Review: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

352921Words are perhaps the most powerful weapon humans can wield against each other. They give us the power to love, to hate, to profoundly alter someone’s reality.

In A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny explores the potency of words to craft our own realities, kill others’, and the the brutal consequences of love denied.

As part of the Armand Gamache series, Penny brings the reader back to the quiet village of Three Pines with the murder of CC de Poitiers. The woman has been found, electrocuted, on a frozen lake during a curling match. The culprit may seem surprising, but after reflection, there could be few other suspects.

CC de Poitiers is quite despicable from the first chapter. Vain, self-absorbed, and extremely cruel, she is one of the most nasty character’s I’ve encountered in Penny’s novels. CC has the unpleasant side affect of making those around her nasty, too, and at worse, making them feel like utter garbage.

She lives in her own world; anything she does not like or that does not fit is not a part of her reality. Words are key. The illegitimate daughter of a now homeless vagrant, CC crafts for herself a new identity as the daughter of Eleanor d’Aquitaine, also called Eleanor de Poitiers. In this new reality, she becomes somewhat of a princess in her mind, and words are so important she marries a man for his name: Richard Lyon, a play on Richard the Lionhearted, son of Eleanor d’Aquitaine.

The most central element in the chaos and subplots that ensue is CC’s verbal abuse of her daughter, Crie. Crie– desperately overweight, beaten down by her mother, withdrawn to her self– has a brilliant mind, gifted in science. But no matter how smart, how graceful she tries to be, it is not enough to earn her mother’s regard. Love is out of the question. Crie is a blemish on the world CC has constructed for herself.

When we are so alienating, so cruel, so senseless, it is foolish to expect that there will be no retaliation. Each person has constructed their own reality, banishing those who threaten their security. And sometimes, this fatal grace is the most merciful action.

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Brioche Cream Buns

If you’ve known me for any length of time, there’s a good chance you know that I love Flour Bakery + Cafe, a Boston staple.

In high school, I was introduced to Flour via Joanne Chang’s (the owner) first book: Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe. It was monumental. This book taught me how to make bread; provided one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes; offers the best muffin recipe of all-time (better than Huckleberry?!); and is downright comforting with un intimidating recipes.

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One of my favorite pastries at Flour is a brioche cream bun. Brioche, pastry cream, baked in the oven? It’s a soft, feathery bread with a custardy center.

Honestly, I actually greatly prefer Huckleberry’s brioche. Some brioches are drier than others, and Flour’s is a bit more so than Huck’s. To make my brioche cream pots, I used Huck’s recipe for brioche and Edd Kimber’s (AKA The Boy Who Bakes) pastry cream recipe, but you can find recipes for both in the Flour book. The pastry cream recipe is easy and good.

Some notes:

  • Don’t forget to egg-wash the bread. It’ll make it glossy and beautiful. As you can see, I forgot.
  • You can make any flavor pastry cream. I did cookie butter! But vanilla, chocolate, fruit, matcha, floral…up to you!

Happy baking!

xxx

Review: Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

23848325Love, duty, war. Princess Maurguerite de Valois finds herself in the middle of all three in this historical fiction novel by Sophie Perinot. As she grows up in her mother’s court, Margot (as she is often called), must navigate the treacherous, sinister world where nothing is as it appears. It is, in a way, a coming-of-age story about a young woman who learns to make her own choices—despite the consequences.

In efforts to win her mother’s (Catherine de Médicis) favor, Margot willingly becomes a political pawn by way of marriage. This is, however, before she falls in love with the charming Duc de Guise, and afterwards, it is a war of the heart. While Margot is eventually betrothed to her cousin, Huguenot Henri de Navarre, Perinot uses this tug-of-war to raise the question, “what would you do for love?”, and “what would you do out of duty?” It is never so simple, it seems, as Margot makes some surprising—and surprisingly daring—decisions.

Perinot also puts the fraught, teetering mother-daughter relationship on display. Often done away with for being a daughter, Margot flits from being accepted and, perhaps, warmly regarded (as much as Madame la Serpente could be warm) to being despised and distrusted. Catherine de Médicis’ favor acts as a central, unstable, ever cruel measurement of her daughter’s self-esteem, and the reader is asked to question how cruel love can and should be.

It is Margot’s courage in the throws of violence to defy everything she once held sacred that truly marks her coming-of-age as she claims her agency and her voice. We are often afraid to take what is rightfully ours, but are surprised when we are bold enough to own it. Love is a wildly powerful thing and not always benevolent. Love is manipulative and conditional, a tool to Catherine de Médici. To Margot, it her one chance to be valued for who she is, not for what she offers.

As the two women and others wrestle with love and war, it becomes clear that the most important thing is love of self. The dependence on others to provide love only hampers, but to see ourselves is to take ownership of who we are. This is what gives Margot the courage to take back her life and, ultimately, perhaps, alter the course of history.

Review: The Little French Bistro by Nina George

32283424***This is the start of a new section of the blog, where I keep my reviews for all francophile reads!!! The regular book blog is still here, too.***

Marianne, wife of a German military officer, has suffered for decades under an uncaring husband when she throws herself into the Seine. Later, after breaking out of her hospital room, she finds her way to Brittany, reputed to be “the end of the world,” and to a little restaurant called Ar Mor. There, Marianne learns to discover what she has for so long missed.

In The Little French Bistro, Nina George explores self-love, renewal, second chances, and adventure, showing that despite past choices, it is never too late to turn around.

Love is twofold in the world George creates. There is external love, given by others. However, there is also a love of self, a permission we grant ourselves to be who we are. Arguably, lack of self-confidence and self-love can be infinitely more limiting than lack of external love. Marianne must learn this as she learns to love, be loved, and give herself permission to take ownership of her life.

At 60 years old, it seems that she has let her life slip away. Her unexplained unwillingness to leave her husband shadows her throughout the novel, but her actions in Brittany attest to the belief that we can always have a fresh start—but that we choose it is key. In many parts of the novel, Marianne is on the verge of returning home, believing that it is impossible to stay and own her life in the small coastal village. But, as she slowly discovers what it means to be alive, she finds her will to commit suicide and her urge to run back to her husband waning.

Through all of the lessons, George still shows that Marianne is very human, and highlights the struggle to break free of our old selves. One of the greatest powers we have is that of choice, and oftentimes it is our unwillingness to make or commit to one that traps us.

Palmiers (On Trust)

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For this week’s adventure in pastry, I decided to make palmiers. Pronounced PAL-me-yay.  But honestly, it wasn’t much of an adventure, because I used store-bough puff pastry. It’s been so warm and we have no air conditioning, so even if I had wanted to make my own, it was not happening.

I poured some sugar into a bag of lavender that I had lying around- lavender is one of my favorite flavors. It’s delicate, very floral, and can stand its own.

In making this pastry, I started thinking about trust. (I like to explain life by means of food.)

Puff pastry can be rather difficult to make. And in this instance, we’re the scattered lavender, but what we want to be is the dough.

I don’t have much time left in school, and it’s (really) freaking me out. Any notion of “what I want” is out the window. The most honest answer is “I don’t know.” Scattered lavender. No particular place to be. No particular place. As much as lavender is lovely, it needs a vehicle as it’s not too great straight off the bush.

This pastry is a perfect encapsulation of me—and perhaps people. Multi-faceted, many layers, fragile, finicky. But, I think that if we trust (in my case, God, but fill in your blank), that we will find it easier to stretch when life stretches us, because we are in very capable hands that are not our own.

Why should we trust these hands? Because only someone incredibly skilled can manage something like puff pastry. I know because I’ve tried, and it didn’t turn out very well. We are in very, very capable hands. And while we are fragile, we don’t have to break. We can be mended, stretched, puffed up.

However, we can only move from petals in the wind to something sturdier if we trust and allow our essence to be place there. With trust comes the confident expectation of good things. Not to say that our pastry will never tear nor will it ever have holes. But when we can trust; when we can be confident; when we can hope; we will find courage to take flight.


For the palmiers

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1 sheet puff pastry, thawed according to directions

(up to) 1/4 cup sugar (you can use citrus zest, vanilla pods, etc. to impart some flavor)

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Roll out puff pastry on a floured surface, up to 14×9. Sprinkle with sugar (and anything else you fancy. These can be savory, too.) Roll one of the long sides like a cinnamon roll until it meets the center. Repeat for the other side.

Using a sharp knife (chef’s knife is fine), cut into 1/2 inch cookies and lay on a baking sheet. They do puff up, so leave some room, at least an inch. Place on parchment paper.

Bake for around 18 minutes or until nice and deep golden brown. Cookies should also be sufficiently puffed. Let cool for 20 minutes.

Rose Meringues (On Perseverance)

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Pot after pot after pot yielded little more than one more frustrated sigh than the last. Pan after pan held lackluster, pale shells that were dry at best and at worst, extremely doughy. Slowly defeat overcame me, and I accepted that the glorious speculoos éclairs I had envisioned hours earlier were not going to be realized today.

Looking at the egg whites I had amassed from several recipes, including the many batches of failed éclairs, I settled on making meringues the following weekend. But I couldn’t help but appreciate the fiasco, as frustrating as it was.

Baking teaches you a lot of things.

To be organized, to mise en place.

To manage your time, for beautiful bread.

To set goals, to learn.

To see the big picture and small details.

To appreciate the work, so you can have beauty.

Baking teaches perseverance, and it’s a very cheap lesson. For a few cups of flour and sticks of butter, I learned to try again. I learned to look at what went wrong; to observe the details; to adapt. I learned to focus on the result I wanted, and not give up because the first try was a failure.

Life is kind of like baking. You’ll want to be organized and have a goal in mind. But when the bread falls flat or the éclairs are too doughy, you don’t want to give up. You want to learn from your errors, adjust the strategy. You want to see what the final product could be. And you have to commit to trying again. And again, and again.

Whatever you’re working on right now—if it’s going great, that is fantastic. But if you’re struggling, don’t give up! This bread is flat, but your next one can rise. You only need to choose to get up. Be encouraged!


For the meringues

I based mine on a recipe in Pâtisserie Made Simple (Edd Kimber) and added rose water for flavoring. Floral notes always win me over with their delicate, heady punch. One to two teaspoons of rose water should do it, otherwise it’s like eating soap.

Lavender Lemon Pots de Crème

The spice shelves were dismal. The bulk spice section had been terminated. And no other grocery store seemed to stock it.

Time was ticking, and I still had no lavender. And, my rational self was screaming, “who does not keep lavender in stock!?!?!?!?!?!!?” Everyone, apparently.

Hedging a bet, I hoped into the Dragonfly (our lil’ red electric car) and zipped over to my favorite French bakery in the Tri-Valley, Sugarie. Faintly remembering they sold lavender-flavored goodies, I was now banking on being able to buy straight-up lavender from them.

A buttery scent greeted me, along with a case of pastries, as a scurried in. A mother was leaving with her toddler, who exuberantly hugged “Mr. Russ” (one of the owners) goodbye.

“Do I know you?” Mr. Russ asked. He squinted his eyes.

“I went to France last year,” I said. “You may not recognize me. I just cut my hair.”

“Oh, it’s you!” he exclaimed, and Natalie, his wife and co-owner, looked up. Their faces lit up with recognition.

“I’ve come to ask you guys a favor,” I said. “Will you sell me some lavender? I can’t find it anywhere else.”

“Honey,” Mr. Russ exclaimed. “Did you hear this? This girl just gets back from France and now she’s asking for favors!” he said, jokingly.

We laugh as Natalie scoops a couple tablespoons into a white paper pastry bag and seals it with a sticker. They won’t let me pay for it, but I leave money anyway.

And that, my friends, is how this post came alive today.


Hi friends.

After bumbling through my first actual week back here in the Bay, I’ve decided to implement my spring-semester epiphany.

In an effort to live out my francophile-ness (even more), this blog is doing a lil’ pivot to be my soap box for all things French. But don’t worry! I’ll still be talking about all the other stuff…but French recipes, novels, cookbooks, events, finds, fashions-anything French- is coming at ya. I hope you stick around.

So in the spirit of summer and my love of all things floral, my dear friend Haley and I made lavender-white chocolate pots de crème (literally “pots of cream”) from Baking Chez Moi by one of my fav authors, Dorie Greenspan!!

Haley and I have an unofficial cooking show (you can find it on Instagram stories- @mllemarissa) where we try out new recipes. Always- or very usually- dessert. And I got to choose (again), so I decided to conquer my fear of custards. Because water baths sounded scary and I am lazy, indeed.

Dorie Greenspan Pots de Creme

Here are les notes (the notes…) if you, like me, are planning to tackle your fear of custards.

  • 8oz ramekins are fine
  • A 9×13 pan is sufficient. Forget the roasting pan.
  • The white chocolate…is not very prominent. I think it plays the role of extra sweetening agent and extra richness.
  • Don’t walk away from the cream mixture. It will explode. Or at least overflow.  (Speaking from experience.)
  • Caramelizing sugar on top adds nice textural contrast, and slightly burned sugar adds a sharp bitterness to cut the creamy, floral custard.
  • Don’t caramelize the sugar with a lighter. You actually need a blow torch. I am speaking again from recent experience. (Let’s just say, 20 minutes to torch half the sugar, a dead lighter, and tired arms.)

Here’s Dorie’s recipe for caramel pots de crème, which is not too different from what’s in the book. Just melt 4 oz of white chocolate with 1/2 cup of the cream and add when you temper the eggs.