Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Supporting Spouses and Peppermint Tisane

 by Amy

“Reine-Marie had always known this moment would come. From the first box they’d unpacked and the first night they’d spent here. From the first morning she’d woken up next to Armand and not been afraid of what the day might bring.”
“She’d known this day would come. But she’d thought, hoped, prayed they’d have more time.”

This section of THE LONG WAY HOME is a brilliant bit of writing by Louise Penny. She threads her way through three concurrent conversations: Annie and Reine-Marie drinking peppermint tisane on the Gamache’s porch, Jean-Guy and Gamache in the study, and Myrna and Clara (also drinking tisane – peppermint and chamomile) at Clara’s home.  The four women have parallel conversations about the men in their lives. Reine-Marie probably sees a reflection and reminder of her past as an inspector’s wife when she talks to her daughter. Their conversation is about recovery and peace, but there is an unspoken concern that they might live through pain and insecurity again. In the meantime, at the Morrow home, Clara shares her fears with Myrna as they talk about Peter’s unknown fate. Gamache asks Jean-Guy to help him answer Clara's request to find Peter.

I recently planted a garden. I think I’m in love. Who knew?! Like Gamache and Reine-Marie, I’m basically a city girl and had very little idea of how to start a garden. I have my own version of Myrna (a wonderful couple who is generous with their time and their knowledge) giving me hints and helping me decide what and how to plant. It has been a pleasure to watch things grow and to eat from the produce in the backyard.

The mint, in particular, has flourished. I add leaves to juices and have taken to making iced tea as well as adding it to water glasses. Yesterday I’d made myself some peppermint tisane (although I called it tea until I read this book and learned a new word) and had already taken a picture to show the gardeners how successful our enterprise has been. Later the same day, as I was listening to the beginning of The Long Way Home and ran across this scene, I knew it would have to be my next post.

 “Reine-Marie turned in her seat to look at the porch light above the door. What had started as a gentle tapping of mothwings against the bulb had turned into near frantic beating as the moth rammed itself against the hot light on the cool night. It was getting on her nerves.” 

 “Does it hurt? Reine-Marie wondered. The singeing of the wings, the little legs, like threads, landing on the white-hot glass, then pushing away. Does it hurt that the light doesn’t give the moth what it so desperately desires?” 

“She got up and turned the porch light off, and after a few moments the beating of the wings stopped and Reine-Marie returned to her peaceful seat. 

“It was quiet now, and dark. Except for the buttery light from the sitting room window. As the silence grew, Reine-Marie wondered if she’d done the moth a favor. Had she saved its life, but taken away its purpose?” 

“And then the beating started again. Flitting, desperate. Tiny, delicate, insistent. The moth had moved down the porch. Now it was beating against the window of the room where Armand and Jean-Guy sat.” 

“It had found its light. It would never give up. It couldn’t. 

“Reine-Marie got up, watched by her daughter, and turned the porch light back on. It was in the moth’s nature to do what it was doing. And Reine-Marie couldn’t stop it, no matter how much she might want to.”

I have long identified with Reine-Marie.  While there aren't a large number of scenes in which she is present, her presence is felt throughout the entire series. She is an integral part of Gamache; a half of the whole. He is able to be who he is, in part, because of her support. In A RULE AGAINST MURDER we are shown how understanding she is when their anniversary vacation is waylaid by crime. We are privy, time and again, to her hospitality and acceptance of the people Gamache works with and brings into their home. We are told of her worry, indirectly, when Gamache notices the inflection of fear when she tells him to be careful in BURY YOUR DEAD. And, finally, when Annie is placed in a similar situation in THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, the women spend time together and Annie wonders whether the solitary fear is how her mother felt through all those years of saying goodbye to her Inspector husband when he went on his missions. As far as I remember, though, this is the first scene in Madam Gamache’s point of view.

“Much is said about brilliance. Less attention is paid to those who live next to it. Spouses, children, assistants… if anyone thinks of us at all, it’s generally to remark upon how lucky we are to bask in the light of genius…” (Megan Hart in BROKEN)

So many people are curtailed in their expectations and dreams because those who love them don’t quite see or understand them. The two couples, the Gamaches and the Morrows, provide an interesting contrast.

Clara and Peter have a lopsided relationship. It is so evident that even people who don’t know them well – such as the art dealer who wanted to represent Clara – wondered if she would give up her art because of her husband. Peter tries to be supportive. He even realizes his failure to do so. But he doesn’t know how to love her enough nor is he strong enough to allow her the freedom of being herself. It breaks them. We are left to wonder if, in his quest to find his own soul, he found the strength to mend the broken pieces. We learn throughout the series that things are stronger where they are broken. In this case, we aren't given the chance to see that unfold. (Although the romantic optimist in me believes that the "new" Peter we see in the end of THE LONG WAY HOME is, in fact, a different man from the character we'd seen so far).

Clara is, in a way, Peter’s soul. He didn’t really see her. Or, when he did, he only saw what he lacked, what he needed, and how she could (and did) fill the empty places inside of him and save him (to an extent) from himself. While he did have redeeming moments (Earl Grey tea in Still Life and the night he held her in the aftermath of Jane’s death come to mind), he usually wasn’t aware enough of her feelings or altruistic enough to be truly there for her.

In contrast, Reine-Marie is the perfect example of a supporting spouse. She is as crucial to Gamache’s success as are the many spouses and friends and family of great men and women in history. I was recently reading a memoir/tribute by Rebecca Stead called My Life in Middlemarch. I was fascinated by her take on the men in George Eliot’s life:

“Though Spencer later claimed that he had early on encouraged Eliot to write fiction, she did not find her fictional voice until she was loved by someone who saw beyond her capacity for brittle cleverness – in whose company she did not feel the need to be on her emotional guard. Even so, her experience with Spencer informed her understanding. He was part of her education, as Dorothea was part of Lydgate’s education, and as all our loves, realized or otherwise – all our alternative plots – go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make.” (Rebecca Stead in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH)

Louise Penny herself has said (I’m relying on the internet here, although I’m hoping someday I’ll have the chance to hear her say so in person) the importance of Michael’s support in her writing career. I wonder if we’d have known Gamache-land if it weren’t for Michael, just as I wonder if we’d have a Virginia Woolf without Leonard. Or the Shelley's and their work interaction feeding off each other both for inspiration and for improvement of their craft. Or… it’s a long list to contemplate, there are numerous examples. There are also so many unknown and unsung heros in this arena. 

Neil Gaiman, for instance, in the acknowledgements for one of his books, thanked his wife for her presence throughout the writing process. I think it's one of the best parts of a great book.

"As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day's work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I'd written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I've done." (Neil Gaiman in THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE)

There are, of course, those who flourish and survive despite relationships that try–malignantly or not – to undermine them. Clara’s success is especially remarkable and is probably a testament to the network of friends and community that made up for Peter’s difficulties.

I think, when we read, we are allowed to wear someone else’s skin for a little bit. Or, as Marilynne Robinson put it: to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite [your] own." (WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS) I can identify, at times, with all the characters, but  Reine-Marie is special to me. I can easily slip into her skin. It feels as familiar as my own. Madame Gamache is frequently in the background and is her husband’s friend, his sounding board, his support, his home. She is the safe harbor he knows awaits him, and the person he connects to in order to recharge.

Reine-Marie and Gamache are a unit, but they know how to function separately. They have their own interests and occupations, but they share a rare bond. And she sees him. She understands him as few others do. He’s a wise man, a great man, a leader. It’s a lonely place to be. He’s also an only child and an orphan. That’s another source of loneliness. He is frequently surrounded by people that he likes, but cannot fully open up to because they are possible suspects or at least indirectly touched by a crime. That’s lonely, too.  And as the series goes on and his involvement in Suritê issues becomes increasingly complicated, he has less people he can trust and a growing number of people to protect. He becomes more and more isolated. She's still right there beside him. She knows how to love the man – not the job or the status or the trappings. But she also understands that those things are a large part of making him who he is.

In Middlemarch there’s a scene that breaks my heart. A young man, full of ambition, fully in love with his profession is told by his wife that she wishes he worked with something else. I think he spends the rest of his life aware that he is misunderstood and not quite appreciated by this woman who doesn’t know him, see him, or understand him enough to fully love him.

“It is the grandest profession in the world, Rosamond,” said Lydgate, gravely. “And to say that you love me without loving the medical man in me, is the same sort of thing as to say that you like eating a peach but don’t like its flavor. Don’t say that again, dear, it pains me.” (George Eliot in MIDDLEMARCH)

Reine-Marie loved the whole of Gamache. Even when it hurt her. Even when it hurt him. She was wise enough – and loved deeply enough – to know that sometimes love hurts and demands certain courage. Annie is just beginning to understand what that means.

“After spending most of her life scanning the horizon for slights and threats, genuine and imagined, she knew the real threat to her happiness came not from the dot in the distance, but from looking for it. Expecting it. Waiting for it. And in some cases, creating it.”

Reine-Marie knew it was in the moth’s nature. She knew that while Gamache had retired, he might never be mistaken for the retired university professor or journalist she’d fantasized he resembled just a few hours earlier. She knew, deep down, that a part of him would always be an investigator, his past was an integral part of who he was and he carried knowledge, memories, and scars that would forever be embedded in his identity. She knew that keeping the porch light on gave her a chance to be a part of the moth’s struggle and a part of its story and recovery.

“There were things I wanted to tell him, but I knew they would hurt him. So I buried them, and let them hurt me.” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer)

Unlike Peter with Clara and her art, Reine-Marie is both strong enough and wise enough to love Gamache . It's not easy and, in this book in particular, we are shown how it sometimes costs her to see Armand become increasingly committed to joining Clara's quest. But, ultimately, she is not only accepting of his involvement, but becomes involved herself. She is, as usual, his sounding board and his ear, but she also plays an active part in research. In an earlier scene, Clara quotes Gilead and tells Gamache she prays that Peter will learn to be brave and useful. He could take lessons from Madame Gamache.

 “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.” (Marilynne Robinson in GILEAD)

Most of us aren’t faced with spouses or friends who are as brilliant or outstanding in their fields as are Clara Morrow and Armand Gamache. Regardless, I believe that there are few things more romantic or more integral to long-lasting love and friendship than seeing and being seen. There is a special kind of magic involved in understanding the essence of another and encouraging (and sometimes nudging) them to be the truest version of themselves they can be. I’m talking about the kind of love that looks into the soul and applauds authenticity. 

I pray that we all nurture the Reine-Marie in us… and that the Peter Morrow that lives inside of us finds a way to be brave… and useful.

For there’s some would hear my words and think our love flawed and broken. But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.” (Ishiguro Kazuo in THE BURIED GIANT)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Smells, Memories and Emotions -- Gabri's Muffin Platter Part 2

by Libby

'Muffins?’...‘... a special tribute to Jane called “Charles de Mills”.’ And with that Gabri disappeared and reappeared a moment later with a platter holding rings of muffins marvelously decorated with fruit and roses...‘You mentioned the Charles de Mills rose.’ ‘Jane’s favorite. He’s not just any rose, Chief Inspector. He’s considered by rosarians to be one of the finest in the world. An old garden rose...That’s why I made the muffins from rose water, as a homage to Jane. Then I ate them, as you saw. I always eat my pain.’ (Still Life, Kindle, p.84, 86)
Funny how we connect to people, events, times and emotions through our sense of smell. Gabri's memory of and love for Jane Neal will always be tied to those roses, their fragrance and rose-scented muffins.

While I could understand Gabri eating his pain over Jane's death, the connections made to the fragrant roses and scented muffins were stronger for me. Amy and I laughed about our different perceptions and interpretations here. I enthused over the sensory world of rose-scented muffins and the decorated platter, while Amy related to and then wrote insightfully about Gabri eating his pain (Sept 13, 2015 post). It's a reminder of how we can see the same things differently, based on our respective experiences and biases.

Lorraine Lee, a deeply fragrant Australian cultivar

Mention a rose and I think of fragrance, with pleasant memories evoked. For me, it is two roses (Lorraine Lee and Cécile Brünner) from my childhood that I grow in my garden today. Drinking in their fragrance, I am transported back to my parents' garden with feelings of comfort and the nostalgia of simpler, sweet times.

Cécile Brünner, an old/heritage fragrant French rose
Charles de Mills, old/heritage very fragrant bush rose

Some smells we just love and our spirits lift as we breathe them in. For me, the smell of drifts of autumn leaves, promising the compost that they will become, springs to mind. But some smells transport us to another time, remind us of a place, a person, something long forgotten or tucked away in the back of our mind.  And this can be accompanied by all sorts of feelings;  joy, comfort, calmness or disquiet, melancholy, distress. Emotional responses to scents are, of course, a very personal thing. Just as a scent can trigger pleasant physical and emotional responses in one person, so can it trigger negative responses in another. While someone else might have no response at all.

The associations between smells, memories and emotions has been pretty well established. Some behavioural studies suggest that our sense of smell is more strongly tied to bringing back memories, and associated emotions and feelings, than any of our other senses. These odour-evoked memories tend to be from earlier in life. On reflection, most of mine are from early childhood into my teens. The smell of fig leaves has travelled with me since the very young age of two when I first visited my maternal grandmother's home, on the other side of the country, with my mother. Inhaling the scent of those leaves always gives me vivid glimpses of being in my grandmother's garden, and my first sense of being in the company of women who cherished me.

There are writers who propel us into sensual worlds. Louise Penny is one. The sensory elements that she uses so richly in her writing, makes it very real. I love the way she engages our senses and draws us in.

The place felt like what it was. An old kitchen, in an old home, in a very old village. It smelled of bacon and baking. It smelled of rosemary and thyme and mandarin oranges. And coq au vin. (How the Light Gets In, Kindle, p.109)

The chapel smelled like every small church Clara had ever known. Pledge and pine and dusty old books. (Still Life, Kindle, p.52)

Inside, the room smelled of wood smoke and industrial coffee in wet cardboard with a slight undercurrent of varnish and that musky aroma of old books. Or timetables. This had once been the railway station. (Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, Kindle, p.142)
This kind of sensory experience is deeply appealing to me. It adds so much to setting and place and our understanding of characters, or how we connect to them. The way the characters relate to scents, sights and sounds, as we all do constantly every day, makes them believable. We can identify with them and understand them more deeply through what they notice and how they respond. 

Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir looked round their new Situation Room and inhaled. He realized, with some surprise, how familiar and even thrilling the scent was. It smelled of excitement, it smelled of the hunt. It smelled of long hours over hot computers, piecing together a puzzle. It smelled of teamwork. It actually smelled of diesel fuel and woodsmoke, of polish and concrete. He was again in the old railway station of Three Pines, abandoned by the Canadian Pacific Railway decades ago and left to rot. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.42) 
Now this is a familiar, work-focused Beauvoir on the case. But later we see another side of him with new and deepening sensibilities emerging. It's a surprising and wonderful contrast.

She’d leaned in and whispered into his ear, and he could smell her fragrance. It was slightly citrony. Clean and fresh. Not Enid’s clinging, full-bodied perfume. Annie smelled like a lemon grove in summer. (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.8)
I'm easily drawn into a work by these sensory experiences. It helps me to relate to characters and understand how they're feeling, see them in very real terms.

Closing his eyes he breathed deeply, smelling the musky scents of the library. Of age, of stability, of calm and peace. Of old-fashioned polish, of wood, of words bound in worn leather. He smelled his own slight fragrance of rosewater and sandalwood. And he thought of something good, something nice, some kind harbor. And he found it in Reine-Marie, as he remembered her voice on his cell phone earlier in the day. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.14)
Louise Penny never fails to take us a little further, into our own emotional landscape. She understands how smell can be very powerful in unlocking forgotten memories. Who couldn't relate to these reminders of emotions and feelings experienced in another time and place? It makes us think and remember too.

The sounds were familiar, voices bouncing off metal and concrete, shoes screeching on hard floors, but it was the smells that had transported her (Isabelle Lacoste). Of books and cleaner, of lunches languishing and rotting behind hundreds of lockers. And fear. High school smelled of that more than anything else, even more than sweaty feet, cheap perfume and rotten bananas. (The Cruellest Month, Kindle, p.324)

It had been a long while since Inspector Langlois had been in a library. Not since his school days. A time filled with new experiences and the aromas that would be forever associated with them. Gym socks. Rotting bananas in lockers. Sweat. Old Spice cologne. Herbal Essence shampoo on the hair of girls he kissed, and more. A scent so sweet, so filled with longing his reaction was still physical whenever he smelt it. And libraries. Quiet. Calm. A harbor from the turmoil of teenage life. (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.58)
I felt like I was stepping back with Lacoste and Langlois. These experiences resonated; some of them fond, some cringeworthy or disturbing for the awkwardness, uncertainties and fears of those years. Not only that...I'd always shamefully thought it was just me with the grotty habit, of letting cheese and 'something' sandwiches, and bananas, go mouldy in my locker! What a relief!

The heady smell of oil paint and pure turpentine never fails to take me back many years to when I was first studying painting, starting the journey of mastering technique and struggling with ideas in a visual medium. And one day, after a long time of saying not very much at all in a way of ignoring me, the lecturer says, out of the blue, 'Your work is very expressive. And you have a wonderful sense of colour.' And from the shock of it, a feeling emerges that maybe there might be something there worth pursuing. A small nudge onto the pathway towards self-belief? 

Now, however, I am lost in the heady perfume of rose syrup as I delight in the preparation of a dessert of rose-scented muffins, inspired by Gabri, to share with two girlfriends coming to lunch.

Rose-scented muffins 

What better way to scent a muffin than drench it with a wonderfully fragrant rose syrup! There are certain scents and flavours that just go together. Rose water, honey, lemon and pistachios are made for each other, so they are the basis of this recipe. The way they come together (and it's really very simple) elevates these muffins into quite the dessert!

The trick is to generously add the rose syrup to the pistachio muffins as they emerge from the oven. The freshness and potency of the rose flavour is ensured if it is added after baking. And what could be easier, and quite simply beautiful, than decorating them with fresh rose buds. Served with more syrup and crème fraîche, they are seriously delicious. We made a bit of an event of lunch and I served a rose cocktail with our dessert. I muddled strawberries with  home-made rose petal liqueur and grenadine, vodka and cranberry juice, shook it all with ice and strained it into cocktail glasses. I floated a few small rose petals on the surface. We had a really good time!!

Muffins are a mix of wet and dry ingredients and it is best done gently by hand, for a light result. Make sure all the wet ingredients are at room temperature. The rose syrup can conveniently be made ahead of time.

Rose syrup
half a cup of honey
100g/half a cup of sugar
120ml/half a cup of water
1-2 teaspoons of rose water (a pure distillation of rose petals is best)
1-2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice

1.  Heat the honey, sugar and water gently in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and allow to reduce for one minute. Remove from heat and cool.
2.  Add one to two teaspoons of rose water and one to two tablespoons of lemon juice, tasting to get a balance between the two flavourings.

Pistachio muffins (makes 12)
Wet and dry ingredients

Dry ingredients:
200g/one and a half cups of plain/all purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
half a cup of caster/superfine sugar
150g/5oz pistachio nuts (unsalted), chopped

Wet ingredients, at room temperature:
2 large eggs
113g/half a cup of melted, unsalted butter (cooled)
3/4 cup of whole/full cream milk

1.  Place a baking sheet on the shelf of the oven on which you will put the muffin tin at the time of baking. This keeps the base of the muffins from browning too much and drying out.
2.  Pre-heat the oven to 220C/425F. The muffins will be baked at this temperature for 5 mins only, to ensure a good rise. Then turn the oven down to 190C/375F for the rest of the time (13-15mins).
3.  Line muffin tins with patty pans or grease with butter.
4.  Sift flour, baking powder and sugar into a large bowl.
5.  Mix in the chopped pistachios, except for 3 tablespoons (reserve for sprinkling on the muffins).

Wet and dry ready to fold in together
6.  In a medium bowl whisk together the eggs, melted butter and milk by hand. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Gently fold in together with as few strokes as possible, for a light muffin.
7.  Spoon the batter into each patty pan to two thirds full. Sprinkle with the reserved pistachios.
8.  Bake for 5 mins at 220C/425F. Reduce the oven temperature to 190C/375F and bake for another 13-15 minutes.

9.  Remove from the oven and pierce all over the top of each muffin (about twelve times) with a skewer, so the muffins can soak up the rose syrup. Immediately spoon syrup onto the hot muffins, adding more as they absorb it. Be generous!

Spooning the syrup over the hot muffins
10.  When they are cool enough to handle, remove them from the tins and place on a rack. Continue to trickle more syrup onto the muffins but reserve some syrup for serving. I made the muffins a day ahead of serving.

Place the muffins on a platter, decorate with rose buds or rose petals. Serve with crème fraîche and rose syrup. And a cocktail?

Now, if the smell of roses has some adverse associations, these muffins are not for you!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Eggs Benedict and Self Worth

by Libby


Breakfast is my favourite meal so I always pay pretty close attention to the substantial breakfasts that Gamache and his team relish during their investigations. None is more popular than Eggs Benedict -- yes, I've counted! And one, in particular, was quite a revelation for the new found camaraderie between Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Agent Yvette Nichol. Who would have thought?
His old self had despised Agent Yvette Nichol, but this morning he found himself quite liking her and not quite remembering what had been the problem. Theyd had breakfast together at the B&B and ended up laughing hysterically at her description of trying to warm up his hot water bottle. In the microwave. Sure you find it funny,said Gabri, plopping two Eggs Benedicts in front of them. You didnt come home to find what looked like the cat exploded in the micro. Never liked the cat. Loved the hot water bottle. (Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, Kindle, p.255) 
Perhaps even more surprising was what transpired the previous night, when Agent Nichol attentively nursed Jean-Guy as he languished with the flu. Wasn't this taking things a little too far in her efforts to inveigle herself back on the team? Weren't we all puzzled by such out-of-character, generous behaviour? The sense of it was revealed much later.
Shed felt something for Beauvoir, that night when shed nursed him, and the next morning when theyd breakfasted together. Not a crush, really. Just a sort of comfort. A relief, as though a weight she never even knew she was carrying had been lifted. (Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, Kindle, p.372)
Yvette Nichol makes for quite a study. In Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny reveals just what a layered character she has created. Nichol is not so easily dismissed as a troublesome, unlikable bugbear. At the heart of it all is self worth. It's hard for her to have much when she has struggled with her sense of belonging through her childhood. She has grown up with the criticisms and disapproval of her mother's family ringing in her ears, and is trapped by the expectations of her father and the burden of guilt and shame that her family carries.

Her father exhorts her, 'Don't mess up.' Hard to really value yourself as a person, when you have your father's admonitions constantly repeated. Nichol's worth seems to be based on living up to his expectations and getting his approval. He has done her no favours by catching her up in his own web of lies, failings and dependency. Little wonder she has built barriers between herself and others. She has learned to isolate herself, being defensive or resentful, using blame as her coping mechanism.
As Amy said in an earlier post 'the shields we erect can sometimes distance and harden us'.  Yvette Nichol is a case in point. Who is there in her life to reassure her, who she will trust, who values her for herself? No surprise that she is unable to rise above her fear of failing and sabotages herself with her negativity and lack of trust and hope. She 'wears', an attitude like she wears her clothes and keeps her appearance -- badly. There's a measure of self-loathing at work.

On reflection, there are probably few people who haven't felt isolated at some point in their life and channeled a bit of 'Yvette Nichol'. Somehow we need to be mindful of our own unique strengths and talents and inherent value, and not measure self worth against what other people can do, or how we meet other people's expectations. I know sometimes I have to practise being kinder to myself and less negative. It's important to remind ourselves how we contribute to our family, community and society (even in small ways), and of our capacity for generosity and compassion.  And pause to reflect on how we encourage and value others for their unique qualities and strengths, which goes a long way to building their self worth too.

The moment we all had to feel some empathy for Yvette Nichol was surely the trauma of hearing, 'She's not worth it'. And this from Beauvoir! That was pretty shocking but in his defence he was in the throes of a terrifying panic as some of his own childhood demons were unleashed. What a brutal reality for Yvette Nichol to face; she wasn't worth the risk of saving from a burning building.  It is something of an epiphany for her, though. When she is saved, she can finally tell herself she matters.
Im worth it, I really am,Nichol had said, slobbering and weeping and grabbing at him. Im worth it. Gamache didnt know why, but it gave him pause. (Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, Kindle, p.328)
Gamache, who has strongly doubted her trustworthiness, has an epiphany of sorts himself as Nichol reveals the burden of her family's past. He is prepared to take another gamble (for pretty high stakes) and invest in her. Isn't it in our imperfections and weaknesses that true character lies? There is always more to be discovered.
'There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in'.
This is what Gamache so wisely recognises, thanks also to Clara and her insightful painting.

When we leave Nichol  in Dead Cold/A Fatal Grace, we're still left with some doubts about her. Well she's not going to change overnight, is she? She is still 'scalded and burned' by recent events.
I like to think that down the track there will be other breakfast opportunities for Yvette Nichol, full of camaraderie. There is hope!

So, back to breakfast. Eggs Benedict elevates any breakfast or brunch to another level. But why go to all that trouble without spreading the delight? It's the perfect dish to share with others.
When it came to making Eggs Benedict, it was the poaching of those damned eggs that sparked a fear of failure in me...'I won't mess up'! I've always liked poached eggs but mostly avoid cooking them because I've never mastered how to prevent the egg white from racing away from the yolk and breaking up into a thousand untidy bits bobbing all over the surface of the water. Doesn't make for an appetising presentation!

Well, I should have just researched 'perfect egg poaching' a lot sooner. Correct technique is everything! This video debunks a few poaching myths and gives a foolproof method, and a nod to the British chef Heston Blumenthal. I am now the queen of egg poaching -- my life is complete!

A beautiful thick, glossy hollandaise sauce to smother those poached eggs is not a difficult thing to make either. The classic version is quite simply a warm emulsion of egg yolks and melted butter, flavoured with lemon juice and seasoned with salt and white pepper. Many chefs and cooking writers favour the addition of a vinegar reduction to the mix, to make the flavour of the hollandaise a little more complex. And some heat the butter to make beurre noisette a golden, nutty flavoured butter. I've tried it all!

At the heart of this meal are the eggs. Freshness is key, but so is knowing that the hens providing the eggs are treated with respect (there are many that are not). This means free ranging hens with plenty of green pick at their disposal. And we're rewarded with brilliant orange yolks and a tastier egg.

Here's Heston Blumenthal's complete take on Eggs Benedict. It's 'edifying' the way he simply arms us with the science of cooking and technique.

Eggs Benedict
hollandaise sauce
2-4 large, very fresh, free range eggs for poaching
sour-dough grainy bread, lightly toasted
fresh flat-leaf parsley, shredded

Hollandaise sauce
200g/7oz unsalted butter, cubed
2 extra large, free-range egg yolks
1 tablespoon of vinegar reduction, if used
half a fresh lemon
sea salt, white pepper

Vinegar reduction
1 sliced shallot
1/2 cup of white vinegar
6-8 white pepper corns, cracked

Hollandaise process
1.  Melt the butter over a low heat and allow it to cool. Alternatively you can make a beurre noisette, which is what I did. Heat the butter over medium heat until it sizzles and the milk solids turn brown. Watch it carefully so the solids don't burn - it can happen very quickly. Pour off the liquid, leaving the solids behind. I poured it through a paper coffee filter.
2.  Make the vinegar reduction. Gently heat the shallot, vinegar and cracked white peppercorns in a small saucepan until the liquid is reduced to a third. Strain and cool.
3.  Place the egg yolks and a tablespoon of vinegar reduction (if using) in a bowl over a saucepan half filled with barely simmering water. The bottom of the bowl must not make contact with the water. Whisk continually by hand until the yolks thicken. It takes a bit longer with the vinegar reduction. The heat must be very gentle so that the yolks don't become grainy or scramble.
4.  Very gradually, a tiny trickle at a time, whisk in the melted butter/beurre noisette. Each trickle must be fully absorbed by the yolks before adding more. Remove from the heat. The sauce should be thick and glossy. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and white pepper to taste. Keep the hollandaise over lukewarm water, while you poach the eggs.

Egg poaching
1.  Heat a saucepan of water, with a teaspoon of salt, to 80C/175F and maintain that temperature.
2.  Place a cracked egg in a fine mesh strainer, allowing any thin egg white to strain off. Gently pour the egg in to the water and cook for 4 minutes. Repeat the process.

I served up each egg on the toasted sour dough bread, seasoned them and gave them a generous covering of hollandaise and a sprinkle of parsley. I had planned to accompany them with some smoked salmon slices, but it was such a complete meal I settled just for salad to balance out the richness of the dish.

I simply made it with leaves, herbs and flowers from the garden; lettuce leaves, rocket/arugula (leaves and flowers) coriander, chervil, sorrel, kale, nasturtium, calendula (pot marigold). Dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of black pepper, it was a pretty companion.

Leftover Hollandaise sauce can be gently warmed (It should never be hot) and served over poached Atlantic salmon or other fish, with a sprinkling of fresh parsley and chives. It's also delicious with steamed vegetables, particularly asparagus.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Part 2 of Olivier’s tray: Chocolate-Coffee Mousse Pie & Apple Tarts

by Amy

You were a moth  
Brushing against my cheek
in the dark.
I killed you,
not knowing
you were only a moth,
with no sting.

The setting is familiar. We’re at the Bistro. Yolande, Jane’s niece, has just walked in and Clara decides to pay her respects. Everyone is cringing, snooping, and observing. Silence rules. Yolande is playing up to the scene. She wipes her dry eyes with a paper napkin and her acting is superb – although she didn’t convince the many people who had truly loved Jane and remembered what her relationship with Yolande had been like.

“I’m the official caterer for the disaster that’s about to happen. I can’t imagine why Clara is doing this, she knows what Yolande has been saying behind her back for years. Hideous woman.”

Why does Clara do it? She’d been planning a ritual, in Jane’s honor, when…

Clara had spotted Yolande and her family arriving at the Bistro and knew she’d have to say something.”

It doesn’t say why. So we are left, like Olivier, wondering. I can empathize, though. I tend to also be the kind of person who always feels like she has to say something. And I often find myself, in the aftermath, feeling as Clara did after her interaction with Jane’s niece:  stupid, stupid, stupid.

“When she’d gone over to speak with Yolande, Clara had known this would happen. Known that Yolande, for some unfathomable reason, could always get to her. Could hurt her where most others couldn’t reach. It was one of life’s little mysteries that this woman she had absolutely no respect for, could lay her flat. She thought she’d been ready for it. She’d even dared to harbor a hope that maybe this time would be different. But of course it wasn’t.”

Clara’s one of those rare people that knows how things are – or can be – but still nurtures hope that things might be different. She doesn’t act on the (very high) probability that she’ll get hurt. She acts on the unlikely chance that this time, maybe this time it’ll be okay.

I wonder why nobody stopped her. I understand why Gamache wouldn’t. He was in the middle of a murder investigation and this was a perfect opportunity to observe the suspects. But why didn’t anyone else stop her? They just stood back and watched. I’ve been stopped before. By a whisper. A look. A nudge. An elbow. A little kick… No one stopped Clara.

I wonder if any of them had tried before, in similar occasions, and realized it couldn’t be done? I wonder if they understood the importance and were hoping against hope not that Yolande would be different ( I think only Clara would go that far), but that Clara would finally stand up for herself (I think Clara only really begins to do that in A TRICK OF THE LIGHT).

Regardless, it feels real. Doesn’t it? Louise Penny knows her characters. As Marilynne Robinson says in her collection of essays, WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS:

“There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own."

I think part of the beauty in Louise Penny’s books is that she knows her characters and writes real ideas through fiction. I believe that fiction is, in a way, real. Fiction, as all art, is an interpretation of reality as seen and experienced by the author. Authors are able to put themselves in others’ shoes and write characters that make us feel along with them. And Penny excels in this art.

I can easily imagine myself in the Bistro. I’d probably try to stand next to Olivier so I could eat all of the dessert options on his tray. I probably wouldn’t stop Clara either. I probably would have watched, silently (or whispering to Olivier – or maybe Gabri. I’d love to hear Gabri’s take on the scene). Then I’d probably tell myself, I knew it! when Yolande, true to character, put Clara down. I can also imagine myself in Clara’s shoes, knowing something must be said (although I ask myself, WHY?) and being disappointed when the response wasn’t what I’d hoped for. 

What I cannot picture is being in Peter’s shoes. If I were Peter, I’d be standing next to Clara. I’d be squeezing her hand. I can understand – even applaud – that he felt Clara had to stand up for herself. He couldn’t – or maybe shouldn’t – do it for her. He wasn’t even available for moral support, though. He wasn’t beside her. And I think it’s interesting that, once hurt, Clara’s first reaction is to want Jane back. She’s surrounded by friends but none of them, not even her husband, can fulfill that role in her life. I think Myrna will, eventually, to an extent. But for now, it’s a Jane-shaped hole.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid. […] She wanted to run to Jane, who’d make it better. Take her in those full, kindly arms and say the magic words, ‘There, there.’”

Libby did an incredible job of making mille feuilles, meringues and little custard tarts. I made pie and little apple custard tarts – which were, in reality, an improvisation using left-over bits from a lemon meringue pie recipe. The pie was a dark chocolate coffee mousse pie which was so incredibly good I made it twice in as many weeks.

Chocolate Coffee Mousse Pie

-          1 package of 200g of graham cookies (or similar)
-          100g grams of softened or room temperature butter
-          4 egg yolks
-          6 TBS of sugar
-          1 cup of heavy cream
-          200g of dark chocolate – chopped in big bits
-          1 TBS instant coffee
-          4 egg whites

Crumble the cookies and use a blender or a food processor to turn them into a flaky powder. Add butter and smash with your fingers until it’s the consistence of crust. Spread it on a pie pan and bake for about 10 minutes. Let it cool. You can always buy the ready-made kind (which we don’t have here), but this is so easy to make I think it’s worth it.

For the filling, beat the egg yolks with 4 spoons of sugar (I used 2) in a mixer until it doubles in volume and becomes a bit lighter in color. Set aside.

Heat the cream in bain-marie (I just put a glass bowl in a pan with 2 inches of water in it over the stove top. I improvised a bain-marie since I didn’t have the “proper” pan). Add the pieces of dark chocolate and the instant coffee powder and mix until you have a smooth cream. Add the egg yolk mix and mix well. Set aside.

Mix the egg whites and then add 2 TBS of sugar. Add this to the cream, but only fold it in gently without mixing much. The beaten egg whites are what will give it the airy mousse consistency. Pour this cream over your crust and place it in the refrigerator. Once it is firm (4 to 5 hours later), enjoy!

Apple Tarts

I used left-over pie crust dough and placed it in muffin tins. I baked that for about 10 minutes.

I mixed the juice of two lemons with 1 can of condensed milk to make the tart filling. It’s the same idea for the filling I usually use for lime meringue pie. That’s all you have to do. Mix them and place it in the fridge and it's the perfect consistency. I frequently use this also as a form of custard to serve with fresh fruit. It’s always a hit.

Then I sliced apples – thin slices covered in lemon juice so they wouldn’t brown – and placed them on the filling. I added a sprinkle of brown sugar.  I then placed them in the oven just long enough so the sugar would melt a bit and the apple slices would bake. These were sooooo good. Well, tastes vary. My husband thought it was too tart and not sweet enough. I thought it was just right. 

Except for the quote from Marilynne Robinson's WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS, the other quotes are from Still Life - pages 104 to 106 in the paperback version.