Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Cookies

Sometimes, I have moments where I am so happy that it feels surreal. It's strange in a way, because I'm not really talking about those really obvious ones--like when I graduated from college or the most excellent nights spent with my friends. It's more of that wonderful contented feeling that's the culmination of everything just going my way. Tonight, I had one of those moments.

I made it home for the home for the holidays, and tonight I set about to make some of my brother's favorite Christmas cookies upon his request. Christmas music blaring through the house, I threw the ingredients in a bowl and got to work making these delicious peanut butter cup cookies (and they're his favorite for a reason--they're awesome and incredibly easy).


Oh gosh, they're good. And so simple--just a regular peanut butter cookie, but baked up in a mini muffin tin. Then, right when they come out, you add a peanut butter cup so that it gets all gooey and delicious wrapped up in the cookie. Oh, dear.

I bopped along to Straight No Chaser singing Carol of the Bells, sipped at a glass of Bailey's, ate two cookies that fell apart (oops!) as I pulled them out of the pan, and thought about how lucky I am this year. I got everything I wanted for Christmas, and it's still two days away: a new apartment in New York where I know so many adventures await me and a fantastic new job that I worked really hard for and cannot wait to start. Best of all, I get to be at home with my family--crazy as they can sometimes be--to celebrate my favorite holiday before heading back to the city to celebrate New Years with some of the best of friends. I don't think I could be having a better holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bailey's Cheesecake

It's the holiday season, and that means...Bailey's! In my coffee, in my dessert glass, and in my cheesecake. Yes, in my cheesecake. Usually, I'm a cheesecake purist--I like it plain, with a homemade graham cracker crust. Nothing fussy, no frills, just good old thick New York style cheesecake. But if Bailey's cheesecake is on the menu, I tend to stray from my purism and give it a try. I've had a few kinds before, and this time I decided to make my own. I adapted a recipe I found here with a sour cream topping, and I used my own, my favorite, graham cracker crust recipe. Here's what I ended up doing:

Ingredients:
Crust:
12 whole graham crackers, broken into pieces
1/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoon butter, melted
Filling:
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese (room temperature)
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs (room temperature)
1/3 cup Baileys Irish Cream liqueur (a Bailey's substitute would have been totally fine. Luckily, I wasn't buying my own ingredients in this case, so we avoided the bargain shopping)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ounces white chocolate chips
Topping:
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 ounces white chocolate chips

Directions:
For Crust:
Preheat oven to 325° F. Lightly butter 9 inch springform pan. Finely grind graham crackers and sugar in processor. Add butter and blend, using on/off turns. Press crumbs onto bottom and 2 inches up sides of prepared pan. Refrigerate 20 minutes. (I had a little too much, so I just used whatever fit, and then I actually made a slightly smaller second cheesecake...no complaints there!)

For filling:
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar in large bowl until smooth. Whisk eggs, Baileys, and vanilla in bowl until just blended. Beat egg mixture into cream cheese mixture. Finely chop white chocolate in processor (I used a blender) using on/off turns. Add to cream cheese mixture.
Transfer filling to crust-lined pan. (Again, I had a little too much, so I just poured the excess into my extra little crust.) Bake until edges of filling are puffed and dry-looking and center is just set, about 50 minutes. Cool on rack.

For topping:
Mix sour cream and powdered sugar in small bowl. Spread topping onto cooled cake. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 6 hours (may be prepared one day ahead). Sprinkle grated chocolate (I used little chocolate crumbles, and they turned out all snowy and gorgeous) over cake.

This cake was delicious. But I knew it would be...cheesecake and Bailey's? Where was there even any room for error?

The Marriage Plot

I've been putting off posting about this book for a while, even though I finished it over a week ago. That being said, it also took me a while to finish it, for several reasons. Mostly, I wanted to make sure that I did the reading justice, just as I wanted to make sure that I did the novel justice in my post here.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides could have been the story of my life.

At its opening, we find a girl, Madeleine, in her early twenties and graduating from Brown, completely unsure of where her life will take her. We also meet Mitchell, planning to travel the world before potentially going to divinity school. The book was...not my life. To say the least. I think that was where my first problem with the book took root--I was so expecting it to seem realistic to me all the way through, to match my own life and to mirror my own emotions, that I was disappointed when it didn't. When I opened the book to find that familiar Talking Heads quote, "and the days go by," I immediately felt a connection. While that was far from the only connection I felt with the novel and with the characters, it was certainly one of the strongest...while I had hoped it would be only the beginning.

I think maybe now, I will delve into a pro-con list of sorts to keep my [many] thoughts on the novel organized.

First the bad news:
• As already mentioned, I did not relate to Madeleine nearly as well as I felt I should have, being her age, having just graduated from an accredited university as an English major (and a "Victorianist" at that), and being nervous about what the future had in store for me. That was probably in large part because...
• Eugenides did not capture Madeleine's emotions--and she has, or at least should have, many--nearly as well as I would have hoped. With all that she is dealing with, and I won't give too much away here, I kept waiting for her to fall apart a little more. I realize she was supposed to be a prim and proper east coast young woman of the eighties, but I couldn't help but be annoyed by her unrealistic ability to always hold it all together.
• I was also frustrated with some of the plot points that I felt did not necessarily connect as they should have. For instance, where did all the Hanna family's money come from all of a sudden in the second half? We knew they weren't poor, but when did they win the lottery? Ditto for the little “gift” Madeleine’s sister gave her—it came back up in the end, but almost irrelevantly.
• Also, why did Mitchell suddenly land on a faith at the very end of the novel? I really thought this was going to be a novel about how life not working out the way you had hoped was totally fine--normal, even. Why was it necessary to have Mitchell "find himself" rather than just letting him keep searching, as Madeleine is forced to.

And now for the good news:
• The writing was mesmerizing, at times, to say the least. While I couldn’t always relate like I wanted to, I did find myself wrapped up in the adventures of the characters, and feeling the way about Leonard that (I think?) I was intended to.
• Leonard’s character and his condition were described quite well, for the most part, and my complaints were always about how Madeline related to them, mainly because that’s not how I (nor I think most other reader’s) would have wanted to respond. And I didn’t think love was a good enough cover all for that discrepancy.
• It was simply nice to read about someone with problems far bigger than any of mine. Shallow, I know, but isn’t that always the way? Sometimes, I wished I was Madeleine Hanna—for her beauty, her intelligence, for her sheer lack of money problems. But then, her issues took over, and I realized, as I almost always do, that I would so much rather be me. It’s nice when a book can take me here and there like that (so long as I get back. Admittedly, I’d still be okay with being Hermione Granger).

I won't keep rambling, because I could probably go on and on with this list and it would end up relatively even (or a smidgen longer on the con side), but that's not the point. Here it is: I won't be running for my next Jeffrey Eugenides right now, but I am glad I read this book, and I think others should, too (if only to discuss it with me!). I promise, I'm a harsh critic. Get wrapped up in the writing, people (thanks, NaNo. Another lesson learned).

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mission accomplished

Well, NaNo and I survived our month-long affair.



It's been a good month. I'll miss you, baby. We'll see where we stand when it starts to get cold and cloudy around this time next year. You know I always love good company with my tea and blankets.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Oven!

Hello, gorgeous.

We got this beautiful new stove delivered yesterday, and I couldn't be more excited. No more upping the temperature by five degrees and baking things for ten minutes longer. My baked goods will now bake up golden and delicious at the appropriate temperature for a normal amount of time.

I broke it in today with this honey beer bread, a recipe I found here and have been wanting to try out. I used a peach beer that we had in the garage (neither my mom nor I liked it very much to drink, but it made for a great bread). I think the subtle peach flavor came through very nicely, and I used a little extra honey which complemented the other flavors well, too.

The bread was so easy and used such simple recipes, and best of all, it was totally delicious. It baked up perfectly in about 52 minutes at 350 degrees. So happy with our new oven! Thanks, parents.

On an unrelated but exciting note, only 6,000 words to go as November and NaNo come to a close...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

This post is a little late, but only because I was lucky enough to spend yesterday, Thanksgiving, with my wonderful family, eating way too much and sharing many laughs and time together. I have so much to give thanks for, but one of the things I was most thankful for this year was that I was able to come home and enjoy all of my great Thanksgiving traditions. I made pies with my grandma and cousin on Wednesday, spent time with old friends on Wednesday night, had a Thanksgiving dinner made only of side dishes (my favorite) and a night of board games with my family, and did a little Black Friday shopping with my mom this morning.

This year it was just a small group at my grandma's--just she, my grandpa, and my immediate family--so we made fewer pies: two pumpkin and one apple.

Our pumpkin pies turned out delicious, as usual. Much like how I cannot seem to find a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that I prefer over the Nestle Tollhouse recipe, I'll also swear by the classic Libby's pumpkin pie recipe. It's super easy, and it's always creamy and fluffy and delicious (completely covered in whipped cream, of course).

We also made this apple pie, with a beautiful lattice top. I love lattice tops--they're so simple to make, but they look gorgeous.

And with a batch of homemade dough (that was a little unmanageable, so we opted not to use for any of our pies), Mackenzie and I were left to our own devices. I made these little turkey tarts with a raspberry cream cheese filling.

Gobble, gobble (and boy, did we)! I hope everyone had as wonderful a Thanksgiving as I did.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Picture Books!

As promised, NaNoWriMo has taken over my life. But we've hit a really good rhythm together, and dare I say I think it just might stick--till November 30, that is.

This past weekend, I had a perfect night at home filled with take out Mexican food, time spent with my family (even if they did fall asleep on the couch), college football (and an Irish win at that!), and four new picture books to read and enjoy.

The first one I read was Maurice Sendak's Bumble-Ardy, which I've been eager to get my hands on for a while now and hadn't made it to the bookstore yet since the one nearest to me at home closed (RIP Borders). When I finally did, it delivered Sendak's usually odd and wonderful combination of words and illustrations.

In this book, however, I didn't find quite the usual charm that I have found in Sendak's other books. For me, some chemistry was missing slightly, or something was slightly off. Nevertheless, I enjoyed some of the illustrations and still found several of the playful rhymes and somewhat dark storyline unique and interesting.

These next two books turned out to be the clear winners for my taste of the four picture books I selected for the weekend. This one, Grandpa Green was so unique and heartfelt that I read it three times in a row. Told from a grandson's perspective, the story tells about the life of Grandpa Green and how he keeps a garden of topiaries that tell the story of his memories--with grandfather and grandson moving within a garden of topiaries throughout the book! So. Cute.


A Sick Day for Amos McGee was another immediate classic for me--not altogether surprising for a Caldecott medal winner. The whimsical tale of Amos McGee, an old man who works at a zoo reading to owls and racing tortoises and how he spends his sick day made me wish I lived in Amos's world. Or rather, that I was Amos.

This is a wonderful, classic story with beautiful illustrations that I would honestly love to have framed and hanging in my home.

This last one was mostly for fun, but I just love Marcel the Shell so much that I couldn't resist. This book was such a cute supplement to the beloved YouTube video about the tiny shell, and all of the new additions followed perfectly with the adorably funny and slightly weird tone of the shell.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vanilla Bean Cake

Next time, I think I'll let my mom bake me a birthday cake instead of requesting to try out a "fancy" ingredient instead. Don't get me wrong, this vanilla bean paste made this cake taste phenomenal. The frosting too. It just wasn't my day for baking or decorating.

You, you simple, delicious, only slightly lopsided cake you. You are what I was aiming for all along.


Looks easy enough right? Hahaha. If you know me, you might know that when I bake in a bad mood, I occasionally get grumpier. (Really, only occasionally! Usually it works to cheer me up!) Unfortunately, as I type this with two pretty badly burned fingers, I have to admit that as I baked this, I wasn't at my best--and probably partially because of that, this wasn't my best baking experience. How did I burn my fingers you might ask? Oh, melting chocolate for the cake balls. What cake balls? Good question. The ones I made out of a layer of this cake that completely stuck to the pan, breaking apart to a completely unusable consistency. Sure, the cake balls are tasty, but these ones weren't cute...or intentional. It just wasn't going my way tonight. The (next) second and third layers of the cake that you see here also broke apart, but I managed to salvage them, and after some [very] careful frosting, I think achieved a relatively smooth texture with the buttercream.

I have had this recipe a long time now, and I've been dying to try it out, but I don't usually buy things like the aforementioned $11 vanilla bean paste. I wasn't really up for an extensive meringue-frosting-making sesh this evening, so I made my version with an easy vanilla bean cappuccino buttercream. I mixed together my usual buttercream but with an added tablespoon of the vanilla paste, a dash of cinnamon, and soem instant cappuccino mix. Yummy.

Sorry for the shorter post, but as you may have guessed, this little project exhausted me nearly beyond blogging.

Friday, November 4, 2011

NaNoWriMo

Ah yes, my new boyfriend. You may have heard of him. If not, this definitely fits under "pages," so I think I shall describe him a bit here. It took me a long time to work up the courage to tell you all about him, but then, isn't that the way with new relationships? I needed to make sure I was fully committed before I came clean, because if you like him, you might get too attached before I get attached, or I might get too attached before I'm sure he even wants me...you know how it goes.

For those of you who don't know, I have taken up an affair for the month of November with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, through which I will be [hopefully] writing a 50,000 word novel. The concept, as I understand it, is quantity over quality. A sort of word-vomit approach to novel writing (sounds romantic, right?), by which the goal is to try to simply get 50,000 different words on paper by midnight on November 30, having not concretely started in any way until the morning of November 1. A novel approach (baha. bahaha.), but for me, I think, the right one. I am sick of looking at that line at the top of my bucket list that reads "write a novel," and thinking "yes, one day, I will do that." So I have decided to let NaNo sweep me off my feet.

So far, my new boyfriend and I are getting along swimmingly. We'll see how long he holds up with me in the long run, when it's no longer about dinner dates (getting acquainted over chinese food on Wednesday evening) and fresh mornings (like our wonderful 1800 word rendezvous early yesterday), but has turned into me struggling to keep my eyes open as we make time for one another late at night, as, let's face it, it unfortunately always does. It's not that I don't care NaNo, it's just that sleep apnea runs in my family and, well, your demanding word count can sometimes be a lot to take. I like you more and more each day, but that's despite your demanding deadlines, not because of them.

I know, I know, if you're reading this, you're likely dying to ask me: "What's the novel about?" Please don't. You can follow my affair on my NaNoWriMo profile, if you're interested in checking my word count or things like that, and I'd really appreciate you cheering me on as I attempt to make this work, but I'm warning you, we like to keep our relationship between the two of us, so don't expect excerpts or things of that nature. Like any relationship, you, my friends, will probably only hear the bad parts and rarely the good. Either way, I thought I should be clear about the reason for my new relationship glow or the mood swings and lack of want of baking or reading (or increased desire for, that's yet to be seen) I may be exhibiting over the next month.

Here's to day four, a great 6,601 word start, and an amazing 43,399 to come. Everyone, meet NaNo. I think I'm in love.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tennis Cupcakes

First of all, a big congratulations to my youngest (but not so little anymore) brother, Colin, for turning into such a great tennis player, making it to states, and for a whole list of other senior year festivities that could take up this whole post. I'm so proud! Tonight's the high school tennis banquet, and my mom asked if I could make a dessert for her to take. Of course I pitched this huge fit about how I hate to bake and I've got absolutely no free time...HA. Enjoy.

I made these darling little tennis themed cupcakes in Trenton High School colors with my favorite chocolate cake recipe and a thick buttercream frosting.


Although I don't make chocolate cake very often, in this case I thought it would look nice with the other colors I was planning to use and would also be a good flavor for a dish to pass. Whenever I do make chocolate cake, I swear by this recipe:

Ingredients:
2 2/3 cup flour
1 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (I rarely have buttermilk on hand, but luckily it's got a very simple substitute. Just add one tablespoon of vinegar to just under a cup of regular milk--we usually have skim--and stir. Let it sit for about ten minutes and poof! Buttermilk substitute.)
1 1/4 cup of brewed coffee, cooled
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 sticks of butter (I almost always use salted butter, but if you know me at all you know that things rarely taste too salty for me. That being said, no one has ever complained about it altering the taste of my cake too much either, but you could definitely use unsalted or skip the table salt.)
2 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tsp vanila extract
2 eggs

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350. in a large bowl, add the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Sift to combined. Add the buttermilk, coffee, oil, and butter and mix until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and sugar and cream until well combined, then add the eggs one at a time. Line cupcake tin as usual, and fill standard cupcake papers 2/3 of the way full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20-25 minutes.

*Note: I considered doubling this recipe, forgetting that it makes so. many. cupcakes. I got 32 full-sized cupcakes out of this recipe, and I didn't skimp on the last few.


For the frosting, I made a thick buttercream that I sort of made up as I went along today, but it looked something like this:

2 sticks softened butter (again, I used salted)
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk

Cream together till it's light and fluffy and the consistency you prefer.


The tennis balls were super easy--I just bought green melting chocolate discs from the cake store I'm head over heels for. Then I left some of my frosting food coloring-less and painted on the tiny lines. So cute.

Did I mention how awesome Colin is? Good luck giving your speech, bud. :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Crumb Cake

I've been away from New Jersey for less than three days and already I'm bringing bits of it here. Ask either of my brothers or my parents what the one food is that we associate with Grandma McGauley's house and it's not going to be eggs (funny story), Chinese food, or lamb (another funny story): it's most definitely crumb cake. We get it from B&W Bakery in Hackensack, and while it is pretty tasty, to me the best part is that it just tastes like Grandma's house.


When my uncle and I came out for the ND v. MSU game, we brought a couple of cakes with us for my family for breakfast, and my dad was pretty excited. I decided since I haven't made it to Hackensack recently, I'd try to see if I could come up with a similar homemade version for him this time. I'd found a recipe here that looked almost right, but my uncle and I agreed that it didn't have nearly enough crumb (I know, right. Look at that picture and you'll start to understand how crumbly and delicious B&W does it). In my verison, I skipped the almond extract (only because I didn't have it, but I don't feel like it's missing anything) and doubled the crumb. That's right.

Oh, the crumbly delicious goodness of this cake. It's a little more moist than B&W's, and the crumbs are a little less firm, but overall I think it was a pretty delicious substitute for when we just can't make the nine hour drive to NJ (and can't convince Uncle Tommy to ship us one. Hey, it's been done).

It'll never be quite the same as breakfast at Grandma's, but it tastes like home.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thanks, Gracias, Merci, Danke...

Sometimes (okay, often) when people do huge favors for me (like driving out of their way early in the morning to come pick me up), I repay them in cupcakes, by request of course. These are those cupcakes, and they double as farewell and thank you cupcakes for my NJ family's generosity in letting me stay with them for so long. They should also function as a virtual thanks to all those other people who have helped me in the past couple of months by giving me a place to stay, food, a hot shower, or transportation to and from train stations and bus stops.

I use recipes from all over the place--those I find on the internet mainly, but also from a variety of cookbooks or friends and family. This time, though, when I set out to make these red velvet cupcakes, Bakerella was the first blog to pop into my mind, and I went with that recipe. These cupcakes were incredible.




I realized at the last minute that I was out of eggs, but I substituted a quarter of a cup of applesauce for each egg. I've substituted applesauce for oil many times in the past, but never eggs, and I was a little nervous. But as you can see, these little darlings still rose up beautifully and had a great texture.


This rich, delicious cream cheese frosting was the perfect literal icing on the cake of an already amazing recipe. It's a pretty standard recipe, but this time I used fat free cream cheese (risky, I know), and I don't know, somehow it turned out just incredible.





Thank you for reading, if for nothing else :)

Chickpea Cookies

Just wanted to follow up that the delicious "cookie dough" can also function as real cookie dough with a few minor changes. These gooey, messy bars were almost as addicting as the big bowl of dough.

Again, I found this recipe here. Mine were perhaps just a tiny bit gooier because the blender I used was not the best, so I added just a touch of milk to get it moving.

Friday, October 14, 2011

#fridayreads

In case I haven't made this well enough known in the past, here are a few of my favorite things to find in a YA novel:

• Realistic, relatable characters. For me, this require a sort of depth that turns underdeveloped characters on a page to a those that feel more like real people who just happened to find their way into an exciting story of some sort. Where I can imagine running into them in the park or in a restaurant and where I can anticipate their actions.
• This feeling of knowing the characters like they are old friends means that, in some ways, the author can’t get away with just anything. He or she has to make me believe that each plot point fits with things these characters would “really” do or ways they would “really” act. I know my little brother wouldn’t be caught dead wearing ballet shoes and performing on stage (unless it’s the result of some crazy dare) just as well as I know that Hermione would never abandon Harry just because she got sick of risking her life or something silly like that. Once you give me realistic characters, you’ve only won half the battle.
• That being said, I want my characters overcoming real obstacles. They don’t have to be things I’ve been up against. I’ve been incredibly blessed with parents who are not abusive, friends who are relatively emotionally stable, and in a whole slew of other wonderful ways in while many of my most beloved YA characters haven’t been nearly so lucky. But I love that YA authors take on controversial issues, because it gave (okay, gives) me and other kids stories that we can either relate to or learn from, or both. Stories that we know are happening but we don’t know how to talk about. So we read about them, and hopefully become that much more comfortable with discussing them.
• Real dialogue. See “real characters” point above. Don’t you dare try to get away with:
“Oh dear,” Maria sighed. “It has begun to rain. I suppose we shall have to play indoors now.”
Really? Was Maria quite that proper? I doubt it. If you’re going to write a YA novel, dig deep people. Get in touch with how you conversed as a kid. That being said, probably none of this either:
“Yo ma,” I said, pushing off my sweet new kicks. “Imma chill with Pat later, aight?”
Really. No need to urbandictionary every last line, I promise. We’ll give you a little leeway because we know you’re not actually seventeen anymore.

And many more. But if you can cover those, that's a great start.

On Tuesday, Andrew Smith's new YA novel Stick came out, and I was lucky enough to be given a copy. Never fear, Andrew, you've survived the above checklist.


Stark "Stick" McClellan, the thirteen-year-old narrator of this bold novel, tells his coming of age tale boldly with all the confidence and charm that he constantly feels he is lacking in his physical demeanor. Covering standard issues of puberty from body issues to sex and more "controversial" YA topics like child abuse, rape, and homosexuality, Andrew Smith shies away from nothing. I found myself identifying with Stick much more than I expected for a kid with whom (on the surface at least) I have very little in common, and I found the plot not only thrilling but also surprisingly believable given its dramatic content. Check and check--way to go, Stick!

My only irritation with this novel was something that I imagine many might consider to be its biggest strength. Stick was born with one ear (he learns at the end of the novel that he has a condition called anotia), rendering him ever-so-slightly hard of hearing. To reflect this, the author formats the text differently, especially surrounding dialogue
so that at times                  rather than appearing normally,
                  the text appears this way on the page.
I certainly                  see the reasoning for this within the novel.
It reminds the reader                  constantly of Stick's                  condition,
so that                  like him, we are unable to forget that he is different.
It also occasionally allows us
to see the way                   Stick compartmentalizes his many,
                  sometimes conflicting thoughts.
Most obviously, though, the format attempts to mimik the way Stick would hear, which is where my frustration comes in. First, this format of text is obviously somewhat distracting to read (although with such a redeeming plot and developed characters, this certainly didn't ruin the book for me). My problem is that, just as I have done above, the author does not delete any words; instead, he simply adds spaces. While I see the problem with deleting words, as it would add immense confusion to the reader, I found it really distracting; I felt like because the words were all completely maintained, this was not a true representation of how Stick would hear. What I might have preferred was if the text had been made smaller to reflect the sort of ins and outs of sounds that I imagine Stick would hear. Nonetheless, I should say that I appreciated the author's intent to reflecting Stick's unique sense of sound. I highly recommend those of any age to pick up this novel for a unique read. Although in the past, Andrew Smith has written mostly fantasy, I hope to see more of this variety from him in the future.

I was also given this adorable book by Taye Diggs, Chocolate Me, a precious story about a young boy struggling to feel comfortable with himself among his peers.


With big, cute, and colorful illustrations and a simple but meaningful plot, I thoroughly enjoyed flipping through this picture book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Healthy Treats

Today I went on another baking spree of some of the recipes I've had saved up for a while. Unlike last time, though, this one was much less sinful (and still tasted really delicious!).

First on the list was this chocolate chip "cookie dough." Here's a disclaimer, before I begin: I love chocolate chip cookie dough, and if given the opportunity I will eat it until my stomach hurts. This, my friends, is a delicious alternative, but it can't fool me. Now I suggest you read further, nevertheless, but I wanted to make clear what we're talking about here.

This giant bowl of goodness is actually made from chickpeas, perfect for vegetarian me, always looking for delicious ways to get a little extra boost of protein. It has so few ingredients that the only thing you might not have lying around the house is the chickpeas. It was great with a spoon, my preferred method of eating regular cookie dough, but it was to die for spread across a honey graham cracker. I'd definitely make this again, and you'll hear no complaints from me that I went ahead and made a double batch which is now sitting happily in the fridge, waiting for my next sweet tooth to strike.


When my cousins came home from school today wanting a snack, I had them try this without disclosing my healthy secret ingredient. The result: ignorantly blissful children eating "cookie dough" on graham crackers.

This next recipe is incredible for its calorie count alone--50 calories a slice! (Another disclaimer here: that's a relatively small slice. But for 50 calories, you could eat four and still beat one slice of the Starbucks pumpkin loaf. Plus, their's doesn't have an amazing cream cheese filling.)


Any excuse to borrow my family's Kitchen Aid mixer, I whipped it out and set to work on this recipe. Part of the secret of this very low calorie loaf is a cup-for-cup artificial sweetener, which I don't usually bake with. Today, I decided to give it a shot, and substituted Ideal no calorie sweetener for every ounce of sugar in this recipe (including in the cream cheese portion). I was a little nervous, but I don't taste a noticeable difference.


I will definitely be making this bread again. It satisfies my craving for a fall food without making me feel like I'm gaining six hundred pounds, and it's sweet enough to be a nice dessert in the evening with a cup of coffee or tea. In fact, I might make a few more loaves tomorrow to throw in the freezer for the rest of the season.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Le Cirque des Rêves

This book has been getting conflicting reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, and other places where reader reviews are featured. It seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book, the kind of book where one side can't understand the other's stand on it. I begin with that because this is where I take a stand for the "five star" review side of the story. Even as I write this, I am acutely aware that I am not doing this magical book any sort of justice, nor can I. But I felt that I owed The Night Circus something.


From the first page, I knew this book was something special, and now I know it will stick with me. Yesterday, I had a conversation about A Wrinkle in Time, a classic that celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2012. The person I spoke with suggested that so many list Madeline L'Engle's tale as a childhood favorite for lack of other titles coming to mind. I argue that perhaps L'Engle simply created a world that sticks with us. Like Narnia or Hogwarts, that world is not easily forgotten because we felt transported as we turned the pages, so much so that upon closing the book that world became a memory somehow separate from the memory of the reading experience. We feel as if we lived within it. That is the world Erin Morgenstern has created in his Le Cirque des Rêves. A beautiful world of black and white, of snow and rain and piles of books, and a world fit for any person--child or adult--who dares to imagine that reality does not always look realistic.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser


Admittedly, I'd never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in its entirety before yesterday. I'm a good English major: I've read excerpts of it many times, I've written a poem based on it, I've seen the animated film and the new, trippy Tim Burton version. As I knew I would, I loved the novel when I finally entered Lewis Carroll's amazing dreamworld. There's not much more I can say about a classic like this, without doing some sort of in-depth analysis (and there's no time for that right now, I've got a Notre Dame game to watch). But I will post a few of my favorite quotes, because it's Alice in Wonderland, and there are just so many good ones.

"For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible."



“It was much pleasanter at home," thought poor Alice, "when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down the rabbit-hole--and yet--and yet--...”



"Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after‑time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child‑life, and the happy summer days."

Friday, October 7, 2011

[It's Finally] Fall Recipes

Today was an epic day of fall running, fall reading, fall baking and experimenting. It was fun, and it was delicious.

For some reason, yesterday I decided that I really wanted to try to make almond butter, so I decided to start with that this morning. I've had a bag of almonds in my room that I've been slowly eating away at, but it was about time do do something else with the raw ones. I looked up a recipe and found out that it was supposed to be incredibly easy--just add a pinch of salt and food process the hell out of those nuts. It went pretty well for a while.


But eventually, I couldn't get past that nutty, grainy texture. The oils that were supposed to be coming from the almonds to make it more of a paste just weren't working for me. I had read that the heat of the food processor was part of what helped the oils emerge, so I put the nutty mixture on the stove for a couple of minutes. Annnnd that didn't help. So I added just a little water and threw the mixture in the blender. That worked pretty well. When it got down to a texture I was more comfortable with, I added a few more flavors: some cocoa powder, a packet of Splenda, and about a teaspoon of vanilla extract. I won't be swapping my peanut butter for this spread any time soon, but I'll definitely be trying again soon as well to achieve a version closer to what I was hoping for.


The next thing I made turned out a little better. Actually, the adjective I should probably use to describe these cookies is "heavenly." These were what I found when I was browsing for the "best pumpkin cookie recipe" online yesterday. I am not even that much of a cookie person, but my oh my did these deliver. Wowow. Try this very easy recipe, and you will not be disappointed.


This brown sugar glaze went really nicely with the cookies. While a lot of times powdered sugar based glazes get much too sweet for me, the brown sugar really came through in this one, leaving a really nice caramel flavor that went perfectly with the pumpkin cookies.


Some of the reviewers on the recipe that I used for this commented that the glaze made the cookies too sweet. My cookies were slightly salty, almost a pumpkin pie taste, so I loved the way the sweet glaze complemented them.


The thing I might love most about baking with pumpkin is that I rarely use the whole can. For some reason, it comes in these huge cans, but don't get me wrong--I'm not complaining. Now, even after this good sized batch of cookies, I've still got half of the pumpkin left in the fridge, just daring me to come up with something more delicious to make this weekend. Perhaps something to go with this amazing caramel I experimented with (although I doubt this batch will last that long).


I found this idea on Pinterest, one of my newest obsessions. Turns out, all you have to do is put a can of condensed milk in a pan and cover it with water. Boil it for three to four hours (making sure that the water remains three or four inches above the can), and when you take it out and let it cool...yum.


This was absolutely delicious with the sliced apples, but I'd be shocked if that was the best idea I came up with on how to use this caramel.

Happy fall!

Crafting Realistic Characters

It's been a while since I've updated. I've been on a few informational interviews in the city, and I took a lovely weekend mini-vacation to Philadelphia to see two loves of my life: Katie Corr and Matt Nathanson. Oh, and Champ.

Before taking off on those adventures, though, I read a new YA novel from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's and author Han Nolan, Pregnant Pause. Broke and knowing that whichever YA novel I chose would likely not be free of cost on my Kindle, I was careful in my choice. Pregnant Pause appealed to me because reviewers raved about the very realistic qualities of the characters and the plot. Although we've seen this story a number of times--Elly gets pregnant at 16 and has to figure out how to handle it--Nolan did capture it in a slightly more realistic way.

Another interesting spin of this novel was the pregnancy period it covered. While many plots revolving around teen pregnancy begin with conception, Elly is pregnant from the first page of the novel. Furthermore, many shy away from details of the pregnancy itself, skipping to the birth or the moments after. 90% or so of Nolan's novel focused on the pregnancy itself, how Elly handles herself and her emotions, and her decision-making process.

For the most part, I agree with other reviewers of the novel in the realism it presents in relation to other YA novels on the subject. This was not your average "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because her family finally comes around and helps her" story, or even a "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because a nice family adopts the baby and said girl can now attend the college of her dreams" story. That being said, I struggled a little bit with certain emotions that seemed to be Nolan's "teenager go-tos" and seemed slightly insincere. The ending also gave me pause (no pun intended, I promise. baha. bahaha).


When I finished Pregnant Pause, I was finally ready to go back to Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone after my week-long hiatus. Finally it seems that I can appreciate heavy subject matter again (in non-YA form)! In a word--YAY!

During several of my long commutes last week as well as train rides to and from Philly, I was honored to have Cutting for Stone to keep me company. What was, at times, a very slow-moving plot heavy with detailed medical procedures and long military descriptions turned out to be a beautiful story full of characters for whom I became incredibly sympathetic.

Now, bear with me for a moment while I compare characters from a "courageous" YA novel to an epic work of literary fiction:

While reading Pregnant Pause, I was on the lookout for real characters. That's what I do while I read any YA novel. I want to make sure that whatever character I'm reading, whatever problem they might be dealing with or mental state they might be in, is real. I truly believe that what young adults are looking for in their reading material is something they can relate to in some way, whether it be as a mirror for something they are already dealing with in their own lives, as a cautionary tale, or as a learning tool for those things they might not feel comfortable discussing aloud. No matter their reason for reading, if the characters aren't real, if they don't act the way a young adult really, truly might if he or she were a thinking, breathing, feeling young human...well, that entire illusion and all the lessons that go along with it are completely shattered. In Pregnant Pause, Nolan kept it pretty real, with a few exceptions (and I always keep in mind that being past the actual YA age, I may just be too critical). But now (forgive me for my YA mini-rant), for my point: Verghase's characters were effortlessly real. Not a single one of the characters in Cutting for Stone, were enough like me for me to really relate at first. Their situations, whether in the medical world, in Ethiopia, or even in New York, were far removed from my own. But these characters were so real, so sympathetic, and so full of life and emotion that I cried with them at their every loss. Their story sat with me for days after I finished the last page. These are the characters I'm looking for in every piece of fiction I read. For that matter, this is the kind of depth of character that some non-fiction pieces I've read have had trouble achieving. I suppose my point here is how important that depth is to me as a reader. But furthermore, as important as I find that truth of character in all fiction, I find it perhaps harder to achieve in YA fiction--and sadly perhaps more important.


Thanks for sticking with me for a longer-than-usual literature musing on this lovely fall morning. Check back later for some delicious fall treats.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

We Disappear

During senior week last year on our epic walk down Broadway in Chicago, my roommates and I discovered the cute little Unabridged Bookstore amongst our cupcake and hat-finding adventure.


I picked up a very very discounted copy of We Disappear by Scott Heim, with high hopes for all the "fun reading" I would surely soon be able to get to as the school year was ending. Baha, bahaha. I must have forgotten that I'd soon be receiving a pile of reading for the DPI program in the mail. Nevertheless, I kept it on the top of my pile and promised to get to it eventually.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "psychological thriller;" calling it "psychologically disturbing" would be accurate. I thought this book was interesting and pretty unique. I think lately there's been an accidental theme of finding oneself working across my reading choices, perhaps as a reflection of the theme most present in my life at the moment. I appreciated the way that this book took that theme to a very literal place and demonstrated how all of the characters struggled both inwardly and sometimes outwardly to find themselves in a world that seemed to often be changing all too quickly or to be getting away from them. Worth a read.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rainy Day Baking

This morning it's been raining pretty much nonstop, and it's supposed to rain all weekend. So in between sending emails about jobs and things of that nature, I decided it would be a good day to bake something yummy and comforting.


I decided to make these delicious french toast cupcakes that I adapted from a recipe I found here.

My favorite part of this recipe is that on top of the cupcake itself (underneath the frosting), there's this delicious french toast crust, made of an egg, milk, and cinnamon mixture, which really gives it that crusty french toast texture. For my version, I decided to top them with a vanilla buttercream that just a touch of cinnamon. Then I topped them with another little sprinkle of cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup. Mmm...breakfast for dessert. :)

Madness & Other Musings

I didn't really expect this to be such a quick read. But then again, I should really learn from my experiences and start to overpack books rather than underpacking them "to save space"...it sucks to get caught bookless on a two hour commute.

The Bell Jar shocked me in how much I was able to relate to it, which as anyone who has read my thesis might have realized, I do perhaps too often with books about madwomen. Unlike many of the "mad" women who found their way into my thesis, however, Esther's problems seemed much closer to those things that I've been dealing with on a daily basis. What am I doing with my life? Furthermore, is that what I really want to or should be doing? Am I making sure to include the right people along the way? Was that decision that I just made (whether it's what type of coffee I just purchased, how I chose to spend my weekend, or that job I applied for) really the right choice? I'm really fascinated by the way these seemingly minor decisions an stand to drive a person crazy if they pile up too high.

I think, too, that another part of The Bell Jar I found really interesting was the way that Esther seemed to fall deeper and deeper into madness as the people around her became more accusatory. It begs the question that I came to again and again in my thesis: How relative is "madness," and how can we deem someone "mad" just based on our own ideas of sanity and "normal"?


"I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Just come on home"

To both my homes! :) Heading back to both Trenton and ND for the weekend, and I couldn't be more excited. I'll get to see the ND/MSU game and my family all in one weekend (plus I'll get to switch my clothing collection for the coming weeks of job hunting--particularly awesome since it's FALL all of a sudden).

In the spirit of fall, tailgating, and seeing my beloved Snip Nose again, I made some delicious treats for game day tomorrow.


My pinterest addiction has been a little out of control lately, but it inspired me to make these amazing chocolate-covered strawberries, decorated with white chocolate to look like little footballs! On top of that, though, I wanted to do something really amazing (and Snip Nose inspired, as I said). So, not only are these chocolate covered, they're also cheesecake stuffed, with a graham cracker crumb topping holding it all together. Oh, goodness.


Goooooo Irish! Beeeeeat Spartans!