Tea with Book Club.

Here’s how book club usually works:

  1. Amanda, Darlington, Heather, Melissa, Sarah, Stephanie and I trickle in, toting the food we’ve brought to share.
  2. We set up the food and catch up with what’s been going on with each other since we last got together.
  3. We load up our plates.
  4. We discuss the book in between snacking.
  5. Somehow, we always end up talking about strange things to say to our bedmates.
  6. We eat some more.

Last week was no different. *

innocent-traitor1We gathered at Darlington’s place in Harvard Square for what we were calling a high tea, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning.   We chose tea rather than breakfast or brunch as  a wink to our book, the Britain-based Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir.

That this month’s book was my pick — we take turns choosing titles, the same way we alternate hosting duties — and it just so happened that Innocent Traitor climaxes at the Tower of London, where I spent a morning a few months ago. It was there that I first heard of our book’s protagonist, and where I learned of her place in English history.  Knowing how the story of the “innocent traitor” in question unfolded over four hundred and fifty years ago didn’t prevent me at all from thoroughly enjoying Weir’s work.

Something interesting is that Weir is a historian and a writer of narrative non-fiction; Innocent Traitor marks her first foray into fiction.  Here she writes a based-in-fact account of Lady Jane Grey‘s life during the sixteenth century.  Jane is portrayed as being an erudite girl and an avid student, wanting nothing more out of life than to continue her studies and live as a fervid Protestant.  Of course, Jane can’t get her way (if she didn’t face conflict, Weir wouldn’t have much of a novel).  It doesn’t help that Jane is a Tudor — the ruling family of England, Ireland and Wales  from 1485 to 1603 — and therefore has a something of a shot of wearing the a crown.  Positioned by her parents and ambitious men to be the next Queen of England after Edward VI dies of “consumption,” Jane soon finds hers incarcerated in the Tower.

book-group-1We traded opinions on both Weir and Jane while we balanced our heavy plates on our knees; I shared how I (uncharacteristically) cried cried cried earlier in the week because Weir’s Jane is like a candle underneath a glass dome: burning brighter and brighter until all the air is consumed.  Truly, even if you know the real story of Jane and her time, Innocent Traitor will take hold of your shirtsleeves and not let go until you’ve reached the end.  At that point, you may cry.  You’ve been warned.

Food-wise, we found ourselves faced with a feast, as usual.  Stephanie assembled tea sandwiches spread with cream cheese, layered with baby cucumbers and sprinkled with herbs; Heather rolled cheese and salmon into spirals wrapped in spinach-flavored tortillas; Amanda had made scones sweetened with pecans and dried fruit; and the day before I baked a cake made only of clementines, eggs, sugar, nuts and little else.  My mother used to make cakes similar to this one, and the entire house would smell sunny and warm, even on the coldest winter days, until the last slice mysteriously went missing.

For the record, my house still smells like sunshine.

Clementine Cake, from Nigella Lawson via Deb at Smitten Kitchen
Makes eight portions.

4to 5 clementines, about 1 pound total weight
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/3 cups ground almonds (I used walnuts since that’s not only what I had on hand, but also because that’s what my mother uses in her citrus cakes.)
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

  1. Put the clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds. Then finely chop the skins, pith, and fruit in a food processor or by hand.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°; butter and line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper.  (I used a 9-inch, as that’s what I own, and the cake turned out fine.)
  3. Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds, and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines.  Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, when a skewer will come out clean.  If necessary, cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top from burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, in the pan on a rack. When the cake is cold, take it out of the pan.

Note:  If you do cover your cake with foil, I suggest poking a few toothpicks, skewers or similar into the top and creating a foil tent; mine stuck.

* There was a slight variation this month, as we played a game.  Amanda had a stack of cards, each depicting a portrait of one of England’s reigning monarch.  She had shuffled them and divided them amongst us; we then put them in order, lining them up chronologically across the windowpanes.  It was more fun than it sounds.  And Lady Jane, the Nine Days’ Queen, was not amongst the rulers.  She was mentioned a few times though.
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On Deck.

books-to-read

One of my biggest fears is being stuck somewhere without anything to read, so I always keep a stack of books on hand.  When I get close to the end of whatever it is I’m thumbing through, I even slide an extra book in my bag alongside my lip balm and blotting papers.  Lately, though, I’ve been dumping my have-reads in with the will-reads and have been getting very confused indeed.  Still, it’s a rather impressive stack, no?  Here’s the list, with will-reads in bold.

On Books + Slicing Onions.

This is how I spent the day: lolling in bed, stocking up at the grocery store before The Big Storm, then lolling on the sofa.  Oh, it was tiring.  I’m being half-serious here — I was lolling with the latest book club selection:  Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, which is such an involving read that I couldn’t bear to be away from it for too long.  It also got me incredibly emotional; I was about a gasp and a half away from bawling my eyes out, something I very rarely do.  Honestly, the crying was so bad that at one point I turned to Keith and said, “If we had a puppy, I would be hugging it right now.  Will you be my puppy?”  And so he patted me on the back while I left an imprint of my tear-soaked face on his shirt, quite similarly to what Chuck Palahniuk‘s narrator does to Bob’s T in Fight Club.  Minus the testicular cancer, chaos and commentary on consumerism.

caramelized-onions1After I calmed myself down a bit, I headed to the kitchen to start caramelizing the onions for dinner tonight and for another meal later in the week.  Here’s a handy little trick I discovered:  if you want to avoid tearing up while slicing an onion, it helps to be crying already.  Don’t get me wrong — there’s no way that crying is going to prevent the burning sensation you’re going to feel behind your eyes the moment after you put your knife to an onion.  You’ll just be feeling so terrible already that you won’t mind the extra tears.

Okay, maybe that’s not necessarily the truth, but it kinda worked for me.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be making mejadara but tonight we’ll share with our friend Melissa a very unseasonal pizza, since it features fresh basil.  Though summer is months away, this is an incredibly light, easy-to-make meal that will make you feel as though its at least fifty degrees warmer outside.

pizzaA few notes about this dish…

In order for a pizza to be a pizza, it requires a bready, doughy crust.  Thing is, as I have said repeatedly, I am terrified of yeast.  Therefore, I buy my doughs or use a pre-made shell.  If you don’t have the same hang up, good for you — I’m sure your pizza will be indescribably fantastic.  If you too are frightened by yeast, rest assured that you won’t have to face your fear in order to enjoy a sweet and tangy dinner.

You can, of course, make your own sauce — and should! — but only when tomatoes are in season in order to get the fullest flavor.  When buying bottled, I like Enrico’s All Natural.

Lastly, the recipe calls for oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.  The oil really does make all the difference, otherwise you’ll end up with tomato-flavored bark encircling your pizza.  That said, it is extremely important to drain the oil, otherwise you’ll have in your hands an utterly greasy mess.

(Unrelated:  I finally have a camera again and am in love.)

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza, from Cooking Light.
Makes six to eight portions.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 thinly sliced onion, separated into rings
1 pre-made pizza crust
½ cup pizza sauce
¼ cup oil-packed julienned sun-dried tomatoes, drained
2/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh basil

  1. Preheat oven to 450°.  Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cover and cook for 3 minutes. Uncover and cook for 11 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently.
  2. Place the pizza crust on a baking sheet. Combine the sauce and tomatoes. Spread sauce mixture over pizza crust. Top with onion and cheese. Bake at 450° for 10 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Sprinkle with basil. Cut into wedges and serve.