Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sugar Cookie Geekery

I've had a hankering for sugar cookies lately, probably because I didn't make any this past Christmas.  This is a pretty basic sugar cookie recipe that I've had for quite a while; I mean, they're cookies... with sugar... there's only so many variations out there. The icing recipe is a basic one that I've experimented with (GlaDos would approve).  As for the cookie shapes, well, I don't own cookie cutters (I know, sad, right?), so I figured I might as well get creative with it.  Fair warning, while the recipe is easy, the cutting can be a right pain depending on how complicated you get.

What You'll Need
Medium mixing bowl                                                      Scissors
Whisk                                                                             Stiff card stock-like paper
Large mixing bowl                                                         Cookie sheet
Mixing spoon                                                                  Small mixing bowl
Cutting board                                                                 4 small bowls or cups
Rolling pin                                                                      Butter knives
Measuring cups                                                              Food coloring assortment
Measuring spoons
Ingredients for Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour                                                 1 large egg
3/4 tsp baking powder                                                  1 Tbsp milk
1/4 tsp salt                                                                    1 tsp vanilla
2 stick unsalted butter                                                   Confectioner's sugar for rolling
1 cup sugar
Ingredients for Icing
1 cup powdered sugar                                                    1/2 tsp vanilla
5 tsp milk                                                                        Food coloring assortment
2 tsp light corn syrup (to start)                                          Neon food coloring assortment

Now Let's Make Nerd-tastic Sugar Cookies!
Measure out 3 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 tsp baking powder, and 1/4 tsp salt in your medium mixing bowl. Whisk the ingredients together until they are blended and there are no more large lumps.  Set this aside.

Put 2 sticks of butter into your large mixing bowl and microwave about 20 seconds or just enough to soften it.  Once softened, add 1 cup of sugar and beat until creamy and slightly fluffy.  Make sure that the butter has been mixed enough since you don't want any butter lumps, which would affect the evenness of the batter later on.

Now, crack one large egg into the bowl with your butter mixture.  Add 1 Tbsp of milk and 1 tsp of vanilla.  I usually just pour a small amount of milk into a cereal bowl and spoon out the appropriate amount with a measuring spoon.  This is much easier than trying to pour into a tiny spoon from a gallon of milk. (Trust me). Reserve whatever is left of the milk, since you'll be using it again when you measure it out for the icing.  Mix everything together thoroughly.

Grab the bowl with your flour concoction and begin adding the flour to the butter mixture, gradually.  Add a smallish amount, stir that in, then add some more.  I usually milk this for about 4 additions.  Blend the flour into the butter mixture completely after each addition.  The last addition may be a little hard to mix in, so make sure you scrape the bottom to get all the flour blended. By the time you're finished you should have a fairly stiff cookie dough that easily pulls away from the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Take your cutting board and dust it lightly with confectioner's sugar, just enough to prevent the dough from sticking to it.  Separate your cookie dough into two parts and roll it into a ball. Place each ball on the cutting board and cover with foil or cling wrap (whatever you work best with; for me, cling wrap ends up in frustrated little balls of plastic). Place the dough in the refrigerator and refrigerate the dough for about 2 hours.

While you're dough is chilling, get your cookie cutting station ready.  You need a fairly large, flat, clean surface.  I use our dining table.  Sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and coat your rolling pin in confectioner's sugar, too, to prevent sticking.  While you wait on the dough, get your cookie cutter tools together.  If you're lucky enough to own cookie cutters and don't want your cookies to have the same level of awesome as these, use those.  If not, make your own by drawing your designs on card stock and cutting them out to use as a template.  For the Mockingjay, I traced it onto regular paper, laid the paper over the card stock to trace it again, then penciled in the impression.  I made a stencil for the square and circle for the Weighted Companion Cube base and center.  For the other companion cube parts, I wound up just cutting them from the dough without a template, and I did the same with the Triforces, which are simple triangles.

Cut them for science... you monster
Once your dough is ready, take out on ball and work it a bit with your hands (which I really hope are clean!)  to warm it up just a bit and make it easier to roll.  When the dough is workable but still cold, roll it out to about a 1/4 inch thickness.  Place your stencils over the dough, and using your butter knife, begin cutting out the shapes.  Easy! (We will stop enhancing the truth in three... two... zzzt). I also used a the small end of the chop stick to work out some of the smaller details on the Mockingjays. For the Companion Cubes, I stacked the pieces on top of the square base before baking. When you no longer have space to cut, ball up your dough and roll it out again. Switch between dough balls as needed when the dough starts to warm up. 

Place the cookies about 1 inch apart on the cookie sheet and bake for 7-9 minutes.  I found that most of the cookies were done in about 7-8 minutes, while the Companion Cubes took longer at about 10-12 minutes. Just watch them closely, as these cookies burn easily.  Remove the cookies from the cookie sheet to allow them to cool.

While you're waiting on all the cookies to cool, clean off your rolling surface and lay out paper towels or wax paper to set up your icing station.  Make your icing base by mixing 1 cup powdered sugar, 5 tsp milk, 2 tsp light corn syrup, and 1/2 tsp of flavoring (in this case I used vanilla) in your small mixing bowl. The result will be a very thick goo (appetizing, huh?).  Divide this between four cups as follows: 1 heaping spoonful in one cup; about 1/4 of what's left in another cup; divide what's left evenly between the other two cups.  
Area and State regulations do not
allow the Companion Cube to remain
here, alone and companionless.

  • Take the cup with the least amount, and make black by adding neon blue, neon green, and neon purple until the color is very dark; I used McCormick Neon Food Coloring and used less blue than the other two.  Now take a small amount of this on a butter knife and add it to one of the two cups with the most icing and mix it in to get your gray.  
  • For gold, take the other cup with the most icing and add regular yellow food coloring until you're satisfied with the color.
  • For the pink, squirt out a drop of neon pink onto a butter knife. Wipe away about half of what's there, the use what's left on the knife to mix into the cup we added 1/4 of the icing to.
Ice the cookies with the appropriate colors.

That's right... Awesome.
Set the cookies on the paper towels/wax paper as you finish each to allow the icing to set into a hard glossy finish.  Serve.  In case you're wondering where my shape choices come from (and if you are your nerd cred just took a serious dip), the Companion Cubes are from the Portal series of video games, the Triforces are from Zelda, and the Mockingjays are from The Hunger Games.  Enjoy!

Also, for an Easter Egg, I made the Portal reference cookie for my friend Jen's birthday. You may know Jen as my Lovely Assistant.  You can find the pic on The Book Pantry's facebook page.
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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Home Renovation Guide for the Supernaturally Inclined

I just finished the short story collection Home Improvement: Undead Edition, which features short stories from current authors in the urban fantasy and supernatural mystery genres.  I was a little unsure about writing a blog post on the book, given it's varied contents, but the collection was so overwhelming awesome that I decided to give it a go.

The Basics
Harris, Charlaine and Toni L.P. Kelner. eds. Home Improvement: Undead Edition. New York: Ace Books, 2011 Print.

Charlaine Harris is the author of several series, including the popular Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire mysteries and has won numerous awards for her skills. Toni L.P. Kelner writes the Where Are They Now? mystery series, lots of short stories, and is apparently a Green Lantern fan (always nice to pinpoint my fellow nerds). Together they have edited three other short story anthologies: Many Bloody Returns, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, and Death's Excellent Vacation. I've read the first of those, and after this recent release, I'll definitely be picking up the other two some time soon.

Home Improvement: Undead Edition, as you might expect, features stories that relate (in some way) to the theme of home renovation and/or ownership.  Some stories feature characters from a continuing series or world, while others stand alone. The very best feature of these types of collections is that if you read them through you discover so many new authors to delight.  I picked this anthology up because it contained a Sookie Stackhouse short, but I put it down again with 4 or 5 more authors I wanted to read.

The Stories
I suppose I'll go in order and begin with Charlaine Harris's "If I Had a Hammer." Of course, I liked it; it's Sookie Stackhouse, the heroine of one of my favorite series (even if the HBO adaptations sucks. Har har, see what I did there?). It's not the best in the collection, but it stands alone well and offers a refreshing break from Sookie's normal vampire-steeped affairs. The story featured a dark little mystery, uncovered as Sookie helps her friend Tara create a nursery.

Next! In "Wizard Home Security," Victor Gischler offers an amusing tale of a wizard's struggle with/against his newly installed security system.  It was amusing, but didn't really grab me. It was farcical, but lacked the depth I need to want to be involved.

Patricia Brigg's "Gray" was a delightful little stand alone story. Maybe I'm a sucker for vampires (non-Twilight ones anyway), but Elyna was a great character.  She was tough yet emotionally fragile, with a great history behind her.  I liked the process of her revisiting the past through the renovation of her past apartment now turned condo. She's a darker, less happy character than Sookie, but she was super interesting. Briggs has been on my reading list for a while, and I'll definitely be looking into her books soon.

"Squatter's Rights" by Rochelle Krich, on the other hand, was not to my taste. It was written very well but fell squarely in the horror genre.  The details of Jewish orthodoxy were interesting and explained the house's issues. However, the story scared the pants off me, and I really wish I hadn't read it through. But maybe you like that sort of thing.

In "Blood on the Wall," Heather Graham combines a grisly occult murder set in New Orleans with a really cool PI, DeFeo Montville.  Despite his goofy name, I really liked the character and I wish she had more of him to offer right down to his odd obsession with the care of the family crypt.  I had the mystery mostly figured out, but the supernatural twist at the end was not expected and great fun!

Then we have James Grady's "The Mansion of Imperatives." I didn't like his lack of set-up or characters until I realized what he was up to in terms of plot.  In the story, a set of friends decide to flip a house only to discover it has a mind of its own and a keen sense of self preservation. It was a clever story but had too much horror for my liking.

"The Strength Inside" by Melissa Marr was another that I liked. It was different, featuring it's own unique supernatural creature to focus on.  There was also a lot of humor as the main characters, who've recently moved, deal with the local Home Owners' Association. There was a touch of horror, but it was the interesting kind rather than disturbing, especially since it related to the characters being supernatural creatures. Maybe she'll branch out from Young Adult writing to create an adult series centered on these characters.

E.E. Knight's "Woolsley's Kitchen Nightmare" was amusing, featuring a supernatural Gordon Ramsay-esque main character.  I didn't care for the numerous references to cooking and eating humans, but the story was a decent enough read despite the ick factor.

The next story was Seanan McGuire's "Through this House," which I really liked. I was only a page in when I added it to my like list. Needless to say I'll be checking out the October Daye series real soon.  This story follows Toby as she trys to reclaim the faire realm estate she's inherited that has been left to rot both physically and magically for a couple years. Despite the giant spiders, the story was my favorite in the collection and was filled with delightfully sarcastic humor and interesting happenings.

And then we have "The Path" by S.J. Rozan, which was just meh. It was long, boring, and couldn't hold my interest despite my determination.

"Rick the Brave" by Stacia Kane was good, though not the best. It has an interesting and unique premise, revolving around ghosts that haunt and terrorize a dystopian world now run by The Church.  The story was well written and action packed and left me at least a little curious to know more.

In "Full-Scale Demolition," Suzanne McLeod provides a sidhe heroine who works as a sort magical problem solver for the Spellcrackers organization.  It was, again, different from the other offerings and was humorous with just the right amount of action and bite, literally (not the vampiric kind, either). It ties with "Through this House" for favorite. And again, I'll be promptly investigating the series the characters are from.

Simon R. Green's "It's All in the Rendering" was entertaining, but fairly middle-of-the-road compared to the other stories in the collection.  It features a house that acts as gateway and sanctuary between our world and the Nightside. I liked the premise but wanted more meat to the story.

"In Brightest Day" by Toni L.P. Kelner was cute and fun, but made it hard to avoid comparisons to Anita Blake's chosen profession of zombie-raising.  It was different enough, I suppose.  Again, I was left wanting a little more oomph to the story, but I really liked the heroine.

There are too many authors to do an extras section real justice, so I'll skip that this time.  But I highly recommend that you pick this book up and acquaint yourself with a few more top notch supernatural writers.  Or, if that's not your thing, investigate a collection featuring your favorite author.  It's a great way to expand to new authors in genres that you love!


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Let's Talk about Quiche

Cause really, who doesn't want to? (*glares menacingly*) Quiche is something of a family tradition on my mother's side, likely because her parents were so fond of French cuisine.  Today's recipe is for Ham and Cheese Quiche, and is only loosely based off my family recipe.  Quiche is easily adaptable to fit whatever is in your fridge at the time, so long as you get the basic custardy goodness down. This particular quiche version was inspired by my need to use up the last of the New Year ham. (waste not!) The recipe below is for two quiches, since I had two pie crusts, but the original is for one, and this recipe can be easily halved.

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                   Cheese grater
Mixing spoon                                                            Liquid measuring cup
Medium mixing bowl                                                2 pie plates
8 eggs                                                                       1/2 cup parmesan cheese
2 cans cream of onion soup                                       salt and pepper to taste
8 oz swiss cheese                                                      6-8 oz leftover ham
8 oz white cheddar cheese                                        1 cup nonfat milk
2 tsp mustard                                                            2 pie shells

Now Let's Make Ham and Cheese Quiche!
Preheat the oven to 375F. 

Crack your eight eggs into your medium mixing bowl. Whisk them together until the yolks and whites are thoroughly blended.  Don't forget to fish out any shell before this step in order to avoid much grumbling.  Set the eggs aside.

Open the 2 cans of cream of onion soup and spoon the soup into your large mixing bowl. Ignore any directions on the side of the soup can, as we'll be using the soup undiluted. Over the bowl, begin shredding your swiss and cheddar cheeses.  I hope you have a nicer grater than my handheld one, although mine at least comes equipped with a lovely assistant.  This is a long, arduous process, so try not to nod off and grate yourself (flesh totally ruins quiche).  However, it's necessary, as pre-shredded cheese messes up the chemistry of the dish (what do they put on that stuff anyway?).

Once your cheese is all shredded over the onion soup (it's easier to mix that way, hence the order), add your eggs, 2 tsp mustard, 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. I typically use about 2 tsp of salt and pepper respectively.  Mix everything together until it is well blended and the cheese is fairly evenly distributed.  

Now, it's time to add the ham. Take whatever ham you've got and begin pulling it apart into small pieces.  The pieces should be smaller than bite size, since they need to fit inside a bite of quiche.  I typically do this over the large mixing bowl, adding the pieces of ham as I go. Continue this process until all the ham is shredded, and mix the ham into the rest of the mixture.  Make sure that both the ham and the cheese are evenly distributed.  Pour 1 cup of nonfat milk into the bowl and stir it in. This should achieve the appropriate consistency for the custard filling of the quiche.  You want a relatively thick liquid filling here. Do NOT add too much milk, or you'll wind up with a runny quiche (mumph).

Set your filling aside for the moment.  Take your two pie shells and press them into your two pie plates. Make sure to gently press the crusts into all areas of the plate; you don't want any gaps that can create air pockets during the cooking process. I typically use one box of pre-made pie crusts with this, since each box contains 2 crusts (when I do my more traditional quiche recipe, I'll show y'all how to do the crust from scratch). Take the edges that go over the glass and fold them in, sealing them to the inner side of the crust.  The resulting edge of your pie crusts should come right up to the edge of the pie glass.

Now, pour your custard filling into the pie crusts, dividing it evenly between each. This is definitely a two person job!  You need someone to hold the bowl and half pour as you scrape the filling into the shell.  As you scrape, make sure the cheese and ham don't settle or you'll wind up with an uneven filling distribution (i.e. one pie with more liquid and one with more solids. Ick). Scrape the bowl clean to take full advantage of all that quichey goodness.  

Bake the quiches at 375F for about 50 minutes.  Check the quiches at 30 minutes: you should see the edges beginning to set with a still liquid center.  At 40 minutes the edges should be beginning to brown and the center should be almost set.  Don't be alarmed if your quiche looks puffy; it's supposed to rise.  Remove it from the oven after 50 minutes, and allow the quiche to settle and cool for a bit.  You do not want to the quiche too soon, as it might run everywhere (And being chased by a rampaging quiche is just embarrassing)

Mmmmm... quiche!
Wait about 5-10 minutes and then serve.  A quiche divides into about 8 slices, and it pairs very well with salad.  In fact, I've never eaten quiche without also having a salad, so anything else just seems wrong.  Quiche also keeps well refrigerated for about a week. Personally I think the leftovers are even better. Now, go impress someone with your newly acquired snooty quiche recipe!

My name is Sebastian R. Gato, and I *burp* approve of this recipe.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Death to Pemberley

Okay, okay, so it's not actually that bad (although I'm sure my readers are super-excited by more Austen, yesh? *glares meaningfully*).  My most recent read was P.D. James's latest release, Death Comes to Pemberley, which I found neither dreadful nor stellar.  The fact that I kept accidentally referring to the book as Death to Pemberley, however, is telling.  But, I am happy to say that although the novel started as a fairly meh read for me, James had me smiling by the end (if only a little... okay, there were a few grins).

The Basics
James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

I typically avoid Jane Austen sequels as I find most tedious and poorly written, but James's Death Comes to Pemberley had an interesting premise that drew my attention. I also knew that the author had a long a respected history. P.D. James is a British author who has written at least 20 books, many of which have been adapted to film.  She is famous as a mystery writer, particularly for her character Adam Dalgliesh. James was born in 1920, has a rather impressive background in British government, was made the Baroness of Holland Park in 1991(which is pretty darn spiffy, let's face it), and has excellent taste in scarves.*

Death Comes to Pemberley really begins with the arrival of Lydia Wickham to the estate, screaming that her husband has been murdered.  It is soon discovered that the ever dramatic Lydia was wrong, and that it is instead Mr. Wickham's friend who has perished.  Wickham, found covered in blood and shouting about it being his fault, is soon arrested for murder.  Though perfidious, Wickham does not tend toward violence, and the rest of the novel follows his journey through the early 19th century justice system as seen through the eyes and experience of Mr. Darcy.

The Book
I really wanted to whole-heartedly like this book, but there were just one too many details that made me twitch. The novel can be divided into writing with two distinct purposes: 1) mimicking Austen and grounding the book in the world of Pride and Prejudice and 2) spinning a successful murder mystery in its chosen setting.  James succeeds at the latter with an expected ease, but her attempts to conjure Austen often fall short. Since this is to be a mixed review, let me begin with what I disliked about the book.

The language James uses when writing parts primarily relating to the mystery is fluid, easy, and engaging.  But, when the novel strays from the mystery and attempts to connect to Pride and Prejudice, the writing does not come close to doing Austen justice. I never expected James to be able to approach Austen's style of writing, but at times, James clearly tries to mimic Austen's style and tone to the detriment of the book.  In these moments the language is stiff and not engaging, whereas Austen's prose flows well and pulls readers in.  Long, convoluted sentences that are almost paragraphs themselves (and don't always match from beginning to end) do not make a period tone and certainly don't approach Austen's style.  Even when pulling phrasing directly from Pride and Prejudice, James does not quite achieve her goal. Given the notable change in language, style and construction during the mystery parts, I really wish James had stayed consistent and true to her own, quite readable, style.

I also found her characterization of a few favorite figures to be flawed.  I did not like or agree with her characterization of the people of Meryton (as a group) and their jealous interpretation of Elizabeth's acceptance of Mr. Darcy as well as their general dislike of Elizabeth. I thought this seemed at odds with Elizabeth's representation in the book. Her account of Kitty's future is also contrary to the original book, which clearly states at its conclusion that, to her benefit, she spent most of her time with Jane and Elizabeth after their marriages (though I did find the account of Mary's marriage a nice touch).  But most particularly, I disliked her characterization of Colonel Fitzwilliam.  James's sketch of the Colonel paints a very different sort of personality than the affable Colonel of Pride and Prejudice, and I don't find her explanation as likely to account for the drastic shift in personality.  I understand that James needed to change his character to fit her chosen story line and add an air of mystery, but I still don't like it.  Blessedly, James's characterizations of Darcy, Elizabeth, Lydia, Wickham, and Mr. Bennet are mostly on point.

But enough of my dislikes.  While the parts intending to evoke Pride and Prejudice might drag, the mystery makes up for it.  The mystery surrounding the murder victim's fate is well written and very engaging.  I wanted to know what happened and sped through the novel well enough to find out. Fortunately, once readers work past the sketchy opening, most of the novel follows the mystery towards its solution.  It also provided a really interesting look at the British justice system (though I admit, I have no idea how accurate it is), which James and her background can easily supply.  I enjoyed the tension and dramatic buildup of the investigation, inquest, and trial.  And the solution to Wickham's predicament, even if it arrives via dues ex machina (which I'll not spoil with details), is an exciting enough relief to the tension which has, at that point, reached its height.

Even as I disliked the opening, I largely enjoyed James's conclusion to the novel.  Her disposal of Wickham and Lydia provided them with a reasonable expectation of starting over while tidily removing them from the possibility of further inconveniencing the Darcys.  James's method of acheiving this was unexpected but believable and enjoyable. I also got a kick of her solution for the placement of the little boy (I'll say no more, though I'm sure you'll suspect within a few chapters), and the reference to Emma elicited my first real grin, like the proper Austen-nerd I am.  The concluding conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth threatens to fall back into the disappointment of previous passages, but is saved by Elizabeth's announcement, which could only make me smile.

Despite my qualms with some of the novel, overall, I found Death Comes to Pemberley to be an enjoyable little mystery and a worthwhile read.

*Just look at that scarf


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sweet Sweet Potatoes

There just aren't any good cheesy titles for this. Time for another easy side dish (yes, I'm still riding on the coattails of the holiday dinner; last time, swear!).  This one happens to be my favorite, and being the wierdo that I am, I mix it with practically everything at the holiday meal.  You guessed it: Sweet Potato Casserole! (What's that? You didn't guess?) This recipe takes a sweet potato and turns it into a delicious (read, unhealthy) bit of decadence.  But seriously, despite all that butter and sugar, a serving of this goes a long way; once that casserole is divided 20 ways the impact is slight. As for the origins of this recipe, it's all mine; I made it up by experimenting and adding the basics until I was pleased with the results (the most fun kind of cooking).

What You'll Need
Dining plate                                                                Mixing spoon
Dining fork                                                                  Measuring cups
Knife for chopping                                                       Measuring spoons
Cutting board                                                              13 x 9" casserole dish
Large mixing bowl
7 sweet potatoes                                                          2 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup brown sugar                                               1 cup pecans
1 cup nonfat milk                                                         Mini-marshmallows
1 cup butter 

Now Let's Make Sweet Potato Casserole!
As usual, begin with your prep work.  Preheat the oven to 350F. Using your knife and cutting board, chop up enough pecans to measure out about 1 cup. Since this is for the topping, and it's a relatively rustic dish, there's no need to be super precise here; if you're over or under it won't matter. 

This recipe calls for violence
On to the sweet potatoes!  I try to pick potatoes that are medium-largish.  You don't want really small ones as there won't be enough potato, but you don't want huge ones that take forever to cook, either. Begin by giving the potatoes a decent rinse. We won't be using the skins, so they don't have to sparkle, but excess dirt can transfer from your hands to the inside as you handle the potato (Blegh!). Use your fork to stab each side of the potato to help release air (Apparently, potatoes can explode if you skip this step, but I've never tested that. Really). Try not to look too demented as your stabbing the potatoes.  Place 2-3 potatoes on your dinner plate and microwave for 8 minutes. Poke with the fork to see if they're done; there should be no hard places.  Repeat until all the potatoes are cooked (I do this as I do the skinning step below).

Peeling (probably cursing)
As your other potatoes cook, begin skinning the potatoes that just finished.  Slice the potatoes in half and let them sit for a couple minutes to cool a bit (Not waiting = curses and burnt fingers).  When ready, begin removing the outer skin from the potatoes.  You can do this any way that works for you.  I tend to squeeze the potato a bit and the peel with my fingers and occasionally a knife for stubborn pieces. Place the sweet potatoes in your large mixing bowl as you go and set the skins aside for composting (or weird dogs that like potato skins, as mine do). Repeat for all the potatoes.

When all of your potatoes are in your mixing bowl, take the fork and mash them up really good.  Make sure not to leave behind any large lumps as this will affect the texture of your casserole. Once mashed, we can begin adding the other ingredients. Measure out 1 3/4 cup of brown sugar, packing it into the measuring cup as you do so; dump this into the mixing bowl. Then measure 1 cup nonfat milk and pour it into the mixing bowl. Microwave the 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter until it has begun to melt and pour this into the mixing bowl.  Measure out 2 tsp of vanilla extract and add to the sweet potato concoction (thought I was going to say mixing bowl, didn't you?).  Using your mixing spoon, blend all the ingredients together until everything is well mixed.  You shouldn't be able to distinguish any one ingredient except for the sweet potatoes by the time you're done.

Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the 13 x 9 inch casserole dish, spreading it out evenly.  Sprinkle your chopped pecans over the top of the casserole until you have an even layer. Do the same with the mini-marshmallows.  I typically use about 4 handfuls of marshmallows, but you're welcome to add as many or as few as you'd like. 

The finished product. Note the marshmallow's color.
Bake the casserole at 350F for about 30-45 minutes.  Cooking time varies drastically depending on the oven and the position of the casserole inside the oven. Just watch the casserole as you cook and remove it when the marshmallows have browned. Do NOT overcook; marshmallows are flammable (thankfully not something I learned from experience)! Serve casserole as a side dish to accompany you're favorite meal.  I find that it goes well with both pork and poultry. 


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Classy Classics: Austen Edition

So I know it was only fairly recently that I did a Classics post, but it was time for my semi-annual reread of Pride and Prejudice.  This book is easily one of the best loved pieces of English Literature, and if you haven't read it yet, that right there should be reason enough (of course, it's my favorite, too, which I'm sure will influence your decision properly).  I've long adored this book, and I think I like it better with each reading.

The Book
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Pride and Prejudice focuses on the Bennet family, especially Miss Elizabeth Bennet.  The story follows Elizabeth along with her sisters as she navigates the society of the early 1800s in the British upper class.  The novel follows the main characters as they make the transition from girlhood to marriage; an all-important stage in the life of young woman at the time.  Along the way, Elizabeth must navigate the follies and foibles of her family, her acquaintances, and society as a whole.

Why You Should Read this Book
The characters, for one thing, are such that readers quickly become invested in their lives.  Some, like Elizabeth and Jane, you'll love and be eager to see how they grow and become well-married.  Others, like Lydia or Mr. Wickham, you'll be dying to see get their comeuppance. Austen crafts her characters with so much personality, that it's easy to get attached (even to the loathsome ones).  Elizabeth, for example is witty, clever, and good-natured, but Austen keeps her slightly flawed. All her intelligence is not enough to keep an unworthy from taking her in with the appearance of goodness. Nor does she entirely know herself: her encounters with Mr. Darcy over the course of the novel spur her to grow and become better and wiser and vice versa until they are a suitable match for one another.

I also love Austen's more ridiculous characters: Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  There's really not much to say about Mrs. Bennet, since her character is so injudiciously obvious.  But, Mr. Collins and all his obsequiousness is delightfully squirm-worthy and laughable.  Naturally, he and his overly proud, "condescending" patroness, Lady Catherine go hand in hand.  As someone who delights in the ridiculous almost as much as Elizabeth, the novel provides ample opportunities for a laugh.

Austen's prose is also fantastic, as one would expect of a novel so beloved. She writes incredibly well, and it offers modern readers a glimpse of speech and writing patterns from the period.  At the same time, it is remarkably accessible writing that is easily understandable and engaging of interest once you get used to it. This makes it an ideal novel for a wide audience, even those who don't typically find classics readable (take that Charlotte Bronte). Her phrasing is by turns delightful, sweet, and subtly funny. It makes a great introduction to classics for any reader, though perhaps especially for young girls.

The story itself is a light romance.  You have your witty couple as well as your sweet couple, but with plenty of twists, turns and near misses to keep things interesting.  It's no wonder so many modern romances reference Austen's work. One thing I particularly liked about the edition I was reading from was that it was annotated. Granted some of the notes are perfectly useless (I mean, who can't figure out that amiable refers to someone's "friendly disposition" 313), but others clue readers in to little nuances of the period completely unknown to modern readers and that would otherwise be missed. Even for someone who's studied a good bit in both the long 18th century and Victorian literary periods (cough, cough), they're darned useful.

Seriously, why aren't you picking up this book already? (Go! Go now! *cracks whip*)

  • Let's talk movies!  The recent 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightly is quite good.  It's visually stunning, has a great cast, and features excellent scenes and costuming. It's true enough to the story, but the editing is a little rough and makes it hard to follow at times.
  • The 1995 BBC mini-series, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is also amazing and highly recommended. It's incredibly true to the story, features a solid cast (Colin Firth!), and excellent costuming.  It's by far my favorite. (yes, I brought it home from the library again. What?).
  • The 1980 mini-series, also by the BBC, is atrocious.  Its casting is questionable and its script jumps all over the book. It would make an excellent piece to watch with friends and sarcastically comment on throughout, however.
  • There's also tons of other versions, including a 1940 one, which I plan to find soon.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Corny and Delicious

Prepare yourself for what is quite possibly one of my most addictive recipes.  When I threatened to exclude it from the holiday menu this year, I was met with quivering lips and watery eyes all around.  Corn Pudding is almost a cross between cornbread and spoon bread (in fact, my recipe is close to my Grandma Kay's spoon bread recipe). This dish is a pudding in the more traditional British sense of the word which comprehends savory flavors (sorry, I've been reading Austen) as well as Jello-like sweetness. And to top it off, it's ridiculously easy for something that tastes so yummy.

What You'll Need
Large mixing bowl                                                       13 x 9" casserole dish
Stand mixer
1 stick butter                                                                1 can creamed corn (15 oz)
2 large eggs                                                                  8 oz sour cream
1 can whole kernel corn (15 oz)                                  1 box corn muffin mix (7.5 oz)

Now Let's Make Corn Pudding!
Mmmm. Butter.
Begin by preheating your oven to 350F.  Then, melt your stick of butter in your large bowl.  It doesn't need to be entirely melted, but it won't matter if it is.  Just don't overcook it so much that some of the butter evaporates. 30-40 seconds should do it.

Once you've mostly melted the butter, add two large eggs.  Also add both cans of corn, without draining off any liquid.  (seriously, don't drain; it's really hard to adjust with the right amount of water if you mess this up).

Mix, mix.
Now add 8 oz of sour cream to the bowl. I typically prefer to use Daisy Light sour cream as it cuts the calories of the recipe without sacrificing flavor. (You can also leave off the butter if you really want to, but it affects flavor and fluffiness. Still tasty, but not the same. I discovered this accidentally. Heh heh). Lastly, pour in your box of corn muffin mix.  I typically use Jiffy, but I'm sure it'd work with another brand just fine.

Yay, pudding!
Turn your mixer on to a medium low speed, and mix the ingredients until they are thoroughly blended. It is especially important that the eggs and sour cream get fully mixed in, as they tend to be stubborn.  If you need to break things down further with a whisk, don't be afraid to. (Not mixing properly results in a lumpy pudding, and that's just wrong).

Pour the pudding batter into the 13 x 9 inch casserole dish.  Shake the dish slightly from side to side to get the batter to settle evenly into the dish. 

Bake at 350F for about 40-45 minutes, until the top of the pudding is a golden brown and lightly crusty.

This recipe doubles easily, which is what I typically do for holidays since the dish is so popular.  If you choose to double the recipe, use a 15 x 10" dish and cook for 1 hour to account for the extra volume.  This dish goes with pretty much anything, but pairs especially well with ham or a hearty meat chili.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Jesuit Priests and Aliens

Today's book post features Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow.  This book was first handed to me with the comment, "Here, you like science fiction; this book will change your life."  Naturally, my expectations were set very high after an assertion like that.  I can easily assure you that the novel more than lived up to its praise. The book is, to say the least, profound, a description I do not use lightly.

The Basics
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Originally published in 1996, The Sparrow was Russell's first novel.  Russell has studied a variety of disciplines in anthropology and holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan.  This, as well as her Catholic upbringing, can easily be seen as an influence and aide in her writing.  The Sparrow follows the journey of Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest.  In 2019, the Jesuit order organizes an expedition to Rakhat, a planet discovered through the SETI program.  In 2059, Father Sandoz returns as the only survivor of the mission and relates the story through his memories.

The Book
Part of the draw of science fiction (and fantasy, which I typically prefer anyway) for me is that many novels of the genre have to invest a significant amount of energy in world building.  There's just something about discovering a new world and culture that infinitely engages my interest. Russell's book certainly does that, since she has to create the world of Rakhat in a way that her readers can successfully suspend any disbelief in alien cultures and become absorbed in her story.  I was instantly drawn in by Russell's abilities in this area.  She creates a vision of Rakhat that goes far beyond the surface level expectations readers might have of an alien culture.  Russell creates two alien species - the Runa and the Jana'ata - and crafts a culture for each, complete with social interactions, technologies, societal problems, traditions, language etc. (Always fun!) Readers discover these traits along with the Jesuit missionaries while simultaneously witnessing the Jesuits discover how to live with the natives on a planet with vastly different plant and animal life than Earth.

I also really liked Russell's prose.  It easily draws readers into the story, instantly engaging the audience.  There are no awkward turns of phrase or poorly constructed passages to jolt readers from their reading experience, either, which is a plus (and totally necessary, given how many times I had to set the book down to escape its intensity).  She develops the story so smoothly that you barely notice that the pages are flying by as quickly as they are until you're halfway through the book and it's midnight.

It's a good thing that the book is a quick read, too, because I'm not sure I could have read it had it been slow or had difficult prose. The Sparrow is easily one of the most intense books I've ever read.  It was at once incredibly fascinating and horribly disturbing.  I'm a chronic re-reader of books, constantly revisiting old favorites, but I can quite confidentially state that I will never reread this novel.  And not because it isn't a fantastically good book, because it is!  But believe me, once is more than enough to allow this book to indelibly mark my memory.  I haven't been so affected by a novel since I read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  I greatly enjoyed reading The Sparrow, but boy did it make me squirm! (Let's be honest, like The Handmaid's Tale, The Sparrow just plain scared the pants off me and not in a Steven King way, either). Unless you just really loathe science fiction and/or alien races, you really need to read this book.

The Extras
  • As always, I must strongly recommend that you pay a visit to the author's website, where you can learn more about the author and her novels.
  • The FAQ page for The Sparrow on Russell's website is also pretty interesting, especially her explanations of Sandoz's hands and her approach to language creation.
  • An interesting interview with the author can be found over on the Bookslut book blog.
  • And let's not forget that there's a sequel: The Children of God.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Red Velvet Holiday

Happy New Year from The Book Pantry! This Christmas dinner, I served a Red Velvet Cake for dessert.  Red Velvet Cake is a southern tradition, although it seems pretty popular elsewhere, too. (And, really, what's not to like?). Mine is loosely based off a recipe for the cake in The Boozy Baker cookbook, to which I've made a few alterations of my own (mainly the type of alcohol and the amount of food coloring). The cream cheese icing recipe is my own, but there's only so many ways to make cream cheese icing, just saying.  This is a delicious and pretty cake sure to impress anyone you happen to serve it to.  Despite my usual low-tech approach to baking (enforced only because I lack toys), this recipe needs a mixer. You cannot mix the cake batter by hand and not over mix, thereby creating a tough cake.

What You'll Need
2 nine inch cake pans                                          Measuring cups
Large mixing bowl                                              Measuring spoons
Medium mixing bowl                                           Mixing spoon
Small mixing bowl                                               Long serrated bread knife
Stand mixer                                                         Icing knife/spatula
Whisk                                                                  Cutting board
Cooking spray                                                      Chopping knife
Ingredients for Cake
3 cups cake flour                                                  1 tsp vanilla extract, running over
5 Tbsp cocoa powder                                           1 tsp white vinegar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda                                          3 oz red food coloring
1/2 tsp salt                                                           1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup buttermilk                                                2 cups sugar
1/4 cup rum                                                          3 eggs
Ingredients for Frosting
16 oz cream cheese, softened                               2 cups confectioner's sugar
2 sticks butter, softened                                       4 Tbsp vanilla
3 cups pecans

Now Let's Make Red Velvet Cake!
Preheat the oven to 350F.  Time for prep work: Remove your 16 oz of cream cheese and 2 sticks of butter from the refrigerator and set aside to soften until you're ready to do the icing. Also remove your 3 eggs so that they come close to room temperature by the time you need them.  Now, coarsely chop enough pecans to equal 3 cups: that's about 4 handfuls.

Spray your two cake pans with cooking spray.  Pour out a small pile of flour into each pan (click to enlarge photos for an example). Dust the pans with the flour by holding the pan up and tilted and tapping the bottom, rotating the pan as you go to allow a thorough coating.  Once the bottom of the pan is coated, continue this process with the remaining flour around the sides of the pan.  I recommend doing this over the kitchen sink, as it can get a little messy.  Set your coated pans aside.


Cocoa Powder! *shakes fist*
In your medium mixing bowl, measure out 3 cups cake flour, 5 Tbsp cocoa powder, 1 1/2 tsp baking soda, and 1/2 tsp salt.  Whisk the ingredients together until they are evenly distributed and there are no large cocoa powder lumps (cocoa powder is sneaky and devious; be thorough in your eradication). Set the dry ingredients aside. 

In your small mixing bowl, measure out 3/4 cup buttermilk (not that non-fat gunk, either; that defeats the purpose of buttermilk), 1/4 cup of rum, 1 tsp vanilla extract (allowing the vanilla to run over into the bowl slightly as you measure), 1 tsp of white vinegar, and 3 oz of red food coloring. Whisk the ingredients together until you have a (very red) smooth liquid mixture.  For a brighter cake add food more food coloring, but be aware that it affects flavor a little.  If you'd like to avoid food coloring altogether, puree 1-2 cooked beets. Keep in mind that the interaction between the buttermilk and the cocoa should achieve a slight red color as it is (woot! Chemistry!). Set the liquid mixture aside.

No shells in this cake!
Place 1 1/2 sticks of butter in your large mixing bowl.  Soften in the microwave if necessary, being careful not to fully melt the butter.  Using your mixer at a low speed (about 2 on mine), beat the 2 cups of sugar into the butter until fluffy. Then, add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. I recommend stopping the mixer for each egg addition, so that you can fish out any stray pieces of eggshell that might make their way into the batter. (Remember, an easy way to remove pesky shells is to wet your finger before trying).

Set your mixer to medium-low speed (about 4 on mine, but don't turn it on yet).  For this step you are going to gradually add the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture, alternating between the two.  You want to do this is partial amounts; I typically wind up with four additions of each.  Start with the flour mixture and end with the buttermilk mixture to achieve the appropriate consistency for your batter. Be careful not to go too slowly and over mix your batter.  Over worked batter will result in a tough, chewy cake. (Blegh!)

Divide the cake batter between your two cake pans, scraping the bowl to get all the good bits. Lightly shake your pans from side to side to settle the batter evenly into the pans.  Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes.  Test the doneness of the cakes by inserting a toothpick (or fork prongs) into the center of the cake. Cakes are done when toothpick comes out clean.  Set cakes aside to cool.

Yes, it's upside down.
Once cakes are mostly cool, remove one cake from pan and place it on your icing station (work area, display, wherever you're planning to ice the cake).  Take your long serrated knife and evenly slice off the curved top of the cake, so that you'll have a flat bottom layer.  Offer the cake top to any circling family members that happen to be around. (Vultures!) Loosen the other cake in the pan, but leave in pan until cakes are completely cool.

Mmmmm... frosting.
While cakes are cooling the rest of the way. Wash out your large mixing bowl, so that you can begin whipping up the frosting.  Place your 16 oz of cream cheese, 2 sticks of butter, 2 cups of confectioner's sugar and 4 Tbsp of vanilla in the (now clean) bowl.  Stir the ingredients together with your mixing spoon until you have a thoroughly blended, smooth frosting. You can flavor the frosting with anything you'd like, simply replace the vanilla with your choice of flavor (lemon juice, more rum, orange liqueur, etc).

Spread some frosting on top of the already stationed cake.  (Do not do this if cake is not yet cool, or you'll have a melty, blobby cake and who wants that?). Smooth the frosting across the surface of the cake until you have a decent layer of frosting.  Remove the other cake layer from its pan and carefully place it centered over the bottom layer.  You can cut the top off this one, too, if you want a flat topped cake, but I never bother. Gently spread frosting over the entire cake, beginning with the top before moving on to the sides.  Try to avoid any bare or translucent spots where the cake shows through.  Once all the frosting is on the cake, smooth it out to make it purty.

Now, take your chopped pecans and begin coating your cake.  Start with the top center and work your way outward.  You want some white to show through but don't want any bald spots, so try to be even handed.  "How do you coat the sides?" you ask. I grab a small handful of chopped pecans, get close to the cake and toss/press the nuts into the cake.  This is really messy, so have a broom handy (or a pecan loving dog, either will do).  

Isn't it pretty?!
Now, stand back and admire your handy work!  This cake goes really well with postprandial coffee.

Big thanks to my future step-brother, Stevie, for letting me use his Nikon and helping with the pictures. I'm actually in one! Le gasp.  Also, thank you to my lovely friend Jen for doing the second stage icing, thus preventing me from my annual apoplectic frosting rage.  

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