Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: 'A Pirate's Night Before Christmas' by Philip Yates

✰✰✰✰ On the night before Christmas aboard the pirate ship, the Black Sark, all is quiet. With the stockin's stuck to the bowsprit and visions of treasure chests dancing in thar heads, Sir Peggedy is bound to visit the buccaneers. When suddenly thar arose such a racket and eight giant sea horses and a sleigh with Sir Peggedy flew up from the sea. He said not a word and went straight to his work stuffing stockin's with presents only a pirate could love. There's holiday cheer for every good buccaneer except one. Just when it looks like one little pirate is left out, a simple piece of parchment floats down to the deck. What could it be? Will it save Christmas Day? Check out this seaworthy tale to find out why even pirates look forward to Christmas and a visit from Sir Peggedy. 

The Bottom Line: This is a fun parody of Clement C. Moore's classic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas. The poem is filled with pirate lingo. A pirate glossary is included at the end for those unfamiliar with typical pirate talk. Serra's digitally colored illustrations are fun and engaging. Highly recommended holiday reading for little buccaneers and seadogs in grades Pre-K - 2, especially those interested in pirates and the sea. This would also be fun for story hour at school or the library. Kids will love learning to speak Pirate.

Details: A Pirate's Night Before Christmas written by Philip Yates & illustrated by Sebastià Serra Picture book hardcover published by Sterling in 2008. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-4027-4257-6

Monday, July 29, 2013

Cookbook Review: 'Sweet Christmas' by Sharon Bowers

✰✰✰✰½ If visions of peppermints, fudge, gingersnaps, rum balls, sugared pecans, and pralines have been dancing in your head, then check out this holiday cookbook to make your dreams come true. With recipes for Homemade Ribbon Candy, British Christmas Cake, and Salted Caramel Sauce, cookbook author Sharon Bowers has come up with a holiday winner. She also includes recipes for a few savory treats like Hot Spinach Dip and Spicy Cheddar Coins.

Sweet Christmas includes an introduction with notes on ingredients to clarify some items like which size eggs to use or what kind of flour is best. There are also notes on equipment and storage suggestions. The recipes are grouped into eight sections including a chapter for making ornaments and decorations (some edible, some not), and a chapter with ideas for making edible homemade gifts to give at the holidays. Each recipe features an introduction, and the ingredients are listed in a different color from the main text. Finally, this cookbook includes at Conversion Guide and a Recipe Index at the end.

Taste Test Notes: It was a challenge choosing a recipe to attempt for this review as there are so many I'd like to try. However, the recipe that really caught my eye was for Chocolate-Covered Cherries (p. 30), which are one of my favorite candies. I had never even thought of attempting to make these at home, but the recipe made it look so easy. Additionally, I happened to have all the ingredients in my pantry. While the recipes in this cookbook do not include prep times, I wasn't sure how much time I needed for this attempt. However, these looked so yummy I decided to give it a try anyway; I just made sure to give myself enough time to finish.

The directions were very easy to follow. The only thing that I did differently was to store these beauties in the refrigerator as I made them in July. I noticed after dipping the cherries in the melted chocolate that the chocolate would not set due to the warm room temperature. Thus, in the fridge they went. Here are some photos of my cooking adventure:
Here are the cherries wrapped in fondant and waiting
to be popped into the freezer for 30"
The finished Chocolate-Covered Cherries waiting to be sampled.
This is what they look like on the inside. Yum!
All in all I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this recipe was fantastically easy to prepare. Just be careful not to burn your fingers when dipping the fondant covered cherries in the melted chocolate. I was able to complete this project from start to clean-up in just two hours. Finally, the best part was eating these luscious cherries; these are far better than the store bought kind. I think it's the fondant that makes them so special. These are absolutely decadent. P.S. These would make a great homemade gift for the holidays.

The Bottom Line: This holiday cookbook featuring candies and sweets is highly recommended for foodies and chefs of all levels of expertise. This cookbook is also recommended for public libraries and personal cookbook collections. There is a wide variety of treats to choose from including vintage sweets like Christmas Divinity and Peppermint Bark. There are also cookies and cakes and some savory treats as well. This cookbook features beautiful food photography by David Bowers, so even if you don't cook or bake, you'll have a great time looking at the photos. I will definitely be buying a copy to include in my own cookbook collection. My only (tiny) complaint is the rather small print.

Details: Sweet Christmas: Homemade Peppermints, Sugar Cake, Chocolate-Almond Toffee, Eggnog Fudge, and Other Sweet Treats and Decorations by Sharon Bowers. Hardcover published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 2012. 176 p. ISBN: 978-1-61769-000-6

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: 'The Christmas Giant' by Steve Light

✰✰✰✰ Humphrey the giant and Leetree the elf are the best of friends. Their job is to make the wrapping paper for all of Santa's gifts. However, during the rest of the year there isn't much to do. Then one year Santa gives the friends a special project to grow a Christmas tree for Christmastown. The pair is so excited; they begin by planting a tiny seed. They take their assignment very seriously and carefully water, prune, and tend to the tree. When the tree is at last large enough, the pair leaves to deliver it. Unfortunately, when they stop to rest something goes terribly wrong. The tree is gone, and there isn't enough time to grow another one. What will the Humphrey and Leetree do when Santa finds out? Together the pair comes up with a plan to deliver a surprise that everyone in Christmastown will be talking about for years to come.

The Bottom Line: Things don't always go as planned, but Steve Light's gentle story of friendship reminds us that by working together, problems can be solved. Through a combination of storytelling and illustrations, Light has created an adorable holiday story that kids in Preschool - Grade 1 will love to read over and over. Children will also enjoy Light's fantastic and detailed illustrations. The folk art style and the use of a limited palette have a calming effect on the reader.

Details: The Christmas Giant written and illustrated by Steve Light. Hardcover picture book published by Candlewick Press in 2010. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-7636-4692-9

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: 'Peppa Pig and the Lost Christmas List'

✰✰✰ It's almost time for Santa Claus to visit. Peppa Pig, her little brother, and all her friends have written letters to Santa asking for gifts. Everyone wants something different. Soon Peppa's family finds the perfect Christmas tree to decorate on Christmas Eve. Later that night the two little pigs surprise Santa. Peppa asks Santa how he knows which presents to give everyone. Why, it's easy. Santa has a list...or does he? When Santa's list gets lost, how will he know which presents to leave behind? Check out this picture book to see how Peppa saves the day.

The Bottom Line: The pages are colorful and the text is large and easy to read. Unfortunately, both the digitally created illustrations and the text fall a bit flat. Additionally, the story lacks originality. Nevertheless, if your little one enjoys watching the Peppa Pig TV series, then by all means check it out.

Details: Peppa Pig and the Lost Christmas List by Candlewick Press. Hardcover picture book published by Candlewick Press in 2012. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-7636-6276-9

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: 'What Am I? Christmas' by Anne Margaret Lewis

✰✰✰✰½ As part of the My Look and See Holiday Book series, What Am I? Christmas provides fun holiday reading for the little ones. There are 10 flaps for kids to look under; each featuring an item commonly found around Christmastime including an angel, a gingerbread man, a Christmas stocking, and many more. Each page also features a simple rhyme to help your child guess what the item is before looking. Additionally, the colorful illustrations are charming and help give visual hints as well. Kids will want to read this one again and again.

The Bottom Line: If you have a toddler in your life, this would be a great book to have in your collection. This lift-the-flap style hardcover picture book is engaging for the little ones and is highly recommended for toddlers. It's the perfect book for reading at bedtime or any time. It is also highly recommended for public libraries as it would be fun to feature in story time.

Details: What Am I? Christmas (My Look and See Holiday Book) written by Anne Margaret Lewis and illustrated by Tom Mills. Hardcover picture book published by Albert Whitman & Company in 2011. 24 p. ISBN: 978-0-8075-8958-8

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cookbook Review: 'Christmas Baking' by Mia Öhrn

✰✰✰ Magical treats are always a memorable part of the holiday season. Pastry chef and food writer, Mia Öhrn, has put together a fun cookbook with delicious sweets including candies, cookies, cakes, breads, and other desserts. Just opening the cover of this book is a feast for the eyes with Ulrika Pousette's stunning food photography and holiday imagery. Readers can choose from traditional treats like Nougat, Christmas Pudding, and Fruit Cake. Additionally, aspiring pastry chefs will want to check out the recipes for Marzipan Figures, Lingonberry Toffee, Glögg Cheesecake, and Saffron Buns "Lucia Cats." There's also a recipe and instructions for baking, assembling, and decorating a Gingerbread House. Gingerbread stencils and a recipe index are located at the end of the book.

Taste Test Notes: For this portion of my review, I decided to attempt baking the Candy Cane Cookies featured on page 46. These look yummy, and I love both chocolate and peppermint. However, this recipe turned out to be a big challenge from the very beginning due to the measurements. This might not have been a problem if I had used the metric measurements; however, I did not.

The author didn't mention how fine to crush the candy. I used the finely crushed candy in the dough part, and the coarsely crushed pieces to sprinkle on top of the cookies immediately after baking. I had trouble with the candy cane pieces sticking together due to humidity. As mentioned in the text, these cookies do spread out quite a bit; therefore, I only placed four cookies on a baking sheet.

Candy Cane Cookies hot out of the oven
Overall, this was a difficult project for me, and I've been baking for a long time. This was a rather messy project, and I probably would not recommend having kids help. It ended up being a lot of work for a limited number of cookies. The result was 15 tasty cookies that are not too sweet and not too extraordinary. The cookies were chewy and best eaten soon after being removed from the oven. They turned brittle the following day even when stored properly. It took 90 minutes from start to finish including prep time and cleanup.

The Bottom Line: The beautiful food photography featured in this book is absolutely magical; nonetheless, actually recreating the items featured on the pages is another story. The recipes look deceptively easy; however, I don't have baking equipment to accommodate the metric system. While the author included measurements for people using the English System of Measurement, it's difficult to measure out 3/5 of a cup of brown sugar, for example. Also, the recipes should include information about preparation time. While this is not an essential purchase, armchair cooks may want to purchase a copy to enjoy the fabulous food photography and Swedish holiday images.

Details: Christmas Baking: Fun and Delicious Holiday Treats by Mia Öhrn. Hardcover published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2012. 96 p. ISBN: 978-1-61608-822-4

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Book Review: 'The Twelve Days of Christmas in Illinois' by Gina Bellisario

✰✰½ A little girl named Mia is on a trip to visit her cousin in Illinois during the Christmas season. Every day for twelve days, Mia writes a letter to her family describing their adventures. Mia enjoys popcorn, learns about explorers Lewis and Clark, and sees bald eagles. Mia also has the chance to cruise down Route 66, eat S'mores, and visit Navy Pier. However, the fun isn't over yet. There's so much more to do and see. Kids will learn lots of fun facts and trivia as Mia enjoys an action-packed adventure in the Prairie State.

The Bottom Line: I picked up this title because I'm currently living in the state of Illinois; however, it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. While part of the book is a parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas, the words in this version seem a bit clunky and are not very lyrical. In addition to the parody part of the book, facts and trivia about the state of Illinois are presented to the reader in the form of letters. Unfortunately, the end of the story fell rather flat with the final letter on the twelfth day. This is followed simply by illustrations, and left me feeling like there should have been something more at the end like a thank you letter from the little girl to her cousin's family. Finally, at the very end of the book there is an additional page of Illinois trivia including a list of some famous Illinoisans (spelled Illinoisians in the book). That being said, I did enjoy Jeffrey Ebbeler's clever, cute, and colorful illustrations. Readers planning a trip to Illinois and looking for fun things to do with kids may want to check this out. Although the product description has an age range of 5 and up, this book is probably more suited for kids in grades 3 - 5.

Details: The Twelve Days of Christmas in Illinois written by Gina Bellisario & illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Hardcover picture book published by Sterling Children's Books in 2012. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-4027-9733-0 Note: This book is part of Sterling's series, The Twelve Days of Christmas in America.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Review: 'Three French Hens' by Margie Palatini

✰✰✰½ Poulette, Collette, and Fifi are three French hens who are part of a young woman's Christmas gift to her true love, Philippe Renard, in Paris. Unfortunately, they become separated from the two turtle doves and the partridge in a pear tree and end up in a New York City post office. Rather than sit around, the three French hens decide to deliver themselves. But, alas! There is no Philippe Renard in the phone book. Realizing that French is not spoken here, the three French hens decide to translate. They manage to locate a Phil Fox instead. The fox is delighted when free lunch arrives on his doorstep and conveniently allows the hens to believe he is Philippe Renard. It doesn't look good for the three French hens. Will the three French hens end up roasted as dinner or will they outsmart the crafty fox and live happily ever after? Read this adorable and humorous Christmas tale to find out.

The Bottom Line: Author Margie Palatini offers a whimsical take on The Twelve Days of Christmas highlighting friendship. When the characters are confronted with a challenge, they come up with a plan to set things right. It's a classic example of turning lemons into lemonade. Recommended for school and library story times for kids in grades Pre-K - 3. Kids will delight in Egielski's watercolor drawings as well. For more books, activities, and games, visit Margie Palatini's website. You can also find out more about illustrator Richard Egielski.

Details: Three French Hens written by Margie Palatini and illustrated by Richard Egielski. Hardcover picture book published by Hyperion Books for Children in 2005. 36 p. ISBN: 978-0-786851676

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: 'Little Whistle's Christmas' by Cynthia Rylant

✰✰✰ Little Whistle is a real guinea pig that lives in Toytown, a store filled with toys for little girls and boys. During the day the toys must remain still and silent, but at night when the store is closed, the toys come to life. Each night Little Whistle visits with his toy friends. On a night close to Christmas, Little Whistle tells the toys about Santa who makes toys. Unfortunately, the toys at Toytown don’t remember how they came to be. They begin to wonder who made them. Was it Santa? They all look to Little Whistle for the answer. In order to find out, Little Whistle helps the curious toys write a letter to Santa Claus to ask him. Every night the toys wait for a reply from Santa, but one never comes. Just when it seems like they’ll never find out, a note and a magical box appear. Will their Christmas wishes come true? Read the book and see why Christmastime in Toytown is especially magical.

The Bottom Line: This sweet little Christmas story is recommended for children in Preschool – Grade 1. Little Whistle’s Christmas highlights the spirit of Christmas and the theme of friendship. Adorable illustrations complement the story in soft colors that will appeal little ones. Plus, kids who happen to have a guinea pig as a pet will enjoy this story. This book is perfect for bedtime reading on Christmas Eve. Also, don’t forget to check out the other books in the series.

Details: Little Whistle's Christmas written by Cynthia Rylant & illustrated by Tim Bowers. Library edition hardcover picture book published by Spotlight (a division of ABDO) in 2007. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-59961-254-6

Monday, July 8, 2013

Cookbook Review: '4 Ingredients Christmas' by Kim McCosker

✰✰✰✰✰ With just four ingredients per recipe, author Kim McCosker has cooked up a winner. Busy cooks looking for quick and tasty recipes to celebrate the holidays need look no further; 4 Ingredients Christmas offers a variety of dishes from brunch fare to soups and salads. There are recipes for main dishes, sides, desserts, sweet treats, and drinks. Choose from Chocolate-Filled Crepes, Crispy Salmon Salad, Feta-Stuffed Chicken Breasts, Christmas Fruitcake, and many more.

The recipe directions are presented in short, easy-to-read paragraph form. The author also includes recipe options, tips, and hints to make your cooking experience even easier. A full-color, full page sized photograph accompanies each recipe illustrating what the finished dish will look like. Not only are these recipes easy to make, but the result is often a work of art as well. An index is included.

Taste Test Notes: I chose to test the Pancakes with Caramelized Banana recipe featured on page 24.  McCosker includes a simple 4 ingredient recipe for making your own pancakes; however, you can use store bought pancakes or your own favorite recipe. I used Hungry Jack Extra Light & Fluffy Pancake & Waffle Mix. I served the dish with scrambled eggs and sausage for a breakfast brunch that was out of this world.

Pancakes with Caramelized Banana: This recipe is super easy to prepare and yummy!
Nana's Cooking Tips: 1.) I cooked the caramel sauce first by slowly bringing the butter and brown sugar to a full boil. I let it boil for 1 minute before I added the bananas and gently stirred. 2.) Use ripe bananas that are firm, but not mushy. Overly ripe bananas will fall apart in the caramel sauce. 3.) For an extra special touch, garnish with whipped topping and a cherry. NOTE: This banana topping would be excellent on waffles too.

The Bottom Line: This cookbook offers plenty of variety. Since each recipe features just four ingredients (not including salt, pepper, and water), these recipes are simple, easy to prepare, festive, and yummy. Enthusiastically recommended for busy cooks of all levels everywhere. While this is a Christmas cookbook, it's important to note that many of these recipes could be used to celebrate other holidays as well. Finally, this is just one title in the series. For more recipes and information, visit 4 Ingredients.

Details: 4 Ingredients Christmas: Recipes for a Simply Yummy Holiday by Kim McCosker. Paperback published by Atria in 2012. 192 p. ISBN: 978-1-4516-7801-7

"Christmas in July" Book Reviews for 2013

It's that time again when I think ahead to Christmas and start planning for the big event. I like to sift through cookbooks and find new holiday recipes. I also pick up decorating and crafting books to get a head start on projects that might require weeks or months to complete. Furthermore, I enjoy looking at picture books that are in high demand during the holiday season.

For my "Christmas in July" book reviews for 2013, I have primarily focused on picture books for kids ages 2 - 11. Additionally, I took a look at several cookbooks to see what new ideas in holiday entertaining are trending. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing book reviews for the following holiday titles and many more:
  • 4 Ingredients Christmas by Kim McCosker
  • Three French Hens by Margie Palatini
  • A Pirate's Night Before Christmas by Philip Yates
  • Little Whistle's Christmas by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Christmas Giant by Steve Light
Some of these wintry tales made me jolly, while others left me with a "Bah, Humbug!" sort of feeling. So if the summer temperatures are too hot for you, stop by from time to time and check out my "Christmas in July" book reviews for some chilly fun.

P.S. I found this free clip art at Christian Image Source.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cookbooks to Plan a Summer Feast

Summertime is here. It's time to enjoy trips to the beach, road trips, and some fun in the sun. However, it's also a great time to plan a summer feast. When I think of summer food, I think of burgers, ribs, and grilled salmon for main dishes. For sides I often turn to favorites like coleslaw, macaroni salad, and fruit salad. And although S'mores are my number one dessert of choice (especially with kids around), sometimes I like to try making something different like gingered fruit kabobs or baking a cherry pie on the grill. Whether you are barbecuing, picnicking, or cooking over a campfire, there's a cookbook to help you choose the perfect recipes for your summer feasts. 

Here are my top 5 picks (in alphabetical order):

  1. Betty Crocker Grilling Made Easy: 200 Sure-Fire Recipes from America's Most Trusted Kitchens by Betty Crocker (2005) 336 p. ISBN: 0764574531
  2. Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries, & Shakes by Bobby Flay (2009) 160 p. ISBN: 978-0307460639
  3. The Book of Burger by Rachael Ray (2012) 336 p. ISBN: 978-1451659696
  4. Country Living, Eating Outdoors: Sensational Recipes for Cookouts, Picnics and Take-Along Food from the Editors of Country Living and Kathleen Hackett (2008) 176 p. ISBN: 1588166643
  5. Grill It!: Secrets to Delicious Flame-kissed Food by Better Homes and Gardens (2011) 372 p. ISBN: 0470932775

Still looking for more ideas? Check out these titles too:

  • 400 Best Sandwich Recipes: From Classics & Burgers to Wraps & Condiments by Alison Lewis (2011) 360 p. ISBN: 978-0778802655
  • 500 Barbecue Dishes by Paul Kirk (2008) 288 p. ISBN: 978-1416205098
  • Burger Parties: Featuring Winning Recipes from Sutter Home Winery's Build a Better Burger Contest by James K. McNair (2010) 176 p. ISBN: 978-1580081108
  • Cabin Cooking: Delicious Easy-to-Fix Recipes for Camp, Cabin, or Trail by Kate Fiduccia (2012) 128 p. ISBN: 978-1616086855
  • Charred & Scruffed: Bold New Techniques for Explosive Flavor On and Off the Grill by Adam Perry Lang (2012) 280 p. ISBN: 978-1579654658
  • Good Housekeeping Grilling: More Than 275 Perfect Year-Round Recipes by The Editors of Good Housekeeping (2011) 304 p. ISBN: 1588167143
  • Grilling Vegan Style: 125 Fired-up Recipes to Turn Every Bite into a Backyard BBQ by John E. Schlimm (2012) 256 p. ISBN: 978-0738215723
  • The Japanese Grill: From Classic Yakitori to Steak, Seafood, and Vegetables by Tadashi Ono (2011) 192 p. ISBN: 978-1580087377
  • The Kansas City Barbeque Society Cookbook: Barbeque--It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore by Carolyn Wells, Ardie A. Davis and Chef Paul Kirk (2010) 336 p. ISBN: 978-0740790102

There's something for everyone in these cookbooks. So try something new this year and spice up your summer feasts with new recipes. P.S. Many of these recipes would be great for indoor grilling and cooking as well. 

Note: If you like the clip art, check out Crazy Website.