Monday, March 27, 2017

Monica Dickens: Dear Dr. Lily

Monica Dickens' name keeps popping up among the book blogs that I read. The great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, she wrote over forty books between 1939 and 1993.  I recently finished Dear Dr. Lily, which is one of the later books in Dickens' oeuvre. (1988)

The story starts out strong. It's the early 1960s, and Lily and Ida meet by chance on a flight from England to the United States. Eighteen year old Lily, who comes from an ordinary middle class family, is attending a friend's wedding. Ida, several years older and accustomed to a life of hardship is on her way to marry an American GI and live in Massachusetts. Their plane experiences technical difficulties and has to make an emergency stop in Iceland, where they are stranded for two days. This experience is the cement for a lifelong friendship.

The first several chapters, which change point of view between Lily and Ida, are really engrossing. Ida's marriage is not a success (not a spoiler, it's obvious to the reader, even before you are introduced to Buddy the GI). Lily, who feels compelled to help (interfere with, at times) people she perceives to be in need, wants to be a social worker.

The timespan of the story is several decades and I found it to be a bit wearisome at times. But isn't this how life really is - long stretches in which not much happens interspersed with brief periods of drama?  Ultimately, Lily's need to get deeply involved with people ends in disaster. This is not a comfortable book and several scenes are dark, disturbing, or creepy. There's also considerable focus on Lily's not-entirely sympathetic father and his sketchy career. I definitely want to read more of Monica Dickens though.  I think, like Elizabeth Jane Howard, Barbara Pym, and Angela Thirkell, she's another writer who I'll want all of. Have you read anything of hers?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Sometimes life throws tiny curve balls in your way.  I'd left a beef brisket in the oven overnight to cook slowly at a low temperature. In the morning, the pan was cold, the beef was uncooked, the oven dead. Like all people who work in IT, my first idea was to turn it off and then turn it on again. (This IS a legitimate fix so don't sneer.) So I'm sitting there at 05:00 with my head in the oven and nothing is happening and the brisket is a disaster and I won't be able to bake soda bread and St. Patrick's day dinner is ruined.

Incidentally, I was reminded as I sat there with my head in the oven, of the meme that was circulating recently about naming something that young people wouldn't understand. I realized that references to putting your head in the oven would have been the perfect answer to this. Nowadays, with electric ignitions, gas ovens are no longer lethal. And it is probably the electric ignition that is broken in my oven. A gas oven is basically a box with a gas line and the electric ignition. If you replace the ignition once in a while,  you can keep it working indefinitely. And I'd rather stick with my 1990s "almond" enamel range until I'm ready for my "forever range" which won't be for some years yet.


ANYWAY, besides the St. Patrick's Day dinner, I had plans this weekend to try a new pizza dough technique and not having an oven really threw a wrench into that plan. So I researched stove top pizzas. And then Sunday evening, Seamus, who wasn't super-enthusiastic about pizza made on the stove top, tried turning the oven on, and it worked, as if nothing had ever been wrong with it. (See, turning it off and then on again IS a legitimate fix.) But NOW, I was almost disappointed because I'd planned a blog post about stove top pizza and I was going to have to bake the pizza in the oven.

It has been one of my lifelong projects to make professional-tasting pizza in my home oven. To that end, I've read numerous recipes and experimented with different techniques. I recently bought Franny's Simple, Seasonal Italian Cooking specifically because I read a review stating that it has awesome pizza recipes. Franny's dough recipe is similar to any other pizza dough, only you proof it in the fridge for at least 24 hours, and then you need another four to twelve hours for the dough to rest. It's easy to make, assuming you have a dough hook, and if you don't have a dough hook, you could probably knead by hand and get good results.  Anyway, the new-to-me technique in this recipe was to finish the pizza under the broiler. My oven was able to withstand the rigors of switching from heat to broiler multiple times and the result was four extremely delicious, professional-tasting pizzas. (Three with a topping of broccoli, garlic, lemon, and parmesan, and one ordinary pepperoni pizza.)
Kitchen in full pizza-making mode.
The finished pies. (Unmelted cheese on top because the recipe instructs you to sprinkle with more cheese after baking.)

What culinary challenge are you trying to master? Could you manage to live without an oven? (I know there are people who never bake and actually use their ovens for storage. I can't imagine doing that myself.)