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Virtual Potluck Part II!

I’m a foodie at heart–you can always count on there being delicious food in my books. (And the best part about fictional food? Zero calories!) My Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose” has the most mouth-watering food out of anything I’ve written, because one of my heroines is a chef: Carmelina, a tart-tongued girl with near-magical skill in the kitchen, who has the job as maestra di cucina for the Borgia Pope’s mistress.

Serving under her is teenage apprentice Bartolomeo Scappi, a historical figure who will grow up and become one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance–his cookbook is still in print today! Now, it’s a curious thing that most of the world’s mega-chefs tend to be men, but ask any of them how they learned to cook, and it’s always a female name that comes out. (Most usually “Mom” or “Grandma.”) So when I leafed through Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook, I asked myself “Who taught him all this?” And the answer presented itself: “I’ll bet it was a woman.”

Fortunately we know very little about Bartolomeo’s beginnings, when he was born, or where he trained, so I was free to invent Carmelina as the girl who teaches the greatest culinary genius of the Renaissance everything he knows. When these two get together in a kitchen, sparks fly, knives are sometimes hurled, and magic happens–along with a lot of great food!

When “The Serpent and the Pearl” was released, I put together a virtual pot-luck with six fabulous food bloggers who combed the book for recipes and trooped off to their kitchens. The results were mouth-watering, and I know we had to host a re-match for “The Lion and the Rose.” Today I’m joined by Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on “Game of Thrones” recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Bon Appetit” utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Lost Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her
recent smash-hit novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we’re all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads: the Roman-style tenderloin Bartolomeo makes when Carmelina’s stuck in a convent with the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia.

Island Vittles: the candied nuts which all the Borgias are constantly snacking on as they plot. And as a bonus? The fried tubers from the New World, which feature heavily in a scene my readers have taken to calling simply �the aphrodisiac potato scene.�

Little White Apron: the salad of blood orange, fennel, and olives served to the Duke of Gandia, and the beef en brochette served at a very illicit Vatican party.

Lost Past Remembered: the fish pie flavored with oranges, nutmeg and dates which Bartolomeo whips up after changing Carmelina’s menu behind her back (and boy, does he get in trouble for that!)

Taking On Magazines did TWO posts! The venison in cream and brandy sauce served after Juan Borgia’s latest hunt, and the tortellini with basil and parsley filling with which Bartolomeo hopes to woo Carmelina.

Between The Sheets: the endives stuffed with cheese and drizzled in olive oil which are served at the Menagerie Masquerade Ball, and the pastries layered with honey and blood oranges on which Lucrezia nibbles while waiting for a divorce.

As for me, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled a recipe from Chapter 17 of “The Lion and the Rose:” a walnut and pecorino cheese tourte Carmelina muses on to keep herself sane during a dull period stuck in a convent.


From the book:

“Three eggs, whisked together with a mixture three parts sugar to two parts strawberry honey,” I recited aloud as I swept the convent courtyard. “Add two cheeses, a soft sheep’s milk cheese and a very fresh pecorino cheese from Pienza, and then a double handful finely chopped walnuts . . .” The lay sisters were supposed to recite their prayers as they went about their work–a rosary, or perhaps an Act of Contrition if they were feeling guilty about anything. I recited recipes.

This is a recipe I got from a little volume of Vatican recipes through the ages, and supposedly dates from the days of Pope Pius II. Given that a handful of walnuts and a hunk of cheese are just about my favorite snack of all time, I was intrigued by the idea of putting them together in a pie, and dying to tackle this for the virtual potluck! I made a few modifications to the ingredients–Wegman’s does not carry strawberry honey–but the result is still delicious: a sort of early-Renaissance version of a classic cheesecake. The texture is identical, and the flavor mild and nutty, the saltiness of the pecorino melting into the honey and sugar. If you would like a bolder flavor, dust the top of your tourte with cinnamon instead of powdered sugar. The perfect holiday dessert for that one family member who isn’t big on sweets.

Serves 12 — Prep time 30 minutes — Cooking time 55 minutes, plus at least 2 hours for chilling

3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/3 cup very fresh grated pecorino cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped
12 egg whites, whipped stiff (to avoid the mess of breaking 12 eggs, just use those egg whites that come in cartons for low-fat omelets)
Whole walnuts and powdered sugar or cinnamon, for garnish
Pre-made pie shell or short-crust pastry of your choice

1. Whipping egg whites into peaks takes both time and muscle if done by hand. If you don’t have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god (Carmelina does), then use a stand mixer and get your egg whites beating with a whisk attachment as you prepare the rest of the pie. If you do have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god, what on earth are you doing in the kitchen?

2. Make your pie-crust if you are making from scratch (use a pre-made shell if you’re low on time). Either way, pop the crust into the oven at 325 degrees and do a pre-bake for a few minutes, so you don’t end up with a soggy bottom crust once filling is added.

3. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, and honey in a large bowl.

4. Gradually add the pecorino cheese, ricotta, flour, and chopped walnuts, and blend together. When egg whites have been whisked stiff, add bit by bit to the walnut and cheese mixture, and blend.

5. Give mixture one final stir (the nuts will want to sink to the bottom) and then pour into pie shell. There will be enough for two pies.

6. Bake 55 minutes at 325 degrees, checking frequently toward the end. You want a nice golden top, not a burned blistered pie.

7. Let cool, sift with powdered sugar, and decorate with whole walnuts. Chill thoroughly before eating.


Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project – Theresa, Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, and Deana – thank you all so much!

A Renaissance Thanksgiving Feast

Happy Turkey Day! Guests are about to descend on us all like locusts devouring everything in their path, and I’m sure we’re all starting to sweat about the oyster dressing and the pumpkin pie and the turkey, my God, it will never be done in time. Me no exception. What I’d love to have for Thanksgiving is the services of my last book heroine, a pro chef who could whip out a Thanksgiving dinner for thirty without even breaking a sweat. Even if they didn’t have Thanksgiving in Renaissance Italy.

Still, a Renaissance Thanksgiving Day feast from Carmelina’s talented hands would be quite a spread. And if you’re bored with the usual turkey-and-mashed potatoes fare, why not throw yourself a Renaissance-themed dinner instead? Here you are, complete with recipes straight from The Serpent and the Pearl!

The Appetizers
Most of my recipes for this book were culled direct from real-life Renaissance chef extraordinaire, Bartolomeo Scappi–and il maestro had very specific directions when it came to the pre-dinner spread:

The side-board should be furnished with these things: with jellies, visciola cherries, morello cherries, quince and quince pastes, Neapolitan and Roman mostaccioli, several shapes of marzipan creations . . . always rolled wafers and small ciambelle of raw dates, pistacios, pinenuts, and Milanese almonds, dried figs of various sorts, several sorts of olives and small capers, compote of fennel and other fruits . . . caravella pears, papal pears, acciole pears, riccardo pears, rough pears, bergamot pears, Florentine pears, and other sorts of pear . . .

Clearly seven kinds of pear aren’t enough to fill up your guests, because he goes on to list the types of cheeses (March, Florengine, Romagnola, Roman, Ligurian, Majorcan, fresh and dry, ewe’s milk, mozzarella) and salamis (salsiccioni, mortadelle, prosciutto, sowbelli, salt ox tongues, buffalo tongues, pork tongues, semi-salted cow meat, salted steer meat, salt pork belly, and pork jowl) you should stock up on as well. By the time a typical Renaissance side-board was set up, your guests would be full and waddling home without even touching the meal.

For your Thanksgiving, keep it simple and stick to a classic tray of cheeses, meats, fruits, and nuts. Come to think of it, Scappi is probably where we got the idea in the first place.

The Soup
Try the asparagus soup in beef broth which Carmelina serves to a visiting archbishop. Heather Webb (of upcoming debut novel on Empress Josephine) made a wonderful creamy modern version for a blog hop.

The Salad
Renaissance salads couldn’t be simpler: a big dish of lettuce sprinkled with bright blue borage flowers, like the one Carmelina muses serving to the College of Cardinals. (Borage gives you courage, according to legend–just what scheming cardinals and family get-togethers alike both need). Dress this lovely simple salad with a plain vinaigrette.

Elaborate entrees are par for the course in Renaissance cuisine, where meals were set to impress as much as nourish. If you’re feeling ambitious (and have a good butcher on hand like d’Artagnan’s or Savenor’s) try this gorgeous shoulder of boar with dates, prunes, and cherries, as cooked by food blogger Deana of Lost Past Remembered in my last blog hop. Or if you want to stick with something fowl for Thanksgiving, go with a capon or big free-range chicken instead of the usual turkey. Just cook two if you’ve got a crowd coming, and then you can cook both the Capon in Coriander and White Wine recipe which is Carmelina’s favorite (replicated here by Lori of Little White Apron) and the Capon with Lime version Carmelina plans for Cardinal Borgia (replicated by Sara at Cupcake Muffin, and it’s delicious).

The Sides
A cheese and onion tourte like the one Carmelina made her first five minutes in the Borgia kitchens will fill the bill nicely, and Theresa of Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles made a beauty! Round things out with a dish that makes an appearance in the forthcoming The Lion and the Rose–baked macaroni layered with provatura cheese and butter. Kitchen apprentice Bartolomeo offers to make it for Carmelina when she’s feeling blue–because pasta with a great deal of butter and cheese cures all. Amen–so dust off your mom’s tried-and-true mac n’ cheese recipe.

The Desserts
They loved their sweets in the Renaissance, and they weren’t afraid to get fancy! Marzipan, molded sugar subtleties, cakes and tarts of all kinds . . . but keep things simple at the end of a heavy meal with these light and autumnal desserts: the peaches in grappa Giulia Farnese eats at her wedding feast, the spicy baked apples she comfort-eats the next morning to get over a disappointing wedding night (another recipe from Lori), and the milk-snow (a sort of glorified, stiffened medieval whipped cream reproduced gloriously at Inn at the Crossroads) she takes to bed with a much more satisfying lover later down the line.

To Drink
A hot posset with red wine and spices, of course! Chelsea from “Inn At The Crossroads” has a lovely recipe. And to go with, how about some sugared Renaissance biscotti from Christiane at “Taking On Magazines”?

Happy eating, and happy Thanksgiving!

A Virtual Potluck!

I don’t know about you, but I adore food blogs. I’ve got an entire list that I drool over follow. And the fun part is how food and books are mixing these days: food bloggers are hitting the pages, cooking favorite recipes out of food-heavy books and blogging about it.

So when I wrote my own food-heavy book, I knew I had to at least try to set up a virtual pot-luck. I never dreamed the result would be so mouth-watering: six fabulous food-bloggers dove into “The Serpent and the Pearl” in search of recipes. Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on “Game of Thrones” recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Bon Appetit” utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Lost Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her upcoming debut novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we’re all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads – The crostata of summer peaches that Carmelina is making when Juan Borgia decides to make a pass at her. (Big mistake: cooks always have cleavers on hand.)

Island Vittles – The tourte of sweet cheese and Genovese onions that Carmelina cooks for Giulia’s wedding feast.

Little White Apron – The baked apples that Carmelina serves Giulia the morning after her wedding, and the capon with garlic, coriander and white wine that is her favorite chicken recipe.

Long Past Remembered – The shoulder of wild boar that Carmelina ponders serving a visiting archbishop.

Taking On Magazines – The sugared biscotti that form a staple munchie throughout the book, and the elderflower fritters Giulia tries to make (and ends up nearly destroying Carmelina’s kitchen)

Between The Sheets – The asparagus zuppa and the zabaglione which Carmelina’s apprentice Bartolomeo whips up on a country trip to impress her.

As for me, I donned my sous chef apron and did a lot of “Oui, chef” fetching and carrying from the fridge as my husband (he’s the culinary genius of the family) tackled a recipe from Chapter 2 of The Serpent and the Pearl:

Hot Sops With Cherries

From the book:
It’s a bit tricky, knowing what to send up to the bride’s chamber the morning after her wedding . . . If you hear giggling and whispering through the door, you send up something light than can be eaten by two, preferably fed to each other with the fingers while making a great deal of mess that can be kissed away with more giggles. A hot sop with morello cherries works well–strips of butter-fried bread and a dipping sauce of cherries and sugared wine always goes down a treat with hungry young lovers.

This is a recipe I got direct from that classic Renaissance cookbook “L’Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi.” Hot sops are a dish that has gone out of fashion in the modern era: toasted bread with some kind of dipping sauce that could be meat-based or fruit-based; sweet or savory. It was a popular Renaissance snack, and a staple food for those who had trouble eating (the old, the ill, the very young). Happily, this dish is just as delicious in the 21st century for gourmets of any age. The cherries are both sweet and spicy, and the bread fries up crisp and mouth-watering. Carmelina is right: this is a dish to be shared between two, with kisses in between bites.

Serves 2 — Prep: 15 minutes

1 can cherries in water (NOT cherry pie filling)
4 slices good fresh-baked artisan bread
1 cup red wine
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg

1. Butter the bread slices on both sides, and fry in a skillet over medium heat, flipping once. Set aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium. Drain the cherries and add to a medium saucepan (we improvised with a wok) and add the wine plus 4 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until liquid reduces down to thick syrupy texture, adding more sugar or spices to taste.

4. Serve in a bowl with fried bread for dipping. Messy in the best possible way!


Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project – Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, Deana, and especially Theresa who was chief in helping put the whole thing together – thank you all so much!

Blog Tour Week 4: Q&A

I met Heather Web at last year’s Historical Novel Society Conference – she was such a delightful dinner companion that I couldn’t resist her invitation for a Q&A on her blog! And she’s got interesting questions too – forget “Where do you get your ideas?” Heather asked me what my favorite vices are that get me through the bad times. My answer?

Click here to find out!