Monday, May 16, 2011

Heart and Soul

When my turn rolled around to choose something for book club, I was thrilled and relieved to see a new story out by one of my favorite authors, Maeve Binchy.  Heart and Soul seemed like a perfect pick, since I already owned all of Maeve’s previous efforts and by the looks of my dog-eared copies of (especially) Tara Road, Circle of Friends and Scarlet Feather, I couldn’t quit re-reading them.  (Here’s a tip:  if you love an author, never buy the mass market paperback version.  It is crap and will disintegrate, especially if you drop it in the bathtub.)  What I discovered with this book is that sometimes, even if you love a book, it’s not a great pick for a book club.  While the story was touching and classic Binchy, it didn’t provide enough meat or controversy  to really get a good discussion going.  We mostly agreed that we liked the book, but the debate never took off since there was really nothing to debate.  The story follows Dr. Clara Casey, who agrees to oversee the setup of a heart clinic in Dublin.  Not only does she have to fight against the powers that be in her professional life, but she has an ex-husband who doesn’t really understand what being an “ex” means, two grown but immature and spoiled daughters whose every interaction with their mother is punctuated with sighs and eye rolling, and a hatchet-faced disapproving mother.  I don’t know why I wrote “hatchet-faced” because I don’t actually talk like that, but it seemed appropriate in a book review.  Maybe not.  Anyway, the story progresses pretty typically with a motley array of characters coming together, lives predictably intertwining until the jerks get what they deserve and the worthy find love and happiness.  While the author has used this same formula over and over again, her character development and writing style always have me coming back for more.

Since this was my first shot at hosting book club, I needed everything to be perfect.   Unfortunately, at the time, I was living in a 32 foot travel trailer with my husband and two kids while we were trying to build our new house.  (I don’t recommend it.)  It seemed like hosting a dinner and discussion for six people in the trailer wasn’t the best idea, but now that I look back on it, it had great potential for hilarity, giving a great story for when we’re famous book reviewers.  “Why yes, E! News, we WERE shoehorned into a 1996 Prowler while we talked books and took turns sitting at the pullout couch/kids’ bed.  And it was the time of our lives.”

I ended up having the dinner at Andrea’s house so there would be room for everyone to mingle and we wouldn’t be pinballing off each other all night.  I based the meal off of a scene that happened very early in the book.  Clara was coming home to have dinner with her two grown daughters and had to stop at the market to get pasta sauce.  She ended up buying three different kinds because her daughters were so picky that she was hoping at least one of the sauces would satisfy.  (What finicky brats!)  My picks were a marinara sauce with mushrooms and black olives, a garlicky alfredo sauce and classic pesto sauce.  We also had a green salad, garlic bread and red wine.
For dessert, I planned on making a classic Irish shortbread cookie with a side of tropical fruit compote.  Andrea’s oven decided it wasn’t feeling the cookies (it might have been prejudiced against the Irish) and would only heat to 250 degrees, so we warmed the dough in the oven for a while, then gave up.  Andrea’s mom, Cynthia, saved the day by coming over, shuttling the dough to her house and finishing the baking there.  She then brought the cookies back, all warm and shortbready.  I don’t even think we gave her any of the cookies as a thank you.  My bad.  (Sorry, Cynthia!)  I don’t know if the two part cooking method was the trick or if the recipe I chose was just the bomb, but those were the best shortbread cookies I’ve ever eaten.  Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:
Grandma’s Irish Shortbread
2 cups butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour

Bring butter to room temperature. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Cream the butter until it is the consistency of whipped cream. Beat in the sugar. Add salt. Add flour in 4 portions (one cup at a time) mixing well after each addition. Turn out onto a floured board and pat or roll to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shape desired with a cookie cutter. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.
I served the warm cookies with a scoop of diced tropical fruit:  mango, papaya, kiwi, berries.  You could really use any fruit you wanted but it was a nice offset to the sweetness of the cookies.  I also made Irish coffee for everyone.  Mmmm!
For the book club memento, I made Irish coffee gift kits.  Each box had two glass Irish coffee mugs, airplane bottles of Jameson whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream, and a decorated recipe card for Irish coffee all nestled into a clump of Easter grass. 
When I made the Irish coffees for everyone with dessert, I used one of the mugs from each one’s gift box to make their drink.  Now that I think about that, it seems kindof tacky, but that’s just how I roll.  I know it didn’t turn out to be the perfect hosting gig, but it was a fun attempt and I’m so glad the gals added me to the group.

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