The unnamed narrator whom I have cleverly called “N” in my notes, received a call from her mother-in-law, Isabella, with whom she has a frosty relationship. Isabella had been unable to contact her son, Christopher, putting N in the embarassing position of having to admit that she had no idea where he was. Isabella, ever the organizer and meddler, after locating Christopher’s general whereabouts, made all the travel arrangements, and much to her own surprise, N quickly found herself in a luxury hotel in the small fishing village of Gerolimenas in southern Greece, waiting for her husband to return from an excursion. The story is revealed through N’s musings, so the reader perceives things from her most private thoughts. N is a perceptive woman, someone who watches people carefully and empathetically. For example, after watching an encounter between Stefano, her driver, and his girlfriend, Maria, N later notes that impatience is Stefano’s fatal flaw.
The writing reminds me of Ian McEwan in its focus on the inner musings of the main character. The literary references: Lady Macbeth, Colonel Chabert by Balzac, Billy Budd by Melville, all serve to explain situations in the character’s lives efficiently and succinctly. The descriptions of the physical landscape are vivid. I had trouble following the dialogue at times for the lack of quotation marks. Another distraction was the use on every page of em dashes, rendering the sentences long and cumbersome. I had to reread so many sentences, some several times, that the prose lost fluidity. Minor problem compared to my overall enjoyment of the book.
N stayed in a luxury hotel in a very small fishing village on the Gulf of Messenia on the Peloponnese. While I couldn’t find such a hotel online, I imagined it to look very much like this, which is in Kokkala, just 35 minutes from Girolimenas on the Gulf of Laconia. When I was in Greece in the mid 1980’s, my friend and I were staying near Marathon, north of Athens, visiting a friend of hers. We took a car trip to the Pelopponese, stopping in Epidaurus to see a play in the ancient amphitheater. The theater was part of a complex dedicated to Asklepios, god of medicine (whose symbol was the caduceus). In ancient Greece, a visit to a god’s holy place would have included theater, where catharsis was considered a route to good health. In that spirit, knowing only a few Greek words, the three of us went to see The Persians, a play by Aeschylus, that was part of a trilogy, a form that Aeschylus frequently employed. In The Persians, Xerxes has angered the gods with his expedition against Greece in 480/79 BCE. The drama mainly focused on the defeat of Xerxes’ navy at Salamis. Aeschylus had fought the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE. Sitting there in the hollow of stones worn down by the weight countless Greeks, both ancient and modern, it was quite a thrill to know that I was touching the same stone that some person had sat on more than 2000 years ago. I listened for the two Greek words I could remember. Parakalo (please) was used several times, but karpouzi (watermelon), not once!
N has an uncomfortable dinner in the hotel with one of the staff. N chose pasta and a Greek salad. I went to Greece on my first trip abroad in the mid 1980’s, and was blown away by the delicious food and gorgeous scenery. I still rave, all these years later, about the food. For almost every meal I had tsatsiki and pita, some form of pasta and a Greek salad. I swear you could taste the sunshine in those crisp cucumbers. For awhile, I believed that supermarket tsatsiki was as good as homemade, until a meal at our local Greek restaurant reminded me just how good homemade is, and with readily available, good quality Greek yogurt in the grocery stores, eliminating the time-consuming step of draining regular yogurt (to make it thicker), tsatsiki is easier than ever to make at home.
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded 1 tsp white vinegar
and finely chopped ½ tsp salt
8 oz Greek yogurt 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T extra virgin olive oil
Blend all ingredients. Chill at least one hour before serving. Serve with crudite, pita bread or a baguette, or any combiation thereof. A word about the garlic. If you are not a garlic fanatic, you can use less to suit your taste, but the dish does need the garlic seasoning. You can also soften the flavor of raw garlic by warming it in the microwave before mincing. If you leave them in too long, they will cook. If using 3 cloves, try microwaving for 1 minute, as every microwave heats differently. You can adjust the time relative to your microwave.
This book was on my list of books to look for in 2017, although I’m not sure where the recommendation came from. I noted that it was a debut novel, and similar to The Night Circus, a fantasy, which I liked very much. I was immediately drawn into the story which began with an old woman, Dunya, telling a much-repeated tale about the Frost King to a family huddled around the oven for warmth on a cold Russian winter’s night. I loved the Russian names and the brief history lesson about the Golden Horde, and Russia’s subservience to its Tatar overlords in the 13th and 14th centuries. The story is mainly about the Vladimirovich family, headed by boyar (ruling prince) Pyotr. I immediately liked the man when I learned that while his family was warm and entertained in the house, he had spent that same night in the barn birthing a lamb, as was his practice when a new creature came into the fold to enrich his holdings. Although we don’t get to know his wife, Marina, very well, she is a formidable presence throughout the book. I only just realized this as I write about her now. The most interesting character is Vasilisa Petrovna, Pyotr’s youngest daughter. She is a fairy tale heroine worthy of a Disney movie, although, she might be a bit too unorthodox for the squeaky clean franchise. The descriptions of the landscape resonated with me so much, that when I left my reading to take the dog out for a late afternoon walk in the freshly falling snow, I was Vasilisa, bravely navigating the cold, inhospitable forest with all of its wild strangeness, my trusty dog at my side.
One of the fantastical creatures of Russian fairy tales that inhabits this story is a “rusalka,” a water nymph. I first heard of a rusalka in Bel Canto, an Ann Patchett book about opera. The celebrated soprano in that book sang Rusalka’s song from the Dvorak opera by the same name at a very special event. At the time, I listened to a lot of sopranos singing that song, trying to find the one that I would add to my playlist. Ultimately, I opted for the “voice” of Joshua Bell’s violin. In act one of the opera, Rusalka, the daughter of a water goblin, tells her father she has fallen in love with a human prince whom she’s seen hunting around the lake. She wants to become human to embrace him. Her father thinks its a bad idea, but agrees for her to meet Ježibaba, a witch, for assistance. Rusalka sings her “Song to the Moon,” asking it to tell the prince of her love. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she becomes human, she will lose the power of speech and if she is betrayed by the prince, both of them will be eternally damned. Rusalka agrees to the terms and drinks a potion. The prince, hunting a white doe, finds Rusalka, embraces her, and leads her away, as her father and sisters lament. It was beautiful when I first heard it, it is still beautiful now.
In an early encounter of Vasya, she has followed her nose into the kitchen because of the the tantalizing smell of honey. Dunya promises her a cake of her own, if only she will tend to her mending while Dunya continues to take them out of the oven to cool. Vasya went to her stool where she noticed a pile of cakes already cooling on the table just out of her reach. They were so inviting, brown on the outside and flecked with ash from the oven. A corner of one cake crumbled, revealing a midsummer-gold interior, and a rising curl of steam. Being just six, and unable to wait, Vasya crept toward the steaming plate and quickly hid three cakes in her linen sleeve before running out the door to Dunya’s cries of protest.
My research led to the following recipe. It doesn’t match the description in the book, but it is a honey cake, and it’s Russian, and it’s delicious, and impressive to serve because of the layers.
Russian Honey Cake
Start the cake a day before you want to serve it because the filling needs to soften the cookies into thin cake layers overnight, just like an icebox cake. You can make the cookie layers a week in advance and store them in a container at room temperature, as you would other cookies.
½ C honey 3 large eggs
½ C sugar ¼ tsp fine table salt
½ C unsalted butter 1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda 3½ C all-purpose flour, divided
FROSTING AND FILLING
32 oz sour cream
1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
The day before serving:
Preheat the oven to 350º F. Get 2 baking sheets, or 2 round pizza pans. Tear off 6 sheets of parchment paper large enough to make an 9-inch circle on them.
To make the cookie dough:
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, honey and butter over medium heat. Once simmering, cook for 3 to 4 minutes until it gets a faint shade darker and you can smell the honey. Whisk in baking soda.The batter will foam up. Remove pan from the heat and set aside for 2 to 3 minutes. It won’t significantly cool off, just settle a little. Lightly beat the 3 eggs in a spouted measuring cup for easiest pouring. Whisk the honey mixture vigorously in the pot the whole time while drizzling the thinnest stream, a half teaspoon at a time, of the eggs into the honey mixture. Do not stop mixing. Continue until all of the eggs are thoroughly whisked in. With a spoon, stir in the salt and vanilla and 3 cups of flour. The dough is going to be thick like a bread. Stir in the last ½ cup of flour ¼ cup at a time.
Shape and bake the cookies:
Lightly flour your counter and divide the still warm dough into 8 even pieces. Roll the first piece between two sheets of parchment paper (no flouring needed) to a slightly bigger than 9-inch round. Remove the top sheet of parchment paper. Very lightly dust the top with flour if you’re going to put something on it (such as the bottom of an 9-inch cake pan) to trim the shape to an even 9-inch circle. Put the trimmings on one of the sheets of parchment paper (it’s fine if they overlap a little) to bake after all 8 layers have been made. If you have trouble rolling the dough into 9 inch rounds, 8 inches will be fine, but you may need to leave it in the oven longer. Just make sure that all your rounds are the same size. Dock the circle of dough all over with a fork. Slide your 9-inch round onto a baking sheet and bake for 6 to 7 minutes; it should feel firmish and get slightly darker at the edges. Slide the cookie onto a cooling rack. Meanwhile, while the first layer is baking, roll out your second piece so it’s ready to go into the oven as soon as the first comes out. If you’re making good time, get the third ready too and continue to bake them two at a time. Keep adding the unbaked cookie trimmings onto one piece of parchment paper. Keep repeating this process until all 8 layers are baked. Finally, take that last sheet of parchment with all of the cookie scraps on it and slide it onto a baking sheet and bake it, checking in at 4 minutes, because the thinnest scraps will want to burn quickly. By 5 minutes, all should be baked until pale golden. Let cool completely and save until you’re ready to decorate the cake.
Fill and frost the cake:
Whisk the sour cream and sweetened condensed milk together in a large bowl. Once cookies are cool, place a dab of the sour cream mixture on your cake plate and place the first cookie on top of it to help adhere it. Cut or tear one of your used pieces of parchment paper into strips and tuck them all around the underside of the cake to protect your cake plate. Do not eliminate this step. Scoop 3/4 cup sour cream mixture onto the center of your first cookie layer. Spread it only a little from the center, leaving a good 1- to 2-inch margin of unfrosted cookie. Stack the second cookie on top and repeat until you have 8 layers. This will quickly become a huge mess. The sour cream is going to spill out and down the sides anyway. It’s also going to want to slide around and not stay neatly stacked. It’s totally okay because the filling will thicken as it absorbs into the cookies. Put the cake in the fridge for a couple hours (1 to 3) and when you come back to it, nudge the stack gently back into place and use a spoon and icing spatula to scoop the spilled-out filling back up the sides and onto the top of the cake. Don’t worry about it looking neat. Let it chill overnight.
The next day, finish the cake:
Grind your baked, reserved cookie scraps in a blender or food processor, or bash them into crumbs in a bag with a rolling pin. Take your cake out and do one final frosting clean-up. Spread any newly puddled sour cream back up the sides and across the top. If you’d like to make a decoration on top of your cake, take one of those used pieces of parchment paper and cut a stencil with it. Place it gently on top of the cake. Use a small spoon to sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the crumbs. Remove the stencil and parchment paper strips to reveal the clean serving plate. The cake can be served right away, or kept in the refridgerator for up to 5 days. Dip a knife in hot water to make clean slices.
A bunch of extra dough and cake layer tips:
• Ovens will vary, especially for such thin cookies, so keep an eye on the first round as of the 6-minute mark, checking in each minute after as it can brown very quickly, and then you’ll know how much time you need for the remaining ones.
• This dough is easiest to roll when it’s still a little warm. If yours cools quickly, put each piece in the microwave for 5 to 7 seconds to get it a touch warmer again, without prematurely baking the cookie.
• Save all of those used pieces of parchment paper for the next step and beyond.
It was a fair amount of work, but the end product is impressive and delicious.
Florence is a seventy-five year-old feminist icon, writer, public speaker, truth-teller, New Yorker, curmudgeon. While there was much about Florence that would make me hesitate to welcome her into my circle of friends, I truly loved her honesty. On one outing with her granddaughter, there was an incident in a Duane Reade, the ubiquitous pharmacy chain in Manhattan. When I read it, I mentally cheered, “Good for you, Florence, you’re right!” I won’t describe it in detail for those readers who haven’t read the book yet, but it was something that could happen anywhere, and does, more frequently than it probably should. Most of us, myself included, allow our advantage to be taken in public places in order to avoid confrontation. Suffice to say, Florence Gordon never shies away from confrontation. For me, that was the charm of this book. I experienced vicarious pleasure every time Florence was true to herself. At one point I wondered, “If Florence were a friend of mine, would I survive one of her frank assessments of my behavior, character, or whatever else she chose to comment upon? Would her observation be so hurtful that I’d withdraw into a paralyzing depression, or would I recognize the truth of her remarks, suck it up, and grow from the experience?” I’ve decided that it’s just too scary a scenario to ponder. But then, I’m safe because Florence, while vivid, is just a fictional character.
Bruce Morton has crafted a fully-realized, uniquely interesting character in Florence. In addition, while not a comic book in the laugh-out-loud vein, his writing is witty and enormously entertaining. Hopefully, this out-of-context example will sufficiently illustrate my point. To appease her ex-husband, Saul, who had been bugging her about getting together, she planned a lunch with him, but on a day when she had an already scheduled doctor’s appointment, so she could get them both out of the way at once. Joining him at the table in the coffee shop where he was already seated, she made the following observation:
“Saul looked unhealthy-but he always looked unhealthy these days. He was wearing a white shirt and a dark sport jacket-everything was clean and respectable-yet somehow he had the air of a man who was going to seed. He was the kind of person who doesn’t smell bad, as far as you can tell, but who looks like he smells bad.”
The beauty of the writing is that all these weeks later as I write this entry, I remember so many details, that I could have written a classic middle school summary without ever needing to refer back to the book. But thankfully, I have spared you that, and instead recommend this book with unreserved enthusiasm.
After a panel discussion at Town Hall on the “Revolutions of 1989” on its 20th anniversary, Florence, who had been on the panel, joined two old friends, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, all of whom had attended the discussion, at a restaurant. After the four adults tucked into a second pitcher of sangria, the talk turned to the amount of time people spend on their devices. It was during this discussion that Florence made her point in a typical Florence move. The sangria recipe here, celebrates and commemorates that moment in the restaurant.
1 L bottle of Carlo Rossi sangria jug wine
1 C brandy
⅓ C Triple Sec
1 C orange juice
slices of orange, lemon, lime, apple and peach
Mix all ingredients and refrigerate overnight. To serve, pour into a tall glass with plenty of ice anf float ginger ale on top.