Book Review: Love & Saffron by Kim Fay

If books were people, and if Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin married 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and if those two book-people had a baby, it would be Love & Saffron by Kim Fay, and that baby’s godmother would be Ruth Reichl. 

I devoured this book in one day. Granted I was in a hotel room with a crying baby in the room on one side of me and a barking dog in the room on the other side of me and the roiling ocean waves off my balcony were the OG white noise machine soothing away my frustration at the poor weather conditions for my short getaway to the beach on my Easter break from teaching. 

On my first day at the beach I visited the town’s independent bookstore and purchased one book of fiction (Love & Saffron) and one of nonfiction (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson). Opting for the fiction first, I started Kim Fay’s short epistolary novel after breakfast this morning. My husband and I took a walk up and down the boardwalk and the wind and chill factor drove us back inside and back to our books. I was not unhappy, lol.

My first epistolary piece of literature, like many, was probably Diary of a Young Girl. When I started teaching, I discovered Karen Cushman’s masterpiece Catherine, Called Birdy. Of course I read Helen Fielding’s bevy of Bridget Jones’ works and stumbled upon a rather dry piece called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday which was a glorious gem of cinematography when adapted for film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Eventually I discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and I realized with great clarity that I loved books told through letters or diary entries.

So, perusing the shelves in the bookstore on Monday, I noticed this slim volume on the staff picks’ shelf. The short description drew me in: a story of food and friendship, of love and loss. Yes please.

With its bright cover and clocking in at just 193 pages, you might be fooled into thinking this was a beach read. You would be wrong. Set in the early 1960s with the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trauma of JFK’s subsequent assassination, Love & Saffron starts off innocently enough with a fan letter from a devoted female reader to a female columnist on the other side of the country. The letter is sent along with a small packet of saffron and a recipe of sorts for mussels steamed in a vermouth and saffron sauce. As the correspondence continues between these two women, much different in age and personality, a true friendship develops. In the span of the four years covered by the novel, we watch the friendship develop into a mutual love and respect for one another. In much the same way that Olive Kitteridge grows and evolves in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Imogen Fortier, as well as her husband Francis, also grows and evolves as a result of her correspondence with Joan Bergstrom. Imogen realizes that along with her unadventurous palate, she has not really given life a chance. Joan’s openness to foreign cuisines, international travel, and inclusivity begins to work its magic on Imogen. And, as quid pro quo, Joan’s confidence in herself as a writer and as a food expert, blossoms.

No spoilers here. The cover says “A novel of friendship, food, and love,” but there is loss as well and when it comes it tears a hole in your heart. That sadness is worth it, however. Imogen, Francis, and Joan all grow and evolve and live richer lives as a result of that one simple fan letter and a small packet of saffron. 

Book Review – Nadiya’s British Food Adventure

I love watching British cooking shows and reading cookbooks from the UK. This particular book, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, combines my love of all things British with a desire to learn more about other cultures.

Nadiya Hussain is a breath of fresh air. No pretentiousness, no putting on airs. Just family style cooking elevated with a bright smile and a touch of style. You may recognize her as the winner of the Season 6 series of The Great British Bake Show. You could just tell she was a star from the start.

Her recipes are things that are easy to pull together, often with ingredients you already have at home. Her television series brings all of her recipes to life, as you watch her effortlessly turn classics into modern versions of dishes her family loves, such as the tea cakes with date butter. I could really gobble one up right now with a nice cup of tea!

An excellent cookbook by a welcome new face on the food scene.

The “Pan”-Demic Experiments

“Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t / Almond Joy’s got nuts / Mounds don’t” was the jingle used during the 1970s to advertise two of my favorite candy bars. 

SONY DSC

By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11364190

And, likewise, sometimes, I feel like doing culinary research for several hours, shopping at multiple grocery stores and markets, gathering stand mixer, blender, bread machine, and an array of measuring cups and measuring spoons on my countertop, to create a dessert worthy of the final round of Food Network’s Chopped. However, sometimes, I just want to whip up something quickly with what I have on hand, get it in the oven, and have it on a saucer thirty minutes later. 

Yes, these sorts of desserts rely heavily on packaged, processed elements, but while this pandemic has bestowed upon us all ample time for big projects, it hasn’t always given us the energy or enthusiasm for them. I do enough cooking and baking from scratch that it doesn’t bother me one bit to give my family something made from a box once in a while. 

One recent COVID-19 night my older daughter, who lives and works from home, was itching for a brownie. We had no packaged brownie mix, and we had not found a source for all-purpose flour yet, which was nowhere to be seen on the shelves of our local grocery store. We did have a chocolate cake mix, though. So, off to the internet we went where we quickly found a food blog about cake mix brownies. I’ve been making cake mix cookies for years–one cake mix, two eggs, and a half-cup of vegetable oil mixed together by hand with a wooden spoon, portioned out with an ice cream scoop onto a baking sheet, and voila, a batch of cookies before you can bat an eye. But, brownies? 

Our first experiment produced something that totally satisfied her craving for a brownie, moist and slightly gooey, definitely chocolate and cakey. The best part was that it only required four ingredients and one bowl, a wooden spoon, and one pan: chocolate cake mix, two eggs, half-cup of vegetable oil, and a cup of chocolate chips, mixed by hand and spread into a greased 8×8 square cake pan. Baked for 20 minutes at 350°, the results were amazing, and better yet, FAST.

Yesterday, I decided to experiment again, this time with a yellow cake mix, which I mixed with the requisite two eggs and half-cup of vegetable oil, but I also added one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and a cup of cinnamon chips I had stashed away in the freezer. After I spread it out into the greased 8×8 square cake pan, I sprinkled the top with cinnamon sugar and baked it for 20 minutes at 350°. Cinnamon Chip BrownieMy daughter said it tasted like the cinnamon swirl coffee cake at Starbucks, which I haven’t tried but I’ll take her word for it. Suffice it to say, we were all happy to sit on the back patio with a cup of coffee and a quick treat that didn’t leave the kitchen looking like a White House State Dinner had just been prepared. 

Next on the list for experimentation: strawberry brownies! Stay tuned!