty From Ashes…. And a recipe!

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I am delighted to host a stop on a blog tour of a new release this week! Yes, it’s another book review, but this one is something a bit different, because a) there’s a raffle for a giveaway for British and American readers, and b) I’m pairing it with a recipe.

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Poppy seed brioche… just like they might have eaten at The Ritz, the field hospital in this story

Today is November 6th. In less than a week, it will be Remembrance Day, when we commemorate the conclusion of the First World War and think about the brave men and women who lost their lives fighting for their countries. It is nearly a century since the armistice was signed, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, but the results of that war linger. In Canada, we wear poppies to remember the fields where soldiers lie buried in the mud of northern France and Belgium; school children still learn and recite John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields“; we reflect sadly that the Great War was not, indeed, the war to end all wars, and that our brothers and sisters still fight and die for their nations and their people, and we hope for the day when we will finally see a lasting peace.

Poppies are symbolic of the loss of the war because of their prevalence in the fields where slain soldiers were buried; their red blooms a cheery contrast to the terrible loss and devastation all around them. Ginger Monette’s World War I-based novel does not dwell on poppies, but death and devastation are the sad background to her story, a skillful combination of mystery and romance. From the rubble of ruined towns and ruined lives, in the midst of a field hospital where doctors and nurses work tirelessly to save lives and mourn those they are unable to save, two people find each other through the smoke and carnage.

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Scene from an early operating theatre

Poppies are also the source of a wonderfully tasty seed that decorates and flavours pastries and other treats across Europe. Since this is primarily a food and cooking blog, I thought it would be interesting to find some recipe that reflects the location of the novel and the flower that has come to symbolize the Great War. Chatting with the author of this novel, I learned from her that English nurses working in field hospitals in the region would sometimes write home about the bun shops they found in the towns near their hospitals, and since bread is one of the delights of French cuisine, what could be better than a traditional brioche recipe? Add some poppy seeds, and it’s a perfect recipe to cook and nibble at while reading a fine story. Click here for the link to the recipe for Poppy Seed Brioche. But be warned: this bread is addictive!

Keep reading after the review itself for the link to the giveaway.

Now for the novel itself… here is my review.

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Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes by Ginger Monette

Pride and Prejudice is, for me, the literary equivalent to J.S. Bach. As a musician, I have heard and played Bach’s music so many times over the years, I could not begin to enumerate them. I have performed his music on period instruments in the style of the late 1600s; I have performed his music on modern instruments, and on instruments that hadn’t been imagined when the great composer lived. I have heard Bach played on synthesizer and steel drums, hummed and vocalized by a capella choirs, and set to rock and roll rhythms with a beat box in the background. And it all works. His music transcends time and style, dependent only on the skill of the musician to bring the music to life.

Likewise Jane Austen’s classic. Variations set during the early nineteenth century in England work. Modern retellings work. Add some zombies, and amazingly, it still works. Her characters are iconic, her story, like Bach’s music, timeless. And here, it is the skill of the author that brings the tale to life, skill which Ginger Monette possesses in abundance. Her novel is carefully researched, beautifully written, and tells a lovely and timeless story.

Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes is a retelling set neither during the Regency period nor in modern day, but during the tumultuous years of the First World War. The elegant balls have been replaced by trenches, the grand estates literally overrun by the army to create field hospitals to treat wounded soldiers. The elegant gowns and dashing frockcoats have become nursing aprons and army uniforms, as often as not torn and coated in blood and mud. In the skillful hands of author Ginger Monette, these details only serve to highlight the relationship between the characters, bringing them into stark relief, and letting us see the beauty that can arise from the ashes of war.

Elizabeth Bennet sees her life falling apart as the war progresses. Her family is in tatters, her home destroyed, and her dreams of becoming a doctor in ruins. The blame for all of this she places squarely on the shoulders of Captain Darcy, whose mission to Longbourn she sees as the beginning of the disasters. Eventually, however, she finds new purpose as a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse at a field hospital just behind the lines in northern France, all the while insisting to herself that she will never rely on a man for anything. As for Darcy, he has forsworn all sentimental attachments after seeing his men slaughtered on the battlefield. Sent on an unwanted intelligence mission, he finds himself back in the presence of the woman who spurned him and broke his heart.  However, it could very be that Elizabeth herself is the traitor he is seeking!

The bulk of the story takes place after Darcy’s initial proposal of marriage, and traces the growth and changes in the characters as they are forced to work together. Ms. Monette sketches these changes with a deft hand, letting the characters grow naturally and organically, with startling epiphanies of insight interspersed with periods of reflection and change. The characters are real and vibrant and full of life. While a romance at heart, there is also a mystery to be solved in this novel. The various story lines, and the characters that drive them on, are nicely woven together, creating a rich and believable world in which the many actors play their roles. There is just enough suspense, just enough human drama, to keep us reading late into the night, waiting to see what will happen next. And romance. Of course, romance!

While Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty From Ashes is a complete story in itself, the mystery is not completely solved in this book. For that, we’ll have to wait till the release of the second volume, due to be published on January 1, 2017.

I’m not a fan of rating novels with numbers, since I feel that it’s unfair to reduce the sweep of a story  and the lives of carefully constructed characters to numbers, but I most definitely enjoyed this one, and would heartily recommend it! (And it’s even better with a toasted slice of brioche… of course!)

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Since this second instalment of the story takes place at Donwell Abbey, the details inspired by Downton Abbey, Ms. Monette is giving away some Downton Abbey tree ornaments! Check her website for details, and if the gods of the Internet smile upon me, you can enter the contest here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Darcy’s Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes is available at Amazon, and check out this special bonus!

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Amazon US ~ Amazon Canada ~ Amazon UK ~ Kobo ~ Nook
Goodreads

Portobello Mushroom Stroganoff

The recipe you’ve all been waiting for!

A couple of weeks ago I tried a new recipe. It sounded good, and I’m always happy to explore new culinary experiences. After all, how far wrong can one go with noodles and mushrooms? The recipe, as it was, tasted just fine, but I’m never one to leave good enough alone, at least as far as food is concerned. (We’ll not discuss housework in this context, okay?) So I played around, and came up with something that I liked even more. This recipe is rich, very creamy, and totally yummy. It’s great over egg noodles, but it would be just as terrific over toast or quinoa or something similar. If you find it too rich for your tastes, try thinning it with some water, or replacing the liquid from the dried mushrooms with some water or broth.

Enjoy!

Portobello Mushroom Stroganoff

Serves 4. Or one teenaged boy.

  • 0.5oz (15g) dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 3 TBSP butter
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 lb Portobello mushrooms, diced into large cubes (about 2 cm / 0.75 inch per side)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup wine
  • 1 TBSP soy sauce
  • 3 TBSP flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • 8 oz egg noodles
  1. Rinse the dried porcini mushrooms and place in a heat-proof bowl. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the dried mushrooms and leave alone while you work on the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Melt the butter in a large skillet, then add the diced onions and turn the heat to low, allowing the onions to caramelize, stirring every few minutes. This might take 25 minutes or so, until the onions are a lovely shade of golden brown.
  3. Add the diced mushrooms and the minced garlic. Turn the heat up a bit and cook until the mushrooms have softened and released their liquid, and the liquid has cooked off. Now add the wine and let it cook for 5 minutes or so.
  4. At this point, remove the porcini mushrooms from the liquid (KEEP THE MUSHROOM LIQUID!) and chop them, then add them to the skillet.
  5. Sprinkle the flour over the mushroom mixture and stir in well. Carefully pour the liquid from the porcini mushrooms into the skillet (making sure not the let any grit at the bottom get into the pan) and stir well till the mixture comes to a boil. It should thicken quite considerably. Add another half cup of water, along with the soy sauce, and keep cooking and stirring till it boils again. Add more water if it’s still too thick, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Put the egg noodles on to boil, according to package directions.
  7. Shortly before serving, stir in the sour cream and parsley, and keep hot over low heat.
  8. Serve over drained egg noodles.

Book Review: Thoroughly Modern Charlotte

Yes, yes, I know. You want the recipe for the mushroom stroganoff I was experimenting with last week. I will get there, I promise. But while you’re waiting, how about another book review?

I first read Thoroughly Modern Charlotte: Romance, Third Millennium Style, in the middle of 2015, shortly after it was released. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the time – maybe a modern continuation of Pride and Prejudice, with Charlotte Lucas in the starring role? – and at first I found myself trying to associate each of the characters with a corresponding one from Austen’s classic. This works to an extent (upon second reading, to a large extent, really), but the novel is best taken as its own creation, paying homage to, but not recreating, the original.

Since then, I have also had the great pleasure of meeting the author, Beth Massey. Over a lovely lunch in Chicago last winter, I discovered that the deeply intelligent aura permeating the novel is not accidental. Ms. Massey is as charming and smart as her characters and the world they inhabit, and her passion for matters literary and political comes through both in her conversation and her writing.

And so, as I decided to start posting a few more book reviews in between recipes, I felt drawn to reread and write about Thoroughly Modern Charlotte. I enjoyed the novel the first time I read it. I enjoyed it more the second time. Nuances and references that I had missed on my first reading now opened up to me, and the world Ms. Massey has created took on greater dimension. This is a romance, yes, but it is not fluff. There is stuff to chew on in the text, as chewy as the mushrooms I promise I’ll cook within a couple of weeks. And so, without further ado, here’s my review.

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Thoroughly Modern Charlotte: Romance, Third Millennium Style, by Beth Massey

 

I have to start by saying that this book is not for everyone. If you like your heroines chaste and demure, paragons of elegance with no faults, and pure as the driven snow, this book is not for you. If you like your heroes dashing and alpha, thick dark hair blowing in the wind, the sort who will not accept no for an answer, this book is not for you. If you want a quick read, one that does not challenge in any way, one that does not invite you to consider political and personal motivations outside your comfort zone, this book is not for you. Likewise, if you are hoping for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, with an arch and witty Elizabeth and a brooding and honourable Darcy, this book is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you want an intelligent novel, full of literary and cultural allusions, some explicit and some more veiled, with a flawed and self-assured heroine seeking her own destiny, and a hero with big ears and bigger secrets, keep reading. If you want a novel which alludes to Jane Austen’s classic, without recasting it in modern terms, keep reading. If you want a novel in which the main character sees her family and friends through Jane Austen’s lens, but does not necessarily even want a modern incarnation of Pemberley, keep reading.

Charlotte Otis is a left-leaning literary scholar who manages her family’s small chain of book shops in New York City and who secretly publishes JAFF, but who wants more. After a fight with her boyfriend, a fight which involves her best friend and a somewhat bewildering array of other acquaintances, she takes a serious look at her life and decides to make some major changes. One of these changes involves swearing off men for a while; another involves a new job in England. Enter the hero: Jonathan Holmes is the answer to many girls’ dreams, sensible and educated, and an earl to boot, but not necessarily Charlotte’s. After some awkward early encounters, they discover they rather like each other despite their differences, but Charlotte insists on sticking to her resolution (no men) and Jon has something he needs to tell her – something he knows she won’t like. And, of course, the longer he waits, the worse the fallout!

Unlike many novels that riff on this trope, the motivations behind keeping the secrets are sensible – at least as seen through Jon’s eyes – and his decisions rational. All too often, the reader of such romances rolls her eyes and yells at the characters, “just say five words to each other and it’s all resolved!” Not so here. It is refreshing to see the character mull over his choices and do what he thinks best, even knowing that the consequences will not be pleasant.

There is a full panoply of secondary characters who round out the lives of our main couple. We get a sense of them as real people in a real world, with friends, colleagues, cousins and other acquaintances, and each of these secondary characters is as fleshed out as our main two. These characters are as vital to the resolution of the drama as are the protagonists.

This novel is not perfect. Perhaps the secondary characters, fascinating as they are, are too fully developed. The first section of the book revolves around them as much as around Charlotte, almost to the point where I wanted to take notes to keep track of who was who and how they all interacted with each other. Each could easily star in his or her own story, and there is at least one who I wish had his own tale.

As well, there are some issues in editing, although I suspect they are more artifacts of some formatting problem than actual mistakes, such as missed quotation marks and similar glitches. These are a bit distracting, but not enough to spoil the enjoyment of the novel.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a well-written book with interesting and real characters that will make you think and possibly reassess your expectations, dive right into Thoroughly Modern Charlotte.  You won’t be disappointed!

You can read more about Ms. Massey on her author’s page on Amazon, here.

For a direct link to her novel, chose a link based on location:
US –click here
Canada – click here
UK – click here

Book Review: Miss Darcy’s Companion

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Yes, another book review! Why? Because books are cool! And because we read while we’re waiting for stuff to boil, or to rise, or to bake, or sometimes, when we have no other company, to entertain us while we eat.

While I’m certainly not changing the focus of this page from food, I think I’ll start putting up a few more book reviews, as things cross my path that look particularly interesting. At the moment, I have three books lined up that I’m itching to write about, and this is the first.

Miss Darcy’s Companion has just been released, but I have had the honour and privilege of reading an advance copy. I have come to know and respect – and yes, like! – the author very much, so my review might be tainted by this bias. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to keep my thoughts about the book as balanced as possible, and if you like Pride and Prejudice variations, definitely give this a shot. Her writing is lovely and her stories fun.

You can read the first three chapters on her website, and I have an exclusive excerpt here. This passage comes from closer to the end of the story, and Elizabeth is speaking to Mr. Darcy about his decision to engage her as a companion for Georgiana. Enjoy.

“Pray, let us not equivocate. I know you did not engage me due to my vast accomplishments or the introductions I can make to the preeminent hostesses in society. I trust my time with Georgiana has provided her with some degree of confidence in society. She seems more at ease to me, but I fear I shall hinder your efforts as you embark upon this enterprise; please know that I would not take it as an insult if you chose to replace me with someone more qualified for what lies ahead of her. As her friend, I will see her as often as she wishes and wait until the season is over to seek a new position.”

“How ungenerous of you, Miss Elizabeth!” he exclaimed with a teasing smile. “You insult me with your insinuation that I am not perfectly able to select for my sister the one qualification which matters above all else.” Elizabeth, not wishing to seem in need of his reassurance, did not seek an explanation from him. “May I tell you?” he asked.

“By all means, Mr. Darcy. I await your description breathlessly.”

“My sister needed a friend, Miss Elizabeth. She lacked someone with whom she could confide her cares and open her innocent heart, besides, of course, a ham-fisted brother. I wished to see to all my sister’s needs but never thought to provide a sympathetic young lady to share her interests and energy. You helped her to overcome a propensity for timidity, instilled confidence, and provided your own example to imitate when her own courage could not sustain her. She needed someone like you, unfailingly kind, affectionate and sensitive, prodigiously intelligent, and with considerable wit and address. You cannot know the difference you made. From the first moment she espied you in the park, my shy little sister became a different person; fighting with me for what she knew she not only wanted but needed as well. Never in her life had she stood up to me, and, though I resented you at the time for it and was appalled she would defy me, I see now that she was correct to do so.”

“You are full of kindness to me, Mr. Darcy, and I must say, you disparage yourself in a manner that is most uncharitable. Are you begging for compliments, I wonder?” Her eyes sparkled, matched by a warm smile. “I shall offer only what you are due. I know I was the last person you wished for your sister, and, in meeting you, I was terrified by your fearsome countenance and quelling hauteur.”

“That is quite a compliment, Miss Bennet. If the rest of your speech proceeds in the same vein, I will tell you now to keep your tongue between your teeth. Believe me, my dear; I have heard those compliments the entirety of my life, and there is no need to be further puffed up in my consequence,” he said in an ironical tone.

“No, no!” she exclaimed. “It is only that I must set the stage. You see, at once, I noticed the warmth you displayed when you gazed upon your sister, and I admired the protective instinct which motivates you. One must make allowances for a man who, so young himself, had the full responsibility for such a sensitive child.” She paused. “Blessed with an abundance of sisters myself, I can only imagine what an ordeal this is for you, and yet she is the loveliest, sweetest girl, and her faith in you is not misplaced,” she said with sincerity.

“I am afraid you are under some illusions, Miss Elizabeth. My sister is so much younger that I saw her only during school holidays. When my father’s health declined, I came down from Cambridge for the year before his death. After he passed, she remained at Pemberley while I returned to my studies and my friends. It was selfish; I see that now. Indeed, she saw but little of me, but when we were together, I encouraged her hoydenish behavior which she has not forgot. When I finally put University behind me, it was to tackle a great many new responsibilities. Thoughtlessly, I left her to a succession of governesses whom I believed would mold her into the young lady my parents always wished her to become. This was done with little regard for her tender sensibilities nor her unhappiness with their strict, unloving care they provided. Failing that, I then sent her to school to which she was most unsuited, being so shy and retiring. There she made few friends and was utterly miserable and lonely. It was my intention, upon removing her from Miss Dimwitty—I should have paid more attention to her name before selecting her establishment—to set up Georgie in her own household in London to cram her full of accomplishments and be free to continue about my own business. When you joined us and brought out her brightness and self-assurance so readily, I beheld Georgiana in a different light. For the first time, I saw her not as a perplexing child outside my grasp of understanding. I rethought my plan and became determined to keep her in my company convinced I had much to atone for.”

“Then we must agree to disagree,” she replied. “You may relate the history, but I know that what I saw pass between you and Georgiana was not the work of a day, no, nor a year, but was of some duration. Neither would Georgiana place her trust and dependence on your opinion had you not in some way earned her respect.” Sensing him draw back his shoulders in anticipation of offering further argument, she placed her hand on top of his. “No, no! Let me finish. Why even her conviction that you would forgive her defiance in choosing me shows the deep connection you share with one another. So let me enjoy the last word if you please, Mr. Darcy, for you shall never convince me, and it is the gentlemanly thing to do after I declare it to you.” She laughed up at him and was startled by the look of tenderness on his face. A look she could not misconstrue as being meant for Georgiana.

“By all means, Miss Elizabeth, it would be unhandsome of me to argue with you, nor should I like to disabuse you of your belief in my good character, for that would not serve the purpose at all!” He said smiling.

“Now we have had our walk together, I fear our relationship will be misconstrued if we continue as we are. Shall I walk beside my sister again and you join your own?”

“If it is your wish, though it is no concern to me what other people think, Miss Elizabeth,” he remarked enigmatically, turning to do as she bid.

 

So, without further ado, here’s my review of Miss Darcy’s Companion by Sophia Meredith.

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Miss Darcy’s Companion is another lovely what if story by Sophia Meredith, putting a new spin on the characters and beloved tale of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What if…  Mr. Bennet had died before the events in the original tale, bringing Mr. Collins to Longbourn almost immediately upon taking the living at Hunsford, and sending Jane and Elizabeth into the arms of their London relatives to find positions for themselves so as not to be dependent on their odious cousin?

And what if… Elizabeth caught the eye of a young girl, recently out of school and needing a companion?

And further, what if… that young girl’s brother found himself unaccountably drawn to his sister’s new friend?

In this beautiful retelling, Ms. Meredith explores these “what ifs,” bringing new life to our favourite characters and sending us on a wonderful journey through the eyes of Miss Darcy’s Companion.  The entire company is present for their moments on stage, including Lady Catherine, in something of a starring role, Miss Bingley with her claws out, and Mr. Wickham, twirling his handsome moustache while plotting evil. There are also some delightful cameos by new characters, including some of Darcy’s family and the ever-fascinating Beau Brummel, who is fascinated by one of Elizabeth’s more unusual talents. What talent might this be? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

As well as telling a lovely tale, Ms. Meredith delights us once again with her beautiful use of language. At times laugh-out-loud-funny, she evokes the elegance of Jane Austen and the effervescence of Georgette Heyer’s sparkling dialogue.

If I have any quibbles, perhaps the ending is a little more drawn out than I wanted, but that might be more my desire to rush towards the Happily Ever After than any fault in the novel itself.

Enjoy this book. I know I did.

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Check out the author’s website at http://sophiameredith.com/
Her books can be found on Amazon:  Amazon US / Amazon Canada / Amazon UK

Teriyaki-Style Quinoa Bowl with Vegetables, Baked Tofu and Mango

DSC00762Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. In the case of this yummy dish, it was an excellent price on quinoa at Costco the other week. I haven’t been making quinoa as much as I used to, but we do eat it and I bought the bag. Then I came home and realized that I still had an almost-full bag sitting in the pantry already. The solution? Eat more quinoa! Fortunately, we really like the stuff, so the challenge was finding yet another great way to serve it.

I hunted around on-line for recipes, and found a few things that looked pretty good, but I felt the need to tinker with pretty much everything I found. This is the result.

A few comments:

Baked Tofu – YES! If you haven’t tried this before, do yourself a favour. I know tofu has a not-so-yummy reputation, but trust me. You marinate it in soy sauce and sesame oil for a while, then bake it till it’s crispy, and you’ll never look back. My beautiful daughter, whose motto is “I’m not going to like that,” has requested that I make it for her school lunches.

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Quinoa – First and most important rule: Rinse it. Rinse it well. Quinoa has a bitter coating, and you don’t want to eat that. Rinse it off. Then it’s really delicious. You can cook quinoa like rice, in twice the quantity of water (eg. 2 cups water for each cup of quinoa), but it’s so easy to make in a rice cooker. When I bought my rice cooker, I never imagined I’d use it as often as I do, but it’s on the counter every week, usually with quinoa inside. It wasn’t expensive or fancy, and it works like a charm.

Mango – if you find fresh and wish to chop up a mango, more power to you. I’m lazy and keep frozen mango in the freezer, because it’s convenient and always there when I need it. And it makes a great snack.

My lovely new bowls – The day I decided to try this dish for the first time,  I happened to buy my ingredients at a supermarket attached to a mall with a fun shop full of Japanese and other East Asian products. I was really just browsing, but these bowls were so pretty, I bought four, each with a different colour glaze inside.

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Teriyaki-Style Quinoa Bowl with Vegetables, Baked Tofu, and Mango

  • 2 scoops quinoa in the rice cooker (this works out to about 1 1/3 cup quinoa)
  • 1 block extra-firm tofu
    • 1 TBSP soy sauce
    • 1 TBSP sesame oil
  • 1 bell pepper, in thin wedges
  • 1 large carrot, julienned
  • 1 cup snow peas
  • splash of vegetable oil
  • 1 cup diced mango
  • 1 green onion, thinly sliced

Teriyaki Sauce

  • 2 TBSP soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP sesame oil
  • 1 TBSP rice wine vinegar
  • ½ TBSP honey or maple syrup
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • ½ TBSP ginger, minced
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  1. Cook the quinoa according to package directions. If doing it on the stove-top, use 1 1/3 cup quinoa and 2 1/2 cups water.
  2. Bake the tofu: Cube the tofu and let marinate in the 1 TBSP soy sauce and 1 TBSP sesame oil for at least 10 minutes. Transfer everything, liquid and all, to a baking sheet that’s been covered in parchment and bake 40 minutes at 375F, flipping part-way through. It you like it crispier, bake a few minutes longer.
  3. Meanwhile, stir-fry the carrots in a splash of oil for a few minutes to soften them, then add the snow peas and bell peppers.
  4. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small container and whisk together well.
  5. When everything is ready, prepare your bowls. Scoop some quinoa into a bowl, top with the sautéed veggies, the mango, tofu and green onions, and drizzle with about 1 TBSP of the teriyaki sauce on each one.

Makes enough for 4.

Bon Appetit

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