Red, White & Royal Blue (and an almond cake of those colors)

The book: Red, White & Royal Blue.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading the wonderful romantic comedy that is Red, White & Royal Blue. The premise of the book is that after a PR nightmare, frenemies Alex (first son of the United States) and Henry (Prince of England) stage a fake friendship to improve their public image. As the two spend forced time together, they actually become quite close and develop romantic feelings for each other. Both being major public figures in their respective countries, Alex and Henry must figure out if they can actually be together.

I really enjoyed Red, White & Royal Blue, and one reason why is the characters. The “White House trio,” Prince Henry, and many of the White House staff are all amazing role models: clever, capable, open-minded, and possessing a strong sense of self. They are also all so much more than just their professional role, especially the White House trio and Prince Henry. I got the sense that these young characters would be still be successful and making a difference in the world even if they weren’t the children of famous world leaders.

This message – that the characters are so much more than just an extension of their famous parents – is actually what’s at the core of this book. As Alex and Henry become romantically involved, they start to imagine themselves as more than just young public figures, and contemplate if a different life – one where they can just be themselves – is a realistic possibility given their circumstances. I really love this message because it is encouraging and inspirational to young readers who could also be struggling with sense of self.

Red, White & Royal Blue is also full of inspiring social and political messages. First, the book takes place in an alternate reality where a woman was elected president of the United States in 2016 after Obama’s term. The novel also describes LGBTQ+ characters really well. Several characters besides Alex and Henry are not straight, and this is a universally understood fact about them, and there’s not much more to it than that. For example: Nora (the vice president’s daughter) is bisexual and that is a part of her identity, but it’s also not the only or most important part of her identity, so her sexuality is mentioned but not fixated on. I think this is important because it demonstrates that sexuality is diverse, and that this should just be accepted without being a big deal.

My one critique of Red, White & Royal Blue is that – while uplifting – it feels wildly unrealistic. Without spoiling too much, this book ends on a positive note (rom-com lovers, rejoice!) – but one that feels more idealistic than realistic. Actually, the entire fictional universe in which a woman Democrat becomes POTUS in 2016 just felt like wishful thinking. I think that is intentional on the author’s part, but I have complicated feelings about escapism which is probably why the idealistic nature of this book didn’t always sit well with me.

All in all, I recommend Red, White & Royal Blue. It is a fun rom-com of a novel, but it also depicts important social, political, and philosophical issues. Also, I hardly touched on this above, but the book is also funny! The characters are razor-sharp, and the way they (playfully and lovingly) tease each other is both clever and hilarious. If you are a looking for an uplifting book to read this summer, Red, White & Royal Blue is a great option.

The bake: red, white, and blue cherry-almond cake.

To celebrate Red, White & Royal Blue, I baked a cake of those colors (and with pink frosting, as an ode to the book’s cover). Cake was a fitting bake for this novel, because the PR nightmare that forces Henry and Alex to become “fake friends” for publicity purposes involves them accidentally destroying a fancy cake. Making the cake colorful was important to me, too, because one of the major themes of this book is expressing yourself and being bold.

To make the cake, I took this recipe from My Name Is Yeh (leaving out the sprinkles, and switching the proportions of almond and vanilla extract), and frosted it with a homemade honey cream cheese frosting. I sandwiched the cake with frosting and fresh cherries, and then topped it with even more cherries.

The interior of the cake. It turned out to be pink, white, and blue – but it still looks pretty cool.

I am so happy with this cake! The interior of the cake ended up being “pink” white and blue (no red), but it still looks awesome; this might actually be the most aesthetically pleasing cake I have ever made. Also, it tastes really good. Cherry and almond go so well together, and the fresh cherries that I used are full of flavor. And since the cake uses egg whites instead of eggs, it is light and airy and not too dense. So to summarize, the cake is colorful, aesthetically pleasing, full of flavor, and not too dense: basically, the perfect bake to celebrate Red, White & Royal Blue.

The final cake! So aesthetically pleasing!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (and passionfruit cupcakes as bold as Evelyn’s love)

The book: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins.

I recently binge-read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins. The novel is about the (fictional) former Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo who, after several decades out of the limelight, sits down with journalist Monique Grant for a tell-all interview. Through the stories that Evelyn tells Monique – about her rise to stardom, her impressive career, her many lovers, and her biggest secrets – we see Evelyn’s complexity and humanity.

One of the best things about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is the character of Evelyn herself, not because she is necessarily likable, but because she is realistically complex. She is calculating and business-minded, and also makes morally questionable decisions with zero qualms. At the same time, though, she can be soft: she loves whole-heartedly and optimistically despite having been hurt, and she will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the people she loves.

The story-telling and underlying messages in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo are also exceptional. A lot of online reviews have described the novel as a gossipy beach read. That description isn’t wrong…but it’s also not complete. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is scandalous and dramatic, for sure, but it also touches on deeper issues including what it means to love and forgive, the sacrifices people make for love and fame, and how people deal with regret.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo also includes a lot of social commentary, especially surrounding sexism and harassment in Hollywood. Evelyn matter-of-factly describes having to use her body to advance in the male-dominated industry, as well as male superiors controlling personal aspects of her life (such as what she eats and who she dates). Evelyn’s stories also demonstrate how many events in Hollywood – like romantic relationships between celebrities – are actually staged.

Ultimately, though, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a story about love in various forms: romantic love, platonic love, familial love, sexual love, and practical love. I would definitely recommend this book: it is light and fun, yet at the same time surprisingly deep. If you like romance, drama, and complex, well-developed characters – I think you will love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

The bake: passionfruit cupcakes.

To celebrate The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I baked cupcakes inspired by the character of Evelyn. To represent her, I needed to use a flavor that was simultaneously bold, surprising, and delightful. Passionfruit seemed like a good fit: its flavor is punch-you-in-the-face bold, yet still so enjoyable. Plus, the name itself – passionfruit – is perfectly fitting for a character as passionate as Evelyn.

I adapted this recipe from The Great British Baking Show to make my passionfruit cake batter. I mixed the following ingredients together using the all-in-one method, poured them into a standard-size cupcake tin, and baked at 350 F for 18 minutes:

  • 50 grams all-purpose flour (approx. 1/2 cup)
  • 50 grams granulated sugar (approx. 1/4 cup)
  • 1.5 tablespoons almond flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • Pulp, juice, and seeds of 2 passionfruit

If you are planning on making this recipe, note that the portions listed above will only yield about 4 standard sized cupcakes!

This cupcake clearly lacks decoration and looks a bit plain…but its taste is rich and bold!

These cupcakes were simultaneously sweet, tart, and buttery. I didn’t frost them, but I think they would go well with a whipped cream or mascarpone frosting. The flavor of the cake itself holds its own, though, so if you don’t want to frost them – you don’t need to! Like Evelyn Hugo, these cupcakes are bold and full of substance.

(Valentine’s Day cheesecake with) Less

The book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and I recently finished a seasonally appropriate novel to celebrate. Less is the story of Arthur Less, a middle-aged writer who plans a spontaneous trip around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding. He travels to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan – with exactly none of the trips playing out as he had expected.

Less is phenomenal for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the prose. I have always been amazed at the ability of writers to describe common experiences in a way that makes them seem novel or profound. Andrew Sean Greer does this throughout Less. Take, for example, his insight into why anxious people are actually quite brave:

“…because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum.”

Another wonderful thing about Less is the humor. Although the novel is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is frequently smirk-or-chuckle-to-yourself funny. The entire visit to Germany, for example, is made incredibly light by translating Less’s broken German (Less thinks he is fluent, by the way) into its English equivalent. Even simple one-liners are enough to make you smile, like the description of Less feeling like “a criminal who has pulled off one last heist” for managing to mail off the airport’s tax-free form despite government bureaucracy making this a nearly impossible task.

Then, there is the plot itself. Arthur Less travels to eight different destinations, and we read about his adventures in each one. Despite the fact that world travel drives the plot, Less is neither travel-porn nor the stereotypical obscenely inspirational “finding-yourself” narrative. Although Less does reflect on his life and himself throughout his travels, I think the novel differs from the aforementioned genres because it never takes itself too seriously. Even at its most contemplative, Less is light-hearted.

Perhaps the best thing about Less was that it could have ended any number of ways and still been a satisfying read. By the end of Less’s journey, we know that he has grown and that he is going to be okay regardless of what happens when he returns home. That being said, I loved the ending that Andrew Sean Greer chose for this book. And if you are a fan of romantic comedies, I suspect you will too.

The bake: strawberry chocolate cheesecake.

Since Less is essentially a romantic comedy in novel form, I decided to be cheesy and bake a romantic dessert. No, literally. I decided to be cheesy, as in, I baked a cheesecake. Specifically, this raspberry chocolate cheesecake from I Am Baker. Actually, I ended up making a strawberry chocolate cheesecake, because all the raspberries at my local Kroger were covered in mold.

This bake is a little bit involved. The preparation required so many mixing bowls (read: so many dishes to wash)! Also, the actual baking of a cheesecake is no easy task! This was my first time ever attempting to make cheesecake, and I learned the hard way that precision is key. Luckily, I was able to hide the major flaws – cracks in the top of the cake – with decoration.

The finished dessert! I meant to take a picture of what it looked like sliced…but my co-workers and I devoured the cake too quickly!

Cosmetic difficulties aside, this was a fantastic recipe. This dessert is indulgent, cheesy, and sweet – making it an excellent tribute to Less and to Valentine’s Day.