Sunday, January 30, 2011

One Special Summer by Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier

9. One Special Summer
written and illustrated by Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier
nonfiction, written in 1951; published in 1974; this edition reprinted, 2006
second book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge
finished, 1/24/11

One Special Summer was written by the young Bouvier women about their three-month trip to Europe in 1951. It was a gift for their mother.

In 1974, when Lee Bouvier Radziwill was looking through letters and photographs for a book she was going to write, her mother
brought me this account of my first trip to Europe as one among several of her most precious possessions from us.
And so here it is, just as we did it in 1951, with not a word or a pen stroke changed.
This is what makes it such a meaningful and important book. It documents three months in the lives of two young women off on a huge adventure. Their experience is particular to them. Because they were writing it for their mother's eyes, they didn't censor themselves. The handwriting isn't perfect. There is poetry which they probably wouldn't have shown anyone else. Their observations are sometimes thoughtlessly sharp and critical, and perhaps inadvertently humorous; just as such observations tend to be when we are in our late teens and early twenties. On the ship going over:
This afternoon a fat old woman was seasick in the same bathroom I was in, and two of her front teeth were lost in the event. She wanted me to help her find them in the last disposal, but she had apparently flushed them down the toilet with her first deposit. That really made me feel on top of the world for the rest of the day.
They are young women with money at their disposal, and family connections to support them and offer social experiences. A Hillman Minx car awaited them upon arrival in England.

A letter home shows us that young people haven't changed all that much in these sixty years since. They put the best spin on everything, and offer many reassurances that everything is fine.
DON'T WORRY - We won't come home with liver trouble! We eat and drink terribly sensibly - Plenty of water and fresh vegetables.

And this

I first heard of One Special Summer from Heather. It is a book of pure delight combined with a sad foreknowledge of the future. We travel along with those fancy-free girls enjoying life away from home with the high spirits of youth. But we know the great tragedy and grief which is coming to the future Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill Ross. It is also an historical document. It isn't something written now about the past; it really happened. We see a more carefree time when two girls could go off to Europe without much worry. They got to experience art and culture and music and have loads of fun doing it. I am so very thankful Lee Radziwill published it, and then republished this new edition. This is a book I'll come back to again and again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lost Recipes by Marion Cunningham

8. Lost Recipes
Meals To Share With Friends and Family
by Marion Cunningham
nonfiction, 2003
second book for the Foodie's Reading Challenge
finished, 1/23/11

I thank my friend, Les for this great cookbook. She knows how much home cooking means to me. This is my second book for the Foodie's Reading Challenge.

Marion Cunningham is concerned about how little cooking goes on in our own kitchens anymore. This book was published in 2003 and in the eight years since, things have only gotten worse. In her introduction, she writes:
Why are fewer people cooking at home? There are, of course, a multitude of reasons - with pressures of time and of conflicting schedules, football practice and PTA meetings, all usurping the dinner hour. But there is one reason that is paramount, I think: Home cooking in America has long been considered menial drudgery. ...
It was easy, then, for big commercial food companies to sell their goods with the promise that their boxes, cans, and bags of food could be ready to eat in minutes. Later, microwave ovens promised even quicker results, with little or no cleanup necessary.
There's been almost no counterargument. We home cooks have never gathered in force to speak out in defense of home cooking. So the image of cookery as drudgery lives on. ...
So this book is addressed to all of you who are tempted to give home cooking a second chance. The recipes I have gathered here were lost primarily because people were no longer cooking in the same kind of home rhythm. But I hope to lure you back into the kitchen with them. Maybe these dishes will bring back the past, providing for some of you a little nostalgia and for others an introduction to good, clean, pure flavors that you never get in take-out food.
I've never understood why mixes are used. It is so, so easy to whip up some flour and eggs and sugar and butter to make brownies or cookies or cake. But oftentimes a child grows up and cooks as he or she saw in the childhood kitchen. The unfortunate thing to me is that there is a whole generation (or maybe two) who have grown up with those 'boxes, cans. and bags' of food. The eating revolution which I wrote about has mostly passed away. A few years ago I was in a homemaking yahoo discussion group, and I remember a woman saying that her son's friend had never had a homemade pie. He was amazed at how wonderful her pie tasted. That in itself is sad, but what is even sadder to me, is that there are lots of people who've never tasted anything homemade, and the muffin they know is from a quick-stop store. And I fear they wouldn't even care for a homemade one because their taste buds tell them this isn't how a muffin should taste. It breaks my heart. Even my own children who were brought up with everything from scratch, use mixes and shortcuts in their own households. I'm so thrilled when I come upon a young person who is into home cooking. There are many bloggers out there who are doing this and sharing their pleasure in real food.

Marion Cunningham presents recipes that are easy to understand and follow. There are interesting quotes and old pictures interspersed throughout the book.
Cooking something delicious is really more satisfactory than painting pictures or making pottery. At least for most of us. Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come. The mistakes don't hang on the walls or stand on shelves to reproach you forever. It follows from this that the kitchen should be thought of as the center of the house. It needs above all space for talking, playing, bringing up children, sewing, having a meal, reading, sitting, and thinking. ... It's in this kind of place that good food has flourished. It's from this secure retreat that the exploration of man's curious relationship with food, beyond the point of nourishment, can start.
Jane Grigson, Good Things
If you read house design sorts of magazines, you'll see that kitchens are getting bigger and more extravagant, but regretfully I don't think much cooking goes on in them. I have a friend whose relative has a kitchen practically bigger than my house and the owner never cooks. I think of Julia Child in that tiny, inconvenient kitchen in France and all the wonders that came from it.

I've noted several recipes I want to make from this cookbook. The one I'll share this day is a delicious dessert. First I'll write out the author's words, and then add my notes.

Children's Chocolate-Chip Squares

Encourage children to learn to cook and bake when they're young. This is a simple recipe they'll love.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup chopped nuts
2 cups (12 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate morsels

Preheat oven to 350º F.
Grease and lightly flour an 8-inch square pan.

Toss together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.
Add the vegetable oil and eggs, and beat until thoroughly combined (the mixture will be stiff).
Stir in the nuts and chocolate morsels.
Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and use your moistened fingertips to smooth the top and spread it evenly.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, or with just a residue of chocolate on it.
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a rack, then cut into 2-inch squares.

My notes:
Of course, I used melted butter rather than oil!
I mixed together the flour, powder, and salt in a bowl.
I beat the eggs in the Kitchen Aid mixer and then added the sugar.
I turned the speed down and slowly added the flour mixture and the (cooled) melted butter.
Then I added the nuts and chips.
I didn't smooth down the top.

This would be a wonderful cookie bar to make with children. It is easy as can be, and I think they would especially enjoy the smoothing the top part.

the batter
the finished product

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today's cd/Oh! Look At Me Now - Bobby Darin

I feel like I should be wearing a housedress and have my hair tied up in a scarf as I dance around the kitchen to this 1962 album. Oh my, it is wonderful. Anyone my age remembers Bobby Darin and his zillions of hits, but he really shines at singing the standards.

This album is long out of print, but thanks to iTunes I could buy it and listen 49 years later with it sounding as fresh as if it were recorded yesterday. His phrasing, his smooth singing is incomparable. The title song, written by Joe Bushkin and John DeVries in 1941, is just about the best song I've ever heard. I spent a good hour with the song on repeat. I wish there were a video of him singing it, but at least there is this so you can hear his great, great voice.

I did find one of him singing a few other songs on the album like this one, which I'm also exceedingly fond of.

His life was way, way too short. He had a heart condition and died at 37 years old. There's a nice biography of him here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ingram Interview by K.B. Dixon

7. The Ingram Interview
by K. B. Dixon
fiction, 2011
finished, 1/23/11

I recently got an email from the author of The Ingram Interview asking if I'd like a copy. His emails said it was,
A short and unrepentantly quirky thing.
It is a distinctly unconventional book; I never know what anyone is going to make of it.
Rather liking the adjectives 'quirky' and 'unconventional' I wrote back and said yes, please, and I'm so very glad I did.

The book is set up as an interview with Daniel Ingram, retired English professor who is 62 years old. He has gone into an assisted living facility after an unexplained fall - an apparent heart attack, but they don't know for sure. There is bold type for questions and regular type for answers. Sometimes the interviewer makes a statement like, 'You look tired' and then Daniel responds. I think this is quite an ingenious way to learn about the character.

Being a huge fan of Hayley Mills when I was a girl, I loved that his boyhood bedroom had 'two dozen pictures' of her on the wall. That little piece of information told me a lot about Daniel, and made me like him very early in the book. She isn't the actress many young boys would have admired in those days. She wasn't glamorous or exotic. She was perky and spunky and adorable.

We see his dry, quiet humor and his love of reading in an 'answer' such as this:
[A man] was wondering why everybody he knows has so many books. I told him it was because he knew so many of the right sort of people.
Sometimes we see him as wistful about the world changing and passing him by.
You stayed up late reading.
I did. I reread one of my old favorites last night - a novel once described in passing as "a genre unto itself." It saddens me to realize how alone I am these days in my admiration for this sort of thing.
Of course I wondered what book he was referring to! The first one that came to mind was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

In the kindest possible terms, Mr. Ingram has been asked to leave the facility, Fairview Court. He just doesn't fit in with the philosophy of the place. He isn't cheery. He doesn't want to join in activities.
I am an intransigent, moody, analytical loner.
He is going to live temporarily with an old student of his, and his girlfriend. Michael is now a filmmaker and a fair part of the book is about his latest movie, Will There Be Ducks?

There are a whole lot of names in the book, which may give some readers trouble. Yet, I thought it worked. There is a stream-of-consciousness quality to The Ingram Interview which makes the mention of many people quite natural. When we think, or in this case if we are asked questions, we may make note of many people; some just acquaintances, and others who play a more important part in our lives. Someone might ask you about a table, say, and then you are off on the story of who gave it to you or a scene from forty years ago sitting around that table.

Daniel is a bit of a fuddy-duddy, and knows it. The interviewer asks if he is hungry:
Very. I haven't said anything because I didn't want to start right off playing into the stereotype of early-eating old guy.
The interviewer says, 'You look annoyed.'
The wind today ruined my last good umbrella - the black, telescoping one with the hooked handle. I can't replace it because for some reason the people who used to make it have stopped making it, and so far as I can tell, nobody else has started. I am going to have to move to a different style, one with a straight, knob-like handle. I can tell you right now that I am never going to like it as much.
One may think it is simply because he is older, but in my experience people who are like this showed the beginning signs of it back when they were twenty-five!

Daniel offers a list of his fears.
I'm afraid I will be late; I'm afraid the refrigerator will stop working; I'm afraid the car will stop working; I'm afraid the television will stop working; I'm afraid I will have to have a filling replaced or a tooth pulled; I'm afraid the price of my favorite wine will go up; I'm afraid the bookstore on the corner will close; I'm afraid the waitress at my pizza place will leave; I'm afraid I will make a wrong turn, get lost, and, as a consequence, have a part of my life - a part I will never get back - eaten by anxiety and stress.
I was so touched by this passage. I just ached for him. I felt such a tenderness toward the man. He reminded me a little of those dear fellows in Men Of A Certain Age on television. Do you watch it? I think it is the best, best show. In a small way he also made me think of Liam Pennywell in Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler. The two are much the same age and they also live in their own worlds a bit, keeping a distance from people.

The book abounds with bookish references which delighted me. Daniel talks about having a book with you at all times, working briefly in a bookstore, and mentions such diverse writers as Thomas Carlyle and Robert Benchley.

Another example of Daniel's particular sense of humor appears when he has to have his photograph taken for his old school's alumni magazine. He describes the photographer.
He is a veteran of the fashion scene. He has long, gray hair - like a lion's mane - which he combs back and goops in place so that it looks as if he has been caught, stop-action, staring into a gale-force wind. He has a signature style that trades heavily on the inherent drama of the black-and-white photo. He wants to make me look if not famous, at least significant - like someone from an earlier, more serious time. He posed me just off to the left of an ornately framed window, my chin up, my focus on posterity.
I don't like the finished product at all. I look grave and unhappy - like someone channeling Sartre or waiting in line at the post office.
I laughed right out at this, and could see both the photographer and the finished picture just perfectly.

The book has a couple 'appendices' in which we meet Daniel's son, and get to read the stories on which Michael's movies are based, but the 'interview' part of the book ends with a passage I found very moving, very real.
The is a man named Haskell who wrote a terrific short story about Glenn Gould, the neurotic Canadian virtuoso... He mentioned a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest - a line Gould would have known. Prospero is talking about death. He says, "Every third thought shall be my grave." Haskell says that that was the way it was with Gould - Book. Beer. Death. Lamp. Coat. Death, etc. etc. etc. For a while after the "apparent" heart attack, "death and dying" was my every third thought, too. But I'm improving. It became my every fourth thought, then my every fifth, then my every sixth. Now it is something like my every twenty-fifth. (I guess you would say it went something like this: light, water, radio, lather, razor, teeth, vitamins, socks, shoes, curtains, newspaper, mug, coffee, bowl, cereal, milk, spoon, dishwasher, keys, wallet, glasses, cash, door, car, death.) I will be back on dry land, so to speak, when it gets to being my every one-hundredth. I want to stay aware enough to fully appreciate what I have, but not so aware as to spoil it. Proportion is a tricky thing.
You may read more about the author at his website.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Herb Potatoes

Please go here to read about this weekend's cooking.

It is possible that every one of my readers knows how to make these potatoes, but there was a time I didn't so I decided to post the recipe. In this house, we always call them herb potatoes but you may know them as just plain roasted potatoes. All the amounts can be decided by the cook.

Herb Potatoes

Peel and chop potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes.
Toss with olive oil.
Add any or all of the following (or any other herbs you may wish to mix in):
Garlic granules

Mix well and place in greased pan.
Cover with tin foil and bake in preheated 425º F. oven for about 45 minutes.
Remove foil and broil for maybe 5 minutes till browned and crisp.
Salt and pepper as desired.

This is such an easy side dish or main dish, and so delicious!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Charleston: a Bloomsbury house & garden by Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson

6. Charleston : a Bloomsbury house & garden
by Quentin Bell & Virginia Nicholson
photographs by Alen MacWeeney
nonfiction, 1997
first book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge
finished, 1/20/11

If I had the money I would buy everyone who wanted one a copy of this book. Who will love it? Well, anyone who is interested in the Bloomsbury people, anyone who is interested in art, and anyone who is interested in house design and decorating. Because I fit all three criteria, I was completely happy while in the pages of this book. It is beautifully, beautifully done.

Ever since the first January of this blog, in 2007, I've done something a little special to honor Virginia Woolf in her birthday month.

This year I celebrated by visiting Charleston, the home of Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell, and a large group of people who came and went, for longer or shorter periods of time. Quentin Bell was Vanessa Bell's son, and Virginia Nicholson, his daughter.

The book is really perfect. You know how so many adult 'picture books' are just that - a book you peruse rather than read. Well, this one has as much reading as photography, and they are exquisitely balanced. I would read a chapter at a time, first looking at the photographs and reading the explanations of them. Then I'd go back and read the whole chapter, looking again at the photos within the context of the story. The book explores the whole house and the garden, giving a chapter to each space: The Kitchen, Vanessa Bell's Bedroom, The Green Bathroom, on and on. Virginia doesn't play a large part in this book because she and Leonard lived not too far away so they didn't have to stay at Charleston. There is this picture of her in the garden. She's on the left.

We hear so often of the care taken of her by others when she would have her dark times, but here is a Virginia I had not heard about. Vanessa's son Julian, Quentin's older brother, died in 1937 in the Spanish War. Quentin writes:
Vanessa was completely shattered.
We took her back to Charleston and for the rest of that summer Virginia devoted herself completely to her sister and gradually restored her to a quiet and very sad convalescence. On one of the few days when she could not come to Charleston, Virginia sent her sister a note. I found Vanessa quietly crying over it in the garden. 'Another love letter from Virginia,' she smiled very faintly.
In the preface, Virginia Nicholson tells us that her father was eighty-five when he started writing this book. He had put together a first draft by 1996, but was ill, and had to go into the hospital.
when I visited him there he was worrying about the second draft and asked me to help him with the work he had taken on. During his final weeks, when he could not write, I sat by his bed at home near Firle and we talked about his memories of the house where he had spent so much of his life. I placed a tape recorder on the bedside table. The day he died he was too weak and tired to talk much to me and I realized his last book would be left incomplete. Between them, my mother and the publishers encouraged me to take on the task of finishing it.
So this book is a composite, with our respective contributions indicated by our initials.
What a last gift to the world this is, and how wonderful that father and daughter got to share the work. This is the story that needed to be told - the story of a home that sheltered, encouraged, and inspired so very many artistic souls. We see their young selves and the work they produced, for Charleston is a work of art. It was decorated and painted, and is filled with lamps and tables and curtains and dishes that were created by those who lived there, and visited there. I don't believe there is anything like it. A really tremendous book. Please do visit the website for information and photographs.

Here is a picture of the co-author with her grandmother.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie

5. Dreaming of the Bones - fifth in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series
by Deborah Crombie
mystery, 1997
Kindle book - 4
finished, 1/19/11

If you've happened to read any of my four previous book reports on this series, you will know that I absolutely love it. And this book is on an even higher level. I would say that with Dreaming of the Bones, Deborah Crombie has joined the ranks of such writers as P.D. James and perhaps even Dorothy L. Sayers. This is an extraordinary book. It is far more than 'just' a mystery. It is an exploration of the human spirit's need for connection and community, the desire for intellectual society.
"Bloomsbury, the Neo-Pagans ... why do you suppose Lydia was so drawn to the idea of an intellectually compatible group?" ...
"Her background provides the obvious explanation. A fatherless only child growing up in a small village ... If she had any real friends she never spoke of them, so I suppose from the time she learned to read she longed for that sort of companionship."
The book has a dreamlike quality to it, as it goes back and forth between three different times with one woman connecting them all. Lydia Brooke was a student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, and killed herself thirty years later. In the present day, Victoria Potts Kincaid McClellan is writing a biography of Lydia who was quite a respected poet. She is a 'fellow at All Saints' and a Faculty teaching officer, specializing in twentieth-century poets' at Cambridge, and is able to get to know the young people, who are now older, with whom Lydia Brooke associated during her student years at Cambridge.

And Lydia Brooke herself had her own fascination with the past. As a student, she feels a strong affinity with Rupert Brooke and writes to her mother:
I feel a kinship with Rupert that goes beyond our common name. I share his passion for words and dedication to his craft - and I hope I have his discipline. How little things change. In 1907, Brooke and some of his friends at King's formed a society called The Carbonari just for the purpose of thinking and talking, a way of sorting out what they thought of the world. One night Brooke said, "There are only three things in the world. One is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry." According to Edward Marsh (from whose biography I just quoted) Brooke said that at rare moments he had glimpses of what poetry really meant, how it solved all problems of conduct and settled all questions of values.
I adore such literary connections. In another letter home to her mother, Lydia writes,
I'll pretend I'm Virginia Woolf going to visit Rupert Brooke. We'll have tea in the garden at the Old Vicarage and discuss important things: poetry and philosophy and life.
If you want to learn more about Rupert Brooke - the man and his work, as I did from reading Dreaming of the Bones, there are some good sites here and here and here.

The book begins with Duncan Kincaid getting a call from Victoria, who happens to be his ex-wife. She has been remarried for some years and has a young son, Kit. Her husband has run off with the latest in a string of young women, and 'Vic' becomes aware that she doesn't miss him, and that her son may be better off because his father was so critical of him. She gets in touch with Duncan in his official capacity. She is concerned that Lydia may not have killed herself. She thinks there is a possibility Lydia was murdered five years ago. The investigating officer was about to retire and just maybe didn't put his strongest efforts into the investigation. She had attempted suicide a couple times before so that it wasn't unexpected when she finally (presumably) succeeded.

As Duncan and Gemma meet with Vic, they see the discrepancies but don't know how they can proceed without any hard facts. And then, about a third way into the book, a sudden death occurs. At first it is thought that the causes were natural, but then it is discovered that the person was murdered. Does this death relate to Lydia's? Will there be a way to find out if Lydia was really murdered?

The story is multi-layered and riveting. There is a slow, quiet buildup in Crombie's books that captures the reader. Her use of detail brings me right into the room, the garden, the very air she is describing. And after the slow, methodical buildup, the horses run away with the carriage. The end was so intense that I couldn't stop reading. Everything came together. All the little hints and nuances made perfect sense. As in each of the four books preceding this one, there is change in the main characters' lives. This book offers quite a huge development and it remains to be seen what effect it will have on Kincaid and James. This is an excellent, excellent mystery, and psychological study as well.

If you type Deborah Crombie into my search bar, all the book reports will come up and you can determine if these books are for you.

I had hoped to build a whole Deborah Crombie library on the Kindle, but not all her books are available. I wonder how that is decided, and why each book in a series wouldn't be there. It looks like the next one isn't so I'll either buy a copy or borrow it from the library.

I shall leave you with a poem by Rupert Brooke to break the reader's heart.

The Soldier
by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.


You may have noticed that the recipes tab (under the blog header picture) has a whole separate category for brownies. This recipe is for those days when you want something really, really rich. And heck, it's good for you. Think of all the protein in those four eggs! Honestly, these are outstanding brownies.

I've just recently learned about the difference in cocoa powders. This is from the King Arthur Flour site:
There is Natural Cocoa:
Natural cocoa is the choice when your recipe calls for just plain (not Dutched) cocoa.
22%-24% fat content

And there is Double-Dutch Dark Cocoa:
Our exclusive blend of mellow Dutch-process cocoa and extra-dark black cocoa yields rich, pure-tasting chocolate treats, without the acidic overtone natural cocoa often gives. And at just 10% fat, it's lower in calories and fat than solid chocolate.
Ideal for all of your recipes calling for Dutch-process (European-style) cocoa; as well as icing, candy, and fudge sauce.
Use in any recipe that doesn't specify natural cocoa powder.
And from the Penzey's site:
Two types of the highest quality cocoa that are almost twice as rich as the grocery store varieties: Natural cocoa is strong, dark and bittersweet-perfect for all baking; Dutch cocoa is processed to temper the natural acidity of the cocoa bean, yielding a smooth, rich and slightly less strong cocoa that mixes more freely with liquid. Dutch cocoa has long been the cocoa of choice for hot chocolate and flavored coffee.
Those scientific testers at Cook's Illustrated offer a lot of information to help you decide which one to use.

And then from The Joy of Baking website we have:
Cocoa powder is made when chocolate liquor is pressed to remove three quarters of its cocoa butter. The remaining cocoa solids are processed to make fine unsweetened cocoa powder. There are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed.
Dutch-processed or alkalized unsweetened cocoa powder is treated with an alkali to neutralize its acids. Because it is neutral and does not react with baking soda, it must be used in recipes calling for baking powder, unless their are other acidic ingredients in sufficient quantities used. It has a reddish-brown color, mild flavor, and is easy to dissolve in liquids. Its delicate flavor make it ideal in baked goods like European cakes and pastries where its subtle flavor complements other ingredients. Droste, Lindt, Valrhona, Poulain and Pernigotti are some popular brands.

Natural unsweetened cocoa powder tastes very bitter and gives a deep chocolate flavor to baked goods. Its intense flavor make it well suited for use in brownies, cookies and some chocolate cakes. When natural cocoa (an acid) is used in recipes calling for baking soda (an alkali), it creates a leavening action that causes the batter to rise when placed in the oven. Popular brands are Hershey's, Ghirardelli, and Scharffen Berger.
Confused yet? All too much to think about? Well, I own both kinds, and because this recipe did not call for baking powder or baking soda, I used the natural cocoa. I'm quite sure I've never tasted a more chocolate-y brownie, ever.


1 1/2 sticks melted butter (3/4 cup)
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup cocoa
1 cup flour
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Grease a 9x13 pan.
While butter is melting:
Beat eggs.
Stir in sugar, vanilla, cocoa, and flour.
Add cooled melted butter and mix until blended, but don't over mix.
Stir in chips and nuts.
Pour into pan and bake about 25 minutes, until sides pull away from pan.
Allow to cool before cutting.

Note: It takes a few more minutes than 25. Keep an eye on them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today's Short Story by Agatha Christie

Today's Short Story is Wasps' Nest published in 1929, which comes from a little collection I recently bought. It may also be found in Poirot's Early Cases. I have sometimes seen the apostrophe between the p and the s, but it seems to me that it is the nest of more than one wasp!

I saw that Wasps' Nest was going to be on television, so I taped it and thought it would be fun to do a report on the short story and the hour-long television version.

The short story:

Hercule Poirot surprises an old acquaintance, John Harrison with a sudden appearance in his garden. Poirot says,
"You said to me once: 'If you are ever in this part of the world, come and see me.' I take you at your word. I arrive."

Poirot explains that he has come to the neighborhood to investigate a crime which hasn't yet taken place.
"If one can investigate a murder before it has happened, surely that is very much better than afterward. One might even - a little idea - prevent it."
Harrison has a problem with a wasps' nest on his property, and has engaged a friend, Claude Langton to destroy it with 'petrol and the garden syringe.' Poirot questions the method because he was recently at the chemist's and saw that Langton had bought a poison, cyanide of potassium. Harrison says how very odd this is because Langton himself told him that he would 'never dream of using the stuff.'

When it is revealed that Langton used to be engaged to Harrison's fiancée, the reader begins to worry!

I finished this 16 page story, and exclaimed right out loud to Tom, 'a most excellent story!'

As I read along, I thought that the story was familiar, and realized that I had already seen the 1991 television production. But I wanted to see it again, having now read the story. The excellent and surprising twists and turns occur in both the short story and the television production.

The television version:

First of all, dear Hastings is in it, while he wasn't in the story. I love all Poirot tales, but I love them most when Hastings makes an appearance. The actor who portrays him, Hugh Fraser,

is a particularly appealing fellow, and he plays Hastings so beautifully. If you listen to any of the Poirot books on tape, you'll know that some are narrated by David Suchet, who plays Poirot

and others by Fraser. I can't help but think that dear Agatha would have loved the audio and the visual productions of her work. Brilliant, in the way that Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were brilliant in bringing Wooster and Jeeves to life on the television screen. Chief Inspector Japp played by Philip Jackson,

who wasn't in the story, is also in the production, though briefly, as is Miss Lemon played by Pauline Moran.

I suspect they are so appealing to readers that the scriptwriters decided to put them into as many shows as possible.

The story was basically the same, but it was fleshed out a bit to fill the hour time period. Hastings has gotten into photography which helps out in solving the case. Some of the dialogue was exactly as in the story which I found charming. As in all the television Poirot programs, the actors were superb, the period clothes wonderful, and the scenery and buildings divine.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy

4. Nights of Rain and Stars
by Maeve Binchy
fiction, 2004
second reading
second book for Ireland Reading Challenge
Kindle book - 3
finished, 1/15/11

This is the last of the newer Maeve Binchy books which I had read years ago but wanted to read again before reading the three latest ones for the first time. I'm quite sure this is my second favorite, after Scarlet Feather. I dearly love this story of people of different ages and from different countries coming together in Aghia Anna, Greece.

The book opens with a horrible explosion on a tourist boat. Some local people are killed as well as many who were visiting. This is a pivotal event in the life of each character. No one is left unchanged by it, even if they weren't close to any of those who died. It is a reminder that life is short.

The tourists who saw the explosion from Andreas' taverna up on the hill form a bond as a result of their experience. They begin to spend time together and talk to one another about their lives. We learn that Andreas and his son had a falling out and haven't been in touch for years. Elsa, a German television newsperson is trying to break away from a relationship. Fiona is in an abusive relationship with Shane, but makes excuses for his awful behavior. David is trying to avoid taking over his father's business. The university professor,Thomas is on sabbatical and attempting to hold onto his son who lives with his ex-wife and her new husband. They become involved with each other and with Vonni, an Irish woman who has lived here a long time and runs a craft shop; Andreas, and his brother, Georgi the policeman, and the various inhabitants of this paradise where they are staying for a time. The book offers lots of really good conversations, and wonderful descriptions of the scenery and the food.

I am very, very fond of Nights of Rain and Stars. I like those people, except for Shane who thankfully doesn't play too big a role. I cared about what would happen in their lives. And I like how Maeve Binchy doesn't offer pat solutions. At the end the characters aren't over the moon happy. They are still progressing with their lives as we all do. I thought it very real. As always, the author's kindly spirit comes through the book offering as much warmth as the Greek sunshine.

I found another review here, which I think you will enjoy reading.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Weekend Cooking - Chocolate Bread Pudding

Please go here to learn more about Weekend Cooking.

I was a little reluctant to try this, but then I remembered that I like chocolate French bread, so thought it might be good. And it is! Light, lovely, with just that little hint of chocolate. The recipe makes a small amount, so you could double it if you want to serve a bigger crowd.

Chocolate Bread Pudding

1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup milk

1 square chocolate

1 egg, lightly beaten
a sprinkle of salt
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix slightly warmed milk and bread crumbs.
Melt chocolate over very low heat.
In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg, and add salt, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon.
Cool chocolate a bit and add to egg mixture.
Add egg mixture to bread and milk.

Pour into greased pan (an 8x8 would work - I used a small oval pan)
and bake in preheated 350º F. oven for about half an hour. You might stir it a few times while it's cooking.

I took the picture right as it came out of the oven, hence the misty look from the heat.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse

3. Something Fresh (also known as Something New)
by P.G. Wodehouse
fiction, 1915
Kindle book - 2
finished, 1/13/11

Though he is my favorite writer of all time, I've not written any book reports on Mr. Wodehouse's work since beginning this blog. I did mention him in a little author meme and noted some of his words here, as well as a few quotes du jour. I read one book in 2007 and three books in 2008 but this was before I began writing about each book I read. In the years previous to 2006, I listened to every P.G. Wodehouse book I could find which was narrated by the late David Case, who recorded as Frederick Davidson. I absolutely loved the way he told the stories. I also listened to a few that Alexander Spencer read. Though he is very good, and a favorite with some Wodehouse fans, Davidson will always be my personal favorite voice.

In Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings books - or as Wodehouse himself said, 'The Blandings Castle Saga' - we begin with a young man, Ashe Marson doing his morning exercises outside his apartment in London, and a young woman, Joan Valentine who laughs at him. When she comes to apologize they find out that not only are they both Americans by birth but that they also work for the same company. He writes the Gridley Quayle adventure detective stories and she writes for Home Gossip. Neither of them is happy in their jobs.

And then we meet one of the best characters in literature, Lord Emsworth, and his son, Freddie Threepwood.
Like many fathers in his rank of life, the Earl of Emsworth had suffered much through that problem which, with the exception of Lloyd-George, is practically the only fly in the British aristocratic amber - the problem of what to do with the younger sons.
It is useless to try to gloss over the fact - in the aristocratic families of Great Britain the younger son is not required.
But this fact is not the only reason that Freddie causes his father fits.
He had been expelled from Eton for breaking out at night and roaming the streets of Windsor in a false mustache. He had been sent down from Oxford for pouring ink from a second-story window on the junior dean of his college. He had spent two years at an expensive London crammer's and failed to pass into the army. He had also accumulated an almost record series of racing debts, besides as shady a gang of friends - for the most part vaguely connected with the turf [racecourse] - as any young man of his age ever contrived to collect.
Because of these offenses, his father has cut his allowance and forced him to live back home at Blandings Castle. Of course such a boulevardier as Freddie absolutely despises this sort of life, and so is thrilled when he and his father go up to the metropolis, London on business for a couple of days. Freddie immediately gets into trouble, while Lord Emsworth just longs to be back in the country.
London was always a trial to the Earl of Emsworth. His heart was in the country and the city held no fascinations for him.
Lord Emsworth was
as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be. Other people worried about all sorts of things - strikes, wars, suffragettes, the diminishing birth rate, the growing materialism of the age, a score of similar subjects.
Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth-century specialty. Lord Emsworth never worried. Nature had equipped him with a mind so admirably constructed for withstanding the disagreeableness of life that if an unpleasant thought entered it, it passed out again a moment later. Except for a few of life's fundamental facts, such as that his check book was in the right-hand top drawer of his desk; that the Honorable Freddie Threepwood was a young idiot who required perpetual restraint; and that when in doubt about anything he had merely to apply to his secretary, Rupert Baxter - except for these basic things, he never remembered anything for more than a few minutes.
Freddie is newly engaged to Aline Peters, the daughter of a rich American who collects scarabs. Miss Peters is loved by George Emerson. Aline is an old friend of Joan Valentine (see above). This same Joan used to appear on the stage, and young silly Freddie fell in love with her from the audience seats. He wrote her love letters and poetry. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that he may have proposed marriage in one of the epistles, which could result in a breach-of-promise lawsuit.

Are you confused yet? Well, this is so very typical of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Amazingly, as one reads along, it never seems that confusing. We blithely follow the characters on their hilarious adventures. The books are not farce or parody, neither of which I enjoy. They are merely stories in a parallel universe in which death and war and sadness simply do not exist. Evelyn Waugh wrote:
Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.
There is no literary place I would rather be. Wodehouse writes in this book,
After all, what could be pleasanter than a little literature in the small hours?
And I would only add, written by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. It is the purest form of escape ever written, but it is combined with excellent, excellent writing. The man was, I think, a genius.

Even as I write this book report, I cannot contain a laugh. Yes, not just a smile, but a real laugh as I think back on the book. It is entirely possible that I love this one most of all. The characters are sublime, especially the butler, Beach, and the secretary, The Efficient Baxter.

As well as sometimes outlandish humor, there are quiet little bits as well.
In English trains the tipping classes travel first; valets, lady's maids, footmen, nurses, and head stillroom maids, second; and housemaids, grooms, and minor and inferior stillroom maids, third. But for these social distinctions, the whole fabric of society would collapse and anarchy stalk naked through the land - as in the United States.
I shall end this with another great quote from Waugh:
The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. All those who know them long to return.

Through the words of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, we can all go back for renewal and courage to face the 'real' world.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Dewey Decimal Challenge for 2011

Because of my hope to read more nonfiction this year, I've joined The Dewey Decimal Challenge. Here are the details:

Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult. That's it. You can choose anything. Poetry? Yes. Memoirs? Yes. History? Yes. Travel? Yes. You get the idea? Absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

I always like levels in my challenges, so here are mine:

Dilettante--Read 1 non-fiction book.
Explorer--Read 2
Seeker--Read 3
Master--Read 4

This challenge will last from January 1 to December 31, 2011. You can sign up anytime throughout the year.
I'm signing on at the Master level, and actually want to read even more than four this year. You may join the challenge here.

Completed April 9, 2011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Consuming Passions by Michael Lee West

2. Consuming Passions
A Food-Obsessed Life
by Michael Lee West
nonfiction, 1999
first book for the Foodie's Reading Challenge
finished, 1/8/11

2011 marks the fortieth year of our being vegetarians so the Foodie's Reading Challenge is a fun way for me to celebrate. Tom and I were brought up in the fifties and sixties in northern New England where pizza was an unknown, and all vegetables were boiled. My plate was neatly divided into thirds: baked potato, vegetable, and meat. Michael Lee West writes:
I grew up on blue-plate specials - known in café lingo as a meat, bread, and two sides.
I must have been a cradle vegetarian because my early food memories are of pretending to wipe my mouth with a paper napkin and spitting my meat into it. The only beans I ever heard of, and couldn't stand the taste of, were baked beans. There were no grains except bread and spaghetti. There was no culinary history in my family that I ever heard about. I know one of my Grammies made homemade white bread, but that's it. I have no recipes except a few from my mother and no memories of any special foods at extended family get-togethers. My mother also made homemade bread and she squeezed oranges for juice, two things I've continued.

But in 1971, I became a vegetarian and a foodie. The late sixties and early seventies were occasioned in the world by more than hippie life, drugs, anti-war protests, and music. There was also a veritable food explosion. Health food stores sprang up which sold grains and fresh vegetables. We were going to college in Boston, and had an apartment just down the street from The Organic Food Cellar, and the legendary Erewhon Trading Company. We were in food heaven. In the seventies, there were cookbooks to guide us along this new path like Tassajara and Laurel's Kitchen. Food was in. Food was cool. Food was trendy. Tom and I began eating things that we'd never heard of just a few years earlier - brown rice, hummus, tabouli, different ways of cooking potatoes - like potato loaf, and sautéing! Suddenly, I liked vegetables. I ate onions and garlic. My taste buds exploded, and Tom and I became full-fledged foodies.

And so, this Foodie's Reading Challenge is just the ticket. I began with Consuming Passions, which is a combination of family lore and recipes. Here is an example, par excellence, of what a 'foodie' really is. The author is describing her mother.
Along with most Southerners, Mama and I share a deep affection for food. This appears to be hereditary. Last spring my mama was critically ill, and she drifted in and out of consciousness. One time her hands flew out of the covers and bunched around her mouth. Her lips made little smacking noises. Thinking she was having a seizure, I cried, "Mama?"
"I was dreaming about eating cake," she said, cracking open one eye. "It wasn't homemade, but it was Baskin-Robbins chocolate chip with white icing."
This is a book crammed full of delightful writing and stories, including the quotes which begin the chapters. Here are some to whet your appetite (I know - bad pun!):

For a chapter called Sunday Dinners: A Memoir -
Every Sunday, the whole family gathered at Mama Hughes's house in Amite County, Mississippi. They were ferocious eaters and talkers, devouring rumors and innuendo with gusto. Food was their common language, and everyone understood the dialects.
-Aunt Tempe, reminiscing about family dinners, 1991
One called Potato Salad -
Potato salad is our friend. It will never let you down. It's a shame we have to eat it, but that's life.
-Mabel Wauford, spinster and home economics teacher, 1969
And my favorite, from The Cabbage Eating Ghost chapter -
All Southerners are the great-grandchildren of ghosts.
-William Faulkner
There's a chapter on seasoning cast iron which is a primer for anyone who has just bought a new pan. It begins with this quote:
All the mysteries of Southern cooking can be solved in an old black pot.
-Aunt Joyce Forbes, champion bourrée player and divine Cajun cook
Being a huge fan of cast iron pans, I found this chapter fascinating. I took a picture of my own 'black pots.' This is in natural light.

But look what happens when I brought them inside and used the flash. Here you see the real seasoning.

Toward the end of this chapter, Michael Lee West says,
One last recommendation - until your pan develops a smooth, nonstick finish, use it wisely. Everything will want to stick.
I cook everything in my pans, except for scrambled eggs. No matter how well-seasoned the pan, those eggs stick and make it a miserable job to try and clean it. So, scrambled eggs around here are always cooked in the stainless steel frypan which goes right into the dishwasher and cleans up just fine.

Margaret dropped by just as I was finishing the book to pick up some of that baklava, and since Consuming Passions was originally hers, and I knew she had read it several years back, I asked her how she had liked it. She said she loved it, and started talking about one particularly delightful chapter when they go searching for barbeque. This illustrates to me how wonderful a book is if a reader can remember details after having read it years ago.

Barbeque features prominently in the stories. 'The Quest for "Q" is an amazing tale from a 1962 adventure with her parents in the days before interstate highways. They traveled miles and miles on little more than tracks to finally come upon the barbecue pit. And the author tells us:
To this day, I slam on the brakes when I see a barbecue sign.
And then there is Uncle Bun's Barbecue.
The pit was located on Highway 51, better know as the Swamp Road. It was a dangerous highway, low and dippy, lined with ditches. One thing was certain - you didn't want to have car trouble on this road, because the ditches were full of snakes and Lord knew what else.
This particular story includes a tale that I think of as 'Southern gothic.' I don't believe it could happen anywhere else but in the South, or be written by anyone other than a Southerner.

Consuming Passions is a wonderful, wonderful book. I adored every word. I love her family and wish I were a part of it, which I could be for the time I was reading the book.

My friend, Les wasn't nearly as fond of the book as I was, and you may read her review for a differing view.

Although the book is often pretty 'meaty,' I did find a number of recipes I want to try. The one I made while reading the book is:

Mimi's Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450º F.
Butter (or spray with Pam) two 8x8x2-inch square pans.
Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Cut in the cold butter.
When the flour and butter mixture is crumbly, pour in the buttermilk.
Turn the dough onto a floured board and pat down to a 1/2 inch thickness. A light touch is recommended - biscuits don't like a lot of handling. Using a biscuit cutter (or even the top of a child's jelly glass), cut out biscuits.
Heat the glass pans, then add the biscuits (they can touch each other - they like togetherness).
Bake 12-15 minutes or until brown.

MLW's notes: I never sift if I can help it, and have come to believe it is not necessary; but it can't hurt. In fact, it's bound to make your biscuits even better.

My notes: I used salted butter because that's what I had, and because that's all I ever use.
And I did sift just because I love using my sifter.

I didn't have two 8x8 pans or even one, so I used my glass 9x13 pan and it worked great. I made 14 muffins which disappeared in no time.

I shall finally end my rhapsodizing about this terrific book with words from a chapter called Funeral Food.
When you bring food to a neighbor or a friend, you are wisely letting the food fill in the gaps. Sometimes we say all the wrong things, but food knows all languages. It says, I know you are inconsolable. I know you are fragile right now. And I am so sorry for your loss. I am here if you need me. The bringing of food has no denomination and no race. It is concern and sympathy in a Pyrex bowl. In the kindest sort of way, it reminds us that life continues, that we must sustain and nourish it. Funeral cuisine may be an old custom, but it is the ultimate joining of community and food - it is humanity at its finest.
You may visit Michael Lee West's website and blog.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Weekend Cooking - Baklava

I'm really going to try and participate in this weekly event. You may read today's entry, and learn more about it here.

I didn't even need to try today because Tom made baklava! There are a few different recipes for this gooey, very sweet, delicious dessert. This is the one he used.


For the baklava:
14 oz. bag of walnuts
1 lb phyllo dough -
this is the brand we always use

1 cup melted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
a little ground cinnamon

If your dough is in the freezer, remove it and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, when thawed, unwrap and unroll the sheets so they are in a pile like a stack of paper.

Lightly butter a 10x15 pan and preheat oven to 350°F.

Put walnuts in the food processor. Add sugar and cinnamon and process a bit more. Melt butter.

Place two sheets of phyllo dough into the 10 x 15 pan. Using a pastry brush, brush top phyllo sheet with melted butter. Add two more sheets, butter the top one.

Spoon on a thin layer of the nut mixture and spread evenly over the dough. Cover with two sheets of phyllo, brushing the top one with butter. Repeat until nut mixture is used up. Tom had enough for three layers of nut mixture. The top should be like the bottom. Two sheets, buttered. Then the final two sheets, buttered. Do not worry if the sheets crinkle up a bit, it will just add more texture.

Cut into squares using a sharp knife. Bake at 350°F for 30-35 minutes or until lightly golden brown, and edges appear slightly crisp.

While baking, make the syrup. Combine the water, sugar, honey, lemon juice, and a little cinnamon in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium low heat and let simmer until slightly thickened, maybe five minutes. Allow to cool.

Spoon the cooled syrup over the hot baklava and let cool for at least 4 hours.

4 hours? Yeah, right. Eat it as soon as it is cool enough to not burn your mouth! This is fantastic, wonderful, scrumptious.