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.



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
Large mixing bowl                                                     Cutting Board
Wooden mixing spoon (well-loved)                              Cookie sheet
Measuring cups and spoons                                        Small bowl
Knife for chopping
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?


  • 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
2 glass pie plates                                                          Can opener
Large mixing bowl                                                        Butter knife
Mixing spoon                                                                 Kitchen scale (optional)
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.

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).