food porn, Uncategorized

Because Sometimes a Girl Needs a Bleeping Brownie

Confession: my life doesn’t seem too terribly hard, which is why I try to complain as little as possible to those dear ones who do actually listen.  But, I’ve had a little bit of a rough go for…oh, about the last three months.  There have been multiple times where I’ve wondered about declaring bankruptcy, quitting my job, and moving to the middle of the desert or the middle of the rain forest, maybe somewhere nice in the mountains.  I’ve fantasized about pulling an “Under the Tuscan Sun” lately, and I’ve considered a little efficiency in Paris.  I could get a job at a cafe anywhere in the world, if only I had the means to get me there.  The truth is, it’s because I feel stuck, and a bit trapped.  I’ve had this feeling before, just never for this duration.  I need to pick up and go somewhere, and maybe while I’m somewhere else, I’ll realize that I’m doing okay. Consciously I know I’m doing okay, but the restlessness, the inability to sleep in my own bed because it’s just too damn familiar, the being able to predict when my neighbor and her asshole kids will get home upstairs every. single. night. on the dot…. it’s getting to me.

I feel fat, I feel lazy, I feel like….why bother?  So, I’ve been making an effort.  I try to do my hair a little differently, I put on some makeup, I think about wearing my favorite black shirt to work even if I wore it the day before (who notices under the aprons, anyways?  They’re ALL black shirts under aprons!), I try a different flavor in my coffee at work.  All to try and break things up.  First world problems, right?

I have today and tomorrow off and I’ve promised myself I’ll do something spectacular, and now it’s snowing and sub-freezing temperatures.  And sickness is running rampant at work, people are dropping left and right with the stomach flu, and I’m having hot and cold spells.

Sometimes, there are certain things a girl just has to break down and do in order to get herself right again.  Sometimes those things are brownies, a pair of fat-pants, a cup of instant espresso (don’t you dare judge me), the Sims, and a new book.

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So, new book is on the desk while I type (The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt – review coming if I ever manage to pick it up), I put my instant espresso in my disappearing Cheshire Cat (from Alice in Wonderland, one of my favorite novels of whimsy and escaping one’s own world), I turned on the Sims 4, and I headed into the kitchen to see what kind of trouble I could get into.

And so I give you ….

Almond-Flour Fudge Brownies (Gluten Free and if the batter is any indication, I’m about to die and go to heaven).

Now, I don’t have to go gluten free, it’s not an allergy.  The recipe just looked fun, and easy, and every once in a while too much gluten plus dairy gives me a problem, and oh is there some dairy in this recipe – so it seemed like a good trade off, and I still had some almond flour to use up from my macarons.  Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, I have the makings for brownies just conveniently hiding in my cupboard, I threw them together and I was done.  The whole process took less than ten minutes of prep time, and now I’m just waiting for them to bake in my jankie oven.

Let me show you the Recipe, which I got from Food and Wine (again).

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick), plus a little extra for greasing the pan unless you have pam
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (or whatever’s left over from the bag after going to town on them during binge-watching Netflix…someone please tell me that’s not just me)
  • 1 cup almond flour (again, finest grind you can find works the best)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (oops, did I slip?  Four?  You see nothing).
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or just … salt…)
  • 3 eggs (provided they aren’t dropped on the floor first…mom)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (unless you’re like me and then three).

And that’s it!  Simple.  All you need now is three bowls, one of them heat-proof, a 9×9 baking pan, and a small-ish sauce pan.

Step the first: Preheat yo shit.  350 degrees fahrenheit, unless your oven is as shitty as mine and then better do 365 to start.

Next, butter the ever-loving hell out of that 9×9 pan.

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If you don’t have a 9×9 pan (which I don’t, incidentally), use whatever is good for a small batch of brownie batter.  I’m using a rectangular class thing that was clean.  Because it was clean.

Now the fun part.  Put about an inch of water into that sauce pan I told you to grab, and put the heat-proof (preferably metal) bowl on top of it, but so it doesn’t touch the water.  Look at it for a second.   You now have a double-boiler.  You know, those fancy ass things people tell you to get on Food Network so you can melt chocolate and make fancy gooey things that shouldn’t take direct hot water or can stick if just heated in a normal pan?  You don’t need that shit in your life.  You have a bowl and a sauce pot, you have a double-boiler.  Make sure you turn the heat on, and throw the stick of butter and the chocolate chips in there together and let them get freaky.

While that’s happening (have a whisk handy, because once it gets going, it goes quickly), mix together your dry ingredients.  That includes flour, salt, and baking powder, along with your cocoa powder.  Give them a quick whisk to get them to cooperate, and set them aside, and you should have this:

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Mix together your eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a seperate bowl.  By that time your chocolate and butter should be pretty damn ready for a stir, so make sure you head over there and whisk until smooth and creamy, all velvety soft and smooth, and … I’m sorry, I had a moment there.

It should look like liquid heaven, like this:

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Now the hard part.  You have to let that cool for about five minutes, so take it off of the heat, take the bowl off of the pan, and let it sit somewhere safe where it won’t get knocked over for at least five minutes.  Now go stir your eggs and sugar that you forgot about.

Alright, once that chocolate mixture is cool-ish, you can stir it in with the eggs, sugar, and vanilla, until you have a pretty homogenous mixture.  Then, add in the dry ingredients, and whisk away until there are no lumps.

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Once that’s all done, pour your stuff into your greased pan (you did grease it, right?), and bake for 25 minutes (Or 45 minutes if it’s my oven) or until set where you can stick in a toothpick (read: chopsticks are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re wooden) and it comes out clean.

Now here’s my disclaimer: If, and only IF, your week has been as shit as mine has…use left over birthday cake sprinkles to decorate the top.  It’s magical, I promise, but…it’s a bit much.  But that’s what I found in my pantry, and I thought hey, that’s sweet and edible…it’s going on top.  Because I can.  So there.

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And there you have it.  I had a small 1-inch by 2-inch sliver already, while it was piping hot, and I have to say … I did a damn good job.  And I already feel just a tiny bit better.  More brownies!

 

Listening to: Ha Ha Tonka, Jon Bellion, and other alt-rock mellow stuff.

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food porn, Uncategorized

Earl Grey Macarons with Nutella Filling

When I think of French Macarons and making them, the first thing that used to happen was that I’d have a panic attack (a minor one.  Okay, not a panic attack but something made my heart race and not in a good way).  Now … I’m not so scared.  Maybe it’s because this recipe is insanely easy, or maybe it’s just because my love for Nutella (no affiliation, they’re not paying me to love their product, I just do) overrides my fear of messing up a cookie.

I will admit, there is a certain amount of trial and error as far as under- and over-working the egg whites in any macaron.  That being said, they’re actually really tasty no matter what, but you might want to research that if you’re entering a baking competition.  I am not, therefore… I eat the cracked ones.  They taste just as good as the perfect looking ones, I promise.

Alright, so I promised some of you the actual recipe this time – I would like to make a disclaimer that this is not mine, I’m not being paid to represent the author of the recipe, the magazine that published it, or anything like that.  I feel okay reposting this because it’s right out there online, and if you have me on Facebook you will see it on my news feed from a couple days ago anyways. The following recipe is from Food and Wine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature (Jen’s Note: this is important, they won’t whip up right otherwise!)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (Jen’s Note: It’s in with the spices at your grocery store, not the sugar and flour)
  • Kosher salt (I hate it when recipes do this.  One, any salt will work; and , Two, it’s a pinch.  You use a pinch.  That can be anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon.  Just tell me 1/4 teaspoon!)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (or however much you accidentally end up pouring into the bowl, and this is regular old granulated sugar)
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3/4 cup almond flour (get the super-fine ground almond flour!)
  • 1 tablespoon Earl Grey Tea (about 3 tea bags)
  • 2/3 cup Nutella (plus more for eating while waiting for cookies to bake)

Now, a few notes.  Pick a tea that you like the taste of normally.  Don’t go out and pick up whatever Earl Grey there is right there in the grocery store that’s cheapest.  I work in a coffee shop, so I’m a bit froofie about my tea and coffee choices, I use Harney & Sons (No affiliation… just assume I’m not affiliated to any brand name products you see here in this blog, okay?).

IMG_20170303_140547872Before my discount, we sell 30-count tins of Earl Grey bags for about $11.  You don’t have to go that crazy (I stock up when we have coupons), but it is a very rich and fragrant tea taste with lots of floral notes that compliment this cookie very well.  How pretentious do I sound there?

Moving on, you also really do want to follow the directions carefully.  When they say “add sugar” they just mean the granulated….don’t pull a Jen and add both types of sugars and ruin your first batch.  Okay?

If you don’t have a stand mixer, a hand electric mixer will work just as well.  I use my kitchenaid for everything, though, and I recommend that if you’re going to do a lot of baking you save up for one (or something like it), because it makes this recipe SERIOUSLY easy, especially when whipping up the egg whites and sugar the right way.  I’d kill myself if I had to hand whip my egg whites to stiff peaks, that’s all I’m saying.

The steps are relatively straight-forward and simple to follow even if you’ve never made macarons before (which I hadn’t, before my first time making these).

The first thing you do is preheat your oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit.  You start off hotter than you’ll actually be cooking the delicious little devils for, because that helps form your crust on the cookie for that nice, delicate, crispy outer shell.  This is important, because otherwise you may as well just make chocolate chip cookies.  Mm.  Chocolate cookies… okay, sorry, back on task.

Line your baking trays with parchment paper – I have three huge-ass baking sheets with rims, and this recipe took two of them, so if you know your baking sheets are smaller, plan to use three or do a second batch of cookies.

While that’s prepped and ready to go (or not, if you’re me and you’re lazy and just preheating your oven right now, forget the cookie sheets), with your whisk attachment on whatever method you are using to do this craziness, beat together the two egg whites, cream of tartar, and a “pinch” (dammit!) of salt.  I have tiny fingers, I just used my measuring spoon from my cream of tartar.  Suck it, recipe gods.  You want to beat them on high until they start getting a little foamy.  What the &*$# do foamy egg whites look like?  This:

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Nobody ever taught me that.  I’ve never even seen that happen on the food network, but okay, whatever.  They’re frothing, apparently that does something.

Slowly add in your granulated sugar (or just accidentally drop the measuring cup full of sugar into the bowl of egg white froth like I do, and fish it out hoping nobody just saw that) while beating it all on high (please turn it off if you really do drop the measuring cup in, don’t be a hero, you’ll lose a finger.  NO, that’s NOT what happened to me, for future reference.  Thank you very much.  I’m a klutz, not stupid enough to disregard any hope for safety.).  Beat mixture on high until the egg whites “hold stiff, glossy peaks.”  What does that mean?  It should look like meringue – you should be able to take the end of your whisk and play with it like mousse or really high-quality bubble bath bubbles, and form little shapes in it.  It should have a shiny appearance, like those fancy pies that nobody really eats anymore. (note to self: consider making a pie with meringue for one of these).

Alright, once this has happened (and you’re done playing with it, you dork), grab a rubber spatula (mine is red with polka-dots, that’s my pastry spatula…yes, I have a dedicated pastry spatula.  Shut up).  You’re going to sift (if you don’t have a sifter, do NOT freak out.  I’ll tell you what to do in a sec) your confectioner’s sugar and flour over the egg whites.

Okay, let me grab another cup of coffee and settle in to tell you how to “sift” without an actual sifter.

So here’s what I did… you know those strainers you use for like…veggies and whatever?  Those wire mesh ones, not the ones with big holes in them, that’s what I used, and you can find them for dirt-cheap at any big box store.  You can, however, also use things like…a dry whisk.  The point here is to get NO clumps, and keep out as many over-sized particles from getting into the mix as possible, so that everything is smooth and silky, like freshly waxed legs.  …okay, maybe not, but you know what I mean.  Then, you pour in your earl grey.  I like to lightly grind or break up mine before I put it in – the brand I got uses pretty big tea leaves, and biting into a whole one may not be what people are expecting to do, so I kind of mush up the bag a little before I pour it in.

Next, just gently FOLD in all your dry ingredients.  Don’t stir.  Don’t shake.  Don’t whip, and definitely don’t beat in these things.  Just take that rubber spatula and GENTLY start pulling the egg whites up over the flour.  It will lose some volume naturally, yes, but the less you lose the better.  Work carefully until everything is well combined and there are no clumps of dry flour you can see.  Like this:

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Once that’s all taken care of, make sure to spoon your mixture into a pastry bag with a plain tip.  Ha!

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Okay…pastry bags are expensive.  Tips for pastry bags cost more money, sometimes, and it’s a freakin’ bag.  That you put food into.  Think about it a second there, what do you have lying around the house that does the same thing? Oh yeah!  Okay, so grab your freezer bag (use the big one, don’t be silly) and fill it up, getting it as close to one corner as possible.  Once the whole mixture is in there, it’ll look like the picture above.

Now, if you haven’t lined your baking sheets yet, this is the time to do it … well, this is when I did it.  Why do you have to use parchment paper for this recipe?  Because you need these cookies to come off with minimal effort, and the oil or butter from greasing the tray can mess with the bake on the cookies.  So just go get some parchment from the dollar store and throw some of it on your baking trays.  Trust me on this one.

You may ask, “But Jen, how am I supposed to make these cute, little, perfectly round macaron like they sell at the store when I just shoved all my batter into a ziploc baggie that I now can’t get it out of?”

Easy.  Snip that corner you just shoved it all into.  I like a smaller corner for more control, but if you feel bold enough to, go ahead and make a 1″ hole in that bag, nobody cares.  Nobody can see what you do in your kitchen but you.  Voila!  That is your pastry bag with plain tip, right there.  Now, hold the bag over your parchment-lined-sheets, and gently squeeze (from the top – it’s not a tube of toothpaste, actually squeeze from one end to the other so you get all your batter out eventually, okay?).  You want 1″ to 1 1/2″  rounds, so to do this you just swirl a little while you’re squeezing out your batter.  It may have a little peak on top, don’t worry about that until you have all your batter squeezed out into little cookie shapes like this:

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So, if you want a smooth macaron (if yours aren’t perfect, again, I’m not going to be the one to call the baking police on you, don’t worry) instead of that little point on top, here’s what you can do.  Get a tiny amount of cool water on your finger and gently (VERY GENTLY) tap the top of your macaron until it looks smoother.  Then, when it bakes up, those little points will go away completely and you’ll have a nice end result.

Now for the third-best part.  Yes, this is only the third best part.  Start baking.  Okay, so as soon as you throw these puppies into the oven, turn your oven temp down to 325 degrees fahrenheit.  This is so they don’t burn.  Another note: You don’t really want these browning, you really just want them to get a little solid on top, so just bake until firm – they won’t look done, but reach in and just very gently tap.  If you can’t squish them easily, they’re done.  This takes about 10-12 minutes, unless you have an oven with bipolar disorder, like mine, in which case it can really be anywhere between 8 and 15 minutes to get to where they don’t smoosh.

Here’s the hardest part: you have to wait for them to completely cool now!  It’s my least favorite part, I’m not going to lie.  I’m all about that instant gratification cookie, but you can’t do that with these.  They have to set.  At room temperature, so don’t even think about that refrigerator, do you hear me?  Once they cool down appropriately, you can gently peel them off the parchment paper – now this is why you want the parchment paper: even cooled and hardened, these cookies are insanely delicate.  You can just put your finger through one without even trying (which usually ends up with me going “oh, darn, I have to eat this one myself now, the horror!”).  So GENTLY peel them off the paper.

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Grab that nutella, baby, and have your way with those cookies.

That is to say, spread a thin layer on the flat side of one cookie and gently sandwich another on top of it.  They will look similar to this when you’re done:

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Can I be honest with you for a moment here?  You should probably try out your first one.  You know.  To make sure they baked properly and taste good.  Go ahead.  Do it.  DO IT.

And that’s that.  Lather, rinse, repeat, and you’ll have your own little army of tiny, delicious sandwich cookies to march across your counter and into your mouth.

What I liked most about this recipe was its ease and accessibility, not to mention it has Nutella and Earl Grey in the title, two of my favorite things in the whole wide world.  So many times, I’ve clicked on a recipe link, looked at the ingredients, and gone “Ha!  Yeah.  Freaking.  Right.  There’s no way I’m going to find that ingredient outside of New York or Los Angeles, this is the midwest, we don’t have that anywhere” or “that takes FIVE HOURS?!?  Are you kidding me?  This is a joke, tell me this is a joke please.  Please.  This isn’t a joke?  This is a JOKE.”  I mean I made these right on the first (second … I put my powdered sugar in with the granulated thinking they meant both sugars the first time) try.  Yes, some of them cracked during baking and cooling, but I’m not a professional baker and I’m not selling these for money.

Even without Nutella, these earl grey cookies are flipping amazing.  They have just the right amount of sweet to really make that tea taste pop in the right ways on my palate.  With the Nutella, something you’d never think would go with them, they go up to a whole new level.  I thought it might be weird, but it’s actually a nice compliment to the spiciness of the tea with all that creamy chocolate and hazelnut flavor.

I like to eat mine with coffee.  Yes, I know how weird that sounds, but they go great.

So go get you some tea and some eggs and whip these up in a hurry!  They’re totally worth it.  Just … don’t eat them before right bed, they’re caffeinated.

The Shelves, Uncategorized

Author Spotlight: Kylie Chan

Alright folks, I’m taking it a bit in the other direction this time around.  One of my favorite things to read, write, and talk about is actually many of the things that fall into the category of “Science Fiction” – Science Fiction and Fantasy these days can really stand for anything, from what is known as High Fantasy (elves and dwarves and all that) to modern fantasy (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman), to weird things like aliens and robots and all that, to … well, things that publishers don’t seem to know what else to categorize them as.

Point in case, one of my favorite authors of all times: Kylie Chan.  Kylie hails from the Land Down Under, but spent a considerable amount of time in Hong Kong with her family and job, and used the experience and the mythology that surrounded her during her time there to create a gritty and entertaining urban fantasy in nine parts.

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Now, while hardly anyone here in the middle of Missouri has heard of her, let me tell you a little more about Kylie Chan and what the rest of the world already knows about her (most of this is what I’ve learned by following her on Facebook, admittedly, since I’ve yet to go to Australia and fangirl on her in person).  She’s working on another novel in a new series.  She just signed a movie deal back in early November for her stories (Yes, I can’t wait to see Emma and John up on the big screen, I’m fangirling HARD).  She’s done multiple blog tours and cons in Oz.  There’s a graphic novel to go along with the majority of her work to date (it was worked on with an animator friend of hers, Queenie, and met with wide popularity among graphic novel enthusiasts).

So she’s had a bunch of international success, but for some reason here, whenever I say her name people just look at me blankly.  To which I usually hand them a copy of White Tiger and go “HERE!  EDUCATE YOURSELVES!”

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The main body of her work to date consists of three main trilogies around the same main characters in the same world.  Emma is a nanny for the wealthy John Chen and looks after his daughter Simone.  But what she really stumbles into when she takes the position within this small, wealthy family unit (complete with gigantic bodyguard that they horribly abuse throughout the novels, Leo), is that she’s also now working for a Chinese God.  He’s chosen to live a life on the mortal plain after falling in love with a human who has since died, and intends to raise their daughter, Simone, there.  Emma is quickly embroiled in a tale as old as Chinese culture, right there in the thick of it and trying to keep up with and then save the family that she slowly grows to love and become a permanent part of.

Why do I love this so much?  Well, there are many reasons.  First off, I’ve always loved Asian art and mythology, though my studies of it have not been extensive enough to brag about at all.  It speaks to my archaeologist side as some of the stories that these books are built off of are older than Chinese dynasties.  But mostly … Kylie Chan is a DAMN good writer.  She manages to weave ancient Chinese mythology, modern day Chinese culture, martial arts culture, a love story, AND keep the action fresh and going throughout the whole thing.  Every book leading up to the last one leaves you holding your breath, wondering how the hell this latest mess is possibly going to be fixed.

The way she world-builds makes me think I’d actually be able to make it in Hong Kong – that is, until I tried going up to a building to jump into the world of the Gods, and the businessmen there stare awkwardly at me, this weirdly short and stout white woman with multicolored hair, screaming something about making it to the Jade Emperor’s palace in the middle of their lobby.  She manages to blend the normal and the mythological seamlessly, like it’s really been there all along, right below the surface of what mortal men can see.

Her characterization is out of this world, and something I, as a writer, aim to be like when I grow up and get published like a big author.  The dynamics between John’s and Emma’s personalities, you know that they’re still two separate people even when they finally get married, and Leo is so fierce and loyal we all want a friend like him.   Everyone stays true to their personalities and flaws throughout, and everyone grows within those parameters, just like a real person might (gasp!).  And I have yet to find a loose end in her writing – I’m sure there’s one somewhere, but not a single one that I mind enough to go “but how does that resolve?!?”  So, you know she knows what she’s doing.  Her writing is exciting, adventurous, sexy, and believable, and that, to me, warrants an Author Spotlight.

When I read Kylie Chan’s work, I’m always transported halfway across the world to a place I’ve never physically been, and I want nothing but to learn more and keep hold of these people (and tell them not to walk into the traps I can see as the reader!).  I have some serious emotional investment in her writing, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!

Kylie Chan can be found on FaceBook and on her personal website, and her books are available for purchase at most major retailers, though some of the earlier ones you may have to order.

food porn, Uncategorized

Blueberry Almond Coffee Cake

Yes.  Blueberry.  Almond.  Coffee.  Cake.  Or, why I’m so bleeping fat this month.

Some of you may have seen the food porn photos of this one up on my FaceBook page over the last couple of weeks.  Yes.  It’s that one.  At long last.

Here’s the back story to this one.  I found a baking magazine that I absolutely adore.  It’s a monthly publication that we sell at my work, simply titled Bake From Scratch.  It’s like my food soul mate.  It’s like they knew that I wanted new pastry recipes because I’m not as well-versed in baking as I am with cooking, and I wanted to change that.  It’s like they knew I love coffee, and coffee cake, and recipes that aren’t the same old boring thing.

This magazine is, simply put, my baking kryptonite.  It speaks to my little foodie heart.

In one issue, they focused entirely on different variations on cinnamon rolls.  In another, s’mores.  Including a s’more’s cake, and cinnamon roll topped apple pie.  Yeah.  It’s nuts!

So, depending on how much money I have for food each week, I go for trying a new recipe here and there.  Well this one I had to try multiple times, it was so good.

And I would like to let you guys know that I had every intention of bringing in a cake to work for everyone … but my mom ate it …. No, seriously, she ate most of the second one that I had forgotten about, and when I went to bring it into work there was a tiny sliver saved for me.  Two pieces, that’s all I got out of that coffee cake.  Two.  I love you mom, but TWO PIECES?!?

To be fair, she had been the one who’d asked for it.  Next time, I’m just going to have to make two cakes and leave one at home as a decoy while I take half of the other one to my chiropractor (who might have also been promised a slice that was no longer there by the time I got to it) and the other half to work.  We will see.

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So, I don’t know copyright laws … so I’m not, I’m sorry to say, going to post the actual recipe here, but I will tell you about my process of making it.  I just don’t want to get sued, since it’s not my property…I’m kind of broke, so pissing off a publisher might not be a good idea. So, instead, I will link you all to Bake From Scratch Magazine, and just say that…well…don’t look at their website while hungry.  If you want the actual recipe, you can buy the magazine, or if you know me in person I will lend you my copy.  If I get it back and can’t read it because you’ve drooled on it too much, I will be insanely pissed off.

I will tell you, it’s actually a fairly straight-forward, easy recipe.  You make a topping, you make a batter, you layer in blueberries so that when they bake up they get plump and pop in your mouth when you bite into the cake.  It’s like a blueberry orgy… I’m not ashamed of that sentence.  And the crumble topping, with the almonds that get all toasty and buttery.  Okay, I’m drooling on my keyboard.

So I’ve had mixed results with things like cookie recipes from weird magazines in the past, so with this recipe I followed it to a tee to make sure I wasn’t messing anything up.  You start with the crumble topping.  There’s surprisingly less sugar in it than you imagine (though still a decent amount, I just know I made about three times as much for my last apple pie than I did for this cake).  You mix softened butter and sugar until it’s crumbly as sin, then you add the almonds (otherwise the almonds get under your fingernails while you’re crumbling the sugar and that’s just no fun later…although it still tastes good).

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Then you make the batter for the cake.  I use two different kinds of AP (all-purpose for you non-foodies) flour, when I’m mixing my dry ingredients together in my bowl.  I use regular unbleached white, a good general thing to have on hand (and all they say to use in the recipe), but since I was raised with whole wheat flour, I also keep some unbleached wheat on hand.  For this I was brazen enough to use a 50/50 mix because the sugar and the blueberries were enough to override the wheat taste.  But you don’t just use AP flour, not for this recipe.  There’s also some almond flour, which gives the cake flavor as well as a different texture.  If you’re trying this at home, go for the super-fine grind on your almond flour – it makes a world of difference.  Otherwise it’s just like almond meal, and then you get an even crumblier biscuit-like texture that I’m not terribly fond of.  Add in your salt and your baking powder, and you’re good to go with the dry.

You know how they always say “cream” your butter in with your sugar?  They mean it.  The creamier you get that butter-sugar mixture, the better and fluffier the cake will be.  As soon as everything is light and fluffy, you throw in your eggs, your vanilla and almond extracts, and then lower the speed on your mixer.

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Here’s the tricky part.  You add in half your dry, then all of your milk, then the second half of your dry ingredients.  I usually end up dropping the bowl of the dry ingredients halfway through pulling it out of there, so be careful.

Maybe the most surprising thing to me, a beginning baker with not much experience other than Martha Stewart cookie recipes, was the next ingredient: Sour Cream.  I know, I know…sour cream in a sweet cake recipe?  Well, yeah, it kind of makes sense.  It balances the flavor a little (I mean you have all that sugar and almond in there), but more than that it actually helps the texture of the whole thing, it makes it nice and creamy, so that when you get a bite in your mouth it just kind of …. melts.

Alright, so you’ve got your batter, and it’s all wet and sticky and amazing.  You have your baking dish (hopefully you’ve oiled/buttered and floured that sucker, otherwise this is going to be one hell of a mess).  Now I need you to hold yourself back a bit…rein it in!  You only want to pour HALF of the batter in at first.  What?  Jen, you’re nuts, half?  You want us to have half a cake?

No, my friends.  I want you to have this….

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Yes, that’s a full layer of blueberries right there in the middle of my baking dish.  You take all but about two handfuls of your blueberries and actually make a middle layer for your cake.  I was snacking on my blueberries while waiting for my butter to soften, so the photo above may be a little bit more sparse than the first round of coffee cake I made, but it still gets the point across.

Then the other half of your batter (see, told you it would be worth it!), and then you top it with the two handfuls of blueberries you reserved (unless you ate them while waiting….maybe get two containers of blueberries next time).

But wait, there’s more!

Don’t forget your crumble topping!  That’s like…the best part.  Aside from the blueberries.

Then you wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am it in the oven (350f – ish for 55 minutes, unless you have MY oven and then it’s 365 for 65 minutes), make sure you can stick it with a wooden tester stick (aka chopstick, in my house) and nothing gooey seeps out with it, and you’re good to go.

And I do mean good.

Yeah, baby.  That just happened.

Sorry, I’m getting all excited about it again and I don’t even have enough ingredients to make it again here at home.  Talk about being blue-berried.  Hashtag Food Porn, hashtag I warned you.

Now close your mouth, you’re drooling.

I’m going to wax on a bit about the boring stuff before I get to the reflection exercise, here.  There’s something so satisfying about knowing that every recipe I’ve tried from these magazines has actually worked out.  I’ve done other magazines with so-so results, as I said before – they’re not strictly baking magazines, it’s been like … basically what I consider housewife magazines, which, no offense to housewives, don’t always include recipes that work for everyone (or sometimes anyone, I mean they just throw a recipe in there without seeming like they’ve tested it, and it either tastes horrible or is a complete failure – granted, not every single one is bad, it just seems like it’s a bit of a gamble, and, well, have you seen the price of baking ingredients lately?  I have… not a single one of them is something I want to waste).  And I’ve tried websites that were supposedly by “cooks” that have “great reputations,” and let’s just say one little lady’s house on the prairie (I won’t name names) had a scone recipe that fell flat.  Like, literally – someone messed up a quantity for the wet ingredients and my scones slipped right off my baking sheet and had to be mopped up, they were straight liquid.  But this Bake From Scratch magazine (again, they’re not paying me to say this, this is strictly my opinion … if you want to pay me to say it there’s a link on the contact page!) is one that you can totally tell is made by bakers for bakers.  They actually test their recipes before putting them out – at least, they have with the ones that I’ve decided to try at home.

The magazine is a little more money than I usually spend on things like that, but it has been honestly worth every penny I put into buying ingredients for those things that I’ve made out of the two issues I have.  With this recipe, they’ve made a lifelong friend in me.

I may not be the best baker in the world (oh, god, so far from it), but something about being able to take a recipe and NOT screw it up just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  It makes all of the effort, the hope, and such, and turns it into something tangible – this isn’t an hour and a half of my time wasted.  Something about baking, and having a good end result from it, just takes all of the crap of the day from off my shoulders, and knowing that there was at least one thing I didn’t screw up in a day that I can actually taste (literally) can make a world of difference.  It’s like, while I’m making this recipe next time, I’ll be sure to have fond memories and a sense of hope for what’s to come, and for me that means a lot.  Even if it’s just coffee cake.  It may seem silly to some people, but knowing that my effort won’t go to waste or go unappreciated is a serious load off.  Those blueberries turn into little bombs of joy, and the almonds that get all toasty on the top are like warm friends greeting me … okay, even as I typed that I rolled my eyes at myself, but you guys…you know what good food made from the heart does to people.  That’s what this recipe represents to me.  I hope you guys get it, try it, and enjoy it as much as I did.

The Shelves, Uncategorized

Author Spotlight: Elizabeth Kostova

I’m going to put a disclaimer here: I have nothing to do with her publishing company, or her marketing strategy, or any of that.  The content featured here on my blog is my opinion alone, with no prompting or compensation for my time.  Although, if you’d like to pay me, there’s a contact button on my home menu.

This will be the case with all of my author and book reviews – I’m not getting paid to give them publicity, and please don’t sue me for taking my own photos of the book covers.

I also reserve the right to republish this content on my own personal HubPages website, the link to which will be posted on the “Contact Me” page as soon as possible.  If you like my blog and want to help me out a bit, go look at my Hubs, I get paid to write those!


 

Alright, now for what you’ve come here for.  For my first real blog post, I thought it might be neat to introduce you guys to … well, something of my personality, something that will give you the slightest idea of who this weird Jen person is that you’re going to be dealing with.  You don’t always get deep into the mind of Jen when you work with her, you see public Jen, and inside Jen is, well, a bit more.

Jen is a person who loves books.  She loves well-written books, and any books that can take her on an adventure and let her leave behind her life for even a brief moment by stepping into someone else’s shoes.  Jen is also a writer, but we can get to that at a later date (or you can just check out the “about” link above).

That being said, Jen can, and I am very well aware of this, be long-winded, opinionated, and sometimes a little too picky about what she reads.  It has to entertain the Jen, in other words.  The Jen abides.

Enough third-person crap.

I am in a job position (working at a bookstore) that affords me the luxury of occasionally knowing privileged information and receiving advanced reader versions of my favorite author’s newest books.  Let me explain how this works for a second – I don’t get to choose what publishers send us.  Publishers send book stores advanced, often unedited proofs of novels which are then available for employees to take or borrow (yeah right, who gives them back?) as they please.  This is all in the hopes that the book sellers will read them and recommend this new and shiny thing to their customers.  Every once in a while, it happens to be an advanced proof by an author I know and love.

Case in point, Elizabeth Kostova.

You may have heard of her.  She wrote The Historian, a thrilling adventure that goes across generations throughout Europe, making the reader search for answers within her elegant prose.  It was kind of a BIG DEAL on a little publication called the New York Times back in 2009/2010.

Alright, here’s the confessional part.  It’s twofold.

Part the first: I have not actually finished reading The Historian.  I know, I know, bad Jen. But hear me out.  It’s so freaking gorgeous I don’t want it to end.  Once a week I pick up the book and go through a chapter.  Then I lay awake at night imagining endings and possibilities, because it just gives my crazy busy mind so much to go off of.

That being said, even not having actually finished the book, I already consider Kostova one of my favorite authors….probably ever.  Like up there with H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Which, if any of you have ever heard me wax on about Wells and Stevenson, you’ll know how high of a compliment that is to my mind.  I mean Wells is kind of the father of sci-fi, my favorite thing ever, and Stevenson, well…bloody pirate.  I mean I bought myself a leather-bound edition of Stevenson stories for Valentine’s day (it’s so pretty!).

Alright, confession part deux.  The one I really am not sure how you all are going to take, because it’s a little weird, but hey…if you’re not here to get a little weird, then why the hell are you reading MY blog?  A few of you already know and probably most of you don’t, but there are certain things, certain story archetypes that I sort of … latch onto.  I’m always up for a good pirate story, for example.  But perhaps one of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I’m ….well, to be brutally honest with myself, I’m absolutely obsessed with vampires.  There, I said it.  I research Vlad the Impaler, I pick up history magazines on Romania in the 1400’s, I think I actually have had, at the most, four copies of Dracula in my house at one time.  I’m down to one copy right now, but I keep eyeing the leather-bound that matches my Stevenson, I’m not even going to lie about that.  And it’s hideous; it’s bright freaking candy-apple red with gold lettering and horrible to look at, but it’s Dracula.

Maybe it was my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kid, maybe that’s what started it.  No…. I read Dracula before that became an obsession, even before that was on television.  Crap, it was before that.  I can’t even blame the TV show.  I can only blame the library…

I know what you’re asking yourself right now – Jen, what the f@%k does this have to do with Kostova?

The Historian is a book that I found while going out of my way to seek out books about vampires.  There you have it.  It’s not just Dracula.  Alright, so in The Historian, Kostova takes us across at least three generations (that’s all I’m up to so far) of people who this mysterious journal is found by and passed down to.  Everyone who picks up this journal ends up magically drained of blood eventually, once someone else has been sucked in by it.  It’s not vulgar and it’s not gory at all – no, it’s in her poetic finding out of things through the characters eyes that makes this whole entire story more real and more accessible to the readers.  There are shadows around here and there before it happens, and then you see things through the eyes of the next pour soul doomed to dig far too deeply into the contents of this journal that aims its readers towards the area known as Transylvania.

In with her prose and fictitious storytelling, she weaves historical facts about all of Eastern Europe seamlessly throughout the story, and in such detail that you really can feel like you’re there if you just let yourself.  Soon, you’ll be on the hunt for clues about the real Vlad the Impaler, and vampires, and all these weird happenings and things that go on that people who know about the journal go through, and…. well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.  It’s just so thrilling.  And it keeps jumping around.  Sometimes you’re in the narrator’s mind and you’re the daughter of a historian, who is also a historian.  Then you’re in her father’s mind, recalling events that took place leading up to his …inheritance… of the journal.  And there’s more.  So. Much. More.  Seriously, if you like very well-written historical fiction, you NEED this book.

And I’m not the only person who thinks that.  Ever since I picked it up, I’ve been seeing more and more reviews of it online and offline, from other book sellers, stores, newspapers, websites, and whatnot.  It’s a favorite of many, many bookish people.

So there I was, sitting in the break room at work the other day, minding my own business and avoiding looking at the ARC’s (Advanced Reader Copy = ARC) someone had just dumped haphazardly over the lunch table, and all of a sudden, a familiar name jumped out at me.

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Yeah.  That just happened.  Um … I totally did a fangirl squeal right there in the break room.  No shame.  I snatched this book off the table and it is NOT going back, I don’t care who else wants to read it, and even if my store manager asks for me to return it, I’m just going to say my bird ate it and it’s unreadable now (sorry guys, not sorry).  So, it’s sitting beside my bed, just begging to be read, which probably means I’m going to have to work on finishing The Historian first and fast, otherwise I’ll never forgive myself.

Being on a FaceBook page for other bookstore employees, I’ve already seen several of my confederates from other stores raving about this new one, and it’s not even technically out yet.  This one promises an exciting adventure across Eastern Europe, starting in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a missing keepsake that turns out to be something more than our narrator bargained for.  It leads to chasing down the owners, learning more about people in their past, and a dangerous secret.  The editor even included a note inside the book saying the following:

“Even more exciting, it was to be an utterly fresh and distinctive story, distinguished by some of the elements so many had loved about her previous book: a story that weaves together layers of past and present, an incredibly rich East European setting, and a mysterious artistic object that propels a quest for the truth.”

The Senior V.P., Editor-in-Chief, & Associate Publisher who wrote those comments went on to absolutely rave about Kostova’s amazing growth as a writer and how well this next novel of hers addresses some of life’s most disturbing and profound questions.

Needless to say, I will be recommending this book to other book sellers (since I’m never on the book floor) by the time it comes out in print (right there on the cover, you suckers have to wait until April.  Oh yeah, I really do feel special now).

So this is my essential Elizabeth Kostova – believable blending of fact and fiction, wonderful insights in multi-generational fiction, epic quests for truth and the answers to questions of life.  Add to that a fabulous ability to blend storytelling and multiple voices and narratives into one big cohesive unite that manages to dazzle and entertain at all times … I mean, this is what I want to be when I grow up to be a writer.  But, you know, more me (and a little more on the sci-fi side, let’s be honest).

Go pick up The Historian – try not to drool on it too much – and in April, don’t forget to pick up your copy of The Shadow Land.  I have to go read….

Uncategorized

What to Expect for the Unexpecting

So, I’m sitting here wondering what to type, eating blueberry and almond coffee cake out of a red Solo cup. It was still so fresh and warm, just out of the oven, that it completely crumbled into bits when I tried to cut myself a slice, and I just couldn’t wait.  I had to have it. I had been taking photos of it (for you guys – I’ll get to that soon enough, don’t you worry) for half an hour while I made it, then I had to sit in the living room smelling it for another hour, and then I had to photograph the finished product for you.  And the whole time, all I could think of was … damn that’s a sexy pastry right there.

As I’m now sitting with the cup beside me on my bed (yes, I know, crumbs, OMG!), all I can do is salivate on my keyboard.  I keep glancing over at it involuntarily as I type, and in between paragraphs I’m taking bits and pieces with a plastic fork and shoveling this messy, ridiculously luscious, still warm cake into my mouth.  The toasty almonds crunch and get stuck between my teeth, while the occasional whole blueberry will suddenly burst inside my mouth mid-thought.

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Yes, It’s blurry. No, I couldn’t do better tonight.

But this isn’t about a coffee cake recipe.  This is about what to expect; from me, from this blog, what I hope to accomplish, yada yada.

The accomplishment goal is simple: I’ve always been told I’m a great storyteller, and I love books, coffee, cooking, and baking the most out of life.  They are my simple pleasures.

Hot damn, there went another blueberry bomb in my mouth.  …. Sorry, I just had a moment.

So, what can you expect out of this?  Adventures, big and small.  You can expect honest opinions about authors, books I read, books I stare at longingly.  You can expect recipes and my commentary on them, whether they’re mine originally or not (this isn’t a food network confessional, I don’t come up with every single thing I cook).  And, since coffee is life, you can expect some of that commentary thrown in.

Mostly, this is just my own personal ramblings, my opinions, and a place to collect my thoughts.  Usually, the photos will be better than this, but tonight I’m using my phone.  Because it’s 11:40 and I’ve had seven hours of sleep in the last three days.

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Damn

Yes, there will be a little bit of everything, but those are the things I’m focusing on for now – coffee, books, and food.  If you don’t like it, click the “x” in the top right corner of your screen now, because once you go down this rabbit hole, well…it’s hard to get back out.

And, yes …. there WILL be food porn (exhibit A: photos above).

What are my long-term goals?  Show you guys how much fun it is to cook and the different things you can explore with coffee.  I want to feature authors and books, and share my adventures while writing my own.  Mostly, though, I want this to be a place where I can come to explore life’s little adventures with you weirdos (you’re still reading?  wow!).

Alright, the exhaustion is kicking my butt.  Enough rambling for tonight.  Blog website still under construction … I’ll see you guys when I get this thing up and running for good.