Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why I Will Never Give Up My Books

I've recently had various friends, colleagues, and acquaintances make comments about how I should get an e-reader, or sell my books, or that I have too many bookshelves and shouldn't need more, or that bookshelves are great for displaying knick-knacks but not much else.

I've been collecting books for a long time - pretty much since I got my first job.  I have several books I bought as a teen, but my collection really took off once I stopped flatting and had a whole house to expand into, rather than just a bedroom.  We currently have two large bookshelves and two medium bookshelves that house our burgeoning collection, plus two small bookshelves for recipe books and university books.  But our bookshelves are overflowing: I want to buy two more large bookshelves at least, and probably a long, low bookshelf to go under the window in our study, although we're still finalising logistics.  And this may still not be enough, because most of our bookshelves are stacked two books deep, with more stacks of books on our bedroom floor or various other strategic spots about the house.

I also can't bear to part with books.  I don't even sell my university textbooks, as a rule.  The only time I will part with a book is if I accidentally buy two, which happens on occasion: browsing a second-hand store, I spot a bargain, can't recall if I have that particular book, and buy it, only to find its twin on the shelf at home.  I have a few books of this type that I'm not sure what I'm going to do with yet - donate them? sell them? trade them? - and so they sit in a pile by the door, because I can't bring myself to get rid of them.

I recently bought a Penguin Classics edition of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Surprisingly, I've never read this book, and I wanted to remedy that.  The edition I bought is a hardcover with a slipcover.  It's absolutely gorgeous:

The back inside flap of the slipcover included a detachable bookmark with a quote from the book, which you can see peeking out the top in the above picture.  I detached it quickly, before I could convince myself that the book would be worth more if I didn't - because that's not why I buy books.  I didn't buy this book to sit on a shelf looking beautiful - I bought it to read and love and read again, and damage will be done.

When I carefully removed the slipcover to start reading, I was thrilled - the actual hardcover of the book is a beautiful creamy white.  The pages are smooth and heavy and the book smells lovely - the "new parchment" smell that Hermione smells in the Felix Felicis potion.  The book was so beautifully presented I could barely bring myself to handle it - but I soon found myself lost in the world of the book.

I don't recall the last time I was so drawn in by the sensual experience of reading, but it reminded me why I love my books so much.  A book is so much more than ink and paper - it is a whole world, brimming with possibilities.  It is the simple pleasure of curling up in bed with rain beating on your window and a book in your hands.  It is the feel of the paper under your fingertips, the pleasure of turning each page and seeing your progress through the book.  It is an escape, or knowledge, or a new friend.  It is the shared experience, the collaboration between writer and reader and other readers and critics.

Above all, it is a love that only others who share my love of books can truly understand.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunday Baking: Raspberry Fudge Brownie

Yes, it's Saturday, but I'm working tomorrow and I baked this (these? Is it "brownie" or "brownies"?) today.  I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook and everyone seemed jealous of my brownie.  So here is the recipe, and a picture, to make you even more jealous!

Raspberry Fudge Brownie
From It's Easier Than You Think, by Jo Seagar

300g   butter, cut into cubes
300g   dark chocolate, roughly chopped
6      eggs
2C     caster sugar
1 1/2C flour
1/2C   baking cocoa
2tsp   vanilla
1C     whole raspberries (fresh or frozen)
1/2C   extra chopped chocolate

Preheat the oven to 170C.  Line a 25x35cm sponge roll tin with non-stick baking paper.

Gently melt the butter and chocolate together in a large microwave-proof bowl in the microwave, or gently heat over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until blended.

Beat the eggs and caster sugar until pale and creamy, then add the melted butter and chocolate.  Sift the flour and cocoa together and add to the mixture with the vanilla.  Mix until well combined.  Pour into the prepared tin and sprinkle with the raspberries and extra chopped chocolate.

Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Cool in the tin and cut into slices when cold.  Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or freeze.

A tip on the recipe page in the book is to simply use a packet of chocolate melts, which is 375g - take out a handful for the sprinkling and melt the rest.  This is what I did.  I didn't bother chopping the ones to be sprinkled, I just left them whole - you can see how they retained their button shape in the picture.  I used frozen raspberries.  I cooked the brownie in my cast 12x11in pan that we got from Dave's parents - easily the most well-used oven pan in our house.  My brownie took over an hour to cook - perhaps because it was in a smaller, deeper pan than recommended.  I lined with foil instead of baking paper because I think it gives a better result for brownies - crisp and chewy on the edge pieces.  I mixed everything up in my Mixmaster, much easier.  I made this as a surprise for Dave while he was at work, so unfortunately I had to lick both the beaters by myself.  What a shame!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Baking: Honey Jumbles

I love baking, as I've mentioned before.  Unfortunately, with all the other stuff that's been going on (and DAII) I haven't been doing much of it lately.  But this week the lovely @missrbit has been doing some baking of her own and bringing samples to work, so I was inspired to do some today.  Dave requested a chocolate apple cake, but I couldn't find a recipe for which I had all the ingredients, so I decided to make Honey Jumbles instead.  He got the recipe from a coworker who bought some to work recently - I'm sorry I don't know where it's from originally.  These are apparently best made the day before eating, to let the spices develop.  You can ice them pink and white with food colouring if you wish (I didn't).

Honey Jumbles
Makes about 40

60g    butter
2/3C   golden syrup
1 3/4C plain flour
1tsp   bicarbonate of soda
1tsp   ground ginger
1tsp   mixed spice
1/4tsp ground cloves
1tbsp  milk
2tbsp  plain flour, extra

1      egg white
1 1/2C icing sugar
2tsp   plain flour
2tsp   lemon juice, approx

Melt butter over low heat in medium-sized saucepan, add golden syrup, bring to boil, remove from heat; stand 10 minutes.  Add sifted dry ingredients and milk, stir with wooden spoon until smooth, cover, stand at room temperature for 2 hours; mixture will become thicker during this time.

Turn mixture on to surface dusted with the extra flour, knead lightly, working in only enough of this flour until mixture loses its stickiness; divide mixture into four equal pieces to make handling the dough easier.

Pre-heat oven to 180C.  Roll one quarter of the mixture into a sausage shape, so that it is 1cm thick; cut into 6cm lengths.  Place on lightly greased oven trays about 5cm apart.  Round blunt ends of biscuits with floured fingertips, bake 8-10 minutes.  Repeat with remaining mixture.  Biscuits should be pale golden in colour and quite soft.  Cool on trays.  Do not overcook or they will become hard and dry.

Pre-heat oven again to 180C.  Place egg white in a small basin, gradually stir in sifted icing sugar in about three lots, then sifted flour and enough strained lemon juice to give a thick coating consistency.  Spread tops of biscuits evenly with icing, stand on oven trays, return to moderate oven for 2 minutes, or until icing feels firm to touch and has lost its stickiness.  Do not move biscuits from the tray until cold.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Game Review: Dragon Age II

So a few weeks ago the sequel to what is my favourite game ever (so far) was released: Dragon Age II (hereafter referred to as DAII), the sequel to late 2009's Dragon Age: Origins (hereafter referred to as DA:O).  There's been mixed reviews of the game (of which this is my favourite - go watch it, it's awesome, although you need sound and the sound isn't safe for work), but the general consensus is that DAII doesn't quite live up to expectations.

I loved DA:O.  The story was epic, the characters were awesome, the world was beautiful and rich.  I replayed it several times.  So, naturally, I was looking forward to DAII.  And while I was a smidgen disappointed, I still love the game.  I have played it straight through four times now back-to-back and am about halfway through my fifth playthrough, with no intention of stopping any time soon.  There's enough variety in the quests, dialogue options, and henchdudes to keep you entertained for quite some time.

The game does have some issues, of course - the biggest (for me) being the reused maps a la Mass Effect 1.  Nearly every cave is identical, the only difference being where you come in and what bits are closed off.  If they wanted to do this, they could have reduced the effect by not showing the closed off bits on the minimap - but as it stands you can run up to a door that looks like it leads to another part of the cave, only to find the door won't open.  The graphics are okay, not great - I have mine on the highest setting available in the shipped game, and it doesn't chug or freeze even with lots of spells going off, but the world doesn't look as amazing as it could.  There's a texture pack, but my CrossFired Radeon HD 4770 512MBs don't qualify for the setting to be available even with it installed.  At least I haven't had any issues with CrossFireX compatibility.  There are also some fairly significant quest bugs, which make some quests uncompleteable and others occur out of order.  Some players have also complained of some combat bugs, but I haven't noticed any major ones.

One thing that a lot of reviews have complained about is the lack of a villain or overall goal.  With DA:O, the villain and the goal were clear: recruit an army to battle the Darkspawn and defeat the Archdemon.  DAII doesn't exactly have a villain, but the goal was clear to me from the start: negotiate your way through the Templar-Mage political maelstrom to become the Champion of Kirkwall (whatever that was).  You know you're the Champion, because the game's conceit is that it is a flashback being told by one of your henchdudes (Varric, the mouthy dwarf archer rogue who you unfortunately can't shag).  Right from the get-go, you learn that you are the Champion and that the Chantry wants your help for some reason.  So, while there's no clearly-stated villain or clearly-defined goal, you still have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen.

On the other hand, there is a fairly serious issue with this.  The main tension of Mages vs.Templars is over Blood Magic, a forbidden School of magic that involves blood (obviously), but more importantly, demons.  To use Blood Magic, a mage has to make a deal with a demon, which opens the mage up to becoming an abomination: a possessed mage with extraordinary power.  However, one of the three specialisations a mage Hawke can learn is (you guessed it) Blood Mage.  Which has zero effect on the story or the way your Hawke is treated.  You can use Blood Magic in front of (or even on) characters who hate it (like Fenris) and they don't care at all.  Which is a little ridiculous to me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

New Recipe Monday: Date and Butterscotch Self-Saucing Pudding

I know, I know.  Stop whinging and have another recipe!

Date and Butterscotch Self-Saucing Pudding
Serves 4
From Slow Cooked Favourites, in The Australian Women's Weekly collection

You will need a 4.5L slow cooker.

1C     self-raising flour
1/2C   firmly-packed brown sugar
20g    butter, melted
1/2C   milk
1/2C   finely chopped dried seedless dates

Caramel sauce:
1/2C   firmly-packed brown sugar
1 3/4C boiling water
50g    butter

Grease the slow cooker bowl.

Combine the flour, sugar, butter, milk and dates in a medium bowl.  Spread mixture into slow cooker bowl.

Make caramel sauce: combine ingredients in medium heatproof jug, stir until sugar is dissolved.

Pour caramel sauce slowly over the back of a spoon onto mixture.  Cook, covered, on high about 2 hours or until centre is firm.  Remove bowl from slow cooker.  Stand 5 minutes before serving.