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book review, recipe

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance + Sponge Cake with Forest Berries

One of my favorite things about Book of the Month (among the many) is the opportunity members sometimes get to read a book before it’s released to the rest of the world. Ruth Emmie Lang’s wonderfully unexpected novel Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, which will be released next week on November 14th, was one of the October selections, and honestly, I was planning to share this post with you then, but I enjoyed this book so immensely, I couldn’t wait.

Lang’s imaginative novel follows Weylen Grey, a young orphan who was raised by wolves, as he grows up and travels the country looking for his true home. Each section of the story (set in a new year and different location) is told by those around Weylen – young Mary who befriends him in the woods while making deliveries for her father; a teacher who is taken aback by the student refusing to sit in a desk; an inexperienced mayor whose town is faced with an impending hurricane.

Judge Steph Ortiz, who chose this book for BOTM, described Beasts as “so comfortable and uplifting” and said it was “exactly the book [she] needed right now, and it made [her] so happy [she] wanted to howl at the moon.” After finishing the phenomenal The Rules of Magic, I was ready to be swept away again. A book that made me extraordinarily happy was exactly what I was looking for, and this one didn’t disappoint!

Unlike many of the other books I recommend, which while amazing are often full of tough topics, this novel left me with a wonderfully cozy feeling, and seriously, if you haven’t stopped and pre-ordered it yet, I’d suggest you do so now. It’s an excellent debut; I can’t wait to see what else Lang cooks up in the future.

Speaking of cooking (you had to know that was coming, right?), I decided to whip up a whimsical dessert to go along with this fairy tale novel. On one of her visits to the forest to see Weylen, Mary brings with her a freshly baked sponge cake, which they eat with hand-picked berries. I found a slightly fancy-sounding but down-to-earth-looking sponge cake recipe from Vikalinka and knew it would be a perfect fit.     

The only tweak I made to her recipe was to add some additional berries to the compote (and in decorating). In fact, I started by making the berry compote, adding the raspberries and blackberries to a small saucepan with a touch of water and some sugar. After about 15 minutes, I smushed the berries up a bit because there didn’t seem to be much thickening occurring. I let it continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so before following the rest of the directions. I used my food processor to blend the mixture until smooth, pushed it through a fine sieve and set it aside.

To make the cake, I started by preheating my oven to 350 degrees F and greasing my cake pans. (I didn’t line them with parchment paper, like the original recipe directs, but I didn’t have any issues getting the cakes out of my pans once they were cooled.)

In a large bowl, I mixed the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, adding the eggs one at a time and mixing for about a minute each. Finally, I added the vanilla and lemon zest.

In a separate bowl, I combined my dry ingredients, sifting together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I added the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing well. The end result was a very thick batter (according to Vikalinka, it should be the consistency of buttercream frosting).

I scooped approximately half into each cake pan and then used my kitchen scale to ensure they were even (about 2 pounds each, including the pan). It wasn’t specified in the original recipe, but I had some minor concerns they wouldn’t spread out due to thickness, so I used a scraper to spread the batter as evenly as I could in each pan. Then, the cakes went into the oven for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I made the mascarpone cream. I used a hand mixer to whip the chilled mascarpone with the powdered sugar and vanilla extract for about 2 minutes. To that mixture, I added the whipping cream and whipped for a few more minutes until it was stiff. I covered the bowl and put it in the fridge to stay cool while the cake finished baking and cooled.

Once the cakes were out of the oven, I allowed them to cool on a baking rack for 20 minutes, before turning them out so they could cool completely. I was a bit nervous about assembly (since I’m not usually the best cake decorator), but this cake features a very unfussy decor and is perfect for an imprecise decorator such as myself.

To start, I placed one of the cooled cakes on a cake stand. I covered that with a thick layer of the mascarpone cream (I ended up having a little bit left… it seemed like a lot when I was decorating).

On top of the layer of cream, I poured the berry compote and spread it a bit with a cake spreader. (Mine ended up being somewhat thinner than it appeared in the original recipe, but it still tasted delicious, and made for a lovely garnish on the plate afterward.) Atop the filling, I added the second cake and began the decorating process. I used some of the leftover cream on about half of the cake, used leftover berries to make a design and dusted the whole thing with a bit of powdered sugar.

The finished cake may not have been as gorgeous as I had hoped, but it still looked impressive (in my opinion). More importantly, it tasted amazing. This is definitely a cake I’d like to try again.

Sponge Cake with Forest Berry Compote

  • Servings: 8
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Ingredients

  • 1⅕ cup blackberries and raspberries
  • ⅕ cup sugar
  • 2 tbs water
  • 1 cup butter, softened and unsalted
  • 1⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, large
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract, divided
  • 1¾ cup flour
  • 2½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 cup mascarpone, chilled
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar
  • ¾ cup whipping cream

To make the forest berry compote

  1. In a small saucepan combine berries, sugar and water. Smash berries and cook over low heat for 15 minutes until the syrup coats a spoon.
  2. Remove from the heat and process in a food processor or a blender until smooth.
  3. Push through a fine sieve to get rid of the seeds and set aside.

To make the cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, grease two 8″ round cake pans and line with parchment paper, set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer cream softened butter with sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Start adding eggs one by one, whipping until well combined after each addition for about a minute.
  4. Add 1 tsp vanilla bean paste/extract and lemon zest.
  5. Combine sifted flour, baking soda and powder and salt in a separate bowl.
  6. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mix well, stopping the mixer and scraping sides and the bottom of the bowl.
  7. Divide the batter between two pans. Weigh them to get exactly the same cake in size.
  8. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean.
  9. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely.

To make the mascarpone cream

  1. Whip chilled mascarpone with powdered sugar and 1 tsp vanilla bean paste/extract for 1-2 minutes until well combined.
  2. Then add whipping cream and whip for 2 more minutes until stiff.
  3. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Assembling the cake

  1. Spread mascarpone cream on the bottom layer of the cake.
  2. Pour the berry compote on top and gently spread with a offset spatula.
  3. Top with another cake layer and dust with some powdered sugar for the traditional look. Optional: top a portion with leftover mascarpone cream and/or berries.

Slightly adapted from: Vikalinka

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book review, recipe

Practical Magic + Apple Tart with Black Pepper

Maybe I watched Practical Magic a little on the young side (it came out when I was 12), but ever since then I’ve loved it. Even though it’s not exactly a traditional Halloween movie, I make it a point to watch every fall season. Next week, in fact, I have a movie date with Deanna to watch it together because she’s never seen it and she needs to. This post isn’t about the movie, though, it’s about the book, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until I heard about the prequel The Rules of Magic coming out a couple of months ago.

Excited about the prequel, I hunted down Alice Hoffman’s book Practical Magic, sure I would love it as much as I did the movie. I definitely enjoyed it, but it’s different than I was expecting. The movie’s plot is so ingrained in me at this point, that it didn’t occur to me that the book wouldn’t follow it as well. Obviously, movies change book plots all the time, often to the disappointment of the reader – it’s just that usually I don’t watch the movie (over and over and over) before reading the book. So I was a bit blind-sided, and the irony is not lost on me.  

All that being said, the book is worth picking up. (This NPR review of the prequel describes the differences in Practical Magic book vs. movie wonderfully, the journalist in a similar situation to me.) Hoffman’s writing style is lovely. She crafts a beautiful story of sisterhood and magic that’s perfect for cozy fall reading. I haven’t read anything else she’s written, but I’m looking forward to trying some of her other novels – I’ve heard good things. And, of course, I’m still excited to read The Rules of Magic too. 

Have any of you read or seen Practical Magic? I’d be interested to hear from those of you who read the book before the movie which you prefer. Any other Hoffman novels you’d recommend?  

At one point in the novel, one of the sisters, Sally, makes an apple tart with her secret ingredient, black pepper. And though it’s midsummer in the story, this recipe seemed perfect to make at this time of year. Local apple orchards are bursting at the seams, and I was itching to make an apple dessert anyway. Black pepper as an addition intrigued me. I found a recipe online that included it in an apple galette and used it as a basis for my own version, mostly so I would be able to better estimate how much black pepper to include.

To keep it simple, I used store bought pie crust. Feel free to make your own, if you’re so inclined. First, I prepped my apples, which Scott and I had picked up at a local cider mill the weekend before. I used Gala because I like those and we had also bought them for snacking, but any baking apple would work just as well.

I don’t have an apple peeler contraption and my vegetable peeler wasn’t getting the job done, so I opted to make my tart a bit more “rustic” and left the apples unpeeled. I sliced them pretty thinly and tossed them with lemon juice, some sugar and a bit of freshly ground black pepper (more on the coarse side).

I laid the pie crust on a parchment lined baking sheet, piled the apples on the middle of it, and folded the crust over around the edges. To help it become a more rich golden brown, I brushed the crust with an egg wash before baking.

I covered the tart loosely with a tented piece of aluminum foil and put the tart in a 375-degree oven to bake for about an hour. I set my timer for 45 minutes and checked it every 20 minutes or so. Once it seemed close to being done, I removed the foil and allowed it to bake for another 10 or 15 minutes without, so the crust would get some good color.

It smelled amazing, but I patiently allowed it to cool completely before serving. I cut into 6 slices (though it could certainly be cut into smaller or larger pieces, depending on the size of your family/party). We enjoyed it without any additions, but it would absolutely be delicious with a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream while it’s still a bit warm from the oven.

What’s your favorite apple recipe in the fall?

Apple Tart with Black Pepper

  • Servings: 6
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Ingredients

  • 1 pie crust (use your own recipe, or use refrigerated store bought)
  • 3 – 4 medium apples, cored and sliced (¼” – ½” thick)
  • 2 TBS granulated sugar
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 TBS lemon juice
  • 1 egg, mixed with a little bit of water

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Prepare the apples and toss them with the sugar, black pepper, and lemon juice.
  3. Place dough on parchment paper or a silicone mat on a baking sheet. Arrange the apples in the center of the dough, leaving about an inch border. Fold the extra dough over the sides of the tart.
  4. Brush the crust lightly with an egg wash.
  5. Cover the tart loosely with aluminum foil and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour. After when there are about 15 minutes left (apples should be soft, dough should be mostly cooked), remove the foil to allow the dough to become golden.
  6. Let cool completely before serving. Best served at room temperature. Enjoy!

Adapted from: Earth Powered Family

Notes: It’s not much more work to make 2 tarts at a time, especially if you’re using store bought crust. Plan to use 6 medium apples and double the sugar, pepper and lemon juice. Divide apples evenly between both crusts. Baking time shouldn’t change.

You can peel your apples if desired, but with thin slices, it doesn’t affect the texture much to leave them on. Plus, it makes it much quicker!


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

The Unbearable Lightness of Being + Raspberry Mousse

They say bad things come in threes, and maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but I’m really hoping this latest read is the end of my little streak of three books in a row I didn’t like. One of my book clubs recently met to discuss Milan Kundera’s best-known work The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I’m sorry to say I suggested. At least I only had myself to blame.

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To simplify it, Kundera’s novel is about two couples (in a loose sense of the word) in Prague in the sixties and seventies. Tomas is a surgeon who leaves his wife for a young woman named Tereza, even though he continues to sleep around. He literally cannot help himself. One of the women he sleeps with is Sabina, whom the story also follows, documenting her bohemian life and her sort-of relationship with a professor named Franz. My favorite character in the whole book was Tomas and Tereza’s dog Karenin, who was named after the male character in Anna Karenina, even though she’s a girl.

I suppose the simple description of the book makes it sound more juicy and interesting than it is. Don’t be fooled. To keep you away from the main plot points, Kundera tosses in several chapters on kitsch, his thoughts on politics, and his philosophies on life. He makes for an interesting narrator, repeatedly pointing out that his characters aren’t real, which as a reader really pulls you out of the story (if the random bits of philosophy and politics didn’t do that already).

People seem to love this book – it has over 4 stars on Goodreads and is considered by many to be a classic – but for me, and most of my book club, it was truly unbearable. On the “lighter” side of things, however, it led to some delicious raspberry mousse.

The novel didn’t have many mentions of food, so I decided to play off the theme of lightness and create what is traditionally a light, airy dessert. I found a recipe from Fearless Dining for Easy Fresh Raspberry Mousse that seemed to easy to make and looked delicious. (If you look at her page, she has many, many mousse varieties to try out.)

First, I began boiling my half cup of water in tiny saucepan. Meanwhile, in a slightly larger saucepan, I added 2 teaspoons of gelatin (about 1 envelope, but measure just in case) to the quarter cup of cold water and allowed that to sit.

I washed my raspberries, extracted my vanilla seeds and combined the rest of the ingredients while the gelatin/water combination was becoming more jelly-like and the water boiled. Once that was all ready, I combined everything into my larger saucepan (with the gelatin mixture) and brought it all to a boil for 5 minutes.

I transferred the mixture to my food processor and blended everything together, though I would recommend a blender if you have one. It will likely breakdown the raspberry seeds better than my food processor did.

Allow that mixture to cool for 10 minutes (or longer). I let mine sit for about 15 minutes while I made the whipped cream. To do so, add the 2 cups of heavy / whipping cream to a large bowl and use a hand mixer, mixing until stiff peaks form.

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Once the raspberry mixture is cooled enough, gently fold that into the whipped cream a little bit at a time. (Despite what the original recipe said, I tried folding the cream into the raspberry mixture, since typically technique says you should add the whipped cream into the denser/wetter mixture to avoid losing air. However, because the raspberry mixture was so soup-y, it mostly remained at the bottom and proved hard to combine.)

Once the cream and the raspberry mixture were well-combined – the entire mixture was a light pink – I placed the bowl in the fridge to set/cool. After almost 2 hours, it was mostly set, but I think could’ve stood to hang out in there a little longer. The consistency was perfect they next day when we finished it up. Two hours was perfectly fine, but if you have the time, I would recommend allowing it to remain in the fridge a bit longer.

We served it in my grandmother’s crystal cut dessert dishes, which I hadn’t used before, and garnished with the remainder of the fresh raspberries.

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Unbelievably Light Raspberry Mousse

  • Servings: 4-6
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Ingredients

  • ¼ cup cold water
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons gelatin
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup fresh raspberries (a 6oz package should be plenty, including garnish)
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • seeds of 1 vanilla bean (or 3 teaspoons vanilla extract)

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, add cold water.
  2. Mix in gelatin and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in boiling water, vanilla bean, sugar, lemon juice, and raspberries.
  4. Bring to boil on medium heat then turn down to low and boil for 5 minutes.
  5. Pour mixture into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. (This reduces the raspberry seeds.)
  6. Allow this mixture to cool for at least 10 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, add whipping cream and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.
  8. Gently fold the raspberry mixture into the cream until well-combined.
  9. Allow the finished mousse to cool in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 hour.
  10. Serve garnished with fresh strawberries, if desired.

From: Fearless Dining

A blender may provide better results than a food processor as far as reducing seeds. I would recommend allowing to cool for 2-4 hours if you have the time – ours was also delicious when we finished it the next day.

Number of servings will depend on size. This recipe yields 4 generous helpings.


book review, of interest, recipe

The Handmaid’s Tale + Strawberry Pie

Is everyone else looking forward to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale as much as I am? The trailer gives me chills. I had read the Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about three years ago, but anticipating the upcoming series, I was excited for the chance to re-read it with one of my book clubs.

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The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought it was interesting, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it. This time around, I was able to read it through different eyes; it felt more relevant to me than it did a few years ago, and frankly, it was a little scary.

In Atwood’s imagined Republic of Gilead, Offred is one of the Handmaids placed with a Commander and his barren wife for the sole purpose of having his child and giving them a family. In her red dress, she is limited in who she’s allowed to communicate with, and even more so by the restrictions forbidding her to read or write. When Offred is not alone in her room, she runs errands with her partner Handmaid and occasionally attends birthings and special ceremonies designed to remind her and every woman of their place in this new totalitarian society.

Offred’s diet, and presumably that of all Handmaids in Gilead, is controlled in its amount and restricted to that which is nourishing. Though Offred is the one to pick up the household’s groceries, it seems she has no say in what she eats. When shopping one day, she muses on the smell of fresh strawberries and the memories of summers past they recall.

Living in a society so much like the one Offred used to live in – where women work outside of the home, have freedom of movement and choice, and can make their own decisions to have children or not – it was hard to see how easily it was all taken away. Many American women believe we have come a long way. And we have. But until we are truly equal and are equally represented in society, women are not in control of their own destinies. For me, the fact that these rollbacks are not inconceivable was the most eye-opening part of reading this book.

In the end, Offred’s story left me with more questions than answers, but it was one that sparked a lively conversation with my fellow book club members and one that I heartily recommend.

Capitalizing on their bright red color, strawberries seemed like an excellent choice to represent The Handmaid’s Tale. I found a recipe for Fresh Strawberry Pie that looked too good to resist.

Using a storebought crust proved to be a lifesaver for me as I had some issues and had to bake it three times before I got it right (don’t forget your pie weights!). While that was a bit frustrating, I was happy I didn’t have to re-make crust from scratch just as many times. Before it went into the oven each time, I made sure to scallop the edges to create a pretty design.

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While it baked, I washed, hulled and quartered the fresh strawberries – I used 4 cups in the end, though I had prepared 6 cups. It will ultimately depend on how deep and wide your pie dish is, but I don’t think it hurts to have some extra prepared strawberries around.

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When my successful crust was finally cooling, I got to work on the glaze. I combined 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar and some cornstarch in a small saucepan and brought it all to a boil. Then, I whisked until the glaze began to thicken, about 3 minutes. Last, I added the box of strawberry Jell-O and whisked that for another minute or so. The finished glaze also had to cool about 15 minutes before filling the pie.

When assembling the pie, I first added the prepared fresh strawberries to the cooled crust. I did my best to keep the top relatively even, but you could certainly create a thicker middle if you wanted to. (That option might require additional glaze to get good coverage.) Then it was time to pour on the delicious glaze, again doing my best to get even coverage over the strawberries.

The finished product was absolutely beautiful – and SO red. I couldn’t wait to dig in. This pie will definitely be making future appearances over the summer.

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Fresh Strawberry Pie

  • Servings: 8-12
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 9 inch pie crust (homemade or storebought)
  • 4 to 6 cups fresh strawberries, quartered and hulled
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 3oz. box of strawberry Jell-O
  • 3 tablespoons of cornstarch

Directions

  1. Bake pie crust in 9-inch deep pie dish and set aside to cool.
  2. Put the water, sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Whisk constantly until it becomes thick, about 3 minutes.
  3. Whisk in the Jell-O and cook for a minute longer. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 15 minutes.
  4. As the glaze cools, place strawberries straight into the pie crust.
  5. Pour the glaze over the strawberries.
  6. Refrigerate until set. Serve with whipped cream if desired.

From: Sugar Apron

When baking the pie crust, be sure to use pie weights or dry beans to ensure that the sides of your crust doesn’t fall. Poke holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork, add weights or beans and bake according to directions. After half the baking time, remove weights and allow to bake for the remaining time without them.

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