Saturday, September 22, 2018

Pumpkin and Apple Rose Tart from The Fitz and The Fool

My father nodded back gravely. He looked at the serving boy. “What is that savory smell?” 

“It’s a beef shoulder, simmered until the meat fell off the bones, with three yellow onions and half a bushel of carrots, and two full measures of this year’s barley. If you order the soup here, sir, you will not get a bowl of brown water with a potato bit at the bottom! And the bread has just come from the oven, and we have summer butter, kept in the cold cellar and yellow as a daisy’s heart. But if you prefer mutton, there are mutton pies likewise stuffed with barley and carrot and onion, in brown crusts so flaky that we must put a plate under them, for they are so tender that otherwise you may end up wearing one! We have sliced pumpkin baked with apples and butter and cream, and …”

“Stop, stop,” my father begged him, “or my belly will burst just listening to you.”

- Fool's Assassin: Book I of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
This beautiful pumpkin spice pie is made from thinly sliced pumpkin and apple - Inspired by Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin

Wow. I quite agree with Fitz here; this mouthwatering passage on the menu at the tavern at Oaksbywater makes me too hungry. While I am tempted to recreate every dish described here, I started first with the baked pumpkin. With autumn arriving this week, irresistibly beautiful gourds have begun to fill the aisles of the grocery store.

The pumpkin and apple combination sounds fantastic for a fall or harvest celebration. But from the description, it isn't clear exactly what shape this dish takes. I considered roasting slices of apple and pumpkin lightly coated in melted butter, served with a cream sauce of some sort, but the passage does imply that the fruits are baked with the cream. After a couple attempts, I eventually settled on a pumpkin and apple tart - sure, the butter is all in the pie crust, but all four mentioned ingredients are baked together. I added a classic pumpkin spice mix, both because it complements the pumpkin and the apple so well, and because it seemed appropriate for the Winterfest setting in Fool's Assassin. I tried using a mandolin to make the thin ribbons of pumpkin and apple, but actually found that a vegetable peeler produced more flexible pieces that were easier to work with.

The spiral or rose petal shape of the pumpkin and apple slices makes for a beautiful dish that would be perfect to bring to a Thanksgiving potluck. The sliced pie pieces look nearly as gorgeous as the unsliced tart, with the alternating orange and cream stripes appearing. With all the spicy pumpkin-y goodness and a more interesting texture, I think I might prefer this pumpkin and apple spiral tart to the classic pumpkin pie.

Pumpkin and Apple rose tart - a beautiful dish for a Fall potluck


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Spicy Breakfast Muffins with Strawberries from The Wheel of Time

When it came, breakfast consisted of spicy muffins -- wrapped in a white cloth and still warm, and pleasant even so -- yellow pears, blue grapes that looked a bit wizened, and some sort of red things that the serving girl called strawberries, though they looked like no berry that Nynaeve had ever seen. They certainly did not taste anything like straw, especially with clotted cream spooned on top. Elayne claimed to have heard of them, but then she would. (...) It made a refreshing morning meal.
- Chapter 16, The Fires of Heaven (Book 5 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan

Strawberries and clotted cream on a spiced muffin makes a decadent breakfast. Based on an 18th century recipe and inspired by Nynaeve's meal in Amadicia in The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time book 5)

I love this Wheel of Time food vignette for Nynaeve's pragmatic assessment of strawberries and her little mental dig at Elayne. These moments are why Nynaeve is my favorite character. 

The idea of serving strawberries with some sort of spicy muffin also intrigued me. What sort of muffin is spicy?

Frankly, the Two Rivers crew seem to think any food made outside their home turf is spicy!
  • Rand's first encounter with Cairhienin food nearly takes his breath away ("Rand took a hesitant mouthful, and almost gasped. It tasted just as it smelled, sweet and sharp together, the pork crisp on the outside and tender inside, a dozen different flavors, spices, all blending and contrasting. It tasted like nothing he had ever put in his mouth before. It tasted wonderful." Chapter 20, The Great Hunt). 
  • While with the Aiel, Mat dines on “goat stew and a thick yellow mush that was spicier than it looked” (Chapter 37, The Shadow Rising), and Rand has a "dark spicy stew of goat with chopped peppers" (Chapter 49, The Shadow Rising). 
  • While traveling with Valan Luca's show, Mat finds some food is so packed with spice that it is inedible. ("The harsh faced woman put so many spices into everything she prepared that it was all inedible in Mat’s estimation yet Luca always gobbled down whatever she set in front of him as if it were a feast. He must have a leather tongue." Chapter 6, Knife of Dreams)
So let's take it with a healthy grain of salt when Nynaeve thinks her breakfast muffins are spicy. Perhaps rather than a capsaicin sort of heat, these muffins are more of a gingerbread-y flavor-packed spicy.

18th century recipe for english muffins - with pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove

Now what sort of muffin would Nynaeve encounter in Randland? Most of the food in The Wheel of Time would have been available in the medieval Old World. There are some exceptions - for example, the Seanchan have coffee ("darker and more bitter than tea" - A Crown of Swords), and the Aiel have corn and tomatoes ("a dish of bright yellow kernels and bits of pulpy red that Avienda called zemai or t'mat" - The Shadow Rising). But these cultures are particularly foreign, and I think these almost incongruously New World foods help to make the Aiel and the Seanchan seem more alien. This particular breakfast takes place in Amadicia, which is relatively familiar to the protagonists, and is likely more inspired by medieval Europe. 

Historically, the New World and the Old World developed different sorts of muffins. What we would recognize today as a muffin - a quick bread baked in small cups - is an American invention. On the other side of the pond, the muffin instead referenced a yeasted bread fried in a pan - the sort of thing we now call an English muffin. I think Amadician muffins are therefore probably some sort of spicy English muffin. 

A recipe for English muffins from the 18th century cookbook "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table"

To make Muffins:
Take two quarts of warm water, two spoonfuls of yeast, three pounds of flower; beat it well half an hour, and let it stand an hour or two; bake them on an iron bake-stove, (rub it well over with mutton-suet, as often as they are to be laid on) as soon as they begin to colour, turn them; when coloured on both sides they are baked enough.
- "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table" by Charlotte Mason (1777) [Archive link]

For historical inspiration, I drew from the oldest recipe I could find. This recipe was almost at the end of a 18th century British recipe book, squeezed between instructions for pineapple brandy and for "French rolls." 

For my first attempt at recreating this recipe, I faithfully followed the instructions (sizing down to make just a dozen muffins or so), and beat the mixture for a half hour by hand. I can therefore tell you with certainty that you can achieve the same results by using a hand mixer for just 5 minutes. Both these trials produced muffins with fantastic nooks and crannies, but they were also rather flat.

In my third attempt, I reduced the water content slightly. The batter became thicker (so I was super grateful for the invention of the electric mixer), which meant the muffins spread less when added to the pan. The resulting muffins were fluffier, but still with beautiful nooks and crannies, a crunchy exterior and a chewy inside.
Look at those nooks and crannies. Gorgeous.

Happy with the 18th century muffins, I next moved onto the "spicy" part of the descriptor. Fortunately, The Lady's Assistant had some inspiration for me!

Kitchen Pepper.
One ounce of ginger; pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, half an ounce each; six ounces of salt: mix this well, keep it dry. It is a great addition to all brown sauces.
- "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table" by Charlotte Mason (1777) 

I added a few teaspoons of this mixture to my muffin recipe, and the results were fantastic. The spices complement the fruity sweetness of the strawberries and the rich creaminess of the clotted cream perfectly. I think Nynaeve would have been very satisfied with this breakfast.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Bingtown Cherry Preserves

It was a simple tray of carved wood, one that Grandfather had brought back from the Spice Isles long ago. On it were six little pots of homemade preserves. Malta knew that the gifts were largely symbolic, gestures of remembered bonds and kinship. Even so, she could remember when the gift had been lengths of rainbow hued silk so heavy that Papa had had to help Grandfather carry them. It did not matter, she told herself stoutly. As if her grandmother [Ronica Vestrit] sensed her uncertainty, she whispered, “The receiver of the gifts tonight is none other than our old friend Caolwn Festrew. She has always loved our sweet cherry preserves. She will know we thought especially of her when we prepared this gift. All will be well.” Malta lifted her eyes to the top of the steps. The smile that dawned on her face was genuine. All would be well.

- Mad Ship by Robin Hobb, Book 2 of the Liveship Trader Trilogy from the Realm of the Elderlings series

Cherry Preserves from the Liveship Traders: made with lavender, black pepper and cinnamon.

I spent most of 2017 either engrossed in Robin Hobb's world or engrossed in my PhD thesis. (The seas were not smooth sailing for myself nor for the Realm of the Elderlings protagonists.) Malta is a particularly memorable character from this series. Hobb did a fantastic job at portraying a highly privileged girl on the brink of womanhood, surrounded by even more privileged people - she is bratty, but in a sometimes embarrassingly relatable way, smart and impulsive. This passage demonstrates the growth Malta has undergone over the last book or two. She doesn't throw a melodramatic fit at the idea of showing up to the Summer Ball with just a few jars of homemade cherry preserves. While her family's recent economic misfortunes mean she is wearing a recycled ballgown rather than the decadent dress of her dreams, she enters the gathering feeling proud and beautiful.

So of course, I had to recreate these Vestrit Family cherry preserves for myself.

As a recipe starting point, I turned to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. I thought a Victorian-era cookbook might be a good approximation of Bingtown cuisine. Like Ronica Vestrit, Isabella Beeton would have had access to all sorts of foreign goods imported by ship through trading hubs. Beeton was described as "in the climate of her time she was brave, strong-minded and a tireless champion of her sisters everywhere," (G. Nown, 1986) which is also a fitting descriptor of Ronica Vestrit. (Take a moment to read Beeton's Wikipedia page, it's an interesting read.) Finally, I loved her little note that this recipe is "Very delicious." It is rare that she annotates a recipe with that sort of remark, and I quite agree with her assessment.

Liveship Trader cherry preserves, based on Mrs Beeton's Victorian recipe

(Very delicious.)
    1529. INGREDIENTS.--4 lbs. of cherries, 3 lbs. of sugar, 1 pint of white-currant juice.
    Mode.--Let the cherries be as clear and as transparent as possible, and perfectly ripe; pick off the stalks, and remove the stones, damaging the fruit as little as you can. Make a syrup with the above proportion of sugar, by recipe No. 1512; mix the cherries with it, and boil them for about 15 minutes, carefully skimming them; turn them gently into a pan, and let them remain till the next day; then drain the cherries on a sieve, and put the syrup and white-currant juice into the preserving-pan again. Boil these together until the syrup is somewhat reduced and rather thick; then put in the cherries, and let them boil for about 5 minutes; take them off the fire, skim the syrup, put the cherries into small pots or wide-mouthed bottles; pour the syrup over, and when quite cold, tie them down carefully, so that the air is quite excluded.
    Time.--15 minutes to boil the cherries in the syrup; 10 minutes to boil the syrup and currant-juice; 6 minutes to boil the cherries the second time.
    Average cost for this quantity, 3s. 6d.
    Seasonable.--Make this in July or August.
- Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

Mad Ship recipe recreated from an old cookbook recipe for cherry preserves

    1512. INGREDIENTS.--To every lb. of sugar allow 1-1/2 pint of water.
    Mode.--Boil the sugar and water together for 1/4 hour, carefully removing the scum as it rises: the syrup is then ready for the fruit. The articles boiled in this syrup will not keep for any length of time, it being suitable only for dishes intended to be eaten immediately. A larger proportion of sugar must be added for a syrup intended to keep.
    Time.--1/4 hour.
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

I wanted to adapt this recipe to something that Ronica Vestrit might be known for. Ronica proudly tends her garden, and on a few occasions incorporates flowers from her garden into food. Of the edible flowers I found readily available, hibiscus and violet seemed the best matches for cherry. While the hibiscus initially added a promising tartness to the preserves, this became a bit redundant once the currant juice was added and the hibiscus flavor itself became a bit too subtle. My first attempt with lavender was a little overpowering, and so I titrated it down a few times before I was happy with the effect. (This is the opposite of my experience with making lavender chocolate truffles - perhaps lavender flavors extract better in water than in cream!) I also wanted to reflect Bingtown in the preserves. As such an important trading port, it has access to spices from all over the place. I tried a few spice combinations, ultimately settling on black pepper and cinnamon. The black pepper adds just the tiniest bit of heat. Together, the three flavorings make the jam taste elegant, and just a little bit exotic. A great match for a Trader family.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

DIY Yzma Halloween Costume

"Ah, how shall I do it? Oh, I know. I'll turn him into a flea, a harmless little flea, and then I'll put that flea in a box, and then I'll put that box inside of another box, and then I'll mail that box to myself, and when it arrives...I'll smash it with a hammer! "
- Yzma, The Emperor's New Groove
Inexpensive & easy Yzma costume from The Emperor's New Groove - made from feathers, coat hangers and a cloche hat.

Yzma is a Halloween costume I had wanted to try for a while. "The Emperor's New Groove" is a nostalgic Disney favorite for many people my age, and the movie is endlessly quotable ("Why do we even have that lever?!"), making this a fun costume to spend a Halloween party in. Yzma's style is dramatic, glamorous and unique - all attributes that make for an awesome costume, visually.

With my PhD thesis due far too soon, I didn't have endless hours to devote into sewing. I was pleasantly surprised by how fast this came together - probably a little under 3 hours of crafting time, half of which was gluing the feathers.

Because I was able to recycle a few things I already owned into this costume, it was also fairly inexpensive (also, see above, PhD students need budget costumes)! The base of the headdress is made from a cloche hat I had collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. I cut off the brim, planning to discard it before realizing the stiffness and shape of the brim made it a perfect base for the feather collar. Wire hangers and the black dress were similarly pilfered from my closet. The biggest "spend" item was the fake eyelashes - an optional, but effective final touch. All told, this costume can be made for under $50.

The headdress stayed put the entire night and I generally felt quite comfortable. Most people recognized the costume and I felt suitably glamorous and villainous. For 3 hours of crafting and $50, this was an effective, easy and frugal DIY Halloween costume.

[Check out my Daenerys Game of Thrones Costume from last year!]

Materials & Tools

Crafting Supplies:

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lord of the Rings - Foraged Herb & Rabbit Stew

Sam busied himself with his pans. “What a hobbit needs with coney,” he said to himself, “is some herbs and roots, especially taters. Herbs we can manage, seemingly.”

“Gollum!” he called softly. “I want some herbs." Gollum’s head peeped out of the fern, but his looks were neither helpful nor friendly. “A few bay-leaves, some thyme and sage, will do -- before the water boils,” said Sam.

“No!” said Gollum. “Sméagol is not please. And Sméagol doesn’t like smelly leaves. He doesn’t eat grasses or roots, no precious, not till he’s starving or very sick, poor Sméagol.”

“Smjagol’ll get into real true hot water, when this water boils, if he don’t do as he’s asked,” growled Sam. “Sam’ll put his head in it, yes precious. And I’d make him look for turnips and carrots, and taters too, if it was the time o’ the year.”

- "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit," The Two Towers

Tolkein's classic series, the Lord of the Rings, inspired this rabbit stew packed with herbs.

Finally back around forest greenery, Sam and Gollum foraging for ingredients and cooking this stew takes up about half of this chapter from The Two Towers, appropriately named "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit." It makes for a fun cooking challenge: can we develop a tasty recipe with only the ingredients the hobbits would have had on their journey to Mordor?

I did take a couple of liberties - since it is indeed the time of year here, I included the turnips, carrots and "taters" that Sam longed for. I also assumed that the hobbits might be carrying a few cooking supplies, like cooking oil, salt, pepper, and - perhaps most optimistically - chicken bouillon cubes. Finally, I thickened the stew with flour. Wandering hobbits would have had access to lembas bread, however I had to make do with what I had.

While the origins of this recipe are fantastical, this main course wouldn't be out of place at a Sunday night dinner. The root vegetables and woodsy herb flavors are perfect for a fall night.

Rabbit stewed to tender perfection with root vegetables and fresh thyme and sage.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Game of Thrones House Sigil Dinner Party

"The dragon has three heads," [Daenerys] sighed. "Do you know what that means, Jorah?"
"Your Grace? The sigil of House Targaryen is a three-headed dragon, red on black."
"I know that. But there are no three-headed dragons."
- Daenerys V, A Clash of Kings

In our house, our annual Game of Thrones season finale party is second only to Thanksgiving. Every year, I've done a variation on a Game of Thrones themed party. Last year, I did a Highgarden feast (a sadly ironic banquet for the season 6 finale). This year, I served a 9-course meal, with each course themed around the house sigil for one of the Great Houses of Westeros: Greyjoy, Martell, Tyrell, Tully, Arryn, Baratheon, Stark, Lannister and Targaryen. I think this Thronesgiving was my favorite so far! Check out the links below!

Full House Sigil Menu:

House Targaryen Madness or Greatness Chocolate Truffles

King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.
- Daenerys VI, A Storm of Swords
Targaryens are either great leaders or mad. Which sort of Targaryen would you be? Lavender or chili chocolate truffles.

This chocolate surprise was the final course in my Season 7 Game of Thrones party, in which I themed each of the courses around a family of Westeros. The Targaryen family's disposition to mad rulers like the Mad King and legendary monarchs like Aegon the Conqueror is an interesting part of Westerosi lore. While the stories and the quote above make it out to be an either/or phenomenon, I wonder if some of the Targaryens are a little of both? Either way, I wanted to represent this dichotomy in the Targaryen course.

I went with chocolate truffles, which are easy to make, and more importantly, easy to make look the same from the outside while secretly containing a flavor on the inside.  For the "greatness" of the Targaryens, I went with lavender - a soothing flavor, as well as the hereditary Targaryen eye color. For the "madness" of the Targaryens, I went with cayenne pepper and cinnamon - a surprising but still appetizing flavor, evocative of the "fire" portion of the "fire and blood" Targaryen words.

I served the chocolates in tiny gift boxes decorated with the Targaryen emblem, and a miniature scroll with a quote about the Targaryens.