Another Random Recipe

This is one of those I got suckered into. My sister – who is not a baker, or at least she doesn’t believe she can be – wanted this cake for her husband’s birthday. When she mentioned it, I knew what was coming, but since I was busy stuffing my face at our mom’s table, I couldn’t make a graceful escape.  Of course I said yes. That’s what you do in a family. You whine and complain about it later and hold it over their heads forever, but you still say yes. 

And then she sent me the recipe.  It had 34 ingredients and 87 steps.

I said, “&*$%?” (Roughly translated, that means, “Nope.”)

I went back and looked again, wondering if I could make any changes to make it a little smoother. I swear sometimes I think people publish recipes formatted in such a complicated way as to make even experienced cooks nervous. And most of the time, it just isn’t necessary. 

So here is my version. (Make sure to check the notes at the bottom for what I will do differently next time.)

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Cheesecake

Crust Ingredients:

30 chocolate sandwich cookies
6 tbs butter, melted
dash of salt

Cheesecake Ingredients:

32 oz (8 bricks) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
5 eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup cream
1 tsp vanilla (REAL! Never, ever, ever, ever use imitation vanilla!)
12 oz Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups miniatures, unwrapped and roughly chopped

Topping:

1/2 cup cream
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
8 oz Reese’s minis, whole or chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. *Fill a pan (any pan, doesn’t matter) halfway with water and place on bottom rack of oven.*
Use a food processor to chop the cookies into fine crumbs. Add in the butter and salt and process briefly to combine. Press the mixture into the bottom and halfway up the sides of a 9 inch springform pan.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, then set aside to cool. 

Beat the cream cheese until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl so it mixes uniformly.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating briefly after each one, then scrape the sides of the bowl again.
Add in the brown sugar, peanut butter, cream, and vanilla; beat until combined. 
Gently fold in the chopped up Reese’s cups.
Pour the mixture into the cooled crust.

Bake the cheesecake until it is just set, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the the temperature reduce slowly, for about an hour. Remove from oven, cool completely, then refrigerate. 

To make the chocolate topping, heat the cream in a small pan, to simmering, just before boiling. Remove from heat and add the chocolate chips. Let the mixture sit for a couple of minutes and then stir until smooth. 
Drizzle the chocolate over the top and (if you want, and why wouldn’t you?) down the sides of the chilled cheesecake. Sprinkle the remainder of the Reese’s cups on top, and drizzle with a bit more of the chocolate topping.

Reese's cheesecake

What I will do differently next time. (If there is a next time!) 

I will reduce the peanut butter from a full cup to a half cup. By using a full cup, it overpowers the rest of the flavors somewhat. I would also add 1/2 cup of regular granulated sugar in addition to the 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar. 

I will also add about 3 tbs of flour. This is simply a matter of texture. I like cheesecake that is a bit more firm and dense, a small amount of flour would do that. 

*A note about the pan of water – this recipe, like many others, calls for baking your cheesecake in a water bath. It said to wrap the bottom of your cheesecake tightly with aluminum foil, then set the pan inside a larger pan with about an inch of hot water in it, then to put the whole set up in the oven together. Now, maybe I’m just not clever enough to wrap a pan with aluminum foil, but every single time that I have followed this method in a recipe, it backfires on me. You can’t really make a springform pan water tight. You just can’t. And if the water in your pan below the cheesecake simmers at all, it can easily get over the aluminum foil. My solution is just to put a separate pan of water on the lower rack. It accomplishes the same thing, which is to keep the outside of the cake from drying out and helping it to cook evenly. And it’s much simpler. I like simple. Simple is good. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is, “Keep it simple, stupid!”

So, there you go. If you have a sweet tooth that demands a combination of cheesecake, peanut butter, and chocolate, here is your fix.  Enjoy!  

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A Study in Favorite Characters: Part 2 – Grantaire

I am an obsessive bibliophile.

There. I said it. Sometimes stories just get inside my soul. There are characters who grip me tight and refuse to let go. And I’m left with an obsession that I simply have to study.

(If you’re interested, you can read part 1 of this rambling little character study here.)

The question is – what turns a character in a story into a favorite character in your world?  I began thinking about this when I, once again, became so absorbed in a book, so invested in certain characters, that it occurred to me to question whether or not this is normal. (Whatever “normal” is.)  I talked to a fellow book lover about it and discovered that we read quite differently. He is mostly drawn to the entire story, whereas I am drawn to individual characters within the story. So that’s where I began.

From Part 1:
Interestingly the stories that occupy me in this way MUST have characters that I adore. For the most part, if I can’t relate to an important character (preferrably the protagonist), I’m not likely to enjoy the book, unless the story is simply irresistible. There have been a few exceptions to that, but not many. I may LIKE a story, but I need to LOVE the characters. And it isn’t necessarily that the characters are bad or weak or uninteresting, just that I don’t always connect with them.  There are books I’ve read and enjoyed the stories. I would recommend them to fellow bibliophiles, but they don’t take hold of me, not the way a story does in which I find a character to love and take to heart this way.

Then I asked what it is precisely that makes that character a favorite:
Is it being able to relate to the character?

Is it because you see a little (or a lot) of yourself in them?

Is it because you see a little (or a lot) of your own flaws or darkness in them, but also recognize their good qualities and that gives you hope about yourself?

Is it because they are the kind of person you would like to make your best friend?  Do you want to be them? Be with them?  Have a drink with them?

I know, to some degree, it’s likely all of these things.

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And so, my current favorite character, the one that really got me thinking about this whole way of relating to these fictional friends, a character that has captured my imagination completely. Let’s slip between the pages of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s masterwork.  This book (brick!) is chock full of diverse, profound, complicated, characters. There are a couple who are immensely fascinating to me. But the one who has taken root in my imagination and insisted upon being examined, is Grantaire.

I’m assuming, if you are reading this, you are familiar to some degree with the story of Les Miserables, either from reading it yourself, seeing one of the film adaptations, or watching the musical.

We are first introduced to Grantaire when we are introduced to the other principal members of Les Amis d’ABC.  Of this group of nine, Hugo says,
“The greater part of the Friends of the A B C were students, who were on cordial terms with the working classes. Here are the names of the principal ones. They belong, in a certain measure, to history: Enjolras, Combeferre, Jean Prouvaire, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, Bahorel, Lesgle or Laigle, Joly, Grantaire. These young men formed a sort of family, through the bond of friendship. ”  (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)

Hugo goes on to give us a portrait of each of these young men. This is a passage I go back to repeatedly, because of the detail given to each of them. Monsieur Hugo was guilty of much digression in his work, but his prose shines in passages like this one.  He tells a bit about each one of these men, their passions, their reasons for meeting in this “group which barely missed becoming historic.”  He gives a detailed picture of the first eight, followed by this summary:

“All these young men who differed so greatly, and who, on the whole, can only be discussed seriously, held the same religion: Progress. All were the direct sons of the French Revolution. The most giddy of them became solemn when they pronounced that date: ’89. Their fathers in the flesh had been, either royalists, doctrinaires, it matters not what; this confusion anterior to themselves, who were young, did not concern them at all; the pure blood of principle ran in their veins. They attached themselves, without intermediate shades, to incorruptible right and absolute duty. Affiliated and initiated, they sketched out the ideal underground.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)

And then, Grantaire stumbles in. Hugo immediately establishes him as the lone skeptic in the group, and says that he came to be there with them by simple juxtaposition. And he is certainly in contrast to the rest of les amis. Although he’s described as a drunk, a skeptic, a gambler, and a libertine, the rest tolerated him for his good humor. Grantaire (who likes to sign his name as simply R) believes in nothing. He tells his friends,
“There is but one certainty, my full glass.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo) 

He disdains devotion to anything at all, with one glaring exception.
“However, this sceptic had one fanaticism. This fanaticism was neither a dogma, nor an idea, nor an art, nor a science; it was a man: Enjolras. Grantaire admired, loved, and venerated Enjolras. To whom did this anarchical scoffer unite himself in this phalanx of absolute minds? To the most absolute. In what manner had Enjolras subjugated him? By his ideas? No. By his character. A phenomenon which is often observable. A sceptic who adheres to a believer is as simple as the law of complementary colors. That which we lack attracts us………Grantaire, in whom writhed doubt, loved to watch faith soar in Enjolras. He had need of Enjolras. That chaste, healthy, firm, upright, hard, candid nature charmed him, without his being clearly aware of it, and without the idea of explaining it to himself having occurred to him. He admired his opposite by instinct. His soft, yielding, dislocated, sickly, shapeless ideas attached themselves to Enjolras as to a spinal column. His moral backbone leaned on that firmness. Grantaire in the presence of Enjolras became some one once more. He was, himself, moreover, composed of two elements, which were, to all appearance, incompatible. He was ironical and cordial. His indifference loved. His mind could get along without belief, but his heart could not get along without friendship. A profound contradiction; for an affection is a conviction. His nature was thus constituted. There are men who seem to be born to be the reverse, the obverse, the wrong side. They are Pollux, Patrocles, Nisus, Eudamidas, Ephestion, Pechmeja. They only exist on condition that they are backed up with another man; their name is a sequel, and is only written preceded by the conjunction and; and their existence is not their own; it is the other side of an existence which is not theirs. Grantaire was one of these men. He was the obverse of Enjolras.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)

MV5BMTg3NTQ4NTg3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk4ODA4OA@@._V1._SX500_SY333_(Far right, the brilliant – seriously, I can not say enough about his performance – George Blagden, as Grantaire, in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables.)

This passage is the one that sealed my fascination. A man who could survive without believing anything, but could not survive without friendship. The paradox of this floored me. Throughout the following chapters we see Grantaire continually snubbed, rebuked, and devalued by Enjolras. Enjolras belief and passion was such that he could not tolerate the apathy that he saw in R. And yet, Grantaire was not swayed, not in his cynicism toward belief, nor in his devotion to the manifestation of belief in Enjolras.  That became, I believe, an internal war for him. (More about this friendship to come later, since this post has become too long already.)

Grantaire is not quite a pariah, since he is accepted by this group of friends, but it seems to me that acceptance was not the norm in his life. I imagine that he had been considered peculiar throughout his growing up years. How does one become such a cynic, after all?  It seems unlikely that cynics are born, but rather made. I read once that a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist.  I can verify this theory by my own life. I clearly remember being idealistic, optimistic, to the point of annoyance.  I still have unyielding beliefs, which are very important to me, they are much of what makes me who I am. Those beliefs are no longer accompanied by wide-eyed optimism though.  There are lessons that, once learned, change the way you view the world and the people in it.  This doesn’t change who I am, but it does change the way I relate to the world I see. I think Grantaire must have learned some of those hard lessons as he grew up, the ones that taught him more about people, more about what to expect of humanity, than he could learn in any other way. Cynics learn to protect themselves by lowering their expectations.  I think Grantaire had so thoroughly convinced himself of his cynicism, had so carefully erected that wall around himself, that his devotion to Enjolras must have been a disconcerting thing for him (Grantaire). The passion that flowed out of Enjolras challenged Grantaire. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe in the cause itself, but believed so fully in Enjolras, it became very nearly the same thing, as witnessed later on in the upstairs of the Corinthe.

And so, in examining Grantaire, do I find an answer?  What is it about him that makes him a favorite character? The short answer, in this case, is that I see so, so much of myself in Grantaire. I find it easy to relate to his (rambling but still intelligent) ravings about random ideas. It takes no effort for me to feel his conflict as something inside him wants SO MUCH to believe, wants to believe in anything, but his fear battles that desire again and again. When he fails, I understand his shame. When he has a moment, brief as it seems, of redemption, I hope.

And, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t mind having a drink with him either.

A Study in Favorite Characters: Part 1 – Ronald Weasley

What makes me love a character?

I am a proud bibliophile. I love words. I love to read. I love books. I love stories.  And like everyone else, I have my favorites.

I credit my 4th grade teacher with giving me this love of stories.I distinctly remember her reading 2 books to our class that year: Where the Red Fern Grows and Anne of Green Gables. To this day, those are a couple of favorites. The hearing of those books led to my first “big read.” I was 9 years old when I read Little Women, and from then on, I was happily hooked on books.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’m still an addict. The difference now being that I tend to analyze my response to stories. I realized several years ago that when I connect with a story, I become obsessive. I honestly don’t know if this is good, bad, or indifferent. Seems harmless enough…most of the time. Looking back, it first happened with The Phantom of the Opera, when I was around 14 years old. For months, I read, and re-read both the original work by Gaston LeReoux, and Susan Kay’s expansion on the story, Phantom. I still love the story, and can easily go back to reread and lose myself all over again.

As an adult, it has happened with these stories: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Harry Potter series, and, currently, Les Miserables.

With the first 3, it happened the first time I read them. With Les Miserables, it’s happening on my 2nd reading.  Interestingly the stories that occupy me in this way MUST have characters that I adore. For the most part, if I can’t relate to an important character (preferrably the protagonist), I’m not likely to enjoy the book, unless the story is simply irresistible. There have been a few exceptions to that, but not many. I may like a story, but I need to LOVE the characters. And it isn’t necessarily that the characters are bad or weak or uninteresting, just that I don’t connect with them.  There are books I’ve read and enjoyed the stories. I would recommend them to fellow bibliophiles, but they don’t take hold of me, not the way a story does in which I find a character to love and take to heart this way.

So I started thinking about the characters who have incited this obsessive behavior in me, and wondering why. I talked to a fellow book-geek about it, and it made me want to examine it a bit more closely. We talked about what it is that makes us love a character, flaws and all.

Is it being able to relate to the character?

Is it because you see a little of yourself in them?

Is it because you see a little of your own flaws or darkness in them, but also recognize their good qualities and that gives you hope about yourself?

Is it because they are the kind of person you would like to make your best friend?  Do you want to be them? Be with them?  Have a drink with them?

To some degree, it’s likely all of these things.

I decided to look at 2 of my favorites a little more closely. First, let’s look at the Harry Potter series. I didn’t grow up with Potter. I was 30 when I read the series for the first time. Pretty much every fan has their favorite character. (or characters!) Mine is and was from the beginning, Ronald Bilius Weasley.

Ronald-Weasley-ronald-weasley-17166624-449-500(Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1)

He’s a bit of a divisive personality. I’ve noticed in the fandom that he has his haters, and that’s ok. (I probably don’t like their favorites either).  Ron is brave, as long as there are no spiders. He is loyal, yet prone to jealousy. He can be self centered, while having a serious lack of self esteem. He is not necessarily “book smart,” but he has plenty of practical intelligence. He is sarcastic and funny. He tends to be lazy, when he is doing something he doesn’t want to do. (i.e. school work) Ron feels his family’s financial status keenly, and he feels his place in the family (lost among his siblings) keenly as well.

So how do all of these traits translate into him being my favorite? First, it’s his humor. In reading the books, he made me laugh regularly, and more than any other character.  One of my favorite Ron quips, and a great example of his sense of humor is this gem:

“From now on, I don’t care if my tea leaves spell ‘Die, Ron, Die,’ I’m chucking them in the bin where they belong.”  (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling). 

It’s these little lines that make me think that just being friends with Ron, just hanging out with him, would be fun.  His humor comes easily, it isn’t forced, and it isn’t an “in your face,” sort of humor.  Harry most definitely had his funny moments as well, but he tended to be a brooder at times (and who could blame him, really?), so having Ron Weasley as his best mate kept him from being buried under the weight of all that he was facing.  It came out naturally, so many times throughout the series.  Interestingly, Ron would never believe that he is funny, since he would always be holding himself up to the standard of family jokesters, Fred and George.  But their humor and his are of different sorts.

The second thing that stands out in my love of this character is his loyalty.  Yes, he got mad and stormed off a couple of times. Yes, he let his mouth get him in trouble. Yes, he was petty now and then.  But he always came through. He always realized the importance of his friendships and worked to see them restored when damaged. He was even appropriately contrite about it. When he finally found Harry again (in the nick of time, too!) in The Silver Doe chapter of the Deathly Hallows, he said,

 “”Well, I’ve — you know — I’ve come back. If—” He cleared his throat. “You know. You still want me.””  (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling).           

 He seriously messed up. And he knew it.  And he owned it.  Having friends show their loyalty, even when they’re upset with you, even when they just don’t get what you’re doing, that’s the real deal.

So, I suppose for Ron, though I do relate to him in many ways, the main reason he’s a favorite is because he’s the kind of friend I want in my life. 

(Another character I could have used here is Samwise Gamgee, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He is another of my favorites,and though his qualities are different in many ways from Ron’s, he’s still the kind of friend I want. He is loyal, strong, and brave. Not to mention he can cook!)

Part 2 is coming soon, brought to you by the letter R. (wink, wink)