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Way back in August, Bronwen assigned Banoffi Pie for Long Distance Kitchen.  It’s a funny recipe because it takes a little prep time, but is pretty much the easiest pie ever in terms of needing baking skills.  And if your skills don’t run to pie crust, it works really well with a cookie crumb or graham cracker crust.

I made the pie in August, back when I was getting ready to move and trying to clean out my cupboards, so I made a cookie crust using half vanilla wafers and half gingersnaps that I had around.  The recipe came from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, and I just used one of the variations, pre-baked since the filling doesn’t require baking.  Very buttery and perfectly crunchy, and the crunch provides a nice contrast to the gooey & smooth fillings.

To make the filling, you boil a few cans of sweetened condensed milk for 3 hours.  Yup, 3 hours – and the key is to make sure to keep the water topped up because they can explode if they boil dry.   Nothing like a pie with some risk!  The recipe we used called for a can and a half, so I boiled two, but after spreading the resulting toffee in the pie crust, I thought it looked like plenty and elected to save the other can for another pie.  You can just store them in the cupboard until needed – I used my second can for a Thanksgiving pie, and it was a big hit.

After spreading the condensed-milk-turned-toffee in the pre-baked crust, slice several bananas in half lengthwise and arrange over the top however you like.  Finally, whip cream with a little sugar and powdered instant coffee, and put this on top.  You can sprinkle a little freshly ground coffee on top for some color contrast, or you could go for grated chocolate if you’re feeling crazy.

It doesn’t sound that fantastic, but the result is a great blend of flavors – the banana sort of disappears into the toffee and whipped cream and adds a nice silky texture, plus it balances out the “whoa” sweetness of the toffee, along with the hint of coffee in the whipped cream.

My favorite part of the recipe is the note at the end:

Hint - Banoffi is a marvellous “emergency” pudding once you have the toffee mixture in your store cupboard. We therefore suggest that you boil several cans at the same time as they keep unopened indefinitely.”

Recommended for all your “pudding” needs, emergency or not.  It was a great choice for Thanksgiving, too, especially if you’re baking other things or sharing an oven with a turkey, since you can make the crust and toffee ahead of time and just assemble it all before dessert.

The Distant HoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Like Morton’s other books, this is a big, delicious, old-fashioned novel that was perfect to read on a lazy day after Christmas. Like her previous two, The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, the story is big and sprawling, with so many little mysteries and subplots that you’d think she’d drop the ball and make a mess of things, but she actually manages to pull it all together at the end in a way that’s both satisfying and not-too-perfect. Just the thing if you want to throw yourself into the type of gothic story where you can guess at a few twists and be pleasantly surprised by a few others. The feel of the book is very much like the other two, but the plot and characters just different enough to make it fresh and fun. I’m definitely looking forward to whatever she writes next.

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I’m often torn between writing nice little reviews of what I’ve read, and just gabbing about books as I go along.  A more gossipy approach with a little critique thrown in – and today I’m in a gossipy mood.

I polished off three books last night, which sounds more impressive than it really was.

  • The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey, the sequel to last year’s Printz Honor book The Monstrumologist. Horror’s not really my cup of tea, and in this one the gore was less concentrated in a few key scenes and more generally spread out through the book, but never anything I couldn’t handle.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a sequel, even though the first one definitely set itself up as the first in a series – would it follow the same basic pattern of Will & the doctor chasing a monster?  Yes and no – the doctor doesn’t believe they are chasing a monster, describing the wendigo as a fiction and decrying fellow monstrumologists for believing it be real.  We see more of the doctor’s background, and the story becomes a little more personal.  Along with that, it’s also a little bit more depressing at the end.  The story has enough resolution but leaves you hanging on larger questions about Will’s identity.
  • Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel – I picked this up when it made YALSA’s shortlist for the Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults (what a mouthful!)  My sister has been a Janis fan for as long as I can remember, and certain of her songs are completely linked with certain memories for me, so reading the book had me pulling out her music and singing along.  I didn’t know much about her life, and Angel’s biography provides just enough information to give you a sense of both her personality and the time and culture in which she lived, without ever overwhelming the reader with information.  Short enough to read in one sitting on the couch, but enough depth to come away with a new appreciation for her music.  The book also has a fantastic design with easy-to-read columns and the rest of the page taken up with psychedelic designs.  The pictures were fascinating, but I would’ve liked just a few more (although that may have been an issue of getting rights).
  • After I finished Janis, I remembered that I’d never quite finished the last chapter of They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti – another YALSA finalist that was also on this year’s Mock Newbery list and Mock Printz list.  So I whipped that out and polished off the last chapter and browsed through the timeline, notes and afterward.  It’s definitely an impressive work of scholarship, but I didn’t find it quite as gripping as her Hitler Youth from a few years ago, and I thought it was interesting that she left the story of her visit with a contemporary Klan group until the very, very end of the back matter.  I can respect that she left it out of the main book, since it’s not really within the scope of the book, but I wonder if any more casual reader would ever find it, stuck in after her extensive bibliography?  The writing is strong, though, and I learned more than I ever did in school about Reconstruction and the challenges faced by all sides.  The book also does a great job of showing the effects of individuals on history – from choices made by politicians to the decisions of ordinary people.

More book gossip & recipes to come, but first a few photos from over Christmas (two things I’d like to do more of this coming year are writing and taking photos).

Ooh, and dust the house more often.

I love my parents’ creche – I wonder if they still make them?

There were lots of good eats (including these World Peace cookies).

And plenty of good company, too.

Now I just have to wrap my head around the fact that the year is almost over (and get ready for tomorrow’s first-thing-in-the-morning holiday party at the library – maybe some year we’ll go really crazy and have a party after the library closes instead of before it opens).

Happy New Year!

Let’s talk about Christmas baking.  Man am I rusty at this whole talking-about-something-besides-books thing!  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I get up on my librarian high horse and it’s all books, all the time!  That’s great and all, but not my only mission in life.  There’s also food, you know.

As usual, my commission is to bake something for Christmas.  I thought about going all elaborate, but I kept finding myself drawn to homier recipes.  Things that make you want to curl up with a blanket, drink some eggnog, nibble on a cookie or a scone, and hang out with family and friends.  Plus, there’s enough frantic preparations in the world without me joining in.

Also, I’m a firm believer in using Advent (the time before Christmas) as a time of preparation – the stuff like buying gifts and readying the house, but also the feast itself – and starting your celebration on the 25th.  Christmas isn’t over the next day – it’s just begun.  Also, I’m not supposed to be eating meat or dairy during Advent (although I’ve definitely been cheating on the dairy), which makes a great excuse for leaving a lot of the celebration until later.

So I’m keeping my Christmas baking fairly calm this week.  A certain young man put in a request for Dream Bars, an old favorite and easy to make, and I could hardly turn him down, especially after he got me this for Christmas.  I know!   Can you believe it?  I will never turn down any baking requests from him ever again.  My kitchen now has a nice touch of glossy cinnamon (and a good deal less counter space – but it’s a worthwhile trade).

So I’m making a batch of Dream Bars for the oh-dark-thirty potluck after the Christmas service (the main service begins at 11 pm and goes well into the morning) and another for Christmas dinner at my parents’.  I’m also making a batch of Figgy Buckwheat Scones for Christmas morning, and perhaps some Strawberry Barley Scones, too, if I’m feeling energetic (both recipes are from Good to the Grain).  I’d also like to make a batch of Poppy Seed Wafers, since they were a big hit at Thanksgiving, and maybe try the Sand Cookies (recipes from guess where – Good to the Grain).  Or some of Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace cookies for something chocolaty.  Both the fig scones and the poppy seed cookies are Long Distance Kitchen recipes that I’ve yet to post about, hopefully soon.

So there you have it!  Less decadent than usual, although that doesn’t mean less work.  Oh well, I lucked out and got Christmas Eve off work, so I’ve got plenty of time.  What are you making for Christmas?

Edited to add: get your Dream Bar recipe here – sorry to leave you hanging!

HushHush by Eishes Chayil

A tense, gripping story that takes place in a closed religious community, where everyone believes that “those” problems don’t happen to them, that an unnamed abuse cannot exist, and that those who point fingers are the ones who are sick. The first part of the book alternates between Gittel’s childhood, before Devory died, and when Gittel is about to graduate from high school and become engaged. The suspense is maintained not because you can’t guess what will happen, but because of how it unfolds and how Gittel reacts. While intense, the story is not graphic – Gittel is a witness to the abuse, and suffers as a result, but the author never takes us into Devory’s experiences completely. Second-hand is intense enough.

In addition to the story of abuse, Hush is also a peak into a different way of life – a Chassidic community in New York. While some aspects were familiar to me (I read a lot of Chaim Potok in high school), this story is contemporary and from a girl’s point of view. I’ve always had a weakness for these kinds of stories, where you see a different way of life – celebrations, rituals, everyday things like what they wear and eat and how family dynamics work. For me, this aspect of the story was just as engrossing as the more suspenseful plot.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys a peak into a different way of life or an exploration of the way speaking out against abuse affects an individual and a community. Sometimes difficult to read, but also hard to put down.

Source: my public library

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Edited to add: Liz has a more detailed review, which was the first one I read, and Hush is one of the finalists for the 2011 Morris Award for debut YA authors.  The award is only 3 years old, but they’ve had some great books as finalists.  It’s a good place to check out new writers, and I love that they announce the 5 finalists in December so you have time to read a few before the winner is announced in January (along with the rest of the ALA youth media awards).  So far this year I’ve read Hush and Guardian of the Dead, and they’re both awesome in completely different ways.

Linger (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #2)Linger by Maggie Stiefvater

An enjoyable sequel to Shiver, with a nice amount of tension and the addition of a few new points of view that added more of what Stiefvater does so well – the snark (although I still don’t think this series is as compelling as Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception and Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie).

Some of the things that bothered me about the first book were still present, but there was enough going on to keep my mind off things like Grace’s parents. One nice touch was the way the werewolf theories from the first book were challenged – refreshing since it’s rare to see an origin story/explanation challenged that way in books dealing with the fantastic, magic, and unexplained phenomena. Usually you’re just given an explanation (“exposure to extreme heat can cure being a werewolf!”) and the series runs with it, but here one character sees flaws in the explanation and tries to find a new one.

Recommended to fans of the first book – it probably doesn’t stand as well on its own.

Source: my public library

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All Unquiet ThingsAll Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab

A strong mystery – the kind that has you occasionally doubting the reliability of your narrators – and that pulls you into a distinct world. Here, it’s high school. And if we learned anything from Veronica Mars, it’s that high school can be a great setting for some serious crimes. Yes, I frequently wondered “what would Veronica do?” (WWVD) since even though this lacks the humor of Veronica Mars, there are some similarities in the stories told. The only thing holding me back was that I never quite connected with either of the narrators – something that isn’t necessarily a flaw but that usually matters to me as a reader.

Recommended for mystery fans high school and up.

Source: my public library system

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The DreamerThe Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Unfortunately I’ve waited too long to review this and many of the details are gone from my memory – I kept hoping I’d decide how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s absolutely gorgeous in terms of both design and how Ryan captures childhood imagination in words. On the other hand, it’s got a slow start and the poetic language took a while to pull me in. By the end I was emotionally engaged – something I think the story was trying to accomplish – but I can’t quite work up any enthusiasm for the book. I’d recommend it to adults, mostly, and kids who enjoy slower, dreamier stories.

Source: my public library

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PS: The Dreamer was on the list for the Mock Newbery I attended, and it was one of those titles where I wished someone would talk me into loving it.  That didn’t happen.  In my small group discussion, people had positive things to say but nothing that swayed my thinking one way or another.  It ended up with enough support to end up as one of our honor books – so obviously a few people loved it.  If it ends up actually winning any awards, I’ll have to give it a reread and see how I feel the second time around.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the NightDark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman

Each look reveals new, fabulous details: the dusk and dawn double-page spreads that begin and end the book. The eft, a newt-like creature, that stars in his own poem (“Come all you young efts,/ so brave and so bold”) but creeps onto each page, even the verso. The fact that the illustrations are made by the process of relief printing – “there are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.” The richness of the poems – a compelling combination of ordinary and grand, from the “perched missile” of the great horned owl to “the tiny hiccup/ of my heart” described by the fleeing mouse. The way information – both necessary and fun – has been condensed for the unobstrusive sidebars, tucked next to the illustrations in a smaller print than the poems.

Source: my public library

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PS – Dark Emperor took the gold in the Oakland Public Library’s Mock Newbery, and I totally would have voted for it if it had been on the OLA/WLA list.  Sidman’s other book this year, Ubiquitous, has been getting some love on “best of the year” lists, but so far I’ve only seen Dark Emperor on the Horn Book’s Fanfare list – I hope it gets more love come awards time.

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Flickr Photos

Ben remembered that he likes yogurt.

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Dinner success - the rare occasion when we eat exactly the same thing (except no hot salsa on his rice & beans).

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