June Daring Bakers challenge!

The June Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart… er… pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800’s in England.

I was very much looking forward to this challenge – it sounded very yummy and the instructions didn’t seem extraordinarily challenging. And I was right! In the end, I think mine might have come out a little bit underbaked – this is one of those baked goods that is difficult to judge its doneness – but it’s edible. And if I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with salmonella or something, I might take it to work to share with my friends there. Might.

We were allowed creative license when it came to the jam – flavorwise and whether or not to make it ourselves. Inspired by my favorite cookies, I decided to do lemon curd and add in some blueberries. And I’ve always wanted to make the lemon curd cake from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, so I decided to use its accompanying recipe for lemon curd.

Next up was the sweet shortcrust pastry which cake together very well and ended up being very sweet and not too flaky – a nice contrast to the sweet-tartness of the lemon curd. The frangipane went smoothly, too, though I’m very glad the hosts mentioned in the recipe that it would appear to curdle and not to panic because if they hadn’t, well, I definitely would have panicked.

After baking for 30 minutes, it seemed quite jiggly still in the middle, so I left it in for a few more minutes until it seemed to set just a bit more, though, as I said above, I’m not sure that it couldn’t benefit from a few more minutes baking. But the top was fairly dark brown when I pulled it out of the oven and I hadn’t wanted to let it burn.

So, yes, very tasty and pretty easy really – success! Click on the Daring Bakers logo above to click through our blogroll and see lots of other lovely Bakewell Tarts.

A book review, a recipe, and…a secret…

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

I have developed a new literary crush – make room in the mud wrestling ring, Skulduggery and Sherlock, David Lebovitz is here! (Er, except he’s real, so…)

After living in San Francisco and working at Chez Panisse for almost 10 years, David packed up and headed to Paris with three suitcases and, from the sound of it, only a rudimentary knowledge of the French language. The Sweet Life in Paris is a collection of his stories along with quite a few recipes (he worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco, so he’s my kind of guy, though he specialises in chocolate [which we’ll get to in a minute]).

Some of the stories and recipes are from his blog and some are new (I think, I’m working my way through his archives as we speak, so it may just be that I haven’t gotten to them yet). Most of them involve affectionate observations of Parisian quirks and foibles and the experiences of an American expat adjusting to life in a new city.

Really it’s his writing that makes his book so enjoyable – he has a warm, wry sense of humor which makes the reader feel like he’s talking only to you (I imagine him being the kind of guy that can really pull off a wink). He’s famous enough to get special treatment at some places, but, probably because he’s in France, can also report on life as a regular Joe (I’d love to see his kitchen – sounds comparable to my last one), which makes for interesting and also identifiable experiences to read about.

I only have two nitpicky things that I think could have improved the book even more – as far as I could tell (and I’m entirely open to being corrected here), the recipes didn’t always relate to the stories being told in the chapters they are associated with (and I’ll admit this would be tricky, but I think it would have been nice) – though I think this might have been because Random House weren’t sure if it was a memoir or a cookbook. And, despite his intimate tone, I felt like he definitely kept a distance between himself and the reader. I guess, to be fair, it’s a food/travel book more than a memoir, but since I like him so much, I really wanted to get to know him a bit. Quite a few things, mostly personal, are glossed over – maybe he’s saving them for his autobiography. I certainly hope so!

My rating: A-

Because his specialty is chocolate, I decided to take this opportunity to tell you all a secret. After approximately 15 years of not eating chocolate, I have finally started again. It’s in its experimental stages at the moment, but so far it’s going pretty well. I still have a LOT of carob powder to get through and, since it works so well as a cocoa powder replacement, I’ll use it that way, but the prospect of getting to learn how to bake with actual chocolate is a very exciting one!

For my first chocolate baking outing, I went with David’s Mousse au Chocolat II (here’s a different Chocolate Mousse recipe from his website) because I had some cream leftover from a disastrous strawberry dessert from a few nights ago and because I’m not sure how long I should keep a dessert made with raw egg and whether or not I could eat it before I ended up giving myself food poisoning.

If David ever reads this he will probably cringe when I say that I used…Nestle* chocolate chips. I know, David – I long to try Valrhona, but for budgetary and patience reasons, I had to make do with the standard semisweet chocolate chips. Besides, after 15 years of no chocolate, I really can’t tell that it’s not a gourmet chocolate (frankly, so far, I can’t even tell it’s not carob).

Also, I didn’t have any Chartreuse that the recipe called for, so I substituted equal parts vanilla and almond extracts. Other than that it was super easy – took me about 15 minutes or so probably and is very tasty! Very, very rich, but very, very tasty – I can really only eat a tiny portion of it which means it’ll last a while (hence the egg avoidance), but it’s very satisfying even in miniscule amounts.

Right now, the main thing I’m taking away from my chocolate experiment is how did I live this long without Nutella in my life?!

*OMG, Nestle is responsible for Hot Pockets?! What have I done?! Now I just feel dirty. (Don’t worry, that link is not to the Hot Pockets website – click on it, I promise it’s funny.)

Free, legal music

My good friend’s fiance’s band, Sleeping at Last, has their latest CD available at a fair trade music website – you can download it for free in return for passing the word on to five other people or you can pay what you can and download it that way.

I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet but I thought their first album was very good, so I’m sure this one won’t disappoint. Check it out!

June Daring Cooks challenge!

I will admit that I approached Jen‘s challenge – Chinese dumplings/potstickers –  with a bit of trepidation – first of all, because they looked a bit delicate and fiddly and I wasn’t sure how much patience I would have during the assembly process and, second of all, because there wasn’t a recipe given for a vegetarian filling and that scared me!

But, thank goodness for the forums where I used Shellyfish‘s idea of using mushrooms, white beans, green onions, and soy sauce. I didn’t use any sort of recipe (go me!) – I just dumped a container of baby portabello mushrooms in the food processor with a can of white beans, some grated fresh ginger, and a few splashes of soy sauce and then stirred in the chopped green onions. Super tasty!

I have to add my name to the list of people whose dough ended up on the dry side, but I gradually kneaded in a bit of water and eventually it all came together. I was pretty nervous about the assembly process – having to fold all those delicate little pleats, but, although I’m sure I could still use a bit practice to get them really picture-perfect, I was quite pleased with how they turned out. Jen has very thorough instructions (with lots of pictures!) on her blog which helped immensely.

Since I don’t have a steamer (though these ended up being so easy and so yummy that I’m totally going to have to get one to see what that’s like), the first time I made these, I went for the pan-frying method – a bit scary what with the spitting oil step – and they turned out very nicely, with a crispy bottom and a very tender filling.

It made quite a few potstickers (I still have the other half of the filling in my freezer to be made at a later date – probably sooner rather than later!) so I put the ones I hadn’t cooked in the fridge to have the next day when I tried boiling them. I was a little worried that they might be too mushy or might fall apart in the water, but they were just as tasty as the pan-fried ones.

For my dipping sauce, I used the given proportions of soy sauce and vinegar (2:1), but I didn’t have the garlic-chili paste, so I stirred in some grated ginger, garlic, and hot red pepper flakes and it was very tasty, too!

So, yes, a very successful Daring Cooks challenge – yay! Click on the logo at the top to see our temporary blogroll and lots of other tasty potstickers. 🙂

YA Fiction

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Now. I see the Newbery here. And I totally thought it was nominated, but after searching the internet, it looks like it wasn’t! Say what now?!

Suzanne Collins is the author of the Gregor the Overlander series which I loved, but The Hunger Games?

Is amazing.

A quick run down, if you haven’t heard about this book – after a rebellion against the Capital, the remaining 12 Districts have to send two Tributes (a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18) to participate in the Hunger Games, a reality television show in which the children fight to the death.

It is amazing. I tore through it almost in one sitting because there was just no good pausing point. The plot is constantly going, always moving forward and because the stakes are impossibly high, I was left almost breathless several times.

I’ll admit that my immediate reaction to Katniss (the main character) was not entirely pleasant, but once we got to the reaping, I was sold. And Peeta – I have conflicting feelings about Peeta, which were not helped by the plot’s twists and turns (Collins has created such complex, real characters that I, like Katniss, really wasn’t sure of motivations, who to trust, etc.).

And I knew that there were more books to come, so when the Hunger Games ended, I wasn’t sure what would be left to cover, but the nail-biting climax to the Games suddenly gives the series a deeper thread to follow. And I cannot wait to see what happens next. I know there are ARCs floating around out there (you lucky bastards!), I may have to start trolling eBay to see if any turn up there. I don’t know if I can wait until September 1!

My rating: A+

p.s. – It’s in first person, present tense, which I often associate with angsty fanfiction, but it totally works here – I didn’t even realise what I was reading until I was about halfway through. The immediacy of it is very appropriate to the action and just hooks you and never lets up.

I really need to go to more concerts…

Last Tuesday I went to see Grizzly Bear. Who were awesome!

The concert was about three hours away, but we managed to arrive right on time (we missed the openers, Here We Go Magic, but I still bought their CD based on the three minutes of their last song we heard). I was really impressed with them live – they use a lot of layering and looping, so I wasn’t sure how it would work live. The answer is awesomely.

I was particularly impressed with the bassist, who was working very hard, doing double and triple duty playing not only the bass, but the flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet, and singing, too. When he pulled out the flute, I was like ‘Okay, I can do that, too’ but he lost me after that. That and all the electronics he was juggling, too – it looked very complicated!

It’s summer!

You know how I know it’s summer? Because the fireflies are finally out AND, perhaps more importantly, the strawberries in the market are plentiful and, frankly, the same size as me. Oh, and blueberries are on sale 2 for 1 (what?!).

So what did I do with the bountiful berries? It’s pretty easy to guess.

Strawberry shortcake. Hells yeah. I used Smitten Kitchen’s recipe this time around and it was very nice, particularly the berry topping which uses lemons and sugar which makes it taste like strawberry lemonade over the shortcake. Yum!

IR Sci-fi/Fantasy

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Once again, I think I’m the last person with an interest in children’s books to actually read this (and the next one – I’m catching up!). I’ve come to it after it’s won all sorts of awards. But any time you read this book, it’ll be worth it.

For anyone who may not think they’re interested in what is, technically, a children’s book, this is the one that starts:

There was a hand in the dark, and it held a knife.

I know, right? Only Neil Gaiman could get away with something like that. Like Coraline, it is pretty creepy – the beginning in particular is very dark and, yes, I cried. But once Bod settles into life in the graveyard, things cheer up a bit and actually seem quite homey and nice.

It reads sort of like a fable – there’s a certain distance between the reader and the words, which works, and the pace is on the slow side (usually – there are a few slightly out-of-place action scenes), but it works.

My rating: B+

p.s. – It took me a very long time of staring at the cover to figure out what the picture was.

p.p.s. – I’ll be honest with you, though – I’m not sure I see the Newbery Medal award in here…

All in the family…

So my dad, in addition to singing in a barbershop quartet (Four Wheel Drive – and, no, they don’t wear striped blazers) is in a trio called Stringtown Lane (guitar and miscellaneous instruments, rhythm guitar, and bass) and they were featured on the public radio station in town, WILL-FM, on a program called Live and Local to promote a gig they had this evening.

They played a few songs (including their own versions of various traditional/international folk songs, Margaritaville, and Sloop John B), discussed zombies, and my dad told a joke about Margaritaville that I think is funny but no one in the studio laughed.

I went to their gig this evening with my mom – the weather was beautiful, they had a good turnout, and sounded very good.

So go here to hear a bit of Stringtown Lane!