Monday, 29 February 2016

A perfect book

It seems to me that, these days, I rarely give a book a five star rating. This is beginning to worry me. What happened? Can’t I find good books any more? Have I become more critical/demanding/harder to please with age? What’s going on here?

I have no idea. However, this led me to wonder what, exactly, is a “perfect book” for me. What is it that I want? Let's see.

A good story. I don't think that one needs an explanation, but I'm very open about this one and like all sorts of plots. As long as something does happen. And that something is interesting.

Great characters. Relatable, real, with strengths and weaknesses, characters to root for, etc. etc. – you know how it goes. That’s what readers want; characters are who they connect with. And the best books... the best books make me fall in love with their characters! Mmm, nothing like a good literary crush! ;)

Feelings. This is simple. A book can be entertaining, but if it fails to make me feel, I can’t rate it among the best. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me grip the book in fear... The really good ones, of course, cause a wide variety of different feelings. The best ones have made me laugh and cry within a single paragraph. Some have made me put the book down and pace around in agony because it’s too much, I can’t take it any more!!!

Food for thought. It doesn’t have to be extremely profound or philosophical and deep, but I like it when a book gives me something to think about. Questions, ideas, a whole new perspective into things – it doesn’t really matter what; sometimes it's enough to find myself thinking about the book while, say, doing the laundry.

Beautiful writing. I know. It shouldn’t matter so much. But I can’t help it. It’s the word wrestler in me. It can’t resist evocative language, words that flow like music, phrases that are so beautiful or poignant that I have to read them again and again just to savour them. A skilful use of words alone doesn’t make a book great. However, even if everything else falls into place but the writing is flat, I can’t consider it a perfect book.

Genre? That's fairly irrelevant to me. "Fairly", because historical fiction gets extra points. ;)

How often do you see all these points come together in one book? Rarely? Hardly ever? Should I be less demanding? After all, it would take something close to superhuman skills to pull it off. Yet I’ve seen it done. Some books just are that good.

So... what do you want from a perfect book?

(The books in the picture aren't actually my favourite books - except maybe "The Shadow of the Wind", which is awesome; a book about books! - I just put them there because they look pretty. :) )

Monday, 22 February 2016

February - the month of pearls

We've reached February in my monthly "what's in a name" series.

February in Finnish is helmikuu, literally 'pearl moth'. But why? What does February have to do with pearls?

It's another month name that has its origins in a natural phenomenon or something related to the weather. In February, you can sometimes see tiny ice pearls decorating tree branches. This happens when the weather turns first warmer and the snow melts, then it gets colder again and the water dripping down from the branches freezes.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to witness this phenomenon recently or take a picture of it. Right now, trees are covered in snow. Hence the clumsy imitation of the real thing. :D

Monday, 15 February 2016

All for Love - Valentine's Day 2016

Last year, I surprised my DH by cooking a Valentine's Day dinner in Game of Thrones style. Previously, we've done Medieval Feasts, Ancient Romans etc., and I needed to come up with a new theme. Since we both love “The Three Musketeers” and since it just so happens that the 17th century has featured very strongly in our interests lately, it seemed like a good choice.

Unfortunately, I could not find a blog or a website featuring food from Alexandre Dumas' novels... so I had no choice but to read the book and see what I could find. I used to love the musketeer novels as a child, so it was actually a very pleasant task. I bookmarked all references to food and from those notes started to construct the menu.

Similarly to last year, I had certain conditions. The dishes should be fairly easy and fast to prepare; something I could find the ingredients for in local grocery stores, and something we all might enjoy eating. Since the descriptions of the dishes left much room for imagination, I could have prepared the food pretty much the way I wanted to. However, I thought it would be more fun to use authentic 17th century recipes as some sort of a reference.

On Friday evening (not the actual Valentine's Day, but more convenient than Sunday), my DH received this invitation:

This is how the menu turned out (I added quotes from the novel to show where the idea for each dish came from and also just because they were amusing):


Eggs à la Aramis

served with spinach and roquefort
Recipe adapted from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt., 1677
”We’ll dine soon, my dear friend; only you’ll remember that today is Friday, and on such a day I can neither see nor eat any meat. If you’ll content yourself with my dinner, it’s composed of cooked tetragons and fruit.”

”What do you mean by tetragons?” d’Artagnan asked uneasily.

”I mean spinach,” said Aramis. ”But for you I’ll add eggs, and that is a grave infraction of the rule, for eggs are meat, since they engender the chicken.”

Chicken Larded with Lemmons, on the French fashion

served with French bread
Recipe adapted from A New Booke of Cookerie, 1615
”Do you know what we’re eating here?” asked Athos, after ten minutes.

”Pardieu!” replied d’Artagnan, ”I’m eating veal larded with cardoons and marrow.”

”And I’m eating fillets of lamb”, said Porthos.

”And I’m eating breast of chicken,” said Aramis.

”You’re all mistaken, gentlemen,” replied Athos. ”You are eating horse.”

Huguenot Torte with honey, almonds and mock quinces

served with cheese
… Mme Coquenard got up and took from the buffet a piece of cheese, some quince preserves, and a cake she had made herself from almonds and honey.

For the appetizer, I simply fried some eggs, crumbled some blue cheese on them, let it melt and served everything on a bed of spinach. No recipe was needed, but since I wanted to refer to one, I found something appropriate in "The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt., 1677". The eggs turned out to be delicious – my family requested I make these more often!

The main course was chicken, and I found “Capon Larded with Lemmons on the French fashion” in the vast, truly amazing collection of Gode Cookery's historical recipes, and it seemed perfect. The recipe was a little complicated, but I simplified it by leaving out some ingredients I couldn't find and substituting for some, e.g. there are no preserved lemons available around here, so I sliced some fresh ones and used them. Cranberries doubled for barberries (I gathered these are some sort of bitter berries) and used lemon juice in lieu of verjuice (a substitution suggested in various places). I had no idea how this would turn out - it seemed like such a weird bunch of so many ingredients - but it was very tasty! The flavours actually worked very well together. There were no leftovers!

Dessert was a little tricky: it was difficult to find a good 17th century cake recipe – it seems that cakes were more like pies and tortes at the time, not like modern cakes. I had almost given up and settled on a modern recipe but wasn't quite happy with that. Then I came across Huguenot Torte, and it immediately appealed to me (it was the words “gooey” and “sticky” that did it). I am aware that Huguenot Torte does not actually date back to the 17th century, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a variant of Ozark pudding, whose predecessor, gateau aux noisettes (cake with hazelnuts), was brought to the New World by French Huguenots. I decided that if I used organic honey instead of sugar, almonds instead of pecans and “quinces” (can't get quinces here, but apparently pears are close enough) instead of apples, it would at least have the right ingredients. This probably works better with apples and pecans, but it was nonetheless pretty good, especially when served with mascarpone. The recipe I used was this one.

While researching the recipes I learned a little something about food in the 17th century, and I was thrilled to discover that some 17th century cook books can be found in the Project Guthenberg collection (such as "The Accomplisht Cook or, The art & mystery of cookery"... the art and mystery of cookery! Wow!).

Anyway, it was a lovely evening - my DH seemed delighted, my daughter insisted on wearing my Musketeer hat the entire evening and watching "Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds" between courses; the food was good and we had a great time.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Review: Karl Fazer Travel: Toffee Rocks & Salty Cookie, Iced Coffee & Mudcake, Raspberry & Liquorice, Mint & Choco Drops

I’d been looking forward to tasting these new chocolates from Fazer, and on our recent trip to the grocery store, we finally found them! Four entirely new chocolate flavours! I thought that the toffee & cookie version as well as the mudcake were absolute must-haves, and my daughter, a fan of white chocolate, wanted to try the white chocolate with raspberries and liquorice. At this point, my DH talked some sense to us... why buy three when there are four new chocolates available?

So we bought all four and organised a little tasting event. Here, a picture of our highly professional ;) tasting table (we even made sure that everyone had a glass of water to cleanse their palate between bites).

This is a new “Travel” brand from Fazer, and the bars are named after cities: London (milk chocolate with toffee rocks & salty cookie), New York (milk chocolate with iced coffee & mudcake), Copengahen (white chocolate with raspberry & liquorice) and Rio de Janeiro (milk chocolate with mint & choco drops).

The bars are somewhat different from the classic Fazer bars in size, shape and even in wrapping style. The background of the otherwise colourful wrappings is white and each features a drawing that illustrates something iconic about the city the bar is dedicated to. I especially liked the Copenhagen’s little mermaid statue with its tiny Viking helmet (even if the helmet does have horns).

Now, a short look at each flavour:

Milk chocolate, Mint & Choco Drops
The chocolate is mint-flavoured and there are small drops of chocolate candy that look like tiny versions of Smarties. The milk chocolate is rather sweet but very smooth and despite the strong scent, the mint isn’t overpowering. The result is a kind of silky, cool flavour... the chocolate drops provide a surprising contrast in that they’re crunchy and very colourful (a fact that my seven-year-old daughter adored).

White chocolate, Raspberry & Liquorice
This is white chocolate, very sweet and creamy. Raspberry and liquorice come in small, crispy pieces - tiny pink and black dots which give the chocolate a cute appearance. Unfortunately, I could hardly taste the raspberry. The liquorice flavour was somewhat stronger, although it mostly came through as saltiness. The main appeal to me here is not so much the taste itself but the contrast between the sweetness of the chocolate and the saltiness of the liquorice. A little more tart freshness from the raspberries, and this would be quite interesting.

Milk chocolate, Toffee Rocks & Salty Cookie
I had great expectations about this one – after all, I love toffee and the salty trend in chocolate has been much to my liking. The milk chocolate is again sweet and smooth. The saltiness is very mild and the chocolate cookies (listed in the ingredients) aren't easy to locate. The toffee rocks are crispy pieces of something like hard sugar candy - they add a lovely, warm burnt sugar aroma. I like it very much, but this seems like a flavour that you can only truly grasp and appreciate when you have a bigger piece to sample.

Milk chocolate, Iced Coffee & Mudcake
As with the previous one, I expected much from this chocolate, and I wasn’t disappointed! Coffee does not appear on the list of ingredients, the wrapping simply says “coffee flavoured chocolate”. The sweet, smooth milk chocolate does however have a distinct, pleasant coffee flavour (it also smells deliciously like coffee). Chocolate cake, in turn, is included in the list of ingredients, and there are small, soft pieces of chocolate cake that contribute to an interesting texture and a more intense chocolate flavour. Chocolate cake in chocolate! That's about as good as it gets (except chocolate ice-cream with chocolate cake and chocolate sauce and... well you get the idea. ;))

Final verdict: My daughter, who generally abhors the idea of choosing a favourite, fairly judged that all four chocolates were equal and very delicious. My husband found them all rather sweet and "candy-like". I would not have minded some more variety - for example, one of the bars could have been dark chocolate - but on the whole, they were very tasty. My DH and I both rated the mudcake as our favourite, something I could easily get addicted to, and the salty toffee version is also something we'll probably buy again. All these would be perfect for munching on when watching a movie.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Review: Snickers & Hazelnut Limited Edition

Well, it appears that this limited edition Snickers wasn’t something entirely new, but it was only last week that I happened to see it in a grocery store! Where has it been hiding from me? Never mind, I caught it now, and it’s mine... mine...

Ahem. Right. Snickers has never been my favourite chocolate bar (Mars still holds that place), but I’ve come to appreciate it more and more, and it’s usually my go-to bar if I want something not just very sweet but slightly salty. It’s a good, solid choice and something of a classic – and, well, chocolate, caramel and peanuts, what’s not to love?

But what’s different now?

Let’s look at the wrapping first. There’s a lot of bright green, but the familiar font immediately makes the bar recognisable. If you look at the ingredients, you’ll find that the bar still contains peanuts. In fact, peanuts make up 17 % of the bar while hazelnuts only represent 5.6 %.

The scent is familiar; the sweet, nutty scent of Snickers. I cannot say for sure if there’s any difference between this and the scent of the orinigal Snickers (note to self: next time when reviewing limited editions, purchase one of the originals as well... just for comparison purposes, naturally! ;)).

The taste, then. There’s the familiar milk chocolate; very sweet but good, and the soft creamy nougat. Under the chocolate coating is a thick layer of caramel with nuts. I would prefer more caramel and less nuts, but then, I always want more caramel. The nuts come in small pieces and peanuts still dominate the taste. The hazelnut flavour is rather subtle, a little toasty and just slightly dry, but not very noticeable.

All in all, I did not find this version remarkably different from the original. Still, it’s a nice if subtle twist to the regular Snickers, and, just like the original, a delicious combination of sweetness and saltiness, smoothness and crunch.