Been too busy reading to write about the reading. But it's time to catch up, and then get back to cooking. I promised baguettes, and breakfast pizza, and report on a recent donut waddle crawl. Had some amazingly bad donuts (didn't think there could be such a thing, did you?) and have decided that there are some very overrated donuts in this city. Give me Dunkin' any day.
But first, the latest reads:
#23: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Dear Sugar is the advice column found on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. Cheryl Strayed, the author of the bestselling memoir Wild and the novel Torch is Dear Sugar and the book is a collection of her columns. It's certainly not your mom's Dear Abby. Strayed creates an entirely new genre by combining literary confessional, memoir, and advice-giving to create what is a deeply moving read. There's the usual mix of cheating spouses, money problems, career issues, young people having trouble growing up, older people having trouble getting it up, and one incredibly powerful letter from a father who has lost a child. Some letter-writers are asking for specific advice, some need a place to rant, some just want to make a connection. Strayed answers every appeal with respect and empathy. I've always loved advice columns--the "Social Qs" column is the first thing I read in the Sunday Times--so I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of these Tiny Beautiful Things, even the ones that made me cry.
#24: The Host. My figlio maggiore often tells me I have the musical taste of a tween girl. I like Maroon 5 and Katy Perry and, excuse me but you'd have to be dead not to bop to them, One Direction. And sometimes my tweeny tastes extend into reading as well. I speed-page-turned my way through all three Twilight books. Loved Hunger Games long before the movie. And so I turned with great expectations (not a book I loved) to The Host, by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer. Can't say I enjoyed it as much as the first Twilight novel, which was un-put-downable, but it was a fun, fast read. It tells the familiar invasion of the body snatchers story, but this time from the POV of the snatcher. It's a moderately interesting twist and a moderately interesting read.
I used to joke that I was going to write a cookbook for raw beginners and call it How to Boil Water. Then somebody (Food Network, of course) actually did. My birth mom, who was an amazing cook as well as an author of cookbooks and culinary history books, wrote a beginner's cookbook that she called, How to Slice an Onion. It makes a wonderful gift for kids heading off to their first apartments or any other kitchen newbie, and you can pick up a copy here.
But no matter how experienced a cook you are, there's always something new to try. I've mastered lots of what appear at first to be pretty challenging recipes and techniques. I bake my own bread (baguette recipe coming soon), have made cheese (mozzarella and ricotta), cure my own bacon, and there was even, once, the infamous Night of the Crackers. Yes, I made my own crackers, which took an entire day, and I served them to dinner guests with the cheese platter before the meal. They were a little oddly shaped, and somewhat less tasty than a Ritz. But they were homemade crackers! I was so worn out from the cracker-making that I don't think the rest of the meal was much good. They did, however, become legend, as an example of over-the-top do-it-yourselfishness. And I learned a good lesson. There are some things better left alone, especially things that are completely incidental to the meal. Have you ever heard anyone leave a restaurant exclaiming, "Oh, those crackers!"
A Dementor. Pretty ugly, no?
But despite all the bacon curing and baguette baking, there's one simple item that I've never managed to master: the poached egg. I've tried adding lemon juice and drops of vinegar. I've tried swirling the water clockwise and swirling the water counter-clockwise. But no matter how I swirled and dipped, my poached eggs ended up looking like the shredded ends of Harry Potter's Dementors (but white). Ugly things, my poached eggs.
Until I found a little secret on this cute video, which also reveals the easy way to tell a fresh egg from a not-so-fresh egg (fresher eggs poach more tidily). Don't you love knowing these little cooking tricks? The video reveals this easy tip: crack the raw egg into a fine mesh sieve. That way the watery part of the white drains away, so that when it cooks it stays nice and tight and pretty.
Maybe my fine mesh strainer is finer than most, or my eggs thicker, but I found that the fine mesh did not strain any of the white away. So I tried using a slotted spoon, and that worked perfectly. Plus it made lowering the egg into the simmering water very easy, since the egg was already sitting pertly on a spoon. Very lightly oiling the spoon beforehand made it slide off more readily.
It's a little bit of a balancing act, handling egg and spoon, so cracking each egg into a small cup before starting makes it easier. Then you can just tip an egg into the spoon, let the watery white drain away, and lower it into the water. Use the spoon to gently move them around while they cook, and to lift them out when they're done.
In addition to making my first nicely poached eggs, I also made my first hollandaise sauce. And I used the food processor, so it was ridiculously easy (recipe below). Which means I also made my...drumroll, please...first eggs benedict. Served to a very pleased Figlio Minore. What's next? I'm heading to the country for a bit so I'm thinking smoking. Fish, that is. Onward!
Food processor (or blender) hollandaise
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large egg yolks, room temp
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Pinch of cayenne
Melt the butter in a saucepan or microwave.
Place the egg yolks, lemon juice, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/5 teaspoon pepper, and cayenne in the processor. Blend for 15 seconds. With the processor running, slowly pour the hot butter in and blend for 30 seconds, until thick.
You can leave the sauce in the processor at room temp for up to one hour. Or make in advance and refrigerate. When ready to serve, add about a half-tablespoon hot water and pulse for a few seconds before serving.
These last three books have absolutely nothing in common with each other, except that they are the last three books I've read. I told you I'm an eclectic reader.
In the interests of playing catch-up, I'm going to be unusually brief. I am capable of it, really.
First came What Matters in Jane Austen? by a professor at University College London named John Mullan. The subtitle reads Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, but that's rather misleading. It's more like 20 interesting questions you might or might not have thought of as you read and re-read Austen's novels. The 20 chapters are called things like, "How much does age matter?" and "Why is it risky to go to the seaside?" and "Is there any sex in Jane Austen?" (I bet his editor made him put that one in) and "How much money is enough?" They're immensely interesting and entertaining, but only if you really know your Austen. Otherwise it's like hearing all the gossip about a bunch of people you've never met.
I learned many interesting things from the book--although I'm not so sure that any of them are terribly important--but one that I found especially interesting came from the introduction. According to the professor, Austen "introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousness of her characters." Yet another reason to admire Austen.
Anne Hathaway as Jane
He begins the introduction, by the way, by asking, "Did Jane Austen know how good she was?" He believes she did. Virginia Woolf, no slouch of a writer herself, one said of Austen that "of all the great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness." Which is, I'm sure, a sign of even greater greatness.
Although reading What Matters in Jane Austen? made me want to do nothing more than re-read Jane Austen, I refrained, because I simply had to read a new book by a good friend. If I didn't like it, I promised myself, I would simply skip mentioning #21. But I loved it. So you know I'm not fibbing. Harvard Square by Andre Aciman is set in Cambridge in the summer of 1977. The unnamed narrator is a graduate student at Harvard, an Egyptian Jew who has failed his first stab at the comprehensive exams for his doctorate and is fighting to find a place for himself at Harvard, in Cambridge, in America. He meets another, even more recent arrival, a Tunisian cab driver, and they forge an unlikely, complicated friendship. It covers just a few months in their lives, but encompasses much: the confusion of identity, love, longing, and the difficult and often scorching choices we make to belong and to survive. It's a terrific and moving book.
And now for something completely different to round out the trio: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple. I don't want to even begin to tell you what the book is about, because it's such a fast-paced and rollicking ride with so many moments of Really? WTF? that to say anything would ruin some of the fun. There's Microsoft and Antarctica and blackberry bushes and pretentious private schools and green architecture and disappearing moms and, really, enough plot to fill three novels. In fact, about three-quarters of the way through I found myself thinking, Can we stop now? Please? Take a breath?
It's kind of like too much ice cream. It's so good...but maybe you should have stopped eating ten minutes ago. But the book keeps on rollicking and rolling until the very last page, after which, I promise, you will breathe a sigh of half-relief, half-exhaustion. And half-pleasure.
I've never been very good at math.
Coming soon: I baked baguettes! And breakfast pizza! And learned how to poach eggs (finally)! And--surprise--I'm still reading.