Friday, May 30, 2014

Chocolate Bars Studded with Walnuts

Readers of my golden retriever mysteries may recall the cafe in the center of Stewart's Crossing, The Chocolate Ear, where Steve often visits. The proprietor, Gail Dukowski is like Steve a returnee to Bucks County after a career as a pastry chef in New York. She prepares delicious sandwiches and desserts for her human customers, and always has some fresh-baked biscuits for Rochester, too.

In the first chapter of Whom Dog Hath Joined, Steve and his girlfriend Lili take Rochester with them to the Harvest Fair at the Friends' Meeting in Stewart's Crossing. Gail is there, selling her walnut-studded chocolate bars as an introduction to new customers.

One of the great things about belonging to the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America has been meeting and becoming friends with lots of other terrific authors. One of those is yacht chef Victoria Allmann, who has already published two volumes of her foodie adventures on the high seas. She was kind enough to develop this recipe for me, for chocolate bars very much like those Gail sells. With only two ingredients, they're easy enough for any home chef to prepare.

Chocolate Bars Studded with Walnuts
I don’t have plastic chocolate molds so I use square tart pans (sold as individual brownie pans) lined with parchment paper as molds but you can use mini muffin tins or any metal mold as well. The chocolate shrinks slightly when setting so they will slip out of the molds easily.
* 8 ounces semi-sweet good-quality dark chocolate, chopped finely
* 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place the walnuts on a cookie sheet in a flat layer and bake for 5-7 minutes to toast them.

3. Remove from oven and cool completely.

4. Melt 6 ounces chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water.

5. Once the chocolate is melted, remove the bowl from the pan and add 2 ounces of finely chopped chocolate, stirring constantly to melt it.

Victoria's note: This two-step process of melting chocolate in stages is called tempering the chocolate. For reasons that I don't understand, chocolate gets a white chalky bloom if you melt it straight. Tempering chocolate is what gives it that shiny look of finished chocolates instead of the dull chalky look of raw chocolate out of a package. Like a lot of cooking/baking, there is a science behind it that has to do with molecular structure but I can not fathom it or explain it, I just know you have to do it ;-) 

6. Pour a layer of chocolate the molds, then, working quickly, top with 

7. Shake the pan slightly to level chocolate.

8. Put the bars in the refrigerator until firm, five minutes.

9. Remove from molds and store at room temperature for up to one month…or eat instantly.

Learn more about Victoria's career at her website, where you can see her awesome photographs and read about her two books, Sea Fare: A Chef's Journey Across the Ocean and SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with her Captain.

Thank you very much, Victoria!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Special Memorial Day Feature

From time to time, I'll be posting features from the Stewart's Crossing Boat-Gazette, the weekly paper from the fictional Bucks County, PA town that is the setting for my golden retriever mysteries.

This Memorial Day, the Boat-Gazette memorializes a veteran who, while not a son of Stewart's Crossing, had a strong connection to
our town.

Spec. Eric Morgan, a native of Cheltenham, PA was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based in Fort Bragg, N.C. He died after his transport convoy encountered a roadside bomb outside the Iraqi city of Fallujah. He is survived by his widow, Stewarts Crossing native Tamsen Morgan, and his son, Justin, eight.

Eric and Tamsen met in college and became sweethearts there, despite her Quaker upbringing and his activites in ROTC. "We just clicked," Tamsen said. "My family wasn't happy about me marrying a soldier, but Eric had such a great personality that they loved him as much as I did."

Today, the Boat-Gazette salutes all veterans, as well as their families and friends. Thank you for your service.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Map of Steve and Rochester's World

I commissioned this map to show the various locations around Stewart's Crossing. I'm hoping to commission another one just of the town and River Bend.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Whom Dog Hath Joined

Here's an excerpt from my newest Golden Retriever Mystery, Whom Dog Hath Joined:

“There’s Gail,” Lili said, pointing at a table where our friend Gail Dukowski, who ran The Chocolate Ear café in downtown, was selling her cookies and pastries from a pair of flimsy card tables covered with green and white striped cloths that matched her store’s awnings.

Gail looked frazzled. We got in line behind a sixty-something woman holding a small girl by the hand, a pair of teenagers, and a cluster of other eager customers. Gail’s blonde hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat, her face was smudged with chocolate, and her eyes looked tired. She wore a big chef’s apron over her T-shirt and slacks.

Rochester was excited to see Gail, tugging at his leash and nodding his shaggy head. When we went to The Chocolate Ear, she always had a special dog biscuit for him. A platter of them, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a dog-paw patterned ribbon, sat at one end of the table.

“You’re on your own here?” I asked as we reached her.

She nodded. “Ginny ate something funny from the kitchen and had to go home.”

“Can we help you?” Lili asked.

The line behind us had continued to grow. “That would be such a blessing,” Gail said. “My mother’s coming at noon but I could sure use some help now.”

“I’ll man the cash box,” I said.

“You take the orders and I’ll box them up,” Lili said to Gail.

“Thank you so much!” Gail stepped aside to let Lili and me scoot behind the table.

I dropped a dollar in the cash box and unwrapped one of the big biscuits. Rochester settled on the ground underneath, chewing noisily. “Stay there and keep out of trouble,” I said, scratching him behind the ears.

I sat in one of the café’s big wicker chairs with green and white striped cushions and began to accept people’s dimes and quarters and wrinkled dollar bills. I made change and told them about all the treats Gail hadn’t been able to bring to the fair, like her lemon bars, her flaky croissants and her special dark chocolate hazelnut tarts.

Gail cut the walnut-studded chocolate bars and Lil boxed them up. I snacked on the crumbs and Lili slapped my hand. Every now and then I reached down to scratch behind Rochester’s ears as he rested his big square head on his front paws and stared out at the passing crowd.

“These are delicious!” a heavy-set woman said, as brownie crumbs dribbled out of her mouth.

“Fantastic,” a big man in a tank top agreed. His shirt read “If assholes could fly this place would be an airport,” which made me suspicious of his taste. Although his sheer size indicated he had a lot of experience with high-calorie foods.

We handled the backlog of customers quickly and Gail slumped into the chair next to me. “I’ve been up since five this morning, baking chocolate bars, cutting them and stacking them on trays,” she said. “At seven, I met Ginny here and we set up the booth. She went home about an hour ago and it’s been a zoo ever since.”

I leaned forward and discovered that if I pressed too hard on the table the chocolate bars went slip-sliding toward Mrs. Holt’s adjoining table of crocheted pink and lavender toilet paper covers topped by Barbie knock-offs. They were a shocking example of what happened when people with too much time on their hands possessed the deluded notion that they had some artistic talent, but she had bought two chocolate bars so I was willing to cut her a little slack.

“We sure need some good food in Stewart’s Crossing,” said a young mom with twins in a double stroller.

I took her money and told her the café sold terrific take-out sandwiches in kid-friendly flavors like meatballs and grilled cheese as well as desserts.

Then I heard a scream.

I reached down below the table to grab Rochester’s leash and keep him from tearing off toward the sound. But he was already gone.

“Oh, crap,” I said, jumping up.

“You both go,” Gail said. “I can handle things until my mother gets here.”

“Where do you think he is?” Lili asked, taking off the apron she’d been wearing. The silver bangle bracelets on her arm jingled.

“Wherever that scream came from,” I said.

I darted around slow-moving elderly people, parents grabbing dilly-dallying little kids, and curious folks headed toward the Meeting House. The scatter of gold and orange leaves crunched beneath my feet, mixing with distant car horns and the sound of someone sobbing.

The big white double doors at the center of the building stood open, and a walkway along the front of the building was lined with piles of osage oranges and green and white gourds. The three-part slate roof—peaked in the center, flat on the sides—was dusted with a covering of red and gold leaves.

A crowd had already gathered outside the right side of the building, the part with no windows. A teenaged girl huddled against her mother, crying. “She was just trying to pet the dog,” the woman was saying to others in the crowd. “And then she saw what he was digging, and she screamed.”

Others were watching my determined golden, who tugged at the something near the foundation. An elderly man was trying, without result, to talk Rochester away, but he looked too timid to touch the dog himself.

Up close I could see the wood of the exterior wall was disintegrating, with long vertical cracks through the planks. I pushed forward, excusing myself and calling Rochester’s name. When I reached him, I grabbed his collar and lifted his head away from where he had been digging, and saw that he’d dragged a disintegrating tennis shoe through the gap.

A single bone, like the one I filled with peanut butter for him, remained, sticking out of the shoe. Only this bone wasn’t the kind sold at pet stores.

“Rochester, this has to stop!” I scolded. “No more digging up dead bodies.”

Friday, May 02, 2014

Lei Day

Yesterday was May 1, Lei Day in Hawaii. I love the way that different states have their own holidays – Flag Day in Pennsylvania, Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois and San Jacinto Day in Texas. Though Lei Day isn’t an official holiday, it’s celebrated with lei-making demonstrations and information about the history of this uniquely Hawaiian artifact. They crop up all over the islands, and throughout my books, starting with “the cheap shell leis they give you when you tour the aloha shirt factory” (Mahu). Here are two descriptions of the lei shops in Honolulu’s Chinatown:

“There were still a bunch of lei stores on South Beretania & Maunakea Streets, but they were tiny rooms with folding shutters or rolling grills, and the leis were all behind glass refrigerator cases. You could walk past and only smell car exhaust and fried oil, not a single flower” (Mahu).

inventory at a lei store

“Tinny Chinese music played somewhere as we walked over to Hotel Street, past a stand with row upon row of leis made of orchids, velvety orange ‘ilima flowers, and fragrant maile leaves intertwined with tiny white pikake blossoms. Behind the counter, an elderly grandmother sat stringing even more. Chattering teenagers and haole tourists crowded around the booth, debating the merits of different leis and bargaining for better prices” (Mahu Vice)

People often wear leis in everyday situations:

“[Melody] was dressed for work by then, a light yellow linen dress and sandals, a lei of shiny brown kukui nuts and a sports watch her only jewelry” (Mahu Surfer).

Schoolgirls wearing kukui nut leis

“I spotted my mother, wearing a bright red holoku, a sort of formal mu’umu’u, walking with my two of my nephews, both wearing aloha shirts and shorts, with kukui nut leis. We waved at each other” (Mahu Blood).

Plumeria and moss lei
At a fancy party in Mahu Fire, Kimo mentions the way that many service people in the islands wear leis as part of their uniforms. “The waiters and waitresses all wore plumeria leis and aloha shirts, and they were offering a choice of mai tais or champagne cocktails.” When Kimo goes car shopping in Mahu Vice, he notes, “The dealership was playing KINE, Hawaiian 105, in the background, and the two receptionists at the front desk wore fragrant leis of red carnations.”

Living people aren’t the only ones wearing leis. In Mahu Surfer, Kimo visits a surf shop on the North Shore, noticing:

“Mana’o Company was playing low in the background, encouraging us to ‘Spread a Little Aloha’ around the world, and in one corner of the room a bust of King Kamehameha surveyed us, an electric blue plastic lei around his neck.”

 Leis are part of celebrations as well:

“The downtown streets were crowded with tourists in convertibles, delivery trucks, and a wedding couple in a white horse-drawn carriage. Both bride and groom were decked out in colorful leis and plumeria headbands” (Mahu Vice).

Leis are also worn at graduations, and in Mahu Blood Kimo sees a photo of someone he’s investigating. “The walls were hung with photos of him at his graduation, draped in leis, and of him as a soldier, his rifle casually slung over his shoulder.” And “Behind [Lieutenant Sampson], I saw a photo of his stepdaughter Kitty, in her dark green UH cap and gown, holding her diploma case against her side, with a collection of leis around her neck.”

Leis are a powerful symbol of Hawaiian heritage, and after a protest rally in Honolulu, Kimo says, “Walking back into the federal building, Ray and I saw the debris from the demonstration everywhere—crumpled flyers, crushed leis, and a lot of empty plastic water bottles” (Mahu Vice). And “We passed a pickup truck festooned with plastic leis in every color, so many that you couldn’t see the rails, with a battered statue of King Kamehameha propped up in the back” (Mahu Blood).

A domestic scene later in Mahu Blood shows the ubiquity of leis. “Edith’s mattress had been taken off the bed and sliced open; the same for her pillows. Her clothes were strewn on the floor, along with cheap paper fans, plastic leis and stuffed animals she must have used to amuse the baby.” And another, prettier one, from Zero Break: “Fake flower leis hung from the ceilings, and the walls were hung with reproductions of hapa-haole music covers, the ones from the twenties and thirties with a beautiful island girl strumming a ukulele.”

Leis are also a frequent pattern on aloha shirts. “One of the guys, Japanese by the looks of him, was wearing a bright aloha shirt with a pattern of ilima flowers, the kind used in fragrant leis, and carrying a white canvas bag with a wooden handle” (Mahu Blood).

The cover of Mahu Blood includes an image of a statue of Queen Liliu'okalani holding leis in her outstretched arm.
Finally, here’s a bit from a short story called “Refuge,” about a camping trip that Kimo and his friend Gunter make to Ho’okena Beach on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

There were two plumeria leis on our open sleeping bags. I didn’t even wonder where they’d come from. I knew.

“Do you think...” Gunter asked.

“You know what they call the plumeria, don’t you?” Gunter didn’t know. “The dead man flower, because you see so many of them in cemeteries. Some of the hula halaus, when they need to make leis for a performance, they go to the cemetery and take the plumerias.” Gunter looked at me. “Well, it’s cheaper than buying them.”

“This is creepy.”

I picked up one lei and put it over Gunter’s head, draping it around his neck. Then I kissed him once on each cheek. “Go on,” I said. “Your turn.”

He picked up the remaining lei, put it around my neck, and kissed me. We both wore the leis all the way back to Honolulu.

So even though Lei Day has passed, I hope these excerpts give you a sense of how important these floral necklaces are to Hawaiian culture. For more about my Mahu Investigations, click here.