Books and bakes #16: Secrets of Happiness and poppyseed bagels

The bake

I’ve wanted to try making bagels for a while. But, for some reason, I was intimidated. I guess I thought they were complicated. I built up the courage and told my boyfriend I was going to try. He was also interested, so it become a Saturday afternoon project.

It turns out bagels aren’t that difficult to make! We used a recipe from King Arthur Baking Company. Since this was my first time making bagels, I can’t compare to other recipes, but I think the trick to a good bagel is using bread flour (not all-purpose) and kneading the dough long enough to give it that chewy texture. We topped the entire dozen with poppyseeds, but the recipe is for plain bagels with some tips if you want to try variations.

The one part of the process that gave us some trouble was rolling the dough into “smooth” balls. We did our best, but they weren’t totally smooth, meaning the shapes of the bagels were less than perfect. But does it matter how a bagel looks if it tastes as good as these ones did? We didn’t think so.

My one complaint was that some of the bagels stuck to one of the two pans. So next time, I’ll try with greased parchment paper instead of just greased pans.

The book

I’m halfway through Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber. The book is divided into seven sections–sort of a novel and sort of a collection of linked stories. It opens with New York lawyer Ethan learning that his father has a second family and has been living with this secret for years. This first story is told from Ethan’s perspective, and the subsequent sections in the book are first-person accounts from different characters connected to this. (Or at least that’s how it’s been so far. I’m in the fourth section.) I seem to have a thing for linked stories. I like getting an inside look from various perspectives on the same events. So far, I wouldn’t say the book has been “unputdownable,” but I am quite enjoying it.

Books and bakes #15: Unsettled Ground and cherry pie

The bake

I wasn’t a big pie fan when I was younger. But as I’ve grown, so have my tastes, and I find myself craving a fruit pie quite a bit these days. I’d been wanting a cherry pie in particular for the last few weeks. (I’m not sure why, as I’ve probably eaten cherry pie only a couple of times in my entire life.) And this weekend I baked one.

I used frozen cherries, since it’s not quite cherry season in Ontario (bonus: the frozen cherries were already pitted). I’ve heard that sour cherries are best for pie, but I could find only sweet cherries in the freezer, and this recipe from Baker by Nature stated any type of cherries would work. Still, I added more lemon juice than the recipe called for, as I didn’t want the pie to be too sweet. (By the way, I used this recipe for the filling only, and I used my tried-and-true pie pastry recipe from Canadian Living.) It was my first time doing a lattice pie crust, too. At first, I was a little confused on how to do it, but this video tutorial from Sally’s Baking Addiction quickly cleared that up.

The result was a technically great pie that I definitely have enjoyed eating. But after weeks of craving a cherry pie, I’m not so sure it’s one of my favourite fruit pie fillings. I think I’ll be making other fruit pies before trying cherry again. (I do want to work on perfecting the lattice pie crust, though.)

The book

I have read and enjoyed every novel Claire Fuller has published, so when I heard that she was releasing her fourth, Unsettled Ground, there was no doubt I would read that one, too. The book was published a couple of months earlier in the UK, and since then it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I picked up my copy last week after it was available in Canada and started it a couple of days ago.

The story follows 51-year-old twins Julius and Jeanie who live with their mother, Dot, in a run-down cottage in the British countryside. Within the first pages, Dot dies suddenly, and the twins struggle to survive as they sort through what their mother has left behind: all of her debts and secrets. I am about halfway through, and I can’t wait to see what will happen with the twins.

Books and bakes #14: Empire of Pain and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

The bake

Whenever I bake oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, it reminds me of being a kid and baking with Mom. I enjoyed making cookies almost as much as I did eating them. So it’s not really a surprise that making (and eating) them now gives me a sense of nostalgia and comfort.

This time, I used a recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction (as you may have noticed, I seem to get a lot of my recipes from Sally’s website these days). I omitted the cinnamon and molasses because that’s how I prefer my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (For the record, I do love cinnamon, but I like these cookies to be more vanilla-y. I would use cinnamon if I was making oatmeal raisin cookies for sure.) This cookies turned out really well–soft and chewy with the perfect amount of chocolate chips. But, of course, they didn’t stand a chance at topping how I remember Mom’s.

The book

I read a lot more fiction than non-fiction, but every once in a while a non-fiction book comes along that I just have to read, that calls to me more than any fiction title on my teetering TBR pile. That was the case with Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe, a book about the family behind OxyContin, the drug that created a public health crisis.

I don’t know that this book would have been on my radar if I hadn’t already read Keefe’s earlier book, Say Nothing, as that one blew me away. My boyfriend recently read (and loved) Empire of Pain, and, knowing I was also interested in it, he left his copy with me for whenever I got to it. I didn’t think I would get to it for a little while. But after starting a couple of fiction titles that just weren’t speaking to me, I picked it up. I am only about 50 pages in, but Keefe’s talent for creating an engaging narrative has me hooked.

Books and bakes #13: Infinite Country and chocolate peanut butter bars

The bake

This post’s “bake” is actually a no-bake treat. It’s the second time I’ve made these no-bake chocolate and peanut butter bars from Sally’s Baking Addiction, and they are absolutely delicious. Chocolate and peanut butter is one of my favourite flavour combos: Both elements are fabulous on their own, but when they come together, they result in something even more incredible. They complement each other perfectly!

These bars consist of only five ingredients:

  • butter
  • peanut butter
  • graham cracker crumbs
  • icing sugar
  • chocolate chips

It takes only a few minutes to whip these together, but you will have to wait a couple of hours while they set in the fridge before you can enjoy them.

If it’s not obvious, I’ll warn you that these bars are very rich. I am someone who enjoys her sweets and who will often overindulge when it comes to baked (or no-baked) goods. But–and I’m telling you from experience–overdoing it with these will result in a tummy ache. So be wise and savour those flavours.

The book

I’d seen Infinite Country by Patricia Engel mentioned in several book lists and articles, but somehow I wasn’t grabbed by it. But then I picked up a copy and read the first sentence: “It was her idea to tie up the nun.” And, so, yeah, that’s when I knew I wanted to read this one.

This novel starts with teenager Talia, who escapes from a correctional facility in Colombia, trying to get back to her father in Bogotá. Her mother and siblings are in the United States, and the book intertwines the present with the past to explore how the family came to be split up and in the position they are in.

Infinite Country was one of my Canadian Independent Bookstore Day purchases this year. I started reading it yesterday. It’s a short book, and I expect to finish it tonight or tomorrow. Loving this one!

Books and bakes #12: The Vanishing Half and strawberry-rhubarb pie

The bake

I want more pie in my life. And frozen fruit provides the opportunity to make any type of pie no matter what’s currently in season. Earlier this week, I bought a package of frozen strawberries and rhubarb, figuring I’d find a recipe for pie later. To my surprise, most of the strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes I found advised against using frozen fruit. And the ones that said it was an option warned to make sure the fruit was thawed and drained well, since there was a lot of moisture that could make the filling soupy. So I thawed the fruit in the fridge overnight, drained it in a colander the next morning, and then placed it in a container lined and covered with paper towel. I used the recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction for the filling. (I omitted the orange juice, only because I didn’t have it, and I figured I could probably stand losing the extra liquid.) I made the pastry from the apple pie recipe I use because I like it and know that it’s easy to work with.

The end result? A tasty pie that could use some improvement. The filling was well set–not soupy at all–and a good balance of sweet and tart. And I already knew the pastry would be a winner. The only problem was that I would have liked a bit more filling in the pie. Sally’s recipe called for 5.5 cups of fruit. I measured the entire package of frozen fruit and it came to about 5.5 cups. The issue, I think, was that I measured it frozen, so it may have been slightly less if I had measured the fruit after it was drained. The next time I make a strawberry-rhubarb pie, I’ll use fresh fruit, just to see if it makes much of a difference.

The book

This weekend, I cracked open The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a novel about twin sisters who run away from their hometown when they are teenagers. Years later, one ends up living her life passing as white, while the other returns with her daughter to live in the black community she and her twin left behind.

I’m looking forward to returning to this novel, as I’ve heard so much about it over the past year. But it took this novel becoming a book club pick for me to finally grab a copy (book club is next weekend). Sometimes it seems that when you hear a lot about a book, it just can’t live up to the hype, and that might be why I sometimes take my time getting to those ones (or never getting to them). I’m trying to manage my expectations. In any case, it’s always fun to hear about the experiences of others with a book, so no matter how I end up feeling about The Vanishing Half, I’m sure our book club discussion will be interesting.