Of Cookies and Books

Ever bake something amazing from scratch? Something so good, so rich, so satisfying that you can’t wait to try it again, but the next time you tweak the recipe to try to make it just a little bit better. Sometimes it works, and you produce the most deliciously gooey double chocolate chip cookies, but other times, you’re left with a pile of dried out, brittle briquettes are more suitable for acts of vandalism than human consumption. Books are like baking.

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When I come across a story I love, it’s natural to want more, but sequels are a risk. Sequels change the story, for better or for worse. At its best, a sequel strengthens our relationship with a character and gives the author an opportunity to explore and develop larger plotlines. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a great example. But a poorly written sequel has the power to turn readers away from a burgeoning series, and even characters they love forever. Jan Karon’s Father Tim series falls into this category for me, and Jim Butcher is headed down that path with his Dresden Files. Sometimes it’s better to stop while you’re ahead.

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When I was offered an ARC of the sequel to Justin Robinson’s Mr. Blank to review, I didn’t hesitate. I loved the first book so much. It was fast-paced and hilarious, and Robinson’s writing style is so engaging I had to quit trying to find quotes from his work to fit the title because every time I try to find one, I get carried off in the story again. I was eager to read it, but I did have to wonder if he could do it again. Just in case you’re wondering, he can, and he did. And you wanna hear something really crazy? Get Blank is even better than the original.

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It will come as no surprise to some of you that I am not always the sharpest crayon in the box, and it’s not hard for me to get lost among the twists and turns of a gumshoe novel. I’ll be the first to admit that I got tangled up a few times in Mr. Blank, but Robinson deftly set me back on the path every, single time. I never stayed lost for very long. This time around, I had no trouble at all in keeping up, and I could see where I was being led without anyone spelling it out for me. That is not to say the ending is predictable. It is not. But I could connect the dots on the significance of each event this time all by my own self.

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Robinson knows how to develop his characters. Even when they aren’t human, even when they’re pretty much identical to every other one of their species, Robinson manages to make them stand out, to make me care about them. And maybe even cry over them.

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The book isn’t perfect. The resolution was a bit abrupt, and the pursuit of the identity of “Mr. Blank,” the thread that ties this book to its predecessor and is the premise of the series is weak. But the writing is so solid, the story at hand so well developed that I look forward to other opportunities to revisit this world. And while it is a sequel, Get Blank really does stand on its own two feet.

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I devoured this book in a weekend, in one fabulous, children-raise-yourselves-because-Mommy’s-not-putting-this-book-down kind of weekend. It’s urban fantasy, it’s noir, it’s bizarre, it’s a delight. I give it 4.5 stars. I haven’t given an ARC a rating that high in a long time. It was my pleasure to do so this time.

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Want to win it? You know you do!  There are two ways to enter. I recommend both! Go here to learn about and participate in tomorrow night’s drinkalong. Go here to the contest’s main page.

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And what goes better with books than cookies? Nothing. Here’s the recipe for the double choco-chip cookies I made to eat while I read Get Blank. I futzed with the recipe so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

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2 C bread flour
½ C cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks salted butter, softened (not melted)
1 ½ granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

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Preheat oven to 375F. Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In large bowl beat butter and sugar on high for 1 minute. Add vanilla. Beat to blend. Add eggs one at a time, beating for one minute between each. Slowly add dry ingredients to butter mixture and beat. Batter will be thick. Add the chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed.

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Place batter on ungreased baking sheet in heaping teaspoonsful. Bake for 9 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool for 1 minute, then remove cookies to a wire baking rack.

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Makes: not nearly enough

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Now, make some cookies and read this book. It’s my top pick for summer reads. And don’t forget to click here to vote for my zoo to win $5K. Comment on yesterday’s post to let me know you voted.

What’s For Dinner?

I’ve got just the thing. Black bean burgers. They take a little time, but they are super-cheap, really healthy, and even the kids like them.  Here’s what you need:

15 oz cooked black beans: You can buy them canned if you like. If you’re cheap particular like me and prefer to prepare your own, that’s 1 1/3 cup dried beans. I cook mine with salt, water, cilantro, cumin, garlic, and onion

1/2 onion, diced

2 slices of bread

1 raw egg

1/4C all purpose flour

Spices to taste (again, I like a little salt, garlic, cumin, and some chopped cilantro)

Cooking oil

See? Not much to it, right? Now here’s the fun part.

1) Caramelize your diced onion.

Okay, maybe that’s not caramelized. Maybe that’s scorched. Don’t cook yours as long. You don’t want them crunchy, you know.

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2) Feed the cats. Because their yowling is driving you to drink distraction.

3) Onions are now crunchy as corn flakes. Swear a little and dump them into mixing bowl.

4) What the heck. You love onions. And mushrooms. Slice the remaining half onion and saute as burger topping.

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But do try to remember that these are WHITE mushrooms. If you try to get them as dark as portabellas, you’re asking for crunchy onions again.

5) Fill cat’s water bowl. For the fourteenth time today.

6) Cube the bread slices and dump into mixing bowl with crunchy onion bits.

That’s right. I paid $1 for that cutting board. Only the best for me, baby.

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7) Intervene in small child’s flight demonstration.  Twice.

8 ) Sample caramelized onions and mushrooms. Repeat until they are nearly gone.

9) Add beans and raw egg to mixing bowl and mash it all together. Mix spices into flour, and then blend into the bean mixture. The flour and egg are literally the glue that holds it all together. Great image, right?

I use a potato masher. Or a ricer. I think it’s a masher, as I don’t believe I have ever riced anything in my life. Ricing sounds like a tactic used by the Chinese mafia.

10) Check kid’s homework. Take a moment to be grateful that school is almost over for the year.

11) Make burgers into patties. I didn’t take a picture of this part because my hands were covered with bean mixture. And it looked a little gross.

12) Answer phone with your elbows, and listen to long and unnecessary automated call from the school. 

12) Cook in oil on high heat, flipping ever few minutes. They’re done with they’re dark and kind of crunchy on both sides. I set them in the oil in big lumps, let them cook a few minutes, then flip and flatten with a spatula. Story of my life, you know?

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I really couldn’t tell you why it’s bubbling like that. It was the best oil Wal-mart had to offer, so I am sure there are no impurities. Cook it on high. HIGH. If you cook at a lower temperature, your burgers will be greasy.

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13) Serve. Yes, this means you have to share. I am truly sorry.

If you’re sneaky, no one else has to know about the onions and mushrooms.

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Now if you will excuse me, I am starving!

A Little Post To Help Out My Starving Writer Friends

I’m not here to get my starving writer friends an actual job. Unless your ambition is to set up a slow-cooker lasanga stand somewhere. Not that there would be anything wrong with that. I always say, if you’re going to dream, dream big. No, I’m here to help out all my friends who, like me, may be finding their word output far exceeding their caloric intake. Or finding themselves at the bottom of a bag of peanut M&Ms in search of inspiration. This one is for you guys, my brothers and sisters in NaNoWriMo.

Here’s a quick and easy recipe that you can put together in 5 minutes (unless you’re trying to take pictures of the process. In that case, add an hour) and leave it for a few hours while you hammer out content. Drumroll, please.

Heather’s Slow Cooker Lasagna – complete with crappy photographs. You’re welcome.

Here’s what you need:

8 lasagna noodles (I prefer whole wheat because they maintain their integrity in the recipe, meaning they don’t cook down to paste. Friday, my husband finally admitted that he hates them. Who knew?)

15 oz of ricotta cheese (I like part-skim so I am not all fat, but whole milk variety works as well for you skinny folks. That I hate.)

2 Cups of shredded mozzarella cheese

1 Jar of the  spaghetti sauce of your choice (not for a minute did I pretend that this meal was going to be totally from scratch. Deal with it, or go back to your M&Ms)

1/3 Cup of water

Optional: half a pound or so of your favorite ground meat or protein crumble (my kid is a vegetarian, so we leave out the meat, but Morningstar Farms Sausage crumbles are pretty awesome)

You were, perhaps, expecting Julia Childs? Get real.

1) Break the noodles into the bottom of the slow-cooker.

I hate my oval-shaped slow-cooker. But whatever.

2) Pour in half of the jar of your sauce. You don’t have to be exact.

Cover those noodles, for the love of Linguini! Cover them!

3) Add the water. I didn’t include a picture of this step. I am sorry if you are now confused and will end up with toast instead of lasagna. I can only do so much for you.

4) Add your ricotta cheese and try to spread it evenly. Here’s a tip: it doesn’t spread. You’re going to have to squish it. But it’s kind of fun.

Squish. Squish. If it's boring, try saying "Braiiiins!" while you do it. If you're into zombies. Which I'm not. Sorry SJ. I tried.

5) Here’s the dangerous part in the recipe. If you have meat or a meat-substitute, this is where you add it. I don’t, so there is no picture. Meat or meat substitute. Not dog food or pencil shavings. You can do this, even without a photo to guide you.

6) Sprinkle 1 cup of shredded cheese over the ricotta/meat/meat substitute. Note: this represents only HALF of your cheese. If you use all of it, it will be cheesy, but it will look really weird.

Sprinkle that cheese. Sprinkle it, I say! How does sprinkling cheese make my hand look so fat. I think I need to go back to bed.

7) Top with the remainder of the sauce.

I know what you are thinking. Not only can those hands type out a novel, they are also pretty adept at pouring generic sauce from a jar. Thank you, my fans. Thank you.

8 ) Turn your slow-cooker on low. Cook for an hour. Set a timer if you have to.

9 ) After cooking for an hour, top with the remainder of the cheese. You CAN do this before step 8, but your cheese will be all brown and crunchy. Me no likey, but if you like crispy cheese, feel free to mix it up. And by that, I mean change up the recipe. If you actually mix up the contents of your slow-cooker, it won’t be pretty.

It's all in the wrist. Don't despair if you aren't this good at first. I have been training since childhood.

10) Cook for another 2-3 hours. If you have an oval slow-cooker, you’ll aim for 3 total hours of cook time. If you have a round one (I am jealous), aim for four total hours.

11) Serve it up with a side of salad and fresh bread. That you kneaded from scratch. Shut up. I did. I can’t make spaghetti sauce yet, but I can bake me up some bread. I’ll post that recipe another time.

Yes, those are raisins in my salad. And it's a bag salad. Don't judge me.

So there you have it. A recipe that is quick and easy and doesn’t require a lot of baby-sitting. Your word-count is almost guaranteed to shoot through the roof . **  Carbs and comfort food can have that effect. Happy writing!

** Please note, I said “almost ” guaranteed. Author is not responsible for writer’s block, computer crashes, hair loss or weight gain.

So You Think You Can’t Bake

It’s fall, and nothing tastes or smells more like fall than ginger and cloves. One simple and tasty way to add that aroma to the house is to whip up a batch of little gingerbread dudes. I promised an easy recipe to my blogging buddy, and it’s time I make good.

My beloved husband cooks like an art major, feeling in his soul that a recipe is only a suggestion, a mere jumping off point in a quest for self-expression. It makes his cooking interesting and his baking inedible. Therefore I offer a step-by-step guide with pictures for those creative spirits who aren’t sure why their bread has the consistency of a black hole.If you already know what you’re doing, copy the recipe and have a great day! Everyone else, follow me.

Here’s what you need:

1/2 C Butter (softened, not melted)

1/2 C Sugar

1/2 C Molasses (NOT blackstrap)

2 egg yolks

2 C Bread Flour (you can use all-purpose, but your men won’t be as fluffy)

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp cloves

2 tsp ginger

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

And here’s what to do. In technicolor.

1) Cream your butter and sugar.

"Cream" on low speed. Sounds violent, but if you keep your fingers out of the way, no one gets hurt.

2) Combine in Molasses

Molasses was intended by God for use in gingerbread. Alone, it tastes awful. High in iron, though.

3) Beat in egg yolks. You don’t need any special gadget to separate the yolks. Save the whites. You can use them in the bread recipe I’ll post soon.

To separate, hold egg a bowl and gently pour from one half of the shell to the other.

4) In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients and blend well with a fork.

Baking calls for exact ratios. Use a knife to level off your flour and spices.

Can't you just smell it?! Yum!

5) Add dry ingredients to your butter mixture in small amounts. I use medium or high speed since the batter is thick. Blend until smooth.

A little at a time so it blends well.

This is what it looks like when you're done. It has little waves in it.

6) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or put it in a small, air-tight bowl and put it in the refrigerator for at least an hour. It seems unfair to have to wait. Leave the house if you must. It makes the time pass faster. You can put it in the freezer if you have to, but I am always afraid that the butter will crystallize. No idea what that would do to the taste, but I avoid unnecessary crystallization in my life whenever possible as a matter of principle.

So close, and yet so far away. An hour. Take this time to catch up on all those shows on DVR.

And now, the fun begins! Here’s the creative opportunity you’ve all been waiting for! Here’s what you need:

Yes, I do recommend wax paper. Buy some now, thank me later.

1) Lightly sprinkle some flour on a piece of wax paper and on your rolling pin. You can roll if out directly on the counter if you want to, but, wax paper makes it easier to remove even the most reluctant gingerbread dude and get him  to your baking sheet.

2) Roll out your dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Use your cookie cutter of choice. Or use a sharp knife and create your own amazing shapes.

In ten minutes, I will EAT you! Be afraid, little gingerbread dude!

3) Remove your shape from the wax paper and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, depending on your oven.

4) Cool for a minute or so, and then remove to wire rack (if you have one).

Five reasons why life is worth living.

And that’s all there is to it. Here are a few tips.

Buy your spices at a place that sells them in bulk and lets you scoop them yourself. I paid about 1/4 the price I would have paid for prepackaged stuff. And it’s way fresher.

The spice amounts can be adjusted according to taste, but try the recipe as-is a time or two first. Too much cloves or ginger will burn your tongue. No joke.

An air-tight wrap or container is important in the fridge. It keeps the dough from drying out.

Put your cookies in an air-tight container before they have cooled completely. The stay softer that way.

Make friends only with people who have no sense of smell. If they can’t smell your cookies, you won’t have to share.

Enjoy, and let me know how they turn out!