Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year-End Book Roundup

Back in May, I posted about my favorite books of the first 5 months of 2009. (You can find that list here: Sunday Book Recommendations, though I'll include a cheat sheet for those too lazy to click the link):

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver (serious novel)
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (short stories)
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken (memoir)
The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman (light novel)

I still stand by those four books, but now that my reading year is just about over, I wanted to add a few more. They don't exactly fit into the same categories as the first four--it turns out that Jhumpa Lahiri's book of short stories was the only one I read this year. (That seems wrong, somehow, but so be it.) I'd also like to note that this is purposely not a Best Books list. (The fact of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi turning up on so many year-end Best lists shows how subjective the whole thing is.) These were just the books I enjoyed the most, whatever their category.

Memoir: What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen. This actually is an interesting companion to Elizabeth McCracken's memoir. But while McCracken's is the story of a child lost, Cohen's is the story of a child found. At 44, after being told she's infertile and in menopause, Cohen discovers that she's 6 months pregnant. Her story of her ambivalence about her high-risk pregnancy--and the daughter it produced--is brief but deftly told and moving.

Epistolary Novel: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Okay, admittedly this is the only epistolary novel I've read in recent years. But still, I wasn't sure how to categorize it otherwise. This book was a bestseller and has been written about a gazillion times. For that reason, I avoided it. Until I didn't, and I ended up really enjoying it. Despite the twee title, the book itself isn't twee. In her first and only novel, Mary Ann Shaffer manages to write about a serious topic--the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II--with a very light touch. (Shaffer, sadly, got sick while she was writing the book and died before it was published. Her niece, Annie Barrows, a writer herself, finished it for her.) As letters fly back and forth between the main character, a journalist named Juliet, and her newfound friends on Guernsey, it's hard not to be taken in by their growing friendship. This year's lesson in, "occasionally good books do end up being bestsellers."

Mysteries: The Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny

Louise Penny's mysteries were one of my great discoveries a few years back. Usually with mystery series, by the time I discover them, the series is well established, and I have to go way back and start at the beginning. I found Louise Penny's first novel, Still Life, on the new fiction shelf at the library, some time after it had first been published but before the next book was out. That's given me the opportunity to follow Louise Penny's burgeoning mystery writing career with great pleasure. It's not just that Penny seems to be a lovely person; she's also a good writer. In Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, she's created a detective of depth and charm, and in Three Pines, the rural Quebec village where most of the books are set, she's created a place I'd like to move to immediately except for the rather unsettling frequency of murders that happen there. Penny's characters are quirky and flawed and compelling, and the mysteries solid.

I haven't liked all five of them equally, but I very much enjoyed both that came out this year, A Rule Against Murder and The Brutal Telling, with the latter especially strong. I'm delighted that Louise Penny seems to have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim for her work, and I'm looking forward to more of the lovely Gamache and more of that idyllic but murder-ridden village, Three Pines.

Novel both light and serious: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. Although I had read and enjoyed one of Tropper's earlier novels, it hadn't prepared me for how much pleasure I would get from Tropper's latest. This was a book that had me snorting inappropriately in various public places as I read it--the library, the waiting room at the garage--but had a serious undertone that serves as ballast for the levity. The novel's narrator, Judd Foxman, is recently separated from his wife--who, he learns in a particularly unfortunate way, has been sleeping with his boss for months--when he finds out that his ill father has died and that the father's last wish (despite being an atheist) was for his whole family to sit shiva for him for the full 7 days. The Foxman family is exquisitely dysfunctional, and their forced togetherness is a perfect set up for the novel. There are too many good parts to name; just read it.

Best Audio Book I haven't finished listening to yet: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Okay, so that's not really much of a category, but I wanted to make sure I wrote about this one, even though I'm only about halfway through it. Bradley is a 70 year old Canadian who'd never been to England until after he'd written this novel, yet his narrator is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives at Buckshaw, a stately house in the British countryside. Flavia is precocious, in love with chemistry, a bane to her older sisters and determined to solve the mystery of how a dead man (with the villainly name of Horace Bonepenny) ends up in their cucumber patch. She's a wonderful narrator, and I loved his story (in an interview) about how he was actually writing a different book when "Flavia walked onto the page . . . and simply hijacked the story." Wisely, Bradley stopped writing the other book and gave Flavia her due. The narrator of the audio book, Jayne Entwhistle, has a quirky and interesting (though occasionally annoying) voice that seems just perfect for Flavia and all her eccentricities. This is the first of a series, and it's one I'm looking forward to.

So, that's my list for the year, a year that featured a rather significant amount of re-reading of beloved childhood books (which I think jacked up my overall number of books read, which still came in under 100, including audio books--a bit of a disappointment). But it will soon be a new year, and my reading slate will be clean again. I look forward to whatever literary discoveries 2010 has for all of us. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Celebration Chocolate Cream Pie

It must be said that in this household, at least, December hasn't been a particularly celebratory month. The 5K on December 5 may have been the high point. A few days after that, I trekked down to Baystate hospital and had a PICC line put into my left arm--it's a very thin tube that's threaded through a vein in my upper arm up to my chest. Through this, I've been able to give myself the IV antibiotics I was prescribed for Lyme, once it was apparent that the oral antibiotics wouldn't be enough. The 45 minutes or so that it takes to do the infusion is fine--it's the other 23 hours and 15 minutes every day that I've had the tube in my arm that I mind. It's been 2 1/2 weeks now, and I no longer spend my waking hours thinking, "oh my god, there's a thing in my arm." But I am still frustrated by the limitations--I'm not supposed to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds with my left arm or do any repetitive motion, which makes exercising a challenge. (So, basically, I haven't run since the 5K.) Plus, I can't get the dressing wet, so I have to shower wearing a plastic sleeve. I do realize that there are people who live with PICC lines for much longer than 3 weeks, and really, I admire their fortitude. Mostly what it's showed me is that I'm a very bad patient. It turns out that I'm not, actually, particularly stoic.

But the good news is that I'm down to my last few days of medicine. December 31 is day 21, and I am looking forward to starting 2010 IV free. (I was very disappointed when I realized that I would have to break my trend of starting new decades in India--in 1989, I spent New Year's Eve in Delhi (at the Delhi branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, of all places), and in 1999, I was in lovely, lovely Goa. This year's New Year's highlight is going to be showering without any plastic on me, but so be it.)

But enough about PICC lines and Lyme and crankiness. This post is supposed to be about pie. Next week, perhaps, I'll post some nice healthy soup recipes, figuring that everyone will be feeling abstemious after the excess of the holidays. But before you become abstemious, I'd recommend making this pie. A last hurrah of excess, if you will.

Before I got involved with Alex, I had never given much thought to chocolate cream pie. But for reasons I'm still not sure about, it began appearing on holiday menus a few years ago. A couple of times, I assisted in the pie making. And this year, I took it on myself, twice, for Thanksgiving and Christmas both. The main virtues of this particular pie are that it's easy to make and delicious to eat. But even better, it must be made in advance, which is a fine quality in a pie during holidays when oven time is at a premium. (And even then, the crust only needs to bake for 15 minutes, and that's it.) Basically, you make a pie crust, you make a thick chocolate pudding, and then you combine them. Voila.

A couple of notes. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers for the crust. It's good that way, but it's equally good with ginger cookies. I've discovered that Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps make a fine crust.

I melt the chocolate the same way I now melt butter if at all possible--I put it in a stainless steel mixing bowl and stick it in the oven when it's pre-heating. Once, recently, this didn't work--the chocolate never really melted for reasons I never figured out--but usually it works just fine. Just make sure the chocolate is broken up into little pieces ahead of time.

The one tricky moment occurs when you're making the custard. You stir and stir and stir, and all of a sudden it thickens up, and then you have to take the custard off the stove immediately lest the eggs cook too much. (It's slightly nervewracking but not nearly as nervewracking as my first experience with a candy thermometer, making caramel for the caramel corn Molly recently wrote about in Orangette.) After that, you swirl it through a strainer to get any lumps and bumps out, then mix it with the chocolate. Then you chill it in the bowl for a few hours and then in the pie crust, overnight, if you like.

The pie is rich and silky and decadent and especially good with whipped cream. And while the regal Lino (also known as Rigolini), pictured at the top, could resist the luscious piece of pie placed right next to him so temptingly, it's unlikely that Loofa, his fatter, fluffier sister, could do the same. And nor, for that matter, could I.

Yield: Makes 8 to 10 servings
Active Time: 45 min
Total Time: 8 hr (includes cooling and chilling)

For crust
1 1/3 cups chocolate wafer crumbs (from about 26 cookies such as Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers) (Can substitute ginger cookies as well)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

For filling
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
5 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), melted
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla

For topping
3/4 cup chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar

Make crust:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together crumbs, butter, and sugar and press on bottom and up side of a 9-inch pie plate (1-quart capacity). Bake until crisp, about 15 minutes, and cool on a rack.

Make filling:

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and yolks in a 3-quart heavy saucepan until combined well, then add milk in a stream, whisking. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking, 1 minute (filling will be thick).

Force filling through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, then whisk in chocolates, butter, and vanilla. Cover surface of filling with a buttered round of wax paper and cool completely, about 2 hours.

Spoon filling into crust and chill pie, loosely covered, at least 6 hours.

Make topping:

Just before serving, beat cream with sugar in a bowl using an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks, then spoon on top of pie.

Cooks' note:
Pie (without topping) can be chilled up to 1 day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My First 5K!

The exciting news of the weekend is that I ran my first 5K yesterday. I've been thinking about doing one for awhile, but 5Ks have come and gone this fall without me running any of them. I think I was more determined about this one, partly because of being so irritated about having Lyme disease. So, I guess I ran this in the spirit of, "Take that, you blasted Lyme bacteria." Or something like that.

Basically, what I learned is that if you can run 3.1 miles outside on your own, there's no reason you can't run 3.1 miles among hundreds of other people doing the same thing. What I liked about this race is that it was huge (more than 4000 people, with 2500 or so walking and 1500 or so running) and not particularly intimidating. Yes, there were elite runners up in front who got to leave right when the gun went off (not actually a real gun, more of a "ready, set, go") rather than nearly 5 minutes later, but there were also old people and young people and babies tucked into strollers and people who looked rather stout to be runners and people in costumes--a polar bear and a penguin, as per the logo above, a tortoise who ran at the very, very end and a whole host of marshmallows, as befitting a run at which hot chocolate was served at the finish line.

I'd been a bit nervous ahead of time, given that I've been on Doxycycline for more than 2 weeks, and I'd been feeling a bit queasy in the few days before the race. There was also the fact that I never exercise in the morning, if I can possibly help it, and I don't particularly like the cold. (It was 30 degrees at the 10 a.m. race time.) I left my stuff at Alex's house and walked over, to avoid any parking insanity, and he'd insisted that I wear an extra fleece and my hat, but when I got there, there didn't seem to be anyplace to leave them. Thankfully, the nice folks at the Chameleons hair salon--all of whom were running or walking themselves--let me leave them there.

The only thing that surprised me was that there weren't more people I knew there. I ran into my friend Michael at the end and saw my friend Susan, who was volunteering, but that was about it. The one mean thing I thought about the course was that the only real hills were just after the 2 mile mark when the course cut across the Smith campus. I'd seen Susan before the race, and I saw her right before the second Smith hill, and though she was wearing hiking shoes, a down jacket and long underwear, she ran up the hill with me, which I thought was very nice of her.

I still don't know my exact time, since I left at least 4 minutes after the official start, but it was somewhere around 35-36 minutes, so just under 12 minute miles. No one, including me, would say that was at all fast, but for a person who didn't run for 20 years, I thought it was just fine. The even better number is that the run raised more than $90,000 for Safe Passage, which is a local domestic violence organization. (Update: The final results are in. My time was 35:13, 11:21 a mile. I'm pleased that it was closer to 11 minutes than 12 a mile, and I was right that I left a full 5 minutes after the gun.)

And afterward, after I'd collected my mug and chatted with Michael and drunk my hot chocolate (slightly burned, alas) and fetched my jacket and hat from Chameleons, I wandered back to Alex's via the new winter farmer's market (where I got some spinach) and Cornucopia (where I got some Sidehill Farm yogurt) and the Pleasant Street Video store, where I got some movies. I ran into Andy and showed off my race number (3239). And after tea with Alex and a few more errands, I came home and got to feel virtuous for the rest of the day, which is the advantage, I learned, to morning exercise, especially at 106% of your maximum heart rate. (Well, so said my trusty heart rate monitor which, I have to assume, was mistaken.)

And one more time, I have to give a shout out to Couch to 5K (which I first wrote about earlier this year here) because without being talked through an easy, systematic way to start running, I'm not sure I would have done it. And now here I am, one very slow 5K down, thinking about when I might run another.