Save Me the Plums

Reading Ruth Reichl’s account as editor of Gourmet magazine made me happy and hungry. With her usual flair, Reichl sails through her ten years at the prestigious food magazine, describing food so delicious you can almost smell and taste it.

Following the arc from learning the ropes, wondering if the job is too challenging, to the inevitable highs of success with a staff as enthusiastic as she is about bringing culinary delights to the masses, Reichl talks about her staff as collaborators and friends in a delightful journey to experiment and explore food. Of course, the arc ultimately turns down during the recession with budget cuts and gleaning of staff, eventually causing the demise of the revered magazine of seventy years in the Conde Nast warehouse. With 48 hours notice, she and her staff lost their jobs.

Throughout her story, Reichl is witty and charming, with flashes of down to earth philosophy as she manages her fairy tale career with family obligations. I laughed along with her when she described some of the publishing quirks in the foodie business, and would have been glad to have been counted as one of her friends. People she did not like, however, (she brooked no enemies) were given short shrift; sometimes you could almost see her making a face behind their backs.

I’ve read several of her books – my favorite is Garlic and Sapphires – and each has its own flavor, but Save Me the Plums may have been a catharsis, helping her transition from a whirlwind life of luxury into forced early retirement and a return to the normal life. Reichl always makes me laugh but this book offered a story of relatable issues any career mom would identify. Although my career had nothing to do with food, I could relate as she learned to be a leader, overseeing a staff for the first time as she came into her own, creating programs lauded and appreciated. The sudden ending was fretful but we all survive and often thrive.

Since the end of Gourmet magazine in 2009, Reichl has kept busy cooking in her upstate New York kitchen, and writing books: her first fiction book – Delicious!, a cookbook – My Kitchen Year, and a tribute to her mother in Not Becoming My Mother. Her writing pops up in assorted publications, and in a recent article for Real Simple magazine her tart humor described the perfect kitchen.  “Forget all the appliances you think you need.  Just turn your kitchen into a space you love…I do have a dishwasher, but the truth is I wish I didn’t…” As always, she offers real suggestions with a dollop of wry humor.

Reichl included several Gourmet recipes in Save Me the Plums, but I only copied and tried one – the one with chocolate, of course. Ruth says it tastes best with Scharffen Berger chocolate but I couldn’t find any; trust me, it’s still great with any good grade chocolate (just stay away from Dutch processed). The cake is a YAFI (You Asked for It) from one of Gourmet’s issues – easy to make and tastes amazing.

I wish I had thought to take a picture but we scarfed it up pretty quickly.  Besides, in a recent interview Reichl says she does not like the current practice of eaters taking pictures of the food.  “You distance yourself from the food as soon as you take a picture – better to experience it and enjoy it.”

I’m sure she would be happy if you would try making it too – here’s the recipe: 

Jeweled Chocolate Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting pan but not Dutch process
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a deep 9 inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust it with cocoa powder.

Melt the chocolate with the cocoa, butter, oil, and water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar.

Cool completely, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk into the chocolate mixture. Shake the buttermilk well, measure, and stir that in.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the middle shelf for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out, peel the parchment from the bottom and allow to cool completely.

Praline Topping:

  • 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 1/4 cup blanched hazelnuts (I substituted chopped pecans)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar

Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until it begins to darken, swirling until mixture turns a deep gold. Happens fast – so stay with it or it will burn.

Remove from heat and stir in nuts. Pour onto baking sheet lined with parchment, spreading evenly. Allow to cool completely. Then, break into pieces and put into a plastic bag, smashing with a rolling pin (or bottom of a heavy glass) until you have crushed pieces to sprinkle over the frosting.

Frosting 

  • Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar into a cup of mascarpone.
  • Spread on the cooled cake and heap praline bits on top.

 

 

 

Book Lovers Live Longer

The news was so hot, two friends called and another sent me the clipping of the article by Pulitzer winning writer Amy Ellis Nutt from the Washington Post – Scientists Say Book Lovers Live Longer Than Non-Readers.  Just reading books more than 3.5 hours a week – a half hour a day – can add to your life span.  Imagine what reading more in a day can do, but be careful to get up and move around now and then, since the Annals of Internal Medicine recently linked a sedentary lifestyle to early death.

Someone suggested listening to books on tape while walking, jogging, biking –  to cover all bases.  I could never give up the pleasure of turning the pages, or the convenience of a quick download of a best seller, but I am working on my Audible list.  Here are a few:

  • The Country Wife – starring Maggie Smith in a BBC dramatization
  • Say Something Happened by Alan Bennett
  • The Road Home: Stories of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Kellor
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

 

My favorite study, however, linked eating chocolate to good health and long life.

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Steinbeck and Chocolate Covered Sausages

English: A Baby Ruth candy bar split in half. ...

Since one of my book clubs is meeting to dissect Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, I wondered what an appropriate sweet snack might be to motivate the discussion.

Ideas from the pages:

  • The Seer gets arrested when he escalates from stealing one Baby Ruth or Mounds candy bar to three from the Safeway;
  • Elegant Joe bakes a cake with marshmallow topping;
  • Doc sprinkles chocolate over sausages.

Took the easy way – Baby Ruths and Mounds but decided to play it safe and buy them.

Julia’s Chocolates

The cover of the book shows a wedding dress hanging in a tree, but the title, Julia’s Chocolates, seduced me with chocolate – the reason I bought the book five years ago.  It’s been sitting on my shelf, waiting; I could never dispose of a book that promises chocolate – but I’d forgotten about it until a friend told me she was about to read another of Cathy Lamb’s stories.

Although Lamb delivers the promised chocolate, it’s with an intense dose of abused women and the camaradarie of unconditional friendship.   Julia Bennett escapes from her rich boyfriend on the day they are to be married, leaving behind his demeaning remarks about her appearance, and with a black eye added to his other physical abuse.  She finds a haven at her Aunt Lydia’s egg farm, hiding out with the chickens and the pigs and the toilet bowl planters in the front yard – hoping her boyfriend will not find her to seek revenge.

Through the feisty Lydia’s weekly group meetings, Julia meets a few of the local women who have their own problems.  Although Julia’s abusive past threatens to ruin her present and future life, Lamb offers many sides to abuse (some not always so obvious) through the other women in the group:  Katie, who has her own housekeeping business and four children, and supports her drunken slob of a husband; Lara, who’s bored of being the pastor’s wife and secretly wants to be an artist; Caroline, who can see into the future, especially when something dire is about to happen.  Lydia picks weekly topics that are humorous as well as affirming, and becomes the catalyst that helps the young women assert themselves.  And, of course, there’s the chocolate – and a handsome lawyer who happens to have a weekend house nearby and becomes Julia’s new love interest.

Chocolate is Julia’s savior.  She eats and bakes with chocolate for therapy, and to promote good feelings in others.  Eventually, chocolate develops into a business that saves the town, as well as Julia – but not before the horrible boyfriend reappears and tries to exact his revenge.

Lamb wraps the story with everyone living happily ever after – with each woman finding her true self, after cleansing herself of negative male influences that have kept her from fulfilling her destiny.   The cover flap connects the story to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – a good comparison – women coming together to support each other through the miseries and having a good time and some fun as a distraction from reality. Lamb has published three books since this one – all with themes that include women:

  • The Last Time I Was Me ( a career woman – angry and making life changes)
  • Henry’s Sisters (caring for an ailing mother, a demented grandmother, and a brother who is mentally handicapped)
  • Such a Pretty Face (a woman whose life changes more than physically after bariatric surgery).

But, her latest, has the most appeal for me – The First Day of the Rest of My Life.

Looking forward to reading it, while eating some good chocolate.  

Post Easter Blues

No wonder it didn’t feel like Easter – no plastic grass sprinkled on the rug, no colored eggs hidden in the flower-pot – no chocolate bunny ears to steal.  Just too grown up with brunch at a restaurant and an afternoon walk to wear off the mimosa.

And no left over Easter baskets with squishy jelly beans or sticky marshmallow peeps. Maybe if I read a bunny book?

 Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.  So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”   “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”

But my mother isn’t here.  I need chocolate…

Read about the author – Margaret Chase Brown