Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Take a Free Day Trip to Hawaii and See Chocolate Grow

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Chocolate has been on my mind a lot lately. We see great big heart shaped boxes of the stuff starting the day after Christmas. Kate Dolan writes about growing chocolateAnd I always try to eat as much as I can before the start of Lent, when I usually give up chocolate for 40 days as a reminder of Christ’s suffering on our behalf. (Yes, I will admit his suffering was a bit more intense than mere deprivation of chocolate. But then, he probably never tasted cocoa while he walked on the earth though I suspect it might be a staple up in heaven.)

In any case, with chocolate on the brain, it was a wonderful surprise to walk into the Conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Garden on Capitol Hill and see cacao pods growing on trees and have the chance to see and smell the beans during the different phases of processing. I had read about the process before, but I didn’t have the imagination to make sense of it until I saw the demonstration at the Botanical Garden.

Kate Dolan writes about Cacao trees at the U.S. Botanical GardenThe pods don’t hang from the branches of cacao trees as I had assumed. Instead, they grow right along the trunk, looking like alien pod parasites ready to take over the tree. After the pods are harvested, the white beans inside are removed, fermented and then dried. When the dried beans are roasted and ground up, they form a paste referred to misleadingly as chocolate liquor. (It contains no alcohol, no sugar, and isn’t even a liquid.) This substance can be pressed into blocks (essentially baking chocolate) or separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids which are then ground into powder. Cocoa butter is pretty much all fat, so most of what we think of as chocolate flavor comes from the solids.

There, I gave you a description just like the one that made no sense to me. I can include the pictures of the different stages, but until they invent a scratch and sniff screen, I am unable to pass along the smell samples that we enjoyed at the gardens.

The U.S. Botanical Gardens in Washington are a treasure often overlooked by tourists and locals alike. My husband has worked in D.C. since the 1970s and until this visit, he had never set foot inside the glass building just steps from the capitol. Like most of the museums in the area, it is free to enter and is open every day.

So that’s how you get the free day trip to Hawaii. The gardens are divided into different collections, each one a separate habitat taking you all around the world and even into the prehistoric past. You can explore the remote volcanic islands of Hawaii, stroll through the Mediterranean, wander the desert, get lost in the rain forest, and see how food and medicinal plants grow. You can even visit the “Garden Priveval,” featuring plants from the Jurassic era. (The only dinosaur in evidence was small and very quiet.)

A walk through the Conservatory of the Botanic Gardens is a mini vacation, especially during the dreary winter months. We did not have time to explore the outdoor gardens, which just gives us another reason to go back.

So when you visit D.C., it’s nice to see the major landmarks, but I urge you to make time for a museum that all of your senses will enjoy. Breathe in the aroma of life from all over our planet. And it might just be possible to forget all the craziness going on in the rest of our capital city.


For hours, location and more information so you can see chocolate grow for yourself, visit

If you like reading about tropical islands and plants, you might enjoy my novel, Avery’s Treasure which explores Caribbean islands.

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here:
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part III: Apples

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Today we usually think of apple cider as a wholesome children’s drink, but for most of the past thousand years, cider often contained as much alcohol as beer.  Thanks to wild yeast present in the air, the natural sugar in apple juice begins to ferment (turn to alcohol) within a few days after the juice is pressed from the apples and it will continue to ferment until something (such as cold temperature) is introduced to stop the  process.Kate Dolan explores the history of hard cider  Before the days of widespread refrigeration, sweet or non-alcoholic apple cider had a very short shelf life.  But hard cider would last long enough to bottle and store for a year or more.

Evidence suggests that the English were turning the juice of crab apples sweetened with honey into intoxicating beverages even before the Norman conquerors brought over sweeter apple varieties from France and forced the natives to grow them.  (more…)

Scary tails for Halloween

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Halloween decorations often include rats – all fake, fortunately. While I love the “Dead Mouse Theater” commercials, I don’t think I’d want to see Dead Rat Theater, at least not up close. Those long slimy-looking tails creep me out. And I’m not alone – rats are almost universally feared and hated.Kate Dolan does not like rat tails

So I can’t say I was too excited when the itinerant rat-catcher at Jerusalem Mill proposed to marry to my sixteen-year-old daughter. On the other hand, she likes to hang around with laundry thieves, so I suppose she could do worse.

The rat catcher, “Silas Moore,” was a reenactor at the Colonial Craftstman Weekend portraying a profession that has changed but not disappeared. (more…)

Consider the Fork

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

It would have been very easy to set the table in the early 1600s. Guests wore their own knives to the table, and forks were only used as cooking tools in the kitchen, so they would not be laid out on the table either.

Except in Italy. At about that time, an English visitor to Italy observed the natives using a device “not used in any other country” and that was “a little fork” which the Italians used to hold meat in place while it was cut. Kate Dolan discusses the history of fork usageThe visitor, Thomas Coryate, soon adopted this fashion himself and when he returned to England his friends including poets Ben Jonson and John Donne made fun of him for his fork habit. Another poet announced a few years later that they “need no forks to make hay with our mouths to throw meat into them.”  Real men did not use forks. (more…)

A Toothless Weapon Changed our Teeth

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Does it bother you that the person sitting next to you at the dinner table has a knife? Probably not. After all, you have one too. But more than that, the knife within easy grasp of you neighbor is about as sharp as a cotton ball. Not much of a threat. But in the old days, the knives used at table were not so tame. Kate Dolan writes about table knives
And that’s because they were meant to be used to do more than spread butter. (more…)

What Does Your Spoon Say About You?

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

We may sometimes hesitate about which fork to use, but most of us don’t worry about our choice of spoon. That wasn’t always the case, however. In 1649, using the wrong spoon could get you killed, if the right person happened to notice.fig on a stick


Now bring us some figgy pudding

Friday, November 15th, 2013

The Christmas tradition I’m featuring this week is the Christmas pudding, which figures in the newest release in the Cotillion Christmas Traditions series, Helena’s Christmas Beau. I mentioned to my husband that I had incidents with flaming Christmas puddings in my last two Christmas stories, and suddenly he started demanding that I “bring him some figgy pudding.”Christmas pudding

And I married this guy? What the heck is figgy pudding anyway?

For those of us raised to think of pudding as a little cup of Jello® blandness with the texture of baby food, a traditional English Christmas pudding is a completely foreign concept. Just forget “pudding” and think “fruitcake.” But it’s not the dried up prepackaged cake that gets re-gifted for decades. This would be a rich cake full of dried fruit and brandy or other spirits. Ugly as sin, but delicious.

And potentially dangerous. That’s because the traditional way to serve a Christmas pudding (or figgy pudding or plum pudding or whatever you want to call it) is on fire, with a sprig of holly on top.

There are traditions surrounding the making of the pudding, too. The dish was put together on “Stir-up Sunday,” which was traditionally the Sunday before Lent begins, so more than a month before Christmas. Everyone in the household was supposed to take a turn stirring the batter and to make a wish. Sometimes coins would be added, and whoever found them in his or her serving would have good luck for the year, or at least be a few coins richer. After batter was ready, it was poured into a bag and boiled for hours. Then the pudding would be taken out and hung to age for five weeks until the holidays began. The mixture kept so well, in fact, that leftovers could be saved until Easter or even the next Christmas. Maybe that’s where we get the tradition of re-gifting fruitcake.

Helena's Christmas Beau

In this week’s Cotillion Christmas Traditions release, Helena’s Christmas Beau by Aileen Fish, the heroine throws herself heart and soul into Christmas preparations like Stir-up Sunday, but the hero is, well, an anachronistic Scrooge:

Here’s the description:

Facing her second Christmas since the loss of her fiancé, Helena relies on her favorite traditions to bring back the joy of the season. Yet from stir-up day to bringing in the greenery on Christmas Eve, her cousin’s brother-in-law, Duncan, is underfoot, questioning her every action.

As Duncan plays along with the outdated rites, he realizes how much he’s missed Helena’s laughter. When he hears she plans to re-enter the Marriage Mart next spring, he is struck with jealousy. Is he falling in love, or simply under the spell of the holiday season?Aileen Fish

And here’s a little more from the author, Aileen Fish:

What inspired you to start writing? I was always writing when I was a child, and by eight or nine I had announced I wanted to do it when I grew up. When I was twelve, I heard S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders at the age of seventeen, so I started my first novel. I think I got three chapters in. It took a lot of spurts of starting and stopping before I submitted my first novel anywhere, and finally came down to seeing everyone else succeed to make me push hard enough to sell my first novella.

What advice would you give to writers just starting out? Don’t be afraid to change critique groups until you find a group you can work with. Feedback is necessary to improving your writing, but don’t let them change your voice! Write, rewrite, polish then submit.

What comes first: the plot or the characters? Each story is different. Sometimes I come up with a plot idea or a trope, then think about who would work best in this setting. My main focus at the start is the conflict. What will make it difficult for them to get together at the end? That line of thought finalizes the plot and characterization.

Thanks for reading about me and my story!


Helena’s Christmas Beau will be part of the print anthology, Cotillion Christmas Celebrations, due out December 17, along with my story, Sense of the Season, Twelfth Night Tale by Susana Ellis and last week’s release, Snug in a Snowstorm by Cynthia Moore.

Two more weeks of Christmas traditions to explore!,


A Festive Persuasion

Friday, October 25th, 2013

The word “festive” equals “party” in my world, and parties provide the perfect excuse to try new drinks with no persuasion needed. So for my blog about the release of the next book in the Cotillion Christmas Traditions Regency romance series—this one titled Festive Persuasion—I decided to look at some drinks from the 18th and 19th Century period that are pretty uncommon these days. And I’m not talking small beer, either. These are pretty high on the alcoholic content scale.Kate Dolan explores the history of Champagne

When Monty Python’s knights were sent to fetch “a shrubbery,” they might have done better to bring back a shrub instead. Shrub is made with citrus fruit and spirits, often a mixture of brandy and white wine. Martha Washington’s family recipe calls for equal parts brandy, white wine and water, with sliced lemons and sugar. The mixture is to sit for three days and then the lemons are crushed into it and then the seeds, peel and pulp are strained out.  In some versions, vinegar is used in place of the citrus, and herbs of all types can be added. It sounds odd, but the versions I’ve tasted have been pretty good.

If you think shrub sounds a bit odd, it’s nothing compared to our next drink, a syllabub. This was probably out of fashion by the Regency period, but certainly some members of the older generation would have fond memories of it. It’s a sort of whipped cream and wine mixture, sometimes also made with eggs. One recipe (which is actually in the confectionary section of recipes for housekeepers) calls for a lump of sugar rolled in lemon peel and dumped in a pint a milk. More sugar is added, then lemon juice and then brandy or Madeira (a fortified red wine). This mixture is whipped until frothy, and then spooned on top of a glass of red wine. Other recipes adds  flavored liqueur or spices to the cream. It sounds a bit like eggnog, but mixed with red wine. (For more on eggnog, check here.) There are even stories of bowls of syllabub taken out to the barn to get a squirt of fresh milk just before serving.

All types of wines were popular, too, including champagne (see here for more on my favorite drink), and for the lesser sort, homemade wines composed of everything from gillyflowers to turnips (see my post here for more on wines and wine doctoring). And of course there were even more types of punches than wines. The difference is that the punches might well be mixed by the host himself in front of his guests, whereas the lowly housekeeper would be working in obscurity to make her rhubarb wine. (More about punch will be forthcoming in a future post.)

Now that I’ve give you some ideas, choose your poison, find a good book, and settle in for an adventure.

Festive PersuasionToday we’re celebrating the release of Festive Persuasion by Charlene Roberts, which is the third story in the Christmas Traditions collection. In this tale, the hero’s connection to a murder forces him to give up any hope of a match with the heroine. She, meanwhile, has to use all means at her disposal to persuade him that her feelings for him have not changed. (Okay, this is a traditional Regency romance, so she doesn’t use all the means at her disposal, just the ones that don’t require her to remove clothing)

Click on the cover to learn more about the story, or visit the author’s website at

And get those drinks ready. It’s a party party weekend!

Job description: make weird wine

Friday, June 21st, 2013

England actually had a warm enough climate to grow wine grapes during the middle ages. Whether the wine would have been drinkable by today’s standards is unknown, but as the climate cooled during the “Little Ice Age” (from about 1350 to 1850), the British could not feasibly produce good wine from grapes. But that did not stop them from making wine.gooseberry

There are scores of recipes for wine made from just about anything other than wine grapes. In the extensive Complete Servant guide that I’ve been examining (first published in 1825), among the housekeeper’s duties are not only “improving” wine (see Wine Repair) but also making it. (more…)