Summer Reading List

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One of my Summer Mini-Bucket List items is to read 12 books by the end of August.  My intention is to mix books that satisfy the Popsugar Reading Challenge with a few faith-based books and what I consider lighter, fluffier choices.  I’ve compiled a tentative list of the books I plan to devour in the next few months.  I say tentative because, other than the Popsugar books which I have to read to meet the challenge, I’ll be letting my feelings dictate my selections.  Right now the reading list is pretty fluffy because I just finished  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by  Stephen Covey and am in need of some mindless (but well-executed) entertainment.  That may or may not change as the summer progresses.  In anticipation of my fickle feelings, I’ve added some alternative choices just in case nothing I’ve officially listed is tempting me.

Summer Reading List:

  1. The Girl With All the Gifts by Mike Carey (a book recommended by a stranger, audiobook)
  2. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (a book published in 2016)
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a book and its prequel – this would be the prequel to Jane Eyre which I already read)
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (a book with a blue cover)
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert (a science fiction novel)
  6. Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
  7. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  8. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  9. Still Life by Louise Penny
  10. A Dangerous Place by Jaqueline Winspear
  11. The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel
  12. Made to Crave by Lysa Terkeurst

Waiting in the wings (just in case):  The Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan , The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Garielle Zevin, A Man Called Ove by Fredric Backman, Out of the the House of Bread by Preston Yancy, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson.

I’m looking forward to settling in with these books and only wish I had time to read them all…

What books are you looking forward to reading this summer?

 

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 18 (Inspiration: December)

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Are your feeling overwhelmed or scroogy yet?  I hope not, but it can happen to the best of us in the midst of endless preparations, activities, and celebrations.  Perhaps you need a time out?  Grab a hot drink, make yourself comfortable and take a few minutes to recharge.  I’ve found some no-pressure links to inspire and recharge your spirit this holiday season.  It’s OK to allow  yourself some down time.  Enjoy!

Inspiration: December

  • Taking cookies to the next level.  SweetAmbs creates the cutest penguin cookies ever!  If you have time, check out her snowglobe cookies, too. ( I just enjoy watching the videos and listening to the music).
  • Food 52 shares even more baking tips than I do.  Rolling dough between pieces of plastic wrap when it is still soft and then chilling it is genius.  I’ll have to give that a try.
  • Snowflake bread.  Beautiful!
  • Slowing down the holiday madness.  Laura Gaskill provides very doable words of wisdom.
  • Ann Voskamp takes the matter even more seriously.  She doesn’t just want to slow Christmas down, she wants to turn it upside down.
  • This advice on decorating for Christmas from The Lazy Genius Collective continues the theme of mindful Christmas preparations.
  • Two holiday weekends are looming on the horizon.  Read this for some suggestions on how to spend the time off.  I see much movie watching, book reading and game playing in my future.
  • Are you feeling a bit crafty?  These paper snowflakes look pretty easy and are very pretty.
  • For book lovers: Check out NPR’s Best Books of 2015.  A very interesting list.  Because I’ve been working so hard to reduce my To Be Read (TBR) pile, I’ve hardly read any of the books mentioned.
  • Check this list out from Live Renewed for “life changing” faith-based reading recommendations.
  • Even though I probably won’t finish Popsugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge ( I still have 9.5 books to go), the 2016 Reading Challenge is posted.  It sounds very tempting.
  • If you love A Christmas Carol as much as I do, you might enjoy seeing the home Charles Dickens lived in while he was establishing his career as a writer.  You can take a tour here at Houzz.
  • My favorite secular Christmas tune…

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 16 (Tips and Tricks for the Best Christmas Cookies Ever)

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Baking is an exacting process.  It’s one of the reasons I choose it as a way to relax.  It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it really isn’t.  Because I have to pay attention to what I am doing and follow all the steps in the recipe, I can’t multi-task and I can’t rush through the process.  Baking forces me to slow down and be mindful.  Plus, it is so sensually satisfying.  The taste of creamed butter and sugar, the smell of vanilla and spices, the silky feel of flour, the riot of sanding sugar colors.  The house smells delicious as the cookies bake and then everyone can enjoy the yummy results.

While I was writing this post, I found myself thinking about some of the cookie baking wisdom I’ve acquired over the years.  My unique arsenal of tips and tricks have come from a wide variety of sources.  Some have been handed down from more experienced bakers in my family (i.e., Nana and Mom, etc.) and some grew out of a desperate need to solve a frustrating baking problem.  Other tips developed from happy accidents or were gleaned from baking blogs and articles.  Taken together, these bits of wisdom have significantly decreased the frustration level and increased the fun factor of cookie baking for me.  Since Christmas time is the zenith of cookie baking activity, I thought I’d share some of my best tips and tricks.  Hopefully, you’ll find something to increase you own cookie baking pleasure or efficiency.

Ingredients

  • Use fresh, best quality ingredients like eggs, butter, baking soda, baking powder, etc.  Quality ingredients increases your chances of producing quality cookies.  At least you are building a solid foundation.  I put dates on my baking soda, baking powder and spices so that I can keep track of freshness.
  • Use unsalted butter.  I used to think that the emphasis on unsalted butter was one of those useless pieces of trendy advice.  Not so.  After reading somewhere that salted butter contains a higher concentration of water which causes cookies to spread more when baked, I switched to unsalted butter for my chocolate chip cookie recipe.  TADA! – plump, perfect cookies.  I’m a convert.  Unless otherwise stated, use unsalted butter.

Favorite Tools

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), you can’t bake well if you don’t have the right equipment.  Beyond measuring cups and spoons, spatulas, bowls, a fridge and an oven, there are a few tools that are essential to my success as a cookie baker.

  • Flat cookie sheets without sides.  I’ve tried all kinds of cookie sheets.  Hands down, I get the best results with the flat, sideless variety.  Cookies bake evenly and are so easy to put on and take off the sheets.   (Note: I have no preference for color or surface type because of my next tool.)
  • Parchment paper.  What a miracle worker!  It’s the perfect non-stick surface for any type of cookie (except maybe spritz that need a sticky surface) and can be used on any cookie sheet.  Because of its light color, cookie bottoms don’t brown too much.  And, it can be re-used and makes clean-up a breeze.
  • A variety of scoops.  Drop cookies became infinitely easier to manage when varying sizes of ice cream scoops were introduced.  I bought my scoops from Pampered Chef years ago; I use them all the time because drop cookies are my go-to type of cookie and they are still going strong.  Using scoops increases the efficiency of the cookie baking process and the uniformity of the size of the cookies.  It’s a win-win, really.  I can make the cookies faster and they look better.
  • KitchenAid Mixer. It’s my BFF when I’m baking.  It does the heavy work of creaming the butter and sugars while I combine the dry ingredients and then tirelessly mixes everything together.  I waited a long time to purchase my royal blue powerhouse.  Although my kids missed having two beaters to lick at first, I have never looked back.
  • Large cooling racks.  Cookies need to cool completely before they are stored. They also need to get off the baking sheets so that more cookie dough can fulfill its destiny.   Large cooling racks = more cookies cooling at one time = efficiency.

Best Practices

  • Read the whole recipe before you start and then follow. every. step.  Why?  See below.
  • Measure ingredients exactly.  Although baking seems like magic (and I’d still argue that some magic is involved), it’s really about chemistry.  For the chemistry to do what it’s supposed to do, you need to follow the directions and measure ingredients accurately.  Period.  End of story.  Non-negotiable.
  • Allow butter to soften on the counter.  Yes, it takes time and some planning.  But,  on the counter, butter will soften evenly and to the appropriate temperature  every time.  This is very good for your cookies, so just do it.
  • Bring other ingredients to room temperature, too.  When all the guests at the party are warmed up,  they mingle with ease.  It works the same way with your cookie dough ingredients.  Let them warm up so they have a better chance of getting along.
  • Don’t cream the butter and sugar too long.  When butter is softened correctly, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of creaming with the sugar should be just about perfect.  If you cream for a shorter time than that, the butter and sugar don’t emulsify properly.  Longer than 3 minutes and too much air is introduced into the dough.  Cookies will then rise extra high as they cook and then deflate when they cool.  Sad, deflated cookies are just… sad.  Do follow the recipe, though.  There may be a very good reason you need to cream the butter and sugar for 7 minutes.
  • When adding dry ingredients, only mix the dough until dry ingredients are completely incorporated, then stop.  Over-beating the dough after the flour has been added can active the gluten in the flour.  Instead of tender cookies that melt in your mouth, you’ll be chewing on hockey pucks.  Also, use the lowest setting on your mixer as you incorporate the dry ingredients for the same reason.  The best policy at this stage in the process is to treat your cookie dough with tender, loving care.
  • Don’t crowd the baking sheet.  Cookies need room to grow.  Make note of the spacing suggested in your recipe and follow it.  If no guidance is offered, 2 inches is usually a pretty safe buffer zone.  If you don’t want your cookies looking like conjoined twins, pay attention to spacing.
  • When making rolled cookies, keep everything as chilled as possible.  Making rolled cookies can quickly turn into a nightmare.  The trick is to keep everything cold so that dough keeps its shape and doesn’t stick to anything.  I divide my dough in half so I always have some dough in the refrigerator chilling while I’m working with the other half.  If you’re like me and don’t have a naturally cool marble surface to work on, keep your counter chilled with a gallon plastic bag full of ice when you aren’t working on it.  It also helps to chill the cookie cut-outs before they go in the oven; they keep their shape better while they bake.  Trust me, chilling reduces the exasperation level exponentially with cut-out cookies.

I’m going to wrap up this long-winded piece of advice now.  I’m always looking for ways to improving my baking skills.  Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add?  Gingerbread and spritz cookies still make me want to curse and pull my hair out in clumps so advice related to those cookies would be especially appreciated.  Happy baking!

 

 

 

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 9 (What I Like, Christmas Version)

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Some things I truly enjoy about Christmastime:

  • Belly-laughing through Christmas Vacation with my family.
  • Baking (and eating) cookies while listening to Christmas music when I’m home alone.
  • Giving those cookies as gifts to family and friends.
  • Walks around the neighborhood late at night to enjoy the lights and decorations.
  • Candles that smell like pine.
  • Harney & Sons Holiday tea.  The smell alone is perfection.
  • Marking the days until Christmas with a well-loved Advent calendar.
  • Wrapping pretty presents and giving them away.
  • Attending a quiet Christmas Eve candle lighting service.  It’s the calm after the storm of holiday preparations.
  • Sending and receiving Christmas cards.
  • Reading the Christmas story first thing on Christmas morning.
  • Christmas brunch (fruit salad, French toast casserole with maple syrup, sausage, orange juice and sour cream coffee cake) complete with English crackers.

There are so many simple blessing to be found at this time of year.  I’m trying to be more mindful and appreciative of those things that are meaningful to me  so that I don’t become overwhelmed by the preparations of the season and the added requirements on my time and attention.

What do you enjoy about this holiday season?  

 

A Little Yule Cheer: Day 7 (A Book Lover’s Gift Guide)

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My bookish Christmas wish list:

  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  • The Lake House by Kate Morton
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Practice of the Presence of  God by brother Lawrence
  • Ovenly by Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga
  •  Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan
  • Boho Crochet: 30 Hip and Happy Projects by Martingale

What books are you hoping Santa brings?