This week’s winner is Angie, who flattered me by saying she’s going to try to make my salted caramels. Flattery will get you everywhere, Angie. And now it will get you ten bucks! (Though actually I pick the winner randomly, I swear!)
Happy Friday, everybody!
This morning, I’m preoccupied with baking and writerly craft. Not necessarily in that order.
Room at the Inn got a lovely, thoughtful A- review from Dabney at Dear Author yesterday, which spurred a really interesting discussion in the comments that has me thinking about all sorts of things, from the threads of stories that never make it into the book to the whole issue of place in romance fiction.
Some of the commenters mentioned a discomfort with the celebration/elevation of small-town life in Room at the Inn and other small-town romance stories — a discomfort that I share, which is why I was a bit surprised that readers were having that reaction to my story. But then I was remembering how strongly Julie feels about Potter Falls, and the contrast between Potter Falls and New York City in her backstory, and I suppose it is true that Room at the Inn celebrates small-town life.
This is, as Willaful pointed out in the comments, probably inevitable in a story that’s meant to reboot It’s a Wonderful Life. But there’s also a distinct element of personal fantasy in the story, because the town I was imagining while writing it (the town in Upstate New York where my dad grew up) is dying, and I love that town, and whenever I visit I wish something could be done to rescue it. So I suppose that in many ways, this story was my way of expressing and resolving that wish creatively. It gave me a lot of pleasure to imagine a different fate for Potter Falls and execute it through my characters.
I’ve also been thinking about how everyone invests place with meaning — different places, different stages of life, different meanings. I’ve lived several different places — a small town in Pennsylvania, two different college towns in Ohio and Iowa, a university town in North Carolina, London, and a midsize city in Wisconsin — and all of these places mean different things to me. They all call up different memories, different feelings of belonging or exile, affection or loneliness. My immediate family is scattered all over the country, so for me, belonging and having family close are both fantasies that have a lot of traction.
In romance, we rely so much on tension to give stories heft that it’s very common to see characters who feel differently about place: a hero who’s rah-rah about his hometown and a heroine who wants to destroy it, for instance. A setup like that provides an opportunity to showcase the positive and negative attributes of the setting. But because the hero and heroine always need to find a way to settle their differences in the end, one character’s viewpoint is usually obviously superior: the heroine who wants to destroy the hometown will be shown the error of her ways, and the hero’s view of his beloved town will triumph. Thus valorizing the small-town-loving viewpoint. And you can do the same thing with an urban setting (I do in the naked beekeeper book) — but either way, there’s a dynamic in which the setting, big or small, frequently becomes part of the fantasy.
Anyway… I’m not trying to reach any particular point here. Just thinking aloud. My next series is set in a small college town, with characters whose opinions on the place vary. Then there’s a novella set in Green Bay. The three after that are New York books — the first of them described by my critique partner as a “love affair” with New York. It will be interesting to see how people react to the depiction of place in these various titles — and how my own thinking on the subject evolves over time.
At any rate, it’s an honor to have my stories read, engaged, and discussed by such a serious, smart bunch of readers — both at DA and elsewhere. A dream come true, honestly. Thanks to you all.
Aaaaand that was a lot of words that I didn’t intend to write. Okay! Moving along — on the subject of other things we invest with meaning, let’s talk about baked goods! Stella asked for my salted caramel recipe after I mentioned it in my last newsletter, so I’m sharing. Just be warned: this salted caramel is OFF THE HOOK. And also kind of dangerous. Don’t sue me if you injure yourself while adding warm cream to boiling, burning sugar, is all I’m saying.
RUTHIE’S OFF-THE-HOOK SALTED CARAMELS
a.k.a. Fleur de Sel Caramels, New York Times, 12/31/08. Adapted from a recipe by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage.
1 1/2 c. granulated cane sugar
1 c. heavy whipping cream
2 Tbsp. light corn syrup
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. sea salt (pulverized form) + chunky sea salt for finishing
1 tsp. vanilla
1. Line bottom and sides of 8″ square baking pan with lightly oiled parchment paper. Or else do what I do and buy a Silpat pan, which you don’t have to line or grease with anything.
2. Put sugar in a medium heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it melts. It’s going to look chunky and weird if you stir it too much, but if you don’t stir it it’ll brown too quickly, and basically you’re going to panic and think you’re ruining it. Hang in there, grasshopper. You can do this. Try not to stir too much, but you will have to move the sugar around a bit. Continue to cook until the sugar is entirely liquid and it has turned dark amber. The recipe says this will take 5 to 6 minutes. In my experience, it takes an eternity. It’s done when it’s done. Don’t let it burn, but don’t freak out if your “dark amber” looks more like “almost the color of molasses.”
3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan bring cream to a simmer over medium heat. Try not to let it boil over — but honestly, you will probably let it boil over. It is really fucking hard to keep it from boiling over. Do your best.
4. When sugar is the right shade and all liquid-y, stir in the corn syrup. It’s going to sputter and steam and make you nervous, but keep stirring until you get all the corn syrup in. Then remove pot from heat (I don’t actually do this) and stir in the hot cream slowly. This is the part where the pan of hot boiling sugar-goo will try to rise up and destroy you. Don’t allow this to happen. Just poke at it with your spoon until it subsides.
5. Return pan to medium heat and cook until mixture registers 252 degrees on a candy thermometer or, if you’re like me and have never gotten around to buying a candy thermometer even though you’ve been making candy since you were 12, it reaches the “soft ball” stage. You’ll know it’s reached the soft ball stage because you’re going to drop some of it off the spoon into a cup of cold water, then reach in and pick it up with your fingers. If it just falls off your fingers in a gloppy mess, it’s not ready. If you can form it into a little caramel ball which you then eat, you’re good to go. Once you’ve made these caramels six or seven times, you can tell by looking at it when it’s reached soft ball stage, but you’ll probably keep testing it anyway, because it gives you an excuse to eat the caramels. The recipe says this stage takes 5 to 7 minutes. Sometimes it takes 2 minutes. Sometimes it takes 10. They’re ready when they’re ready.
6. Remove pot from heat, immediately add salt, butter, and vanilla, and stir with a wooden spoon until distributed. The caramels will try to kill you again, but they won’t try quite as hard this time.
7. Pour caramel into prepared pan (if you’ve got a lot of undissolved sugar chunks, you can pour it through a mesh strainer) and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate to harden. Cut the caramels into pieces with a giant butcher knife, taking care not to stab yourself. This part is difficult, and you will hate it. Whatever you do, DO NOT THEN PUT ALL THE PIECES OF CARAMEL IN A BOWL AND DECIDE TO WRAP THEM LATER. Even cold, these fuckers are sticky. Cut and wrap in one go.
8. Cut squares of waxed paper, sprinkle chunky salt on top of each caramel, and wrap it up, twisting the ends closed. Give them away to all your friends, who will be so impressed with you. Or else eat them until they give you a stomachache.
Today’s question: Which makes you feel more sentimental, baked goods or places? Do you have any thoughts on all the blathering I did above? What about caramels — do they give you thoughts? As always, comment to enter, and I’ll give away a $10 gift certificate tomorrow morning to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes — winner’s choice.