Saturday, October 15, 2016

Word Collections

Going through so many old papers and journals lately has me finding old word collections. It is so much fun! Here is a word list I pulled together on scrap paper seventeen years ago! So delightful to find it. Apparently I never did a poem based on this list. Maybe all these years later I still can...or someone else can! Enjoy!

merely, potential, strictly, sleek, pickup truck, snow season, asserts, negotiate, chicken coop, shrubs, retirement, heavy-duty, desire, grandfather clocks, discover, balled blue spruce, porch gliders, carved, granite angels, neighbors, magnifying glass, watercolor, encouraging, coffee tables, drizzling, vast, whisk, China, wine rack, swan, glancing, coincide, wand, panhandle, dream, determined, cotton-farming, outpost, extravagant, ice, glass, gazebo, crystallized, yellow galoshes, graceful, hot chocolate, clambered, toddling, handpicked, hilarious, fairy, morning, bottle caps, grape jelly, dash, flicker, crisp, never, seduce, luxurious, realm, chenille, rival, coast, folks, peace, Noel, weathered, green, sentiments, roundup, avalanche, balsam, cedar, ribbon, nostalgic, treasured, feather, goose, cornucopia, prelude, fireworks, potluck, snow globes, train sets, amaryllis, sugar cookies, rusty moose, menorah, pralines, barnyard, sugared, ark, priceless, whimsical, angels, mantels, merry, bubbles, glow, vintage, pillar

If it's fun to know, apparently I pulled these words from a 1999 December issue of a country magazine (I think it was called Country Home). I used to love to pull word pools from magazines.

Hmm...maybe I will play with this sometime. I often love to dive into collections by thinking through how words sound, which ones go together, which words inspire me and make me play. If anyone has fun with this list, let me know!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Great British Bake Off Series 7, Episode 7: Dessert Week (Recap With Spoilers)

I have been not feeling well this week, so I am a week behind on my GBBO write ups. Episode 8 is already out, and I've not yet recapped episode 7 from last week! I've also lost the notes that I jotted from last week when I was already not feeling well (I'm dealing with terrible headaches and foot aches as I continue to go through my cancer treatments).

I think I am too tired to review episode 7 from last week again, so I will give just a couple of quick jots about it here.

The dessert week was interesting because it focused on desserts I knew nothing about. Here they are:

  • The signature was a roulade, essentially a rolled sponge cake filled with different kinds of sweet fillings
  • The technical was a marjolaine. That is a cake that combines meringue, praline buttercream, and chocolate ganache. It looks lovely and also challenging: you can see the recipe by judge Mary posted here at the BBC website. 
  • The showstopper was two sets of miniature mousse cakes, twelve each, with each dozen flavored different.
I usually write up detailed lists of who do what, but I am way too exhausted this week to do that and can't remember the details well (since my notes are missing). I am also struggling to write because my terrible headache pains and lack of sleep are making me have a hard time coming up with common words (a little scary for me as a writer, teacher, and thinker, but I will take a deep breath, keep praying, and assume that words will come back to me soon).

So here's the super, easy recap that I remember a tiny bit.

Andrew had an amazing week. He did every single challenge beautifully, creating roulade and marjolaine that looked lovely and tasted delicious. His miniature mousse cakes were especially cool, and he placed them on a ferris wheel that helped present them in an especially festive way. I've been wanting Andrew to manage a win the entire series, and this was the first time he actually managed it!

Jane also had a good week, and the other women still left did pretty well, though Candice had a rougher week than usual. All of the women went on to the next episode.

There were other two men left: Selasi and Tom. I would have guessed Selasi might not make it, but surprisingly, Tom (who had won two weeks this season) had a terrible week. He messed up every single challenge in some way, especially the mousse cakes at the showstopper, and surprised us all by having to head home. Although Selasi is the most relaxed of all the contestants, and hasn't yet won an entire week, he does seem to be getting better as the show continues.

I was liking Tom more and more as each week went by, and I appreciated the way Jane tried to encourage and help him (she's probably my favorite person in some ways, and her mousse cakes were seriously incredible). If you remember from weeks ago, Paul Hollywood had reminded us that all winners of the bread week had made it to every final in the first six series. Since Tom won the bread week this year, Paul seemed to be providing the possibility that Tom would do that, but here he is, losing it in episode 7 and not even making the quarter final.

Episode 8 (the one I hope to see in the next day or two) is the quarter final with five contestants, with episode 9 the week after being the semi-final with four. If you remember, the tenth episode is the final between the last three bakers.

Andrew, Selasi, Benjamina, Candice, and Jane are the five currently left after this episode. Who do you think you might want to win from here? I tend to be leaning toward the hope of Jane winning, which would be fascinating since she has only won once...the very first episode! Is it possible? Stay tuned and see.

Monday, October 03, 2016

James Herriot Centenary (Review of Herriot's Treasury for Children)

Today is the centenary of James Herriot, the wonderful vet and writer from Yorkshire. Born a hundred years ago today (October 3, 1916) as James Alfred Wight, he took the pen name of Herriot and produced wonderful stories about his life in the Yorkshire dales. I've loved them for many years and have been enjoying much of his writing again lately, during a season in my life when I've needed his kind of humor, beauty, and comfort.

In honor of the day, I went to my archives and pulled together the review I wrote of his Treasury for Children. I originally posted the review on ten years ago, after enjoying the book with my then four year old. She and I read it together for many years following, and she still keeps it on her shelf, even as a teenager. I hope you'll enjoy this old review!

Kittens, Dogs, Horses, and Sheep...and All in the Beautiful English Countryside
A number of years ago I spent some time visiting farms in the beautiful English countryside. Well, okay, I'll be honest -- I've never actually been to England. But I've certainly felt as though I've visited there because of the numerous trips I've taken through beloved books. Whereas some of my favorite English literary landscapes are completely fictional, I've also enjoyed visiting the very real Yorkshire farms of James Herriot's story collections All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful and The Lord God Made Them All. These wonderful collections, beautifully shaped memoir-based narratives of a rural veterinarian, were originally published from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s.

In the mid to late 1980s, I read all four volumes, delighting in the keen observations and clear prose of James Herriot and in the funny and often touching stories he told about animals he'd cared for over the years (as well as their owners)! These stories had such flavor and such narrative shape that it's clear he must have "tweaked" some details here and there, but in general they were autobiographical. James Herriot was the pen name of James Alfred Wright (1916-1995) who served as a vet in the county of Yorkshire for many years, beginning in 1939 upon his graduation from Glasgow Veterinary College.

From 1984 to 1991, a series of children's picture books by James Herriot were published, one each year for a total of eight. These stories were culled from the larger grown-up story collections from the All Creatures Great and Small series. I remember a number of these books from when they appeared, large hardbacks, beautifully illustrated. I bought one of them for myself when I was in high school and I also used to read some of them to my young nieces and nephews, now grown.

In 1992, St. Martin's Press published all eight of the previously released picture books in one volume entitled James Herriot's Treasury for Children. Unlike some "treasuries," this one doesn't edit out anything. All eight stories are here with all their original illustrations, even the ones on the title pages. Basically they simply took all eight books, stitched them together, then added a table of contents and a new cover. I had no idea that one could read all eight of these treasures in one volume so I was completely excited to find it at our local library! Having spent a few pleasurable hours last week reading (and re-reading) some of these gems to my daughter, I have decided I really want to purchase this book for our home collection.

The Stories

Here's what you get in this delightful volume: the complete picture books of Moses the Kitten; Only One Woof; The Christmas Day Kitten; Bonny's Big Day; Blossom Comes Home; The Market Square Dog; Oscar, Cat-About-Town; and Smudge, the Little Lost Lamb.

The first two stories are illustrated by Peter Barrett and the final six by Ruth Brown. Though I prefer the Brown illustrations overall, both illustrators provide fine, detailed paintings that bring the animals, people and rural landscapes of the stories to vibrant life. Brown seems better at capturing more whimsical moments and her people are more realistic looking, especially in their expressions.

Most of the stories are narrated by Herriot, who tells each tale from his perspective as a country vet. Usually the action takes place during one of his visits to a family farm to help an ailing animal, though for the most part the story centers not on the sick animal but on another interesting or unusual animal on the farm.

Moses the Kitten is the story of a bedraggled half-frozen scrap of a kitten brought back to health in the warm stove of a farmer's wife's kitchen. On subsequent visits, Mr. Herriot is astonished to see which barnyard animal has become the kitten's surrogate mother!

Only One Woof is the sweet and funny tale of Gyp and Sweep, sheepdog brothers. Sweep gets sold, but the farmer keeps Gyp who turns out to be hard-working, loyal, and almost completely silent. In all the years they have him, his family only hears him bark one time. Mr. Herriot is on hand for the momentous event and relates it in his poignant style.

And speaking of poignancy, The Christmas Day Kitten tells the story of a stray cat who wanders into the Pickerings' farmhouse for food and momentary warmth by the fireplace, but who refuses to ever stay. One Christmas morning she shows up again, half-dead but carrying a tiny kitten in her mouth. She clearly wants to bequeath her kitten to the household before she dies. Buster grows into a fine looking cat who loves to torment Mrs. Pickering's basset hounds (some of the best illustrations in the entire treasury).

Bonny's Big Day takes us out of the realm of dogs and cats and into the world of cart horses. Bonny is a retired cart horse, and she and another retired horse, Dolly, are much beloved by Farmer John, an eccentric but kind man who recalls his their hard-working years with touching gratitude. When Mr. Herriot suggests that Farmer John enter Bonny in the "family pets" category of the upcoming animal show, Farmer John is skeptical. At least at first...

Blossom Comes Home is one of the funniest stories in the collection. It's really a tribute to the stubbornness and cleverness of a cow named Blossom who simply refuses to acquiesce to the fact that she's been sold!

The Market Square Dog is probably my four year old's favorite. A brown mongrel with pleading eyes and a winning manner can often be found begging at the local farmer's market. One day he's struck by a car and hurt. Mr. Herriot is able to fix his broken leg, but will the sweet little beggar dog ever be able to find a loving home?

Oscar, Cat-About-Town is unusual because it concerns a cat that the Herriot family (James and his wife Joan) actually adopt for a while. They discover, however, that Oscar isn't content to stay at home even though he loves them. Oscar loves to roam about town and to join in group activities like rummage sales and soccer games! This story provides another of my favorite illustrations, of tabby Oscar sitting up and trying to bat the sliding trombone being played in the local brass band.

Finally, there's Smudge, the Little Lost Lamb. This is the only story in the collection told completely in the third person, and though I miss Herriot's first person narration, it's still a very sweet story. Young Harry, Farmer Cobb's son, is given one of the new lambs on the farm as his very own. But one day the curious creature squeezes outside the fence and can't get back in. We follow him on his exciting and sometimes perilous adventures (he even comes face to face with a bull!) until the satisfying conclusion when he makes it home again.


So who are these stories for?

That may seem like an odd question since these are all part of a treasury "for children" but it's worth asking. The subject matter, the simple plots, the warmth and sweetness Herriot brings to each story, and the colorful and detailed illustrations all make these terrific picture books for kids. But they are not "easy reads." They're long, for starters -- each one takes at least ten and sometimes as much as fifteen minutes to read aloud, and there's plenty of text per page. And the vocabulary is challenging for young children; in pulling these stories from his collections for older readers, he did not dumb down the language in any way, bless him. I almost wonder if they've gone through any significant adaptation at all. It's unusual but somehow stimulating to find prose like this in a contemporary book marketed for children:

I had driven through and, streaming-eyed, was about to get back in the car when I noticed something unusual. There was a frozen pond just off the path and among the rime-covered rushes which fringed the dead opacity of the surface a small object stood out, shiny black.

Or this:

He was stepping daintily along the display tables, inspecting the old shoes, books, pictures, ornaments, crockery, and he looked really happy. Now and then he cocked his head on one side when something caught his fancy.

I have a feeling these books were originally marketed for children 4-8 or perhaps 6-10, and even though some of the vocabulary will be over the heads of the younger listeners in that range, the flowing cadence and the winning stories will carry them along. These make marvelous read-alouds and they'll learn words from context. (My four year old listened to some of them while quietly playing or drawing, and that worked really well.) If your child can sit through Beatrix Potter (who uses words like "implore" and "exert" with great gusto!) then she will likely enjoy James Herriot. Meanwhile, there's much here for older children and adults to enjoy. I love them as much if not more than my little girl. So yes, it's a children's treasury, but it's also a family treasury.

If you love animals and enjoy good writing, then you'll no doubt enjoy a trip to Yorkshire with James Herriot as your guide. He paints each anecdote with warmth and shows a tender understanding of the fascinating "personalities" of all kinds of animals, as well as a real regard for the people who love them and take care of them.

And he really makes me want to go to Yorkshire.

Happy traveling!

James Herriot's Treasury for Children
Illustrated by Peter Barrett and Ruth Brown
St. Martin's Press, 1992

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Great British Bake Off Series 7, Episode 6: Botanical Week (Recap With Spoilers)

The big news from the bake off this week is that octogenarian judge Mary Berry will not follow the show when it departs next year for channel 4, but younger judge Paul Hollywood will. Bless Mary's heart. I had a feeling she wouldn't make the transition, especially since Mel and Sue had already made it clear they wouldn't leave the BBC either. I was less surprised that Paul decided to take the leap, and I hope his presence will somehow keep the show afloat, though it's hard to imagine what it will be like without the charm and witticisms of the ladies.

For now we still have all four of them, of course, for the remainder of series seven. And we're half-way through....

Week six of the series brought us something new again: botanical week. I wasn't sure what it would involve. Here's what they came up with:

  • The signature bake was a citrus meringue pie
  • The technical bake was herbed, leaf-shaped fougasse bread
  • The showstopper was a three tiered floral cake, with the floral notes affecting both the flavor and the decorations 
Citrus meringue pie involves three challenges. You need to bake a good pie crust (mostly sweet short crust pastry), create a delicious citrus flavored curd with the right consistency, and then whip up a  meringue that you can pipe or spread onto the top of the pie with good beauty and also brown the meringue peaks delicately either in the oven or with a blow torch.  There are basically three types of meringues you can create: French, Swiss, or Italian. Each one of them is a variation of egg whites, sugar, and heat. If you want to read about their differences, check out this helpful article.

As soon as I head about this signature bake, I thought immediately of lemon meringue since it's the most common type, but the seven remaining bakers in the competition were far more inventive.  On the humid, rainy day they had to bake, they tried a variety of interesting flavors. Selasi, wearing a colorful floral shirt in honor of the botanical theme, attempted a grapefruit, orange, and mint pie. Benjamina was also making grapefruit and mint, and the two of them had fun exchanging words about their endeavors (they seem to have gotten a bit flirtatious)! Jane, also dressed in a floral shirt, seemed smiling and relaxed as she put together her lime and coconut pie. Candice tried lime and coconut too, but added lemongrass. Tom tried a more savory crust with pecans in it, and then tried a rather odd combination of blood orange and pumpkin filling. Rav went for a booze infested filling by adding tequila to mandarin orange, and Andrew tried lime with three different kinds of ginger. In other words, nobody attempted a primarily lemon pie, and that surprised me.

No one ended up with a precisely perfect pie, but I thought Jane and Selasi's were the most beautiful. Jane pleased Mary by providing a great looking Swiss meringue that she browned in the oven, being the only one who bypassed the blow torch (which pleased Mary no end). Selasi's meringue looked gorgeous but he was told his filling was too stiff. The judges seemed to love the taste of Benjamina's filling and called her pie well proportioned, but they thought her pastry was too thick. Tom and Rav had the most problems in terms of taste.

On to the technical, which this week was a tasty and beautiful bread called fougasse. This bread met the botanical theme both because it was baked with chopped up sage, thyme, and rosemary herbs, and because it was supposed to be shaped into two giant leaf shapes which the bakers had to slice through in the middle and on the sides. The challenges involved how to cut and shape the loaves best to look like leaves, and how long to prove the dough before they baked it.

Tom was thrilled with the challenge since, as he put it, bread made him "happy and comfortable" (if you remember, he was the star baker of bread week). Tom seemed most confident about what to do and also came up with the great idea of adding steam to the oven to make his bread come out in a wonderful combination of moist and crisp. Selasi was "so zen" (as Mel called him) but in the end he was really too relaxed and didn't put his bread in for long enough. His underbaked result landed him in last place in the technical. Andrew, Candice, and Jane all struggled, with Rav, Benjamina, and Tom battling for the top three spots. Rav was thrilled to come in third, I think, since he'd been last in the technical for the three previous weeks. Benjamina finished second and Tom came in first.

I always enjoy hearing Mary and Paul talk about the first day and who's in trouble. It surprised me that they seemed to agree that in general, all the men bakers were on the bottom, and all the remaining women were in strongest form as they went into the showstopper day. Given how well Tom and Rav did with the bread, it made you realize how truly awful their pies must have been in round one! Benajmina, Jane, and Candice, in that order, seemed poised for possible sparkling showstopper performance.

And then came the surprising and gorgeous showstopper, which I think was one of my favorites of the current series so far. I love it when the bakers create multi-tiered cakes and spend a lot of time decorating them. I was not entirely clear on whether or not the floral taste was required, though most seemed to be attempting it. Jane seemed quite worried that she had decided not to go very floral with her flavoring: she went with a simple orange flavor for every tier, because she wanted to spend more time creating sugar paste flowers and chocolate floral collars. Unfortunately, she ran out of time and had to hurry her way through the decorating, so it all looked a bit of a mess, which is a shame because it had the potential to look incredible. Candice went overboard by attempting four tiers instead of three, which was a brilliant idea since she attempted to make each tier taste and look like one of four seasons, but she ended up a little off center with one of her tiers (the spiced carrot cake she made for autumn) which was definitely not a home run. I adored Benjamina's idea for tiers infused with floral teas, and a lovely "semi-naked" look (where the icing is thin and not covering the whole cake) but it didn't quite work either. Mary and Paul didn't think the flavors came through strongly enough and Paul didn't seem to think the cake look finished (though I thought it did).

So the ladies, who were definitely in the lead going into the day, definitely left the door open for the gentlemen. Of the four men: Tom and Selasi galloped straight to the front while Andrew and Rav both struggled mightily. Andrew's elder flower taste was not strong and his swiss buttercream was decorated too simply with skimpy yellow flowers and tiny pearl like piping -- the entire project left him in tears. Rav went way simple with an orange blossom and vanilla flavor for all three tiers, and with piped buttercream flowers that were both too clumsy and too pale to show off.  Tom used tea flavors, similar to Benjamina, but managed to hit those flavors out of the park as both the chamomile and jasmine flavors apparently burst deliciously through, and his colorful piping, while not terribly creative, looked neat and pretty. They also said his sponges were brilliantly baked. Selasi's cake was *fantastic* -- truly. It was my favorite by far, and the judges couldn't seem to find a thing wrong with it. He did three different flavored cakes (carrot, lemon and poppyseed, and strawberry and vanilla) which were all baked well and moist. His flowered piping was seriously gorgeous. I normally don't post pictures from the GBBO, but I borrowed this one from the Telegraph because seriously, isn't that an amazing looking cake?

I wasn't sure what the judges would decide, but apparently they decided that Tom's excellent cake, along with his excellent bread and first place in the technical the day before, were enough to make him star baker even though his pie was not memorable. He passed all three of the ladies, whose stronger performances on the first day kept them safe but didn't enable them to win. I think if Selasi had managed anything above last place with his bread in the technical, he would have won star baker for sure.

Selasi, Tom, and Andrew are the only men left because Rav, sadly, was the baker asked to leave this week. I'll miss him a lot since he's been such a sweet competitor, but he's struggled harder than any of the rest that are left, and his cake definitely showed that he wasn't quite at their level. Andrew clearly knew he was close to going, but overall Andrew has been more consistent. It will be interesting to see how the three men do as they continue to compete with the three remaining women. Tom is the only one of the three men who has managed star baker status, and he's done it twice, so I guess we have to consider Tom and Candice high in the lead. While I like them both, I think the other four bakers are still my favorites, and I can't help but think the final could be between Candice, Jane, and Benjamina...though the men have shown us that they can definitely surprise everyone and come roaring from behind. On we go to dessert week!