Thursday, 29 December 2011

Heart of Ice

I know that you're all thinking that I either fell off the edge of the earth or ate so much turkey that I was in a tryptophan induced stupor for the past 10 days.  It's been a week and a half since I last posted but things like Christmas and family events kind of took a front seat ... as they should! 

I hope that everyone had a lovely holiday with their family and friends!  We had a Christmas dinner at my parents' cottage with 22 of my family members, loads of food, tonnes of kids and 4 canines thrown into the mess -- welcome to my typical family Christmas! 

To top off our boisterous get together my parents announced that they were taking their grandchildren (and their daughters & spouses) to Great Wolf Lodge for 2 days ... and we were leaving on December 27th!! (thankfully all of us parents had a heads up beforehand).  Yup.  All 17 of us enjoying some waterslides, wave pools, crafts and buffet eating.  Even my dear mother got her fine self down a waterslide.  As she made the last turn in the slide she was greeted by her grandchildren clapping and cheering her on! Way to go, Nanny!!

Needless to say the 9 kids and 8 adults took full advantage of all that GWL had to offer.  I luuurved the water slides and my 12 year old was in his own personal nirvana when he got to the supper buffet and loaded up (I'm talking a PILE of ribs and ice cream).  As a child with a peanut allergy buffet eating is pretty much restricted to places like Disney and GWL who understand food allergies.  Needless to say he definitely got his money's worth!  I won't even mention how my 10 year old's eyes lit up at the sight of the cereal bar at the breakfast buffet.  Fruit Loops, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lucky Charms, oh MY!  I'll leave all that kind of food to the kids.  I'll stick with my prime rib and baked potato bar!!

There's also something about body surfing in a wave pool, being in a bikini and looking outside at the falling snow.  Yes, we here in southern Ontario FINALLY have snow!  I know this can be hard for some non-Canadians to believe but we don't get nearly as much snow as some people think.  I'm pretty sure people in the north eastern States, Michigan and other northern States get much more snow than we do in my neck of the woods!

But I digress, we've had a wonderful holiday so far and are looking forward to hosting 4 families for New Years.  Nothing like filling a week with three major get togethers!  I have one wonderful appetizer that I made for Christmas (and shhh, will make again for New Years) that I will be posting soon.  Until then, here's a book review of a suspense novel that I read last week. 

Wishing you and yours a very happy, healthy and safe New Year!!

Author: Gregg Olsen
Genre: Suspense/Mystery
Type: Paperback
Pages: 460
First Published: 2009
First Line: "Hauling a dead body around isn't easy."
Synopsis: Mandy Crawford is a young and very pregnant woman who suddenly goes missing from her small Washington state town.  Sheriff Emily Kenyon (and most of the small town) suspect her husband, the local car dealer who has expensive tastes but no finesse with his fellow citizens.
While Sheriff Kenyon tries to figure out where and why Mandy disappeared, her daughter Jenna is dealing with a serious situation of her own.   A few of her sorority sisters have been murdered and it's not long before she realizes that she may be the killer's real target.

My Thoughts:  This was just a moderately OK read.  I had picked it up at the library hoping to find a new suspense author but sadly this book just didn't grab me.  I think it started from the get-go.  The pace was slow and the addition of the sorority killer seemed forced and, quite frankly, odd.    
It also didn't help that the characters were a little boring and unoriginal.  The sorority sisters were all portrayed as the cliched airhead and Emily didn't seem like a believable sherriff and I never felt like I really got to know her well.  That may be because this is the third book in the series (something that I wasn't aware when I started  the book).  Emily just seemed too juvenile and tended to worry too much about her relationship with her boyfriend -- Should she marry him?  Would her 20-something daughter be OK with the marriage?  Yes, I said 20-something (and even when Jenna gave her blessing it was still a bit to-do in Emily's mind).  Just commit to him already!!  You're a 40 year old woman, take the next step.  That kind of relationship banter took away from the momentum of the story which was slow to begin with.

Another issue I have is that the description at the back of the book didn't accurately describe the book.   I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover but I'd at least like to know a little of what I'm getting before I start reading.  The description on the book focused much more on the sorority killer when the missing pregnant woman (the storyline that I liked much more) wasn't even mentioned.  I kept rereading the back cover because I was sure I was reading a totally different book until sorority sisters started being murdered.

The reasoning behind why the killer was murdering sorority girls was too far-fetched and unbelievable for me.  Another thing that I found that reached the outer edge of believability is how many serial killers can be connected to one woman's family. Emily lives in a very small town and yet she's come in contact with 3 serial killers? Unlikely but not the first time a little creative licence has been taken by an author to try to keep storylines going in a book series.

Even though I came into this series in the middle (something I don't love doing) I will say that the author made it easy to get to know the relationships between the characters without giving too much of previous books away or spoon feeding me too many details.

Warning: I also found the descriptions of the killer's childhood much more graphic than I was expecting.

Overall, I wasn't impressed with this book.  The pace was slow, the characters were underdeveloped and storyline was too unbelievable. 

My Rating: 2.5/5

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Chewy Sugar & Spice Cookies

I hope everyone is getting into the holiday spirit!!  Sadly we do not have ANY snow here in my part of Canada.   Seriously, I'm sad.  It just doesn't feel like Christmas without a layer of fresh white snow covering everything. 

In order to help kick off the holiday season in my house we typically make these cookies.  If you're a long-time follower of my blog you'll know that these cookies were posted in the first few months of my blog back in the fall of 2009.  You may consider this a 'rerun' posting but there are a few reasons why I'm reposting.  First of all, my original post was boring.  Secondly, my family and I ADORE these cookies.  They are Christmas to us.  My twelve year old and I baked up a batch last weekend and needless to say they didn't last 2 days.  Lastly, is that this is a 'tried and true' recipe that has been handed down.  In my book those are the best kinds of recipes!! 
My family is also quite fond of handing non-edible things down to each other.  In our family there are two different kinds of hand-me-downs.  The first kind are items which are shared between family members because they elicit wonderful family memories.  These items could be anything from much loved books, favourite clothes, pictures, furniture etc. 
The other kind of hand-me-down that is passed on in our family is done more to get a laugh and make the other person squirm as they try to weasel out of accepting said 'gift'.  Think of it as cheap entertainment.  We're a simple people.  Case in point -- my dear parents bought a hideously ugly loveseat in the early 80's that had brown and rust coloured pheasants all over it.  Not only was it dreadful to the eyes but it added to its shocking lack of aesthetic by being extremely uncomfortable.  In our family when we're pawning off nasty stuff that's a win-win!

While I might love to get some hand-me-down clothes for my kids or a much loved book for yours truly, one of my all-time favourite hand-me-downs are 'tried and true' family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.  That kind of second-hand treasure is definitely one of my favourites.
For me, food is very closely linked with heart warming memories of my family.   One bite of a beef pie and I fondly think of all of the times spent at my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Dave's house.   A bite of Dutch apple pie and I think of my Mother-in-law and my Grandma who are renowned for their apple pies!  Tasting a perfectly grilled steak reminds me of my Dad and hubby!  And, last but certainly not least, my Mom has instilled in me a deep and abiding love (which borders on obsession) of the mighty potato and all its glorious forms!   So many wonderful memories and recipes in one family!  It would be truly devastating to lose or forget some of that "Home Cookin' History"!   Those recipes not only feed our bellies but also bring back so many fond memories ... all from a single bite. 

This tried and true 'hand-me-down' recipe that I'm sharing today comes from my friend Nancie.  At her wedding Nancie gave all of her guests a couple of her grandmother's Sugar and Spice Cookies as well as the recipe in honour of her grandmother.  I thought that sharing her family's favourite treat was such a personal gesture and a thoughtful tribute to her Grandma.
Needless to say, these cookies quickly became one of our family's favourite holiday cookies.  They have just the right amount of spice, they have a cute crackle finish on top and are chewy!  The added bonus??  They're really easy to make (which may be good news for your stomach but your thighs may not love you after the holidays.  You have been warned!).  I make at least 2-3 batches of these babies for various holiday parties ... or, if I'm being really honest, just 'cuz.   The best part?  Each and every time I make them they always remind me of how much I value my friendship with Nancie.   I hope you enjoy these cookies and make them part of your Home Cookin' History!

Chewy Sugar & Spice Cookies

3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
Sugar - to garnish

Preheat oven to 350F.
In a large bowl beat together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg; beat for 30 seconds.  Stir in molasses.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda and spices.  Add to butter mixture and blend.  Roll batter into 1" balls (or do what I do and use a small melon baller) then roll each ball in sugar. Place on baking stone or cookie sheet (leave 1 1/2" in between balls) and bake for 10 minutes. Cookies spread quite a bit as they cook.

Remove cookies from the oven and keep cookies on baking stone or cookie sheet for 2 minutes then remove to a rack to cool completely.  Store in an air tight container.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Shatter Me

Author: Tahereh Mafi
Pages: 338
Genre: Young Adult / Supernatural
First Published: November 15, 2011
First Line: "I've been locked up for 264 days."

Synopsis:  Juliette is a 16 year old girl who has been locked up in a mental asylum ever since her parents abandoned her years before.  There's a reason why Juliette has been locked up.  Her touch is lethal.
Juliette spends her days alone in a cell with only a secret notebook to keep her company.  After not seeing or speaking to another human being for 264 days, Juliette is shocked to suddenly be given a cellmate -  a teenage boy named Adam.   Juliette is not just shocked, she's scared.   Adam wants to talk to Juliette and get to know her but Juliette is terrified that she could accidentally hurt him.  She's also scared that he'll find out why she can't touch him and why she was put in the asylum in the first place which could lead her to losing the only human contact she's had in almost a year.

When Juliette finally escapes the asylum it's only to be held captive in another type of prison.  This new 'prison' is controlled by a ruthless and powerful young man named Warner.  Warner is a young leader with The Reestablishement -- the agency that has taken control of the world's resources in the post-apocalyptic world.    Warner lavishes Juliette with food, clothes and his attention in order to convince Juliette to join the Reestablishment and use her 'gift' to torture those who oppose the new regime.   When his nicer tactics fail he begins to use subtle threats and even seduction to entice Juliette to stay with him and harness her power to help the Reestablishment increase their hold on the world.
It's during this time that  Juliette finds herself caught between Adam, the boy who loves her and the power hungry Warner.  Will Juliette turn into the monster that she's always been portrayed as or will she turn to the only person who has  treated her as a person in order to go against the Regime?

My Thoughts:  There's been quite a lot of hype surrounding this book.  Normally I'm a little intrigued as well as a little sceptical when a book receives so much attention.  With "Shatter Me" I believe that the hype is fairly justified.
"Shatter Me" has been portrayed by some as a 'Hunger Games meets X-Men' book.  Dystopian world with teens on the run, romance, action / people with special powers.  I can see why comparisons were made.  While The Hunger Games had a lot more 'edge of your seats' type action and 'X-Men' had more of a superhero element,  "Shatter Me" held its own and was a good start to a new series.

The premise is what drew me to this book if I'm being totally honest.  A girl who can't touch people without taking their life force from them?  Cool.  Not a totally original idea though since Rogue (from X-Men fame) has the same power.  Some people have given Mafi flack for making Juliette so similar to young Rogue but since I only have a vague knowledge of X-Men (mmmm, Hugh Jackman!) the similar powers between Rogue and Juliette didn't bother me. 
Juliette was an interesting main character but what really drew me to her in the beginning was her voice.  In the beginning Mafi used very interesting prose in order to convey Juliette's inner thoughts while she was in the asylum.   It's extremely choppy  (she repeatedly crosses out her thoughts as she writes them in her secret diary) but it's also poetic, expressive and very emotional.  Usually that kind of disjointed writing annoys me but Mafi was able to use this choppy prose and crossed out words to help me better understand Juliette's conflicted feelings.

I enjoyed seeing Juliette's character mature throughout the book.   It was touching to see how Juliette learns to perceive herself differently.  She goes from feeling like a monster and being utterly alone in the world to learning to trust another person and respect the unique power she's been given.   That said,  I do think that Juliette's transformation happened too fast.  When we first meet Juliette she's broken mentally, physically and emotionally.  She's been in solitary confinement for almost a year, was half starved and extremely lonely.   Yet after having a cellmate for a mere 2 weeks she bounces back to a fairly normal teenager (not including her lethal touch, obviously).  So after a lifetime of being ostracized and ignored by everyone and being called a monster it only takes 2 weeks with a cute boy to bring her back to a healthy mental state?  That's some teenage boy!!  My point?  I would have liked to see Juliette struggle more with the changes she's going through.
As for the menfolk in the book?   I have to say that I've switched over the the dark side because I MUCH preferred Warner's character to  Adam.   Warner puts the capital "N" in Nasty and was the ultimate bad guy.  On paper he may have been portrayed as a little too bad in a 'fingers steepled while cackling Bwah ha ha' kind of way.  He did have a titch of a human side though.  Just a titch which is why I think hope that Mafi has plans to bring a little more humanity/internal conflict to Warner.  He was my favourite character in the book.  There was just something about him.  I'd love it if, in future books, there was some kind of love triangle between Juliette, Adam and Warner.  Warner just has to channel his human side a bit more to make this happen.

Then there's Adam.  Adam is a nice guy.  He's good looking, he rescues damsels --  he's the whole hero enchilada with a side of guacamole.   My problem is he seemed just too perfect, he was one-dimensional and a little blaw, if I'm being honest.  I suppose part of my apathy towards Adam is that I wasn't totally on board with why Adam wanted to help Juliette in the first place.  His reason seemed a little farfetched to me.  That being said,  I thought that the romantic element of the book was sweet, believable and not forced.  Juliette and Adam do make a cute couple.
I don't have many negatives about this book -- more like observations.  When reading the book it felt like it was written in three sections that each have quite a different feel to them.   The first part starts off in the asylum where Juliette's disjointed way of thinking is so amazing, poetic and vividly shows her inner torment.  The second part of the book tells of a dystopian world -- the reader is told more than shown this world that is in a shambles due to humans destroying nature, wild life etc.  Finally, the third part of the book has a very supernatural/X-men vibe to it and Juliette's 'voice' changes.  Perhaps it's because she's learned more about herself but she feels a little too different from where she was a mere month or so in the past. 

Don't get me wrong.  I'm excited to see where the author takes the second book from here.   There are several unanswered questions left at the end of the book but nothing that leaves me feeling miffed or the book to feel unfinished.  Mafi has left the door open for a sequel and I'm hoping that she'll use book two to give readers more background into Adam, Juliette and Warner's pasts.
Overall, I recommend this book to people who enjoyed The Hunger Games, who like a little action mixed with a little teen romance with a pretty good dose of supernatural thrown in for good measure.
My Rating: 4/5

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Cheesy Bacon Fries with Ranch Dip

By now, my readers, you're probably pretty certain of my love for the mighty spud {with 25 potato recipes on my blog how could you not!}.  So it should not come as a total shock that I also adore bacon.  Potatoes and bacon go way back.  Mmmmm, I love me some bacon.  And cheese.  And Ryan Reynolds ... but that's neither here nor there.  My love for cheese and bacon may be great for the tastebuds but not so great for my arteries so I enjoy them in moderation.  Ryan Reynolds?  He's perfectly fine for my arteries so I get my fill watching him in 'The Proposal' over and over and over again. *sigh*

Bookworm Tidbit:  Whenever Brad has one of his manly men-only nights with the guys to drink beer and eat chicken wings (and possibly thump their chests) he'll ask me if I want him to bring me something.  Awww, nice guy, right?  My answer, always??  Cheesy Bacon Fries.  I don't care if he was hanging out at a bakery or a Tim Horton's I always want Cheesy Bacon Fries.  It's what I crave.  All the time.  Who doesn't love fresh cut fries, smothered in gooey cheese and crisp bacon?  WHO!?!  No one, that's who.

After years, YEARS of waiting for Cheesy Bacon Fries I finally took matters into my own two hands.  I made my own.  I will attempt to explain how I felt when I sat down and ate my beloved dish. "Oh ... MY ... TATER!".  It was soooo good!  Brad agreed whole-heartedly although my kids weren't fans.  There's always a critic ... or three.
Now, eating fresh cut fries sprinkled with cheese and bacon isn't enough.  {Apparently I'm never satisfied}.  I had to make an easy Ranch dip to dip my fries into.  Ketchup just will NOT do with this dish.  The Ranch dip was the icing on the proverbial cheesy bacon cupcake ... uh, you get what I mean.  So delish! 
So I've decided to share my love of the Cheesy Bacon Fry with you.  The fact that these fries are baked should help to balance out your guilt about the bacon and cheese.  As for satisfying your Ryan Reynolds craving?  Get your own copy of The Proposal. ;) 
Cheesy Bacon Fries with Ranch Dip
From: The Baking Bookworm

6 medium potatoes, washed and scrubbed (leave the skins on)
1/2 lb bacon
2 tbsp grapeseed or vegetable oil
2 tbsp reserved bacon drippings
salt and pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cup marble cheese, grated
Ranch Dip
1/3 cup Ranch dressing (I used Kraft Three Cheese Ranch)
1/3 cup sour cream
1 heaping tbsp mayonnaise

Preheat oven to 375F.

If you have a French fry cutting machine this is where you can get your groove on.  If not, cut your potatoes into 1/2-inch thick slices.  Place cut fries into a large bowl of water.

Meanwhile, cut bacon into small pieces (I used my kitchen shears to save time).  Cook in a large skillet over medium heat until browned and slightly crispy.  Remove grease and reserve 2 tbsp.  Set aside.  Place cooked bacon on paper towels to drain.

Prepare Ranch DipCombine Ranch dressing, sour cream and mayonnaise in a small bowl and set aside.

Drain the cut, raw fries and place them on a couple of tea towels and dry them off as much as you can.  Return fries to the bowl and add the 2 tbsp of reserved bacon drippings and the 2 tbsp of oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss well.

Line a couple of baking sheets with foil and lightly grease.  Lay fries on the pan in a single layer.  This is important!  You don't want more than a single layer because the fries will steam themselves instead of crisp up.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and flip fries.  Return to oven and bake for another 15-20 minutes or until fries are tender and have a crispy outside.

Top fries with the reserved bacon and grated cheese and return pans to oven.  Broil on low for a few minutes (keep your eye on it!) until cheese has melted.  Serve with Ranch dip. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Personal Demons

Author: Lisa Desrochers
Pages: 365

Genre: Supernatural/Young Adult

First Line: "If there's Hell on Earth, it's high school."

Synopsis:  Frannie is living the life of a typical teenager ... until her senior year when Luc Cain enrolls in her school.  Unbeknownst to Frannie, Luc works in Acquisitions for none other than the devil himself.  Frannie has a secret power that Heaven and hell will stop at nothing to get.   Luc has been sent to tag Frannie's soul for hell.  All he has to do is get her to sin enough and she's guaranteed a ticket to hell. 

Heaven has other plans.  Gabe is sent from the Almighty himself to make sure that Frannie's soul is tagged for heaven ensuring that hell doesn't get access to Frannie's power.  It doesn't take long before Luc and Gabe are vying for much more than just Frannie's eternal soul.

My Thoughts:  When I heard about this book via another book blogger on Twitter I was intrigued.  Heaven and hell fighting over the soul of a teenage girl?  Love triangle?  Supernatural element!?  Oh yes, sign me up!  Sadly, this book didn't match up to my expectations.

I do love me a good supernatural book.  Throw in a realistic romance (be it teenage or adult) and I'm a happy reader.  Be warned that this book was much more high school romance than supernatural.  It was, in a word, 'cute'.  Cute is great for puppies and that new sweater you bought at H&M but not for a book that features demons vying for a teenage soul.  Kind of disjointed.  Another thing that is disjointed is the picture on the cover.  I'm not sure about you but I can't remember many teenagers in my school that looked like those three who appear to be closer to their late 20's than their teens.  In a word, they've been "90210'd".

Now to the nitty gritty of the review.  The story is told from the point of view of Frannie and Luc.  While I did enjoy learning firsthand how they felt during certain situations I will admit that, at times, their voices started to blend together and I had to skip back and remind myself who was speaking. 

Unfortunately a third voice wasn't part of the line up.  Gabe, sweet innocent Gabriel, was left out in the proverbial cold.  He may have been angelic but he had no voice in this book.  This left the romance aspect of the book to be less of a triangle and more of a line.  Sadly, Gabriel wasn't much romantic competition for Luc and was about as interesting as watching grass grow during a Canadian winter.  Because he was such a tertiary character the reader never gets to really know Gabe.

Then there's 'Bad Boy Luc' (short for Lucifer -- in case you weren't 100% sure he was the 'bad to the bone' character).  If I'm being honest, Luc was about as scary as a wee kitty playing on the grass that is Gabe that we're watching grow during a Canadian winter.   Still with me?   After 7000 years being a demon who tags people's souls for 'H-E-double hockey sticks' you'd think he'd be ... well, a heck of a lot scarier, heartless and downright nasty!!  Do some damage Luc! Maim a few people! Jay walk for goodness sake!!   A few weeks falling all over himself to be with Frannie and he morphs into a big fat wuss.  Sad but true.

I realize that this is a YA novel but this felt very juvenile and really silly at times.  For the first part of the book it was a lot about who sat with whom in the caf.  Is Frannie's best friend interested in Luc?!?  Did Frannie like Luc or did she really like Gabe?  She just kissed Luc and now she feels 'all tingly down there'.  "I'll take 'I Wish I Had the Troubles of Youth' for $1000, Alex".

I honestly think that for an author to grab me with a 'can't put down book' I have to (HAVE TO!) feel a connection with the main character.  S/he doesn't have to be boring and perfect but they do have to be realistic.  Sadly, I really didn't like or connect with Frannie.  I found it hard to figure out why these two guys fell in love with her in the first place.  She was very wishy-washy and kind of boring. 

She started off this small but strong girl who could hold her own.  Enter in cute boys and voila she's a walking mass of hormones who cannot think for herself ... unless it's deciding which one of the guys to make out with.  She goes from being this quiet girl with a free trip to UCLA who doesn't get a lot of attention to having two very hot guys tripping over themselves to be with her ... and she doesn't wonder why?  Really?  Back in my high school days that kind of thing (sadly) didn't happen.  Not that I didn't wish that it did ........ but I digress.

What I did like was her relationship with her Grandfather.  They had a touching and close bond which felt authentic.  I also liked how she wrote journal-style letters to her dead brother to get her feelings out.  It's really the only honest and believable feelings I got from her.   It helped make her more of a real person than just a caricature of a self-obsessed high schooler.  Note: I'm still trying to figure out why the author decided to randomly throw in that Frannie has a pen pal overseas.  Why is that relevant?  It was mentioned a few times and I'm still scratching my head over that one.  If anyone can shed some light on this please let me know.

There were other unanswered questions that I would have liked answers to.  Frannie's parents unexpectedly had a really bad feeling about Luc.  It wasn't explained at all but they were adamant that their daughter stay away from him.  WHY?  Did their Parental Spidey Sense go off?  Also, why does Frannie have this amazing power?  Why not that girl two blocks over in ninth grade with a raging case of the Bieber Fever?  It was never explained.   It's kind of an important issue that was never dealt with.  Odd.

I realize that the author didn't write this book for woman embarking on her 40's.  I get that.  As a mom of 3 kids I have a different view of what is romantic.  This was made abundantly clear when I read how Luc demonically possessed Frannie.  The possession was written to be a romantic kind of thing.  This is where my age comes in.  Personally, having a demon (even a super sexy one) get sucked up my nose and inhabit my body is not what I like to consider romantic.  Perhaps I'm out of sync with the world's teen population.  I'm ok with that.  I'll take a quiet dinner out with no kids over demonic possession any day. 

This book is geared more towards the 14-17 year old girl who still gets giggly when a guy looks at her across the cafeteria.  I look back at that time in my life fondly.  That era ended for me back when "Cheers" was still on.  Note: If you don't know what "Cheers" is you'll probably like this book.

Overall, I found this book lacking depth of character and storyline.  If you like a very light read filled with high school romance and light on supernatural then this book may be for you.  If you prefer a more realistic relationship between supernatural characters with strong female characters and loads of supernatural power then check out Kelley Armstrong's "Women of the Underworld" series.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Monday, 5 December 2011

Bread Maker Crusty Loaf

As I've mentioned in the past my family and I are raving carb addicts.   R-A-V-I-N-G!  Put us in front of a freshly baked loaf and a honking slab'o' butter and we're your bestest friends.  We admittedly (and quite happily) have no self control when it comes to freshly baked carbs.  So it should come as no surprise that I own not one but two bread machines.  Go big or go home!
Bread machines are a little slice of heaven.  They're one of my favourite kitchen gadgets because they tame the Carb Beast that dwells within me.  I love them because while I'm galavanting (yes, I do galavant and have even been known to meander a time or two) it's at home working away kneading, rising and even baking my bread dough (or making me some ridiculously good pizza dough!) 
I know of some people (who shall remain nameless) that don't want to get a bread machine because they fear that they'll be tempted to make too much bread.  What I say to that arguement is .... 'uh, YA!'.  Who doesn't want a fresh loaf of bread with the ingredients you choose?  No preservatives or whoseewhatsits (that's a technical term meaning 'crap you can't begin to pronounce').  Plus you can add your favourite extras!  Do you like oregano and basil?  Add 'em in!  Do you love Parmesan cheese?  Grate some up!  What about cinnamon and raisins?  Toss 'em in!
Bread machines are also extremely easy to use.  Seriously.  A one armed monkey with mange could do it.  As long as you follow the directions and put the ingredients in the order specified (ie keep the liquid away from your yeast) you'll have your house smelling like a bakery in a few hours. 

The reason why I love this specific crusty bread recipe (though I must note that I'm an equal opportunity bread eater) is that it looks like a loaf you'd spend $4+ for in a food story bakery but you can make it at home in no time flat and for so much cheaper! 

I've made this loaf twice on my day off.  I start the dough at 1pm, two hours later it's out of the bread machine and rising while I get the kids from school.  Then I pop it into the oven as we're unpacking backpacks and chatting about our day.  Easy peasy! 

I also love that this dough starts in a cold oven so I don't have to wait for my oven to preheat.  That saves me some time and the slowly rising temperature gives the dough a last burst for it to rise just a little bit higher as it starts to bake.  I'm tellin' ya, it's so easy! 
The bread has a slightly denser texture (it's not heavy just not as squishy as other loaves) but the crust is ... crusty (as a crust should be!  That's why the crust isn't called a 'squish'!).  Not only that but I 'hear' that this bread tastes wicked good as toast a few hours later when the kids are in bed and certain people get hungry watching "The Vampire Diaries".  Or so I hear. 

Needless to say this bread has been added to my Bread Repertoire.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
Bread Maker Crusty Loaf
1 cup + 1 tbsp water
1/2 cup Greek yogurt or 10% sour cream (or plain yogurt)
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp white sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp yeast

Add ingredients into the pan of your bread machine in the order listed.  Set your bread machine to its Dough setting and press Start.

After the Dough cycle finishes (mine takes 2 hours), turn the dough out onto baking stone or baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper.  Form the dough into a ball using your hands to gently smooth the top (this just makes it look pretty). 

Using a sharp, serrated knife make slices into the top of the dough approximately 1 inch deep (again, this is to make it look pretty.  Bread is nothing if not vain). 

Cover dough with a tea towel and allow it to rise for approximately 45 minutes.

Place dough in a COLD oven and set heat to 375F for 45 minutes.  Bread is done when it sounds hollow when you tap on it.  Remove bread to a cooling rack.  Sprinkle with a bit of flour (I kind of went crazy with my flour in the first picture).  Try not to eat it all in one sitting.  I dare you.

Recipe Inspired by: Three Pickles' 'Quick Sour Dough' recipe

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Botticelli Secret

Author: Marina Fiorato
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
Type: Paperback
Pages: 540
First Line: "Florence looks like gold and smells like sulphur."

Synopsis: Luciana Vetra, a part-time model and full-time whore, lives in fifteenth century Florence, Italy. When she is asked by one of her rich and regular customers to pose as Flora in Sandro Botticelli's painting called 'La Primavera' Luciana obliges. But after she is dismissed abruptly and without payment she is irate. When she finds a cartone, a smaller unfinished version of the painting, stashed away in the room she takes it as her due payment.

She soon learns her mistake when people around her start being murdered in order to get the painting back. With no family or friends to turn to for help Luciana seeks help from Guido de la Torre, a novice at the Santa Croce monastery. Together they flee Florence and hope to uncover the secret the cartone holds before their pursuers catch up to them.

My Thoughts: Picking up this book I figured I'd love it. It had a lot of things going for it. The synopsis on the back over of this book was intriguing, it's a historical fiction read (one of my favourite genres) and the story is set in beautiful Italy(where I spent my 10th wedding anniversary).  One would think that I'd adore this book. Sadly, that wasn't the case.  Not even close. 

I read just over half of the book in over a week - an unbelievably slow pace for this bookworm!  I just couldn't get into it. It started off strong and had a decidedly Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code) feel to it -- historical intrigue, decoding hidden messages in art etc.  Unfortunately it didn't have the fast-paced plot like Brown's work.

At first there's a lot of momentum and suspense in the book but it very quickly petered off.  I think this happened for a few reasons.  First, the main characters were very one-dimensional and clichéd (crass whore and innocent monk-in-training trying to redeem said whore).  They really didn't grab me enough so that I was rooting for them to figure out the clues.

Secondly, the plot quickly became both confusing and unbelievable.  The clues that Luciana and Guido were uncovering were either unbelievably vague and silly or very convoluted.  An odd combo.  The first set of clues seemed to be solved with no factual basis while other clues were so intricate that they were over my head.  It's at the point when they decide that counting all of the flowers in the painting will help to decipher the code that I finally gave up on the book.  Just too unbelievable and vague.  So, if I look at Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' and count the waves in the water and subtract the leaves from the trees it will tell me the number of steps I need to walk from the Pantheon to get buried treasure in Rome?!?  Ya, totally not gonna happen.  Ridiculous.

I think it would have helped me understand some of their confusing deciphering if the author would have had a picture of the actual Primavera in the book so I could look at the picture as the characters were figuring out the clues.  The descriptions of the picture were far too confusing and bogged down the momentum of the story.

Sadly, I also didn't love the main character.  I know!  I'm just a total party pooper with this book!  I feel like the Book Grinch!  Personally, I don't have to like a character (I love flawed main characters) but they do have to be believable and not clichéd.  We know from the beginning that Luciana is a prostitute but I found it extremely odd that Fiorato portrays Luciana as more of a happy, go-lucky, 'love my job!' kind of whore.  Let's just say that if Luciana had a car she'd have a 'I heart Johns' bumper sticker.  Enough said.  I'm fairly sure that being a whore back in 15th century Italy (or any era for that matter) isn't one of those awesome jobs that young girls dream to one day aspire to.  To say that Luciana was 'pr--k hungry'  and that she was desperate to have sex with pretty much any good looking guy at any time was offensive and portrays her as more of a nymphomaniac than a prostitute struggling to make a living.  I just couldn't get behind the 'happy whore' idea.

One of the things that shocked me was the blatant and overuse of swearing by Luciana in the book.  I don't consider myself a prude but I was taken aback at the gratuitous use of profanity that was regularly coming out of Luciana's mouth.  She may even make Howard Stern blush.   I wasn't even sure that 15th century whores used the F-word.  I don't mind nor am I offended if swearing is used in books in a believable manner.  It's when it's just thrown in there for shock value {repeatedly} that I don't like.

Luciana also had the very annoying and odd habit of describing everything in threes.  Why?  I have no idea.  All I know is that after the first four times it got old.  Fast.  I'm assuming that the author was going for a quirky habit for the happy whore but it just didn't work for this reader.

It wasn't only the potty mouth that had me miffed.  It was also the use of  modern language thrown into a historical read bothers me to no end!!  I'm fairly sure that 15th century people didn't say 'get a move on'!  A little research by the author is all that is needed to fix this!

I'm so sad that this very intriguing idea for a plot was so poorly executed!  One of the things I did love about this book was that the author did accurately capture the beauty of Florence and Rome.  Florence is a stunningly beautiful area!!  My favourite city in Italy!  Just reading the descriptions brought me back to all of those cities that we visited!  So, if I can't love the plot and characters of this book at least I get to remember my fantastic trip in Italy.

My Rating: 0/5  (ie.  I didn't finish it)

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