Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Keeper of Lost Things


c55dbc_34b025a7d6fc47da810e4d7712f62f37~mv2_d_1631_2623_s_2I began this book by loving the title, then the cover. As I started reading, I became more and more excited, culminating in this comment after I had read the first chapter: “Wonderful first chapter! Tight. Satisfying.” I started making a list that I maintained throughout my reading, of British things, including: the hob; “he was a comforting constant like Radio 4;” Big Ben; the bin; arsehole; Henry Vacuum; King Edward potato and jammy dodger, to name a very, very few. I listened to a recording of Al Bowlly singing “The Very Thought of You.” I looked up the meaning of “salmagundi,” (precursor to a chef salad or; on a pirate ship, a stew made of whatever the cook had on hand; or a hodge podge of disparate things.) In short, I was learning new things, and googling, and responding to what I read: I was in biblio-paradise.

The book tells the story of Laura, and how she came to be the owner of lost things, charged with the responsibility of returning those things to their rightful owners. In addition to Laura’s story, the reader meets some of the people who owned the objects in Laura’s care. The writing is sometimes playful, as in the following passage: “Eulalia shuffled through to her kitchen, sliding in her slippers and gripping her sticks like a geriatric cross-country skier.” Another passage: “The magpie appeared at her feet as soon as the door was opened. He looked as though he was having a bad feather day; a near miss with next door’s cat perhaps.” The magpie, by the way, is called Rossini, a reference to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” or “La Gazza Lada” in Italian. Finally, an irreverent observation about scattering the ashes of a loved being somewhat akin to dumping the vacuum bag!

An enjoyable read that kept my interest until the end.


Magpies are pretty!


The cover! Although the book cover is beautiful, it doesn’t show the three-dimensionality of the original work. Since you can’t really tell how the cover was constructed, I included the image below from  Barbara Beltran Herrera’s (the artist who works in paper sculpture) website to show how the objects extend out from the background. How cool would it have been if the cover had been three-dimensional like this, with plastic cover over it! How much would that have cost? But what a treasured artifact it would have been.



At Christmas, Mrs. Doyle at the shop where Eunice buys their daily doughnuts, was bagging up some slices of Tottenham Cake for the customer just before Eunice. It was so casually mentioned, as though everyone knew what Tottenham cake is. Well, now I, too, know. Tottenham is a district north of London in the borough of Haringey. The cake was originally sold by a baker called Henry Chalkley, a Friend, or Quaker. It was a sponge cake covered in pink icing or jam that sold for one pence. If the piece was irregular or broken up, it was half that. The pink coloring was derived from mulberries growing at the Tottenham Friends Burial Ground. It was originally intended for children, I read, but I’m not sure why.

Serves: 12

1½ sticks softened unsalted butter
¾ C sugar
1½ C all purpose flour
2¼ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
3 eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract

1 heaping cup confectioners sugar
5 tsp water/black currant juice
pink food coloring (only needed if you use water instead of juice)

Pre-heat oven to 350º

Line an 8″x 8″ square tin with parchment paper, then grease the pan and parchment with butter or Crisco.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on high, cream together the butter and sugar until it becomes a light and fluffy. This takes about 2 minutes, but you may need to clear the beaters intermittently to make sure everything gets mixed.

Add the vanilla extract to the butter mixture. Mix until combined. Turn the mixer to low or medium-low and beat in the eggs, one at a time. Once the eggs are mixed, turn the mixer to low and add in the flour all at once. Mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool.

While the cake is cooling prepare the icing. In a medium bowl, add the confectioners sugar. One teaspoon at a time add the blackcurrant juice or water and just a bit of food coloring. Mix in between each teaspoon. Keep adding liquid until the icing looks like proper frosting and is thick enough to spread but not so thick it would rip up the cake when you spread it on. (Note: you may not need all the liquid or you may need more, just mix until it feels right to you. If it gets too drippy, then add more sugar) Let the icing sit for a minute it will harden and get shiny. Spread the icing all over the top of the cake.

Cut the cake into squares and serve.


I liked the sponge cake, but the icing was too sweet for me. I would use my homemade raspberry jam next time, and maybe some whipped cream.



Glass Houses


glass-houses-cover-244Louise Penny has taken the mystery to a higher level in this, her latest Three Pines novel. I was totally drawn into the story from the beginning, only putting the book down to eat and sleep during the twenty-four hour period that it took to reach the satisfying conclusion. The book begins with Armand Gamache, the Chief Superintendent of the Surete de Quebec (a post he had previously turned down twice) testifying in court as a witness for the prosecution in a murder case. The story is told back and forth in time, between the trial and the events that led to the defendant’s arrest. The case against the defendant in the courtroom scenes slowly reveal the evidence indicating culpability and gives the reader a perspective similar to that of  the jury.  The scenes describing the events prior to the trial lead the reader eventually to the conclusion that there is something else at play here, that elements of the two vantage points don’t mesh to form a clear picture. More information is needed. More than other mysteries I’ve read, I felt empowered  here, to solve the mystery myself. Penny seemlessly revealed the facts, and the feelings of the characters, leading me to questions that I felt needed answering in order to figure the whole thing out.

One thing I love about Penny’s writing is how she illuminates themes, or character traits with excerpts from literature, or history.  One of those quotes was from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, “I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.” Gamache illustrates a point he wants to make to his team at one point, by talking of Churchill and the German bombing of Coventry in World War II. I love when there are literary and historical allusions that I recognize, but I also love identifying those that I’m not sure about by googling to get more information.

When Gamache needs to think through something important, he frequently takes  long walks around Three Pines, and usually ends up at a bench on a hill above the village. The bench is inscribed with the words, “Surprised by joy,” which I loved without knowing a context for the quote, but I figured there must be meaning  in it, so a quick Google search revealed that Surprised by Joy is the title of C.S. Lewis’s (Clive Staples) autobiography that describes his journey through life as a Christian in his youth, an atheist in his middle years, and his return to Christianity as he tries to find joy later in his life. I’m not sure what that means relative to this particular story, or to the village of Three Pines in general, but I’ve added the book to my WTR (want to read) list.

Finally, the ending of the book was perfect: heartwarming and thoughtful, and produced such a warm feeling of well-being in me, that I forgot for a moment that our current state of affairs has an imminent launch of an ICBM missile by North Korea.


“But the tiny, achingly beautiful Magdalen Islands were the sweet spot.” This location was an important one in the ongoing investigation of the drug cartels by Gamache’s team. The photo below is the red cliffs made of red sandstone, a sedimentary rock made of quartz which is covered with iron oxide. Wind, waves, tides and thaw join forces to erode the extremely crumbly rock faces sculpting them into spectacular shapes.

image by


I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at a baguette for quite a while. My husband’s attempt years ago yielded what he refers to as “dough baseball bats.” So when the baguette played such an important role in this book, I had to give it a try.

Dan Leader’s 4-Hour Baguette
Makes 3 baguettes

Author Notes: This recipe is the aggressive, no-more-excuses shove that you need to start baking your own bread. It will only take you 4 hours of intermittent attention, and won’t require a starter nor any equipment you don’t already own — and it will rival your favorite bakery’s.

1½ C (12 ounces) tap water, heated to 115° F
1 tsp (⅛ ounce) active dry yeast
3¼ C (14⅔ ounces) all-purpose flour
3 tsp (⅜ounces) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (note: if using a fine-grained salt like table salt, fine sea salt or other brands of kosher salt, you will need to use a smaller volume)
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
½ C ice cubes

Whisk together water and yeast in a large bowl; let sit until yeast is foamy, about 10 minutes. Add flour, and stir with a fork until dough forms and all flour is absorbed; let dough sit to allow flour to hydrate, about 20 minutes. Add salt, then transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough ball to a lightly greased bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and place bowl in a cold oven or microwave. Let dough rest until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and shape into an 8-inch x 6-inch rectangle. Fold the 8-inch sides toward the middle, then fold the shorter sides toward the center, like a T-shirt. Return dough, seam side down, to the bowl. Cover with plastic again, and return to oven. Let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Remove bowl with dough from oven, and place a cast–iron skillet on the bottom rack of oven; position another rack above skillet, and place a baking stone or upside down or rimless sheet pan on it.

Heat oven to 475° F. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and cut into three equal pieces; shape each piece into a 14-inch rope. Flour a sheet of parchment paper on a rimless baking sheet; place ropes, evenly spaced, on paper. Lift paper between ropes to form pleats; place two tightly rolled kitchen towels under long edges of paper, creating supports for the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let sit until it doubles in size, about 50 minutes.

Uncover; remove towels, and flatten paper to space out loaves. Using a sharp razor, knife, bread lame, or scissors, slash the top of each baguette at a 30–degree angle in four spots; each slash should be about 4 inches long. Pull out the oven rack with the stone or baking sheet on it and, using the corner of the parchment paper as a guide, slide the loaves, still on the parchment paper, onto the baking stone or pan. Place ice cubes in skillet (this produces steam that lets the loaves rise fully before a crust forms). Bake the baguettes until darkly browned and crisp, 20 to 30 minutes; cool before serving.

IMG_3979 2

I am happy to report my baguettes were a raging success!



Stay with Me


32969150I ordered this book prior to publication in the US because my trusted literary advisor, Simon Savidge, gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, (also, it was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize, now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction). Simon’s recommendation was more of a selling point for me because I usually like the books he recommends, and have a history of not liking the books nominated for major prizes. It turned out to be well worth my time and effort. Since the book was primarily about how culture affects personal lives and choices, I learned a bit about Nigerian culture, particularly as it relates to marriage and parenthood. The names in the book were Yoruban, so I assumed that was the basis for the cultural circumstances presented in the book. The main character, Yejide, is happily married to Akin, who adores her. They attempt, unsuccessfully, to have children. After a couple of years, Akin’s mother starts to pressure him to take a second wife in the hope that she will provide the much-revered grandchild. This presents problems for the couple, as one might imagine, and the book proceeds to explore how Yejide and Akin and their family navigate their way through this difficult situation. There was a point where I was having trouble buying in to some of the plot directions and had to remind myself that I was not familiar with Nigerian culture. I did a little online research and found that in the context of that culture, the things that I had difficulty with were perfectly plausible.

And then there was the writing, which was at times, breathtaking, as in this passage, where Yejide is thinking about the things she has packed for her move to Ife and her new life there: “The things that matter are inside me, locked up below my breast as though in a grave, a place of permanence, my coffin-like treasure chest.” Like poetry!

Chapter 16 was one remarkable piece of fiction. Akin had started going to church again after his daughter was born. On that first day back, the vicar was preaching about the Lord’s Prayer’s cry for God to “Deliver us from evil.” As he looked out upon the congregation while listing the evils to which mankind succumbs, he paused at Akin’s face and looked into his eyes at the word drunkenness. Akin spent the rest of the chapter reflecting on the few times in his life when he had been intoxicated, finally deciding that drunkenness was not an evil that he personally needed deliverance from. Just when I thought I knew where the whole passage was going, Bam! Metaphorically socked in the face by the last line in the chapter. When an author can surprise you like that, you have to pause and say, wow!

Finally, Akin reflects on how quickly a life can change in this passage: “As I watched the milk stain spread downwards, I realized that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit.”

This author is 29 years old. I hope she is a prolific writer, because I am looking forward to the emotional journey I will embark upon with her next book.


Moomi, Yejide’s mother-in-law, fears that Yejide’s child is an abiku, a child that dies before puberty only to be born again and again. This poem by John Pepper Clark, a Nigerian poet, beautifully sets out the experience of the abiku’s family.

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

The first lines, “comings and goings these several seasons” refers to the child dying and coming back several times, frustrating families who think the child is there to stay, only to have him die. When Clark says “Do stay out on the baobab tree,” he’s begging the child to stay in the spirit world, for the baobab was thought to be the meeting place for spirits and witches and wizards who do their work in the night, and “follow where he pleases his kindred spirits.”  Then Clark describes the modest surroundings the child has been born into, as an explanation perhaps for the child wanting to leave this world. The “knife scars” refer to the practice of scarring the infant so that he is so ugly, the spirits will not want him. With his scars, he will be recognized by his kinsmen as one of theirs when he is reborn. Finally when Clark asks the abiku to “step in and stay” he’s talking about the mother who bore him who is now so tired with his many reincarnations that her milk has gone sour, yet has nourished other children who have remained in the world to “reach the sun,” or grow up to adulthood.


The recipe I selected was Moin Moin, a Nigerian steamed pudding that Yejide served often for breakfast. I found several recipes and was concerned about removing the skins from the black-eyed peas, so I watched a couple of YouTube videos showing two different ways to remove the skins. In the first, the man removed them after soaking by rubbing the peas together in his hands, and dipping them into a pot of water to free the skins. In the other video, the woman soaked them, and then pulsed them in batches in a blender. Turns out, I was right to worry about this step in the recipe. I had no luck with either method, and had to go back to the book to search for another recipe. While no one in the book served a vegetable soup like this one, there were lots of meat stews and most everything had yams in it. I love vegetable soups, and this one was so different from anything we’ve had before, I decided to make it. The recipe called for palm oil, but I left it out because I didn’t have any. (Left out the quinoa, too, because one of us is not a fan.) Also, the scotch bonnets I bought were not, nor were they hot, so I used my homegrown jalapeños. Delicious!

serves 4-6

8 cups water, use enough to cover the vegetables
4 large slices of yam, cut into small chunks
1 red bell pepper, cut into small chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut into small chunks
1 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped
½ head cauliflower, cut into small chunks
½ eggplant, cut into small chunks
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 T chopped ginger, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 vegetable stock cubes
1 T curry powder
1 T dried thyme
4 T quinoa, optional, but adds a lovely smoky flavour
Salt to taste

Place the chunks of yam, peppers, cauliflower, eggplant in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil as you add the rest of the ingredients (herbs and spices).

Simmer on low heat for 35-40 minutes. Check on it to make sure the water doesn’t dry out and give it a good stir from time to time. Uncover and bring to a boil for a further 10 minutes.

Remove bay leaves and serve.




House of Names


house-of-names-9781501140211_hrAs a former teacher of ancient history, albeit the sixth grade version, I was intrigued by a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra, in Oresteia by Aeschylus. I wondered why a literary talent like Colm Toibin would go there: what did he hope to add to or illuminate in the story? What I found was a kindred spirit, someone who, like me, found this connection to the ancients endlessly fascinating and relevant to our modern lives. The first chapter, Clytemenestra’s story, is chilling. “I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in the palace.” Prior to reading, I had no expectations, only excited anticipation, but reading those words left me goose-fleshed, and curiously, understanding of the wave of emotion that preceded those words. I don’t think I’ve ever had a murderous thought in my life, yet I completely understood what Clytemnestra was feeling at that moment, when her only focus was to eliminate the husband who shattered her existence by his betrayal. The one who, by lying to her, made her complicit in the death of their daughter, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed to appease the gods, to win their favor, and win a war. In what universe are those acts noble?

As I read, I was struck by Electra’s self-righteousness as she plotted her mother’s and lover, Aegisthus’s, deaths. Electra believed herself and her cause to be noble, because she had consulted the gods, unlike her mother, Clytemnestra, who had acted alone in the murder of Agamemnon, proclaiming that the time of the gods had past. Is this so very different from the news that consumes us daily, except that it is more personal because it is a single family’s story? Killing in the name of one’s god is so very timely in real life. And yet, in fiction, it seems crazy.


The first trip I ever took abroad was to Greece when I was 34 years old. The whole experience was magical to me because I was teaching sixth graders about this ancient society at the time. One of the side trips I took was to Mycenae, home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. I remember the Lion Gate and the Treasury of Atreus. Sadly, I could not locate my photographs from the trip, but the pictures here recall my memories of this inspiring place, where my feet trod in the dust of the ancients. Magical!

eb700ae417dfd13556d3ba523b4e6e5d--ancient-symbols-ancient-art The Lion Gate is the main entrance to the citadel,  named for the relief sculpture of the two lions or lionesses above the door (their heads are missing). It is the only surviving example of Mycenaen sculpture. It was so well-described in the writings of antiquity that it was known among archaeologists  in modern times.

1235 The remains of the ancient city of Mycenae were found by a native Greek and professional archaeologist, Kyriakos Pittakis, in 1841. Pittakis discovered the Lion Gate, but the real excavations would come 35 years later by a complete amateur, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann had already made his mark in the field of archaeology by discovering the remains of Troy in what is today Hisarlik,Turkey. In excavating Mycenae, he wanted to prove that world of Homer was based on archaeological remains.

Schliemann discovered a funerary mask which he mistakenly applied to King Agamemnon and signs that he couldn’t identify. Although he committed many blunders, archaeologically, Schliemann helped shape early understanding of the Mycenaean civilization, one that was around hundreds of years before Homer.



There wasn’t much mention of specific foods in the book, so I tried to think of what the ancient Greeks might have eaten based on my knowledge of contemporary Greek food. I imagine that tsatsiki is a very old dish, but I’ve already included that recipe from the book, A Separation. So, I chose a lovely, cooling summertime gazpacho using Greek flavors, based on an Ina Garten recipe.

Greek Gazpacho
serves 4

2 thick slice day-old bread           1 red onion, chopped
3 lg. cloves garlic, chopped          1 small cuke, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 T fresh oregano                           4 lg. ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 T flat leaf parsley, chopped       ⅓ C kalamata olives, chopped
3 T red wine vinegar                      1½ C tomato juice
3 T olive oil                                       2 tsp Kosher salt
½ red bell pepper, chopped          ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ yellow pepper, chopped            4 oz feta cheese, small dice

Process bread, garlic, oregano and parsley in a food processor until everything is finely chopped. Add the vinegar and olive oil and process until smooth. Place the mixture in a large mixing bowl.

Process the peppers, red onion, cucumber, and olives separately in the food processor until very coarsely chopped. Add to the mixing bowl. Add tomato juice, salt, pepper and stir well. Taste for seasoning, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three hours. Stir in the feta before serving.



What She Ate


512EKwsnRSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is an engaging book about one of my favorite subjects. Shapiro begins with a well-worn Brillat Savarin quote, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.” Laura Shapiro found her way into this book through insomnia. Hoping that a visit to the Lake District in a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth would lull her to sleep, she had an “aha” moment when she read that their cook was feeding them black pudding for dinner. Here was a woman that Shapiro thought she knew, one devoted to her brother, William, leaving him the time and space to create his poetry. As she researched what the Wordsworths ate and how Dorothy cooked, she began to find someone different from the portrait that had become conventional wisdom about Dorthy Wordsworth, and that was the seed of an idea that grew into this book.

Focusing on six women from different continents and time periods, Shapiro tells their stories through the lens of food. After all, food is with all of us every day, and has a lot to say about who we are and what we value. The other women are Rosa Lewis, an Edwardian-era Cockney caterer who cooked her way into high society. Edward himself loved and sought out her cooking. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose time in the White House was grim, culinarily speaking. When guests were invited to a meal at the White House, they were advised by those who had been there, “Eat before you go.” Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, who reportedly ate very little in order to maintain her slim figure, was the consummate hostess, “a man’s woman,” according to Albert Speer, Hitler’s Reich Minister  of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, meaning that she was undemanding and passive. I found it the least interesting vignette, because there was more Hitler in it than Braun. Barbara Pym, who Thomas Otto of “The Readers” podcast loves, and who I never read, but soon will, whose reputation as an author was summed up as “depicting drab spinsters pouring tea for the clergy while life dwindles quietly away.” This was my favorite chapter, probably because there was so much about Barbara Pym’s books in it. The final chapter was about Helen Gurley Brown, to whom I had difficulty relating. She didn’t eat much, because all she really aspired to was being thin. I also think her husband was kind of a jerk. But in spite of that last chapter, I really enjoyed this book.


In doing some googling, I found that there is “The Barbara Pym Society,” an international society devoted to her work and legacy. They have an annual general meeting at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford University every summer; a conference in Boston every spring; a spring meeting in London; and other events. There is an afternoon tea at The Church of the Advent in Boston November 4, 2017 at which Laura Shapiro is going to speak! ( I’m going to try to go. Hopefully, more on that later.)


When I read about the black pudding in the Wordsworth chapter, I knew I wasn’t going to make that! There was so much to choose from, I really had to pare down my choices. The ones that I considered were: Rosa Lewis’s croquettes or Baisers de Vierge (dessert made of meringue, vanilla cream, crystallized white rose and violet leaves, and spun sugar); Barbarbar Pym’s risotto or chicken tarragon. The recipe below was inspired by Pym’s diary of what she served for company. “For the most part she chose honorable dishes from the best-tablecloth tradition of British cookery… including salmon timbales.” I had a recipe for a salmon loaf that I’ve been making for years, but I searched for timbales, and am so glad I did. This recipe is excellent.


1 can salmon (16 oz.)
1 med. onion, chopped
½ C bread crumbs (I used panko)
¼ C plain yogurt
¼ C mayonnaise
1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 350º degrees. Grease 4 custard cups. Microwave onion for 2 minutes. Combine salmon, onion, bread crumbs, yogurt, mayonnaise, egg and pepper in bowl; stir well. Divide into cups. Pack well. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. let sit for five minutes before serving. Run a knife around the salmon to loosen it, hold over a plate and gently shake to release. Serve with Cucumber Dill Sauce.
The can of salmon I used was only 14 oz, so the 4th custard cup was a bit light.

½ C mayonnaise
¼ C sour cream
¼ C plain yogurt
¾ C finely chopped and seeded cucumber
¼ C finely chopped onion
½ garlic clove squeezed through a press

Mix all ingredients for dill sauce. I served it cold, but you can warm it gently on the stove, stirring for a couple of minutes. This was excellent, but we love tsatsiki, so next time I make this, I’ll make a lot of it so I can use some on the salmon and have leftover tsatsiki the next day.