Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toasted Butter Pecan Cake

Here's a picture from half a century ago; my 12th birthday party. That's me in the front. This is what we girls used to do all the time. We'd put on 45 rpm records and dance in my cellar. I got a card today from the girl in the red headband. In fact, I got cards from all four of my best childhood friends. I feel blessed that we are still in touch and still friends after lo, these many years.

For my 62nd birthday cake today, we had an old favorite, from my mother's cookbook.

Toasted Butter Pecan Cake

Dot 3 Tablespoons butter over 1 1/3 cups chopped pecans in shallow pan. Toast (bake) in 350º oven for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Put aside.

Cream 2/3 cup soft butter.
Add 1 1/3 cups sugar.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla.
Add 2 eggs.
Mix well.

Sift together:
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Add to creamed mixture alternately with with 2/3 cup milk.
Fold in 1 cup of the toasted pecans.

Bake in 9x13 pan in preheated 350º oven for 30-35 minutes or until cake tests done.

For the frosting, mix together:
3 Tablespoons soft butter
3 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
and enough milk to make it smooth.
Stir in remaining toasted pecans.

You may use two round cake pans or 24 cupcake cups instead of the 9x13 pan, if you wish.

This is delicious! You may notice I forgot to put the pecans in the frosting, but when I remembered, I just poured them over the top. Worked just fine. :<)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

10. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - first in the Flavia de Luce series
by Alan Bradley
mystery, 2009
finished, 2/20/10

I have been waiting for this for ages. I had the paperback on pre-order from The Book Depository, and began to read almost as soon as it arrived. I like the cover much better than the more familiar one with the dead bird.

This book report will likely come as a surprise to you. I know it does to me. I just didn't care much for this book. I know. I'm amazed. I was just positive I was going to not just like it, but love it. It seemed perfect. Young girl, 1950, England, a mystery. All the components of a great story for me. Right from the start I didn't like it. I didn't like the cruelty of the sisters toward Flavia. I didn't like the names: Ophelia, nicknamed 'Feely;' Daphne, 'Daffy;' Flavia, 'Flave'.

Flavia just didn't seem real to me. She was not an endearing character to me. I just thought she was weird. Probably a genius. Probably a savant. Certainly a lonely, and possibly a not loved, little girl. Her language and her literary, scientific, and cultural references simply seemed unbelievable to me. And her penchant for poisons is more than a little weird. She is fascinated by death. Her mother died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was very small, and sadly she has no memories of her mother. For some reason, as I read the book, I kept thinking we were going to find out that it was either 1. not an accident or 2. she didn't really die. But nothing whatsoever happened to confirm my wonderings. Flavia and her sisters do not get along. The book opens with Flavia tied up and locked in a room by her sisters. There is an incident where Flavia puts a chemical concoction in her sister's lipstick which makes her lips swell. I didn't like these cruel acts. They weren't amusing or interesting to me. Just mean.

There is a fairly involved mystery, but sadly this didn't interest me either. I simply did not feel an involvement in the book. I didn't care for any of the characters. I realize I am in the minority. In fact, I have read only raves about this book. I've read it compared to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Strangely enough that is a book I really enjoyed. But not this one. It is quite unusual for me to stay with a book I don't enjoy. I just kept thinking I *must* like this book. But I didn't.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Today's picture(s) - Outdoor and Indoor Seating

Late afternoon sunlight:

porch swing

living room chair

Friday, February 19, 2010

An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym

9. An Unsuitable Attachment
by Barbara Pym
fiction, 1982 (published posthumously - submitted to twenty publishers, beginning in 1963 and refused)
finished, 2/11/10

(A photo from the internet of my edition of the book because my son is borrowing my camera.)

When I open the pages of a Barbara Pym book, I enter one of my favorite literary worlds. I let out a quiet sigh, and feel I am home. Her writing calms and relaxes me, and I finish the books refreshed.

In An Unsuitable Attachment we meet a new man in the parish, Rupert Stonebird, and pretty much the whole book is absorbed with which of two women this anthropologist will marry. Will it be the vicar's wife's sister, Penelope, or will it be Ianthe, the daughter of a late canon, who left her enough money to set up her own house, and is Rupert's neighbor. And are either of them interested in marrying him? We meet various other characters who interact and interfere in one another's lives. Pym's people are not always stellar individuals. They whine, they gossip, they annoy one another and us. But they are so real, so human that we like them anyway. There is Ianthe's boss who 'covets' her furniture. There is the local vet, and his sister who is passionate about cats.

All of these people, and a few others embark on a trip to Rome, where things happen, but nothing startling. They happen in the same quiet way they happen back home in early-1960s London.

Perhaps this all sounds pretty dull. There isn't any violence, there are no dark family secrets. It certainly isn't 'current.' There is simply a gentle story told as only Barbara Pym could, with wit and irony, and with affection for her characters. Not dull at all for this reader, but endlessly interesting and restful.

Another book report on Barbara Pym at Letters from a Hill Farm here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Traveling in my armchair

I don't think I've ever gone so long without posting, and here's the reason. I've been sitting in my living room and traveling all the way out to Vancouver for the Olympics. I'm watching as much as I can, and loving every minute. And then tonight and tomorrow night I have to go to Vancouver and then pop back to NYC for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, my personal television highlight of the year. And tomorrow night it's even worse because I have to go to that island with the Losties for an hour. I'm getting jet-lagged just thinking about it.

I tried to read a short story for Short Story Monday but I only got halfway through it. Actually I am rethinking my participation. I think I'll do better if I go back to my own Today's Short Story since it seems that too often I don't get one read either Sunday or Monday.

I was trying to read two books at once, and have finally gotten it through my head that I just can't do that. I have to read one book at a time. So, I am happily in the pages of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie during the hours the television isn't on.

I hope I'll write before the Olympics are over, but if not, you'll know where I am.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Apple-Berry-Rhubarb Crumble

Another great rhubarb recipe from the book my friend, Les gave me.


3 cups chopped rhubarb (fresh or frozen)
1 cup chopped apples
1 cup strawberries (fresh or frozen)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon


1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup oats

Preheat oven to 350º.

Mix fruits and spoon into greased 7x11 or 8x8 pan. Drizzle evenly with vanilla.
Mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle on top.

In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt.
Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Stir in sugar and oats.
Sprinkle over rhubarb mixture.

Bake 40-50 minutes or until lightly browned.

Though the recipe in the book calls for white sugar in the filling and brown sugar in the topping, I always use only one sugar in my baking.

The result - delicious! (I made this yesterday, and dare I admit it is all gone?!)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Today's Poem - The Black Walnut Tree by Mary Oliver

The Black Walnut Tree
by Mary Oliver
from Twelve Moons (1979)
and collected in New and Selected Poems, Volume One (1992)

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood – an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don't do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we'd crawl with shame
in the emptiness we'd made
in our own and our fathers' backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.

More Mary Oliver poems at Letters from a Hill Farm:
here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quote du jour/Susan Branch

From the February page of this year's calendar:

It's a toxic world but you have the power to protect yourself. Feed your life from the well of sweetness. Kind words. Good books. Music that makes your spirit soar. Movies that inspire.
Susan Branch

Friday, February 5, 2010

Carney's House Party by Maud Hart Lovelace

8. Carney's House Party - companion book in the Betsy-Tacy series
by Maud Hart Lovelace
juvenile fiction, 1949
library copy
finished, 2/3/10

When I wrote about Betsy-Tacy, a reader left me a note saying that Carney's House Party was her second favorite in the series. I immediately emailed my library and borrowed a copy.

Well, I just may think that this book is not my second favorite, but my favorite favorite. I loved it. It is about a young woman, Caroline, nicknamed Carney, going back home for the summer after her second year at Vassar. Before vacation began, we got to spend a little time learning about her college life. I was fascinated reading about this early 'female' college. Carney is a little uneasy because her sophisticated 'eastern' roommate wants to come visit Deep Valley, Minnesota in the summer. The reader learns what unfamiliar territory the midwest was to those back east during this time.
Some girls thought there were Indians running wild in the streets out there. Moreover, they thought that all culture and refinement ended at the Hudson. They were astonished at how well she played the piano. They were amazed that her clothes were so modish, and it meant nothing to them when Carney explained that she and her mother had bought them in Minneapolis. They confused Minneapolis with Indianapolis and both cities seemed equally remote.
The 'house party' is a group of friends, old and new, who stay with Carney at her home for a month during that summer. And what a glorious summer it is. Reading this in 2010, almost one hundred years after the setting of the book in 1911, I was struck most by the lack of alcohol. These young people were of college age, and got together for picnics, and singing, and dancing, and visiting their families. They were happy. They had fun. With no alcohol. In our time, there aren't many parties where alcohol isn't a big part of the festivities, and indeed sometimes the reason for them. We read of the problems of binge drinking in England, and here. College 'weekends' begin on Thursdays. 'Party schools' mean something entirely different from these innocent parties. It's easy for this modern day woman to view the earlier life with a modicum of nostalgia. Of course, the troubles of the times aren't very visible in the story. These up-to-date girls and fellows go to college. They are not poor. They are part of a caring community.

When Carney has a problem, she goes to a bench on a hill at Vassar to think things through. I couldn't help but wonder if people do this now. Do they think things through? Are the worlds of the young so busy and noisy and interrupted that there is no quiet time? Are responses quick and off-the-cuff instead of measured and thought through?

But this isn't like me. I don't live in the past. I'm a present-day sort of person. And I am aware of good and bad in all times. It's just that this cheerful, very well-written book really does present a lovely view of the world. I was happy to be able to visit Deep Valley, Minnesota in 1911 for the time I was reading this wonderful book.

This was my second book for the You've Got Mail Reading Challenge.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Today's pictures/raised beds and dogs in snow

Here is a surprise benefit of having raised beds - the dogs don't go in them in the winter and leave little unwelcome offerings. Just as in the summer, they walk between and around but never inside.

And here are Ben and Sadie playing in the snow.

Ice Cream Pie

I was given this recipe years ago, and it is a family favorite. I made it today for the February installment of Margaret's boyfriend's birthday present.

These are the four ingredients.

Melt over low temperature: 3 Tablespoons butter and 4 ounces chocolate chips or baking chocolate.

Put 2 cups of rice cereal in a bowl, and when butter and chocolate are melted mix altogether.

Grease a pie plate with butter.
Spoon rice mixture into the pie plate.

Top with 1 pint of ice cream. I like to soften it first to make it easier to spread. Be careful not to tear up the crust when spreading the ice cream.

Put in freezer.

And that's it! An incredibly easy and delicious dessert.

You may vary it by using crushed Oreos or Newman-O's, or Rice Krispies for the crust, and any flavor ice cream. I always use my old friend, Ben & Jerry's. Today's flavor was Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Pantry by Catherine Seiberling Pond

7. The Pantry
Its History and Modern Uses
by Catherine Seiberling Pond
nonfiction, 2007
finished, 2/2/10

This is my perfect book. It has been sitting on an old library table in the living room since the day it came in the mail. I pick it up nearly every day and look through it. The photographs set me dreaming. I've now read the book in its entirety, and have found the words to be as beautiful as the photographs.

There is factual information, there are old advertisements, there are poems, there are quotes,

and there are photographs of pantries.

My favorite quote in the book is about the problems of multi-tasking, written 120 years ago!
Calmness and method ... are the housekeeper's best friends. Do one thing at a time. (There! I've forgotten my bread in the oven! I put it into bake when I was writing. All burnt on top! Oh, Dear!) Where was I? Oh, one thing at a time! Don't stop to shed a retrospective tear over old letters in the garret while baking sponge cake, nor hunt for eggs in the barn with the pantry door wide open for the cat to enter in search of a nice dessert. A housekeeper needs her wits about her.
Mrs. Mary R. P. Hatch, Daughters of America, 1890
The Pantry is divided into such chapters as:

The Early American Pantry: Larders, Butt'ries, and Storerooms
The Farmhouse Pantry: Workrooms of Self-Sufficiency
The Victorian Pantry: The Realm of Domesticity
The Twentieth-Century Pantry: Its Rise, Fall, and Return

You may recall a cookbook mentioned here a few years ago, called The New England Butt'ry Shelf Cookbook. In the entry, I wrote about how I grew up with a 'butt'ry.' It was a north-facing little room off the kitchen, with wainscoted cupboards and linoleum countertops (which are still in great shape 60 years on). Several years ago, I thought of starting an email list called, The Country Butt'ry Recipe Exchange with this as the premise:
The essence is to offer a place for women to exchange recipes that are either old family favorites, or new ones using genuine, old ingredients. Here is not the place for meals made in the microwave. In this kitchen we bake in the oven, filling the house with the wonderful smells of fresh bread, or fruit desserts, or brownies. This is the place to come where you are filled with the warmth and goodness of cooking with real ingredients. This is a list for the sharing of breads and desserts, strawberry shortcakes and cranberry bread. This is a vegetarian kitchen so no meats or fish or lard. Eggs and butter and milk are heartily welcomed though! I hope there will be a mix of old and young women who love cooking.
Well, I never did it, but the idea expresses the 'essence' of who I am. I'm not a crafter or knitter or seasonal decorator. The heart of my home is the kitchen.

I 'met' the author by typing 'butt'ry' into a search engine. Turns out that she is also a fan of the lovely little cookbook. Catherine Seiberling Pond is such a nice person, and she has a beautiful blog. You may buy this book directly from her. If you go here you may see a slideshow of photographs from the book. They are my inspirations for some house work we are doing; revamping a space that was a farmhouse butt'ry when we bought the house. It was essentially gutted and for several years was a space for dogs to go when their company wasn't appreciated in the rest of the house. The walls are a mess, the floor was a wreck, but slowly, slowly it is becoming a space that I love. I'm showing some pictures of where we are so far. Tom built that wonderful ceiling to floor shelving with beadboard backing. We haven't decided yet if we are going to paint or varnish.

The old Larkin desk (which Tom's late step-grandfather won by selling soap as a young boy) has been given a new purpose as a storage space. It is right across from the new shelves.

My Hoosier has made appearances here before.

This kind of cupboard is featured in The Pantry. There's a great old ad telling the reader that:
Hoosier cabinets save one-half the time and one-half the labor by grouping every article at your fingers' ends.
Not only does The Pantry offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of pantries, and incredibly gorgeous photographs, but it also is set up beautifully. It is a feast for the eyes and inspiration for the imagination. You will come to the end knowing that you, too, can create something this beautiful, even in a small way. Catherine offers practical ideas on tranforming an area into a pantry, and she has lists of what to put in your pantry.

So, truly, this is a perfect book: it is history, is is beauty, it is a guide, and perhaps most importantly it can be your own personal dreambook. Please do buy it for yourself. You will be so very glad you did.

Addendum: Cornflower wrote about The Pantry here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

6. The Murder on the Links - second in the Hercule Poirot series
by Agatha Christie
mystery, 1923
finished, 1/28/10

A young man we often call our 'second son' recently stopped by, and spoke of 'sitting down with a Jameson's (Irish Whisky) and an Agatha.' Don't you love it?! This fellow is twenty-nine. He played the part of the butler in his high school production of And Then There Were None, and I think his love of Agatha Christie began then. He spread his arms out about three feet to show us the room his collection takes up on the bookshelves. It just thrills me to see this generation loving her. May her work be read forever.

In P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction, she notes a set of rules Ronald Knox noted in the preface to Best Detective Stories 1928-29. One is quite pertinent to this book:
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly, less intelligent than the average reader, and his thoughts should not be concealed.
This is a perfect description of Arthur Hastings. As I began, I found myself irritated with Hastings and his complaints about Hercule Poirot. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought of Hastings as everyman or at least every reader. He jumps to conclusions, accepts the obvious, and says all the things we might be thinking but would never dare admit to Poirot. Still, I was annoyed that he is so often critical of Poirot, thinking his detections useless and stupid, and in this book is wowed by the hot shot French detective. I'm thinking there have been other unwritten adventures between The Mysterious Affair at Styles and this book, and it seems to me that Hastings should trust by now that Hercule is a genius and whatever steps he takes to solve a case will be necessary. In An Autobiography, speaking of The Murder on the Links, Christie writes,
I thought I might as well marry off Hastings. Truth to tell, I think I was getting a little tired of him. I might be stuck with Poirot, but no need to be stuck with Hastings.
And from Agatha Christie, A Reader's Companion by Wagstaff & Poole:
Her irritation with a character of her own making is perhaps understandable but just as Conan Doyle had stuck with Watson, Christie was to find Poirot and Hastings more difficult to separate than she had anticipated.
In this story, Poirot receives a desperate letter from a man saying he fears for his life. Poirot and Hastings arrive at his house to find he has been murdered. Poirot decides to stay and find the killer. As you may imagine, there are several possible suspects. There are suspicious goings on, and people who are not as they seem. Another death occurs, and we wonder if the same killer murdered both victims. There was so much activity in this book that it felt like a bit of a roller coaster ride. Was it the wife? Was it the mistress, or was there even a mistress? Who is the girl in the train? Where was the son? About midway through the book, Hastings says of Poirot that he is 'the hero of the hour.' Well, truly he is the hero of all hours. What a fantastic character. It has occurred to me that he is a bit of a spiritual ancestor of Mr. Monk. He is very neat and clean and orderly. Hercule has to make things even, and in this book, and another I can recall, it is this obsession which helps him solve the cases.

I so enjoyed being within the pages of this excellent mystery. I have the television version at the top of my Netflix queue, and perhaps will come back here with an addendum about it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Short Story Monday/The Basement Room by Graham Greene

You may visit here for more short stories.

I wanted to read The Basement Room because I rented the movie, The Fallen Idol from Netflix, and saw it was based on this Graham Greene story. I wasn't able to find a copy at my local library, but happily it was online.

The story begins with a little boy full of the sense of freedom children feel when their parents leave the house. In this case, they will be gone for two weeks. The household is 'between nurses' and his caretakers will be the butler, Baines, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Baines. The boy, Philip explores through the house which is in Belgravia, London. He is seven years old and goes looking for Baines in his quarters.
... then he set foot for the first time on the stairs to the basement. Again he had the sense: this is life. All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience. His crowded brain was like a city which feels the earth tremble at a distant earthquake shock.
Baines takes the boy under his wing, and tells him tales of his former life in Africa. Mrs. Baines is clearly the boss and is cruel to both her husband and the boy.
He heard Mrs. Baines's voice like the voice in a nightmare ... it was sharp and full of malice, louder than people ought to speak, exposed.
Though Baines is more kindly toward the boy, he still involves him in more than his young self can emotionally take. He is way too young to comprehend the ways of grownups. This involvement really mars him for life.
... he was less sheltered than he had ever been; other people's lives for the first time touched and pressed and molded. He would never escape that scene. In a week he had forgotten it, but it conditioned his career, the long austerity of his life.
The Basement Room was a most gripping story. We really come to care for this little boy and understand how he feels. Somehow the author remembered the way a young child thinks and behaves which gave the story a sense of realism. It is also beautifully written.
The night-light stood beside the mirror and Mrs. Baines could see there her own reflection, misery and cruelty wavering in the glass, age and dust and nothing to hope for. She sobbed without tears, a dry, breathless sound, but her cruelty was a kind of pride which kept her going; it was her best quality.
This is a truly excellent short story. It was published in 1935 in a collection called The Basement Room and Other Stories. I've only read one of his novels, The End of the Affair and thought it wonderful. I definitely want to read more of his short stories. A caveat: when Baines tells his Africa tales there are offensive references to the natives. They are probably realistic words for that time and for that person, but are jarring to the reader of today.

And the movie was also fantastic. It was written by Greene himself, and though it varies a bit from the story, it is really a perfect version of The Basement Room. I read it was his favorite of all his adaptations. I love black and white movies, and I love movies from this time and place, post Second World War Britain. I found the following information online:

“It remains unsurpassed!”
– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

“You won’t find anything else half as entertaining!”
– Stuart Klawans, The Nation

“DON’T MISS! [An] exquisitely plotted murder mystery!”
– Time Out New York

“One of the most brilliant demonstrations of point of view filmmaking… reminds us of the glories of the black-and-white cinema at its peak.”
– Andrew Sarris, The New York Observer

“A superior psychological drama [to The Third Man]… Fiftysomething years back, The New York Times called it 'a major delight of the season' – as could be said of this revival… As the eponymous idol, Richardson is quietly splendid. His buttoned-up butler is an amiable fabulist, roguish yet decent, understated but passionate. The yearning with which he regards the radiant Morgan fuels the movie.”
– J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

(1948) With father the ambassador and mother both away, eight-year-old Phil’s only companions for the weekend in his cavernous London embassy residence will be his beloved pet snake; his idol, Baines the butler (Ralph Richardson); and his dreaded nemesis, the snake-hating housekeeper, Mrs. Baines. And when Phil trails Baines to a tea room tryst with embassy staffer Julie (Michèle Morgan) — Baines claims she’s his “niece” — he becomes the solemn bearer of a Secret. But when an idyllic afternoon at the zoo is topped by a nighttime tragedy, and those soft-spoken police arrive to ask all those polite questions, Phil enters a world of lies that unintentionally implicate his idol in murder.

Oscar-nominated for direction and screenplay, winner of Best Director awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review and the Best Screenplay prize at the Venice Film Festival, and named the best British film of its year by the British Film Academy, FALLEN IDOL has in recent years gotten lost as the middle child of Reed’s greatest period (between Odd Man Out and Third Man) -- it has long been out of print on video and never on DVD. Seen again, it clearly ranks among the director’s greatest works, effortlessly combining a sensitive child’s-eye-view of the world with a poignant love story -- and suspense that rivals Hitchcock.

It says it isn't on dvd in this piece, but thankfully it is now, and so worth your time. It was such a treat for me to read the story in the morning and watch the movie that evening. Both are outstanding. There are great extras on the dvd which talk about Carol Reed and his work.