The picture on the cover has all the dark tones of a portrait of royalty, the kind hanging along the main hallway of the palace. The man on the cover wears a coat that drapes to the floor. And a bonnet with a ruffled edge. And he's pregnant.
Oh, oh, wait, that's not a man? It's a woman, the mistress of a Russian nobleman? Well, clearly beauty standards have changed since the 1780s.
The Pearl by Douglas Smith attempts a biography of Praskovia, the daughter of a blacksmith, given away to serfdom at the estate of the rich playboy Nicholas Sheremetev. Sheremetev just couldn't seem to fall in love with anybody of his own class, because that pretty little servant girl in his house captivated him so.
She became the nobleman's hobby.
Not only was she considered a great beauty in her day. She also sang like an angel. Nicholas built theaters for her to perform in. He had his friends order the latest plays from Paris, complete with costumes and intricate stage drawings.
Which became the nobleman's other hobby. I can't tell which he loved better. But he managed to fit them together nicely.
The love story failed to draw me in. But I really liked the chapter on serf theater. Theater as I know it always suffers from high competition (in the professional ranks) and absenteeism from rehearsals (in the amateur ranks). Pharmacists and school teachers can't seem to find the time to be dancing dandies. And this is not to mention funding, in both ranks. Wouldn't it be nice if a nobleman took it on himself to build the house, underwrite the costumes, invite his friends (the tsar, the empress, etc) to watch the show? Wouldn't it be wonderful if he pulled you out of your parlor duties and sent you to the singing and dancing lessons that readied you for the stage?
Well, maybe not. The serfs still had to serve dinner to The tsar, the empress and the rest of the company, before donning their costumes and make-up. And sometimes the master sat out in the audience, heckling you. Can't you hit the high notes? Look at the clumsy way you dance! And you couldn't slap him, couldn't walk off to the next town, couldn't do anything but throw in a couple ad-lib lines with veiled but pointed meaning, for which you would probably be punished later.
It was a pretty good chapter. It just didn't redeem the whole biography. And Smith had pretty vague information to go on anyway.
I tried hard, but never finished his opus.
But here is something we did finish around here:
BLACK FOREST BROWNIE TORTE
1 pkg (19.8 oz.) brownie mix plus ingredients to prepare cake-like verson of mix
1 can (21 oz.) cherry pie filling, divided
2 1/2 c. Cool Whip, thawed, divided
1/4 c. sliced almonds, toasted @ 325' for 6-8 min.
-- Heat oven to 350'. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Prepare brownie mix, cake-like version.
-- Divide batter evenly between pans. Bake 18-20 min. Do not overbake. Cool 10 minutes. Remove from pans to wire rack to cool completely.
-- Place one brownie layer on serving plate. Top with 1 1/2 c. Cool Whip to within 1/2 inch of edge. Spread 1 cup pie filling over Cool Whip.
-- Top with second brownie layer. Spread remaining pie filling to within 1/2 inch of edge. Dollop or pipe remaining 1 cup Cool Whip around edge of torte. Sprinkle toasted almonds over top. Serve by cutting into wedges with large serrated knife. 12 servings @ 385 cals. each.
My family wouldn't have had a chance to eat this had not fate intervened.
I made this beauty for the ward Christmas party. Not even the fact that one of the brownie layers fell slightly apart defeated me. That was an easy repair.
But those finishing touches, oh my! I had nothing to pipe with, so we went with the dollops. And they simply could not wait to droop over the sides of the cake. They did not care that they had to appear in public, passing under the noses of a couple dessert snobs, whose own tortes always look like poufy party dresses.
I snuck it in to the church and opened the cake carrier to have a look (things sounded kind of slide-y on the car ride). Oh dear. I snuck it back out again.
Emma says I shouldn't have had such pride. "It's probably perfectly good eating."
Uh-huh. And what was she complaining about? Now we had this wounded but tasty confection all to ourselves. So sad, heh-heh.