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Show Us Your Books – November 2017

Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s time for another 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. What’s really exciting about this month’s edition is that there were a lot of books I was really into. It was a good month 🙂 Let’s take a quick look!

Linkup Guidelines:
This linkup happens the second Tuesday of every month. The next is Tuesday, December 12, 2017.
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

The Rules of Magic – This prequel was one of the books I was really excited about this month. I read and post about Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic in anticipation, and I scooped this one up from the library the first day it was available (thank you, waitlists!). I adored this much more than I thought I would. You can read my review here and check out a delicious recipe for Tipsy Chocolate Cake while you’re at it.

The Word Exchange – This debut novel by Alena Graedon combines our dependence on technology and the importance of language in a dystopian way that’s truly haunting. We read this for one of my book clubs, and even though we met almost two weeks ago, I still think about it almost every day. Admittedly, it started out a little slow, but just two chapters in and I was hooked. Keep an eye out for my review later this month!

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance – I gushed about this book last week, and today it’s available to own! My post about Ruth Emmie Lang’s novel says a lot, so I encourage you to pop on over and read it here. I adored this imaginative story, and I know you will too. 🙂

They Both Die at the End – Since reading this novel, I’ve read some mixed reviews, but that doesn’t change how I felt about Adam Silvera’s young adult dystopian novel. 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 this novel, and I devoured it in a single day. Even though the title is basically a spoiler, I appreciated that the ending wasn’t what I was expecting.

Passed the Time Just Fine

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green’s latest novel (also YA) was released to much fanfare. While I really enjoyed it, it wasn’t my favorite this month – it had a lot of stiff competition. I still like The Fault in Our Stars the best of all his work, and I can’t resist picking up a new John Green whenever one is released. This book takes on the important topic of mental health, and honestly, it’s executed expertly. Definitely worth a read.

Little Fires Everywhere – This is another novel that’s been getting a lot of attention since it’s recent release. Having enjoyed Celeste Ng’s previous book, I was absolutely looking forward to reading this one, which many people have said is better. For me, it was 3 stars (not a bad thing!). I liked getting immersed in the world of Shaker Heights that Ng described, and I thought the characters were very interesting. I just finished it this past weekend, and it’s possible that the more I think about it, the more I’ll like it. Another one I’d recommend – especially if you like keeping up with the latest in contemporary fiction.

Not Worth It

Nothing – way too many great reads this month! (But here’s looking at you, currently reading category…)

 

Did Not Finish

The Refrigerator Monologues – I was pretty excited about this book’s combination of feminism and superheroes. It was pretty short, and I thought I could power through, but I read about 25% of the book and still wasn’t feeling it. I had a lot of books I was really looking forward to in the TBR pile, so I just let this one go.

 

Currently Reading

The Power – I’m trying to save my judgments of this novel until the end, but I’m almost finished – last 100 pages to go! I will say that so far, I’m underwhelmed by Naomi Alderman’s dystopia. (Wow, I’ve read a lot of dystopia this month…) I was expecting amazing things, but I’ll admit I’ve put it down to read a few other books since starting it. I just picked it up again after finishing LFE and I’m determined to finish.

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

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance + Sponge Cake with Forest Berries

One of my favorite things about Book of the Month (among the many) is the opportunity members sometimes get to read a book before it’s released to the rest of the world. Ruth Emmie Lang’s wonderfully unexpected novel Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, which will be released next week on November 14th, was one of the October selections, and honestly, I was planning to share this post with you then, but I enjoyed this book so immensely, I couldn’t wait.

Lang’s imaginative novel follows Weylen Grey, a young orphan who was raised by wolves, as he grows up and travels the country looking for his true home. Each section of the story (set in a new year and different location) is told by those around Weylen – young Mary who befriends him in the woods while making deliveries for her father; a teacher who is taken aback by the student refusing to sit in a desk; an inexperienced mayor whose town is faced with an impending hurricane.

Judge Steph Ortiz, who chose this book for BOTM, described Beasts as “so comfortable and uplifting” and said it was “exactly the book [she] needed right now, and it made [her] so happy [she] wanted to howl at the moon.” After finishing the phenomenal The Rules of Magic, I was ready to be swept away again. A book that made me extraordinarily happy was exactly what I was looking for, and this one didn’t disappoint!

Unlike many of the other books I recommend, which while amazing are often full of tough topics, this novel left me with a wonderfully cozy feeling, and seriously, if you haven’t stopped and pre-ordered it yet, I’d suggest you do so now. It’s an excellent debut; I can’t wait to see what else Lang cooks up in the future.

Speaking of cooking (you had to know that was coming, right?), I decided to whip up a whimsical dessert to go along with this fairy tale novel. On one of her visits to the forest to see Weylen, Mary brings with her a freshly baked sponge cake, which they eat with hand-picked berries. I found a slightly fancy-sounding but down-to-earth-looking sponge cake recipe from Vikalinka and knew it would be a perfect fit.     

The only tweak I made to her recipe was to add some additional berries to the compote (and in decorating). In fact, I started by making the berry compote, adding the raspberries and blackberries to a small saucepan with a touch of water and some sugar. After about 15 minutes, I smushed the berries up a bit because there didn’t seem to be much thickening occurring. I let it continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so before following the rest of the directions. I used my food processor to blend the mixture until smooth, pushed it through a fine sieve and set it aside.

To make the cake, I started by preheating my oven to 350 degrees F and greasing my cake pans. (I didn’t line them with parchment paper, like the original recipe directs, but I didn’t have any issues getting the cakes out of my pans once they were cooled.)

In a large bowl, I mixed the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, adding the eggs one at a time and mixing for about a minute each. Finally, I added the vanilla and lemon zest.

In a separate bowl, I combined my dry ingredients, sifting together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I added the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing well. The end result was a very thick batter (according to Vikalinka, it should be the consistency of buttercream frosting).

I scooped approximately half into each cake pan and then used my kitchen scale to ensure they were even (about 2 pounds each, including the pan). It wasn’t specified in the original recipe, but I had some minor concerns they wouldn’t spread out due to thickness, so I used a scraper to spread the batter as evenly as I could in each pan. Then, the cakes went into the oven for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I made the mascarpone cream. I used a hand mixer to whip the chilled mascarpone with the powdered sugar and vanilla extract for about 2 minutes. To that mixture, I added the whipping cream and whipped for a few more minutes until it was stiff. I covered the bowl and put it in the fridge to stay cool while the cake finished baking and cooled.

Once the cakes were out of the oven, I allowed them to cool on a baking rack for 20 minutes, before turning them out so they could cool completely. I was a bit nervous about assembly (since I’m not usually the best cake decorator), but this cake features a very unfussy decor and is perfect for an imprecise decorator such as myself.

To start, I placed one of the cooled cakes on a cake stand. I covered that with a thick layer of the mascarpone cream (I ended up having a little bit left… it seemed like a lot when I was decorating).

On top of the layer of cream, I poured the berry compote and spread it a bit with a cake spreader. (Mine ended up being somewhat thinner than it appeared in the original recipe, but it still tasted delicious, and made for a lovely garnish on the plate afterward.) Atop the filling, I added the second cake and began the decorating process. I used some of the leftover cream on about half of the cake, used leftover berries to make a design and dusted the whole thing with a bit of powdered sugar.

The finished cake may not have been as gorgeous as I had hoped, but it still looked impressive (in my opinion). More importantly, it tasted amazing. This is definitely a cake I’d like to try again.

Sponge Cake with Forest Berry Compote

  • Servings: 8
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1⅕ cup blackberries and raspberries
  • ⅕ cup sugar
  • 2 tbs water
  • 1 cup butter, softened and unsalted
  • 1⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, large
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract, divided
  • 1¾ cup flour
  • 2½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 cup mascarpone, chilled
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar
  • ¾ cup whipping cream

To make the forest berry compote

  1. In a small saucepan combine berries, sugar and water. Smash berries and cook over low heat for 15 minutes until the syrup coats a spoon.
  2. Remove from the heat and process in a food processor or a blender until smooth.
  3. Push through a fine sieve to get rid of the seeds and set aside.

To make the cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, grease two 8″ round cake pans and line with parchment paper, set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer cream softened butter with sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Start adding eggs one by one, whipping until well combined after each addition for about a minute.
  4. Add 1 tsp vanilla bean paste/extract and lemon zest.
  5. Combine sifted flour, baking soda and powder and salt in a separate bowl.
  6. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mix well, stopping the mixer and scraping sides and the bottom of the bowl.
  7. Divide the batter between two pans. Weigh them to get exactly the same cake in size.
  8. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean.
  9. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely.

To make the mascarpone cream

  1. Whip chilled mascarpone with powdered sugar and 1 tsp vanilla bean paste/extract for 1-2 minutes until well combined.
  2. Then add whipping cream and whip for 2 more minutes until stiff.
  3. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Assembling the cake

  1. Spread mascarpone cream on the bottom layer of the cake.
  2. Pour the berry compote on top and gently spread with a offset spatula.
  3. Top with another cake layer and dust with some powdered sugar for the traditional look. Optional: top a portion with leftover mascarpone cream and/or berries.

Slightly adapted from: Vikalinka

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

book review, recipe

The House of the Spirits + Beef Empanadas

Almost all books can open your eyes to new experiences – whether it be new cultures, new points of view, or just something you didn’t know before. The same book can have different meaning from person to person, and it can have a different meaning from reading to reading. I don’t love everything I read, but I do appreciate the opportunity I have to come away with a new knowledge of the world, be it big or small.

The House of the Spirits, a selection for one of my book clubs, was one such book. By Isabel Allende, and originally written in Spanish, it is the story of strong Chilean women, spanning three generations. I don’t have a strong opinion about it either way, but in the end, I’m glad I read it.

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It was not the easiest book for me to get into, and if I hadn’t been on vacation with a limited selection of reading material, I might have put it down and called it a day. As captivating as these three women were, the common thread throughout all of their narratives was Esteban, a really rather unlikeable character, who outlived all of them.

With elements of magical realism, like many Latin American stories, we follow Clara the Clairvoyant, her daughter Blanca and her granddaughter Alba as they live in Esteban’s orbit. For all of the beautiful writing and the expansive time covered, it feels as though the story slags on, with so little happening in any given chapter. Until the end, when Alba – the joy of Esteban’s life and who feels like the most important character – takes revolutionary steps that not only change her family forever but her country too.

It is in this part of the book, while stuck in the house during a curfew, that the maids decide to make empanadas as a way of entertaining themselves. I have always loved empanadas and thought making them on a very snowy day in Detroit would be a great way to entertain myself too!

I found a recipe from The New York Times for beef empanadas and went to work. In an attempt to save time, I used refrigerated dough, as suggested by a different recipe. Looking back, I wish I’d made the dough included in the original recipe (I’ll include it below). If you do decide to use refrigerated dough, you will probably need 2 packages, or 4 total pie crusts.

Since my dough was already made, I started with the filling. I used ground beef and ground chorizo, because I already had them on hand – I think they work just as well. I chopped the onion and set the beef to cooking on the stovetop.

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While the beef browned, I peeled and diced my potatoes. Once the beef was nearly cooked through, I added the onion and the chorizo to the pan, allowing them to cook for about 10 minutes. Then I added the potatoes, garlic and spices, seasoning with salt and pepper.

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After a few more minutes, I added the tomato paste, paprika, cayenne pepper (about an ⅛ teaspoon) and a cup of water. It began simmering and I let it all cook together for another 10 minutes.

While that cooked, I also chopped my scallions and made two hard-boiled eggs. Once the filling was finished, I put it in a bowl to cool and added the sliced scallions.

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I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and started making the dough rounds. Unrolling the dough was surprisingly difficult, but it did add this bright spot to my cooking.

I got about 15 total rounds out of my two sheets of dough, only enough to use half the filling. (The rest of the meat and potato mixture made a great addition to breakfast burritos as well as a quick dinner of tacos.) On each round, I added about 1 tablespoon of the meat filling, a sprinkle of chopped hard-boiled eggs, and a sprinkle of finely chopped green olives. Using more filling made them difficult to close.

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I brushed them with some melted butter and put them in the oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes. They didn’t come out quite as golden as they might have if I’d made my own dough, but they still tasted delicious.

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Beef Empanadas

  • Servings: makes 30-36
  • Print


From: The New York Times Cooking Section

Ingredients

    Dough Ingredients

  • 4 oz lard or butter, plus more for brushing tops
  • 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 750 grams all-purpose flour, about 6 cups, more as needed
  • Filling Ingredients

  • 1 pound beef chuck, in 1/8-inch dice (or very coarsely ground)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Lard or olive oil, or a combination, for sautéing
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 2 ounces diced chorizo (or ground)
  • ½ pound potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
  • 2 teaspoons chopped thyme
  • 2 teaspoons chopped marjoram or 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon pimentón dulce or paprika
  • Large pinch cayenne
  • Beef or chicken broth, as necessary, or use water
  • ½ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • ¼ cup chopped pitted green olives
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Directions

  1. Make the dough: Put 2 cups boiling water, 4 ounces lard and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in large mixing bowl. Stir to melt lard and dissolve salt. Cool to room temperature.
  2. Gradually stir in flour with a wooden spoon until dough comes together. Knead for a minute or two on a floured board, until firm and smooth. Add more flour if sticky. Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  3. Make the filling: Season chopped beef generously with salt and pepper and set aside for 10 minutes. Melt 3 tablespoons lard in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and fry until nicely browned, stirring throughout to keep pieces separate, about 5 minutes.
  4. Turn heat down to medium and add onion and chorizo. Keep turning mixture with a spatula, as if cooking hash, until onion is softened and browned, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes, garlic, thyme and marjoram and stir well to incorporate. (Add a little more fat to pan if mixture seems dry.) Season again with salt and pepper and let mixture fry for 2 more minutes. Stir in tomato paste, pimentón and cayenne, then a cup of broth or water. Turn heat to simmer, stirring well to incorporate any caramelized bits.
  5. Cook for about 10 more minutes, until both meat and potatoes are tender and the sauce just coats them — juicy but not saucy is what you want. Taste and adjust seasoning for full flavor (intensity will diminish upon cooling). Stir in scallions and cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
  6. Divide chilled dough into 1-ounce pieces and form into 2-inch diameter balls. Roll each piece into a 4 1/2-inch circle. Lay circles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour.
  7. Moisten outer edge of each round with water. Put about 2 tablespoons filling in the center of each round, adding a little chopped green olive and some hard-cooked egg to each. Wrap dough around filling to form empanada, pressing edges together. Fold edge back and finish by pinching little pleats or crimping with a fork.
  8. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place empanadas on parchment-lined or oiled baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Brush tops lightly with lard or butter and bake on top shelf of oven until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.

book review, recipe

Land of Love and Drowning + Lobster Rolls

The magical Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique is set in the newly transferred United States Virgin Islands. The sparsely populated island of Anegada, formed from coral, has more lobsters than people. It is surrounded for eight miles by a submerged reef; it is also surrounded by shipwrecks.

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Though Antoinette Stemme is of Anegada, when she marries Owen Arthur, he whisks her away to St. Thomas. Their two daughters, Eeona and Anette, are born and raised there, never setting foot on their mother’s homeland. The young red-headed Anette is like her mother in many ways and a bit rough around the edges, like Anegada. Beautiful Eeona is very much her wealthy father’s daughter, always concerned with the proper way of doing things and sharing an unusual bond with him from a young age.

It is surprising then, that on a later-life trip to Anegada, Eeona is able to ultimately find herself and begin to accept who she truly is. When she first arrives, a local woman gifts her a lobster. Eeona is startled and almost drops it, having never touched or eaten one before. The woman tells her that on Anegada, they “eat lobster for breakfast and lunch and dinner.”

Unlike Eeona, I have eaten lobster before. I hadn’t cooked it before – until I made LoLo’s Caribbean Lobster Rolls for lunch this weekend. It felt a little extravagant to make lobster for lunch, but considering the circumstances, it seemed right.

I began by prepping the johnnycakes, since the dough had to rest for an hour. I mixed them by hand, as directed, resulting in some messy dough-covered fingers. I had to add a touch more water (about a tablespoon) to get all of the dry ingredients to really come together, but then I was easily able to form the dough into a large ball (and then four smaller ones).

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Towards the end of the hour, I put on the water to boil for the lobster tail. I also combined the mayo, mustard, pickles (I used about 1 spear, once diced), lemon juice, zest and salt to make the remoulade.

In lieu of a tortilla press, I used my cast iron skillet and some parchment paper to form the johnnycake dough balls into thinner patties. I fried them in the same skillet, using vegetable oil.

I was both excited and nervous to cook a live lobster, but in the end, finding one locally proved to be a little difficult. At the seafood market, they had both Maine lobster tails and rock lobster tails. Because of the Caribbean connection, I bought an 8-ounce rock lobster tail. (They are also known as spiny lobsters and live in warmer waters than Maine lobster. They are commonly found the Caribbean.)

Here it is after cooking and its ice bath – notice the little spines along the side:

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I rescued the lobster meat from it’s slightly-dangerous shell and chopped it into bite-size pieces. I tossed it with a generous amount of remoulade (probably closer to two tablespoons). I sliced the johnnycakes, slathered on a bit more sauce and added the lobster meat for a tasty Anegada-style lunch.

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Caribbean Lobster Rolls

  • Servings: 4
  • Print

Remoulade Ingredients

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons pickles, finely chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Lobster Filling

  • 1 1½-pound lobster

Johnnycake Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • ¼ cup cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon scallions, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • oil, for frying

Directions

  1. Place all dry ingredients for the johnnycakes in a mixing bowl and mix together by hand.
  2. Add 1/2 cup of water and knead the dough until it forms into a ball, then portion the dough into 4 balls of equal size.
  3. Place the balls of dough on a pan and cover with plastic. Allow to rest for 1 hour at room temperature.
  4. While the dough rests, place all remoulade ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well. Set aside.
  5. Poach the lobster in boiling water for 6 minutes. Remove the lobster from the boiling water and soak in an ice bath to halt the cooking process.
  6. De-shell the lobster and cut it into bite-size pieces tossed in 1-2 tablespoons of the remoulade sauce. Set aside.
  7. Flatten each ball of dough in a tortilla press. Heat the oil in large, heavy pot to 350°F and fry each for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping intermittently, until the cakes are golden brown.
  8. Remove the cakes from the oil and let them rest and drain.
  9. Once cooled, slice and fill each johnnycake with the lobster and remoulade filling mixture and serve.