The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Sometimes I have to take a break from reading new books. After a series of disappointing reads from the library, I felt it was time to stop searching and just enjoy reading one of my favorites: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

Of course, The Hunger Games has become very popular of late, what with the upcoming release of the film in March 2012. I won’t lie, I’m super excited for the movie. I fully approve of (almost) all of the casting choices and I think it’s going to be great.

But I digress. The trilogy, consisting of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, take place in a future society that lives on what used to be the United States. This country is made up of 13 Districts that surround the ruling Capitol. The Districts rebel against the Capitol, causing the Capitol to destroy District 13 and devise a punishment for the remaining 12 Districts. This punishment: The Hunger Games. Every year, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are “reaped” from each District to become “tributes”. The 24 tributes are sent to a vast arena, which could be anything from a desert to a windswept, icy mountain. In the arena, the tributes compete to stay alive; the last living tribute is the victor. At the opening of The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss Everdeen, a young woman of District 12 who cares for her mother and younger sister.

I won’t continue, since from this point on in the plot, spoilers abound. Just read it. It’s young adult fiction, but it has an edge to it. (Clearly, as the premise is pretty barbaric.) The trilogy is breathless and exciting, emotional and complicated. It was great to once again be swept up by a story; that’s what I look for in books.

Up next: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Carrot Cake Cupcakes

My sister’s favorite kind of cake is carrot cake, so for her bridal shower I decided it would be nice to make carrot cake cupcakes. I’d never made carrot cake in any way, shape or form before, so I scoured the internet for a recipe that looked simple and good.* Dear ol’ Martha Stewart came through for me. My first time making carrot cake cupcakes turned out to be a banging success. The cupcakes were moist, sweet and spicy, and a huge hit with all the guests.

*It’s my strong belief that the best dishes – whether a main course, breakfast, or dessert – are made from simple, whole ingredients. You won’t find many ingredients in my kitchen that can’t be found at the local Cub Foods.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

1 pound medium carrots, peeled and shredded (I did this by hand with a cheese grater)
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional; I used them and liked it)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Cream cheese frosting (recipe to follow)
Shredded toasted coconut (recipe to follow)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 standard muffin tins with paper liners. In a bowl, whisk together carrots, eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and raisins. In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Stir flour mixture into carrot mixture until well combined. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until testers inserted into centers come out clean, 23 to 28 minutes. Let cool in tins on wire racks, 10 minutes. Turn out cupcakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely. Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored overnight at room temperature, or frozen for up to 2 months in airtight containers. Frost cupcakes with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). Frosted cupcakes can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, and sprinkle with toasted coconut (recipe below), pressing gently to adhere.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 cups (1 lb.) powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Reduce speed to low. Add sugar, 1 cup at a time, and then vanilla; mix until smooth.

Toasted Coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread coconut evenly on a baking sheet with a rim. Toast, stirring occasionally, until starting to brown, about 10 minutes (or longer if a darker color is desired). Transfer sheet to a wire rack; let coconut cool completely.


The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian, by Elizabeth KostovaElizabeth Kostova’s historically dense novel, The Historian, is one of my favorites. The story manages to include a ton of history while not becoming bogged down in unnecessary facts. All of the information is given in the context of the story, so it is both engrossing and informative. The history focuses on Vlad the Impaler and Wallachia, the region he ruled in the mid- to late-1400s.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks and letters. This format lends itself well to the slow reveal of important information. The tension slowly intensifies as more details come to light and flashbacks suddenly begin to make sense. Occasionally I was a little tripped up by the complexity of the history combined with the fact that the story wasn’t told in a , but overall Kostova did a brilliant job of writing the story. It was clear that Kostva did an immense amount of research in the process of writing The Historian.

On the whole, the novel is a wonderfully-written, complex and compelling story. It’s believable – even considering that it’s ultimately about vampires.* This is a book I look for at the Half-Priced Book Store every time I visit; I just want to have it on my shelves.

*Vampires. What a saturated topic in our culture these days. Twilight. True Blood. Countless other series that take advantage of the supernatural craze. However, I would assert that The Historian steps out of this pop culture craze. It’s very much a book for adults, and there will be no “Team Edward/Team Jacob” nonsense. The vampire myth in The Historian ties to history and Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. The idea of the vampire is creepy and sinister, not a heartthrob. So if you’re turned off by the idea of “another vampire book,” just get over it and pick up a copy of The Historian. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Simplest Stir Fry

This is a recipe that is based totally off taste.  You can adapt it to use your favorite veggies or sauces…or to use whatever happens to be in your refrigerator at the time (which I often did during college). Here’s what I usually do, without measurements because you can use as much or as little as necessary, depending on how many people you need to feed:

Simplest Stir Fry

Frozen chicken breast, thawed and chopped into bite-size pieces
Broccoli
Red bell pepper
Sliced mushrooms
Chopped carrots
Sugar snap peas, sliced in half
Soy sauce*
Basmati rice

Cook the rice as directed on the package. While it’s cooking, put the chopped chicken in a skillet with some soy sauce. Chop your vegetables. When the chicken is nearly cooked through, add your veggies and a good amount of soy sauce. Saute until the veggies are hot but not mushy. Serve in a bowl over the rice.

This is seriously the easiest meal to make, and it’s really fast, too. If you don’t have the time or inclination to chop all of your vegetables, you can also use frozen veggies. The recipe is very adaptable, so you can switch up the ingredients or sauce and make it a lot without getting tired of eating the same thing over and over.

*I once got a fantastic ginger-garlic sauce that was meant for stir frying. It was fabulous, though I’m sure it gave me appalling garlic breath. In any case, use whatever flavors you like. You can even throw some orange or lemon zest in there for a little citrus kick.


Nutella Chip Cookies

Writing about Chocolat made me want something full of chocolate-y goodness. Naturally, I thought of one of my favorite recipes of all time: Nutella Chip Cookies. I found this recipe on a fabulous blog called Love and Olive Oil, and when I tried it, I fell in love.

First off, if you don’t know what Nutella is, get out. Just kidding. What you should really do is go get some Nutella (it’s usually by the peanut butter at the grocery store) and give it a try. When I talk about Nutella with people who have not tried this wonderful concoction, I usually get the response, “ew, don’t they eat that in Australia?” No, people, that’s Vegemite. Completely different. Nutella is a chocolate-hazelnut spread best enjoyed with a spoon, straight from the jar. Or in Nutella Chip Cookies.

If I had to express these cookies in pseudo-mathematical terms, I would do so like this:

Nutella Chip Cookies > chocolate chip cookies

Or perhaps like this:

chocolate chip cookies + Nutella + some sort of magical transformation that must occur when the Nutella combines with the rest of the batter = Nutella Chip Cookies.

Nutella Chip Cookies

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup Nutella
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Cream butter with an electric mixer about 1 minute until smooth. Add in both sugars. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes), scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. With the mixer on low, add the egg and vanilla. Then add Nutella and mix until well combined. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and mix on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and mix just until the dough is smooth. Fold in chocolate chips. Using a small ice cream scoop (or a teaspoon), form the dough into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.* Bake 6-7 minutes** or until set. Let cookies cool about 5 minutes and transfer to a rack to cool completely.

*I do not use a parchment-lined baking sheet. I might spray some Pam on the baking sheet, if I remember.

**I have found that it usually takes 9-10 minutes to bake fully (and still have a soft chewy center).


Chocolat

Chocolat by Joanne Harris | Book Review | oven & inkOne of my favorite books is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. I’ve never seen the movie, but I have read the book several times.* I love the way Harris writes, creating a world full of secrets and subtle magic that is timeless and rich.

The story begins on the day before Lent, when Vianne Rocher and her 6-year-old daughter, Anouk, arrive in a small French town ruled strictly by the church. Vianne opens a chocolate shop in town, to the horror of Pere Reynaud, the parish priest. Tensions rise as Lent progresses, gypsies arrive on the shores of the town, and Vianne forms relationships with the townspeople. It culminates in a chocolate festival that Vianne plans for Easter Sunday – directly taking on Pere Reynaud and the church. It is a really lovely book in which love and warmth contrast with cold and austerity. Harris’ descriptions bring Vianne and her chocolates to life, so at times you’ll find your mouth watering and your mind wandering to the piece of chocolate that is in closest proximity to your mouth.

I bought a great used copy at Half-Priced Books years ago and it still lives happily on the shelf of my bookcase, ready to be picked up when I’m craving something sweet and delicious.

*For more on how I feel about books that are made into movies, read this.


Blueberry Oatmeal Scones

Don’t be fooled by the presence of the word “scone” in this recipe. These are not dry biscuits that require a 10-second dunking in coffee to prevent them from sucking all the moisture from your mouth as you chew. No, these scones – for lack of a better term – are moist, and full of blueberry goodness. They should be called Disappearing Blueberry Scones, because practically as soon as they come out of the oven, they’re gone. Plus, they’re hearty enough to offer a filling and lasting breakfast on their own.

Blueberry Oatmeal Scones

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons butter, cubed
3/4 cup milk
1 cup fresh blueberries, or frozen blueberries, thawed
2 tablespoons flax seed meal
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional*)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Stir the oatmeal, flours, sugar, baking soda, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Use a pastry cutter or two forks and cut in the butter with the flour mixture until crumbly and well blended. Stir the milk into the flour mixture until just combined. Mix in flax seed and cinnamon, if desired. Add a splash of milk if necessary to maintain wet dough consistency. Lightly stir in the pecans and blueberries. Divide the dough into 6 to 8 balls, and place them on the greased cookie sheet. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes, until lightly browned.

*The cinnamon is a killer addition, seriously. One day I decided that cinnamon sounded like it might be good in the scones, so I tried it. Totally worth it. Plus – bonus! – it makes the kitchen smell even better while these beauties are baking.