Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Montage

Since I haven't blogged since the end of April, I thought I'd just post a little summary of what I've been up to the last few months. ( let you know I'm still alive.)

We've taken two family vacations since April. The first was to San Diego over Spring Break. Some highlights of our trip include Solana Beach, Seals at La Jolla, LegoLand USA, and Disneyland. Here are a few pictures:

The next trip we took was in June to Colorado. Highlights include Garden of the Gods, Flying W Ranch Chuck Wagon Show, Alpine Slide in Golden, and of course Rocky Mountain National Park.

I also started graduate school in May. Trying to divide my time between taking care of the boys and doing schoolwork is challenging. I'm hoping to settle into a routine eventually.

Even with school, I've managed to fit in a few good books and one really amazing one.

The Amazing One:

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind

A Few Good Ones:

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
Eden Close by Anita Shreve
Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (Regret not posting for the All About the Brontes Challenge)
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

A Few Just Okay ones:

Flight Lessons by Patricia Gaffney
Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner
Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah

Hope everyone is having a great summer!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander
I don't know how many times I picked up The Outlander at Barnes and Noble last year, drawn to its stark but gorgeous cover art. Then I'd read the back of it, thinking that it sounded pretty good, but ultimately I'd put it back down with a sigh being distracted by the twenty some odd books waiting to be read on my bookshelf (ummm piled high on the floor beside my bookshelf). When I came across this novel in the stacks at my local library, I decided to give it a try. I'm so glad that I did.

This is a fantastic debut novel by Gil Adamson. I had trouble putting it down and read it in two days, which is no small feat considering I have two small children.

Here are the first few lines:
It was night, and the dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlit field. For a moment, it was as if her scent had torn like a cobweb and blown on the wind, shreds of it here and there, useless. The dogs faltered and broke apart, yearning (3).
And then a couple of paragraphs later we learn who the dogs are after:
Nineteen years old and already widowed. Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand (4).
This novel takes place near and in the Canadian Rockies at the turn of the century. The recently widowed, Mary Boulton, is being pursued or rather hunted relentlessly by her large red-headed brother-in-laws who want to bring her to justice.

I think I'll just leave it at that and not tell anymore details, except just to urge you to go out and get this novel!


Adamson, Gil. The Outlander. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Very Belated Earth Day! Vinegar Tips and Easy Green Living

For the past year or so, I've tried to stop purchasing and using cleaning products with harsh chemicals. In the process, I discovered the many uses of vinegar. I clean practically everything in my house with it as it cleans just as well as those commercial products. It's cheaper, safer, and I don't have to worry about my small children being poisoned by ingesting it. I also use it in substitution for fabric softener. It really works well and no, your clothes do not smell like vinegar. You can find more ways to use vinegar here.

Easy Green Living: The Ultimate Guide to Simple, Eco-Friendly Choices for You and Your Home

I was recently introduced to Renee Loux's book, Easy Green Living by my close friend, Allison, who had checked it out from the local library. We spent an afternoon in a mixture of excitement over Loux's ideas and anger over the amount of chemicals in our everyday products: soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc. The beauty of this book is that Loux doesn't leave the reader upset without a remedy. For each section of the book, she provides a list of recommended products or recipes. For example, I'm now using her Cutting Board Sanitizer Recipe. It works really well.

The book is divided into 9 sections:
Green Living is Easy
Green Cleaning Basics
5 Steps to a Green Kitchen
4 Steps to a Spic and Span Green Bathroom
Natural Beauty: The Simple 7
6 Steps to Eco-Fresh Laundry
4 Corners of a Green Bedroom
Energy Efficient Lightbulbs: Save Energy and Money
Sustainable, Ecological Home Furnishings and Materials

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in getting started with a greener healthier lifestyle.

This process has been a bit overwhelming to me, partly because there is so much to change and partly because it challenges the good mother/beautiful woman images I've learned all these years from advertisements. I'm thinking here of the smiling mother in the commercial who sprays cleaner all over her child's high chair while the baby sits there. Translation: Good, caring, loving mothers use this product. Now I'm becoming the good, caring, mother who doesn't want to spray chemicals in my children's faces or rub it into their skin or feed it to their bodies. I also care about the impact our actions have on our environment.

Soooo...Here are some of the changes I've made in my life ($$ indicates a money saver):

1. Vinegar as a cleaner and fabric softener $$

2. Line dry my clothes to reduce energy costs (I fluff them about 5-10 min in the dryer) $$

3. Use reusable shopping bags

4. Buy products made from recycled materials (Loux recommends CVS toilet paper, which is made of 70% recycled materials)

5. Buy organic whenever possible. I just made the switch to organic milk at over $6 a gallon. Ouch! But I'm saving money in other ways, so I figure it evens out. I am looking into a local farm that sells organic milk and eggs, but don't know their prices yet.

6. Stop using chemicals in my far I've used straight up vinegar as a herbicide and am trying out this homemade recipe as an insecticide: 1 gallon hot water mixed with 2 TBSP Castille Soap in a sprayer. Then add 1 cup isopropyl alcohol. I've used this mixture on my roses. $$

7. Buy bamboo products instead of wood and cotton. Bamboo can be harvested and used every five years! It is also very resistant to disease and insects, which means it doesn't need chemicals to grow making it very safe. I bought a new bamboo cutting board and plan to buy bamboo bath towels. Matt and I are also planning to eventually replace our carpeting with bamboo flooring.

8. Replace my non-stick cookware with enameled cast iron

9. Grow houseplants to improve indoor air quality

10. Replace beauty products with all natural ones. I've already started doing Burt's Bees

11. Recycle everything possible

12. Avoid plastics for food storage and staying away from #3, 6, and 7 plastics

13. Using a rain barrel to water plants $$

14. Shopping at our local farmer's market

15. Turning the lights off and unplugging when possible $$

I've also been using the lot next door to do my yard composting. However, once someone builds there, I'll have to compost in my own yard.

What green tips can you share?

Loux, Renee. Easy Green Living. New York: Rodale Inc, 2008.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My New Favorite Old Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo
Much like my Jane Eyre review, this one will also be a bit of a mess because I just loved this novel! My first experience with The Count of Monte Cristo was through the 2002 movie starring Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dante (The Count of Monte Cristo). I thought this film was really good, but to my surprise it wasn't quite like the actual novel. The basic plot of being wrongfully imprisoned and then seeking revenge is present in both, but so much more complex in the novel. My image of the Count though while reading was Jim Caviezel.

The book opens in the port city of Marceilles, France with the homecoming of the Pharaon, a merchant ship owned by a man named Morrel. The ship has lost its captain to disease and Edmond Dantes has taken control of the ship in his place. The captain's final wish to Edmond is to deliver a letter to the inmate of the Isle of Elba, who is Napolean Bonaparte. Edmond honors this wish and is given another letter to deliver to Paris. Edmond feels obligated to do this in honor of his dead captain's dying wish. Danglars, the ship's clerk, overhears this transaction and makes plans to use this information against Edmond as he is jealous of him. Upon arriving at Marceilles, Morrel suggests that Edmond take over as captain of the Pharaon permanently, which is a great honor for a nineteen year old man. However, this promotion only makes Danglars more jealous, and he puts his plan in to action.

Edmond meantime visits his father and his true love Mercedes. Everything seems to be going right for him, and this blinds him to people who seek his downfall. Danglars conspires with Fernand, who is in love with Mercedes, to have Dantes arrested for treason. They manage to do this during Edmond's wedding breakfast.

Edmond tells his story to the young deputy magistrate, Villefort, who feels pity for him and believes in his innocence. However, upon looking at the letter Dantes is supposed to deliver to Paris, he discovers that it is addressed to his father, Nortier, a fact that could ruin him politically. Villefort burns the letter and sends Edmond to the notorious prison, The Chateau D'If where Edmond spends the next fourteen years. He manages to escape and to seek his revenge as The Count of Monte Cristo.

This novel is definitely a page turner. His revenge while just, at times goes too far and has some unintended consequences, which he regrets. I think this is part of the reason why I loved this book because Edmond/ The Count maintained a sense of morality in his revenge. He plans his revenge with tunnel vision thinking himself an agent of God. Yet in the reality of pulling it off, he gets sidetracked by other characters who he comes to love, and he must adapt his plans. Awesome, awesome novel!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Microwave Mushroom Risotto

This recipe comes from the April 2009 issue of Everyday Food. I don't know that Chef Ramsey would approve of microwaving Risotto, but it actually turns out very tasty. Plus, I don't seem to be doing as much work as those donkeys on Hell's Kitchen when I make it. I'm pairing it with wilted spinach and strawberries.

2 TBSP butter
1/2 tsp dried thyme
10 oz button mushrooms, trimmed and quartered. (I use pre-sliced mushrooms, breaking up the big ones)
coarse salt and ground pepper
1 cup Arborio or long-grain rice
1 can (14.5 oz) reduced sodium chicken broth (or substitute vegetable)
3 garlic cloves, sliced (I just use the bottled minced garlic 1.5 tsp)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

You must have a deep dish casserole with a lid. I use my largest Corning Ware.

1. Combine butter and thyme. Microwave covered on high 1 minute or until butter is melted.
2. Add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Microwave covered 8 minutes, until mushrooms release their water.
3. Put mushrooms aside on another plate and try not to snack on them.
4. Combine 1 cup rice, broth, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Microwave on high 9 minutes.
5. Add 2 cups of water and microwave 9 more minutes.
6. Stir in the mushrooms and microwave until heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in Parmesan. (If risotto is too thick, add a little water.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Before Women Had Wings, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and Second Nature

Last week I read three books. I'm not sure how I accomplished this considering the weather was gorgeous here, and the boys and I played outside on most days.
Before Women Had Wings
Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler is one of those books that I appreciated for its good writing, but wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone because of its gloomy subject matter. Therefore, this review is going to be short. The story centers around a young girl, Bird, and her effort to survive in a home of violence. The husband beats the wife. The wife beats the kids. The voltures kill the kittens. (Sounds like a really bad round of The Farmer in the Dell.) The one shining character in the book is Miss Zora, the loving grandmotherly figure who befriends Bird. I kept hoping something good would happen to Bird to make up for all the awful things in her life. While the ending was hopeful, I was left unsatisfied.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon
The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen, on the other hand, is very enjoyable. I picked this book up right after I finished Before Women Had Wings, and I'm glad I did. This book just made me smile. I've read Allen's other two novels, Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen. Out of the three, Garden Spells is still the best.

Allen uses magical realism in her novels: apple trees with attitudes, books that follow people around, and in this latest novel ever changing wallpaper. This technique makes the books whimsical and charming.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first time I encountered magical realism, and I loved it. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez is considered the masterpiece of magical realism and is an amazing family saga if you can keep all the Jose Arcadio's and Aureliano's straight. Of course Allen's books are much easier to read and lighter than Marquez. If you enjoy his novels, you might consider Sarah Addison Allen.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon opens with Emily, an orphaned teenager who goes to live with the grandfather she's never met in Mullaby, NC. This grandfather happens to be an eight foot giant. As her mother has never spoken of her childhood, Emily doesn't know that the people of Mullaby are not happy with her arrival, especially the Coffey's. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Emily falls for Win Coffey. Together they try to heal what has happened in the past. This is a ridiculously simple synopsis of the story, but I'm scared of giving too much of the mystery away.

The only issue I have with this book is that there is a scene that reminded me of Twilight.

Second Nature
Second Nature by Alice Hoffman was another gloomy read though I did find it very interesting. Robin, who is separated from her no good cheating husband, goes to visit her brother at a mental hospital where he is a doctor. In the waiting room, she sees the infamous Wolf Man, a wild man who was raised by wolves. Handcuffed and awaiting transportation to a permanent institution, the Wolf Man asks Robin to help him. She ends up creating a story to get his handcuffs taken off and then smuggles him home where she and her teenage son work to socialize him. Most of the middle of the story is a trio of love stories between Robin and Stephen, the Wolf Man, and Conner, the teenage son, and Lydia, his girlfriend, and Stuart, Robin's brother, and his ex-wife, Kay. When first animals and then a person are murdered in the town, Stephen becomes the prime suspect.

Overall, I liked this book. The parts where Stephen struggles with identifying himself as a wolf or as a human are really interesting. The ending was a let down. I've not read too many books by Alice Hoffman, and I've yet to find one that I just love though I think there might be one out there. If anyone has any Alice Hoffman book recommendations, please let me know.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

Although I haven't read all of Du Maurier's novels, I've read enough of them to officially acknowledge that she is one of my favorite authors. The first person narration of The Scapegoat reminded me a lot of Rebecca in that the reader is privy to the psychological state of mind of the narrator. Maybe adding the word "super" would better explain the intensity of this POV...super first person narration...yes, much better. I felt that I had truly stepped into the mind of the narrator, John/Jean de Gue'.

At the beginning of the novel, John is an English professor of French language and culture on holiday in France for research. He is dissatisfied with his life, commenting that he is simply an observer and not an active participant. John wishes he could belong to a French family and feel the sense of kinship and community instead of always feeling on the outside of life.

The phrase "Be careful what you wish for" applies here as John meets Jean de Gue', a French aristocrat who shockingly enough looks exactly like him. After a few drinks and some intimate conversation, John discovers that de Gue' has the opposite problem; he is overburdened by his family. They drink quite a bit. The next day John discovers that de Gue' has drugged him and absconded with his identity, clothes, and car. De Gue's family driver does not believe John when he denies he is Jean de Gue' and takes him to the family chateau. John's first puzzle is figuring out which woman in the sitting room is his "wife."

This book was hard to put down as it was utterly fascinating how John handles his mistaken identity not only in dealing with the family members, but how he becomes so involved with this new identity that he begins to think of himself as Jean de Gue' and not as John. There is a lot of intrigue and family trouble that he is forced to handle. Ultimately, he comes to love the family. The ending is a bit of a shock, but of course I won't share it here. I will end with my two favorite passages from the novel.

One had no right to play about with people's lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other (74-75).

Sometimes it's a sort of indulgence to think the worst of ourselves. We say, 'Now I have reached the bottom of the pit, now I can fall no further,' and it is almost a pleasure to wallow in the darkness. The trouble is, it's not true. There is no end to the evil in ourselves, just as there is no end to the good. It's a matter of choice. We struggle to climb, or we struggle to fall. The thing is to discover which way we're going (200).
Du Maurier, Daphne. The Scapegoat. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Crock Pot BBQ Pulled Pork and Ranch Coleslaw

This is a recipe I created when I couldn't find a pulled pork recipe to my taste. It makes a lot, so it's great one to make when you're expecting guests. Often I let the pork cook the night before, prepare it in the morning, and then reheat it in the oven for my guests. The BBQ recipe is sweet and tangy. I also like to put slaw on mine, so I included a really simple recipe for that as well.

Sirloin Pork Roast (4-5 lbs)
2 large onions (Sliced into rings)
1 large carton Swanson's Vegetable Broth

Spritz large crockpot with non-stick spray. Layer one onion on the bottom. Add roast. Be sure to remove netting and plastic thermometer from it. Layer the second onion on top. Fill the crockpot with broth a little over half of the way up the meat (2 cups or so). Cook on high 1 hour. This is important in getting a roast up to temperature faster. Turn to low and cook 8-10 hours or overnight.

Drain the broth and discard most of the onions. Shred the meat with a fork. It should just fall apart. Add just enough BBQ sauce to coat and stir gently. If you are serving right away, spread a layer of BBQ sauce over the top. Heat and serve. If you are serving later, spoon BBQ into lightly sprayed large casserole dish. Put a layer of BBQ over the top, cover, and store in fridge. Reheat in microwave or oven.

Sweet and Tangy BBQ Sauce (Depending on your roast size, this may make more than you actually need. You don't have to use it all, unless you like a lot of sauce.)

Mix together:
2 cups KC Masterpiece Hickory Smoked Brown Sugar BBQ Sauce
1 cup ketchup
2 tsp prepared yellow mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar

If you like sweet and spicy, add some hot sauce to taste.

Ranch and Bacon Coleslaw (From Kraft Food and Family)
1 bag cole slaw
Ranch Dressing (I like the light NOT the fat free)
Bacon (cooked crisp)

Mix together adding enough ranch dressing to coat.

I hope your family and guests enjoy this meal as much as mine do!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James is my third selection for the All About the Brontes Challenge. It took me several weeks to finish this one. Not because it was slow, but because I wanted to read it when I could give it my full attention. I enjoyed this book very much. However, it felt more like a memoir than a diary as most of the text was Charlotte reflecting on her life and not daily diary entries as events occurred. This in no way disturbed my enjoyment of the novel. The writing felt very true to Charlotte Bronte, as if I was actually reading her words.

This book is wonderfully researched. I learned so much about Charlotte and her family. I especially enjoyed how James revealed the inspirations for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne's novels. I didn't realize the extent that these books were based on people the sisters knew and events that actually happened to them. The most tragic of which was the Helen Burns story based on Charlotte's loss of two of her sisters from tuberculosis at The Clergy Daughters School. This school was the inspiration for the Lowood School that Jane attends in Jane Eyre. I'd like to give away more of these parallels as I marked each one of them in my book with a Post-It, but I won't.

I was also fascinated by Branwell Bronte, Charlotte's brother and a literary genius in his own right. He was a bit of an enigma. At times, I pitied him and at others, I found his behavior despicable and inexcusable. I don't know if I want to read The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte knowing what I do now about his tormented life. I did really appreciate James' sensitive treatment of Branwell's madness.

Additionally, James treated the love story between Charlotte and Arthur Nicholls with delicacy. It was so tenderly expressed, and I love the contrast between what Charlotte imagined love to be and what she experienced love to be with Mr. Nicholls, who was so unlike Mr. Rochester. I couldn't help but compare their love story to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's considering all the misunderstandings and false judgements.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Emma Brown by Clare Boylan

Emma Brown
Emma Brown: A novel from the unfinished manuscript by Charlotte Bronte is my second selection for the All About the Brontes challenge. This novel is actually based on two unfinished manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte, Emma Brown and The Story of Willie Ellin.  The first two chapters were written by Charlotte and are the first 20 manuscript pages of Emma Brown. Clare Boylan finishes the novel and adds Charlotte's character, Willie Ellin.  The result is successful and enjoyable, albeit it doesn't quite seem like the voice of Charlotte Bronte.     

The story begins when a young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbons, is dropped off at a boarding school by her uncle.  The three Wilcox sisters who run the school are thrilled as she is dressed in very expensive clothes, and they are in need of some extra income to keep their fledging girls school in operation.  After attempting to write to the uncle for payment, the sisters discover that he has given them a false address.  Matilda is abandoned at the school where the Wilcoxes strip her of her clothes and treat her cruelly.  

Two people of the town become interested in Matilda's plight, a widow named Mrs. Chalfont and a bachelor named Willie Ellin.   Mrs. Chalfont opens her home to Matilda while Mr. Ellin seeks to uncover the mystery of her abandonment.  Matilda can not provide the key to the mystery as she has lost her memory.  She does eventually remember that Emma is her real name. Emma (no longer Matilda) runs away to London in pursuit of her history, leaving the childless widow grieving her absence.  Mr. Ellin continues the search for Emma's uncle.  The second half of the story takes place primarily in the slums of London revealing the poverty, prostitution, and crime of the time.  (These sections reminded me more of Dickens than C. Bronte.) There are several coincidences that connect all of the main characters to Emma in the end.
Much like Jane Eyre, Emma has an independent spirit and a strong amount of common sense. She struggles to make it in the grim streets of London and uses her cleverness to avoid the workhouses.  Forgiveness and redemption are also themes of Emma Brown as several of the characters struggle to overcome their unfortunate pasts. While Jane is the only narrator in Jane Eyre, there are several different narrations in Emma Brown.  A few times these switches in POV were confusing.  However, I loved seeing the story from the perspectives of the various characters and how their pasts influenced the way they treated Emma.  

I highly recommend this book.  I didn't feel as if I was reading a Charlotte Bronte novel and with the exception of the first couple of chapters, I wasn't.  It was very courageous of Clare Boylan to finish the novel of such a beloved author.  Many reviews of this book have a "How dare you?" attitude toward Boylan.  I say, "How daring of you! Bravo!"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Random Ramblings About Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is my first novel for the All About the Brontes Challenge hosted by Laura's Book Reviews. It is one of my top three favorite books, so I'm a bit overwhelmed with how to even begin writing about it.  I apologize for the following random thoughts.

SPOILER ALERTS:  (If you've never read Jane Eyre and want to...BEWARE!)

Short Synopsis:
The story opens with the orphaned ten year old Jane Eyre who is living with her cold and unloving Aunt Reed and her three cousins who exclude and torment her.  She is sent to Lowood, a charity school for girls.  It is a cold place where the girls are starved.   Jane finds a true friend in Helen Burns who tragically dies in her arms.  After her training is complete, Jane teaches at the school for a few years before advertising for a governess position.  She becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, a lonely and mysterious place.  It is here where Jane finds true love.  Her happiness is short-lived as she suffers a great shock, which causes her to suddenly flee the manor in the middle of the night.  Weary and hungry, Jane is reduced to begging.  She finds help in the form of St. John Rivers and his two sisters who tend to her physical and emotional needs. After a year of making her way alone in the world, Jane returns to Thornfield Hall and to her true love, Mr. Rochester.  

Jane and Me:
My father suggested I should write an entry based on how my life relates to Jane Eyre's.  While I may be tempted to run off to the Moors in a state of emotional distress brought on by the antics of the my little sons, I never have and likely will not as we don't have those here. What I can relate to is Jane's love of learning and reading.  At the beginning, she escapes her troubles by reading a book.  Reading is a great escape for me as well.  I can also relate to her chosen profession as I am a teacher as well.  

Jane Eyre: The Feminist
Jane Eyre expresses a desire to take care of herself early on in the book when she advertises to be a governess.   When offered marriage, she insists on maintaining her work and receiving her salary.  She doesn't like the thought of being dependent on Mr. Rochester after they are married.  Jane express her independence when facing the moral dilemma of staying with Mr. Rochester as his mistress or leaving him.  She decides to leave and become independent of him. 

I love when she says to herself, "No; you shall tear yourself away; none shall help you: you shall yourself pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your right hand: your heart should be the victim; and you the priest, to transfix it" (Jane Eyre, chapter 27).  This statement is incredibly eerie considering what actually happens to Rochester during the night of the fire.

Another Favorite Quote:
from Chapter 23 

"Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am souless and heartless?  You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!"  

The entire paragraph this quote comes from is pretty amazing.  When watching Jane Eyre films, I'm always anticipating this particular line.

Speaking of Jane Eyre Films
I hadn't read Jane Eyre in several years and couldn't wait for the part where Mr. Rivers finds her exhausted on the Moors and carries her away to his home. This actually never happens. I guess I was recalling a scene from a film not the actual book.  I was kind of disappointed.

Jane Eyre and Rebecca
Rebecca by Daphne Du Murier is another favorite of mine.  I had no idea it was based on Jane Eyre until Laura listed it as one of the challenge books. Well, of course while reading Jane Eyre I noticed many similarities.  Most obvious of which are secrets about psychotic first wives, the romance of a young woman and older man of varying social stature, and the destruction of the mansions by fire.  

I can't wait to read my next selection for this challenge.  It is Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte by Clare Boylan.  

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Apple Fritter French Toast

This recipe tastes completely homemade even though I cheat and use Walmart Bakery's Apple Fritter Bread to make it.  My family also really likes the Blueberry Crumble Bread as well.  


6 thick slices Apple Fritter Bread
3 eggs
cooking spray

1. Heat large skillet on medium heat.  Give it time to heat up.
2. Beat three eggs with a fork.  I use a pie plate. 

3. Mist heated pan with cooking spray.
4. Dip a slice of bread in egg mixture, coating both sides.  Do this very quickly because you just want egg on the outside of the bread, not soaked all the way through.
5. Cook on both sides until lightly brown and egg is somewhat firmed.

Serve with syrup or whipped cream.  If you don't like super sweet, try these with some butter instead.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Prune Cake: The Best Thing I've Eaten in Awhile

Yes, really.  You read that right Prune Cake.  Moist, spicy, luscious Prune Cake.  It is truly the best thing I've eaten in awhile...well except for perhaps the Amaretto Fudge that my Dad made at Christmas.  The recipe Grandma Iny's Prune Cake comes from The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond.  It is definitely a keeper!
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Free Audio Books at Audio Owl logoJust thought I'd pass this website along that my Dad shared with me yesterday.  Audio Owl provides free public domain audio books to download to itunes or MP3 players.  Definitely check this site out for the classics such as Jane Eyre or Jane Austin books as well as many others!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bagel Attempt #1

I came across this simple bagel recipe in the cookbook, Church Socials, and decided to give it a try. Having never made bagels before, I was a little nervous. They turned out pretty good for my first try albeit a little nonuniform. My kids gobbled them up with enthusiasm, so that's always a good sign.  I'm definitely going to try some more bagel recipes. 

from Church Socials recipe submitted by Rachel McClean Dabritz

1 envelope active dry yeast
2/3 cup water, boiled and cooled to luke warm (temp should be between 110-115)
2 TBSP sugar plus more for cooking
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 TBSP oil
1 egg beaten
3 cups flour (mine ended up a tad dry and I had to add some warm water)

1. Dissolve yeast in 1/3 cup of the water.  Let stand for 10 minutes.  (Your yeast should get foamy in the water.)

2. Place remaining water in a large mixing bowl.  Add sugar, salt, and oil and stir to combine. Stir in yeast, egg, and half of flour using a dough hook attachment.  Gradually add remaining flour.  Knead for 8-10 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic and springs back when pressed with a finger.  (The dough is very stiff.)

3. Transfer dough into large oiled bowl, cover, and set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, 2-3 hours.  (Tip: Boil a small amount of water in the microwave.  Place the covered bowl of dough in the microwave with the steaming water.)

4. Punch down dough, divide into 12 pieces, and form into rings.  Allow enough time so that dough begins to rise, up to 1 hour.

5. Preheat the oven to 400. Grease baking sheet. (I used my exopat mat.) Bring a stockpot to boil over high heat.  Sprinkle sugar into the water.  Place dough rings into the boiling water in batches, cooking until they rise to the surface (approximately 1 1/2 minutes). 

Remove with a large slotted utensil and place on baking sheet.  Bake for 20 minutes (It took mine 15 so watch them!) or until lightly browned. Makes 12 bagels.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Morning Scones

Just thought I'd share one of my favorite recipes: Buttermilk Blueberry Scones from Average Betty.  She has really excellent step by step photos. You don't have to actually purchase buttermilk, just sour milk using 1 TBSP white vinegar or lemon juice per 1 cup of milk.  Do this step first because it needs to sit for five minutes.  She suggests using frozen blueberries because fresh bleed too much.  I think she said this backwards. Fresh blueberries bleed less than frozen.  I've been getting really good fresh blueberries at the store lately.

Of course I've made changes to this recipe to suit my tastes, and I think it is improved to perfection!  Instead of cutting with the biscuit cutter, I prefer to just dust my baking stone with a little flour, form a disk and cut the traditional scone triangles.  You will want to separate them some so that they don't bake together.  I do not coat with the buttermilk at the end, but sprinkle sparkling sugar on top and pat them in lightly before popping them into the oven. After baking, I make a glaze out of powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. Drizzle this glaze over the cooled scones.  YUM!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Regular Me and Chicken Spaghetti

Every six months or so I suffer from an identity crisis.  Just when I think I'm feeling comfortable staying at home with my children, I get that itch to seek employment; to do something slightly more incredible with my life than cooking, cleaning, laundry, shuttling people around, and bottom-wiping.  It can be depressing.  Now I know that raising kids is an incredible job, but I can't help but feel that I'm not living up to my own expectations.  Yes, I know too...enjoy them when they are little, and I do.  But.......

Yet, I really have no direction at this point.  Some days I want to go back to teaching.  This seems unlikely with the current teacher layoffs in our county. Some days I think I'll get my masters. But in what?  I love to read, so maybe library science.  I just have this fear that I'd spend all that money and not be able to find a job near my home. This kind of wallowing can go on and on. Luckily, I married a very patient man.  

What pulled me out of it this time was a conversation I had with my three year old son yesterday.  It went something like this:

Charlie in his favorite batman t-shirt and black "batman" socks
Me in my PJ top, robe, and blue jeans 

Me: There's my batman!
Charlie: I'm NOT batman!
Me: There's my batboy?!
Charlie: I'm NOT batboy!  I'm Charlie! I'm REGULAR Charlie!  (sounds like rehyoular Charwee)

Well if he's okay with being regular Charlie then I should be okay being regular Emily. Right? Not professional Emily.  Not extra educated Emily. Just regular Emily.  It's okay to just be regular. There's a certain peace in accepting that.  (Isn't funny how children can be the best life coaches?)

Which leads me to......Chicken Spaghetti.  Just regular chicken spaghetti.  It isn't too fancy.  It isn't too hard.  But it IS rather good and comforting and filling.

I followed Ree Drummond's recipe from The Pioneer Woman Cooks pretty closely.  I can't seem to ever follow a recipe exactly...part of a rebellious nature perhaps.  Here is the link to her recipe: Chicken Spaghetti
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl
Here is what I did differently:
Instead of cut-up fryer chicken, I cooked a whole chicken because it was cheaper to do this even when buying humanely treated. 

1. Rough cut 2 onions, 3 stalks celery, and 2 carrots.
2. Rinse chicken and remove gibblet bag.
3. Place chicken in the pot and cover with vegetables, about 10 peppercorns, and a dash or two of salt.
3. Cover all with water.
4. Bring to a boil.  Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 2-3 hours.
5. Remove chicken.  Remove and discard vegetables and pepper.

Follow Ree's recipe from here.

This made a very large casserole.  It could easily be made ahead and popped into the oven later.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Toad-in-the-Hole and Being Holed Up

Holed Up - sitting at your PC - Day and Night - in the dark in your jammies without any human interaction (The Urban Dictionary)

I woke up feeling great today!  After being sick from one ailment or another since the beginning of December, I truly feel like the world is my oyster...I'm on top of the out world, here I come!  There's something about being sick and then getting better that gives one a new lease on life (and the freedom to use cliches whenever the heck she wants).

With the single digit weather and winter storm blast last week, I have been holed up in my house with stir crazy children and dogs.  Now I'm holed up in my house with all this energy and feeling a bit stir crazy myself. In the warmer months, I'd take to the outdoors and dig in the dirt or hack away at something that needs a good trim down. This is not going to happen for awhile as I'd like to keep my fingers and toes.  

I could take on some indoor project.  The walls are barren and sad from lack of decoration, and there are several areas in need of some organizational attention.  But that's just not very appealing to me.  

So, I think I will bundle up, hit the store, and cook up something tasty or two.
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl
My inspiration today is the wonderful book, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl.  (Thank you Doug and Carrie!) I've read it cover to cover a couple of times.  The pictures of ranch life are just absolutely beautiful, and Ree Drumounds commentaries are fun and informative. Many of the recipes are tried and true and have been around for years and years: Texas Sheet Cake, Buttermilk Biscuits, Country-Fried Steak (though here in Indiana we are very fond of the Pork Tenderloin version of this), Chicken Spaghetti, etc, etc.  Maybe her versions are somehow better.  They are definitely worth a try. (I was shocked to see that she doesn't put cinnamon in her Texas Sheet Cake, which in my opinion is THE ingredient that makes that cake special.)

I haven't tried anything substantial from it yet. I did manage to make a very simple recipe called Egg in the Hole, more commonly known around these parts as Toad in the Hole. It is not only simple and tasty, but it is the perfect thematic tie-in to being holed up. Just click the link to find the recipe.  The only thing I changed was toasting the cut out piece of bread in the butter as well. Then I slipped it underneath the finished Toad in the Hole.  I didn't want to waste it! Enjoy!