Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Menu Planning for the New Year

The holidays seriously derailed my normal menu planning habit, resulting in last-minute decisions and a lot of after-work stops at the grocery store when I forgot to ask D* to pick something up. A hectic way of life, and unsatisfying for me as a cook. Today I sat down with some books and did a plan for the week after New Years, and it felt really, really good.

In the spirit of my fresh resolution to make more use of my cookbooks (I make and break this one every year), the book for this week is Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, which I picked up at Innisfree Bookshop over the summer. Those recipes are starred.
  • Saturday: Italian Wedding Soup*; Country Hearth Bread
  • Sunday: Bistro Chicken; Pan-Roasted Root Vegetables*
  • Monday: Stir-Fried Orange-Ginger Tofu
  • Tuesday: Three-Bean Tacos
  • Wednesday: Pork au Poivre; Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli*
  • Thursday: Salmon with Curried Chutney
  • Friday: Lasagna Rolls
I am not someone who can designate Tuesday as "pasta night" and observe it unfailingly, but I try to aim for a balance of different types of meal, including some vegetarian, some easy ones for nights that follow busy days, some that use up odds and ends from the pantry. 

Unseen Academicals

I will never be able to turn this into a book review blog, because I always feel like I ought to read a book twice before I can properly review it, and who has time for that? But I do want to make sure I keep track of what I'm reading, what with the New Years resolution and all.

We have a long-observed Christmas tradition in which D* gets me whatever new work Terry Pratchett has put out (he now has more shelf feet than any other author in our library). Even a bad Pratchett book is usually pretty good. Unseen Academicals is not a bad book, but it may be impossible to fully grok unless you've been brought up with English football; I don't think American sports fandom works quite the same way. I liked it quite a bit, not least because he continues to introduce new characters and themes to the Discworld. I laughed out loud at several points. He plays somewhat fast and loose with his own continuity, which is entirely normal for him, so I don't mind.

One of my recurring thoughts about Shakespeare is that he could not leave well enough alone, that given a stereotype or a hackneyed storyline he would happily use it, but could never resist adding complications just for the hell, or the poetry, of it. I had that same thought after reading this book; there's a couple of fun cameos from other books, but the main characters are entirely new, and they carry the story along well--and I wondered at points if they carried the author along, as well, having started out as simple sketches and finishing as something quite other.

Reading any Pratchett book now is a somewhat melancholy experience, but so far, he's still got it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reconsidering Use of Weapons (spoilers)

Now that I've cooled off a little bit, I am not so annoyed as I was when I first finished reading. There's a lot of great writing in this book, and it rewards repeat reading. Kind of wish we knew how things turn out, but maybe it's better this way; really, there's nowhere good it can go from here. I must say that I do think there was some authorial cheating involved, namely his inclusion of scenes from the POV of the actual Zakalwe, and two instances where he plays tricks with pronouns. I still think it would have been a perfectly fine story without the twist, but it's his book. Just for my own amusement, and in no particular order, here are the problems I had.

I blame Sma

I do, too. How do you say "background check" in Marain? If you're going to put the fate of entire civilizations into the hands of one guy with a gun fetish, perhaps you should put a tiny bit of effort into finding out what makes him tick over the course of the decades he's working for you. Particularly since there's already been one meeting with Livueta--why didn't the whole story come out at that point? How do they know she's so immensely important to him without even wondering why, especially after she tried to kill him?

While I'm on the subject, that was an incredibly shitty stunt they pulled on him on Balzeit. (You can tell I like a book when I get indignant on behalf of a character.)

Say you will forgive me

Let me think about this a second you made her sister into A FUCKING CHAIR. With a cushion. How does "no" sound? You seem like a reasonably smart guy; anyone with the fraction of emotional intelligence required to even pretend to relate normally to other people ought to be able to figure out that there isn't a miracle big enough. Especially after eighty years to think about it.

If he had just killed her, "sorry about this, but you need to know that I am not fucking around here" fashion, I might have been able to buy it; you take hostages, sometimes you have to follow through, war sucks, etc. Coming up with something that Hannibal Lecter would approve of is considerably harder to take.

I don't want to talk about it

I understand that, but since we only understand the story through you, we have a problem: When we finally come to the root events, we learn jack about the motivations behind any of it--we don't know what the civil war was about, or how these two came to be on opposite sides, and he's pretty coy on the topic of who won. In order to set up his gotcha, Banks has us follow the wrong character at the crucial point; we never find out what he was thinking. He does nothing remotely comparable elsewhere in the story, leaving us with this singularly grotesque, wildly disproportionate act, and no explanation.

Was that really his name?

I am also left unconvinced by the name change. It strikes me as a melodramatic thing to do, and there doesn't seem to be an ounce of melodrama in his character.

All of which said, I really like the book. Glad I finally got around to reading it. I will be taking a bit of a break from Banks, though--got lots of books for Christmas!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Day Menu

For some reason, Christmas and I never quite connected this year. Not that anything went badly, I just never quite got caught up to where I thought I should be. Spending too much time and mental energy on other projects, I guess, and left too much for the last minute. Still, the food turned out pretty well, just less ambitious than I had hoped to be. Maybe next year I'll get myself more together.
To go with, my mother-in-law's orange rolls and a lime Jell-O mold. For dessert, the Nutmeg Cheesecake I made last year.There seems to be an error in my transcript of the recipe -- salt is mentioned in the crust but not how much. I put in 1/4 tsp and that seemed to be fine. I will have to see if I can find the original magazine and fix it, but that bookcase is behind the tree right now.

And that's that! New Years Eve we will probably keep simple, as people with young children tend to do.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Use of Weapons

One of the things I find interesting about the Culture books (I have now read three, all this year) is their implicit self-criticism. It's clear that as a civilization, the Culture thinks rather highly of itself, and that it has plenty of reason for it. Mortals aren't likely to get any closer to perfection. That it still has need for Special Circumstances, that SC has its uses for broken people, makes it plain without actually saying so that paradise is far from perfect.

Of course, if everything was perfect there wouldn't be a plot. The books generally use the Culture itself as a backdrop, a source of contrasts and grist for philosophizing; the story itself comes out of wilder, more barbarous places where drama is still in vogue. Hardly any of Use of Weapons takes place in the Culture at all, but it is always present even when silent. The story is much smaller in scope than the last one I read (Matter). It is, basically, all about this one guy and the various wars he finds himself in. I am tempted to shelve it next to The Lions of al-Rassan, which is also about war, why we do it, why we don't, what human life should be about and what it often is instead.

In my last Banks review I mentioned that his characters are difficult to get inside. They tend to be either distant or fairly unlikeable. This one gets much, much deeper into an individual character, getting the closest I have come so far to sympathy, so that halfway through this book I wanted to smack the author on his behalf--he goes through an awful lot in the course of this book. You could certainly argue that he brings it on himself, but there were several points where I put the book down for a moment and thought it would be awfully nice if he would catch a break, just once.

At the end, I wanted to smack Banks again, but for entirely different reasons. He had a perfectly fine story and just had to throw in a twist that threw this reader right out of said story and into indignant WTF?!-land. It's a cheap gotcha, and at a remove of five minutes after finishing the book, I am unable to reconcile it with the rest of what happens--it creates a huge, inexplicable, human-nature-defying hole, and the only way I can rescue it from itself is to think that we are treated at the end to an unreliable speaker. The alternatives seem to be:
  • SC can't tell when they have a certified sociopath on their hands, in which case what good are they
  • SC knows and doesn't care, in which case the normally entertaining question of their moral authority has been definitively answered in the negative
  • the character in question is no longer a sociopath, which means that in a book that is 3/4 back-story, the author decided to leave out a crucial point of character development purely so he could say "ha ha" at the end, which is a dick move in my opinion
If you read the story straight, everything he does makes sense; Zakalwe's motives are explicable if not always reasonable, and the fact that he has more hang-ups than a coat closet is not terribly surprising.

Finish the story, and there is this vast sucking sound as a lacuna labeled WHY? appears in the middle of it. Somebody who would do that is so far around the bend that the light from sanity will never reach them. To even think up something like that means that you are the kind of person who lies awake at night trying to invent new and exciting ways to be psychotic; it's not a crime of passion, not an accident, not something that you're going to wake up from the next day thinking "hey, maybe I shouldn't have done that...." It is not something that could in any conceivable universe be atoned for, and it makes complete hash out of everything that happens afterward (time-line speaking -- the novel unfolds past and present in parallel).

On another note, I also find it interesting that Banks can't seem to write women, or doesn't want to (Zelazny never got the hang of it either). Djan Seriy in Matter doesn't come across too badly, and Diziet Sma has her moments, but one doesn't get any particular sense of these people as being female. Apparently, you either get to be a desexualized action hero or an oversexed manipulator.

I'm going to read this one again, see if maybe I missed something that will be obvious in hindsight, but I'm also likely to exercise what I call fan prerogative and pretend the ending is different. (It's my brain, I can do that if I want.) Or maybe I'll go read something cheerful instead....

Friday, December 18, 2009


After several weeks of chipping away at it, I finally finished Iain Banks' Matter. I am not sure that I can write a proper review of it without reading it again, which I really don't have time for right now. It's a big book. There was an awful lot in it that I liked. I'm not sure it would be possible to top this one for spectacular scenery--I am going to be carrying the image of the Morthenveld nestworld around for a good long while.

Much as I enjoy his writing, Banks strikes me as a little weak on characters; they tend to be interesting people to follow around, but one doesn't often really like them, and I never seem to bond with them the way I do some. In this book, the minor characters actually often struck me as better drawn than the main ones, which may be odd. I was more sad about the Liveware Problem than about anybody else (one of the joys of the Culture books is just how much personality the ships have).

The plot is vast and intricate, operating on both large and small scales, and that may have turned out to be a problem for him. I found the ending of the book extremely unsatisfying, in ways that are quite impossible to explain without including spoilers, which I would hate to do. It was a very enjoyable read for about nine tenths of the way through, but I'm not sure what I think of the way he wrapped everything up--or actually, the way he didn't wrap everything up, since a thousand loose ends were either ignored or literally nuked out of existence. The epilogue should, in my opinion, not have been written; resolving that one issue just pointed up the way everything else didn't get resolved, and it read as if he'd done it in five minutes, to boot.

Continuing the Banks kick, I am now halfway through Use of Weapons and trying to discern whether any other character on my bookshelves has survived as much crap as this one. The only candidate I have come up with so far is Tempus from Thieves' World, and he got vivisected. Maybe if you take the entire Black Company as an aggregate...? Not a sentimentalist, Mr. Banks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Goals New and Old

As the year wraps up, time to do that whole "look back, look ahead" thing. 2009 was a pretty good year for getting things done, as I look at my original goal  list:
  • Buy house - Obviously, this didn't happen, but we made a darn good attempt.
  • Decluttering - Progress has been made, though we still have plenty to get rid of.
  • Financial - Did quite well on this, meeting our savings target more often than not.
  • Health - Excellent progress on getting back into shape, though I don't seem to have lost any weight.
  • Food - This one was up and down. I certainly didn't try three new recipes a week as hoped, but there were a fair number of new ones during the year, and I was reasonably steady with blogging. Still haven't taken that cake decorating class.
  • Reduce size of Amazon list - Early goal which was scrapped, since we have been planning on moving and it didn't make much sense to buy more stuff.
  • Household upgrades - No real progress on this one, though we did replace Dave's laptop with a netbook.
  • Reading and writing - Late additions. Writing has been going great. Over the past few weeks I have been getting back into the habit of reading, which feels even better than I thought it would. Still at a stage where it needs nurturing, though.
In sum, we did pretty well with a lot of things. Those things I didn't get done were mainly those that involved spending a lot of money, so that's possibly just as well.

For 2010 I am going to make a few changes. For one thing, I am pretty close to giving up on the house hunt. The Boston real estate market is starting to look like Caradhras, and we may be stuck in Moria for a while (why no, I don't like Worcester). If one falls into our lap, we'll take it, but I am sick of the stress. I am also going to take exercise off the list because it has gotten back to "habit" status. So here are 2010's objectives:
  • Food stuff - I am less obsessed with trying new recipes than I was a few years back. At this point I have a library of "tried and trues" that can take us for over a month without a repeat. Setting a  goal of one new one per week, and since I've canceled most of my cooking magazines after various disastrous redesigns in '09, this should be a good way to get more out of my cookbook collection.
  • Reading - Aiming for a not-very-ambitious two books per month. 
  • Finance - Maintain savings rate, and pay off D's credit card.
  • Writing - Post-NaNoWriMo, been doing a lot of thinking about this. I've been getting a lot done lately, even if a bit too much of that has been due to recent insomnia, and I like enough of what I'm doing to feel that it's worth continuing for a while. This may turn out to not be realistic, but while feedback comes in on book 1 of Empire, I am going to try to blow through a first draft of books 3 and 4, NaNo-style. I am entertaining major doubts about the project's saleability, but I want to finish the damn story, even in rough form. I can then start that masochistic practice known as agent-hunting. I would also like to return to that NaNo project; I skimmed through it the other day and I am pretty happy with the story's core; time permitting, I will attempt to turn it into a proper draft.
  • Finally, a new goal for the first year of the '10s. I have gotten appallingly, embarrassingly sloppy about missing people's birthdays. In 2010 I will get my act together enough to at least send my dear friends and family a damn card
So that's it. New year is right around the corner! 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lemon Lust Cake

I didn't name it, okay? I did make it for our latest office birthday. I've been slacking a little in that department, not having the time or energy to really go all out in terms of cakes, but this time I was determined to do something worthwhile. I had noted this recipe in my first cruise through the book, and since our group includes several lemon lovers, thought it would be a good candidate. It met with rave reviews--one group member thought it was my best yet--and the leftovers disappeared with their usual rapidity.

This cake involved two things I have never done before: making lemon curd, and slicing cake layers. I am always terrified by custards, even though I haven't ruined one yet, and I didn't ruin this one, either (it was really, really lemony, though -- almost too much to eat straight). I have also always been certain that I would ruin a cake if I tried to slice it, but there was no getting around it with this one, so I found my ruler and my serrated knife and went at it with my heart in my throat. Slow and easy did the trick; I scored about a half inch all the way around the cake, then went around again a little bit deeper, again and again until it was all the way through.

Note that there are a lot of steps involved in making this cake. For once, I was sensible and broke the project up; I made the lemon curd and the cake layers over the weekend, froze the latter, then assembled the cake Wednesday night. For transport, I put it into my sturdy plastic cake carrier, then put that into a box and stuffed things around it so it wouldn't shift during the drive.

Lemon Curd
8 large egg yolks
1 1/4 c granulated sugar
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 c freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 c unsalted butter, cut into Tbsp chunks
  1. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl and set aside. In a medium heavy nonreactive saucepan, whisk together the yolks and sugar until blended. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, salt, and butter, and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens (7-10 minutes--do not let it boil, or it will curdle). It should leave a path on the back of a wooden spoon when you draw your finger across it. Immediately strain the mixture through a sieve, pressing it through with a rubber spatula.
  2. Set the bowl containing the mixture in a larger bowl filled about 1/3 with ice water (be careful that the water doesn't splash into the lemon mixture). Stir frequently until it is slightly chilled, about 15 minutes. Cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
Makes two cups, the amount needed for this cake. You can store the curd in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.

Lemon Cake
3 c cake flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 c granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1/4 c strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 c whole milk
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350F. Grease and flour the bottoms of two 9-inch cake pans. (NOTE: I lined them with parchment paper as well, because I was absolutely terrified that they might stick regardless.)
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl. Whisk to combine, and set aside. 
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed until creamy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the sugar and beat at high speed until well blended and light, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the lemon zest and juice. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating it with the milk in two additions, and mixing just until blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops.
  4. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until they are golden brown around the edges and a tester come out clean. Cool in the pans on racks for 15 minutes. 
  5. Invert the cake onto wire racks and let cool completely. 
Lemon Cream Cheese Filling
3/4 c heavy cream
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c lemon curd (half of above recipe)
  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream at high speed until firm peaks form. Transfer to a smaller bowl, cover, and refrigerate. 
  2. In the same mixer bowl (no need to wash it), using the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until very creamy, about 2 minutes. On low speed, beat in the vanilla extract. Add the lemon curd and beat at medium speed until well blended and smooth, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the whipped cream until almost completely blended. Cover the bowl and refrigerate while you make the syrup and buttercream. (The filling can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to one day.)
Lemon Soaking Syrup
1/2 c water
1/4 c freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 c granulated sugar
  1. In a small saucepan, combine the ingredients and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Set aside at room temperature. 
Lemon Buttercream
1 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
1 c lemon curd (half of above recipe)
Pinch of salt
  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed until creamy and light, about 2 minutes. At medium speed, gradually add the lemon curd, a large spoonful at a time, then add the salt and beat at medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 1/2 minutes. Set aside at room temperature while you assemble the cake.

  1. Using a serrated knife, trim the domed tops of the cakes so they are even (NOTE: I did not have to do this, for once my layers did not dome -- but I think I underbaked them slightly.)
  2. Cut each cake horizontally into two layers. Reserve one of the flat bottom layers for the top of the cake.
  3. Place a layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or serving plate. Generously brush with lemon syrup. Spoon a scant cup of filling onto the cake and, using a small offset spatula, spread it into an even layer, leaving a 1/2 border aroundthe edge.
  4. Top with another cake layer and brush with more syrup. Top with another scant cup of filling. Repeat with another layer, more syrup, and the remaining filling. Brush the reserved layer with syrup and place, cut side down, on top of the cake.
  5. Frost the sides and top of the cake with lemon buttercream. Serve or refrigerate. If refrigerated, let stand at room temperature 45 minutes before serving. (Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.)
Well worth the effort for you lemon lovers out there.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Goal Roundup: November

Back to the real world after five days off for Thanksgiving--a nice break, even if I did spend too much of it with a cold and got almost nothing done as a result.

I made a few notes on things I can do to bulk out Furies into a proper novel, should I decide to do so. It can sit for a while without undue harm. I have mainly been working on the early pages of the third book of Empire, which still doesn't have a title of its own. This by way of procrastination, as I am supposed to spend December working on the first chapter of the first book, sitting down like a grown up with all of my critiques and making it better, but for the moment am indulging the whiny little inner voice that says "don't wanna!"

Tomorrow it will be December. The day after that, my request for dedicated readers goes live. I will try not to whine this time!

On the topic of our goals. After a great couple of months, November saw significant slippage.
  • House: Sick of the whole thing. They suggested one listing early on and we didn't even go look. Very few listings this month anyway. F
  • Clutter: No progress. F
  • Financial: Recovering from last month's extravagance, plus Thanksgiving - half goal. C 
  • Food: Lots of cooking going on, at least. A
  • Writing: Won NaNoWriMo--50,000 words in 20 days. Got crits on my first chapter, founds lots of structural problems, did not abandon in despair (yet). Left the local writing group, as they're just too far from the sort of stuff I want to do. A
  • Reading: Halfway through both Matter and Green Rider, and unexpectedly found myself rereading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, a fine little book. A
Call the month a C, I guess, as we move into the final days of '09.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Despite having taken the previous day off, I hadn't done any advance prep at all, which is quite unlike me--I didn't even settle the menu until less than a week beforehand. So I had to start cooking around 6:30. I love a heaped-up bread basket, and we were expecting our guests around 11, so I thought a few brunchy breads might be welcome. The first thing to go into the oven was Golden Pumpkin Walnut Loaf, a favorite standby. They were followed by Fresh Cranberry Muffins. While the dough rose for Cloverleaf Honey Wheat Rolls, I started on the savories.

The only new recipe I did this year was the Cranberry Sauce with Port and Dried Figs. I still haven't found "my" sauce, and I'm not sure this one is it, but it was very, very good and I'd certainly make it again. While that cooled, I roasted the chestnuts, made the rub for the turkey, and put together the Prosciutto and Gruyere Pinwheels (yes, again--I'll do something different for Christmas, though!) No one was in any danger of starving while we waited for four o'clock to arrive.

We had a big bird this year--sixteen pounds--and it had to go in around 11:30. Our habit has become to buy a kosher bird. This one, thank goodness, had been defeathered better than some we've had in the past. This year's recipe was Maple-Glazed Turkey with Dijon Gravy, and I can definitely recommend it--the turkey was practically perfect, sweet and tender.

Alongside it we had Brussels Sprout Hash with Caramelized Shallots, mashed potatoes (of course), a simple salad, and New England Sausage Stuffing with Chestnuts.

A clean-up crew of Dave and his mom tackled the dishes while I tucked away leftovers. Dessert is traditionally handled by my mother-in-law, who always brings both pumpkin and apple pies, no matter if it's just the four of us.

It was a wonderful day. Warm, drizzly weather--we had the windows open most of the time, the oven heated the place up too much. Nice to all be together. The kids behaved themselves marvelously, everything turned out well, and we all enjoyed the day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Green Rider Comment

50 pages in, and I wonder if I'm being too harsh on this book, but... "Eletians?" Call an elf an elf, woman.

Deep Chocolate Sour Cream Pound Cake

This was the first recipe I've tried from The Cake Book. I thought I had a close to perfect chocolate pound cake already, but this one blew it out of the water. It is intense, deep, and rich, and though she suggests glazing it, I think that would be overkill. It is deadly good for snacking on, and keeps fantastically.

1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cake flour
1 c Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 c granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c sour cream

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 325F. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
  2. Sift together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and set aside.
  3. Beat the butter until very creamy, about two minutes. Gradually beat in the sugar and beat until well blended and light, about four minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping the bowl as needed. 
  4. In a small bowl, stir the vanilla extract into the sour cream (I don't know why she has this step; I put the vanilla in after the eggs, which almost every other recipe I have does). If your mixer has a splatter shield, attach it now (would that mine did!). At low speed, add the dry ingredients to the butter in three additions, alternating with the sour cream in two additions, mixing just until blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
  5. Bake 65-75 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack 15 minutes. 
  6. Invert the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Cinnamon Swirl Buttermilk Pound Cake

The second recipe I tried within a week from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book, this one was made for an office birthday and got excellent reviews there. It is not a terribly sweet cake, but sturdy and scrumptious, and would make an excellent brunch item.

Cinnamon Streusel
1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Buttermilk Pound Cake
2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1 c unsalted butter, softened
2 c granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 c buttermilk

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 325F. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
  2. To make the streusel, in a small bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt, breaking up any large lumps of brown sugar. Add the melted butter and stir until blended and crumbly.
  3. To make the pound cake, sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cardamom in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine, and set aside.
  4. In an electric mixer, beat the butter until very creamy, about two minutes. Gradually add the sugar and beat at medium-high speed until well blended and light, about four minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla extract and orange zest. At low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk in two additions. Mix until just combined.
  5. Scrape half the batter into the pan and smooth into an even layer. Sprinkle the streusel evenly over the batter. Scrape the remaining batter on top and smooth.
  6. Bake 65-75 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. 
  7. Invert the cake onto the rack and cool completely. 
  8. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Friday, November 20, 2009

50,000 and... done!

I do have two new cake recipes to blog, which I hope to do this weekend. Cake is always a good topic, right?

But in the meantime, I finished National Novel Writing Month! 50,000 words in 20 days, which is of course considerably less than a month. Evidently there is no limit to my word count when I have a nice clear outline and things are slow in my other committed areas. In an amusing bit of synchronicity, I crossed the line having finished all of the stuff I had in my outline, and my slow time is ending as of today, so I am very, very glad that I got off to such a strong early start; without that, it's likely that I would be abandoning the project right about now.

Obviously, I haven't written a novel in twenty days. I figure I am about halfway done with what might someday be the first draft of a novel. I am presently trying to decide if I want to take the rest of the month to do some more work on it in what time I can find, if I can stand opening up all those crit emails and reworking the first chapter of Empire, or if I should just take the rest of the month off and maybe do some reading, or something kooky like that, in between planning for the holidays. I am also noting with a mix of humor and despair that I could probably turn this half-a-draft into a three-book series without half trying. They're fun people to write about. Maybe next year?

And speaking of Empire, two more crits trickled in after the normal deadline. One of them had pretty much the same critical comments as the rest of them, but framed them by saying that she had really enjoyed reading it. I actually got teary-eyed, so I guess I do want to be a writer.

Where was I? NaNoWriMo, and my little progress bar turning green. I had two things I wanted to jot down here, if only for my future reference.

  • Outlining. I don't care what Stephen King says about it, I will use this tool again. I suspect a lot depends on what kind of story you're telling (so many things do). For this one, a purely event-driven action tale with a lot of set pieces and four characters to juggle, I think an outline makes an enormous amount of sense. The draft so far is messy enough as it is; if I had tried to "just write it," it would be more so. Your mileage may vary, naturally. I have two non-Empire novels in the mental wings; both of them got up to a few pages of atmosphere and character intros before fading off into a plotless muddle. Might be worth it to try this approach.

  • First draft tell, second draft show. This is something that I am starting to notice about my own working habits. Yours may be different. When I do a first draft, I write a lot of prose--my characters go off into lengthly interior monologues about what they're doing and why they're doing it, their personal  history, their hopes and fears and hypotheses about the problem they're trying to solve. In the second draft, I can turn these into actual scenes, but I don't seem able to do without that intermediate churn step, so I'm going to try to make a virtue of it and just let it happen that way. 

I have also noticed that I tend to give my main characters spectacularly horrible family lives. This makes them suicidal adolescents and over-achieving adults, with a finely honed set of emotional tools for coping with the less pleasant bits of being an SF/F hero. But this, I think, is not particularly unusual for the genre.

Anyway--I did it. I'm glad I did it. I've taken a much-needed break from other projects, wrote some stuff that I think is fun and might actually make a decent book someday, and proved to myself that I can still come up with new things, and still enjoy the process of writing.

Back soon with cake recipes. Promise.

Editing to add: Just realized that it was actually 19 writing days--I took one day off due to feeling crummy, as you can see in the chart.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Classic Apple Pie

Despite the awesome wonder that is National Novel Writing Month--some days good, some days not so much, but well ahead of schedule right now--and the occasional case of the blahs, I have still been doing a bit of cooking. One does have to eat, and if one doesn't like takeout or macaroni and cheese from a box all that often, one had best do it oneself. And sometimes one must make things that are not just "something to eat" but fun.

I should make a note here, I do not actually like apple pie. I was raised, not by wolves, but by people whose culinary interest and abilities almost invariably involved cans of... things. Fresh fruit was not a frequent visitor, and it was unheard of in desserts, which usually meant either ice cream or store-brand sandwich cookies. Every fall we went apple picking with my grandparents, and for months afterward would grab one from the bushel out in the garage during visits, but I don't recall her making any pies; chocolate cake was her forte. I was only vaguely aware that there were any kinds of apples other than Red Delicious. (Sometimes I wonder if all of this might be considered grounds for a lawsuit.) The end result of all of this is that I have a sad underappreciation of fruit-based desserts.

My husband, who was raised by people who know a thing or two about food, and who has deep, lifelong ties to New England, does like apple pie. About once every two years I make him one, always using the same recipe, from one of the first cookbooks I went out and bought on my own (I think from "The Good Cook," which even now, years after I left, regularly sends me pathetic emails begging me to renew membership, although they still think my name is spelled Revecca). The book in question is Mrs. Fields Cookie Book and my copy is now falling apart. Here is the pie in question, with recipe to follow:

3 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 c salted butter, chilled
6-8 Tbsp ice water

6 large Granny Smith (or baking apple of your choice), peeled and thinly sliced, equaling about four cups
1 c white sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 c cornstarch
1/4 salted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

Egg Wash:
1 large egg, beaten
1 Tbsp white sugar

  1. Whisk flour and lemon zest together in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until the dough resembles coarse meal. Add ice water and blend until dough can be gathered into a ball. (You can use a food processor for all of the above, but be careful not to overprocess. The mistake I normally make is not adding enough water.) Divide in half, flatten into disks, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill one hour or until firm.
  2. Combine sugar, cinnamon, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add apples and toss until dry ingredients coat the apples completely. 
  3. Preheat oven to 400F.
  4. On a floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll one piece of the dough out into an 11-inch circle. Plate in a 9-inch pie plate. Trim excess dough, leaving a 3/4-inch overhang.
  5. Spoon in apple filling and place butter pieces on top.
  6. Roll out the second piece of dough into a 10-inch circle. Place on top of filling. Crimp the layers together ("decoratively" she says--hah).
  7. Brush top with egg wash, cut steam slits in top crust, and sprinkle with sugar. 
  8. Place pie on center rack of oven, bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F. Bake an additional 30 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature on a rack.

Tomorrow is supposed to be rainy. Perhaps in between word-bursts I will find time to sit down and do some planning for the holidays. I am normally sort of hyper about this stuff--here it is, less than two weeks to Thanksgiving, and I don't even know who's coming! I haven't started planning my Christmas baking, let alone done any, y'know, actual baking. Next week I have to do an office birthday cake, and haven't figured out what to do for that, either, though I'm thinking a trial of Tish Boyle's Cake Book is long overdue.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Battling the "I Suck" Demon

This was, actually, predictable. As I've mentioned six or seven times now, I've joined Critters. This past week, my first submission, the first chapter of the first novel in the series I've been pouring effort into for what feels like half my life now, went up for review.

And got almost entirely ignored. The usual and sought-for average is 8-10 responses. I got two. The only reasons I refuse to crit pieces I've been sent are a) it's a horror story, since I don't like those, or b) it sucks so much that I can't even figure out where to start telling the author how to fix it. So... ouch.

The verdict, such as it is with only two jurors, is that my grasp of the English language is fine at the sentence and word level, but that the chapter is a structural mess. Too many POVs, too many time jumps, too many obscure motives. As a writer, one has a choice of two responses:
  • They don't know what they're talking about
  • I suck
Being a creature of dubious self-confidence on my best days, I tend toward the latter. The only reassuring thing is that I am pretty sure that every other writer who has ever lived has come face to face with this creature, and most of them lived to tell the tale. Oh, some of them may have quit writing, but obviously, we never heard about them. Others faced the sucker down and kept on going.

So, we have a date in December, my first chapter and I. Even as I type this, I think (I am, after all, an optimist) that the problem is probably mostly in the early chapters. I've rewritten them too many times, added, taken away, condensed, reordered, and expanded and left myself with a muddle. It can be fixed, and maybe there are fewer problems later... maybe.

Of course, if no one out there is willing to read even chapter one, I might never find out.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update - Day 6

Things have definitely gotten more challenging as the week went on; I have been losing momentum, though I am still well ahead of the "required" daily wordcount thanks to the strong start. I had more things to do, and less ability to focus.

The first few items in my plot itinerary were easy, because they were mainly about introducing the characters, and I could pull from a lot of my background notes. Once they actually had to start interacting, I found myself moving more tentatively, feeling my way through their meetings. I'm trying to do a lot with conversation, and very little via character introspection, flashback, that sort of thing. The book is supposed to be, in part, a mystery, and part of that is the mysteries within each of the characters.

I have gotten up to the part where they get attacked by space pirates, a minor encounter with some enemy auxiliaries, but their first chance at a victory. Romantic tensions are emerging. After this, my notes become less certain, and I expect it to be a tough weekend.

I got my first "crit" on the novel. Somewhat mixed, but good to have problems identified.

Monday, November 2, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

Oh God, you groan, not another one? Well, yes. I need a break from all of my delightful (to me), neurotic (unquestionably) Tethyn characters and their penchant for getting into dire situations and saving the world. I want to write something fun, and a little bit silly, to stop taking this whole bloody project of writing so damn seriously for a while. I find myself worrying about this, if I am going to encourage bad habits by not even really trying to write something good?--but I'm going to write it anyway.

Some world-saving may ensue anyway. I seem to lean toward that sort of thing.

I have spent the past couple of weeks writing up an outline of sorts--mainly a list of set pieces I knew I wanted to include, stitched together by a few bare-bones requirements from my various genres--and writing up character backgrounds (for which those questionnaires included in some role-playing games are actually pretty useful), figuring out who these people were and how they were going to interact.

The first day, Sunday, was easy; I was up at 4:30 (stupid time change), and everyone else was out for the morning, so I blasted through the first few sections of my plot and ended up with more than 5,000 words. Monday was, of course, a bit more challenging--for one thing, I was exhausted--but I plugged away early on, and at lunch, adding enough to my total to keep me happy. We'll see how things go from here....

Friday, October 30, 2009

Goal Roundup: October

Whatever else is going or not going right in life, at least we seem to be kicking butt on these. This month really flew past, and I'm sure the rest of the year is going to go even faster....
  • House: Put another offer on the same house when it came back on the market. Didn't get the house but we are trying darn it. A
  • Clutter: Got rid of some kids' clothes and two boxes of old toys A
  • Financial:  Exceeded target. A
  • Health: This has gotten to be a steady-state sort of thing, so I will probably stop tracking it here.
  • Food: We had a party! I made all kinds of stuff. Blogging has taken a decided back seat to work on the book, though. C
  • Writing: Finished second draft of book 2. Submitted Bk1Ch1 to critters.org along with "request for dedicated readers" but won't get any feedback 'til mid-Nov. Attended a meeting of the local writing group. A+++
  • Reading: I might get the rest of the way through this book this weekend... might. D.

Overall: B

Edit: I did in fact finish Fellowship today. So I get to upgrade that D. And Dave noted that this list is supposed to represent various important things in our life, so if it's going well... aren't things generally going well, by implication? This is likely the case.

Fall Party 2009 Menu Review

OK, so it's been ages since I posted here. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Been busy with other projects this past week. But we did have a party last weekend, and I am happy to say that it went really well, and here is the food we served. I didn't take pictures, sorry - most of it is pretty predictable-looking, though. Along with the requisite chips and salsa and cheese and crackers, we had:

  • Spanish Tortilla - Tried and true, I love this stuff (recipe below)
  • Eggplant and fig caponata - The last of the year's eggplant had to go into something festive
  • Cheddar cheese balls - Tasty and can be made ahead (recipe below)
  • Prosciutto and Gruyere Pinwheels - I make these for lots of occasions; they are easy, and very tasty. 
  • Blue Cheese and Caramelized Onion Squares - These turned out okay, but the dough was very, very soft - no way it could be rolled. Not sure if there's an error in the recipe or if I did something wrong. People ate them, at any rate.
  • Outrageous Brownies (see below)
  • Blueberry tea cake (see below)
  • Cutout cookies (pumpkins) - We had a lot of kids in attendance, so I thought I should make these, too. 

(Sheila Lukins, All Around the World)
About 2 1/2 lb Idaho potatoes, peeled
2 c olive oil for frying
1 1/2 c thinly sliced onions
6 large eggs (NOTE: I generally use 8, because I use a larger pan than she does)
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Cut the potatoes into irregular 1/8-inch slices. 
  2. Heat oil in a 10 1/2-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. To test heat, drop in a slice of potato; if bubbles form, it's ready. It should not be so hot as to crisp the potato. (NOTE: I make this in a 12-inch skillet; otherwise I would have potatoes all over my stove.)
  3. Stir in potato slices, coating them with oil. Partially cover and cook 5 min, stirring once and breaking up a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. They should begin to color and soften slightly. 
  4. Add onions, stir, and continue to cook partially covered 15 minutes, stirring every five minutes. 
  5. Remove cover and cook 15 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Potatoes and onion should be soft and lightly golden but not crusty; adjust heat as needed. 
  6. Over a bowl, drain the potatoes and onion through a coarse strainer, removing as much oil as possible. Reserve the oil for frying other vegetables. 
  7. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add drained potatoes and onion. Season well with salt and pepper. Add about 1 tsp of the reserved oil to the skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the egg mixture, reduce the heat to medium-low, and if it begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, shake slightly or loosen with a spoon or spatula. Cook until the bottom is pale golden, 4-5 minutes, and invert onto a flat plate. (NOTE: I have tried this inversion thing maybe once; I finish the top of the tortilla under the broiler instead.)
  8. Add more oil if necessary, and slip the omelet back in, uncooked side down. Cook until the eggs are cooked but still soft, another 3-5 minutes. 

This keeps well and tastes great hot or at room temp.

Cheddar Cheese Balls
(Bon Appetit, Nov 2001)
Recipe makes about 60 bites

2 c all purpose flour
1 pound coarsely grated Cheddar cheese
3/4 chilled unsalted butter, diced
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp whipping cream

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 
  2. Combine flour, cheese, butter, and salt in food processor and blend until cheese is finely chopped. Add cream, and blend until moist clumps form.
  3. Roll dough into balls, using 1 level Tbsp for each. Place on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart.
  4. Bake cheese balls until cooked through and golden brown on the bottom, about 22 minutes. Cool completely on sheets.
These can be made a day ahead; keep in an airtight container at room temp.

Outrageous Brownies
(Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook)

1 lb unsalted butter
1 lb plus 12 oz semisweet chocolate chips
6 oz unsweetened chocolate
6 extra-large eggs
3 Tbsp instant coffee granules
2 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 c sugar
1 1/4 c all-purpose flour (divided)
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 c chopped walnuts (optional, of course)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 12x18x1-inch baking sheet.
  2. Melt together the butter, 1 pound of chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate in a medium bowl over simmer water. Allow to cool slightly. 
  3. In a large bowl, stir together (do not beat) the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. 
  4. Stir the warm chocolate into the eggs mixture and allow to cool to room temperature. 
  5. In a medium bowl, sift together 1 cup of flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the cooled chocolate.
  6. Toss the walnuts and remaining chocolate chips with the remaining 1/4 c flour, then add them to the batter. Pour into the baking sheet.
  7. Bake 20 minutes, then rap the baking sheet against the oven shelf to force out any air bubbles. Bake another 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool thoroughly, refrigerate, and cut.
These are definitely better after a night in the fridge to set up. Ina, bless her, suggests cutting these into "20 large squares." For parties I cut them into many, many finger-size pieces.

Blueberry Tea Cake
Lisa Yockelson, Baking By Flavor

3 c unsifted all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1 1/4 c fresh blueberries
3 Tbsp dried blueberries
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
2 c vanilla-scented granulated sugar (or just regular sugar if you're me)
4 large eggs
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c thick, cultured sour cream
3 Tbsp buttermilk

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Film the inside of a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick spray and set aside. 
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom onto a sheet of waxed paper. In a medium-sized bowl, lightly toss the fresh and dried blueberries with 2 1/2 tsp of the sifted mixture. 
  3. Cream the butter in the large bowl of a freestanding mixer on moderate speed for 3 minutes. Add the sugar in three additions, beating for 1 minute after each addition. 
  4. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing for 45 seconds after each addition.
  5. Blend in the vanilla extract. 
  6. On low speed, alternately add the sifted ingredients in three additions with the sour cream in two additions, beginning and ending with the sifted flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula, to keep the batter even-textured. 
  7. Add the buttermilk, and beat on low speed for 1 minute.
  8. Stir in the fresh and dried blueberries. 
  9. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, and level the top. 
  10. Bake in the preheated oven for 50 minutes or until risen and set, and a wooden pick withdraws clean. The baked cake will be a golden brown and pull away from the sides of the pan slightly. Cool in the pan on a rack for 5-10 minutes, then invert. Cool completely. Dredge the top in confectioners sugar just before serving. Use a serrated knife for the cleanest cut.
I have made this cake a dozen times, probably, and it is always a hit--very moist and intensely flavored. I <3 Lisa Y.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I had actually forgotten the all-enveloping giddiness that comes with "finishing" a book.

Maybe now I'll be able to concentrate on something else for a while.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Alchemy on the Internet and Other Thoughts

Once again, the creative seesaw of my life has been tipped more toward writing than cooking; I haven't been doing a lot of new recipes to cover here. I have been reading a lot of blog posts about writing, and I am trying to put some thoughts together about what I have read and how. It's going to be confusing because I want to address two subjects, sort of connected, and I think I am of two minds.

The first subject is The Gap. Not the store. I tend to divide the writing world into three sorts of people. Wannabes who never have been published (and, let's be realistic, probably never will be, and yes that does include me, but I'm different--right? more on that later); new writers, who are embarking on the journey of publication, and experienced writers, the ones who have been around the block umpteen times and whose main problem seems to be coming up with more things for their fans to read.

It sometimes seems, looking at it from the outside, as if the publishing industry is where the old alchemists went. If someone were to buy my book tomorrow, I would obviously still be the person I am today. Or would I? I read blogs by published authors with more attention than blogs by random people. Would other people find my thoughts more interesting, more worth their time, more persuasive? Would people suddenly want to leave comments, to have contact with the world beyond the veil? What if I got five books published, or ten, won awards, got a movie deal? Would my thoughts automatically be worth more? (Certainly no one is begging me to sit on any convention panels right now.) It seems from observation that this would be the case and yet... they would still be the same thoughts, would they not? The same me having them--perhaps a few experiential scars added to that me, but how much does experience change the self, once one is an adult?

So that is one set of thoughts I hold in mind, that there is this gradient between know-nothing and wise elder that is to at least some extent imaginary and kind of silly. Even sillier if you think about the fact that all of this emotionally-wrought exchange is rooted in writing and reading novels for entertainment, a pastime some people do still consider a complete waste of time. I am (obviously) in favor of it, but there have been days I found it difficult to defend. Not as if we're curing cancer, here.

On to the second set of thoughts, and back to wannabe/newbie/master of the literary universe. The internet age has done some strange things to this continuum. Even ten years ago, if you wanted to meet a famous author, your only real bet was to stalk them in the real world, attend a convention where they might be speaking or a bookstore doing a signing. You might get ten seconds of their time. Not a bad thing, maybe. You could send them fan letters, and maybe they would write a note back if the letter actually found them and if they were that sort of person. But there was a chasm or rather an office building in which a publisher-alchemist located itself, standing between the wannabes with their dog-eared copies of Writer's Digest and even the new, let alone the established authors.

That blockade has vanished. Now we have blogs. All serious writers have blogs. Anyone who wants to be a serious writer ought to have a blog, we are lectured (on other blogs) because it's how, in this day of evaporating publicity budgets, a new author builds a brand, which is vital. Many authors--particularly new authors, the more established ones seem to take the whole thing more casually--dutifully blog (and tweet, and whatever new flavor has appeared since I wrote this), and their fans read their blogs and leave comments on their blogs, and it can be a conversation with both the author and each other, which is much better than that ten seconds, right? Poof! No more chasm! Death to The Gap! A direct exchange, a new currency based on admiration--whether or not that admiration has any particular basis (see above) and what I am tempted to call noblesse oblige.

Along with direct author contact, the internet is exploding with advice for writers, support for writers, some of it supplied by those same authors, some of it by other insiders, some of it by... well, who knows. Everything from how to use commas to what to avoid in your query letter, how to put Ass In Chair Now and how to stimulate your creativity with Other Things Than Writing, what music to listen to while writing, tchotckes you can put on your desk and stare at while writing, software to help you plan your story (you do that, don't you? you know about three-act structure don't you?). NaNoWriMo--a goofy idea and one I fully support if only for that reason, mind--is evolving into a  year-round industry.

It leaves me with a nagging doubt that all of this is doing anyone any good.

I like the internet, sometimes despite itself. I like blogs (obviously), I even like Twitter, much to my own surprise. But I frequently wonder if what you get at the end of the online day is something that only looks from the outside like wisdom. The word used to be "sophomoric." I know all the rules! I know my way around without referring to the map! I know the lingo and the names! I am Building My Brand, I am querying agents, I am avoiding passive tense and all adverbs ending in -ly and everything else the voices of experience have told me to do. I have even written my own lists of advice, that's how well I have this shit down!

But I'm still a wannabe, so the elders and even the newbie authors obviously do know something that I don't, even if I and possibly they are not entirely sure of what that knowledge consists. No matter how many writers I follow on Twitter, Facebook, and daily blog checks, the chasm is still there, the alchemy hidden behind an illusion of closeness. Until the day that you aren't, and then you find yourself turned inside out, somehow, and everyone else pays you much more attention, because you must have a Magic Key, it must be in one of those lists you linked to.

I did say that this is confusing.

It's nice to have all of this support around. I'd be lying if I told you I never tweeted about feeling down in the dumps about the whole writing endeavor, that I didn't like getting the occasional reassuring message. It's nice to feel part of a community--but is that community, too, an illusion? How many of these people earnestly posting their daily wordcount are writing something that has any chance of seeing the light of day on a printed page? (Or e-reader, I suppose.) Are they delusional? Am I?

The only way to not fail out of sheer despair is to believe that You Are Different, You Are Special (regardless of what all the agents say), that You Will Be The One. To simultaneously believe that The Gap has meaning--because otherwise, what would be the point of trying? vanity publish and be damned--and does not--because it would be impossible to bridge.

I am not at all sure where this leaves me, other than right back where I started: confused. I wanted to write it down in hopes of imposing some order on my thoughts, and I highly doubt I have succeeded. But maybe at least I've confused you, too....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

In Which I am Blindingly Arrogant

For all of those saying, "Dan Brown sells millions of copies of his books, he must be doing something right!" I offer this alternative possibility:

Millions of other people are doing something wrong.

Second Draft Wrap-Up, Plus Musings on Serial Fiction

I am tantalizingly close to finishing the second draft of book 2. (Still no word on book 1 from the depths of the slush pile.) Barring disaster, there is no reason I shouldn't finish this month, possibly in the next week.

It has been an interesting process. For one thing, the revision has gone relatively quickly, though there were places in the midbook where it seemed to take days to get through a single page. I've trimmed the wordcount way down, cut a lot of redundant material, excised two dead-end subplots, enforced consistency in the timing of events, and converted a fair amount of exposition to dialog. I felt ruthless. The book is leaner and less cluttered.

I think it will still need another going-over--I am not entirely happy with the development of the romantic plotline, and there may be pacing issues--before I am done (knock wood) with substantive editing. I also feel, however, that it will not be subject to the endless series of relatively major revisions that the first book has. The two first drafts were produced years apart, and I like to think I learned a few things in the meantime. (Heck, just writing that sentence has reanimated all of my doubts about book 1....)

Once this draft is done, I am going to take a break from it for a while. Much as I enjoy spending time in this world, I think I'm on the brink of ODing. So I'm going to take November off from Tethys and its problems and work on a new project, one that is deliberately silly and therefore should not stress me out too much when there's the holidays to plan for and work on the new release will be moving into high gear. I believe this is called planning, or something like that.

In November, too, I should get my first feedback from critters; depending on the overall tone, I may send in the entire book for critique. After November, I have a plenitude of options--work on book 1 if the feedback warrants, or query agents if it doesn't; figure out remaining plot problems in book 2; or first-draft book 3.

Speaking of which, I have started to wonder if trilogies are considered hopelessly old-fashioned? People seem to prefer open-ended series these days, at least in the urban fantasy subgenre that's so popular with the kids. I can see why people like them, I suppose--the potential for nigh-infinite storytelling (and sales) with characters you like, and people's general tendency to like something new only when it's like something they already know they enjoy, are both pretty heavy market mandates.

Alas, they grate on me both as a storyteller and a reader (this is my problem with comic books and television, too). They make it difficult, if not impossible, for characters to grow; changes that do occur are likely to be minor, or to be reversed in order to maintain an illusion of evolution. They do the concept of climax no favors; after every earth- or soul-shattering event at the end of every book, the next one starts... back at square one. I have never seen one that did not outlive the author's interest and ability to coax good stories out of the setup.

I have a single story to tell. I plan to tell that story in four parts because otherwise it would be 1,000 pages long, which is a little much even in a genre where people like books that can be recycled as building material. I love knowing how the entire story ends right now. It means that when I notice a theme emerging as the characters go through their lives, I can make sure that theme doesn't contradict itself anywhere along the line, can throw in a complication or two, can reinforce it here and there by a single word choice, a fragment of internal monologue. I can only cross my fingers and hope that someone out there still likes that sort of thing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoroughly Awesome Lasagna

Giada probably doesn't call it that. Or maybe she does, I wouldn't know. Fall has landed in New England with a resounding thump, and with it the need for Serious Food. Lasagna is not something I make very often, because for some reason I am constitutionally incapable of making it with shortcuts like jarred sauce, and also because there's just the two of us eating it, and we have to eat it all week. I solved the latter problem by issuing an invitation on Facebook to anyone who wanted to drop by, with the result that my sister-in-law and her husband joined us for dinner.

This recipe is indeed a serious lasagna, an all-afternoon, many-pot project with results that are absolutely worth it.  I thought when I started it that I had made it before, but the deeper into it I got, the more certain I was that I hadn't. It is not a light recipe by any means--the four cups of whole milk for the bechamel being just the start--but a pan of this can easily feed eight people, so any one portion is probably not too bad. Or so I tell myself. Judge for yourself:

Classic Italian Lasagan - Giada de Laurentiis

Tomato Sauce:
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
Salt and pepper
2 32-oz cans crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, optional

  1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, 5-10 minutes. 
  2. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until soft, 5-10 minutes. 
  3. Add tomatoes and bay leaves. Simmer over low heat until thick, about one hour. 
  4. Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If still acidic, add butter, one tablespoon at a time, to round out the flavors. 
  5. Puree sauce in a food processor (I didn't puree it--I don't mind little bits of veggies in my sauce--but if you must have a smooth texture, go right ahead.). Allow to cool before using or freezing.
Makes 6 cups. (You will have some left over after making the lasagna.)

Bechamel Sauce:
5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 c all-purpose flour
4 c whole milk at room temperature
Pinch of nutmeg
1 1/2 c tomato sauce (see above)
  1. In a two-quart pot, melt the butter over medium heat. When completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. 
  2. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth, and creamy, about 10 minutes. You want it thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. 
  3. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined, check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
1/4 c extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1 1/2 lb ricotta cheese
3 large eggs
1 lb lasagna noodles, cooked al dente
2 10-oz packages frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3 c shredded mozzarella
1/4 c freshly grated Parmesan
  1. Preheat your oven to 375F.
  2. In a saute pan, heat olive oil. Add the ground beef and brown. Drain off any excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the ricotta and eggs. Set aside. 
  4. In a 9x13 baking dish, spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange pasta sheets to cover the bottom of the dish. Evenly spread all of the ricotta mixture and then all of the spinach. 
  5. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all of the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 of the mozzarella on top of the beef. Spread 1/3 of the bechamel on top.
  6. Arrange the third layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella, and Parmesan.
  7. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the lasagna dish on top, cover, and put on the middle rack of the oven. Bake until the top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake another 15 minutes.
This dish was made, by the way, on a day that was mostly owned by sheer chaos. JJ woke up around 4:30 and didn't want to go back to sleep (he eventually did, but not until well after his parents had decided to just get up already). I took him to the grocery store later in the morning, and somewhere along the way he lost a shoe.  After lunch, he threw up. Many trips to the plaza were made--for new shoes, for wine, for light bulbs to replace the two we lost in twenty-four hours, for things I forgot on my first grocery trip, and then yet one more trip when I realized I was out of sugar to make the frosting for the cake (which may appear here later).

Dinner, however, was wonderful.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Goal Roundup: September

I think we're getting good at this!
  • House: Made an offer on a place (didn't get it). A
  • Clutter: Trip to dump, got rid of old junk. A
  • Financial: Met goal! A
  • Health: I can run a 10-minute mile again. A
  • Food: Got my game back on with new recipes and blogging, and even some pictures, then seem to have lost steam toward the end of the month. B
  • Writing: Making headway through Book 2, new scenes coming together. A
  • Reading: Listened to "Gilgamesh" in the car. Good stuff. Also rereading Tolkien, slowly. A
Best grades ever. Holidays will be coming up soon, so that will probably take a major toll on... everything, but right now we're in a very good place.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Iced Mini Pumpkin Loaves with Molasses

Found this recipe on Cookie Madness, and I guess I was in the mood to make something with pumpkin. So I did. Mine were not as pretty as these, but the office maw devoured them in no time flat. They are very moist, scrumptious, and make your kitchen smell like Christmas.



Well, I've learned something this week: don't start a bunch of posts and assume that you'll have time/brainspace to come back and fill in the important details later.

Um... here's a picture of some bread! From a week ago. Bad blogger, bad!

I first tried my hand at challah a few years back, and once I did, I wanted to know where it had been all my life? I think that if you make it, you will also fall in love. I was told that the recipe comes from Beth Hensperger's book Bread. It has come to me through a chain of at least two other people, and I hope you will pass it to others.

I don't bother with the egg glaze. This bread makes the best French toast you will ever have.

2 packages (2 Tbsp) active dry yeast
1/2 C sugar or honey
1 Tbsp salt
5 1/2 to 6 C unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
1 3/4 C hot water (120 deg)
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Rich Egg glaze
Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

1 Place yeast, sugar, salt, and 2 C flour in a large bowl. Add water, eggs, and butter. Beat hard with a whisk until smooth, about 3 min. Scrape sides of bowl occasionally.

2. Add remaining flour 1/2 C at a time with a wooden spoon. Continue beating until dough is too stiff to stir. Turn the shaggy mass out onto a lightly floured board. Adding flour 1 Tbsp at a time as necessary, knead until dough is smooth and elastic and a layer of blisters shows under skin. The dough needs to be a bit firm for free-form loaves.

3. Place dough in a greased bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hrs.

4. Gently deflate dough, turn out onto a lightly floured surface, and divide into equal portions. Roll each section into a strip and lay 3 strips side by side. Braid, pinch ends, and tuck them under. Place on a greased or parchment-lined sheet (Braids can also be placed in loaf pans). Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled, 30-40 min. Because of the eggs, this loaf doesn not need to completely double. It will rise a lot in the oven.

5. Brush the dough with glaze and sprinkle with seeds. Bake in a preheated 350 deg oven for 40-45 min, or until a deep golden brown. Carefully lift braids off of sheet with a spatula to cool completely before slicing.

Yield: 2 large braided breads

Rich Egg Glaze
1 yolk or 1 whole egg
1 Tbsp water, milk, or cream

Whisk together until combined

Also, I did my first two "crits" for critters.org this week. Off to a good start, I hope.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


First of all, we didn't get the house. Kind of bummed even though we expected it; the place really was just about perfect for us.

Second, I've joined critters.org, a web site that organizes online critiques of SF/F/Horror writing. While a part of me is sneering at this--Are you out of your mind? You need another obligation like a hole in your head. It'll never go anywhere--another part of me is aware that I am unlikely to improve as a writer if I don't get some feedback on what I'm producing--something more detailed than a form rejection, that is. I have also been struggling lately with a sense of being out of the loop. Twitter is helping, surprisingly enough, as I find my way to more writers' and agents' blogs, but it would be nice to feel more plugged-in to what's going on in the genre. I get the impression that everyone out there is writing YA/MG urban fantasies and "paranormal romance," but surely there's other things going on.

So, I will give it a try. I ought to be able to manage to read one short story a week, right?

Finally, this morning I got an idea for a not-entirely-serious project to add to my list of Things to Write Someday. It might be good to work on something light-hearted for a while. I'll make some notes and put it on the compost pile.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oh jeez, not this again....

We found another house we like, so are getting all the usual crap sorted out to put in an offer. This one is a total long shot, not expecting anything at all, but what the heck. It doesn't hurt to put in an offer.

Brazilian Fish Stew

I can hear the jokes now--"wow, that's a lot of fish!"

This recipe comes from an odd little specialty cookbook I picked up, oh, ages and ages ago, called On Rice. It's short, and one of the most heavily used books I have. I do an awful lot of one-dish cooking, as you may have noticed, and there was a time when I did even more, because we had this teeny tiny apartment stove on which it was difficult to place more than two pans at one time. (This may be where my side dish blindness set in.) Last week I had the book out on the counter for some reason, D* flipped through it a bit and said, "Maybe we could have this sometime?" Always on the lookout for ideas that will fill the latter half of the week, when both my inspiration and my energy tend to be running low, I was happy to put it on the menu.

2 lb cod, scrod, or haddock fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 lb ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 16-oz can Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 c homemade fish stock or bottled clam juice
2/3 c canned unsweetened coconut milk
1/4 c chopped cilantro
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground red pepper

  1. In a medium bowl, toss the fish and the lime juice. Set aside to marinate while preparing the sauce.
  2. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onion softens, about five minutes.
  3. Add the tomatoes, stock, coconut milk, and cilantro. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes.
  4. Add the fish and marinating juices. Cook, uncovered, until fish is opaque and firm, 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and ground red pepper. 
  5. Serve over rice. (They recommend coconut rice or steamed medium-grain rice.)

This dish felt unbalanced; even the pound and a half of fish that I bought turned out to be more than I think was really needed. If I make this again, I will cut the fish down to 1 pound and perhaps add some more vegetables.

I quite liked the ground red pepper, which worked with the coconut milk to give a relatively subtle heat. The recipe makes 4-6 servings, depending on appetites and what else you're serving with it. We had challah, which is entirely outside the cuisine, obviously, but also always good, and which will be the subject of another post I hope. On the whole, this didn't blow me away, but it's something I would be happy to make again should a space labeled "fish" come up on the menu.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Swiss Chard with Cannellini Beans and Tomatoes

I hardly ever blog side dishes. This is because I hardly ever make side dishes; throw some vegetables in the steamer and make some rice, is my idea of a "goes-with." But every once in a while I have no choice, because I have chard in the refrigerator and nowhere for it to go, and I do hate throwing away market vegetables just because I was too lazy to do anything useful with them.

Much as I love my cookbook collection, the internet is really useful in these situations. No one book has more than a handful of chard recipes--fun if you have time to browse through a dozen or more books, not so good if you really need to figure out a menu now--while a quick search puts hundreds of them in reach. Like this one, for instance.

With this sort of cooking (unlike with Indian food), I view the recipe as a sort of vague guideline. I didn't have two pounds of chard, so I halved the entire recipe from the start. There was no way I was going to get out another whole pot, and there is no way chard takes fifteen minutes to cook, unless you have some kind of mutant chard from hell that is trying to climb out of that pot. I threw it in a braising pan with some olive oil and let it soften there, added the garlic, beans, and most of a can of diced tomatoes since I didn't have any fresh ones.

The results were perfectly fine. I am not sure I'll make this again, but it was quick and effortless and reasonably tasty.

This should be a good week for cooking, so I hope to continue with more regular blogging. Our supper club will be meeting this weekend for the first time ages, the forecast continues relatively cool and fall-ish, and other parts of my life are pretty quiet for a change. I am in major pantry-stocking mode, and my shelves overflow with pasta, beans, and broths.

In sad news, the end of farmer's market season is in sight. The Kendall Square market, which has livened up my Thursdays at the office for the past few months, officially lasts through October, but yesterday only one farm showed up.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

660 Curries - Kheema Mutter

Although I don't post there very often, I do still spend a fair amount of time hanging out on the Cooking Light bulletin board, where there is always some new recipe or interesting food-based discussion going on. Most of those discussions run pretty short--a half dozen posts, a couple of pages at most, unless it's one of the regular features.

Or the discussion of 660 Curries. This one was swelled, admittedly, by the fact that the author dropped in to answer questions and provide encouragement--surely a model of self-promotion in the Internet age, and I mean that as a compliment--but even without that it took on considerably more life and enthusiasm than most similar threads I have seen.

After all of that, I finally picked up a copy of the book. It certainly did look interesting, and challenging. An opportunity arose to use it this week after I picked up some grass-fed ground beef at the farmer's market. At six bucks a pound, I didn't want to make meatloaf, so I was glad to find a recipe that was new, would put the meat to good use, and didn't require me to buy or make anything particularly exotic--the one problem with the book, I gather, being that you really need to have a spice grinder and an Indian market, neither one of which I have readily to hand.

I am far from an inexperienced cook, but all the buildup I had read actually left me a little bit nervous about making the recipe. I was very careful to chop, measure, and otherwise lay out my ingredients before I started. This is generally a good idea anyway, but I must admit it's something that I've gotten sloppy about; most of what I've been cooking this summer has been forgiving enough that if it cooks an extra few minutes while I dig out a utensil, or I have to leave out some herb I don't have on hand, no one really notices. I am under the impression that Indian cooking is not like that, so for once I followed the recipe very carefully

Kheema Mutter (Spicy Indian Ground Beef)
660 Curries, Raghavan Iyer
2 T canola oil
2 t cumin seeds
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
3-5 fresh green Thai, cayenne or Serrano chile peppers
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 T minced ginger
2-3 cinnamon sticks 
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 lb lean ground beef
2 t coriander seeds, ground
1 t cumin seeds, ground
2 t kosher salt
1 t ground turmeric
1 cup frozen or fresh peas
2 T chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook briefly, until they sizzle, turn reddish brown and are fragrant, about 5-15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and stir fry until limp and golden, 5-10 minutes.
Add the ginger, chile pepper, garlic, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Cook until caramel-brown, about 5 minutes.
Break up the ground beef and add it to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is browned. Sprinkle in the coriander, ground cumin, salt and turmeric and stir to coat the meat evenly. Reduce the heat to medium low and cover the pan, simmering for 10-12 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of water and let the meat simmer for 5-8 minutes. Add peas and cilantro, cook until peas are done. 
Serve with basmati rice and, if you wish, a chutney.

The only change I made was to use a jalopeno pepper, because that's the only kind the market had. I used one large pepper, wary of the potential heat in the result. What came out of the pot was pleasantly spicy but not at all overwhelming, certainly not as searing as I momentarily feared it would be. It was balanced perfectly by the basmati rice, as it should have been. It was not, all my fears aside, particularly difficult, and I will absolutely make it again--and also, I hope, many other recipes from this book.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Walnut and Rosemary Loaves

The weather is cooling off a bit, the trees are starting to turn on their colors, the flavor palette is shifting. I am finding recipes I had all but forgotten about over the course of the summer, even as short, cold and dark a summer as the one we just had; pot pies, braises, roasts are coming to my attention as if for the first time. And the idea of walnuts and rosemary (indeed, of any sort of bread) sings to me in a way it did not only a few weeks ago.

I love this bread. I make it when I want something a little bit different, and, well, in the winter. It is firm, sturdy, with a strong but not overpowering flavor that takes toppings and sandwich meats well. The perfume while it bakes is better than any candles out there.

I shape mine into oblong loaves, because my oven isn't big enough to do rounds side by side without them running into one another. And even when I do make it in rounds, my loaves don't look anything at all like the picture on the linked page--mine are much loftier. I wonder if they used the wrong photo? Here is my own for comparison. They generally do turn out somewhat dark, even darker this time because I made them on the stone.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Anniversary Dinner at Baba

This past week marked our ninth wedding anniversary (nine years on 9/9/09, oddly enough). His parents came down from Maine for the afternoon to watch the kids, and we got some time to ourselves.

The first thing we did was park ourselves on our own couch and watch The Third Man, which we Neflixed, um, about three months ago I think and still hadn't managed to watch. We have seen it before, several times, at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge (I miss that place), and it remains an excellent film. Then we went out for coffee and tea at the local Starbucks and talked about the movie, about writing, and how nice it was to get out for a bit.

After that, we headed down to the library to kill a bit of time before dinner (yes, we are nerdy that way), stopping in at an old-fashioned used book shop, the kind that breathes a slight must, and has shelves that go higher than is practical full of titles it seems quite impossible that anyone should ever want. I browsed the SF section and the cookbooks and didn't really find anything interesting, though if I ever broaden my collection of the latter to include obscure historical titles, I have a good source. Then on to the library, and then to dinner at Baba.

Why Baba? Because D* likes sushi, and it has a big sign outside proclaiming the best in Worcester as of 2008. I don't know if it's the best or not, because it's the only Japanese restaurant we've been to in this town, but it certainly appeared to be acceptable. I am not a big sushi fan, or indeed a fan at all, but they had a few other things on the menu.

The place is tiny, at least the downstairs; they might have had another room up, that wasn't entirely clear, and they sat us at the sushi "bar" even though the room was nearly empty at the time. We had a nice view of the kitchen, also tiny. I was amused to note on the menu Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc--the same stuff we still have a bit of in the fridge--at $10 a glass. (And yes, I do know a bit about how the business works in that regard, but wow.) I got a shiraz instead, which much to my surprise actually worked with my chicken's gingery dipping sauce. The service was fine, no complaints, the prices in line with what we'd expected for a bit of a special night out, and the food was quite good.

They don't have much of a dessert menu, which is only to be expected with Japanese food. When our server listed them off I was so startled by his mention of a fried dough dessert that I forgot the others, and we decided that we had to try it. We received two small rounds of fried dough, forming cups for a creamy mixture with blueberries in it, the whole topped with whipped cream. It was about as un-Japanese a thing as we could imagine, but we ate it happily.

I do regret not asking about the jellyfish salad, but there's always next time.