Honey Cinnamon Oranges and One to Watch

Reviews and Recipes

It’s been 195 days.

No, not since quarantine started—since the last Bachelor finale. 

I am an avid, guilty pleasure watcher of all things Bachelor Nation. I was so starved for Bachelor content, I even watched Listen to Your Heart. Season 16 of The Bachelorette was delayed due to COVID-19, while season 7 of Bachelor in Paradise was pushed to 2021. I’ve been in a major lurch without hot tub drama and rose ceremonies.

Enter: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London.

Stayman-London’s debut novel follows the story of Bea Schumacher, a plus size fashion blogger who breaks the internet with her viral rant against the hit reality show, The Main Squeeze. Criticizing The Main Squeeze for its lack of diversity, including its lack of body diversity, Bea is asked to be the next lead on the show. She agrees and sets out to propel her career, not fall in love. But when cameras start rolling, things get more complicated than she planned.

Okay, so you’ve probably figured out by now that The Main Squeeze is a thinly veiled parallel to The Bachelor/The Bachelorette. This book was a masterful representation of all things Bachelor, from how it’s produced, to podcast recaps, to group chats. The “kiss off ceremonies” (The Main Squeeze’s version of the rose ceremonies) were just as dramatic if I were watching them unfold on live television—I found myself screaming at the pages of my book, torn who to route for, adamant in who I despised, desperately invested in the romance of Bea’s life. 

To top things off, this isn’t your typical romance book or season of The Bachelor. There’s real talk about body image and self confidence as Bea struggles to accept the fact that these men are competing for her.

Whether you love or hate The Bachelor, this book is for you. It works to criticize the things that make the franchise so deeply problematic and parody the absurdities of the show, while also giving you the drama you love and characters that are easy to invest in.


During one date in Marrakesh, Morocco, Bea goes on a fabulous date with [NAME REDACTED]. “After dinner,” Stayman-London writes, “they fed each other slices of orange drizzled with honey, and Bea thought she’d never tasted anything so perfectly sweet in her life.”

Enjoy this fruity, sticky, sweet snack inspired by One to Watch by simply mixing together 1 tablespoon of honey with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and drizzling the mixture over thin slices of navel oranges. 

Honey Vinaigrette and From Scratch

Reviews and Recipes

It should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of food memoirs. Personal journey and growth paired with a love for food and cooking?! I’m there. 

That’s why I picked up From Scratch, a Reese Witherspoon book club pick written by actress Tembi Locke. After Locke loses her husband Saro, an Italian chef, she spends her summers as a new widow in the Sicilian countryside with their daughter Zoela and her late husband’s family. There, she discovers the healing power of family and food.

It was difficult to begin this book without high expectations. I mean, it’s a Reese Witherspoon book club pick about Italian food after all. I’ve been wanting to read Locke’s memoirs for years and was glad to finally pick it up. However, this book did not live up these expectations.

The first 50 pages or so, I was admittedly enamoured by Locke’s retelling of the beginnings of her love story with Saro. This is where Locke’s talent as a writer shines the most, her lyrical prose lending itself perfectly to romance.

After their initial meet cute (involving a bicycle), we dive straight into Saro’s death, which is where the problems in this memoir begin. There is no break from the melancholic tone throughout the rest of the book. Of course, a memoir about widowhood and grief is bound to be a tearjerker. Still, reading this without reprieve became exhausting. Chapters would have benefited from more scenes of the joyful moments with Saro, his family, and Locke’s daughter Zoela.

Despite the promises of food this book makes, it doesn’t quite deliver. Is food a presence in this book? Certainly. Nonetheless, the food is merely mentioned. “We ate this, we cooked this.” It is not used as a tool to explore the grieving and healing processes and it does not reveal anything new about Locke or her world. 

That being said, reading about eating freshly made pasta in Italy is never not enjoyable, even if it could have been used more effectively. 

Locke provides a handful of family recipes in the back of the book so you can recreate your own Sicilian summer meals. Below is the recipe for the honey vinaigrette dressing used in “Insalata di Rucola con Pomodori e Ricotta Salata,” or “Arugula Salad with Tomatoes and Ricotta Salata,” a recipe Saro intended as an antipasto in a menu he created entitled “Summer Dinner on a Sicilian Terrace.”

HONEY VINAIGRETTE DRESSING

From Tembi Locke’s From Scratch, pairs well with tomatoes, red onions, and ricotta salata on a bed of arugula.

INGREDIENTS:

  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey (or more, if you prefer things on the sweeter side like me…)
  • Pinch of salt

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Whisk ingredients together.
  2. Serve with salad.
  3. Enjoy!

Green Goddess Soup and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Reviews and Recipes
“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.” -The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

There are few books I’ve loved this year as much as I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I picked this one up shortly after reading Daisy Jones & the Six, another book I adored by Reid. It’s safe to say I’m officially a TJR fan, and am looking forward to reading all of her books!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a rather self explanatory title of the novel’s plot—it follows the life story of Evelyn Hugo, an aging and reclusive movie star from Hollywood’s golden age as she breaks her silence on her scandalous seven marriages. Evelyn hand selects Monique, a young writer at the beginning of her career but the end of her marriage, to tell the coveted story. Decades of secrets come to life, including a thrilling forbidden love and a tragic connection between Evelyn’s and Monique’s pasts.

This book is rich with glamour, passion, triumph, defeat, and love. It’s a glittering tale, as fabulous as Evelyn Hugo herself. In the same way I found myself wanting to listen to the songs from Daisy Jones & the Six, I was constantly wanting to watch the movies Evelyn stars in throughout the book. Reid’s gift for world building is masterful, pulling you into the lives of her incredibly alive protagonists. 


Not enough can be said about how much I love Evelyn. She’s a fantastically complex, flawed, lovable heroine. That’s why it should be no surprise that I knew she had to be the star of whatever dish I made inspired by this book.

Evelyn’s signature color for her red carpet looks is green. It’s what inspired the signature green dress that leaps off the novel’s iconic cover, and what inspired the bright green hue of my dish. The green motif paired with the absolute divinity of Evelyn herself inspired my Green Goddess Soup.

Green Goddess Soup

A simple, spicy, and vegan soup that pairs well with cucumbers, bread, and Greek yogurt.

Yield: 4 servings| Total time: 15 min

INGREDIENTS:

  • 5 handfuls of spinach
  • 7 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons sliced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 cup vegetable or chicken broth (of course, use veggie broth for the vegan version of this soup)
  • 1/4 – 3/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (depending on preference)
  • generous squeeze of lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Place all ingredients together in a high power blender.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. Enjoy!

Croissants and The Paris Hours

Reviews and Recipes
“Some things you cannot leave behind. Your history will pursue you doggedly across frontiers and over oceans. It will slip past the unsmiling border guards, fold itself invisibly into the pages of your passport, a silent, treacherous stowaway.” -The Paris Hours by Alex George

Alex George’s latest historical novel, The Paris Hours, follows the lives of four characters as they each race against the clock one day in the city of lights in 1927. As the clock nears midnight, the lives of the strangers draw together and connect in unimaginable ways. 

Set against the glittering and guttural background of Paris, France between the World Wars, the setting lends itself well to George’s bohemian cast of characters, including a starving artist, a refugee, a maid to Marcel Proust, a journalist, an acrobat, and more.

Still, the settings and characters work most effectively as a means for which George’s prose to soar. The mundane becomes fascinating and the ordinary is extraordinary throughout the novel thanks to the author’s inimitable flair.

The Paris Hours take place across one day, and I felt like I was living that day with the characters–not only because of George’s transportative writing, but because I devoured the novel in a single day, unable to put it down.


Please proceed with caution–these are not your French grandmother’s croissants. In fact, I think calling these “croissants” probably have Julia Child turning in her grave. These are not airy, light, flakey, classic French croissants. These are everything French pastry chefs caution against: chewy, dense, doughy, moist croissants. 

When I first read Alex George’s latest historical novel, The Paris Hours, I was anxious about what I was going to cook. Certainly, there is no shortage of magnificent food mentioned between the pages. French food. These croissants were calling to me, beloved by the fictionalized version of Marcel Proust throughout the book.

However, as anyone who knows anything about French pastries will tell you, the croissant is a complicated, involved little viennoiserie that requires skill and patience. It can be tackled, but is not for the novice baker. 

My recipe does require patience, but no fuss. If you like a doughy Americanized croissant (think Pillsbury, but better), this is the recipe for you. It pairs well with jam, butter, sandwich makings, or–my personal favorite–Nutella. 

NOT YOUR FRENCH GRANDMOTHER’S CROISSANTS

Please don’t tell Julia Child.

Yield: One dozen croissants | Prep time: 1 hour | Rest time: 5 hours | Cook time: 40 min | Total time: 6 hours 40 min

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ tablespoon salt
  • 2 ½ sticks cold unsalted butter
  • 1 ½ cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • Splash of water

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Whisk together flour, yeast, sugar, and salt in a very large mixing bowl.
  2. Cut cold butter into small cubes–about ⅛ inch thickness–and toss to coat and combine in dry mixture.
  3. Stir in milk until dough forms. Croissant dough is a little tough and drier than regular dough, so don’t be alarmed if it’s not as supple as other doughs you’ve worked with.
  4. Transfer dough to plastic wrap and enclose tightly. Allow to chill for 1.5 hours.
  5. After chill, remove dough from plastic wrap and roll out onto a lightly floured surface until you have a large rectangle shape. 
  6. Single fold the dough (folding like a letter), rotate it 90 degrees, and roll it back out. Repeat this step four more times, working quickly. 
  7. Wrap the dough once again in plastic wrap and allow to chill for another 1.5 hours.
  8. After the dough has chilled a second time, cut the dough in half and allow one half to continue to chill in the refrigerator while you work with the other half.
  9. Roll out the dough into a long, thin rectangle onto a lightly floured surface. It should be about 10”x18”, less than ⅛” thin. 
  10. Trim the dough into a perfect rectangle, discarding the excess. Mark with a knife or pastry cutter every 6 inches length wise. Cut into three rectangles. Then, cut diagonally and evenly across each rectangle to ultimately form six triangles. 
  11. Gently stretch out the triangle in your hand, then tightly roll forward starting from the widest side. Repeat with each croissant.
  12. Place croissants on a baking tray, covering with plastic wrap, a towel, or a wet paper towel, and place in the refridger to proof for two hours.
  13. Repeat steps 9-12 with second half of dough.
  14. Once croissants have proofed, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  15. Make an egg wash by whisking together one egg and a splash of water. Brush croissants with egg wash.
  16. Bake croissants in two batches (remember when we split the dough in half?), about 20 minutes each. 
  17. Enjoy! 

A Better Boxed Cake Mix and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life

Reviews and Recipes

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is a laugh-out-loud collection of essays about author Samantha Irby’s self-proclaimed “dumpster fire” life. From an application to be a contestant on “The Bachelor,” to the unfurling hate/love relationship between Irby and her demon cat, named Hellen Keller, Irby recounts her life through hilarious antidotes.

While Irby is hailed for her humor, her stories are equally heartfelt and poignant as they are funny. Irby’s candor allows her to tackle the topics of race, disability, sexuality, and the death of parents without shying away from the hard stuff. For each reader there is a unique experience, in some instances learning about a life different from your own, while in other instances feeling less alone.

And while We Are Never Meeting in Real Life may not seem like it, it is also a love story. Readers are able to watch the relationship blossom between Irby and her now-wife “Mavis” (a pseudonym for the real life Kristen Jennings). As Irby realizes she’s worthy of love and navigates an adult relationship, your heart is cracked open.

“Real love,” writes Irby, “feels less like a throbbing, pulsing animal begging for its freedom and beating against the inside of my chest and more like, ‘Hey, that place you like had fish tacos today and I got you some while I was out,’ as it sets a bag spotted with grease on the dining room table.”


In We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Irby discusses eating all kinds of sugary snacks and frozen meals. She’s a no fuss, no frills type when it comes to meals at home. Meanwhile, in the essay “Civil Union,” Irby recounts a fancy wedding with customized cupcakes to go.

My cook for We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is inspired at the crossroads of the no fuss food Irby serves herself at home, as well as the decadent cupcakes she’s treated to at a friend’s wedding.

Most of us probably have a box of cake mix sitting at home. Even those among us who are less culinary-inclined can transform their boxed cake into a rich, moist treat. There’s no reason your at-home baking can’t be just as luxurious as a catered dessert.


Substitutes for a Better Boxed Cake Mix:

  • However many eggs the box calls for, add one more.
  • Replace the water with whole milk.
  • Instead of oil, use melted butter and double the amount.
  • Add vanilla extract (or any other extract you’re feeling!). I used 2 T because I wanted mine extra vanilla-y.

Enjoy an easy at-home dessert that kicks up the notch on flavor and decadence!

Introducing the Cookbook Book Club: Midwest Made by Shauna Sever

Cookbook Book Club

There are few things, in my humble opinion, better than good books, good food, and good company. Little else is able to fill my heart the way sharing a meal or discussing a book with friends can. (Okay, maybe listening to ABBA on full blast also ranks among those things?) Combining my love of friendship, food, and fables, I recently decided to start a Cookbook Book Club.

Could we have called it a Cookbook Club? Yes. But is it as fun to say? Definitely not.

The idea was to pick a text (not necessarily a cookbook, more on that later) once every four to six weeks that everyone would read and pick a dish to cook from. We pick the text based on a rotating basis, giving each person an opportunity to decide what we’re cooking from. In a post-COVID world, we’ll gather potluck style to taste each other’s dishes, share tips, discuss what we learned, and ask questions. In the meantime, we’re gathering via Zoom to show we’re what we made! A couple discussion points we’ve been hitting on are:

  • What occasion is this dish good for? (ex: bringing into the office, something quick for an unexpected guest, a weekend project)
  • What level of difficulty do you think this dish was?
  • Did you learn any new skills while making this?
  • Would you make this again?
  • What advice would you give to someone making this?
  • Did you make any substitutions? Would you in the future?

I put out feelers with some friends who I knew might be interested, and the response was resounding! People loved the idea, and quickly, our little group was formed.

One concern we all had was the cost of our club. Cookbooks can be expensive, no joke. We decided that while a person can pick a cookbook, they can also pick a certain edition of a cooking magazine, or recipes from a certain cooking TV show, or an entire cooking website/series, the possibilities are endless! As long as everyone is pulling from the same source, we don’t have to pick a cookbook and spend $30 each month.

The club is low commitment, I didn’t want people to feel pressured to participate every month. My goal is that friends feel welcome to participate as they’re able and available, even if they missed the last month or two. We feel out how big the group will be each month by starting a thread 2 weeks out from the meeting date asking those who are joining what they will be cooking. This way, we know who to expect and don’t overlap dishes.

The first pick came from my college friend and roommate Elodie! Always true to her Wisconsinite roots, she picked Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking from the Heartland by Shauna Sever. Six of us joined the Zoom meeting, while others who couldn’t make the Zoom shared photos and blurbs of what they made on the Facebook group.

I made, at the request of my father, Sever’s donut loaf. The colossal loaf was not difficult, but it was involved. Personally, I felt a similar effect and taste could be achieved through a simpler recipe. The consensus from the group was that Sever’s cookbook is meant for a more experienced baker, who doesn’t mind going the extra mile for a more true-to-tradition result. Other dishes made included the butter pecan cake, the lemon bundt cake, and the banana bread.

I’m excited to continue trying new cook books and recipes, and connecting with more friends over delicious food!

PB&J Cookies and Daisy Jones & the Six

Reviews

One of the greatest decades of rock and roll comes to life off the pages of Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The book follows the story of fictional rock band Daisy Jones & the Six including their origins, rise to fame, and personal demises. A brilliant piece of work, Reid’s book centers strong and complex female characters wrapped up in an intoxicating thrill ride you can only find on the ‘70s rock scene.

Daisy Jones & the Six feels less like a novel and more like a historical artifact. I found myself wanting to look up iconic album covers described and to listen to the songs as I read about their creation. The genius behind this impact is Reid’s decision to tell this story as if it’s an oral history. The book is written as a transcript of interviews with various members of the band and other relevant parties. By interweaving these retrospective narratives, Reid is able to develop a clear voice for each personality—voices that often tell conflicting sides to the same story.

Here, Reid is able to toy with the idea of memory and perspective. Each person experiences the same moment differently. Add the wares of time, personal bias, and desires (conscious or unconscious) to control the narrative, and the memory of the moment for one person can be unrecognizable from the memory of another person who experienced the same moment. This theme appears throughout the novel, especially between icon Daisy and front man Billy as tensions rise. The narrator warns us early on, “The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.”

Switching between the perspectives of an ever-rotating cast of characters could have provided difficulties with fully developing each character as a whole…except, it didn’t. Reid’s masterful character development and ability to give distinctive voices to her cast make for seamless transitions between each interviewee. Quickly, you are able to understand and even hear these (fictional) historic figures come to life. And it’s nearly impossible to believe that none of it was ever real.

Nearly impossible. The reason why it is possible to believe is because it’s Taylor Jenkins Reid, a master of storytelling and characterization. Daisy Jones & the Six is just one of her many masterpieces. I’ve already since devoured The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (more on that one another time…) and can’t wait to continue working my way through the Taylor Jenkins Reid library.


While Daisy Jones & the Six doesn’t feature a lot of food, there was a sweet moment between Daisy and Julia, Billy’s daughter, where Daisy takes the little girl to eat a peanut butter cookie. That was all I needed. I modified Shelly Jaronsky’s peanut butter & jelly cookie recipe. Just like you can’t imagine Daisy Jones without The Six, it’s hard to imagine peanut butter without jelly—two pairings so classic, better duos have yet to form (ok, except maybe milk and cookies?). I followed Jaronsky’s measurements and instructions, but instead of adding a little bit of peanut butter and jelly to each cookie I scooped out, I made a well in one cookie and topped it with another cookie in order to form a much larger cookie that could contain more pb&j. My advice when making this recipe is to really go for it with the fillings. Mine didn’t have quite as much jelly as I desired, and I’ll definitely be stuffing my next cookies so that they’re practically bursting in the future! Just like in Daisy Jones & The Six, a little mess can make for something amazing.

Roasted Tomato Summer Fettuccine and Normal People

Reviews and Recipes
“Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.” -Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has developed quite the buzz. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, earning a spot among Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2019, and rated by many of my friends as five-stars—I was excited to finally read Rooney’s critically acclaimed work. I ordered my copy from CoMo-local booksellers Skylark Bookshop for my quarantine reading enjoyment.

Except, I didn’t love it.

Immediately, I knew Rooney and I were going to have issues when I discovered Normal People doesn’t use quotation marks to indicate dialogue—one of my biggest pet peeves. I have yet to decipher what literary meaning the lack of quotation marks imbues on a work, except to only signal literary greatness without having to do any of the work (that, and to drive me insane).

There isn’t exactly a plot in Normal People, which is fine. It follows the story of Connell and Marianne, two young Irish millennials, and how their lives circle each other from high school to college. It’s about love, friendship, and what it means to be normal (or, on the contrast, what it means to be human). Rooney’s exploration of normalcy—its facade, its lack thereof, and its perception—is the most fascinating and well executed aspect of this novel.

While characters criticize themselves for not being normal, the reader is able to relate with their eccentricities in various forms, raising the question, what is normal? Is “normal” what is universal, what is right and good by societal standards, or is the only “normal” thing about any of us our complete lack of normalcy? Is it normal to be unnormal? Rooney explores this at length through Connell and Marianne.

However, through the hyper-focus on Connell and Marianne, character development on literally any other person in the book is totally lost. Connell and Marianne themselves experience little growth throughout the novel. They are cynical, melancholic, and maladjusted. Perhaps those are manageable characteristics in protagonists, but the romanticized vision of cool encapsulated by shrugs, smoking, apathy, and alienation is trite and overdone. Their relationship is cyclical and unhealthy, and the most uncomfortable dynamics of their relationship are never truly resolved.

However, if you were a once-fan of John Green and Looking for Alaska, Normal People is a good adult, literary fiction novel for your TBR.

Don’t get me wrong, Normal People has beautiful paragraphs where points are made (I mean, the self-aware criticism of modern literature that takes place when Connell attends a university reading? WOW!). However, overall, this book wasn’t for me.


While I wasn’t thrilled with the book, I am thrilled about this dish it inspired. When Connell and other friends visit Marianne in her Italy summer home, they eat pasta for dinner. It’s mentioned in passing (“The pasta is delicious, says Elaine.”), which gave me plenty of room to dream up what they’re eating.Thinking these are rich college students spending their summer in Italy, I imagined they were eating a simultaneously easy but decadent dish. This roasted tomato pasta is just that—easy to put together but made oh-so-delicious by the cherry tomatoes that are at their peak in summer.


Summer Roasted Tomato Fettuccine

Perfect for enjoying in your Italian holiday home; or at least perfect for helping you imagine you have an Italian holiday home.

Yield: 4 servings | Cook time: 30 min

Processed with VSCO with av8 preset

INGREDIENTS:

  • 16 oz grape or cherry tomatoes
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 16 oz fettuccine
  • 4 oz bocconcini
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup parmesan
  • Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, fresh basil leaves to taste

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
  2. Half cherry tomatoes and toss with 2 Tbsp olive oil, garlic cloves, salt, and pepper. Roast on baking sheet for 15-20 minutes until tomatoes are wilted and tender.
  3. Meanwhile, cook fettuccine according to box instructions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before straining.
  4. In a large skillet, combine remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil, butter, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper over medium-high heat.
  5. Once butter is fully melted, reduce to low heat and add pasta and parmesan until parmesan is melted and pasta is well coated. Add pasta water until you reach desired consistency.
  6. Gently toss in roasted tomatoes and garlic (along with any juice leftover from roasting), bocconcini, and basil.
  7. Serve and enjoy!

TIPS:

  • If you can’t find fresh basil leaves (we couldn’t—what you see in the picture is actually spinach!), add in dried basil as the olive oil/butter combination heats up.
  • This dish is easily adjusted—roast other vegetables you have in the house such as zucchini or asparagus with the tomatoes to add even more veggie-goodness!

Cherry Hand Pies and The Goldfinch

Reviews and Recipes
“I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.” -The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

When I packed up my suitcase to fly from New York to Missouri to my parents’ house, I didn’t bring much with me. I did decide, however, to bring home a copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelf for weeks: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I figured if there was ever going to be a time that I could sit down and read the nearly-800-page tome, it would be in quarantine during a pandemic.

As a reader (and a person), I’m the instant-gratification-type. I generally read books less than 400 pages, because it means I can read more of them in less time. Plus, I’m a commitment-phobe. I’m very stubborn about finishing most books I pick up (exceptions include The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, sorry!), so the thought of being stuck reading an 800 page book that I didn’t even like terrified me. Still, I knew I wanted to read The Goldfinch, I just had to get over my fears.

Once I started it, I didn’t stop.

I devoured The Goldfinch in less than two weeks. Donna Tartt’s page-turning epic follows the story of Theo Decker, a boy who survives his mother in a fatal tragedy and comes into possession of one of the world’s most famous paintings. As he moves through the next two decades of his life, he finds himself out of place no matter where he is, befriending vivid characters, falling in unrequited love, and slipping into the seedy underbelly of the art world.

Trailing Theo’s life from the time he’s only thirteen years old until his late twenties, Tartt takes no shortcuts. Every movement and moment of Theo’s life is faithfully tracked, and while that sounds tiresome as a reader, Tartt’s storytelling is masterful and engaging. Besides a slow spot smack in the middle of the book that had me texting a friend, “Does it pick back up? Is it worth it?” (she responded with a resounding “YES” that I have to now agree with), the pacing of the story is nearly perfect. It’s quick enough to keep one engaged, while drawn out enough to create tension. And I mean tension. At the different emotional heights of the book I found myself emotionally and physically tense, anxious, and eager to keep reading, holding my breath.

The characters of The Goldfinch as well are dynamic, vivid, and well-established. Instantly, characters like the soft-spoken Hobie who restores antiques in his shop’s basement, the Ukrainian 14-year-old drunk Boris, and most notably the sanctified ghostly presence of Theo’s deceased mother are able to come to . That being said, one of Tartt’s largest obstacles in The Goldfinch is the question of Theo’s redemption. Theo’s character is so deeply flawed and constantly making bad decisions based on poor judgement, and throughout 771 pages has almost no growth or development. Everything happens to Theo—he is a bystander in his own story with little moral standards or independence. While this makes it difficult to empathize with Theo, it makes the story itself even more engrossing.

While this wasn’t a five-star book for me—I reserve such a rating only for the books I feel have absolutely changed my life and worldview—it was definitely a well earned four-star. The only thing that really negatively affected the book and its rating for me was the final chapter: a seemingly never-ending philosophical pondering on the meaning of life from Theo—someone I don’t exactly want to take life advice from. Ending the book on that note left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but still the impact of the other 760 pages of the book was powerful enough to overcome that final chapter.


There was actually quite a bit of food mentioned in The Goldfinch. What stood out to me the most was a passing mention of a cherry tart early on in the book:

“Shall I go up there with you and talk to her?” said Hobie one afternoon while we were in the kitchen eating a cherry tart he’d bought at the farmers’ market.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I knew that I wanted to riff off that cherry tart, and came up with these delicious cherry hand pies. While they are time-consuming, they’re relatively easy and give the whole house a sweet, sugary country smell.


Cherry Hand Pies

A handheld personal dessert that will have your neighbors knocking on your door asking, “What is that amazing smell?”

Yield: 4 hand pies | Prep time: 1 hour and 45 min | Cook time: 18 min | Total time: 2 hours and 3 minutes

INGREDIENTS:

Filling:

  • 1 lb frozen sweet cherries – thawed overnight in refrigerator
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3-5 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • Optional: 1/8 tsp almond extract

Crust:

  • Puff pastry (I used a pre-made sheet from the grocery store, though you can make your own)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp water

INSTRUCTIONS:

  1. Mix sugar and thawed cherries. Simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
  2. Once the cherries are tender and have released most of their juices, strain the cherries and continue to cook the released juices until reduced to ½ to 1/3 cup.
  3. In a small bowl, add cherry juice to cornstarch (start with 3 Tbsp), whisking together to create a slurry.
  4. Add slurry, cherries, lemon juice, and almond extract (if you’re using it) back into pot over medium heat. Stir constantly! Careful that the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom.
  5. If after a couple minutes the filling isn’t thickening as much as you’d like it to, strain again and add juices to another 1 Tbsp or so of cornstarch. Add slurry back into the cherry mixture on stove. Continue until you reach desired consistency.
  6. Remove filling from stove and allow to cool completely. Moving the filling into another bowl will help expedite the cooling process.
  7. While the filling cools, lay out the puff pastry sheet and cut into 8 equal rectangles in order to create 4 medium sized hand pies. (You could also use a cookie cutter to create heart shaped or circle hand pies, cut them into smaller sizes to create more pies, etc.—just be aware that this will affect your cooking time.)
  8. Cut three small slashes across half of the puff pastries—these will be the top of your hand pies.
  9. Once filling has cooled, use a cookie scoop to plop filling onto the pastries without slashes. Place the tops onto the pies and use a fork to seal and crimp the edges.
  10. Brush an egg wash over the pies.
  11. Place the assembled pies in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
  12. After refrigeration, bake pies in the oven at 450 degrees for 17-19 minutes.
  13. Allow to cool completely before you dig in…if you can manage to wait.

TIPS:

  • You can skip refrigerating the assembled hand pies if you’d like, though the dough is less likely to rise evenly, and the filling may spill out.
  • I tested this recipe both with and without almond extract, it boils down to your personal taste. While I preferred the sweeter version without the almond extract, my dad (AKA Official Taste Tester) preferred the nuttier bite that the almond extract adds.
  • You can, of course, use fresh sweet cherries for this recipe. However, be ready to spend a good 30 min to an hour pitting the cherries beforehand.
  • For sour cherries, leave out lemon juice and add more sugar to taste.
  • You’ll likely end up with some extra cherry pie filling—perfect to add on top of pancakes, oatmeal, crepes, or a hundred other possibilities!

Red Velvet Cookies and The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers

Reviews and Recipes
“Real strength has to do with helping others.” -Fred Rogers

Every time a new tragedy, domestic or international, befalls humanity, a hopeful quote from Fred Rogers begins to circulate.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” says Rogers, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

While the world is attempting to stop a pandemic and millions are confined to their homes, it can be difficult to feel hopeful at all. Before I left New York to stay with my parents, the city felt like something from an apocalypse movie. The streets (and pharmacy/grocery shelves) were eerily empty. You couldn’t get your BEC from the bodega or meet your friends for Sunday brunch or Friday happy hour. Going out and being around people is New York City’s bread and butter. You don’t live in NYC to be apart–you live in NYC to be together. Together with the world, arts, culture, and people. Social distancing, quarantining, and self-isolating took away the blood of the city.

Sure, I still saw people. In fact, the grocery store and CVS were probably more crowded than usual. Yet everyone’s anxiety and suspicion, turned toward one another and taken out on each other, made it clear that this was not our normal weekend shopping trip. The collective but individualistic thought was: Anyone could be a carrier, trust no one.

Except, that’s not how people get through things. Of course, it’s called for to be overly cautious, but does being careful mean being cruel? Yelling at postal clerks and hoarding canned goods?

It felt like the perfect time for me to start Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, The Good Neighbor. I needed a reminder of gentleness and kindness, a role model of caring for one another.


Maxwell King paints an exquisite portrait of the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the iconic PBS children’s show that aired for almost 40 years. While King’s biography is certainly dense, it is detailed and never dry. Anecdotes illustrate facts of Rogers’ character, and the history of Rogers’ life reveal how the quiet man became a media giant that revolutionized children’s media.

The Good Neighbor is a lesson in not only Rogers’ life story, but in the development of children’s media and the practice of human kindness as well. From every angle, I found this book interesting and informative. Despite my lack-luster reading experience (finishing this book took a little discipline), what I gained from it was well worth sitting through the sometimes repetitive text. This book may be better ingested a chapter here and a chapter there while reading a novel or memoir at the same time, allowing you to take in the information piece by piece without committing to intake the wealth of information all at once.


What touches me most about Rogers was his commitment to people. Every person and every child deserves love, to be listened to, and to feel special (because Rogers genuinely believed they are special). Connecting with people is perhaps one of the most important things we can do, and we are now being challenged to find new ways to connect when we cannot meet in person.

In a blog post for To Write Love on Her Arms, Jamie Tworkowski writes, “Conversations will not be cancelled. Relationships will not be cancelled. Love will not be cancelled…Hope will not be cancelled.” Despite global closures and cancellations, we must hold onto the good that remains and innovate how we connect.


For The Good Neighbor, I baked red velvet cookies (recipe by Just So Tasty), inspired by the bright red sweater Mister Rogers famously wore each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and by the idea that I wanted to bake something shareable. After finishing these cookies (which were dangerously easy to whip up for something that tastes so decadent), I bagged some up to leave on the doorsteps of my neighbors, hoping the yummy treats will bring a smile to their families.

Reader, won’t you be my neighbor?