Monthly Archives: November 2010

This is when a smartphone would come in handy

Oh, Monday. You slinking dog. Always creeping up on Sunday’s heels and biting its ankles. And creating public transportation snarls when people are trying to get to the library to do some work.

The morning started out fine; I saw one of my best friends off (she was driving back to Canada), saw the boy off to his first day at the new job, took care of some housecleaning and did some schoolwork from home. Then I set off into the (admittedly bright, sunny, and cold-but-not-windy-and-thus-rather-enjoyable) day; I walked to the public library to return some books, then went down into the T station.

Alas. There were a lot of people on the platform and no train in sight. I waited longer than usual and finally there was an announcement…that was, of course, completely unintelligible. One person out of dozens on the platform managed to parse it out, so there was a crowd around him trying to figure out what to do with this newly acquired information. Apparently, train service was being replaced with shuttle (bus) service between Harvard and Broadway on the Red Line. But we were at Davis, so theoretically there would still be a train coming to take us as far as Harvard.

However. No train appeared. Some people were focused on devising Plan B, i.e., How To Get Where One Is Going Without the Single Train Line in the Area. Some were focused – in that ghoulishness-masked-as-concern way – on the fact that someone had been struck by a train, and that that was the cause of the delay. (Turns out this was true.) There did not seem to be any clear information about buses from the area where we were, and my hopes for a train to take us even as far as Harvard were dimming.

So I gave up; realized that even driving in Boston was less of a hassle than public transportation was going to be today, walked fifteen minutes back home, and drove to school. It took half the time it usually takes to commute on the train.

What I’ve been reading: Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin; Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich

What I’ve been listening to: August 2010 EP, Jason Nichols; The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, Badly Drawn Boy; Deja Entendu, Brand New; The Art of Drowning, AFI

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Pumpkin bread bake-off

The 2010 Thanksgiving Pumpkin Bread Bake-Off took place this afternoon. It was a bake-off between recipes, not people (though someone challenged me to a chocolate cake bake-off sometime semi-recently – I am not sure who but I have my suspicions – and that person should BRING IT!).

But now, pumpkin bread. First, I used a new recipe from America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), and then I used my old stand-by recipe. The former uses butter and only a cup of sugar; the latter uses oil instead of butter, and a cup and a half of sugar. The ATK recipe also uses more and different spices, includes vanilla, and is studded with chopped toasted pecans and craisins (dried cranberries) throughout. The old stand-by is pure pumpkin – it calls for cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, but nothing that will interrupt the consistency of the bread. It’s really more of a cake, but in a bread tin. (Therefore it is a bread and can be eaten for/with breakfast.)

Here are the pre-oven photos.

New recipe:

Old recipe:

The ATK bread came out of the oven first (I’d put it in first, but also the baking time is shorter – 45-55 minutes to the old recipe’s 75). I let it cool for ten minutes in the pan, as per instructions, then turned it out onto a rack to cool for another hour. Immediate points in this bread’s favor for coming out of the pan without sticking! (I greased both bread tins with butter and lightly floured them before pouring the batter in.) But the old recipe earned its points on that score too – I guess I buttered and floured especially well today. The old recipe took nearly double the oven time – 80 minutes to the ATK bread’s 50 – so that’s something to consider if you’re in a rush.

Side-by-side comparison: the old recipe is on the left, ATK recipe on the right. Please excuse the stab marks, I don’t do a toothpick test so much as a knife test.

Old recipe (darker bread) on top, ATK recipe on bottom (lighter; also you can see the cranberries peeking out).

And the results: even after 80 minutes in the oven, the old recipe produced a bread that was still wet in the middle – the knife had come out clean enough when I tested it, but I still felt like it wasn’t completely baked. Could have been: (a) too much pumpkin, (b) use of applesauce (the original recipe made two loaves and called for three eggs, so for one loaf I used one egg plus one tablespoon of applesauce), (c) not enough rising agent (i.e. baking soda and baking powder). So any/all of those things could be adjusted, but I remember this recipe turning out similarly unsatisfactory results (texture-wise; the flavor is great) over the past few years, so…

The ATK recipe is the winner! It is definitely a bread, not a cake. It’s less dense than the other one, and drier, but still holds together well – it isn’t crumbly at all. The flavor is good too – the cranberries and pecans are a great addition. I highly recommend the Family Baking Book from whence it came.

And now it is time to pack for Thanksgiving. Spending the next few days with family, then one of my best friends is coming through town for a visit (yay!), and then, oh yeah, this guy’s moving here…

Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

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Rhubarb

I’m sure this has happened to everyone: there is some leftover rhubarb at work, so you take it home, then you have to decide what to do with it. Right?

Huh. Anyway, that’s what happened to me. I had hoped that I had some frozen strawberries stashed in the freezer that I had forgotten about, but no such luck – only blackberries and a few peach slices. Strawberry and rhubarb is a sublime combination, but I figured blackberries and peaches would have to do, because I did not want to join in the Thanksgiving madness surely occurring at the grocery store today.

So, I used the same crust recipe as for the cranberry pecan pie:

1 stick melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

And spread that over a layer of chopped fresh rhubarb, frozen blackberries, and frozen peaches tossed with 1 tsp lemon juice and 1-2 Tbsp organic sugar. (I only mention that the sugar was organic because its slightly less fine texture adds a little extra crunchiness to the pie.)

I baked it for about 40-45 minutes – the fruit probably doesn’t need quite so long, but the crust does – and ate a slice warm with vanilla ice cream.

It came out just as well as you’d expect, considering it was just an excuse to use up the rhubarb. It would have been better with strawberries, but it was still pretty good! It’s hard to go wrong with the fruit + pie crust formula.

What I’m reading: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
What I’m listening to: a mix for a friend

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Harry Potter and the Give Us Ten More of Your Dollars

Credit for the title joke goes entirely to my roommate, who came up with it when a trailer for the movie came on TV. True, they’re milking HP7 for all it’s worth, splitting it into two movies. The seventh book was long, but it wasn’t THAT much longer than five or six. However, we went to see it anyway, and I have to say, it was really good.

I am NOT going to give anything away. I will say I think they did a really good job – I enjoyed Deathly Hallows Part One more than the sixth movie, and I’m looking forward to Part Two next summer. However, one thing they didn’t include in the movie was the desperation over finding food that Harry, Ron, and Hermione experienced in the book. You know (if you’ve read it), they’re wandering around the countryside for months, and though Hermione has packed pretty much every conceivable useful object in her magical beaded purse, they still have to forage in the forest for food, and they aren’t particularly good at it. And even when they do scrounge something up, they’re not very good at cooking it. (Maybe because they’re seventeen and have never had to cook for themselves?) And the laws of the universe hold even for wizards: you can’t create matter from nothing. So the food thing was something they glossed over in the movie – you don’t see them eating anything for a good chunk of time. (Speaking of which, the movie – Part One – is 2 1/2 hours.) (And yes, of course I noticed the lack of food. What can I say, I’m very observant that way.)

The other thing that a LOT of people in the theater noticed – we went to a night showing so there weren’t a lot of young kids – was how utterly useless Harry and Ron are without Hermione. As Ron says, “We wouldn’t last two days without her.” Two days is probably being generous. It seems that the only significant spell Harry has managed to master is “expecto patronum,” which produces the Patronus that can fight off Dementors. Other than that, the only spells he and Ron seem capable of they learned in their first year, as eleven-year-olds: lumos, to make a light on the tip of the wand; expelliarmus, to disarm an enemy; accio, to summon an object; and diffindo, to sever or cut (that’s the only one I had to look up. Maybe I’ve read these too much?). The infamous (there was a lawsuit) Harry Potter Lexicon, by the way, is here.

Also, I bit off two of my fingernails. It gets kind of tense at times.

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I guess I get excited about free speech issues.

Please read this article from 2009 in American Libraries:¬† Milwaukee Group Seeks Fiery Alternative to Materials Challenge. Then come back here, and read these two reviews of the book in question (both of these reviews came from and are available on Amazon’s page for this book):

From Publishers Weekly:

Embroidering her prose with lushly romantic imagery, Block returns to the world of Weetzie Bat for this keenly felt story. A prequel of sorts to Weetzie Bat, the novel opens while Weetzie’s best friend Dirk is still a child, lying on his mat at naptime. “Dirk had known it since he could remember” – known, that is, that he is gay. Tenderly raised by Grandma Fifi, famous for her pastries and her 1955 Pontiac convertible, Dirk struggles with love and fear: “He wanted to be strong and to love someone who was strong; he wanted to meet any gaze, to laugh under the brightest sunlight and never hide.” After his first heartbreak, with his closest friend (who cannot accept Dirk’s love nor his own for Dirk), Dirk battles more fiercely for identity; beaten up by a gang of punks, he slumps into semiconsciousness and is visited by his ancestors, each telling a haunting, lyrical tale of love, faith and self-acceptance. What might seem didactic from lesser writers becomes a gleaming gift from Block. Her extravagantly imaginative settings and finely honed perspectives remind the reader that there is magic everywhere. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

From School Library Journal:

A prequel to the popular books about Weetzie Bat and her circle of quirky friends and relatives. This novel is about her best pal, Dirk, in his pre-Weetzie days. He’s in high school (in L.A., of course), living with Grandma Fifi and struggling with how to come out to his best friend and soulmate. Although Dirk never does tell Pup he’s gay, Pup feels the sexual tension between them: “‘I love you, Dirk,’ Pup said. ‘But I can’t handle it.'” In reaction, Dirk takes to slam dancing in punk joints. When a gang of gay bashers beats him up, he drags himself home and passes out. While he’s unconscious, long-dead relatives he’s never known come to him in what seem to be dreams; when he wakes in the hospital, he realizes that his grandmother has been telling him stories. Out of her comforting words about how others in his family have insisted on being themselves, his battered brain fashions hopeful hallucinations, including one of his future lover. His visions assure him that “There was love waiting; love would come.” Block writes distinctively and convincingly, interweaving the hallucination scenes smoothly. She makes the power of stories felt – and here, more purposefully than ever before, she weaves a safety net of words for readers longing to feel at home with themselves. Gay teens in particular need this book. All fans of the series will relish meeting nice-guy Dirk as the tender Baby Be-Bop. (Recommended for Grade 10 and up.) (Emphasis mine.)

Some people, I hear, get incoherent with anger. I prefer to get articulate. Here is the post I wrote on my class’ discussion board this week, in response to the Wisconsin firebugs:

*

I wasn’t going to comment any more till next week but OH. MY. I don’t even know where to start with this one. How is it possible for people to be so easily offended? A ten-foot-high obscenity spray-painted across the front of my house MIGHT get me as riled up as these people are about a YA book. Might.

Okay. Really, where to begin? With the “accusation” that the library board of trustees were “submitting to the will” of such radical fringe groups as ALA and the ACLU? With the “damage” done to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the elderly plaintiffs – who, I might add, must have lived through some seriously turbulent eras in American history, when the n-word was used much more commonly than it is in this book? With the characterization of “explicitly vulgar, racial” – not racist, racial! – “and anti-Christian” serving as the grounds for objection? With the fact that a grand jury could declare the book obscene and making it available a hate crime? With the fact that four trustees were denied reappointment for following the library’s own reconsideration process instead of immediately yanking the book from the shelf? With the fact that it’s 2010 and people still want to burn books?

I think that about covers it, actually. I wonder if the West Bend Parents for Free Speech accept donations.

Also, I did not know Wisconsin had a “sexual morality law.”

*

Normally I am a little more balanced and scholarly on the discussion board, but this one just kind of blew my mind. And I’m sure it isn’t an extraordinary case – I’ve always lived in pretty liberal areas where Banned Books Week means there are displays of books that have been challenged or banned (elsewhere) and everyone is encouraged to read them.

Part of the issue, of course, is freedom of speech and freedom of expression (which we are legally guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution), and that works for both sides – the author is entitled to write whatever she wants, and the publisher is entitled to publish and distribute it. People also have a right to protest and object.¬†Moving down a level from the federal, there is also the American Library Association’s (ALA) Freedom to Read Statement, which begins, “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” Pretty clear there. Then we have the ALA Code of Ethics. While librarians commit to providing the highest level of service and equal access to all, we also “uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” As a citizen and as a librarian(-in-training), freedom of speech and thought are important to me, as is fighting censorship.

This sort of fuss – what happened in Wisconsin – is routinely kicked up over fiction. Harry Potter, to take one major contemporary example, has been challenged all over the place for promoting witchcraft, among other reasons. We all know that acknowledged literary classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have been challenged and banned since they were first published, and Ulysses wasn’t even allowed in the country when it was first printed. Now, I am the last person to say that fiction can’t influence a person – of course it can, or no one would be so worried about it. But: I don’t believe that writers of fiction can invent anything worse than things that have already taken place on this earth. That is not an insult to the creativity of fiction writers, but rather an unspeakably sad reflection on human history. We cannot imagine worse tragedies than we have already propagated on one another – murder, war, genocide, indifference…and all of that is in libraries already, in the nonfiction section. (Oh, and speaking of violence – the Bible is most definitely one of the most violent, and arguably immoral, documents I’ve ever read.)

Could also be that it takes a lot to offend me personally. (That’s not a challenge, by the way.) I really do believe that people have a right to voice their opinions, no matter how vehemently I disagree with them, and vice-versa. I do NOT believe, however, that anyone else should get to decide what I read. (Though “keep your laws off my books” doesn’t work as well as “keep your laws off my body,” catchphrase-wise. The laws are supposed to be “on the books,” unless someone is prepared to memorize every legislative document in the country, and I will go out on a limb right now and say that no one is. Oral tradition, meet the U.S. Tax Code.)

Anyone still interested in censorship/free speech issues and libraries might like these articles:

Children’s book author Dan Gutman wrote this article for School Library Journal in response to an angry letter from a parent (he also wrote back to the parent).

Lester Ashiem, an influential figure in the library world in the 20th century, wrote this piece on censorship vs. selection in 1953; ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom got permission to post it on its website in 2005.

Thank you and goodnight.

What I’m reading: WHATEVER I DAMN WELL PLEASE. In this case, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.
What I’m listening to: The Suburbs, Arcade Fire; We’re Not Happy Till You’re Not Happy and Why Do They Rock So Hard, Reel Big Fish

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Pre-Thanksgiving feast

Much as birthdays can be stretched from a day to a week (allowing celebrations to spill over to weekends, and scatterbrained friends not to feel bad about remembering a day late), I like to stretch Thanksgiving out as much as possible. I mean, here is a formula for a truly great holiday, amiright?

Family + Friends + Food + Gratitude = Thanksgiving

It even rhymes. I rest my case.

So some of us began a little early.

I tried a new recipe, this cranberry-pecan “pie” from PW. I put “pie” in quotes because if you want to get technical about it this is probably a “buckle” or some other cobbler/crisp/pie variant – it has a layer of (delicious) crust over the top, but none underneath. The cranberries are VERY tart, but that’s why the recipe calls for so much sugar. And the day is SAVED!

Yes, there’s more sugar on top.

One friend brought the necessary snacking-while-cooking materials: brie, apples, and a baguette for making toasts. And wine.

Toasts! (Slice baguette thinly, brush with olive oil, and broil for a couple of minutes – watch carefully!)

I made another batch of cranberry sauce – so easy to put together, and colorful! (My contributions to our dinner were very cranberry-heavy; I tried to stay away from pumpkin for once, as my roommate is inexplicably un-fond of it.)

He made these amazing little fried apple pies. Sadly – though it’s probably a good thing in terms of my personal longevity – my tolerance for fried foods is much lower than my tolerance for sweet foods, so I only managed to eat half of one. However, if you are looking to start a 24-hour diner, set up near a college, find a cook who can make these, and you can retire early.

Dinner wasn’t all sugar and oil, though; we had greens and squashes and beets as well.

The butternut squash dish you see at eleven o’clock is this one from Smitten Kitchen.

Oh, and that’s the other wonderful thing about Thanksgiving…leftovers!

What I’ve been reading: Tinkers, Paul Harding
What I’ve been listening to: Tim, The Replacements; This Addiction, Alkaline Trio; Achtung Baby, U2; The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, Badly Drawn Boy

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Chocolate Mint Cookies

The cookie swap is a type of party that I associate with the holiday season, i.e. December, but there is no reason whatsoever not to have them year-round, or at least start early – especially many of your friends happen to be enthusiastic bakers.

For those who don’t know what a cookie swap is, there’s a very thorough explanation here; basically, someone hosts a party to which everyone brings a large batch of cookies – that’s the “cookie” part – then everyone exchanges part of their batch – that’s the “swap” part – and everyone ends up with about as many cookies as they started with, but all different kinds. Variety, the spice of life! Or something.

Anyway, I made these:

Mint chocolate cookies. They are great for cookie swaps, because mint is festive (as everyone knows), and the cookies are small, but the recipe very reliably makes exactly five dozen.

Unfortunately, I cannot share the recipe, due to a promise my mother made to a family friend sixteen years ago. So I guess you will just have to host a cookie swap and invite me! I think I can give away this much, though: to get that glossy layer to the top, break Andes Candies mints in half, and place half a mint on top of each cookie as soon as they come out of the oven. Wait a few minutes for the mint to begin to melt, then use the back of a spoon to smear it around. Voila! And happy holidays.

What I’m reading: How Did You Get This Number, Sloane Crosley; Tinkers, Paul Harding
What I’m listening to: Achtung Baby, U2

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