THE RAIN IN PORTUGAL by Billy Collins

February 18, 2017
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Poems

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a new book of poetry and I couldn’t be happier. I got to chat with him a bit last summer at the American Library Association annual conference and he was as charming as ever.

I’ve loved his poetry for a long time, and when the Palm Beach Poetry Festival got going, he was one of the first guests of honor. To hear him read his work is just, well, fantastic, and now I hear his voice, his inflections, when I read it myself.

Here is a clip of Billy reading three of these poems on A Prairie Home Companion:

This is his twelfth book of poetry, and it made me laugh and think and cry, all the sorts of emotional response that good writing, especially good poetry, will imbue. Some of my favorites…

“Lucky Cats” begins:

It’s a law as immutable as the ones
governing bodies in motion and bodies at rest
that a cat picked up will never stay
in the place where you choose to set it down.

So true!

I have felt this sensation when traveling but have never been able to express it as succinctly and beautifully as this, from “Bashō in Ireland”:

The sensation of being homesick
for a place that is not my home
while being right in the middle of it

“Early Morning” made me laugh out loud. Another cat poem, it begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them
on the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

“Speed Walking on August 31, 2013” was written as a memorial for the brilliant Seamus Heaney (if you haven’t read his translation of Beowulf, do yourself a favor and get it – this illustrated edition is spectacular.) That was followed by “December 1” which is a poem celebrating what would have been Billy’s mother’s birthday:

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

This poem reminded me of my mother and my loss and made me cry.

turkey-vegetable-platterI sent my son the poem “Thanksgiving” because he spent this past holiday with his girlfriend’s family in Chicago and sent me a picture of this beautiful vegetable platter laid out to look like a turkey. I’d seen pictures online (like this one) but hadn’t known anyone who actually went to all that trouble, and here Billy gently poked fun. He reads it in the YouTube video above.

Poetry is such a personal thing – I will end with a poem (that Billy reads in the video) so you can decide for yourself if you want to read more. I hope you do.

On Rhyme

It’s possible that a stitch in time
might save as many as twelve or as few as three,
and I have no trouble remembering
that September has thirty days.
So do June, November, and April.

I like a cat wearing a chapeau or a trilby,
Little Jack Horner sitting on a sofa,
old men who are not from Nantucket,
and how life can seem almost unreal
when you are gently rowing a boat down a stream.

That’s why instead of recalling today
that it mostly pours in Spain,
I am going to picture the rain in Portugal,
how it falls on the hillside vineyards,
on the surface of the deep harbors

where fishing boats are swaying,
and in the narrow alleys of the cities
where three boys in tee shirts
are kicking a soccer ball in the rain,
ignoring the window-cries of their mothers.

2/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE RAIN IN PORTUGAL by Billy Collins. Random House; 1St Edition edition (October 4, 2016). ISBN 978-0679644064. 128p.

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FOOD, HEALTH & HAPPINESS by Oprah Winfrey

February 13, 2017

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115 On-Point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life

So as every dieter in America probably knows, Oprah bought a chunk of Weight Watchers and is selling the diet like crazy. This cookbook (that has no other name on it!) is the 2017 early entry in the diet cookbook market.

This is part memoir, part cookbook with charming handwritten notes strewn throughout. Oh, and Weight Watcher points attached to every recipe.

There are a wide variety of recipes, from several soups including tomato, Mulligatawny and Turkey Chili to fun things like Skinny Cornbread and Art Smith’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken. There’s even a version of Daniel Boulud’s famous potato crusted sea bass; in Oprah’s world, Daniel isn’t mentioned but then again that’s not unusual.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: When I know Better, I do Better
Soup is Love
What are You Really Hungry For?
The Faith of a Mustard Seed
A World of Possibility
A Healthy Indulgence
Greens, Glorious Greens
Epilogue: Finding a New Path on My Journey With Food
A note about Weight Watchers SmartPoints
Meet the Chefs*

*So this was my ah-ha moment! Oprah is known for many things but cooking is not one of them. So while she is listed as the only author, and none of the recipes would lead you to think anyone other than Oprah created them, this page near the very back of the book, Meet the Chefs, tell a slightly different story. So let’s meet them:

Eduardo Chavez (sexy drinks)
Rosie Daley (previous author of another Oprah diet cookbook and contributor of the Peppered Tuna recipe)
Taryn Huebner (Turkey Burger)
Mei Lin (Top Chef winner and Turkey Lasagna recipe)
Art Smith (Unfried Chicken & Fried Chicken)
Sonny Sweetman (Halibut a la Grecque)

And that’s all the credit anyone is given, which irritates me just the tiniest bit. But I digress.

The recipes are all interesting and mostly healthy. Along the bottom of each recipe is the prep time, cook time, number of servings, the Weight Watchers smart points, and calories, making it easy to figure out whether or not you want to make something.

The best part of the book, to me, is the personal stuff. The pictures of Oprah and her family and friends, especially sitting around the table, and all her handwritten comments (in teacher perfect handwriting?) make this book worth buying. The healthy recipes are a nice bonus.

oprah-pasta-primavera

 

oprah-red-pepper-sausage-fennel-soup

2/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

FOOD, HEALTH & HAPPINESS by Oprah Winfrey. Flatiron Books; 1 edition (January 3, 2017). ISBN 978-1250126535. 240p.


MARCH: BOOK THREE by John Lewis

February 2, 2017
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Co-author Andrew Aydin
Illustrator Nate Powell

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels – in fact, it feels like I start every one of my reviews this way!

This book is part of a series of biographical graphic novels written by John Lewis about his life and career. Book Three starts in the early 1960’s.

What brought this book to my attention was the awards. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Then at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference last month, the following awards were announced:

The Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award, which recognizes an African American author of a book for kids

The Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young-adult literature

The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award

The YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction

This was record setting – no other book has ever won 4 awards from ALA. So I wanted to read it. Luckily, my library had a copy on the shelf.

From the publisher:

Welcome to the stunning conclusion of the award-winning and best-selling MARCH trilogy. Congressman John Lewis, an American icon and one ofthe key figures of the civil rights movement, joins co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to bring the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world.
By the fall of 1963, the Civil Rights Movement has penetrated deep into the American consciousness, and as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis is guiding the tip of the spear. Through relentless direct action, SNCC continues to force the nation to confront its own blatant injustice, but for every step forward, the danger grows more intense: Jim Crow strikes back through legal tricks, intimidation, violence, and death. The only hope for lasting change is to give voice to the millions of Americans silenced by voter suppression: “One Man, One Vote.”
To carry out their nonviolent revolution, Lewis and an army of young activists launch a series of innovative campaigns, including the Freedom Vote, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and an all-out battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged live on national television. With these new struggles come new allies, new opponents, and an unpredictable new president who might be both at once. But fractures within the movement are deepening … even as 25-year-old John Lewis prepares to risk everything in a historic showdown high above the Alabama river, in a town called Selma.

I loved this book. I must admit I pretty much cried my way through it, it is not an easy read. But what a story! Congressman Lewis has has lived an amazing life, and continues his work for civil rights to this day.

The illustrations by Nate Powell are all in black & white, and are viscerally stunning. Bombings, speeches, and arrests are somehow brought to life but the violence is never over the top or gratuitous. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement, not to mention President Johnson and Robert Kennedy, are easily recognized.

This book is a testament to what civil disobedience can accomplish, and feels very timely right now. This is a truly inspirational read, and I highly recommend it.

2/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

MARCH: BOOK THREE by John Lewis. Top Shelf Productions; First Edition edition (August 2, 2016).  ISBN 978-1501115677. 320p.


COOK KOREAN! by Robin Ha

January 28, 2017
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A Comic Book with Recipes

I loved Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley, which came out a few years ago, but never really expected to find another graphic novel with recipes. I was wrong. Apparently graphic novel cookbooks are now a thing.

There was a really interesting article on eater.com about it, Why Cookbooks are Looking More Like Comicbooks. They point out:

But comic cookbooks can do something for home cooks, too — make recipes less daunting and easier to follow. Cookbooks are still in demand, but many — with their overly aspirational food photography — wind up as coffee-table books for the kitchen.

An interesting point, for sure. And click through to an older article, The Golden Era of Food Comics is Happening Right Now. Also interesting.

When I heard about Cook Korean!, I knew I had to take a look at it. I don’t know a lot about Korean food. Korean BBQ restaurants are around, and kimchi is hugely popular pretty much everywhere now, so it seemed like a good time to learn. And learn I did.

Table of Contents:

Introduction
Kimchi and Pickles
Vegetable Side Dishes
Meat and Poultry
Seafood
Soups and Stews
Porridges
Noodles and Rice Cakes
Snacks and Street Foods
Cocktails and Anju
Korean Fusion

I included the introduction because it’s not your typical “here’s why I wrote this cookbook page.” Instead, it’s 20 pages or so of ingredients used in Korean cooking, the Korean refrigerator, the Korean pantry, Korean meal guide, Bap: Cooked Rice, Rice and its delicious by-products, Korea’s regions and foods and finally Dengki’s dress. In other words, lots of super useful information. With illustrations.

All the chapters are heavily illustrated, thus the graphic novel genre. I mean if you just picked it up without knowing it was a cookbook, it probably wouldn’t occur to you as you glanced through it. No, it’s not a novel, it’s cookbook/memoir and nonfiction while we usually call fiction books novels. But what I called comic books as a kid are now called graphic novels, regardless of whether or not the books contain fiction or nonfiction. My library shelves them in the nonfiction. I have noticed that some graphic novel memoirs are shelved in biographies, and I’m not sure who is making that distinction (Library of Congress? The Online Computer Library Center, better known as OCLC?) or why that distinction is being made. Congressman John Lewis just won a bunch of awards for the third book of his graphic novel trilogy memoir, March: Book Three (congrats!) which is shelved in biography. But I digress.

Other things I noticed when looking at the table of contents. I admitted up front I am pretty ignorant about Korean food. I didn’t know there were stews or porridges, for instance. Now I do. Kimchi Stew, for starters. And a Spicy Fish Stew. I learned that pine nuts are not just for pesto and are used in Pine Nut Porridge.

So kimchi. There is a little gastro pub near my house that makes killer kimchi. And by killer I mean they warn you if you try and order it that it is very hot, so I haven’t tried it. A kimchi loving friend (hi Dave!) has had it and really enjoys it. So everything I know about kimchi is that historically, it was made from cabbage in clay jars and buried in the dirt. The smell was supposedly horrific. And very, very spicy. But after reading this book, I learned that my suppositions were correct, but there are ways to make it much more palatable for my delicate American taste. Use less Korean chili, for starters. I also learned that kimchi can be made from a variety of vegetables, not just cabbage – radish, cucumber and green onion, just to name a few. I feel kimchi educated now.

Noodles are big in Asian cooking and Korean food is no exception. The recipe for Handmade Knife Noodles is about as close to pasta as you can get. Rice cakes are called Tteok and there are dozens of different kinds, mostly eaten as snacks or dessert.

The cocktails chapter includes a lesson in Korean Drinking Culture, including the admonishment to “always pour your elder’s drink with both your hands,” to never refuse a drink from your elders and “always refill drinks for others and never refill your own drink. You must wait for others to fill it up for you.”

The recipes are all explained and illustrated so that even someone as ignorant of Korean food and customs as I am, could successfully prepare anything in this book. I loved the watercolor type paintings that illustrate each chapter title page, and the drawings throughout the book really added to my understanding of technique. It’s funny, I never really cared for illustrations in cookbooks, for instance the beloved Silver Palate Cookbook, as I much prefer photographs. But for some reason, I love the illustrations here and didn’t miss the photos at all.

Finally, I was trying to figure out how many recipes there are but it was difficult as so many have variations included. The author does mention in her acknowledgements that her mother helped with 64 of the recipes though. Always nice to acknowledge your mom!

If you are curious about Korean cuisine and culture or you love Korean food and want to try making some yourself, this is the book for you.

1/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

COOK KOREAN! by Robin Ha. Ten Speed Press (July 5, 2016). ISBN 978-1607748878. 176p.

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BREAKING BREADS by Uri Scheft

January 2, 2017
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A New World of Israeli Baking–Flatbreads, Stuffed Breads, Challahs, Cookies, and the Legendary Chocolate Babka

Raquel Pelzel, contributor

This is an intriguing and unusual cookbook, aimed at the bread baker. If you’ve never baked bread, start with Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread and leave this cookbook aside for a bit, but if you love baking bread and would like to expand your repertoire, this is an excellent book to turn to. While there is a chapter on Sweets & Cookies, and they are unusual and like the rest of the recipes, clearly laid out and easy to follow for a baker with some skills, the emphasis of the book is on specialty breads.

Scheft opened his first bakery in Israel but is best known in this country for his beloved Manhattan “Breads Bakery” (3 locations,) where people flock for his amazing chocolate babka (and Nutella!) and chocolate rugelach. As the subtitle intimates, Middle Eastern and especially Israeli influences abound. But Scheft also trained in Europe as a pastry chef, so he has some serious skills that he is able to simplify for the home baker.

The chapters:

Challah
Babka
Flatbreads
A Few Classics & New Discoveries
Stuffed Breads
Sweets & Cookies
With…
The Baker’s Pantry
The Baker’s Toolkit

The chapter titled “With…” includes recipes for Hummus, Tahina, Babaghanouj, Kalamata Tapenade, and other savory tapas like dishes. These are used throughout the recipes in this book but can certainly be used on their own. Set a table with a few of these delicacies, and your guests will clamor for more.

The pictures are stunning and really add a lot to the book. Like most serious bakers, Scheft uses metric weight for his recipes, so break out your digital scale and slide it over to grams. Be sure to take a good look at the Baker’s Pantry before attempting these recipes – I bake a lot, and I didn’t have a lot of these things; apricot kernels, bitter almonds, dates, dried chickpeas, nigella, marzipan, labne, etc. Scheft also prefers specific brands like Plugra butter, King Arthur flour, Valrhona or Callebaut chocolate, etc. The Baker’s Toolkit consists mostly of items bakers will tend to have on hand like bench scrapers, digital scale, parchment paper, rolling pins and so forth, but even here there are a couple of unusual items like a kugelhopf pan and couche.

I have to say this is not a cookbook for a new baker or the feint of heart. Many of the recipes are complicated but again, clearly laid out so if you are familiar with baking bread and understand how dough needs to be handled, then you will love this book. The babka recipes alone are worth the price of admission and come two ways, with a Basic Babka Dough and an Advanced Babka Dough, which is a laminated dough. If you’ve never attempted a laminated dough, the pictures are positively inspirational and make the whole process look completely doable.

Scheft offers a basic challah recipe, then takes it further with all sorts of ways to braid and seed it that you have to see to believe, then takes it another step further with a Whole Wheat and Flax Challah, Chocolate and Orange Confit Challah, and next on my list, Sticky Pull-Apart Cinnamon Challah Braid.

If you’ve ever wanted to attempt to make an apple strudel like grandma used to, or hamentaschen or rugelach, then this is your cookbook. I know I will be working my way through it for years to come.

1/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

BREAKING BREADS by Uri Scheft. Artisan (October 18, 2016). ISBN 978-1579656829. 352p.


DORIE’S COOKIES by Dorie Greenspan

December 17, 2016
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Photographs by  Davide Luciano

If you are not familiar with Dorie Greenspan, suffice it to say she is an award winning (James Beard, IACP) pastry chef who has worked along side of Julia Child and Pierre Herme. I’ve been a fan since Baking with Julia and I was delighted to see she devoted an entire cookbook to cookies. What’s not to like?

Dorie’s recipes are always straightforward and easy to follow, but never ordinary. If you are looking for Toll House Cookies (not that there is anything wrong with those classic cookies) try the chocolate chip cookies in this book instead. Then try the Brownies, Sweet Potato Pie Bars, Popcorn Streusel Tops, Shortbread, and Coconut-Lime Sablés. Then move on to the savory cookies. Yes, I said that.

This is a cookbook to treasure. I’ve seen reviews call it an “instant classic” and I agree. Just in time for the holidays, do yourself a favor and buy this book. And if you don’t like baking, buy it for the stories that go along with the recipes. Then give it to someone who bakes.

From the Publisher

lemon-poppy-shortbreadEvery-Way Shortbread: The Lemon-Poppy Seed Version from Dorie’s Cookies
Makes 12 Cookies

There are so many reasons to love shortbread as much as I do and among them are its almost universal appeal and almost infinite variability. Oh, and the ingredients are ones you’ve almost always got on hand. The cookies are quick to put together — you can have them in the oven in about 15 minutes. And they’re easy.

The shortbread clan is a big one, and each branch of the family is different. Some shortbreads are made with eggs (like the French Vanilla Sablés, page 332); some are made without (like these and the Fennel-Orange Shortbread Wedges, page 415); some are made with rice flour (like the Rose-Hibiscus Shortbread Fans, page 191); some are rolled and cut; and some are pressed into a pan, pricked, baked and sliced into wedges. These are of the press-and-poke variety and they’re beautiful; even more beautiful with a little icing.

I’m giving you a recipe for lemon–poppy seed shortbread, but take a look at Playing Around for a few other ideas, and forage in your pantry. Next time, you might want to use cinnamon or cardamom, sesame seeds or chopped walnuts, chocolate chips or espresso, butterscotch bits or candied orange zest.

Ingredients
1⁄3 cup (67 grams) sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 stick (8 tablespoons; 4 ounces; 113 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon pure lemon oil or extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (151 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1⁄2 cup (60 grams) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 to 2 tablespoons milk or freshly squeezed lemon juice
Poppy seeds or sanding sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Directions
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, dust the interior with flour and tap out the excess. Or lightly butter a 9-inch glass pan or pie plate, line it with a parchment paper circle and dust with flour.

Toss the sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl in which you can use a hand mixer. Add the lemon zest and rub the ingredients together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. If using a stand mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment. Add the butter to the bowl and beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and lemon oil or extract. Turn off the mixer, add the flour all at once and mix on low speed. When the flour is incorporated, add the poppy seeds and continue to mix on low until you’ve got a bowl of soft, moist curds and crumbs, about 2 minutes. Squeeze a few curds, and if they hold together, you’re there. (You don’t want to mix the dough until it comes together uniformly).

Turn the crumbs out into the pan and pat them down evenly. To smooth the top, ‘roll’ the crumbs using a spice bottle as a rolling pin. (You can also tamp down the crumbs with the bottom of a small measuring cup.) There’s no need to be overly forceful; the point is to knit the crumbs together and compress them. Using the tines of a dinner fork and pressing straight down so that you hear the metal tap against the pan, poke lines of holes in the dough to create a dozen wedges. Finish by pressing the bottom of the tines horizontally around the edges of the dough, as though you were crimping a piecrust, to create a decorative edge. Alternatively, you can make shortbread fingers by pricking a cross in the dough to divide it into quarters and then, working from the top down, pricking vertical lines — the edge pieces will be odd-shaped, but that’s just fine. Or you can make squares or diamonds; again you’ll have a few odd pieces.

Bake the shortbread for about 25 minutes, rotating the pan after 12 minutes, or until the top feels firm to the touch and the edges have a tinge of color; the center should remain fairly pale. Transfer the pan to a rack and allow it to rest for 3 minutes. If the holes that defined the wedges or other shape have closed, re-poke them. Carefully run a table knife between the sides of the pan and the shortbread and even more carefully turn the shortbread over onto the rack; peel away the paper, if you used it. Then invert onto a cutting board and, using a long sturdy knife or a bench scraper, cut the shortbread along the pricked lines; lift the pieces back onto the rack and allow them to cool before icing or serving.

To make the icing and finish the cookies (optional): Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl, add 1 tablespoon milk or lemon juice and stir to blend. If the icing is too thick to brush, spread or drizzle smoothly and easily, add more milk or juice drop by drop. You can just drizzle the icing over each wedge or, using a pastry brush or a small icing spatula, you can ice each wedge, covering it entirely or leaving the borders bare. Sprinkle a few poppy seeds or grains of sugar on each fan, if you’d like, and let the icing set.

Storage: Packed in a tightly covered container, the shortbread will keep for at least 1 week. If you didn’t ice the cookies, they can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months.

Playing Around
Vanilla Shortbread. Omit the lemon zest, oil or extract and poppy seeds and increase the vanilla extract to 2 teaspoons. Ice as directed, if you’d like, but use sanding sugar, not poppy seeds.

Espresso Shortbread. Omit the lemon zest, oil or extract and poppy seeds and beat 11⁄2 teaspoons ground espresso into the butter-sugar mixture. When the shortbread is cool, dust with a combination of cocoa and confectioners’ sugar.

Orange Shortbread. Omit the lemon zest and oil or extract and add the zest of 1 orange or 2 tangerines or clementines and 1⁄4 teaspoon orange oil or extract. Keep the poppy seeds, if you’d like — they’re nice with orange — or add some very finely chopped candied orange peel (page 474).

Shortbread with Nuts or Chips. Flavor the dough as you’d like and then add 1⁄2 cup toasted chopped nuts and/or 1/2 cup chopped chocolate or mini chocolate chips. Or, if you use an add-in like toffee bits, chop them first — the shortbread isn’t really thick enough to handle chunks.

melody-cookiesMelody Cookies from Dorie’s Cookies
Makes about 55 cookies

Once upon a time, the Nabisco company made a cookie called Melody. They were large and round — I’m told by a cookie-dunker that they were just the right size to fit into a glass of milk — had scalloped edges and were topped with sparkly sugar. They were thin, crunchy and more cocoa- flavored than chocolatey. They were beloved. But evidently not enough, because sometime in the 1970s, production ceased. Search — I did — and you’ll find eulogies to the Melody, but no recipe. Until now.

After I’d made many cookies using the Do-Almost-Anything Chocolate Cookie Dough, my husband said, “There’s something about these that reminds me of Melody cookies. The flavor is so similar, but the texture is off. If they had some snap, maybe,. .. “ Turns out, he was right: Crunch was the missing note!

Are they just the same as the Melodies of childhood? I don’t know. However, these deliver the childish delight of a Melody and the possibility of more grown-up pleasures. My smaller cookies are still a good size for dunking into milk, but they’re also right for dipping into a shot of espresso. And if you love cookies and ice cream (and of course you do), you might want to use these to make ice cream sandwiches. They not only make good sandwiches, they make pretty ones.

A word on the cocoa: I’ve found that cookies made with dark cocoa, such as Valrhona, come closest to tasting like the Melody of memory.

Ingredients
2¼ cups (306 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (28 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder (see headnote)
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (8 ounces; 226 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
¾ cup (150 grams) sugar
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg white
Sanding or granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Directions
Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes; scrape down the bowl as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low and blend in the vanilla, followed by the egg white, and beat for 1 to 2 minutes. The white might curdle the dough and make it slippery — keep going; it will smooth out when the flour goes in. Turn the mixer off, add half the flour-cocoa mixture and pulse the machine to get the blending going, then mix on low only until the dry ingredients are almost incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and repeat with the remaining flour-cocoa mixture, this time beating just until the dry ingredients disappear and the dough comes together.

Scrape the dough onto a work surface, divide it in half and shape each half into a disk. Working with one piece of dough at a time, sandwich the dough between pieces of parchment paper and roll out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Slide the dough onto a baking sheet — you can stack the slabs — and freeze for at least 1 hour, or refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Getting ready to bake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. I use a 2-inch-diameter scalloped cookie cutter, but you can make the cookies smaller or larger if you’d like; the baking times will be almost the same, though the yield, of course, will change.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, peel away both pieces of paper and return the dough to one piece of paper. Cut out as many cookies as you can. Place them on the lined baking sheets, leaving a generous inch between rounds; reserve the scraps. Sprinkle the cookies with sanding or granulated sugar.

Gather together the scraps from both pieces of dough, re-roll them between paper until 1/8 inch thick and chill thoroughly.

Bake the cookies for 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom at the midway mark. The cookies are done when they feel firm to the touch around the edges and give only the least little bit when poked in the center. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the cookies rest on the sheets for about 2 minutes before transferring them to cooling racks with a wide spatula. Let cool completely.

Cut out and bake the remaining dough, always using cool sheets.

Storage: The best way to freeze Melodies is unbaked: Cut out the cookies, wrap them airtight, freeze for up to 2 months and bake them straight from the freezer, adding a minute or so to the baking time if needed. The baked cookies will be good for a week or more kept at room temperature. They can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months, but the sugar topping might melt.

Playing Around
Peppermint Melody Cookies: Chocolate and crunch are peppermint’s pals, so you might want to add a drop (or two, at most) of pure peppermint oil or extract to the dough when you add the vanilla.

12/16  Stacy Alesi AKA the BookBitch™

DORIE’S COOKIES by Dorie Greenspan. Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 25, 2016). ISBN: 978-0547614847. 528p.

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BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

December 8, 2016
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Stories from a South African Childhood

When it was announced that Jon Stewart was leaving The Daily Show and all but unknown (to us) correspondent Trevor Noah had been tapped to take over, the news came with an understandable amount of trepidation. Noah had appeared just a few times on the show before the announcement and basically vanished until the transition, which meant viewers didn’t really have a chance to get to know him. Unless, of course, you’d sought out his stand up. Because Trevor Noah, while new to most of the US audience, had already made a name for himself elsewhere.

Noah is charming, smart, and funny, each of which holds equal weight in The Daily Show. But again, most of us knew little about him. And though personal stories have made their way into the show’s dialogue, this debut collection of essays offers up much more of a look inside the history and childhood that made him who he is today.

The title, Born a Crime, is true. Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during apartheid when the mixing of races (socially and otherwise) was illegal. Noah intersperses his beginning tales with a basic history of apartheid, explaining not only the law but how it came to evolve as well, offering up an honest look at a truly horrific and recent piece of world history.

Noah’s own reminiscences, while perfectly illustrating the charm and humor he’s known for, are fairly dark. He recounts, for instance, the time his mother threw him from a moving vehicle in order to escape the very possible violence about to occur at the hands of a minibus driver one Sunday. And he talks honestly about how his family handled the very fact that his very existence could have meant jail for them and/or an orphanage for him.

At the heart of the collection, though, is the fact that Noah’s mother, an extraordinary woman, is responsible for the man he is today. At a time when education and opportunity were all but nonexistent for a Xhosa woman, she pursued both. And she taught her son to think, to reason, and to dream.

Born a Crime is an amazing book that is eye-opening and shocking as well as funny. It’s addictingly readable and definitely one I’d recommend not only to fans of Trevor Noah and The Daily Show but to readers interested in an inside, and again honest, look at apartheid and South Africa.

12/16 Becky LeJeune

BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah. Spiegel & Grau (November 15, 2016).  ISBN 978-0399588174. 304p.

Kindle


THE USEFUL BOOK by David Bowers and Sharon Bowers

November 30, 2016
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201 Life Skills They Used to Teach in Home Ec and Shop

 

 

I am of the age where I had to take Home Ec when I was in junior high. (FYI, spell correct is not liking the “Ec”!) And it was called junior high, not middle school, but that may be more a geographic difference than a generational one.

I was also the type of girl who would have much preferred to take Shop, but girls were not allowed and boys could not take Home Ec. I grew up in a single mom household, so learning to cook wasn’t an issue (providing I wanted to boil or broil everything to death) but learning how to use tools would have been welcome. So when I heard about this book, I was excited to give it a good look.

It is exactly as described, with lots of pictures and great information. As I perused it I thought this would have been great to have when my kids were in elementary school, there are terrific projects to share with kids here.

When I mentioned this book to a co-worker who is in her early thirties, she looked at me and said that she “has a useful book, it’s called YouTube.” That really gave me pause, was she right? Are books like this obsolete? I’m afraid to say at least for young adults, yes. And as much as I’m a book person, I admit that it is much easier to learn most skills by watching a good YouTube video than trying to follow directions in a book, illustrated or not. Which makes me a bit sad.

All that said, I think it’s a great book for kids. It will inspire them to try new things, learn new skills. And parents who aren’t sure how to do the thing that their kid wants to do in this book, you always have the YouTube option.

Note to publisher: you ought to do a web series to go along with this book!

11/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE USEFUL BOOK by David Bowers and Sharon Bowers. Workman Publishing Company (June 14, 2016). ISBN 978-0761171737. 416p.


FOOD CITY by Joy Santlofer

November 24, 2016
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Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York

When a book is a labor of love, it shows on every page, and it truly does in Food City. Joy Santlofer was chair of New York University’s Food Studies Program, and she passed away in 2013, leaving her book to be published posthumously. Her colleague Marion Nestle wrote the forward.

This book explores the history of New York City through food. I was expecting bagels, roasted chestnuts and Chinatown. Instead, I got a fascinating education about beer, bread and so much more. I learned that the early Dutch settlers in the 1600’s drank beer – all of them, including the children, because it was cleaner than the water. I learned that the hipster paradise of Brooklyn was all farmland, and later on that giant of the food industry, Nabisco, got its start there making hard crackers for the Union army. I learned that there was a New York Tea Party four months after the Boston Tea Party.

German frankfurters paved the way for Coney Island hot dogs. Many of our most beloved foods started out in New York – Oreos, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Thomas’s English Muffins, Gulden Mustard, and Twizzlers.

Santlofer isn’t just dispensing facts here, she makes it really interesting and fun to read. I loved the stories about George Washington being sworn in as president (which for some reason I assumed had been done in Philadelphia,) John Jacob Astor’s first job as a delivery boy for a bakery, and I could easily visualize the herds of cattle being moved across 42nd Street to the slaughterhouses. I learned what life was really like for those first New Yorkers and how those lives changed over the years.

You don’t have to be a New Yorker to appreciate this book. Foodies will love it, as will history buffs. There really is something for everyone.

It seemed somehow fitting to write about this extraordinary book on Thanksgiving, a time when we are all thinking about food, and maybe thinking about those no longer sharing our table. I miss my mom and dad every day, but especially on Thanksgiving, it was her favorite holiday.

I didn’t know Joy, but I know her husband, the über talented Jonathan Santlofer – author, artist, and teacher at the Crime Fiction Academy at the Center for Fiction in New York City. It was Jonathan’s diligence and determination to honor his wife’s work, and their daughter Doria’s to honor her mother, that got her book published, and readers everywhere should be grateful. I know I am. 

11/16  Stacy Alesi AKA the BookBitch™

FOOD CITY by Joy Santlofer. W. W. Norton & Company (November 1, 2016). ISBN: 978-0393076394. 480p.

Kindle


FOOD52 A NEW WAY TO DINNER by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs

November 23, 2016
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A Playbook with Recipes & Strategies for the Week Ahead

When I first received this cookbook, it reminded me of Rachael  Ray’s Week in a Day cookbook. It’s for those working moms or anyone who likes to plan their week’s meals ahead, do a bunch of cooking on the weekend and minimal fuss during the week to get dinner on the table. It’s a great concept, and I know people who have been doing this sort of thing religiously for years. I’m not one of them, but I can appreciate the thought behind it.

The book is divided by seasons and by authors, and the chapters reflect that. The chapters are Merrill’s Spring, Amanda’s Spring, Amanda’s Summer, Merrill’s Summer, and so forth. Each chapter has two weekly plans with menus, grocery lists, what needs to be cooked ahead and what needs to be done day of. Lots of substitutions are easily available and tips for saving more time abound. And of course, the recipes.

Looking through it I soon realized that Amanda’s food was more to my aesthetic, but both have interesting ideas. I love that they also suggest leftover lunches that will work with the menus, and tips like how to use up leftover herbs or cheeses make planning even more specific.

Since we are in the fall season, here’s an idea from Merrill’s Fall:

Baked Pasta, Chicken Thighs, Zucchini, Applesauce Cake

That turns into 5 meals and 9 recipes, including Rosy Chicken, Roasted Zucchini with Chile and Mint, Warm Chicken Salad, Boiled POtatoes, Baked Pasta with Sausage Ragu, Baked Sweet Potato with Sausage Ragu, Applesauce Cake with Caramel Icing, Roasted Applesauce, & Apple Fool

And since we are heading into winter, here’s an idea from Amanda’s Winter:

Bolognese, Blood Oranges, Potatoes, Chocolate

That turns into the 5 meals and these recipes – Blood Orange Salad, Avocado and Blood Orange Salad; Luciana’s Porchetta; Bolognese; Oven-Roasted Polenta; Garlicky Greens; Spinach Salad with Pancetta, Wheat Croutons and Egg; Porchetta, Pickled Onion, and Garlicky Greens Sandwich; Chocolate Rosemary Pudding

If you like to plan ahead, this is the cookbook for you. Virgos, I’m talking to you here. One of these ladies is a Virgo, FYI, and I’ll let you figure that out!

11/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

FOOD52 A NEW WAY TO DINNER by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs. Ten Speed Press (October 18, 2016). ISBN 978-0399578007. 288p.