Stuff and Nonsense: 2012


A Surrey State of Affairs

Reading A Surrey State of Affairs felt like watching a car-wreck -- it was painful and horrible and I wanted to look away, but I couldn't stop. Constance Harding was impossibly oblivious to the shenanigans going on around her. I mean, you repeatedly find your Polish housekeeper's knickers in your husband's study and you put it down to slovenliness?

Admittedly, for the first month or so (the book is told as a series of blog posts), this obliviousness was kind-of funny and I wondered how crazy things would have to get before Constance opened her eyes to reality. But the humor wore thin by the end of February and then it was a matter of impatiently waiting for Constance to catch on.

It took Constance two-thirds of the book to find out about all the things going on around her and, even then, she didn't actually catch on. No, she was told pointblank. And then it was all surprise and disbelief and coping and self-actualization in South America and downsizing and happyish-ever-after. The End.

Clearly, this novel wasn't written with a reader like me in mind. Possibly, a more upper crust version of my British mother-in-law would have found it hilarious or insightful. Whereas, I just found A Surrey State of Affairs frustrating and a bit wearying.

And I must hurry up and read something else, because I'm not ending 2012 with a bad book!

A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford (Viking, 2012)


Of Bread & Napkins

I've been baking bread and sewing napkins. It sounds quite cozy, doesn't it? Very domestic diva. Very Martha. If only. My coping mechanisms for grief seemingly swing between "eat everything in sight" and "reorganize everything in sight." I've been trying to focus on the latter, because the former is really not doing me any good in the long term. I tackled my sewing room just after Christmas and, amongst the never-started or never-finished projects, I found a neat pile of squared scraps I'd meant to make into napkins three years ago.

So, I sewed napkins. Haphazardly and with no good grace. If you look not-very-closely, you can clearly see how my stitches wander around the hem, mostly keeping in a straight line, but occasionally veering off to visit more exciting parts of the napkin.

More Napkins

Whatev. They're napkins. As long as they wipe my face clean and launder reasonably well, it doesn't matter how perfectly imperfect they may be. And I made them to pack with work meals, so it's not as if I'll ever inflict them on dinner guests. (Admittedly, I would burn them and shoot their ashes into space before I let my mother see one).

So. Napkins. I sewed some.

And, yes, I baked bread. A beautiful traditional white sandwich loaf baked in a pan and everything. It baked up right and looks like "real" bread aisle stuff. None of that crusty misshapen "rustic" nonsense I'd been baking.

A More Traditional Loaf

How did I get such a perfect loaf? I ... bought a bag of frozen bread dough at the grocery store! Yes, I did. And I'll do it again. Yes, one bag of five frozen unrisen loaves for four dollars is not as economical as scratch bread, but it's waaay cheaper per loaf than the farmhouse-style white I usually buy (when I buy bread) and easier because I can make one loaf at a time and leave the rest in my freezer.

I do love Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, but I feel it doesn't work well for a household of two. One loaf can last us most of the week, but in order to use up the dough before it goes weird, I feel I need to bake bread two or three times in a week and that just isn't happening and I end up wasting dough. (Also, that tub of raw dough takes up a lot of fridge space).

So frozen dough is pretty okay. I thawed and baked it according to the instructions on the bag and it turned out beautifully. The instructions said "bread is done when it pulls away from sides of pan and sounds hollow when tapped lightly" and, by golly, they were spot-on. My lovely loaf did indeed sound hollow when I tapped it. It did take longer for the dough to rise than I anticipated, but that was because my kitchen side wasn't warm enough. Next time, I'll tuck the dough in the corner by the toaster where it's always (suspiciously) warm and see if that loaf rises faster.

A More Traditional Loaf

(Brushed it with butter as it came out of the oven, because butter makes it better).

Seasonal Reads: How Six Found Christmas

Once upon a time, a little girl sets out to find a Christmas. She'd only heard of Christmas, but never seen one herself and is very curious what it could be like. In her travels through the Great Snow Forest of the North she meets five animals who have also never experienced a Christmas. They travel along together for time and do indeed find a Christmas in the end. While it may not be the Christmas you or I expected, "Christmas is not only where you find it; it's what you make of it."

The book's message -- very sweet and simple -- is worth remembering. Christmas doesn't have to be creches or tinsel. It can be a simple, ordinary, everyday thing if it feels like Christmas to you.

How Six Found Christmas written & illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House, 1969)


Wordless Wednesday: On the First Day of Christmas

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions
Another tree from the 2012 Wadsworth Antheneum
Festival of Trees & Traditions

I know today is actually the second day of Christmas, but the lyric is perfect for this tree.


Seasonal Reads: The Mischief of the Mistletoe

"I need that pudding!” her growled. “Give it over."
"No!" gasped Arabella, clinging to the muslin wrapper with all her might. People couldn’t just go about taking other people’s puddings. It was positively un-British.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is one of Willig's Pink Carnation books, but you need not have read any of the previous novels to appreciate it. Indeed, it has been so long since I read any of the Pink Carnation books that the various plotlines and characters have grown quite hazy. I remember finding the first three novels tremendously amusing and that seemed a good enough reason to pick up The Mischief of the Mistletoe. Also, it was quite thin. And set at Christmas. In England. During the time of Napoleon. And Jane Austen is a secondary character. It's the Anglophile's Christmas Read Jackpot.

Reginald "Turnip" Fitzhugh has been the butt of many jokes in other Pink Carnation novels where he seems very much to play the part of the guileless buffoon. Indeed, he's sometimes been suspected of being a master spy himself as, according to other characters, no-one can be that dim.

Well, Turnip gets his comeuppance in The Mischief of the Mistletoe! While he's clearly not as dashing or clever or prepossessing as the other novels' iconic romantic heroes, Turnip's clearly A Good Man who wants to do right and, after reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe, I think I'm a little in love with him myself, now.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas by Lauren Willig (Dutton, 2010)


Cleaning Out the Cupboards: Lunch

I was up to my elbows in flour, baking for tomorrow's Geek the Library big cookie giveaway, when there was a rumbly in my tumbly and I realized it was hours past lunch time. Clearly, grue needed feeding and fast. Conveniently, I had a bunch of opened bottles, jars, and bags of stuff hanging around that all seemed like they could go together to make something fast and delicious.

Lunch-in-a-hurry: Orzo Stuff

I think I succeeded pretty well, although The Husband was less impressed (artichokes not being one of his favorite things).
Artichoke-Chicken Stuff

3 cups turkey broth
3 oz orzo and ditalini (any small pasta will do)
3 Tbsp julienned oil-packed dried tomatoes, well drained and chopped small
2 bottled water-packed roasted peppers, chopped small
6 bottled marinated artichoke hearts, well drained and chopped small
3 oz Tyson Grilled & Ready® Fully Cooked Frozen Grilled Chicken Breast Strips
2 handfuls baby spinach
Freshly ground pepper, as desired

Bring broth to boil. Add pasta, tomatoes, and chicken to pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 9 minutes or until orzo is desired tenderness. Remove from heat. (At this point, I fished out the bigger chicken strips and chop them into smaller pieces).

Add peppers, artichoke hearts, and spinach to pot. Stir. Cover. Let sit 10 minutes or until spinach is tender. Season as desired and eat.

Lunch-in-a-hurry: Orzo Stuff

Brody's Ghost, Book 1

Since he was dumped by his girlfriend six months ago, Brody has been drifting through life in a slow downward spiral of self-destruction. He's unkempt, his apartment is a sty, and he can barely hold down his dead-end job restocking shelves. And now he's seeing ghosts. Well, a ghost to start.

Her name is Talia. She died from leukemia five years ago and, since then, has been waiting for her chance to move on to the afterlife. "They" say she can't move on until she catches the Penny Murderer. Talia, feeling its impossible for a ghost to catch a murderer, has been looking for the right sort of human to help her ... and there's Brody.

Not really sure how to describe this -- it's a futuristic, paranormal, detective whatsit. It's good. At eighty-nine pages Brody's Ghost, Book One is a short read, but feels complete and well-fleshed. I think I've gotten used to a certain amount of padding in multivolume manga/graphic novels and there's no padding in Brody's Ghost. Nothing is there that isn't relevant to the story. It's quite refreshing, actually.

I do have a bone to pick regarding the cover. It shows a positively ripped club-wielding Brody and it's clear that's not the Brody in this volume -- this Brody is thoroughly trounced by a twelve-year-old thug and has the soft belly of a man who lives on deep-fried cheeseburgers. It would have been better if the cover showed Brody as he is now rather than as who he will become, because it feels like it's giving too much away.

Brody's Ghost, Book One by Mark Crilley (Dark Horse Books, 2010)


Improv Challenge: Marshmallows & Chocolate

I made s'moraffles for December's Improv Challenge! Call them waffled s'mores or s'mored waffles if you prefer, but whatever you call them, they remain delicious. (I admit I'd had far more grandiose plans for December's Improv Challenge, but life happens and you get waffles covered in sugar).

Is it breakfast? Is it dessert? It's everything!
I used a recipe from Anne at The Homeschool Daily for "Wonderful Waffles" as my s'moraffle base. Her recipe uses graham flour, which I could not find anywhere so I used whole wheat pastry flour which King Arthur Flour tells me is the same thing. Anne's waffles came out very light and fluffy -- a bit like eating a crispy pocket of air -- and that was a good thing, as a denser, heavier waffle would have made the s'moraffles too rich.

When I first conceived the notion of s'moraffles, I thought I could just sprinkle the miniature marshmallows and chocolate morsels over the graham waffle batter and waffle away. Alas, while tasty, these waffles were not pretty and had lost their light crispiness. They were also impossibly sweet when broiled with additional marshmallows and chocolate.

Bad waffle :(
The next two waffles I cooked plain and then quartered, sprinkling each wedge with miniature marshmallows and chocolate morsels, and broiling them until the marshmallows were golden and the chocolate chips were a bit melty. I served them with a splodge of fresh whipped cream for dipping and they were magnificent. Crispy, light, chocolaty, sweet, and gooey. Everything a s'moraffle should be.

Broil me, baby!
When could you eat these? We ate them for breakfast. Yes, we did! But they would make a fine dessert or special treat on a snowy day.
Adapted from "Wonderful Waffles" at The Homeschool Daily with permission from the author

1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup graham flour [whole wheat pastry flour]
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder

2 eggs
1 ¾ cup milk
½ cup vegetable oil or melted butter [oil]
1 tsp vanilla

As desired:
Miniature marshmallows
Semisweet chocolate morsels
Whipped cream

Preheat your waffle iron.

Combine the first four ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Whisk together.

In a measuring cup or small bowl combine the 2 eggs, oil/butter, vanilla and milk. Whisk together.

Pour into dry ingredients. Stir until blended. Pour onto preheated waffle iron. Cook until golden [about 8 minutes in my waffle iron].

Quarter waffles and place on a baking sheet. Poke a miniature marshmallow into the pockets of each waffle. Scatter with chocolate morsels. Broil until the marshmallows are golden and chocolate morsels are soft and a bit melty. Serve with whipped cream for dipping.
I think I'm looking at Christmas Day breakfast.
Anne's recipe makes 5-6 waffles, depending on the size of your waffle iron. If you don't want to eat that many s'moraffles you can freeze the plain waffles. Just let them cool and then pop them in a freezer bag. When you want s'moraffles, just them out of the freezer, microwave them for about 30 seconds to partially thaw, and then broil with miniature marshmallows and chocolate morsels.


Wordless Wednesday: Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Some of my favorite trees from the 2012 Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions.


Miki Falls: Spring

Miki is entering her last year of high school and is determined to shed her old "Miss Perfect" self who obsessed over the expectations of others. Miki's going to be strong and self-determined and do things her own way. And, you know, she's doing pretty well as captain of her destiny ... and then she meets the new guy in school.

Hiro is tall, dark, and extremely unsociable. He doesn't seem to care if he fits in or not and doesn't try to make any friends. Miki also sees him behave a little strangely when he thinks he's alone. Miki, of course, finds Hiro completely fascinating. When Hiro's guard is down, she thinks she sees loneliness and vulnerability. She wants to know his secrets. She wants to know him.

And, I started getting worried at this point in the book. Felt sure I'd wandered into another predictable forbidden paranormal teen romance ala Twilight or the Iron Fey ... but I was wrong. Ish. There are definite paranormal elements to the story, but they are so much more interesting than vampires or werewolves or fairy lords. Really, I did not at all expect the direction the story took and was pleasantly surprised by the big reveal.

And now a great big "Bravo! You done good, kid!" to The Husband for giving me Miki Falls: Spring for my birthday, because he knows me so well. Bravo, The Husband, Bravo.

Miki Falls: Spring by Mark Crilley (HarperTeen, 2007)


Seasonal Reads: Hershel & the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel of Ostropol, tired and hungry, arrives in a village on the first night of Hanukkah. Expecting light and merriment, latkes and music, he instead finds a village wrapped in cold and darkness. The village cannot celebrate Hanukkah, you see, since the goblins began haunting the old synagogue on the hill. They make the villagers' lives a misery all year round, but Hanukkah is particularly bad. So brave Hershel sallies forth to drive the goblins from the synagogue ...

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is one of my favorite Hanukkah stories and not just because one of my favorite children's illustrators, Trina Schart Hyman, illustrated it! Yes, Hyman's illustrations are superb -- her goblins are an excellent blend of funny and frightening, but Kimmel's text is equally superb -- so clever and funny (and also little scary). I really liked that Hershel was a crafty hero who used his brains to defeat the goblins rather than resorting to butt-kicking -- he was a hero a reader might hope to become. Although ... he does lie a lot. Some would think that might not be the best lesson for kidlets, but I'd say that if you're going to lie to anyone, it might as well be goblins!

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins written by Eric Kimmel & illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House, 1989)


Eating the Alphabet: Z is for Za'atar & Zucchini

With Z we've come to the end of the 2012 Eating the Alphabet Challenge. What can you do with Z, but something with zucchini? Ahhh ... but then I found a spice blend at Penzeys called "zatar" and knew I had to give it a try. According to The New Food Lover's Companion (Barron's Educational Series, 2007), za'atar is "a popular, pungent Middle Eastern spice blend composed of toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme, dried marjoram and sumac. It's mixed with olive oil and salt and is drizzled over hot bread or used as a dip for bread. Za'atar (also spelled zahtar) is also sprinkled over meats and vegetables as a seasoning. It can be found in most Middle Eastern groceries."

Or Penzeys. Or the Teeny Tiny Spice Co. of Vermont, for that matter. And, if you're feeling ambitious and want to make your own za'atar blend, there's a great recipe in The Jewish Slow Cooker (available at many public libraries).

So. I had acquired za'atar. Yay for me, but what was I going to do with it? Well, there was always zucchini ... and then I found a recipe for "Zaatar Chicken with Fattoush" in Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer and had a pretty good idea what I was going to do. I didn't follow Lawson's recipe very well, because I'm all rebellious (Or lazy? Probably lazy) like that.

Zatar Chicken

Za'atar Chicken w/ Zucchini & Potatoes

½ cup olive oil
2 chicken legs (that's thigh and drumstick together)
3 Tbsp za'atar
1 tsp sea salt
1 very ripe satsuma mandarin, juiced

Trim extra skin flaps and fat from chicken legs. Put them in a large food storage bag with za'atar, olive oil, orange juice, and salt. Squish everything around until the chicken is thoroughly coated. Put the bag in your fridge and leave overnight.

Zatar Chicken

¼ olive oil
1 Tbsp za'atar
1 tsp sea salt
10 small potatoes (I used a blend of purple, red, and gold)

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a large jelly roll sheet with foil (for easy clean up). Arrange the chicken at one end of the pan and set aside.

Toss potatoes with za'atar, olive oil, and salt and arrange on other side of pan. Pop the pan into the 450°F for 30 minutes.

Zatar Chicken

¼ olive oil
1 Tbsp za'atar
1 tsp sea salt
1 zucchini (about 8 inches long)

While the chicken cooks, cut zucchini into chunks and toss with za'atar, olive oil, and salt. When the oven timer dings, baste chicken with pan juices and crowd the potatoes up together. Add zucchini to the cleared space and pop everything back in the oven for 15 minutes.

Zatar Chicken

Remove pan from oven. Let chicken rest for 5-10 minutes or until the yummy odor drives you mad and you just can't wait anymore. Eat. Consider going back to Penzeys and buying the biggest jar of za'atar they sell.
The za'atar was very herby -- I could definitely taste the thyme and there was a slight tanginess which I'm presuming came from the sumac -- but it didn't overwhelm the chicken or vegetables. Indeed, they worked really well together. So well, in fact, that I'm considering slathering a za'atar-butter paste all over the chicken I'm roasting for Sunday supper instead of my usual sage blend.

I was a little worried The Husband would be all "What are you trying to feed me now, woman?" but he seemed to enjoy the meal very much. (It probably helped that I swapped his zucchini out for buttery carrots).

So I tried something new and it turned out great! Isn't that what the Eating the Alphabet Challenge is all about? Can't wait for 2013 and a new batch of letters to try (going to do the ones I didn't in 2012, hopefully).

Zatar Chicken

List of all other Eating the Alphabet Challenge posts:
B "Beetroot and Pea Salad" (beets)
C "Pasta With Chickpeas, Spinach, and Golden Raisins" (chickpeas)
E "Edamame Hummus" (edamame & endive)
H "Greek Salad Bowl" (hearts of palm)
J "Jerusalem Artichoke Recipe: Creamy No-Dairy Vegetable Soup"" (Jerusalem artichokes)
K & L "Lush No-Bake Lemon Cheesecake" (kiwi & lemon)
O "Herbed Goat Cheese and Spinach Sandwich" (olives & oregano)
P "Maple Pumpkin Oatmeal" (pumpkin)
S "Beginners Stracciatella" (spinach)
W "Watercress Salad with Roasted Sweet Potatoes" (watercress & walnuts)
Z This post! (za'atar & zucchini)


Stargazing Dog

Reader, I cried. Stargazing Dog is a beautiful, poignant work on love and death and I dare you to not to cry while reading it.

In the first story, "Stargazing Dog," a man who has lost everything sets out on a journey south, to the place of his childhood. His only companion is his faithful dog, Happie, brought home years ago by his daughter and then discarded out of indifference. The journey starts out well enough, but quickly goes wrong. The man and the dog attempt to make do, but in the end ... well, there is no happy ending in Stargazing Dog.

And yet the book possesses a great deal of humor and affection. It was hard not to root for the characters to succeed, even though I knew their sad ending was inevitable. The man doesn't start out as the nicest or most empathetic person and he makes some unsupportable decisions, but he did grow on me and, anyway, no-one deserves that ending. Although, I'd guess versions of it happen everyday. And Happie? Happie is just a lovely dog possessed of heartbreaking loyalty.

The second story, "Sunflowers," reveals some of what happens after "Stargazing Dog" as well as telling the story of young policeman and a dog he once owned. This is not a happy story and I felt fairly wretched for the dog. Not that his life was a terrible one -- it's just that animals deserve much better rewards for such unconditional love and loyalty.

Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami (NBM Publishing, 2011)


Wordless Wednesday: Bringing In the Tree

Bringing In the Tree
Holiday Farm, New Hartford

Bringing In the Tree
Harvesting the tree

Bringing In the Tree
Bringing in the harvest


Seasonal Reads: I Saw Three Ships

     "I hope I'm not sickening for something," she said to Constantia as they sat before the fire filling Polly's stocking after the child had gone upstairs.
     "Do you feel feverish?" said Constantia anxiously.
     "No," said Dorcas, "but it's Wednesday and I haven't polished the furniture."
"You must be ill," said Constantia. "Have you a headache?"

Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships is a beautifully written and emotionally wrenching story (reader, I cried) about a little girl named Polly Flowerdew who lives with her two maiden aunts, Constantia and Dorcas, in an English seaport town not long after The Terror.

Polly wants to leave the house unlocked on Christmas Eve, believing in the old custom that says that the Wise Men may come calling. Her far less fanciful aunts strongly oppose the idea, but Polly’s youth and idealism soften them, and by the end of the book, three wise men have indeed come calling (and gotten into the wine) and a miracle has occurred down in the harbor.

Really, just a lovely Christmas story -- sad and sweet and funny -- and I can't believe it's out of print. It's definitely going on my list of Christmas rereads -- right next to No Holly for Miss Quinn and The Worst Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

I Saw Three Ships written by Elizabeth Goudge & illus. Margot Tomes (Coward-McCann, 1969)



Kyle and three others are hypnotized by Kyle's rather dippy friend, Danny, during a village talent show. When they snap out of the trance, they find everyone in the village seems frozen in place with the same look of shock on their faces. Phones, Internet, TV, radio ... none of it works. What's happening? Is it the end of the world? Are they still in a trance? Did Danny accidentally hypnotize the whole village?

And then the village wakes up ... and everything gets weird and rather frightening.

I'd picked Human.4 up on a whim, not knowing what to expect, but in the mood for something thin and science fictional. It turned out to be a really fun read -- fast-paced with interesting characters and a story that left me thinking. It could, I think, have been a bit longer as some bits felt a bit bare -- Annette and Danny could have been better developed -- but then it almost doesn't matter who Annette and Danny were so much as what they became.

The idea that human evolution has been altered (or caused) by a series of extraterrestrial software upgrades is an amusing one and probably what really made Human.4 so enjoyable. Why invade and occupy the Earth when you can just remotely access and upgrade its inhabitants? Humans as living breathing storage devices? Good fun for everyone. Humans benefit by becoming more awesome (maybe) and aliens benefit by ... well, we just don't know.

I'd really like The Husband to read Human.4 and tell me what he thinks of it.
Is the software talk as interesting/amusing as I think it is or does he find it cringeworthy? As a software engineer, techie talk in novels and television usually makes him facepalm (in the same way the portrayal of librarians usually makes me cringe).

Human.4 by Mike Lancaster (Egmont, 2011)


Wordless Wednesday: Geek the Library

"Whatever you geek, the public library supports you. Join Geek the Library in spreading awareness about the value of libraries and the critical funding issues they face."

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro: Volume 2

As with the first volume, this volume is still slow-paced and meandering, but the storylines are generally darker and more melancholy (but a beautiful, poignant melancholy). We get a fair amount of Kuro and Sen's back-story, but it's still not fully fleshed and I found this completely unsatisfactory at points. I felt as if I were being deliberately teased by the author. "Oh, here's a bit about Kuro's past and ... oops, no, now we've moved onto a different storyline ..."

Despite my discontent, I did enjoy Volume 2 very much. The illustrations are still charming, the stories compelling, and the cat-eared twins, Ninjuku and Sanju, remain totes adorabs.

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro: Volume 2 by Satoko Kiyuduki (Hatchette, 2008)


Seasonal Reads: A Child's Christmas in Wales

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

I'm on a Trina Schart Hyman kick -- blame it on the Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins I saw at Barnes & Noble. There are so many books I picked up as a child because of Hyman's tempting and richly-detailed illustrations and she remains one of my favorite illustrators. So, when I saw my library owned this edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales, I snapped it up. I'd never read A Child's Christmas in Wales -- didn't hear about it until I was a college student with limited patience for poetry. Needless to say, I did not read it then.

More fool me.

A Child's Christmas in Wales is a beautiful prose poem of childhood and Christmas in a small Welsh town and Hyman's illustrations pair so well with the story. I know there are many editions of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but this one is so lovely and perfect that there really need be no other editions!

I would really like prints of some of the illustrations to hang on my walls. The one of Aunt Hannah, who liked port, "singing like a big-bosomed thrush" in the middle of the snowy yard is my favorite -- mostly, because I expect to age into Aunt Hannah.

And, as with Trina Schart Hyman's Little Red Riding Hood, there are cats everywhere!

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman



Oh, what fun! Mike, an out-of-work single father, purchases a cardboard box from a mad-eyed street vendor as, quite probably, the worst birthday present in the world for his son. Certainly, the neighborhood jerk, Marcus, is full of sneering incredulity. However, the son, Cam, doesn't seem at all put out by the gift and he and his dad immediately set out to turn the box into a boxer.

And that's where things start to go weird. You see, the cardboard is magic and the things made from it come to life. At first, this is delightful, but then Marcus steals some cardboard and builds himself a cardboard machine to build a cardboard army of creatures. And it all goes bad. Very, very bad. And not merely because Marcus has a seriously messed-up imagination, but also because sentient cardboard monsters don't really need fleshies ...

Cardboard was really a fun story with gorgeous artwork, solid story-telling, and a surprising amount of philosophy (What is it to be human? What is bad? What is good?). It's one of those graphic novels which would work really well as a movie and I, for one, would love to see it on the big screen.

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel (Graphix, 2012)


Delicious Duck For Beginners

Many years ago, we used to visit a little restaurant that did a rather yummy duck confit with dark cherry puree. I liked it very much -- duck and cherries are a classic combination for a good reason -- but The Husband does not like fruit with meat and hates cherries (weirdo!) so always ate his duck confit with béarnaise sauce.

The restaurant went out of business a few years ago and it's been hard finding another restaurant that serves good duck ... so when I saw boneless duck breasts at The Meat House a few weeks ago, I experienced a significant "A-ha!" moment. Why not make my own duck? And I did. And it was good. Not restaurant-nostalgia good, but pretty darn good for something I'd never cooked before.

My first duck (breast)

Anyway, The Husband really liked it and that's all that matters! I served it with béarnaise sauce, buttermilk-smashed baby Yukon Gold potatoes, and buttery tinned carrots (because The Husband digs buttery squishy carrots). The whole meal cost a bazillion-trillion-million Weight Watchers Points+, but was well worth it.
Simple Duck Breasts

1½ pounds duck breast (it looks like a big flap of skin with two palm-sized pieces of muscle)
salt and pepper, as desired

Preheat the oven to 400F°

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat.

Trim the skin around each breast so that it just fits the meat. Score the skin in a criss-cross pattern, being careful not to cut the meat. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Place the duck breasts, fat side down, in the skillet and cook for about 6 minutes -- the skin will shrink quite a lot and there will be a lot of rendered duck fat at the bottom of the skillet. Reserve rendered fat for roasting potatoes or whathaveyou.

Flip the duck breasts over and sear for 1 minute. Put them fat-side-down in a small baking dish and roast for 10 minutes. Let the duck breasts rest for 5 minutes then thinly slice on the bias into ½-inch pieces. (If you have an oven-safe skillet, you can just pop that in the oven and save dirtying a dish).


Miss Clare Remembers

I used to pooh-pooh the Miss Read books as ridiculously twee and rusticated, but time seems to have worn me down, because I now find them rather charming. Oh, the classism and racism are still there, but they don't make me want to set anyone's thatch on fire. Maybe, because I've lost most of my idealism and see my time can be as deeply flawed and punishing as the time of Miss Read's Faireacre and Beech Green?

Anyway, I've been sick with a miserable chest cold since Sunday and was feeling pretty low and self-pitying when I found Miss Read's Miss Clare Remembers at the bottom of my (ridiculously large) pile of library loot. I didn't remember borrowing it, but there it was and due next Monday, too!

Figuring I could do with something gentle and twee, I opened Miss Clare Remembers ... and surfaced, bereft, hours later. Miss Clare Remembers was a bittersweet story of friendship that spanned seventy years -- surviving the end of Victoria's reign, the Boer War, two world wars, the death of agrarian England, and the development of the modern English public education system.

Thinking about it, that sounds rather hideous. Who wants to read fiction about the modern education system and three wars? Oh, but it's so well written! The fact of post-Victorian England woven so closely into the fiction of Miss Clare's life. It's impossible not to be fascinated. That said, I grew up on a diet of Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls -- I have a great affection for teachers in old-timey fiction. And fiction of this time period -- when we're moving from a seemingly static world to one that is constantly changing -- is also a great interest of mine. Really, it's no wonder I enjoyed Miss Clare Remembers.

And I think you would like it, too. Miss Clare Remembers is a gentle, truly enjoyable read. There's sadness and suffering, of course, but that just makes the joys that much deeper.

I suppose some people would think our lives have been narrow, and would feel sorry for us. But I think we've been two of the luckiest women alive -- to have lived all our lives in this dear small place and to have watched the children grow up and have children of their own, and always to have had our friends about us.

Miss Clare Remembers by Miss Read (Houghton Mifflin, 1963)


Thanksgiving Leftovers: Stuffing Waffles

I found a Rachael Ray recipe for "Leftover Stuffing Waffles" and, since I had a huge amount a leftover slow cooker turkey dressing, I knew I had to give it a try. I love waffles. I love stuffing. Waffled stuffing sounded like definite win.

And, you know, it looked good. I'd followed the instructions exactly -- preheated the waffle iron, liberally brushed it with melted unsalted butter, and packed it with leftover turkey dressing. I put my small oval French oven on top of the waffle iron to press the dressing down nice and tight and let it cook for a full eight minutes. When I lifted the lid, the cooked waffle was golden and crispy on top. It looked pretty darn good.

Waffled Stuffing

But then I tried to take the waffle out ... and it wouldn't come out. Oh, the top layer (all crispy-crunchy goodness) did, but the bottom stuck fast. It was a very sad waffle. Next time I would, as the good woman says, "butter yo shit" and maybe that waffle would just slide right out of the iron.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Anyway, fail waffle still tasted okay! Topped the waffle bits with reheated turkey and gravy and The Husband had no issue with it and cleaned his plate.


Italian Homework: Rich Hot Chocolate

For "Lesson 10: Italy's Favorite Beverages," the penultimate antepenultimate class in the online Italian cooking course I've been taking through Universal Class and my public library, I was to make one of the beverages discussed in the lesson.

Unfortunately, it was all coffee or alcohol. As I don't drink coffee and didn't want to buy bottles of liquor to make mixed drinks I might not want to repeat, I petitioned my instructor to allow an alternate recipe and she, lovely woman, told I could make Italian hot chocolate.

Chocolate curls
Beautiful pure dark chocolate (54% cocoa) shavings

Ah, but which recipe? "'Nun's Revenge' Fabulous Italian Hot Chocolate" sounded tempting, but so did "Italian Hot Chocolate - Cioccolato Caldo." However, I didn't have Dutch process cocoa or arrowroot powder or orange peel and was just not going grocery shopping the weekend after Thanksgiving. So I ended up making bell'alimento's "Italian Hot Chocolate" with heavy cream and Lake Champlain Chocolate's Old World Drinking Chocolate (only 54% cocoa, but still plenty decadent). And it was fabulously rich and chocolaty! Like drinking a cup of hot runny chocolate pudding sprinkled with crack!

Italian Hot Chocolate
Is it a beverage? Is it a dessert?
A little bit went a long way, yes, so I served the hot chocolate in small teacups instead of the giant mugs we usually use. But, even though it was rich and chocolaty, it was not overwhelmingly so and I finished the cup knowing I'd be happy to drink it again in a day or two. The Husband also enjoyed this Italian hot chocolate very much -- said it was like drinking the hot, liquid center of a chocolate lava cake!

(Really, it's a fabulous recipe and I recommend everyone visit bell'alimento and give "Italian Hot Chocolate" a try. You won't regret it!)