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July 6, 2010

Bookclub Discussion Questions: The Reluctant Widow

I've long told my bookclub I was going to make them read a romance novel, so this month, I did. Unfortunately, the one I chose -- The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer -- was a little slight on the romance angle, more of a mystery, really, but here were the questions I prepared.

1. Do you typically read romance novels? Why or why not?

2. What about other examples of what's thought of as 'genre fiction' as opposed to literary fiction -- horror, mystery, fantasy, sf, etc. Do you read any of them?

3. Georgette Heyer basically invented the Regency romance genre, attempting to emulate the novels of Jane Austen, with 150 years between them. If you've read Austen, does the Reluctant Widow genuinely compare? Were you aware of when the book was written? Would you have guessed if you didn't know?

4. Kathleen Woodiwiss is said to have invented 'modern romance' in 1972, with The Flame and The Flower, the first book to have followed the characters into the bedroom. Heyer's predates the bodice-ripper innovation, so there's no physical affection between the characters in her books (other than one kiss, typically). Do you have a preference for style?

5. One common criticism of romance novels is that the romance itself seems to arise out of nothing -- characters with little in common and no real reason to fall in love other than that they did. Did the romance itself feel believable in this novel?

6. What about the mystery element?

7. Genre tropes:
* mystery or farce elements in the plot
* references to the Ton (le bon ton)
* a secondary romance between another couple in addition to the more serious story involving the main protagonists
* mistaken identity, deliberate or otherwise
* false engagements
* marriages of convenience
* depictions of activities common during the social season such as balls, routs, carriage riding, theatre events, fittings, suppers, assemblies, etc.
* references to, or descriptions of, leisure activities engaged in by fashionable young men of the period, including riding, driving, boxing, gambling, fencing, shooting, etc.

8. A common subject of debate around Regencies is the level of details into things like carriages, pelisses, dances and the like. Did you find the world seems fully inhabitable or would you have liked more or less details about the setting?

July 12, 2010

2 times 50 is a 100, right?

When this NYMag story about Del Posto's 100-layer lasagna first crossed my desk, it immediately caught my imagination. Nearly anyone on my IM contact list who has even a passing interest in food got an OMG! type IM from me with the link, because I love lasagna and that photograph is something else.

Without having a recipe or a sous chef, I set about to see if I could at least partially recreate the experience.

The first problem was pans. There's no scale in that NYMag picture, so it's hard to say how thick that lasagna actually is. I looked around at a few kitchen stores, and finally settled on some Wilton long loaf cake pans, which at 4 1/2 inches, were the deepest pans I could find without ordering something in special. There are 6 inch deep cake pans out there, but nobody seems to actually carry them routinely.

Having bought pans I will probably never use again (if anyone has suggestions for other things to use these pans for, please do let me know), I was committed to the project, and started looking around for sauce recipes. The article mentions Marinara, Bechamel and Ragu. I don't really need a recipe for marinara sauce, but while I can make a passable bechamel without a recipe, I wanted to get the proportions right for this lasagna.

I eventually settled on a Wild Boar Ragu recipe from Frank de Carlo at Peasant, but decided to use regular pork instead of Wild Boar, because, well, Wild Boar is expensive and pain-in-the-assy to acquire, and the things that make it great weren't likely to shine through in a dish as complicated as this lasagna.

For a bechamel, I opted to use the Cooks Illustrated recipe from their spinache lasagna, since I figured it'd me the right thickness for lasagna.

Even with recipes in hand, what I didn't have was any idea how much of anything I'd really need. The pans each hold 4 liters of water, so I estimated 2 liters of each sauce plus pasta. Then wildy overshot those marks in actually making the sauces, but what the hell. It's sauce. It freezes. Plus, I didn't think one giant can of San Marzano tomatoes was going to be quite enough, once I'd opened the second giant can of San Marzano tomatoes, I figured I should use more than a cup or two of them.

lasagna can

The lasagna was needed for a Saturday afternoon potluck, and would need most of Saturday to cook and congeal, so it was clear it had to be ready to go in the oven by end of day Friday. Calculating back through all the things that needed to be done, I started on Wednesday night, by prepping the pork and getting it in the marinade.

lasagna marinade

Thursday night, I didn't have a lot of time due to other commitments, but I did take an hour and a half to prep 8lbs of fresh pasta dough. I had a feeling that might be overkill, but one carton of eggs worth of dough (4lbs) didn't seem likely to be enough, and I don't really eat eggs anyway, so saving half of the second carton of eggs didn't seem all that useful. Plus, as with the sauces, I was far more worried about running out than having too much.

lasagna noodles

Friday morning, I got up early and browned the pork, added the other ingredients for the ragu and set it in the oven to braise away while I was working.

lasagna fry

lasagna ragu before

I also threw a pot of marinara on the stove to bubble merrily throughout the morning.

lasagna marinara

I took both the marinara and the ragu off heat around lunch time to give them a chance to cool down a fair bit before I had to work with them. Took advantage of the giant vat of ragu, rolled out a smidgen of the pasta and tried it for lunch. Needed salt. Glad I tasted it.

I knocked off work about 5pm, at which point the two red sauces were cool. I fished all the pork out of the ragu, shredded it with a couple of forks, blended the rest of the sauce, and returned the pork to it.

lasagna ragu after

As I was doing that, I was also making the bechamel. As with every single other time I've ever tried to multi-task while making bechamel, I came to regret it.

lasagna burnt

Sigh. Fortunately, I burnt that before the grocery stores closed for the evening. I ran off to get new ingredients, my mental list comprising milk, garlic and caffeine. The caffeine wasn't so much for the recipe as for the chef. I probably should have drank some at the grocery store, and I wouldn't have forgotten the garlic. Fortunately, I had double forgotten the garlic, because in adding it to my mental list, I had forgotten that I had chopped way too much of it for the first batch, and that there was still more than enough in a ziploc baggy in my fridge. Yay for my lousy short term memory!

The new bechamel was much better, in so far as it didn't taste like carbon. It was a little garlicky, but garlic > carbon.

lasagna bechamel

A little trial and error determined that 1.5 ounces of pasta dough rolled to the lowest setting on my machine almost precisely filled my pans, and I was off with the layering -- marinara - pasta - bechamel - pasta - ragu - pasta - repeat. I managed to fit 8 iterations of that in my pan, finishing off with a layer of marinara, and then planned to add cheese for the 50th layer half way through baking. I could have added a couple extra layers to each pan, but 50 seemed like a much nicer number than 53 or 57 or whatever it might have eventually worked out to.

By the time the second pan was layered and nestled in the fridge, it was a little after midnight.

lasagna before

The next morning, I got up, popped both pans into the oven under tin foil and left them alone for awhile. With an hour left in my totally guesstimated bake time, I took them out and applied fresh mozarella.

Or, to be more precise, I applied fresh mozzarella to the first pan, in my usual manner of doing these things: a little for the pan, a little for the chef, a little for the pan, a little for the chef.

As I started the second pan, I was going through the same motions. A little for the pan, a little for the ... blech ptooey! The second ball of mozza was definitely bad. I pulled off the slice I'd already applied and finished the second pan with a layer of parmegiano reggiano instead.

Another hour in the oven, and they were ready for their glamour shot:

lasagna oven

I mean to get an action shot in the pan at the potluck, but I was otherwise occupied with scoping out everyong else's food. Once the first slice came out, it was a lot easier to serve than I'd expected. A long metal spatula did the trick quite readily.

Here's what it looked like on the plate:

lasagna plate

The NYMag article also mentions that they pan fry the leftovers for the lunch menu at Del Posto, and there were leftovers, so, hey. Refried lasagna? What's not to love?

lasagna fried

And plated with some leftover ragu and bechamel:

lasagna sauce

I actually liked it much better re-fried and covered in sauce than I did when it was fresh. My overall impression is that there was too much pasta and not enough sauce in my version. It ended up being kind of brickish and heavy. I think the pasta needs to be much thinner (but my machine doesn't go any thinner, so I'd have to have done that manually) and the sauce layers thicker to give it more balance. I also think I'd use a much thinner bechamel, to make those layers less gluey, as well.

Still, it was a fun little project. Now what else can I make in these pans?

About July 2010

This page contains all entries posted to acho que não in July 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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