Cooking the Books while Elizabeth is Missing.

Tete a tete narcissus, table-top daffodils.

Elizabeth is Missing.That’s a great title, isn’t it? What a hook? You can’t help wondering who Elizabeth is and what’s happened to her.

Emma Healey‘s beautifully crafted book broke my heart a little bit, as all good books should.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

Maud is 82 and confused. Sometimes she can’t quite recall what the machine for heating bread, you know, making it brown, is called. Sometimes she’s not certain who that young woman in the kitchen is. And why are there six cups of cold tea lined up on the hall table?

There is one thing of which Maud is absolutely certain; Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is not at home and her nasty son is acting suspiciously. The problem is that nobody will listen to Maud anymore. They won’t believe her and it’s very difficult to solve a mystery when the clues, a powder compact and a hair comb, don’t make sense and, furthermore, she can’t quite remember who it is she’s searching for. She has to rummage in her pockets to find the note she wrote to remind herself. Who was it that’s missing? Oh yes, that’s right, Elizabeth.

Oh Lord, this was heart-wrenching. To be honest, I wasn’t too concerned about Elizabeth. I guessed that she was either dead or grand. It was Maud’s loss that squeezed my guts – her loss of memory, loss of dignity and loss of identity.

If I were to cook a dish to represent this book, it could only be tea and toast as that’s about all Maud is up to.

Elizabeth is Missing is an intriguing and satisfying but, ultimately, terrifying read.

Notice how dark this photo is? It was snowing outside the window, just inches from the cup, when I took it. Perfect weather for tea and toast. My job has a lot of perks.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Speaking of which, I have exciting news for you. Well, it’s exciting for me but you’re welcome to come along for the ride.

As you know, I have been reviewing books for Bookwitty for a while now. I love it SO much. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, my dream job. I can’t believe my luck. Now, it gets even better because they have trusted me with a regular slot, combining my two favourite things in the world: books and food. You might almost call it a column although I’m wary of recalling my Carrie Bradshaw aspirations.

Every month I will write about a book and include a recipe that bears some relationship to that book. It might be a dish that was cooked in the book or it might be a representation of my own devising. I’m SO excited about this as I have already LOVED writing this type of blog post.

Remember A God In Ruins and a Far Breton.? People should eat more Far Breton. It’s great for readers due to the absence of crumbs! I also loved doing The Improbability Of Love On First Dates. That was an ideal book and an ideal recipe for Valentine’s Day if any of you are thinking that far ahead.

My Prue Leith review with a recipe for Mozzarella in Carozza  was the spark for the whole column idea. In December, I cooked some honey-soaked Greek cookies . For diet-conscious January I suggest puffy chouquettes as featured in Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody. These light-as-air morsels could hardly be considered a sin.

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Plans are afoot to have something naughty prepared in time for Valentine’s Day. Here’s a sneak (and, again, snow-lit) preview. I started re-reading this book last night. I’ve noted on the first page that I read it for the first time, as a barely legal 19-year-old in 1991. It still has the power to make my heart race. I must be still alive then.

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

I feel that my brain has been packed away in wadding for the past two decades while I have been raising children. Slowly but surely now, it is coming out of hibernation. This, this blog, the book reviews and the interaction with you, feels to me like a small miracle and I am very grateful.

Tete a tete narcissus, table-top daffodils.

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Gourmet Rhapsody.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Cardiac insufficiency. A man is dying because he has not heart enough to support his own passions (food, mainly, and possibly wine). This near-heartless man cares not a whisker about final adieus to his long-suffering wife or steadfast mistress. He has no wisdom to impart to his under-valued children. In the space that his heart should have filled there is only an insatiable longing for one particular food, a flavor par excellence, that he cannot quite identify. From his deathbed, Monsieur Arthens explores his culinary memories from appreciation of his grandmother’s gravy to becoming France’s most revered food critic.

In a lifetime of writing about food the gourmet has entirely missed the point. Food should be relished, not picked apart. In dissecting every meal he has let the heart of it escape. By excluding his family he has turned his back on the most essential of all seasonings. In bite-sized  chapters his wife, children, neighbours, employees and protégé each take turns to pour scorn, defend or grieve the dying gourmet. Meanwhile, Monsieur continues his search for a single, elusive taste of…something.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Muriel Barbery‘s Gourmet Rhapsody is a book to make your mouth water. Every single page exudes an aroma of browning butter, or drips a deeply reduced jus, or is stained with a ring of Burgundian wine. It is a delicious book but, like a balanced cocktail, Gourmet Rhapsody has an Angostura bitter note. It brings to mind the very best of food you have ever eaten while at the same time reminding you that you will most likely never experience that food, in the same place and in the same way, ever again.

Sometimes, most times, when we recall a food it is the whole experience that is stamped upon our hearts. Rice pudding with jam by firelight. Mince pies by fairylight. Sausages on a barbecue in a midsummer garden. Red wine at a long table in the dim cellar of a house in the Pyrenees. Tayto sandwiches on the beach and dripping 99s in the car on the way home. Toast in bed at 2AM in a maternity ward. Toast in bed on a Sunday morning with a good book and a frothy coffee. Toast.

I have long sought to rediscover a certain whiskey-orange sorbet. Husband and I were in Co. Clare on our first holiday together. The climax of our week was a meal in a restaurant called Barr Trá. We ate in the conservatory which had a spectacular view of sunset on Liscannor Bay. I can’t remember a single other thing I ate, I suspect there were mussels and I’m certain there was brandy, but that sorbet has taunted me for two decades.

How could I possibly recreate that moment? I can’t get back the perfect ninety seconds, with my foot wrapped around his calf, that it took to let five or six sunlit spoonfuls dissolve on my tongue. I hope, when I am on my deathbed, that it comes to mind.

Once a year or so, maybe even less, I take a fancy for an egg-in-a-cup. That’s the official name, at least in my head. My Granny used to make this for my breakfast along with bread which was first buttered and then toasted under the grill, most importantly, on the buttered side only. Monsieur Arthens has something to say about buttering bread before you toast it:

‘Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our bread until after it has been toasted? The reason the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequalled complicity. The butter loses some of its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own, in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, an becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one’s taste buds with its contemplative delicacy.’

The egg, or two, should be placed in a small pot of cold water and brought to the boil. Simmer for three minutes for a runny yolk. A dear friend gave me a brilliant and fool-proof egg-timer gadget that goes in the pot and changes colour as the egg cooks. You can find one here.

When the time is up, chip the top off the egg with a spoon and scrape the innards into a cup. Add a generous corner off a block of butter and a pinch of salt. Now, use the spoon to whack the egg around the sides of the cup until it has absorbed the butter into itself. You don’t want to liquidise the whole thing, just break it up. The chipping and the scraping and the whacking and the eating are all marvellously satisfying.

I watched my mother make eggs-in-a-cup like this for all my little sisters when they were babies so I can only presume she made them like this for me too. I know that when she handed me the cup to spoon feed a hungry sibling I was as likely as not to eat most of it myself between turns of chugga-chugga-here-comes-the-train. I made eggs-in-a-cup for my own babies and it always made me feel that I was doing my job right.

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Unlike the whiskey-orange sorbet, egg-in-a-cup is a blend of many memories. It doesn’t rely upon an Atlantic sunset, a particular whiskey or the added frisson of young love. I needs only a warm kitchen, an egg, bread, butter and a spoon. The bare essentials.

Muriel Barbery has created a book which defies criticism. How could I tear asunder a meal, I mean book, which has so painstakingly been constructed. This is a book to be savoured, meditated upon and remembered. Like the very best of books, I mean meals, there is a lesson in it. Live. Live and love and eat every bit of it now. Now.

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