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.