blueberry almond tart

I live just across the river from Washington, DC. You may have heard that we had record-breaking weather last weekend? 2+ feet of snow. While we were snowed in I made bagels from scratch, and I had plans to make a blueberry almond tart, but time got away from me (read: I just wasn’t motivated enough). Last night I finally got my act together and baked before the blueberries spoiled. Yay!

Blueberry Almond Tart (crust recipe from King Arthur Flour, filling from Hummingbird High)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) butter, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup almond meal (I buy mine at Trader Joe’s)

Tart filling
6 oz. (about 2/3 cup) sour cream
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 large egg
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
10 ounces (1 dry pint) fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 9” tart pan liberally with cooking spray, and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the sugar, butter, salt, and extracts. Add the flour and almond meal, stirring to make crumbs that cling together when squeezed.

Dump the dough out into the prepared tart pan, and press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides with your fingers.  Once the dough looks uniform, prick all over with a fork.  Freeze the crust for 15 minutes, then put it in the oven to bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

Increase the oven temperature to 400°F.  Place the cooled crust on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and set aside.

Whisk together the sour cream, heavy cream, egg, sugar, and almond extract until well combined.

Pour the filling into the prepared crust. Evenly distribute the blueberries over the custard. If too many berries remain at the surface, gently push them into the filling so that you have just one layer of blueberries at the top.

Bake until the filling has set and the crust is golden, about 25 minutes. The custard is set when its center wobbles just a bit, while the outside remains puffed up and set.

Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm, or chilled from the refrigerator.

It looks fantastic – so the question is, does the taste measure up? It is delicious. And, if we’re being honest, maybe a smidgen too sweet for my taste. If I were to make it again, I’d probably take the sugar in the crust down to 1/3 cup, and double (or times and a half) the amount of custard filling so that the sweetness of the crust is offset a bit more by the creaminess of the tart.

But what about flavors?!  Actually, the almond comes through really well, but not too strong – that part is perfect.  And the berries were just the right amount sweet. Baked blueberries pop open on your tongue like a surprise, you know?  So the flavors were great.  Plus, this is a freaking beautiful food item.  Looks like it belongs in a display case, you know?  So I’ll definitely be breaking out the recipe again, possibly with other berry variations.

Recommended for: a sweet afternoon treat to pair with coffee, as a beautiful (and fancy!) finish to a home-cooked meal, or for any occasion where you want to impress your guests.

Interested in other food-related posts? Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

an inheritance of ashes

Thursday, January 14, 2016 | | 4 comments
Many of the books that have shaped my reading life in profound ways have maps at the start. Before the reader finds any text they are invited to pore over the landscape of a fantasy world. There might be bordering countries, or a region, or a large city with all of its crooked streets picked out. Topographical details may be sparse or plentiful.  Whatever the case, these maps usually herald my favorite sort of story: A journey, a courageous hero or heroine, and triumph over evil/survival/happily ever after to top things off.

When I picked up Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes, all I knew about it was that I loved the author’s previous book, Above, and that it was set at end of the world. When I leafed through the pages and saw a map at the start, I had a good feeling – and the book did not disappoint. An Inheritance of Ashes is beautiful, fierce, sad, and by far my favorite of all of the books I’ve read in the past year.

an inheritance of ashes
Six months ago, the men of the lakelands marched south to fight a dark god.

Weeks after the final battle was won, sixteen-year-old Hallie and her sister, Marthe, are still struggling to maintain their family farm—and are waiting for Marthe’s missing husband to return. After a summer of bitter arguments, Hallie is determined to get Roadstead Farm through the winter—and keep what’s left of her family together, despite an inheritance destined to drive them apart.

But when Hallie hires a wandering veteran in a bid to save the farm, every phantom the men marched south to fight arrives at her front gate. Spider-eyed birds circle the fields, ghostly messages writes themselves on the riverbank, and soon Hallie finds herself keeping her new hired hand’s despite desperate secrets—and taking dangerous risks. But as she fights to keep both the farm and her new friend safe, ugly truths about her own family are emerging—truths that, amid gods, monsters, and armies, might tear Roadstead Farm apart.

Leah Bobet’s stark, beautiful fantasy explores the aftermath of the battles we fight and the slow, careful ways love can mend broken hearts—and a broken world.

This is the story of a family.  This is the story of the aftermath of war.  This is the story of a battle on the homefront.  This is the story of survival generations after the apocalypse.  This is a story about a teenage girl.  This is a story about fear.  This is a story about breaking apart and (maybe, eventually) healing.  All of these statements are true, but they don’t tell you everything.

Hallie Hoffman is sixteen, and half-owner of Roadstead Farm.  She and her pregnant sister Marthe are trying (and mostly failing) to hold themselves together in the wake of the war against the Wicked God – a war that took Marthe’s husband Thom, along with any innocence they had left.  When she hires a traveling veteran, Hallie doesn’t expect it to spark anything, except maybe a prayer of keeping up with the farm chores.  Secrets old and new follow, endangering and changing Hallie, Roadstead Farm, and their world.

Did that sound suitably ominous? The book isn’t all death and destruction – it’s a nice mix of tension with bits of light. The prologue made me cry in public, and that’s when I knew for sure that the book would wreck me. Things I liked? A) Hallie and Marthe’s messy sister relationship, and how that played into everything Hallie said and did throughout the story. B) The reality of broken relationships, and the saving grace of kindness, forgiveness, and second chances.   C) A romantic relationship that was authentic to the setting, the characters, and the crazy situation. D) The immediacy and intimacy of the setting, without sacrificing big-picture world-building.

That last paragraph covered things I liked. Let’s go deeper (really dig in to Why this book is perfect):

1. Diversity! Included! In! The text! Like it’s no big deal! (spoiler alert: it’s 2016. this is the kind of YA SFF book i want/need)

2. Craft. The writing is just superb – not only poetic (it is, in a way that screams TRUTH while the emotion it evokes absolutely rends your heart) but intricately arranged for maximum impact – no word or detail is left orphaned.  An Inheritance of Ashes is a masterwork.  It is not only gripping and fantastically entertaining, but beautiful, in the way that Gregorian chants, or ancient temples, or roads thousands of years old are (to me).  The sheer work that went into fitting every word like a puzzle piece to make a whole, of showing a little bit, but never letting on too much or boring the reader… is awe-inspiring. 

I do not kid myself that An Inheritance of Ashes will appeal to everyone (it won’t, books never do in the end), but I know I can’t be alone in thinking that this book is just… art.  ART, in all capital letters. Thinking about it makes me want to do better, and be better.  It’s freaking inspiring.

Recommended for: those who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, and anyone who likes strong characters and spellbinding plot in equal measure.

p.s. Dear Leah Bobet, In case it wasn’t 100% clear, I’m a fan for life. Thank you.  –Me  

bookstore review: amazon books, seattle

Sunday, December 27, 2015 | | 9 comments
Seattle, Washington: my birthplace and the location of Amazon's headquarters.  I’m back in the area celebrating with family over the Christmas holiday. I visited a bookstore (is anyone surprised? no? good.). The bookstore that everyone is buzzing about – Amazon’s first physical book retail location. It was actually my mom’s idea to check it out, and I wanted to see it as a sort of curiosity. Instead of visiting the zoo on the day after Christmas, we went to Amazon Books.

I have some thoughts (the entire bookselling community probably has some thoughts!), I’m a consumer and a book blogger, so I'm doing a consumer review. Could be fun, right? I’ve never done a bookstore review before, so bear with me.

The first thing is that Amazon Books is located in a really tony outdoor shopping district called University Village, right by the University of Washington campus. When I was a teenager, going shopping in University Village made me feel grown-up (aka fancy).  I mean, there’s a Tiffany’s across the street from the Amazon Books location.  So make of that what you will (they’re right where the money is).

I just realized that if I keep listing things one by one in numerical order I will never be done with this review.  So here’s a big list of nice things about the bookstore: all of the books face out (so cover art is even more important than usual!), and they are arranged in general by interest area, but there are also a lot of freestanding shelves dedicated to award-winners, or Amazon’s top books of the year, or books for kids aged 9-12 who like sports, and so on.  In short? The browsing experience is a little different than most bookshops I’ve been in. 

The staff is super attentive – I was asked if I needed help 3 different times, and this while the place was totally packed!  Also, the prices are the same as on the website (cheap!), and are not listed on labels (browsers are encouraged to do price checks on their phones). I also appreciated the Amazon star ratings and short reviews listed under every title in the store (in a “staff picks” fashion).  I went around the YA section scanning the shelves for reviews by bloggers I recognize (I saw a couple!).  The staff was also restocking while we were there, leading me to believe that the large number of browsers translated to sales.

Now onto the “cons” list: the bookstore had VERY small aisles. If someone was in one, you couldn’t get past. When I stood with my back pressed against the shelf behind me, I could barely see any of the books on the bottom shelf in front of me. In a crowded bookshop, that’s a major issue (and it was quite crowded). I also learned that Amazon Books only accepts cards for payment, no cash allowed. That seemed unnecessarily elitist, as the unbanked might appreciate lower prices on books more than anyone.

There was also very limited seating throughout the store (I assume to encourage browsing, but not too much browsing).  That said, the window seats around the perimeter of the store were cool, according to my sister-in-law, who tried them out. My aunt noted that the store didn’t stock any Moleskine products (limited/no gift items) – the focus was on books and magazines only. I think the biggest difference between a traditional bookstore and Amazon Books (for me) were how few books there actually were in store. For the space, they fit in as many shelves as they could, and yet the majority of the selection was made up of newly-published books.  The selection of backlist items was random and haphazard.  There were also some notable holes in the selection – I kept looking all over for the Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, and couldn’t spot it.  That would be front and center in any other bookstore right now, due to the popularity of the Broadway musical.

You may be wondering if I purchased anything at Amazon Books. I didn’t. But! My mother bought me an early birthday present. I picked out two books: adult fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, and middle grade classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. 

Final verdict: Amazon Books is worth a visit. It was interesting from a consumer viewpoint to see what books Amazon prioritized in a store setting, and I found a couple of interesting titles I wanted to purchase while browsing. That said, this is not the store to go visit if you need a specific backlist book. The store space itself is also less-than-ideal. I think the concept needs a little bit of work. All told, I’m glad I went!


Thursday, December 10, 2015 | | 3 comments
You know that one author whose books you reach for when you need the equivalent of a reading hug?  Or maybe it’s just one book, but the prose somehow exudes cozy?  Yeah.  I have a whole shelf of those, and the name on the spine is Robin McKinley.  Her books are great for anytime (they’re almost all about girls doing things), but I find my eye catching on that particular shelf most often whenever I’m in a rough patch.  I’m in the midst of one right now – first I fractured my face playing hockey, then I got quite ill, right now I’m dealing with pest problems, and as a result my roommates and I have decided to move at the end of the month (whew!).  So I picked up a McKinley book to (re)read myself into a better mindset.  Chalice is a quietly powerful book, and it’s working like a healing balm for my soul.

chalice by robin mckinley cover artMirasol is a beekeeper, a honey-gatherer, with an ability to speak to the earthlines—the sentient parts of Willowlands, where she lives. The concerns of Master, Chalice, and Circle, who govern Willowlands, have nothing to do with her—until the current Master and Chalice die in a fire and leave no heirs to take their places. The Master’s closest relative has been a priest of Fire for the past seven years; he is not quite human anymore. And then the Circle comes to Mirasol and tells her that she is the new Chalice, and it will be up to her to bind the land and its people with a Master, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone…

Mirasol was a modest beekeeper before a terrible tragedy forced her into a position of power.  The trouble is that she has had no training, a new Master, and work that must be done, or else everything will fall apart.  Mirasol’s struggles are not small and simple as they once were: she is trying to hold together something much bigger than herself, while fighting ignorance (her own and others’), politics, and self-doubt.  Chalice is a quiet book, focused on one woman thrust suddenly into a life she could never have imagined.  At the same time it is a powerful story about an understated type of heroism – that of an ordinary person, stretching to (and past) their limits to make the world a better place.

That’s the story.  What about the writing itself?  I’m going to tell you what it’s like, and you’re going to give me a look and think, “Cecelia, are you serious?! That sounds boring.”  And I’m going to say… just hear me out.  McKinley is as her most McKinley-esque in this book: there’s little dialogue, the story is told in the third-person, and there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of time in spent in main character Mirasol’s head.  Stay with me.  It’s a cozy, warm sort of story for all that.  Said coziness comes from: honey, Mirasol’s affinity with animals & bees, her modesty and thirst for knowledge, and the juxtaposition of the physical limits of the human body (small, immediate concerns) with “larger” matters like a land falling apart, loneliness, and the responsibility of power.  The writing may not be galloping-along-action, but it’s suited to the size and scope of this story, and it perfectly represents the main character.

The first couple of times I read Chalice I simply read it, and was pulled into its calm.  This time through I enjoyed it just as well as before, but I kept a somewhat more critical eye out – as I have been doing with all of my reading lately.  Conclusion?  Although the book’s focus is narrow, room could have been made to explore some interesting themes.  I’m talking “issues” like gender stereotypes (inherent in the assigned power roles in this fantasy world, as it turns out), diversity (the Master has black skin that has been burned by magical fire, but otherwise there’s a monochromatic cast of characters), and world-building (what is lost with the hyper-focus on one woman?).  As I said, I still enjoyed the book – but I am working on my awareness of diversity.  My reading requirements have evolved.

In all, Chalice is a warm, genuine sort of fantasy – the type of story that will appeal to readers who don’t usually find themselves in the fantasy section at the bookstore but want to the book equivalent of a cup of tea and a fuzzy shawl around the shoulders.

Recommended for: readers who prefer quiet, character-driven stories, anyone interested in books light on dialogue and heavy on beekeeping, and fans of Patricia McKillip.
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