30 September, 2010

Bread, cheese and Beer

As soon as the leaves start to fall, I start to think of comfort food -- soups, stews, pasta, and lots of cheese.

As Jonathan Swift once said: "Bachelor's fare: Bread, cheese, and kisses."  He forgot the beer.  

The English favour a pub meal called a Ploughman's Lunch, basically composed of cheese (usually a thick piece of Cheddar, Stilton or other local cheese); pickle (or what we call "relish" in the US), bread, and butter. If you're really lucky, a green salad, an apple, celery, pickled onions, or pâté may join the cheese on the plate. The ensemble is washed down with a pint of (warm) beer.  Sheer bliss, if you can get over warm beer.

I Like things simple, so I've cut out the middleman -- I mix my cheese and beer, and spread them on my bread.

Cheddar Ale Spread

6 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (1½ lbs)
3 oz cream cheese, softened
4 Tbsp soft butter or margarine
3/4 cup ale or beer ( I like oatmeal stout, but any beer will do)
1 tsp dry mustard
¼ tsp crushed red pepper

Beat cheddar, cream cheese and butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer - or in food processor - until smooth. Gradually beat in ale, mustard and crushed red pepper.
Pack into stone crock(s) and cover tightly. Allow to "age" overnight.
Keeps well for several weeks and, packed into small crocks, makes a lovely hostess gift.

Yield: two 16 ounce crocks

24 September, 2010

The Heart of a Heroine

Did you ever own a Raggedy Ann doll? If you're female, I'm betting you did.

I've lived in Connecticut for almost 30 years, and it wasn't until recently that I discovered that Ann -- and her brother, Andy -- were created right here in my home town.

It's a known fact that the duo were created by Johny Gruelle. Gruelle was born in Illinois, but eventually moved his family to the East Coast, where he'd accepted a full-time position with The New York Herald (turning out weekly pages of his Sunday comic, "Mr. Twee Deedle"), as well as several book illustrating commissions.

Around 1912, he built a house in the Silvermine area of Wilton. Somewhat of a pioneer, he included amenities most homes didn't have: electricity, running water and -- ta dah - indoor plumbing.

There are several versions of the story of how Raggedy Ann came to be, but around here we go with the bittersweet version.

Marcella, the Gruelles' 13-year old daughter, contracted smallpox. In order to amuse his ailing child, Gruelle created entertaining stories, about the rag doll she'd found earlier in her grandparents' attic -- a plain doll with no face until Gruelle penned one on, with a triangular nose. Raggedy Ann was kind, sweet, and loyal. Everything a little girl wants in a best friend. It was not until after Marcella's death that the stories -- featuring Raggedy Ann, her brother, and Marcella's playroom friends --were put down on paper for generations of children to enjoy.

But what about the candy heart? That red heart survived dousings and drenchings, and even a trip through the ringer. and still held together. The candy heart was, it seemed, the invincible, and spiritual, source of Raggedy Ann's kind, sweet nature. One legend claims that the first dolls, created by Gruelle's own family, did, indeed, have real-life candy hearts, with "I Love You" printed on them, sewn into their bodies. True? Who knows.

My red-headed doll may not have had a real candy heart -- just a heart-shaped stamp and "I Love You" heart embroidered on her chest -- but I remember clutching her tightly as my mother read from the tattered copies of Raggedy Ann Stories and Raggedy Andy Stories. I wonder what ever happened to her? I kind of hope she's out there playing with Andy.

14 September, 2010

Work or Boondoggle?

When you hear about writers' retreats, do you picture sunny beaches, cabana boys, and pina coladas, or do you see a room full of people feverishly scribbling notes and engaging in heated discussions?

If you picked the first choice, you're WRONG.

I just returned from the Seascape Mystery Writers Retreat, and let me tell you, we worked our [insert word of your choice] off.  I'm not saying we didn't have have great time, but it was no  lay-in-the-sun vacation.  We worked on our manuscripts, discovered our strengths and weaknesses, and commiserated on the uphill battle of getting published..  We honed our skills at plotting, creating suspense, and developing characters.  And we did it from 9 AM to 9 PM.  Along the way, we made new friends, found hidden talents and laughed a whole lot.

 Hallie Ephron, Roberta Isleib, and S.W. Hubbard generously shared their talent, wisdom, and knowledge with us.  We learned how to pump up suspense, how to develop a plot in 30 minutes, and how to write the dreaded synopsis (I never knew these were used by so many people other than an agent!).  We also crafted elevator pitches and query letters.  And those were just the supplemental sessions!

Writing is often - make that most times - a solitary  pursuit.  You sit in your little room - the part of a room you've staked out as your own - staring at your computer screen, praying for inspiration.  Or staring at a stack of pages that need revising.  And everywhere you turn people (as in non-writers) say "how hard can it be to write a book?"  That's a question you don't have to answer at a writers' retreat.  We all know the answer.

What will I take away from this weekend?  Obviously a lot of new information, techniques, and skills.  But most of all, I'll remember the special camaraderie that writers can only share with other writers and all the new friends I made (and hope to see in print very soon).

02 September, 2010

Anyone want a doggie bag?

Sometimes writing can actually  save you time - especially if your primary character is a caterer.
Most days, I carve out an hour or two to write, or do research, fitting the time in whenever I can.  Sound familiar?  Good writing takes time, and that's time taken away from everything else we need to do - like laundry, holding down a job to pay the bills, etc.  I don't regret the time, I just wish there were more hours in the day.

Generally I look to my life for inspiration for my writing, but this week I'm going the opposite way.  My current WIP has the protagonist faced with catering a huge cocktail party - a senate campaign launch..  The first thing she has to do is decide on a menu, and then prepare the food for 150 hungry people -- all in 24 short hours.

As life would have it, I'm planning an open house/cocktail party in celebration of my mother's 90th birthday this month.  Who better to consult than my own character?  The menu is already planned for the book, the recipes already tested.  All I have to do is make out the shopping list, cook, and serve.  And I'm only having 45 guests - 1/3 the number my character has to feed!  Here's the menu:

Platters:
Pate de Campagne
Assorted cheeses w/ fresh & dried fruit
Smoked salmon (courtesy of the local bistro who cure their own)
Artichoke Pesto dip
Beer cheddar spread

Cold:
Greek salad skewers
Caprese skewers
Prosciutto & melon skewers
Gazpacho shots
Beef Crostini w/ red pepper mayonnaire
Endive spears w/ blue cheese mousse

Hot:
Mini Frittatas
Lemon Pork Sandwiches
Meatball sliders
Hamn, Gruyere & Honey Mustard Palmiers
Pigs in a blanket
Goat cheese & caramelized onion puffs
Mushroom empanadas
Artichoke & spinach bites

Sweets:
Rosemary shortbread
Profiteroles
Fruit tartlets ( lemon, lime, strawberry rhubarb, nut)

What do you think?  Enough variety?  Anyone going home hungry? Anyone want a doggie bag?