The New Year, 2018 Edition

The first also honey post I published, almost a year ago today, was a list of all the new years resolutions that I never actually achieved – and in some cases never even attempted.

I’m going to go with something really original this year, and just not make any resolutions.

In that first post, I made a cute comment about how maybe next year I’d explain why January First was chosen to be the start of the Julian calendar’s new year. Well fine, past self. I can take up that challenge.

The Julian solar calendar was established as part of old man Julius’ dictatorial clean-up act, another step in the direction of the Roman Empire out of the corrupt Republic (sounds like a Star Wars opening crawl). The Republic’s calendar had been based on the lunar cycle – the moon goes around Earth once a month, right? But the number of lunar cycles in a year is completely arbitrary, unless linked to the time it takes for Earth to orbit the sun, the solar year. Roman priests called pontifices were in charge of this lunar calendar, and sometimes they played a little too fast and loose with it for Caesar’s liking.

But why January 1st? It was already in use as the date the consuls took office during the Republic. The other option was March 1st, the beginning of spring, at least in the northern hemisphere.

The religious significance is that March is the month of Mars, the war god. January is the month of Janus, the two-faced god of doorways, choices, endings and beginnings. Janus also has some connections as a solar deity, making him the ideal choice to lead in the new year.

But again, why January? Or more specifically, why midwinter? Why not early spring, or even summer or fall. In 2018, the Islamic New Year (based on a lunar calendar) will be in September. The Chinese New Year festival is always around January and February, a step closer to spring on its way.

I personally think there is a good reason that the new year (at least in the northern hemisphere) starts midwinter. Unlike the earlier holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa – New Years celebrations are not about feasting and thanksgiving. At the coldest time of year, New Years is about coming together, bundling up, drinking away the sorrows and mistakes of the previous year, and anticipating what the future and the warmth of spring will bring.

I have no idea if that’s what the Romans were thinking of when they decided on January 1st. You can make up your own mind on that.

For me, this year I’ll take a leaf out of Janus’ book. All those lofty resolutions I made last year were wrong. I thought I could predict where my life would take me, and who I would be while writing this post, today.

No resolutions this year. No predicting the future, only looking forward. No bringing the past with me, only watching it go by, and learning from my mistakes. No holding myself to liminal methods of self-improvement, a false guideline for what I should have done without appreciation for what I did do. I did a lot last year. I’ll do a lot again this year. And when life takes me in unexpected directions, I won’t stop and say “oh darn, when am I ever going to have time to make croissants?”

 

Featured image credit to Michael Hoad.

 

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The Also Honey Holiday Gift Guide

Which makes it sound like I disappeared for a month and have returned as the personification of kitschy consumerism.

I did disappear for a month. I am not in any way a personification of kitschy consumerism. I just like giving gifts.

Specifically, I like giving gifts that I know are the right combination of usefulness, novelty, and emotional significance. And if I can’t do that, I hate giving gifts. I’d much rather not give one than give a bad gift, which is a frustrating way of going about things from my end, because that’s probably the case nine times out of ten.

So from me, to you, here are a few things that might make your holidays a little easier.

In the kitchen, because I’ve spent a lot of time there in the past year, I can say without hesitation that the two things I find most useful to have on hand are espresso powder and a kitchen scale.

Yeah, I know, espresso powder seems like a weird gift, but hear me out. The powder that you can buy at King Arthur/Sur La Table/Williams-Sonoma isn’t actually the same as the instant espresso you can buy at Starbucks. It’s more concentrated, and the idea isn’t that it gives your recipe a coffee flavour, although using more than a teaspoon will do that. It’s more important for, and more commonly used for, enhancing a chocolate flavour in your recipes. Anything that includes chocolate, go for it. (P.S., instant coffee is an entirely different thing again – and not great for baking. Nor should you try to make espresso from espresso powder.)

A kitchen scale may again surprise you; most of the kitchens I know probably have one, but it’s stuffed in a dark corner somewhere, only brought out to weigh pasta or some other randomness. The reason I say to get and use a kitchen scale is because weight is a more accurate measurement than volume: 128 grams of flour will always be 128 grams, but 1 cup of flour is not always going to be one cup, because it depends on how much flour you’ve packed into that cup. Plus, it is actually easier to use. Dump 128 grams of flour into a bowl, zero it, dump in 198 grams of granulated sugar, zero it, etc. No need to wash five different measuring cups.

Obviously scales aren’t infallible, and some people will always prefer their measuring cups, and you’d have to know their kitchen well enough to know that they don’t have a scale or that it needs replacing, but that’s what makes it a more personal gift, maybe for someone just starting the process of building their kitchen from the ground up who took the easy route by buying three dollar measuring cups from Ikea. (No disrespect to Ikea, of course.)

If you’re looking for something a bit more novelty and less specific, I would suggest perusing the Nordic Ware website for some sweet, weird, and wacky bundt pans.

As for the kitchen-related, there are two cookbooks I emphatically recommend. I’ve already talked about The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty’s part geneological memoir, part cookbook based on his desire to follow Southern cooking, and his own family, back to their roots. I’m talking about it again now that it’s published, because it’s worth another mention.

The second one is Stella Parks’ BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. As the name suggests, the book is full of recipes for every classic American dessert I can think of, as well as short histories of some of the really interesting ones. Parks is a James Beard Award nominated writer for SeriousEats. I made her gingerbread sheet cake recipe for Thanksgiving and it was unbelievable. She’s also very good about answering questions about her recipes, which is what won me over more than anything else.

Now since I obviously can’t go very long without talking about books, let’s get into some suggestions there.

With the recent success of the Wonder Woman movie, I’d say Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World is a good bet. I’ve been reading Mayor, a classics research scholar at Stanford, since Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, a book that is both fascinating and disgusting. The Amazons is less disgusting, but no less fascinating. If your gift recipient, like me, would have liked Wonder Woman better if it had been less about the follies of man, and just a bunch of women doing cool stunts for two hours, this is a good book for them.

I’ve suggested this next book to someone before and I still think it’s a good idea: if you know any Jane Austen fans, they might enjoy the Algonquin Press facsimile edition of Austen’s A History of England: By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian (Note: There will be very few Dates in this History). It’s a short historical satire written when Austen was sixteen, and this edition includes the portraits painted by her sister Cassandra. I think it’s a good gift because it’s both novel and familiar, a simple thing for them to say “wow, cool,” about without laying on them the responsibility of reading or not reading a three-hundred page novel.

I personally think that fiction is too personal a thing for me to give suggestions on. If you’re sharing books with a person, I wouldn’t dream that I might know better than you what they would like. It might be hypocritical for me to say that and then suggest lots of nonfiction, but to me, nonfiction is interest-based, non-personal, while fiction requires a much more emotional response.

I wish you all the best of luck with your gift-giving. I hope you don’t have to deal with anyone who has no qualms about buying whatever they want for themselves, and then never needs or wants gifts (ahem, cough cough, Dad). I’ve been tasked with making a “citrus or cardamom and saffron pavlova” for dessert to solve that particular problem, so you can hopefully expect that recipe at the end of December.

 

 

 

 

The To-Be-Read Pile, With Love, Cool Covers

Hello and welcome to another episode of “things I would like to read but just end up writing about.” Yay for another list of books that also get to double as a list of book covers to drool over. More importantly, this is also a list of books with a focus on inclusion. The past week or so there’s been an uproar in the Young Adult community (another one) about a book with racist overtones losing a Kirkus star. I’m not going to explain it, because I honestly don’t think the book deserves more press. More importantly, the very fact that there was a controversy points to how inclusive and diverse the YA community is – the ability to even have the conversation, to be able to speak against the status quo, is a step in the right direction that many other genres haven’t been able to do.

Not all of these books are YA, don’t worry.

children of blood and bone

I wasn’t kidding about the covers. Is it just me or do her eyes follow you? Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is the story of Zélie Adebola, a young woman determined to fight back (with a renegade princess, a good addition to any story) against the monarchy that banned her magic and murdered her mother. It’s a West African inspired fantasy that’s already made waves on the publishing deal alone, and won’t come out until March 6th, 2018. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

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Who’s ready for Binti #3? Look out, January 16th, 2018. I’m a little disappointed that Binti: The Night Masquerade didn’t follow the trend for a cover with a close-up thousand yard stare. Then again, this is so beautiful it looks like it belongs on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, so I can’t be too disappointed. I’ve already reviewed Binti for also honey, so I won’t talk too much about the plot. Nnedi Okorafor described her trilogy succinctly as “1 African girl leaves home. 2 African girl comes home. 3 African girl becomes home.” Plus some cool space travel, math, and jellyfish inspired alien species.

P.S. Okorafor’s Akata Warrior just came out, and Who Fears Death is going to be an HBO series headed by George R. R. Martin.

a thousand beginnings and endings

Moving away from Africa, now. This one’s an anthology, actually. It includes 15 retellings of South and East Asian folklore by a stacked cast of authors including Renee Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn, Roshani Chokshi, who wrote Aru Shah and the End of Time for Rick Riordan Imprints, and Aliette de Bodard, author of The House of Shattered Wings. There isn’t much information about A Thousand Beginnings and Endings yet, so I’ll just be staring at the cover until that happens.

queen of fashion

Let’s stop living in the future for a moment; this book has been out for years, and you can go read it right now! Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution is on my top ten list of books to read. Books to read, full stop, no other limitations.

And you might be thinking, uh, hey, you said this was going to be an inclusive and diverse list, so why Marie Antoinette? Well, first of all, she is one of the most villainized/fetishized/dismissed women in all of human history, and definitely in European history, and even that doesn’t begin to explain her importance in the development of what we call democracy. She deserves a voice, even if you don’t necessarily like what she might say.

This book isn’t just about her clothes. It’s also about the way she used fashion and clothing, about the way she interacted with her environment, about how the social, cultural, and economic factors of eighteenth century France all conspired to make her who she was.

Honestly, I have a lot of respect for Marie Antoinette. I don’t agree with all the things she did, and I’m not here to defend her, but I can also appreciate that she wasn’t what we think she was, and that she went to her death with her head held high.

 

Coffee Cake Muffins; Is Your Favourite Word ‘Moist’?

Recipe

There are three parts to a crumbed coffee cake: the vanilla cake, the cinnamon filling, and the cinnamon topping.

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All three parts are equally important, and all three parts must form one whole.

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There should be no harsh flavours in a coffee cake. No bitter bite that reminds you of the time you took the cinnamon challenge for an ill-conceived youtube stunt. Instead, you should be able to eat coffee cake while watching a youtube video of the cinnamon challenge, and you should be pleased with yourself, that you have coffee cake, and they only have cinnamon.

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You should only ever be pleased with yourself when you have coffee cake.

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The vanilla cake that forms the base of a coffee cake must be soft. It must be moist (I’m sorry). It must taste the way a vanilla bean smells, subtle, refreshing, not too sweet.

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The filling must be as much or as little as you desire! It’s completely arbitrary anyway and I wouldn’t want to impose.

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The topping, however, there I will impose a little bit. You need enough to cover the tops of your muffins, or they end up looking like little bald lego men. Sometimes they end up like that anyway. I would suggest a quick dab of cream cheese frosting (cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and powdered sugar), which I scavenged from my mother’s birthday leftovers.

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That makes it sound like I scraped frosting off a cake to put on my muffins. I didn’t, I promise. There was extra frosting. No cake involved. Except coffee cake.

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Yay for Fall! It’s such a beautiful season. Who’s up for a trip back to Longwood Gardens?

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Anyway, here’s your recipe for coffee cake muffins, tasty and delicious and intentionally moist.


Coffee Cake Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

Cake:

1 stick unsalted butter

½ cup light brown sugar (100g)

½ cup white sugar (100g)

2 eggs

1 ½ tsp baking powder

2 cups flour (240g)

3/4 cup buttermilk

1 ½ tsp vanilla

Filling:

4 tbsp butter (½ stick)

1 tbsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

pinch of espresso powder (pinch!)

½ cup flour (60g)

½ cup dark brown sugar (100g)

Topping:

4 tbsp butter melted

½ cup flour (60g)

½ cup brown sugar (100g)

1 tbsp cinnamon

Method:

  1. Oven to 350°F, muffin tin with cupcake liners at the ready.
  2. Whisk 4 tbsp butter (filling) in large bowl (if not already softened at room temperature. Remove butter, set to the side to use later.
  3. In the large bowl, whisk the butter (cake) and light brown & white sugars together until smooth.
  4. Add eggs, whisk to incorporate.
  5. In separate bowl, measure out flour and baking powder. Mix together lightly.
  6. In small alternating batches, add flour/b. powder mixture and buttermilk to the mixture from steps 2 and 3. Incorporate fully after each batch.
  7. Add vanilla, mix to combine.
  8. In a separate bowl, add all the ingredients for the filling except butter – mix together first and then add the whipped (or softened) butter. You’re looking to mix the butter until you get small crumbs.
  9. In another bowl, add all ingredients for topping except the melted butter – mix together first and then add the melted butter. You want a larger crumb for this.
  10. If you enjoy more filling, at this stage you can swirl the cake batter and the filling together – don’t let them mix completely.
  11. To the muffin tin-holes, dollop (either by pouring or with spoons) a base layer of cake batter, sprinkle with filling, and then add another layer of cake batter on top. Sprinkle on the topping. Do the same for each muffin.
  12. Bake for 35-45 minutes. I would check at 30, and the instrument that checks readiness should come out greased with butter & potentially filling, but not cake batter.

 

Magical Chocolate Mousse

Recipe

I can admit to always having the slightest of obsessions with chocolate mousse. I think it goes back to when I was a wee snotty child and first read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (by Patricia C. Wrede), in which Cimorene makes 10 gallon buckets of the stuff for her first dragon dinner party.  My first dragon dinner party, too. They don’t come around that often. It can’t just be that, though, because the only reason Cimorene makes chocolate mousse is because she doesn’t have time to make cherries jubilee. I don’t have any particular interest in cherries jubilee.

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Taste and memory are funny that way. I don’t believe I’ve ever really had chocolate mousse. I hate chocolate pudding. I’d choose any citrus flavor over chocolate any day. But here we are: in the list of delectable desserts I want to try making, chocolate mousse ranks two or three.

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Partially, that’s because it’s easy. And it is definitely easy. There’s only one component, mousse, as opposed to crust and filling, cake and frosting. There’s no baking. The most difficult part is the eggs. And the eggs are not particularly difficult.

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It’s also because, even as someone not inclined to enjoy chocolate, the mousse itself is the perfect counterbalance. What I dislike about chocolate, the sickly combination of overwhelming sweetness and the density of a peat bog, is cured by the fluffiness of the mousse and the nutty, lingering flavor of the vanilla and the rum.

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That isn’t to say that you couldn’t go all in for chocolate. Dark chocolate is best for this, but it is also, obviously, dark. Less sugar, more pow. For less dark, choose bittersweet or semisweet, and preferably in wafers, because they’re easier to melt. (Don’t go for chips. They’re designed to retain their chip shape. Mousse > chip.) 

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Theoretically, the alcohol burns off in the cooking stage, leaving the flavor. I’m not sure about that in this particular case, but I also don’t know how to test it. If you’re worried about the alcohol, leave it out. If you’re not sure about the alcohol, use the rum. It’s one of the most forgiving of the hard liquors, in my opinion. That’s why it’s a staple for happy drinks like pina coladas and daquiris. Rum is made from distilled sugarcane. Light rums are for cocktails. Dark rums are for making hazy memories at weddings. Golden rums are where it’s at. Delicious flavor, slight kick, but not about to knock the pants off every other ingredient.

Balance, says I. Chocolate mousse is all about balance. Rich? Yes. Nutty? Yes. Sweet? Not too much. Chocolate? Creamy and delicious, of course. Fluffy? As a cloud. I bet even dragons would like it.


 

Magical Chocolate Mousse

Serves 6-8

6oz chocolate

3 large egg yolks

3 large egg whites

1/4 cup heavy cream

2 tsp rum

½ tsp vanilla extract

1/8 salt

  1. Whip heavy cream and place in fridge to chill.
  2. Place chocolate in glass/heatproof bowl over pot of simmering water on stove. Do not allow water to touch bottom of bowl. Melt chocolate, stirring occasionally. When melted, add egg yolks, salt, and rum. Whisk lightly until combined. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
  3. Whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Add vanilla, mix.
  4. In small batches, add egg whites to yolk and chocolate mixture. Mix until blended. 
  5. In small batches, add whipped heavy cream. Mix until blended.
  6. Plate in serving dishes before chilling.
  7. Chill for 3 hours, or overnight.

For Want of a Good Cover

I’m not personally a huge fan of the American edition Harry Potter art by Mary GrandPré, although I’ll happily agree to its iconic-ness. Iconicism? Anyway, I’m willing to appreciate it, even if I don’t like it, because as far as book covers go, things could be a lot worse.

Yup, that’s what we’re talking about today. Book covers. I’ve been wanting to do a post on this for a while, because I love nothing more than a good book cover, and nothing more than that than the whackiest, wildest, most unnecessarily upsetting book cover you’ve ever seen.

Book covers sometimes ride the trends of the genre as much as their content does, and sometimes way more. Part of this is intentional, because it is a Good Thing to be able to tell Manga from Adult Fiction in a single glance. Part of it is also just, because, if you’re already taking a gamble on a $15 book, why not also ensure it’ll look good on your bookshelf, since that’s where it will spend most of its time. Part of it is because it’s just simpler. “Hey, that book hit the bestseller list? Yeah, make this one look like that.”

Sometimes that’s just a downright bad way of going about things, and sometimes it’s a genuinely racist way of going about them. We’ll get to that – first let’s just have some fun.

These two are from one of the first science fiction/fantasy series I ever picked up, and hoo boy does it have some interesting covers. The first image is the original hardback of Wild Magic (1992) by Tamora Pierce, the first in the The Immortals quartet. The second is the original UK edition of Emperor Mage, the third in the series, published 1994. The flying metal human bird is called a Stormwing, by the way. And yes, she’s riding a wooly mammoth (it’s a zombie, too). Love the pretty little potted plants and the purple backdrop. Also love the quote: “She reached deep inside herself … ”

For some reason the publisher thought these glories needed modernising.

AAHHHH NO WHo thought this was a good idea? Aping the style of a paranormal romance novel? Don’t do that, please.

I should explain, the one on the left, also by Tamora Pierce, is The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (1986, this cover 2011), from the Song of the Lioness quartet. I’ll admit, I haven’t read it in a while because it was never my favourite, but although there are two men in love with Alanna, that is not the point of the book at all. Every other version of this cover, and the other three in the series feature Alanna alone, as she should be, because it’s not a paranormal romance novel. On the other side, The Host (2008) is by Stephanie Meyer, the author of the infamous Twilight series. Although, from my not-very-extensive research, it does seem that one of the men (staring at her soulfully) in the background might be the girl’s brother. We can take bets as to which one of the handsome dirty-blond white boys he is (and no, I can’t tell who’s who on the Alanna cover either).

Okay, but as weird as those covers are, they’re not, like, that bad, are they? They’re just awkward and not something I would necessarily give to a young adult. On the other hand, there are some book covers that are really bad, and not just because of the design.

I think we can all see where Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987, left) went wrong. The 1997 version is just the more accurate depiction of the main character.

This article on The Book Smugglers does a really good job of explaining the whitewashing problem in book covers, and I don’t want to repeat too much of what they said, but I do want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of the Earthsea series. She has been dealing with this for a really long time, including when the Sci Fi Channel made a miniseries based on her books, and promptly cast almost all white actors. She actually wrote an article for Slate about it, entitled “A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel Wrecked My Books.” Worth a read.

Let’s have a look at what Le Guin’s books actually look like.

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This is the first edition, all the way from 1968, illustrated by Ruth Robbins. The description of Ged’s red-brown skin has obviously been noted. Then we get:

The first is from 1989, the second is a particularly weird UK edition from 1973. The fact that they’re both black and white is not an excuse for drawing an obviously white person there. And then there is this:

earthsea iceland

This one is the Icelandic edition from 1977 … and while they did get the red-brown skin …  and the whole abstract look is interesting … I’m really struggling here to find a way to describe this other than “truly disturbing.”

The SFF genre is not the only genre to have bad book covers, or even book covers that are less bad and more funny. It just seems to have most of them. I’m not as familiar with the other genres (apart from history, cough anything medieval cough) but I have seen some truly beautiful covers in the past few years.

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A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman. This might be the audiobook, but no matter, a fight with the grim reaper shall never be silenced.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, won several awards last year, which meant this beauty was displayed in literally every bookstore window for months.

essex serpent cover

I’m a huge fan of the current flowery trend in book covers! The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss, is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Very Rifle Paper Co.. And Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender, is not only gorgeous but managed to depict its main character properly as well!

If we talk about pretty book covers, we obviously have to talk about cookbooks, because if the cover of your cookbook doesn’t make us drool, you’re doing it wrong. The Arab Table, by May S Bsisu, has been making me drool for years.

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I came across this book in the bookstore the other day, and I have to say not only is this one of the cutest book covers I’ve seen in a long time, the story within is cute and funny too. Yeah, I sat down in the bookstore and read it. I like dragons, okay? And Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin).

dragons love tacos

I think that’s probably enough book covers for now – oh, wait, I am legally obligated to leave you with the Animorphs series, by K. A. Applegate.

Apparently they were actually good books.

Pink Apple Tarts

They really are pink.

pink pearl apples

These are pink pearl apples. They’re pretty tasty, and slightly tart, the way green apples are. And their flesh is pink. I got them from Three Springs Fruit Farm at the farmer’s market on Sunday.

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They have a beautiful taste on their own, but I couldn’t help wanting to do something with them that would show off that lovely colour. So I made them into tarts. To be fair, they’re probably not the ideal baking apples, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious either way.

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Apple tarts (or tartlets) are my second-favourite pastry, and my first favourite when it comes to pastries with nutritional value. When I was in university, I would buy one at the train station on the way to my morning classes. Technically eating on the Tube is a little bit frowned upon, but at that time of the morning nobody is around to care.

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Sadly, I haven’t mastered the art of puff pastry. I’m working on it. I’ve only had one major disaster so far. These are made with store-bought pastry, and honestly it’s so easy that way. My personal puff pastry journey isn’t worth forcing on these poor, beautiful apples.

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The recipe is really simple: store bought puff pastry, cut into squares (you don’t even have to roll it out). Skin and slice the apples into crescents – not too thin, or they’ll catch, not too thick, or they won’t sit properly. Slather with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375F, maybe 20 minutes? Check on them at fifteen, and you might end up going to thirty. You want to see the layers and a flaky golden crust. When they’re ready, take them out and brush them with an apricot glaze (apricot jam & water bubbled in a saucepan until smooth and covers the back of a spoon – might have to sieve it). That’s it. They’re ready to eat!

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Hot buttery pastry and soft, sweet apple are the most delicious in combination. I would imagine you could also do designs with the apple slices, but I’ll leave that artistry up to you.

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This is definitely a good example of a recipe that looks far more difficult than it is. Please, try it. Even if you can’t find pink pearl apples, just try this. It’s so simple, and it’s so delicious. It’s worth it, and you can do it.

Adieu, Madam – The Life and Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of my favourite historical figures. I first read a book about her in high school, and then I probably wrote four or five essays on her in university. Last week, I was listening to the Sawbones (a medical history podcast) vaccines episode while on the plane coming back from Montana, and I was so happy to hear her name come up.

If you want to know more about smallpox and how important preventing, and eventually eradicating it was, listen to the Sawbones episode on vaccines, #151 on iTunes. It’s a really good episode, even by Sawbones’ standard, and Dr. Sydnee McElroy can give you a much better understanding of smallpox than I can. I can only tell you about Lady Mary.

First, if you’ve listened to the Sawbones episode, and like Sydnee and Justin, you’re wondering why Lady Mary has gone down in history as a “famous letter-writer,” and not as a “famous everything-else-she-did,” I can tell you: her personal letters, which were eventually published, are her most well-known accomplishment.

(Publishing letters was common at the time – and even when not published, they would be read aloud to a family or friend group. They weren’t necessarily private. The social history of letter-writing is really interesting, but not something that needs getting into here.)

That does not at all mean that this woman wasn’t accomplished. She was mostly self-taught; although she had a governess, apparently they didn’t like each other very much, and little Lady Mary learned on her own from her father’s library, which also meant that she learned things that women wouldn’t be taught at the time. She wrote beautiful poetry and prose. She was friends with the intellectual luminaries of the time (male and female). When her husband was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, she went with him, and eventually spear-headed the campaign for bringing the Turkish practice of smallpox variolation to Europe. Eventually she separated from her husband and went to live with her lover in Venice, and when that relationship ended, she continued to live in Europe until her eventual death in 1762.

Jervas, Charles, c.1675-1739; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)
Portrait by Charles Jervas.

The most famous letter Lady Mary wrote is part of the collection of Embassy Letters, which can be read online. The letter in question is XXVI, the account of her trip to a Turkish bathhouse in Sophia. There’s a description of the building – the different rooms with different water temperatures and areas for lounging. She writes a bit about the reaction of the Turkish women to seeing her in her European travelling habit, pointing out that they were far more accommodating of her unusual appearance than their counterparts in England would have been.

To me, the most important sentence in the letter is this:

“I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions.”

Throughout her letters and writings, Lady Mary speaks almost obsessively about the complexions of the people around her. I’m not trying to knock her: it’s an important look into how she interacted with the world, and it brings us back to her involvement with smallpox.

Her brother died of the disease in 1713. A few years later, Lady Mary herself survived a bout with it, but she was left scarred, and smallpox scars (pockmarks) are no small thing. They’re literal pits left behind from the swollen, pus-filled spots that covered her body. Before her illness, she was renowned for her beauty as well as her intelligence. Afterwards, anyone who saw her would have recognised the scars on her face; she was permanently marked by this terrifying disease.

It’s important to know, in Europe at the time, they didn’t understand smallpox. Lady Mary was now immune to the disease, a small comfort, but this isn’t something they were necessarily sure of. As always there’s a gap between what the doctors know and what the laypeople know, and there the question or superstition may have become, not just about her immunity, but whether or not she could still pass on the disease, even after her recovery. It wasn’t until many years later, when Lady Mary herself brought the idea of variolation back to England from Turkey that they began to do experiments to test that those who survived exposure to the disease via variolation were actually immune, and from there Europe was set on the path of a better understanding of smallpox, eventually leading to Jenner’s vaccine. (I know, I said you should listen to the Sawbones episode, but I had to explain a little bit.)

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In her portraits, Lady Mary is almost always depicted in Turkish dress, characterised by the low, curving bodice and the high waist, a stark difference from the English fashions at the time.

You may have noticed that in every portrait above, and in fact in every extant portrait of Lady Mary, she doesn’t have any scars. I can’t tell you why. It may be that an idealised portrait of the sitter was just the fashion of the time (which it certainly was) and it may be that she requested to be painted this way. It’s hard to tell.

I don’t want to make the connection that Lady Mary’s interest in variolation was more due to her own suffering than the potential suffering of her children, or that her descriptions of other people’s complexions was in some way superficial. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that her interest in preventing smallpox was an interest in preventing more people, including her children, from dealing with what she’d had to deal with.

I find Lady Mary to be a fascinating character, with or without her connection to smallpox, or even her writings on gender and her descriptions of her travels through the Ottoman Empire. Her writing, and if you have the time, go read a bit of it, is funny and personal. She’s an immensely complex character, with a engaging and unusual view of the world she lived in. There’s so much more to say about her, but it might be better to leave you with her own words: “Life’s too short for a long story.”

 

 

If you want to read more about Lady Mary, I’d absolutely suggest Isobel Grundy’s biography, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment, and Jennifer Lee Carroll’s The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox, which I should say is part history and part historical fiction.

Featured Image: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants. Attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour. Oil on canvas, circa 1717. National Portrait Gallery, Primary Collection NPG 3924

Third Image: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, by Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Christian Friedrich Zincke, hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s. NPG D34619

Halloumi Burgers! With Tzatziki!

Halloumi is one of my favourite foods. It’s a hard, salty cheese with a high melting point, so it is excellent for cooking with. It’s thick and holds its shape, which makes it a good meat substitute.  You can grill it or fry it. I’ve had it on pasta, on tacos, and of course on burgers. I haven’t actually said this yet on also honey, but I don’t eat beef or pork, and I can’t stand tofu or mushrooms or veggie patties, which are the usual suspects for meat-free burgers. Halloumi is by far the best option.

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In Cyprus, where halloumi is from, I had it as an appetiser, grilled and sandwiched in warm pita with a slice of tomato, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Cyprus is an interesting place. It’s an island in the Mediterranean with a long and fascinating history: the earliest human settlements on the island are from the neolithic period, about the 8th millennium BCE. Today, the south and west of the island is under control of the Republic of Cyprus, which is internationally recognised and a member of the EU. The Republic of Cyprus has nominal control over the north of the island, but that territory is actually controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is not internationally recognised. It’s a very long and complicated subject, but that’s the short and easy version.

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Cyprus, no matter what part you’re in, is a beautiful island. I dug through two or three years of photos to find something from our trip there, and the picture above is from the ruins of Salamis, an ancient city that stretches back before the ancient Greeks. It’s a massive site in the northern part of the island, but sadly there is no infrastructure to support the preservation of the ruins. You can just climb all over them and take pieces home if you want. (Don’t do that, please).

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Burger layer one and two: tzatziki and halloumi on a lightly toasted brioche bun. Waiting to be added are tomatoes, fig chutney, avocado, and sautéed onions.

Let’s talk about burgers. Halloumi is obviously the main ingredient, but we also need buns and all the rest. I used brioche buns in the pictures, and they were amazing and look amazing, but you can use whatever buns you prefer. I like this particular burger with tzatziki, the Greek yogurt/cucumber sauce. I have made tzatziki before but it’s one of those things that’s not really worth it unless you have the time. The store-bought kind is just as good as anything I made. I just spread it on the bottom bun like any other sauce.

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Next layer added: sautéed onions.

I would suggest setting up all of your fillings ahead of time, because halloumi cooks fast. I sliced the avocado and tomato, spooned out the chutney, and then started on the onions. They take longer than halloumi, and I like them very thin, so you have to keep an eye on them. If you’ve never sautéed onions, it’s easy. Just chop them up and toss them in a pan with some oil. Keep them turning just enough that they don’t catch, until they’re a nice golden brown.

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Tomato slices are next. Try to place so it doesn’t fall out when you bite into it.

When you’re done with the onions, toast the buns for a few seconds (maybe half a minute? I didn’t time it) on the pan. Take the buns off, spread the bottom with tzatziki, and the top with butter or even mustard, if you want. Then add a bit more oil to the pan and slices of halloumi. The secret to cooking halloumi is hot and fast – but not so hot and fast that they burn. Flip them halfway through to get colour on both sides. You’ll be able to tell they’re done when they’re soft, which sounds confusing, but the difference between raw and cooked halloumi really is that it goes soft. It shouldn’t be melted – I’ve never seen it melted. It just needs to be soft, almost squishy. I know that sounds terrible, you just have to try it and trust me.

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Last two layers: avocado and fig chutney. You’re ready to eat!

The halloumi will take maybe a minute or two to cook. Once it’s done, pop it on the bun, and start loading up your toppings. I sometimes add pickles, because I love pickles. I should also note that not everyone loves the fig chutney (you can find the recipe here) because it’s so sweet. Fair enough. I like to use it because I love the taste and because it’s another thing to use chutney for.

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For some reason I only ended up with pictures from one angle of this burger, but I can assure you it was equally beautiful from all angles.

I first ate halloumi burgers at a place called Meat Liquor when we lived in Brighton. They had a lunch deal that was perfect for jobless millennials who desperately needed to leave the flat and spend the only money they had. Meat Liquor does a halloumi and mushroom burger for which I will suffer mushrooms. It’s amazing, but I’m happy with my spin on the idea. Give it your own spin if you want, but at some point in your life, try a halloumi burger, and let me know how you feel about it.