2018 Books, Pt. 2 / Doughnut Bundt Cake

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This week’s recipe: Old-Fashioned Doughnut Bundt Cake

And now, more books!

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a book I adored and have read several times. The title character is a cynical, neurotic woman who moved to Seattle from New York but hates it. Her husband is a kind, even-keeled, highly successful man but her marriage is in trouble. Despite her own earlier success in a creative field, she no longer works and now focuses her attention on raising her sensitive, eccentric child, who attends a progressive private school called Galer Street. She resents everyone and everything around her and is clearly dissatisfied with her life.

Today Will Be Different’s protagonist is Eleanor, a cynical, neurotic woman who moved to Seattle from New York but hates it. Her husband is a kind, even-keeled, highly successful man but her marriage is in trouble. Despite her own earlier success in a creative field, she no longer works and now focuses her attention on raising her sensitive, eccentric child, who attends a progressive private school called Galer Street. She resents everyone and everything around her and is clearly dissatisfied with her life. I’m starting to think that Maria Semple can only write one type of main character. (The books even have near-identical scenes where a central character becomes emotionally overwhelmed while listening to a choir sing a religious hymn.) Like Bernadette, Eleanor is unhappy with herself and the world, but while Where’d You Go, Bernadette featured multiple character perspectives, we never almost leave Eleanor’s head, which is an exhaustingly negative place to be.

The whole book takes place over the course of one day, apart from brief flashbacks to Eleanor’s relationship with her sister and husband. Though it’s in many ways an unremarkable day, she runs into seemingly everyone she knows, uncovers deeply buried family trauma, and makes peace with her life. It’s a lot to pack into a slim book, and as a result the non-Eleanor characters feel underdeveloped, more a collection of quirks than actual people. Semple is definitely a funny writer, and as the book progresses and Eleanor gains new insights,

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I admit that I am biased because Michelle Obama is a hero of mine. I love her intelligence, warmth, and style. I think that the job of First Lady is probably immensely difficult for an educated, ambitious woman, but she handled it with remarkable grace despite being relentlessly attacked. That said, I have to say that Becoming is a really, really good political memoir, and Michelle Obama is a really, really good writer. Maybe she had a ghostwriter or a staffer punch it up, but her book is actually enjoyable to read even aside from the content. She’s very self-reflective and makes the non-White House portions of the book just as compelling as the parts after she meets Barack. You can feel the genuine respect and affection she and her husband have for each other coming off the page, and it’s a privilege to get to see inside Barack’s personality since he could be so reserved and inscrutable as president. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it made me think about how far we’ve fallen. How could our country trade in this wonderful, smart, loving family for the Trumps?

The Wonder by Emma Donaghue

The Wonder is based on the true accounts of various “fasting girls” throughout the centuries, young women who claimed to be able to survive on no food at all. In this case, the fasting girl is Anna, an 11-year-old from a backwater Irish village who supposedly hasn’t eaten in four months. Her miraculous feats are attracting attention and offerings from the superstitious Catholics in the vicinity, and so a local committee has paid an English nurse, Lib, to come to town and watch over Anna full time to either verify or disprove the miracle. It’s an inherently interesting and mysterious plot; how is this little girl possibly surviving? 

Unfortunately, the book is significantly less interesting than its premise. The beginning is particularly deadly to get through, with the same themes hammered home over and over again. As an educated English Protestant, Lib looks down on the superstitious Irish Catholic rabble, and is sure that Anna’s family is trying to trick her. For the first several chapters, literally every thought that pops into Lib’s head is some variation on either, “I was disgusted by the stupidity of their beliefs and their way of life,” or “That little minx and her conniving family had to be lying, but I couldn’t yet find proof.” Yes, Lib, we get it.

As she gets to know Anna better, she grows fond of the girl, and begins to worry about her. Lib lives in a world of science, not miracles, and she fears that now that Anna is being closely watched, she’ll no longer be able to sneak the food that was no doubt keeping her alive. She tries to convince Anna to eat and, in the process, discovers why she took up the fast in the first place. The book gets much better in this section, only to get worse at the very end (no spoilers but some of our heroes literally ride away on horseback). The third act twist that explains Anna’s fast is undeniably lurid, but it rang true to me as it will, I suspect, to anyone who grew up with shame- and guilt-based monotheism.

The Wonder has interesting things to say about faith versus science, the sexual pathologies of the Catholic Church, and how Lib’s own narrow-mindedness and prejudice prevent her from solving the mystery earlier. Its main flaw is its characters, who never surprise, never change. As soon as you meet Lib’s future love interest, you know exactly who he is and what role he’ll play in the story; ditto for the various stock characters that populate the poor Irish village. Only Anna and Lib show any depth, but unfortunately neither is much fun to spend time with. It’s too bad because this book had a lot of potential.

KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann

This is probably the most comprehensive history of the Nazi concentration camp system (KL) ever written, and it’s an amazing work of scholarship. I’ve written on this blog before about how, like many Jewish people, I’ve been steeped in Holocaust education my whole life, but I learned a lot (most of it disturbing and horrifying) from this book. I didn’t know the extent of the system, but Wachsmann gives equal time to the smaller satellite camps as to the more infamous ones. (One underground labor camp, Dora, sounds like it was literal hell on earth, but until I read this book I had never heard of it.) He is able to write in a manner that’s clear-eyed and unemotional despite the horror of the subject, and unearths voices from both victims and perpetrators that allow deeper insight on how and why this happened.

KL moves chronologically, from the opening of Dachau for political prisoners in 1933 all the way through liberation. It runs the whole grisly gamut: violence, torture, starvation, gassing, forced labor, eugenics, medical experimentation. Any person with a heart looks at the concentration camps and thinks, “How did this happen?”, but Wachsmann shows how it happened, in granular detail: everyday life for different categories of prisoners, systems of control, and basic camp management. There were many sadists drawn to the KL, but also various time-servers and careerists who thought it was a good move professionally. Even ordinary citizens not directly involved with camp administration knew what was going on; many camps were located near population centers, and their existence was mentioned widely in media and propaganda. Considering the debates going on today about inhumane immigrant detention policies and the tear gassing of people at the border, it’s chilling to read how easy it was for people to accept the evil in their midst.

Quick review of other books I’ve read this year:

Hello Sunshine by Laura Dave – an entertaining enough beach read and I enjoyed the peek into the world of food personalities but all in all, not that memorable.

Dietland by Sarai Walker – I thought this one was going to be a beach read too. Wow was I wrong. This was one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. 

Big Girl by Kelsey Miller – Miller has a funny, engaging voice that makes you want to hang out with her. It’s not the deepest book ever written on the very fraught topic of female body image, but I rooted for her wholeheartedly as she overcame the pressure to diet and found happiness and self-acceptance. 

Unbelievable by Katy Tur – I couldn’t finish this one, reading about the abuse this woman suffered on the campaign trail made me too angry, for her and for our country.

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco – You’d imagine that someone who was in Mastromonaco’s position (Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Operations) probably has a lot of interesting stories. Too bad she decided to include so few of them in this book, which I found to be generally gossipy and shallow.

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – Scary and infuriating, despite a dramatic style that sometimes verged on the portentous. Not like the world needed more evidence that Putin and his government are a gang of criminal thugs but this is a worthwhile addition to the pile. 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie  – As with the Neapolitan Novels, I feel like I was the last person in the world to read this book, and now that I’ve read it, I don’t know what the fuss was about. I kept waiting for something to happen, for some sort of story arc, and it never came. It’s more about themes than plot, but perhaps because I’m neither black nor an immigrant, I didn’t much relate to the themes, and I found the protagonist to be chilly and unlikable. Oh well.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir – Considering my interests (I wrote my college thesis on the dissolution of the monasteries) I can’t believe it took me until 2018 to read this book. Really well-written and well-researched.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks – Some interesting and heartbreaking stories in here but my brain tends to glaze over whenever anyone gets deep into the weeds about science, and this was no exception. Perhaps Oliver Saks should have studied my brain to see why that is!

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff – Thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly disposable trash that nonetheless managed to spark some important conversations about the President’s mental health. It’s a weird time to be alive.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum – Wow, the 20th century was grim. It’s hard to fathom the intentional starvation of millions in the service of an ideological cause. It also helps me better understand why many people who grew up in Soviet Russia became very rightwing; it’s hard to divorce the utopian ideals of Communism from the actual horror it wreaked. 

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe – I wrote a whole post about this one!

So anyway, here’s a cake. (I always like writing that!) I made this for a brunch with friends. We only ate about half of it so two days later, I brought it the rest to a family gathering. Despite almost being forced to throw it out by some fascistic security guards at the Big Apple Circus, it made it to my parents’ house safely, and everyone said it was delicious even though it was two days old. Three people even asked me for the recipe! How did it taste? Do you like the taste of baked donuts? If so, you will like this cake. Plus, it looks really nice and apparently can feed quite a crowd. And it has “donut” in the name so you can technically serve in on Hanukkah!

Old-Fashioned Doughnut Bundt Cake

 

From the New York Times

INGREDIENTS

  •  Nonstick cooking spray
  • 1 cup/225 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1/2 cup/115 grams, melted, for finishing
  • 1 ½ cups/300 grams plus 2/3 cup/135 grams granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 ½ cups/445 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup/240 milliliters buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 10- or 12-cup Bundt pan, taking care to get into all the grooves of the pan.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream 1 cup/225 grams room-temperature butter and 1 1/2 cups/300 grams sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until well incorporated, scraping the mixing bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt to combine. Add half of the flour mixture to the mixer and mix on low speed until incorporated. With the mixer running, add the buttermilk in a slow, steady stream and mix until combined. Add the remaining flour and mix until fully incorporated. Scrape the bowl well to be sure the batter is well combined.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and spread evenly. Tap the pan heavily on the counter a few times to help even out the batter and remove air pockets. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes.
  5. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes, then flip the pan onto a cooling rack set inside a baking sheet. Tap the pan heavily onto the rack. The cake should easily release. If it doesn’t, use a small offset spatula to gently run around the edges of the pan to help release, then tap it again onto the rack.
  6. In a small bowl, mix the remaining 2/3 cup/135 grams sugar with the cinnamon to combine. Brush the warm cake all over with melted butter, then spoon cinnamon sugar over the cake. Brush any bare areas with the melted butter and reuse any cinnamon sugar that falls onto the baking sheet below the rack, using your hands to gently press it into the surface of the cake to help it stick. The idea is to get the cake fully coated all over with cinnamon sugar. Let the cake cool completely before serving.
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2018 Books, Pt. 1 / Turkey Meatballs

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This week’s recipe: Turkey Meatballs in Arrabiata Sauce

Here it is, what you’ve all been waiting for: the (second) annual roundup of the books I’ve read this year. Enjoy!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

To be fair, this was actually a reread, but it was so long ago (I was in high school) that I didn’t remember anything about it beyond the barest plot outlines. I saw it was on sale on Audible and remembered liking it so I bought it, and I’m so glad I did. This book deserves all the accolades it got, and more. It’s a big, meaty, decade- and continent-spanning novel that is also compulsively readable, brilliantly written but never ostentatious. It’s the rare ambitious literary novel that’s actually fun to read, just good old-fashioned, cleverly plotted storytelling.

Josef (later anglicized to Joe) Kavalier is a teenager and aspiring escape artist living in Nazi-occupied Prague. With the help of his teacher, he smuggles himself out of Europe in a coffin. He goes to live with his cousin Sammy Klayman (later anglicized to Clay) in Brooklyn, and the two of them create a superhero called The Escapist who specializes in fighting fascists; Joe draws and Sammy writes the stories. They find money, success, and love—Joe with another young artist named Rosa, Sammy with an actor who plays The Escapist on the radio—but Joe can’t extract his family from Europe, and eventually The Escapist beating up Nazis is no longer enough for him. Meanwhile, Sammy is forced to sublimate his own desires, sacrificing romantic love and creative fulfillment for 1950s-style conformity.

The book is a fascinating meditation on what it means to create art, and can be read as a cry to recognize comics as a worthwhile artistic endeavor. In the year 2018, superhero properties are a dominant cultural force, and so it seems that Chabon got his wish. I’m not much of a fan of comic books or superheroes, but especially with Stan Lee’s recent death, it’s worth retelling the story of Jewish men who channeled their lack of physical or political power into creating eternal champions for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta

I went into this novel with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it was about. I knew the plot centered on a middle-aged mother who undergoes a sexual awakening when she discovered MILF-related porn (all true), but I thought she became a porn star herself (false). The titular Mrs. Fletcher is Eve, a divorced empty nester who longs to connect with her fratty son, Brendan. After an anonymous text introduces her to the world of porn, she becomes more adventurous and imaginative, signing up for a community college class on Gender and Society and seeing the erotic potential in everyone she meets, including her new classmates and professor. Meanwhile, Brendan, who had expected college to be a breeze of parties, substance use, and co-eds, flames out both socially and academically. Tom Perotta excels at writing meathead teenage boys with a secret sensitive side, and you feel for Brendan as he tries and fails to fit into a social milieu that rewards wokeness instead of bro-dom. (It helps that, although the novel rotates between the perspective of several characters, Brendan is the only one who speaks in first person.) But while Brendan flails, his mother blossoms, and it’s refreshing to read a book (by a male novelist, no less!) that takes the lives and potential of middle-aged women seriously.

Mrs. Fletcher explores the effect that the proliferation of porn has had on our most intimate relationships, but not in the typical preachy or alarmist way. Brendan has been steeped in porn for so long that it destroys his ability to relate to women authentically, but for Eve, it’s a portal to imagining a new life after years of stagnation. There’s less a plot than a thematically connected series of events, and if you’ve ever read a Tom Perotta novel before, you’ll know that his prose style can best be described as “serviceable.” But the characters are compelling, the themes are relevant, and despite some very dirty stuff, there’s something sweet and gentle about it that made it an incredibly likable novel.

One of Us by Asne Seierstad

This was probably the hardest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a LOT of depressing books. I would often have to stop the audiobook because I’d find myself crying as I walked around New York City. Seierstad gives a forensic recounting of the 2011 Utoya massacre and its aftereffects. She vividly conveys the confusion, fear, and horror of the day, and does not spare details of exactly how the victims died or were injured; the way that bullets ripped through their abdomens, the way that touching their own brain matter felt, the way that perpetrator Anders Behring Breivik stood on the rocks, laughing and shooting at them, as they tried to swim to safety.

Anders Behring Breivik was an odd duck with an absent father and unstable mother. He hopped from clique to clique in the hopes of finding a sense of belonging. He finally found a home in online far-right communities, where he spent many hours imbibing a hatred of feminism, multiculturalism, and Islam. He decided to assassinate the Norwegian prime minister and murder as many people as he could so that the world would be exposed to his message of hatred at his trial (for this reason, he wanted to get caught in the act and taken alive, to the extent that he actually called the police to surrender several times during his killing spree). Interwoven with Breivik’s story is the story of some of the teenage victims—most prominently Simon, a rising star in the youth wing of the Labor Party, and Bano, a Kurdish refugee who found a home in Norway. These threads converge on that fateful July day, when Breivik’s careful planning and a disgracefully inadequate response by the Norwegian police left 77 dead.

I’m glad that I read this book, but I’ll never read it again. Despite Seierstad’s incredible journalism, you don’t come away with an understanding of how Breivik made the transition from petty delinquent to mass murderer. That’s as it should be—the crime is too horrible for any pat explanations. Instead, all you are left with is an overwhelming sense of despair at all of these young lives ended or ruined because of a phantom threat.

Fitness Junkie by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

This was my favorite beach read of the year, although I read it in February—I particularly enjoyed listening to the audiobook while at the gym. Our heroine is Janey Sweet, the CEO of a wedding dress firm. The dress designer is her longtime best friend, a stereotypical bitchy gay guy named Beau, who informs her at the beginning of the novel that she needs to lose 30 pounds or else be fired for hurting their brand. Because Beau owns the majority of the company, Janey has no choice but to embark on a number of ridiculous diet and exercise regimens to try to get her life back.

This book was definitely fluffy and entertaining, but it also had interesting things to say about diet culture—how we associate certain body types with virtue and self-worth; how “wellness” can often have nothing to do with actual health; who profits from all this, and who suffers. I didn’t remotely care about the romance subplot (Janey has to choose between two kind, attractive, sexually compatible men, boohoo), but I think the authors deemphasized romance intentionally. For instance, Janey is recently divorced, but it doesn’t seem to affect her emotional life nearly as much as Beau’s betrayal. The book makes Janey and Beau’s friendship seem real and lived-in, which makes the pain he causes her all the more acute. Their relationship, rather than any romance, is the heart of the novel, and is the catalyst for Janey’s growth and self-discovery—a rare and welcome development in the world of chick lit. But all that aside, it’s simply a very funny satire of the health and wellness industry.

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I was the last person in the world to read the Neapolitan Novels (and I’m only partway through the third one, so this is only a review of the first two). Mark, who is not a big reader, absolutely devoured them, staying up until 1 am to finish them, and since we were going to be in the Naples region for our honeymoon, I decided I should give them a shot. I feel like, before reading my assessment, it’s instructive to know that I hated Pride and Prejudice. Why, I wondered, were we reading this chick lit about a girl looking for a rich husband in English class? I now understand that the plot of every other chick lit novel—spunky protagonist who don’t need no man meets a wealthy, appealing, but kind of douchey dude, they initially spar, then he wears down her defenses and they fall in love—was built on the prototype created by Pride and Prejudice. So while I can recognize that my criticism was unfair, I can’t help how I reacted to it. Same goes for the first two Neapolitan novels.

The books are the story of two best friends, the insecure, introspective Elena and the intense, volatile Lila, growing up in postwar Naples. Both are excellent students but Lila is forced to cut off her schooling early, and while Elena goes on to high school and university, Lila enters an unhappy marriage and, like everyone else in their village, lives a life shaped by poverty, violence, and corruption. Despite Elena’s educational advantages, she regards her more naturally gifted friend with a mixture of admiration and envy that borders on obsession—which was the source of most of my issues with the books.

Elena feels less like a fully realized character and more like a vessel to talk about Lila’s life. (For instance, Elena publishes a novel, but we never learn what it’s called or much of what it’s about; all that we are told is that Elena considers it a ripoff of a story Lila wrote when they were 10.) Through Elena’s fixation on Lila, it is clear that the latter is the character Ferrante finds most interesting, but I thought she was quite the Mary Sue, and it quickly began to grate on me. Lila is the best student, Lila has the quickest wit, Lila is the prettiest, Lila is the bravest, Lila is the best at designing shoes, Lila has never swum before but after five minutes she’s the fastest swimmer around. This boy is in love with Lila. This other boy is in love with Lila. That boy is in love with Lila, and so is his brother. This boy, who has never before expressed any kind of romantic feeling for Lila? Guess what—he’s in love with her. If you find Lila to be not endlessly fascinating but instead kind of an asshole, which I do, you start to get bored. And the plot is not exactly propulsive. I found My Brilliant Friend in particular to be claustrophobic and repetitive, which was maybe the point. Elena’s entire world consists of fewer than 20 people (somehow simultaneously too few and too many characters), and hearing about their drama is like listening to a friend tell you a boring story about people you don’t care about. There’s endless talk about who is going out with whom and who got what grade on the exam and who got beat up. I know that the characters are school-aged, but it’s all very high school.

It’s not all bad, of course. The books are well written (if over-reliant on certain verbal crutches—drink every time that Lila narrows her eyes) and give an immersive portrayal of postwar Naples in all its grit and airlessness. After so many Mafia stories where women are on the periphery, a close examination of the effects that the macho violent culture of southern Italy has on women’s lives is welcome. And I liked the second book better than the first, especially towards the end when Elena finally escapes the old neighborhood and Lila’s impulsiveness finally catches up with her, which is why I decided to keep reading (that, and I’m an inveterate completionist). But honestly, I don’t really understand what the big deal is.

So anyway, here’s some pasta and meatballs. Ashley Rodriguez’s Date Night In is one of my favorite cookbooks, so when I saw that she was coming out with a new book, I immediately preordered it. I’ve already made this meatball recipe twice, once with turkey and once with chicken, and it’s been a big hit both times.

Turkey Meatballs in Arrabiata Sauce

 

From Let’s Stay In

INGREDIENTS

1 pound/ 450 g ground dark turkey meat

1/2 cup / 50 grams finely grated Parmesan (ed note: I used nutritional yeast to keep it kosher)

1/3 cup/ 20 g panko bread crumbs

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Pinch chili flake

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped basil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 small onion, finely diced, about 1/4 cup/60 g

1 egg

2 tablespoons olive oil

Arrabiata

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 anchovies, minced

4 garlic cloves, sliced

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili flake (or more if desired)

28 ounce/800 g can crushed tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

For the meatballs: In a large bowl combine the turkey, Parmesan, bread crumbs, salt, oregano, chili flake, parsley, basil, garlic, onion, and egg. Stir just until everything is well mixed but take care not to over mix as you don’t want to toughen the meat. Sear a small amount of the mixture then taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Add the olive oil to a large skillet or dutch oven. Sear the meatballs over high heat until a deep, dark crust forms. Remove the meatballs from the pan and set aside while you prepare the sauce.

For the sauce: Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and sauté the anchovy, garlic, and chili flake over medium high heat.

Once the garlic has turned golden carefully add the tomatoes. Stir in the oregano, sea salt, and pepper.

Return the meatballs to the pan then gently simmer until they are cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve over creamy polenta or pasta.