Tea Time Treat: Chocolate Loaf Cake

About a year ago, I embarked on a project to adapt a beautifully illustrated but dreadfully written cookbook, Maison Kayser’s French Pastry Workshop: a Step-by-Step Guide. You can read my review and those of many other disappointed home cooks, on GoodReads. Basically, the ingredient lists are a joke, containing things like, “1 ½ cups + 1 T. + 2 t. of confectioner’s sugar.”  I did not make that up, it is on page 12. And it is NOT a step-by-step guide to anything, unless tearing one’s hair out in frustration is the goal…

 I have previously posted recipes I have adjusted and rigorously tested, and today, I am finally ready to post Chocolate Loaf Cake.  This one has proved a little tricky, but I think that the following ingredients and instructions will allow the home cook reliable and tasty results.

I have tried this cake with both hazelnut flour/liqueur/nuts and almonds, both work fine. If you don’t have mini-chips, just put regular sized ones in a blender or a food processor and chop them up–the smaller bits won’t sink in the cake. I have found that the cooking time is variable, so I am sorry that is not more precise–you know your oven, hopefully. Warning–this cake is like brownies in that a regular tester won’t work–it will come out with crumbs, and you do have to be careful not to overbake or underbake, both are bummers.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do–it is a really good cake, now that the ingredients are in manageable, measurable numbers. If you would like to print as a PDF, here is that option.

Review: The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

It is true that neither of these titles is new, but they are worth consideration for mystery fans, especially fans of the mystery sub-genre, lovingly called “cozies.”

If you are looking for a little light reading to get you through quarantine, these two Horowitz gems may do the trick.  Full disclosure–I am a Horowitz fan!

These are sort up updated versions of an English Cozy mystery, starring Hawthorne, an ex-cop who is something of a mystery himself.  The gimmick, if you want to call it that is that these are Roman a clefs of a sort–Horowitz has made himself a character in the books and there are real people who appear in the stories, like his wife, Jill Green a television producer, and even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson). So the identities are not secret as in a traditional Roman a clef, but there is the sense that the reader is in the “real” world of famous people.

First, the positives.  Since Horowitz is the narrator, the reader never has to really fear for his life, even when it looks like the murderer might get him.  He has to live to finish writing the book! The mysteries are serviceable, though if you are a frequent mystery reader, you may figure it out before the narrator.   I think perhaps Horowitz is letting the reader feel smart by writing them that way…They are not too long and the reader does get most of the clues–I hate it when there are unknown clues at the end during the big reveal. Horowitz is fairly self-deprecating as the narrator and there are Easter eggs for Horowitz fans, enjoy! The pacing is good and there is a decent amount of suspense.

Now the negatives. Hawthorne is kind of strange and mostly unlikeable, not a deal killer, but I did feel like in both books the narrator spent rather too much time trying to figure out Hawthorne and too little on the actual mystery. As is often the case with a Roman a clef-ish book, there is a lot of name-dropping.  This can become tedious and tiresome; making the reader feel excluded rather than included in the world of the glitterati. Some of us would really like to get on with solving the crime and don’t really care about blowhard actors, etc.

I think these two titles will most appeal to readers who are already fans of Horowitz’s television writing (Midsommer Murders, Foyle’s War).  His earlier mystery–The Magpie Murders was much superior. It was a cleverly done novel within a novel–a frame story. But these are nice ways to pass the time on a rainy day.

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

If you are a GenX woman, this is the support group you’ve been looking for–you are not imagining it, being GenX sucks. Squeezed between Boomers and Millenials, GenX has gotten a bad wrap for being whiners, but as this book shows, we’ve got plenty to whine about.

It’s not all bad news, though.  If you are a woman of a certain age, go immediately to chapter 9: Perimenopause for a section that will make you laugh out loud and give you hope, because you’ll know you are not alone. 

And really, that is the main takeaway from this book–you’re not imagining it and you’re not alone! Reading this book is ultimately an exercise in hope; give yourself permission not to excel at everything. Sometimes your family has to eat take out and sometimes you buy the birthday cake and it’s okay–society doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  Also, maybe your career isn’t glamorous or especially fulfilling, but that’s okay, too. The world needs all kinds of people doing all kinds of jobs. Learning to let go of unrealistic expectations if the first step toward feeling better–and know this: midlife, like most things, including coronavirus, won’t last forever. Things will get better and GenX can still save the world!!!

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Ten years ago Maya was on the LA jury that acquitted Bobby Nock, accused murderer of one of his students with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship. The jury’s names were leaked to the press and none of them have had any peace since.  Most of the public believed Bobby was guilty and they could neither understand the jury’s decision nor leave them alone after the trial. In the intervening years, Maya has become a defense attorney, determined to make the system work better. Most of the jurors haven’t really kept in contact, but for the 10th anniversary, a reality TV show wants to get them all together to rehash the trial and their verdict.  Rick, another juror, claims to have found evidence that will prove Bobby did in fact commit the crime; Maya is still convinced he was innocent and would rather pass on the TV show, but her boss convinces her it would be good for the firm for her to be on the show. When another murder takes place during the reunion, Maya is propelled into a search for the truth in both the past and the present.

Told from varying perspectives–each juror has a story–interwoven with Maya’s story, The Holdout is a thriller that does not disappoint.  Readers of Moore’s earlier novel, The Sherlockian, will enjoy this one as well. Suspense, mystery, a level of both unpredictability and storytelling skill that is sadly lacking in most thrillers.  

If you are looking for something to read while you wait out the Corona Virus, pick this one up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the premise that most people who have jury duty see it as an important responsibility related to self-government?  Why or Why not?
  2. Do you think the setting of Los Angeles adds to the story, or could the novel be set anywhere? Why or why not?
  3. Before the final reveal, where had you landed on Bobby’s guilt? What made you think what you did?
  4. Which juror’s story did you most identify with?  Why?
  5. How does this novel change the way you view the justice system? If not, why not?

Review of new Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde

You can read a professional review here.  While I am a professional with regard to book reviews, I am not a professional movie critic, so this is just the opinion of one Janeite, take it for what it is worth. 

Overall, I found the new Emma very enjoyable.  The costumes and scenery–both the exteriors and the interiors, were gorgeous.  Some have noted that the director opted for bright colors; this is true, but the effect was to make certain things pop, and in my opinion, color was not overused, nor was it distracting–it enhanced the scenes rather than detracting or distracting from them. As far as casting, with the exception of Mr. Knightley, they were all wonderful.  Favorites included Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, and Josh O’Conner as Mr. Elton. Of course, these three also had the most broadly comic roles, which they all made the most of. If O’Conner looks familiar to you, you may have seen him as Prince Charles in The Crown. His Mr. Elton is a completely different sort of character, so hats off to him. I felt that Mr. Knightley tended to fade in comparison to the other cast members, and he just didn’t seem “knightly” enough.  He wasn’t bad, just not as fantastic as Jeremy Northam (say what you want about the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma, Northam is the best Knightley ever).

First, let’s address the inevitable complaint form Austen purists, of which I normally count myself one. It is true that some of the colors used and some of the events in the movie are not completely faithful to the time period or the text. That being said, the essence of Emma was there and a lot of the dialogue, though it may have been moved to a different scene, was taken directly from Austen’s novel.  Unless one is making an 8 hour mini-series, one will never get everything from a book into a movie–that’s just a given. What is more important is the choice of scenes, the depiction of the plot and characters, and the theme of the work. 

The main characters, with the exception of the aforementioned Knightley, are all very well done and if not faithful exactly to the novel, they are definitely played in the spirit of the novel. Harriet is sheeplike, Mrs. Elton is hilarious (check out that hairdo), and Frank Churchill manages to be both pleasant and a little bit of a Rake. The important scenes, paramount of which is Box Hill, are there. I thought the Box Hill scene was well done–the viewer knows what is coming, but still wishes heartily that it wasn’t.  Hart’s Miss Bates has just the right combination of wounded bird and stiff upper lip. Emma manages to look surprised, as if thinking, “did I say that out loud?” She did.

One of the most interesting things about the movie was the soundtrack.  It is stylish, but unusual–the songs are almost like the narrator’s voice and they help imbue the irony that every true Janeite is looking for. The songs are of various genres–some operatic, some art songs, or what sound like art songs, and some gospel. An eclectic mix, but I thought it worked.

All in all, I would recommend the new Emma–there are a lot of Easter eggs for Austen fans and though the fourth wall is never broken, the viewer almost feels like the movie is winking–it is not taking itself too seriously, which I think is in the spirit of Austen.  She used humor to point out the unfairness in society, the petty wrongs, the silly rules. Somehow, I think she might have approved. (Except of course, for the inexplicable nude scene at the beginning. I am still trying to figure out why that was there. Just don’t look if you don’t want to see it.)

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

I was really looking forward to reading this book.  I love classic Hollywood movies and I had seen movies with Hedy Lamarr when none of my friends even knew who she was.  I was further thrilled several years ago, when I found out she was also an inventor. It was so cool! So, I thought the story would be great…sadly, Benedict took a fantastic story and made it into a bland dime a dozen romance novel. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

The writing was flat, the characters were dull, even Hedy, and the prose was laced with anachronisms.  If you are going to write historical fiction PLEASE do your research. I did not keep an exhaustive list, but the term “pimped out” was used, which would not have been used that way in the 1930s. 

We still managed to have a good discussion for our book club, but mostly because we discussed the real Hedy Lamarr, not the book. It is not actively bad, but it just wasn’t very good, and I would think that when one has source material as rich as Hedy Lamarr, Austria in the 1930s, Hollywood, and revolutionary communications technology, one could do better. The narrative was extremely limited by the author’s choice of first person point of view.  I think that was probably the most damaging mistake beyond the obvious lack of research for the dialogue. The use of so called symbolism was too heavy handed and ineffective. If the symbols are too overt, they lose meaning. I wish her editor had been more active and helped her to make better choices in her writing. I have also read Carnegie’s Maid by the same author and found it disappointing as well. I will not be reading future books by this author unless she ups her game significantly. I appreciate her desire to bring women’s stories to readers, but I would like to see the stories told with more skill and care.

If your book club chooses this one, here are some questions that might be of use to you:

  1. What did you think of Mrs. Kiesler’s explanation to Hedy about why she had been distant toward her?  Do you think it was believable? Why or why not? 
  2. Given the choices Hedy had, what do you think of the decisions she made: to marry Fritz? To escape? 
  3. Hedy was very brave in her escape from Austria, what aspect of her journey would you have liked to know more about in the book?
  4. Do you think the first person POV was effective in this novel?  Why or why not?
  5. What do you think about Fritz’s theory about money and power? How did that work out for him? 
  6. Did you think the “symbolism” of masks was effectively used in the novel? Why or why not?

Why Loose Leaf Tea Matters…

Loose Leaf Tea

If you love tea, you might wonder, what’s the big deal?  Here it is in a nutshell: Loose leaf tea is generally a higher quality–they save the bits and ends to put in bags, so using loose leaf gives you a better flavor.  If you don’t want to use a strainer, try getting a tea pot with a basket or a filter built in.  I found this one at a flea market for $2.00.

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Still not sure?  Give it a try, I think you will be able to taste the difference.  The tea I am drinking today is a Coconut Oolong from The Spice and Tea Exchange in San Antonio Texas. I put a slice of lime in just for fun, and it’s delicious!

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Basically, this is a love letter to librarians, so I was definitely in. Moyes tells the story of the pack horse librarians of the Depression through a set of brave and likable female protagonists. Alice married Bennett Van Cleve after whirlwind courtship in her native England while he was on holiday, only to come down to earth in rural Kentucky where  she and her husband still live with her domineering father-in-law. Margery O’Hare is a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own during a time when that quality is not universally admired. (Has it ever been?) Izzie has suffered from polio and the social difficulties produced by it. Sophia is a highly educated African American woman whose brother was wounded in a recent mining accident. She has trouble fitting in anywhere, but the library provides her peace and purpose. Coal is king, and the Van Cleves own the mines. Alice doesn’t realize until most of the way through the novel that her family is literally living on the back-breaking work of the poor families in town.

The Giver of Stars touches on many issues which are still relevant without being heavy-handed.  The characters are warm and complex–even the villains. There are some unexpected turns, both good and not so good.  Happily, as most librarians would wish, knowledge and enlightenment triumph over ignorance and venom.

This would make a good discussion for book clubs.  Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Which of the four librarians do you identify most with?  Why?
  2. Did you guess the departed Mrs. Van Cleve’s true plight before it was revealed? What were the clues, either looking back after you knew or that tipped you off?
  3. What would you say is the theme of the novel?  What supports this idea?
  4. Who do you think the “Giver of Stars” in the title is?
  5. Why do you think the pack horse library program came to an end?  What are some modern equivalents to the idea?
  6. Put yourself in 1935 Kentucky. Would you have volunteered to be a librarian given the risks involved?  Why or why not? 

A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Full disclosure:  I bought this book because of the subtitle:  The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.  I should have known that I wouldn’t like it from the lack of an Oxford comma in the subtitle, but I pressed on.  The authors are academics, and there are endnotes and lists of sources, so it appears their research was extensive.  However, I found the chapters about Austen to be highly speculative and therefore, disappointing. Based on a few letters, which they read in a particular way, the authors build a whole “unknown” friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, the governess for Austen’s niece Fanny Knight. While it is true that Sharp did work for the family, and there appears to have been some interaction, and even some exchange of letters–most of those letters did not survive and Midorikawa and Sweeney read a lot into the ones which do, including some interactions between Cassandra and Anne after Jane’s death.  I think more work needs to be done with the sources they used and perhaps more searching for additional sources to verify their suppositions before their thesis, at least in terms of Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, can be addressed. Deirdre LeFay says it better than I do in this article.

The authors argue that these four women writers had mostly unknown relationships with other women which served to inspire and/or support their writing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty thin for them even being friends, at least in the case of Austen and Sharp, and nonexistent to show that if their friendship did exist, it provided any kind of support for either of them writing. I cannot speak to the other three authors discussed in the book, since I did not finish reading the book, but other commentators who knew about Woolf have written in reviews that there was really nothing new in this book. 

I would have to call  this a disappointment and I could not recommend it for those with an interest in Austen. Save your money for Janine Barchas’s new book instead.

Need a tea time treat? Try this…

Tea Brack made from the recipe at King Arthur Flour, here. The only changes I made to the recipe were to add lemon zest from one lemon and use Jack Daniels Tennessee Apple Whiskey instead of Irish Whiskey. It’s delicious and a wonderful addition to your afternoon tea. The Harney & Sons Paris Tea from World Market is fantastic–slightly floral scented Black Tea. Give both a try with your latest book!