Friday, December 16, 2011

Butternut Custard

This is turning into one of my favorite desserts (or snacks). Since Paul and I are starting to try a new low-carb type diet, I needed some kind of dessert we could have that didn't have a lot of sugar or carbs. I managed to come up with this delightful concoction that has a mere 7 carbs per serving!

Butternut Custard

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 cups butternut squash (blended or mixed well)
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmet
1/4 tsp cloves
6 packets sucralose (equal to about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar)
4 eggs

Mix everything together with a hand mixer until it is well blended and pour equal portions into 6 buttered ramekins. Place them in a baking dish (I use my lasagna pan) and fill the bottom of the pan with 1 inch of boiling water. (a water bath) Put the whole thing in the oven, being very careful not to touch the oven OR slosh boiling water either onto your hands or inside the ramekins, and let it bake for about 35-40 minutes. You can check to see if it's done by inserting a knife or toothpick halfway between the center and the outer edge--it's done if it comes out clean (as usual.)

It's delicious both warm and cold...and either way, you'll be missing out if you don't serve it with a huge dollup of whipped cream on top!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Joni Sensel: The Farwalker's Quest and The Timekeeper's Moon

Anyone who read and loved Lois Lowry's The Giver and the accompanying books, will see some obvious similarities with the idea of occupations in this fascinating fantasy by Joni Sensel. I appreciated that the book was longer and the plot much more intricate than The Giver (which I also loved) but I still finished it in about a day because I just couldn't put it down!

The story opens with Ariel and Zeke, 12-year-olds (almost 13) in a small coastal town, preparing to take their Naming test. This will determine their last names, which is also the occupation they will be apprenticed in until they become a master. But when Ariel finds a telling dart (a mysterious relic from a past that was much more scientifically advanced) and two strangers come to the town, things start unraveling.

Ariel fails her Healtouch test, and is invited by the two mysterious Finders to deliver it herself to the man who is interested in it. She plans to go, but when her mother refuses, the men kidnap Ariel! Thus begins the wild ride that leads to Ariel becoming a Farwalker, Zeke discovering that he can talk to stones, and them both finding a true friend in an unlikely place.

This story is sparkling with imagination, and I relished every moment of it. But I've read stories that are gripping and interesting, but the characters themselves kill any inspiration that could have come from the story. Here, Joni Sensel writes an exciting story with perfect characters to match. They are young, but brave. And they are thrown into a situation where courage is their only option other than giving up--which meant death. They grown and learn as the story progresses, both through their natural raw talents and through the experiences that press them to be bold and courageous. I love how the story shows young teens that see the contrast of talent and calling and are willing to do what is good and important, not just what they know they can already do well.

Sensel also creates a beautiful picture of love and friendship in this book, between Ariel, who finds out she is an orphan along her journey, Zeke who leaves home and family to rescue her, and a fatherly figure who helps guide them on their journey. And here we see a beautiful picture of another truth: even the toughest need someone to love and hang on to; everyone has moments of weakness....and that's okay.

Well, once I finished The Farwalker's Quest, I immediately dove into The Timekeeper's Moon, which consumed me for another day (because I couldn't put that down either.)

In this sequel, Ariel discovers that there was something left undone on her previous journey. And, being a year later, if she doesn't finish it soon, everything that happened will become undone. Between the moon speaking to her and almost driving her loony, and a confusing map that they aren't even sure is a map, Ariel once again takes to the countryside following the direction her feet set.

Zeke is left behind on this journey, but Ariel picks up two new companions. One is Sienna, a chatty young Fire Mage who is set on finding a husband at the next town they find, and the second, Nace, is an attractive and romantic (but mute) Kincaller (animal whisperer) that follows Ariel when she leaves his village and eventually joins their group.

Will Sienna succeed in worming her way into Scarl's (Ariel's surrogate father's) affections? Why are things that are lost from the past suddenly reappearing and then disappearing again? With the moon calling and urging, will Ariel complete her unknown task in time? Do Ariel's dreams have an element of reality in them, and if so, why does she keep dreaming about falling and death? On top of all this mystery, add in a beautiful bead necklace, each bead with an accompanying story that seems to have a creepy connection with what is happening to Ariel on this journey...and you have in your hands a real humdinger of a gripping fantasy novel.

As soon as Joni Sensel comes out with another, you bet I'm going to pounce on it as soon as it leaves the printing press!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Yankee Girl - Mary Ann Rodman

This is a gem of a civil rights story! Mary Ann Rodman draws deeply on her own personal experience as she tells the story of Alice Ann Moxley, a sixth-grader who moved to Mississippi from Chicago when her FBI agent father was stationed there to help with integration. Veronica is the older daughter of Dr. Taylor, good friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

When the two of them end up in the same class, they both need a friend, but both are afraid of the consequences of reaching out to each other. Alice is shunned because she's a Yankee, a breed that is always "interferin'". She makes friends with the neighbor boy, Jeb, but he refuses to admit that they are friends when they are at school and all his buddies can see them. There are the popular and powerful cheerleaders--but does Alice really want to be friends with the group that shunned her and is constantly plotting to play mean tricks on poor Veronica?

This book is full of danger and tension as Alice and Veronica both encounter threats and dangers from the KKK along with milder forms of discrimination from their own classmates. Even the teachers of their newly integrated school are not altogether trustworthy.

After a series of hard choices, let downs, and false steps, Alice finally stands up and does "the right thing" when Dr. Taylor is killed and she decides to reach out in public friendship.

This is a compelling story, full of real life and hard decisions. This would be an excellent read for many grade-schoolers and junior highers, who need to start considering what sort of friends they want to have and what it means to do "the right thing" in the face of peer pressure and popularity contests. I got this at the library, but I look forward to added it to my permanent collection on my shelf at home. I hope you do too!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Whiskey Caramel

This was a whiskey fudge experiment that turned into fantastic caramel, and it's fairly simple to make! (I'll see if I can add a picture later.)

1 can condensed milk
1/2 tsp salt
5 cups sugar
1 stick butter
1/2 cup whiskey (I used Makers brand bourbon, an excellent kind of smokey whiskey)
1 tsp vanilla

Mix the condensed milk, salt, and the sugar in a saucepan on med/high heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the butter, vanilla, and whiskey.

Keep stirring over medium heat until the mixture looks thick--there will be a stage when it is puffed up and foamy, and then it will sink back down and thicken. When the mixture has reached the soft ball stage (it forms a soft ball when a small amount is dropped into cold water), take it off the heat.

You can serve it hot over ice cream, wrap it up in wax paper for individual caramels, or (like I did) pour it into a buttered 9x13 pan and scoop it out with a spoon whenever you get the urge! I imagine you could can it as well, and store it in your pantry for a special meal or a tasty holiday treat!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: Rifles for Watie - by Harold Keith

Considering that I hardly every read historical fiction--especially wartime historical fiction, I was astounded by how wonderful this book was. Clearly, it won the Newbery Medal for many very good reasons. Having read many of the winning books, I can safely say that this is one of the better ones!

Set in the Western front of the Civil War, Rifles for Watie tells about the Kansas and Missouri bushwackers (loathed by the North and South alike) and the Cherokee troops that split and fought against each other throughout the war.

Harold Keith certainly did his homework in researching, and it's wonderful how he is able to incorporate life in both the Northern and Southern camps into his story. Jeff, the hero, joins up with the North when he is sixteen, ready and eager to dive into battle. Later on, he moves up the ranks, joins the cavalry, and later is sent as a scout. On his second mission, he is captured by Watie's men (the Cherokee leader for the Rebel Indian troops.) He ends up "joining" them, grateful that his name happens to be Jefferson Davis Bussey.

And the curious thing is that Jeff loves the people he knows from the South. Individual, he loves the men in his new troop. He cares for Southern civilians that he meets. (Earlier, he takes it upon himself to return a Southern lady's cow which had been stolen by a Union scavenging party.) He falls in love with Lucy, a Southern Cherokee girl he meets on the Indian reservation while they are recruiting. He even risks court-martial by refusing to be a part of the firing line that executes a Southern spy.

As the story unravels, Jeff has to make more and more important decisions about the type of person he is going to be. And ultimately, he needs to decide: will he join the South permanently, or will he escape back to the Union? Well, though he loves the South, and though it costs him his girl, Jeff knows that going back and serving the Union is right and for the good of the country.

This is a fantastic book full of exciting and interesting characters, spine-tingling moments of spying and discovering plots, a beautiful wartime romance, and a hair-raising chase scene as the Southern army pursues Jeff with a well-trained bloodhound. This is a great book for 5th grade through junior high and high-school (and beyond!) If you haven't read it yet, you simply must! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place - by MaryRose Wood

I read my way quickly through this first book, maintaining a rather bemused expression on my face and a slightly arrogant tilt to my nose which meant that it was a charming children’s story though highly improbable. After all, how likely is it that back in the Victorian era, three children would be found on a Lord’s property who appeared to have been raised by wolves?  

Even though such improbably could give way to some curious and exciting events, I found the first part of the book rather slow-moving. But that changed quickly when I came to the last several chapters. At that point, we begin to see hints of a mystery. What are we to make of Old Timothy the coachman who seems sinister but has never been proven guilty of anything? And what of Lord Ashton’s almost continual disappearances? Why will he insist on keeping the children when his wife detests them so? And who is trying to cause trouble for them?

MaryRose Wood knew what she was doing in setting up this series. She gave the main character, a young governess (who comes to teach and look after the children), plenty of pluck, optimism, and a matter of fact way of going about things. She even writes as a governess would (at least she writes like Penelope Lumley would speak to the readers of her story, if she knew she were in a story.) And thus we feel almost like Lumawoo (as the children call her) is telling us her own story and adding in her own asides and trying to make it as interesting and educational as possible in the telling. I’ve learned rather a lot of trivia (whether it’s truly trivial or not, I’m not sure) in reading these first two books. So the style is quite charming in that it perfectly matches the characters in the book.

The second notable thing that MaryRose Wood created in her story were main characters with plenty of room for mystery. Penelope has no background to speak of—all that we know (and she knows) is that her parents left her at a good school for poor females when she was quite young and that there was some necessity weighing on them to disappear. Similarly, all we know of the children is that they had been living in the forest at Ashton place and presumably raised by wolves. The oldest is 10 and the youngest is 5(?) so one might wonder how much Alexander remembers of the time before they were lost/left/stolen.

In the second book, Wood firmly establishes the fact that the children are in danger. This surprising message comes from none other than Penelope’s old headmistress, who is much more of a mother to her than a teacher. Does this danger have anything to do with the also surprising fact that Penelope’s hair is exactly the same shade as the children’s (at least when she doesn’t use the special hair poultice/dye that the headmistress is so insistent that she use)? Does it have anything to do with Lord Ashton’s peculiar regularity in disappearing during full moons and was that a cough or a bark or a howl that just came from his corner of the room? When Ashton’s friend, Judge Quinzy is proven to not be among the lists of judges in England, we are left another mystery: who on earth is “Judge” Quinzy and why does he take such exceptional interest in the children? Oh! And what about the curious guidebook that Penelope acquires…having very little good information about London except for the unheard of and little traveled Gallery 17 at the British Museum of Art?
By the time I reached the end of the second book “The Hidden Gallery” my nose was not only out of the air, it was nearly touching the pages with eagerness to discover more clues to these mysteries. And my bemused look had long been replaced by pop-eyed, open-mouthed enchantment (my usual look when reading exciting stories.)

I’ve read a couple books since then, which has dulled the anticipation to a bearable degree, but really… just thinking about it again makes me impatient for the third book to come out!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Have you ever thought about clones and what they could be used for? Or maybe life 150 years from now? Or the problems that powerful drug lords create? Well, it may seem implausible, but I assure that in this book, Nancy Farmer combines them all as she paints a vivid picture of life in the future for the clone of the most powerful drug lord of the time. Even as she draws out the future social and political meanings of scientific progress, she weaves a heart-wrenching (and ultimately warming) story of survival, uniqueness, friendship, and family. 

The story is separated into four parts: early age (0-6), when we learn about how Matt was born in a petrie dish and then incubated inside a cow; middle age (7-12) where we are (with Matt) thrown into a culture that loathes clones and treats them as worse than animals. During old age (12-14), Matt learns quickly, watches people, and understands that he does, at least, have three friends in the world: his surrogate mother, Celia, the bodyguard, Tam Lin, and Maria, the sensitive girl who feels compassion for everything--frogs, black-widow spiders...even clones. But in the last section (age 14), Matt eventually escapes from Opium (the grand estate where he had been cloistered his whole life, to live in modern day Mexico. 

And oh, what a shock he gets when he is greeted at the border by a Keeper! Modern day Mexico is about a communist as you can imagine, forcing everyone to work the same and have the same output and rewarding them with food (or no food as punishment), having ritual bedtime stories and chants about being responsible citizens. Well, Matt knows all about people that have to do the same work all day long without complaining--in Opium, they are called eejits (perhaps Farmer's respelling of idiots?), and they have a clamp in their brain that basically turns them into zombies that only do what they are told, even if it kills them. 

Aside from Matt's coming of age and extraordinary metamorphosis from a timid child "animal" to a confident young man, Farmer's book gives us many good questions to think about. How do freedom and equality relate to one another? What makes a truly good friend? Is there ever a replacement for family? What happens when greed completely consumes a person? 

This is truly a fantastic book, well worthy of the many awards it as received; definitely a good one to read and discuss. But I would not recommend it to anyone under junior high age, simply because of some truly disturbing images presented in the books. Of course, considering what many children are presented with on television and in horror books and movies, they would perhaps be callous to the more traumatic elements of the story. But for those who are not accustomed to such images, I'll just say that most of this book would not make for good bedtime reading.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

When I picked up this book to read, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was written by Thornton Wilder (a big draw for me) and it was a novel that won a Pulitzer Prize. (Must be good, right?)

The novel is told in a very unique way. Wilder set it in the aftermath of the tragic collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey in Lima, Peru, in which five people died. The question the author considers is: Why those people? Is it mere chance, or does God have a reason for who lives and who dies?

Well, Thornton Wilder focuses on three of the people that died, (the other two were companions that were included in their stories.) He tells of their lives, their loves, their faults, their innermost passions. It was so forcefully and "factually" rendered that I found myself thinking that I really must look up these people and this bridge to find out what else has been written about them. I had to laugh in amazement at Wilder's skill in storytelling as I reminded myself that this story was a novel, entirely created in his own mind.

By the end of the story, Wilder makes no concrete assertions, but as a reader, I saw reason behind the tragedy--but not necessarily in the way I expected.

One lady who died was a member of the aristocracy. She was an old woman who struggled with drunkenness and a consuming passion to prove to herself that her daughter (across the sea in Spain) really loves her. This drives her entire life and leads her to write letters that would eventually become famous throughout Peru, standard fare for school children to study. The day before she and her hand maiden cross the bridge on their journey home from a pilgrimage, she releases her claim on her daughter's affection and acknowledges that God has his own power and purposes that his is not obliged to confide to us.

A young man, Esteban, also died, only in his early twenties. He had grown up with his twin brother, with whom he shared his whole life, mostly in silence, but sometimes they spoke to each other in a secret language that they had created. Several weeks before the bridge collapsed, Esteban's twin was badly injured and died. Without his twin, Esteban, aimlessly roamed the town, unwilling to go into the house where he had lived with his brother. He fled all who tried to help until he met the captain of a ship, and old acquaintance that the twins had worked for in the past. Esteban was on the brink of suicide when the captain convinced him to come work on his ship. The next day they set out on their journey. When the captain took the lower route to look after supplies, Esteben took the bridge.

The other man who died was an artisan in every sense of the word. His story was both about himself (Uncle Pio) and the girl that he adopted and trained to be the finest actress in the whole Spanish world (called the Perichole). They were family to each other until she grew older and turned her back on the theater. She wanted to be a "lady" and in that pursuit, she rejected her old mentor as well. This essentially breaks his heart, and he promises to leave her completely alone if only she will let him take her oldest son (a very sickly boy) and train him in the ways of a gentleman. Though Uncle Pio was no gentleman himself, he was a master at all forms of appearance, and he was very well connected. The Perichole finally gave in, and as the son was agreeable to the arrangement, the two of them left the next day--over the bridge.

Now this would be a very sad story, full of interrupted and unresolved relationships if it were merely about the deaths of these five. But the story continues and we see three ladies come together in love for those that they lost. The old lady's daughter, the Perichole, and the abbess who raised Esteban and his brother all find each other to sympathize with their losses. Together, for love of the dead, they work to help the living. At first glance, one might think this book is evidence of Wilder's morbid fixation on death. But no, it is all about the qualities of love, which Wilder describes as the bridge between the world of the dead and the living.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Seasoned Chicken With Mushrooms

After reading a cookbook from a Cajun restaurant in Alaska, I was inspired to to more mixing of spices. This mix turned out absolutely fantastic, and though I didn't measure my proportions, I'll try to estimate them. I made it again a couple days later for another dish and that was good too--so I think it's fine if your measurements aren't exact:

Seasoning: (mix together in a separate bowl before sprinkling on the chicken.

1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp salt (or maybe 1/2)

Clearly from the picture, I made a very small amount, just three chicken thighs. So if you're making a lot, mix up plenty of extra seasoning and just keep it in a container until you need it again.

For the chicken:

1. Pour 4-5 tablespoons of veg oil in the skillet and let it heat till it has little bubbles beginning to form.
2. Sprinkle the seasoning on the chicken, and lay them in the skillet seasoned side down. Be careful, it will start sizzling and popping as soon as you put the chicken in the oil! Season the top side of the chicken.
3. Cover, and let the chicken cook for 2-3 minutes. Then turn the chicken over and add some sliced mushrooms. If the pan is starting to look kind of dry and you're worried about burning, add a half cup of water.

You want to keep a little bit of moisture in the bottom of that pan so it doesn't burn, but don't flood the chicken and mushrooms. If you do it just right, the chicken will get a nice little crispy layer on the outside, and the mushrooms will soak up the intense flavor of the seasoning and get a little  crispy as well. So if you do add water, leave the lid off for a little bit until some of it boils off. Keep testing the chicken with your fork and turning every so often until the middle feels no longer feels squishy, but nice and firm.

I like to serve this kind of thing with lentils or rice and a nice salad. I'll definitely be doing this one again!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review: The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

I have always wanted to be able to fly...not in a plane. Anyone can do that. I've always wanted to just be able to spread my arms and soar on the wind, carefully adjusting my height and speed by tilting my body or arms and catching rising warm air to push me higher and higher. That is, in fact, how I fly in my dreams. And that is how Trei learns to fly using the kajurahi wings on the Floating Islands.

It was a bit of a coin toss whether Trei would be able to join the kajurahi (the band of island flyers with special wind-sight) at all. He was, after all, only half islander, and that on his mother's side. But fortunately for him, the kajura did not have the power to choose those who would join the novitiate. That was entirely up to the wind dragons, who lend their power for the kajurahi to use for flying.

Rachel Neumeier's book, The Floating Islands, is a fantastic combination of inventive fantasy lore and the much more real-world problem of pending international battle. For the land where Trei was born (Tolounn) is famous for its army that always follows orders and will stop at nothing. The emperors are hungry for more conquests, but the Floating Islands stand in the way. But when they figure out a way for their mages to harness the energy from huge steam engines, they attack the Floating Islands, and push away (using magic) the wind dragons, which are keep the islands afloat. The islands begin to sink, and the Tolounnese soldiers throw up ladders to invade.

But what can Trei and his small band of kajurai novices do? And for that matter, what is Trei's cousin Araene, supposed to do? They are both orphans, the only family that they have is each other. But girls live a very regulated life on the islands, and Araene has a hard decision to make when her parents die of the fever. Should she let Trei leave the kajurahi and his dream of flying in order to be her guard and chaperone? In a moment of confidence, Araene chops off her hair, "becomes" a boy, and uses her incipient magical ability to join the mage's school. She always wanted to be a chef, but when she started tasting magic as various spices and flavors, she decides that whatever it might lead to, she does want to stifle her new ability. But when she arrives at the school, she promptly breaks all the rules, the most serious of which was taking an egg from the fire dragon living in the heart of the school and promising to quicken the young dragon. And yet, this very egg, Araene's magical ability, and Trei's flying ability coupled with his past knowledge of Tolounnese manners might be just what the Floating Islands need to regain and establish their independence from the ambitious Tolounnese.

It is truly beautiful watching how Trei and Araene learn to love and look out for one another--not common among teenagers, but somehow realistic and inspiring in this story. They don't always make the best decisions, but they are bold and brave when they realize what must be done, even if it means giving up their freedom and risking their lives. I would definitely recommend this new book to any and all fantasy lovers.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Whole Wheat Rolls with Orange and Honey

I've been reading this amazing book (which I'll probably post on in a few days) that is inspiring me to be more creative in my cooking ventures. One of the main characters in the book has rising magical ability and she loves cooking, and (as all mages perceive magic slightly differently) she tastes magic! It's so fun, hearing different powers, dangers, or abilities described as hot, cold, refreshing, etc, through culinary terms and flavors! 
So here, I decided to try creating some fluffy rolls with a hint of orange....and though I know I don't have the same kind of magical flare for flavors, I must say, I nailed this one on the head. My hubby and I ate four straight out of the oven--definitely a record. Here's my recipe:

2 cups whole wheat flour (plus and extra 1/2 cup) 
1/2 tsp salt
2 large tsp of dry yeast
1/2 - 2/3 cup of half and half
1 egg (beaten)
1/4 cup honey
3 tbs freshly grated orange peel 

1. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a bowl.

2. Heat the half and half on the stove or in the microwave until it is pleasantly warm to touch. Then combine it with the beaten egg and the honey. 

3. With the dough hooks, beat the liquid mixture into the dry mixture, until thoroughly combined, adding in the orange peel as you mix. If needed, add an extra 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour. Make sure the dough is the right consistency--a little sticky, and just dry enough to form into rolls and not leave your hands covered in dough.

4. Leave the dough in the bowl and let it rise for about an hour and a half. 

5. Roll into balls (I think I made about a dozen with this batch). And place evenly on a lightly greased pan. Let them rise again until they are about twice the size (maybe another 45 min to an hour.) 

6. Bake for about 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 350F. Take them out when the tops are starting to look a little bit darker gold color. (check the picture if you don't know what that means...)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Peach Scones

These scones are incredibly easy and quick to make, and when you add fresh peaches, you'll just want to keep making them as long as your peaches last! This is a pretty small recipe (makes about 12 large scones), which is good because you'll want to make sure to eat them all up within about three days of making them. 

2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold butter
1 egg
1/2 cup of half and half (start with 1/3 and add a little if you need it) 
1 or 2 peaches

Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter until the mixture is mostly small crumbles of flour and butter. 

Chop up the peach(es) and toss them in the bowl.

Lightly whisk the egg and half-n-half together, and then pour in with the dry ingredients. Mix them with a fork or spoon (not an electric mixer) until just combined. Be sure not to overmix, or the scones will be dense and heavy. Once everything is combined, turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead two or three times by flattening a little and then folding in half. The dough should be stiff and sticky. 

Gently flatten till the dough is about 1 inch tall, and cut into triangles. Place on a greased pan and bake for about 15 minutes at 350F. 

These are just amazing fresh out of the oven with a little butter or cream!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Peaches are in season -- make peach jam!

Peaches are in season once again, and I am thrilled because they are one of my very favorite things. You don't even have to go to a self-pick farm to get a good deal. Watch the sales at the store - I got almost 10 pounds of peaches for a little over $6. It's a great deal considering all the things that you can do with peaches. 

If you have some glass canning jars, definitely consider making peach jam. With 8 peaches this size, I made 7 cups of peach jam--nearly two quarts. In the store, you might be able to buy a pint of peach jam for 3 or 4 dollars. But when peaches are on sale, you can get 8-10 peaches for less than $2, and the box of pectin for the jam is $3-$4. The 5 cups of sugar required are certainly less than 50 cents. All in all, a stunning deal. The box of "Sure-Jell" pectin (which you can buy at your local grocery store in the baking section) comes with a pages of instructions describing the proportions you need for many different kinds of fruit jams and jellies, including peach. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, but you might get the impression that you need a canner or some special machine. That is not so! All you need to do is run your glass jars through the dishwasher so they'll still be hot when you pour in the jam. And then, in a saucepan, boil the caps and rings while you're making the jam. When you've poured the jam up to the top of the jars, fish the lids and rings out of the boiling water with a fork and screw them on--being careful not to burn yourself, of course. And presto! Peach jam for toast, muffins, and scones for the rest of the year! (And it makes a lovely present too.)

When I made the jam this morning, I used my wonderful immersion blender to puree the peaches instead of simply chopping them up. This gives the jam an incredibly smooth texture, which is (I think) easier to spread.

If you don't know what an immersion blender is, I describe mine and what I use it for here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is an amazing debut novel by Thanhha Lai. While I think that you will immediate become engrossed with little Hà's story and the events that bring her to America, the first thing that you will notice is that the book is written as a series of short free verse poems in 10-year-old Hà's journal.

The story itself is compelling. Hà lives in South Vietnam, and tells about her life, her brothers, and her papaya tree through her poems. But when the Communists take control of Saigon, Hà's family is forced to make a tough decision. In spite of all their doubts, they board a military boat and become refugees drifting from one place to another.

After about a month in a refugee camp in Florida, they get sponsored to go to Alabama where one of her brothers will be able to work as a mechanic. Hà and her brothers experience the predictably fickle affections of American school children. They make fun of her for her "flat" face, her "funny" name, her religion, and her accent. But when one brother starts a small class outside their home teaching how to do Jet Lee moves, everyone starts being nice to them so they can be his friend.

Hà and her family have to face the awkwardness of going to a Christian Baptist Church where they neither understand nor believe the faith but are baptized anyway. Some of the neighbors throw eggs at their house and later a brick with a note that the English-speaking brother refused to translate. But another neighbor takes one look at them on her doorstep and immediately gives them hugs! She begins to tutor Hà in English and provides a helpful listening ear when Hà begins to open up about her troubles at school. At the end of the book, the seasons have come around again and it is once more time for the Vietnamese New Year Tet. In spite of all the changes, and Hà's declaration that "No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama", we get the very real sense that things might not be so bad after all.

What I really love about this book is the language. Free verse novels seem to be creeping into style (consider Out of the Dust, written by Karen Hesse about the dust bowl in Oklahoma, which won the Newbery Award in 1998.) Lai paints gorgeous pictures with her words, somehow getting more meaning and beauty out of each little phrase than most authors could get out of an entire book! (perhaps a slight overstatement there...) But truly, this book makes me appreciate language and words. And when you consider that Thanhha Lai moved from Vietnam to Alabama just like Hà and had to spend years learning and correcting her English, this gives great hope for Hà, who is frustrated with English grammar and thinks that "whoever invented English should learn how to spell."

Another charming thing about this book is that though it is not directly educational, we do learn a lot about Vietnam and the experience of trying to assimilate into American life. And these lessons are so skillfully inserted so they never begin to feel preachy. The story is so clearly about the family, learning and growing and loving together wherever they are.

Considering her exquisite use of free verse poetry along with the quality of the story and the characters that make it, I'd be very much surprised if Thanhha Lai did not receive at least one award for this book. And I wouldn't mind staking a bet that "Newbery" would be in the title of one of them. Honestly, you need to read this for yourself and simply savor the flavor of the words.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sweet Bread: How to Make Babka

This is an incredible treat in an impressive presentation, but it can be a lot of work and mess to put together, so it is definitely for special occasions--like Christmas, thanksgiving, birthdays, and other holidays. This isn't the sort of thing the family should expect as a general rule!

But my goodness, it is delicious! (It's basically one enormous cinnamon roll...)

And the great thing about it is that you can use the dough recipe to make delicious sweet rolls. Though I've only made the babka twice, I've use the dough recipe and made sweet rolls to go with dinner many times. They're simple and when they come out warm and we put butter on them, it's almost impossible not to immediately grab a second...and often a third! 

I got this recipe out of one of my favorite cookbooks, Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros. She presents recipes from a series of (I think) 5 different countries, intermingled with family history and stories. It's delightful to read, and her recipes are detailed and easy to follow because she gives more detailed descriptions than your average "golden brown" or "bake to perfection." What does that even mean? Well... Tessa Kiros pretty much tells you. Her recipes can be long though, and in the interest of respecting copyright laws, I will summarize this recipe for you here:

5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbs yeast
1 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup veg oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

cinnamon filling:
1 tbs ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 tbs butter, softened
(feel free to be generous with these ingredients, it doesn't hurt to have extra!)

1) Mix the flour, salt, and sugar together. 

2) In another bowl, mix well the yeast, milk and oil. Let it sit until the yeast begins activating. Then pour the liquids into the solids and use a mixer (with a dough hook!) to mix well until combined. (Of course if you don't have a dough hook, you can knead it with well floured hands.)

3) Add the eggs and mix a little longer to combine them. The dough should be thick and sticky. Turn it out onto a floured surface and work in with flour until it is still sticky but not sticking to your hands. Knead it for about 10 min. Let it rise, covered, in a warm place for about an hour and a half. 

4) Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make a rectangle about the size of a large cookie sheet (10x18) or so. Be sure to have a well floured surface beneath the dough. 

5) Brush about half the butter over the surface of the dough and evenly sprinkle half of the brown sugar mixture over it. Putting your hands along the longest edge, roll the dough up into a long sausage-like roll. Set aside and repeat with the other half of the dough. Braid the ropes together, pressing hard on the ends to keep them together. Twist the dough braid to tighten the loaf (as you see in the picture at the top.) 

6) Put the dough braid onto a large greased pan and let it rise again. Now, Tessa says to mix one egg yolk with a couple tsp of milk and brush it over the top and then sprinkle some more brown sugar on top. While this is lovely and puts a wonderful crust on the top of the babka, I find that by this point I'm just ready to be done. So I do away with the egg yolk, and just brush some milk or sometimes butter on top and sprinkle some "extra" cinnamon sugar on top. 
7) Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes. If the ends are done but the middle is not, cover the ends with tin foil to keep them from burning. Let cool a few minutes before taking it out of the pan. 

It's amazing served warm plain, or with butter. It won't last long, so eat it within a couple days. (Another good reason to just have it on special occasions, when there's usually extra family around!)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: The Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley -- a deliciously good book!

What a ride this story is! I had only read the first few chapter when I sat down with it last night, but I literally did not get up or put it down until I had finished it! Diane Stanley writes as though it is historical fiction, which I suppose it is since the time setting (though unclear) is probably during the Middle Ages during the feudal system. Though we have never heard of the countries of Westria or Austlind, we easily imagine them to be somewhere in France, Germany, or Austria many ages ago. 

It takes talent to tell a story giving the aura of a particular time and place without specifically stating it. But I think it takes even more talent to believably insert the element of fantasy and weave it throughout the story so that it bonds seamlessly with the historical fiction. 

For what else but fantasy could you call a particularly magical silver bowl that calls to the servant girl who polishes the silver and shows her scenes from the past and the future? The bowl, in fact, was made by the girl's grandfather, who was magical himself and was forced to put inside the bowl 100 curses specifically designed for the royal family. The silversmith was clever though, and put in a Guardian to watch over the curses -- to let them out when it was safe, and to keep them inside the bowl when they grew too dangerous. It is the Guardian who calls to Molly and warns her of the plot against the King of Westria. 

When silvery looking wolves enter the palace and kill all the royal family in the banquet all (and none others), what could Molly do but grab her friend Tobias and save the last prince, who mercifully had gone out of the room. Even as it was, he was fearfully wounded with a bite in the shoulder. But Molly and Tobias serve him faithfully, first because he is their sovereign lord, but later because they have true love and respect for him. For he, alone among all his family, learns how the people in his kingdom live by borrowing their clothes and eating their food and hiding among the poor in a monastery until he regains his strength. Here is one of my favorite scenes just before they make their way to the monastery: 

Tobias cut a thick slice of bread, set a hunk of Margaret's cheese upon it, and handed it to the prince. Alaric took a bit, then grunted and spat into the bushes, The saints protect me!" he cried. "This bread is wet!"
      "It rained my lord," Tobias said.
      "And the cheese is revolting."
      "I'm afraid it was all that Margaret had to offer us." 
      "So is this what you people eat? Can you possibly like it?" He asked this as though it were a real question.
      "It drives the hunger away, my lord." 
      The prince gazed long at Tobias, who sat quietly upon the ground, the loaf in one hand, a knife in the other, his expression remarkably calm.
      "So it does," Alaric said. "So it does. Now, I believe I shall have a cup of that exceptional ale, if you please, to wash down this delicious cheese." 
      I turned my head so he wouldn't see me smile.

Here we see the prince growing and learning, becoming a better man who is prepared to be king by changing his expectations because of necessity while still trying to have a good attitude. Throughout the story, Molly grows and changes as well--from a street beggar who is quick with her fists and tongue, into a lovely young woman, who is compassionate, brave, and loyal. In this way, there are several characters in the book that are admirable both for their character and also for being teachable and willing to change and learn from others.

I'd love to share this story with all the young people I know (and some of the older ones as well!). This book is definitely going onto the list to be purchased and reread over and over again!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bread Crumbs are not just for ducks!

I love using bread crumbs because they are so versatile. Dry bread works extra well, so now you don't have to throw away that 2 or 3 day old French bread that seems nearly hard as a rock.... and don't throw away that overcooked loaf that you forgot about in the oven. Freeze them, and then pull them out when you want to make something fun involving bread crumbs!

Here are just a few of dozens of possibilities
     Make stuffed mushrooms--like what I posted on a few days ago.
     Add spices to the crumbs and make breaded chicken
     Add them to quiche to make it a little thicker.
     Mix them in with egg frittata so you won't have to use as many eggs and it will still be filling.
     Make Bread Pudding! (This is one of my favorites, if you couldn't tell.)

So, since I had a handy loaf of dry bread in the freezer, I cut up some of it and made some bread pudding. Here is the approximate recipe:

4 cups dry bread crumbs
2 1/4 cups milk
4 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
spiced rum (with these other ingredients, I had eggnog on my mind.)

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and then add everything else except the bread crumbs. For the cinnamon and nutmeg, I probably used about 2 tsp of cinnamon and maybe 1/2 tsp of nutmeg. For the spiced rum, I may have used 1/4-1/3 of a cup. It gave the pudding just the tiniest hint of rum. I liked it a lot.

Put the bread crumbs in a greased pan, and then pour the liquid mixture over top, patting down to make sure all the bread is wet.

Bake in the oven at 350F for about 40 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.

After making this yesterday, I decided that I may want to use a little more liquid in the future--so next time, I'd increase the amount of milk to 2 1/2 cups or even 2 3/4. How much liquid you need probably depends on how dry your crumbs are--and mine were very dry.... just something to keep in mind. 

This is a great snack, not terribly sugary or fatty. Try it with some milk poured over the top! 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bread and why I love my kitchen appliances

This hand mixer is probably my very favorite kitchen utensil ever. Here are some of its awesome features:

1) The price is right. It is 5 speed--which I've found is plenty for when I'm mixing anything, and it also means that it's about $30 cheaper than the 7-speed variety.

2) It's small, so it's easy to find a place for it, which can't be said of everything in our tiny apartment!

3) It has a very powerful engine, so it will be able to mix through really stiff substances, like cookie dough or bread dough.

3) It comes with a set of dough hooks, which are curved and twisted in such a way that it effectively kneads the bread in the bowl!

So when I make bread, I use the dough hooks with my hand mixer and am able to mix the dough till it is almost fully kneaded. Then I put it out on a lightly floured surface and work it just a little bit to make sure that there aren't any random spots that are a lot more moist than the rest of the dough.

*incidentally, I got mine from Bed Bath and Beyond... and I'm pretty sure Amazon is selling the same package, but I didn't check to make sure that they include the dough hooks. I did notice that buying them with the mixer as one of their Amazon "sets" wasn't an option. And I know that would be a really popular option, so I guess I just assume that they are included.*

This is probably my second favorite kitchen utensil, the immersion blender. I have used this for so many things.

The elements of goodness:
1. It comes with a food processor/chopping attachment--very helpful.

2. It comes with a couple different whisk attachments that will also attach to the hand mixer above! (rock awesome.)

3. Here are some things I've used it for:
Blending peaches to make jam
Making smoothies (I know it looks delicate, but it does just fine with the ice.)
Blending cooked pumpkin or squash for pies/bread/muffins. It gives such a smooth texture!
Making smooth, creamy soups
Chopping veggies to put in soups (or anything else that includes diced veggies)
Chopping apples for applesauce or cake (I could blend the sauce to make it smooth, but I actually like chunky applesauce)
Prepping carrots for carrot cake
chopping zucchini for bread
               The list could go on and on.

But the really relevant thing that I use it for is for making bread crumbs. (I use the chopping attachment.) So whenever I make a batch of bread that is too dry or a little overcooked, there's no reason to throw it out! I just put it in the freezer (along with any bread that was going stale, or heels that we just didn't want to eat), and whenever I need some bread crumbs, I pull out our bag of frozen bread, let it defrost a little and then chop away. It's great having an easy, cheap source of bread crumbs because there are SO many ways to use them. 

My next post (which I'll try to put up on Wednesday) will be some recipes/ideas for different ways to use bread crumbs. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011


As I was lying awake in bead this morning, I was ruminating on the amazing qualities of bread. It is, perhaps, one of the oldest forms of sustenance, and it certainly is a symbol of food in general. Something else that amazed me was the incredible variety of foods that use bread or bread variations (bread crumbs for example.) I am therefore planning on making a series of bread posts, exploring some of the many different options one has when presented with a simple loaf of bread.

For starters, I'd like to share my favorite whole wheat bread recipe (thanks to Better Homes and Gardens). I know there are hundreds, probably thousands of simple bread recipes, many of which are probably better or simpler, but I have been really happy with this one. One of its best features is that it's easy to remember. I think one of my favorite toppings for fresh bread is Alaskan current jam (shown in the picture and made by yours truly.) Another favorite is butter with cinnamon sugar. mmmmm. yum.

I'll write down what I usually make--if you want the original recipe, you can always just look in the cookbook:

Whole Wheat Bread:
2 cups all purpose flour
2-3 tbs yeast
1 3/4 cups water (maybe 2 cups--try milk for a slightly creamier variation)
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3 tbs butter (or substitute, ie apple butter, margarine, shortening)
1 1/4 tsp salt
3-3.5 cups whole wheat flour

1. In a bowl, coming 2 cups of the all purpose flour and the yeast.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat and stir the water, brown sugar, butter, and salt until combine and just warm. I usually test this by holding my finger in it for a little bit. If it feels hot, then let it cool a little before you put it in the yeast/flour bowl. When it's the right temp (around 120F) mix with a beater into the flour for about 3 minutes, or until the yeast seems activated.

3. Mix as much of the whole wheat flour as you can. I find that I have no problem with two cups, and with the third it usually starts looking doughy. When it's too stiff for the beaters to work it, turn it onto a floured surface.

4. Knead the dough, working in extra flour as you need to. (6-8 minutes) Place in a lightly greased bowl and let rise in a warm place--which, here in DC is pretty much stinkin' everywhere. (maybe about an hour or two for the first rise)

5.Set oven to 375F. Punch down and divide into two (or for rolls, divide evenly and put on a buttered cookie sheet). Shape loaves and place in buttered bread pans and let them rise again another 30-45 min.

6. Bake the loaves for 30-40 min or until the bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped. Some ovens might be hotter on top--in which case you could cover the top with tin foil for the last 10 min or so to make sure it doesn't get burned or too dark. Other ovens (like mine) gets really hot on the bottom. So to prevent the bottom from burning, I put a small cookie sheet underneath the pans, and it works like a charm.

As soon as the loaves are done, take them out of the pans and let them cool. (Or just start eating!)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker (Candlewick, 2011)

Tugs Button is a buck-toothed, overall clad, accident prone child living in the middle of Iowa in 1929. Not only that, but the entire clan of Buttons is about as unlucky as they come. They have to beware when there's pie on the counter because for some cosmic reason, that always means that calamity has already or is about to strike!

But when the slick talker salesman, Harvey Moore, comes to town trying to start up a local newspaper by collecting contributions, Tugs gets suspicious. There's just something strange about a man who offers to fix your car but doesn't even realize when it's out of gas. And why didn't he respond when Tugs called his name? Was he just rude to children when grown-ups weren't around, or did he not recognize his own name when he heard it? What's more, he was getting his housing in exchange for teaching the Dostals how to sail and for fixing their car, picking up some grocery tabs, and being a general handyman. But there was no lake anywhere near Goodhue, and why hasn't he fixed a single thing since he set foot inside their house? And why hasn't he paid one cent for groceries even though (as Mr. Dostal discovered) there was a large suitcase full of cash underneath his bed?

Well, Tugs may not be the prettiest or the most elegant, or even the most balanced girl in town, but she has a wonderful sense of curiosity that leads her back to the library's dictionary over and over again simply to discover new words. And as her suspicions mount against handsome Harvey Moore, she once again follows the trail and discovers Mr. Moore's secret before he can finish the mischief he planned.

Anne Ylvisaker has woven a simple but charming story, but the real selling point of this book is the quirkiness of the Iowan characters and the real struggles that Tugs experiences as a little girl. We see some of her inner thoughts as she writes a brief essay about America and how the current president (Herbert Hoover) grew up in Iowa and experienced the very same things that she, Tugs Button, was experiencing. She wants to fit in with the wealthier, prettier girls; so she gets her mom to bob her hair and puts on her only dress. But she soon abandons her plan to fit in as she pursues her quest for truth. We experience with her the overwhelming delight of discovering that another little girl, whom she has watched and admired, wishes her to be a close friend above all others. With Tugs' success winning the essay contest and the three-legged race and the raffle for the Kodak Brownie camera.... it seems that the luck of the Buttons is turning, at last. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


So, summer is here, and it time for some change. I've cut a good 8 inches or more off my hair (see the before and after pictures) and am thinking about the meaning of life and my blogging. As my followers/viewers I have a few questions for you--I'd love to know what you think!

1) What do you think of the new layout?

2) What have been your 1 or 2 favorite posts?

3) What type of posts would you like to see more of: recipes, book reviews, drawings, my commentary on life,....or something else (like short stories/creative writing etc...)?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Something New I Learned Today

When I discovered that it was only in the low 70s this morning, I decided I might as well be outside while I could! So I walked down to this monument, which is where I go when I'm not sure where else to go. I knew a little bit about the monument and it's significance, but as most things do over time, it all seemed jumbled up in my brain. So I took some time and read all the different plaques that are posted around the memorial and learned some interesting things (that I probably already knew.) 

For those of you who are WWII buffs, you'll probably think this is abysmally simplified, but this is some basic info about the Battle of Iwo Jima and how there came to be a gigantic monument down the hill from my apartment. 

Iwo Jima is a little island south of the main islands of Japan. In 1945, it stood about halfway between Japan and the US base on the Mariana Islands. Because it was such a long way from the Marianas to Japan, there was no way for damaged bombers to make it back if they were hit by Japanese artillery. So Iwo Jima turned out to be a perfect stepping stone to get to Japan, and on Feb 19, 1945, the battle began. 

The Japanese surely realized how important the island was for the allies, and defended it fiercely. There were about 70,000 American troops, fighting about 21,000 Japanese on the island. One might think that the battle wouldn't last long--especially after this flag was raised on Mount Suribachi on Feb 23, just a few days after the battle started. But the Japanese dug their heels in and fought for another month, finally surrendering on March 29, 1945, after nearly 7,000 Americans and almost 20,000 Japanese died in the struggle. 

Joe Rosenthal was the news reporter who took the Pulitzer Prize winning photo that inspired this sculpture. Felix de Weldon made and cast the sculpture with his assistants. And in case you're wondering how he made a sculpture of 4 men from just one photograph, he didn't! Three of the men that originally raised the flag lived through the battle, and sat as models for de Weldon. The men in the monument are 32 ft high, and the flagpole is 60 ft long--hard to tell from a photo, but the monument is unbelievably huge. (If you look in the top photo, there's a man standing on the far right, and you can see how very small he is compared to the statues!)

All in all, the monument cost about $850,000, all paid for by donations from Marines, navy men, and friends. The Memorial was dedicated in November 1954 by President Eisenhower.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Stuffed Mushrooms with Green Olives and Bacon

Well this is fun way to use our bread plate! Since my hubby is getting home late tonight, I thought I should whip up something special so we could start the fun as soon as he comes in the door! I've never made stuffed mushrooms before, but after looking at a couple recipes, I went into the kitchen and whipped these up. It was a cinch! And so fast to make... definitely a good one to keep in mind for a party or when company is coming (or you want to spice up the last few hours in the day!)

Here's my recipe (again, I'm bad about measuring things, so all the amounts are approximate.)

Preheat the oven to 425F

5 large mushrooms
2 large cloves of garlic
4-5 green olives
1 large piece of raw bacon, sliced in small pieces
1 slice of dry bread, crumbled
1/3 cup (more or less) sharp cheddar cheese

The first step is to pop the stems out of the mushrooms. Then dice the mushroom stems, the garlic, and the olives. Saute them in a small saucepan with the chopped bacon and a tablespoon of butter. I let this cook about 5 minutes I think-- till it started smelling really good. The bacon doesn't need to be completely cooked because it will finish in the oven.

Next, stir in the bread crumbs and the cheese. After the cheese is all melted and the ingredients are in a nice gooey ball, take it off the heat, and divide it between the 5 mushroom caps. Arrange in a lightly greased pan (I used a pie pan, but if you're doing more, you could use a cookie sheet) and bake for 7-10 minutes.

In the picture, I used a couple sprigs of cilantro for a garnish. (And if you're wondering why there are only four stuffed mushrooms in the picture.... I had to eat one to make sure they were good enough for a blog post! And oh, they were!)


Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan

This book captivated me right away. The story telling is fast paced, and there is an urgent tension that propels the book forward from the first chapter to the very end.

The first few chapters of the book reminded me very much of Anya's WarThe protagonist (Rosy) is part of a foreign community in Asia. In this case, she is part of the ruling British community during the time that the Indians start protesting for their freedom under the leadership of Gandhi. This is certainly a clear difference is station and background, since Anya was part of the Jewish community who had to flee their homes to China in order to live. But you can see the striking similarities. 

Rosy isn't like the other British girls that she sees at school or at the British club. All they can talk about is fashion or how excited they are to finally get the latest things from England. Rosy couldn't care less about England. Sure, she calles it "home" the same as her parents, but she has spent every moment of her fifteen years in India, and she loves it. She grew up playing with her nurse's daughter, Isha, and they learned each other's languages, speaking to each other in a jumble of English and Hindi. Now that they are older, Isha shows Rosy all the wonders of the Indian bazaar--the beautiful trinkets, the blazing bolts of cloth, and the delicious aromas of heavily spiced food. She knows that her father disapproves of her associating with the Indians, but she can see nothing wrong with it. They were part of her country and her home.

One day, she meets an unorthodox British family. The other Brits respect this mother and son only because they are rich. But behind their backs, they gossip about how Mrs. Nelson looks after abandoned Indian babies in her orphanage and how the son has his own radical ideas supporting Gandhi and the "treasonous" cause of India's freedom.

When Rosy finds out that one of the lowest class servants (that her father had recently dismissed) had sold his baby to a cruel beggar, she knew she had to do something. She couldn't stand the thought of the heartless beggar maiming and twisting the baby's legs so that it would be crippled and have to beg for him. She took her one Christmas shilling down to the river to a very poor and dangerous part of the city to buy the baby from the beggar. She is able to care for it for only about a day before she is forced to take the baby to Mrs. Nelson's orphanage. Surly saving the baby was the right thing to do... and yet her father was so angry and worried. (This reminds me of Anya and her Chinese baby.) But of course, it's natural for a father to feel angry and worried that his 15-year-old daughter went alone at night  into the most dangerous part of the city to buy and Indian baby from a beggar.

Then, when Rosy gets involved and is caught at a support rally for Gandhi, her father puts his foot down and sends her to England for the rest of her schooling. She is to live with her two aunts, her mother's sisters.

From the first, Aunt Ethyl is miserly and controlling. Aunt Louise, on the other hand, is soft and warm, excited to hear about Rosy's life and tries to make her as comfortable as possible. Even though Rosy's father had sent copious amounts of cash to pay for all of Rosy's needs, Aunt Ethyl insisted on buying her the very cheapest of dresses, choosing the wool and fleece that the dressmaker had used for children in an orphanage. And though Rosy's father insisted that he wanted his daughter sent to the best of schools, Aunt Ethyl enrolled her to study at "Miss Mumford's" where there were only two teachers and they did not even offer Latin! The one's stinginess amounts to near cruelty, as she scorns her sister and attempts to deprive her of any control over her finances. I literally couldn't not put the book down until I finished it, knowing that all would be right in the end. It is Rosy's presence and her own courage to say and do what she truly believes is right that gives Aunt Louise the support she needs to finally break free from her sister's suffocating control.

Shortly after Rosy arrives in England, her father writes that his wife is ill and requests that her daughter come home immediately. Rosy convinces Aunt Louise to come with her, and in a beautiful moment of freedom, once they are safely away from Aunt Ethyl and eating in the train's dining car, Aunt Louise ceremonially drops a liberal three lumps of sugar into her tea. We see Aunt Louise coming into her own, experiencing her life for the first time, absolutely drinking in the sights and sounds of the India she had so longed to see. The book ends with Aunt Louise finding a place in the world--working with Mrs. Nelson at her orphanage, Rosy and her parents happily reunited, and Aunt Ethyl has sent an intimidating telegram that she has booked a passage for India. Rosy closes the book, "I was startled but not worried. Aunt Ethyl would come with her coldness and her stinginess, but India would warm her against her will, and how could she be stingy when India's gifts would be all around her like a great bazaar."

I believe the two things I appreciate the most about this book is the realism of the tension between characters, and the admirable way that Rosy approaches her decisions. The conflict between father and daughter and between the two sisters is so easy to understand that I could instantly visualize the awkwardness and feel in my heart the arguments that the characters left unsaid. Because of her amazing descriptions and masterful painting of character, Gloria Whelan drew me into the story, and as I read I felt like I became each character. And because of that, when resolution came, it was all the more joyful and exciting. On the second point, Rosy makes many decisions throughout the book that happen to be small acts of amazing courage. One of them is when she saves the baby from being crippled. Another is when she decided to help nurse the cholera patients on the steamer to England, a very dangerous job since cholera is so contagious. And in England, she decided to try to help her loving aunt to make her own small acts of courage--like opening her own checking account, and ultimately booking a passage for India. And yet, through all of these decisions, she usually tries to understand everyone else's point of view. There's a wonderful reflective passage in the last chapter after Aunt Louise praises Rosy's courage.

Rosy thinks to herself, "I was not sure where my courage had brought me. I had saved Nadi, but I had been sent in disgrace to England, and now I was being summoned home and had no idea what I would find. Would I be sent to England every time I displeased my father and then brought home to please Mother? How did you separate yourself from others who wanted to make decisions for you? Some of them, like Aunt Ethyl, might just want to control you, but others, like Father, might know more than you did and only want what was best for you...But then, wasn't that what a conscience was for, and what if my conscience and Father's were different? When was I old enough and wise enough to listen to my own?"

These are really excellent questions for a 15 year old to be thinking about and answering honestly. In so many books, the young protagonist would simply assume that he/she was completely ready to make decisions on his own. But here, we see that Rosy understands that her father does, in fact, know more than she does. And she trusts that he wants her best. And she also understands that she will grow in wisdom as she gets older and will someday have to make decisions trusting her own conscience. She has already made some of those decisions--some of them with better consequences than others.

All the different elements of this book, from the intriguing story, to the fast-paced writing, to the conflict/resolution and the depth of characters make this a truly excellent and thought provoking book. You should definitely check it out if you're looking for some light summer reading!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Alphabet Coloring Book - the last pages!

Well, I had to change my "M" page because Disney would have a fit if I used "Minnie Mouse". But I really like moose anyway, so it was fun to be able to draw another page. 
Obviously "x" presented many difficulties to this project--namely, there are hardly any animals starting with "x" that children would understand and remember from a drawing, and there are even fewer adjectives that start with "x" (none of which I have ever heard!) So, while I feel like I was cheating a little bit on this page, I'm really not sure what else I could have done. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Moffats - a good summer series

The first book in a series of four, The Moffats introduces Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus who live with their mother in the yellow house on New Dollar Street. Imagine their surprise and disappointment when the handyman comes and tacks up a "For Sale" sign on their house! Janey wonders, "Why? Why did it have to be their house. Because it was the best one, of course." 

The book is mainly episodic, giving it the feel of a collection of short stories, and yet it still maintains a loose connection between chapters. This gives the overall effect of a window into the "real life" of the Moffat family, recounting the adventures of each child and their unique ways of thinking. One story tells of how Jane is terrified of getting arrested by the chief of police and ends up hiding in the grocer's breadbox! And who should find her there but the chief himself! Of course, they become fast friends after that.

Another story recounts the Moffat's dance recital. Even though they are rather poor, the Moffat were able to take dancing lessons because Miss Chichester had no other way to pay Mrs. Moffat for the dresses she made. Sylvie was a born dancer, following instructions so well that Miss Chichester often had her help teach the rest of the class! Jane, well, she liked the idea of dancing, but somehow her legs never did quite what they should. And Joe! He insisted, "I think I feel worse going to dancing school than Miss Chichester would if I didn't go..." What would happen then, when he had to step in and do the Sailor's Hornpipe for the little boy who never showed up to the recital? 

The book ambles through the year, allowing the reader to truly feel like he is getting to know the characters as they go about their lives. Sometimes, the children are not so nice--like when they play a trick on their mean neighbor and scare him with a ghost in their attic. Or when Janey breaks the unspoken rule of "share and share alike" and spends her nickel all on herself instead of getting something that she can split four ways among her siblings. But of course, the charming part is that she feels absolutely terrible as she's eating her ice cream cone and vows that she'll never do such a selfish thing ever again. 

Once you pick up The Moffats, you'll just want to keep on reading about this quirky family. In this first book, you'll learn the most about Janey, her fantastic imagination, and her wonderful upside-down way of looking at the world. And Rufus of course, even though he's only six, gets into the biggest and messiest adventures! You can read more about him in Rufus M. which won a Newbery Honor award in 1944. The Moffat series makes classic, light reading, a perfect series to kick off the summer!

The Moffat books by Eleanor Estes: The Moffats (1941), The Middle Moffat (1942), Rufus M. (1943),  and get a peek of the Moffats when they're older in The Moffat Museum (1983).