Macaron Mayhem: Conquering the French Dessert 1 Batch at a Time

Books & Recipes – French macarons are my guilty pleasure.  I love the light, crispy yet chewy texture of the delicate cookies, and the sweet, buttery filling ranging from buttercream to chocolate ganache.  Intimidated as I was, I decided to give the fanciest of French desserts a shot.

Naturally, my first stop in my macaron adventure was our library, where I collected some cookbooks, including: The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer, Bake it, don’t fake it! by Heather Bertinetti, and Bouchon Bakery by Sebastien Rouxel.

The Art of the French Pastry and Bake It, Don’t Fake It were both very helpful in introducing me to the world of French pastries, including detailed baking guides as well as helpful hints for novice bakers.  Bouchon Bakery is a beautifully photographed cookbook that made me believe I too could create Instagram worthy delicacies.  Additionally, I requested Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes by Cecile Cannone through Interlibrary Loan,  which features a ton of recipes for both macaroon shells and fillings.

The first batch was an absolute failure and did not reach fruition.  Anyone who has made macarons will tell you how  crucial it is not to overbeat your egg whites; and mine ended up looking like a pile of soapy egg suds.  Yuck.

The batter was still fairly lumpy in my second batch but I persevered, hoping everything would magically work itself out, which somehow, it did!  My third attempt went 1,000 times better.  With the assistance of my sous-chef (aka: Mom), I managed to whip the egg whites into shiny, perfectly stiff peaks.  With the grace of an experienced baker, she showed me how to gently (so as not to collapse the fluffy batter) fold in the dry ingredients.

Three more batches and 12 hours (yes, TWELVE hours) later, I could bake no more, with over 100 macarons.  With some fancily piped Vanilla Buttercream (recipe courtesy of Cecile Cannone’s Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes), even I was impressed by my handiwork.

 

Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau

Book – Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a 911 operator, to be on the receiving end of any number of emergencies and daily life struggles, never quite knowing what that next phone call will bring?  Needing to respond clearly, quickly, without hesitation.  I can’t imagine the pressure and anxiety of worrying whether you helped someone, and especially if your help came too late.

Caroline Burau shares her experiences working as an emergency dispatch operator in Answering 911: Life in the Hot SeatWhile weaving in details from her past and personal life, Caroline composes a relatively chronological account of her work as a 911 dispatcher.  Reading the memoir, it feels as if we the readers are actually shadowing the author through her daily work.  Because of this writing approach, it’s easy to picture the dispatch center’s environment.  We see the inner workings of the center, and watch Caroline’s as she first becomes an operator through her decision to leave the job.  I appreciated that the author doesn’t try to romanticize her career as a dispatcher.  The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about this job is “Wow!  That must be really exciting and she must have a lot of crazy stories!”  Which isn’t true, as Caroline points out.  More often than not it is not emergencies that come through the phones, but day to day struggles, claims of stolen items, neighbor complaints…etc.

Caroline is honest and to the point, detailing the highs and lows of the job, it’s impact on her life, and through it all, her desire to help people.  Her writing style is informative, but not really humorous as most memoirists I tend to read.  When we are not learning about her career, readers gain insight into Caroline’s own personal thoughts/mind, encountering her inner demons, self-doubt, and desire to make a difference.

 

Pogue’s Basics: Money: Essential Tips and Shortcuts about Beating the System by David Pogue

Book – I love to read books about saving money. Pogue’s book focuses on ways to save that don’t require a lot of time or lifestyle changes. One chapter highlights shopping hacks, such as the timing of purchases, finding online discounts and maximizing Amazon prime, coupons and gift cards. For the home, he discusses cutting the cord (from cable) and methods of economizing heating and cooling. The book also covers cars, travel and tax tips. One chapters details things you can do to earn money and another considers your existing financial arrangements. His writing style is casual and easy to understand. A fun, quick read that just may end up saving you a few dollars. Pogue also wrote Pogue’s Basics: Life: Essential Tips and Shortcuts for Simplifying Your Day.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Audiobook – I could recommend the book version of this title, but I won’t.  Don’t get me wrong, the paper version of Norse Mythology is not in any way bad; it’s beautifully written, lyrical and fascinating, every bit what you’d expect of America’s leading myth-drenched fantasy writer retelling the tales of his favorite pantheon.  But a large part of the charm of the book is its essentially aural nature.  This is a text that is written to be heard, prose as hyper-aware of its cadence and meter as any poetry, and the voice it’s written for is the author’s own.  So do yourself a favor and borrow the audiobook version instead of the paper book for the full Neil Gaiman experience–unless, and only unless, you plan to read it aloud yourself to a very lucky loved one.

As a book, Norse Mythology does exactly what it says on the cover: it retells sixteen of the most important myths from the Norse tradition.  As a kid I devoured every scrap of Greco-Roman mythology I could get my hands on and had a fair grounding in the Egyptians, but the Norse myths were somehow more intimidating, hedged in with unpronounceable names and grim doomesday scenarios.  This is the book I wish I’d had then–once again, especially with the audio version to make those names a little less scary.  I’d be most eager to hand this book to anyone looking for a basic grounding in the subject, but the writing is so lovely that I think it’d be enjoyable even for a reader already familiar.  Accessible and timeless, it’s a book destined to preserve its popularity for many years to come.

P.S. Gaiman’s breakout mythological hit, American Gods, is premiering as a TV show on April 30, so if you haven’t had the utter delight of reading that novel, now is the perfect time!

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

29340182Book–In Shrill, online columnist Lindy West shares a series of highly personal essays on topics ranging from abortion to being fat to her father’s death. The essays seem to be organized vaguely chronologically, but also with a progression from funny and light to more serious and vulnerable. My favorite of the essays was late in the book, a gut-wrenching account of Lindy’s experience with an online troll who, not content with the pedestrian vitriol usually lobbed at women on the internet, decided to pose as Lindy’s recently deceased father and insult her using his face and personal details. Also unlike other trolls, when confronted on how depraved his actions were, he sincerely apologized and gave some insight on what prompted his actions.

Lindy’s brand of humor is crass, sharp, and laden with modern internet parlance; readers will either respond to it or they won’t. While I did enjoy her essays in this collection, I think that her writing is perhaps better suited to shorter form pieces and journalism. I found that her writing style becomes too abrasive to read for long periods and is best enjoyed in short chunks. If you enjoyed this collection, I would also recommend books by Jessica Valenti and Andi Zeisler.

Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch

9780713687118Book–Covering all 17 penguin species over multiple continents, nature writer and photographer Wayne Lynch covers penguins from birth to mating to death in interesting prose paired with well-chosen photographs. Topics covered include penguin anatomy (did you know they have spines on their tongues to help move prey into their mouths?), penguin predators, species differences, and environmental threats. Lynch’s writing is lively and infused with a genuine love for the penguins he studies. This is especially apparent when he chronicles mishaps befalling penguins, such as getting eaten by seals or predator birds called skuas or baby penguins getting abandoned by their parents, and the self-control he had to exercise to not interrupt and stop nature’s course in its tracks.

If I had any complaints about this volume, it would be that I think it could have stood to include even more gorgeous pictures. While I enjoyed learning more about penguins, I think a good coffee table book like this one can never have enough full-color picture spreads. Penguins of the World will appeal to all fans of these adorable creatures as well as to adults who wish those slim, brightly colored, non-fiction books about animals written for kids came in adult-aimed versions as well.

Hi Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves by Kat Kinsman

indexBook Hi Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves by Kat Kinsman is an exploration of anxiety and its effect on one woman’s life.  In 2014,  Kat went public about having General Anxiety Disorder, publishing a blog post on CNN.com titled “Living With Anxiety, Searching For Joy“.  The reception following the publication was incredible; she received an overwhelming response from readers overjoyed to hear a voice that resonated so much with their own lives.

I have to mention first how much I love the cover art of this book;  I’m always a sucker for cute animals, (especially bunnies) and I snatched this off the shelf without a second thought.  It also seems appropriate given the subject matter–rabbits are by nature skittish, nervous bundles of fluff, in my opinion a perfect mascot for anxiety.

Kat Kinsman is a funny, relatable author who does an amazing job showing what life is like for someone living with anxiety.  She delves into all aspects of her life in a format that switches between chronological chapters, and sections titled irrational fear.  The irrational fear segments detail specific activities and instances that incite anxiety in Kat, including but not limited to: “Seeing the doctor,” “Having No way Out,” and “Driving”.  My favorite thing about this book is Kat’s focus on personal relationships–the role anxiety plays in her relationships with others, and specifically its impact on the pursuance of romantic relationships.  Embarking on romantic endeavors is difficult enough without anxiety and I found that Kat’s personal narrative of love and loss really resonated with me.

It’s easy to feel a connection to Kat’s words thanks to the intimate and honest nature of her writing.  Whether or not a reader struggles with a mental disorder, I think anyone can find a connection with some aspect of Kat’s experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life by Signe Johansen

9781509834860How to HyggeBook – Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is a Danish word meaning a quality of coziness that engenders a feeling of well-being. It’s living simply and finding pleasure and beauty in everyday moments. Johansen describes this lifestyle as it applies to the home, food and friendship. She emphasizes the importance of nature and the restorative powers of spending time outside (versus exercising in a gym). The connection to the outdoors extends to socializing. Gatherings celebrate the seasons and kinship, with simple meals of fish, berries, bread and pastries and “boozy beverages” as “attitude adjusters.” Hygge encourages the “healthy hedonism” of savoring delicious pastries, coffee, bread, wine – in moderation. She includes recipes for treats that sound delicious (but not simple to prepare). A hygge home features an abundance of candlelight and lighting sources, cozy blankets, fresh flowers and organic materials. Cleanliness and order are imperative to relaxation and contentment. This enjoyable book gave me a term to describe my own upbringing by my Norwegian mother. I feel a renewed commitment to hygge concepts, some of which I have always practiced and some that I would benefit from more fully embracing (got to get more active!). If you want to read more about hygge, try The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

920x920Book–Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond immersed himself in the lives of 8 poverty-stricken Milwaukee families and constructed this book out of hours of recorded conversations. His account takes place in both a mostly white run-down trailer park and in a mostly black set of tenements; he also spoke to the two landlords that own these properties. Desmond argues that there is one common thread that destabilizes the lives of all the people he spoke to: eviction. The old well-known advice says that one should spend no more than 1/3 of one’s income on housing. However, when subsisting on government benefits and food stamps, one has no choice but to drop 80%+ of one’s meager income on housing, and, as Desmond puts it, “if you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”

For the most part, this book is a litany of sad stories, depressing outcomes, poor choices, and petty injustices. I found it to be somewhat repetitive after a while. However, the repetitiveness proves Desmond’s point. Even when these families get a lucky break, be a it a tax refund, benefits coming through, or a win at gambling, the precariousness of their situation and their predatory landlords keep them locked in a cycle of poverty where they owe their landlord more than they can pay, until they are evicted and need to start their Sisyphean journey toward stability in a new, often more squalid, place. If Evicted caught your attention, I would also recommend White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson

51B1YJR9Y8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – What kind of pot is best for slow cooking on an electric stove? How often should you rotate your linens? What kind of fabric should you get on a couch to make sure it lasts as long as possible? How often do you need to dust, sweep, wash, and deep-clean? What kind of lighting should you have in which rooms? What kind of insurance should you have on your home, and how do you buy it? These are all things that go into making a house a home, and most of us know a little bit about some of them, but I’d venture to say that most of us don’t know a lot about all of them. Which is only fair: keeping house used to be a full-time job, after all, and now most of us work outside the home, so we don’t have the deep knowledge of someone who’s made it their career. Cheryl Mendelson brings a perfectionist’s eye for detail to homemaking.

This isn’t a high-color guide to Easy Tips For Your Home: it’s an in-depth examination of every single part of keeping a house. Mendelson is forgiving – she doesn’t scold you for not learning how to do things properly, nor does she insist that you need to have, for example, fine china that’s difficult to care for. She only insists that if you do have fine china, you treat it well. This book can certainly seem overwhelming at times, but it’s more of a reference book than the kind of thing you read cover-to-cover: pick it up when you have a question about the best way to do something, and you can be confident that you will at least know where you’re cutting corners.