Thursday, March 11, 2010

Falling for Alice Munro

I should begin by saying that I didn’t like Alice Munro right away. I had just gotten off of a particularly obsessive Faulkner binge and couldn’t wrap my brain around her tight, sometimes minimalistic sentences. I just didn’t get it. I wanted Faulkner’s long, sweeping sentences and a mason jar of whiskey, straight-up. Nevertheless, my sexually confused, Faulkner-induced stupor finally faded and I realized that I couldn’t stop reading Alice Munro, I wanted her too, but in a very different way.

In her latest book Too Much Happiness, Munro penetrates the shifting fabric of marriage, the complexion of death, and teaches us how to appreciate grotesque, even gothic tones. You have to appreciate an author who can portray a controlling, child-killing husband without the narrative becoming too much like a “but I love him anyway” Oprah episode.

Munro’s strength is not that she twists cliché plotlines, but that she forces us to see that tragedy happens, not because we are special, but because we are human, because we all have something inside of us that is selfish and cruel.

On a somewhat lighter note, I decided to “eat” my way through the story “Deep Holes” (which sounds much more sordid than I had originally planned). In a story that maps the intricacies and schisms of the American family, the foods that Munro chose to highlight are just as problematic and irrational as her characters. In the first scene, the main female character packs lemon tarts, Mumm’s champagne, and deviled eggs for their family picnic.

These are the following reasons why I would NEVER take a tart, deviled eggs, or Mumm’s on a family picnic: a) that tart was a lot of work, b) neither food packs well, and c) I can’t imagine feeding my kids deviled eggs and tarts for lunch, while drinking a pretty expensive bottle of champagne. Considering the fact that this picnic occurs in the middle of a geological anomaly (a park dotted with large, cavernous holes), the entire situation gives the reader (and the cook) a sense of unease.

Although Munro barely goes into detail regarding her food choices, they reveal a woman who is dislocated from her marriage, her children, and the reality of the moment (i.e. her marriage sucks and her children are perched on a literal and metaphorical cliff). The danger is that she sees her life as a parade of small details: packing the eggs, breast feeding in public, drinking enough champagne so that it pleases her husband, but doesn’t hurt the baby…the list is endless. Munro seems to beg the question: What do we lose when we don’t look at the big picture? What is left out when we stop treating our life like it matters? I don’t know, but the lemon tart tasted great.

I’m not particularly sure why, but in the making of my Munro récipes, I ended up using about 2 dozen eggs. Apparently, Munro has eggs on the brain (I will refrain from any comments on fertility here).  Nonetheless, both of these classics were a hit at the Academy Award party we went to last weekend (I love you Jeff Bridges).

I adapted recipes by Paula Deen and Martha Stewart, two formidable foodie goddesses. I tweaked them a bit, but you will find that both recipes are stable, sometimes easy, and always rewarding (no surprise that Deen uses mayo and Stewart uses fancy French terminology).

Southern Deviled Eggs
Adapted from a récipe in Paula Deen’s Home Cooking
Time: 20-25 minutes
Servings: 14 eggs

7 large eggs, hard boiled and peeled
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I always add an extra teaspoon, if I find the yolks to be a bit dry)
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped dill pickles (or sweet pickle relish, whichever you prefer)
¼ teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes, for garnishing

1. Cut the hard boiled eggs into halves, lengthwise. Carefully remove yolks and place in a small-ish bowl.
2. Mash yolks with a fork and stir in mayonnaise, chopped pickles, vinegar, and mustard. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Trust me, you will have to add/taste/add/taste because every batch of deviled eggs is different (it’s just another unexplained scientific fact, like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot).
3. Fill egg whites with yolk mixture. If you are trying to impress your mother-in-law or your cellmates, I mean, coworkers, then use a piping tube to fill the egg whites. Garnish with crushed red pepper flakes. Store covered in refrigerator. 

Add ¼ cup of chopped bacon to the yolk mixture and substitute crushed red pepper flake garnish for a few bits of chopped bacon (please, no bacon bits from the jar, frying up some REAL bacon never hurt anybody, except maybe Bill Clinton).

Blueberry-Lemon Tart
Adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living
Time: Don’t plan anything else that day…just kidding, about 1 ½- 2 hours.
Servings: One 12-inch tart

1 twelve-inch Pate Sucree, tart shell, baked and cooled (see recipe below)
8 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (yes, this is VERY tedious, but it is worth it)
1 cup fresh lemon juice, plus 1 teaspoon for blueberry mixture
2 cans (each 14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups of fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon of sugar

  1. Whisk egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, condensed milk, and salt until smooth (beat for about 30 seconds on medium speed, if using a mixer).
  1. Pour into 12-inch tart shell (crust MUST be baked and cooled). Bake until edges of filling are firm and slightly puffed, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool. Refrigerate for 1 hour, then remove sides of tart pans (leaving the base), and refrigerate, uncovered, until the bottom of the pan is cool to the touch.
  1. Place blueberries, sugar, and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, constantly stirring. Cook just until a thick syrup has formed, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool completely. Carefully pour mixture on the middle of tart. Refrigerate covered tart or serve (whichever comes first).

Pate Sucree
Adapted from a recipe in Martha Stewart Living (thanks go to Martha for the best crust recipe ever)
Time: 30-45 minutes
Servings: Makes one 12-inch tart shell

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt (Martha says it’s optional, but I think it’s necessary)

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

4 tablespoons ice water2 large cold egg yolks, beaten

  1. Now I don’t mean to be a stickler, but precision is key to any good crust. It’s all about keeping that butter cold, so make sure you work fast and use VERY cold ingredients.
  1. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  1. Beat together water and egg yolks, and slowly pour into flour-butter mixture while stirring with a fork (ditch the pastry blender). As soon as pastry starts to come together, stop adding liquid. Shape dough into a round disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out to 1/8 inch thick. Press pastry into bottom and sides of tart pan. Run a rolling pin across top to trim. (Scraps can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for later use.)
  1. Carefully line pastry with aluminum foil, and weight with beans, rice, or pastry weights ( I used rice). Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. When pastry begins to color around the edges, remove weights and foil and continue to bake until pastry turns light golden brown, 8 to 10 more minutes (bake a bit longer if you are making a tart filling that does not require any added baking time). Place pan on a wire rack and let cool completely before filling.


  1. Rach, How much do I love thee? Let me count the ways!!!! What a FABULOUS idea for a blog! Geesh girl you are way too smart for me! You have such a fun, witty almost can't find the right word but you have a great charm about you when you write, it makes me want to stop and read!

  2. Thanks Jess! If you only I could take pictures like you... :)

  3. i'm so loving this. :) also-so loving you.