Perfection is Hard to Live Up To

I recently borrowed a book from the library called The Perfect Cake. It’s part of a series from America’s Test Kitchen which includes The Perfect Cookie, which I reviewed already. Four hundred pages of cake recipes, some simple, some rather more involved, and all looking divine in the many (many, many) photos.

Like other ATK books, The Perfect Cake starts out with some fundamental information on baking. Among other things there are handy tips on preparing the pan properly (nothing worse than baking a wonderful cake only to discover that you can NOT get it neatly out of the baking tin), checking for done-ness, types of frosting and advice on essential utensils and equipment for a baker’s kitchen. There is also a chapter on “Cake Building Blocks” which walks new bakers through basic ingredients.

As they say in the beginning of the book, “Like all baking, cake making is a science but it doesn’t have to be intimidating.” Personally I have always never found baking intimidating. Baking relaxes me, it brings back wonderful family memories and it makes me happy. A colleague once commented that they could tell when my stress level was up because I brought in lots of baked goods to work. Let me be clear, they weren’t complaining about being the recipients of home-baked goodies, they were just kindly concerned with my blood pressure. To me, the most stressful thing about baking is narrowing down what recipes I’m going to try next. That all being said, this cookbook did cause me some stress.

51v9Qmq53aL._SX260_The first couple of recipes I tried were very good. The Easy Chocolate Snack Cake was just that. One bowl + basic ingredients + simple instructions = Tasty Moist Chocolate Cake. I also made the Lemon Bundt Cake for my mother-in-law’s birthday. I hadn’t made a bundt cake in years (I can’t really say why) and this one have given me reason to make them more often. Very lemony and with a rich texture similar to a pound cake. It came out of the pan easily and, once cooled, I decorated it with the lemon buttermilk glaze and zest. Two thumbs up from the entire family.

I was thinking, “Wow. This book really IS about perfect cakes.” when things went south with the Strawberry Cupcake recipe. I was taking part in a bake sale in support of the local humane society. The recipe sounded wonderful, using the juice from actually strawberries (reduced to a syrup) for flavouring rather than cheating with artificial products.

I followed the recipe and everything seemed to be going well although the batter was very thin. I triple-checked the recipe quantities and then noticed in the recipe there was a special notation the “…mixture will look soupy”. Fair enough. I divided the batter evenly into the cupcake liners and popped it in the oven for the recommended 15 to 20 minutes.

Nothing happened. No rise. Nothing. When removed from the oven, the cupcakes were flat and with a texture that resembled a sodden sponge. I took a tiny taste and, to be frank, spit it out. And there went my cupcakes, into my green compost bin. Major fail. And on the night before a charity bake sale!

A few bad words and a deep breath later and I quickly whipped up a Hot Milk Cake. This old school recipe used to be in every community cookbook and is one my Mum has used for many years. A short while later I had a baker’s dozen of light, fluffy, vanilla cupcakes. I topped my cupcakes with a strawberry mousse and was able to sell them the following day…and help my colleagues raise over $300 for the KW Humane Society!

In spite of the cupcake fail, I’m still impressed by this cookbook, especially given how delicious the snack and bundt cakes were. I certainly won’t be buying The Perfect Cake but it’s worth a borrow. Just go with your gut instinct if something looks a bit off because it might be time for some improv!

– Sandi H.

Dorothy’s Hot Milk Cake

½ c milk
1 tbsp butter
2 eggs
¾ c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350F.

In small saucepan, melt butter in milk. Set aside off heat.

In mixing bowl, beat eggs until thick. Add sugar & vanilla and beat again.

Alternate adding the milk mixture and the dry ingredients, mixing to combine.

Divide between 2 – 8” round cake tins (greased) or 12 cupcake liners. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cake passes the toothpick test.

Cool for 5 minutes in the pan before removing to a rack to cool completely before decorating.

Step into the Fantasy World of Faerie

Teen Feature: Folk of the Air Series

Jude once lived in an ordinary house on an ordinary street. She watched TV and ate fish sticks drenched in ketchup like any ordinary girl. She was just a child when a man in a long dark coat took her and her sisters from the mortal world to the high court of Faerie, where nothing is ordinary. It is a realm where winged pixies, cat-faced goblins and faerie princes wear clothing made of flower petals and moth wings. They ride on giant toads and dine on bouquets of garlic and enchanted fruit.

The folk of the Faerie are not always kind to the humans who live in their world. They look down at them. They taunt their mortality. They use enchantments to torment them. Jude, despite her human limitations, refuses to be intimated. She has strength and a spirit of her own.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black reminded me of Game of Thrones. Although it is a fantasy novel, it is really a political intrigue story at its core. It took a few chapters for me to figure out that behind this beautiful fairy tale there is a web of conspiracy. Schemes for power and position are hidden in every corner of the plot. The further you get into the story, the more the beauty of the realm fades and its true nature is revealed.

Much like Game of Thrones author George R. Martin felt none of his characters were truly good or bad, every character in The Cruel Prince has both strengths and flaws. Even Jude, as moral as she is, will resort to deception when it comes to furthering her own ambitions.

“Someone you trust has already betrayed you.”

In the second book, The Wicked King, the realm of the Undersea threatens to invade. All the while Jude continues her balancing act – letting the faerie folk believe she is just a foolish mortal while secretly pulling the strings behind the throne. Like any game of deception, she can never be sure who is plotting against her.

8e6b3b52-50e3-4294-b4ea-6cabf0136fa4-hollyblackHolly Black is a master at painting pictures with words. The court of Faerie is beautifully described in both The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King. You can almost feel yourself being weaved into this world of magic and wonder.

I completely devoured both books in this series. I hung on every word, loved every page and rooted for Jude through every step of the story.

The final book in the Folk of the Air series will be released next year. I already have it highlighted on my calendar.

— Lesley L.

Wunderland

Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction page-turner that brings readers into the lives of two teenage friends, Ilse and Renate, who have vastly different perspectives and experiences during World War II.

The story begins in 1989, shortly after Ilse’s death, when her daughter, Ava unearths Ilse’s long-held secrets. The story then heads back in time, to Berlin in the late 1930’s when Ilse and her best friend Renate are teenagers. It’s through the bond of these two young women that we get varying views of the war and witness the disintegration of their friendship and the reasons for it.

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What made this book stand out from the many, MANY WWII historical fiction books I’ve read, is how Epstein vividly describes what life was like for German citizens leading up to and including WWII. She describes the rise of the Nazi regime and their horrific methods of growing their power and shows how some German citizens began to believe the propaganda and felt justified when they participated in fear mongering and terror of their own neighbours. She also reveals the dire restrictions, discrimination and abuse Jewish families faced from their own government as well as the pitiful aid from other countries as they tried to flee.

While there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between time lines (and one that I was less invested in), in the end, Wunderland is an engaging read with story lines that merge into an incredibly revealing look at the rise of Nazism within Germany. But ultimately, the focus on the poignant, heart-wrenching tale about a complicated friendship, long-held secrets, loss and betrayal is what will keep readers glued to the pages.

— Laurie P.

American By Day

Derek B. Miller is a brilliant writer!!! He has taken a typical murder mystery and peppered it with philosophical tension and relatable character development. I loved his debut book Norwegian by Night featuring Oslo Police Chief Sigrid Olegard, who he continues to showcase in American by Day. The writing in both of these stories is light-hearted and yet gripping. I found myself laughing out loud at much of the dialogue and the political and cultural references.

In Miller’s newest offering, Sigrid finds herself unexpectedly travelling from her home in Norway to upstate New York in search of her brother Marcus who, based on their father’s intuition, has gone missing. Her perspective on all things American is hilarious and yet eye-opening.

Set in 2008, just prior to the election of Barack Obama, Sigrid finds herself in the middle of a racially charged murder investigation in which her brother is thought to be the perpetrator. In spite of all of her efforts, Sigrid finds herself teamed up with the local sheriff, Irving Wylie, a man who is unusually theologically well-read and philosophically-minded for a man in his position. The discussions that follow are often hysterical and yet didactically interesting. The clash of cultures is a giant wall that seems impossible to breach and yet in spite of themselves, a glimmer of understanding cracks open the barrier that entrenches them in their ideologically based approaches to criminology.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of the family tragedy that Sigrid and Marcus experienced as children, that being the death of their young mother. The magnitudinal impact that this event had on 11 year old Marcus underscores the cosmic difference in how these siblings related, and continue to relate, to the world.

Peppered throughout are thought-provoking discourses that range from the actual physiological changes to a person’s face while they are in the throes of lovemaking (on page 34), to the best way to approach a known and certain death (on page 232).

American by Day is a fabulous read for people who love to be able to have a perspective challenged by their casual reading choices. And while not necessarily critical to the enjoyment of this literary experience, I do recommend the reading of Norwegian by Night first. There is a lot of background information that forms much of the basis of Sigrid’s perspective and behaviour during her American adventure.

— Nancy C.

Earth Day is April 22

Have you been thinking about how to take better care of our planet? I know I have. WPL can help, here’s how. The library has a TONNE of resources (books, magazines, DVDs, and digital resources) on environmental issues and on the choices we can all make to be a little kinder to the earth.

WPL also has some seriously cool programs focusing on the environment. How about a family-friendly hike? The last hike in a wildly popular series takes place next Saturday, April 27th. Click here for more info on the hike and to register.

And then there’s this! WPL is launching an Eco Year Challenge. Starting up this month, this challenge features a different environmental theme for the next 12 months, ranging from plogging (I bet you don’t know what that is! I had to look that one up myself) to energy conservation and the 100-mile diet. Click here for more info on our exciting Eco Year Challenge.

This is what I’m reading and thinking about these days as I try to reduce waste, and particularly single-use plastic. I recently read Life Without Plastic and Plastic Purge. Just now I’m reading the, ah, interestingly titled book F**k Plastic. All of these titles offer great tips for reducing your use of plastic, though some ideas are maybe a little too hard core for my taste. (Don’t think I will be making my own tooth paste or deodorant any time soon.) It’s also great to talk to people and pick up on their ideas. One of our library customers showed me a piece of cloth she had bought and was going to use to make her own reusable produce bags. Pretty nifty.

One final thought: becoming informed and making individual/household changes are important but so is political action. Get after your politicians and tell them you want to see meaningful action on environmental issues and pronto.

So happy Earth Day! I hope you will mark the occasion by thinking about our amazing planet and how we can all walk a little more lightly upon it. But keep it going. What actions can you take today, and then tomorrow, and the day after that, and ….

— Penny D.

Autism in Heels

71K+4FtgxrLWhile browsing the “New Items” section of the WPL website, I came across a memoir entitled Autism in Heels : the untold story of a female life on the spectrum by Jennifer Cook O’Toole. O’Toole is the bestselling author of the Asperkids series of books, a motivational speaker along the likes of Tony Attwood, and is described as “…one of autism’s most prominent figures.” O’Toole certainly knows her stuff. Not only are her husband and all 3 of their children on the Autism spectrum, but she herself was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was 35 years old. She says that was when her “real life began.”

Although Autism is definitely a hot topic in the news right now, I don’t think I really had a true grasp of how difficult it is for children and their caregivers to receive a diagnosis, support and treatment, let alone how much it all costs.

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that in the not-so-distant past, Autism assessment screening tools were often gender-biased towards males. Girls often had to present more obvious characteristics to even be noticed, and experts believed autistic girls had “…more severe symptoms and more significant intellectual disabilities.”

I also learned that girls with autism are more prone to eating disorders, inflicting self-harm, and to be victims of abuse. Another thing was that people with autism can feel overwhelming compassion and empathy for others, to the point that it literally hurts them to see someone else or something else hurting.

I have to say, however, that I found this book difficult to read. O’Toole suffered through a lot of bullying as well as mental, physical, and sexual abuse in her life before her diagnosis. There are even content warnings for a couple of chapters later in the book. These are difficult topics to read about but to discover the author thought her mistreatment was deserved or her fault? To learn how hard she tried her whole life to make friends and feel accepted. Absolutely heartbreaking.

O’Toole has a huge list of accomplishments but at times I felt as though she was still seeking acceptance and acknowledgement from me as a reader. O’Toole confesses to having a “… jumpy thinking style.” I often found her writing style to be repetitive or fragmented and I could not read more than a few pages at a time before stopping for a break.

Do not be discouraged from reading this worthy book. I refused to give up on this less-than-easy read and gained valuable, important information and insight.

— Sandy W.

 

Oven to Table

I love a good cookbook and the library is the perfect place to ‘test drive’ a new cookbook!

In order to be a ‘must have’ in my kitchen a cookbook needs to be loaded with recipes that I can make for my family – recipes that fit our tastes, are doable, use ingredients I can find in my local food store and don’t leave me elbow deep in sudsy water all evening.  With Oven to Table, Jan Scott gives readers 100 easy to make, tasty recipes, complete with beautiful and enticing colour photos, that use only one pot, dish or pan.

Scott’s writing style is approachable as she describes different pans, required utensils, foods to keep stocked in your kitchen and her tenets for ensure successful one-pot cooking. She clearly identifies vegetarian, gluten-free, kid-friendly and make-ahead dishes as well as those that are better suited when you have more time and don’t have to quickly feed your small humans before shuttling them to evening activities.

I made a few of the recipes in the book and all were fantastic. They included:

  • Smokey Corn and Cheddar Chowder with a side of Honey, Thyme and Cheddar Skillet Cornbread
  • Goat Cheese and Dill Hash Brown Quiche
  • Roasted Red Onion Party Dip

Overall, this is an impressive cookbook that I look forward to using often. One pot/pan recipes speak to the mom in me who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time cleaning up after a meal. I love cooking but washing dishes? Not so much. With its enticing colour pictures and clear instructions, this cookbook will inspire home cooks to whip up these delicious one-pot dishes for the important family meal.

— Laurie P.

NOTE:  I’ll be discussing this cookbook (and several more – including my favourite fiction and nonfiction reads) in my upcoming Books and Baking program on Monday, May 13th at 2:00pm at the John M. Harper Branch. Registration for this free program opens online May 6th.

The great war is here. The living will battle the dead. The fate of the Seven Kingdoms will be declared. Fans of Game of Thrones will finally see who will sit on the Iron Throne. Will it be Jon Snow? Daenerys Targaryen? Will Cersei destroy King’s Landing with wildfire rather than give up her power? Or will the Night King kill them all? These topics should not be discussed on an empty stomach.

whitewalker
White Walker Walnut Whip

Game of Scones : all men must dine (a parody) is a highly creative cookbook that parodies characters, places and events from the series. It is written by “Jammy Lannister” who claims to have “…lost his right hand in a tragic accident involving spun sugar and went on to become the greatest left-handed whisker this side of the Narrow Sea.” It is divided into three categories which fans will immediately recognize as the show’s most pivotal quotes:

Easy: Why is it always the innocents that suffer most?
Medium: What is dead may never die; but rise again stronger
Hard: Valar Morghulis

Some recipes come right from the show, including Sansa’s Lemon Cakes and Hot Pie’s Wolf Bread. Others are character shaped cookies such as Tyrion’s Shortbread (complete with a jagged scar across the face.) Every recipe is cleverly written with theme related instructions.

The first step in the White Walker Walnut Whip recipe is to clear your work surface from any dragon glass and the last step is to let out a shrieking battle-cry to let your guests know tea is ready.

The Unsullied Soldiers are made without nuts. What else can you say?

smashing surprise
Oberyn’s Smashing Surprise

My personal favourite: Oberyn’s Smashing Surprise. His head is made out of chocolate, which explodes into a red gooey mess when you press on the eyes. It is a good reminder that you shouldn’t get too cocky when fighting opponents twice your size.

The ‘piece de resistance,’ however is the Red Velvet Wedding Cake. Standing three layers high, it is topped with a miniature decapitation scene. It is a truly impressive cake to commemorate the murder of the Starks.

There is no better way to celebrate the final season of Game of Thrones then with recipes that represent the best parts of the series. Regardless who takes the Iron Throne, have no fear: dinner is coming.

— Lesley L.

Red Velvet Wedding Cake
Red Velvet Wedding Cake

Sweeet!

Let’s play word association. It will be easy. I promise. I say “Redpath”. You say? That’s right. Sugar! The Canada Sugar Refinery was founded in 1854 by John Redpath, a Scottish stonemason, but the business only took on his name in the late 1880s. Orphaned at an early age, Redpath was raised by other family members. By 13 he was an apprentice stonemason and by 20 he had decided to emigrate to Canada.

A hard working, ambitious man, Redpath was able to start his own construction business just 2 years after arriving in Montreal. His company was instrumental in the building of a number of iconic structures in Montreal including the Notre-Dame Basilica. After his death in 1869, two of his sons and a son-in-law took over the business and, in 1880, John Redpath’s signature became the logo for the business…a logo that is used even today.

A1xg9Ud9C0LI absolutely loved The Redpath Canadian Bake Book, from the interesting family history to the tempting photos and wonderful recipes. It was so difficult to pick just one or two to try…so I picked three!

I started out making a half batch of the Soft Oatmeal Cookies. What you might find surprising from a Redpath recipe is that they weren’t particularly sweet. Instead the cookies were nicely spiced and, as promised, soft and chewy. They disappeared almost as soon as I set them on the cooling rack. I also made the Buttery Shortbread on a day when I felt like baking but was lacking in eggs and a couple other key ingredients. The shortbread was delicious, more soft than crunchy, and we absolutely could not stop at just one.

The star of the 3 recipes though was the Chocolate Genoise Cake. I’ve never made a Genoise and this might be partially due to the fact that they have a reputation as being very difficult to make successfully. Get it right and you will have an airy, moist sponge cake. Get it wrong and you will end up with a flat, dense, inedible pancake of a cake.
I followed their instructions exactly and… Oh. My. Goodness. Rich but light, just as tasty without the frosting as with, and the smell…well, I just wish devices offered scratch and sniff!

If you’re looking for a wonderful variety of dessert recipes (and bonus, it’s a Canadian book!) then the Redpath Canadian Bake Book is a must…to borrow or to buy.

— Sandi H.

Redpath Chocolate Genoise Cake

4 large eggs at room temperature
2/3 c granulated sugar
½ c cake and pastry flour
1/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla
Frosting
2 ½ tbsp butter, softened
2 tbsp whole milk
1 ¼ c icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat over to 350F. Great 1 – 8” round baking pan. Set aside.

In large bowl and using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the eggs and sugar until the mixture is pale and thick and falls in ribbons when the beaters are lifted, about 8 minutes. (note: it took me 11 minutes with an electric hand mixer)

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into the egg mixture. Very gently fold in the flour mixture until combined. Slowly fold in the melted butter and vanilla.

Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until the cake springs back when lightly pressed, about 20 minutes.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Turn out onto the wire rack and let cool completely.

For the frosting, in a small microwave-proof bowl combine butter and milk. Microwave on medium power until butter melts, about 30 seconds. In a medium bowl whisk together icing sugar and cocoa powder. Stir in the melted butter mixture and whisk until smooth.

Once the cake has cooled, spread the frost over the top of the cake Let stand 10 to 15 minute or until the icing has set before serving.

Note: the cake can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days

Re-Reading…Yes or No?

Do you ever re-read books? I have found that people absolutely do or absolutely don’t and there really is no middle ground. I myself am a big fan of re-reading, but I can understand where the opposition comes from. The argument I hear most often from people is that there are so many wonderful new books that they don’t want to spend their time reading something that they have already experienced. I get it. It’s logical BUT I’ve never really been one for logic.

There are so many books out there that I want to read and I can’t wait to start them but there really is something so amazing about re-reading. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t re-read every book, just my favourites, and when I re-read I remember how I felt the first time I read the book and add on to that experience.

There are different levels of enjoyment that can be had from re-reading. You will discover new things, perhaps because you have a different mind set the second time round or maybe there has been a few years between reads and your perspective has changed. I find it so exciting when this happens especially with a special book which I have read many times over. I still love the re-reading experience even without any new discoveries. I live vicariously through those stories and love spending more time with my favourite characters. It’s like eating comfort food or wearing that cozy old sweater.

I must confess that there are books that I have read more than twice. Books like The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, Dune by Frank Herbert, Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – to name just a few. My record for the most re-reads though goes to a series I first read as a child and have re-read every single year since. I have read the Belgariad and the Malloreon series by David Eddings twenty-four (yes, that’s 24!) times and counting. Reading these books is both comforting and comfortable, and feels like coming home.

There are a lot of books that I have never read before and while logic dictates that I read those, my heart says to read what makes me happy. Sometimes that will be a new book but sometimes it will be an old faithful. So go on, go re-read one of your favourite books right now. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

— Ashley T.