26 March 2018

The Queen of Ieflaria


Princess Esofi has made the long journey to Ieflaria to wed Crown Prince Albion, someone she has been betrothed to since childhood. Although they have never met, they have exchanged many letters, and Esofi is looking forward to her marriage … or, rather, was. The prince has died, leaving Esofi and Ieflaria in precarious positions. Esofi does not want to return to her homeland (from my reading it seemed almost as if she couldn't) and Ieflaria doesn't want her to go, as they really need the magic she brought to fight off the dragons pillaging the countryside.

Esofi needs to marry someone royal to stay in Ieflaria. Someone like Adale, Albion's sister. And that would be an excellent solution to everyone's problems ... except Adale never expected to be the heir, is completely freaked out by the idea, and is pretty set on doing a runner. As an alternative to Adele, there are always the Terrible Cousins ... except, well, they're terrible.

Let me just be honest with your here -- I preordered The Queen of Ieflaria because Twitter promised me poofy dresses, fire-breathing dragons, adorable kittens, and girls kissing girls.

It did not disappoint.

I liked Adale and Esofi -- both very different characters, but each interesting and compellingly-written. Their romance grew slowly from an initial tentative liking into something tender and sweet and rooted. They were so cute together. Every scene with just the two of them getting to know each other left me grinning like a goof and wishing for more. Indeed, I would have been perfectly content if the entire novel had just been a series of scenes in which Adale and Esofi exchange amusing banter while wearing fabulous clothes.

I do wish the secondary characters were a bit more fleshed out. Most were very one-note -- for example, Lady Mireille was very snotty, "Lady Lisette" was very sneaky, and Adele's friends simply seemed like a mass of drunken puppies. I also felt the world-building was a bit uneven -- sometimes Esofi's interior monologue felt very infodump-y and other times I felt I was being tortured with hints of Things That Might Be Important. But, hey, The Queen of Ieflaria is both a debut novel and the first in a series -- I expect the world-building will improve as Calvin goes on and concepts/subplots that are unclear will become crystal.

Ultimately, while I feel The Queen of Ieflaria does need just a little more polish, it was still an extremely enjoyable read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, Tales of Inthya, when they are released. The second book, Daughter of the Sun, will be out in November and I hope it contains more floofy dresses and even more kissing. Hooray for pansexual princesses!

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin. NineStar Press, 2018. Kindle edition.

24 March 2018

Special Delivery From Taste of Home: Winter 2018

The Winter 2018 Special Delivery From Taste of Home subscription box arrived around the holidays and I was just too busy to deal with it so I did what I always do -- stuffed it in the back of the coat closet until there was time to appreciate it properly!


Excuses, excuses. What's in the box?

Now Designs Planta Bowl Cover (Not shown in photo, because in use) -- Eco-friendly cotton shower cap for your bowls. I scoffed when I first saw this -- my storage bowls all have lids. Why would I need this? And then, the very same day, I made a cookie dough that needed to be chilled for three hours and this cotton cap covered my KitchenAid stand mixer's bowl perfectly and I've been using it ever since. These appear to be sold in sets of two ($15.00 from Now and $14.95 from Amazon), so I'm a little sore I only received one.

Oxo Good Grips Vegetable Brush -- I will confess I've never owned a vegetable brush before. When I've need to scrub a particularly dirty vegetable, I've just broken out the nail brush and gone to town. This brush has very firm bristles and is about the size of a computer mouse. I like that the body is nonslip and that the entire thing is dishwasher safe. I would never have bought it for myself, but now that I have it I will retire the nailbrush to the bathroom where it belongs. Retails for $4.99 on the OXO site and Amazon.

Chef'n Looseleaf Kale & Greens Stripper -- Okay. So. My mom gave me one of these for Christmas and it's excellent at what it does. I know it looks gimmicky as all get out, but it works. I've used it on kale, turnip greens, and basil. Retails for $7.99 on the Chef'n site and $7.95 on Amazon.

Cherchies Pasta e Fagioli Soup Mix -- This seems to be the older version of the soup currently offered on Cherchies' site. This soup requires I rinse and soak the beans first, whereas the new quick-cooking version for sale does not. The ingredients seem pretty standard and I will make this soup because cold weather = soup, but I really wish it had slow cooker instructions.

Lodge Mini Magnetic Trivet -- Dishwasher safe, silicone and rare-earth round magnetic trivet that can protect countertops and tables from pot bottoms heated up to 450°F. This trivet fits all my Le Creuset cookware, including my oval 3⅓ quart Dutch oven, round 7¼ quart Dutch oven, and Signature 10¼" skillet. It works well and I would buy another. Retails for $10 on the Lodge site and $6.51 on Amazon.

DollarDays Inspirational Wall Plaque -- Small (8.625" x 2.75") painted wooden plaque that says "FAMILY, may this home be filled with love and laughter." I have no strong feeling for or against this time. It's just ... ehh. Price per unit, according to DollarDays, is $1.40.

Taste of Home Comfort Food Makeovers -- A collection of lightened-up "family favorite" recipes, including appetizers and sweets as well as main dishes. I haven't made anything from it yet, but I have (as usual) studded the book with sticky notes and I'll probably end up making the "Pineapple Oatmeal" before the month is out. This is a 2015 cookbook currently retailing on Amazon for $12.23 and on the Shop Taste of Home Store for $12.99.

$10 Coupon for the Shop Taste of Home Store -- I ended up purchasing Taste of Home 100 Family Meals and Taste of Home Bake Shop Favorites for $13.83, including shipping. These are cookbooks I've borrowed from my library in the past and felt it was worth having copies of my own. So, yes, the coupon is good value.

Special Delivery from Taste of Home Recipe Cards -- Six cards, all focused on winter comfort foods. So far, I've made the "Warm Tasty Greens With Garlic" (used my Chef'n greens stripper, yo) and the "Pinwheel Steak Pot Pie." I enjoyed making both recipes and The Husband definitely enjoyed eating the pot pie.

While I have been impressed by the quality of the revamped TOH subscription box service and enjoyed finding a new box of surprises on my doorstep every few months, I've decided it's time to call it quits. I have, frankly, too much stuff and don't need more. Cancelling was very easy -- I exchanged a few emails with Reader's Digest Customer Service and that was it. The end.

Read about my experiences with Special Delivery and its precursor, Taste the Seasons.

21 March 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Orchids



Two of the thousand orchids on display at the Nutmeg State Orchid Society's annual show and sale last weekend.

17 March 2018

Cookbook Club: Mediterranean Flavors

March's library cookbook theme was Mediterranean flavors -- dishes from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and such. I thought this was a broad enough topic that cooks who wanted to push the boat out and try something new -- like a Turkish dish -- could, while those who wanted to play it "safe" with more "common" cuisines like Greek and Italian, could as well. And that's pretty much what happened! In addition to a slew of delicious Italian dishes, we also had succulent buttered apricots with walnuts from Turkey and savory pan-fried chorizo in cider from Spain.


And what did I make? "Classic Hummus" from America's Test Kitchen's Complete Mediterranean Cookbook! Hummus is one of those things I disliked for years and then, abruptly, changed my mind about and now can't get enough of. I've often thought about making my own hummus, but 1) tahini is expensive and 2) I am lazy.

But I actually had tahini in the fridge (leftover from September's beet hummus) and there are always chickpeas in the cupboard so ... hummus! Who knew it could be so easy? The most persnickety part was during prep when I had to mix the lemon juice with water in one bowl and the olive oil with tahini in another. I don't understand why I couldn't just whack everything into the food processor and give it a whirl, but who am I to question the gods? Anyway, this is really good hummus -- smooth, creamy, and garlicky with a subtle lemon tang -- that I wouldn't want to mess with it.

I like this hummus so much that I've made it twice since the March meeting! It's so easy & inexpensive (yes, tahini is $$ upfront, but a jar lasts a long time) and there are enough recipe variations provided that I think I shall be happy making it for quite a long time.


Mind you, I did not intend to bring hummus! I intended to bring the lemony "Olive Oil-Yogurt Cake!" Tuesday was a snow day, so I thought I'd try the bundt cake out on The Husband and, if it worked well, I'd bring it to the meeting. Alas, it worked too well! The cake was so delicious, there was no way The Husband was going to let me part with it (admittedly, I was also loathe to give it up), but I didn't have quite enough time to bake another. So ... hummus!

But this cake. So tender. So moist. So lemony. And easy! Definitely going to bake another one soon. This was the first time I'd ever baked with olive oil and I so pleased with the experience that I went and borrowed Lisa Sheldon's Olive Oil Baking: Heart-Healthy Recipes That Increase Good cholesterol & Reduce Saturated Fats through my library system.


While I've told myself I ought to dial it back on Amazon purchases this year (Prime is the devil), I must admit I ended up purchasing a copy of America's Test Kitchen's Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. In addition to the hummus and the bundt cake, there were simply so many other recipes I wanted to try ("Braised Oxtails with White Beans, Tomatoes, and Aleppo Pepper," you're next!) that it seemed better to own a copy than keep the library's out on near permanent loan.

Unsurprisingly, I own quite a few ATK cookbooks and am very well aware there tends to be overlap between books, but I did not find the "Classic Hummus" recipe repeated in any other books. There are hummus recipes, certainly, but not that one. The recipe for "Olive Oil-Yogurt Cake," however, can also be found in The Perfect Cake (which I don't own, but my library does and I am, of course, on hold for).

12 March 2018

The Lark


Furrowed Middlebrow, a new imprint for Dean Street Press, as reprinted a slew of fabulous works by neglected, now lesser-known British women novelists and memoirists. These books largely describe women's lives and culture in early 20th century Britain and probably feel out of fashion for being too "domestic," but as this is exactly the kind of fiction I eat up with a spoon, I am over the moon.

After downloading five Furrowed Middlebrow releases to my Kindle, I decided to start with Nesbit's The Lark. I mean? How could I not? 1919, two capable young women recently from the school room discover their guardian has lost all their money and then done a bunk, leaving them with a country cottage and a wee bit of money to get buy on... it sounded completely charming and fun. A lark, indeed.

And it was. Jane and Lucilla Quested were charming, embraceable characters who had a grand little adventure as genteel business women before finding love and settling down to become good wives and mothers. They engaged with a patchwork of interesting characters taken from varied classes and backgrounds and the entire thing read as a cheerful, "can do" slice of life.

Be warned -- The Lark was by no means a realistic treatment of the economic difficulties faced by single, genteelly impoverished young women in the aftermath of WWI. However, it was a kind, optimistic book in which even the meanest characters were not so very mean and everything worked out well in the end. In other words, precisely what I needed to reading on a dreary March day in 2018.

If you enjoy Montgomery's The Blue Castle or Lovelace's later Betsy-Tacy books, I think The Lark will appeal to you as they all share a similar spirit and time.

I always thought of Edith Nesbit as a children's author -- Five Children & It, The Railway Children, etc -- but it turns out she wrote quite a few novels for adults and I look forward to reading more of them. Middlebrow has only reprinted this one, but others (The Red House, for example) are available for Kindle.

The Lark by Edith Nesbit. Dean Street Press, 2017.

08 March 2018

Baking With Coffee Flour

When last I ordered from Nuts.com, I threw a bag off coffee flour in my cart because ... I don't know ... it sounded interesting. I'd been doing a lot of baking with chocolate and wondered if adding coffee flour to a chocolate cake or whathaveyou recipe would enhance the chocolate flavor the way adding brewed coffee would. But then I stopped baking -- my culinary life is all fits and starts these days -- and the flour languished in the baking cupboard.

I know. You're wondering what the heck coffee flour is, right? What would you do with it? Why would you want it?

Coffee flour is a food with a mission. Every year, billions of pounds of coffee fruit are discarded as a byproduct of coffee production. Instead of leaving the fruit to rot as waste, coffee flour was created to convert the leftover fruit into a tasty, nutritious flour that can be used for baking, cooking and making beverages. High in fiber, protein, and antioxidants, coffee flour is a non-GMO food that is naturally gluten-free. Not only is our coffee flour a perfectly versatile ingredient, it also helps create jobs for farmers and protect the environment.

It's feel-good flour.

But, how do you bake with it? Nuts.com says you can use 30% coffee flour in place of all-purpose or gluten-free flours in your recipes, but other sources say 10, 15, or 25%. I would guess start with the smallest amount and increase if successful?

I have not yet been brave enough to try using it in any of my favorite chocolaty recipes (I just feel, since it's a coffee byproduct, it should be paired with chocolate even though I know it doesn't need to be), but I have tried a two recipes specifically formulated to use coffee flour and had good results.


The first recipe I tried was "Coffee-Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies" from the February 2017 issue of the print magazine Rodale's Organic Life. I made the recipe exactly as written, going with weighted measures where provided, and ended up with 41 extremely yumptious cookies. Neither The Husband nor I enjoy coffee or coffee-flavored things, but these cookies do not taste at all coffee-like!

They are dark cookies, yes, with a hint of dates and a slight bitterness that put me more in mind of black tea tannins than coffee. That dark, slight bitterness worked well, though, balancing the general sweetness of the cookie and the insipidness of the milk chocolate morsels I used (forgot I was out of semisweet).

They have crisp-but-yielding exteriors with soft, almost cake-like interiors, and melt in the mouth. Definitely a cookie I'd make again. (I brought a third of the batch to work and everyone liked the cookies so much that I brought in another third the next day ... and The Husband was very unhappy about that so, yeah, it's a good cookie).


For my second attempt at baking with coffee flour, I used Nuts.com gluten-free "Chocolate Coffee Flour Muffins Recipe" recipe one snowy afternoon as I had all the ingredients on hand already. While this was my first time baking gluten-free, the Nuts.com recipe was simple with straight-forward instructions and I had no trouble preparing it. The only change I made to the recipe was to use Hersheys Special Dark chocolate cocoa, because that's all I had on hand.

The muffins baked up beautifully -- light and fluffy with a delicate crumb (perhaps more cupcake than muffin?). Perhaps a little dry, but I've certainly had much worse. The Husband enjoyed his muffins with a cup of tea and, frankly, that's always a good pairing. Flavor-wise, the muffins are a very dark chocolate with that slight, bitter coffee flour edge.


When I portioned the batter out into the muffin cups, I thought the batter smelled a lot like a Bounty/Mounds bar and, if I made this recipe again, I would top the muffins with shredded coconut instead of hazelnuts and, maybe, also add a little coconut extract to the batter.

I'll probably bake the CoffeeFlour® "Coffee Cherry Flour Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars" next, because everyone likes chocolate chip cookie bars. I really want to bake the "Coffee Cherry Flour Chocolate Zucchini Bread," but zucchini season is months away and it seems wrong to buy out-of-season zucchini!

07 March 2018

Wordless Wednesday: Snowy Kitty

A very snowy Catzilla has had enough of this cold, wet nonsense & would like to come inside & get toweled off (after a good chase around the living room).

05 March 2018

Binti


Binti, a young Himba woman of prodigious mathematical talents, has been admitted on full scholarship to the most prestigious university in the galaxy. But the Himba people do not leave home. Nor do they question not leaving it. It is simply the way of things. But Binti is so talented and full of dreams, drive, desire that she cannot help but sneak away at night, breaking with her people forever. This is not a decision Binti makes lightly and the novel deftly portrays -- in ways that felt very real to this reader -- the the emotional and physical pain she experiences throughout her adventure because of this decision.

Aboard the living, organic starship taking students to the university, Binti manages to find her footing and even begins to form friendships ... and then the ship is attacked by angry, jellyfish-like aliens and massive amounts of carnage ensues. What originally seems like a compelling story about a plucky “backwater” girl out to follow her dreams becomes a rollicking young adult space adventure full of feels.

Indeed, I have so many feelings about Binti -- both the novella and the titular character -- but I don’t know how to write about either without spoiling the novella for you. Suffice to say, I found Binti to be an extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I can easily see why Binti won both the 2016 Hugo and 2015 Nebula for Best Novella and I cannot wait to read the rest of the books in the trilogy.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor, 2015.

01 March 2018

Green Bean "Shakshouka"

I've been enamored with the idea of shakshouka (also spelled shakshuka) -- eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices -- for a while now and so here is my completely off the cuff "oh my cake, why did I buy so many green beans?!" take on it. I ate this as a late breakfast, but it would be equally delicious any time of the day.


Green Bean "Shakshouka"

Yield: 2

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces green beans, trimmed & chopped small
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • Sea salt & coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
  • Cracked rosemary, to taste
  • 14.5 oz can fire-roasted tomatoes (used crushed tomatoes for a saucier dish)
  • 2 large eggs
  • Crumbled goat or feta cheese, as desired for topping

Instructions

  1. Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook until tender and fragrant. Stir in green beans and tomatoes. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until green beans are tender, approximately 8 minutes. Season, stir, and then make a well in the middle.
  2. Crack eggs into the well, cover, turn heat down to low, and let cook until egg whites are set and egg yolks are as you like them -- I went with 5 minute for firm whites and runny yolks.
  3. Adjust seasonings, if needed. Sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese and serve.
This was really easy to throw together and quite delicious -- very savory, rich with tomato and yolk. Admittedly, green beans and tomatoes are one of my favorite combinations, so I'm probably a bit biased. I might try for a spicy version next time, by eliminating the rosemary and stirring in a dollop of Thai chili paste.