12 August 2017

TV Shows I Love Tag

I recently watched Kayley Hyde's "TV Shows I Love" tag video and thought it would be fun to answer the questions myself here. I don't watch a ton of television shows, but I get quite involved in and passionate about the ones I do watch, so I thought I'd share some of my favorites, least favorites, and general opinions--if you have similar taste to me, perhaps you'll even find a new favorite show among those I've discussed!

1. Favorite shows?

My top four in order of first airdate are Rumpole of the Bailey, Monarch of the Glen, Gilmore Girls (through season 7), and Community.

2. Favorite genre?

I really like dramedies, particularly the kind that have a tone that's just slightly zanier than reality, and wish there were more of them airing today.

3. Least favorite show?

I hate anything with excessive violence and dehumanizing roles for women--so basically think of some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed shows of the last five years and slot them in here.

4. Most rewatched show/favorite show to binge watch?

The top four favorites I mentioned in #1 are probably the shows I've rewatched the most--I think I've seen the entirety of Rumpole of the Bailey, Monarch of the Glen seasons 1-3, and Gilmore Girls seasons 1-7 three times, and I've watched the first three seasons of of Monarch of the Glen even more than that.

For binge-watching in general, I like old sitcoms like Cheers, Frasier, and Friends because they have hundreds of episodes, so once I've started watching they last a long time.

5. Do you prefer watching things week-by-week or binge-watching?

I like both for different reasons: I enjoy having a week-by-week show to look forward to and often wait to put on new episodes as a treat when I need a break, but I also like having a long-running show to play in the background when I'm crafting for my Etsy shop or cleaning my room.

6. Favorite television characters?

Pretty much every character from Rumpole of the Bailey is great. Every episode was written by the series creator John Mortimer, who also wrote short story adaptations of each episode plus additional stories and novels featuring the characters, so they're all highly developed, distinct, and consistent--not to mention hilariously Wodehousian at times.

7. Favorite television ships?

Rory/Logan and Lorelai/Christopher from Gilmore Girls, Jeff/Annie from Community, and Jane/Rafael from Jane the Virgin.

8. Show you could never get into?

I don't try watching a show unless I really think I'll like it, and I usually don't bother sticking with it if I don't enjoy the first episode. Recently I gave both Felicity and Younger a try on Hulu for multiple episodes since they sounded like shows I might enjoy, but the former didn't really click for me and the latter was off-putting with unlikeable characters who just seemed to get worse the more I watched.

9. Show you fell out of love with?

I think the Gilmore Girls revival marks the biggest drop in love I had for a show that I can remember, as I wrote about when it premiered. I still count the original run among my favorite shows, but I've taken a "let's pretend this never happened" attitude towards the revival.

10. Canceled too soon?

Well, Community still has yet to fulfill the season 2 prophecy of six seasons and a movie, so . . .

11. Guilty pleasure show? 

Right now I'd say it's The Bold Type, Freeform's new show about three twenty-something young women working at a Cosmopolitan-esque magazine. It's a little too promotional for Cosmopolitan at times (the magazine and the show have production ties) and occasionally a little racy, which is why I call it a "guilty pleasure," but it's fun and has heartwarming moments each episode. It's also one of three shows I've watched since the pilot premiere, the others being Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin--I guess there's something about magazines and aspiring writers that just pulls me in!

12. What are you currently watching?

I've sort of been in limbo since my currently-airing shows went on summer break and I finished my most recent binge-watch pick of Friends. As I mentioned in #11 I have started watching The Bold Type and am enjoying that so far, and when regular season shows return in the fall/winter I'll be watching Jane the Virgin and the final season of New Girl.

01 August 2017

Cookbook Review: American Girl and Williams-Sonoma Series

The first cookbook I ever owned was Great Girl Food, published in 1996 as part of the American Girl Library line of books. Divided into sections for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and holidays, it offered a mix of simple recipes that children could make with a bit of help from adults and some snack and meal ideas to assemble from ready-made components. While some of the recipes and ingredients seem dated today (there's an alarming amount of artificially-colored substances at play in some recipes), a few have actually become standbys that I still use with some variation.

Over the years I expanded my American Girl cookbook collection to include their historically-inspired and party-themed offerings, and even as an adult I still turn to them on a regular basis for their surprisingly useful recipes. So when I saw that American Girl had partnered with another of my favorite cookbook publishers, Williams-Sonoma, to produce a new cookbook series, I was excited to see what they had to offer. I now own all four volumes: Cooking, Baking, Parties, and Breakfast & Brunch, and so far I've been pretty impressed.

Each volume of the series pretty much does what it says on the cover. Cooking focuses on light meals, lunches, and dinners with chapters on snacks, soups and salads, main dishes, and side dishes. Baking offers dessert recipes divided by type, including cookies, cupcakes, and a miscellaneous section of bars, tarts, fruit desserts, and more. Parties presents eight themed party ideas, most with a holiday or seasonal focus, with two-page spreads of simple decorating and favor suggestions followed by complete recipes for each party menu. Breakfast and Brunch essentially covers the two areas left out of Cooking and Baking with egg dishes, muffins, and other morning fare sorted into chapters for basics, sweets, healthy options, eggs, dishes for entertaining, and sides and toppings. All four books also have basic cooking and baking instructions and safety tips at the beginning, since they're aimed at children.

What I really like about all four volumes is that the recipes are fresh and different while still easy to make and palatable to those who aren't particularly adventurous eaters. For example, Baking has a recipe for "Black Bottom Cupcakes" where you spoon a simple cheesecake mixture into a basic chocolate cupcake recipe, putting an unusual spin on two standard desserts. Parties has a brunch gathering that includes a suggestion for frozen yogurt pops covered in granola, a light and healthy take on novelty ice cream bars that works really well for a summer morning treat. It's little twists like these that elevate the recipes in all four books from just kids' basics to interesting ideas anyone can enjoy.

So far I've made the "Cherry Crisp," "Lemon Cupcakes," and "Cheesecake Cupcakes" from Baking, and I've had good results with them all. Like all American Girl recipes I've tried, they're easy to follow and don't require a lot of ingredients or complicated techniques. They're also not overly rich or sweet, although there is room to cut back a little on the butter and sugar in some of the recipes if you prefer. I'll also note that while there are plenty of vegetarian recipes in all four books, there are very few vegan recipes, so those who avoid eggs and dairy probably won't find them particularly useful. But if you're like me and just want some new recipes to incorporate into your everyday cooking and baking repertoire, the American Girl and Williams-Sonoma Series would be a great addition to your cookbook shelf.

21 July 2017

21 Harry Potter Questions

Ravenclaw anniversary edition of the first Harry Potter book, by Bloombury

Ten years ago today the final book in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was released. I grew up reading the books and watching the movies, so I have a lot of nostalgia for the series even if I wouldn't classify myself as a mega Potter fan today. So, in honor of the tenth anniversary of the series' end, I thought it would be fun to answer some Harry Potter tag questions--I picked 21 questions from Lauren Fairweather's 25 Harry Potter Questions video, since the final book was released on July 21st:

1. Favorite book?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--I love the rebellious, fight-the-power theme of this one, and the Weasley twins' departure from Hogwarts remains one of my favorite scenes of the series.

2. Books or movies? 

Controversial answer, but I prefer the movies. I've seen the movies way more times than I've read the books, and as I'm currently experiencing the books again in audiobook form, I'm reminded of why. In my opinion, Rowling's writing style isn't her strong point, so I don't find I'm missing much in the translation from page to screen. The plot and the magical world of the series work really well in a cinematic format, and any excessively long passages where not much happens are cut or condensed into nifty montages for the films.

3. Favorite quote?

It's a bit long, but this exchange from my favorite scene:

Umbridge: ‘You two,’ she went on, gazing down at Fred and George, ‘are about to learn what happens to wrong-doers in my school.’

‘You know what?’ said Fred. ‘I don’t think we are.’

He turned to his twin.

‘George,’ said Fred, ‘I think we’ve outgrown full-time education.’

‘Yeah, I’ve been feeling that way myself,’ said George lightly.

4. Favorite female character?

Probably Luna, since she's just so unapologetically odd.

5. Favorite male character?

Is it cheating to say the Weasley twins? Because I will anyway.

6. Favorite Weasley?

See above. Also, I refuse to accept that Fred Weasley is dead.

7. Favorite villain?

Professor Lockhart, particularly as hilariously performed by Kenneth Branagh in the Chamber of Secrets film. I'll also give an honorable mention to Lucius Malfoy as played by Jason Isaccs in the Order of the Phoenix film--a subtle villain like that is so much more interesting and compelling than the over-the-top evil Voldemort.

8. Favorite Professor?

Professor Lupin, since despite being a werewolf he was easily the most intelligent, competent, and helpful professor Hogwarts ever had in Harry's time.

9. Is there a character that you felt differently about in the movies?

I found Gilderoy Lockhart a lot funnier in the movies, particularly as I've gotten older.

10. Is there a movie that you prefer to the book?

I wasn't a fan of Prisoner of Azkaban as a book, perhaps because I was a little young for it when I read it, but it's actually my favorite of all the movies. I think Alfonso Cuaron did an excellent job creating a movie that had a strong aesthetic and stood well both as a complete story on its own and as a part of a larger story.

11. Is there any aspect of the books that you’d want to change?

Tone down the darkness and violence in the later installments, without question. I know people love the scene where Molly Weasley kills Bellatrix Lestrange in defense of Ginny (with a strongly-worded exclamation to boot), but should we really be delighting in that? Isn't killing something that is always, always a last resort and one that is deeply regretted, and shouldn't that have been shown? Better still, there were plenty of non-fatal ways of magically incapacitating an opponent, as the series depicted throughout, and I really think that more of these should have been employed by the so-called "good guys" in the Battle of Hogwarts. Finally, did the series really have to turn to torture and war in its second half, or could this story have ended in a different way with more of the puzzles and strategy of the first half? I think it could have, and I think it would have been better for it.

12. Which house would you be in?

Ravenclaw, both self-identified and sorted by the Pottermore quiz.

13. Which class would be your favorite?

I always thought that Charms seemed the most interesting, since you could manipulate the qualities of objects and make them do various useful things. Plus pretty much all of the other classes had creepy aspects that I wouldn't have liked at all--gross ingredients in Potions, semi-sentient plants in Herbology, dark magic in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and the intensely cruel and disturbing practice of turning live animals into inanimate objects in Transfiguration. I guess History of Magic would have been okay too, out of the basic classes.

14. Which spell do you think would be the most useful?

A lot of the spells in the book wouldn't be all that useful in real life, in my opinion, since they either work with magical objects and creatures that don't exist (say, with expecto patronum) or are easily replaced by technology (like with lumos). I guess accio would be potentially handy, since it's kind of like using telekinesis.

15. What would your patronus be?

My personal pick would be a cat, and that's just what I got on the Pottermore patronus quiz--a Siberian cat, to be exact.

16. Have you played any of the video games? 

I was obsessed with the Playstation version of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, which took me six months to finish, and that was with help since I got stuck in a lot of places. It was fun to roam around Hogwarts, though, particularly since I actually played the game before I even saw the first film. I tried to play the Chamber of Secrets Playstation game after but I found it even harder, and gave up fairly quickly.

17. Were you happy with the ending? 

Not really, for the reasons outlined in my answer to question 11.

18. What did you think of Cursed Child? 

That it's basically sanctioned fan-fiction, rather than the "8th Harry Potter story" as it was marketed. I thought the characters from the original series were very unlike themselves throughout, both in what they did and how they spoke.

19. What about Ilvermorny?

I don't know too much about it, and in general I'm not as interested in the spinoff media of the Harry Potter world as I am in the original series.

20. Favorite form of fan creation? 

Potter Puppet Pals! My favorite is the extra-long episode "Harryween," but "Ron's Parents" is a great short one if you only have a minute.

21. How much does Harry Potter mean to you? 

I actually wrote a whole post on this called "Growing Up With Harry Potter"!

11 July 2017

How to Substitute Eggs when Baking

I enjoy experimenting when baking and coming up with my own recipes, which I try to make as versatile as possible so they can be tweaked for those with allergies or special diets. Personally, I find the easiest recipes to adjust are those that don't contain eggs, which is why my recipes have been egg-free lately. Milk and butter have easy, one-for-one equivalents in non-dairy alternatives, but eggs can be trickier to swap, particularly if you want to use natural, whole ingredients as much as possible.

With practice, I've figured out how to substitute eggs in a wide variety of baked goods without using specialty ingredients and without affecting the flavor or texture of the finished bake. Here's how to determine what eggs do in recipes, and my advice for how to swap them out:

What Eggs Do in Baking

Eggs add a few different qualities to baked goods. An extra-large egg contains about 1/4 cup of liquid, which will make your batter or dough moister. They also have a leavening effect, which means they make the batter or dough puff up in the oven. Large eggs have about 5 grams of fat, mostly in the yolk, which is equivalent to about 1 1/2 teaspoons of butter. They also have about 6 grams of protein, mostly in the white, which adds a chewy texture to homestyle baked goods like brownies and drop cookies. Finally, eggs have an emulsifying or binding effect that encourages mixed ingredients to stay together rather than to separate.

Substituting Eggs in Cakes, Muffins, and Quick Breads

In batters for cakes, muffins, and quick breads, you'll need to replace the moistening and leavening effects of eggs. Simply add 1/4 cup extra of whatever liquid is called for in the recipe per egg replaced--usually this will be milk. You can also use 1/4 cup extra per egg of applesauce, mashed banana, pumpkin, or any other fruit puree called for in the original recipe.

To replace the leavening, I find 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder per egg replaced works well in most cases.

Substituting Eggs in Cookies

In cookie doughs, you'll need to replace the moistening and texturizing effects of eggs. The key here is to avoid making the finished result too cakey, which I find can happen if milk is used in place of eggs. Instead, I like to replace some of the sugar in the recipe with a liquid sweetener, which adds moisture to the dough and imparts a chewy texture. To substitute, replace 1/4 cup of granulated or brown sugar with 1/4 cup of maple syrup or molasses per egg called for. (Molasses is darker and more bitter than maple syrup, so keep that in mind.)

Since eggs also bind fat into the cookie dough, leaving them out can result in butter or oil melting out of your cookies into a greasy puddle in the oven. Decreasing the total butter or oil used by 1/4 will prevent this--and make your cookies a little lighter to boot!

My Egg-Free Recipes

If you're looking for a recipe that's already free of eggs, I have several you could try:

Fat-Free Vegan Doughnuts
Lighter Egg-Free Chocolate Cupcakes and Vanilla Frosting with No Mixer
Egg-Free Lighter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Egg-Free Savory Cheese Muffins
Egg-Free Crispy Cocoa Cookies
Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies with No Added Shortening
Simple Vegan Chocolate Shortbread with No Added Shortening
Cocoa Shortbread

30 June 2017

YouTube Books and the Path to Publication

Two YouTube vloggers I follow, Louise Pentland and Carrie Hope Fletcher, are releasing novels this summer. While I most likely won't read these books since they're in a genre I don't typically enjoy, I've been interested in the behind-the-scenes glimpses of their paths to publication that Louise's and Carrie's YouTube videos offer. In particular, it was refreshing to hear Louise open up about the advantages of getting a book published when you have an established audience in her recent video, "I Got a Fast Tracked Book Deal??".

With both Carrie's first fiction book released last year and Louise's fiction debut this year, I was struck not only by the edge that YouTubers have in getting published but how different the process is from submitting as an unknown author. Both Carrie and Louise had released non-fiction books prior to making their fiction debuts, and both followed a procedure more typical of non-fiction when submitting their novels: they each wrote a book proposal, which outlined major characters and plot points, and submitted it to publishers. After their proposals were accepted and publishing deals reached, they wrote their respective novels. (Carrie talks about her journey to publication here.)

This isn't how submitting fiction to publishers typically works. Instead of writing a proposal, an author will write what's called a query letter--essentially a business letter that conveys the genre, word count, and plot of their book along with some background information about the writer. Writers can send query letters directly to editors at publishing houses if those editors accept them, but most editors only accept submissions from literary agents. So, most writers send their query letters to literary agents instead. (To note for comparison, Carrie has a literary agent, while I gather from Louise's video that her manager acted in the capacity of an agent in the case of her novel.)

If a literary agent is intrigued by a writer's query letter, they'll request part or all of the manuscript to read. If they like what they've read and think there's a market for the book, they'll offer to represent the writer. After that, the agent will submit the book to editors at publishing houses, and hopefully reach a publishing deal. The agent will earn a percentage of what the publishing house pays the writer, so it's in the agent's best interest to get the best deal possible for their client.

All of this brings me to what I think is the most crucial and overlooked difference between how YouTubers write novels and how unknown writers do: unknown writers have to finish writing their books BEFORE submitting them for publication. It's hard to persevere with a writing project when you have no idea if it'll ever actually be published, and YouTubers who have book deals in place prior to writing their books don't have to deal with this uncertainty. So it's not just a matter, as Louise puts it in her video, of many people vying for the attention of publishers with just an idea for a book--it's a matter of having that idea, writing a manuscript tens of thousands of words long, revising the manuscript until it's the best it can possibly be, submitting it to agents, and then vying for the attention of publishers with a complete and polished manuscript in hand. Bypassing this process is truly, in my opinion, the biggest advantage that YouTubers have--and since they have no experience of the traditional path of publication, they might not even be aware that they have it.