Saturday, January 31, 2015

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Hi All!
As we are still finding ourselves within the chilly depths of winter (especially my fellow New Englanders, who I know are currently buried in the snow!!), I thought it might be fitting to post a recipe for some delicious comfort food!  This is, hands down, one of my favorite dishes in the world.  It´s a dish that gives me a small wave of childhood nostalgia each time I eat it.  But mostly it just fills me with cheesy, warm, cozy tastiness.  YUM!
Without further ado, here the the recipe my Mom used to make me often as a child for Macaroni and Cheese. 
(I made a couple of small additions to the original recipe, to add a bit more tasty twists).
Brookie’s Childhood Favorite: Macaroni and Cheese
2 tablespoons of flour
2 tablespoons of margarine or butter
2 cups of Cheddar Cheese, grated (my favorite brand for all you New Englander´s is Cabot)
½ box of medium shell pasta noodles, cooked al dente and drained
1 ¼ cup of milk
2-3 tablespoons of apple juice
20 Ritz crackers, crushed
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C.
2. Melt the butter in a glass baking dish in the microwave.
3. Stir in the flour and milk. Mix well to break up the flour.
4. Heat the mixture in the microwave for 1 minute and 30 seconds. Then stir with a fork or wire whisk to break up any lumps. Repeat this cycle (microwaving and stirring) 5-6 time, until the mixture is thick like a sauce.
5. At this point, the pasta should be finished cooking as well.
6. Add the grated cheese, apple juice, salt and pepper to the sauce. Stir well, making sure all the cheese is melted and the apple juice has blended into the sauce. Add cooked noodles. Stir with a large spoon to make sure all the noodles are covered with cheese sauce. 
7. Top the macaroni and cheese with crushed Ritz crackers.
8. Bake in the over for 10-15 minutes or so, uncovered.
9. Remove from oven and serve warm.
 Brookie recommends with a side of vegetables (any, choose your favorite) and garlic bread. Oh yes!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Recommended Books for the Start of 2015

Hi All, I am so sorry for the long pause since I have written.  I have been flattened this week by illness.  Major flu action has been going on over here for me.  I have been arriving home from work and essentially reading and going to bed.  However tonight, though still ill, I was feeling well enough to finish and post this :-) I hope you enjoy and possibly find a great recommendation!!

Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised by this blog topic ;-) as books are one of my great passions, hobbies and loves.  I am never without a book in my hand when walking through the city, commuting on the train or even just meeting a friend for tea.  I am always in the middle of a story.  I love talking about books with others, telling them excitedly about the story I am currently engrossed in and why they should read it.  I could spend hours inside a bookstore, browsing the shelves, stopping to read the backs of covers, sitting and leafing through others.  Whenever I purchase a new book, carrying it out of the store makes me feel excited and fulfilled.  It feels like a treasure I have tucked under my arm.

Here is a list of books I would recommend thus far for 2015.  I have read quite a few books in the past weeks, but these are just the ones I really loved and will read again.

  1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  This book is magic.  With a feeling similar to Harry Potter, but the magical scenes are more detailed, darker and especially spell-binding.  The ending was the one slightly odd twist to this book.  However as a whole, the story is gripping and the imagery is capturing.  The night circus appears only at night within a huge field, where earlier stood only air.  The things one sees in the night circus will take their breath away.  At the heart of the novel: two dueling magicians who perform within the night circus.  They do not even fully understand the rules or perimeters of the duel.  They only know they are locked within some kind of silent battle.  We as the readers are able to witness the spectacular scenes of magic they each create for us.  What the duelers especially don't know is this: only one can be left standing.  And the catch that makes it really interesting: they fall in love.  
  2. A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams.  The perfect summer beach read.  I would say this is a novel more geared towards a female audience, whereas the Night Circus will appeal to either audience gender widely.  This is a story that alternates back and forth between the past and the present.  In the present, we have Lilly.  She cares for her younger sister, Kiki assisting heavily in raising her and together they live mostly on the New England coast.  Lilly's best friend from their teenage years is the infamous, Budgie Barnes.  They did everything together, shared everything.  Though Budgie was more the spotlight while Lilly more of a wallflower.  Budgie is now married to Nick, the love of Lilly's life.  Lilly and Nick were deeply in love, engaged and almost married.  And as the reader's, once we learn about the ferocity of their love, we wonder, why didn't they marry??  As we read the story, we alternate between Lilly's current life, becoming suddenly reacquainted with Budgie after a long time of emotional distance (while also having to stomach and adjust to seeing her old best friend with the man she loved more than anything), and we learn what happened within Lilly and Nick's love affair that resulted in them not ending up together.  This book hints of the beach, salty air, glittery nights out in the city, while containing large notes of romance and betrayal.  I have read it twice and loved it both times.  It's a great read.  
  3. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  This book is incredibly reminiscent of the TV series Friday Night Lights.  While reading it, one can picture the red bricked buildings of the college campus, the baseball diamond filled with cheering fans, red and golden leaves swirling along the sidewalk as students walk to class, the dining hall teaming with young adults filling their plates with food as they rush for a seat together.  Though this book, instead of football being the focus as in Friday Night Lights, focuses on baseball.  I am not a baseball fan myself, but that should not deter someone from this story.  That would be a major mistake.  The story focuses on 5 central characters.  Henry Skrimshander, whose worries and doubts set him down a path from being the best shortstop in the country to complete ruin.  The college President Affenlight who falls deeply in love with someone he shouldn't.  The young, quiet, intelligent student Owen (fellow baseball teammate to Henry) who finds himself in the wrong bed at night as he begins a fool-hardy affair with someone 30 years his senior.  Mike Schwartz, who spent so much time helping guide Henry that he neglected his own path in baseball and is now feeling poisoned by resentment.  And finally Pella Affenlight who comes to the college to escape her ill-fated marriage.  This book is engrossing and richly written.  One will be sad when they turn the last page and close the book.  
  4. Life by Keith Richards.  Here is the synopsis from  I have a feeling they say it better then I could.  This is hands down though, one of the best rock biographies ever written.  Even if one doesn't have a huge interest in the Rolling Stones, this is still a fascinating account of a person's life that is just completely gripping to read about.  As lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards created the riffs, the lyrics, and the songs that roused the world. A true and towering original, he has always walked his own path, spoken his mind, and done things his own way.  Now at last Richards pauses to tell his story in the most anticipated autobiography in decades. And what a story! Listening obsessively to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records in a coldwater flat with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, building a sound and a band out of music they loved. Finding fame and success as a bad-boy band, only to find themselves challenged by authorities everywhere. Dropping his guitar's sixth string to create a new sound that allowed him to create immortal riffs like those in "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Falling in love with Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones's girlfriend. Arrested and imprisoned for drug possession. Tax exile in France and recording Exile on Main Street. Ever-increasing fame, isolation, and addiction making life an ever faster frenzy. Through it all, Richards remained devoted to the music of the band, until even that was challenged by Mick Jagger's attempt at a solo career, leading to a decade of conflicts and ultimately the biggest reunion tour in history.  In a voice that is uniquely and unmistakably him--part growl, part laugh--Keith Richards brings us the truest rock-and-roll life of our times, unfettered and fearless and true.  
  5. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  This story is a tough one to describe.  The main character is a woman named Olive Kitteridge.  The book takes place in Maine and through the authors eyes, we are shown the world that exists within this tiny town.  Each of the towns people have their own interesting life struggles, their own triumphs and their own failures.  We often see these narrated through Olive's eyes and other times, through our own.  Each towns person the reader learns about though, is gripping and interesting.  This book is very readable, relatable and an excellent read.  I know my review did not do it justice.  But I have read this book twice, and each time raced through it, unable to put it down.
  6. The Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo.  This is an excellent cookbook.  Written by a young English woman who moved from London to Paris to pursue her cooking dream.  The recipes are gorgeously pictured, many of which seem approachable, non too intimidating and do-able.  And the stories she narrates along with her recipes are interesting and add to the books readability and enjoyment.  I really like this book, which was given to me by a good friend.  I have already read through it once slowly in it's entirety and have marked off the recipes I will try :-D  
  7. A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen.  This book is heartwarming, sweet and keeps your attention.  You find yourself becoming quickly attached to Bob, and feeling invested in his adventures and welfare.  Your heart swells while reading certain scenes with Bob, while in other moments your heart is tugged in pain in bit.  This book is about a young man who was struggling, very down on his luck.  He had struggled with drug abuse and homelessness.  He stumbled across Bob one day on the streets of London, a homeless, shabby, orange tabby cat.  Bob never left.  The two became fast friends.  Bob is a unique cat, learning to ride the bus on his own, collecting a band of followers and resting perched on James shoulder while he plays guitar for citizens milling around London.  This book is a super sweet true-life read.  

    Bob and his owner, James.  Super sweet <3

    Oh my word.  The sweater.  The sweet facial expression.  Swoon!!! <3
  8. Eat Pretty by Jolene Hart.  I really enjoyed this book overall as a tool to help aid in healthy eating.  The author tells us in depth about 85 different foods and the specific health benefits each food offers.  Such as, Pineapple.  Pineapple contains powerful anti-inflammatory digestives that break down proteins and boost overall digestion.  Its enzymes combine with its insoluble fiber to help you maintain a flat belly and less bloat.  Its rich in vitamin B and copper, two vitamins for healthy hair and hair color.  Plus potassium for circulating nutrients around the body.  Pineapple also balances water and heat in the body!  Bet you didn't know all of that!  I sure didn't until I read this.  Pretty cool, eh?  The book tells you about 85 other everyday foods and the health benefits each one has in store for you.  It makes one think more carefully about what you put into your body.  And what sorts of foods you already enjoy that you can eat more of to look and feel even better!!  I have already found myself grocery shopping a bit differently :-D pretty cool. 
  9. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.  I am going to paste the synopsis from for you to read on this one: Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery. ”There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .“  On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.  But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?  Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.  I have to admit, I haven't finished the story yet.  I am mere pages from the end.  But this book has hooked me.  So far, I love it.  Unique and fascinating.  Great fun to read!  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why Friday Night Lights is an incredible TV show.

Often times when I tell people the initial bare-bones premise of this TV show, I feel the need to immediately make excuses as to why they should watch it despite the fact that the setting may not be something of initial interest to them.  The show takes place in Dillon Texas, a small town where most everyone knows the business and gossip of one another because of the cozy size.  The main setting of the show: a football field.  The Dillon Panthers are a high school football team.  And as viewers, we start out with a birds eye view of the games and characters, but we are quickly plunged into the depths of their lives, their triumphs, challenges and their characters.

This show gives one a feeling of nostalgic romance for high school and the carefree feelings of youth.  It conjures images of swirling fall leaves as the first day of school approaches, teenage crushes and romances, fights with one's parents about how late they can stay out with friends, the school bell echoing throughout the hallway, and the feeling of rebellion and excitement that's coupled with that first high school party.

Despite the differences between all of the characters, one thing they all share is heart.  This show is yet another reminder of humanity, and the fact that nothing is black and white.  Human life is filled with challenges, messiness and wonder.  This show reminds us of the beauty that lies in feeling the passion for life.

Yes, the high school cheerleader is privileged, a bit snobby, sometimes too peppy and "has it all."  Yet her fear and loneliness over the significant loss of someone she loves deeply eventually drives her into the arms of a man that causes her tragic judgments and jeers at school.  Yet, we almost cannot blame her as we continue to watch the emotional challenges she faces and the feelings we see she has for these two people to whom she is quite close.  We see it is not quite so simple and that snap judgments are rarely accurate.  This young woman has impressive moments of strength and bravery, as well as emotionally touching moments of vulnerability.

Another character, tragic in nature, struggles with severe alcohol abuse and breaks the heart of his best friend, betraying him in a terrible way.  Yet as the show goes on, we also see moments of breathtaking love and loyalty in this same young man.  We see he is a troubled person who often makes bad choices, but who ultimately has a kind and giving heart.

We see another young man, barely old enough to properly parent someone himself, struggling to be a guardian and caretaker to his younger brother.  Both of these men having been left by their parents long ago.  Yet, he can never seem to get the hang of it in doing right by his brother.  It's clear he loves his little brother deeply, yet he manages to cause his brother much more harm than good.

The young woman, initially shallow, hiding behind a wall of anger and insecurity mascarading as confidence and forced sexiness, making terrible choices in relation to men and education, essentially selling herself almost as short as a young woman could.  And yet, she is one of the more impressive character transformations on the show.  We watch her evolve before our eyes into an motivated, intelligent woman.  After being a flaky and toxic friend for too long, we watch her slowly grow into a loyal, compassionate and loving friend.

There are a number of other impressive and memorable characters, all of whom you will come to know as you watch.

Surprisingly as the viewer, the football games become exciting without one even knowing it's happening.  It creeps up on you.  As you come to care for the players and their plights, you feel excitement during the football games, rooting for not only the team but for the characters you have come to know and feel for as well.

The Coach and his wife, Tammy have an impressive and believe-able marriage.  In fact, I think their marriage is one of the few solid, very emotionally healthy, loving and yet still realistic marriages that has been portrayed on television in years.  Their marriage is filled with love, a deep friendship with lots of talking and connection, much compromise, laughter, and yet disagreements here and there about navigating through life in general, which they always manage to do with their respect and deep love for one another intact.

I cannot recommend this show enough.  It is exciting, it's relatable, the characters are wonderfully drawn and realistic, the setting is a town and community one can imagine being a part of and almost feels like they are after watching the show.  You will be sad to leave Dillon, Texas when the show ends.

Here is a link to another excellent Friday Night Lights review I read.  It's short, well-written and interesting.  I recommend reading it.  It's titled "Why Friday Night Lights is one of the best US shows in recent years."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ten weeks until....


Tickets are booked.  Excitement is high.  My next adventure has been determined.  Exact location: Lisbon, Portugal.  Trip duration will be for one week, from March 27 to April 3.  Ticket prices: they were too good to pass up ;-)

An excerpt taken from Lonely

Spread across steep hillsides that overlook the Rio Tejo, Lisbon offers all the delights you’d expect of Portugal’s star attraction, yet with half the fuss of other European capitals. Gothic cathedrals, majestic monasteries and quaint museums are all part of the colourful cityscape, but the real delights of discovery lie in wandering the narrow lanes of Lisbon’s lovely backstreets.
As bright yellow trams wind their way through curvy tree-lined streets, Lisboêtas stroll through the old quarters, much as they’ve done for centuries. Village-life gossip in old Alfama is exchanged at the public baths or over fresh bread and wine at tiny patio restaurants as fadistas (proponents of fado, Portugal’s traditional melancholic singing) perform in the background.
Meanwhile, in other parts of town, visitors and locals chase the ghosts of Pessoa in warmly lit 1930s-era cafés or walk along the seaside that once saw the celebrated return of Vasco da Gama. Yet, while history is very much alive in centuries-old Lisbon, its spirit is undeniably youthful.
In the hilltop district of Bairro Alto, dozens of restaurants and bars line the narrow streets, with jazz, reggae, electronica and fado filling the air and revellers partying until dawn. Nightclubs scattered all over town make fine use of old spaces, whether on riverside docks or tucked away in 18th-century mansions.
The Lisbon experience encompasses so many things, from enjoying a fresh pastry and bica (espresso) on a petite leafy plaza to window-shopping in elegant Chiado. It’s mingling with Lisboêtas at a neighbourhood festival or watching the sunset from the old Moorish castle.
Just outside Lisbon, there’s more to explore: the magical setting of Sintra, glorious beaches and traditional fishing villages.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The best pumpkin pie EVER.

A shout out to all of my fellow New Englanders at home (though frankly this recipe is excellent for anyone).  But I think it will especially be of interest for all of you.  This recipe is made from scratch by myself.  Here you go:

Homemade Pumpkin Pie with a Pistachio Crust.
Actual photo of the finished product ;-)
1 ½ cup of flour
½ cup of powdered sugar
¼ cup of pistachios, peeled and crushed
1 stick + 1 tablespoon of butter
1 large egg yolk
  1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar and pistachios.  Add in the butter and pulse until it forms a course meal.  Stir in the egg yolk and pulse again until mixture is just mixed and appears dough-like.
  2. Remove the dough from food processor and press into an already greased pie pan.
  3. Refrigerate the dough already pressed in the pan for 30 minutes before baking.
  4. Bake the dough at 190 C (375 F) for 25 minutes or so, until the edges are light golden brown.
  5. Cool completely before adding the pumpkin filling mixture for baking.
For the pie filling
1 can of canned pumpkin
1 ½ cup of sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup of brown sugar
½ cup of sugar
1 ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
½ teaspoon of ginger
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
  1. Combine the canned pumpkin and milk.  Stir until combined.
  2. Add in the eggs and both sugars.  Stir until just combined.
  3. Finally, add in the cinnamon, ginger and vanilla.
  4. Pour the filling into the completely cooled and already cooked pie crust.
  5. Bake at 218 C (or 425 F) for 15 minutes.  Then reduce the heat to 180 C (or 350 F) and bake for 40-45 more minutes (until the top of the pie appears no longer liquidy or flimsy).
  6. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 1 hour.  Then enjoy!  (One can eat the pie still warm or wait until its cooler, whatever your preference.  I prefer the taste after the pie has cooled and then been refrigerated for a couple of hours.  The crust takes on an almost shortbread-like consistency and the pumpkin pie flavors really meld together well.  YUM!)
Stay tuned for more delectable eats :-D

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Surprise day-trip in Germany!

About a week ago, Sally, a good friend of mine, sent me an email asking what my plans were for this upcoming Saturday.  She suggested we take a day trip to visit a town in Germany for the afternoon, one I had not had the chance to visit.  Having been here for over a year now, she is a firm advocate that I should make a point to see more of Germany while I am here ;-) and I agree with her.  So I gave her an enthusiastic yes as my response for Saturday.
Sally would not reveal where we were going until I actually met her at the base of platform 11 on Saturday morning at 10am.  It was then that she revealed our destination.  A town called Mainz.  I had never felt any interest in visiting this town, mainly because I knew nothing about it.  But I was pleasantly surprised!!  Mainz was incredibly charming.
We spent the morning walking around while Sally pointed out various landmarks to me and I took lots of photos of the beautifully decorated buildings and charming roads.
We stopped for food and enjoyed a lunch of hashbrowns with vegetables in a light cream sauce.  This was quite tasty.
And then we headed on over to the Gutenberg Museum!  Gutenberg is the inventor of the printing press.  He revolutionized the printing process in terms of books.  You can read a bit more about his invention here.  In exploring the museum, we were able to view original copies of Gutenberg bibles from the 1400s.  You can read more about these bibles here (you will not believe how much they are worth nowadays!).  What is really neat about these bibles though is that when made using the printing press, the first letter of each new paragraph was left a blank space.  Then people filled in the letter themselves using intricate color and designs.  This was just gorgeous.  I have put in a few photos of these below that I found via the internet.  The bibles we viewed were kept in a vault!!!  Pretty cool.
Anyway, it was a great day overall.  I really enjoyed the city of Mainz.
We saw a marching band walking down the street upon our arrival!!
St. Stephan Church
The windows inside the church.  These windows are actually unique in Germany.  Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall created the nine windows in luminous blue that depict scenes from the Old Testament.
This was such a cool street, with the church on the right and the traditional German building with the timber frame.
LOVED this square.  Whoa.  Gorgeous.
Another stunning square filled with market stalls and bustling people.
This was pretty neat.  This column is made entirely of nails!!!
Up close view.
The buildings surrounding the square where the large market was taking place.
This hen was just hanging out on the stall there!!!
The lettering I was referring to in the Gutenberg bibles.  Lovely isnt it?