Sunday Morning Brunch with Book Club.

Another Sunday, another brunch date with book club…

This time, we all gathered at Amanda’s apartment in Harvard Square to discuss Henry and Clara, which happens to be the fourth book we’ve read that somehow deals with the Civil War years. (The first three were March, Assassination Vacation and Afternoons with Emily.) By Thomas Mallon, this novel is the fictionalized account of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the young couple who had the misfortune of sharing Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater the evening the President was assassinated.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating subject. After all, I have no recollection of ever, during any of my history classes, learning about the Lincolns’ box-mates. (Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I even knew the President and First Lady had box-mates!) Not only that, something I also find extremely interesting is the fact that John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate a president — if there were a club, I’m sure Leon Czolgosz, Charles J. Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald would elect Booth himself president.

Two other aspects of the novel that captivated me were the title characters — Henry and Clara — themselves. In addition to being lovers and spouses, the two were linked by another bond: they were stepsiblings. While not related by blood, their marriage was still thought of as extremely unconventional and even downright odd; their presence at Lincoln’s murder did little to elevate their status in society. In fact, Henry — already painted by Mallon as being somewhat unstable — was driven to insanity, and ultimately ruined both himself and his family. (It is a little tricky, writing about something that is a historic fact as well as an invented fiction. I keep wanting to write in present tense to describe the novel, but since it is so intertwined with that actually took place, I find myself writing in the past tense. Bear with me, please.)

Ultimately, everyone in book club seemed to like Henry and Clara very much… except for me. When the others spoke about the absorbing characters and intricately-woven plot, I thought about the lackluster writing and uneven pacing. Though I can certainly see the allure of the storyline, I still stood alone in disliking the novel.

What we agreed on, however, was a topic about which we all see eye-to-eye: the spectacular quantity and quality of food we assembled. This time around, we had some fluffy blueberry pancakes, a richly decadent quiche, sparkly mimosas and a mango-and-raspberry salad. My contribution was carrot cake (in cupcake form), made from the bunch I had received in my CSA box last week. Not only were they my first go at carrot cake baking, but also my first time at carrot cake eating. I’m pleased to say they came out quite well.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, from The New Best Recipe Cookbook
Makes ten to twelve portions

for the cake
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

for the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350°. Spray a thirteen-by-nine baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper; spray the parchment.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. In a food processor fitted with with the large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you need three cups). Add the carrots to the bowl with the dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the food processor and fit with metal blade. Process both sugars with eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about twenty seconds. With the machine running, add oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about twenty additional seconds.
  5. Scrape mixture into a large bowl; stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and mixture is streak0free. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, thirty-five to forty minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about two hours.
  6. When the cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a clean food processor until combined, about five seconds, scraping down the work bowl with a spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about ten additional seconds.
  7. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert cake onto a wire rack, peel off parchment and invert cake again onto serving platter. Using a spatula, spread frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Slice and serve.
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