The Last Tuesday Book Club: The Alice Network

Wow. That’s the first word that came to mind when I finished this book. It was a roller coaster of a ride, with a (very) few ups and enough soul-crushing downs to make the most devoted reader require a break every now and then. But it was also riveting, addicting, and based on  a network of spies that actually existed during World War I.

It’s the story of two women: Eve, the WWI spy, and Charlie, a young woman who enlists Eve’s help in looking for her cousin following the end of World War II. Eve is broken and bitter; Charlie is unsure of herself and lacks confidence in her future. They are connected in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, and their similarities are many. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, and I highly recommend that you read it if you haven’t.

So here are the questions I have this month, some of which I have borrowed from the discussion at the end of the novel:

  1. How do you think the ending of the book would be different if Charlie had found Rose, alive and well?
  2. How do female friendships grow and change throughout the course of the book? Not just the relationship between Eve and Charlie, but also the relationships between Eve and Lili and Eve and Violette?
  3. Did you think Charlie was going to find Rose? Do you think it would have been a better story if she had? More or less realistic?
  4. How and when did young Eve begin to change into the person we meet at the beginning of the book? What prompted those changes?
  5. Finn and Captain Cameron are parallels for each other: both are Scots, ex-soldiers with war wounds and prison terms, and the support systems for the women they love who go into danger. How are the two men different as well as alike? Why does Finn succeed and Cameron fail?
  6. Charlie argues that Rene should face justice through the legal system whereas Eve favors a form of vigilante justice. Who’s right?
  7. The theme of fleurs du mal carries from Lili to Eve to Charlie. When does Charlie become a fleur du mal in her own right? How has knowing Eve changed Charlie’s life, and vice versa?

This will be the last book club discussion for the time being. It hasn’t been as successful an idea as I had hoped, and I would like to come up with other ideas for a regular blog feature that might get more interaction. Any ideas?

A huge thanks to those who read and discussed the books–a discussion makes the experience of reading a book even richer and deeper, and I loved hearing your thoughts and learning from you.

Until next time,

Amy

The Forgotten Food Group

Anyone who knows me well also knows that I consider chocolate to be a food group unto itself.

And as many of you also know, I live near Cape May, New Jersey. Each December, Cape May’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) sponsors a spectacular array of events including everything from a Christmas traditions lecture – to evening Yuletide trolley tours to see the lights on the Victorian homes and inns in Cape May – to walking tours of historic Cape May inns – to something called a “Dickens Christmas Extravaganza” – to various and unforgettable food and wine events. If you want to see some of the things the MAC has to offer during the holiday season, you can check out their website here.

For many of the past years, we haven’t had the time to enjoy MAC holiday events. But my husband and I were finally able to attend the Chocolate Lovers’ Feast at The Blue Rose Inn about a week and a half ago. For about 90 minutes, we sat in one of the small Victorian dining rooms at the Inn and enjoyed learning about chocolate and sampling gourmet treats made with chocolate the restaurant sources from Europe.

I thought the menu would make a good blog post, so I’m sharing it with you here. Most of the seven courses featured a different type of chocolate, classified by both cocoa content and the plantation where the chocolate originated in France.

First, a look at the menu:

So here’s what the first course looked like:

It was one of the most unusual ways I’ve ever seen chocolate presented–with both sweet and savory elements included. Each of two crispy pieces of Honey & Chocolate Porter crostini were topped with a drizzle of Concord grape jam, watercress, three dollops of mascarpone, duck prosciutto, and dark (72% cocoa) chocolate shavings.

In a thousand years I would never think to put those ingredients together, but somehow they worked. I was impressed.

Second course:

Of the seven courses, this was my favorite. It was a white chocolate and Bailey’s Irish Cream pot de creme with a frothy topping of milk and tiny crumbles of dark chocolate cookies. We ate it with dainty little spoons that forced us to take small bites to savor and enjoy the dessert. If I had been at home, I’m embarrassed to say that I would have eaten the pot de creme in two bites, licked out the bowl, and gone for seconds.

Third course:

The mascarpone at The Blue Rose Inn is made in-house, as is everything else in the scratch kitchen. On its own, it is sublime. When combined with milk chocolate (47% cocoa) and made into a cheesecake that is paired with Bourbon cherries and a creme Anglaise, it is nothing short of heavenly. There was a kerfuffle at a nearby table because one of the guests didn’t want cherries soaked in alcohol; I would gladly have eaten her portion. Those little crumbles you see in the photo are bits of the cocoa Amaretti crust.

Fourth course:

Palate cleansers are not a thing at my house. If someone asked for a palate cleanser, I would laugh at them. But as part of a chocolatey Victorian experience, it is a must. And this sorbet, made with white chocolate and citrus, was perfect. It was tangy and not too sweet. I don’t know why I expected a sorbet to be room temperature, but it wasn’t. The rest of you probably would have known that already, but I can be a bit dense sometimes.

Fifth course:

This is going to sound like Francophobic vitriol and I hereby apologize to everyone in France, but I do not care for macarons. I know, Mon dieu! But it is the truth. This was one course I did not enjoy. The macarons I have tasted lack strength of flavor, and this one was no different (please note, these should not be confused with macaroons, which I could eat all day). And of all the nuts on earth, peanuts are perhaps my least favorite, so the macaron paired with frozen peanut semifreddo was lackluster. I could see, though, that I was one of the only ones in the room who did not find the dish delectable. P.S. the cranberry coulis was delicious and I would top every Thanksgiving food with it if I could.

Sixth course:

This was an interesting addition to the feast. I know coffee and chocolate are traditional pairings, and I also know that a bit of strong coffee or espresso will bring out the chocolate flavor of a dessert. But I don’t add coffee to my chocolate desserts for a reason: I do not like the taste of strong coffee (I have coffee on most days, and I add enough sugar and half-and-half so that it tastes something like ice cream). This offering was not what I would have chosen, as the coffee was pretty strong. But the cake itself was dense and tasty and the mascarpone, as I already mentioned, was wonderful.

Seventh and final course:

The Blue Rose Inn was brilliant to send us off with a holiday classic–hot chocolate. It was the perfect way to fend off the afternoon chill and the wind that greeted us when we left to return to our normal lives. And this hot chocolate was something special. Made with dark (72% cocoa) chocolate and topped with Chantilly cream, it wasn’t too hot, too cold, too sweet, or too strong. It was, in a word, perfect. I have used sweetened whipped cream a million times in my own kitchen and never knew there was another name for it. From now on I shall call it “Chantilly Cream” and make people think I was trained in Paris. And the meringue and ginger cookie that accompanied the drink? Magnifique.

I should note that on the way home, my husband and I each got a free Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from the gas station/convenience store down the road from our house. We didn’t eat them that day, but they’re gone now and they were delicious, too. To be honest, they’re really more our speed. But our afternoon in Cape May was a great memory and we’re glad we experienced it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about my brief culinary adventure. Next week I’m going to take you on a vicarious wine dinner that we also enjoyed as part of the Cape May MAC festivities.

Until next time,

Amy

Around the World on New Year’s Eve

USA Today Bestseller!

With thanks to Silver Threading and her Christmas Trees Around the World blog event, I have decided to do something a bit similar and devote my blog post this week to New Year’s Eve customs and traditions around the world.

First, my own plans: we’re staying in this New Year’s Eve, as we normally do. We got some fun games for Christmas, so we might break those out. I usually make a few dips and snacks and we’ll graze on them throughout the evening. At midnight we’ll watch the ball drop on Times Square, and that’s about it. We like a pretty low-key New Year’s Eve at our house.

Now for the things you came here to read…and in the interest of keeping things brief, I’ve chosen just a few places to highlight. Coincidentally, most are places I’d like to visit.

Scotland: I chose Scotland because it’s the setting of my next three books and I love it there. I’ve only visited once, but it made a wonderful and lasting impression. In Scotland, the last day of the year and all the celebrations that go with it are referred to as “Hogmanay.” It’s an event which has its roots in ancient customs surrounding the winter solstice, so many Hogmanay celebrations include torchlight or bonfires. “The Bells” is the midnight hour when the old year turns to the new. And in Scotland a popular custom is called “first footing” and it refers to the first person to set foot in a house after the New Year begins. Traditionally, the first foot should belong to a dark-haired male in order to bring good luck to the home. And the first-footer should always bear a gift, such as coal, shortbread, or whiskey, for the host.

Bonus Scotland tidbit: The popular New Year’s Eve song “Auld Lang Syne” was written by a Scot, Robert Burns, in 1788.

Denmark: There are two main events that take place on New Year’s Eve in Denmark. The first is the monarch’s televised speech at 6 p.m. and the second is the tolling of the Town Hall Clock in Copenhagen. Often Danes will enjoy a marzipan ring cake at midnight, and in some parts of the country the traditional New Year’s Eve menu consists of boiled cod, stewed kale, and/or cured saddle of pork. Most of the foods are lower in calories than the rich Christmas meals.

Spain: in Spain revelers (often wearing red underwear under their clothes) eat one grape for each toll of the bell at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This is supposed to bring good luck in the new year. And before (and after) the grapes, they enjoy a glass of champagne with something gold in the bottom of the flute.

Greece: The Greek tradition is to serve vasilopita (New Year’s Bread) at midnight. This almond bread is baked with a coin or a small charm inside. The head of the household cuts the bread at midnight and the person who gets the piece with the trinket inside will have good luck in the coming year.

France: New Year’s Eve in France is celebrated with a feast called le Reveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre, which often includes oysters, foie gras, and champagne. New Year’s celebrations in France last for six days, until Epiphany.

Japan: Here’s one I love. In Japan people clean their homes to usher out the old year and welcome the new. I’m wondering…if we move to Japan, will the kids clean the house? I’m guessing not. And Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 108 times, representing the necessity of avoiding unwholesome actions.

Whatever your plans for New Year’s Eve, I wish you and yours a happy and healthy 2016.

Until next week,

Amy

The Holidays are Upon Us…

…so what better way to celebrate than talking about FOOD?

It doesn’t matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or some other holiday at this time of year. We happen to celebrate Christmas at our house, but it doesn’t matter what you celebrate or where in the world you live. Part of what makes the holidays special is the food that we eat during our celebrations. I love learning about the ways different cultures celebrate, and a big part of a culture is its food.

Cooking is a passion of mine, and I especially like to cook during the holidays. Each year I have a repertoire of recipes that I haul out, and each year I try to add a few new things. This year, in an attempt to bring more of an international flavor to our holiday season, I made a batch of cookies called “Austrian Chocolate Balls.” Now, I don’t know how chocolate balls came about or what’s Austrian about them, but I’ll tell you this: they were a big hit and now I want to go to Austria even more than I did before I made the cookies.

Anyone else eat stollen at Christmastime? My mom’s side of the family is German, and stollen is a German sweet bread filled with dried fruits. My aunt makes it every year. I think it’s actually called “Christmas stollen” or “Christstollen,” but we take the simple route and just call it stollen. I like it best when it’s toasted and slathered with butter.

I also make Russian tea cakes. There are about a million other names for the same recipe (including “Spanish Wedding Cookies,” “Mexican Wedding Cakes,” “Snowballs,” “Ponda Polvas,” etc.), but I find “Russian tea cakes” to be the most exotic and exciting. Fortunately or not, I am the only one in my household that really likes them (everyone says they’re too dry…um, hello? That’s why we have eggnog), so I usually eat more than my fair share of them during the holidays. I could just stop making them, but why?

In a nod to the country of France, every Christmas Eve I melt a round of brie and top it with raspberry preserves, apricot preserves, or other sweet mixture. I don’t know how French the toppings are, but I feel beaucoup francais when eating my brie on December 24th. Do I even have to note that it’s wrapped in puff pastry? I think not.

There are so many foods out there that the rest of the world associates with Christmas, Hanuakkah, and Kwanzaa, and I’d love to learn more about them. I recently took out a library book called Holidays of the World: Cookbook for Students. It’s an overwhelming list of foods and recipes that are prepared for countless holidays, all over the world, all year ’round. I have enjoyed looking through it, though I am finding it almost too exhaustive.

There are other foods I make at Christmastime, of course, that are tradition and I have no idea where the recipes originate. One is my grandmother’s party mix. It has two pounds of butter in it.

Yes, you read that right. Here’s a picture:

party mix

Another is crab bisque, and caramel-fudge shortbread, and pumpkin roll, and mulled cider, and cutout cookies, and lots and lots of other delicious and heavy-on-the-saturated-fat foods that I associate with Christmas. And I know they’re not good for us–that’s why I don’t cook like this during the rest of the year.

And the best part of making all those things? Sharing them. Are there any special foods you associate with the holidays this time of year? I’d love to hear about them!

Until next week,

Amy

P.S. Here are examples of some of the recipes I’ve listed above:

http://germanfood.about.com/od/baking/r/weihstollen.htm

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/austrian-chocolate-balls/

http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/russian-tea-cakes/3af8664b-6c3e-4022-b686-cd961521e59b

http://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/entertaining/baked-brie-with-raspberry-preserves-recipe