The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon: book review

The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon: book review

In 1978, Violet and Eric Hildreth are being raised by their grandmother, the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth. The children are self sufficient and home schooled and mostly left to pursue their own interests. And their interest is monsters. Vi and Eric are the only two members of the Monster Club, which is writing its own survival guide. “There are two main types of monsters,” they write. The first know they are monsters and the second have no idea and pass as human. Violet and Eric are distracted from their usual summer schedule of monster hunting, library trips, and sneaking into the local drive-in when Gran brings home a girl. A girl who wears a hat to hide scars on her head and who Gran tells them to treat as a sister.

In 2019, Lizzy Shelley has left her childhood name and identity behind, having no desire to be associated with the most famous true crime story in Vermont, but she has never lost her interest in monsters. In middle age, she is a successful monster hunter, reality TV star, and podcast host. She lives in her van, pursuing tips about monsters all over the continental US, minus Vermont. One particular monster plagues her. A monster that abducts young girls during a full moon. A monster she suspects to be the sister she hasn’t seen in decades.

The Children on the Hill was my favorite read of Spooky Season 2022. It’s a bit hard to classify, being a blend of gothic, suspense, and horror. Scaredy cats like me don’t need to avoid this book though. While Children on the Hill could be classified as horror, it’s an old fashioned kind of horror like Frankenstein or Dracula, and there are nods to both of those novels here. This novel is classic in every way from the tension between madness and the supernatural, and the warning against scientific progress at the expense of human morals. Much like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the primary question here is, “What is a monster?”

Like with every good suspense novel, there are twists even when you think all has been revealed. Fans of mysteries, horror, and both classic and modern gothics will find Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel to be irresistible.

Fall French 77: A cocktail inspired by The Children on the Hill

french 77, fall cocktail, apple cocktail

In The Children on the Hill, Gran loves gin. So much so that she distills her own, with the same patience she gives to her scientific discoveries. So naturally a gin drink would be ideal to accompany this book, so I created an autumn variation on the classic French 77.

Fall French 77

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • ½ ounce gin
  • ½ ounce elderflower liqueur (St. Germain or similar)
  • 3 ounces cider
  • Sparkling wine to top

Directions

Mix together the first three ingredients in a champagne coupe or flute. Stop with sparkling wine.
Cinnamon Fig Old Fashioned

Cinnamon Fig Old Fashioned

cinnamon fig old fashioned, whiskey cocktail

I’m fully in fall recipe testing mode here. Some of it–like this fig old fashioned–is delicious and while others need tweaking. (We won’t speak of the muffins I attempted this week. Too many “healthy swaps” for an edible muffin.)

I have decided that this is what we grown ladies need to drink while watching Hocus Pocus 2. The Sanderson sisters would approve. I have no idea what I’m having for dinner tonight, but I know what I am drinking. The sisters would approve of that too.

Cinnamon Fig Old Fashioned

Ingredients

  • For cinnamon fig simple syrup: ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fig preserves, 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 oz rye whiskey or bourbon
  • Dash of orange bitters
  • Half a fresh fig
  • Cinnamon-sugar blend for rim (optional)

Directions

  1. To make the cinnamon fig simple syrup, combine a half cup water, ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fig preserves, and one cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Heat until the sugar and fig preserves are fully dissolved. Let cool. Store in a mason jar in the fridge for up to a week. This will make at least four old fashioneds.
  2. In a cocktail shaker full of ice, combine 2 oz whiskey, 1 oz of cinnamon fig simple syrup, and a dash of orange bitters. Shake vigorously.
  3. Optional step for cinnamon sugar rim: Rub the cut side of a rocks glass and then roll the rim in a cinnamon sugar blend.
  4. Add ice to the glass, pour the contents of the shaker into the glass, and garnish with the fig half.

Strawberry Watermelon Frosé

Strawberry Watermelon Frosé

In August, you can feel summer being rationed. The warm days and nights are no longer endless, and you can feel that the last vacation, the last dinner enjoyed outside, and the last barefoot days will come far too quickly. Did we experience enough? Did we travel? Did we enjoy the flowers and vegetables the earth gave us during these months? 

Then at some point, you have had too much. Too much heat. Too much sand in the corners of your suitcase. The days have a laziness that no longer suits you. You begin to crave the day you can turn off the air conditioning. Since childhood, we associate autumn with new beginnings, even decades after we no longer need to do back-to-school shopping.

This is the in-between drink. Before you are ready for pumpkin spice lattes and apple picking and sweaters dyed in harvest colors. When you are still holding on to summer and saying, “This is good. I am content.”

Strawberry Watermelon Frosé

Ingredients

  • 4 cups watermelon, cubed and frozen
  • 2 cups fresh strawberries, plus more for garnish
  • 3 tablespoons agave syrup
  • 1 bottle rosé

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a high powered blender and puree.
  2. Pour into glasses and garnish each glass with a strawberry.
Cherry Amaretto Sangria

Cherry Amaretto Sangria

sangria, large batch cocktail, amaretto cocktail, summer cocktail

What is your favorite summer cocktail? Are you a margarita fan, always ready for a taco and a top shelf margarita?  Or are you all about the frosé?

I’m a sangria girl, but I rarely ever have it. It’s a large batch drink if you make it at home, and so many restaurants make shortcut sangrias with cheap mixes and Sprite that I am disinclined to order it on an evening out. Recently, I became curious about what an Amaretto sangria would taste like. Brandy is traditional in sangrias, but I suspected (correctly!) that an almond flavor would complement sangria flavors nicely.

As a note, this sangria is very cherry forward. If you don’t love cherries quite as much as I do, I would recommend a half cup of cherries and a half cup of your favorite berry rather than a full cup of cherries. Also the sugar amount is customizable. I made this with a quarter cup since I don’t love sugary alcohol drinks, but kept the recipe a bit sweeter to appeal to a larger group.

amaretto cocktail

Cherry Amaretto Sangria

Ingredients

  • 1 bottle light bodied red wine (Beaujolais/Gamay or Pinot Noir)
  • 1/3 cup Amaretto
  • 1 cup cherries, pitted
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 orange sliced, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 cup sparkling water to top (optional)

Directions

  1. Juice your lemon, then stir the sugar into the lemon juice.
  2. Combine all ingredients except orange slices and sparkling water in a pitcher. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
  3. When ready to serve, add the orange slices, ice cubes, and sparkling water. Garnish glasses with orange slices.
Strawberry Lemon Gin Fizz: The Perfect Mother’s Day Cocktail

Strawberry Lemon Gin Fizz: The Perfect Mother’s Day Cocktail

strawberry lemon gin fizz, mothers day cocktail

How do you celebrate Mother’s Day? Is it a multigenerational event in your family or a day devoted to pampering? Is brunch with mimosas and fluffy muffins a given?

As a stepmom and an infertile woman, Mother’s Day is a bit melancholy for me. I love going to Saginaw and celebrating my mom, but I as much as I love being a stepmom, no holiday makes me quite so “other” as Mother’s Day. So I focus on dessert recipes, new spring salads, and gifts.

With that said, I will not be serving this gin fizz to my mom because she’s a Baptist teetotaler. Instead, I will be mudding strawberries with lemonade and ginger ale to make a mocktail for her. However if boozy brunches are a tradition in your family, I encourage you to either make this for mom or send the link to your husband as a not-so-subtle hint. If Mom isn’t a fan of gin, substitute St Germain (elderflower liqueur) for a sweeter, mellower cocktail.

Also, if you are still looking for a present for Mom, check out my Mother’s Day Gift List.

Strawberry Lemon Gin Fizz

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 ounce strawberry puree (see below)
  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1 ounce limoncello
  • Sparkling wine for topping

Directions

  1. Mix the first 3 ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Pour into a champagne flute or coupe. Top with sparkling wine.

Strawberry puree: Puree 1 cup chopped strawberries and 1 tbsp light agave syrup (or preferred sweetener) in a blender or food processor. Makes enough for several gin fizzes.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn: Book Review and Book Club Menu

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn: Book Review and Book Club Menu

The Diamond Eye is a novel about the real life Soviet sniper, Lyudmila (Mila) Pavlichenko. When we first meet Mila, she is in her early twenties, raising her young son with the help of her parents. After a scene where Mila’s estranged husband takes their 5-year-old son without her knowledge and teaches him to shoot a rifle that the boy can barely hold, Mila resolves to learn to shoot a rifle with perfect accuracy and to be both mother and father to her son. It is then that she develops her motto of Don’t Miss.

A few years later, Mila is a fourth year history student working as a researcher in an Odessa library when Hitler invades Ukraine. Not wanting her son to live under a swastika, she enlists as a sniper in the Soviet army where her extensive shooting training comes in handy. Armed with patience, perfectionism, and calm under pressure, Mila earns the nickname Lady Death as she shoots over 300 enemy soldiers. While she is initially underestimated for being a small female, she earns the respect and friendship of the men around her, becomes a leader, and even falls in love.

The focus is mainly on Mila’s evolution as a soldier and on her bonds with her fellow soldiers, rather than on wartime gore, but the devastation of war is not glossed over. At one point, Mila meets a teenage girl who was raped by a group of Nazi soldiers. The girl asks Mila to kill them all, and each day, Mila returns to tell the girl how many Nazi soldiers she killed. In another scene, Mila teams up with an elderly Ukrainian ranger whose entire family had been murdered by Nazis, who then took up residence in his house. She helps him to get his revenge and he teaches her how to get through the woods undetected.

The first two-thirds of the novel take place on the battlefields of Ukraine, but in the final third of the book, we move to the US, where Mila is a part of a Soviet delegation tasked with securing the aid of President Roosevelt. At first, I was a bit disappointed when we moved from Ukraine to the US, but my disappointment did not last long, as this part of the story was as engaging as the war scenes. In the US, we see Mila develop a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, while an American marksman aims to assassinate President Roosevelt and frame Mila. I adored the portrayal of the friendship between the lady sniper and the First Lady. Mila taught herself to be strong, but it is Eleanor Roosevelt who teaches her how to be kind to herself.

The Diamond Eye was my first Kate Quinn novel, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It would be a great book club selection as there is something for everyone: a strong female lead, a love story, well researched history, likable characters, and a page turning story.

Book Club Menu:

  • Cheese Vareniki with Sour Cream (recipe here)
  • Large Green Salad
  • Dessert Board (suggestions below)
  • The Diamond Eye Cocktail (recipe below)
  • The Sniper’s Mocktail (recipe below)

Dessert Board:

Belgian chocolate, confiscated from the enemy, is the favorite luxury of Mila and her friends on the battlefield. Therefore, you should not feel the need to bake an elaborate dessert for your book club. Instead, let a really good chocolate take the center stage in your dessert board. Fill out your board with fruit, cookies, and any other simple sweet treats that you enjoy.

The Diamond Eye 

This is a variation on a white cosmopolitan. Pretty yet strong, it suits Mila perfectly. To be honest, I used white cranberry peach juice here because, well, pandemic grocery shopping. It took me four grocery stores to find any white cranberry juice at all and all of the options were blended. And now that I have documented my struggle, I expect to find white cranberry juice everywhere: the gas station, local diners, hidden in the very back of my own pantry.

As Putin is a monster, this Ukrainian-American urges you to choose a Polish (or American) vodka to make this recipe.

The Diamond Eye

Ingredients

  • Juice from half a lime
  • 1 ½ oz vodka
  • 1 ½ oz St Germain (elderflower liqueur)
  • 2 oz white cranberry juice
  • Sugar for rim

Directions

  1. For the sugar rim, rub the glass rim with the lime half and then roll it in sugar.
  2. In a shaker full of ice, juice the lime half and then combine the remaining ingredients. Shake vigorously.
  3. Pour into glass.

The Sniper’s Mocktail

The Sniper’s Mocktail

Ingredients

  • Juice of ½ a lime
  • 4 oz white cranberry juice
  • 4 oz sparkling water
  • Lime garnish

Directions

In a glass full of ice, combine all ingredients and stir. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Classic Irish Coffee

Classic Irish Coffee

After dinner drinks are the best. From rich glasses of port to dessert liqueurs to coffee drinks, I love them all. And when you are too old to pub crawl on Saint Patrick’s Day, this is the perfect beverage.

Classic Irish Coffee

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 8 oz freshly brewed coffee
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 oz Irish whisky
  • Whipped cream for topping

Directions

  1. Place one tablespoon brown sugar and one ounce Irish whisky in a clear mug.
  2. Pour over hot coffee and stir.
  3. Top with whipped cream.

Variations:

  • Add Bailey’s. This isn’t the traditional Irish coffee, but it is the variation you are most likely to be served in a restaurant.
  • Add Bailey’s and Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur). This is usually called a Nutty Irishman.
  • If Saint Patrick’s Day means minty treats to you, add Bailey’s and Crème de Menthe.
An American on the Amalfi Coast: A Bourbon Limoncello Cocktail

An American on the Amalfi Coast: A Bourbon Limoncello Cocktail

bourbon limoncello cocktail

What is your go-to drink? If I’m not having wine, I prefer a whiskey based cocktail, like a Manhattan. Manhattans and Old Fashioneds are not for everyone, so here is a friendlier, sunnier take on a bourbon cocktail. Limoncello, a lemon liqueur from the Amalfi Coast, makes everything taste like summer, and here it mellows the flavor of the bourbon. Add some spicy ginger beer and a dash of orange bitters for balance, and it’s pretty much perfect.

An American on the Amalfi Coast

Ingredients

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz limoncello
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • Ginger beer

Directions

  1. Combine bourbon, limoncello, and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until well incorporated.
  2. Strain into a short tumbler full of ice.
  3. Top with ginger beer and garnish with a lemon slice.
White Christmas Cocoa

White Christmas Cocoa

This recipe is a cross between a white peppermint hot cocoa and a White Russian. It’s perfect for an evening spent wrapping presents, a weekend day spent reading, or time spent watching so-bad-they’re-good Hallmark Christmas movies. It is delicious, and I hope to never know exactly how many calories are in it. (If you do the math, don’t tell me.) If you care even less about calories than I do, you can swap out some of the milk for half-and-half.

This recipe is for one (generous) serving so double or triple as needed if serving a group.

  • 1.5 cups milk
  • 3 oz white chocolate, chopped or grated
  • 2 drops peppermint extract
  • 1 ounce Kahlua
  • 1 ounce Vodka
  • Toppings: Whipped cream, candy canes, sprinkles or colored sugar
  1. Heat milk over the stovetop. Do not boil.
  2. Reduce heat to low and begin adding the white chocolate to the milk approximately 1 ounce at a time, whisking until dissolved, and then adding the next ounce.
  3. Add in peppermint extract.
  4. In each mug, add 1 ounce Kahlua and 1 ounce vodka. Pour in cocoa.
  5. Make it pretty with your desired toppings, take a picture for Instagram, and enjoy!

Recommended movie pairing: White Christmas (of course!)
Recommended book pairing: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

As this memoir is a celebration of women in the food industry, this image indirectly features a woman in food. The vegan shortbread cookies are from Bohemian Bakeshop, a Detroit business owned by Jessica Chaney.

When Hannah Howard started her first restaurant job as a host, she fell in love with the food industry. Food had been a significant part of Howard’s childhood, but it quickly became her calling, and while she found success in her chosen industry, her obsession with food had a darker side: disordered eating had made food into a thing she both loved and feared. At the time of writing Plenty, Howard is a former restaurant manager turned food writer, and she has left binge eating behind but still struggles with body image. In this memoir, Howard not only tells her story, but that of women in the food industry. She writes about chefs, culinary teachers, entrepreneurs, and even a barge captain working in food-related tourism. Plenty addresses being a woman in a male-dominated environment, struggling with body image while working in food, and choosing motherhood while also chasing career goals.

While Plenty examines all the barriers that are unique to women in the industry, it is ultimately a celebration of food, family, female friendships, and chasing dreams. The women she profiles are interesting and diverse, and all of them are people she befriended while at work. She writes about a young chef just starting out, a chef who tired of the sexual harassment in the industry and transitioned to teaching, and woman who became a barge captain in the Bordeaux region, first by default and then by choice. I think the most inspiring story to me was that of Eat Offbeat, an organization which employs refugee women with no previous professional cooking experience but who are talented home cooks willing to learn to cook for a living. Howard also addresses what happened to all of these women during the pandemic, as they adapted to the changing industry.

I think Plenty would be enjoyed by foodies and by women who work in male-dominated industries. It would also be a natural book club selection, because it lends itself to sharing stories about work, family food traditions, and motherhood. If either eating disorders or miscarriage are triggering topics for you, you might want to pass on this. Miscarriage is part of my own story, so I may have spent that part of the book curled up with a box of tissues, crying for both her and me. No regrets for reading it, but I did want to offer a warning to anyone who may need it.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Plenty on Amazon First Reads. It did not affect my review as I only review books I recommend.

Hannah Howard describes herself as a “writer and cheese maven” on her website, so the only acceptable food offering for a book club is a cheese plate or a charcuterie board. September is a great time to add some fall flavors into the mix, such as figs, pears, apples, and grapes.

Recommended book club menu:

Charcuterie board: One soft cheese and one firm cheese (brie and cheddar pictured), pear slices, figs, sugared prosecco grapes (recipe below), roasted grapes (pictured on brie, recipe also below), baguette, crackers, macarons

Cocktail: French 75 (recipe below)

Mocktail: Apple ginger mocktail (recipe below)

Sugared Prosecco Grapes

The first thing you need to know is that you’ll be draining most of the prosecco, so don’t use a fancy bottle. A $5 bottle works just fine here. Also note my lack of measurements here. You don’t need any terribly specific ratios here as the grapes are merely soaking in the wine. If you are preparing this for a crowd (a couple lbs. of grapes), then you’ll want to use a full bottle of wine. If you are using a small bunch of grapes like I did, you’ll use a third of a bottle at most.

  • White grapes
  • Prosecco
  • Granulated sugar
  1. Place grapes in a bowl. Pour enough prosecco over to cover the grapes completely.
  2. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or several hours).
  3. Drain grapes, but don’t dry completely.
  4. Pour sugar into a baking sheet. Add grapes and roll in sugar until coated evenly.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Variation: Prosecco grapes can also be frozen. I didn’t do so here, as this is a fall-themed board, but frozen grapes would be delicious for an outdoor summer party. If you freeze them, just make sure to do so in a single layer so they don’t stick together like a sparkling bundle of disappointment.

Roasted Grapes

Grapes may be a fruit we are accustomed to eating only raw, but that’s a sad underestimation of this delicious fruit.

  • Red grapes
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Rosemary (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Toss grapes on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary (if using).
  3. Bake for 25 minutes.

French 75

First things first. Do you have simple syrup in your house? If you don’t, it’s easy enough to make at home, but you need to make it a bit in advance as it needs to cool before you use it. I’d recommend making it while your grapes are roasting. Just add equal amounts sugar and water in a small saucepan. (I used 1/3 cup of each.) Heat on low and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Let it cool.

Per glass:

  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces sparkling wine
  1. Combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Shake and then strain into a champagne glass.
  3. Top with sparkling wine.

Apple Ginger Mocktail

  • Apple cider (I used honeycrisp)
  • Ginger ale
  1. Fill a glass with ice halfway with cider.
  2. Add the same amount of ginger ale.
  3. Enjoy!