Sunday, June 19, 2016

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl

Hi, all!

Time for another book review!

Today I'm taking a look at Jesse Andrews' Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.


I didn't actually intend to write a review for this book. I originally bought it because I wanted to see the movie that recently came out (and, duh, I have to read the book first), but upon finishing this charming novel, I knew I had a few things to say about it that I wanted to share with you.

As the story goes, "Me" is the narrator, Greg Gaines. Greg introduces himself as one who tends not to connect with people in order to survive the hellish experience we call high school. He admits he's not your typical high schooler; he doesn't fit into any of the generic "groups" or cliques, and yet he manages to navigate them all while maintaining a low profile.

He also warns the reader that this book will probably be a piece of junk, but only because he is better at writing screenplays rather than novels. Why is he so much better at screenplays? Glad you asked, but according to him, he isn't. He and his wild, eccentric friend Earl (Enter "Earl"!) make home films. Some are recreations, others have original plots. However, Greg and Earl are convinced that "they suck" and no one else appreciates them, so they stay secret.

That is, until a childhood friend of Greg's is diagnosed with acute leukemia. Enter the "dying girl", Rachel. Greg's mother insists that he spend more time with Rachel in order to lighten up the remainder of her life, despite the awkward and complicated past they share. In a hilarious turn of events, Greg and Earl let Rachel see their closely guarded films, and things snowball from there.

This novel follows the relationship between these three characters (primarily Rachel and Greg) throughout the course of Rachel's treatment. But what makes this novel different from other books like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is that this is not a glamorized story of a teenaged boy falling in love with a terminally ill girl. There isn't anything beautiful or romantic about being sick; there is little opportunity to take away a dramatic lesson about life and death in the midst of grief. In stark contrast, Jesse Andrews makes no attempt to let this story be anything but raw and brutally honest.

The author has written a protagonist who doesn't even want to be involved with Rachel and her illness, and is guilt-ridden for it. Reading into Greg's actions and feelings, it is apparent that Andrews has no desire to manipulate his audience's feelings for the sake of unnecessary drama. These characters are teenagers, kids, forced into a hideous situation. There is tragedy. There is loss. But the manner in which these characters acknowledge the pain and struggle, and handle it mentally and emotionally is extremely honest... And that's exactly what I found lacking in John Green's novel. Congratulations Jesse Andrews, you've filled the void.

All of the seriousness aside, this book is also surprisingly hilarious. I applaud the author's writing in this regard, since the humor doesn't feel forced. We're talking real, awkward, "I've-been-there-oh-god", prepubescent humor. Greg's wit and sarcasm is brilliantly paired with childish, boyish banter, giving the reader plenty of laughs and relatable moments, while reminding the reader of his age. Please note this humor may not be for everyone, but I am admittedly a child when it comes to immature jokes, so I got a kick out of it.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Andrews' utilization of second person, as it brings you closer to the story as Greg relates it. Another interesting device is the use of screenplay format in harmony with Greg's assertion that he is more efficient at writing dialogue in this manner. That and the bullet point lists occasionally included make for a unique and engaging read.

This novel is fairly fast-paced, and a short read, at that. If you're looking for a happy-feely book, I most definitely would not recommend Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. However, if you're looking for a straightforward account about friendships in the midst of illness with refreshing humor, you may want to give this book a try.

Have you read this book? Seen the movie? Both? Talk about it in the comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading!
Happy reading and baking,

Monday, May 16, 2016

Strawberry Shortcakes

Hello, hello!

I hope everyone is doing well, reading lots of books and baking lots of goodies!

And if you aren't, well... I can't make you read more books, but I can definitely help you out of a funk if you don't know what to make. Especially since it's getting to be summertime, I've been breaking out my best seasonal recipes to share with you. And have I got the perfect recipe for you--strawberry shortcakes!
I love strawberries. Peaches are my favorite fruit, but strawberries come pretty close to being first.

When I was a kid, there was a strawberry stand which we drove past all season long, waiting for it to open. My mom used to whip up cream cheese and sugar as a dip for the sweet, juicy berries. When I moved to Napa, there was a similar little stand off of the Silverado Trail at which my best friend and I would stop after school for a treat. These berries, you guys. They are SO GOOD. They are a smaller variety, but bursting with flavor and juice. It was only after being more incorporated into the Napa Valley community that I learned these berries are also used at Thomas Keller's famous restaurant, the French Laundry. And they're totally affordable without spending hundreds of dollars on a thirteen course meal (SCORE!).

Even at the place I'm working now, the grounds grow strawberries and small white Alpine strawberries (itty bitty baby strawberries that look unripe but are extremely sweet and flavorful.) I'm still waiting for permission to raid the gardens.

So, of course, when I teamed up with a classmate at culinary school to complete a farmer's market-themed dessert menu, I simply had to include these strawberries somehow. Strawberry shortcakes seemed the way to go, and with a lot of testing, several batches of dough pitched in the bin, (and admittedly a couple of hissy fits), a recipe emerged. And boy, does it deliver.

The strawberries are left sitting in a small amount of sugar to macerate for at least an hour. Even though the strawberries really don't need it, there is so little sugar in the overall dish that it works well. Also, sugary strawberry juice is the best byproduct ever.

Shortcakes are made of "short dough". This means it doesn't get mixed enough to form gluten, and it also has a lot of butter. Because butter makes everything better, am I right?  Another thing about shortcakes is that they must be baked cold. As cold as possible, people. Colder than Montana in January. Colder than liquid nitrogen. Or as close as you can get it. That's why I freeze the dry ingredients with the butter ahead of time and include plenty of chilling periods in this recipe. If you let the dough get too warm before baking, your cakes won't rise--they'll spread. (They'll still be delicious, but I can't say much for presentation.)

I make these shortcakes the way my grandmother used to make biscuits. The dough is mixed and formed into a rectangle. The rectangle gets cut into thirds, and one third is brushed with cream.
A second piece of dough is placed on top and also brushed with cream before it is topped with the last third.

This hunk of dough is then rolled out, chilled, and then cut with a sharp knife.
I use this method because I love the layers it produces. Using a sharp knife instead of a cutter ensures these layers are preserved, for optimal rise.
The result is a lightly sweet, tender, buttery cake that is easily cut in half. The savory butter in the dough deliciously complements the sweet strawberries.
But no shortcake is complete without a generous dollop of what we call chantilly. Which is basically flavored whipped cream. For this recipe, I add a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste to the cream for subtle flavor, since the focus should be on the strawberries.
The easy components and simple, elegant flavors of this dessert make it a family favorite. Use it in a family-style setting, or a for the conclusion of a summer dinner party. Either way, there will always be plenty of strawberries and cream leftover for dipping.

Anyway, enough with my rambling. The recipe is below. Please enjoy, and let me know what you think!

My current read is Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, The Milk", and it's hilarious. What are you reading right now?

Thanks for reading! Until next time,

Strawberry Shortcakes
Yield: 12 assembled shortcakes

15 oz (3 cups) flour
8 oz (2 sticks) butter, cut into 1 in. chunks
3 oz (just under 1/2 cup) sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cream, plus extra for brushing
1 large egg

1 pint strawberries
1/4 cup sugar

Vanilla Chantilly
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste (or whatever flavoring you desire, really)
1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. Freeze the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt with the butter chunks until the butter is solid.
2. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Transfer the frozen ingredients to a mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, paddle the ingredients with the egg and cream until just combined. The dough should form a cohesive mass.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, and roll into a rectangle about 8" by 12". Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into thirds.
4. Using a pastry brush, generously brush one third with cream. Carefully place the second piece of dough on top of the dough that has cream on it. Brush the second piece of dough with cream. Place the last piece of dough on top of the second piece of dough. You should have a tall stack of dough with cream in between two layers.
5. Roll the dough out to a rectangle about 1 1/2 inch thick.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut into squares about 3" by 3". Alternatively, you may use a sharp rounded cutter, but DO NOT TWIST when pushing down. Doing so will seal the layers.
7. Transfer the cakes to a parchment-lined sheet pan and chill until very firm.
8. Brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with excess sugar before baking. Bake until lightly golden on top, about 15-20 minutes. In my oven, they take 17 minutes.
9. Let the shortcakes cool ten minutes on the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
10. For the strawberries: Thoroughly rinse the strawberries. Toss lightly in the sugar. I usually let them macerate in the fridge anywhere from 1 to 5 hours.
11. For the chantilly: Add the cream and vanilla to a clean, cold mixing bowl with a whisk attachment. Whip on medium until frothy, then gradually add the powdered sugar. Whip on high to medium-stiff peaks.
12. Assembly: Carefully slice each shortcake horizontally with a serrated knife. Spoon a generous dollop of whipped cream onto each shortcake bottom. Add desired amount of strawberries on top. Cap the strawberries with the top half of the shortcake.
13. Dig in!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Andrew's Brain

Hi all!

Hope everyone has had a great... month? Good grief, I've let so much time pass. I'm so sorry I've been gone, but I'm back with good news! I spent the month packing up my little cottage and my dog in Oregon and making the trek back to the Napa Valley. That's right, I'm back in California. Not too pleased about that (I miss Oregon), but I have my own little family in Calistoga, and my dear older brother decided to join me in this new adventure.

Which means I have someone to eat all the leftover goodies I'm making for this blog!
Once again, I get to figure out where ALL of my books are going to go... I don't have too many books, just not enough space...
I have a strawberry shortcake recipe coming soon, but this post is dedicated to one of my favorite American authors, the late E.L. Doctorow, and his final piece, Andrew's Brain.

Photo Credit
I bought this book on a whim. Okay, so I bought this book during a book-buying binge. I've always had a fondness for Doctorow's work, my first being Ragtime (sparking a young interest in Harry Houdini) and later in high school I read Homer and Langley, which subsequently led to a fascination with the men upon which the book was based, and their female hoarding counterparts, the Bouvier Beales of Grey Gardens. Not having read anything of Doctorow's since Homer and Langley, seeing his name on a new book prompted me to pick it up without really knowing what it was about.

I opened it up a month later one rainy morning in Jacksonville and was not disappointed. 

Andrew's Brain is about a man named (surprise, surprise) Andrew. Andrew is a man. He is a father, a lover, a teacher, and a friend. Andrew is also a cognitive scientist, but he seems to have gotten himself into a bit of trouble. We actually don't know for sure. Throughout the novel, he talks to someone he refers to as "Doc". As the book unfolds, the story is brought to life through Andrew's broken narratives, and we discover just how he ended up talking.

In my head, this book is incredible. As a librarian and bookseller, I would say it's decidedly not for everyone. Though not as groundbreaking as Doctorow's previous works, Andrew's Brain hits home on a few levels. Andrew is someone, we learn, to often be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the worst possible ways. Even with the best intentions at heart, something small always seems to go awry and everything sort of blows up in his face. Familiar, right? (No? Just me?) He eventually gets to a point at which he figures everything is going to go wrong anyway, so he has a little bit of fun with it.

A literary note I wanted to point out is that Andrew often tells his stories from the third person. This is even addressed by "Doc", but Andrew's vague answers don't really satisfy. He tells certain stories from third person in order to separate himself from the parts of his past that are more difficult to  bear, something I find most of us strive to do. Doctorow continues to reach his audience in this way by making his character relatable to the things we try to hide about ourselves. 

The novel is littered with breaks in Andrew's stories when he decides to give brief, epiphanic lines about freedom, human consciousness, the characteristics of one's soul, and the illusion of society. These ultimately lack relevance, but we get a little more insight into the man telling the stories, his stalling methods, and his genuine moments of realization.

I'm not going to say that this is a "tale of tragedy and hope regained and tragedy again" (even though it basically is). There's a lot more to this novel than the plot. Andrew's stories are compelling, but there is quite a bit of piecing together to do on the part of the reader.

Andrew is a character with sarcastic, jaded views, brimming with ambiguous philosophy and visions of his own facade of brilliance. The point is, he recognizes this. I believe Andrew is written to give the reader a shadow of insight into the differences between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. Doctorow was an expert storyteller, and that is evident in this book.

Delving into one's brain to determine who they are and how they think is quite a lengthy and complex process. Luckily, Andrew's Brain is a short read, so if you're looking for something curious that will make you think beyond the printed page and Andrew's occasional prattle, pick up this novel. 

Have you read Andrew's Brain? What did you think? Let me know what you all are reading and baking in the comments below!

It's almost officially summer! Which means strawberries. Which means strawberry shortcakes. Excited? I AM! I'm super pumped! So next time, I'll give you my strawberry shortcake recipe.

Thanks for reading!
Happy reading and baking,

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Berry Pies and Starry Skies

Warm greetings to you all!

I hope everyone is having a slow, lazy Saturday. I don't know how the weather is where you are, but it's been raining here in Oregon for the past week and a half with little to no sign of stopping. Saturday morning, rain, Beethoven and Motown spinning on the record player... In my mind, that's a morning that spells out baking and books.

Today, my house was filled with the aromas of butter pie dough, caramelized brown sugar, and tart berries. Pies have a sacred spot in my heart. Pecan pie is my favorite, because I was never really fond of cooked fruit. But give me a single-serving portable berry pie, and you can bet your sugar I'm going to eat the whole thing. And all of the rest. Ever tried to take a slice of fruit pie on the go? I wouldn't recommend it. Kinda messy.

This recipe is a favorite of mine. These pies are just like taking a slice of pie with you, without running the risk of ending up with red and purple berry juice on your shirt. I even put these in the case at work, because they're so versatile. Don't like berries? Add 1/2 teaspoon more cinnamon and use apples instead! Are you like me and don't really prefer cooked fruit in general? No worries. Use a pecan pie filling recipe instead (I've done this before. Never had a batch of pies disappear so fast).

They also come together so quickly. The pie crust gets either cut by hand or in a food processor and rolled out. While it chills in the fridge for a bit, the filling gets tossed together in seconds.  I usually use a 5-6 inch circle cutter for my pies, but feel free to switch it up. Baking time will vary with size, though. After pie dough is cut, each half of a circle will get a heaping spoonful of filling until it is divided evenly.
These are berries I pulled from my freezer: huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Beat an egg, brush it over the edges and fold the empty half of the circle over the filling, and crimp the edges with a fork to seal. Egg wash the tops and sprinkle a little bit of sugar over the pies, if desired. Part of the beauty of these is the juices spilling out while baking (better on the baking sheet than on your shirt!), so the pies get vented with a couple of small slits in the top of the dough with a knife. I like to use a small fluted cookie cutter so I can really see the filling, so if you have a shaped cookie cutter, get creative! 

In the time it takes your oven to preheat, these bad boys will be ready to bake. 
And, as so many in the industry will tell you, the hardest part is waiting for goodies to cool.

Good thing I have a lot of books to pass the time. Let's talk about Robert Louis Stevenson.

Or rather, his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne-Stevenson. Because in Nancy Horan's Under The Wide and Starry Sky, this is her story. As history goes, Robert Louis Stevenson met Fanny at an artist colony in France after she had separated from her unfaithful husband in America. Fanny relocated herself and her children for a life reset, to find happiness for herself and to find an art institute at which she and her daughter Isobel (Belle) could study painting. After the death of one of her sons, she moves to the country and meets Louis Stevenson (R.L.S. as we know him), an author and artist.

So begins a rather typical tale of blossoming love and a pleasant marriage, right? Nah. Fanny isn't exactly taken by R.L.S. at first. Being an author herself, she became more of a constructive sparring partner before they finally married and travelled around the globe. Horan expertly details this difficult yet rewarding relationship.

The novel is a bit drawn out, but that's the writing style I tend to gravitate towards (Tolkien, Helprin, Tan, Doyle, etc.). If you have trouble getting through a book, it will be a challenge to finish this 400+ pager, but it's worth it.

Normally, I shy away from historical fiction related to wives/lovers of famous men. I find them to be over-romanticized. Chick lit is not really my thing; successful or dramatically tragic relationships are not usually fun to read. For me, anyway. I understand and appreciate the appeal of love stories, but I prefer them tastefully told.

Horan's story is tastefully told. Fanny and R.L.S. didn't have a perfect relationship (I have yet to meet anyone who does), but their quarrels and trials are punctuated by gestures of loving support, honesty, and growth. Fanny never had the opportunity to reach her full potential in art or writing while she cared for Stevenson in his fragile health and encouraged his writing career. This is the sort of historical fiction that I love to read--the facts are all straight, the story is well-researched and accurate, the characters are true to their real-life counterparts. And yet, she manages to bring more life to these figures, exploring their personalities and qualities.

This isn't just a story about a famous author and his imperfect yet loving relationship, though.  Horan uses Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson to analyze loss, the healing power of art (and writing), and the exhilaration of adventure.  There are moments in this book at which you want to stop and breathe, relishing in the breath in your lungs, the rain outside, and the blinking stars in the sky. Let me sound cheesy,  but there are always those moments when you're so thankful for the small, beautiful things in life. Any author that promotes those feelings with words alone is worth reading.

Have you read this book? What did you think? If not, what are you reading? What are you baking/cooking? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!
Until next time,

Berry Hand Pies
Yield: Approx. 6-8 hand pies
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup (two sticks) of chilled butter, cut into chunks
2 1/2 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp ice water

2 cups of berries/apples
1 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt

An egg, beaten, for egg wash
Sprinkling sugar, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 425ºF.
2. For the crust, toss together all dry ingredients with the butter. Pulse in a food processor until crumbly (or use a fork or pastry cutter by hand). Slowly add in a tablespoon of water at a time until the mixture can hold together and forms a cohesive mass.
3. Roll out to desired thickness. I usually work mine out to approximately 4-5 mm. Place rolled out dough in the refrigerator to chill.
4. For the filling, toss together all ingredient until combined. If you decide to use frozen berries, make sure you let them thaw in the refrigerator beforehand, or your filling will be too watery.
5. Use your desired size circle cutter  to cut out  as many pies as you can. Spoon the filling onto one half of each circle of dough, until the filling is divided evenly. If you are using a cookie cutter to vent, cut the shapes out of the other halves of the circles.
6. Brush edges with beaten egg, and fold over the circles to form the half circular moon pies. Crimp edges with a fork to seal. If venting with a knife, make slits in the tops of the pies. Egg wash the tops of the pies, sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
7. Bake at 425ºF for 10 minutes, then rotate the pies and reduce heat to 375ºF. Bake for a remaining 10 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
8. Enjoy!

Friday, March 11, 2016

New Blog!

Hello, great big world!

My name is Esmé, and I am a pastry chef with a taste for all things literary, culinary, nerdy, and unique. Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I hope to achieve with this blog. I come from a family of writers. My mother is a published journalist and art critic. She and my father put my brother and I through art school where we both took classes to hone our writing skills. I ended up straying from the performing arts and ended up in a playwriting class where I absolutely thrived.  A teacher I have had the honor to have known for ten years now was paramount in my writing experience when she started writing her own biographical novel. I started out working through school as the assistant librarian to the amazing woman who ran the place. To this day these intelligent and sophisticated women inspire me to keep doing what I love.

Despite my immense love of books and the library environment, I set out for the Napa Valley to obtain my Baking and Pastry Arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Of course, I integrated books into my life anyway by working as a bookseller before I finally graduated. I have always been somewhat of a speed reader, and am known for devouring books almost as aggressively and passionately as I do brownies. A scintillating read and something sweet are all I need.

After conversing with a longtime friend (he has his own blog, too! Check it out here), he encouraged me to start writing about what I'm reading. As you get to know me, you'll find I'm woman of many loud opinions that I have trouble keeping to myself. But I also wanted a reason to post pictures of some of the goodies I make at home, and at work. I decided if I was going to start a blog, that I wasn't going to settle for sharing just one of my passions.

And here we are! Shall we get started?

I finally got my hands on the great Amy Poehler's autobiography, Yes Please.

(Picture credit
I have been looking forward to reading this since my father sent me the email that it had been released. Needless to say, the wait was well worth it. We all know Poehler is hilarious, from her stint as a writer and comedienne on SNL, to the show Parks and Recreation. She has long been a role model of mine, a woman who is fearless in her example to others that girls can be beautiful and funny. This intelligent, deep memoir is filled with strangely practical grown-up info for those of us in their twenty-somethings who have no idea what they're doing. Great news, fellow twenty-somethings! Poehler confirms that no one in adulthood actually has a clue! *Rounds of relieved applause*

She goes into everything from working on SNL while she was pregnant, her small-town childhood, living life from show to show, Parks and Rec moments, what it is like to have kids, and even time travel (And she knows it's real, guys. She explains it, even. She knows what's up). Have you ever wanted to have a conversation with Ms. Amy Poehler? I have more great news for you. She talks to you in this book. How cool is that?

Her writing style is very much how you'd expect it to be--conversational, laid back, but also sufficiently detailed and informative. I promise you, you'll laugh out loud at least a few times while reading this (even if you're like me and don't actually LOL when you say you do).

This book is a joy to read. I highly recommend it.

Thanks so much for reading, it means a lot to me! Feel free to leave a note in the comments, I'd love to have some conversations with you. Have you read Yes Please? What did you think? Let me know what you're reading!

Next time, I'll give you a recipe for berry hand pies and a new book to be determined. Happy Friday, everyone!