2017 Books, Pt. 2 / Butternut Squash, Apple, and Brie Galette

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This week’s recipe: Butternut Squash, Apple, and Brie Galette

A continuation of my wildly successful post, 2017 Books, Pt. I

The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin

Like many people, I watched and loved FX’s OJ Simpson series last year. I was seven years old when the trial happened, and my understanding of it was limited to referring to orange juice as “OJ Simpson” (even back then, I had a rare facility with words). So it was especially illuminating to learn about the characters involved, the racial issues at play, and how the prosecutors’ arrogance and incompetence managed to allow an obviously guilty man to go free. I like Jeffrey Toobin’s writing and wanted to read the book behind the series, and I wasn’t disappointed. The case was so nuts that it would have made for a fascinating read even in the hands of a less gifted writer, and Toobin was given a high level of access to many of the principals early on, in addition to being the one to discover Mark Furhman’s near-cartoonish racism.

How the defense managed to make OJ, who had explicitly disassociated himself with blackness early and often and who had a cozy relationship with the starstruck LAPD, into a stand-in for every black man who had ever been mistreated by law enforcement is to my mind the most compelling (and crazy-making) part of the story. But there are many resonances with today: Marcia Clark and how she embodied the burdens faced by working mothers; Barry Scheck and the trial’s role in the rise of DNA evidence; the victim blaming of Nicole Brown Simpson that managed to turn a victim of murder and domestic violence into a trashy, promiscuous gold digger; and the never-ending press circus surrounding celebrity behavior that, in a curious postscript that no one could have imagined at the time, has reached its apotheosis in the children of OJ’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian. The facts of the case itself were obvious, and should have been a slam dunk. The Run of His Life is valuable not for shedding any new light on those facts, but for its forensic explanation of why the slam dunk wasn’t.

Stalin, Volume I by Stephen Kotkin

Another stab in my attempt to understand our new Russian overlords, but also an inherently interesting subject. Stalin was arguably the greatest monster in a century full of them. People keep writing and reading biographies of monsters because we want to know where that level of evil comes from. According to Kotkin, in this massive, heavily researched book..,well, you’ll just have to wait and find out. It covers Stalin’s early years, from his birth to the exile of Trotsky and the start of collectivization. The Stalin that Kotkin paints is a hard worker, talented administrator, and Soviet true believer with a definite ruthless streak and gift for consolidating power, but not necessarily the cruel dictator he would become. He had a typical childhood (Kotkin dismisses the theory that Stalin’s brutality arose from being beaten by his father; if that were the case, nearly every Georgian boy of the time would grow up to order the death of millions). Following a brief stint in seminary, he became an outlaw for the Communist cause and eventually rose to its highest office, dispatching rivals along the way and significantly helped along by luck and circumstance.

When looking back at evil leaders of highly ideological movements, it’s natural to wonder how much they actually bought into the ideology and how much they were just using it as a vehicle for their ambitions. According to Kotkin, Stalin was Lenin’s true heir, despite the fog placed around his succession by Lenin’s disputed testament; however, he also argues that Trotsky was far more essential to the revolution than Stalin was. Although Stalin is the title and subject of the book, Kotkin often pushes him aside for long (though necessary) contextualizations. And while the book is definitely meant for the general reader, I sometimes found it difficult to follow as someone who isn’t familiar with this period in Russian history (the fact that everyone has at least one name and one alias, sometimes more, doesn’t help). But it does help you get inside the mind of a man and a movement that sanctioned endless repression, torture, and murder in a quest to build a more just and equitable future.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

This was one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also a book about one man’s quest to reinstate slavery in the United States. That man is the book’s unnamed black narrator, who hails from a Los Angeles neighborhood called Dickens which has been “disappeared” from the map. The plot is quite dense to describe here; suffice to say that it involves the narrator’s father’s deranged sociological experiments that he performed on his son; the last black member of the Little Rascals who willingly volunteers himself for servitude; a donut shop that serves as the home of (a wicked sendup of) black intellectuals; the re-segregation of public schools and buses; and more. But mostly, it’s about the narrator’s attempts to show what a farce post-racial America is by, to use a phrase Stalin would have appreciated, heightening the contradictions to a truly absurd extent.

It’s no surprise that this hilarious satire was the first book ever by an American author to win the Man Booker Prize. Seriously, the book is worth it just for one character’s attempt to put out politically correct versions of classic books (sample titles: The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool, The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit). But it’s also about how we’re all still comfortable with black subordination, and the meaninglessness of the post-racial ideal. The Sellout was written during the Obama years, but in the Trump years, it resonates more than ever.

Quick review of other books I’ve read this year:

White Trash by Nancy Issenberg: timely study of poor white American identity, but not as groundbreaking as the author thinks

Wolf Boys by Dan Slater: thought-provoking exploration of why young people get into the drug trade, and what it means when teenagers become cartel murderers

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer: delightful portrait of a demographic not often examined by historians

Blitzed by Norman Ohler: definitely entertaining; the portion about Hitler’s drug use was more convincing than the part about that of the general German public

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman: a lot more boring than the show

Hitler: Ascent by Volker Ullrich: dude, I already wrote a whole post on this!

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken: oh Al, you’ve broken my heart

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green: I have to admit that I’m still only 2/3 of the way through this one but it’s equal parts illuminating, infuriating, and compulsively readable

So anyway, here’s a galette. This will definitely impress your guests when you bring it to the table, and impress their taste buds when they eat it. This is a visually beautiful dish that screams “fall.” Seriously, it will grab you by your lapels and scream, “FALL, MOTHERFUCKER!” Better eat it all up before it embarrasses you in public!

Butternut Squash, Brie, and Apple Galette

From Happy Yolks

For the pastry:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup ice water

In a bowl, mix the flour with the sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in half of the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Cut in the remaining butter. Pour in water then begin to mix and knead the dough until a ball forms and the mixture is no longer shaggy looking. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

  • 3-ish lb butternut squash
  • 2 apples (honeycrisp, pink lady, or fuji)
  • 2 cups brie cheese, rind removed
  • olive oil
  • fresh thyme
  • salt/pepper
  • 1 egg

Preheat oven to 400.’ Peel the squash. Cut 1/4 inch vertical wedges up to the rind. Halve discs. Place on a baking sheet and coat with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It’s okay if wedges overlap. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just softened and a little al dente in the thicker regions. Set aside and cool. With a mandolin or pairing knife, cut apples (with peel) into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside. Cut or tear brie into strips and chunks. Set aside.

On a floured work surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch round. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Begin layering cooled squash, apples, cheese, and a bit of salt and pepper leaving a 1 1/2 inch border for folding it all up. Repeat until you run out of ingredients and can top with more cheese. Fold the border over your squash-apple-cheese tower pleating the edge to make it fit. Finish outside exposed dough with an egg wash. Bake for 30-40 minutes in the 400′ oven. Cut into wedges and serve warm.

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