Monday, December 21, 2015

Last Minute Christmas Gifts

If you are looking for a last minute Christmas gift, books are always a great idea. Unwrapping a book on Christmas morning and flipping through it during the day is a treasured tradition in our house. If I'm lucky there will be a few to open and that stack is a beguiling sight in the days to come. Which one will I read first? The quiet weeks after Christmas always allow for some good reading time. And settling in with a good book on a cold winter afternoon or night is one of the best things about this time of the year. Here are some books that have caught my eye recently. I hope this list will give you a few suggestions for last minute Christmas gifts. They are guaranteed to while away a cozy winter night in front of the fireplace.

The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz

The Bronte sisters are endlessly fascinating and now there is a new book to add to the vast scholarship on the topic. "The Bronte Cabinet" is an intimate portrait of the sisters' lives based on the objects they possessed. This is such a good idea. After visiting many of my favorite writer's houses, I feel that I know them better after seeing their possessions. Victorian scholar Deborah Lutz looks at the complex lives of the Brontes through the things they wore, stitched, wrote on, and inscribed. The first chapter is called "Tiny Books." For the passionate Bronte reader, this would be a wonderful addition to a collection.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

In "The Paris Wife" Paula McClain brought to life not only the tempestuous marriage of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway but also the heady days of Paris in the twenties. Now she is back with another historical novel, "Circling The Sun." It is about Beryl Markham, the record-breaking aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denis Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir "Out of Africa." I've already started this and love it.

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

This historical novel is about the life of the nineteenth-century writer George Sand. She started out as Aurore Dupin but changed her name after leaving her husband and starting her career as a writer. She had a passionate love affair with Frederic Chopin and defied the conventions of the day. Her friends and lovers included Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, and Victor Hugo. Paris in the nineteenth century is vividly evoked in this book as it tells the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of this fascinating woman.

It's hard to imagine how Shakespeare at the age of 42 wrote three iconic masterpieces in one year: "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra." That kind of creativity is awe-inspiring. James Shapiro takes a close look at the political and social turmoil of Britain in the year 1606 that contributed to the creation of these three incredible plays. I can't wait to read this one!

For many people, Nancy Mitford is the ultimate comic novelist. This collected set of her sparkling, astute and hilarious novels would be the perfect gift for a friend who loves British humor. Mitford pokes fun at British aristocrats and their eccentric ways and evokes a long ago vanished time. These books are lough-out-loud funny. What a treasure to have all the novels together in one collected set.

M Train by Patti Smith

After the success of "Just Kids," Patti Smith has written another book. She describes this one as "a road map to my life." She tells the story of the odyssey of her career through the prism of the cafes and haunts she has worked in around the world. This book is a non-linear meditation on topics that have been important to her over the years: books, art, travel, the artist's craft and artistic creation. For your friends who loved her first book, this would be a wonderful gift.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

"The Story of the Lost Child" is the final installment of the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. I read the first book in the series, "My Brilliant Friend," and was impressed by this powerful story. It tells of a friendship between two women that seems unbreakable despite the most difficult odds. This fascinating tale of growing up in the working class of Naples in the 1950's amidst poverty, danger and violence also deals with the serious challenges of being a woman in that environment. The essence of these books seems to be the mysterious chemistry that holds these two women together as friends. The latest installment to the series has received great reviews.

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford

This book is being called a modern day "House of Mirth." A first novel by Stephanie Clifford, it is about the young and wealthy in New York City. The story follows Evelyn Beegan, a middle class millennial from Maryland, whose great aspiration is to work her way into young Manhattan's elite society. It takes its title from the last line of Stephen Sondheim's song "The Ladies Who Lunch." From everything I've read, this book promises to be a funny and sharply observed story about old money in New York.

At Home in the Garden by Carolyne Roehm

This gorgeous coffee table book by Carolyne Roehm is about the gardens at her historic Connecticut home, Weatherstone. I have seen this one and it is impressive, in size and beauty! All of Roehm's books are filled with inspiration for home decor, entertaining and lifestyle. This would be a great gift for the garden lover in your life.

Garden Inspirations by Charlotte Moss                         

Another book about gardens, this one is by celebrated interior designer Charlotte Moss. She writes about the garden as her inspiration for interiors, entertaining and good living. The garden is her muse and this book shows the many ways it has influenced her life. Another beautiful book for your gardening friends.

Did you know that "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" turned 150 this year? On the occasion of this milestone birthday, Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Company has illustrated a beautiful new edition for Puffin Books. This charming book would be a treasure in anybody's library as well as a wonderful gift for the young person in your life.

A Book a Month from Persephone Books

The endpapers for the Persephone Books edition of "London War Notes" by Mollie Panter-Downes
Image via here

And finally if you really want to give a bountiful gift to a book lover, send them a year's worth of books from Persephone Books. Have you visited their charming bookshop in London? It is filled with lovely gray books whose gorgeous endpapers are derived from the pattern of a textile tied to the year the book was originally published. Persephone Books publishes out-of-print titles mostly by mid-twentieth century women writers. Authors include Katherine Mansfield, Monica Dickens, Julia Strachey, Enid Bagnold, Winifred Holtby, and E.M. Delafield. One of my favorite Persephone books is "Diary of a Provinical Lady" by E.M. Delafield. For your Anglophile friend who can't get enough of British novels set in the early 20th-century, give a year of books from Persephone Books. Go here to learn more.

Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a great year of reading in 2016!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pleasures of the Season

What is it about celebrating with girlfriends at this time of the year that is so comforting? Maybe it's because this is the season to count our blessings. And friendships are one of life's greatest treasures. It's the time of the year when we celebrate our friends. If you're like me you probably belong to a book club, bridge group or other organization with girlfriends. Most women I know love to have a reason to get together on a regular basis. Maybe it's over work, books, art, writing projects, knitting, golf or philanthropic activities. In the best of circumstances, these groups give women an opportunity to talk, listen, support, and encourage each other. Getting together on a regular basis keeps the connections strong. And appreciating each other during the holidays with a festive get-together is a wonderful way to end the year.

Yesterday I hosted a holiday lunch for my bridge group. I see these women each week for bridge and I treasure our regular get-togethers. We always manage to catch up with what's going on in our lives. And each December we make time for a holiday lunch. This year we had a potluck. My job was to make soup and savory scones. My friends brought salad, a gorgeous cheese board and a luscious chocolate cake. It was a cozy lunch on a cold December day here in Los Angeles. The fireplace was lit, spiced apple cider was simmering on the stove, and spirits were high. It's the kind of celebration I love during the holiday season. Sometimes the simplest pleasures are the most meaningful. Spending a cozy afternoon with friends brings a little extra joy to an already wonderful time of year.

Everyone loved the menu and I wanted to share three of the recipes with you:

Mulled Cider with Winter Spices

18 cups apple cider
1/3 cup orange juice
Peel (orange part only) from 1 large orange, cut into strips
1 bay leaf
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
2 and 1/4 cups applejack brandy (optional)

Mix first 10 ingredients in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer mixture 30 minutes to blend flavors. Strain mulled cider into mugs. Serve cider, passing applejack brandy separately, if desired. Garnish each serving with a cinnamon stick. Serves 16.

Sugared Lemon-Rosemary Scones

2 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 and 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
3/4 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the 1/3 cup of sugar, rosemary, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with some pea-size pieces of butter still visible. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the 3/4 cup of cream until a shaggy dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead just until it come together. Gently roll the dough into a 14-inch log, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice the log into 8 rounds and transfer to the baking sheet. Brush the scones with cream and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until the scones are golden. Let cool slightly before serving. Serves 8.

Smoky Split Pea and Root Vegetable Soup (go here for recipe)


Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Reading Life...

Happy December! What have you been reading? As you can see from the stack above, my reading has been eclectic. It's the end of the year and critics have been compiling their favorite book lists. I haven't had time to look back on all the books I read this year, but glancing at the stack on my nightstand gave me a sense of the books I have been reading for the last few months. It's a varied group and I have to confess to jumping from book to book. There are books that felt like homework as well as books chosen for pure pleasure. Happily the categories have occasionally merged and it turns out that some of that homework has been satisfying. Here is a little report on my reading life as it stands right now:

A book I loved and can highly recommend --
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The writing is beautiful and the story is fascinating and unexpected. It looks at a successful marriage from two perspectives, that of the husband and the wife. The first part, "Fates," is told by the husband. The second part, "Furies," is told by the wife. The question the book explores so brilliantly is how well anyone can really know their spouse. It is about the secrets kept in a marriage.

The characters are drawn with tremendous depth and skill. The husband, Lotto, is a much-loved and pampered young man when he first meets his wife, Mathilde, at Vassar. Handsome, rich, and destined to be an actor, he is attracted to the calm and mysterious Mathilde, a beautiful young woman who seems to have no past. Her strong and supportive nature is the foil he needs to balance his tempestuous and all-consuming personality. She will become the caretaker in their marriage. He soon discovers his talent as a playwright and becomes successful, though Mathilde edits and rewrites most of his work. She gives up her career to be his helpmate. Only in the second section do we find out how much she is responsible for his success. There is a dark side to her story. The second part of the book will take your breath away. The book is brilliant and a tour de force. I rank it among the best books written in recent years, one of those books I will hang on to and go back to later. I promise it will sweep you away. And, this is so exciting, President Obama just announced it is his favorite book of the year! Lauren Groff must be in heaven right now.

A book that takes a little time to get into but is well worth it --

The story begins in a small village in Chechnya during the conflicts between the army of post-Soviet Russia and the Chechen guerrillas. It occurs between 1994 and 2004. An 8-year old girl named Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn her house down. Akhmed, a kind neighbor and friend, rescues her from the woods and takes her to the nearby bomb-shattered hospital for safekeeping. He puts her in the care of Sonja, the only doctor left at the hospital. Sonja is war-weary and dejected; she has been searching for her sister Natasha who disappeared during the war. We learn through flashbacks of the horrors this group of people have experienced. Refugees have poured into the little village for ten years and many people have gone missing. Akhmed has painted portraits of the dead and vanished and hung them around the neighborhood. People have become informers after being tortured and turned in their friends. The nightmare of this episode in Chechnya is heartbreaking. As I make my way through the book, I am moved by the tragedy of this war. Somehow I think that the child Havaa holds the key for helping the characters find some kind of peace. A harrowing book but I think well worth reading. Especially now. It is a powerful depiction of the innocent victims of war.

A book that is escapist fun -- 
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 

My hand keeps reaching for this each night and now that it's finished I will move onto the second book in the series. By now most everyone knows what "Outlander" is about, either from watching the television show or reading the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. But just in case, here is a quick review:

Claire Randall is an English woman who is united with her husband Frank at the end of World War II. They spend a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands where Frank, a historian and former intelligence officer, researches his Scottish ancestry. Claire, who has been a nurse during the war, goes off to collect plant specimens and enters a circle of standing stones. She is pulled toward a strange buzzing noise and faints when she touches one of the stones. She awakens in the middle of a firefight between British soldiers and Scottish rebels. At first she thinks she has stumbled into a movie set. But she quickly realizes that somehow she has ended up in the year 1743. Her husband's ancestor "Black Jack" Randall is about to assault her, when she is whisked away by a group of Highland rebels. Among them is the handsome and brave Jamie Fraser who is injured. She tends to his wounds and in time they fall in love. This turns into one of the great literary romances.

I was a latecomer to the "Outlander" phenomenon and experienced it for the first time on television. When the first season ended I bought the book and devoured it. I loved getting more details about Jamie and Claire as well as what was happening in Scotland at the time. This tale is even better in book form. I continue to be amazed by the imaginative genius of Diana Gabaldon and the entire world she has created. I highly recommend these books.

A book that I have been dipping into for pure pleasure --
Daphne Du Maurier At Home by Hilary Macaskill

This book is about the homes that Daphne Du Maurier, author of "Rebecca," lived in and how they affected her life and work. Especially her homes in Cornwall, a place that became the love of her life. I have been enchanted by everything I have read about her life so far. Here are a few highlights:

Du Maurier grew up in London in a big and bustling well-to-do family. Her father was Sir Gerald Du Maurier, the leading actor-manager of his day. Her home life was Peter Pan-like, led by her imaginative and whimsical father. In fact, the writer J.M. Barrie was a friend of the family. In the first production of "Peter Pan" in 1904, Gerald played the parts of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. Barrie often visited the Du Maurier house and loved watching the children act out "Peter Pan." It was a household dominated by the theatre. The leading writers and actors of the day were in and out all the time and it wasn't surprising that Daphne began to dream of being a writer. When she was nineteen her family moved to Cornwall where she discovered her muse. Cornwall, its place and people, would inspire all her writing. It was there that she fell in love with her future husband, a dashing young major in the Grenadier Guards. And it was there that she discovered an ancestral home called Menabilly. It would become the inspiration for Manderley in her novel "Rebecca."

This is as far as I have gotten. Having gone to Cornwall last year and fallen in love with it myself, I am getting so much pleasure reading about Du Maurier's life set in this beautiful part of the world. She was a romantic at heart and poured great spirit into her life and her writing. The photos are gorgeous and the story reads like a novel itself.

A book I just purchased and can't wait to read --

Another book about a writer, this one is a memoir by novelist and historian Lady Antonia Fraser. It promises to be about her passion for writing and history and the childhood "wonderland" where it all began. Like Daphne Du Maurier, Antonia Fraser was from a big literary and artistic family. As a young girl she became fascinated with historical figures and read all the biographies she could find of kings, queens, and warriors. She went on to write some pretty famous biographies herself. "Mary Queen of Scots" was her first big success. It became a worldwide bestseller. She wrote her first memoir a few years ago about her romance with the playwright Harold Pinter. I loved that book. Now she has written a memoir of growing up. It is being described as a magical memoir about her journey to becoming a writer and a historian. I am looking forward to this one!

Happy reading!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Saying Good-bye To Fall

How was your Thanksgiving? Ours was very special this year with our granddaughter sitting at the Thanksgiving table for the first time. There was so much to be grateful for. And it was fun to to set the table with a tablecloth from our daughter's home goods and textiles company Heather Taylor Home. The one we used is called "Redwood" and looked very festive, I thought. Go here to see more.

Today is the last day of November and tomorrow we will officially be in countdown mode until Christmas. I am looking forward to the special moments that make this season so magical. But before we move on to the big month, I thought it would be fun to recap some highlights of the fall season so far. I'm a little sad about it coming to an end. So here are my favorite things (in no particular order) about fall this year...

Many of them happened in New York...

1. "Hamilton"

The experience of seeing the Broadway musical "Hamilton" was thrilling. From the moment the show began I felt I was in the presence of something brilliant and original. Lin-Manuel Miranda read a biography of Alexander Hamilton and was inspired to create this electrifying show. If you get a chance to see it, please do. You won't be disappointed. As soon as Aaron Burr opens the show with his fabulous and expository song about Alexander Hamilton, you will be captivated. The music is so good! It may be the best musical I have ever seen.

2. Jennie Simogyi's final performance for the New York City Ballet

It's not often that a ballet performance ends with the kind of curtain call I saw in October after a performance by the New York City Ballet. This was dancer Jennie Simogyi's final performance and when it was over the curtain call went on for at least 20 minutes. She received enough flowers to fill a small flower shop. Her fellow dancers and friends came out one by one with bouquets until the stage was carpeted with blooms. The final touch was confetti and streamers raining down on her from above. It was a wonderful send-off and I felt so lucky to have seen the farewell performance of such a talented and obviously beloved dancer!

3. "Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars" exhibition at the Morgan Library

I have mentioned before how much I love the Morgan Library. There is always something fabulous to see -- the building itself, the gorgeous library filled with rare editions of so many books, and the fascinating exhibitions. This time we were lucky enough to see the Hemingway show. It's up until January 31 and if you are in NYC be sure to see it. Hemingway saved everything and consequently this exhibition is filled with an abundance of photos, books, corrected proof pages and letters. They give us new insight into this literary giant. One of the observations I took away was how much Hemingway revised. It was fascinating to see the many revisions of a book such as "The Sun Also Rises." Even the famous last line. 

And in Litchfield, CT...

4. Sitting in front of the fireplace in the library at the Mayflower Inn

Especially when Los Angeles was in the throes of a major heat wave. The crisp fall weather and cozy fireplaces in New England were exactly what I had in mind when I planned our trip to Connecticut. Fall in New England is a wonderful event!

And back here in Los Angeles...

5. A Garden Book Club

Some friends invited me to be part of a garden book club and we had our first meeting in October. We discussed Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst by Sarah Raven and Vita's novel All Passion Spent. It was enlightening to talk about Sissinghurst with so many garden enthusiasts. We talked about the structure of the garden as well as its plants. Everyone agreed that Vita was an inspiring woman and a force to be reckoned with. She created enduring legacies with her garden at Sissinghurst as well as her writing. She led a tumultuous personal life which included a long term marriage with diplomat Harold Nicolson despite having many affairs, including one with Virginia Woolf. Their marriage survived and together they created the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst. The image of Vita striding through her garden wearing long strands of pearls and riding boots is one that will stay with me for a long time. 

6. "The Immortal Beethoven" series at the Disney Hall

In October the beautiful Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles was the setting for "The Immortal Beethoven" series which consisted of performances of all nine Beethoven symphonies. Gustavo Dudamel conducted both the Los Angeles Philarmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. We heard Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies and they were breathtaking.

7. Holiday Calligraphy Workshop at Hollyflora

Soon it will be time to send out holiday cards and since my handwriting seems to get worse with each passing year I thought it was a good idea to sign up for a calligraphy class. I have always admired this type of decorative handwriting. It was taught by Bianca Mascorro at Hollyflora studio. Her class was excellent. She is a very good teacher and the experience was therapeutic. When was the last time you held a pen dipped in ink? It felt delicious. This kind of beautiful writing is a lost art and I think we should bring it back.

8. Baking with pumpkin

Spiced Pumpkin Bundt Cake with Buttermilk Icing is one of my favorite fall desserts. I made it for my family to snack on while we cooked all day on Thanksgiving. The smell alone is reason enough to make this cake. Go here for the recipe.

9. Indian Summers on PBS

I love having a riveting drama to watch on Sunday nights and "Indian Summers" definitely fits the bill. Have you been watching this one?

10. The film Brooklyn

Each year the best films seem to be released in the fall. This year was no exception. My favorite so far is "Brooklyn." What a beautiful film!

Au revoir, November. Gingerbread season is right around the corner...

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Cozy Season

Happy Thanksgiving! The holidays are upon us. What will you be doing to make it easier on yourself? I have learned over the years that putting too much pressure on myself will guarantee a stressful holiday. Sure, we all want to get the cooking done but bringing in some prepared items such as the pies or side dishes will make for a more enjoyable experience. And some years you may have to bring in the whole dinner. Which is what I did last year. And I have to say it was the most magical Thanksgiving we ever had. 

With our new granddaughter just two days old and still in the hospital on Thanksgiving, my husband and I woke up that morning with no idea how we would be spending the day. Would the baby come home? Maybe, but we weren't sure. And where would we all be? It turned that she did come home and we helped our daughter, her husband, and the baby leave the hospital. Fortunately we had picked up prepared food from a nearby restaurant the day before not knowing where or with whom we would be celebrating Thanksgiving. I put a turkey in the oven in the morning, hoping that someone, somewhere would be eating it. When we got the call at 3:00 pm to come help them leave, we drove to the hospital and left the dinner in the fridge. In the back of my mind, I kept on picturing all that food and wondering how our Thanksgiving dinner would work. Would we get a chance to eat it? I knew no one would be coming back to our house for dinner. Somehow the food would need to get to my daughter's house. Or maybe not. It was a mass of confusion. Fortunately our younger daughter (the saint!) drove to our house while we were loading up the baby and two exhausted parents and picked up all the food.

We all reconvened at my daughter's house with a brand new baby and lots of chaos and confusion. The turkey and all the trimmings were sitting out on the kitchen counter. Into the oven it all went and dishes were set out for eating. Somehow we ate that dinner but I couldn't tell you how we pulled it together, what room we ate it in, or if we even all sat down together. It was a blur, but a happy one. The most important guest weighed about 8 pounds and was just getting to know her new home. We stared at her the whole time in a quiet state of wonder and amazement. A new member of our family had been born. And I believe we all shared a sense that a miracle had happened that Thanksgiving and that our holidays would never be the same.

This Thanksgiving she will have just turned one and will be joining us at our table in her highchair. She will taste turkey and mashed potatoes for the first time. I will always associate Thanksgiving with her birth. This year I will have the time to cook my normal Thanksgiving feast (with a little help from a nearby restaurant!) but I don't think the holiday will ever be as magical as the first year she graced us with her presence. But there will be magic. There always is. That's what the holidays are about.

Here's to a magical Thanksgiving from my house to yours!   

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Carolers' Warm-up

Lately my kitchen has been a hub of activity. Between planning for Thanksgiving, baking for my granddaughter's first birthday party and keeping my family fed, I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen. We are having house guests next week and I wanted to have some go-to meals in the fridge that I can rely on for nights at home. Last Sunday I made a big pot of Smoky Split Pea and Root Vegetable Soup. We had it for dinner a couple of nights and I put the rest in the freezer to have on hand for later. Soups freeze so well.

This recipe is very special. I found it years ago in the "Bon Appetit Christmas" book. It was the main course for a party called "Carolers Warm-Up." The idea of Christmas carolers stopping by to sing and then being invited in for soup and hot spiced wine sounded delightful. There was something so quaint about this idea, right out of Currier and Ives. I used to go caroling as a child and remember being offered cookies and hot chocolate. If you grew up in a cold climate on the east coast, you may have done the same. Trudging through deep snow all bundled up and singing with your friends seems like a long-ago tradition. When I first discovered the "Carolers' Warm-up" menu in my Bon Appetit book, I made the whole thing for a tree-decorating party. I served it with cheddar-dill scones and a big salad. Of course everyone got a mug of hot spiced wine. Dessert was gingerbread. 

I have been making this soup ever since and it has become a family favorite. Carrots, parsnips, leeks, onion, bay leaves, marjoram and thyme cook together slowly in melted butter over low heat. Once this mixture is tender, chicken stock, split peas and smoked ham hocks are added. I couldn't find ham hocks so I used a smoked turkey leg and thigh that I bought at Whole Foods. I liked it even better this way. After the mixture simmers for 45 minutes, you take the turkey meat off the bone and cut it into small pieces, adding it to the soup. This gives it incredible flavor. And nothing tastes better on a cold winter night.

Smoky Split Pea and Root Vegetable Soup

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
3 medium carrots, chopped
2 large parsnips, chopped
2 medium leeks (white and light green parts), chopped
1 large onion
2 and 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
2 bay leaves
11 cups low-salt chicken broth
3 cups split peas
1 and 1/4 pounds smoked ham hocks
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Melt butter in a heavy large pot over low heat. Add carrots, parsnips, leeks, onion, thyme marjoram and bay leaves. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Add stock, peas and ham hocks. Bring to simmer, cover partially and cook until peas and tender and soup thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. Remove ham hocks and cut meat into small pieces. Discard bone and fat. Return meat to the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Add parsley and serve.

Speaking of nostalgic cooking, did your mother use this when she made her pumpkin pies? I haven't seen pumpkin pie spice forever until the other day when I found it at Bristol Farms. I bought it in honor of my mother.

Happy cooking!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Kitchen Comforts

With the holiday season coming up, I seem to be spending a lot more time in my kitchen. Which is exactly where I want to be. When I went to Connecticut last month (go here to read more) I took along Ruth Reichl's book My Kitchen Year and was very moved by her story of finding solace in the kitchen. I feel the same way. Nothing beats getting into the kitchen and baking something as a stress reducer. This is the time of the year when I pull out all my favorite seasonal recipes in preparation for the holidays. Thanksgiving is next week and soon after that every day will be building up to Christmas. I like my little rituals of making soup on Sundays or baking on Mondays to stock up on fuel for my family during this hectic time of the year. It feels good to get in the kitchen and whip up something for the in-between time.

Which is exactly what I did on Sunday. I pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks by Sara Foster. Her book The Foster's Market Cookbook is a treasure trove for anyone who loves to bake. Her gingerbread and pumpkin bread are to die for. The book also contains a fool-proof recipe for the best banana bread you will ever taste. It is perfect for an autumn afternoon with a cup of tea. I've made so many of these already this year. There is something comforting and nostalgic about banana bread. Our mothers and grandmothers made it and it feels good to continue the tradition. The house smells glorious as it bakes and it costs next to nothing. All you need are four very ripe bananas, one cup of walnuts, and the rest you probably already have in your pantry. It's great with coffee in the morning or tea in the afternoon. And if you make two, you can stash one in the freezer and save it for the holidays. When your house guests get a little peckish in the afternoon, it's very impressive to have one of these on hand!


Sara Foster's Banana-Walnut Bread

2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4  ground cardamon
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 very ripe bananas, crushed
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 9 by 5 by 3-inch baking pan and set aside. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cardamon in a large bowl and stir to mix. Cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl with an electric mixer until well blended. Slowly add the beaten eggs while continuing to beat. Add the bananas and vanilla and stir to mix. Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir just until all the ingredients are moist and well blended. Do not over mix. Fold in the walnuts and stir just to blend. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and let it settle to the sides; tap the pan on the counter a few times to even out the batter. Bake one hour or until the bread rises and a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. The bread will be slightly brown and cracked on the top. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before removing from the pan. Serve warm or place on a baking rack to cool.

One caveat: I couldn't find ground cardamon at the market, so I added 1/4 tsp. more nutmeg. It still tasted delicious. I hope you enjoy this!  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 200th-Anniversary of "Emma"

The 200th-Anniversary Annotated Emma, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

"I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him."
-- Emma

It's hard to believe that next month Jane Austen's Emma will be 200 years old. In fact, the book was published just before Christmas of 1815. There's something appropriate about that date since Emma feels like a gift. There is so much about it that is delicious. It has the humor and wit of the earlier novels and a deeper wisdom about human nature. It is my favorite book by Jane Austen and one I reread every year or so because it takes me to a cozy place. It is a guaranteed mood lifter.

Let's face it, no matter how badly she behaves, we love Emma. Her heart is in the right place. And don't we all know someone like Emma? A busybody who thinks she knows what's best for everyone? One of the greatest pleasures of the book is watching Jane Austen poke fun at so many character types we all know in our own lives: a Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, or Harriet Smith. And no one does romance better than Austen. Who can resist the moment when Emma, after learning the error of her ways, finally realizes she is in love with Mr. Knightly? 

Here are some fun facts about Emma, many of which I discovered in another beautiful edition of this bookEmma, An Annotated Edition that came out a couple of years ago. A few of the following details also came from the many lectures I have gone to on Jane Austen given by UCLA professor Lynn Batten.


Jane Austen wrote of Emma: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but me will much like." And at the beginning of the book, this is true. But we may forget that when the novel begins Emma is just 21 years old. Her biggest problem is that she has no problems. She is surrounded by adults, including her father and governess, who never tell her the truth. The one exception is Mr Knightley. By the end of the novel, she is educated and repentant. And at this point we love her.

Emma was written in a quick burst of intense creativity, between January 21, 1814 and March 29, 1815. Jane Austen was at the height of her powers, having already written five other novels. She had  published three of them -- Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. The remaining two, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were completed but not published until after her death. She died in 1817 just two years after the publication of Emma.

She wanted a different publisher for Emma and chose the prestigious John Murray of 50 Albermarle Street in Mayfair. He was also the publisher of  Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. The anonymous author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park was now linked with two of the biggest literary names of the day. Walter Scott became aware of her books and wrote a glowing review of Emma.

By the time Emma was published, Jane Austen had gained a cult-like following. People were in awe of this mystery writer. In the manner of her other books, the title page of Emma described the writer as "The Author of Pride and Prejudice." She chose to remain anonymous throughout her lifetime. Even so, she had become a literary celebrity.The Prince Regent was one of her biggest fans. On her visit to London at the end of 1815 to finalize the publishing arrangements for Emma, she was invited to Carlton House, the Prince Regent's London residence. The purpose of this visit? He asked her to dedicate the book to him and she agreed.

The confirmation of Austen's identity as a novelist appeared only after her death in Henry Austen's "Biographical Notice," appended to the posthumous first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818.

In Jane Austen's novels the "the militia" is frequently mentioned. Mr. Weston is described as a member. He plays an important role in the book when he marries Emma's governess and companion Miss Taylor, leaving a void which Emma quickly fills with Harriet Smith. He is also the father of Frank Churchill, whose relationship with Emma is important to the plot of the book. Mr. Weston is described as having "satisfied an active cheerful mind and social temper by entering into the militia of his country, then embodied." The English country militias, according to the annotated edition of Emma, provided a supplement to the standing army for the specific purpose of defending the "home front."

And what about Highbury where the characters live. Is this a real place? No, the novel takes place in an imaginary town called Highbury. Austen seems to be having some fun with the location of Highbury since she presents it as a place that might exist, surrounded by places in Surrey that do exist. But it is nonexistent. Scholars have pointed out that it is impossible to achieve any precise mapping for it since nowhere could be sixteen miles from London, nine miles from Richmond, and seven miles from Box Hill.

Another pivotal character in the book is Mr. Elton. As vicar he needs to marry a person of wealth. That is one of the reasons he would never marry Harriet Smith. After discovering that Emma is not in love with him, he goes to Bath to find a wife. There he meets Mrs. Elton, the daughter of a wealthy man. You might wonder how widespread the knowledge of a woman's dowry was in those days. It was very much public knowledge. Apparently when the wedding banns were announced in the newspaper, the bride's financial worth was published. Marriages were financial transactions at the time. In an ideal world, they would also include love. Jane Austen has created that world. The reason her novels are so satisfying is that her heroines all manage to hold out for love.

Have you read Emma? Which is your favorite book by Jane Austen? 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Home Fires"

"Home Fires"
Photo via here

Have you been watching the wonderful television series Home Fires on PBS? If you are getting impatient for the next season of "Downton Abbey" to begin, this one will tide you over. I am crazy about it. The show airs on Sunday nights at 8:00 pm, just before Indian Summers. It begins in 1939, just as Britain is about to enter the war, and is set in a rural English village. It concerns the members of the local Women's Institute, a voluntary organization whose mission is to help with war efforts on the Home Front during World War II. The story centers around several of these women and their personal struggles. Two of the them are strong-willed rivals who want to lead the Institute. They are played by Francesca Annis and Samantha Bond ( she plays Aunt Rosamund in "Downton Abbey"). They butt heads over problems such as what land should be appropriated for farming purposes (the cricket field is one controversial option) and where the official air raid facility should be.

I loved learning about The Women's Institute and the important role it played during the war. It was a community organization that allowed women all over England to connect and support each other as they faced the challenges of World War II. With their sons and husbands gone, women learned new skills through the Institute and became better able to contribute to the war effort in meaningful ways. They helped with food production, education of the public, and social issues during this time of rations and sacrifices. The organization still exists as a social club. The series is based on the book Jambusters by Julie Summers which tells the history of Britain's Women's Institute. It is a fascinating story.

There is enough drama and romance in "Home Fires" to keep any "Downton Abbey" fan happy. The women's personal stories give the series its substance and depth. They concern a young woman who impetuously marries a dashing soldier, a mother devastated when her only child enlists, the local doctor and his family, an abused wife who begins to stand up to her husband, and a conscientious objector who is vilified by the community. If you love period dramas, this one will make you very happy. The cast is predominantly female and you will have fun recognizing many of your favorite actresses from other British television shows. With the days getting shorter and the nights longer, we have another good reason to stay home on Sunday night.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A New England Fall

"Set free the window. Drink in the day."
- Edith Wharton

The Shakespeare garden at the Mayflower Inn

If there is any season when I am inclined to "drink in the day," it is fall. The lighting, the colors, the feel of the air -- it is delicious. And my favorite place to go in the fall is New England. I don't think there is a prettier place at this time of the year. 

The main house of the Mayflower Inn

A couple of weeks ago we made the trip to Litchfield, Connecticut and stayed at the Mayflower Inn. 
The Mayflower Inn is one of those quintessential country house hotels that happens to be located in one of the most beautiful regions of New England. The county of Litchfield is in northwestern Connecticut, just below the Berkshires in Massachusetts. The hotel is simply stunning.
Beautiful, peaceful and comfortable, it is an inspiring retreat as well as a wonderful location for visiting some of the highlights of the area.

We checked in and took a tour of the place. There are so many public spaces for guests.

This is the gorgeous library

And one of several little sitting rooms, all with fireplaces ablaze

Outside there are many areas for walking

And several gardens; my favorite was the Shakespeare garden 

There is also the American Poets garden

Poetry and gardens just seem to go together

The view from our room in the morning

 On our first day we took a drive to the tiny village of New Preston

Which is lined with fabulous shops, "tiny but mighty," in the words of our concierge.
Pergola shop was the highlight. It is filled with great home and garden decor.

Sweets is a candy store stocked with Halloween delights

The roads in the area are lined with gorgeous trees 

Sometimes we just had to pull over to snap a photo

Lake Waramaug

We drove to the charming village of Litchfield where they really  know how to decorate for fall

 Lunch was at the West Street Grill

We visited the White Flower Farm

Where there were many temptations!

Beautiful mums and ornamental cabbages and kale

I loved this spot under the tree at White Flower Farm

One of the roads nearby

Coming back to the Mayflower and sitting in front of the fire was heavenly

The next day we went to Stockbridge, Massachusetts and admired the decorations

So many beautiful houses

Tucked into exquisite woodsy areas

This is the Stockbridge General Store, part of the famous painting that Norman Rockwell painted of the town

The brilliantly colored leaves were stunning against a blue sky

The veranda of the Mayflower Inn was the perfect place to relax at the end of the day

 Visiting this part of the world is invigorating, nostalgic and restorative. The breathtaking transformation of nature is awe-inspiring. A visit to New England in the fall will definitely get you in the mood for the holidays!