Saturday, August 24, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week: Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood

This week I cooked from the newest of my cookbooks, Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood. The second oldest of my brothers and his family live in Yearwood's hometown in Georgia, and my niece gave me an autographed copy of this cookbook when I visited the family after RWA.

When I drew this cookbook I gravitated to the dessert section, as is my habit with the Southern cookbooks in my collection. In my experience, aside from fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and barbecue, the sweet stuff is what my people do best. And since I'm always curious about quirky ingredient combinations, I decided to try...

Sweet and Saltines

- 35-45 saltine crackers (enough to cover a standard cookie sheet)
- 1 c. (2 sticks) butter
- 1 c. light brown sugar
- 8 oz. semisweet chocolate chips (about 1 1/3 c.)

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line cookie sheet with aluminum foil and the saltines.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour over the crackers, covering them evenly. Put in the oven and bake for 4-5 minutes or until just bubbly, watching carefully.

Remove from the oven and pour the chocolate chips over the crackers. When the chips melt a bit, spread them over the crackers with a knife. Let cool until cookie sheet is cool enough to touch and transfer the pan to the freezer for 15-20 minutes or until completely cold.

Break solidified candy into pieces and store in an airtight container.

This particular quirky ingredient combination? It works. It has crunch, salt, and chocolate, and it's sweet without being too sweet. It's far too large a batch for my little family of three to eat before the crackers go stale (especially since Miss Fraser thought it too salty and Mr. Fraser and I are both on Weight Watchers--he's lost 73 lbs. since December 1 and I've lost 42). I took it in to work the next day and my coworkers made quick work of it, so I'm making up another batch next week for the annual department picnic.

Next up is Ad Hoc at Home.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - The Bookseller's Daughter

The Bookseller's Daughter, by Pam Rosenthal.

This month's theme for my romance TBR challenge is Steamy Reads, so I chose this erotic historical romance. It's an unusual romance on many levels, starting with its setting--France in 1783-84. The hero is an aristocrat, the heroine a bookseller's daughter (of course) turned servant in the hero's family home after her father's death left her penniless. The writing is lush and dreamy, with a tangible fairytale mood of "once upon a time"...and yet you're never allowed to forget the gathering storm of the Revolution just over the horizon. I'm very glad I read this book for its sheer uniqueness even though I'm normally a fan of a sparer writing style.

I feel like I should be saying more, but the above is what it came down to for me. It's lush. Evocative. The setting is off the historical romance beaten path, which is always a plus for me. And it's available now as a reasonably priced ebook.

Monday, August 19, 2013

2013 reading, books 79-81

79) Donner Dinner Party, by Nathan Hale.

Miss Fraser and I are having a contest this summer to see who can read the most books from June 1 - Labor Day weekend. The winner gets an Amazon gift card. (Of course I'm not actually trying to beat my 9-year-old. I am trying to make sure she reads instead of spending the entire summer watching TV and playing video games by making the contest as close as possible.) Anyway, my husband, in his role as arbiter of the contest, has decreed that she gets to count this book toward her summer reading tally, but I don't, since it's a middle grade graphic novel. I read it as soon as Miss Fraser finished it anyway because these irreverent takes on famous incidents in American history are just so fun. Of course, any book about the Donner Party is going to be awfully grim in spots. Hale's snarky take actually pulled far fewer punches than the earnest novelization of the same events I read back when I was 9 or 10.

If you've got a middle grade child, I can't recommend the Hazardous Tales series highly enough. My daughter, though smart and geeky, isn't particularly interested in history, but she eats them up. I just wish there was a similar series on European history so I could get her interested in the stuff I write!

(The author really is named Nathan Hale, and the historical Nathan Hale narrates the series--he sees into his future through a Scheherezade plot device wherein as he's about to be hanged he's "taken up into history" and is therefore able to tell stories from America's future to delay his execution. You can read all about it at the series blog, and have I mentioned how awesome these are? Don't have your own middle-grade child? Get the series for your friends' kids, for your nieces and nephews, or to donate to your local library. Or just read them yourself.)

80) Borodino 1812, by Philip Haythornthwaite.

A detailed account of the Battle of Borodino framed by a brief summary of Napoleon's Russian campaign as a whole. I learned little I didn't already know, since I've been reading detailed accounts of the campaign, but I expect I'll refer to this book a lot once I settle into writing my manuscript that's set in Moscow and on the retreat for the sake of the maps, timelines, illustrations, and summary bios of important people on both sides.

81) From Father to Son, by Janice Kay Johnson.

A 2013 Rita finalist in Long Contemporary Series. See more detailed comments in yesterday's post.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Susanna Reads the Ritas - Long Contemporary Series

From Father to Son, by Janice Kay Johnson.

I'm up to Long Contemporary Series this month in my effort to read one finalist from each category of the 2013 Rita awards. These books run heavily to small town Americana, taking me out of my readerly comfort zone, and this book was no exception. However, the small town in question was in Western Washington, not too far from Seattle. If I ever moved to a small town, it would probably be out here, maybe someplace like Sequim because it's far sunnier than Seattle without being hotter in the summer. So I felt a bit more at home in this book's small town than I usually am, and thankfully no one in the book went off on how dangerous the big city is or how terrible our schools are or how much better it is to live in a small town or anything like that. Trash MY city and that book is meeting the wall.

Anyway, my small town issues aside, I enjoyed this book. The hero and heroine both seemed like real, relatable people, and the widowed heroine's two young children were charming without being implausibly cute and precocious. Some of the tropes used weren't my favorites, like a sexually unawakened widow (the most I can say without giving spoilers is that she and her husband were sexually incompatible and poor at communicating their needs and issues), along with children-in-peril, but I figure any book with a cop hero is going to have some sort of crime subplot. But in general, while I'm not the target market for this story, I can tell it'd make an excellent read for someone who does enjoy contemporary small towns, the tropes I mentioned, and so on.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - The Gourmet Cookbook

Last week my random cooking journey took me to The Gourmet Cookbook, one of the more encyclopedic of the works we own. It was a busy week, so I chose a simple recipe, but an unusual, old-fashioned one. Apparently dressing room-temperature lettuce in a warm butter sauce used to be a Thing (though the cookbook doesn't specify how long ago), which was enough to make my inner historical re-enactor want to come out to play.

Bibb Lettuce with Butter Dressing

- 4 heads Bibb lettuce or 1 head boston lettuce, at room temperature, leaves separated and torn into bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 stick (4 T) unsalted butter
- 1 garlic clove, halved lengthwise
- 4 tsp fresh lemon juice
- Scant 1/2 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper

(Note that having the lettuce at room temperature is key--if it's refrigerator-cold, the butter will solidify once you pour it over the lettuce, which wouldn't be very appetizing.)

Put lettuce in a large bowl. Melt butter in a small heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is golden and butter has a slight nutty aroma, about 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, discard garlic, and add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste, swirling skillet to incorporate; butter will foam.

Pour warm dressing over lettuce and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

This dish was...interesting. It didn't taste bad by any means, and I can imagine in the hands of master chef with a subtle hand for flavoring that it might be made into something special with an addition of just one or two more flavors. That said, I doubt I'll make it again. I do love to experiment, but I'm sufficiently of my own place and time that I like my salads cold.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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

This week I drew Alton Brown's main baking cookbook, I'm Just Here for More Food. He divides all baked good by their mixing methods--the Muffin Method, the Creaming Method, the Custards, etc.--and I decided it was high time I got in some more practice at the Biscuit Method

Blackberry Grunt

For the blackberry filling:
- 1 c. water (8 oz)
- 1 c. sugar (7.5 oz)
- 4 c. fresh or frozen blackberries (1 lb 3 oz)
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger (1/8 oz)

The dry goods:
- 2 c. all-purpose flour (9.5 oz)
- 2 tsp baking powder (1/4 oz)
- 1/4 tsp baking soda (1/8 oz)
- 1 tsp kosher salt (1/4 oz)

The fat:
- 4 T unsalted butter (2 oz/ 1/2 stick), frozen

The liquid:
- 1 c. buttermilk (8 oz)

Make the blackberry filling: Place the water, sugar, blackberries, and ginger in a Dutch oven and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Allow 5-10 minutes longer if using frozen berries.

Preheat oven to 400F.

While cooking the filling, assemble the dough via the BISCUIT METHOD, as follows:
- Scale or measure all ingredients.
- Pulse dry goods in food processor for 3-4 pulses, then move to a large bowl.
- Rub fat into the dry goods until about half the fat disappears and the rest is left in pea-sized pieces. Place in the freezer to keep the fat solid.
- Make a well in the center of the dry goods/fat mixture. Pour the liquid into the well and quickly mix using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.

Drop the dough over the fruit mixture by the tablespoonful, evenly distributing it over the top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, just to brown the top of the dough. For a browner crust, brush with butter and broil until golden.

Remove the pot from the oven and allow the grunt to rest 10 minutes before serving.

This turned out DELICIOUS. However, the biscuit topping baked up just a little bit too heavy. I think I'm still overmixing the fats. Next time I make a biscuit dough, I'ma stop when I think it can't POSSIBLY be blended enough and see how it turns out.

Next up: The Gourmet Cookbook

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 76-78

76) A More Unbending Battle, by Peter N. Nelson.

An account of the Harlem Hellfighters (i.e. the 369th Infantry Regiment), an African American regiment who fought as part of a French division in 1917-18. They quickly gained a reputation for valor and were treated well by both their French brothers-in-arms and the civilian population--but weren't as welcome at home afterward.

77) Assassin's Gambit, by Amy Raby.

This is a fantasy romance, wherein a young woman from a conquered land has trained from childhood to assassinate an emperor, only to discover upon getting close to her target that both he and his nation's political situation are more complex than she realized. I liked it a whole lot and was intrigued by the setting--reminiscent of imperial Rome, but with magic and roughly 18th-century military technology. My only issue--and I feel guilty for saying this because I write romance novels myself and love the genre--is that I think I would've enjoyed it more if it had been a romantic fantasy instead of a fantasy romance. (By romantic fantasy I mean something like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, which are both sexy and romantic, but where the romance plot comes second to the political intrigue and war.) Because there are few things I love more than a well-constructed fantasy world, and Raby hinted at so much interesting history and magic and intrigue and war that I wished she had more room for that side of the story.

(Incidentally, this book warrants a bit of a content warning. To go into detail would be to spoil a major plot point, but suffice it to say the heroine's past has some sexual trauma we eventually revisit on the page.)

78) The Bookseller's Daughter, by Pam Rosenthal.

For the 2013 TBR Challenge. Detailed post to come.