Our Social Writes Book Club selection for October 2022 was made by Pemmie. “The Master Craftsman” by Kelli Stuart is a beautifully written historical fiction novel highlighting Peter Karl Fabergé and his jewellery firm House of Fabergé, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Commissioned by the Imperial family, Karl supervised the many designers and craftsmen, including two women as they created the over fifty elegant jeweled Easter eggs from 1885 to 1917. The first egg of 1885 delivered to the RussianTsar Alexander III was given to his wife Maria Feodorovna as an annual gift and continued later by Tsar Nicholas II.
Stuart injects an intriguing current day treasure hunt for a missing coveted egg that reconnects a daughter and her mother with her estranged father, who orchestrates the hunt from his deathbed. A last attempt to connect with his daughter during the limited time he has left. Unexpected twists and turns concludes with the true treasure of all in hand.
Pemmie will host this meeting for our group, and while the plan will be hers, I shared that Russian black bread and chai appeared in the book more than a couple of times. I’m always seeking for food notes in our books in order to introduce myself and group to the flavors and traditions within the stories we read. A small attempt to erect a little life from the pages.
I found a recipe (in the link below) and told Pemmie I would give this bread a test bake, a little excited to see how it turns out. I’m a baker, but bread is not one of the techniques I’ve frequented. Fortunately this was basically a low maintenance version where the stand mixer did all of the kneading. (A bread machine would have simplified the process even further. ) I did not divert from the recipe, but I have noted a couple of tips from my experience.
The hardest part of the process was finding the flours and caraway seeds. My pantry is filled with more things than the average person might have, but these ingredients were not among my inventory. I really didn’t want a five pound bag of bread flour either. After stopping into three or four different grocers, I found a one pound sack of both the bread and rye flours and a reasonable priced jar of caraway seeds. I tried to borrow some dark Karo syrup from a neighbor (needing only 2 tablespoons), but they didn’t have any. Karo syrup is one of those ingredients like molasses that ends up being used once and then the bottle sits in the pantry for years. (Much like this bottle of caraway seeds will also.)
The recipe was extremely simple, adding all ingredients except for the softened butter to the mixing bowl and using the dough hook, kneading for 10 minutes. Then the softened butter is added for another 5 minute kneading (again with the dough hook). The recipe didn’t warn what to expect of the finished dough, but I will say that it’s very sticky. It also didn’t rise as much as I thought it would.
BAKING TIP: Sometimes you learn a tip from a baker and if you don’t bake frequently, it’s easily forgotten when you decide to take a stab at baking again. This is a tip I remembered. When removing the paper from your softened stick of butter, fold the sheet (butter side) together and store in a zip bag in your refrigerator. When a recipe calls for greasing a bowl or pan, take out the buttered sheet at the beginning of the baking process – the butter softens quickly. Use the remaining butter from the sheet to grease your bowl or pan and while not wasting the small amount that remained on the paper.
TIP: I didn’t get a double rise out of my dough. It was more like a single rather than double rise of the original dough. I even let it sit in a warm oven for another 30 minutes (the recipe started with 1 hour so my total was 1 1/2 hours) and then when I prepared to cut the dough into two, placing half in each loaf pan, I had to use more than a sprinkling of bread flour to handle it. Make sure your hands are dusted as well as the surface. The dough is sticky. The second proofing didn’t look like it had much of a rise, so again I left the loaf pans in a warm oven (170 degrees F) for another 20 minutes to get the slight rise in the picture above. It filled the loaf pan more than rose.
While I was concerned that the bread would be a flop, it turned out beautifully. I should have used the bread splitter tool that I bought a year ago (that I forgot I had). The split would have formed at the top rather than the side, but it still turned out great.
After allowing it to cool for about 10 minutes, I used a serrated bread knife to slice a piece and was thrilled to see the airy soft texture and knew it was well baked. (Hopeful Paul Hollywood would agree- but not necessarily give me a handshake! Lol)
A warm steamy cup of chai latte’ (my favorite by the way) was all I needed to complete the black bread and chai experience. The black bread has a bitter slightly sweet note that comes from the combination of the small amounts of brown sugar, corn syrup, unsweetened cocoa powder and apple cider vinegar. The carraway, fennel seeds and rye flour add the savory note reminiscent of rye bread. Interesting ingredients and flavor.
One of my taste testers drizzled it with honey. The blogger said it was good with cheese, but didn’t state what kind of cheese. For now I’ve carefully wrapped up the second bread and placed it in the freezer until our meeting in early October. We will rewarm it on the day of the meeting and let everyone choose their own way to savor it.
While chai tea would be a good choice, I also found this chai cocktail made with chai and Russia’s beloved volka. The addition of Kahlua (a coffee flavored liqueur) creates a cocktail take on the dirty chai, where coffee is added to the tea with milk. My book club gals love a fun cocktail.
In lieu of the chai syrup recipe in the link, I used the chai tea concentrate sold by most grocers in a quart carton by Oregon Chai , but there are other versions by Tazo and a small bottle that works perfectly sold at Trader Joe’s that works just fine and does the same job. If you don’t have a bottle of Kahlua – liquor stores like Total Wine, sell smaller bottles that will provide the amount you need and not leave you with a bottle that will sit around for years to come unused.
Book selection… On a bright and cheery mid-April, Sunday afternoon a group of ten of my reading friends (members of my book club) gathered around my dining room table set with English garden decor and a slightly gourmet luncheon, inspired by our latest book selection “The Undomestic Goddess” by Sophie Kinsella. The light hearted “Hallmark like” story, started with a young female workaholic attorney who after being set up to cover up the bad actions of a Sr. Partner at the firm, flees to the English countryside and is mistaken for an applicant as a professional housekeeper. Samantha has absolutely no domestic skills, but does her best to fake it until she makes it with the help of some very kind and supportive new acquaintances she meets in the fictional Cotswolds-like town far from the hussle and bussle of London.
Nathaniel’s garden and his mother Iris’s cooking lessons lead me consider a special lunch menu with a table draped in the rustic elegance of an English garden. A photograph I found in a back issue of Victoria magazine provided the inspiration I wanted for my table setting. Having always been drawn to shades of soft blues, purples and lavenders for their casual and soothing aesthetics, I had a table runner and linen napkins in my arsenal to recreate the look. I planned to create a floral centerpiece and fill decorated clay pots filled with ferns and flowering plants that would been given as party favors to each of my members.
The Favors: Two kinds of moss purchased from the Dollar Tree in addition to bark from my crepe myrtle, were used to create layers of moss affixed with spray adhesive to terra cotta pots (also from Dollar Tree). I mixed mossy gray and green acrylic paint and then dotted a collage of color to the exterior of each pot with a sponge. Craft glue was used to then affix the bark and flowers pressed and dried in the microwave from my garden. The idea was to create pots that look like they were lying around in a greenhouse for many years. Later the use of a hot glue gun touched up the areas that may have pulled away some from the surface.
I played around with different ways of displaying and arranging the pots on the table,but remembered I wanted that pop of blue and shades of purple, violet and lavender arranged in the center of the table. So I removed several of the posts and displayed them on a small table in the corner to be distributed at the end of the meeting.
A Sparkling Blueberry Lavender Bellini
The frozen blueberry puréed spheres were made with fresh blueberries in a small processor. If processed too long it becomes gelatinous as it thaws. If too loose it disburses blue chunks into the drink. I over unintentionally over processed mine (learning experience) and used it as a colorful ice cube substitute that adds a little flavor to the drink, but doesn’t water down the cocktail. It makes the glass frosty and the cocktail stays very cold.
I found this Citrus & Petals cocktail sugar at Homegoods around the holidays and set it aside for a future springtime party. But this pretty sugar idea could easily be created at home. Flower petals can be pressed between paper towels and dried in the microwave in just minutes. The dried flowers retain their brilliant color and when completely dried can be crushed to add to sugar. Lemon, orange or lime zest and dried chopped mint leaves can be set out on a plate overnight or for a few days to dry and also mixed into the sugar.
The rim of a coupe glass is gently dipped in egg white and then into the sugar mixture. I did this the day before and placed all of the glasses on a tray in the refrigerator The egg white dries and sugar and flowers were well attached for the luncheon. (I used a small paintbrush to add some egg white to the front of the glass to attach the tiny fresh flowers.)
I made a blueberry syrup by cooking down one cup of fresh blueberries with 2 tablespoons of water and sugar. Once cooked down I strained out the skins and seeds. After preparing the rims of the glasses with sugar and flowers I stored them in the refrigerator until time to serve.
To serve, I added one tablespoon of blueberry syrup and one tablespoon of lavender syrup, then placed a frozen blueberry disk in the center. Each coupe glass was then filled with chilled prosecco or cava (even sparkling water can be used for a non-alcohol version). The sparkling beverage will cause the blueberry disk to fizz slightly, similar to a bath bomb for a fun afternoon cocktail or drink. (The added syrups may require a gentle stir to mix into the prosecco or water.)
Deep blue, almost purple hydrangeas, white delphiniums, lavender stock and filler flowers that I do not know the name of, helped create a bright centerpiece.
On the Menu:
Chicken and Sherry Mushroom Vol au Vent
Mixed Spring greens, with dried blueberries, orange segments and toasted chopped pecans with a crème fraîche citrus and herb vinaigrette
Mini rainbow carrots with brown butter and a citrus mint marigold gremolata
Gentilly berry cake
The recipe was adapted for the link below. This chicken and mushroom filling is also delicious as a sauce tossed in pasta. My adjustments to the recipe included:
Finely chopped shallots in place of onions
After cooking the shallots and mushrooms down, add a half cup of white wine and simmer down to about 1/4 cup.
I then add the flour and cooked for a few minutes
Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock letting simmer about 5 minutes
After adding the heavy cream, I added a teaspoon of sherry vinegar
Chopped tarragon and thyme where the last addition
It never fails… I get so busy preparing and serving (with the help of a wonderful friend) that I either forget to take pictures or don’t take the picture I really want due to rushing. I usually do a test run so I can decide what I want to add to or omit from a recipe that I’m using. The picture above was from the test. The picture below was the rushed version the day of the luncheon.
A convenient scene in the book, was when Samantha’s new friends threw her a surprise birthday party. It just so happened that two of the ladies in my group had birthdays on the following two days. So for the dessert course, I purchased one of their favorites cakes, we sliced it up and put a candle on each of their pieces and sang happy birthday.
At our previous book club, I served champagne and elderflower liqueur cocktails that everyone really enjoyed. So I bought two small bottles of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur and bagged them up as little gifts for the two birthday ladies with balloons.
An English luncheon must have tea. As a nod to London, where Samatha lives and works, I served London tea lattes. Steeped Earl grey lavender tea (fairly strong), lavender syrup and a little honey, topped with foamed half and half and dusted with dried pulsed lavender.
As our meeting adjourned, the next book was announced (that will be hosted by a different member in June), everyone bid adieu with their arms filled with plants, leftovers and some with birthday gifts. Until we meet again, happy reading!
One January afternoon, my book club met to discuss this tropical murder mystery. “Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman. Catherine is a British actress who played Mabel Lane Fox on our beloved Downton Abbey. It also was one of Reese’s Book Clubs first book selections.
Another member in my group selected this book, and at the last minute wasn’t able to host our luncheon – so I pulled together a quick table decor and menu.
I served tropical chicken salad with crackers for a light lunch.
For the table I filled blue wine glasses with white sand and candles; used shell and coral printed paper napkins I purchased to create a table runner, added palm leaves from a plant in my yard; and used a wood platter to assort shells, starfish and coral that one of the other members and I had in our home collections.
I greeted my guests with sunset cocktails made with pineapple juice,grenadine and prosecco. The Bora Bora styled umbrellas were created with regular cocktail umbrellas affixed with circles cut from brown paper bags. I glued a couple of layers around the top center and then cut strips around the circle to create the thatched fringe affect.
For dessert I made bananas foster cake, banana ice cream (from frozen ripe bananas that are pureed in the blender), and a dehydrated fresh pineapple slice to garnish (that everyone ate as a crispy treat).
“The Christie Affair” by Nina de Gramont was a quick and entertaining read. What I enjoy the most about historical fiction (this one also with a mystery appropriately crafted from the eleven day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926), is that the facts about the real story can be easily searched and viewed on the internet. Whenever the final conclusion of a mystery is not completely and clearly solved, it affords writers the license to create their own imagined version of what may have happened.
Ms. de Gramont’s version is told from the perspective of Archie Christie’s (Agatha’s husband) lover and then second wife Nan O’Dea. [Nancy Neele (1889-1958) was the lover, and eventually, second wife of Archibald Christie. They had a son, also named Archibald, in 1930.]
I also enjoy drawing inspiration from books and create a themed luncheon. When I finished the book, the memories that stood out were those of Nan’s homeland of England and her love for Ireland where she met Finbarr. With that in mind I decided that an English-Irish fusion menu would be appropriate.
While Finbarr and Agatha nourished on loaves of bread, apples, and tea – your guests may better appreciate this Irish inspired menu formed from Finbarr’s homeland and the place where Nan fell in love with both Ireland and Finbarr.
Above is a simply prepared potato leek soup made with a combination of both pureed and small chunks of potato, garnished with crispy bacon and chopped spring onions or scallions. If my chives were blooming I would have added a chive blossom, but it’s not quite Spring yet. (recipe in the link further below)
Also above, a Guinness Stout Bread. Very easy and quick to make. No rising or kneading required! I purchased a stout with coffee and chocolate notes – very interesting and delicious with both bitter and sweet notes. I decided this might be more flavorful than the traditional Irish Soda Bread – but maybe not. You choose. https://www.platingsandpairings.com/guinness-beer-bread/
NOTE: My variation to the above recipe was using the zest of an entire naval orange, adding 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla paste and two pinches of kosher salt. Otherwise follow the recipe exactly.
For the dessert course, I brought in Nan’s English homeland with Lady Gray tea (that has citrus notes) and made these English biscuits scented with orange. While it’s appropriate for the English, it also reminds me of the Timeless Manor candlelit moments of meals created from tinned meats, bottles of wine, loaves of bread slathered with marmalade and hot steaming cups of tea.
I read so many books, and as an entertainer can’t help but imagine how I would create a themed table and menu after finishing each book. “The Christie Affair” by Nina de Gramont was selected by Reese’s Bookclub and sparked my interest. Ironically, just this past weekend there were two Agatha Christie movies on PBS this past weekend – one with Agatha having disappeared with a very different story line. I hope for those who are interested in hosting book club meetings will be inspired by the ideas I will share in this new series on my blog – “Bookclub Menus.” Happy reading!
Two Thousand twenty-two marks the eighth year anniversary of my Social Writes Book Club. We’ve had a couple of members that have left the group, and few new members creating a strong membership of 11. To begin this new year of reading, it was important to select a book that was both interesting, entertaining, and inspired a theme that was festive and fun.
One late Fall afternoon, I stopped at the local bookstore in search of something new to read. Far behind the larger display of current new fiction, stuck in a small corner, one book’s cover caught my eye. The striking cover sparked my interest and I picked it up then turned it over to read the blurb on the back. Earlier in 2021 I had read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little that chronicled Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life as a young orphaned girl who would eventually find a path to becoming a famous designer. The book I discovered by chance on this day described Coco Chanel’s life during the war and hinted at her being a spy for the Germans. Intrigued I decided to buy the book and headed home.
The Chanel Sisters: Historical fiction that covers Gabrielle (later Coco’s) life as a little girl brought to an orphanage, where she learned her sewing skills; her life’s journey after the orphanage to seamstress, singer, mistress, hat designer and beyond.
Later that evening I sat to look over the book more closely, the name of the author seemed familiar to me. I searched the internet and the photo I found confirmed my thoughts.
Several years ago, when my book club was just in its second year of inception, I was at a local store waiting for assistance to purchase a fruit tart for my meeting. Pamela stepped up beside me and as we looked at each other with quizzical expressions (wondering if anyone was going to assist us), I explained that I was buying a tart for my book club. I told her we were discussing “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable and I was trying to do as the French do – buy dessert from a local patisserie (or basically from what we had available in Mandeville, Louisiana. )
She responded by saying, “You should read one of my books.” I was taken aback and asked her name, wrote it down and told her I would look for some of her books. She also explained that she was in the process of writing a book set in Paris that would be published in the future (something about The Queen of Paris). Surprisingly, here it was in my hands five years later. Pamela resides here in Louisiana, just a few miles down the highway from me. It was quite interesting how a store filled with so many books would accidently lead me to hers and the memory of this chance meeting and brief conversation.
As I read the book, that I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that without having read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little, it would have been harder to understand why Coco would eventually do the things she had to do to survive the war and try to protect her financial future. As a result, I recommended that my group read both books. Overall I find the two books together, cover Coco’s story in a way that explains why she is so determined to succeed and for the most part made unscrupulous choices to to so. She had a unique gift of creativity that even she was unaware of and with all of her difficulties found a way to build an empire that still exists today. What could be more interesting than an afternoon with Coco Chanel?
I wanted a light, but elegant French menu. After some thought I searched for savory soufflés and decided on a brie soufflé. It’s important to test a new recipe in advance to avoid day of the event failures. I also like to add my own twist to the ingredients and confirm the actual portions to determine if I’ll need to double the recipe to ensure I’m not short on servings.
The test bake went well, but I felt the flavor needed a little boost. I remembered I had some white truffle butter in the freezer that I decided to use in place of the salted butter in the recipe. It turned out great. A small bistro salad will be served on the side with warm breaded goat cheese croutes.
The recipe that inspired my White Truffle Brie soufflé is in the link below. I added 1/2 tsp of kosher salt to the batter and I used this white truffle butter in place of the salted butter in the recipe. I also buttered the souffle dishes with the truffle butter before filling with the batter.
TIP: The batter can be made ahead and set aside. Whisk the egg whites just before ready to bake and fold into the batter base.
On to the table decor. I used a black table cloth, my Mom’s black and gold bone china and goldware. Champagne flute glasses will be used for the Champagne cocktails of St. Germain’s elderflower liqueur and bubbly garnished with a pale pink rose petal.
A cocktail or aperitif at the ready is important as the guests arrive and Coco would expect champagne. For my cocktail, I’m using a French Crémant with a rose petal and splash of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur.
As part of my planning and searching for items to set the table, I found and purchased some Chanel ribbon. Originally I thought I would use it to tie the napkins, but due to the small amount I had (2 yards) and the number of guests I would have 11 – it pained me to think of cutting the ribbon into such small pieces. That’s when I came up with the idea of forming the linen napkin into a “Little Black Dress”.
With my two yards of Chanel ribbon still in tack, I searched for ways to use it. Then I remembered my small form mannequin that I use for my annual mothers’ tea. After all – Coco was a seamstress who became a designer. Of course there would be form mannequins! I draped the ribbon from bottom to top and tied the ends into a bow. I made a small white flower with gift bag tissue paper (like her favorite camellia) and pinned it to the center. I also repurposed a necklace with a small spool of thread, scissors and soft pink rose that fit in perfectly. Finally it had to be draped with pearls to be truly Coco.
An afternoon discussion about Coco wouldn’t be complete without Coco Chanel quotes. I found and wrote out several, on these gold embossed Eiffel tower cards with pink borders (tucked away in my stationary drawer for several years) and sealed each into their envelopes with ribbon and a wax stamp. Each of my guests will pick an envelope to open and read a quote to the rest of the group.
A simple, inexpensive square glass vase was given a Chanel No. 5 label on all four sides for the entire table to see from all angles and filled with lush pale pink roses for a pop of color.
French architectural paper luminaries I found several years ago at TuesdayMorning were each $1.49. I had tucked them away with my stationary knowing one day they would be of good use for one of my parties. On this day they will make their debut.
I use place cards to help mix up the group at the table, otherwise the same people always sit together. Sitting next to someone new encourages everyone to become familiar with one another. I dug through my stash of supplies (little finds that attract my attention and I somehow feel I will use in the future) and found these little tote bags with a white flower that I’ll pretend is a white camellia for Coco’s sake, and two pages of gold letters.
First I had to open the package of letters and spell out everyone’s name to ensure I had enough letters. One name (Stephanie) was shortened to Steph in order to complete the names of my other guests. I then centered the little tote bag on to the same soft pink cardstock I used for the menu and underlined the name with the pearls also used on the menus. Calligraphy or hand written names would be appropriate to the era, but I had these letters and decided to add a little golden glam to the table.
Time for dessert….. Strawberries are plentiful during the month of February in the south. Not so far from where I live is a town considered the Strawberry Capital (Ponchatoula, Louisiana). Strawberries are often associated with champagne, so I decided to make a champagne sabayon to pour over fresh strawberries and then lightly brûlée the sabayon just before serving. The sabayon can be made early in the day or the day before and placed in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The recipe I referenced is below.
One can’t have a French luncheon and not serve chocolats français. As luck would have it, stores like Homegoods have a variety of chocolates from various parts of the world in stock for Valentine’s Day. When I saw this box – I grabbed it!
A plan can be made, but never set in stone. The Saturday prior to our luncheon I drove to Trader Joe’s about 45 minutes from where I live expecting to find beautiful fresh roses and an edible flower I could use for the salads. I was there before the doors opened only to find mixed floral bouquets as the only available option. There were other items I hoped to purchase while I was there that were also unavailable. The cashier explained that the winter storms that blew through Texas the two days before had delayed their trucks. I spent a few hours going to every grocery store and even some florists to find they also had not received shipments. So I had to pivot – the word we’ve heard used so much over the past couple of years.
Afraid I wouldn’t find the pale pink roses I wanted, I bought two bouquets of pale pink tulips. Many years ago I learned a trick for how to make tulips last longer. On the left the tulips lay on their side after arranging. Pretty, but if left this way they would continue to extend out and not look so attractive.
As soon as possible, I had been taught to trim the ends and place the bouquet into a jar of cold water and refrigerate overnight. The next day, using a straight pin, prick a horizontal hole through the stem just below the flowerbud. For some reason this encourages the water to come up to heal the hole. The following morning notice what happened in the picture on the right. The tulips are all standing up straight.
My diligence paid off and I finally found one slightly shabby bouquet of pale pink roses for the table, but no one knew the difference. They were too busy savoring their champagne cocktails, white truffle brie soufflés, bistro salads with truffle chicken liver pate’ and finally strawberries with champagne sabayon and chocolats français with a rich cup of coffee discussing the life and legacy of Gabrielle Coco Chanel.
What a lovely ladies lunch we had! It was so fun to gather everyone together again. So looking forward to the next 📖!
A week ago we experienced an incredible winter storm that set records throughout the deep south. As we shivered through temperatures as low as 18 degrees (an uncommon occurrence in our parts); none of us would have imagined that just a week later, we would have a warm, sunny but breezy, eighty degree Sunday afternoon, to gather on a friend’s back yard deck, and talk about our latest book club read, while enjoying a late lunch.
My friend and neighbor offered to host this month’s meeting, having a cozy outdoor space for our small group to gather. The characters of “The Fifth Avenue Story Society” took turns bringing take out food each time they met in the small back room of the historic library. One of those take out items was pizza, so my friend and her husband decided to make two homemade pizzas for our day. One deep dish Chicago style pizza and a margarita pizza, so I offered to help with a light salad and dessert.
For this outdoor gathering I found colorful large oval shaped paper plates with matching napkins at Tuesday Morning that were the right size and strong enough to hold the pizza. For the dessert I used clear plastic stemmed parfait cups from the Dollar Tree and disposable silver utensils.
No Recipe Salad
1 Napa Cabbage sliced into 1/2 rings; 3 white and 1 purple endive sliced into rings, 1 12 oz. package of frozen artichokes (cooked per package) -leaves pulled from the quarters -sprinkle with salt and pepper and squeeze 1/2 lemon over all; pull leaves individually and place in bowl with greens; 1 jar of sundried tomatoes in olive oil (drain & spread over greens; 3 cups of arugula; using the tomato jar, add 1/8 cup of white balsamic vinegar, to the tomato oil and 3 for 4 tbsps. olive oil and 1/2 lemon juice and 1/2 tsp. salt 1/4 tsp pepper shake and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Gently toss all ingredients in a large bowl – dot top with colorful edible flowers.
Pizza while delicious and comforting, is also heavy and I didn’t want a dessert with any type of pastry crust or cake. I wanted something light and knowing it would be a warm day, something cold. I found a no bake cheesecake recipe for inspiration, and used the filling part of the recipe, but the other layers were of my own creation.
Yields (8 )1 cup servings. Steps require to make one day ahead of serving.
1 cup of biscoff crumbs (created in small food processor or place in a zip lock bag and crush with a rolling pin)
6 to 8 biscoff biscuits
1/2 stick of butter melted and slightly cooled
zest of 1 of an orange (divided in half)
(1) 8 oz bar of light cream cheese (room temperature)
The bottom crust layer: Process 1 cup of biscoff biscuits in a food processor until crumbly. Add the zest of 1/2 an orange and 1/4 cup of melted butter and process until the ingredients pull together. Distribute equal amounts into the bottom of each dessert cup and press down with the end of a wooden spoon or muddler to form a crust. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
The second layer: Place cream cheese, 1 cup of diced strawberries, 1 teaspoon of Grand Marnier and 1/4 cup sugar into a blender and blend until well combined and smooth. Transfer to a bowl using a rubber spatula to scrape all of the mixture from the blender. Gently fold in one cup of fresh whipped cream. Fill cups with equal portions (I used a 2 tablespoon scoop to distribute to each cup over the biscoff crust.) Smooth top layer with the back side of a spoon. Gently tap the cup on the counter covered with a folded tea towel (to avoid breaking the cup) to remove air bubbles in the filling. Refrigerate overnight.
Berry topping: Preheat oven 400 degrees. Drizzle grape oil on to a small rimmed baking sheet. Add reserved 1/2 cup of diced fresh strawberries and 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries, and agave, pinch of salt and black pepper. Roast for 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then scoop roasted berries and all of the juices into a small jar or bowl and set aside.
Top layer crumble: Place 6 to 8 biscoff biscuits into a zip lock bag and seal. Gently crush with a rolling pin or wood spoon to create small pieces (not full crumbs), open the bag and add the reserved orange zest and chopped salted pistachios – seal bag and shake to mix ingredients.
To assemble: Just prior to serving, top the set cream cheese dessert cups with the roasted berries and their juices, then sprinkle each with the biscuit pistachio crumple. Top each with an edible viola (optional).
In this time of quarantines and hibernation, our sunny, breezy afternoon together was just the right dose of social gathering needed to add a little light to our week. As the trees and flowers begin to show the first signs of green buds and fresh blooms, the comfortable warmth of Spring is just around the corner and a great time to safely gather with a small group of friends on a beautiful day.
It’s the beginning of a new year and a new decade. We are reminded daily by the media of the dark forces that lurk throughout our world, and often feel helpless in what we can do to make a difference. A couple of decades back, an old (as in long time) friend gave me this christian fiction novel that had a strong impact on me and opened my eyes to the negative forces that provoke us daily and how the power of prayer may strengthen heaven’s angels to conquer and defeat those negative forces.
While this is a work of fiction, you cannot walk away from this book without re-accessing thoughts and feelings that make you feel unworthy, not strong or good enough, excluded, along with a long list of many other negative emotions, without realizing these negative thoughts are being used to draw us away from our belief system – our faith in good and our trust in what God wants for us.
A brief description of the book found on the “Good Reads” website, states “Ashton is just a typical small town. But when a skeptical reporter and a prayerful, hardworking pastor begin to investigate mysterious events, they suddenly find themselves caught up in a hideous New Age plot to enslave the townspeople, and eventually the entire human race. The physical world meets the spiritual realm as the battle rages between forces of good and evil.
This Present Darkness is a gripping story that brings keen insight into spiritual warfare and the necessity of prayer.”
If you don’t believe in guardian angels now, you should be filled with hope for them after reading this dramatic thriller of a book. It is a work of fiction and creativity that is well worth the read. It was originally published in 1986 and was Mr. Peretti’s first book. As a story about spiritual warfare; he does not place judgment on the characters or determine consequences for those who act out when possessed by a dark spirit. This book offers very interesting “food for thought” that when I first read it in 1998 gave me insight to how our insecurities (if thought of as a dark manipulation) can prevent us from growing in our faith and relationship with God. As a result of my reading experience, I personally fought those insecurities and grew determined to grow stronger in my own faith.
It should be noted that the book was written long before the internet, mobile phones and social media. One of my friends noted that if this book were rewritten today, the demons would have even more resources by which to reek their havoc and do.
When I have anyone come to my house, I always want to make whatever we are doing memorable, even if it is just a bookclub meeting. How often do you see your friends in a given year? I fear my answer would be far less frequent without planning events that give my collection of friends an opportunity to get together on a regular basis. Relationships of all kind take time and commitment. Therefore, it’s important to me to make the time we spend together meaningful, memorable and enjoyable.
With the holidays in full swing, I needed to pick a book for our upcoming January meeting. I had read several fairly good books throughout 2019, but none stood out as one I wanted to share with my club. For some reason, I recalled “This Present Darkness” and the affect it had on me when I originally read it. It lifted my spirit and enforced the importance of prayer that I’ve practiced ever since. This would be a new and different genre than what we have become accustomed to, and hoped my friends would gain their own unexpected insight from it, whatever it might be.
Having the book selection made, but still in the busyness of the holidays, I awaited inspiration to present itself and raised my usual creativity radar – hoping to hone in on something that would give me a direction for a table setting and refreshments for the meeting. I’ve fallen into a habit of trying to create a meeting around the book we’re reading when possible, which is sometimes challenging and not obvious – but I like the challenge. Without a specific plan in mind, one little thing can create the spark I need to build upon.
My first find occurred while browsing through a small antique store. A pair of tall glowing white angels with wings spread wide brought to mind the angels described as watching over the little town of Ashton and its preacher. There were two, but I decided to only purchase one and I placed it in the center of the table with a small church ornament.
On another day, I stopped at a local gift show to browsed through the after Christmas stock, (everything had been marked down 50% to 60%). As I searched through the baskets of ornaments, a large ornament, a pair of golden angel wings, caught my attention. I walked over for a closer look as two employees of the shop worked to remove ornaments from a Christmas tree display and place each into a basket on a large table. I decided the double winged ornament was too large and I only saw one, but it made me think again of our book club selection.
Then I noticed a single golden wing in another basket that I picked it up for closer examination. I stood nearby and kept count as each wing was moved from the tree and placed in the basket. The young lady arranging the ornaments in the basket noticed my interest and asked how many I needed. She searched through the tree to help me meet the count I needed, as I finally decided they would be a wonderful, post Christmas gift to give each of my members that would also (hopefully) help them remember the message of this book each year as they placed it on their Christmas tree.
At another store I came across the cocktail napkin that read “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor in the morning the devil says ‘Oh crap, she up!” It made me laugh and I thought it was perfect to inject a little humor.
As I reached the end of the book, I read how Tal handed Guilo the trumpet to sound their victory. It inspired me to search for this image of an angel blowing a trumpet (online) that I resized to fit exactly on the reverse side of the store tag that was tied with a gold cord to each golden angel wing. I used a glue stick to adhere each image and then used simple school glue to add large white pearl iridescent glitter as a boarder that for me, evoked the image of the bright light that streamed from the angels when they were glorified and strengthened by the remnants’ prayers.
I then tied a thin gold ribbon through the wire loop at the end of the wing and placed one at each place setting. I pulled out my Mom’s black and gold china to add the “darkness” to the table surrounded by golden halo chargers.
I decided I wanted small bags that the ornaments could be wrapped and carried away in, having in mind small bronze colored bags I’ve often seen at the Dollar Tree. With Christmas having just passed, both stores in my area looked like they had been wiped out of everything and only had lavender colored bags. I was disappointed and not sure what I would find or where, but continued my search.
I finally found a set of 8 whites bags with gold and pink foil dots and decided they would have to do. Since it wasn’t what I originally had it mind, I was a little disappointed. As I started glueing on the clip art of the trumpet blowing angels, I suddenly realized that the foil dots on the bags looked similar to the chunky glitter I had put on the tags I attached to the wings. HONESTLY, this happens all of the time! Oddly, things just come together. I truly do not consciously make things match this way – it just seems to happen.
With the table now set, my thoughts moved on to refreshments. I decided this would be a great opportunity to toast in the New Year and New Decade with my gal pals, as well as the beginning of our 6th year of reading together. January is a month when we try to eat lighter and resolve to take better care of ourselves. I decided to make a light, healthy, but decadent stacked salad of farro with chopped toasted pecans, cajun boiled shrimp salad, asian cucumber salad, grape tomatoes, diced avocado, grated boiled egg topped with sunflower sprouts and an edible viola. Watercress drizzled with garlic olive oil and white balsamic vinegar framed the stack; the plate drizzled with a roasted tomato vinaigrette and chive oil.
The bottom was farro prepared per the package and pecans toasted in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, cooled and chopped. 1/4 cup pressed into the bottom of a 3 1/2″ ring.
Next – chopped grape or cherrie tomatoes sprinkled with a little kosher salt
Next – 1/2 of an avocado diced, tossed in a teaspoon of lemon juice and sprinkled with a pinch of kosher salt
Sprinkle the top with grated boiled egg, chopped chives, sunflower microgreens (or alfalfa sprouts, pea shoots) and an edible flower.
The plate was drizzled with a roasted tomato vinaigrette, watercress tossed in a drizzle of garlic infused extra version olive oil and white balsamic vinegar.
1 cup of grape or cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
Preheat over 400 degrees. Drizzle about 1 tbsp. of olive oil on a sheet pan. Slice tomatoes in half and lay in a single layer over olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and roast in the oven for 30 minutes. Tomatoes should deflate and create a brownish coating beneath the tomatoes. Remove from the oven and cool. Place roasted tomatoes in a small food processor or blender. Drizzle the second tablespoon of olive oil over the surface of the sheet pan with browned tomato juices and a tablespoon of white balsamic vinegar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes and gently scrap the browned juices, oil and vinegar with a whisk – (as in deglazing a pot with fond- brown bits). Attempt to lift as much of the fond as possible as this equates to a lot of flavor. Pour the mixture into the food processor with the roasted tomatoes. Process until smooth. Add additional olive oil or vinegar as desired until the mixture resembles a slightly loose tomato paste. Pour vinaigrette into a squirt bottle to drizzle on the plate.
A cocktail is required to make a toast, so next I was in search of a unique, ladylike cocktail when I found this recipe for a “Whispering Demon” and oddly, as I am writing this I realized the cocktail will be pink – more color coordination! As is my usual practice, I always try to do something a little different to a recipe to make it my own. After tasting it, the name warranted a little surprise of spice to reference the “demon”. I experimented by steeping pink peppercorns into my simple syrup and it added a gentle element of surprise that I was looking for.
A Hushed Whispering Demon
1 oz. vodka 1 oz. pink peppercorn simple syrup 2 oz. Whispering Angel or other Rosé 2 oz. club soda
Directions: To make the simple syrupplace 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Place pan on low heat (on the stove) until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and add 3 tablespoons of pinkpeppercorns. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain the syrup into a jar for storage until ready to use, and let the sugary peppercorns rest in the strainer for about 10 minutes. Move the peppercorns to an airtight container – leave uncovered to dry and cover for later.
Place coupe glasses in the freezer. Combine cold rosé, simple syrup, vodka, and club soda in the chilled coupe glass. Delicately swirl the glass to mix contents, and top with a little cluster of sugar coated pink peppercorns for garnish.
This book about spiritual warfare filled with demons and angels, called for an angelic finale. I made a chocolate angel food cake, filled with a mascarpone, whipped cream, freeze dried strawberries, chocolate shavings and raspberries.
Once baked and cooled the cake was cut in half. I dug a little canal in the bottom half buy pulling some of the cake away. The filling, chocolate shavings and fresh raspberries were added and the top replaced. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
8 ounces mascarpone room temperature
8 ounces heavy cream whipped
1/4 cup chocolate shavings
1/4 cup freeze dried strawberries (pulsed in food processor to a powder) optional
1 tablespoon sugar
Whip the mascarpone and set aside. Whip the heavy cream with sugar. Gently fold 1/4 cup of mascarpone into the whipped cream and continue 1/4 cup at a time until well combined. Gently fold in chocolate shavings and strawberry powder.
This type of cake is a little dry and needs a syrupy sauce and fresh fruit. Slice strawberries macerated overnight in 1/4 cup of Chambord, 2 tablespoons of sugar and (optional) a sachet of 1 tablespoon of pink peppercorns). Before serving remove the sachet and add 1/2 cup of fresh raspberries. Pour a couple of large spoonfuls of fruit and their juices over each slice of cake. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings and curls.
Our meeting concluded and everyone left with their angel wings safely wrapped in their little bags. Until we meet again – on to the next book.
Select the bookclub category on the front blog page for previous book selections and meeting ideas:
Five full years of reading and 25 books later the Social Writes Book Club is in the process of reading our first book for the new decade -2020. Stay tuned for our meeting post in late January. Meanwhile here’s a list of the great books we’ve read over the past five years.
2015 Year One:
The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom (Made for tv movie)
CrossRoads, by Wm Paul Young (also author of the The Shack)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer Barrows (Movie on Netflix)
When one of our members read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, she immediately knew it was the book she wanted our club to read. The only problem was that the waiting list at the library was extensive. A few of us bought the book and passed it on to another member over a period of four months until everyone had a chance to read this amazing work of art. Once the club meeting was scheduled, our group of eleven, reduced to only seven in attendance due to scheduling conflicts – but we still had a great meeting.
When a book lends us a theme, we often try to bring it into our meeting. Kya lives in an old shack of a house, with nothing but basics, and sometimes even less than that.
Nate befriends Kya with a variety of beautiful bird feathers that she adds to a collection of those she has also found herself. I ordered a pack of 25 natural bird feathers on Etsy to scatter on the table and tuck into the twine wrapped around our napkins along with a plume from a grass plant that made me think of marsh grasses.
Originally I just sprinkled the bird feathers on both sides of the table, but then I saw these wood disks that I wanted to use for my Gal Pal Alpine Friendsgiving in a couple of weeks and remembered that Nate left a bird feather on a tree stump. I placed the feathers on the wood disks to represent Nate’s gesture, that coaxed Kya toward trusting him.
The member who chose the book brought a textbook from the 60’s, her hurricane lanterns and shells …. Kya’s lessons with Nate, the lantern that she worked to buy oil for and the shells along the beach of the marshes.
Mini Chicken Pot Pies with puffed pastry lids. https://lovelylittlekitchen.com/chicken-pot-pie/ The filling can be made a day ahead and the puffed pastry added the day of. Brushed with egg wash around the sides of the ramekin and top of the dough, an Italian flat leaf parsley leaf on top.
Black eyed pea salad. https://thecafesucrefarine.com/easy-black-eyed-pea-salad/ Also can be made the day ahead. I used frozen peas that I cooked according to the package. They still had a little crunch to them afterwards rather than soggy from the can. I used a peach instead of mango that seemed more appropriate for a southerner, added agave instead of sugar and white balsamic vinegar.
Madeleine corn muffins. 1 box of Jiffy corn muffin mix, 1/3 cup of evaporated milk, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Mix in a bowl until well combined. Cooking spray on madeleine pan, one full teaspoon of mixture into each mold. Bake 15 -20 minutes.
After a lively discussion about the various characters and events of the unique story, assisted at some points with questions from a book club kit found online, we collectively agreed that Ms. Owens’ book was quite a literary journey that we very much enjoyed.
This meeting would be the last of this our fifth year. We have read a total of 25 books together with a vast variety of tales and topics and look forward to the new adventures upon written pages we will experience during our sixth year in 2020.
The inspirational seed for starting a book club was planted many years ago by the eldest of a family of seven cousins to my ex-husband. As I explained in my post “My Flower Girl’s Wedding”, my life bloomed with culture and creativity from time spent with this extended family. We frequently joined this cousin and her husband for dinners that never lacked in conversations that I found to be interesting and simulating. I learned over time that while she had a wonderful personality, she was also an avid reader. Over the years I found that other people I’ve met who were avid readers stood out in the same way. They were information seekers and the information they gained from reading extended into interesting conversations.
Every book read, slightly changes the reader. It teaches empathy, opening our eyes to situations we may not have experienced; it re-forms our perceptions; it can help us see a situation from a different perspective; it can take us on a journey through another’s eyes; it educates us about history, surprising discoveries, bees or owls, or medical conditions. It helps us grow and in turn, as my mother once said of me, “she can talk a little about almost everything”. These are all of the reasons I love reading.
When I held my first book club meeting, I advised my group that while I enjoy being creative when I have friends over, no one was obligated to follow my lead when their time came to host. I fully understand not everyone as interested in cooking or entertaining, or simply may just not have the time to do so. There’s also the burden of cost, and while the meetings are not meant to be costly, I’ve allowed everyone to put their own spin on our meetings. I also offered by space if there is a conflict with hosting at their own.
We agreed to meet every other month, to allow space for other activities, our last meeting usually held in late October or early November knowing the holidays require other attentions. In all, we usually have at least five meetings per year. On two occasions, our book lent to finding a restaurant rather than meeting at the home of a host. We found a French cafe’ to meet for “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLean. Below we met at Muriels in the French Quarter for “Welcome to The Garden Club” written by a New Orleans author Jenny Tilbury.
If you’ve always wanted to be part of a book club, you can reach out to your friends like I did (see Birth of a Book Club post). If you don’t have a group of friends that are readers, look for one to join at your local library or museum. Barnes and Nobles has a book club that meets over a newly published book every other month. Find a place to meet a group of readers to form a separate club. Don’t avoid starting a book club just because of the limited space or the worries of hosting like Martha Stewart. A book club can meet at a nearby coffee shop or in a reserved library meeting room.
We all gravitate toward different types of books and this club has introduced me to genre’s I would have never found on my own. We’ve read books that taught us to never see a bee the same way again; to remember the sufferings of past holocaust victims; inspire us to travel; realize how society hasn’t changed, it’s just attached it’s judgment to differ issues; the strength of someone who discovers a difficult medical condition can reshape their lives in a better way; the possibility that one apartment somewhere in the world can be ignored for decades and then found to have valuable treasures. Below is a list of some of the books we’ve read:
Sarah’s Key, by Tatiann DeRosnay
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLean
Educating Alice, by Alice Steinbachy
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
The Paris Apartment, by Michelle Gable
The Bees, by Laline Paul
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
Wesley the Owl, by Stacey O’Brien
Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova
The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
The Gvernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Ann Barrows
I have such deep respect and admiration for a well written book. These authors spend years performing research, applying creativity and intrigue, inventing characters and dialog that don’t really exist, but are so real we think we know them in the end. They describe places they’ve never been to from photos and imagination and make us feel like we are also there. We often take for granted the effort, dedication and time that it takes to write a wonderfully imaginative book, simply for our own entertainment. It is a craft and passion that one is born with and must express. How lucky we are to be the recipients of the fruits of their labor.