Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Corn Bread Pudding Debate

It was a pseudo face off. . . The Chi Chi's mix versus a new recipe.

Recipe Ingredients vs. the Mix

Christmas Dinner was the battleground.

 For years, Chi Chi's Sweet Corn Cake Mix has been a staple around here. Add a can of creamed style corn (to date I'm not sure what else you would use that for), some water, and melted butter, and you had a sweet treat that transported you back to simpler times when Chi Chi's was a destination of a Friday night and you could have seafood enchilada's that masqueraded as Mexican fare and fried ice cream for dessert. Those days are long gone but the sweet corn cake still lived on. Until recently. The last few times I have made it, it hasn't tasted quite right. I thought maybe I messed up, not following the directions to a "t", or the batch we had was stale. But last time, a couple of weeks back, I realized something has changed in this mix and it's just not right!

I did a little research, exploring recipes for homemade versions. I am hesitant to use the word "homemade" because there is still a mix involved but there was a list of possible ingredients. Of course, there were more sophisticated versions of this type of fare, ranging from Alton Brown's version with cubed bread, stone ground cornmeal, and shredded cheese and heavy cream, to a dessert like rendition with raisins and maple syrup.

I settled finally on this recipe for my foundation, staying true to the ingredients with the exception of adding a topping brown sugar, cayenne pepper, paprika and shredded Mexican cheese to spice it up a bit. The rest of the recipe I really did follow, mixing the first five ingredients (eggs, sour cream, two types of corn, and melted butter) together before adding the dry cornbread mix. 

After that I made a topping of the brown sugar (about 2 Tablespoons) with a 1/4 teaspoon of paprika and a dash of cayenne that I stirred with a fork in a bowl. I sprinkled that on the batter and then added a healthy dose of the shredded cheese before I put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The final result? It was as good as Chi Chi's and was a slightly more textured (crunchy) version and the added flavors did not overpower the final casserole. 

Before Baking

After Baking

The Corn Bread Pudding had good company with a list of other side dishes at our Christmas Dinner tonight. There was green bean casserole (the original Durkee French Fried Onion version), along with regular corn with butter, beer bread, mashed potatoes and fried brown sugared ham. Sometimes tradition outweighs culinary adventures.

This was our first Christmas in our new home and it was really special. Rather than eating  in front of the TV, we actually ate at the table, by candlelight no less. One of my resolutions for the coming year is to enjoy what I have rather than "saving" it. So the china that has been stored for the past fifteen years, but never used, came out today. Candles that we have had for I don't know how long actually were lit. It was a very nice meal, complete with Christmas music and laughter and love.

 Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy holiday season. 

Here's to a New Year full of laughter, love, happiness and of course, good food!

Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Another collection of short stories that got past me. . . but I'm glad it did.

8 short stories about eight different individuals that are somehow connected to a feudal landowner in Lahore, Pakistan. Each story is rich in nature and reveals the harsh realities of that world. There is no sugar coating the trials and challenges these people face as they are often without choices and do the best they can to survive.

An interesting book with rich characters and insight into a different world.

Book Review: Jamrach's Menagerie

Nineteenth Century London with Poverty, Adventure and Wild Animals

Jaffy Brown is a boy that lives in poverty and squalor without much to hope for to change his situation until a close encounter with a tiger on a crowded street in London. It turns out that a tiger escaped his cage and Jaffy pets it in wonder and survives to tell the tale. So begins a tale that has Jaffy meeting the famous Mr. Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals.

Jaffy ends up running errands and working for Mr. Jamrach which opens up a world of possibilities for him that change the course of his entire life. He learns to read and write, makes new friends and a circle of support, and eventually sets forth on an three year adventure at sea to find a dragon to bring back to England during a whaling expedition to the West Indies.

The story is so much more than adventure and exotic creatures and locations. While Jaffy learns about life beyond England he also is challenged with hard work as well as a struggle to survive. Friendships and love is tested throughout.

Highly recommend!

Book Review: Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

A Modern Day Story of a Family - Tragedy Included

In the beginning Mary Beth's life seems almost perfect, albeit a little boring. She is a suburban housewife with an ophthalmologist husband and a life that is set on a schedule. For a hobby, she has a job doing landscaping but for the most part it's all about keeping the family together. There are little problems and hiccups along the way. Mary Beth reflects on the bout of anorexia her daughter had but it seems to be in the past. One of the twin boys seems to be antisocial and needs to see a therapist.

There is a tension you feel even at the beginning of this book that made me feel like something very bad was going to happen as the tension built and it did. The second half of the book focuses on the survivors and how they go on when everything seems to be lost. A family is shattered and those that are left have to find a new definition of family.

This was a hard book to read but it was well written. I can't say I would have picked it if I knew going in what was going to happen but in the end it was a very good story.

Book Review: Island Beneath the Sea

A Historical Novel Set in Haiti

This novel provides in depth characters in a rich story set in the 1700's mostly in Haiti. Through this story of intertwined lives, I learned a lot about the history of this county and its ties to France that developed a unique culture and set forth a struggle for independence.

The story provides two distinct, yet intertwined, stories of individuals. There is Valmorain, who comes from France, to make a his own fortune from the plantation he has inherited from his father. He first must come to terms with how to make a life in this harsh land and how to work to have riches. He tries to bring France and the conventions of that past life with him but it is a struggle. The wife he sought out to make a family does not end up providing him with the comfort, solace and life he imagined and he ends up turning to a mullato slave in his own home for many of those things. The dependence and attraction that he finds for her distrubs him and he struggles with these feelings and what he thinks is acceptable in his society and class system.

The story also provides us much of the same history from Zarite's perspective. She comes to Valmorain's home as a house maid but becomes so much more, even bearing a child for the master that adds layers of complexity to their relationship. It becomes even harder to define as a revolution occcurs that take both Zarite and Valmorian to Cuba and then to Lousiana.

There are a host of other characters in this story that brings forth many more challenges and complex relationships as race is a central issue in this book. Love and it's various forms are often challenged as each person must find their own way and their own identity despite what each culture (Haiti, Cuba, and then the United States) creates its own social conventions.

Great Book!

Book Review: Don't Say a Word by Barbara Freethy

A Single Photograph Changes the Course of a Life

Julia DeMarco is touring the venue for her upcoming wedding as her fiancee pressures her to finally set a date to begin their future together. At this hall, she takes a break to escape and comes across a photography exhibition that sets the ball into motion. One of the photographs features a little girl in Soviet Russia, in front of an orphanage. Julia sees herself in that photo, and questions if it could really be her, as she has the same features, and is wearing the same necklace that Julia herself owns from her childhood.

For this girl to be her would potentially shatter everything that she knows and the family she loves. The photographer is dead but has a son that she reaches out to, in hopes to solve this mystery. Alex Manning is shocked to see the girl he saw so many years ago when he traveled to Russia with his father. So begins an adventure that takes Julia far from home and discovers that what is safe might not always be the best, and sometimes delaying a commitment may be for a reason.

This book features romance and mystery, as well as political intrigue.

Book Review: Juliet by Anne Fortier

What a Wild Ride through Italy and Romeo and Juliet!

Everything that Julie Jacobs knows about her life is about to be shaken. When Julie's Aunt passes away and she inherits a key to a safe deposit box in Sienna, Italy, she begins an adventure to discover who she truly is.

Julie finds out many things about her past through a plot that continues to alternate between her present day adventure and old transcripts and correspondence related to the real life characters of Romeo and Giulietta, a medieval pair of lovers from Sienna, who were the basis of Shakespeare's famous story. Turns out that Julie's obsession with everything Shakespeare goes well beyond a hobby or even a passion, as she finds out she is a descendant of this family and blood feud.

Julie must find out all there is to know and get past the many secrets that have been hidden from her for years. Who were her parents that she cannot remember? Why was she kept from her family in Italy for so long? What about the plague that has been passed down to both houses (both Romeo and Juliet) and can it be stopped? Is there a real life Romeo for her to discover?

The descriptions of modern day Sienna are romantic and lush, and a wonderful backdrop for a story with modern day bad guys and a mystery to solve. This is a fun book with lots of twists and turns, plus a little humor.


Book Review: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

A Coming of Age Tale Set in 1970's Brooklyn

Dylan Ebdus lives in downtown Brooklyn. At the start of this story, the backdrop is an indentified up and coming neighborhood that the artistic and affluent may eventually settle in but Dylan is the one white boy at the time. Dylan's mother soon leaves on her own adventure, abandoning him and his eccentric emotionally removed artist father.

Dylan must struggle to fit in everywhere he goes. He is often "yoked" (put into a headlock) and what little he has is taken from him. He tries to fit into this world but is often on the fringes but finds the tenacity to continue to strive for greatness and to set himself apart.

Much of this story focuses on the complex relationship he has with his neighbor Mingus, a slightly older boy who is the son of a grammy awarded singer and the grandson of a preacher. Mingus is someone who Dylan idolizes and also gives him a little of the street cred he needs to survive in school and on the streets. Dylan introduces him to comics, graffiti and drugs, and provides a tie to the neighborhood long after he grows and moves on.

The first half of the story is told from Dylan as a little boy. The second half takes us through Dylan's world as a young man. Both stories tell of a struggle for his own identity and happiness. What is surprising is the magical elements that do take place in this book that provide some more ties to a comic book/superhero world. To give away any more than that would ruin the book.

Take this ride. It's both sad and joyous. There is a lot of love, and a lot of pain, much like life in this book. You won't regret it.

Book Review: Jack Maggs A Novel by Peter Carey

What a fantastic read!

I have to say that if I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens it was in high school and a required reading so I probably did not pay any attention. Apparently this book is a retelling of that story in the perspective of the main character, Jack Maggs, who is based upon Abel Magwitch from the original tale. 

Jack Maggs is an Australian convict who returns to Victorian London to make things right, from his perspective. He is a bad, bad man. When we meet him we quickly learn about his rage and his murderous ways. He is back in London on a mission, to find a young boy that made an impact on him when he was on his way to the penal colony in Australia.

Jack ends up infiltrating a comfortable household while he makes his move, playing the part of a house servant as he waits to meet his ward face to face. Along the way, he comes in contact with a novelist who is less than moral, who is very interested in getting into Jack's subconscious to learn all his secrets and pain. Tobias Oates (a characterization of Charles Dickens?) continues to hypnotize Jack to peel back the layer of defenses in hopes to create a character for one of his books that he thinks will be a best seller and his ultimate means to be rich instead of just famous.

Through this story we learn more about Jack and the series of events that unfolded from his strange painful childhood and his career as a thief as well as the loves he lost that landed him in the unfortunate position to be shipped off to Australia. We end up learning that there is a lot more to this man in terms of sense of duty and loyalty. Victorian morality is not always as just or wonderful as it seems and Jack is really the hero.

Great read!

Book Review: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Another Quirky Gem by Palahniuk

Not sure who Palahniuk is? Think Fight Club and Invisible 

I should know by now that Palahniuk is going to throw me some curves. I was braced for the twists and turns his story would provide but like usual, he still managed to surprise me. What I love is that his main characters, as well as those in supporting roles, are often beyond flawed but somehow I still grow to love them and root for them in their struggles.

Choke features the (not sure how it is but) lovable character of Victor. Victor is a medical school dropout who is smart and in survivor mode. He is trying to support the expensive care of his mother, with who he has a very complex and strained relationship (understatement), at a long term facility. There is quite a history between Victor and his mother. Through flashbacks we learn that Victor grew up in many foster homes over the years and his mother was a radical outlaw and must have experienced symptoms of mental illness long before his current dementia.

He really can't afford her care through his job at a historical village as a indentured servant so he has come up with a con to choke at expensive restaurants to get both a free meal and also donations as those who "save" him feel a need to continue to support him. Twisted? Of course.

Did I mention that Victor is also in a twelve step program for sexual addiction? Well that is of course part of the roller coaster ride that a Palahniuk novel takes and it's always a fun ride. Highly recommend this book - it is twisted fun.

Book Review: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimito

The first of many book reviews to close out 2012

I'm far behind. That's the truth. I think I took a little hiatus from just about everything to devote to the long and painful process of moving. We bought a new house in the fall and that consumed us. While I thought it was the frugal thing to do, to move ourselves rather than hire professionals, really took a life of its own.

While I feel we are officially settled in as we celebrate the holidays, I do still have to find things as everything has a new "home" or is still in the garage to be sorted. I took a hiatus from blogging and even cooking these last few months but I did continue to read. So in the next couple of days there will be several reviews of books to close out this year.

I really try to avoid collections of short stories for the most part. I don't know why this is but I think that because I'm a quick reader I want to have some sort of long term relationship with the characters. However, a couple of collections got past me this reading batch and this was one of them. Kitchen had two short stories both focusing on loss.

The first, Kitchen, is a first person perspective told by Mikage who has recently lost her grandmother who was her only living relative. Mikage finds comfort in the kitchen and in cooking in this time of loss. During the funeral she meets Yuichi, the young man from the flower shop that knew her grandmother, who invites her to live with him and his mother while she heals.

Through a series of events, Mikage and Yuichi find commonality and navigate through the grief of losing a loved one. The story is told in what first seems like simple terms but really has layers of depth in both the plot and the persons. The narrative is often poetic.

A second story, Moonlight Shadow, also deals with loss, this time with a boyfriend who died in a car crash. Again, relationships are borne through the loss but this time the story also contains elements of the supernatural or magical.

This book was translated from Japanese into English and I wonder of some of it was lost in that transition. However, the book remains lyrical and has a good pace. I would recommend this one.