Thursday, March 31, 2011

Where Are My People?

I mean, are they not the cutest fellers, watching out the window, up on the back of a loveseat, waiting for their "People" to come home?
Sammy just loves it when his cousin Bandit comes home for the weekend and he has someone to watch with. (Although I sometimes think Bandit is not sure what they are looking for...)

BTW, in the nature of full disclosure, I did not take this picture, but in fact I stole it from The Nieces new blog, darling domestic, where she promises to show off her cooking adventures, sewing projects, crafts and, of course, photos of great things, including Sammy and Bandit.
So why don't you stop over and check it out!!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wordless Wednesday... Encore à Paris

...once more, from the Philadelphia Flower Show. always, for more Wordless Wednesday, check these out.

A Review of "Night Road" [22]

Night Road by Kristin Hannah
St. Martins Press, ISBN 978-0312364427
March 22, 2011, 400 pages

“I read somewhere that grief can be like breaking a bone. You have to set it right or it can ache forever. I pray that someday you’ll understand that and forgive me.”
Since the twins were born, Jude's life has been all about being the very best mother she could be, giving them every advantage and protecting them from everything she can. When she and her surgeon husband, Miles, built their showcase house, overlooking the water on the exclusive island community near Seattle, she planned it so it would be the place all the kids in the neighborhood would want to hang out and she could keep an eye on them. 

With her son Zach, it was easy. It was the  popular boy, a great student, an athlete, a leader with tons of friends. But things don't come so easily to his much loved sister Mia, who is shy, with no friends, except those that try to use her to gain the attention of her brother. But all that changes on the first day of high school when she meets the new girl, Lexi, and they immediately becomes best friends, a new experience for them both. Because before this, Lexi's life was a nightmare. 
 Abandoned by her drug addicted mother, who would turn up just often enough to ruin things wherever she was living, being moved from foster home to foster home, school to school, she know how to survive in the worst conditions, but little about things like friendship and love and family ans security. But now, almost miraculously, a great aunt has been found and has taken her in. Things are financially tight..the aunt works at WalMart and they live in a beat up trailer...but now she has a family, is going to a great school and has a real friend. Jude, so happy that Mia finally has a good friend, make Lexi part of the family and all is well until senior year when things start to change. The growing attraction between Lexi and Zach may be an issue and the fact that Mia and Zach will soon be going off to a college that Lexi could never afford. But perhaps most dangerous is all the new freedom these three young people are facing..freedom that results in them making one terrible decision that will effect the lives of everyone more than they could ever know.

 Ok, this book is a tear jerker of the first order. 
And I loved every minute of it.  
And quite honestly, that surprised me. But central to the success of this book for me was the author's ability to create some real, wonderfully painted characters that you care about from the opening pages. When Lexi get off that bus to meet her great aunt on the first pages, your heart will just break for her. When Lexi and Mia become friends you are so happy for them both. The love between the twins, the love between Miles and Jude and their love for their kids,  is so believable that it makes some of the things that happen seem real and convincing...and heartbreaking. In the hands of a lesser writer it might have been less than credible but for me the spell was unbroken from the open paragraph to the very last I gripped my soggy tissues. 

This is a book about family and friendship, first love, about what it means to be a parent, what happens when your heart is broken, about what it takes to forgive.. especially yourself.
Maybe this book is a bit emotionally manipulative , maybe it goes a top overboard, but I was so caught up in these characters, in their lives and their thoughts and their feelings that I never would have noticed. I didn't want the book to end. I wanted to see where they went from what happened at the end, what was ultimately a positive, hopefully ending..and yes, I was still crying.

Strongly recommended.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book to review.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Musing Monday...Shhhhh...It's Too Quiet!

Do you read books while you…
…eat? … bathe?… watch movies or tv?… listen to music?… While you’re on the computer?

Bottom line, do I multitask while reading and the answer is, for better or worse, I do.

I do draw the line at bathing. My mother was a big bath reader and having seen the sad state of more than one book that decided to join her in the drink, I would not do that. Happily, as I remember they were always mass market paperbacks, which back then were pretty cheap...but still, it was a sad sight.
Besides, I take showers, and I can't quite see how to do that. Perhaps there is an invention lurging in there.

But the others, yes, I am guilty.
Eat? Sure! You just have to be careful not to sully the book with food stains. That is just wrong. One of those cookbook holder comes in handy. And the TV will be on at the same time, thank you very much.

'Real' books, e-books on my book, books on my computer, I have done them all with the TV or music on. In fact, I doubt I ever read without the TV on or music playing. I need some sort of background noise.
Now it depends, on what I am reading and what I am watching or listening to as to what that background might be. A really good book, something that is really holding my attention, would be some nice instrumental music in the background, maybe something classical. On the other hand, a book I am not loving, just slogging through, I might be 'watching' tv with half an eye. But even then it would be something like HGTV or 'Flying Alaska' (love that show), not something you really have to watch watch., I think I draw the line at watching a movie and reading a book at the same time. Ok, a magazine maybe...LOL

I don't do anything on the computer and read, because being on the computer is already reading, isn't it, and even I have my limits. Now, of course, when I am on the computer the TV is on..I assume you are getting the idea. I always have or TV ..on whatever I am doing.
I do not find it a distraction..just the opposite. I find quiet a distraction! I did my homework with the TV on, I have a TV on at work, I have a TV on when I do housework, I listen to music on my iPod when I do yard work and of course the radio is always on in the car. It the soundtrack of my life!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Weekend Cooking..The Best Chicken and Dumplings

I love Chicken and Dumplings, another one of those favorites from my childhood. A perfect dish for a chilly night, even if it is Spring. Tender, flavorful chicken, a creamy, tasty sauce, perfectly cooked carrots and peas and tiny baby onions, all topped by light, fluffy dumplings.
At least that is the ideal, and while my previous attempts were always good, they were not quite good enough.

So, I did some research online, looked through my cookbooks and finally settle on a recipe from The Best Recipe from my old friends at Cook's Illustrated. Yes, them again. What can I say, but when I read their recipe and they explained the choices they made, it just made sense. I also found the same recipe online, at Simply Recipes, with a few changes, and the dumpling instructions are their's.
It made the best Chicken and Dumplings I have ever tasted.
Maybe not the easiest. Maybe not the quickest. But the best.

Why not the easiest or quickest?
Well, you need to use a whole chicken. You need to cut it up and brown some of the pieces. You need to 'sweat' the browned chicken pieces and then use the resulting liquid to make a quick stock. You need to steam the veggies separately. You need to shred the meat by hand. You need to make and toast a roux. There are a good number of separate steps.
But believe me, it is worth the bit of extra work.

Poached Chicken and Aromatic Vegetables
* 1 large roasting chicken (5 to 6 lbs), cut into 2 legs, 2 thighs, and 2 breast pieces, each with skin removed; back, neck, and wings hacked with a cleaver into 1 to 2 inch pieces to make stock
* 1 Tbsp olive oil
* 1 large onion, cut into large chunks
* 2 bay leaves
* Salt

* 3 celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
* 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
* 7 ounces(1/2 bag) frozen baby onions
* 3-4 red skinned potatoes, cut into about 1 inch pieces
* 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, or chicken fat from the cooked chicken
* 6 Tbsp all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon dried thyme
* 2 Tbsp dry sherry or vermouth 
* 1/4 cup of heavy cream (optional)
* 3/4 cup frozen peas
* 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
* Ground black or white pepper

Herbed Dumplings
* 2 cups  all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 3/4 teaspoon salt
* 2 Tbsp butter, melted
* 3/4 cup milk
* 1/4 cup minced fresh herb leaves such as parsley, chives, and tarragon (optional)

1. Make the stock.
Heat olive oil in a deep (at least 4-inch high) large skillet or 6-qt Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add hacked up chicken pieces - the back, neck, and wings - and onion chunks (not the baby onions). Sauté until onions soften and chicken pieces lose their raw color, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and continue to cook for about 20 minutes. While chicken stock pieces are cooking, bring 6 cups of water (or 4 cups of canned stock and 2 cups of water, as I did) to a boil. Increase heat to to medium-high, add the 6 cups of stock/hot water to the chicken pieces.

2 Poach the chicken in the stock.
Add skinless chicken parts (legs, thighs, breasts), 2 bay leaves, and 3/4 teaspoon of salt to the stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat; continue to simmer, partially covered, until broth is flavorful and chicken parts are just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Remove chicken parts from the pan and set aside. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones in 2-inch chunks. Do not cut with a knife but shred by hand. Place a strainer over a large bowl and pour the broth through it, straining out the solids from the broth. Discard the solids. Skim and reserve the chicken fat from broth (a fat separator works great for this task) and set aside 5 cups of broth, reserving extra for another use.

3. Make the dumpling batter.
While chicken is cooking, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add (optional) chopped fresh herbs. Add melted butter and milk to the dry ingredients. Gently mix with a spoon until mixture just comes together. (Note: do not overmix! or your dumplings will turn out too dense.) Set aside.

4. Meanwhile, bring 1/2 inch of water to simmer in a pot or skillet fitted with a steamer basket. Add celery, potatoes, carrots and onions to basket and steam about 10 minutes, until barely tender. Do not overcook as they will cook further in the stew. Remove and set aside.

6. Make the stew base, assemble the stew.
Heat butter or reserved chicken fat in the pan you had used to make the stock in over medium-high heat. Whisk in flour and thyme; cook, whisking constantly, until flour turns golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, gradually add sherry or vermouth, then slowly add the reserved 5 cups of chicken stock; simmer until mixture thickens slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the vegetables, peas and parsley, chicken and optional cream; return to a good simmer. Taste sauce and adjust with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed.

7. Add the dumplings.
Drop dumpling batter into the simmering stew by heaping teaspoonfuls, over the surface of the stew. Cover and simmer until dumplings are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Once you have covered the pan, do not uncover while the dumplings are cooking! In order for them to be light and fluffy, they must steam, not boil. Uncovering the pan releases the steam. If after 15 minutes they are still not cooked through (use a toothpick or skewer to test) cover pan again, and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Ladle portions of meat, sauce, vegetables, and dumplings into soup plates and serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

This same chicken and vegetable mixture would, of course, also made a lovely chicken pot pie with the addition of a nice crust.  A few changed I made to the original recipe, but nothing serious.
Ok, I did not use the Cook's Illustrated recipe for the dumplings. They gave directions for flat noodle-like dumplings and biscuit-like dumplings as well as round ones. My mother always used Bisquick dumplings, I love them and so I used Bisquick and the recipe on their box. Light, fluffy, delicious.
I like the tiny onions, while the original recipe used boiling onions. I added the potatoes and I think using a box (4 cups) of pre-made chicken stock, rather than all water, can't but add to the flavor of the sauce.

And flavor it had, in spades!

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Dangerous World of Amazon Reviews

Quite honestly, I rarely buy a book or request a book without checking to see if there are some reviews already out there and seeing what the general opinion of the book  is. I look on Library Thing, I look on the Book Blogs Search Engine and yes, I look on Amazon.
On Amazon, I will read what the Editorial Reviews say, I will look at the spread of the stars and I will often read a couple, especially the negative ones, which I think are often the most telling.

Now I appreciate having these resources but, as with many things, you have to use them with care. Especially the reviews on Amazon.

Certainly, others have noticed and written about this before. And certainly it is not only an issue on Amazon, but on every site online that has reviews posted, but because Amazon is so big it is very visible there.
Cases where 'fake reviewers', often people that work for the company whose product is being reviewed, write glowing, 5 star reviews. On the other hand, you have cases where you so to look at a product or a book and see a huge number of one star reviews. But then you read them and find the review is not about the book or the product but some off subject complaint. Maybe the reviewer is actually complaining about the cost or the fact that it is not available on Kindle..or the cost of the book on Kindle. 

Another favorite issue of mine on Amazon is to look at the reviews of a book and see a large number of 5 star ones that may not be what they seem. At first you think, "Wow, people must love it!"  But wait. Look a little closer at those "reviewers". I was posting a review today and took a closer look at some of the other ones. More than half of the 5 star reviews were by people who had never posted a review on Amazon before. Am I too suspicious if I wonder who they are and exactly what their connection to the author might be? What did they used to say about Chicago-style voting..."Vote early, vote often!"

Now, I am not saying don't read on-line reviews. No, not at all. I post reviews on Library Thing and Amazon all the time, pretty much every book I review here and a lot of product I buy through Amazon. And I am a member of the Amazon Vine program and, of course, review everything, book or product, that I receive from them. I love the Vine program an i love the opportunities it offers. I take my reviews seriously, as I do the ones I post here, because I know that people may be spending their hard earned money, at least in party, based on what I and other reviewers say. And many, maybe most, reviews take it seriously too. The Internet is an anonymous place and some people misuse that anonymity, maybe to attempt to mislead or misdirect through reviews they post. I am just saying, as with everything, buyer beware! Reviews are just one more tool you can use.

But there is another issue about these reviews that I never really saw until today. It is possible to take reviews way TOO seriously!

I reviewed Jodi Picoult's new book here a couple of weeks ago and posted a version of the review on Amazon. I did not like the book. I thought it gave a very one-sided view of some important issues and I thought many of the characters were shallow and one dimensional. I found the book disappointing.

Well, I posted it on Amazon as well, and thought no more of it until I was posting a review of  Crystal Light Chewy Candy (pretty bad IMHO) today. While I was there, I took a look at all my reviews on my profile page. I happened to notice one review, the Picoult book, had a number of comments and was curious about them.
Wow! People though I should be ashamed of myself for not loving it, people were ranting on about cults and all sorts of political issues and heaven knows what. Name calling, nastiness, flaming I think ya kids call it. is just a book review, about a work of fiction meant for entertainment. Calm down!
As in so many thinks, moderation is the key!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Review of "Huck" [21]

Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught a Family--and a Whole Town--About Hope and Happy Endings by Janet Elder
Broadway, ISBN 978-0767931342
September 28, 2010, 304 pages

What grabs you about a book? Why do you pick this one and not that one?
Well, for me and this book, it was two things. It was that picture on the cover, of perhaps one of the cutest dogs in the world...besides Bandit and Sammy, of course. Just look at that face!
Second were the blurbs, from the likes of the N.Y.Times, David Letterman, Caroline Kennedy and Patricia Cornwell.
So did it live up to these high expectations?

Huck, that adorable toy poodle on the cover, is at the center of this book, but his journey to the Elder family was a long one.
Since he was a small child, the author's son Micheal, wanted a dog. An only child, raised, as his mother admits, being read books about all sorts of charming, cute animals since he was an infant, there is nothing he wants more than a pet to love. He begged, he argued, he made PowerPoint presentations of why it was a good idea. I will tell you, it got rather pitiful really, like when he tries to keep an inchworm as a pet. And just as strongly his parents, Rich and Janet, found reasons why having a dog while living in an apartment in Manhattan, with their schedule, was not a good idea.

Then Janet got sick, breast cancer, and faced months of chemo and radiation and the possibility of not surviving. So, to give their son, now 11, something to look forward to, they promised him a dog when her treatments were finished and they were better able to cope. And get a dog they did, little Huck, from a breeder in Florida.
He is cute, he is smart, he wins all their hearts. They are in love.
Then they go away on vacation, leaving Huck with Janet's sister in NJ, an experienced dog owner. But perhaps of bigger dog who can not squeeze through a gap in the fence.
Huck is lost and they must appeal to the residents of the surburban New Jersey town for their help and I will spoil the surprise and tell you that after several days, Huck is found.

That is the story.
Yes, Huck is adorable and they love him, as most pet owners love their pets. And yes, they are heartbroken when he is lost, as we all would be. And I must tell you that the residents of Ramsey and the few neighboring towns in NJ come across as the nicest, most helpful people you have ever met. We in NJ appreciate that.
The part of the book about her cancer diagnosis is very good, and any of us who have sat in that chair across from a doctor with bad news will know how she felt. Their bonding with a new dog and his antics will resonate with all we pet lovers out there. That first part of the book, with the diagnosis and getting the dog, is very sweet. And I am glad they came across so many nice, helpful people in their times of trouble. I am sure this story is in part a reward for them.

But...almost 2/3 of the book is taken up by the search after Huck escapes.
In minute, painstaking detail.
I am afraid the author lost me there. Certainly, I wanted to find out if he returned safely. Ok, you actually know when you start the book that he did, you know it when you read the title. But, I was not really that concerned about knowing what they had for breakfast one day before going out to search or ever person they talked to on the streets. An editor needed to take The Big Red Pen to this part. A lot.
This would have made a great magazine article, or maybe even a sweet children's book, with illustrations of the oh-so-cute Huck. Yes, that I can see. I might even buy it.
What we got instead is a  pleasant, feel-good story that lost it's way as surely as Huck did,  one that I think even the greatest dog lover out there may tire of before the end.

My thanks to the publisher, through the Amazon Vine program, for providing a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wordless Wednesday...Paris in Philadelphia

A few pictures for this years visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show..



 always, for more Wordless Wednesday, check these out.

A Review of "The Shepherd" [20]

The Shepherd by Ethan Cross
The Fiction Studio, ISBN 978-1936558063
March 16, 2011, 400 pages

"Marcus Williams and Francis Ackerman Jr. both have a talent for hurting people. Marcus, a former New York City homicide detective, uses his abilities to protect others, while Ackerman uses his gifts to inflict pain and suffering. When both men become unwilling pawns in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of our government, Marcus finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse trapped between a twisted psychopath and a vigilante with seemingly unlimited resources. Aided by a rogue FBI agent and the vigilante's beautiful daughter -a woman with whom he's quickly falling in love- Marcus must expose the deadly political conspiracy and confront his past while hunting down one of the most cunning and ruthless killers in the world."

What did I learn from this book? Well, things are not always what they seem at first.

I will tell you that for a large portion of this book I was planning to give it a rather lukewarm if not negative review.
Not that it is badly written.
Because it is not, not at all. In fact it is very well written.
It is a complicated story, with a good number of characters and the author is very successful at keeping it all straight in the reader's mind. And it is not because the characters are not good, because again, this is not an issue. The characters are clearly painted and very interesting. The first major character, serial killer Ackerman is as creepy and scary as any serial killer I have ever read. Ever.You know how I like a 'good' serial killer but I will tell you, this one..well, this one scared me. It is not so much any physical description of the crimes, although that may be an issue for the more weak stomached reader, but rather the relentless psychological attacks on his victims. Disturbing stuff, but interesting stuff too, because it will make many readers question what they might do in the same situation.

The other major character, Marcus, is as interesting in his own way. He is an ex-cop, a man very able to handle himself in just about every situation, but a man dealing with a troubling, secret past. And again, when his past is revealed, the reader is forced to reconsider both their opinion of Marcus and that they would have done in his place. Again and again the question is raised, does the end ever justify the means?

Then what was the problem, why did I not like this book at first?
Well, there are two distinct stories, one about a serial killer, Ackerman and one about Marcus and how he comes upon this government conspiracy. And to tell you the truth I am not a big fan of conspiracy. And while the two stories interconnect to a degree, starting when Marcus finds the body of one of the killers victims, it just seemed like one story too many. Serial killer...fine. Conspiracy plot...fine. Together...why?
Then, there seemed to be a number of things that were a bit off, holes in the story, as it were. You may have noticed that I read a lot of mysteries and maybe that is why these little things jump out at me but it started to seem a bit careless of the author to have caught these mistakes.

Well, things are not always what they seem.

I will say no more, but just keep in mind if you read this book, that sometimes you have to look below the surface and when these other layers are revealed toward the later part of the book...well, I was totally surprised and totally turned around in my view of the book from lukewarm to positive. My only fear is for some readers that reward may be too late in coming, but I hope that is not the case.
This is Cross's first published book and what seems to be the first  in a series he is writing. The final sign of my ultimate opinion of this book is that when the next in the series is published, I will certainly be reading it. 

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book to review.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Musing Monday..A Reading Emergency

Ok, lets wander over to Should Be Reading and check out this weeks question...

This week’s musing asks…
What is the last book you bought? Was it for you? for someone else? Have you read it, yet?

Oh my...I have no idea! I live in a world of book confusion!
Thank goodness for my beloved Library Thing. Did I mention how I miss the old LT meme from long ago..on Tuesday wasn't it...where we extolled the wonderful benefit of being a Library Thing user.
Well, anyhoo, as disorganized as I am, the one thing I really try to do is enter every book that comes into my hovel into my Library Thing list, so I have some idea what I bought, read, reviewed, borrowed, received, found, stole.... ;-)

So let me see. Wait, this is easier than I first thought, because I bought a 'book' just yesterday. Ok, it was not a 'real' book, but I won't subject you to one of my rants about the new book formats so early in the day. The last book that I bought was A Cold Day for Murder: A Kate Shugak Mystery by Dana Stabenow. And as a feared, it shows the evil reality, evil I tell ya, of these dreaded, dreadful e-books.

I was at work this weekend and in my quiet time was finishing up a book I had received for review, The Shepherd by Ethan Cross. As I will explain in my review this week, I was not totally loving it, but then it took a turn and I was hooked, so I ended up finishing it before I thought I would. So there I was, bookless, cut off from my huge unread pile at home. But I had my phone, with it's Nook app, and I just had to buy one. I mean, it was an emergency right? Wait. Didn't I have other, unread books on my Nook that I could have read without buying another one. Ok, there is no need to bring logic into this discussion. Well, maybe, but this one takes place in Alaska...and there is a dog...and a I just had to, right! And Nook was happy to make it way too easy. A few clicks, and in just seconds it was in my hands.

So now I am home today, and it is raining, a perfect day to gather my Nook, and a cuppa tea and finish it off. I am about 3/4 finished, so it will not take long.
And get back to that unread pile....

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekend Cooking.. "Irish Potato" Cupcakes

It is St. Patrick's day as I write this, the feast day of the patron Saint of Ireland.
And I am having a wee problem.
Which will become apparent as the post continues.

I made some vegetable soup and got some Irish Brown Bread that I made before out of the freezer.
I decided to experiment and make corned beef in the slow cooker.
I am on a slow cooker kick...what can I say.
I looked for recipes and they were all over the map.
So I decided to just go for it.

Put some roughly chopped onions and carrots and rutabaga and red potatoes in the slow cooker.
Added about 1 cup of beer.
Placed the corned beef on top of the veg.
Cooked on high for one hour, then reduced to low for another 6 hours.

The corned beef was delicious, fork tender.
The rutabaga and carrots held up well, the potatoes were a bit over cooked. Next time I would steam them with the cabbage.
The onions pretty much disappeared into the liquid, which was extremely flavorful.

I had, as tradition holds, cabbage with it, but I did not cook that in the slow cooker as I mentioned.
I cut it into about 1 inch pieces and steamed it for about 10  minutes and then finished it in a saute pan with a knob of butter.
The Irish love knobs of butter.

But the problem I referred to.
The only beer I had on hand for the cup I put in with the corned beef was a 750 ml bottle of Belgian Ale. About 8/10th of a quart.
Once I opened it, I had to finish it.
I could not waste it.
For me that is a lot of beer
I need a nap now.

I will leave you with dessert. A recipe for an "Irish Potato" Cupcake.
As you may know, an Irish Potato is a round coconut candy, covered with cinnamon to look like a potato.
This is a coconut cupcake...also topped with cinnamon and does not look quite like a potato, but I thought it was pretty good.
{update..I took a tray of them to work and my co-workers seemed to like them a good deal as well. But then, they will eat  just about anything}

Coconut Cupcakes
(adapted from cake2cake)

1 box white Duncan Hines cake mix
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
¾ tsp. salt
1 1/3 cups water
2 TBS. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. coconut extract
1 cup sour cream
                                                                                       4 large egg whites
                                                                                       2 ½ cups finely chopped sweetened coconut

Whisk together all dry ingredients. 
Process coconut in food processor to make more fine.  In another bowl, mix all the remaining ingredients and then add to the dry. Beat with mixer for 2 minutes.

Fill cupcakes pans until ½ filled (you only want cupcake to just come to top of the paper when baked) and bake 17-20 minutes at 325 degrees, until tester come out clean.

Top with  Dickinson Coconut Cream Curd   with a small icing spatula and dust with cinnamon.

Ok, the problem was, I could not find the coconut cream locally. It was too late to look further, or order online, and I was feeling pretty lazy at this point, so I bought a can of Cream Cheese Icing. {{shame}} But it tasted pretty bland, so I whipped in 8 oz. of additional cream cheese and then I was happy with it. Dust with cinnamon and they were quite nice.
But the ones at cake2cake were way cuter. 

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Review of "Indefensible" [19]

Indefensible by Pamela Callow
Mira, ISBN 978-0778329220
December 28, 2010, 512 pages.

Elise Vanderzell has been through a terrible time recently, and although a vacation should be a time to relax and enjoy oneself, she is not really looking forward to the beginning of hers. She and her two children have made the long drive from their home in Toronto to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to stay at the borrowed house of a friend. The plan is that her children, troubled 15 year-old Nick and 12 year-old Lucy, can spend some time with their father, her ex-husband, high-profile local lawyer Randall Barrett.  But, she knows that the meeting with Barrett is not going to go at all well. The two of them have a lot of issues..

As expected, they have a terrible, loud argument and when Elise ends up dead that very night, and it is determined that her death may not have been an accident, her ex-husband is suspect Number One on the short list.
The only witness to the crime is her son, a boy who hates his father enough to want to kill him, so can we really trust him when he accuses his father? Could the boy himself be involved? The fact that Barrett was so drunk that night that he can't even remember himself what happened doesn't help matters either.

Back for the second book in the series, after Damaged, is lawyer Kate Lange, and she is well acquainted with Randall Barrett. He is a senior partner in the firm in which she is an associate, and to those who may not have read the first, let me just tell you that she has a sense that something a little more personal is going on in their relationship. Which may be just one reason why her ex-fiance, homicide detective Ethan Drake, would not be unhappy to see Barrett take the fall for the death. It may also be one reason that Kate is one of the few people who stand by Randall as his world starts to fall apart. But will Kate, still suffering from the physical and emotional damage from her last adventure, be up to the challenges when people's very lives may be in her hands?

I enjoyed Callow's first book, Damaged, a good deal, and several of the things that made that book so enjoyable are back in the second. I love the setting in Nova fact, I hope that if the series continues, in the future we get to experience even a bit more of this great setting.
And Kate is a good character. She is not perfect..and we would not want her to be, would we?...but she is smart and pretty clever and always willing, even when it is against her better judgment, to jump into a situation. And she owns a great dog, Alaska, and I will admit that I am a sucker for a book where a great dog is a character.
Yes, I will admit that her ex-fiance, Drake, becomes more than a little annoying in this book, letting his personal feelings effect his job to an unprofessional degree. I would not have been upset if he had ended up paying a greater price for his behavior than he does. But at least he pays a price.
On a totally personal note, this book is published as a mass-market paperback, perhaps my least favorite book format.

I also can't say that I did not figure out the villain fairly early in the book. But...just when I thought I knew what was going on, Callow throws in a spin that took me by total surprise! It appears that this crime may be part of something much bigger, much more horrible, than we, or the police, first think. Add in that the book builds up to a wonderful, exciting ending that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and I think you will be hooked. Indefensible is a very good, enjoyable read and I will certainly be on the lookout for Callow's next book.

My thanks to Anna, of Planned TV Arts,and the publisher, Mira, for a copy of this book to review.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Review of "So Close the Hand of Death" [18]

So Close the Hand of Death by J.T.Ellison
Mira, ISBN 978-0778329435
February 15, 2011, 416 pages

For fans of police procedurals and those who enjoy a 'nice' serial killer thriller, Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson is back for the sixth book in the series... and this time just one serial killer is not enough!

On the same night, in several places across the country, gruesome murders take place, each seemingly committed in the 'style' of a famous serial killer. The Son of Sam, the Zodiac killer, the Boston Strangler appear to be back...but behind them all, it soon become apparent to Jackson, is one evil mastermind, The Pretender, protege of the Snow White killer. The Snow White killer, who we met in 14, may have been defeated by Jackson, but that was certainly not the end of the story. No, once again, even as the bodies fall and the chase is on across the nation, stretching police resources to the point of breaking, it seems that the killer's real motive is very personal and that Jackson, and all those closest to her, are the ultimate targets. Yes, The Pretender, psychopath extraordinaire, is back, Taylor is his target, and this time he has a lot of helpers.

Taylor is not alone in the battle either, because back once again are all the great characters from the previous books in the series. We have her now fiance, FBI profiler John Baldwin, who is dealing with several problems of his own, both professional and personal, her father figure Sergeant Pete Fitzgerald, and her best friend and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Loughley. But those closest to her are in terrible danger and even as she hunts down the Pretender, she must distance those closest to her, both to protect them and to keep her secret. Because Taylor has a plan, a plan for the Pretender that she can not share with anyone.

Ellison is a great writer and this is a real page turner, from the shocking opening pages, through some great, surprising twists and turns, to, as always in Ellison's books, a great conclusion. Both Jackson and Baldwin are flawed yet with deep resources of strength, as befits all great thriller characters, and The Pretender is as creepy and evil as all 'good' serial killers should be, with a last minute twist that took me by total surprise.

I will admit that I am not always a fan of thrillers where the central characters, especially if it a detective or police officer, is the target of the killer. I think it is usually a weakness if the story becomes too personal, that a bit of distance is best. And I must say, when we discover what is behind the Pretender's hatred of Taylor in this book, I was a bit let down. But that being said, Ellison pulls it off in this book, once again.

Now, can this be read as a stand-alone book? Perhaps, since Ellison does attempt, pretty successfully, to explain the relevant backstory. But quite honestly, I think many readers would be rather confused and certainly for maximum enjoyment, it would be best to go back and read the previous book. Yes, I know...another can a reader ever catch up?
But you better hurry, because the next Taylor Jackson book, Where All The Dead Lie, this time set in Scotland, will be released October 1.

My thanks to Magdalena, from Planned TV Arts, and the publisher, Mira, for a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wordless Wednesday...Longwood Gardens

This week, we have a guest 'post', of a sort. These lovely photos were taken by The Niece in the conservatories of Longwood Gardens this past weekend. always, for more Wordless Wednesday, check these out.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Musing Monday...My Favorite Childhood Book is...a Mystery.

This week’s musing asks…
Do you have a favorite children’s book? Either one that you loved as a child, or one that you discovered later, and still enjoy? Tell us about it!

Oh, once again I am forced to travel back to the dark, distance, vague days of my youth.
Now, as I have recounted before, I was reading as far back as I can remember. I remember going to the library as a wee child with my mother. I know I was young enough that she held my hand as we walked there. I know I would go upstairs to the children's section to wander as she made her selections downstairs and then she would come up to check out my books on her card. I was too young to get my own card yet, so I was not in school yet.

But what I was actually reading, I am not sure.
I see people mention beloved books of their childhood and none of them look familiar to me. Our host, Miz B, mentions in her post that her favorite book, one she still loves, is The Poky Little Puppy, a Golden Book. I do not remember reading them, any of them, but surely I must have. That one, along with 11 other, was published in 1942, so yes, they even predate me. But if I read them, they made little impression.

The first books I actually remember reading were in grammar school, and they were mysteries. Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe were my slightly scary, creepy companions. Before that, I only have vivid memories of one book...and...I have no idea what it was!
I think I have told this before, but when I was very little, my mother used to read to me before I went to sleepytime. I am sure we must have read many, many books but the one I remember was a collection of stories, some fairy tales, some 'classic' stories. It was a fairly big book with a blue cloth cover with a darker spine. It had drawings, all in color and full page and its name was...I have no idea. :-0

One story of the many in the book that I remember clearly, the one I requested again and again for her to read, was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". Do you know the story? According to Wikipedia...
"The story is set circa 1790 in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town, in a secluded glen called Sleepy Hollow. It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a sycophantic, lean, lanky, and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and sole child of a wealthy farmer, Baltus Van Tassel. As Crane leaves a party he attended at the Van Tassel home on an autumn night, he is pursued by the Headless Horseman, who is supposedly the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during "some nameless battle" of the American Revolutionary War, and who "rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head". Ichabod mysteriously disappears from town, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones, who was "to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related". Although the nature of the Headless Horseman is left open to interpretation, the story implies that the Horseman was really Brom Bones in disguise."
A charming story for a wee child, right? Well, I though so, and I guess my mother thought so too since she kept reading it to me. I just loved it!
Perhaps it explains my present fondness for fictional murderers, mayhem and serial killers....or maybe my fondness for things a bit dark and scary explained my delight with nightly reads of the tales of the Headless Horseman. A literary Chicken and the Egg thing..

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Weekend Cooking.. "Slow Cooker Revolution" Macaroni and Cheese

Well, the slow cooker was still out on the counter from last week's post, so I figured it was time to take it for another spin. I search through my new favorite slow cooker cookbook, Slow Cooker Revolution, and picked...yes, Mac and Cheese. Because who does not love mac and cheese!

Young and old, male and female, everyone loves it.
And making it in the slow cooker seems so bizarre, I had to give it a try.
So here is the recipe and then I will give the completed dish a rating.
I will have you know that I had to eat a lot of the resulting mac and cheese to give a fair review, so I hope you all appreciate that. ;-)

Macaroni and Cheese
  • vegetable oil spray
  • 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
  • 2 (11-ounce) cans condensed cheddar cheese soup
  • 2 1/2 cups water, plus extra hot water as needed
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • optional Toasted Bread Crumbs Topping
Toasted Bread-Crumb Topping
Process 2 slices white sandwich bread, torn into pieces, to course crumbs in food processor, about 10 pulses. Melt 2 Tablespoons butter in 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add bread crumbs and toast, stirring often, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to bowl and season with salt and pepper. 

Spray inside of slow cooker pot with vegetable spray and then line with a collar of doubled over foil (to prevent over browning). Spray foil collar with oil as well.
Bring evaporated milk, soup, water, mustard and cayenne to simmer in large pot. Slowly whisk in cheese until completely melted, then stir in macaroni.

Transfer mixture to slow cooker, cover and cook until tender, about 2 hours on high.

Remove foil collar. gently stir pasta, adding hot water if needed to loosen sauce consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with Toasted Bread-Crumb Topping, if using and serve.

OK, there is good news and bad new.
The good news is that it was delicious. Creamy and cheesy...very good.
Be sure to add the cayenne and mustard. You can not taste it specifically but it add a great deal I think. And be sure to spray the cooker before you add the collar. That was not in their recipe and the cleanup from a bit of baled on sauce that got through was not fun. 
And it was easy. No boiling the macaroni and making a separate sauce.
Did I mention it was delicious?!

The bad news.
Well, while it was easy, I wonder if it was that much easier than the regular way of making it.
And since it only cooks 2 hours this it not a "put in the slow cooker and go to work" recipe. Unless you work a very short day.

It was a fun recipe to try, cool to see how the raw macaroni cooked and the results were delicious. Yes, I would make it this way again. So bottom line, I think this was a winner.

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.