Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Books and brownies

Whoops. So much for my unannounced resolution of writing more blogs this year. Guess I can start that now?

Following on the heels of my previous post, I have come up with an aspirational plan for my reading this year: To make as many as possible of the books I read this year be by authors who are not white males. I want to read more books by women, more foreign fiction and poetry, more works by people of color - more that make me see outside my normal bubble. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with reading books by western white males - I certainly have my eyes on several upcoming books by favorite authors of that ilk - but I don't want to get stuck in a rut. I think I do a fair job of this normally, but I want it to be intentional, I want to notice that I am doing it. It shouldn't be too hard - just by cruising through my Goodreads to read list for a few minutes, I can easily come up with a year's worth of books to keep me reading. I will try to post some of what I read here - remind me if I don't!

And I promised brownies, didn't I? If you have been with me for any length of time, you know I love baking. I like trying new things, but there are days when I want something easy, something quick, and something I know everyone in the house will eat. Today was one of those days. I needed to bake something, since there was a serious lack of proper dessert items in the house, but couldn't muster the mental energy to find and try something new. When I asked Malcolm what to make, he wanted brownies. I used to dread trying to make brownies, since it seemed to require big chunks of baking chocolate and lots of stirring and mixing. I am not sure what recipe I was looking at, but I remember brownies being too much work. Then I found my current recipe from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook; it is almost as easy as making brownies from a box mix, and much better tasting. I thought I would share, in case you too are in need of a quick, easy brownie recipe.

Cocoa Brownies
Prep: 10 minutes (perhaps more, if baking with small children)  Bake: 25 minutes

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (1 stick) (You can also substitute coconut oil 1:1 for butter. I used half and half this time and it made the brownies just a little nutty, in a good way)
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts (4 ounces) coarsely chopped (optional - I never add them, since we are in the "no nuts in brownies" camp, but I am sure they would be good, if you like that sort of thing)
Sprinkles (Malcolm's addition to the recipe, also optional. They do make regular brownies festive)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 9-inch square baking pan (this always seems too large, but always seems to be just right in the end. I bet you could try an 8-inch pan too). In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.
2. In 3-quart saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Stir in eggs, one at a time, until well blended; add vanilla. Stir in walnuts, if using. Top with sprinkles, if using.
3. Bake until toothpick inserted 2 inches from center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. (It has always been exactly 25 minutes in my oven). Cool pan completely on wire rack; don't cut them yet. Just don't do it.
4. When cool, cut into as many pieces as you want. (The recipe suggests 16, I usually go for 20, but then I am trying to keep a three year old and a brownie obsessed grandmother from eating too large of pieces).

Monday, January 4, 2016

Favorite Books of 2015

It is the new year, and I guess that means it is time for lists and reviews of the year just past. For me, the first and most important list is the one of all the books I have read. Officially, on Goodreads, I managed 70 books. That is about half of my pre-parenthood high year, and feels low, but unofficially, I read hundreds of books to Malcolm. That is not an exaggeration - I am keeping a list of all the books we read together, and it is over 600 books! One of these days I will get them all on my list of books too. Benjamin laughs at my attempts to quantify my life, but I can't help it.

But I digress. What I really wanted to do was share some of my favorite books of the past year with you, because they are all so good you should read them too! I am specifically using "favorite" and not "best," because this is a completely subjective list, and apart from the first one, I am not ranking any of them.

Favorite overall: Ancillary Justice (and the sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy) by Ann Leckie. I cannot adequately express how much I love this series. The world is at once familiar and completely foreign - there is an empire that spans thousands of years and wide swathes of space, the people are human, but gender is not really a thing, the default pronoun is "she" or "her," and the antagonist is thousands of clones of the same person. I know it is challenging - I suggested it for my book group, and the one other woman who reads everything gave up on it - but it is also amazingly good and fun and engrossing.

Other favorite fiction:
Lock In by John Scalzi - set in the near future after a flu/polio type virus has swept the world and millions of people are trapped in their own bodies. There is a mystery, possibly a conspiracy, and robots! It isn't at all dystopian or dreary or bleak - Scalzi is great at writing realistic characters who have a sense of humor and make their way through without getting too mopey or obnoxious. I listened to the Audible version of this, both the Wil Wheaton version and the Amber Benson version, and I highly recommend either narrator. Oh yeah, the gender of the main character is never mentioned, so they can be read as male or female without any difficulty.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - another book set in the near future where a virus has ravaged the earth. This time, things are somewhat dystopian, since 99% of the population died, but it really isn't as bleak as that sounds. The book switches back and forth between pre-collapse views of a famous actor and his associates, and the post-collapse life lived by a troupe of traveling actors and musicians. It is about survival, and hope and the ways humans learn to cope and thrive even in darkness.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor - Uh, set in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa... I promise I read good books that were not set after apocalypses, but these really are the most interesting ones. This one has a chosen one, who is a girl who wants to learn magic and become all the things she is not supposed to, according to her society. There is friendship, love, magic, heartbreak, redemption. Good stuff.

Embassytown by China Mieville - Hey, not set in a post-apocalyptic world! Just set on a strange planet where the humans are definitely not the dominant species and language holds all sorts of power. I am at a loss to explain this one, as I am with most Mieville, because it is so strange and so wonderful. It made an interesting pairing with another book I was reading at the same time, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. In fact, the best description I can give is that it is Mieville doing his version of a Le Guin novel.

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton - yes, this is a picture book, but it is so good! I bought it for myself, and honestly never considered that it was a kids book until I got it in the car and Malcolm demanded to look at it on the way home. Now, everyone in the house loves it and enjoys reading it at bedtime. Princess Pinecone is a warrior who wants a real warrior's horse for her birthday. Her parents try, but they don't get it quite right.

Favorite Non-Fiction: I didn't read as much non-fiction this year as I have in some other years, but I did read some that was worth passing on.
It's What I Do: A photographer's life of love and war by Lynsey Addario - a memoir of her career as a photojournalist.

On the Move by Oliver Sacks - I finished reading this the day before he died. His memoir of his career, from the outside, as it were, instead of through his case studies.

Baking Chez Moi by Dorie Greenspan - One of the best baking cookbooks I have ever seen and used. Greenspan is endlessly supportive and practical and her recipes are all fantastic. I don't mean that they all taste good, although they do; no, I mean they are all detailed, well-tested, and easy to follow, even when you are making something tricky or difficult. It is a model for how all cookbooks should be written. I am working my way through all the recipes, such an onerous chore (ha!).

There are, of course, more books I could recommend, but I don't want to try your patience. Let me know what your favorites were, so I can add them to my never-ending to-read pile on Goodreads! I promise to move them to the top of the virtual pile!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Rain, Running, and Snack Mix

It has been raining here in Central Arkansas for the last four days. And when I say rain, I don't mean the gentle drizzle that counts as rain in the Northwest - I know that kind of rain, I grew up with it, and while it can put a damper on your mood, at least it is generally easy to ignore as you go about your daily life. No, we have had about 4-6 inches of rain, in heavy downpours and steady showers. There is a pocket park at the bottom of our hill - just a basketball court and a walking trail really - set into a bowl where all the water drains. It has flooded twice now in the last two weeks. Our backyard and front yard are just mud puddles, squishy, messy, mud puddles. But, in theory, the sun is coming back soon, and maybe we will dry out a bit.

Being a good Northwesterner, I didn't let the rain stop me from running this week. How could I? It was the first week of my half-marathon training plan! I might get lazy later, I might have to take a break for an ice storm in January, but no way am I letting rain wash out my first week! So I put on my old rain coat (not really made for running, but it worked well enough) and slogged out the door. I am super excited about running the half in March. The farthest I have ever run was 10 miles, while training for my last 10K (6.2 miles), and when I finished that run I said to myself "I am glad I am done for today, but I could totally run another three miles if I had to!" And now I will get that chance. I am also excited because I will be raising money for a good cause: brain cancer research. Some friends of mine have set up a fund raising team and gathered close to 100 friends to run the Little Rock Marathon, half-marathon, 10K and 5K to raise money. Check out the link and think about how much you want to give me, because after Christmas I am going to come back with my hat in hand, pestering and begging you for money. Don't think I won't.

And now, because it is officially the Christmas season, and because it is raining and you need something yummy to perk you up, it is time for snack mix. I love snack mix, and while I might occasionally make it at other times of the year, December just isn't right if I don't make a couple of batches. How much do I love it? I made a batch last week - using an entire box of cereal - and it lasted two days. Malcolm and I ate almost all of it ourselves. I had to make another batch this weekend. So, without further delay, here is my recipe for snack mix:

Crispix snack mix, modified by Hope
*I have doubled the original recipe, because the smaller amount just isn't worth it. The amounts of cereal etc. are all approximate, depending on your own personal tastes and preferences - adjust as needed.

1 box Crispix cereal, or approximately 13 cups rice and corn Chex
1-2 cups Cheerios
1-2 cups cheddar Goldfish
1-2 cups peanuts
1-2 cups pretzels (I usually use sticks, but the mini twists work well too)
6 tablespoons butter, melted (the original calls for margarine, but, ugh)
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon onion salt (I usually use onion powder instead, because that is what I have)
1 teaspoon Penzey's Greek Seasoning mix or Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle (Optional: this is a new addition, and it is quite nice, but the mix is just fine without it)
4 teaspoons lemon juice
8 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 250 F.
1) Combine the cereals, Goldfish, peanuts, and pretzels in a large roasting pan. Set aside.
2) Stir together the remaining ingredients. Pour over cereal and gently stir until the cereal is evenly coated.
3) Bake at 250 F for an hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Allow to cool - this is important, since the mix will not taste good at all when very hot. Eat. Repeat.