Women Writers Reading Challenge #37: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

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In the past I’ve really enjoyed Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, which is about English spies during the French Revolution. She is really skilled at intermixing different time periods and showing how our history influences our present. This book is no different.

This stand-alone novel gives insight into the dying world of balls and debutantes in the 1920s. It’s a story about love and its obstacles and how family can build us up or tear at our hearts. It’s a very good historical romance, and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the genre.

Caribbean Vacation Part 2: St Martin/Maarten

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St Martin/St Maarten was the second stop on our trip. We booked a short tour of the island and then had planned to spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach. We didn’t make it to the beach in the afternoon, but I’m glad we stopped by one on the tour. St Martin has some of the most beautiful beaches with the softest sand you can find. The water is beautiful and clear. Truly, the island is a small treasure.

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A small boutique type hotel on the French side.

St Martin/St Maarten is the smallest island in the world that is shared between two countries. The Dutch side, St Maarten, is the more touristy side of the island, since they opened up for tourism twenty years before the French side. The capital of the Dutch side is Philipsburg, with Front Street providing some of the best shopping on the island. It’s also a place where you can go and sample guavaberry liquor, which is the national beverage. The liquor is slightly sweet, but mostly spicy with hints of cinnamon and clove.

The French side is known for its food. St Martin is known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, and in Marigot, you can get French pastries as easily as barbecued chicken and fresh fish. We didn’t get to have lunch there unfortunately, but if you’re going you should definitely sample the many delights this country has to offer.

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The people of St Maarten are extremely warm and friendly. They are much more easy going than I would be about the fact that at each end of the 13 mile island they use different currency (the French side uses euros, the Dutch side US dollars), have different power systems, and have international cell phone restrictions between the two sides. It’s generally cheaper to physically go and talk to the person on the other side rather than call them. Many people who do business on both sides have two separate cell phone plans.

It’s fairly ludicrous, but the two sides live in relative harmony, and have done so ever since the treaty was drawn up in the 17th century stating that the French and Dutch would share the island. On July 12, 1848, massive uprisings in the large slave population led to the abolishment of slavery.

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St Maarten’s biggest industry before the tourism boom of the 1970s was salt. The picture above shows a (dried up) area of brackish water. Places like this would be used to harvest salt, but poor regulations led to the pollution and ultimately the dissolution of the salt industry.

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Almost all the goods used every day by the people of St Maarten/Martin are imported. The island is extremely dry and growing food is very difficult. All luxury goods like jewelry and electronics are imported along with cars and gas and food stuffs. A car in St Martin costs about 3,000 dollars more than the same car in the United States because of import fees. The cars I saw the most of on the island were Hyundais and Nissans, which are relatively lower priced and fairly dependable.

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It only takes about an hour to drive all the way around the island. While you do so, you’re rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding water and beaches. There’s a beach for almost every mile of coastline, and, in true European fashion, there are many clothing optional beaches and resorts as well.

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St Martin is definitely a place to come and enjoy and relax. It’s beautiful and relatively quiet, for all the hustle and bustle of the main towns.

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While I definitely enjoyed the tour, the highlight of the day for me was visiting The Yoda Guy on Front Street. It’s a non-profit museum and store dedicated to the work of Nick Haley, who worked on the development of puppets and makeup for 54 movies including Star Wars, Terminator, Superman, MIB, Highlander, and a ton more. He is absurdly talented, and really is the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet. He and his wife run the museum and spend their days talking to young people and encouraging them to follow their dreams. He talked to a young couple about being “normal” and how following what your friends and other people expect you to do was not going to let you grow as a person the same way as following your passions. He was extremely inspiring and very kind. We bought some of his artwork and walked around the museum oohing and aahing over the memorabilia (as we–my Mom, my honorary aunt, Mel, and I are big movie nerds). We were hot and tired, but this museum was like hitting the refresh button and I’m so glad that we made the stop.

Have you ever been to St Martin/Maarten? What did you think of it? What was your favorite thing about this little treasure of an island?

Baking for Bookworms: Pineapple Upside Down Cake from Dollface by Renee Rosen

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Pineapple upside down cake tends to be a standout dessert no matter where you encounter it, but in Renee Rosen’s book Dollface, it’s a standout dish for reasons beyond its distinct and colorful appearance. Vera, the main character, leaves her childhood behind to enter the dangerous world of the 1920s flapper. It’s only a matter of time before she finds herself on a mobster’s arm (or two) and though she ends up married, there’s little that’s “settled” about it. The pineapple upside down cake is one of her forays into domesticity, and the cake’s demise just moments after this quote takes place, speaks to how perilous her world truly is. If food is one of the ways we create a home, than it can also be a sign of the security we lack:

“For my first stab at home entertaining, I turned to a recipe for upside-down pineapple cake in Mrs. Wilson’s Cook Book. I’d made a practice cake the day before that had fallen as soon as I’d removed it from the oven, so I’d started over, measuring the flour and baking soda from my newly purchased canisters. I prepared the shortening and with my new hand beater blended the ingredients into a fluffy, frothy batter. After it came out of the oven, I was so stinking proud of myself. The cake on my counter looked not too different from Mrs. Wilson’s photographs. I set it in the center of my buffet, carefully covering the top with a glass cake dome.”             181

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Pineapple Upside Down cake is one of those lovely, simple cakes that can be made in one bowl, that don’t have to be frosted, and stay marvelously moist. In short, it’s one of my favorites.

recipe adapted from Martha Stewart

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 can pineapple rings (you can use fresh pineapple of course, but I like the perfect roundness of the canned, not to mention it’s cheaper and easier)
  • 6-12 whiskey soaked maraschino cherries (the soaking part is optional. I found these in my liquor store and they were amazing. You could easily make them yourself–keep the juice for cocktails and soak for at least a couple hours, or you can use regular cherries. I like these cherries and I don’t normally like the regular maraschinos, but if you’re really against the little things, you can use whole pecans too)
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • grated rind of one lime, plus 1 tablespoon juice

Preheat oven to 350F.

Melt butter and pour in (or melt it in) either a cast iron skillet, a pie pan, or a deep cake pan. Sprinkle the sugar over the top and press in the pineapple rings. I typically start on the edges and work my way around before putting the ring in the middle. Put the cherries in the middle of the rings and between the rings as you like (I cut mine in half and stick them in so the cut side faces up).

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Make the batter by first combining all the dry ingredients. Add in milk and vegetable oil and beat for one minute. Add vanilla, egg, and lime and beat until just combined.

Pour batter evenly over the fruit.

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I love the way the pineapples make little crenellations like on a castle tower or rampart.

Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and springy to the touch. Cool in the pan for five minutes before flipping onto a cake plate or platter.

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This would have looked so pretty on my glass cake plate, but I have no clue what might have happened to it… Oh well.

I love that these cakes are so distinct–these and the french macarons are some of my favorites to look at. What’s your favorite dessert to gaze at (even if it’s not your favorite dessert to eat)?

Women Writers Reading Challenge #32: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

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Hemingway has become more myth than man to modern readers, but Paula McLain’s book offers an intriguing glance into the man and the (first) woman who married him. McLain manages to capture Hemingway’s charm as well as his rougher, more cruel traits, as well as what it’s like for his wife, who doesn’t consider herself to be an artist and is therefore left out of crucial parts of his world. Written with empathy for her characters, the book tells us the story of a marriage, the story of a time, and the story of a woman. Even if you’re not a big Hemingway fan (which I’m definitely not), it’s hard not to get swept up into this novel about that magical time for authors and artists in Paris in the late 20s/early 30s.

Baking for Bookworms: Cheese Biscuits from Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

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I didn’t know very much about Zelda Fitzgerald before reading this book (and obviously this was fiction, though well-researched, so there’s still a lot I don’t know about her), but I felt afterwards that I understood her more, and I understood how difficult life had been for her. I’m sorry to say I’d never really given her much thought before, but now I’m really interested to read some of her work. She was certainly an artist in her own right.

The food mentioned in the book is definitely overshadowed by the booze (both in variety and quantity), but I really wanted to share a food and not a cocktail recipe this week, so I settled on the food that’s mentioned on the first page: cheese biscuits. Interestingly, Zelda isn’t really into cheese biscuits, she’s more partial to plain biscuits she can spread her favorite peach preserves on. Scott however loved cheese biscuits. I think this says something about how Scott was interested in zest and Zelda in a kind of sweetness she was always looking for but never found. That’s probably a lot to read into biscuits.

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This mention of the biscuits happens very early in the book, before Scott ever comes into Zelda’s life:

” ‘Hey, Katy,’ I said, coming into the kitchen. ‘Bess and Clara are out there, did you hear ’em?’ On the wide wooden table was a platter covered by a dish towel. ‘Plain?’ I asked hopefully, reaching beneath the towel for a biscuit.

‘No, cheese–now, don’t make that face,’ she said, opening the door to wave to her friends. ‘Nothin’ today!’ she shouted. Turning to me, she said, ‘You can’t have peach preserves every day of your life.'”                                                                                                                             9

I think these biscuits came out really well. They’re drop biscuits because I’m a drop biscuit kind of gal. Rolling and cutting and things–that’s just too much work for everyday biscuits. I also kind of like the rustic look of drop biscuits. These are adapted from Martha Stewart’s.

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Cheese Biscuits

  • 2 (up to 1/2 cup more) cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
  • 8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated (I used medium, but you could use sharp or white)
  • 1 1/3 cups buttermilk (or a little over a tablespoon of vinegar mixed with enough milk to hit the 1 1/3 cup mark)
  • 3 tablespoons chives (I used freeze dried)

Preheat oven to 425.

Line baking sheets with parchment or a nonstick silicone mat and set aside.

Combine all dry ingredients in bowl and whisk together. Work the cold butter into the mixture with your fingers or a pastry cutter until it’s all incorporated. Stir in cheddar, buttermilk, and chives until the dough comes together. If the dough looks too wet, you can add a little more flour.

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Use two spoons to drop biscuits (about 1/4 cup of the mixture per biscuit) onto trays and bake about 12 minutes until puffed and golden brown. If you put two sheets in the oven at once, you can rotate them halfway through baking.

These biscuits were so good. I mean what can be better than cheese and bread together? Pretty much nothing. These would go perfectly with soup or with almost anything. You can invent lots of excuses.

 

Are you a drop biscuit lover or a rolled biscuit devotee? Let me know in the comments.

Holiday Parties or How to Make Period Costumes Look Authentic

Not one of the better photos of me--in terrible lighting...
Not one of the better photos of me–in terrible lighting…

Paul’s holiday office party had a 1920s theme–a wonderful excuse to get gussied up and have a night on the town. Many of his coworkers dressed up, and it made for a wonderful experience, but dressing up in period attire can be stressful. So here I’ve given ten tips to make period attire a breeze.

1. Do your research.

You don’t have to spend lots of time on this (though I’ll bet there’ll be something you’re absolutely fascinated by and before you know it, hours have passed), but getting to know the time period will not only help you look the part, it’ll give you something to say at the party. Research something related to your interests as it was in that time period, and you’ll wow everyone with your knowledge.

2. Don’t spend a lot of money.

Frankly, unless you’re going to wear a dress more than once, spending hundreds of dollars on a party dress just doesn’t make sense. There are better ways to spend your money and you can achieve a period look for much less money if you thrift, garage sale, or go to a vintage store (though it depends on the period and the store). I bought my dress for seven dollars at a thrift store, and I already owned the beads and scarf I wore in my hair. I spent another seven dollars on my bag, and I already owned the shoes (which you can’t see, but they’re fabulous t-straps with cutouts) though I could easily have thrifted them too.

3. Model your look off a specific person.

While not a requirement, Paul and I have found that the best costumes are modeled off of specific looks and people. My look was loosely inspired by Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (which, though not a film set in the era, is stylized in a very helpful way with bold graphic details) as well as Clara Bow (for makeup and hair). Giving yourself specific guidelines can help you focus the direction of your look and gives you the opportunity to further interpret the time period.

4. Focus on silhouette.

The most important thing to get right about a decade’s clothing is the popular silhouette. Use your research to verify the most popular silhouettes and stick within those guidelines. Fashion is all about reinvention, so you don’t have to buy a costume or actual vintage (though if your period is 50s-80s, often times you can find affordable vintage). Focus on drop waists or sheaths for the 1920s and full skirts for the 1950s–for a couple examples.

5. All about accessories.

There are some items that make a time period. In the 1920s, it was long strands of pearls or beads, cloche hats, red lipstick, elbow length gloves, strapped low heels, and cigarettes, especially with long lorgnettes (as it was just becoming acceptable–though still daring–for women to smoke in public). If you’re spot on with your accessories, you can afford to cheat a little, or a lot, on your clothing.

6. Hair and makeup.

This may well be the most important aspect of pulling off an authentic look. Clothing and even accessories can be forgiven if you can pull off a faux (or real) bob for the 1920s, finger waves for the 30s, victory rolls for the 40s, and so on. You need not be or become a makeup expert, but you can rely instead on others who are gifted in that area. These are the videos I used for hair (which was so simple even I could pull it off–she has lots of early 20th century looks) and makeup (which required practice, but was well worth the effort. She has an entire series of well researched period looks that are worth watching, even if you’re just interested in period makeup and have no intention of wearing it).

7. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Someone, somewhere has done this before and has probably written a blog post on the subject. This is the one I found most helpful for recreating 1920s looks from thrift store finds. You’re trying to recreate a time period, not do something totally unique. There’s no need to go to0 far outside the box. That said, there can be bonus points for creativity, you just shouldn’t get stressed about it.

8. Be comfortable.

This goes for all party attire, but if you’re not going to be comfortable sitting, standing, eating, or walking in an outfit–just don’t wear it. I don’t care how authentic/adorable/drop-dead gorgeous the look is. This is supposed to be fun; please don’t torture yourself.

9. Cheat a little.

Yes you want to look like you just stepped out of the period, but it’s okay to cheat a little. You don’t have to use the exact kinds of makeup, underwear, hair tools, and so on that women would have used back in the day. If it makes you feel more confident to wear a push up bra, do that. I chose a dress that flattered my curves more instead of providing the exact period look. It’s about having fun, not looking like you stepped out of a time machine.

10. Have a great time.

In the end, it’s just a party. As long as you’re feeling confident, everyone will say you look great.

If you need more specific advice on period outfits, leave a comment for me and I’ll do my best to help you. This is the sort of thing I live for, people! Please don’t be shy.

Ever worn a period look to a party? What was your favorite part of the look you created?