Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett


 This is the story of 3 different women in a time vastly different from now, 1960's Jackson, Mississippi.  They are in different positions:  2 are black maids in the service of white middle class ladies, and one is a white middle class lady.

Aibilene is one of the maids...she's older than the other two women and nursing the heartbreak of having lost her son to an accident on his work site.  She works for Elizabeth Treelore, an aspiring socialite who consistently neglects her child, Mae Bo, in deference to her social life and pursuit of a perfect home.

Minny is the other of the maids...strong; she'll tell you she's got a mouth on her.  Mother to many, wife to an abusive husband she struggles to keep a job as a maid to the mother of Ms. Hilly, a job that is doomed.  Later, moving on to work for Miss Celia we see her for who she is:  a kind, caring woman looking out for others as much as herself.

Skeeter, the final of the women, is the daughter of a plantation owner.  She dreams of a life as a writer, a career to quite open to women in Jackson in the 60's.

As the story progresses, after hardships and wrongs done to the maids, the three women come together to tell tales of their lives as maids to middle class white women and what their daily lives are like, despite the inherent danger in their being discovered.

It's taken me a while to get my thoughts together coherently on what I thought and felt about this book.  Mixtures of sadness, hate, disbelief, shame and relief washed over me as I turned the pages.

I was sad for Aibie at the loss of her son.  Sad that Minny had to live her life attached to a man who did not treat her as any human should be treated.  Sad for little Mae Bo, confused about her mother's indifference, confused about why Aibie was a different color and thus treated differently.  My heart broke for that child each and every time her mother hurt her.  I loved Aibileen so much more every time she sat Mae Bo down and said "You smart. You sweet.  You important."

 Minny, Minny, Minny...she never could keep her mouth shut.  As a fellow person lacking tact, I understand.  She wants the best out of people,  and goodness knows she rarely gets to see it.  I watched the budding relationship between her and Celia with happiness and glee, while I watched her relationship with Ms. Hilly with steadily growing disbelief, then hatred.  By the end of the book I was thinking how nice it would be is Ms. Hilly could be hit by a car.  Her deceptions and plotting made her a villian for the books.

I had moments of shame in my race...knowing that even though this is a work of fiction, there were assuredly tales much worse that actually happened.  Shame that white people, and ANY people for that matter could treat another human the way some did.  One maid in the story confessed that her boss made her soak her hands in bleach every morning...according to many of the white women in the novel, blacks were dirty, covered in disease.  This woman had burns on her hands from the bleach.  Maids were accused of stealing and put in jail, despite the truth because the boss lady just didn't want them around any more.  Minny was labeled as a thief because she didn't want to work for Ms. Hilly.

I was RELIEVED to know that my family, always being poor never employed blacks such as portrayed in this novel, nor were we slave owners.  If anything WE were the maids and tenant workers.  I was relieved to see Ms. Skeeter growing in her knowledge of what was going on...growing as a person.  Her transformation was lovely.

This was a wonderfully written book, fully of strong believable characters.  It had me crying several times, especially at the end.  I strongly recommend it.

BBA Challenge: French Bread, or a trip to heaven



The next bread in the challenge that I created is Peter's french bread. I don't have words for how good this came out..slightly crunchy on the outside, perfect on the inside.  This is the best baguette that I've ever eaten, much less made.  I feel like an honest to goodness baker now.  They were so much easier than I thought they'd be, I can't believe that I haven't done this before.  I now promise to never buy french bread again.  Oh the sandwiches, pizza and garlic bread that I'm going to make!













First, yesterday I made the pate' fermentee'.  Funny how I thought that that and a "sponge" just sounded gross until I actually made them (well, a sponge still is a little).  Pate' fermentee' is basically just bread dough.  I has all of the same ingredients as the rest of the bread dough does, you just make it ahead.  I took it out of the fridge an hour before i was ready to begin, cut into pieces and let it sit to let the chill out.













Place the pate fermentee into the mixer bowl, added the dry ingredients, then the water and mixed for 1 minute on low until it formed a rough ball.













 Switched to the dough hook and kneaded for 9 minutes (it an extra 3 minutes to reach the windowpane effect.)













Place in a well oiled bowl, turn to coat and let rise 2 hours.  Peter says that if it doubles before the 2 hours, knead slightly to degas then let rise again until double original size.  That's what happened, so that's what I did.













Shape into 3 baguettes.  Let rise again another 75 minutes or until double.  Score diagonally with serrated knife.  Meanwhile prepare your oven as for a hearth.  I don't have a baking stone yet (want!!!) so I just put a heavy cookie sheet in as it was preheating.  When oven reached 500F I placed a loaf in (on the back of another cookie sheet), then poured hot water in the steam pan.  Sprayed the inside of the oven at 30 second intervals in the beginning twice, then reduced to 450 and baked 20 minutes, turning halfway through.













The result was a marvelous crunchy, chewy crust and fantastic crumb.    I'm so proud of myself!

See more at Pinch My Salt.

Menu Plan Monday: Now on Tuesday!!!


Well I'm a day behind.  My only excuse is that I'm tired.  I spent 8+ hours every day last week at the sewing machine trying to get garb ready for the Cutlasses and Curaisses event this weekend.



















Everything came out lovely but it exhausted me by the time the event rolled around.  Sunday was Sam's first T-Ball practice so no rest there...and yesterday I had housecleaning to do!  so here it is.


Sunday was Steaks, baked potatoes and zucchini with melted mozzarella.

Monday:  Broiled teriyai salmon, thai kitchen peanut noodles and salad

Tuesday:  Macaroni Bolognese

Wednesday:  Crock Pot Steak Tips, noodles, bread of some sort, cherry apricot crisp.

Thursday:  Uglies and salad.

Friday:  Grilled honey mustard chicken, roasted potatoes, carrots.

Saturday:  lunch at the scottish festival and faire, dinner chicken sandwiches with grilled mushroom vinaigrette.

Have a great week all!  See more menus or join in at orgjunkie.com.

What's On My Nightstand



This month is a slow reading month for me.  I used to go through several books a WEEK pre-twins.  That number dwindled substantially since I had them for obvious reasons but this month is a new record in low, what with getting our household goods, unpacking, decorating and getting ready for the SCA even this past weekend.  I do usually try to at read for at least 30 minutes at night no matter what, and being a relatively fast reader I can get through my reading list that way.

First up is  The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.



I usually try to read  a book before the movie it is based on comes out and this time was no exception, though parts were spoiled by the CONSTANT barrage of previews.  I'm glad to hear that the movie (which I haven't yet seen) differs a bit from the book.  It's the story of Percy, a troubled 12 year old, who finds himself repeated expelled from schools.  Now at a new school, the pattern appears to be repeating again, with trouble with other students and a few abnormally difficult teachers.  Again expelled, but with an ally in one teacher he goes home to his mom and abusive step father.  When on their way back from a short vacation with his mother they find themselves attacked by mysterious creatures and he ends up seeking refuge at a nearby summer camp pointed out by his mother.  Adventure and new friendships ensue.

If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series, then this is for you.  The similarities are endless..boy with a troubled life, mysterious missing parent(s) goes to a magical school/camp  for other kids like himself and finds friends and adventure.  What made this interesting for me were the characters taken from the Greek pantheon.  While usually portrayed more formally and austerely, they were down-to-earth, interesting and often humorous characters.  Give this book a whirl if you have time or encourage your pre-teens to read.  It's great.


Next up is The Gargoyle by Andrew Davison.



A man, specifically, a man who is a drug addict and porn star drives his car off of a cliff one evening after hallucinating a volley of arrows coming directly for him. His car bursts into flames and he becomes a victim horrifying burns and injuries.  While  in the hospital he meets a psychiatric patient named Marianne who is completely convinced that they have known each other in past lives.  While he continues his recovery she comes to him often telling stories of their past where he has been burned before.  They begin a love affair that has burned for centuries and continues during their remaining time together.

This synopsis is extremely simplified for such a complex, moving story.  The protagonist is a cynical atheist....his belief in nothing and promise to himself to end his own life see changes as the story progresses.  Marianne's insanity becomes more and more sane as the story goes on.  I find the historical details in the stories she tells fascinating and the entire journey beautiful, heartbreaking and at times hideous.  I truly couldn't recommend this book any more highly.

I am currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett and will post about that next time.

Upcoming reads for March are:

 

FNCC Challenge: Mario Batali Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina



This is my hands-down favorite dish to order in restaurants here in Napoli and when we go to Sorrento.  The sauce's appearance came out a bit different from what I've gotten in Sorrento, but very close and the taste was exact!  This is a lovely dish if you love gnocchi.  I must confess to using premade gnocchi...it's so easy to get good ready made here in Naples and difficult when your equipment (such as a food mill) is packed away and on a boat on it's way to the states, making gnocchi yourself is nearly impossible.  I followed the rest of the recipe exactly, however. Join us at I Blame My Mother for more of this week's entries.


Gnocchi All Sorrentina
Adapted from a recipe by Mario Batali at foodtv.com

Ingredients

Gnocchi dough:

  • 3 pounds russet potatoes
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 extra large egg
  • Pinch kosher salt

Sauce:

  • 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups basic tomato sauce, recipe follows
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella di bufala, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

Directions

Place the potatoes in a large pot and just cover with cold water. Boil the whole potatoes until they are soft, about 45 minutes. While still warm, peel the potatoes and pass them through a food mill onto a clean pasta board.
Make a well in the center of the potatoes and sprinkle with the flour. Place the egg and salt in the center of the well and, using a fork, stir the egg into the flour and potatoes. Bring the dough together, kneading gently until a ball is formed, and continue to knead for another 4 minutes, until the dough is dry to the touch. Cut a tennis-ball sized hunk of dough off the main ball and roll it into a dowel about 3/4-inch thick. Cut across the dowel to form pellets about 1 inch long. Flick each pellet down the tines of a fork to form the traditional gnocchi shape. Repeat with the remaining dough.
In a 14 to 16-inch frying pan, combine the pepper flakes, tomato sauce, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 15 minutes, or until the sauce is as thick as good porridge. (At this point the sauce could be refrigerated for up to 2 days).
When you are ready to serve the gnocchi, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt.
Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook until floating aggressively, 4 to 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the gnocchi to the pan with the sauce, using a slotted spoon. Turn the heat to medium and toss gently for about 30 seconds. Tear the basil leaves into a few pieces and add to the sauce along with the mozzarella cubes. Toss together for 30 seconds longer. Pour into a heated bowl and serve immediately.

Basic tomato sauce:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.
Yield: 4 cups

Happy Mardi Gras!!!!! Pt. 1


 

It's Fat Tuesday back home in the Big Easy, where I spent all of my childhood and a good chunk of my adulthood.  Mardi Gras is a New Orleans tradition, dating back to  the 18th century, but parades actually started rolling in 1857..it was the Krewe of Comus which still rolls today.  Parades roll for 2 weeks prior to Mardi Gras day, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Catholic church.
This cake is traditionally eaten during Mardi Gras season mostly at parties, at parties and at breakfast by me!  A small plastic baby or pecan is hidden in the cake after baking and the person who finds it is King or Queen for the rest of the party and traditionally would host the next party.

Being hard to find outside of Louisiana (the crap they sell at target here doesn't count IMO) I decided to make my own this year instead of ordering.  I had never made it before, but now that I see how easy it is, I'll be doing it all the time!  This recipe is, in my humble opionion, every bit as good as the cakes found at the best bakeries back home.



I didn't take pictures of the early process of the dough, but the recipe is dead on.  Scald the milk, remove from heat, add butter and let melt.  Put yeast into bowl of mixer, add water, let bubble for 10 minutes.  Add the milk and butter mix.  With paddle attachment, mix in the eggs, nutmeg and sugar.  Mix in the flour one cup at a time.  Change to the hook attachment and let the machine knead it for 5-7 minutes.  Remove and place in oiled bowl.  Cover and let rise 2 hours or until double.  Punch down.













Meanwhile mix up your filling.  Set aside.













Here you have two options.  You can cut the dough in half and make two smaller king cakes, or make one big one like I did.  The process is the same either way.  Roll out on floured counter to a rectangle.













Sprinkle the filling evenly.

 
 Roll tightly into a cylinder.

 

Place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment.  Put something in the middle to keep the hole from closing then cover and let rise another 45 minutes.

When it's doubled again, remove the insert and bake at 325 for 30-35 minutes or until golden.  Let cool a bit.

 
 Meanwhile, make your colored sugar.  You can use regular granulated or crystals.  I used food coloring (4- drops yellow and green each in their own bags, 2 drops each red and blue in the purple bag. Use more if needed.)  Shake shake shake.



Mix a thin solution of confectioner's sugar and water and paint on the cake, then sprinkle your colored sugars, alternating colors.













Then make a thicker icing with confectioners sugar and water and drizzle all over.  Hide the baby and it's ready to eat!













Ce les bon temps roulez!!!! (Let the good times roll!)

Valentines and Chinese New Year

We had a very lovely day...

 

First thing the kids saw when they got up...lots of potential cavities here!
It was also Chinese new year, so we had a small do for that:


Asian Noodle Salad recipe here at Pioneer Woman.


 
Bourbon chicken, recipe here. 

And finally, blood orange slice and fortune cookies.  Happy New Years all!

Menu Plan Monday: Lots of work this week!

Next weekend is our first SCA event here in Jacksonville.  For the unitiated, the SCA stands for Society for Creative Anachronism.  We're a group of people who recreate and re-enact the time period between 500AD-1600AD.  We're a fun group of crazies who love learning martial arts of the period,

 
(this is my handsome husband, he's recreating a 16th century samurai)



costuming,

 
(The whole group of us in Naples.  I really need a picture that isn't of me at 5 months pregnant with twins, especially since they're 15 months now.)


and basically doing everything MOSTLY how things were done back then (minus the misogyny and plague.)  I'm in need of some new gowns for my period (roughly 1190) so I'll be working on that this week. The kids could use a few things also.


Add that to the fact that I'm still technically unpacking boxes.  I'm down to the stuff we've had in basements and storage that we don't regularly look at, but still needs to be done.  I'm completely burnt out on unpacking, but I'm forcing myself to do a bit a day. On to the menu:

Sunday:  We had Blueberry French Toast, bacon and eggs in a basket cut with the heart shaped cutter for breakfast, pizza in St. Augustine's Old Town for lunch and for dinner we celebrated Chinese new year with Pioneer woman's Asian Noodle Salad,  this bourbon chicken that I didn't take good photos of but was fantastic, rice, fortune cookies and orange slices. I also got the have Sake for the first time in 3 years, because it just wasn't available in Naples.

Monday:  Guy Fieri's Jagerschnitzel in Mushroom Gravy (for FNCC) and spaetzel. I'll also be baking some king cake.

Tuesday:  Happy Mardi Gras! Crockpot jambalaya and the king cake that I made on Monday.

Wednesday:  Giada DiLaurentis' Beef and Cheese Manicotti for FNCC.  Also some cinnamon raisin bread for BBA challenge.

Thursday:  Amish Breakfast Casserole, bacon, biscuits.

Friday:  Cheeseburger Mac, chocolate almond torte.

Saturday:  The SCA event.  We don't stay for feast because they tend to run at least 2-3 hours and the kids just don't hang for that so we'll probably do drive through on the way home.



Join us for more menus and ideas at orgjunkie.com!

Crockpot Wednesday: Bread pudding



By now ya'll know I'm a New Orleans girl, so you know I love some bread pudding.  I've tried it lots of ways...regular, coconut rum, butterscotch, chocolate.  So when I found this recipe today I know I had to try it.  It didn't hurt the cause that the previous idea that I had for this week's crockpot wednsday ended in disaster.

I was supposed to make a BBQ Meatloaf.  All the ingredients came together, I lined the pot with foil like it said, added the meat and the sauce.  The recipe called for it to cook on low for 6-8 hours so I figured 4-5 on high would do it.

Nope.

At 6 pm it was mostly raw.  That was at the 5 hour mark.  It went into the oven and I promised to not use that crock pot again (it came from Italy, and is on the European power system so it may not work correctly.)  Luckily, I have another crock pot and this recipe is just fine and dandy.

 

Into the pot put 8 cubed slices of bread, a chopped apple and however many raisins float your boat.



Pour over it a mix of 4 eggs, 2  cups of milk, 1/4 c sugar, 1/4 cup melted butter and 1/2 tsp cinnamon.  Stir and cook for 1 hour on high, then 3 hours on low.  I promise low is right this time.




It'll be all bubbly and brown and smelling like summerland when it's finished.  To make the sauce melt 2 tbsp margarine or butter in a saucepan.  Then whisk in 2 tbsp flour until smooth.  Gradually add the 1 c water, 3/4 c sugar and 1 tsp vanilla.  Bring to a boil and whisk constantly for 2 minutes until thick.  Spoon over the pudding as you serve.  Makes a lot.

BBA Challenge: Focaccia, or the best thing I've baked ever.



I'm following this challenge out of order...that bothers me a little bit as I'm slightly OCD and not following steps is one of my triggers.  However, the next bread in the challenge for me was cinnamon rolls and those just don't go with lasagna (I'm guessing.)

Peter Reinhart declares in the introduction to this recipe that most people are eating bad focaccia...and after having tried this recipe I can state that if you haven't been eating this recipe, then he's right.  This was the most delicious focaccia that I've had.  Light, moist, flavorful due to the herb oil...I'll make this many times.













I mixed the ingredients (copyrighted, can't post sorry) in my mixer with the paddle attachment until they formed a soft, sticky ball, adding a bit extra flour so that it stuck to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides.  Then I switched to the dough hook attachment and let the machine knead the dough for 7 minutes.  Meanwhile I made a bed of flour.  With a wet spoon I scooped out the dough onto the bed of flour, topped with flour and patted into a rectangle.  Let sit 5 minutes.

 

Stretched and folded to twice the width and folded like a letter..let rise 30 minutes.  Repeat twice more.



Mine looked rather pathetic at the end of that...still learning how to manipulate the dough.













Meanwhile, make the herb oil.  I used a cup of olive oil though the recipe calls for 2...add whatever herbs you like.  I threw in rosemary, chopped garlic, thyme, basil, oregano, paprika, salt and pepper.  Let the oil warm, then remove from heat and let it steep while the dough is rising.

 

Pour half of the herb oil over the dough...

 Then using just the tips of my fingers I poked dents into the dough, moving it outward towards the edges of the pan.  It didn't reach all the way but that's ok.  Covered loosely with plastic wrap and set into the fridge to proof overnight.

Removed today 4 hours before I wanted to serve it.  I just had to do a little bit more poking, the dough spread and filled the pan!  I added the rest of the oil to the top and let it sit loosely covered for 3 hours.  



Preheat oven to 500.  Place the pan in the oven and reduce heat to 450.  Baked 10 min, then turned it 180 and baked another 10 minutes.  It was golden and beautiful.
I made a vinaigrette to serve as dipping sauce with basically the herb oil and a touch of vinegar.  My husband enjoyed it with the marinara sauce I made for the lasagna we were having it with.  It was a complete success even though the edges weren't quite straight...and hey, I always feel that it looks more homemade and good if it's a little imperfect looking.

Maybe next I'll do the cinnamon rolls...