More mystery than murder

big little lies

What’s it about?
Big Little Lies is a murder mystery in that someone dies and the story is ultimately about putting the world back together. But it’s not structured like a typical mystery: the death isn’t until almost the end, and the world keeps getting messier and messier until suddenly it’s not messy at all. It’s about a group of parents who all know each other because their children all go to kindergarten together, and how they all relate. It’s not a heavy book, but I was expecting something even lighter going in. (I blame the cover.)

Why should you read it?
It’s a good story, that’s why. It’s well told, it’s gripping (I stayed up late to finish it), and it made fun of school politics from the parents’ point of view. School politics always deserve to be made fun of. I like this trend of writing more books aimed at working parents that treat the parents as people who both love their children and want to have lives of their own. I’m avoiding writing about the murder mystery part of the book because I don’t want to spoil it, because I suspect many people will read it. It’s very well done.

Introducing Afghanistan

the kite runner

What’s it about?
The Kite Runner is about Afghanistan. It was, I think, written to personalize Afghanistan to America, by an Afghani immigrant to the US. It was published in the year after 9/11, I’m sure because there was such a voracious appetite for any information about Afghanistan at that time. The story in the book is about a boy, Amir, and his servant boy growing up together; they are separated by a tragedy that Amir does his best to make up for as an adult.

Why should you read it?
It really does serve as an introduction to Afghanistan to a Western audience. Is it sanitized/caricatured for Western eyes? Probably. But introductions are often like that. There are also some clunky metaphor moments (it is Khaled Hosseini’s first novel), but it is overall a good story. The main character isn’t particularly likable – which is a whole other debate, should characters be likable? – but I was moved by the overall story. In a good way.

Look, The Kite Runner was incredibly significant when it first came out – there were no common Afghani-American stories available. This is a lovely introduction to the country and the culture.

Book club for teenagers

looking for alaska

What’s it about?
Looking for Alaska is a young adult novel about a boy who goes to boarding school and makes some friends, plans some pranks, falls into what might be love (or might be lust) with a girl named Alaska who already has a boyfriend, and generally deals with growing up.

Why should you read it?
Looking for Alaska is realistic fiction about being a teenager; about feeling like you don’t fit in; and also about death and grieving. It’s well-written and sensitive without being overly touchy-feely. And given that there’s a reading guide written by the author in the back of the book, it’s apparently also widely taught in schools these days. Perhaps it takes the place of A Separate Peace? They feel like similar stories to me. I enjoyed it.

Skippable

extremely loud & incredibly close

What’s it about?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a boy whose father is killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. He’s gifted and a little weird and has a mother who is seemingly completely uninterested in him. Or maybe he’s just uninterested in his mother. He was certainly closer to his father. He’s going on a quest to solve a mystery he thinks his father left him.

Why should you read it?
Don’t. At least, I couldn’t. I couldn’t get over the odd writing style – meant to convey the main character’s high intelligence and immaturity, but I found it distracting. I also couldn’t get over the mother’s seeming disinterest in her son. I get that she wanted to let him grieve in his own way, and I also get that he was pushing her away. But to be so completely disconnected? No.

The best holiday treat

buckeyes

 

My mom probably rues the day she first made these. They’re known as buckeyes around my house, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the world calls them peanut butter truffles. My mom’s line is: “They are a pain to make. You either have to love them or love someone who does.” I love them. Fully and wholeheartedly. They are like your own peanut butter cup. What could be better?

Peanut Butter Truffles

2 sticks butter, melted
2c peanut butter
6c powdered sugar
24oz chocolate chips

  1. Mix butter, peanut butter, and sugar together. Make 1” balls. Chill for at least 2 hours.
  2. Melt chocolate. Dip peanut butter balls into chocolate until completely covered. Gently shake off excess chocolate and place on wax paper. Let sit until chocolate is hard. (May need to re-warm chocolate.)

Peanut butter makes me happy

peanut butter cookies

These might be my new favorite cookie. I mean, I love a good chocolate chip, but peanut butter + sugar… I can lose control.

Peanut Butter Cookies
(adapted from ATK’s gluten-free cookbook)

8oz gluten-free flour
1t baking soda
0.5t salt
0.25t xanthan gum
7oz light brown sugar
5.25oz sugar
1c creamy peanut butter
8T unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1t vanilla
1/3c peanuts, chopped fine

  1. Whisk flour, soda, salt, xanthan gum in medium bowl. Set aside. Combine sugars and peanut butter into large bowl. Pour butter over sugar and mix. Whisk in eggs and vanilla and stir until smooth. Stir in dry ingredients and mix until homogeneous dough forms. Let rest 30 min.
  2. Heat oven to 350F with rack in the middle. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Working with 2 generous tablespoons of dough, roll into balls and place 2” apart on the sheets. Press dough to 0.75” thickness using bottom of greased measuring cup. Sprinkle w/ peanuts.
  3. Bake cookies until puffed and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look underdone), 12-14 minutes, rotating halfway through cooking. Let cool on sheet for 5 minutes, transfer to wire rack to complete cooling.

Cookie monster

chocolate cookies croppedI’m not going to lie… this recipe is really, really heavy on the chocolate. I find it hard to eat more than one of these cookies in a sitting. But, to my mind, that’s a good thing. I don’t need to eat more than one cookie at a time. I really don’t.

Chocolate Cookies
(adapted from ATK’s gluten-free cookbook)

12oz semi-sweet chocolate (I accidentally used bittersweet)
2T unsalted butter
4oz gluten-free flour
0.75oz unsweetened cocoa powder
0.5t baking soda
0.5t salt
0.25t xanthan gum
5.25oz brown sugar
1.75oz granulated sugar
2 large eggs
5T vegetable oil
1t vanilla extract
0.5t instant espresso powder
9oz bittersweet chocolate chips (accidentally used semi-sweet)

Melt chocolate and butter together in a double-boiler. Mix dry ingredients (flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, xanthan gum) together in a bowl. Set aside.

Whisk wet ingredients (both sugars, eggs, oil, vanilla, espresso powder) together in large bowl. Add melted & cooled chocolate-butter mixture. Whisk until smooth. Add dry ingredients, mix till smooth. Fold in chocolate chips. Let rest for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll generous 2T of dough into balls, place 2″ apart on sheets. Bake cookies, one sheet at a time for 12-14 min, rotating halfway through cooking.

Let cookies cool on sheet for 5 minutes before moving to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temp.

 

 

Light, fluffy, gluten-free muffins

five spice muffins

Gluten-free baking is a pain and I don’t do it very much. It’s just too hard to get right and there are too many opportunities to screw it up.  (Never, ever just sub in gluten-free flour. It will not work.)

These muffins, though. They came from a cookbook I trust, so I gave them a shot. And they are delicious and light and fluffy and amazing. Yum.

Sweet Potato + Five Spice Muffins
(summarized from It’s All Good)

1 large sweet potato
1/2c extra-virgin olive oil
1/2c milk (almond milk if you’re avoiding dairy)
3/4c good quality maple syrup
1t vanilla extract
2c gluten-free flour
1t xanthan gum (if the flour doesn’t already include it)
2t baking powder
2t baking soda
1.5T Chinese five-spice powder
1/2t salt

  1. Preheat oven to 400F. Poke holes in the sweet potato, then bake it for an hour, until soft. Set aside till it’s cool.
  2. Peel the sweet potato and mash the flesh in mixing bowl. Whisk olive oil, milk, maple syrup, and vanilla into sweet potato. In separate bowl mix remaining ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet.
  3. Line muffin tin with paper liners, distribute batter evenly.
  4. Bake 20-25 minutes, brushing top with extra maple syrup in last 5 minutes (I usually skip this). Let cool before serving.

Cheesy deliciousness

Enchiladas Verdes
I forgot to take the photo until about halfway through dinner. Ooops.

Oh, enchiladas verdes. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….

  1. You are delicious
  2. Your recipe involves tomatillos, which I don’t cook with enough
  3. Your recipe also involves a green salsa recipe, which I have made without the enchiladas. It is also delicious.
  4. Cheeeeeeeese. Melty, cheesey, chicken-y deliciousness.

Without further ado, here is the recipe (a more complete version can be found in Cooks Illustrated #93):

4t veg oil
1 med onion, chopped
3 med garlic cloves, minced
1/2t cumin
1.5c chicken stock
1lb chicken breasts
1.5 lbs tomatillos
3 med poblano chiles (if you can’t find poblanos, sub 4 jalapeños), halved, stemmed, and seeded
1t sugar
salt & pepper
1/2c chopped fresh cilantro
8oz pepper jack
12-6″ corn tortillas

  1. Heat broiler. Heat 2t oil in saucepan, sauté onions till golden. Add 2t garlic, cumin, cook till fragrant. Add chicken & stock, cover, simmer 15 minutes, flipping halfway through. Remove chicken from broth and let cool. Remove 1/4c liquid, discard the remainder.
  2. Toss tomatillos and chiles with 2t oil. Place on baking sheet, broil until vegetables blacken and soften, ~5 min. Let cool, then remove skin from chiles. Transfer vegetables to food processor. Decrease oven temp to 350.
  3. Add sugar, salt, pepper, and reserved cooking liquid to food processor. Process until sauce is slightly chunky. Taste, seasoning with additional salt, sugar, and pepper to taste.
  4. Dice chicken. Combine with cilantro and all but 1/2c cheese.
  5. Smear bottom of 13″x9″ pan with 3/4c tomatillo sauce. Heat tortillas in oven for 2-3 minutes, until pliable. Increase oven temp to 450. Spread 1/3c of chicken filling mixture down center of each tortilla. Roll each tortilla tightly, place in pan seam side down. Pour remaining sauce over enchiladas, using spoon to spread it evenly over all of them. Sprinkle remaining 1/2c cheese down middle. Cover pan with foil.
  6. Bake enchiladas for 15 minutes, until cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Revisiting Austen

Death Comes to Pemberley

What’s it about?
Death Comes to Pemberley is about the Darcys from Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie and Darcy are happily married; Jane and Bingley live nearby. Lydia and Wickham are traveling with Denny nearby, and coming through the Pemberley woods when Denny leaps out of the carriage, followed by Wickham. Denny’s body is found later, Wickham is, of course, covered in blood and is the main suspect. And every mystery reader knows that the first main suspect is almost never the person who actually did it. So Lizzie and Darcy must figure out who actually killed Denny.

Why should you read it?
Don’t. This was a did-not-finish for me. Pride and Prejudice is full of charm but Death Comes to Pemberley wasn’t. Austen was a great master of her characters, but that delicacy and complexity doesn’t come through in this book. PD James is a great mystery author, and the plot is, I’m sure, quite good. But I missed the familiar characters, so put it aside.