Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Review: The Grave Series by Charlaine Harris

Grave Sight
Grave Surprise
Grave Secret
An Ice Cold Grave
by Charlaine Harris

image from Amazon
 Since the new season of "Tru Blood" just started up again, I thought now would be a good time to review some non-Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. I haven't watched "Tru Blood" (no HBO) but I have read some of the books the show is based on - I thought they were good, but not riveting. The Grave series, however, hooked me from the beginning. I ran through all four books in less than a week. (That's when it's good to have an e-reader. Find a book you like, and immediately download the entire series without having to run to the bookstore.)

 This is a paranormal mystery series, following Harper Connelly and her stepbrother and business partner, Tolliver. Harper, product of drug-addicted parents and a messed-up childhood, got hit by lightning as a teenager, and now she can find dead people. She uses her talents to find missing people for a fee - and when she finds them, she also knows how they died. Naturally, law enforcement is skeptical of her claims.

 These books are full of the southern style of Harris' other series. The characters are very real, flawed people, people you could meet in any small town. Although I'm not an avid mystery reader, I found the murder mystery in each book intriguing. I was sometimes able to figure out the killer and motive before the end, but that didn't make the journey there any less interesting. We learn more about Harper and Tolliver's  past through each book, and their backstory, and their changing and maturing relationship, become just as interesting as the mystery they're investigating. Harris knows how to create compelling characters we want to spend time with. I hope there are going to be more books in this series soon.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

PinTried: Nutella Stuffed Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies With Sea Salt

The original pin came from The Bite Sized Baker
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Rating: Nailed It!

 There are a lot of chocolate chip cookie recipes floating around that claim to be the best ever, but I think these really are. When I first saw the recipe, I thought "Wow, that looks really complicated," and I already have a good chocolate chip cookie recipe, (Wookiee Cookies from the Star Wars cookbook) so why go to all that trouble? But these are stuffed with Nutella, the amazingly rich and gooey chocolate-hazelnut spread. So I decided it was worth a go.

 What makes these different (besides the Nutella) is plain greek yogurt, browned butter, and sea salt. The browned butter threw me, I'd never done it before. But I Googled it, it wasn't that hard, and it definitely adds a layer of nutty richness that isn't there with regular softened butter. Adding sea salt to sweet things seems to be a real trend lately, and one I heartily approve of. That touch of salt really brings out the sweet of the chocolate.

  I've now made these three times, twice sticking to the recipe, once with some tweaks to fit our personal taste. (I also made them once without the Nutella, since DH is allergic to hazelnuts.) Both ways these cookies got almost unanimous raves - the one holdout was my 10-yr-old godson. He asked what the white stuff on top was, and when I said sea salt, he looked at me like I'd lost my mind. ("Sea salt? On a cookie? Ewww.") I made them most recently for a gathering, and forgot to take pictures until they were almost all gone, so excuse the hasty cell phone pics (thanks Jeff!)

The last of the batch

An action shot for scale. As you can see, it's a two-handed cookie!

Here's the recipe, with my personal tweaks in parentheses:

2¼ cup all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon of salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (I used salted once when I was out of unsalted, and liked it better)
1¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plain greek yogurt
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use one cup of dark & leave out the milk choc.)
½  cup milk chocolate chips
1 jar of Nutella, chilled in refrigerator (Nutella jar says don't refrigerate, but it has to be cold, or it's too gooey to work with.)
Coarse sea salt for sprinkling
  1. In a large bowl mix flour, baking soda, and salt until combined. In a saucepan over medium heat, brown butter and set aside to cool.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. (I don't have a stand mixer or paddle attachment. Regular hand mixer worked just fine.) Mix in egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt until incorporated. Gradually add the dry ingredients until combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
  3. Place cookie dough in the refrigerator for 2 hours to let the flavors meld together. (I have never been able to wait the whole two hours, as long as the dough is cold enough to work with, it's fine.)
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll 1½ tablespoons of dough and flatten the dough to make a flat circle. Place 1 teaspoon of chilled Nutella in the middle then place another flat circle of cookie dough on top. Crimp edges to seal. (If you make them this big, they spread to the size of saucers. You can make them smaller, just adjust the cooking time.)
  5. Place dough balls on cookie sheet, 2 inches apart and bake 9-11 minutes or until the edges turn golden brown.
  6. Sprinkle with sea salt and let cool on wire racks. (I've put the sea salt on before baking - still tastes good, but the sea salt almost disappears. Good for picky people who don't like the look of salt on top. Personally, I prefer to add it after baking, though.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Movie Review: The Croods

 The boy turned seven last Thursday, so I thought he and I could go to a movie, just the two of us, as a birthday treat. Unfortunately, there was very little playing appropriate for a seven-year-old.  (We need to keep it G-rated - not that he wouldn't love "Iron Man 3," but he's a little too prone to re-enacting the explosions and such.) The only first-run cartoon playing was "Epic," which, frankly, looked boring as hell. Luckily, "The Croods" was at the second-run theater.

  "The Croods," starring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone, is the story of a caveman family trying to survive their hostile environment. They meet Guy, a traveller who tells them the world is ending. After their cave is destroyed, they follow Guy on a quest for a new home, free of earthquakes, volcanoes and such.

 This is a beautifully animated movie. Their colorful world is full of surreal animals (land whales, carnivorous birds and plants, sabre tooth tigers, etc.) and visually stunning landscapes. The plot is familiar: teenage cave girl chafes at Dad's restrictive rules, falls for new guy, Dad dislikes new guy. Nick Cage as the Dad, Grug, is pretty funny in his attempts to keep his family safe by avoiding anything new. His mantra: Never not be afraid.

 The story is pretty much just Grug, teenage daughter Eep, and boyfriend Guy. The rest of the family have very little to do here. They reminded me of a caveman version of Family Guy: Not-too-bright Dad, Mom who tries to keep him in line, teenage girl, not-too-bright teenage brother, slightly vicious baby. And Cloris Leachman as Grug's mother-in-law, who was pretty funny and should have had more to do.

 This was a mildly entertaining movie, we both enjoyed it, but I'm glad we didn't have to pay full price. It's not a classic that's going to be watched over and over. But with little else kid-friendly until "Monsters U" opens in a couple of weeks, it was a decent way to spend an afternoon.