Friday, August 26, 2011

Foodie Fridays: Hot Fudge Sauce

While many people in Boston (and on the East Coast in general) are scrambling to prepare for the insanity that Irene is supposed to bring, I've had a pretty awesome and laid-back evening. After an excellent meal at Radius with my friends (and seriously, if you've never been, you need to go), I went home and made hot fudge sauce. I know that this isn't great hurricane prep, but at least it helped me use up some cream that had been languishing in my fridge and it made me feel much more productive than I actually was this evening.

This recipe is so easy that you will wonder why you didn't make your own hot fudge sauce before. Yes, it requires three decadent things (chocolate, heavy cream, and corn syrup), but that is all it requires, meaning that you don't get anything unknown in your sauce. Also, it lasts a while in the fridge (not that it will be around that long), and after all is said and done, it probably costs around $8.00 in ingredients and 10 minutes of your time. If you want a delicious and impressive dessert without having to spend a lot of time or money, this sauce over small scoops of good ice cream or gelato (or even good quality, store-bought pound cake or cheesecake). A sprinkle of toasted nuts, toasted coconut, cocoa nibs, or even crushed coffee beans would be a nice, but totally optional, touch. Sometimes, less is definitely more.

Hot Fudge Sauce (from Betsy Block's Mama Cooks website with a minor tweak):
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 pound of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • Dash of vanilla (optional)
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
1. Heat the cream in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form.

2. Add the chocolate chips and corn syrup to the cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for five minutes.

3. At the end of cooking, add a dash of vanilla and a pinch of salt, if desired. Pour over ice cream, cheesecake, or whatever else you desire. Store leftovers in the fridge & heat in the microwave as needed.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: "Taken Hostage" by Ranae Rose

Fair warning: This review will have a lot of spoilers after the first two paragraphs. I’ll note where the spoilers begin so, if you want to remain unspoiled, you can stop reading.

It isn’t everyday that a book gives me almost exactly what I expect while also surprising me at every turn, and, in this sense, Ranae Rose’s erotica-action novella, Taken Hostage, is remarkable. While it gave me what I anticipated based on the synopsis as well as my prior experience with romance novels (my guilty pleasure), it did so in an unexpected manner. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and curse, for the book manages to defy a number of typical genre tropes while still falling victim to many of the stereotypes people associate with romance.

The story set up is familiar: Tiffany, a New York bank teller, finds herself attracted to a handsome stranger who she assumes is a new customer. However, James Elliot is not your typical customer. Upon reaching the front of the line, he holds up the bank, demands that Tiffany fill a pillowcase with money, and takes her hostage. The two of them then drive across the country to escape the police.

Spoilers start here…

This premise alone seems promising if not terribly original. After reading the first few pages, I assumed that:
1. James would have some sort of noble reason for holding up the bank, since modern romance heroes rarely, if ever, do anything this drastic (or flagrantly illegal) without having some sort of rationale that allows us to sympathize with him. At this point, my money was on him needing the money to ransom a loved one (probably a female relative).
2. Tiffany, being a modern, independent heroine, would show her feistiness by defying her captor and trying to escape before learning about his back story and then falling in love with him.
3. The author would somehow mulligan the bank robbery plot at the end, with James being vindicated and allowed to lead a free and happy existence with Tiffany.

However, this is where Rose surprises us. There are no ailing relatives, kidnapped sisters, or even endangered puppies to motivate James’s very illegal actions. He’s doing it for the money, pure and simple, and we find that Tiffany’s bank isn’t the first he has robbed. Also, beyond her initial fear (which is understandable considering that James tells everyone in the bank that he will kill her if they are pursued), Tiffany, upon hearing from James that he isn’t going to hurt her, seems quite content to go along with him and opts to stay with him as his partner when he gives her the opportunity to leave. She is also quick to acknowledge their sexual attraction and doesn’t have any angst over wanting James.

This is unexpected and ensures that no one will confuse this book with, say, a Harlequin Presents, but these decisions also highlight the book’s flaws. Although I appreciated that James wasn’t a tortured hero and Tiffany wasn’t a typical feisty or martyred heroine, we don’t know much about them and the little we do know is not positive. While James’s candor about robbing the bank for money should probably be taken as refreshing, it made it impossible for me to root for him. Similarly, Tiffany’s willingness to believe that James means her no harm (she takes his word at face value minutes after he has announced, during the robbery, that he will “blow her brains out”) and desire to screw him six ways to Sunday before even knowing his name firmly made her a too stupid to live heroine without the typical tropes.

You may be asking yourself, “What stereotypes does the book use?” Well, the characters have sex and lots of it, with scenes that are steamy if somewhat ludicrous. One of the first major sex scenes happens in the woods, where the characters get it on while on the run from the police. Adrenaline aside, they take a while to stop even after they hear people approaching. At this point, I was rooting for the police to catch their sorry selves, if only because people this intrepidly stupid (or is it stupidly intrepid) and morally bankrupt shouldn't procreate.

Also, James and Tiffany get their happily ever after once they escape the police and cross the border into Mexico. This might not be such a formidable problem except that Rose ends the book in typical romance novel fashion, with the two of them exchanging “I love yous” on the beach. This falls flat since we don’t see them connect on any real level beyond the sexual. Even if I could ignore the fact that these characters haven’t earned and don’t deserve their happy ending, it is hard to believe that they love each other and will spend the rest of their days blissfully sipping margaritas together.

All of this is not to say that Rose is an untalented writer. She writes a torrid sex scene and keeps the tension of the book going, even when her two main characters seem unconcerned with evading the police. I also can’t help but admire that she avoids trotting out many romance conventions even if she does so to the detriment of the characters. I almost wish she had fully committed to defying all genre expectations and made this book straight-up erotica. A more ambiguous ending with James and Tiffany racing towards the Mexican border while evading the police might have been more satisfying and believable rather the forced and unconvincing HEA.

In short, if you are looking for a hot, if implausible, read filled with lots of sex, then you might enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you are looking for a romance with likable, sympathetic characters developing an understandable relationship with each other, you might want to look elsewhere

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 2011 Birchbox (Better Late Than Never!)

So, as you may have heard, my first August Birchbox for this month was stolen (I'm still seriously annoyed by that, and God help the person if I ever find her [him?]). Luckily, Birchbox customer service is fantastic, and just a week after contacting the company, I received a replacement box.

The question then becomes: Was it worth the wait and frustration? Well, just judging by the contents, the answer is yes and no. While I'm intrigued by most of the products (and I actually love the much-maligned hair tie), there are a few caveats.

This month's theme is "Beauty Innovations," and the products do seem to fill a need left unfulfilled by others that have come before. The contents of my box include:
  • A large sample of Befine Night Cream & a single use sample of Befine Exfoliating Cleanser
  • A large sample of Blinc mascara
  • A sample of LIFTLAB Lift & Fix High Potency Serum
  • A small vial of Kate Spade New York Twirl
  • A Twistband hair tie (this was my extra)

I'm very excited about trying the Blinc mascara, since I love tubular mascara. I am also curious about the nigh cream, since I know that is an area lacking in my skincare regime.

However, I'm bummed about three things. The first is that this is the second time in three months that I've received the sample of Twirl. I have lots of allergies, so I don't use a lot of perfume. Also, getting it again doesn't make a ton of sense to me, since it seem that the aim of Birchbox is to introduce you to new products.

The second thing that annoys me is that the Befine Exfoliating Cleanser is a single use packet. I probably shouldn't complain since I received six things in my box (counting the cleanser and the hair tie), but I would have much rather received a larger sample of the cleanser instead of the Twirl sample (again).

Finally, and I know that this will be somewhat ironic given the complaint I just had about the cleanser, but I wish that there were more of a balance between the makeup samples and the skincare samples. A half-and-half split would be perfect, but I've noticed that my boxes tend to be primarily skincare. I've checked my beauty profile on the site, and it doesn't seem to be skewed towards skincare, but maybe I'm missing something.

Anyway, this complaints aren't enough to make me abandon Birchbox just yet. I'll definitely be giving it another month or two, and then I might reevaluate it (particularly if I get more repeat samples!).

ETA (August 22): I wanted to add that I sent Birchbox an email asking about the repeat item policy, and I received an incredibly nice reply back. I also was given some more points, which weren't necessary but are greatly appreciated. So, three cheers for Birchbox customer service! Those ladies know how to keep their customers happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where's My August Birchbox? + A Sweepstakes

Sorry I've been absent; I can't believe that it's been almost two weeks since I've last posted. Life has been crazy lately. Besides a pet-sitting stint that was full of misadventures (my life was like a bad sitcom episode for a while there), work has been very busy.

Anyway, enough with the disclaimers and excuses. The first thing that you might notice is that, as of today, I haven't had my usual Birchbox post. This is because it was stolen (dum, dum, DUM!). According to the post office and the tracking number, my box was delivered last week. My awesome mail person, who is one of the most reliable people I've ever met, said that she remembered delivering the box (because who wouldn't forget a bright pink box?). That means there's a Birchbox thief somewhere in my neighborhood. I refuse to believe that someone in my apartment building took my box, so I'm chalking it up to an unscrupulous person from another building stopping by and grabbing it (I know it's farfetched, but it's what helps get me through the day).

On a brighter note, Birchbox has awesome customer service, and the company is supposed to send me a new box. My fingers are crossed that 1) I actually get it and 2) it has the products that are featured on my account, because they look amazing.

Birchbox is also running an awesome sweepstakes for some June Jacobs products. To enter, just click on this link.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: "Just My Type"

Type and fonts surround us, but many people give them little thought. Luckily, there are others like Simon Garfield who are not just fascinated by font and typeface but are willing to share their passion with the rest of us. Garfield’s interest and enthusiasm for his subject are evident throughout the book. Furthermore, he does a good job making his explanations accessible and engaging for those who do not share his awareness and knowledge of font.

Just My Type provides a history of typeface and printing starting from Guttenberg up until present day. It also dissects different fonts, such as the much maligned Comic Sans, and provides stories about the fonts and their designers. Garfield also includes lots of graphics and examples from history and popular culture to help illustrate his points, which contributed a great deal to my understanding and enjoyment of the text. In addition to his lively account of the IKEA controversy that arose after the company changed its typeface from Futura to Verdana, I also appreciated his explanations of such issues like the use of period inappropriate fonts (often found in film) as well as the differences between legibility and readability (using the record cover of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”).

That said, given the myriad of topics included under the general umbrella of font and type, the book can be very uneven, and some chapters undoubtedly will have more appeal to the general public than others. I would have preferred to see more discussion on the use of type in branding and advertising rather than the chapters dedicated to minutiae like the ampersand. However, after the first few chapters, it is easy to go skip around in the book and focus on your interests without sacrificing understanding or consistency.

In a similar vein, the text is sometimes so information-rich that it can seem overwhelming for the typeface neophyte. Though I consider myself a fast and avid reader when it comes to most books, I often found myself reading a single chapter and then taking a break from the book to prevent font overload. Garfield does guard against this somewhat by mixing shorter, lighter chapters with the more dense ones, but even then all of the ideas still seem to mix together.

The final problem and caution I have about the book has nothing to do with Garfield or the actual text and everything to do with the medium. Although I understand the cost-saving measures involved in providing electronic copies to people for review, this is not a book that lends itself well to reading on a device. The number of graphics and the different fonts used make this book almost impossible to read on most e-readers. I tried reading it on my Nook Simple Touch before realizing the incompatibility between the device and the content.

Overall, although this isn’t the type of book I would read on my own, I was very pleased to have the chance to read such an informative and pleasant treatise on font and typeface. For people who are interested in knowing more about font and print, this would be an excellent starting point (just try to get a physical copy rather than an electronic one!).

Full Disclosure: I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.