Monday, February 28, 2011

If you like Moulin Rouge, then you might like...

...Opera? I know, you're probably thinking, "But Moulin Rouge is nothing like opera!" Ah, but it is! Moulin Rouge follows in a long line of glorious musicals based off of operas. In this case, it's rather surprising how faithful this show is to its parent La Traviata.

La Traviata was written by Giuseppe Verdi in the early 1850s and was, in turn, based off of a play written by Alexandre Dumas (this is the son of the Dumas we know as the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.) Literally translated, the title means "The Fallen Woman" and after a brief synopsis of the plot, I believe you will no longer say that the 2001 musical is "nothing" like opera.

The opera is performed in three acts. In the first, we are introduced to Violetta, a Parisian courtesan. In her salon, she meets several newcomers including the wealthy Baron Douphol and the young Bohemian, Alfredo, who extols the virtues of love. After she has a fainting spell (which she covers well) she goes to her room, where Alfredo finds her and confesses his love in beautiful and stunning song. Violetta struggles between her desire to believe in love and her desire for freedom, but she continues to hear the echos of Alfredo's voice.

In the second act, Alfredo's father learns of their affair and insists that she leave his son, claiming that their relationship is endangering the legitimate wedding of his daughter. She leaves, writing him a farewell note and reminding him that she loves him. But when he finds out that she's gone to a party given by one of her courtesan friends, he suspects that she has given him up for another lover. Alfredo goes to the party and is bitter and angry when he sees Violetta with the Baron. They play cards and the Baron loses a small fortune to him. Fearing for his life, Violetta urges him to leave; but he misunderstands! He accuses her of loving the Baron, denounces his own love, and throws his winnings at her feet. Alfred and the Baron duel.

Winding up the opera, we find out that the Baron was only injured in the duel and Alfredo now knows the truth about Violetta's love and why she left. She is dying of tuberculosis, but when Alfredo enters her sickroom, they ecstatically plan to leave Paris and make a new life on their own. With one last gush of vitality, she feels a resurgence of strength and gets up to join Alfredo....only to fall dead at his feet.

Now honestly, as far as the story goes, we might as well just change the names to the Duke, Setine, and Christian and call the thing Moulin Rouge. As for music, there is an appropriate variation based on the century and a half between the two productions. And yet, Verdi's music is gorgeous and melodic and since rewatching the opening drinking song when I woke up this morning, I keep humming it to myself. I've seen the particular version that I linked to, and remember it being quite good.

Anyway, the point of this post is that many people view opera as elite and unreachable--from a different world, so to speak. But in the 19th century, opera was the entertainment of the masses, and our current entertainment draws heavily from the foundation that opera built. If you try it sometime, you may be surprised how much you like it and how similar it seems to more modern entertainment. And if you'd rather watch a more comic opera, I'd recommend the Barber of Seville by Rossini. It's one of my favorites.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lemon Curd

Lemon Curd (it says it makes about 2 cups, but when I made it, it came out to about 2 and a half.)

1 c sugar
2 tbs cornstarch
3 tsp finely shredded lemon peel
6 tbs lemon juice
6 tbs water
6 beaten egg yolks
1/2 c butter or margarine, cut up

In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar and cornstarch, then add the lemon peel, lemon juice, and water. Put on medium heat and stir until thickened and a little bubbly. (You don't need to stir it constantly, just enough to keep it mixed and not sticking to the bottom. In the meantime, you can separate and beat the egg yolks in a smallish bowl.)

Once the mixture has thickened, stir about half of it into the yolks and then return it to the saucepan--still over medium heat. Cook and stir until it comes to a gentle boil. I've found that by this time, the lemon curd is so thick that it doesn't really boil--it just sort of pops every now and then to let the air out. So when it starts doing this, I consider that a "boil." Cook and stir for about 2 min more, and then remove from the heat.

Add the butter pieces and stir until it's all combined.

At this point, you can cover the curd and chill it if you'll use it within a week. Other options are freezing it, which will make it last 2 months (probably longer, actually.) Or what I like to do is have a separate pot on the stove with two cup-sized jars (like you see in the picture) boiling in water with their lids. Once the curd is ready, I pull the jars out and quickly fill them with the lemon curd and twist the tops on (with a dish towel, because they're really hot.) This way, they'll last a much longer time, and I can just leave them on my shelf and not take up room in the freezer.

By the way, you can also make orange curd by using only 3/4 cup of sugar, orange peel instead of lemon peel, and 3/4 cup orange juice instead of the lemon juice.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Ever since I read Misty of Chincoteague, horse books have held a special place in my heart--perhaps even more so than the animals themselves! So when I saw this book at our Library bookstore, being sold off for a dollar, how could I resist? I knew a movie had been made out of this story and though I hadn't seen it, I had heard so many good reports that I was eager to learn about the story myself. And as is so often the case, I suspected that the book might be even better than the movie.

Though she wrote a nonfiction book, Laura Hillenbrand's prose reads like a novel. I was surprised. I was never a fan of biographies and the like growing up, and I half expected to slog through the dead weight of factuality in order to enjoy the exciting story. Not a bit of it! I blazed through this book in three days, unable to put it down. Hillenbrand gives a delicious amount of back story for each of the main players--Seabiscuit's owner, trainer, and jockeys (there being two that rode him.) This "extra" information was fascinating, and like a true artist, the author paints the whole picture with broad strokes of time and location so that the reader truly feels he understands the situations and emotions that are occurring in and around the characters. 

When I finally watched the movie, I was pleased with how well they followed the story. One thing that the film simply could not capture, however, was the passage of time. And how could they? How, in a two-hour film, could you grasp the full significance of the months of training and bad weather and worry over Seabiscuit's ankle injuries? Or the prolonged attempts to confront the legendary War Admiral, king of the Eastern racing scene, in a duel? Or what about the embarrassment of repeated scratches when tens of thousands of fans have come to see Seabiscuit race? And ultimately, Seabiscuit's retirement  because of his lame legs at Howard's home, lounging around with his equally lame jockey? There is no way of capturing on screen the unbelievable feat that Seabiscuit attained as an "ancient" nearly 7-year-old horse, returning with a bang to the racing scene, and winning the richest cup in America in 1940. 

Within the story is included several side jaunts into the lives of Howard (the owner, who always made buddies of the press), Tom Smith (silent trainer who made enemies of the press), and Red Pollard (jockey who got injured even more than Seabiscuit.) These side tales are delightful and give the authentic "factual" air to the book without becoming stuffy and boring. With powerful writing that reflects the power of the horse and the men surrounding it, Laura Hilldenbrand sketches an unforgettable picture of depression-era America, drawn together from all corners by an underdog horse making it big.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Easy, Delicious Milkshakes!

A while ago, we were looking in our freezer and found a few almost-empty containers of ice cream that we thought we should use up. They were starting to get that frozen crystallized look--not super appetizing, so I just threw them together and blended up a milkshake! It was so good, I did it again a couple nights later! And since then, I've kept going back to it as a really yummy, incredibly easy dessert to make. Here are the approximate measurements. What I did turned out a little runny, so you can adjust how much milk you add to it based on whether you want it drinkable or "spoonable".

1-1.5 cups of vanilla ice cream (we had vanilla with a chocolate swirl in it...)
1-1.5 cups of chocolate ice cream
3/4 cups-1 cup of peanut butter
1/2-1 cup of milk

For some variety, you can leave out the peanut butter and add 1/4-1/2 cup of berries, frozen or not. 

To really make things exciting, add 1/4 cup of Irish Creme liqueur before you blend it up. 
Since I have an immersion blender, I just put everything in a container that I have and blended it up--this turned out to be perfect for two people! It's so easy and so delicious!


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lemon Cake!

This cake was definitely a wow! I gave Paul a few options for what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday a couple weeks ago, and this one--Triple Layer Lemon Cake--was at the top of his list. (Which was fortunate because it was at the top of mine too.)

It took a while to make, since I also had to make the lemon curd to go in between the layers and the frosting to go on top. But since then, I have made a separate batch of lemon curd to be ready to go for when I make it again. (I could also make the frosting in advance to save a bit of time through the whole process.)

Here's the cake recipe: (I got it out of my Better Homes and Gardens Bridal Edition cookbook)

1 c butter, softened
4 eggs
2 1/3 c flour
1.5 tsp baking powder
.5 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 c sugar
2 tsp finely shredded lemon peel
*1 c buttermilk or sour milk

1 c lemon curd (for filling)
**1 recipe Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

*If you don't have buttermilk, here's how to make sour milk: For each cup of sour milk that you need, just put a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar in a measuring cup and then fill the rest up with milk. Let it stand for about 5 minutes before you use it.

**Frosting: (This frosting really makes the cake--it's just phenomenal.)
Finely shred 1 tsp lemon peel and set aside. In a bowl, combine 6 oz of softened cream cheese, 1/2 c softened butter, and 1 tsp lemon juice. Beat with a mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add 2 cups of powdered sugar. After you mix that in well, add about 2-3 more cups of powdered sugar (I think mine was more on the 2 side.) The frosting should be pretty stiff, like what you would buy in cans at the store.

 The Cake:
1. Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temp for 30 min. Meanwhile, grease and lightly flour 3 round cake pans. Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; and set that aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter with a mixer on medium or high speed until it's smooth and creamy. Add the sugar, lemon peel, and lemon juice; and then mix it again. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after each one. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to the butter/sugar bowl, mixing on a low speed after each addition until they're just combined. Pour into the pans.

3. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the layers thoroughly.

4. When you're putting the cake together, put the bottom layer on a cake plate and spread half the lemon curd (1/4 cup) over the top of it. Put another layer on top of that and spread it with the remaining lemon curd. Top with the remaining cake layer. Frost the top and sides with the Cream Cheese Frosting, and then cover it and store the cake in the refrigerator.

The recipe says that it will last for up to 3 days, but we ate the last pieces a week after I made it and they were certainly still good.

If you want the recipe for the lemon curd, just comment, and I'll post that too! (I like having it on toast in the morning...)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Roll of thunder, Hear My Cry

When I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I was truly stunned. The main characters consist of a black family living in the South during/after the Reconstruction period. They did things that children still do today--go to school, have conflicts with friends, fix meals, have family gatherings during holidays, and just live life. But there is always an element of uncertainty, of danger, of hatred. The very existence of the black community in their area depended on their men working acres belonging to the white landowners and frequenting the store owned by white men that mercilessly burned some of the black men alive.

The children get a chance to see the results of this situation, one of the men still living but unable to talk or to see well through his scarred face. The children see, and they must decide whether they will stand up for the "freedom" they were granted through the Emancipation Proclamation, or whether they will "play it safe" and give into all the unreasonable requests and accusation their white "betters" might make of them.

There seems to be no winning. Even if they decide to stand for freedom and justice, most of their own community can't afford to risk standing with them. The Logan family, they own their own land. And land was the beginning of true freedom.

Though there is one climactic moment, there are several smaller episodic encounters that introduce the reader to the pervasive racism of this era. Cassie, the little Logan girl, is met with horrible disrespect when she gets to go to the town of Strawberry for the first time. The Ku Klux Klan were a terrifying presence that parents tried to hide completely from their children. And when they failed, the children found them a presence even in their nightmares. Even walking to and from school, the children had to dodge the "white" schoolbus that always sped up by them in order to spray them with mud and make them scramble up the bank into a field of brush.

Mildred Taylor's book comes to a head when one of their old friends, T.J., becomes known as a rogue and theif companion to two equally awful white boys. They commit a robbery, kill the owner of the store, and T.J. who is with them, is blamed for it, being the only one not wearing a mask. The KKK are on the hunt, and even his white "friends" are part of the group. What will happen to him?

Well, ultimately, it is the land that brings the two warring races together--at least momentarily--in the end of the book. A fire breaks out in a corner of a cotton field, and all men rush to save their livelihood. The fire happens at an opportune time, saving T.J. from being hung immediately.

In the end, we see the hope of white and black working side by side in peace. But the book is also eminently realistic, not painting a happy ending, but rather satisfied with being hopeful. T.J. is presumed to be headed for an early death. The bigotry and oppression is presumed to continue for the time being. The power is still in the hands of the white men and the KKK. But the Logans own their land, they're honest and speak the truth, and they care for their neighbors. And these are building blocks of freedom.

Truly, this is an excellent book. Even as an adult, I found some of the situations appalling and a little scarring, but there is also much truth in the book, and it is well tempered with humor, responsibility, and honor. I would say it's an excellent read for older children (maybe 5th grade and up) and for adults.