Friday, June 25, 2010

Cookie of the Month: Meringue-Topped Bars

You may have noticed there was no Cookie of the Month for May. I didn't mean to skip it; my stomach said, "Yes, yes, yes, give us more cookies for May!" But my summer clothes said, "No, no, no! We will not fit unless you lose that winter insulation you so cleverly accumulated to keep warm!" So I managed to lose six pounds in the last six weeks by avoiding all sorts of sweets and logging my calories in a food diary: mission mostly accomplished. Plus, I discovered a strategy: band mini-camp was this week, so I could sample one cookie and send the rest in with Boy to feed the trumpet section.

But what to make? I thought about making Pfefferneusse, because the name sounds cool and I wondered what cookies with pepper would taste like, but then I looked at the recipe and it said "chill several hours or overnight" and I didn't have time to deal with that. What did I have time for? Bar cookies sounded about right—no shaping or rolling to deal with—so I browsed the section of my trusty Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and discovered this interesting recipe for Meringue-Topped Cookies. Topped with meringue? I like meringue fairly well, and I've never tried making it, so this could be fun. I dove right in:

1½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter or margarine (I used Smart Balance butter blend sticks, easy to measure)
¾ cup packed brown sugar
3 eggs (divided)
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup granulated sugar
6 oz semisweet chocolate pieces/chips or two bars English toffee (I used chips)

Stir together flour, soda, and salt. For crust, beat butter for 30 seconds; add brown sugar and beat till fluffy. Separate egg whites from egg yolks; set whites aside. Add egg yolks and vanilla to beaten mixture; beat well. Gradually add dry ingredients to beaten mixture, beating constantly. Spread in an ungreased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. (The dough is rather gooey, so it's easiest to do this by hand.) Bake in a 350F oven for 10 minutes. When you take it out it should be golden brown like this:

In the meantime, wash your beaters (and your bowl, if it's part of a mixing stand). For meringue, combine egg whites and cream of tartar; beat until soft peaks form. (I discovered high speed works better; "soft peaks" looks something like super high bubbles.) Gradually add granulated sugar; beat until soft peaks form.

For this part I was sooooo glad I have my KitchenAid 5-quart stand mixer, which is my favorite favorite kitchen mini-appliance, essential for making cheesecakes—or really, anything that needs blending, now that my wrists and elbows are old and tender and don't like working so hard to mix things up. My trusty KitchenAid made short work of the meringue, and soon I had fluffy white peaks, just like you would see atop a lemon meringue pie or just plain meringue candy.

Next, sprinkle chocolate pieces (which I used) or chopped toffee over hot crust. Spread meringue on top, getting it into all the corners. Bake 30 minutes more or until golden brown.

When mine came out of the oven it looked like this: golden brown and a little crispy. If you've ever had plain meringue candies, you know they are a little golden on the top, a nice crispy exterior with a chewy interior.

You are supposed to cut the treats into bars while they are still warm, or else they will harden and make cutting difficult. I let them cool about 10 minutes, so they weren't too gooey, and made easy cuts like you see here.

And the result? As you can see from the picture, we have a standard bar base, a little bit of gooey chocolate, and a layer of crispy/chewy meringue. This little corner was the only one I tried, and I thought it was just as well I wasn't keeping the rest around. With sugar in the base, sugar in the chocolate, and sugar in the meringue, it was extremely sweet. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but in this case you have a very lightweight cookie with a very sweet taste. The bar base isn't very thick—it was a challenge to spread it out enough to cover the pan—and meringue has a very light texture. So this little cookie was extremely sweet without being very filling at all. And since it was actually one of the highest-calorie treats in the cookbook's cookie section, at 158 calories per serving (only the brownies surpassed it), this could be very very very dangerous. I ate one cookie and while it was extremely sweet, it felt like nothing in my tummy.

As for how the cookies went over? I'm not sure. Boy said they were acceptable, but instead of feeding them to his section they went to bribe the drum majors. We'll see next month if this proves to be an effective strategy, I guess—or whether they'll need Pfefferneusse to bolster their nefarious plans.

My rating for Meringue-Topped Bars: nom nom (two of five noms).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My mean boss

I've just realized: my boss is a real slave driver. At the start of 2009 she decided I wasn't taking enough jobs, so she upped the frequency of my assignments. In 2008, I wrote approximately 21,000 words on assignment; in 2009, the number was closer to 55,000 words. She hasn't let up in 2010; the year's not halfway done and I'm already over 20,000 words. I had a week's vacation last July, and a couple of long weekends, but even during those breaks it seemed like I was corresponding about old assignments or thinking about upcoming ones. There has always been a deadline on my mind for the last 18 months, so I finally told her enough was enough! All work and no play make Diane something something! I need more than an hour snatched here and there to work on revising my latest novel (which was mostly written between 7 and 11 pm last November, or so it felt like) and sending queries out on the finished ones.

So after my current assignment, which is due July 8, I'm taking a break from the reference game. I'll have about six weeks before I need to start working on an assignment due in early September—not that I'll be slacking off. I'm hoping to get a big chunk of revising done before I go to LA in late July for the SCBWI summer conference, which I'm expecting to be five very intense days of workshopping, reworking, networking, and maybe a teensy bit of partying. Then I should be inspired to revise revise revise and market market market before I go back to biographies.

I'm just glad I convinced my boss to go along with the plan. That bitch is crazy sometimes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (1999 film)

After the success of 1995's films of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, and 1996's Emmas (TV and film), I'm sure someone thought it would be a great idea to delve into the rest of Austen's oeuvre. But what to choose? Northanger Abbey was full of all that weird Gothic stuff, so Mansfield Park was the only complete novel left. "Fanny Price is such a dreary character, though," I imagine the producers saying. "Not suited for our modern audience at all. Can we give her a little more zazz? Maybe sex it up a little bit?" Viewing the resulting 1999 film of Mansfield Park, I don't think that imaginary conversation is too off the mark.

The first clue as to the "zazzed" nature of this version is on the outside of the DVD box, where it gives the rating of PG-13. The second occurs less than two minutes into the opening credits, where it says the film is based on the novel Mansfield Park by Jane Austen and "on her journals and letters." The film opens with the juvenile Fanny Price telling a fanciful story to her younger sister Susan on the day she is to be taken to the Bertram family at Mansfield Park. After she arrives there and Mrs. Norris argues in front of Sir Thomas that she had not intended to keep Fanny at her home, Fanny tries to interject a comment before being shushed. In the next scenes that show Fanny growing up at Mansfield Park, we see her writing letters with clever observances to her sister Susan, reading aloud her writing to her cousin Edmund (including a short history of England similar to the one Austen herself wrote in her youth), and horsing around with Edmund to the extent that Sir Thomas has to reprimand her for her high spirits. Clearly, this is not Austen's Fanny Price, but a Fanny Price who more closely resembles Austen herself.

The plot moves along very similarly to the book; the few omissions (brother William Price, the outing to Sotherton) are less obnoxious than the total inversion of Fanny's character. (That's not to say that the omissions aren't obnoxious; we see so little of Henry Bertram interacting with Maria and Julia before Maria's marriage that we don't get a sense of how wrong his flirtations with them have been, something that supposedly undermines Fanny's later distrust of him.) We don't see Fanny refusing to participate in the play (we see little of the play anyway), because how could an aspiring novelist who names her horse Shakespeare so thoroughly revile another form of literature? When Sir Thomas returns from Antigua and declares that Fanny should have a ball in her honor, she runs from the room—and not because she is shy and uncomfortable of attention, but because she will not be displayed like a horse at market. Finally, when Fanny refuses Henry Crawford's offer of marriage, it immediately angers Sir Thomas, who threatens to send her to Portsmouth unless she complies, and Fanny defiantly replies, "I will not." This is quite a change from the book, where Sir Thomas tells her to her face that "You will have nothing to fear, or to be agitated about. You cannot suppose me capable of trying to persuade you to marry against your inclinations," and plans the trip to Portsmouth as time for her to enjoy William's company and perhaps reconsider Crawford's offer.

So now we have a forthright, defiant, proto-feminist Fanny in Portsmouth, where she receives further attentions from Crawford with some confusion. She claims she will not marry him, but after receiving a letter from Edmund in which he calls Mary Crawford "the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife," she changes her mind and accepts him. Then, after a sleepless night, she once again rejects Henry, infuriating him and sending him away and setting him up for Maria's clutches. While this incident is taken from Austen's own life—she entered into an engagement, only to change her mind the next morning—it is completely contrary to the steadfastness that is the chief essence of Fanny's character.

Despite her recalcitrant refusals, Fanny is called home to Mansfield to help nurse her cousin Tom back to health after he has been in a drunken accident. Here is where we get into the very un-Austenish PG-13 territory. First, Fanny runs across a series of drawings that Tom made while Antigua that are shocking in their depictions of slavery and slave conditions. (Apparently Tom is an artist, and while I find interesting this version's intimation that Tom's wild behavior is due to his guilt over what he has seen on the family plantation in Antigua, added to all the other crazy changes it's just too much.) Second, Henry Crawford is staying at the Park at the invitation of Sir Thomas, and one morning while up early to attend to Tom, Fanny runs across Henry making love—naked breasts and everything!—to the visiting Maria.

The end is close enough to the book: Mary Crawford reveals her shallowness, Edmund sends her away, and eventually makes a lovely declaration to Fanny. Of course, this was never in doubt, for unlike the book, this film makes frequent reference to Edmund's feelings for Fanny throughout. Very nice, but not enough to make up for all the trashing of the original plot and characters.

All these complaints are not to say that the movie wasn't good; the production values were excellent, and the acting was good overall. Frances O'Connor was charming as Jane Aust—I mean, Fanny Price, and Jonny Lee Miller made a suitable Edmund.* Most interesting was Harold Pinter—yes, that Harold Pinter, the playwright and Nobel Prize winner—as a very scary and stern Sir Thomas. It wasn't a bad film, but it wasn't a true Austen adaptation. Give it a different title—Fanny Price, maybe—and say "inspired by the works" of Austen, and I wouldn't get so up in arms. As it stands, though, I can understand those fans who consider this film a travesty unworthy of the name of Austen. If you loved the book, you'd probably be too shocked to enjoy this movie at all.

*Interesting trivia: Miller played a minor role as a Price brother in the 1983 MP at age 11, and would go on to play Mr. Knightley in the 2009 TV version of Emma. Also, the actress who played Maria played Henrietta Musgrove in an earlier Persuasion and Mrs. Forster in the P&P mini, and the actor who played Mr. Rushworth would later play Mr. Bennet in Lost in Austen. Stick around British television long enough, and you'll end up in multiple Austens, I guess.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Photo of the Week--6/21/10

In March 2002 we drove out to Wales, which has some very lovely scenery and very interesting historical sights. There aren't many pigeons, however, so we had to make do with some canaries* during a trip to Rhondda Heritage Park near Trehafod, Wales. They have a tour you can take to experience what daily life would have been like in the coal mines, where men worked all day to gather the "black gold" that heated homes and powered lights. We got our own very stylish safety helmets, rode down the mine shaft in a cage to the pit, and toured the place. It was kind of fun, although there were no pigeons to chase.

*I can't remember, and can't tell from this picture, whether these are real live canaries in the cage (my scrapbook caption says "real") or fakes for the purpose of setting.