Thursday, February 21, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week: I'm Just Here for More Food

Alton Brown's cookbooks are becoming some of my favorites in my collection. Though the recipes run to the labor-intensive, they give such reliably good results. This week's recipe, from I'm Just Here for More Food, is my favorite to date.

Pound Cake

The Creamed:
- 8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 397 g/14 oz/ 2 c. sugar

The Eggs:
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1 tsp vanilla extract

The Dry Goods:
- 411 g/14.5 oz/3 c. all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt

The Liquid:
- 227 g/8 oz/1 c. buttermilk

You'll note that the breakdown and listing of ingredients above is non-standard. Brown strongly advises measuring by weight rather than volume, though he includes the standard measures for those who've yet to invest in a good digital kitchen scale. (He lists the weights for the eggs, baking soda, vanilla, etc., but I decided to just include the usual measurements because, well, because that's how I made it. I weighed my sugar, flour, and buttermilk, though.)

He also divides the recipes in this book, which focuses on baking, by mixing method. This one was in the Creaming Method section, and since the recipe just tells you to follow it, I'll include it here for anyone who wants to try it out.

The Creaming Method:

1. Scale or measure all ingredients. Fats should be pliable but solid (no sign of melting). If kitchen temp is over 70 F, chill the mixing bowl.

2. Combine all Dry Goods (except sugar) by pulsing in food processor.

3. In a small bowl, beat eggs together, along with any extracts.

4. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, on medium speed:

  • Mix the fat(s) alone for a minute to spread them around the bowl.
  • Add sugar(s) slowly and beat until mixture lightens noticeably in texture and increases slightly in volume.

5. Reduce the speed to "stir" and add the eggs very slowly, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

6. Work in the Dry Goods in three installments alternating with any additional liquids, such as milk. Always start with the dry ingredients and finish with the wet for a smoother batter.

7. Stir in any bits and/or pieces (chocolate chips, nuts, etc.).

8. Bake according to the recipe's instructions.

And here are the specific instructions for this week's recipe:

Place an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 F.

Prep a tube or Bundt pan (i.e. spray with Baker's Joy) and set aside.

Assemble the batter via the Creaming Method, alternating additions of the Dry Goods with the Liquid.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and the internal temperature hits 212 F.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool thoroughly. Tightly wrapped at room temp, the cake will keep for 1 week.

This is the most delicious cake I've ever baked in my life, and probably tied with the time I made bourbon chocolate chip pecan pie for tastiest dessert I've produced. It's simple but perfect--buttery, moist, and just sweet enough.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - Miss Jacobson's Journey

February's theme for the 2013 TBR Challenge was Recommended Read, but I only had one book that qualified--generally, if a friend I trust recommends a book, I read it quickly rather than letting it gather virtual dust on my Kindle. I tried the book (which shall remain nameless, given the delicacy of giving negative reviews when I'm an author myself), but the author's voice didn't work for me, and two chapters in I wanted to strangle both the hero and heroine.

Since I'm a firm believer that life is too short to read books that don't work for you, I gave up and went to my LONG list of possibilities for April's New-to-You Author Category. I selected Miss Jacobson's Journey, by Carola Dunn.

It's a traditional Regency, with a PG, kisses-only sensuality rating, but with a decidedly non-traditional heroine and setting. The heroine, Miriam Jacobson, is an English Jew who's been living on the Continent with her doctor uncle for nine years after having become estranged from the rest of her family by rudely rejecting the suitor the matchmaker brought for her. Now she wants to go home, but at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, journeying from France to England isn't a simple task. She and her maid/duenna are recruited by Jakob Rothschild to help two men smuggle gold to Wellington in Spain, with the promise of help getting home once she completes her mission. Naturally, one of the men in her party is the suitor she rejected all those years ago, and he's grown and matured in the intervening years into a far more attractive man than she ever would've dreamed possible...

From the time I started reading traditional Regencies in high school, I've always loved any non-traditional setting in the subgenre. (Not that I don't love a nice country house party or London Season tale, too. I just crave variety.) Following the drum in the Peninsular War? I'm there. Congress of Vienna? Fascinating. Canada? More, please. Brussels just before Waterloo? Wonderful! America, before, during, or after the War of 1812? Why not? India? Yes, though I've seen some that make me wince with cultural stereotypes.

So this book had me halfway to hooked from the beginning because of the setting, and the story delivered on its promise. I enjoyed the characters, the sweet romance worked beautifully for me, and I will definitely be buying more of Dunn's backlist.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 16-18

16) The Accidental City, by Lawrence Powell.

This was research for one of my works-in-progress, which isn't yet contracted but I hope will be a first half of 2014 release. My book starts in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans, and my heroine is a fourth-generation native of the city, so this book on New Orleans' first century of existence was extremely useful research and reasonably interesting to boot. If nothing else, I learned a lot more about French and Spanish 18th century imperial concerns than I ever knew before, not to mention some ripple effects of events I already knew well--e.g. a big part of the French population of New Orleans originated not from the original 18th century settlement, but from early 19th century refugees from the Haitian Revolution. They'd gone to Cuba first and were welcome there until Napoleon invaded Spain and set his brother on the throne, at which point French nationals were persona non grata in Spanish colonies, so they fled to the culturally familiar but by then American-held refuge of New Orleans.

17) The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker

An unusual book, sort of a braided novel set in the present (well, really around 2002, when the book was published), in the spring of 1944, and 17,000 years ago. It opens with a 30-something British officer, the son of a WWII veteran, turning up in an art auction house with a small rock painting of a bull he found among his late father's effects. The ancient art specialist recognizes it as being of the style and on the same type of stone as the Lascaux cave paintings, but no known cave is missing such a painting. As the modern characters investigate the mystery, we go back in time to see how the bull was painted and how it came to be in the possession of a British war hero.

I enjoyed it, but the interwoven story lines had the strange effect of slowing my reading by making it easier to put the book down between chapters, somehow. Though at the 2/3 point I did skip forward just to see how the prehistoric plot line would come out (semi-spoiler: not as tragically as I feared, but not happily enough to please my romantic side, either), then going back to catch up the two more modern threads.

18) The British at the Gates, by Robin Reilly.

More research for my work-in-progress, a detailed study of the New Orleans campaign of the War of 1812 and a solid general overview of the war as a whole. I liked this book because it seemed more sober and grounded in reality than most sources I've read on the battle--mostly they run to very pro-American, very eager to lionize Andrew Jackson as a human being as well as a general (which, American that I am, I still tend to gag on because of his role in Indian removal and the Trail of Tears), and to portraying the British as a bunch of bumbling incompetent idiots. (Which doesn't make much sense, because then where would the glory be in defeating them?)

This book's more measured approach left me far more willing to acknowledge that Jackson managed the defense of the city brilliantly. As for the British...well, the soldiers didn't lack for courage, and there are a few times where with 20-20 hindsight, one can imagine them winning. But what it comes down to is there are only so many brilliant commanders around at any given time, and I'd say Britain and America had one apiece in 1815. America's was in New Orleans, while Britain's, fortunately, was right where he needed to be in Europe, since Waterloo was a hell of a lot more important for Britain to win.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Valentine's Day excerpt from A Dream Defiant

To celebrate Valentine's Day, I'm posting a second excerpt from my July 2013 interracial historical romance novella, A Dream Defiant. (The first excerpt is here, on my website.)

Today I'm giving you the proposal scene--only it's the heroine, Rose, proposing to the hero, because the previous night she was attacked by a soldier who'd heard a rumor that she was hiding a treasure. (Which she is. The story takes place in Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, when the British army plundered the French baggage train, which contained not only the army's equipment and payroll, but assorted treasures either belonging to Joseph Bonaparte and his court or looted by them from Madrid. Rose's first husband died just after obtaining a spectacular ruby necklace, which he entrusted to the hero, Elijah, to give to her.)

Rose knows her only protection is a husband she can trust, and she can think of no one better than Elijah, who's one of her dearest friends AND is physically imposing enough to scare or fight off anyone who'd harm her. (He's 6'4", so he'd still be imposing in 2013. Among the common soldiers of the British army in 1813, who tended to come from the lowest, most malnourished end of society, he's almost a foot above average.) The only problem is, he knows very well she hadn't intended to remarry before the rumors about the rubies got out...

“What do you need?” he asked when she did not immediately speak. 
“I—” She bit her lip, closed her eyes and then opened them, wide and gray and imploring. “I don’t know the right way to say this but—will you marry me?” 
His heart pounded. If not for what she’d said last night, this would be a dream come true. But it wasn’t her dream, so he couldn’t let it be his. “Marry you?” His voice rose in disbelief. “But—I thought you didn’t want to marry anyone, at least not now.” 
“I didn’t, but—even with what Luisa did, people are going to keep coming after me, with these rumors of a treasure, and even if I left for home, I wouldn’t be safe. You’re almost the only one I trust.” Her words tumbled out in such haste Elijah couldn’t get a reply in edgewise. “I know it’s not right. You deserve better, a woman who loves you, but I—I do like you, ever so much, and I’d try to be a good wife to you. Luisa thinks my leg will be almost healed in a week, and—” 
He held up a hand. “Rose. Don’t worry. I’ll marry you.” She was right. She wasn’t safe now, and what else could he do but be her protector? He couldn’t fulfill his promise to Sam that he’d give the rubies to her, only to walk away and let them be her shackles instead of the price of her freedom. It might be a sad mockery of a marriage, but he cared too much for her to deny her what she needed. 
She blinked in astonishment. “You will?” 
“Yes. Don’t worry,” he hastened to assure her, “I know it’s not what you wanted. We can make—what would Lieutenant Farlow call it?—a marriage of convenience. Once the war is over and we’re back in England with that thing safely sold—” he flicked a glance at the spot on her leg where the necklace lay hidden, “—we’ll go our separate ways, and you can do as you like and marry someone you fancy better someday.” 
He’d meant to make her smile, but her face stayed solemn. “That’s not how marriages of convenience work. They’re as permanent as any other kind.” 
“For the quality, they are. But for us, if we go back to England, and you go to your village, present yourself as the widow you are and buy your inn, who’s to know, or care, if there’s more to the tale than that?” 
She cocked her head to one side, considering this. “Anyone in this regiment, for a start. Probably all the Light Division. You’re memorable, Elijah.” 
His mouth twisted. “I know. But that’s all the more reason for no one to be surprised if you walk away from me, once you have what you need.” 
“Is that what you want?” She stared at him, her eyes wide and anxious. 
Why did she look so baffled and sad, when he’d meant to ease her mind? She couldn’t possibly want a true marriage with anyone, especially not with him. “I want to do what it takes to keep you and Jake safe,” he said. “Because I promised Sam, and because you…you’re my friend. I can’t stand by and watch you be prey for men like Yonge.” 
She nodded. “I see. Very well. And—thank you, Elijah.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Coming July 29 - A Dream Defiant

My website was just updated to include more information on my July 2013 release, A Dream Defiant, including an excerpt. No cover to show off yet, but I'll get that up as soon as I have it!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - Chili Madness

As promised, this week I cooked from Chili Madness (Second Edition).

I settled on one of the simpler and less classic recipes in the book for two reasons: 1) Normally I do my random cookbook recipe on Saturday, when I have the most unscheduled time. But this week Mr. Fraser took me to Agrodolce, Maria Hines' new restaurant, on Saturday night, so I was cooking on Sunday when I'm a little busier. 2) Since Mr. Fraser is from Oklahoma and is as opinionated about chili as I am about barbecue (pork is the only proper meat, and I like a red sauce, but a thin, tangy one like from Dreamland rather than the cloyingly sweet ketchupy monstrosities that pass for sauce in most of the country--and we won't even TALK about the people who call a cookout with hamburgers and hot dogs "a barbecue"), I wanted something so far removed from his family's standard that it wouldn't make sense to compare them. Kinda like how I can appreciate a good South Carolina-style mustard sauce on pulled pork.

So I made...

Blue Heaven Chili

- 2 T. bacon drippings or butter (I used butter)
- 1 c. chopped onion
- 2 cloves garlic, micned
- 1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 3 c. rich chicken broth (i.e. 6 cups regular-strength broth boiled till it reduces by half)
- 4 to 6 fresh green chiles, parched, peeled, and coarsely chopped, or 1 c. canned or frozen chopped green chiles (I used canned)
- 1 medium russet potato, unpeeled, diced
- 1/2 t. salt, or to taste
- 1/2 c. crumbled blue cheese (blue, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, or Stilton) (I used Gorgonzola)

Melt the bacon drippings or butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and chicken and cook, stirring, until the chicken begins to brown, about 4 minutes.

Add the broth, green chiles, and potato to the pot. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes can be pierced with a fork, 30-40 minutes.

Taste the chili and adjust the seasonings as needed, adding salt to taste. Spoon the chili into individual bowls, and scatter the blue cheese over the top of each serving.

Not the most attractive dish ever, is it? And it tasted fairly meh, too. Maybe it would've been better with fresh chiles. As is, the Gorgonzola kind of overwhelmed the rest of the flavors. I do like the trick about reducing chicken broth by half to make it thicker and more flavorful, though.

Monday, February 4, 2013

2013 Reading - Books 13-15

I had a good reading weekend, adding three more books to my annual tally.

13) Miss Jacobson's Journey, by Carola Dunn. This was my February selection for my TBR challenge, so I'll be posting about it in more detail later in the month. Suffice it to say I liked it a lot and will be reading more by the author.

14) Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, by Jonathan Dudley.

A quick read--it only took me 3-4 hours--which surveys how the American evangelical church's beliefs about abortion, gay rights, environmentalism, and evolution developed. Dudley doesn't have the page count to go into any of these topics in detail, but he makes a convincing case that the views much of the church considers "the plain sense of Scripture," are recent innovations, and that rejection of evolution is particularly problematic because it's led so many evangelicals to distrust ANY science that's inconvenient for their worldview--such as the evidence for global warming or the innateness of sexual orientation. I wish I'd had this book years ago when I was wrestling with some of these very issues.

15) Book Which Shall Not Be Named, #3 - Let's just say that if every Rita judge likes this one as much as I did, it'll be a finalist. The author was new to me, but I'll be reading more of her work in the future.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Random Cookbook taking a week off

My random cookbook series is taking the week off. Between a shoulder pain flareup and Mr. Fraser's needing the kitchen to make kale chips for a Super Bowl party (they turned out quite tasty), there just wasn't a chance to spend time cooking this weekend.

Watch this space next week, when I'll be cooking from Chili Madness. Mr. Fraser, being Oklahoman and having decided Opinions about chili, will probably disapprove of whatever I produce, so maybe I'll deliberately pick one of the more East Coast, veggie-fied, city slicker recipes. Or I could try Cincinnati Chili...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 10-12

10) Book Which Shall Not Be Named, #2. My second Rita book, which I won't describe except to say I enjoyed it more than my first. 

11) Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines. 

My favorite read of the year to date, first in a fantasy series with a really clever concept for its magic--basically, books make magic by the collective belief of readers in the stories' worlds, and libriomancers can pull objects out of those books temporarily. This doesn't give the unlimited power you might think--among other things, too much magic use wrecks both the libriomancer and the book, and you can only pull out objects that would fit through an ordinary-sized physical copy of the book. E.g. if I were a libriomancer carrying a copy of a book from the Sharpe series, I could pull out Sharpe's sword or the telescope Wellington gave him, but a cannon wouldn't fit. The story and characters are as good as the concept, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the sequels.

12) A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans

I'm easily hooked by the type of memoir where someone spends a year trying to live a lifestyle that's foreign to them, cooks their way through a famous cookbook, or whatever. This one was both hilarious and unexpectedly moving. Evans comes from a background almost identical to my own--I'm ~10 years older, but we grew up within 40 or 50 miles of each other, and the biggest obvious difference between our good Alabama families is that mine roots for Auburn in college football while hers supports Alabama. (I was really disappointed that the month she was trying not to be contentious was October 2010 rather than November of that year, because she talked about her struggles during the South Carolina game rather than the epic Auburn comeback. And yes, I know Bama has since won two more national championships while Auburn has fallen apart. 2010 was still awesome.)

Anyway, Evans is also like me in having wrestled with the increasing conservatism of the evangelical church, though AFAIK she hasn't yet gone as far as I have in running away from it--I'm now Episcopalian, which I suspect has some of my Baptist ancestors spinning in their graves. So for this book she spends each month of a year trying to live out one of the biblical commands to women literally, both to show the absurdity of a hyper-literal approach and to find God in unexpected places. She also talks a lot about women's power and strength, in the Bible and through history to the present. I think what will stick with me most is her discussion of the Proverbs 31 woman, which I was taught to think of as the perfect homemaker--someone I hoped to become during my more conservative days and now rebel against. But Evans discovers that in the Jewish tradition, that text isn't used prescriptively, but as praise for whenever a woman shows courage, generosity, integrity, and like virtues. In Hebrew the words the King James Bible translates as "a virtuous woman" are "eshet chayil"--a woman of valor. I'll never be a Proverbs 31 homemaker, but on my best days I can be a woman of valor.