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.

 

 

 

Five Unrelated Books to Get Through the Winter

images  As February slams the country with icy winds and snow, my part of the world stays relatively warm, with only rain and wind interrupting the sunshine.  Although most locals welcome the opportunity to wear their sweaters and jeans, the tourists strip down to muscle shirts and shorts, rightfully thinking sixty degree weather is warm compared to the below freezing climes they left.  Suggestions for reading around the fire, sipping hot chocolate are moot here.

I have a list of books helping January blend into February, listing them below before I forget I read them – have you read any?

The Collector’s Apprentice B.A. Shapiro

Another mystery by Shapiro with art suffusing the narrative.  I connected with Shapiro when she wrote The Art Forger, and then The Muralist.  I always look forward to her next thriller.  In this one, I found myself researching the art pieces stolen – from Picassso to Matisse, one of my favorite artists.

Happiness: A Novel by Aminatta Forna

Don’t be fooled by the title, happiness is elusive in this compelling novel of two unlikely connections who collide in London – Jean, an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, specializing in refugee trauma. Attila has arrived in London to deliver a keynote speech on trauma and to check up on the daughter of friends who hasn’t called home in a while. He discovers she has been swept up in an immigration crackdown and her young son Tano is missing.

Jean joins him in his search for Tano, mobilizing her network of fox spotters. mostly West African immigrants: security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens. As the search continues, Attila and Jean reveal the true nature of happiness in a world where everything is connected.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

A family secret haunts a small town in post World War II Mississippi, as Grisham addresses race and war trauma in his latest thriller. The story begins with the decorated war hero, Pete Banning shooting the town’s Methodist minister and refusing to explain his motive.  The major clue is his sending his wife to an insane asylum for her nervous breakdown.  The big reveal comes in the last pages. A quick read, and I was tempted to skip to the end.

The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

In the style of popular books by Patrick (The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper) and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), this translation of Lundberg’s story focuses on an old character, in this case a 96 year old woman.  Unlike her counterparts in other novels,  who seem to be getting more lively as they get older, Doris is alone and confined to her home, with only a weekly Skype session wit her grandniece, caretakers who come and go, and the memories triggered by the names in her little red address book. Doris is writing her memoir, and each name in the address book creates a short chapter revealing an adventure in her life   Soothing and cozy –  best read with a cup of hot chocolate near a fireplace.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

Prompted by a recent article in the New York Times, I looked for this ten year old book set in the nineteen sixties with one of my favorite healthy eating advocates, Dr. Andrew Weil, as the focus.  This nonfiction narrative explores the relationship of Timothy Leery, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith   Full of surprises – Well wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Use of Nutmeg as a Psychotropic Agent – the book reveals not only the connection of these four men but also witty observations of their influence as they grow from university researchers to future gurus.  In his 2010 review for the New York Times, Dwight Lanier captured my thoughts on the book:

“I’d be lying… if I said I didn’t enjoy just about every page of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” This groovy story unfurls — chronicling the lives of men who were brilliant but damaged, soulful but vengeful, zonked-out but optimistic and wry — like a ready-made treatment for a sprawling, elegiac and crisply comic movie, let’s say Robert Altman by way of Wes Anderson.”

Once Upon a Time…a few books with happy endings

No matter the journey – from Moriarty’s clever twists and heart-stopping foils to Elizabeth Berg’s magical realism, Diane Setterfield’s Gothic mystery, and Tara Westover’s shocking revelations – when the ending neatly slays the dragons, and the good guys win – all is well with the story.

51-+rlhp5gl._ac_us218_Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty knows how to spin a tale and she does not disappoint in her latest page turner Nine Perfect Strangers.  Nine strangers at an upscale spa connect in her tale of self discovery, with humor, mystery, and a few heart stopping thrills.  Each has a different motive for signing up for the ten day rejuvenation plan, from the young couple who need marriage counseling after winning the lottery to the overwrought romance writer who has been taken in by an internet scam.  Others include the thirty something woman with four girls whose husband left her for a twenty something, a handsome gay divorce attorney, an over-the-hill sports hero, and a grieving family of three. Throw in a Russian overachiever with diabolical intent, and Moriarty once again has produced a fun and thrilling fast ride.

513lhruwtul._ac_us218_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield creates a Gothic mystery around a “dark and stormy night” during the winter solstice over one hundred years ago with a mute child brought back from the dead after drowning in the river.  Three separate families claim the girl as their own – Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she’s their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she’s their illegitimate grandchild ; and Lily White hopes she’s her lost sister.  As the plot meanders through the town and the river, I sometimes got lost in the flashbacks. The complicated mystery is solved quickly at the end, but the rapid decompression may give you the bends.  Like Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon a River has scenes shifting through time with strong characters at the helm.

th  Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg knows how to dish out comfort, and in Night of Miracles the food helps.  You’ll be salivating at the midnight chocolate cake, the butterscotch dreams, and the cream cheese lemon bars   Lucille Howard from The Story of Arthur Trulove returns in the familiar town of Mason, Missouri, where she is now at eighty-eight years old teaching classes on baking.  Arthur’s adopted daughter, Maddy, and his granddaughter, continue to be a part of her life.  A few new characters add flavor:  Iris Winters, looking for a fresh start in a new town; Monica, the waitress; Tiny, a local man and frequent customer pining for Monica; the young couple next door to Lucille facing a health crisis, and their son Lincoln. When Lucille receives an ethereal night visitor in her dreams, the angel of death in jeans and a flannel shirt,  you will wonder if no more sequels are forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the story is full of good people doing good things for each other – oblivious of the rancor in the outside world – a tonic and a lesson of hope.

41qzuq2h2wl._ac_us218_Educated by Tara Westover

If happy endings make you smile, this coming of age memoir will make you gasp.  With a fundamentalist upbringing on a Morman Idaho homestead, Tara Westover embellishes her hard journey to success and graduate degrees in Education.  Although she admits she might have gotten some of the facts mixed up, memory being what it is (especially when you’ve suffered a number of head injuries from car crashes and beatings), Westover’s harrowing account of survival is sometimes difficult to digest.  Her tale is her catharsis, but not everyone will want to know all those details. Hopefully, she’ll move on to using her Cambridge Ph.D. to write about other topics.

A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.

 

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet