BC&B: Soupe à l’Oignon Pied de Cochon w/ Anchoïade Chez Gilbert

As you will remember from the previous chapters of this blog series (*cough* *cough*), I’m cooking my may through the Bistro Cooking book. So for dinner tonight I’m starting off with:


So that’s an… anchovy… paste thing on toast, I guess?

So here’s the ingredients: It’s really super-simple, once again: Basically just garlic, anchovies and bread. (And vinegar and parsley.)

So first you’re supposed to toast the crusty baguette, and the phrase above stopped me in my tracks. “Set aside; leave on the broiler.” LEAVE WHAT ON THE BROILER? The bread? How do I leave the bread on the broiler? Won’t it get over-broiled?

And after like five hours it dawned on me that she meant “leave the broiler on”.

OH!

OK, that mystery out of the way, there’s chopping…

Toasting…

Putting the anchovies into some water for ten minutes for reasons not explained. (As somebody who doesn’t know what he’s doing at all, it would be really nice if recipes mentioned what they were trying to achieve with certain steps, but I guess there’s space limitations.)

This is to make the anchovies less salt, perhaps? Or less oily? In any case, I don’t think this achieved any of those things, because it tasted as salt before I put it into the bowl of water as before. I mean, they’re oil covered.

And then everything is chopped and mixed together…

And that’s the result!

And…

It’s… really… flavour forward? I mean, it’s basically raw garlic and anchovy bits on toast. If you don’t like raw garlic or anchovies, it’s really going to suck. I love garlic and I like anchovies, but even for me, this was a bit of a shock, because… it’s just that?

I don’t think many people would find this pleasurable, and it didn’t pair with the book (about which look further down).

But for the mains I’m doing the first soup in the book:

Soup time! I love onion soup, despite there being cheese involved. But at least this cheese is going to get fried, so it’s less disgusting.

But to make the soup, I have to make chicken stock, which is something I’ve never done in my entire life.

It’s these veggies…

… and then plonk into a pot with the chicken carcass.

After boiling (I mean simmering) for a while it looks a whole less perky.

And then you separate the solids from the fluids and then let it refrigerate. Meanwhile, I’ll start reading a book!

The next book on the shelf (which I therefore have to read while eating the soup) is Normal People by Sally Rooney. I don’t quite know how I ended up buying this? I must have read somebody mentioning this as something particularly good?

In the months since I bought it, I’ve noticed that it’s popped up several times as a subject on a bunch of web sites, so it seems like it’s become a Big Deal. I’ve avoided reading all those articles, so I have no idea why.

So let’s read the first three pages together:

Well, that’s interesting. I like the way it’s initially rather befuddling, with the author (presumably) playing up the confusion factor by withholding information about what these characters’ relationships are, thwarting the reader’s expectations and making you take stock of what you’re reading. The conventions she uses for dialogues also contributes to the effect.

It’s a very interesting technique.

So it works on a sentence by sentence basis, but the plot and characters bore me silly: To be moronically mean, it’s about a nerd getting sexually involved with a jock The huge twist is that the nerd is an upper class girl who’s all kinds of fucked up (I mean, she’s upper class and all) and the jock is a very sensitive working class guy. But apart from that, we’ve all read this story 10x too many times, and it was pretty boring even the first time around.

Perhaps this mundane over-done subject matter is why it’s getting so much recognition? YA tropes dressed in an adulting literary style?

And just like YA books, there’s plenty of fan service: These paragraphs about how reading books is like great and deep and fantastic are catnip to readers. They tell us that we, the readers, are wonderful, special people. *puke*

This novel takes place like five years ago, and some of the references Rooney makes to even the most trivial stuff is incomprehensible to me. All the guys (in Dublin) wear “plum-coloured chinos”?

What?

These are what these students are wearing? In Dublin? Without getting beat up? Are you sure, Rooney?

Did you mean “khaki”? I mean, I guess some plums are khaki coloured? Or rather, plums exist with all colours in the world, so “plum-coloured” means nothing. “Plum” is a specific colour, but “plum-coloured”?

YES THIS ANNOYS ME.

Rooney’s description of the environs are often on this hand-wavey non-specific level.

OK, back to the soup. It’s basically just the stock, wine and onions.

Shake baby shake. That’s a lot of… collagen?

Half of the wine for the stock, half of the wine for the cook.

So after simmering for 45 minutes, the onions are all tasty and winey and I’m less whiney.

It’s kinda good…

But there’s like no seasoning I mean salt in there. I mean, look at that recipe again:


There’s no salt in it! Or like anything! It specifically says “unsalted chicken stock”. Is that a code word for “quite salty chicken stock”? I mean, it’s possible. Most stock is like 95% salt, so perhaps “unsalted” means “less than 2%”? I don’t know, but this seriously needed more salt.

And perhaps like some spices. Mmm… spices…

The cheesy bits were tasty, though, and… I mean, it’s OK, but it’s not the best onion soup I’ve tasted in my life.

So it’s a pretty good pairing for the book:

The plot feels awfully contrived, what with the sensitive jock getting depressed in the third act so that you can bring everything together nicely.

Of course, we (the dear readers) are much smarter than these literary people in college.

I guess what I find most grating in this maddening book is the way that the characters have these deep reflections upon themselves and their surrounds that sound nothing like what anybody has ever thought ever about anything, but are just like what an author ruminating wildly would type automatically.

OK, I think I’ve typed enough about this book, right? At this point it’s probably not entertaining to anybody, not even myself. But in summary: I think she writes well on the micro level, but it’s a pretty… annoying… book on a macro level.

But let’s take a look at a couple of reviews that I can finally read, like… say… this one.

All of this intellectual sauce has been ladled so thickly over the novel that it’s difficult to make out the shape of its much less grandiose origin, the thing the novel has always done and does better than any other medium on Earth: tell a story about how people decide whom to love and what they do about it. The eternal appeal of this foundation explains why Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are as much a pleasure to read now as they were 150 years ago.

And let me just snip a thing totally out of context from this review:

As clichéd as it is, Rooney’s work strikes me as relatable: Anyone who has ever tried to define love or purpose will find their food for thought here.

Right. It’s relatable. That’s what people want, I guess?

This blog post is part of the Bistro Cooking & Books series.

Bistro Cooking and Books

I’ve had this cook book by Patricia Wells for decades, and have always liked the results when I’ve made something from it. Which hasn’t been often, mind you, because I’m super lazy and the recipes often start with “take 25 rabbits…” and doing the required math to get down to the sizes I’m going for is a pain.

But I thought it might be fun to dig out my sliding rule and have a more focused go at it: Making all the recipes in the book. And since it’s so easy to pick the easiest one (even when not trying), that there should be some sort of system.

After pondering for what seemed like several minutes, I came up with this: I can choose freely among the chapters, but I have to proceed through the chapters sequentially. And I can make as many or as few dishes per night, so perhaps a salad and a mains or a dessert or whatever.

So there’s eleven chapters, and about two hundred recipes, so if I cook like two nights a week and do like two dishes per night, I’d be done in a year? Sounds like a plan?

But that’s not silly enough! I’m also going to be reading a book per Bistro Night, and instead of choosing the oldest books I have, I’m going to be reading the latest books I’ve bought, because that’s like the opposite? Right? Right?

Right.

I’m so clever C. L. V. R.

BC&B: Poulet Rôti L’Ami Louis w/ Gratin Dauphinois Madame Cartet

The major problem about blogging about cooking is that this is the default state of the kitchen:

I’m glad that nobody saw that picture, because there’s like no room to cook anywhere because I’m a slob.

Oops!

OK, that’s marginally better.

So today (the first day of this blog series) I’m cooking the first poultry dish, which is the roast chicken above.

What’s confusing about that recipe is that it’s… like… just a chicken in the oven. The only seasoning is salt! How is that supposed to taste fab?

And I’m making these potatoes as the side… and it’s a potato gratin, which I hate. I mean, I dislike most usages of cheese in dishes, unless it’s, well, pizza. In any saucey thing I think cheeses are kinda pukey. And that looks like a prime example of a ewww! dish to me. But we’ll find out!

OK, I’ve got the chicken in a pan suitable for roasting (and basting).

Look how delicious it looks after covering with duck fat and salt! Mmm!

I was humming Meat is Murder to myself, as I usually do when doing disgusting things to animal carcasses. Baking is a lot less yucky.

OK, that’s into the oven for an hour and a half at 220C.

Next, the potatoes.

And I’m finally getting to use this Kenwood kitchen machine add-on that I’ve never used before: The slicer.

Look! It worked! It sliced! I’m flabbergasted. Those Kenwood people know what they’re doing.

So that’s what it looks like after being covered with Gruyere and creme fraîche. That’s going to suck.

So every ten minutes, you take the chicken out of the oven and baste it (i.e., transfer the fat from the bottom of the pan onto the carcass). I’ve never done that before ever, and I’m like old, so it’s about time, right?

And I didn’t even burn myself seriously even once.

>

And then they’re both done! I didn’t get a proper sear on the potatoes, because I only have one oven and I had to cover the pan not to totally burn the potatoes to a crisp (because the chicken requires 220C and the potatoes are supposed to be done at 175C).

But I have to read something while eating!

So we’re doing the books in reverse chronological order, and this is the latest book I’ve bought. It’s Per Petterson’s newest book, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with his Out Stealing Horses? Right. This one has as a blurb up there “the author’s best book since Out Stealing Horses”, which made me very, very sceptical indeed, since “the best since ” is something that’s said about all books that been published since and aren’t as good.

And besides, I thought the book he did after Out Stealing Horses (the one about his mother) was better then that book, so…

But Menn i min situasjon (which means, er, Men In My Situation, I guess) is really good. I mean, he writes as well as ever on a sentence by sentence basis, and it’s kinda riveting at points, but whenever I put the book down (which didn’t happen a lot), I found that I wasn’t… really… that interested in what was going on in the book. I guess it’s really the subject matter, which has been covered in so many many books before (it’s about a divorce and stuff). All of Petterson’s other books have been more… interesting?

Which I guess explains the superlatives all the critics have heaped on this book. It’s an Officially Serious Subject, and you know.

But it’s a good read! It’s fine! There’s so many superbly described little scenes, and the mix of things that seem super-real and slightly not as real is intriguing, and the way he points out that the text is a mixture of those things.

So how was it with the food, and how was the food?

Despite not being about food at all, it’s a kinda roasted chicken book, so that’s fine.

The skin on the chicken was the tastiest I’ve ever tasted in my entire life, and I ended up eating all of the skin. It was totally crispy and incredibly tasty.

The rest of the chicken was… it was OK. It could have used more like herbs and stuff perhaps?

The potatoes were super-duper yucky, which I take to mean that I completely nailed the recipe.

Eww!

Cheese and potatoes!

Eww!

So that’s two recipes down, and 198 to go.

This blog post is part of the Bistro Cooking & Books series.

CCCB: Ulysses

This is the last entry in this blog series (where I read an old unread book and bake something, because that’s a thing), and I wanted to bake something non-sweet for a change. But not bread. After considering a lot of things that straddle the baked goods/dinner continuum it all of a sudden occurred to me: Pretzels!

Pretzels are more salty than sweet, so that’ll do.

The recipe has a bunch of steps, but the most curious one is that you’re supposed so simmer the pretzels (before baking) in solution of lye. To make the lye we’re supposed to bake some baking soda to make… er… carbonate? From bicarbonate? 2 NaHCO3 => Na2CO3 + CO2 + H2O? What!? Chemistry is a mystery to me.

Anyway, this step doesn’t look suspicious at all, does it? HONEST COPPER I WAS JUST BAKING BAKING SODA! IT”S NOT METH! HONEST!

And after baking for er more than an hour (I forgot it was in the oven), it looks… just the same! That’s a let-down.

STILL NOT METH!

Anyway, with that done, all the ingredients are assembled. It’s all the usual yeasty bready stuff, except that the dough has Muscovado sugar in it.

So that’s all the dry ingredients (flour, yeast, salt and the not-quite-dry Muscovado sugar)…

The recipe says:

Tip out onto a floured work surface and knead for 10-15 mins or until smooth and elastic.

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. Instead I just used the kitchen machine with the kneading hook attachment.

Looks OK, doesn’t it? Then it’s proofing time; one hour.

Let’s pick out a book while it’s proofing.

We have finally reached the final book in my oldest-unread (and now very dusty) nook. It’s Ulysses by James Joyce, and I think the reason I haven’t read this yet (both over the years and during this blog series) is…

IT”S FUCKING ULYSSES!

Some wit once wrote that it’s the most-attempted book in the history of the world: People buy it, intend to read it, and perhaps start reading it, but then they abandon it. (Number two and three were Dhalgren by Samuel Delany and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.) That may, indeed, be why I bought it: I’d read both of those books (they’re great), so it was time to tackle number one.

I think… but I’m not quite sure… that I bought this while in London in 1993. It might have been later, but I’m pretty sure I bought it there while visiting some book store. I probably felt really interlechtual while doing so, too.

Hm, it’s the third printing of a 1992 edition… That makes 1993 unlikely. Probably more like 1995.

The introduction and notes on the text goes on for lxxxviii pages, all of which I gleefully skipped. I think texts about books belong at the end.

Let’s read the first two pages together.

The first thing we notice is that the margins on this 930 page novel are quite wide.

The second is that… the text seems fairly straightforward? I mean, it’s no Danielle Steele, but I had expected full-on stream of consciousness stuff. Did I have it all confused with Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses is all fun and narrative and stuff? Was that wit all wrong and I believed them all these years!?

Heh heh heh. “And when I makes water I makes water.” We all loves us some jokes about peeing.

*snicker* Pot.

Anyway, it’s more stream-of-consciousness than the initial pages led me to believe. The text is basically narrative — straightforward storytelling, but we dip into certain characters’ thought processes at the whim of the author. And our thoughts are very digressive, so it’s mostly digression and half-thought things. And then we drop to all-stream here and there, as when Stephen Dedalus gets drowsy (at least that how interpreted it) at the end of the first section when he’s listening to that guy playing a song.

I don’t know — that schtick made me laugh out loud. But is it because it’s hilarious, hilariously stupid, or just because it’s just not what I expected?

OK, I’m not going to write extensively about every single section in this book, I think, because that would make a very very long blog post. But the section where Leopold Bloom makes breakfast (with cat) and serves his wife if bed is just glorious. It’s fabulous! It’s the best making-breakfast scene in a book ever!

I’m almost starting to believe that this Joyce guy is pretty good at like writing and stuff.

Joyce does vary the style the text is written in quite a bit, but it’s not a cut and dried “here he does this and then he does this” kind of variation. For instance, here he’d doing a bunch of people working for a newspaper, so the text gets these kinds of headlines… but the text style is the same as in preceding sections.

Since this is set in Ireland, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that so much of the text is the dialogue (and thoughts) of very drunk people. This is a pretty good one, but I found my enthusiasm for listening in to drunk thoughts start to wane after a bit.

That’s not to say that it’s not accurate, because it’s scarily so. As with Joyce’s uncanny way of being able to write down half-formed non-drunken thoughts in a way that both makes a kind of obscure sense and is also convincing transcription, his drunken people are also on point.

I’ve found myself trying to trace my own thoughts a bit after starting to read this book, and it’s amazing how incoherent my internal monologue is. Whenever I can’t really think of the proper word my brain just papers over that part because I know what I’m trying to think, right?

Right.

A pet rant of mine for some years has been that basically nothing has changed much in the daily lives of middle-class people of western countries since, like, 1930. We live in flats in cities and go to work in offices on public transportation, etc, and you could transplant somebody from 2019 to 1931 and it’d be just fine. Transplant that person to 1840 and it’s EEEEEK.

I think perhaps I should adjust that timeline back to 1920: Joyce is such a thoroughly modern writer. Most literature I’ve read from around this time has been written about the super-rich and the aristocracy (think Virginia Woolf) and seems a bit… exotic… Joyce writes about a bunch of normal people, and they do normal stuff. They’re ad salesmen or writers, and they go shopping for groceries or clothes, and they sit in pubs talking nonsense at each other.

It’s so now.

About halfway through the novel, Joyce starts dropping in lists of people and stuff at random. I can see that Joyce finds these lists amusing, but it baffles me why. Was he a tweaker? Had cocaine been invented? Diet pills?

The vast majority of the characters in the book that we listen in to (and all characters in general, really) are male. In this section we’re introduced to three presumably teenaged girls, and it’s all pretty amusing. But interestingly enough (well, I think so, at least) is that instead of listening in to these thoughts in the first person (as with most (all?) of the male characters), these are third person thoughts. Joyce didn’t want to do the “I” thing with these girls? Odd.

But back to the pretzels!

The dough has arisen!

So I divided it into eight parts and then started rolling. I haven’t really rolled yeast dough before, and it’s a bit… springy? When I made croissants, the recipe stressed that whenever the dough is fighting you, you should put it into the fridge to make the gluten rest or something. I didn’t do that here, so it had a tendency to snap back into a shorter length…

Pretzels!

And then let it proof again for 20 minutes.

And then we come to the strange bit in the recipe where I put the pretzels into the simmering lye for 20 seconds on each side.

Which made the pretzel puff up even more, and not there shape is er less pretzely.

I think… there’s a different way to describe that shape…

But! After baking these are indubitably pretzels, although a bit on the big side.

Saaaalt.

So how does it pair with the book?

Mmm… It’s crunchy on the outside and soft and nice on the inside and it’s salty and satisfying. I think that’s how you’d describe Ulysses too, right?

I like “molestful”.

The section that takes us through English writing styles through history is the only section I found annoying. Sure, Joyce has a lot of fun here, but I didn’t.

I’ve read my share of avant garde novels, and the most annoying kind is where the author apparently sees themselves in an abusive relationship with the reader: They’ll punish the reader by throwing out a bunch of “difficult” text, and they’ll pull back and let the reader relax with something straightforwardly narrative for a while. It’s a thing. But Joyce isn’t like that at all, I feel: He takes tender care of the reader throughout, and isn’t a self-indulgent writer. As a reader, I feel all the trust in the world that whatever page I’m reading is going to be a pleasurable reading experience… because it is.

Except this section, which I found to be a chore.

OK, this blog post is already 10x too long, so I’m not going to keep on quoting fun bits, but I just love this exchange between Biddy the Clap and Cunty Kate.

Oh, yeah, I wanted to mention one thing that’s befuddling about reading older books from this part of the world: The monetary system. Whenever I’m reading these books I have to refresh my knowledge about how it works, because I’m just not able to retain the data in my head for more than a few hours at a time, apparently. And if you don’t know how the system works, the action can become even more befuddling than it’s meant to be.

For instance this section, which I just didn’t understand. So let’s take it from the top, after I googled and refreshed my pound/shilling/penny/guinea/crown knowledge. That they had so many words for the same concept doesn’t help.

So:

“Stephen: (Hands Bella a coin.) Gold. She has it.” So he hands Bella
a gold coin; presumable a pound coin (i.e., a sovereign). Bella then
says “Do you want three girls? It’s ten shillings here.” Stephen then “hands her two crowns”.

A crown is five shillings, and there’s twenty shillings to a pound, so he’s now paid thirty shillings, right?

Then there’s a section with Bloom etc of “chattering and squabbling”, and somebody says “this gentleman pays separate”, so somebody else also pays. And then finally Bloom lays “a half sovereign on the table” (i.e., half a pound, i.e., ten shillings) and then takes of “the poundnote” and then gives it to Stephen, since everybody paid for themselves anyway. “Three times ten.”

*phew*

Hm… Oh! When re-reading I missed that this all started a few paragraphs up with Stephen “taking out a banknote by its corner”! That must be a pound note, then? Or…? So a pound note, a “gold”, and “two crowns”?! Gaaah! So… er… Oh, a “gold” could be a half sovereign, which means that he paid 20 + 10 + 5 + 5 = 40 shillings, and then Bloom gave him back 20, so Stephen paid for himself and his friend, but not for Bloom. Well, that… makes sense…

And then there’s half crowns, which are, of course, two shillings six pence, but I won’t mention that. Or guineas, which are twenty-one shillings. And, of course, a half-guinea, which is ten shillings six pence.

BUT! Then in a later section there’s an account of all the money spent and earned, and the ten shillings paid to the hookers aren’t mentioned at all, so perhaps I got it all wrong.

On the other hand, lots of things in this section seems to be… untrue… so perhaps this is just another one of those things.

And then we come to the final section of the book, where Molly lies in bed and thinks. And this is what I assumed the entire book would be like. Instead it’s just about fifty pages.

There’s virtually no punctuation in this section, but it’s more coherent than some of the other sections, really. I wish my brain was that clear in its reasoning. If you tweaked it slightly, and added some commas, it’d basically be like sitting listening to a motormouth talking to you about you know stuff.

It’s a riveting section; not only because Molly seems pretty interesting, but because she touches upon many of the things that have previously happened in the book, and gives us a second (perhaps truer) view of them. It’s like getting inside gossip on something after having read the official version.

So there you go: Ulysses isn’t that scary a book at all. But it did take me over a month to get through it, and I had to discipline myself to do it. I soon found out that if I have a laptop in the same room as I was sitting, the temptation to look well, everything up was overwhelming. And that destroys the rhythm of reading. As well as slows me down to a crawl.

I had to set some strict rules: Whenever I planted my ass on the couch to read some Ulysses, I wouldn’t get off the couch until I’d read at least 30 pages, no matter what. And then I could take a pause and Bing and check email for er a few hours, before returning for another 30 pages.

I haven’t had to do something like that for any of the other books I’ve been reading for this blog project, but there’s something about the digressive nature of Ulysses that just makes the brain go off in all directions at the same time, and you have to tamp that down.

I’ve tried avoiding reading articles about Ulysses while reading the book, but I’ve now (as I’m typing this) looked up a few. I have to say that I find this plot summary wildly inaccurate. Or perhaps it’s just me that got everything wrong? This one is just incomprehensible: For instance the section where Bloom is hiding behind some rocks on the beach, masturbating while watching some teenage girls (one of whom is aware of Bloom), is summarised as “a brief dalliance at the beach”.

This one’s pretty good, although the terminology used here and there is a bit on the wink wink side.

ANYWAY.

I’d suggest avoiding reading anything about Ulysses, including this blog post, before reading Ulysses.

Yes.

CCCB: The Fall of Hyperion

I’ve done too many almond-based goods, so I thought I’d try my hand on some profiteroles with this recipe. Approx. Because I didn’t really want the chocolate part.

Most of the recipes stress how “simple” this recipe is… but it has the normal number of ingredients.

What’s simple, perhaps, is that it uses something as er usual as water as the ingredient that’s supposed to make the dough grow all fluffy in the oven. I mean, most things use either yeast, baking powder/soda or whipped egg whites, but the idea here is that it’s a quite wet dough, so the steam will make the dough puff up. We’ll see!

So you bring the water/butter mixture to a boil…

… and then dump the flour/salt/sugar mixture into it…

And then beat it around until it forms a dough. Then let it cool.

And then add the eggs, a bit at a time, until it reaches a properly semi-runny consistence.

The recipe said to pipe the dough unto a baking sheet, so I did that, but if I ever make this again, I’m not doing that. Because the dough is just so sticky! It pipes well, but I got dough everywhere when trying to get the tip out of the piping bag. Other recipes said to use a couple of spoons instead, and while that doesn’t give as regular-shaped puffs, I think that’s to be preferred.

Not that these are very regular, either.

And up they pop! It works!

Puffy!

Perhaps I over-baked them a bit.

But what do they look like on the inside?

Huh! That’s kinda weird. I didn’t think they were going to be that devoid of interiority (that’s a word).

Well, while they cool down I can pick out a book to read…

As usual, I’m choosing from among the oldest unread books I have. Eenie meenie oh who am I kidding.

I’m postponing that Ulysses as long as I can.

So this week it’s The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and I know exactly why I’ve avoided reading this book for more than two decades: I loathed Hyperion.

Why did I buy this one? Because I’m stupid.

I remember whinging and moaning about Hyperion on the interwebs somewhere… was is rec.arts.sf.books? Or somewhere? At the time Simmons was considered a pretty hot ticket, and I just couldn’t understand why everybody else didn’t realise that Hyperion was trash: It’s the Decameron written by a moron as a fixer-upper “novel” of dreary short stories.

I felt that Simmons tried to be Gene Wolfe, but without any of his intelligence or talent.

But I got into an argument with a person that didn’t seem like a moron, and somehow they talked me into buying the followup, because that’s an even better book, according to them.

And, moron that I am, I did. I mean, there’s a gazillion books by authors that I already love that I don’t have time to read, so that’s a very stupid thing to do.

And then I didn’t read it, of course, because .

But now I have to. Perhaps it’s an awesome book!!!!1! I now wipe my mind of all prejudices. This may well be a brilliant book. Perhaps I was mistaken back then or read the book with the wrong attitude.

Deep breath… no prejudices…

OH GOD I HATE IT ALREADY.

But let’s read the first two pages together.

Well, the first thing we notice is that it’s set using a font size that’s way too teensy for me, so I can barely read it.

The other is… that… it’s not horrible?

OK, I’ll try out my new Kobo e-Ink reader, and here’s a mini review: e-Ink is as horrifying as ever: The resolution isn’t high enough, so the typography is all janky, with stems disappearing and there’s an uneven greyness to the text. But I knew that e-Ink was horrible… but what about the Kobo? Well, it’s not very inspiring, either. As you can see, the side lighting is very, very uneven, with the left margin there being 2x lighter than the middle. And the page-turning buttons require way too much force: I’ve now got a permanent ridge on my right thumb from hitting it. And the battery life is pretty bad: I can’t read the entire book without recharging a couple of times.

Other than that, it’s got some nice features. Nice feature 1: I don’t have to shop from Amazon. 2: I can alter what buttons go next/prev and where to tap on the screen to proceed. If I had my druthers, I’d want to be able to tap anywhere to go forward, but it doesn’t allow that. (And then just use a physical button to go back, which I never do anyway.) 3: Err… I think that’s it…

Oh, yeah, Simmons. I find that I’m more forgiving now than I was twenty years ago. Or perhaps this isn’t as horrible a book as the first one.

Simmons’ writing style is a bit on the florid side, but it’s not upchuck inducing. It flows quite well, even if he has a tendency to repeat himself redundantly with repetitions that are repetitive and redundant. The structure of the book is straight-forward, and while I had forgotten the plot of the first book completely, Simmons filled me in gamely, and without resorting to too many As-You-Know-Bob scenes.

No, what’s annoying me this time around about Simmons is that all his characters are straight out of the time the book was written. Or perhaps a decade before. This is a society set, er, I guess a thousand years into the future or something, and it has fabulous technology like teleportation which allows humanity to spread throughout the galaxy, and fabulous AI, and fabulous everything… and all the characters behave, 100%, as they would in the 80s: From micro bits like the above, to all their conversations and concerns.

So we get characters making casual references to, say Lincoln, and nobody says “eh?” It’s like somebody today dropping Baldwin of Boulogne into conversation and people nodding sagely.

Also note: The cruelty in her eyes has now spread to her lips.

*sigh*

And he has a 35mm camera. Because of course he does.

This insistence that all these technologies don’t change society goes from annoying to eye-roll inducing: Here’s the backstory on one of the protagonists: He’s from a well-to-do family… but he was sent into service to pay off the family’s debts (!)… as a bonded manual labourer!

There are so many levels of not-making-even-slightly sense here that you have to wonder whether Simmons does shit like this just to piss even people with two functioning brain cells off, so that only complete morons will finish his books? I mean, this is a society with magnificent AIs and robots, but… to pay off debts? This guy’s sold off as a manual labourer slave?

If it’s a huge amount of money, how can you make that much money as a manual labourer? I mean, how can somebody else make that much money off of you being a manual labourer? If it’s a small amount, why not just become a waiter instead for a few years?

THERE”S NO LEVEL THIS CAN MAKE SENSE!!1!

When the book’s not pulling moronic crap like this on the reader, it’s stopping us in our tracks waving THERE”S FORESHADOWING HERE!!! HERE!!!! LOOK!!! Like in the conversation where the general poo-poos the idea that they don’t know where the Evil Attackers are, and I assume all readers went “oh, OK, they’ve already invaded the entire galaxy and are just lying in wait, sub-light-speed, even if that means they’ve been planning this for a few hundred years”.

And guess what happens a few chapters later.

*sigh*

Simmons is just so bad at world building and plotting. Basically everybody else who writes galaxy-spanning space opera has a better grip on the mechanics.

Simmons stresses how obscure christianity are in the days of the book, but it seems like half the characters are either christian or are deeply intimate with the entire mythos. And, as I suspected when I started this book, the plot slowly reveals itself to be all about religion, which, of course, I find to be a snoozefest.

Oh, well, back to finish the cream puffs…

I’m filling the puffs with whipped cream, but I’ve got various things to add different flavours to the cream. I’ve got cloudberry syrup, liquorice powder ans ammonium salts.

I got this piping tip today: It’s really meant for piping jam into Berliners, and I’m not sure it’s going to be a good idea to use that long spout for cream… takes a lot of pressure…

Whip it.

Well… that seems to work: The cream makes it through the spout.

It does work! Creamy!

But that long spout thing just took too much effort. I switched to using a regular tip, but used the long spout to tap the holes into the puffs.

I did one quarter with plain cream, and then one quarter with this cloudberry syrup I’ve never seen before. I love cloudberries, but using them in many ingredients is a pain: They’re 80% pits, and while those pits are crunchy and edible, that crunch is not something you want when you don’t want it. Which is almost always.

But this syrup had a full, sweet, intense cloudberry flavour, and went perfectly with the cream.

For the last two quarters, I did liquorice extract: One with salmiak and one without. I may have dumped slightly more of this stuff than is healthy, but it’s very yum.

There! All filled up! Piping them was a pain at first, because I didn’t know when they were full, so I burst a couple. But then after a while I got the hang of feeling when it felt full by how it expands slightly, and then it was OK.

So how do they go with the book?

Mmm… that’s a lot of liquorice. The shell is crispy and pretty tasty, but it’s definitely a bit on the overdone side. I should have baked them perhaps five minutes less, I think.

Oh, wow. The cloudberry cream is divoon. Incredibly tasty, especially in these puffs.

Back to the book: The christian sub-text to the book is pretty evident throughout, but when he goes into over exegesis mode you can but sigh.

But…

I don’t really hate this book, I find. Sure, it’s painfully humourless, and sure, all the characters sound and act exactly the same (even if they’re described as being oh so different), and sure, the christian stuff is really grating.

But it also has some pretty good plot twists that I didn’t see coming, and I found myself eagerly wanting to know what’s going to happen next, even if I was pretty sure that whatever’s going to happen would be pretty stupid. If you just switch your brain off and let go of any expectations that this is going to be, like, smart, it’s a pretty entertaining read.

CCCB: Marya: A Life

Last week I did croissants to indifferent results, so why not try something that has almost as bad reputation for being tricky: Macarons.

And then I found this recipe for liquorice macarons. Yes! But then I started to study it, and it seems kinda odd. I mean 2 cups of chocolate chips for the filling? That’s (according to Google) 350g? That’s… a lot of filling for 20 little crackers.

So I googled on and found https://www.davidlebovitz.com/french-chocolat/ this one, which has 120g chocolate for 16 macarons.

*shrug*

I mostly went with the latter recipe, but I left out the cocoa and added liquorice powder.

The usual collection of ingredients…

I used 200g of white chocolate. The first recipe said to melt the chocolate in the micro and then stir into the hot cream/liquorice, which sounds reasonable to me, but the other said to just head the cream and then add the chocolate directly. Less work! So let’s go with that.

Cream and liquorice. Yum yum.

Add chocolate. And it melted straight away. Strangely enough, the mixture got a very heavy caramel flavour… was it too hot? Did the chocolate sugars caramelise? I mean, it’s not a bad flavour, but it’s unexpected. You can hardly taste the liquorice…

Anyway, into the fridge harden up for an hour or so.

For the macaron shells, I’m grinding up some almonds. I googled a lot to find out whether using unblanched almonds was acceptable for macarons, and google said… no! yes! no! yes!

So I gave it a go.

And sifted the almond flour to get rid of bigger chunks. I think about three quarter of the almonds made it through.

And then mix up the dry stuff…

Whip up egg whites and sugar…

Mix mix mix.

Pipe pipe pipe…

Pipe pipe… Oh, they float out a bit more than I thought. Those are perhaps on the big side.

And that’s the only silicone mat I have, so let’s go with baking paper for the second sheet. And these are somewhat smaller.

Let’s hope they don’t stick too much… or swell up so much that they join up…

Then they’re supposed to be out in the open for half an hour to dry out a bit and form a “skin” on the top. I guess that’s to… er… to… keep shape in the oven? To… er… it’d be nice if recipes explained stuff…

OK, they came out…

AAAARGH!!!

I forgot the food colouring! These were supposed to be black!

Geez.

Well, too late now.

They look kinda like macaron shells, don’t they? What with the frothiness at the bottom and the smooth top.

I’m not all that impressed with this silicone mat: They stick quite a bit… I mean, nothing dramatic, but I had hoped that there’d be no stickingness. But I got all six of the large-macaron first batch off.

And then the second batch with more misshapen, but smaller ones. They didn’t all flow together into one macaron landscape! Yay!

Looks OK to me.

Hey! The baking paper is a lot better than the silicone mat… I think I’ll just ditch it.

And now they just have to chill before I can put them together with the ganache, so I can choose a book to read while eating them.

Well, there’s not much to choose between here, is there? Among the books I bought in the early 90s, but have avoided reading (so far) there’s only three left, and I choose Marya: A Life, by Joyce Carol Oates.

I had two books by Oates in this series: The first one was a solid collection of horror stories. This one, I’m guessing, is more horrifying: Just based on the title (I’m neurotic about never reading the back cover of books), my guess is that this the tragic life story of somebody growing up poor, with abusive parents, and then sexually abused as a child, and then raped as an adult, and then marrying an abusive guy, before getting an abusive son and a cruel daughter.

I don’t mean to be dismissive! I bought it myself (on a sale, I think), and I’m pretty sure that Oates is a good author. I’ve read a bunch of her essays in the New York Review, for instance, and she’s smart and interesting.

But I’m honest here, and that’s why I haven’t read it yet: Every time my eyes have scanned the spine of this book, my own spine has gone jello and I’ve just “I can’t”.

But let’s see! Perhaps I’m all wet and this is about something fun!

Huh. There’s a couple of names on the inside front cover? Did I buy this used? It’s totally unread, anyway, so Rune & … Lina? didn’t read it either after buying it.

Huh. That’s odd. It’s copyrighted by The Ontario Review? Oh!

It’s Oates’ own publication:

Ontario Review, A North American Journal of the Arts, was published from 1974 to 2008 by Raymond J. Smith and Joyce Carol Oates.

More confusing is that portions of this book has previously been published all over the place, in ten different magazines. And there’s 11 chapters in this book. Is this really a short story collection that’s been novelified (that’s a word)?

Oh, well, let’s read the first two pages together:

OK, we’ve got a nice father, but an abusive mother. Semi-check on my prejudices.

And the sexual abuse starts when Marya is eight (an older cousin).

*sigh*

Oates, on a paragraph by paragraph basis, is a great writer. She drops these little details here and there that feel so true, and it all flows so easily. Even when being obscure, there’s she pulls the reader along.

But now the macarons should be all chill and stuff.

I got… ten and a half macarons. The recipe said 16, and with my four supersized ones, that sounds about right.

Mmm! That ganache sure looks… er… uhm…

OK, let’s pipe it.

That’s not so bad!

For half of the macarons, I wanted to add some ammonium chloride, because that’s what goes with liquorice.

Whaaat?!?

And I added some black food colouring, too. It was supposed to go in the dough and not in the ganache, but whateves.

Well, that’s a… colour…

Look! How… well they… go… together…

Anyway, I pipe it onto the shells and…

That looks like a macaron!

So let’s read some Marya and see how they go with the book…

Mmmm! Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. And the ganache is really good. Especially after resting in the fridge for some hours, the brownish non-ammonia ganache surrenders some of its caramel flavour and gives you more liquorice action.

But the salmiak ganache is so much better. You can’t really taste the ammonium chloride that much, but the ammonium salt has elevated the liquorice flavour itself hugely. It really smacks you about with its total liquoriceness. (That’s a word.)

Oh, yeah, I forgot that the recipe called for edible silver dust, too. I’m really bad at remembering those aesthetic details, apparently…

Nom nom. These are really quite something.

Anyway, my predictions for this book seem to turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Instead of a catalogue of horrifying things Marya has to go through, instead we seem to be whiplashed between various random characters that Marya encounters. And the styles are pretty random, too… In the chapter about one of her high school teachers, we seem to get into an elegiac circling structure. (He’s introduced and then almost killed off within the chapter.)

In the next one, we get the story about when she wanted to become Catholic, so we’re introduced to a priest (who’s then killed off), and the style shifts to this rambling formless thing.

Which brings me back to my initial suspicion: Is this novel a fixer-upper? Oates has taken a series of short stories (about Marya, I’d guess) and then slightly moulded it into something resembling a novel? It’d also explain some of the repetition that creeps in here and there, as Oates familiarises us with some stuff we’ve just read a dozen pages earlier.

I wouldn’t really call it a short story collection, either. It’s a collection of anecdotes arranged chronologically. Some of these anecdotes feel very personal, which makes me wonder whether this is a semi-autobiographical book.

The most anecdotey of all these anecdotes is the one about the awful janitor.

To be fair, in the final… er… I don’t want to call them “chapters”… In the final section of the book, Oates ties some threads together, and almost successfully makes this into a… thing. Because as well-written as these anecdotes are, reading one after another in this way, where no anecdote leads to something more, something important, something that builds…

It’s not very exciting.

CCCB: The Edible Woman/Surfacing/Lady Oracle

If there’s one thing an amateur cook shouldn’t attempt (and there’s nobody more amateur than me), it’s croissants, apparently. So I wanted to give it a try.

It’s 3x more futzy than any other recipe I’ve attempted. It’s not that any single step is particularly daunting, but there’s just so many of them with hours between each step.

And reading a few recipes, I had no idea, really, what it all meant. The descriptions (“fold like an envelope”) I couldn’t really visualise, but then I found the youtube clip above.

It’s very nice and very clear: He describes each step very nicely, and even explains why they’re performed, and what to do if things don’t quite go as planned.

Excellent.

So let’s try it!

The ingredients are very basic.

And you just mix them a bit…

… and then you have the dough. Which you then let rest for an hour in the fridge.

The thing that almost made me ditch the project was the nerdy insistence on measuring stuff for each step, but that’s kinda fun, anyway.

At this point I did have some problems. The dough was just too wet and sticky for me to work with at all, so I added some more flour, and that seemed to fix the problem, but I didn’t realise at the time why the dough turned out that way, since the recipe was nerdily precise. But re-reading it now that I’m writing this, I realise that I made a boo-boo: I added a whole egg instead of an egg yolk to the dough, which made it too wet. And I hope the egg whites aren’t doing anything bad to the dough…

So you put it in a 18x18cm baking paper envelope and roll it until the dough conforms to the square. And then into the fridge for 12 hours. *sigh*

And then it’s the same thing with the butter. And, yes, he specified 138g of butter. 140g would probably be way too much!

So wrap it in a square of baking paper…

And then roll until it’s even, and into the fridge again.

So now I have two cold squares…

And place them like this…

And wrap up into a letter shape.

And then roll. Oops! The dough has formed a bit of a skin from the 12 hours in the fridge? Perhaps I should have wrapped the baking paper in plastic cling foil to keep all air out? Eep. Hope it’ll work anyway…

And then wrap and into the fridge for an hour. *sigh*

And then roll again and then wrap again into a square and then into the fridge again for an hour. *sigh*

But then! We’re getting close to the finish! Roll it!

Then cut into triangles! The guy on youtube used a tape measure to figure out how to cut, but I just eyeballed it. I’m going to have a least a couple of mutant croissants.

And then I rolled three of the triangles (and wrapped the rest in cling foil and back into the fridge; according to the interweb they’ll keep for a day or two and I can bake them tomorrow).

That’s nice lamination, eh? Eh?

And then they’re supposed to proof for two hours on the bench. *sigh* I cleverly used a pot to keep them from drying out. I hope.

Meanwhile, I can pick a book to read!

We’re getting close to the end in my quest to read my collection of oldest bought-but-never-read books, so to avoid pooling up the biggest two at the end, I’m going with the three-novel collected edition by Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman/Surfacing/Lady Oracle that I probably bought on sale in the late 80s.

And I know exactly why I haven’t read this book before: It’s a collected edition, and I have an irrational dislike of collected editions. It’s not just that they’re unwieldy physical to hold while reading, but once I’ve read a novel, it’s so pleasant to put it away on a bookshelf where I can look at it admiringly afterwards.

With a collected edition it’s “I”VE GOT MORE TO READ?!?” Which is incredibly stupid, because I presumably bought the book because I wanted to read everything in it.

So these days I go out of my way to buy uncollected editions, even if it makes no economical sense. But back in those days I was a poor student, and I probably saw this on sale and thought OH BOY!

And now, thirty years later, I’m going to read it.

*gasp* It’s falling apart! Tsk! Virago! Tsk!

Oh, right. It’s a collection of her earliest (published) novels? This was published in the UK in 1987 on the heels of Atwood’s blockbuster Handmaid’s Tale novel. Which was also the impetus for me buying this book: I’d read it and loved it.

Let’s read the first two pages together.

Well, that’s seems quite promising, doesn’t it? It’s as well-written as I remember Atwood being: It flows well, it’s witty and we already get some interesting character sketches.

And… it’s, like normal literature? I mean, it’s contemporary (in 1965); it’s not genre; it’s not experimental… It feels positively odd! Is this the first contemporary literary book in this blog series? Surely not!

Let’s see… we’ve got science fiction (Woman on the Edge of Time, The Two of Them, Larque on the Wing, Last and First Men), horror (Haunted), mysteries (Magic Hour), avant-garde/experimental (The Ticket That Exploded, Downriver, Miracle of the Rose, The Place of Dead Roads, El desorden de to nombre), essays (Mind as Passion, Composed on the Tongue), classics (Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist)…

Yes! This is the first book of the kind that’s, like, what normal people actually read. The ones that are on the New York Times bestseller lists.

How odd. Either I just don’t buy those books, or they’re books that I don’t avoid reading. I think it’s the latter.

It’s a young writer’s book, kinda? Whenever possible, it goes for the funnier options. It doesn’t have much structure, but just seems to veer off into odd directions as it goes along. Which is both good and bad: It’s completely unpredictable.

At the start, I was thinking this was going to be a totally “realistic” story, but at times it feels like we’re going into proto magic realism territory, although nothing overtly magical happens. Instead these unnerving stabs of irreality take over, and they feel important in a scary way.

In the second section of the book, Atwood shifts to third person for no particular reason: When authors do stuff like that, it’s either because they want to be able to stop focusing on one particular character, but we remain as closely bound to Marian as ever, and partake in her thoughts just like before.

The other reason authors do that sort of thing is that they grow tired of writing “I” so much.

[time passes]

Oh! There is a reason! It’s brilliant! And it made me laugh out loud!

I should have had faith in Atwood. I mean, I didn’t distrust her, really, but I totally didn’t see that coming.

That was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s got some problems, but it’s a very smart novel. But I wonder what other people think of it, because it’s so original.

Man, that’s way off base:

This book though would only appeal to those that truly enjoy reading good English and are not looking for a good ending because this is where it definitely falls short.

But the writing is excellent, that’s right…

Well, that was strange. Very, very strange. Probably the strangest book I’ve ever read.

I gave it two stars because this book did create strong emotions for me, even if it was strong annoyance, and not all books do that.

Boring! Disjointed! No saving grace! Only one person in our book club liked it at all.

Other enjoyed it but noted that it was a bit dated. It was written in the mid-60s, and to me it was very easy to forget that for long periods: It felt very fresh and modern.

Well, now I’m excited to read the other two novels in this book. The next one is Surfacing, which I suspect I once saw the movie adaptation of? Let’s read the first two pages:

Well, this is a very different novel. The first one was selfconsciously funny, but Atwood is going for a totally different effect here: It’s more mature and observant.

On the surface (heh heh) it’s a straightforward story of a group of people in a cabin in the woods where the protagonist is looking for her missing father. The way Atwood hints at a certain wrongness is masterful: She slowly unveils the past in a circular, oblique manner that’s riveting.

And you gotta love the undercurrent of Canadian hostility to the invading Americans.

It’s a more accomplished novel than the first one for sure. It’s got an interesting structure to it, and it’s just as well-written on the micro level. It’s just… well… more mature and smart.

But there’s less of a smart alec book, which is a shame.

But wait, there’s more!

OK, you know the drill… let’s read the first two pages together…

Well, that’s a way to start a novel:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

There’s a saying that if you hook the reader with the first sentence, you’ll land them. Or something. I think. And I’m totes hooked.

The first bit of the novel is fascinating and original. It’s not surprising that Atwood continues to grow as an author, and that’s what she does: This feels even more true and honest than the previous book.

But once we get to the flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, I felt the book lost something. It’s not that these are bad flashbacks or anything, but it feels like something I’ve read so many times before, while the stuff that happens “in the present” felt very fresh and exciting.

Oh, but I have to bake the croissants. Splash some egg wash over them…

Hm… they’re… bigger than I thought they would be.

Oops. Is that going to be raw on the inside?

Let’s eat some while reading Lady Oracle.

Well, it’s not actually raw, but it doesn’t look quite right. Some of the butter leaked out while baking, and the flavour isn’t better than “eh”. I’ve got some more dough, so I think I’ll make some smaller ones…

A lot of Lady Oracle deals with the author being fat as a child and a teenager, and it’s put in a way I think would make some people wince these days.

It’s a somewhat meta novel: The protagonist writes a book called Lady Oracle, but also writes a whole bunch of Gothic Romances, and we get some excerpts from them. They’re hilarious: Atwood gets them down to a T, what with the extraneous descriptions of… everything, and the overwrought drama.

OK, next day and smaller croissants.

Hey, that’s better! Fluffy on the inside; flaky on the outside. But I have to admit: These just aren’t the best croissants of the world. I think I fucked up the recipe.

Oh, well.

Back to the novel again: It’s the longest one in the book, and it seemed so well-structured at first. You’ve got the protagonist in Italy, “dead”, thinking about her past and writing more Gothic Romances. But as things progressed, they, er, didn’t. Progress, that is. Instead it reads like if Atwood was just winging it, adding one funny scene and one preposterous character after another.

It’s not that it’s not ever not unfunny (is that the correct number of negations?). Atwood always write well, and when she wants to be witty, she’s witty. And she wants that here. But two thirds in I found myself going “oh no, not more. NOT MORE!” It just doesn’t hold structurally.

I admire the way she’s able to swerve in one direction and then another, surprising the reader totally, but at the end there, it was just too abrupt. I was like “eh? eh? Was this whole book just a joke? A long improvisation over some funny themes?”

It’s the least satisfying of the three novels that way, although it’s a fun read.