Monday, September 28, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Jane Austen really doesn't mention food very often in her books. But, being British, there's a lot of tea drinking, and when I think of tea and English literature, I think of lovely afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones, and little desserts, all beautifully served on paper doilies on one of those three-tiered servers. So, scones it shall be.
1 egg, beaten
Additional 1 egg, for glazing, and additional white sugar for topping.
2. Mix the dry ingredients together with a whisk (the recipe says to sift them, but I've never bothered. Whisking will do, honestly.)
3. Cut the butter into small pieces and add them to the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender, or two butter knives, keep cutting the butter into smaller and smaller pieces, while coating with the flour, until it looks like wet sand. If you want to add currents or other mix-ins, now is the time. I'm not fond of raisins and such but dried cranberries are nice (also nice if you add a little grated orange rind). Chocolate chunks are decadent -- see, I did manage to make this a chocolate recipe!)
4. Beat the egg, add it to the dry ingredients and add most of the milk -- hold a little bit back, just in case. Gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, until a soft dough is formed -- don't let it get too sticky. Knead it about 15 times until it holds together, and is smooth, but be gentle since overworking the dough makes it tough.
5. Sprinkle some flour on your work surface, and divide the dough into two balls. Flatten each ball into a 1/2 inch circle and cut into 8 wedges, like a pie. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, brush them with the extra beaten egg, and sprinkle with sugar. 6. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
These are delicious served plain or with your favorite jam. Devonshire cream is traditional, but hard to come by here in the states, and rather expensive. Whipped cream or butter are also nice -- if y0u can find Kerrygold Irish butter, it is worth every penny. Or my favorite, lemon curd, a delicious lemony custard similar to pie filling. But that's a topic for another blog.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Lately it seems like I can't escape this book. On a recent trip, my 12-year-old daughter bought the third book in this series and was laughing hysterically on the plane ride home (while I was engrossed in Dear Enemy). And this week when I volunteered at the school book fair, kids were buying the three volumes left and right, so I knew it was time to break down and try it. I started with the first book, then read the second and third in quick succession. It did not improve.
The plot in a nutshell: Middle-schooler Greg records his thoughts about life as wimpy middle-schooler and his home life as an under-appreciated middle child in a journal with cartoons. The cartoons are clever, sort of sophisticated stick figures, but not as witty as Fox Trot or as endearing as Calvin & Hobbes. The big turnoff for me is Greg's character -- the back of the book describes him as an "unlikely hero" but I found nothing heroic about him. He's really selfish, self-centered, and spends all his time trying to get out of homework, housework, or any kind of responsibility. He won't commit to any sports or hobbies other than video games. He only has one friend, Rowley, and he's really mean to him and is constantly taking advantage of him. I get the impression they're only friends because Rowley is somebody he can push around. I found the book pretty mean-spirited and there wasn't a single character I liked. There were only a couple of times through the three-volume series that I even snickered.
Since this book doesn't appeal to me in the least, I decided to consult my daughter. According to her, this book is funny because Greg does what she fantasizes about but would never do, like completing a four page paper by just typing four sentences in the biggest possible font, or not doing laundry for an entire year. Well, I guess it's good to know my daughter would never actually do these things.
This brought up another point with me: obviously, I'm NOT the target audience for this book, so, really, is it fair for an adult to critique a book meant for a child? Of course I can't appreciate this book the same way a ten-year-old would. I'm not a big fan of science fiction or sports books, so I can't see myself evaluating those either. But I suppose we can't have children evaluating all the children's books, or a lot of adult book reviewers who would be out a job.
I can see how this book would be great to get reluctant readers interested in reading, especially boys (though lots of girls like Wimpy Kid also). That's a big topic with librarians -- basically, just get them to read something. Then, hopefully you can get the kids to move to something a little more challenging. Maybe these books are a step up from Captain Underpants and the Goosebumps series. I just kept thinking there are lots of clever, funny books that aren't too hard. I love the Time Warp series by Jon Sciezska, and pretty much everything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.
While I was reading this series, I couldn't help thinking about another book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's also in diary form, with cartoon illustrations, and it is so wonderful on so many levels, but it's definitely for an older audience. It's one of the best YA books I've ever read. Another hilarious teen book in diary form is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, by Sue Townshend. The books are set in London and were published in the 1980s, but I reread them recently and they really have stood the test of time. They are laugh-out loud funny more than 20 years later.
I hope I don't sound like a literary snob (as you can see from my list of completed books, I read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series this summer!) I'm not saying kids should be expected to sit around reading only Newbery award winners and classics. The Wimpy Kid series is just the literary equivalent of a potato chip. Hopefully, the children who love these will move on to something a little more filling.
I am a big fan of back-of-the-box cooking, and the Nestle Tollhouse Cookie Recipe from the back of said package is a fine, fine recipe. However, a few years ago I was at a party where I tasted the best chocolate chip cookies I'd ever had. The hostess, a kind woman named Danielle, told me how to make them. It's very simple. First, make the original recipe in the link, but instead of adding the entire bag of chocolate chips (which measures two cups), add only one cup, plus half a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Chips (which is slightly less than a cup, since the bag is smaller. A travesty. Though I suppose I should just double the recipe and use up one bag of each -- and have more cookies!). Then add 1 cup of rolled oats and 1 cup of Rice Krispies. The oatmeal make the cookies chewy and moist, and the Rice Krispies give it an interesting crunch.
In fact, this recipe is perfect for just about any mix-in variation you like. This summer I was making cookies with the kids and we could not agree on the mix-ins. I made a double batch of dough and divided it into three portions, so each of us could add our favorites. Another favorite mix-in combo is oatmeal, coconut, and dried cranberries.
Now all you need is a good book and a cold glass of milk, or a nice cup of tea. Enjoy!
Friday, September 18, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I finished this book last night, and I must admit, it was exhausting. I started this book back in July, and I kept getting distracted. I don't know if it's the longest book I've ever read (I'm pretty sure War and Peace is longer), but it's got to be pretty close to the top of the list. My edition was 821 pages of text, not including the introduction, end notes, etc. I actually found a article which claims it's 358,000 words -- Dickens' longest work. Normally, I have nothing against long books, but lately I find that some of them make me impatient. Dickens, Dreiser, Tolstoy -- sometimes I think they really could have used a good editor. Even my beloved Jane Austen has moments in Emma (my other current read) in which I feel like shouting, "Just get on with it! Move it along!" It could be my education in journalism, in which we were taught that less is generally more. "Never use a ten-dollar word when a two-dollar word will do!" was the mantra that I have never forgotten. That's why Hemingway (a journalist) wrote. With. Very. Short. Sentences.
But back to David Copperfield. This is one of those classics that frequently shows up on lists of The Best Novels of All Time, Top Reading for College, etc., and in fact is the one Dickens loved best of all his works, probably because it's his most autobiographical. There is some great stuff in this book, and I absolutely started out loving it -- I read the first 300 pages or so very quickly and fell in love with it. I was sure it was going to supplant Bleak House as my favorite Dickens work. The story of David's childhood is both tragic and hilarious. His aunt Betsey Trotwood is an absolute hoot, and I was so impressed that his tragic beginnings were so compelling -- repugnant, but I couldn't put it down. His father died before he was born, his mother remarries an abusive monster, then she dies leaving him with a wretched stepfather who forces him to work in a factory. Of course, he's the quintessential Dickensian orphan.
However, I really got bored in the middle and kept putting it down for other books. David's youth and his courtship of the angelic Dora just didn't do it for me. Generally, I'm not impressed with Dickens' young female characters, which seem to be idealized and flat. It's the great descriptions of scenes and the quirky minor characters that really make the stories come to life. Also, the plot in David Copperfield isn't really that gripping, like in Oliver Twist or Bleak House.
I do realize that Dickens' books were all serialized and he had contracted with his publishers to come up with so many words per week or month; hence, the length and all the padding. I really wish I'd kept a running list of the characters, since minor characters disappear for hundreds of pages and then suddenly reappear. I found myself wondering where in the heck I'd heard of them, and consulting online sources so I could remember how they fit into the story. And of course Dickens is notorious for his use of unbelievable coincidences, which seem to appear mostly at the end of the book, thereby tying up all the loose ends of the story.
Don't get me wrong, I really like Dickens -- I've been on a Dickens kick the last year or so and I've read eight of his works since last May. But I think I may have overdone it this time. I'm glad I read it, and I do recommend it if you like the Victorian style of flowery prose, multiple short chapters, and amazing coincidences. However, I think it's time for me and Dickens to take a short break.
A quick synopsis: Set in the early 20th century, young Jerusha (Judy) Abbott has grown up in a not-quite-Dickensian orphanage (another orphan -- children's literature is rife with them!) and at 17, they're ready to put her out on the street. Luckily, some of her schoolwork has attracted the attention of one of the wealthy trustees, so she now has an anonymous benefactor who offers to finance her college education. The only condition is that she write a monthly letter to the mysterious, nameless trustee, whom she dubs "Daddy Long Legs" after she sees a glimpse of his shadow. Judy chronicles her college years through these letters to her patron. We learn about her life, her friends, and of course, the identity of the mystery man before the resolution. Also includes cute little cartoony illustrations by the author.
This is a charming coming-of-age story. It's witty and sweet and not the least bit saccharine or sentimental. All I could think while I was reading this book, which I tore through on a plane ride, was "Why isn't this book better known and/or more popular?" It was very popular when it was first published (in 1912) and had multiple stage and screen adaptations, including one starring Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire, both of whom sound terribly miscast. I can only surmise that it's not really a children's book, and today's adults may find it lacking in sex and violence. Probably teenagers as well, since it lacks the requisite vampire/supernatural element.
Since I enjoyed it so much, I rushed to the bookstore to see if I could find my own copy. The Penguin classics edition also includes the sequel, Dear Enemy. . Amazingly, I must have purchased the only copy in the entire metro area. (Seriously. I checked both mega-book store chains' websites. Not a single copy left in the whole city!).
Anyhoo, Dear Enemy is the sequel, or maybe the companion volume, since it's actually the story of Judy's roommate Sallie McBride, who takes over as director of the dreary John Grier Home. Again, the story is told in letters, mostly to Judy, her politician swain in D.C., and to the grumpy resident physician, Dr. MacRae (the eponymous enemy). Again, it's delightfully breezy yet intelligent, but with a more serious undertone, since Sallie is dealing with social reform, orphan welfare, nature vs. nurture, etc. Plus, Sallie is a grownup, struggling with her own romantic feelings. This book deals with far more adult themes than Daddy Long Legs, and I can't imagine this as a good read for a child. I really don't know any teenagers but from what I observe in the library and the bookstore they're mostly obsessed with the supernatural. My library doesn't have a copy, so I don't know how it's typically cataloged. Either way, they are both very enjoyable reads.
Monday, September 14, 2009
The past week or so it's actually been cool enough in Texas to think about turning on the oven, so for dinner I cooked the Tiny Thanksgiving: a 3-lb Butterball turkey roast (comes with a gravy packet); glazed carrots, green bean casserole, and corn. And since it's fall, and pears are in season, I was able to make one of my favorite homey desserts: Chocolate Pear Pudding from Laurie Colwin's excellent book, More Home Cooking.
For those of you who don't know her work, Laurie Colwin was a fiction writer and food essayist who died suddenly at the age of 48. She wrote several novels and collections of short stories, but may be best known for her food columns in Gourmet. More Home Cooking, her second book of food essays with recipes, was published posthumously. They are witty and charming, and her writing style is so easy and accessible, it's like she's sitting in the kitchen talking to you. Her novels and short stories are also wonderful, but I'll have to blog about those later.
In her essay, In Praise of Pears, Laurie includes the Chocolate Pear Pudding, which is not an American-style custard pudding, but a British baked pudding. For lovers of British literature like myself, this is what characters are referring to when they say, "What's for pudding?" Colwin is a big fan of British cookbooks, and writes that this recipe comes from Josceline Dimbleby's Book of Puddings, Desserts and Savouries. It's out of print, but copies are available from the online bookseller Alibris and from Amazon.co.uk.
It's an easy and wonderful fall dessert. The pudding itself is fluffy and cakelike, and the soft baked pears at the bottom are a tender surprise. Apples would be inappropriate in a chocolate dessert, but the pears are subtle and delicious.
One of the ingredients in this dessert is Lyle's Golden Syrup -- golden treacle, to be specific. Those of you who are Harry Potter fans will now have two reasons to purchase a can or jar of treacle. You an make a treacle tart, (Harry's favorite dessert) and still have enough left over to make this wonderful dessert. It's available at well-stocked grocery stores and specialty gourmet or British stores.
Chocolate Pear Pudding
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
For the pears:
1 lb pears (about 4) peeled, cored and cut into chunks
2 Tb white sugar
2 TB butter
Butter a baking dish and fill the bottom with pears. Sprinkle with sugar and dot with butter, just like a fruit pie.
Next, mix the batter:
3/4 cup flour
1 heaping TB cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup brown sugar (scant)
2 TB Lyle's Golden Syrup
1 large egg, beaten
4 TB melted butter
1/4 cup milk
Beat this into a batter and pour it on top of the pears. Bake about 45 minutes or until a pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
You can eat this hot or cold, and it's excellent served with ice cream.
I won't claim that I have many qualifications to review books -- I wasn't a lit major so I can't profess to know too much about literary theory or criticsm. The little I know I picked up in my children's lit classes in library school (which were by far my favorites). I just read a lot of books -- I think I've read about 90 so far this year, so I should easily finish more than 100. A few years ago I realized I was sadly deficient in my knowledge of classic literature, so I've been trying to read the books and authors I somehow missed in high school and college. I also enjoy children's literature, both classic and current. I belong to several book groups so I'll probably include some of those selections as well.
As far as cooking goes, I actually have some credentials. After I finished journalism school and suffered through two terrible jobs, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream and go to cooking school. I received a culinary certificate and also cooked professionally (mostly making desserts) for about five years. I also worked for about nine months as a professional restaurant critic for a free weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 90,000. So I'm pretty confident writing about cooking, restaurants, and food in general.
OK, time to start blogging!