Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Nature of Fragile Things


Sophie arrived in San Francisco on her wedding day. She went from the station to City Hall. where she became Sophie Hocking, Martin’s (with the mysterious eyes,) wife. Martin claimed that his wife died, leaving five year old Katherine motherless and silent. Sophie hoped that over time, Kat would come to love her, but until then she was happy to take care of the child. Martin traveled a lot for his work, assessing risk for an insurance company, so Sophie and Kat had plenty of time to bond. When the 1906 earthquake struck, all the characters’ lives changed drastically. Homes were destroyed and fires were raging as Sophie and her small band, including Belinda and baby Sarah, found refuge at Golden Gate Park where the military set up tents for temporary housing. When it was safe to travel the foursome made their way to Belinda’s Lorelei Inn in San Rafaela. Intimations of Sophie’s secret past were made throughout the narrative that were revealed in a neat ending. I especially liked the historical setting of the natural disaster. Had there been a Richter scale at the time(it was invented in 1935), the quake might have registered 7.9. Fires continued for 3 days, destroying some 28,000 buildings, killing approximately 3,000 people, and rendering half the city’s population homeless.

THE BEAUTY: Catastrophe brought together four people whose lives would forever be entwined. The accident of birth gives us one family, and opportunity gives us the family we choose. Sophie, Kat, Belinda, Sarah and Elliott love and care for each other. Family.

THE FOOD: Sophie reminisced a lot about her family in Ireland, usually to cover awkward silences or to relax others into being more comfortable in the company of those they hardly knew. She talked frequently about her grandmother’s barmbrack, a fruity bread that Sophie enjoyed.

Irish Barmbrack

1 C dried currants
1 C raisins or sultanas
1 C strong black tea (cold) (optional: add a splash of Irish whiskey or brandy
2 tsp active dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
¾ C lukewarm milk
3 C all-purpose flour
⅓ C sugar 
1 tsp mixed spice (recipe follows)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, slightly beaten
zest of one lemon
⅓ C finely chopped homemade candied orange peel (recipe follows)

Place the currants and raisins in a bowl and pour over the cold tea. Let soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.  Drain and reserve the liquid for later.

Stir the yeast and teaspoon of sugar in the lukewarm milk.  Let it sit for 10 minutes until nice and frothy.  

In a stand mixer place the flour, sugar, spices and salt and stir to combine.  Make a well and add the melted butter, egg, lemon zest and yeast mixture.  Use the dough hook to knead until just combined.  The dough will be very thick (do not add more liquid at this point because the wet currants/raisins will be added).  Add drained currants and raisins and candied orange peel. (Reserve the liquid!)  Knead until combined, adding some of the reserved currant/raisin juice until a soft dough forms.  Scrape down the dough from the sides of the bowl.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for 90-120 minutes or until doubled in size.  

Punch down the dough. place the dough in a greased 9×5 inch loaf pan.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for another hour or longer until nearly doubled in size.  

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  

Bake the barmbrack on the middle rack for 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.  

Remove from oven and while hot brush the loaf with the reserved currant/raisin juice for more flavor, moistness and a nice sheen and let cool.

Slice and serve.  Barmbrack is especially good toasted and spread with butter.

Mixed Spice (makes about ¼ cup of mixed spice)
1 T ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
¾ tsp ground mace

Combine all spices in an airtight glass jar and keep store in a dark cool place for up to several months.
Candied Orange Peel 
Yields approximately 8 ounces of candied citrus peel depending on peel thickness.

4 Valencia or Naval oranges 
2 C sugar
1 cup water

Fine granulated sugar for coating

Slice both ends of the oranges. Cut the peel on each into 4 or more vertical segments, depending on the size of the fruit. Peel off each segment of rind. You can remove a little of the white pith, though not necessary. The pith is bitter but the blanching process below will help reduce the bitterness. Note that if you remove the white pith, the thinner the peels are the harder and more leathery they will be when they’re candied.

Slice the peels into ¼ inch wide strips. Boil the peels in a pot of water for 15 minutes. Drain the peels in a colander, rinse and then drain again. Discard the water from the pot. Repeat this process one or two more times to reduce the bitter flavor.

Add the 1 cup of fresh water and the sugar to the pot and bring it to a boil. Boil it for a couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Add the citrus peels, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peels become translucent and the syrup becomes lightly syrupy (on a candy thermometer this will be be approximately soft ball stage).

Use a slotted spoon to remove a few of the peels at a time and let the excess syrup drip off for a few seconds. Place the hot, wet peels in a bowl of sugar or a ziplock bag with sugar in it and toss/shake to coat.

Spread the candied citrus peels out on a wire rack to cool and dry completely, 1-2 days.

Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, the candied citrus peel will keep for at least a month. They’ll keep even longer in the fridge and for a few months frozen.

Note:  If you find your candied citrus peel gets hard after a while don’t worry – they will soften up beautifully as they bake in whatever recipe you add them to!

Note:  To keep the candied peels even softer you can limit the drying time, skip the final sugar coating step and put the peels in a ziplock bag and either refrigerate or freeze them.

It’s kind of like fruit cake, only cakier, which is a good thing. Delicious!

Gold Diggers

THE BOOK: Neil Narayan’s coming of age story is set in a primarily Southeast Asian suburb of Atlanta. Neil and his next door neighbor Anita Dayal were great friends growing up, but middle school and high school brought changes, as the teens struggled to find their own identities. Looking back, Neil reflected, “For it felt, back in Hammond Creek, that it wasn’t our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents’ choices to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans.” Anita’s path to adulthood led her to the Miss Teen India Pageant where she blew the other contestants out of the water with her charity project. Anita was driven, she knew what she wanted (Harvard) and stayed on course to get it. Neil- not so much. Always in the shadow of his perfect older sister, Prachi, Neil didn’t know what he wanted, and felt the sting of disappointing his parents repeatedly. But the cast of characters do grow up and grow apart, while keeping their teenage secrets hidden and haunting. This is a beautiful story, lovingly rendered, of alchemy, love, magic, family, missed opportunities and choices. The story did not turn as I expected it to, but I was charmed by the direction it did take. I loved this book. In the words of Ramesh Uncle, “…some stories do not leave you alone.”

THE BEAUTY: At his sister’s wedding, Neil was obligated to speak. “There was my brief toast–I was still known, unfairly, as the public speaker in the family; I read a Neruda poem in lieu of offering original thoughts, in part to keep from choking on something sentimental that was coursing through the air.” The author didn’t specify which Neruda poem, so it was purely my choice to offer this one.

Sonnet XVII
by Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, 
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. 
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, 
in secret, between the shadow and the soul. 

I love you as the plant that never blooms 
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; 
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, 
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body. 

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. 
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; 
so I love you because I know no other way 

than this: where I does not exist, nor you, 
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, 
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

THE FOOD: Neil described his mother’s very large ears through which she received news of the world of her neighbors, which she then dispensed to her family during dinner. Ramya reported on all kinds of “nonsense,” which was any child’s behavior that could not be added to their college application. One evening, she told of Jay Bhatt’s father’s trip to Ithaca to talk some sense into him when he annnounced that he was abandoning math for film. “Have some more samzi,” she’d say between stories, monitoring the dietary intake of her children, while adding, “that Reema Misra was bragging about all the boys she’s practicing kissing. Nonsense!”

Mixed Sabzi

2 T oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 small onion chopped finely
½ C lima beans
3 handfuls baby spinach
1 yellow bell pepper
1 medium carrot sliced
1 medium sized potato chopped into bite sized pieces
2 large tomatoes pureed in the blender
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp lal mirch powder (or 3 parts smoked paprika to 1 part cayenne red pepper)
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a pot, and then add the cumin seeds. Saute for about 30 seconds, and then add the chopped onion. Saute until the onion is golden brown. Add the chopped veggies and the tomatoes. Now add the spices, and mix. Cook covered on low heat, until all the vegetables are cooked through. You may substitute other vegetables that you have on hand or that you prefer. The mix is entirely up tp you.

To serve garnish with chopped coriander.

The Committed

THE BOOK: At the beginning of the unnamed narrator’s new life, “Crazy Bastard” had his passport stamped with the date he and Bon arrived in Paris: 18/7/81. The name on his passport was Vo Danh, meaning “nameless” in Vietnamese, but his associates in France referred to him as Crazy Bastard. A self-described man of two minds and two faces, he could argue both sides of a situation. This perspective served him well in his past life in America as a spy secretly working against blood brother Bon’s anti-communist cause. Bon’s special ability was killing communists. CB knew that if Bon discovered his true sympathies, Bon would have to kill him, on principle.

In Paris, CB made his living by selling hashish to his aunt’s (with whom he was staying) intellectual friends, eventually branching out into the larger community as he learned his way around the city. He met many colorful characters including Le Cao Boi, The Seven Dwarves, Creme Brûlée, The Boss, the Ronan, and others. I loved the way CB assigned adjectival honorifics to his associates like “the endangered French capitalist;” “the expressionist mistress;” “the eschatological muscle;” and “the very chic, very tanned doctor. ” There is a lot of irreverent humor here, in spite of the darkness of the plot. For example, at one point, while CB is kneeling, he was reminded of his first communion when he was 7, receivng the host from his priest father, followed by a sip of the ceremonial wine. Even though he had seen the choirboy wipe the lip of the cup with a cloth, he still trembed at the thought of all the mouths that had touched that cup. “This blood of Christ was a sweet syrup on a poor tongue unused to sweets, and it would lead me not toward greater devotion to God but rather, eventually, toward debauchery. If I love liquor too much, I blame God, or at least his minions.”

What struck me reading this book, is the history of wasted potential of human beings -the ones oppressed and metaphorically shackled by a ruling class that imprisoned them in poverty, and deprived the world of their contributions to society. The number of voiceless poets, singers, orators; the number of sculptors, painters, architects; the number of playwrights, composers, actors and actresses who never got the opportunity for the world to experience the products of their creativity, is mind boggling. Fortunately this voice, the voice of Viet Thanh Nguyen, was able to burst the shackles that could have silenced him so that we could have his story. I was in awe of his writing, his wit, his humor, and his politics as expressed in The Connected. Now I must read The Sympathizer!

THE BEAUTY: Once CB established himself and began to make some money from his hashish operation, “I used my profits to buy an excellent pair of brown leather oxfords from Bruno Magli, recommended to me by BFD. They look good and you can walk or stand all day in them, he said… You can always judge a man by his shoes.”

When I read this passage, I literally wrote myself a note: Buy Jim a pair of Bruno Magli shoes!

THE FOOD: CB had little regard for BFD, but he was his aunt’s friend, so in order to avoid talking to each other on their way to the brothel, “Heaven,” they listened to Johnny Hallyday who CB referred to as the musical equivalent of Ricard Pastis, an acquired taste, at best. Similar to other anise-based aperitifs, like Greek ouzo, at age 23, Paul Ricard developed his own mix, blending flavors of Marseilles into Ricard Pastis, the “pastis of Marseilles.” It is served cold, adding 5 parts of chilled water to 1 part pastis, and then topped with 4 ice cubes. I made an olive and ham loaf representative of the area to accompany our drink.


  • 200g of all-purpose flour
  • 1 package of dried yeast
  • 3 large eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • ground pepper
  • 1 heaped T of dijon mustard
  • 5 T olive oil 
  • 7 T milk 
  • ⅔ C grated Gruyère cheese
  • ¾ C of ham
  • ⅔ C of sliced green olives 
  • Butter for greasing

Pre-heat oven to 390°F. Grease a standard size loaf pan. 

In a dry frying pan, fry the diced ham for 2 minutes until golden. Set aside. 

In a mixing bowl add the flour, yeast, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. Mix well then add the milk, grated cheese, sliced and drained olives, mustard and the ham. Mix well. 

Pour into the loaf pan and place in the oven for 45 minutes. If the cake is browning too quickly, place tin foil on top. Take it out of the oven and leave to cool in the tin.

No need for acquiring, I liked the taste of this drink very much- enough to have a refill.

News of the World

THE BOOK: In spite of the violence, this is a very quiet book, with an emphasis on setting.
“Once at evening they came downhill to a stream crossing where the clear water made its way between great curving bluffs. Level strata of limestone in stripe after stripe carved back into a deep hollow with the big trees hanging down from overhead. It was like being in a tunnel. Maidenhair fern in bright lime-colored bouquets grew out of the limestone where water seeped through and it smelled of water and wet stone and the green fern.”

There was something endearing to me about the decency of the main character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an elderly gentleman who earned his living by reading aloud the news of the world to assemblies of people in the remote Texas towns through which he travelled in the 1870’s. His audience would have had no other means of learning about the world. The Captain would start the reading with the juiciest stories and as the evening progressed, he would put the listeners in a mind to convene, by reading dry news articles that induced yawning.

When the Captain agreed to escort Johanna Leonberger, a ten year old German girl who had been captured by the Kiowa Indians, back to her family outside San Antonio, a trip of some 400 miles, the tale began. It was a deeply moving story that has stayed with me.

THE BEAUTY: In their travels, a painted bunting was sighted. Although they are fairly common at birdfeeders, they breed in the coastal southeast and south central U.S. and winter in Central America. How I’d love to see one at my feeder. I’ll have to move south!

THE FOOD: Mrs. Gannett, (on whom The Captain was sweet) brought “Divinity” to the hotel for Johanna when she “babysat” for her so that Johanna wouldn’t run away while The Captain took care of business. The Captain was genuinely touched by the gesture because he knew that it wasn’t a simple recipe to make. Turns out, he was right.

Easy Homemade Divinity Candy

2 egg whites at room temperature
2¼ C granulated sugar
½ C water
½ C light corn syrup
⅛ tsp salt
½ C chopped pecans
1 tsp vanilla extract

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment or wax paper and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat together the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 7-10 minutes or until the temperature reaches 260º F on a candy thermometer. Just before the candy reaches temperature, beat the egg whites on high speed using an electric mixer or stand mixer until stiff peaks form.

Remove the boiling candy from the heat and, with the mixer on high speed, stream in the hot candy VERY slowly. It should take you at least 2 or so minutes to fully pour the hot candy mixture into the egg whites. Continue beating the mixture until it’s no longer glossy and it holds its shape, about 6-10 minutes (it depends on your mixer). Stir in the chopped pecans and vanilla extract until combined.

Butter two spoons (or grease them lightly with cooking spray) and, working quickly, drop rounded tablespoonfuls of the divinity mixture onto the lined baking sheets. You may need to scrape the candy mixture off of one spoon with the other spoon, then quickly flick your wrist to create a soft curl (like soft serve) on top of the candy.

Allow the candy to set at room temperature – maybe overnight, depending on the humidity in your home – until dry to the touch and no longer sticky. Once set and dry, you can keep it at room temperature for up to 5 days in an airtight container.

I procrastinated making this recipe for, let’s just say, a long time, because I was worried about the hot syrup permanently disfiguring me. When I finally resolved to forge ahead, I watched several videos of rather cavalier women and their daughters happily smiling and laughing while pouring redhot liquid into a mixing bowl- all of which was at once comforting and terrifying. I figured the first step in any successful undertaking is planning. As you can see below, I had everything laid out, ready for my big adventure.

The egg whites, at room temperature, are in the mixer bowl, and the silicone pad is to rest the hot pot on, should I need to put it down.

I followed the directions that I had repeatedly read, and set about making the syrup on the stove. That went well, with the candy thermometer actually reading 260º! Buoyed by my success, I started the mixer and whipped those eggs until stiff peaks formed. Before I poured the hot syrup into the egg whites, I switched to the paddle, and managed to empty the entire contents of the pot into the mixer bowl without a drop falling on my hazmat suit. I beat and beat and beat until I was convinced that the mixture was no longer shiny and could hold its shape. Working quickly, I sprayed two teaspoons with cooking spray and dropped rounded spoonfulls of the candy onto the lined pan. Then this happened.

As you can see, these are not mounds. They are little flat rounds of taffy-textured failures.

I left the pan to cool and dry, and cleaned up the kitchen mess, hoping the candy would metamorphose into the fluffy mounds they were destined to be. Finally realizing that my candy was not divinity, but taffy, I rolled each round into a cylinder and put them in a sealed container. Then this happened.

Instead of distinct little taffy rolls, the divinity had flattened and dried itself into a sheet.

Though it is not what it is supposed to be, it tastes wonderful! Sweet with crunchy pecans. We did not throw it away. We are eating every last bit.