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December 2017

of interest

Show Us Your Books – December 2017

Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s time for this year’s last edition of Show Us Your Books, where I briefly recap what I’ve read since last time, giving you a sneak peek of what I might be reviewing on the blog next. I read a lot more than I expected to in November, and honestly a lot of that is due to my participation in the Thanksgiving Readathon, where I managed to tackle a surprising 5 books in 5 days. Since I already recapped those 5 in my wrap-up post, I won’t do it as much here, but I’ll still share a few brief thoughts on each. 🙂

Linkup Guidelines:
This linkup happens the second Tuesday of every month. The next is Tuesday, January 9, 2018.
1. Please visit and comment with both of your hosts, Jana & Steph
2. Please display the button or link back to me and the linkup hosts on your blog post
3. Please visit a few other blogs who’ve linked up and get some book talk going!

Last Month’s Edition

Engrossing Reads

A Homemade Life – Molly Wizenberg’s food memoir was truly the only book I read this month where I was into it 100% and walked away loving it. Racing through it for the readathon may have compounded this love, but I’m standing by it. In the meantime, I’m still deciding what to make to accompany its review… For those who’ve read it, I’m open to suggestions! The recipes all sound seriously delicious.

Young Jane Young – Any book that makes me laugh out loud is usually a good one, and this novel by the author of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry did just that. The story-telling was surprising (in a good way), and I always appreciate a story that revolves around strong female characters. I don’t think I went in with any expectations – having only heard of it in passing – and I’m glad I picked it up.  

 

Passed the Time Just Fine

Everything Everything – I’m probably the last person in the world to read this popular YA novel, especially since it came to theaters over the summer. The story was predictable, until it wasn’t. I was totally surprised by an unexpected turn of events about two-thirds of the way through, which I thought gave the novel a little more heft.

Seven Days of Us – I read over Thanksgiving too, as a sort of kickoff to the Christmas season. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I still thought it was an interesting read. I’m looking forward to making mince pies in my upcoming blog post about the novel, so look out for that closer to the 25th.

How to Behave in a Crowd – The cover of this novel initially caught my eye when I was perusing in a bookstore one evening, so I made a note of it and found it later at the library. On a bit of a stories-about-family-dynamics kick, this made its way into the Thanksgiving Readathon too. The tale narrated by an eleven-year-old boy in a family of brilliant older siblings was both heartbreaking and charming.

My True Love Gave to Me – I don’t often read short stories, but I saw this collection on a list of Christmas-y books from Carly Blogs Here and it piqued my interest. I enjoyed more than half of the stories, disliked a few and was meh about others. The stories I liked I really liked and it was a relatively quick read since it’s YA. If you’re looking for something to get you in the holiday spirit, I suggest giving it a try!  

Hunger – Having been a fan of Roxane Gay’s other work, I didn’t hesitate to pick this up when I saw it on a shelf of new releases at a recent trip to the library. Every woman struggles with feeling comfortable in her own skin, and Gay’s memoir about her weight, her relationship with food and how she got here is deeply personal and raw. It’s also relatable and particularly poignant in today’s social/political climate.

 

Not Worth It

I read both of these during the readathon, and while the speed with which I read them and their close approximation to books I liked much better may have exacerbated my dislike, I just wasn’t a fan of either of these.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend –  Since my wrap-up post, I’ve met with my book club, and honestly, no one really enjoyed this book. In fact, the more we talked it through, the less I liked it. Characters felt one-dimensional, the setting and plot felt a bit absurd, and books weren’t as transformative as I think we would’ve hoped. Perhaps if it wasn’t compared to AJ Fikry my expectations wouldn’t have been as high, but either way, it fell flat.

The End We Start From – I think something I’ve learned from the few books I’ve disliked this year is that it’s not my favorite thing to be stuck in an unknown world and be unable to empathize or relate to the characters. This one lacked characterization and as a result the whole thing felt very far away and unrelatable. On a positive note, it was literally the quickest read of the year.

 

Did Not Finish

The Power – As you may recall from my last SUYB post, I was pretty determined to finish this book after having already read 200-ish pages, despite not being very into it. My lack of enthusiasm kept me from picking it back up, and I’m okay with that. I read a lot this month, most of it worthwhile, so I’m glad I didn’t let this one hold me back. (I’m not the only one who felt that way, and I too am looking forward to the release of Red Clocks to fulfill my feminist dystopia quota.)

 

Currently Reading

The Boat People – I’m only about a fifth of the way through this book, which I’m reading courtesy of NetGalley before it releases on January 9, but so far, I’m a fan. It’s a debut novel inspired by real events and follows a group of refugees who flee their dangerous homeland to find safety in Canada. It already promises to be more like what I was hoping Exit West would be, and let’s hope it continues to be worth the read.

 

What did you read this month? Which books did you enjoy most? Least? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

They Both Die at the End + French Toast

Imagine a world where you knew exactly which day you would die but not how – on the morning of your death, you get a phone call with the warning and are instructed to make the most of it. That’s the premise behind Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, a young adult dystopian novel. I devoured it in a single day.

On the morning of September 5, a representative from Death-Cast calls both Mateo and Rufus – two teenage boys – and informs them that their End Day is here. They each set off to live their best life on their last day on Earth, not knowing exactly how or when it will come to an end. Interestingly (and one of the things I loved most about Silvera’s concept), a whole economy has grown up around this knew End Day phenomenon, and it is through the app Last Friend, that Mateo and Rufus find each other.

Together, they set about tying up loose ends, experiencing new things and enjoying a last meal to fuel them through their adventures. Some may not appreciate knowing how it all ends before even picking up the novel, but don’t let that hold you back. The ending was not what I was expecting, and I found that the anticipation of the end-point kept the momentum going as I read. If you enjoyed the movie Stranger Than Fiction, which I very much did, that’s the closest approximation I can think of to knowing a plot point and not having it ruin the rest of the experience for you.

Of course, knowing a recipe would end up tagging along with my review, Rufus and Mateo’s most memorable meal on their End Day was important to me. At a hole-in-the-wall diner, they order what I can only hope was an amazing grilled chicken salad (which wouldn’t be my first choice, to be honest) and French toast with a side of French fries (now we’re getting somewhere…).

The French toast obviously stood out to me – yes, grilled chicken salad can be very delicious, but I would really rather not endure a last day without carbs. For those of you who followed my Thanksgiving Readathon, you’ll know I adored Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. Coincidentally, in it, she included a recipe for her father’s French toast, alongside a whole chapter describing its deliciousness. I knew this had to be the recipe I used here, because a last meal absolutely has to be the best. It did not disappoint, and I can only hope the boys’ French toast was just as amazing.

To start, I dug out my cast iron skillet and glugged in some canola oil, making sure to completely cover the bottom, per Molly’s instruction. Then, I cracked 3 eggs into a Pyrex pie dish, which I would ultimately use to coat the bread.

To the eggs, I added milk, sugar, vanilla, salt and nutmeg, whisking it all together. While the oil heated up, I added two slices of bread to the egg mixture, letting it soak for about 45 seconds or so on each side. (I unfortunately was unable to find a loaf of bread that wasn’t pre-sliced, so they weren’t cut diagonally, but I still think it worked well.)

Then, carefully, using tongs, I placed each slice into the hot oil. It bubbled as it should’ve, which was a good sign. I let it cook for between 1 and 2 minutes on each side.

When each pair of slices was finished, I placed them on a plate lined with paper towels. We had these for a quick dinner one night after work, but they were so easy, that I wouldn’t hesitate to make them on a sleepy weekend morning. I haven’t made a lot of French toast myself, but I have eaten it quite often at restaurants, and this was probably the best I’ve ever had. I can definitely see us adding it to the rotation, especially when we’re looking for a little simple indulgence.

To finish, I dusted the slices with some powdered sugar, which is something I love from years of ordering French toast at restaurants. I’m actually always disappointed when it appears on my table without a white dusting. Of course, we also covered them with syrup and dug right in.

Last Meal French Toast

  • Servings: 6-8 slices
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
  • canola or other flavorless oil, for frying
  • 6 to 8 slices day-old bread, cut on the diagonal, about ¾ inch thick
  • pure maple syrup, for serving
  • powdered sugar, for serving (optional)

Directions

  1. Break the eggs into a wide, shallow bowl or an 8-inch square Pyrex dish. Whisk the eggs to break up the yolks. Add the milk, sugar, vanilla, salt and nutmeg and whisk to blend.
  2. Place a heavy large skillet – preferably cast iron – over medium-high heat, and pour in enough oil to completely cover the bottom of the skillet. Let the oil heat until you can feel the warmth radiating from it when you hold your hand close over the pan. To test the heat, dip the tip of a finger into the egg mixture – not the oil! – and flick a drop into the oil. If it sizzles, it’s ready.
  3. Meanwhile, when the oil is almost hot enough, put 2 to 3 slices of bread into the egg mixture, allowing them to rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. They should feel heavy and thoroughly saturated, but they shouldn’t be falling apart.
  4. Carefully, using tongs, place the slices in the skillet. They should sizzle upon contact, and the oil should bubble busily around the edges. Watch carefully: with hot oil like this, the slices can burn more quickly than you would think. Cook until the underside of the each slice is golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully flip and cook until the second side is golden, another 1 to 2 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel, and allow to sit for a minute or two before serving.
  5. Repeat with remaining bread. If, at any point, the bread starts to burn before it has a chance to brown nicely, turn the heat back a little. You want to keep it nice and hot, but not smoking.
  6. If desired, dust with powdered sugar. Serve with maple syrup.

Slightly adapted from: Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, featured on pages 39 – 40 as Burg’s French Toast

Recipe Notes: Bread should always be a day or two old. Make sure it has a soft, light crumb and isn’t too dense. When pouring in the oil, make sure it completely coats the bottom of the pan.


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

Turtles All the Way Down + Spiral Mac ‘n’ Cheese

John Green has written many young adult novels, including one of my favorites, The Fault in Our Stars. He has a unique way of tackling both the everyday and the unexpected parts of the lives of teenagers. His latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, is no exception. Like other teenagers, Aza tries her best in school, has an understanding best friend, and doesn’t know exactly what to do when she finds herself in a relationship. Aza also lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder and an often crippling level of anxiety, much of which was drawn from Green’s own experiences.

Because of that, Turtles tells an excellent, unique story. Admittedly, some of the scenes where Aza is having obsessive thoughts were hard to read. It almost felt like I was in her head, and in those moments, I read as if hiding behind split fingers – not wanting to go on but wanting to know what happened all the same. I admire Green’s willingness to not only discuss his own mental health issues but to write about them too, in a way that’s real.

Stories like these help to make mental health something that’s okay to talk about. The existence of a likeable character that readers can connect to and empathize with can help teenagers (and adults) realize that mental illness is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. In Green’s own words, “it’s important for people to hear from [those] who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.” And because of that, it is absolutely a book worth picking up – even if you aren’t familiar with John Green, even if you don’t usually read YA.

Honestly, the first thing I thought of when I looked at this book’s cover was spiral macaroni and cheese. I think they eat it once over the course of the story, but in the end, I couldn’t get it out of my head and no other foods really stood out to me. So, no surprise, that’s what I decided to make. I found an easy recipe from Famished Fish and set to work for a quick, easy dinner one night.

To start, I brought my water to a boil and cooked my noodles according to the package instructions. The original recipe called for rotini, but I also think cavatappi would work great here.

While the noodles cooked, I made the sauce. I melted butter in a pan and then added flour to create a roux. To that, I added the dried mustard and paprika, slowly stirring in 1 cup of milk, so that it could fully incorporate with the roux and remain thick.

Then, I added in the remaining 2 cups of milk slowly, along with the salt and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I continued cooking the sauce, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes more or so, until it thickened. I stirred in three-quarters of the cheese so it melted and became incorporated.

I drained the finished noodles and poured the cheese sauce on top, stirring until the noodles were fully covered. To serve, I spooned the mac ‘n’ cheese into bowls and topped each with a sprinkling of shredded cheese.

It was delicious! And so easy that I’ll definitely be adding it to my repertoire.

Creamy Spiral Mac 'n' Cheese

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 16 oz uncooked spiral noodles (rotini or cavatappi)
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ tsp mustard
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 cups milk, divided
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Directions

  1. Add uncooked pasta to a large pot of boiling water. Cook 9-11 minutes, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter. When butter has melted, stir in flour to create a roux.
  3. Slowly stir in 1 cup of milk along with the mustard and paprika. Stir and cook until the mixture thickens. Add the remaining 2 cups of milk and the salt and Worcestershire sauce. Cook and stir 5 minutes until has thickened.
  4. Stir in 1½ cups of the sharp cheddar cheese. Stir the sauce until the cheese has melted.
  5. Drain the pasta and return to large pot. Carefully pour the cheese sauce over the cooked pasta. Stir gently to combine the cheese sauce and pasta.
  6. Ladle the macaroni and cheese spirals into a large serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of sharp cheddar cheese.
  7. Serve immediately.

Adapted from: Famished Fish

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

The Music Shop + French Onion Soup

If there are any music lovers out there, this book is for you. Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop was similar in feel to The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, which I adored, except in place of a bookshop and bookworms you have a music shop and musicians (or at the very least, those who appreciate music). Though this book doesn’t hit shelves until January, I was lucky enough to get an early copy.

 

In a rundown neighborhood that smells of cheese and onion, in 1988, Frank is struggling to keep his music shop open. It is the age of the CD and though records are losing their appeal, Frank’s shop is something special. As a true connoisseur of music, he is able to recommend exactly the tracks his customers need, even if they didn’t know it was what they were looking for.

One day, a mysterious woman enters his shop, arousing the interest of the surrounding shop owners, who often congregate at Frank’s. He begins teaching her about music and everything begins to change. This novel has a wonderful, quirky set of characters and tells a heartwarming story. I only wish I was more into music, because I would have appreciated it that much more.

Though the book made the neighborhood’s pervasive smell of cheese and onion sound like a bad thing, I’ll admit it really just had me craving French onion soup. Full of caramelized onions and covered with melty cheese, nothing could be more delicious! I pulled out my trusty recipe from The Pioneer Woman, which I’ve been using for a few years now, and got to work creating my own cheesy, onion-y smells in the kitchen.

To start, I always slice my onions, since it takes a bit of time and I usually can’t finish slicing them all in the time it takes the butter to melt. I used 6 medium yellow onions, because that’s what I had on-hand, but if you’re buying them specifically for this recipe, you can substitute a few less large onions.

I melted a half stick of butter in my Dutch oven. (Ree uses a whole stick of butter, but over time I’ve adapted the recipe and use just half of that. Since we usually have leftovers, I’ve found that that much butter creates a pretty thick – and unappetizing – layer of solidified fat on top of the soup when it gets cold. It tastes just as good with half a stick, and is probably healthier too!)

To the melted butter, I added my sliced onions, which take up quite a lot of room in the Dutch oven – don’t worry! They’ll cook down considerably. I stir/toss the onions with a spoon to make sure they’re all pretty well coated in the butter and then I let them cook for about 20 minutes over medium-low heat while covered.

After they’ve cooked down a bit, it’s time to put them into a 400 degree oven, where they’ll cook for an hour minimum. I like to cook mine for closer to an hour and a half to really allow them to caramelize. My favorite thing about this recipe is that it’s perfect for lazy weekend days – it takes a while to make, but most of that time is hands-off. What you get in the end is a delicious, comforting soup.

Back on the stovetop, over medium heat, I used a wooden spoon to scrape off some of the brown bits, which are full of flavor. Carefully add a generous cup of dry white wine to the pot, all while scraping the flavor off the bottom and sides. (If you’re concerned about potential fire hazard, since alcohol is flammable, you can briefly turn off the heat, add the wine, and turn the heat back on. With such a large/deep pot, I don’t find that to be necessary.) I let that mixture cook down until the alcohol is mostly cooked off, about 5 minutes.

To the onions, I added the chicken and beef broths, minced garlic and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I allowed the soup to simmer for between 30 and 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, with about 15 minutes left on the soup, I prepped the bread to use on top of the soup. I sliced about half of a baguette, making sure to keep them on the thicker side. (I like to freeze the other half of the baguette for the next time I make the soup, or for another recipe.) I put them under the broiler for a few minutes, until they began to brown and get crispy.

When the soup was finished, I ladled it into a bowl for each of us, set two pieces of bread on top and covered that generously with grated cheese. (I used a nutty Swiss from Trader Joe’s, since they were out of my usual shredded mix – see notes. If the mix is unavailable or you’re not near a TJs and budget is a factor, Swiss is a great substitute for Gruyere, which usually runs $10/lb or more.)

Since my bowls aren’t oven safe, I used my old trick of popping each bowl into the microwave for a minute or less – I suggest watching through the door – until the cheese is melted. You don’t get the nice browning that you get under the broiler, but the meltiness is really what I’m looking for in a French onion soup anyway. Hope you enjoy!

French Onion Soup

  • Servings: 6
  • Print

Ingredients

  • ½ stick butter
  • 4 large or 6 medium yellow onions, halved root to tip and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup (generous) dry white wine
  • 4 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • Several thick slices of baguette
  • 5 ounces weight (to 7 Ounces) Gruyere cheese, grated

Directions

  1. Melt butter in a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Place pot into the oven with the lid slightly ajar to ensure the onions will brown. Allow onions to cook in the oven for 1 to 1 ½ hours, stirring at least once during the cooking process so onions won’t stick and burn.
  3. Remove pot from oven and place back on stovetop over medium heat. Stir, scraping off all the brown, flavorful bits. Turn off heat and pour in wine. Turn heat back to medium. (If you do this carefully, you don’t need to turn off the heat.) Cook wine for 5 minutes, allowing it to reduce. 4. Add broths, Worcestershire sauce and minced garlic and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.
  4. Butter one side of the bread slices and broil over low heat, allowing bread to brown and become crispy.
  5. When soup is ready, ladle into bowl or ramekin. Place crispy bread on top, and then sprinkle generously with grated cheese. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly. (Alternatively, if you don’t have oven-safe bowls, you can place in microwave for 30 – 60 seconds, or until melted.)
  6. Serve immediately.

Adapted from: The Pioneer Woman

Notes: I prefer the Swiss/Gruyere shredded cheese mix from Trader Joe’s, if there is one near you. It’s more cost effective and saves you the trouble of grating. Additionally, you can substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth if you prefer. If you only have stocks on-hand, I’ve also used them in place of the broth(s), and the result is much the same – just check the taste and adjust seasoning as needed.


This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.