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"

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.