Tuesday, December 27

2011 Books in Review

One of my goals when I started this blog was to keep track of my progress in reading books and record my thoughts about them. I even made a tab just for books, but as you can tell it hasn't seen much use. That's okay though, because I've spent some of the time that I would have been blogging reading instead (but mostly on facebook and pinterest).

So, instead of going book-by-book, I've decided to post a reading summary from the whole year, brief reviews of my top three favorites, and set some goals for next year's reading.

2011 Books
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
The Mysterious Incident at Styles - Agatha Christie
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Financial Peace University - Dave Ramsey
Guide to Georgia Vegetable Gardening - Walter Reeves
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon
Chosen by God - R.C. Sproul
Same Kind of Different As Me - Ron Hall, Denver Moore
Ministering Cross-Culturally - Sherwood G. Lingenfelter
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
The Tears of the Giraffe - Alexander McCall Smith
A Praying Life - Paul Miller
Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches - Russell Moore
Hudson Taylor - J. Hudson Taylor
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Persuasion - Jane Austen

Some of these books I loved and others I didn't, but here are my thoughts on the top three books of 2011.

1. Chosen By God - R.C. Sproul
Written 25 years ago, this treatise on the doctrine of predestination has become a contemporary classic. I would highly recommend this book, not just to those who consider themselves Calvinists or reformed, but especially to those (like me, before I read this book) who have always thought of predestination as murky theological waters. It's not a big book, but it's dense, and it took me a few attempts to finish. This book, in combination with sermons from our church and others I've listened to online, has given me a much better understanding of the mysterious balance between the sovereign authority of God and his boundless grace.

2. The Help - Kathryn Stockett
I was one of the millions of people this year who read and loved this book. Set in Jackson, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, this inspirational story examines the lives of black maids and the women they work for. This book was unexpectedly funny, lighthearted, and powerful. The characters were absolutely delightful and the Southern idioms were perfectly authentic. It's been a long time since I've allowed myself to become so consumed by a story, and like all wonderful books I was sad to put it down. If you've only watched the movie, which was wonderful, but lacked the richness of the book, do yourself a favor and read The Help.

3. Adopted for Life - Russell Moore
Michael got a free download of the audio version of this book from www.ChristianAudio.com (check out their 50% off sale on audio Bibles here) and once we started it I wanted to keep driving until we'd heard it all. I plan on purchasing a hard copy and going back to it over and over again. This book serves to remind the church that the gospel of Jesus is really about adoption: becoming the sons and daughters of God. Inasmuch as God has loved us and given us the rights of children without any prior claim to these blessings, so we as the church are to love orphans. Much like the relationship of Jesus and the church is mirrored in marriage, so the sovereign grace of God to sinners is mirrored in the relationship of adoption. Moore, who has adopted two children from Russia, addresses both the "why" and "how" of adoption without getting mired in details that don't apply to those of us who aren't parents in the process of adoption. This book confirmed our desire to adopt at least one child in the future, made us really excited about being parents someday, and moved us to marvel at the riches of God's grace in adopting us as his wayward children.

My Plan for 2012
One thing I found helpful this year was to keep a note on my phone with a list of books I'd read and ones that I wanted to read. Any time I got bogged down in one book I encouraged myself to press on so that I'd be able to move another title from the "To Read" list to the "Already Read List." So, here are some books leftover from my phone list from 2011.
2012 Reading List
Money, Possessions, and Eternity - Randy Alcorn
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
2020 Vision - Bill and Amy Stearns
The Girl w the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Knowing God - J.I. Packer 
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
The Master Plan of Evangelism - Robert E. Coleman
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Sacred Marriage - Gary Thomas
Sookie Stackhouse series - Charlaine Harris
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter - Jennifer Reese
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera
I've had a recent exciting development when it comes to reading. In addition to the iBooks app that allows me to read classic public domain novels for free, my new Audiobooks app (the $1.99 version, not the free one) lets me listen to the same books on my phone. Of course, listening to these books makes a long drive fly by and helps me plow through books I might otherwise not finish. But my new favorite thing to do is to turn on an audiobook while I'm doing housework. It's always a struggle for me to put away laundry (clean or dirty) in the bedroom and to iron my clothes for work. But fortunately these tasks are quiet enough that I can focus on the book while I'm cleaning and the work is over in just a few chapters. So here's a list of public domain books I'm hoping to read and/or listen to over the next year.
Public Domain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie
Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

2012 Scripture Reading
In addition to these books, I'm excited to have a plan for scripture reading this year. Michael recently found this post from Tim Challies about a 10-Chapter-Per-Day reading plan. This sounded like insanity to me, since I haven't been consistent in scripture reading since we got married. But after thinking about it, I think it's going to work well. The idea is to read a large quantity of the Bible quickly rather than steeping slowly in a short passage. Instead of reading 10 consecutive chapters (which inevitably means getting bogged down), you read a chapter from each daily: the gospels, the Pentateuch, the New Testament letters (two daily), the Old Testament wisdom literature, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Acts, and the Old Testament History and Prophetic books. The quick pace of this plan means that by the end of the year I will have read through each of these sections multiple times. It also means that if I get behind I still will have covered enough ground to maintain my progress. Check out this link to download the reading plan and handy bookmarks to keep you in the right places.

So, what do you think? Are there any books you would add to my list?

Tuesday, December 13

Wedding Cake Challenge: The Second Time's the Charm

You may remember from this post that earlier this year I was learning to make a cake for my brother's wedding in Brazil. I read articles, perused books, watched video tutorials, and practiced, practiced, practiced. I packed 30 pounds of fondant in my suitcase. I was all ready, and yet when it was time to bring everything together it was a lot harder than I expected. The ingredients were slightly different than their American counterparts, the equipment and workspace were unfamiliar, and the humidity was off the charts.

I wish that I could say that despite these obstacles all my preparations enabled me to still craft the cake into the masterpiece I was hoping for. In reality, the cake was crooked and bumpy and sticky - not quite what I had planned. But like a Food Network challenge, the most important accomplishment is moving the cake and displaying it in one piece. And I was proud to do that with a ton of help from my family and Beta's!

My sweet husband and Aunt Beth helped me from start to finish!

The finished product. The florist was nice enough to
cover up the slanted side for me!

Don't be disappointed folks - the cake saga doesn't end there. Since only a small part of our family could make it down to Brazil, Steven and Beta had a second celebration when she finally made it to the US in October. This gave me a chance to make another cake in my own home, using my own ingredients. I wanted it to be different than the first one, so I chose a square buttercream cake with light, refreshing flavors. I looked at elaborate designs, but ultimately chose a simple one that I knew would turn out just right. 

I got my original inspiration from this Epicurious tutorial for a lemon raspberry wedding cake. I love the sweet and simple design she uses, but it wasn't what I was going for with this cake, so I just used it for the recipes and assembly instructions. It's always hard for me to estimate how much cake, frosting, and filling I will need, so even though the proportions are a little different for a 12", 8", and 4" square cake, the recipe served as a good guideline.

Since a few of the reviews for the white cake recipe said it was a little dry I made this White Almond Sour Cream Cake using a doctored cake mix instead. It's very similar to the chocolate cake I used for Erin's jungle shower cake and Teresa's sunflower ganache cake. This was, in my totally biased opinion, much more moist and delicious than your average wedding cake.

For the buttercream frosting (arguably the most important part), I used the Meringue Buttercream listed in the tutorial. It's slightly sweeter and fluffier than the recipe I usually use, but it still sets up perfectly in the fridge.

I wasn't so confident about the lemon curd recipe in the tutorial since it mentioned straining it for egg solids. I've had the unpleasant experience of straining lemon-flavored scrambled eggs out of one batch of lemon curd before and didn't want to do that for 12 cups worth. So, I found this recipe from Alton Brown that uses egg yolks only. This meant that the leftover yolks from making frosting went to good use, and straining wouldn't be necessary since the white is what turns into those annoying chewy bits.

With my recipes ready, it was time to get cooking. Unfortunately, since Michael was out of town and I was trying to work quickly, I only took two pictures of this process! I made the frosting and lemon curd about a week before the wedding since it keeps well in the refrigerator. Then I baked the cake layers on Monday before the wedding. Similar to my other cakes, I baked two cake layers in each size. Then, I leveled off the top of each layer and split them into two. So altogether I had four layers of cake in each size.

On Tuesday I filled the layers. First, I spread lemon curd onto a layer using the suggested amount as a guideline (keeping in mind that my cakes were slightly different sizes). Then, I arranged raspberries on top of the lemon curd so that every piece would have at least one. When that was done, I topped it with another layer and repeated until all four were filled and stacked. Then I did the same thing for the other two tiers.

Each cake tier sat on a piece of cardboard cut to size.

That night I applied my crumbcoat of buttercream to each tier. First, I refrigerated the tiers to firm up the lemon curd a bit. Then I scraped off any extra lemon curd that had dripped down the side (it's pretty thin compared to frosting). When the tiers were cold and clean I spread frosting on the tops and sides and scraped off any excess, leaving a thin, smooth coat. I refrigerated all three of the crumbcoated tiers overnight.

On Wednesday, I applied the outer layer of frosting. With the cake still cold, I spread on more frosting than I typically would. Then, I used this super-handy decorating comb to make a scalloped pattern in the frosting. It was even easier than I was expecting. All I did was drag one side of the comb through the frosting, looking down from the top to be sure I was getting a straight line. I figured that once I made the design I wouldn't be able to touch it up without ruining it. But it was actually really easy to fix any mistakes by swiping them again with the comb.

On Thursday I left the cake in the fridge and packed for the wedding. : ) But on Friday, I drove the two-and-a-half hours to my parents' house with the cake. I traveled with the tiers unstacked and set on sticky shelf liner to keep them from sliding. When I reached my destination two of my tiers had melted a little bit and one was bumped on one side. The great thing about buttercream cakes is that you can keep applying the frosting over and over until you're happy with it. So I refrigerated the tiers until they were cold again and then applied more frosting and smoothed it back into shape. As you can tell from this picture of the cake being served, I kept applying frosting until it was perfect, and that meant I used way too much!

Four layers of lemony goodness. Yum!

On the day of the wedding I took the cake to the church and stacked it there. My friend Katie who you met here helped me stack the cake and seal the tiers. Then, we (mostly she because I was a little frantic with the responsibilities of the day) clipped bunches of green hydrangeas and perched them on the corners of the cake.

Perfect. I love hydrangeas!

With Katie the chef. Soon to be Katie the mom!
And as usual, I look like a giant next to her!

I was so pleased with how it turned out! It looked just right with the decorations and I thought it was absolutely delicious! Here are more pictures of that beautiful day.

My brother's second wedding cake.

The bride and groom cutting the cake.

I think they liked it!

My family with the happy couple. So glad Beta's here!