Thursday, December 23, 2010
Working with a critique group exposes a writer’s most intense work to an intimate group of people, and it can be a scary thing. But a writer’s critique group can also be an inspiration, a solace, and place of celebration.
When I first began meeting with my present critique group I was quite intimidated. I had met a number of the members before, but that didn’t help my jitters because I knew them all to be dedicated, professional writers. And, not only was I new to this already functioning, proliferate group, but I was smack in the middle of a manuscript and almost immediately had to start sending them chapters to read.
Yet, I knew I needed more eyes on my writing, so I gave them my trust and they came through for me. Their comments weren’t always what I wanted to hear, but that’s why a writer works with a critique group. If I wanted only positive feedback, I’d have asked only my family and BFFs read my work.
For all the above reasons, I want to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful colleagues for all their great advise and their unstinted friendship and inclusion in their group. Trust works both ways and even as the butterflies danced in my stomach I knew they also had to adjust to a new member joining their warm, loving circle.
Now, lest we get overly sentimental, let’s celebrate with rum balls! My family found this recipe more than ten years ago and it’s been a Christmas hit ever since. But caution! They tend to dry out if left for more than a week. So they must be consumed almost as soon as they are prepared! This, however, never presented much of a problem for my family!
2 cups either vanilla wafers or graham crackers
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped nuts
2 tablespoons white corn syrup or honey
¼ to 1/3 cup rum or brandy
Roll the crumbs fine, add sugar, cocoa, salt and nuts. Combine liquid ingredients and slowly add to dry mixture. Use just enough liquid to hold the ingredients together nicely. Shape by teaspoons into firm one-inch balls. Roll in confectioners’ sugar or cocoa and store in tightly sealed box 24 hours.
*** I like to roll them in granulated sugar to give them a sparkly look.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
The most requested books this year, according to my friendly Barnes and Noble elves, are Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series. The most recent book in the series, as well as related merchandise was hard to keep in stock. Second in popularity as far as requests go would be any of the books in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Grandparents comprised a big buying population who come in and ask what the staff would recommend as they are not up to speed on the latest publications. I wondered about people coming in to ask for the classics? Nope, most adults are interested in the books that they read as a child. Most unusual request? A book about dinosaurs, but with photographs. Hmmmm.
As the stock of related games, plush figures and puzzles increases, so do the requests for these as well, so that if an "Olivia" book is not available, at least one does not have to leave empty-handed.
The most heart-warming story I heard, however, was that of two recent masses of fifth grade students from a local public school who had come in search of The Arrival and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Apparently there is a marvelous fifth grade language arts teacher out there who reads regularly to his students and inspires such a hunger for the books he shares that his boys and girls cannot wait to get their own copies. The books are not required reading, but the children are eager and willing to snatch them up. Hearing that a teacher still reads aloud to his students made my day.
After a long day of shopping and toting those precious parcels, what could be better than a steaming mug of hot chocolate? Nothing that I can think of. So here's a special recipe for anyone who agrees with me on that count:
1 cup milk, 1 cup half and half, 8 tsp sugar, 1 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped, 1 oz unsweetened choc, chopped, 1 tbsp brown sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla
Heat everything in a sauce pan except the vanilla until the chocolate melts and the sugar dissolves. Pour 1/2 into a blender and mix until foamy. Return to the sauce pan and add vanilla. Stir briefly. Top with dollop of whipped cream if desired. Sit back, relax and enjoy!
Sunday, December 19, 2010
We are in the fourth and last week of Advent. For Christians, Advent is the liturgical season of awaiting the coming of Christmas - the birth of Christ. While outwardly, we prepare for Christmas with decorating and cookie baking and shopping for the perfect gift, Advent is more about preparation of the spirit. Advent is a season of waiting.
This picture comes from the Minnesota Dance Theater's Nutcracker Fantasy, celebrating its 46th birthday this weekend. I judge this version, choreographed by Loyce Houlton, to be the most dramatic and witty Nutcracker ever.
(Hint: the Mouse King loses the battle, but wins the war.)
The original E. T. A. Hoffmann Nutcracker is perhaps not quite a children's tale. It's a little less sweet, a little more complicated, and has some unexpected twists.
So do today's cookie recipes. These cookies can be lifted from the dessert buffet to form a sub-set Grown-up Cookie Table next to the cheese board at Happy Hour. The unexpected ingredients include thyme, bourbon, and black pepper.
CHOCOLATE SPICE COOKIES
I got this recipe from a friend, so the origin is unknown—but the dry, cakey bite and the prep method make me suspect that the recipe might originate in Italy. If you use commercially-ground black pepper, most people won't be able to guess the mystery ingredient. If you grind fresh peppercorns, the flavor will be more assertive.
I prefer the un-glazed version for those I serve with wine and cheese.
- 1 cup butter, melted and cooled
- 1 cup milk
- 6 heaping tablespoons of cocoa
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon or more of ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon or more of ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon or more of ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon or more of [finely] ground black pepper
If desired, frost with a simple glaze of confectioner's sugar and milk. Makes 3-4 dozen.
I found this recipe in the 2007 Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies magazine.
Besides being beautiful and presenting unique flavors, this cookie has an earthy texture that comes from adding cornmeal.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 ½ teaspoon dried sage, crushed
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
- 1/3 cup [seedless] blackberry preserves
- Small fresh sage leaves (optional)
Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour, cornmeal, dried sage, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar. Beat until combined, scraping side of bowl occasionally. Beat in egg yolks, lemon peel, and vanilla. Beat in as much of the flour mixture as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour mixture.
Shape dough into ¾-inch balls. Place balls 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Lightly press the tip of your thumb into the center of each ball. Fill each center with about ¼ teaspoon blackberry preserves.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Cool for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely. If desired, garnish with small fresh sage leaves. Makes 60.
BOURBON CURRANT COOKIES
Simple, elegant, and not too sugary—kinda like Martha Stewart herself. She's published this recipe on the Web and in print.
You can't tell from the photo, but I always cut mine with miniature cutters—that way they make the perfect cracker-sized nibble for cocktail parties.
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup bourbon
- ½ cup dried currants
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 4 tablespoons heavy cream
Heat oven to 350. Cream together butter and sugar. Add egg, flour, bourbon, and currants; mix well.
Roll dough ¼ inch thick and cut into desired shapes. [Make glaze, using the lightly-beaten egg and the heavy cream.] Brush cookies with egg-glaze mixture.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED. Mom always insisted we make our Christmas cookies small enough to eat in one or two bites. As a greedy young person, I hated that. But she was right. Smaller cookies mean that everybody can sample lots of different kinds. I also end up with fewer half-eaten discards abandoned (and often hidden—especially under furniture in carpeted rooms) by persons whose eyes were bigger than their tummies.
Friday, December 17, 2010
To hear the NPR article go here.
"The editor went on to say, I had in effect created a beautiful banquet but never invited the reader to sit down and eat. So the reader went hungry." "The book felt like a house with no foundation, no support beams, which was collapsing in on itself . . ."
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Today's gift to you is a delightful forest to wander in—Brooklyn Arden. It's a forest of words--the blog of Cheryl Klein, an editor at Arthur A. Levine Books.
Here's one of her newest books. Are there cookies on that cover? Everywhere Klein works, I spy cookies. I suspect she's almost as obsessed about cookies as I am.
Consider, as evidence, these two selections from Klein's writings.
I do hope Klein's Picture-Book Cookie recipe will be included in her forthcoming book Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children or Young Adults. Alas, this book is still pre-published, so I can't give (or receive) a copy this year. But I'll announce it on this blog as soon as it's out of the oven.
Klein's an essayist as well as an editor. Her light take on how to design/select sweets gave me lots of . . . food for thought. Two years later, Klein's Hypothesis of Sweets still makes delectable reading: http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/2009/01/hypothesis-of-sweets.html.
Brooklyn Arden is found at http://chavelaque.blogspot.com; we offer a quick link at right. But before you leave Route 19, take a look at this recipe.
It follows Klein's hypothesis that the ideal sweet combines two (but no more than two) sweet tastes. In this case, the flaky pastry wrapper is the dry crisp, while the fudge filling is the creamy.
The first version of this recipe I ever made appeared in a 1980 Ladies Home Journal, under the name Auntie Mary's. I loved their unusual shape and their fudginess. But the pastry was a misery to handle. This version, found a few years back in a Taste of Home magazine collection, makes a dough that is still tender and flaky, but rolls and shapes easily. So that's the recipe I'm presenting here.
The recipe is officially named
FUDGE-FILLED DESSERT STRIPS
But my family still calls them
THOSE AUNTIE MARY FUDGE SLICES
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
- 2 cups chopped walnuts
- Confectioners' sugar, optional
[In my view, the confectioners' sugar is essential.]
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add the flour. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth, about 3 minutes. Divide dough into [equal] fourths [I use a kitchen scale and shape the dough portions into rectangular patties]; cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours or until easy to handle.
In a heavy saucepan, melt chocolate chips in milk. Stir in walnuts. Cool to room temperature.
On an ungreased baking sheet, roll out each portion of dough into an 11-inch x 6 ½ -inch rectangle. [I make a template on a piece of parchment, and roll on that.] Spread ¾ cup chocolate filling down the center of each rectangle. Fold long sides to the center; press to seal all edges. [Remove the parchment template.] Turn over so the seam sides are down.
Bake at 350 for 27-32 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool. [Sift a generous amount of confectioners' sugar over them at this point.] Cut [while still a bit warm] into ½-inch slices. Makes about 3 dozen.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Recipes often call for softened butter. But softened doesn't mean melted. Your butter is ready as soon as you can dent it with a gentle push of your finger. If your finger sinks all the way in, or if part of the butter is liquefied, the butter will not yield perfect results. Use it for a melted-butter recipe instead.
Monday, December 13, 2010
- Mix together reindeer food to sprinkle on the ground Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way. Here’s how:
Place ingredients in a plastic bag, seal and shake. Sprinkle it on your lawn on Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way.
- Write your first draft uninhibited. Tear off the scabs.
- Make a bad scene way worse.
- Put your characters in unique or awkward situations.
- When rewriting, start with a blank page and rewrite it ALL so you’re not tempted to leave in mediocre first draft writing.
- Write a story that excites you, and it will surely excite your readers.
4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
Saturday, December 11, 2010
A surprising cold snap in North Carolina (we even had snow last weekend, and there are still patches of white in my yard) reminds me of the first time I baked Christmas Cookies. A December snowstorm shut Cleveland schools down for a whole week. To keep us from going stir-crazy, Mom set us to stirring cookie dough. Also rolling, spritzing, frosting, and sprinkling. I still bake most of the recipes we followed.
The cold also sets me thinking about how frequently female MCs must battle Winter along with other antagonists.
My favorite is Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen—I've even produced a stage adaptation—but I'm not posting an image because most book covers feature the ice-hearted Northern Queen, not the doughty heroine, Gerda.
All these chilly memories send me straight to my warm kitchen, to bake two favorite cookies. Both are simple to make, and both will come through a long freeze with tenderness and flavor intact.
Our family votes this the best shortbread in history. These cookies are thin, rich, and so delicate they just about melt in the mouth. Although they do freeze, they're also perfect for those times when you want to bake a quick batch of impressive cookies. You don't even need to bring the butter to room temperature!
The recipe originated in the newsletter The Cuisinart Cook (December, 1986). My sister calculated the versions for the larger size jelly roll pan.
Ingredients for 10" X 15" X 1" pan:
- I cup frozen unsalted butter (cut into 1/2" pats)
- ½ cup sifted confectioner's sugar
- 2 cups flour
Ingredients for 12" X 17" X 1" pan:
- 1 1/3 cup frozen unsalted butter (cut into 1/2" pats)
- ½ cup + 1/3 cup sifted confectioner's sugar
- 2 1/3 cups flour
SET ASIDE 2 cups confectioner's sugar for sprinkling over finished cookies.
Preheat oven to 375.
Insert metal blades into food processor. Place the frozen chunks of butter, sifted confectioner's sugar, and flour into the processor. Pulse-process ingredients for NO MORE THAN 20 seconds, until all ingredients are just blended. The "dough" will be powdery. There should not be any unprocessed lumps of butter.
Pour "dough" powder onto ungreased jelly roll pan, using a spatula to spread evenly. Press lightly with palms of hands, just enough to form the dough in the pan. Use a fork to prick lightly all over dough, but do not expose pan with fork pricks.
Bake at 375 for 5 MINUTES ONLY.
Then turn oven down to 300 and continue baking for 15 to 20 minutes (until dough turns a light golden brown at edges).
Remove cookies from oven and use a butter knife to cut into squares while they are still warm. This will keep the cookies from breaking. Sprinkle them with confectioner's sugar and use a flat spatula to remove from pan. Sprinkle cookies one more time with confectioner's sugar and serve (or freeze).
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: You do store unsweetened butter in your freezer, don't you? I always do. It keeps well for up to 8 months. I store individually wrapped sticks in their original packaging.
The recipe in my scrapbook is brown and brittle. Judging from the font and format, I clipped it out of a Ladies Home Journal in the late1970's. I've baked it every year since then.
The magazine describes these bars as "rich and addictive." No argument here. In the unlikely event that any are left over, store them in the refrigerator.
- 1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
- 1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350. Grease an 8-inch-square pan. [I recommend lining pan with parchment, too.]
In small bowl mix first 3 ingredients. Stir in melted butter or margarine until well combined. Reserve 1/3 cup crumbs. Pat remaining gently into pan. Bake 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in small bowl with electric mixer at medium speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in remaining ingredients. Pour over crust; sprinkle on remaining crumbs. Bake 25 minutes more until set.
Cool on wire rack. When cool, cut into 2-inch squares; cut each square diagonally in half. Makes 32 cookies.
LIFE'S LESSONS LEARNED: Like many gooey bars, Cheesecake Dreams cut most tidily after a good chill. Remember to wipe the knife with a damp cloth between cuts.