It’s been months since my last post; I moved, started a new job, made new friends, quit that job, moved again, all while trying to survive a global pandemic. (And some of that time spent in the then Covid capitol of the world.) I now live in a tiny town in Washington state, a town so small we don’t get mail delivery! The views here are incredible, and cancel out the inconvenience of having to pay for a P.O. Box. Every morning I get to drink my coffee and look at the beautiful snow covered mountains. Here’s a pic of my view!
Now I seem to have the headspace to write and bake again. Maybe it’s the ebbing of the pandemic, maybe it’s a job with less mental responsibilities, or maybe it’s the change from desert life to mountain life. (“They” say green spurs creativity, and there’s lots of green here.) Whatever it is, I’m back!
I’ve been obsessed with winter lately. After living in SoCal the past couple of years, I’ve really missed snow: the blowing wind, limited visibility, heavy blankets and mugs of hot cocoa; and my reading selections of late have upheld that theme. Murder mysteries in isolated snow-filled locations: Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” in her “Midwinter Murders” collection, Ruth Ware’s “One by One,” and Sarah Pearse’s “The Sanatorium.”
A Facebook friend first brought my attention to “The Sanatorium,” in a post calling the book a “modern gothic” tale, so of course I had to read it. Pandemic isolation and gothic horror aren’t dissimilar. The characters are often alone, cut off from family and friends, facing terror from unseen enemies (or viruses).
“The Sanatorium” didn’t disappoint in its setup.
The setting: an old tuberculosis sanatorium high in the Alps that had been transformed into a modern minimalist luxury hotel, Le Sommet. The architect behind the transformation disappeared from the property years before it opened.
The protagonist: Elin, a detective on leave after a traumatic near death incident on her last case, is visiting to celebrate her estranged brother’s engagement to her estranged childhood best friend and the hotel’s assistant manager, Laure.
“Her body is reacting to something here; something living, breathing, woven into the DNA of the building, as much a part of it as its walls and floors.”
From the first moment Elin sees Le Sommet, she feels dread. The building is unsettling, and ominous; empty in a luxurious way, that feels haunting. Snow is falling quickly and heavily, closing in on the hotel.
“It’s strange, she thinks, how for her, claustrophobia doesn’t only exist in spaces outside herself, but within her too. That horrible sense of being trapped inside your own body.”
Laure goes missing and Elin’s dread turns to fear. When a body is found in the pool, a woman, tied to a sandbag, her hand missing fingers, her face covered in a gas mask, there is only one explanation; a killer is on the loose. Dark secrets from the Sanatorium’s past could mean the killer isn’t done yet.
“A liar should have a good memory.”
In the end, I only gave “The Sanatorium” three stars, but I enjoyed every moment of reading it. I enjoyed Elin’s character, even if there was something fairly predictable and cliché about her stagnant life, a result from trauma never truly dealt with. “Things are messy, there aren’t always explanations.” I enjoyed watching her push forward in, sometimes, reckless ways; making mistakes, getting hurt, but laser focused on the case. It felt real in the way people keep making the same mistakes over and over.
I also loved the background noise of creepy, and sinister, with small nods to the sanatorium’s dark history: the twisted murderer’s signature of gas mask, removing fingers, and creepy bracelets with numbers etched upon them. There were even a few moments that things felt supernatural, footsteps that can’t be explained. This book was a solid 4 maybe 5 star read until I reached the end.
The identification of the killer wasn’t over all surprising and on the surface was completely fine, but the killer’s motive made me bristle. ********SPOILERS SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ANY SPOILERS In this case, the killer was raped by the architect that helped plan the remodel while her brother watched and did nothing when they were teenagers. She decided several years later to kill him. But her brother and some others found the body and removed it, so she never got to have her public vengeance, so she killed more people. It just felt unreal to me. I mean the murders were dark and twisted, but only tangentially connected to her story. It felt slapped together, and personally I was annoyed that a survivor of rape would concoct such a senseless murder plot to get back at her brother. It bristled enough that I dropped my rating to 3 star. SPOILERS COMPLETE********
Ok, no more spoilers. I did overall enjoy the book, and still think you should read it, especially if you enjoy mysteries with an “And Then There Were None” feel.
For this novel, I wanted something warm, nutty, and delicious to snack on. I went on the cookie train and decided to finally try a browned butter cookie, Brown Butter Toffee Chip Cookies. I’ve watched people rave about browned butter in my various baking groups, and occasionally see recipes that call for it, but honestly I had no idea what browned butter was, so I followed the tutorial included in the recipe and watched and listened to melted butter fizzle and pop until it was brown and smelled of heaven; a pure beautiful nuttiness with a hint a caramel. DAMN browned butter for the win! I couldn’t wait to put it in my cookies. The rest of the recipe was super easy; it just mixed together in a bowl with a spoon.
I will tell you I learned to use fresh parchment paper for each batch. Sometimes, I can reuse a sheet, but with these cookies, it’s the difference between perfection and burned bottoms. It made a ton, so I took several to work with me where they were declared, “The best cookie I’ve ever had.” They are pretty damn good. I am definitely keeping this recipe for future use AND I will be trying browned butter in everything.
I had a lot of help getting this post together, especially during the photography portion, though my assistant was much more focused on the tear down part of the shoot. (You may notice, I was also watching Forensic Files while working!)
Here’s the recipe I used, from Sugar Spun Run, or click here for their full recipe and explanation.
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs room temp
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch (I didn’t have any and left it out.)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk chocolate toffee pieces
sea salt for sprinkling on top of the cookies
- Preheat oven to 350F and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.
- Cut the butter into Tablespoon sized pieces and place in a medium saucepan. Melt over medium-low heat.
To brown the butter:
- Once butter has melted, increase heat to just above medium heat.
- Swirl and scrape the sides of the pan frequently with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula – the butter will bubble and pop. Once the bubbling slows, the butter will begin to turn brown.
- Watch the butter very carefully at this point, and once it begins to brown and you smell the nutty aroma, remove from heat quickly and pour into a large, heatproof bowl.
- Allow butter to cool for 25-30 minutes.
- Add sugars to cooled browned butter, stir well.
- Stir in eggs, one at a time, stirring well after each addition.
- Add vanilla extract and stir.
- In a separate, medium sized bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, stirring until ingredients are nearly completely combined.
- Add the toffee bits and stir until ingredients are well-incorporated.
- Drop by heaping, rounded 1 ½ Tablespoon scoops onto prepared cookie sheets, at least 2” apart.
- Bake at 350F for 10-12 minutes or until edges are just beginning to turn golden brown. Cookies should still be quite soft, and may appear underbaked in the center.
- Sprinkle lightly with sea salt.
- Allow cookies to cool on pan for 3 minutes before transferring them to cooling rack to cool completely.
- Hide some for yourself, because these will disappear quickly!