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The Goldfinch | Chocolate Vodka Cupcakes with Vishnevoe Varenye (Sour cherry preserves)

The Goldfinch | Chocolate Vodka Cupcakes with Vishnevoe Varenye (Sour cherry preserves)

"While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I'd been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom."

The Book
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt revolves around the arguably shitty life of Theo Decker. When we're first introduced to Theo, he's in a hotel in Amsterdam. It's unclear, but he seems cold and out of it, possibly sick, possibly on acid. You care for Theo immediately, but a quick, unexplained reference to his face in the wanted papers makes you wonder what he's been up to. Either way, he's decided to share with us his life story--and I do mean life story. This book is 700 pages, ya'll.

Theo takes us back to what we soon realize is the defining moment in his life. At the age of 13, he's just ordinary teenager, headed to a parent-teacher conference with his mother because he's done something stupid, yet ultimately harmless at school. In just a few pages though, his world is violently turned upside down when, on a quick pit-stop to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother, among other bystanders. There are several pages of bloody confusion, dust, hallucinations, and difficult breathing. Prompted by the wish of a dying old man he find among the rumble, Theo makes off with a painting—the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, "The Goldfinch." 

For the next 14 years (and again, I say: 700 pages), the painting becomes a burden as well as the only link to his late mother. Theo is shipped off to his dad's new life in Las Vegas, where he meets the new, younger, pill-popping waitress girlfriend Xandra, and my favorite character of the whole book: the hard-living but soulful Russian teenager Boris who quickly becomes his connection to a world of alcohol, hard drugs and dirty street living--but also like, his only friend. And can you blame him? Let us not forget his mother has just died and now he's in a whole new place surrounded by people he doesn't like (his father) or doesn't know (literally everybody else). So a friend with drugs, is a friend indeed. Don't tell my mom I said that.

Eventually his dad's risky gambling Vegas lifestyle catches up to him and Theo hops a train and becomes a runaway, a million dollar painting still "safely" in his backpack.  He connects with Hobie, a friend and business partner of the dying man in the museum, who becomes a sort of stand-in father for Theo and teaches him about the art of furniture restoration. And with that connection comes the mysterious, waif-like Pippa, who he first set eyes on in the museum moments before the bomb went off. Boris comes back, there's a wedding proposal at some point, a bunch more drugs, some really fancy food, some smuggling--and at the center of it all, is Theo's Goldfinch.

When the book came out, it had been 11 years since "The Secret History," and everybody, myself included, was ready for another Tartt. It was a huge success! Pulitzer Prize, Amazon's Best Fiction of 2013, National Critics Book Circle Award! But the literary world--the NY Times, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and other places us normal people go to read somebody's opinion of a book--was confused. Why did people like this book? “Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood. It was called "relentless" and "far-fetched" with "cloying stock characters and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness." 

Here's what I think: Yes, the ending felt a little under-cooked, not quite ready, not quite there. But the ride was glorious and calling it a waste of time isn't fair. If you've read her other books, you'll feel familiar with Tartt's style of juxtaposing the tiniest of details, with huge abstract ideas. Philosophy and art history next to the play of a light through a crooked blind. A rich family dealing with mental illness up against the way a dog remembers someone it hasn't seen in almost ten years. Proust, childhood bullies and taking acid. Blueberry muffins and art smuggling.

The book is complicated to say the least, but so is art. And in the end, I think this book is about the power of art to completely change a life.

The Goldfinch: 4.5 stars

The Cupcakes
In honor of my favorite wise-cracking, cigarette-smoking character, Boris, I knew these cupcakes needed to be Russian in some way. I've already made white Russian cupcakes for Ana Karenina; they were  delicious, by the way!  So I looked into actual Russian desserts and ran across a recipe for vishnevoe varenye--sour cherry preserves. 

Typical Russian preserve is varenye which is quite different from jam. Varenye is usually made of whole fruits (single type or mixed) cooked in sugar syrup for several minutes in 2-4 short stages with a ‘cooling period’ between them. As a result varenye is not as thick, consistent and spreadable as jam but rather becomes caramelised fruits or berries in thick clearer syrup. But sure to give yourself time for all the stages!

The preserves are excellently sweet on their own, but on top of these super simple chocolate vodka cupcakes, it's down right decadent.

Vodka Cupcakes
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup warm water
1/8 cup vodka

Vishnevoe Varenye (sour cherry preserves)
Sour cherries
Sugar

1.  Remove all the stems and leaves from cherries and wash them if needed.
2. Put cherries into a pot and randomly prick them with a fork to help release juices.
3. Dump all that sugar on the berries, shake the pot a little to mix it up.
4. Cover with the lid and let sit for a at least 4 hours. (You'll know it's ready when you see a lot of juice, it should reach the middle of the pot or more.)
5. Turn the heat on low and start warming up your cherry preserve. Mix the preserve softly trying to avoid breaking the cherries.
6. When the cherry preserve starts boiling, turn down the heat and mix the preserve to help the sugar on the bottom dissolve.
7. Slowly boil for 3-5 minutes and turn off. Cover the pot and leave on the stove.
8. Come back to your preserves in another 4 hours, or maybe even the next day. Repeat these steps at least three times. Boil, stir, sit. Spoon any foam off the top.
9. Cool completely and set aside. You can go ahead and put any extra in a mason jar for some hella good biscuit toppings in the morning!

I read somewhere that this foam is the Russian version of licking the bowl clean!

I read somewhere that this foam is the Russian version of licking the bowl clean!

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
3. Add milk, eggs, butter. Beat with electric mixer for 1 minute.
4. Add warm water and vodka slowly while mixing for one more minute or until smooth.
5. Fill your cupcake liners and bake about 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
6. Cool the cupcakes completely.
7. It's up to you how you want to use your vishnevoe varenye--you can core out the cupcakes and put a few teaspoons in the middle, or you can put some on top!

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"It happened in New York, April 10th, nineteen years ago. Even my hand balks at the date. I had to push to rite it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly ordinary day, but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail." 

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"'Complaints bureau!'  I remember Boris grousing as a child, one afternoon at his house when we had got off on the vaguely metaphysical subject of our mothers: why they—angels, goddesses—had to die? while our awful fathers thrived, and boozed, and sprawled, and muddled on, and continued to stumble about and wreak havoc, in seemingly indefatigable health? “They took the wrong ones! Mistake was made! Everything is unfair! Who do we complain to, in this shitty place? Who is in charge here?'”

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"I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.”

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“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” 

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“Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you.” 

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“We looked at each other. And it occurred to me that despite his faults, which were numerous and spectacular, the reason I’d liked Boris and felt happy around him from almost the moment I’d met him was that he was never afraid. You didn’t meet many people who moved freely through the world with such a vigorous contempt for it and at the same time such oddball and unthwartable faith in what, in childhood, he had liked to call “the Planet of Earth.” 

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"And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next."

Happy baking, everybody!
-Ariel

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