How crappy is your weather right now? As a Michigander, my weather is unfortunate, but not shockingly so. We are a resilient people, accustomed to bouncing between winter and spring weather for months.
I’m also very lucky. Many of the surrounding areas have had power outages for days due to a recent ice storm, but I only had my power flicker, which means my oven and microwave have been blinking the wrong time for days, as I am deeply lazy and probably won’t fix it for a month.
If you are currently reluctant to brave the outside and its moody temperatures, may I suggest you pour yourself a cocktail (this one in particular) and open a good book. A book you have been looking forward to reading or a book that you have read a dozen times, it doesn’t matter. Just escape. You deserve it.
Chai concentrate is sold in cartons in the tea aisle. Tazo is probably the easiest to find, but there are dozens of store brands out there. If you prefer not to buy a carton of chai, just brew a very strong chai tea with several bags of chai and add some sweetener. As for the whiskey and amaretto, I used Bulleit rye and Disaronno, but use whatever you like.
2 oz chai concentrate
¾ oz half and half
1 oz rye whiskey
½ oz amaretto
In a cocktail shaker full of ice, combine all ingredients and shake vigorously. Pour into a cocktail glass with ice and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
2004: Genevieve Mercier lives a nomadic existence due to her free spirited mother, changing schools every time her mother changes boyfriends. Shane Hall has bounced around the foster care system his entire childhood and is on the verge of aging out. Shane and Genevieve meet as high school seniors on Genevieve’s first day at school. When they team up against a bully, it is the start of an intense week where the two teens fall in love.
2019: Genevieve is now Eva Mercy, bestselling author of paranormal erotica, and a single mom, while Shane is the darling of the literary world. When Eva and Shane meet at an event for Black authors, it is the first time they have seen each other since high school. Eva initially wants nothing to do with the man who broke her heart 15 years ago, but soon they are spending seven days together in June for the second time.
This has been on my shelf for nearly two years. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it. Loss of faith in the Reese Book Club after reading The Sanatorium, perhaps? I don’t know, but the wait wasn’t my best decision. I loved Eva and Shane. I loved them as angsty, self destructive teens who deserved better than what life handed to them. I loved them as adults who had battled their demons and become successful and kind people. Eva and Shane have complicated histories and deeply rooted trauma, but they are likable throughout.
Seven Days in June has some of the best characters I have read in a long time. I loved Eva’s best friend, Cece, editor and queen bee of the literary world. I adored Eva’s daughter, Audre, who believes herself to be a celebrity therapist in the making. Even Lizette, Eva’s dramatic and slightly villainous mother, is a fabulous character. At the end of the book, I was reluctant to leave this world and its characters.
I strongly recommend Seven Days in June and feel it would be a perfect selection for a book club. It’s a love story, but not a saccharine one. Is it a romance? A pitch perfect satire? A story about mothers and daughters? Yes to all of the above. There may have been a subplot that broke my heart, but overall it is an optimistic book.
Book Club Menu
Eva and Audre love brunch and have an annual girls-only brunch before Audre goes to visit her father in California every summer. In honor of the mother/daughter duo, host a brunch for your book club meeting. The dress code is “fabulous,” and a smoky eye is essential.
Are you a dine in or dine out type of person on Valentine’s Day? Or Galentine’s, for that matter.
I can go either way. I like creating a not-so-everyday meal at home, but I also love to go out. It feels so extravagant, having a fancy meal in the middle of the work week.
I don’t have a Valentine this year, but I have a suggestion for those of you who do: Both. An elaborate dinner out on Sunday and an indulgent meal at home on the actual holiday, complete with wine and candles. Best of both worlds. Valentine’s calories don’t count, after all.
I have a second suggestion. This polenta with cheese, mushrooms, and Argentine red shrimp. If either you or your partner is not a seafood fan, a flank steak could replace the shrimp. Or both for surf and turf.
If you are asking what Argentine red shrimp is, I don’t really know aside from it being shrimp native to Argentina, but it is known for having a similar flavor to lobster. The middle class man’s lobster, if you will, because there is no such thing as a poor man’s lobster in this economy. You can buy it in the freezer section of Trader Joe’s. It cooks similarly to regular shrimp, except for one thing. It looks cooked when it’s still raw, so timing is everything.
Can’t find red shrimp? No worries. Just use the regular kind. Absolutely no one is policing this.
Argentine Red Shrimp with Sauteed Mushrooms and Cheesy Polenta
Do you have any illogical food preferences? I have entirely too many. Nuts (with the exception of walnuts) are delicious in chocolate candy, but they ruin any baked goods. I like lettuce and I like cucumbers, but I do not like them together and will pick cucumber slices out of my side salads. Eggs are delicious in the afternoon or evening, but they turn my stomach when I first wake, even though I am definitely a breakfast person.
So no eggs for breakfast.
I generally want something sweet in the morning. It could be a smoothie bowl or a muffin. I’m often guilty of eating leftover dessert for breakfast and think pie tastes best in the morning. So foods that are sort of breakfast and sort of dessert are my favorites. If you combine that revelation with the fact that I am Slavic, it fully explains why I am shaped like a hamster in midwinter.
Whether you eat this for breakfast or serve it for dessert, it is delicious.
Roasted Cinnamon Apples with Whipped Vanilla Honey Ricotta
This calls for only 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, as this tends to be a breakfast food for me. If you are serving this as a dessert, you’ll probably want to use 2 to 3 tablespoons of brown sugar in your apples.
4 cups apples, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
16 oz ricotta
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Place the butter in a baking dish. Bake for 2-3 minutes or until the butter is fully melted.
Combine the diced apples in a large bowl with brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and lemon juice. Add the apple mixture to the baking dish and mix until the spiced apples are coated in the melted butter.
Bake for 30 minutes, then let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
While the apples are cooling, combine ricotta, honey, and vanilla in a large bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on medium until light and fluffy.
Optional garnishes: granola, nuts, caramel drizzle, etc.
When Amelia Wright wins a weekend away in Scotland, she feels it is the perfect opportunity to repair her marriage. Adam, her screenwriter husband, reluctantly agrees to the trip but has no intention of leaving his work behind as his wife requests. After driving through a blinding snowstorm, the couple arrive at their destination: a chapel converted into a house. The housekeeper is nowhere in sight, the house is neglected and the kitchen barely stocked, and the generator unreliable. On their first evening, Amelia spots someone spying on her through the window, and both Adam and Amelia hear impossible sounds in the house. This story is told through a decade’s worth of letters written on each wedding anniversary and through Amelia and Adam’s perspectives of their ill fated weekend away. I was completely surprised by the ending and more than a little annoyed with myself for not connecting the dots, which in retrospect, were connectable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the characters in the end, which I think might have been the author’s intent, as no one is fully innocent or guilty in this one.
Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson
When Malcolm Kershaw opens his bookstore during a snowstorm, he does not expect any guests or customers. His plan is to feed the shop cat and get some work done while the rest of Boston takes refuge inside. Much to his surprise, he does receive a visitor, and she’s not there to shop. The FBI agent who visits the Old Devils Bookstore wants to talk about the blog post that Mal created years ago, a list he titled “Eight Perfect Murders.” The agent has seen some disturbing connections between Malcolm’s list and recent homicides in New England. Mal is eager to help, concerned that someone would copycat his list, but he’s also concerned the agent will uncover his biggest secret. While the other mysteries on this list all take place in isolated and snowed in locations, this is very much a city mystery. This is an excellent selection for book lovers with nods to great detective literature, a bookshop setting, and a bookstore cat. Overall, Eight Perfect Murders is a fun cat and mouse game, with a narrator who keeps you guessing.
The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf
True crime author, Wylie Lark, has decided to finish writing her newest book at the farmhouse where the crime took place. One evening, in the middle of a severe snowstorm, Wylie searches for her dog on the grounds, only to find that her dog has located an unconscious child in the snow. Bringing both the child and the dog inside, she finds the child is traumatized and unwilling to tell her anything about how they came to be outside in a snowstorm. The Overnight Guest tells three intertwining stories: Wylie’s in the present day, Josie’s story twenty years ago when she was the sole survivor of a brutal crime, and that of an unnamed girl living with her mother. This is more unsettling than most of the list. Think In Cold Blood meets Room. If I had known going in that this was about the murder of a family, I might have hesitated to begin. This is not to discourage people from reading it, as it is a good book and intricately plotted, merely to say it’s not for all readers, as it is scarier and more violent than your average mystery/thriller.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
West Hall, Vermont, 1908. Sara Harrison Shea is found murdered in her yard weeks after the death of her small daughter, Gertie. Her niece publishes Sara’s journal, which talks of fortune telling and spirits wandering the woods behind the farmhouse. Sara’s journal is the source of all West Hall legends, but many residents can’t help but suspect there is truth there. Everyone in town has either known someone who has disappeared without a trace or seen something they cannot explain, and the oldest residents have always left out offerings for Sara’s restless spirit. With the exception of drunk teenagers and UFO enthusiasts, the town avoids the woods and the Devil’s Hand, the mysterious rock formation within the woods. In the present day, college student Ruthie lives in the farmhouse. When Ruthie’s reclusive mother goes missing, Ruthie and her little sister search the home for clues of their mother’s whereabouts, only to find all clues lead back to Sara Harrison Shea and her diary. As the only supernatural thriller on this list, The Winter People will appeal to a reader looking for a complex ghost story with a quirky Twin Peaks-esque setting.
One by One by Ruth Ware
Snoop, a successful English tech start up, is holding their corporate retreat in a chalet in the French Alps. When they arrive at the chalet, dressed in designer clothes and already drunk, caretaker Erin knows exactly how to handle their kind as she has done it hundreds of times before. But when the Snoop crew gets down to work, Erin begins to realize that things are a bit strange here. With the offer of a company buyout, the shareholders are torn between the two warring cofounders, Eva and Topher. And strangely, all of the pressure seems to be on Liz, the shy and awkward former secretary of Snoop. After one of the group goes missing while skiing in dangerous conditions, an avalanche isolates the Snoop staff in the chalet, and then they are murdered one by one. A well-written mystery with isolated And Then There Were None vibes, One by One is a definite page-turner.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
They were the best of friends at Oxford, but they grew apart over time. Still they travel to an exotic location each year to celebrate the new year, and this year they find themselves in a luxurious yet isolated hunting lodge in Scotland. Beautiful Miranda has been disappointed by her lack of professional success in life, and so she keeps a grip on her role as queen of the friend group. Workaholic Katie wishes she hadn’t come. Emma, who joined the group as Mark’s girlfriend, wants to cement her status in the glamorous friend circle by planning the best new years celebration yet. Everyone at the lodge is hiding a secret, even the housekeeper Heather and gamekeeper Doug, and on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead. Told from alternating points of view, The Hunting Party is a suspenseful mystery.
Florence Day has inherited two things from her undertaker father: an unwavering belief in romantic love and the ability to see ghosts. At thirteen, she solves a local murder with the assistance of a ghost, and when her gift becomes public knowledge, she is bullied by her peers. At eighteen, she leaves the family and home she loves, moving to New York. She finishes college and becomes the ghostwriter of a bestselling romance author. Still, she misses her family, even though she no longer visits, and in homesick moments, she tells her boyfriend stories of her childhood, presenting it as her latest idea for a novel. When her boyfriend scores a very lucrative book deal, Florence is shocked to find he stole her life story, only to dump her.
Now, a decade after leaving Mairmont, South Carolina, Florence is in a deep depression, surviving off boxed mac & cheese and unable to complete the final book of her four book contract. She’s begged her editor for extensions and received them, but when her editor retires, her new editor is unwilling to grant her extra time nor is he willing to permit her final ghostwritten novel to be anything but a romance, something Florence no longer believes in. Soon after her meeting with her editor, Florence receives a phone call from home. Her father has passed away unexpectedly, and she must come home and confront her demons. When she arrives home, she finds a hurdle she is not expecting. Her sexy new editor is waiting for her there, and he is a ghost.
A book about dead people shouldn’t be delightful, but this one is just that. The writing is beautiful and haunting (Sorry. Florence and Ben really like puns.), and I was hooked from the prologue. It moves from being lighthearted and funny to being a thoughtful meditation on grief to being quirky gothic lite without any of these things clashing. It’s different from any book I’ve ever read, in the best possible way. While it’s somewhat genre defying, if I had to categorize it, I would describe it as a rom com with substance. Instead of dealing with misunderstandings and bad first impressions, Florence and Ben are working through traumatic events of their pasts, and the character growth is steady but slow. Add in a quirky cast of Southern characters and you get one likeable book. This would be a great book club choice as it’s a crowd pleaser and will even appeal to people who don’t normally pick up romances.
Book Club Menu and Recipes:
“I felt a pang of homesickness. For the weather, the funeral parlor, my mom’s amazing fried chicken.” (Page 8)
Planning a menu around The Dead Romantics was pretty easy. Florence’s favorite comfort food is mac & cheese (we’ll pretend that she doesn’t prefer the boxed kind and we’ll bake ours in honor of the South), and her preferred drink is a rum & Coke. Also, the very first food reference in the book is her mom’s fried chicken, so we’re including that here as well.
If you happen to have a few book club members who are lactose intolerant, making mac & cheese a questionable choice, chicken & waffles would be my alternate suggestion, as a few scenes take place in a Waffle House.
Baked Macaroni & Cheese (recipe below)
Fried chicken. Takeout is fine here. At risk of sounding like a terrible food blogger, deep frying is scary. Also, you can’t host book club if your kitchen is on fire. Insurance companies will back me up on this one.
Both of my parents were raised on farms in Paraguay. I personally have never known farm life, but seasonal living is part of how my parents operated and how they still live. As a child and a teen, I found this less charming than I do now. Sure, I loved all the baking that my mom did with blueberries in summer, but given that berries were available year round in the supermarket, I thought she was being downright cheap in waiting until summer. It was the eighties, and a farm-to-table approach was decades away from being trendy, and no one cared about the carbon footprint of their food.
This salad is a perfect example of how my mom approaches winter food. Cabbage is seasonal, affordable, and stays fresh for a ridiculously long time. Dressing it simply with oil and white vinegar keeps it light, balancing out heavier winter foods. This salad is on her table for weeknight meals and holiday meals alike.
Mom’s Simple Winter Salad
If you don’t have white vinegar, I’d recommend buying it rather than using whatever vinegar you have on hand simply because it’s far more neutral in taste, and this is a very simple side salad.
4 cups shredded cabbage
4-6 green onions, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil (or canola)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper (optional)
Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix well. Taste and add more salt/oil/vinegar as needed. I personally use 3 tablespoons of vinegar, but I tend to like my foods more acidic than the average person.
Anyone else prone to making immeasurable new year’s resolutions? I have two resolutions this year, and they are both difficult to measure. The one that is of interest here is my resolution to be more in the moment. Like many people, I am guilty of saying, “I just can’t wait for spring/summer/whatever,” or “I can relax once I meet this deadline, but until then I will resemble a highly caffeinated squirrel.” This resolution has a few elements: practicing gratitude, incorporating hygge principles into my life, and living and eating more seasonally. A few weeks ago when I was buying the last of my Christmas gifts on Amazon, looking like the previously mentioned caffeinated squirrel, this devotional popped up on my Amazon recommendations. I found the description intriguing, as it seemed to align with my 2023 goals, but I was nervous as I have never heard of the author or anyone who blurbed the book. However, I bought it as I have zero self control when it comes to books.
I am glad I did.
To be clear, this is a book recommendation rather than a book review. I’m on Week 1 of a year long devotional. Obviously, I cannot comment on the entirety, only that which I have read thus far and that which I have skimmed.
Seasons of Wonder: Making the Ordinary Sacred Through Projects, Prayers, Reflections, and Rituals is meant to be a year-long journey, organized according to both the liturgical calendar and by the seasons. I would describe it as a spiritual take on hygge. It’s organized week by week, rather than day by day, and includes readings, prayers, hand drawn artwork, projects, crafts, and recipes to immerse you into the topic. Each week has several ideas so you can pick and choose which activities to do. In Week 1, you can write out a weekly blessing, host a Twelfth Night party where everyone makes their own crowns, or bake a King Cake. There are creation care tips for each month, and January’s is simple: Don’t waste your holiday leftovers. This is definitely organized as a family devotional, where everyone gathers together each week and participates in the readings and activities, but I am doing this alone in single lady fashion, and it seems doable.
The author, Bonnie Smith Whitehouse, is a lay leader in the Episcopalian church and an English professor whose previous books have focused on creativity and storytelling. Seasons of Wonder perfectly blends her area of expertise with her faith background. This book is a little outside my faith tradition. The book contains instructions on how to make and pray the rosary and recommends using a version of the Bible that contains the apocrypha. I am interested in learning about other perspectives and practices of other Christians, so this is intriguing to me.
If you are looking for a new devotional this year, it wouldn’t be too late to start this one, given that it is organized by week rather than by day.
Ever wonder if it is “portabella” or “portobello”? I do. Every single time I use the word. Therefore, I Googled it before posting this recipe. Turns out they are interchangeable, only one term is feminine and the other is masculine. I asked my pizzas which they prefer, and they responded that they are the Wonder Women of pizza and do not respond to portobello.
Portabella. It’s official.
Admittedly this isn’t much of a recipe, as portabella pizzas aren’t exactly new or complicated, but it helps to know some tricks so you don’t end up with a soggy mushroom, which is the primary problem with these.
It turns out the trick is simple. You scoop out the gills. They come out easily with the use of a spoon. While the gills are perfectly edible, they do hold a great deal of moisture, so this is essential for good pizza texture.
This is a great meal option for those times when you are too busy or tired to cook a full meal in between holiday obligations, but you are too responsible of an adult to have Christmas cookies for dinner. (I’m not that responsible. Don’t tell my mother.) I like to use turkey pepperoni here, as I like to keep my toppings as traditional as possible, when there is an unconventional crust. Use whatever you prefer on your pizzas and enjoy!
The recommended wine pairing is mushroom’s best friend, Pinot Noir, which conveniently also complements pepperoni.
4 portabella mushrooms
Olive oil, to brush mushrooms
4 tablespoons pizza sauce
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
8 to 12 slices turkey pepperoni (or your preferred pizza toppings)
Optional: Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 400. Clean your mushrooms and remove the gills. Brush with olive oil and salt lightly.
Line a sheet pan with foil. Place mushrooms, gill side down, and bake for 12-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the mushroom.
Flip the mushrooms over and pat dry with a paper towel. Add a spoonful of pizza sauce to each mushroom. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes, if desired. Add mozzarella and your preferred toppings.
Bake for another 7 minutes. Remove from oven and top with fresh basil.
Are you ready for Christmas? We’re in the last week of baking, cooking, and shopping. Or, perhaps the question is, what does getting ready for Christmas mean to you? Is it movie marathons, or caroling, or Black Friday shopping, or Christmas Eve services with your family, or giving to your favorite causes?
This year, I have followed an Advent devotional (though I am admittedly a few days behind), done a surprising amount of my shopping online, watched a lot of terrible Hallmark movies, baked cookies, attend my church’s Advent services and their festival of tables, made the curious choice to read a selection of holiday themed murder mysteries, and purchased Angel Tree gifts for a young girl. Do I feel ready for Christmas? Not particularly, even though my gifts are all purchased and wrapped.
Whether you are ready for Christmas or not, baking these cookies will make your house smell like Christmas. (Well, it smells like a commercialized North American Christmas anyhow. The first Christmas probably smelled like a petting zoo and nothing like my cookies.) These festive cookies smell fruity, spicy, and warm, and they taste every bit as amazing as they smell.
These combine two of my favorite cookies: the guava filled cookies that my mom makes every year, and gingerbread cookies, which no one in my family ever bakes because I am the only ginger fanatic in the family. The flavors go together beautifully and the cinnamon sugar dusting adds a pretty holiday sparkle.
I hope you enjoy!
Spiced Thumbprint Cookies with Guava
Guava paste is not the most common grocery item. Unless you have a Latin American grocery near you, it’s easiest to buy it off Amazon.
¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅔ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup molasses
1 large egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon, divided
½ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ cup granulated sugar
7 oz guava paste, cut into small cubes
In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for about 4 minutes.
Add molasses and, on medium speed, beat until combined. Add egg and vanilla extract and beat until combined, approximately 2 minutes.
In another bowl sift together flour, spices (minus one tsp of cinnamon), baking soda, and salt. Stir it into the wet ingredients just until combined.
Wrap the dough in a plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together ¼ cup granulated sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon.
Roll the dough into small balls. Smaller is better here, go for approximately the size of a chocolate truffle. Roll them in the cinnamon sugar mixture. Place them on a baking tray lined with parchment. Make wells in cookies with a teaspoon measuring spoon or your thumb. Fill them with cubes of guava paste. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes.