Thursday, December 22, 2011

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program...

... to announce that The Book Pantry is on Christmas break this week.  The author has one too many holiday obligations to fulfill (which also means her coworkers are getting store bought sugar cookies tomorrow.  Le gasp! I'm sure the oatmeal cookies made up for it.).

That's right, I'm going to kick back, relax, and cook a big Christmas dinner.  Programming will resume with this Saturday with a Christmas Red Velvet Cake recipe!

Happy Holidays everyone!

My name is Sebastian R. Gato and I approve
of this message.

 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Classy Classics

In today's post, I'm doing something a little different than my usual book review.  Today, I'm posting on a book that's considered a classic. Naturally, such a title hardly requires a review; if it did it wouldn't be considered a classic in the first place (like, duh).  This classics post focuses on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which was one of my favorite books as a teen and remains so today.  I also associate the book with the holiday season, perhaps because the book begins at this time of year.  Regardless, this is my happy feels book I read almost annually (I really need to break down and buy a nice hardcopy; I've been through 3 paperbacks by now).

The Basics
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.

Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The  girls are 16, 15, 13, and 12 respectively when the book opens, and readers shadow the girls through their teen years as they become young women.  Much of the story is based on Alcott's real life experiences with her own sisters, so it makes sense that the books seem to focus largely on Jo March (the character most closely resembling Alcott). However, the novel does often divert from Jo in order to tell the stories of the other sisters to the fullest.  The book is a heartwarmingly wholesome story for young girls that pulls readers delightfully into the 1860s American household in Concord, Massachusetts. 

Why You Should Read this Book (and/or force it on the nearest young adult)
One of the best features of the novel is its focus on overcoming struggles that life presents and bettering yourself along the way.  Though by no means poverty stricken, the March family has fallen on harder economic times after one of their father's investments goes south.  This puts the girls in the odd position of being in an upper class family without the means to reflect that status. They also face the hardship of being without their father, who has joined the Union army as a chaplain. This leaves the girls, along with the stalwart Ms. March, to run the household themselves. The March girls face these challenges as well as the challenges of their own individual personality flaws as they work to become the best "little women" possible (as patronizing as that phrase can sound, I think this novel means it more as the start to womanhood than anything else).  The books is full of little successes and joys as well as hard times and tragedies, making it a well-rounded, engagingly realistic read.

Little Women is almost entirely character driven. While it has little plot points that occur throughout the novel and a few larger (if more subtle) ones that unite the story as a whole, Little Women is primarily centered on the everyday lives of its heroines.  Meg, the eldest, is a sweet tempered, beautiful girl on the cusp of womanhood. Meg most remembers the March family's former wealth, and her desire to return to that former status combined with her vanity is her biggest struggle.  She must resist the trappings of a wealthy life that would only make her materially happy.  Jo is tomboyish and a little wild with aspirations to become a great writer and avoid becoming a young lady as long as possible. Over the course of the novel Jo works to overcome her more imprudent spontaneity and her hot temper.  Beth is the sweetest, kindest of the March girls, but she is also painfully shy and fearful of strangers.  Her challenge in life is to overcome her shyness enough to make friends and accept kind overtures.  She also faces her own sickly constitution, which she handles with a grace and infinite patience that inspires her sisters to better themselves.  Amy is slightly spoiled, very vain and proud, and somewhat inclined toward selfishness; however, she also has a sweet an loving nature. The first half of the novel sees Amy work to overcome the selfish parts of her nature and begin thinking more of others than of herself.  In the latter half, Amy gradually turns her vanity and pride into being a proper young lady. It's nearly impossible not to like and identify with Alcott's characters.

I also really enjoy the sense of the period that the book provides.  Readers are exposed to a charming  19th century New England that nevertheless maintains a sense of realism.  Through the girls, readers are exposed to ideas of dress, propriety, class and religion common to the era.  You also get a strong sense of womanhood in the period (albeit a specific class level), as well as common activities, socializing and the important role marriage played in a young girl's life.  Along with your enjoyable read, you also get a small slice of history if you're clever enough to notice it.

Extras

   

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Like Buttah

Tonight marks the beginning of my annual Baking Extravaganza.  I'll be sharing the recipes (if not the calories) of this esteemed event here on The Book Pantry.  This evening brings us the Butterball.  This cookie is my Da's favorite (I've only been taunting him about it all week), and I inherited the recipe from his mother.  Since I never got the chance to know my paternal grandmother, I didn't actually learn this one from her.  Instead, I spent several Christmases recreating the cookie from her original, basic recipe (like many cooks, her practice varied from its record).  The result is a tasty, not-too-sweet, slightly crumbly cookie. Best of all, (despite how long it took me to tweak it to perfection) the recipe is probably the easiest of Christmas cookies.

What You'll Need
Supplies
Large mixing bowl                                                     Cutting Board
Wooden mixing spoon (well-loved)                              Cookie sheet
Measuring cups and spoons                                        Small bowl
Knife for chopping
Ingredients
1/2 lb butter, very soft                                                1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/2 cup powdered sugar + some for rolling               1/2 tsp vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour                                               Salt

Now Let's Make Butterballs!
Start (as usual) by preheating your oven to 350F (yes, I forgot. Again.). Plop a 1/2 pound of butter - also known as 2 sticks - into your large mixing bowl.  If your butter is not already soft from being left out, pop it in the microwave for about 20-25 seconds. Watch it carefully!  You do not want to actually melt the butter; we just want it very soft.  If you melt your butter, the recipe will turn wrong . . . very wrong. (Do I hear gasps of horror? Did you melt your butter? You did, didn't you? Don't worry a tiny amount of melt won't hurt). Anyway, soften your butter.  Then, beat the butter with your mixing spoon until it is creamed.


Chop, chop.
On your cutting board, chop your pecans using your knife in a lever motion, moving across the pile of pecans. Stop occasionally to scoop your pecans back into a pile and repeat until all the pecans are chopped finely. Keep chopping pecans until you've filled a 1 cup measuring cup.  I find that two really big handfuls of pecan halves tend to equal out to 1 cup of chopped nuts. (Yay for measuring: like science, but tastier!)

Confusing amount of salt
Add your pecans to the bowl of butter.  Measure out 1/2 cup of powdered sugar, packing it into the measuring cup as you do so (like you would for brown sugar). Add this to the bowl.  Now, measure out 2 cups of all-purpose flour, making sure to level each cup off before adding it to the bowl. (Freak out when you can't find the flour, curse your cousin for using it all in chocolate-chip cookies at Thanksgiving, make boyfriend put on shoes, *oh wait, I found it! heh heh*). Then, add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla; measure it over the bowl so that you can allow it to run over a bit as you measure.  Lastly, add enough salt to mostly fill the dip in the palm of your hand when your hand is cupped.  Confusing?  See the picture (click to enlarge).

While safe to eat, this raw dough
tastes not so nice.
Mix all the ingredients together in the bowl.  The batter will be very dry, so it takes some time to get everything mixed thoroughly.  Take your time and patiently mix.  If you wind up with parts of the dough that are softer and more buttery than others, those buttery cookies won't hold their shape! 

Once the dough is sufficiently mixed, begin rolling the dough into balls that are about 1 inch in diameter.  To do so, take a pinch of dough and either form it into a ball-shape with your fingers or roll it between the palms of your hands. If your dough is crumbling and refusing to take shape, squeeze it together in your fist; this will mush the ingredients more and allow you to make a ball.  Place each ball on your cookie sheet.  They shouldn't increase in size much during the cooking process, so you can space them pretty close together, about 1/2 an inch.

Bake the cookies at 350F for about 15 minutes until the bottoms begin to tun a golden brown.  You'll have to watch the very edges of the cookies for signs of this browning. Remove the cookies from oven and begin moving them from the cookie sheet to a cooling rack (also known as paper towels on the counter in my house). You'll know pretty quickly if you didn't mix your butter in thoroughly enough as those cookies will have spread out more, perhaps even running together, as in the second picture here.  Don't worry too much if your Butterballs aren't actually ball shaped anymore, though; they'll be more like mounds than balls.


No deep breaths!
Allow the Butterballs to mostly cool.  Pour some extra powdered sugar into your small bowl. While the cookies are still slightly warm, begin rolling them in the sugar until they are lightly coated (so that little bit of emphasis applies mostly to me). Don't try to roll the balls while they're very warm still or your powered sugar will become gunky, which is gross.

Store in an airtight container.  Or, better yet, serve with a nice glass of milk! Enjoy!
Yay, cookies!

   

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Cat's Meow

I'll admit it, I'm forcing myself to write this post tonight.  Y'all are getting a post on a series that I'm a little over halfway through, because I still (yes, still) have not powered my way through Anne Patchett's State of Wonder (don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying it, it's just not a quick read).  So, tonight, I'm going to post about Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown's Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series.  What kind of author is named Sneaky Pie, you ask: a cat!

The Basics
As of May 2011, there are nineteen books in this series.  That's right, 19!  And they're awesome!  The Mrs. Murphy books are cozy mysteries, meaning they're nice and light and fluffy (in this case, literally. Har har). In reading order, the books are (*deep breath*) Wish You Were HereRest in PiecesMurder at Monticello; Pay Dirt; Murder, She Meowed; Murder on the Prowl; Cat on the Scent; Pawing through the Past; Claws and Effect; Catch as Cat Can; The Tail of the Tip-off; Whisker of Evil; Cat's Eyewitness; Sour Puss; Puss in Cahoots; The Purrfect Murder; Santa Clawed; Cat of the Century; and Hiss of Death.

Got that?  As you can see, the majority of the titles include a cat-themed pun, which naturally appeals to my cheesy little heart.  The books follow the adventures of heroine, Mary Minor "Harry" Harristeen, the local postmistress of tiny, rural Crozet, Virginia.  Harry has a sense of curiosity that rivals any feline, and is routinely involving herself in mysteries that crop up in the area.  Fortunately, she is also aided by her pet tiger-cat (read Tabby) Mrs. Murphy and corgi Tucker and their numerous animal cohorts.  The two intrepid detectives are determined to protect their human, helping Harry along in solving mysteries as best they can.

The Books
Of course, the heavy feline presence throughout the books appeals to my cat-loving nature, but these books are so much more than just warm and fuzzy.  First and foremost, they are excellently written, well-plotted murder-mysteries.  The story moves along at a galloping pace as the characters (animal and human alike) rush to find the solutions to the puzzle with which they are presented.  While following the basic tenants of mystery writing - introducing the murderous character early on and dropping clues along the way - the stories are rarely predictable.  While I can usually (though not always) solve the mystery before it's revelation in the book, I always feel a sense of achievement for having done so. Not once have I been disappointed by too easy a solution.  Nor does Brown resort to hiding things from her readers in order to maintain the mystery (a device which I find cheap and annoying).  Everything you need to solve the plot is provided; you just have to follow the clues (and try not to let your dull human senses get in the way, as Mrs. Murphy would caution).

Brown also imbues her novels with a light, witty sense of humor.  This necessarily prevents the stories from becoming overly serious and also combats the potential ridiculousness of highly intelligent animals.  Speaking of whom, I am pleased to report that the animals are completely believable as characters, especially to anyone already inclined to provide pets with a voice (who me?).  The animals are every bit as intelligent as their human counterparts, however, they are still very much animals.  Mrs. Murphy sees the world through a very cat-like perspective, and Tucker is very much a dog. For example, the animals often rely on their sense of smell to help them solve the mystery at hand, a sense that is much more highly utilized by the animal world than the human.  The animals also behave as animals might: tearing through the house in a fits of anger, hunting mice, and begging for scraps from the table.

One of my favorite aspects of the series is the very vivid sense of place and people. As you're reading, you can practically feel your lungs breathing in the air that is Crozet, Virginia.  Brown has clearly rooted her town in a place and history with which she is very familiar.  Readers come away with a sense that this town could really exist, and more so, they come away with a sense of the South and of Virginia.  Brown's characters are also especially well developed (and, really, given the length of the series they'd better be); you come away with a real sense of each recurring character's strengths, weaknesses, wants, needs, etc.  Readers also witness the characters grow over the course of the series, moving through personal trials and reforming opinions.  Brown has created a literary world where readers witness the place and the people change and evolve.  This creates a binding thread that runs throughout the series, connecting readers to each book despite the varied central plots.

And really, what's not to love about a series with a book entitled Whisker of Evil co-authored by cat?

Extras

  • Don't forget to visit the author's webpage, filled with fun facts about the author and her writings.
  • Definitely read her mini autobiography while you're there.  For just a taste of her delightful sense of humor, here's an excerpt: "My entrance occurred on November 28, 1944, and the cats, hounds, and horses of the world rejoiced.  The humans didn't give a damn. What do they know?"
  • And of course the site for the Mrs. Murphy books themselves.
  • Because credit must go where it is due, here's a photo of both authors, most importantly, the illustrious Sneaky Pie:

   

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gobble Gobble

So what do you do with all those Thanksgiving leftovers (other than gorge yourself, of course)? While most of the leftovers are long gone by now in my family, there always seems to be a disproportionate amount of turkey still laying around.  Thus, every year Thanksgiving is followed by Turkey Pot Pie.  Really, this is a pretty versatile recipe and you can stretch any poultry leftovers this way.  I really think my family looks forward to this dinner almost as much as our Thanksgiving feast. Also, did you know that you can click on the photos in my blog to enlarge them? (Just saying...)

What You'll Need
Supplies
2 glass pie plates                                                          Can opener
Large mixing bowl                                                        Butter knife
Mixing spoon                                                                 Kitchen scale (optional)
Ingredients
4 pie crusts                                                                    1 can green peas
1 can cream of celery soup                                            2 tsp minced garlic
1 lb. leftover turkey                                                       Rosemary
1 can whole-kernel corn                                                Marjoram
1 can french-cut green beans                                        Salt and pepper

Now Let's Make Turkey Pot Pie!
To start, preheat your oven to 375F.  Open all your cans of vegetables and drain them.  (Do not try to drain the cream of celery soup - accidentally or intentionally). Set the cans aside.  If you're using whole garlic, mince two cloves to equal about two teaspoons of garlic.  Set this aside as well.

Put 1 crust in each of your two pie plates (two crusts = two pie plates). Press the crust down into the plate, so that it is fitted to the sides and bottom of the glass.  Trim any excess pie crust from the pie, using your butter knife.  Cut the crust right at the edge of the glass; there should be no crust hanging out of the pie plate by the time your done.  This isn't really a necessary step, if you'd prefer to do a decorative crust, instead, but it does significantly trim the amount of fat and calories in the recipe. (And, let's face it, after Thanksgiving we need all the help we can get). Once you've trimmed both crusts, set them aside.


Veggies!
In your large mixing bowl, combine the drained vegetables, garlic, and cream of celery soup.  Stir it together until the vegetables are well dispersed and thoroughly coated with cream of celery soup. (You can also cut a few calories here if you're really concerned by using Campbell's 98% fat free soup). This will create a fairly thick vegetable mixture. As you're mixing, be careful not to overdo it and squish all the veggies; they should be distinguishable (we're not making a mash here)

Gobble... gobble?
Take your leftover turkey meat and begin pulling it apart so that it is in large shredded pieces. Measure out 1 pound (16 ounces) of meat. This is where your kitchen scale will come in handy, because 1 lb. really is the perfect amount, but if you don't own a kitchen scale, don't stress it.  Just eyeball it (isn't that a tasty expression; totally appropriate for a cooking blog) and measure as closely as you can.  When you're measuring out your meat, try to get as much white meat as you can, since dark meat will make for a much gamier pie (unless you go for that sort of flavor). Also, do not let any bones or skin get in with the meat you plan to add.  Bones obviously pose a danger, and getting a hunk of turkey skin when you think you're getting meat is nasty (or gag-worthy, as the case was may be)

Once you've got your meat parceled out, add it to the vegetable mixture and stir it in. Add marjoram, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste.  I usually add about 1 1/2 Tbsp marjoram and 3/4 Tbsp rosemary, but I typically just throw it in on instinct, so it's hard to give a precise measurement.  Again, make sure that you thoroughly mix everything together.  Divide the mixture evenly between the two pie shells.  Spread the filling into all corners of the pie crusts, but if it's very full try to pile the larger amount in the center of the pie.


Top each pie with your remaining pie crusts. Firmly press the top crusts against the edges of the bottom crust using your fingers in order to seal the edges together. Work your way around the pie, until the edges are completely sealed.  Trim off all excess pie crust.  To finish the sealing process (and to make it purty) press a fork along the edges, working your way all the way around the pie.


Use your butter knife to poke holes in the top of the pie crust in order to release any steam or air that might build up as the pie cooks.  Try to do this in some pattern to increase the decorative effect.  Bake the pie at 375F for about 35-40 minutes, until the top crust is golden brown with no raw spots (raw spots look a little translucent compared to other areas of the crust). Remove the pies from the oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes (or as long as you can stand to wait).


Turkey Pot Pie with Gravy
A serving size is about a quarter of a pie. It pairs nicely with salad or other Thanksgiving leftovers.  I like to top mine with a little shredded cheddar cheese, but it's also delicious with a little leftover gravy. (This picture is sponsored by my Da, who had to wait to eat not-so-patiently as I got the shot just right).




   

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Questionable Talisman

Soooooo, about a couple weeks (and by "couple weeks" I mean a month) ago I read the memoir, Three Wishes by Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand, and I've been avoiding writing about it ever since.  Don't get me wrong; it's a pretty good book. It's just one of those that are really hard to put into words.  But the authors managed in the first place, so I can at least  put together a semi-coherent review. (yes? Yesh.)

The Basics
Goldberg, Carey, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand. Three Wishes. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2010. Print.

All our authors have achieved significant recognition throughout their careers as writers and journalists (they're writers! Who'd a thunk?), writing for the likes of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. And no wonder, since if this book is any evidence, they're all superb writers. The memoir traces each author's journey toward equal success in their romantic and family lives.  As the book progresses, each woman relates her realization that she was tired of waiting for the right man to come along and enable her to have children.  Carey gets things started (so to speak. Sorry, I'm sorry.) by purchasing several vials of sperm from a bank. But before she can really put them to use, she finds love.  The vials are then passed to Beth, and the same process occurs. So they move to Pam, and again love strikes. (Like magic!)

The Book
This was a book that surprised me. Obviously I picked it up because I found the premise intriguing.  I'll admit I also had talismanic images of sperm vials floating through my head, which I found both amusing and disturbing.  Fortunately, the book failed to live up to that expectation.  Instead, I found the book had a rather apt subtitle: "A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on Our Way to Love and Motherhood." This is a book about three women growing emotionally and gaining an even stronger sense of independence than they already possessed.  And, in that sense, I think it's a very powerful read.

I think that part of my difficultly with beginning this blog post centers around my inability to fully identify with the protagonists (if you can call real people such. Meh, why not?).  These women are quite different from me, and even as I find places to identify with them, there are an equal number of moments  that I can do little more than intellectually comprehend.  For example, as someone who wants children (you know, someday), I can understand their desire, but I have a harder time understanding the intensity of it. Or again, I have been in a committed relationship since I was 21 and was lucky enough to find someone with whom love comes easily. Thus, it is much harder for me to really understand the depth of their need and some of the things they go through in achieving romantic fulfillment.  I think someone with different life experiences (or just more of them) could get a little bit more out of this memoir. But even without being able to fully empathize, I found the book a very interesting and rewarding reading experience.

The absolute best element to this book is the way each of the three authors is able to pull readers through a huge array of emotions. Each author writes with a certain dry sense of humor that lightens the overall tone of what would otherwise be a very serious book.  It's the kind of humor that's hard to put your finger on; it didn't make me laugh outright, but it did get a couple of sustained smirks.  But the book also has a couple of heart wrenching moments, as the authors endure some of the most crushing blows an expectant mother can face.  Readers will feel each blow and each moment of hope in what is ultimately a very emotionally satisfying memoir, and an empowering one at that.

Extras
   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turkey Day Gorging Part I

As you might have guessed, I cook Thanksgiving dinner in my family.  I love making huge feasts, setting the table with nice stuff and generally enjoying a big family meal.  Oh and the holiday magazines!  I love trying out recipes from magazines (and, you know, using my family as guinea pigs).  Today's featured recipe came out of said holiday magazine (okay, so technically it was on their website!): Grandma Erma's Spirited Cranberry Sauce, submitted by Leslie Sutherland of Fort Worth Texas to Southern Living.  I have long hated cranberry sauce (glaring at the previously canned blob from across the table each Thanksgiving) and been puzzled as to why it was a Thanksgiving staple.  Last year, I wanted to make some from scratch but was talked out of it after being told what a pain in the patootie it was.  This year I stuck to my guns, did my research and found Grandma Erma's delicious cranberry sauce, which is exceedingly nom-worthy.

What You'll Need
Supplies
3 quart saucepan                                                        Blender or Food Processor
Stirring spoon                                                             Air tight storage container
Measuring cups
Ingredients
4 cups fresh cranberries                                             1/2 cup port
2 cups sugar                                                                1/4 cup orange liqueur
3/4 cup water

Now Let's Make Grandma Erma's Spirited Cranberry Sauce!
Please visit the site for the original recipe, linked above; below is my own rendition with details (as usual) based on the cooking experience. 

Begin by measuring out 4 cups of cranberries.  This is about 1 2/3 bags of Oceanspray cranberries; I have a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup, that I filled up to the brim, which is slightly more than 4 cups. (greedy, greedy) Set the cranberries aside.

Cranberries!
In your 3-qt saucepan, combine 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup port, and 3/4 cup water, stir until well mixed and sugar has begun to dissolve.  Don't worry too much about the quality of the port, either (unless you want to/can afford to); I used a cheap port picked up in my local grocery store (granted, it was the only one they had...).  Add your cranberries and stir the mixture around a bit.

Heat the mixture over medium high heat. To begin with you will have many more cranberries than liquid, so don't worry. The cranberries will cook down a bit.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently.  Cook until the cranberries begin to crack.  The original recipe says to cook for about 8-10 minutes; I found that mine took about 10.  Don't pull it off the heat at the first sign of cracking, let the majority of the cranberries split open first. Once this has happened, remove it from the heat and let it cool at least 15 minutes.


Now pulse!
Once the cranberries have cooled, pour the mixture into your blender or food processor (hold the lid down tightly if you use a blender; ask me how I know). Blend the mixture on a low setting until the cranberries have reached your desired consistency.  This can be pureed, as the original recipe recommends, or you can leave some the cranberries still partially in tact (as I prefer).

Pour this into the storage container, and stir in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur.  Southern Living tested with Grand Marnier, but I used Gran Gala, so I doubt brand matters too much. Seal the container and chill for at least 8 hours before serving.  I made mine two days before the big day. Serve with your favorite feast (or feast leftovers, as the case may be); I know I'll be whipping it up again for Christmas.  This recipe took me for a 180; I now eye cranberry sauce with longing rather than loathing. And, it was super easy, too.

Om nom nom

   

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's Ooooooverrrrrr!

So, I'm avoiding my latest book post, so you guys get the last post I have on Moning's Fever series.  Enjoy.  Seriously I haven't felt like this since I read the last book of Harry Potter.  Except, I feel slightly better knowing that Moning has more books in the works.  That's right, today's post features the last (for now) of Mackayla's adventures in the Fever series: Shadowfever. This book is easily the best in the series as far as I'm concerned.  It's packed with all the things that make the Fever series compelling - humor, adventure, Barrons's mystery, hope, love - while adding its own spice to the mix.

The Basics
Moning, Karen Marie. Shadowfever. New York: Delacorte P., 2011. Print.

Shadowfever follows Mac as she finally conquers the Sinsar Dubh - the evil, sentient book created by the Unseelie King.  The book has been the recurring "villain" of the series, making it fitting that Mac finally, somewhat reaches a resolution with it.  However, throughout much of Moning's writing very little can be confined within terms of black and white, so don't be surprised when the conclusion fails to do so as well.  Ultimately, Shadowfever proved to be a highly engaging and satisfying read.

The Book
Self-deception is definitely the name of the game for Mac. And, in case you missed it in the rest of the series, Moning slaps you in the face with this theme on the very first page of chapter 1 when Mac admits "all I've succeeded in doing is swapping one set of delusions for a more elaborate, attractive set of delusions - that's me, the Queen of Self-Deception" (5).  But not to fear, Mac's moment of clarity and self-assessment is entirely too short-lived.  After all, the heroine can hardly conquer her fatal flaw on the first page; that's finale sort of stuff.  But Mac does take the first step on the road to victory - admitting she has a problem.  Case in point, after going what can only be described as bat-s*#t insane with loss after the events of Dreamfever, Mac decides that she's going to remake the entire world with the power of the Sinsar Dubh (that's She-suh doo to you, bub).  But this is nothing more than the ultimate in self-deception, since all she wants to do is create yet another massive illusion for herself.  As is fitting, before the end of the novel, Mac must overcome her flaw repeatedly.

One thing (of many) that I wasn't really expecting is the clear connection of the Fever books to Moning's previous Highlander series.  This is a fairly minor, but interesting, connecting thread; several of the Mackeltar, minor but integral characters in the Fever series, are also former main characters from the Highlander series.  I haven't read the other set of novels, but I know enough about them to recognize the connection. This pleases me in a nerdy joy sort of way, like catching obscure comic book references in the latest Marvel movie.

I'm afraid this post is doomed to be a bit shorter than normal.  My favorite aspect of Shadowfever is the delightful number of twists and turns in the plot.  Many of these are completely unexpected, even to a careful and meticulous reader, but once you see them, you can trace back all the hints and foreshadowings that Moning had planted earlier in the series.  As much as I wish I could provide you with an example, I cannot without ruining the book for someone who has never read it. Each plot twist is completely essential to the movement of the novel, right down to the twist at the finale.  All I'll say is that the book makes it impossible to lose interest and will keep you on your mental toes.

The ending has a bit of dues ex machina device going on, the solution to their problem swooping down with one of those aforementioned plot twists.   However, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.  Despite the suddenness of the event, it fits rather well within the course of the novel, rather than undermining the momentum or the characters.  Nor does this particular solution solve all the problems at hand; instead, it partially solves one issue.  The rest is left up to the characters to deal with, nicely setting up a premise for the series to continue on.  Given the extraordinary and supernatural nature of these books to begin with, the solution's unexpected nature really seems to suit. Besides, there were some hints about the end throughout the book, even if you can only see them in hindsight.  I found the ending satisfying rather than disappointing, so I don't think that the use of the device is really a point of critique.

Extras
  • For some nifty photos of Ireland and Dublin meant to provide readers with a pictorial of Mac's world, see this page on Moning website.
  • Moning's website advertises that she supports the Wolf Run charity.  It's a really interesting animal refuge.  See her take on it here and visit the Wolf Run website while you're at it!
  • And now for something completely frivolous, here is a Mac vs. the Shades game.  Have fun.

   

Saturday, November 19, 2011

So Cheesy!

Tonight I was waffling a little about what to cook for my blog post - not really having anything in mind.  But, I did have a can of Campbell's cheese that needed to get used. (I'm not too sure why I bought it to begin with).  So, this is something I just came up with on the fly based one what I had handy, and it's super easy, too!  Fun stuff.

What You'll Need
Supplies
Cutting board                                                                Skillet
Knife                                                                             Spoon
Small pot                                                                       Measuring cups
Ingredients
Package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts             Thyme
1 cup rice                                                                       Olive oil
1 can Campbell's cheese                                               Salt and pepper
Small yellow onion                                                         1/2 tsp minced garlic

Now Let's Make Cheesy Chicken and Rice
To begin, measure out 2 cups of water and pour it into your pot.  Set the stove to high and boil the water.  Once the water begins to boil, pour in your 1 cup of rice.  Stir briefly, and cover.  Reduce the heat to low (which is actually about 3 on my lovely stove), and let the rice cook.  You can check the rice occasionally and give it a little stir, but otherwise you can pretty much ignore it until it's done.

Sizzle
Now, peel and dice your onion. To make peeling easier, cut the very ends off either side of the onion first.  Once your onion is diced up (and you've wiped your streaming eyes), pour a dollop of olive oil into your skillet.  This dollop should be about the size of your palm as it spreads out (the oil, not your palm). Set the heat to medium, and allow the oil to heat a bit.  Once the oil has heated, scrape your onions in, and begin to saute, moving the onions around the pan occasionally.

Chicken!
While your onions are sauteing, get back to your cutting board and begin cubing the chicken.  One breast at a time (your pack should have about three), trim the fat off and slice the chicken into small bite-size pieces.  Set this aside, and return to tending the onions.  Once the onions are cooked through and have reached a semi-translucent soft state, add the chicken to the pan.  If things are a bit dry and you need to add a touch more olive oil to the pan, do so before adding the chicken.  Saute the chicken until all sides have turned white and chicken is cooked through. 

Mmmmmm... cheese.
Now, open your can o' cheese and spoon it into the pan, reducing heat to a medium-low setting.  Stir the cheese in until it is thoroughly mixed with the chicken and onions.  Add a couple dashes of thyme and the garlic.  Stir this in well and add salt and pepper to taste.  I find that the cheese is not particularly salty, so don't be too afraid.

Once everything is heated through, serve the rice and cheesy chicken together and enjoy!  A few alternative things I would like to do with this recipe:
Noms
  • I would add some steamed broccoli when I add the cheese.  Why didn't I do this, you ask.  Because, my cousin Katie (see photo) is visiting for Thanksgiving and hates all things vegetable.  When I suggested broccoli she looked at me like I had killed Bambi.
  • I would mix the cheesy chicken (and broccoli) with the rice, slap it into a 9x9 casserole dish, sprinkle some shredded cheese on top and bake it at 350F for a little bit. 

B-broccoli!?

   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dragony Goodness

Ah dragons!  By far, one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy character types.  I recently decided to revisit a well-loved novel from my early teens:  Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. This book was one of my earliest introductions into the science fiction and fantasy genres.  I loved it very much at the age of 13 when my library escape was so important to me. It was nice to revisit it from a fresh and much different viewpoint, and I have to say that I find it as lovable and addictive as ever.

The Basics
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonflight.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Don't let the copyright date in the above entry fool you. This book was first published in 1968, and is, in my opinion, a classic in its genre.  Anne McCaffrey (gosh, where should I start?) is an extremely prolific and accomplished author.  McCaffrey has written nearly 100 books, coauthoring 30, and was the first woman to earn both the Nebula and Hugo awards.  She also became the first author (period) to have a science fiction book on the New York Times Best Seller list.  I could go on, but suffice it to say McCaffrey has long suffered repeated bouts of awesomeness and been well-recognized for it.  Really, if you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and haven't read at least one of her novels you need to reevaluate your reading practices.

Of all the books in the series (and I've read most), Dragonflight is my favorite, perhaps because it represents both my initiation into the genre as well as the beginning of the planet Pern.  Set on a planet once colonized but long forgotten by Earth, the book follows the story of Lessa and F'lar, dragonriders and leaders who struggle to unite their planet and face a parasitic threat from space. (duh duhn duhnnnnn).

The Book
Dragonflight is a fantastic mixture of the science fiction and fantasy genres, blending the two in a way that will please fans of either genre.  On the one hand the book holds elements that pull it towards science fiction. The setting is a faraway planet once colonized by Earth. The characters face routine invasions by an alien species: the parasitic, spore-like Threads.  And, without revealing too much, let's not forget about the time travel.  Meanwhile, we also find fantasy elements.  Hello, dragons!  The setting is also vaguely medieval with most people living in Holds and governed by Lords.  There's also a crafthold set up frequently encountered in other fantasy novels. Dragonflight blends all these elements of genre (and many others) into one cohesive whole that's all its own.  Some of the best books defy easy categorization.

McCaffrey's characters are also rather delightful.  They feel very human and real (except the dragons, since, you know, they're dragons) with human motivations and flaws. Lessa, for example, is initially motivated by vengeance and over the course of the book has to learn to move away from that and become a leader.  The book successfully pulls her along on this journey, but she does keep a small spiteful streak that occassionally rears up and makes you want to slap her silly. Lessa, like many heroes, is also prone to spontaneous fits of vision and leaps to put such vision into action as soon as possible.  However, unlike many heroes, McCaffrey does not allow this to shape Lessa into an inhumanly successful heroine.  Instead, Lessa occasionally fails, or succeeds but at a cost to herself that teaches her to think ahead a little.  Rather than letting Lessa's vision be a superhuman strength, McCaffrey allows to be a flaw as well. (I appreciate this a lot more now than I did at 13, too).

The dragons are also rather interestingly crafted.  This was one of the first novels I read where the humans bond telepathically with their animal companions, a common enough theme now in the fantasy genre. In Dragonflight the dragons' characterization depends very much on their interactions with their humans, since dragons typically only communicate with their chosen human.  This could doom the dragons to one dimensionality, but McCaffrey skirts the issue in a number of ways.  Lessa has the ability to communicate with all dragons, which makes readers party to much more of the dragon's thoughts than they would be otherwise. Also, McCaffrey is very good at describing dragon body language (from their sarcastic tail twitches to their hungry bellies), creating a second level of communication from which readers can get to know the dragons further.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is one that bleeds into the entire series: McCaffrey's affinity for worldbuilding.  I love novels that allow readers, not just to discover a great new story, but to uncover an entire new and complex world. Think about it; this is inevitably a marker of some of the best fantasy fiction out there (Tolkein, Rowling).  Pern is well crafted, featuring a system of government, a rich cultural history, and behaviors unique to the world's situation.  Nor does McCaffrey neglect the little details, such as naming traditions, cursing, common occupations, the essentials of dragoncare, etc.  What results is a well developed new world for readers to explore that goes much deeper than the surface. And while some of the elements found in McCaffrey's Pern are now fairly common in fantasy worlds created by other authors, we have to remember that Pern started in 1967 and McCaffrey likely pioneered some of this stuff!

McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is well worth dipping into, but first let me warn you that it is massive.  But, don't let that scare you off, cause you'll love it!

Extras
  • First, you can visit Anne McCaffrey's website, which features a blog and biographical information about the author.
  • You can also check out the fansite, The Pern Museum and Archives, which houses some in depth information on the series.
  • And for some visual dragony goodness, visit Michael Whelan's art site, which features many of the illustrations he originally did for the Pern series.

   

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Where's the Rum Gone?

Into rum balls, of course (and, no, I can't help my dorky references to things)!  This is by far one of my favorite holiday season treats, and since I'm gearing up for my annual holiday baking frenzy (*twitch*), I thought I'd share with all of you.  I used to make these with my mom around Christmas, and it's a recipe that she used to do with her parents. It's quite the family tradition.  And if rummy chocolate goodness isn't enough of a reason to make these, they're also super-easy.

What You'll Need
Supplies
Large mixing bowl                                                          Measuring spoons
Mixing spoon                                                                   Small bowl
Measuring cups (liquid and dry)                                    Cookie sheet
Cutting board                                                                  Knife for chopping
Ingredients
1 box Vanilla wafers                                                       2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 cup pecans                                                                    2 Tbsp Karo's light corn syrup
1 cup confectioner's sugar + some for rolling                1/4 cup rum

Now Let's Make Rum Balls!
Haley smash!
We'll start with a little prep work.  Put a handful of vanilla wafers into a sandwich baggie. Press out all the air, and crush the cookies by using a rolling pin. (Or, if you're short a rolling pen at the moment, anything that's handy, like your cookbook). You don't have to crush them to powder, but you don't want any large chunks of cookies, either.  Once you've crushed them, pour the crumbs into a measuring cup.  Repeat the process until you have 1 1/2 cups of crumbs.  A handful of wafers equals about 1/2 cup of crumbs, so you won't be using the entire box of vanilla wafers (so feel free to munch on a few). Add the crumbs to your mixing bowl once you have the required amount.

Demonstrating the lever motion
Next, put a handful of pecans on your cutting board and begin chopping them up.  I find a large knife works better for this, and you can rock it back and forth or use it with a lever motion to most effectively chop the nuts. (Whatever your method, just watch your fingers). Like the wafers, you don't want the nuts to get chopped too fine, but you don't want any large chunks either.  Chop enough pecans to make 1 cup and add them to your mixing bowl.

Now, add 2 Tbsp cocoa powder and 1 cup confectioner's sugar to your mixing bowl.  Stir the ingredients around a bit.  Then, add 2 Tbsp of Karo's light corn syrup (no Southern girl worth her salt would use anything else) and 1/4 cup of rum.  The brand of rum isn't important, but don't use anything spiced or flavored; just plain rum, thanks.

Mix this up until it's nice and goopy.  You'll have to really work at it, since it's a fairly dry recipe.  Your end product will be on the sticky side rather than the liquidy side.  Make sure to routinely scrape the sides of the bowl and fold over the dough to ensure a thorough mix.  The dry ingredients will want to stick to the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Set the dough aside.


Fill your small bowl with cold water.  Dip your fingers in the water to wet them, then take a pinch of the dough and form it into a small ball. The ball should be about the size of a large olive (according to my grandmother's recipe, which sounds a little snooty to me). When formed, place the ball on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Repeat this process until all the dough has been used, neatly lining the balls up on the sheet.  Make sure to periodically wet your fingers, as this will make forming the dough easier and prevent it from sticking too much to your hands. Place the cookie sheet of rum balls in the freezer until they are firm (about 30 minutes to an hour).


Rolling
Dump the water out of your small bowl and dry it thoroughly.  Fill the bowl with a small amount of confectioner's sugar (about 1/4 cup) for the rum balls to be rolled in.  (You can also use chocolate sprinkles if you prefer, but if you do you'll need to do this step before freezing). Remove the rum balls from the freezer and, one by one, roll them in the confectioner's sugar.  Place the finished rum balls in a sealable container as you go.

Refrigerate the rum balls until you are ready to serve them.  These are great around the holidays, and make for an excellent homemade Christmas gift.  This recipe can easily be adjusted to make rum balls in bulk. (I've been known to do quadruple batches).  As is, it make about 34 rum balls.  Enjoy!

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