Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: Letters from Paris

I finished another book from my fall reading list today. Letters from Paris by Juliet Blackwell was fantastic, but did not get that way until the very end. This was not a novel I devoured in two or three days, instead the slow-paced story took me a week. 


I bought it and read it on my Kindle.

It was solidly good throughout most of the novel. The plot was interesting. It was about a modern day woman with a tragic childhood and who suddenly left a blah life behind to attend to her dying grandmother who had raised her. She rediscovered a work of art in the attic and her grandmother insisted she go to Paris where the masterpiece was made to discover secrets. As it turns out, the protagonist is a very curious woman, so following the funeral and since she is at a crossroads anyway, she actually made the trip and had quite an adventure! One that revealed secrets, sure, but also one that provided direction in her life. This story is intertwined with the subject of the artwork, a woman who also suffered tragedies and lived in Paris back in the 1890s. There was also the voice of a man who had worked in the workshop that produced this art and sold the intriguing product to the modern day woman's great-grandfather after World War II. The writing was wonderful and it made the story come alive. I could picture the setting, especially the beautifully set outdoor table in the garden with string lights at dinnertime! The character development was strong that you truly rooted for these women. ...but much of the novel was so slow-paced. Like a two-hour Parisian lunch. There was a mystery to be solved and there were not a lot of discoveries through the majority of the story. It was primarily about both the modern day woman's and the Belle Epoque woman's Parisian experiences. Not that all books have to move as quickly as a Dan Brown novel. Like I said, it was good, but then towards the end, it became truly fantastic. Not one, but two big twists enriched the novel. One was foreshadowed and the reader expects it when the main character figures it out, her best guess of what happened at that. The other was so shocking that I had difficulty believing it! It was nice for the two strong, brave women in the book to both find love and live happily ever after. 


Good fiction discusses life truths and this one was no different. Of course, tragedy hurts a person, causes them to break down and/or not live well in grief, but the scars that a tragedy gives ultimately serve to strengthen a person, a soul. After all, scar tissue is harder than the tissue how it was before. The modern day characters go further and believe that there is even beauty in this brokenness. Sometimes, you do not get over hardships in life and/or there is no reason for tragedy, but it becomes part of who you are, you eventually deal with it enough for it not hold you back in life in a major way any longer, you move forward. There was a much more light life lesson of savoring the simple things and using the/doing your best as well. The French lifestyle certainly appeals to me. In fact, after reading this novel, I put "good bread" on my grocery shopping list. I know that my friend who I occasionally have over on a weeknight for wine and antipasti or a quick dinner would definitely appreciate it.



This was the book that I was reading on my Kindle [on the right]
while at my favorite coffee shop on a vacation day yesterday.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to stick with it though. Enjoy escaping to Paris! Because it all comes together in the end. It's worth it. Trust me.




Sunday, September 25, 2016

Signature Sunday: Brookies

My signature dessert is the brookie. I want this to be my 'go to' both to make something special for myself and to contribute to parties. I love it. I think it is delicious, especially when the chocolate chips begin to melt, either right out of the oven or reheated in the microwave for like 8 seconds. I also think it's genius, a delectable combination of a chocolate chip cookie and brownie in one. If it's going to be my specialty, then it has to include chocolate. Chocoholic that I am, that's a given. I'm glad it's easy, just whipping up a couple of mixes, combining them, and then baking in a muffin tin for awhile. This is the sweet treat that I would like to be known for, rather than my homemade chocolate fudge. I'd better start making them for nearly every family dinner!

My first brookie of the last batch, in a cute cupcake liner with fall leaves.

I first baked this recipe back in November 2014. Part of a series based on trying new recipes, I wrote about it here. And I have been making them a few times a year since. I spent last Monday afternoon baking them, perfect for this rainy day. It probably wasn't the best decision ever as I am [still] trying to lose the last few pounds before hitting my goal weight... The latest batch churned out 16 muffins. I have exercised some self discipline only savoring a few so far. Most are stored in the freezer. I did give five of them to a resident and friend who often visits me at work. He's an 80-year-old gentleman ...whose (desired) mental age is about 30. He so wants to be fully independent and an active member of society ...when he simply does not have to be, so I'm glad he accepted my offer and discovered something new. He also has a big sweet tooth and I'm happy that he enjoyed them. Sharing even more would be a good idea.

If you haven't made them, I highly recommend that you do! Find my recipe here.



Sunday, September 18, 2016

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Dove Variety Minis

I discovered a new kind of chocolate that I love. Allow me to introduce to you... Dove Variety Minis, which are individually wrapped dark chocolate covered vanilla or chocolate ice cream bars.


My boss regularly buys the apartment community maintenance staff ice cream and stocks it in the freezer in the leasing office throughout the summer. It was very hot and humid this past season and I know this treat was appreciated. One day, I tried one of the miniature ice creams she bought and loved it so much that I have been buying it regularly ever since. I especially love ice cream and of course gelato in the summertime.


These bars are delicious! The dark chocolate shell is so good. When you bite into one, it's a surprise which kind of ice cream is inside. My preference is the chocolate ice cream, which is rich. I would say that the vanilla is fluffy rather than decadent. I appreciate the small size as I am forever trying to exercise portion control. These satisfying and individually wrapped treats are gone in three bites, perfect for just a little dessert after lunch or dinner. 

Each wrapper features different text promoting chocolate.



Have you tried them yet?



Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Review: The Light of Paris

The first book I read from my fall reading list was The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown. I devoured this novel in three days. I recommend it.

I borrowed the eBook through my local library.

It's about a modern-day woman who is unhappy with her current life stemming from the choices she has made that benefit others instead of herself. During some time away at her mother's, she finds her grandmother's journals and is enraptured with the tale of how she visited Paris in the 20s. Her grandmother wasn't always the formal woman her granddaughter thought of her as, but a creative soul, a kindred spirit, a woman that wanted to break out of the mold of the time. Reflection upon all this slowly helps her begin a transformation.

The first half of the book was character development. It was good, but as soon as the two main characters started to make their own decisions halfway through, it became a truly fantastic book. I mean, how could it not? One of the main characters had the time of her life in 1920s Paris! The woman hung out with Surrealists in sidewalk cafes! Both characters come alive. I could see not every reader loving the book since you want to grab the modern day female protagonist by the shoulders and shake some sense into her! She didn't seem to think that her own happiness mattered whatsoever. As a lifestyle blogger, it was frustrating to read. I could certainly see that it happens in real life and since the story was well written, I rooted for her to actually make major changes. The lessons of the book: be authentically you and have the courage to pursue your dreams, however nonconformist they may be, are important ones. It's a good book and I think you should grab a copy for yourself.



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Signature Sunday: Banfi Chianti Classico

In this recent post, I mentioned that I picked up several bottles of wine. One of them was a Banfi Chianti Classico from 2014 that I wanted to try. What initially caught my eye at the warehouse was its price. At $14.49, it was about $10 cheaper than I have ever seen a bottle of Chianti Classico in the country. I also liked the image on the front of the bottle. The Renaissance painting was a bit of a romantic one depicting a man and woman meeting in front of a pope. (Although online, I later learn that this marriage is an unhappy one.)


The notes on the back of the bottle held my interest. It reads, "A pleasingly smooth and satisfying red wine, made from the grapes of the acclaimed Chianti Classico region, well-balanced and structured with pleasing aromas of cherry and plum. It is a perfect match to hearty stews and grilled meats." For those three reasons, I added it to my cart that evening.

On Monday night, I made my pasta specialty of penne pasta with sauteed red pepper, zucchini, spinach and grape tomatoes in a light tomato sauce, topped with a bit of Perdue Short Cuts Original Roasted Chicken this time, and decided to open this bottle.


I liked that it was a beautiful deep red color in the glass.


After giving it a swirl, I thought it smelled strongly of fruit, possibly cherry, and predicted it would taste like the fruity Chianti Da Vinci or like many Merlots out there. I was surprised that I didn't find it fruity, but smooth instead. This is the smoothest Chianti that I have ever had! It almost goes down too well... It tasted like the dry still medium-bodied wine I love and have become accustomed to. My online research informed me that the notes were of "cherry and leather." I am not a wine snob (yet!) or simply do not have a sensitive palate, but I do not get these flavors. It might taste like cherry first, sure, and then it evolves just a bit. The wine is not overly complex with strong notes. It also has a bit of a finish as well. Even though there are no outstanding flavors to me, nothing about it is light or weak. I have to agree with the adjectives on the back label, especially "smooth" and "well-balanced." It reminds me of Bolla Chianti which had always been my go-to before and I can easily purchase from my local liquor store. I consider my new wine to be more smooth than that one. Even though I have been drinking wine for a dozen years now, starting at age 20 (turning 21) while studying abroad in Italy, I seriously think it's the first wine that I tasted and thought, "That's my favorite." Plus, everything I read on any website recommends pairing it with "red-sauced pasta, grilled meats and roasts." Honestly, I tend to eat those first two options most often. Since I'm such a lightweight and do not enjoy feeling tipsy or out-of-control, I prefer to eat while I am drinking. In addition, I approve of the price point of $15, which for wine, is considered cheap in general. I look forward to buying more bottles of this one! I anticipate sharing it as it may be a crowd-pleaser...


Banfi Chianti Classico is definitely my new signature red wine.

Have you tried it before?



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Fall 2016 Reading List

Like the Italians, the French traditionally tend to vacation for much of August. So many businesses and other entities are shut down for about a month. They have a term for their return in September, la rentrée. A 're-entry' to work, school and a normal schedule after a late summer break. It's kind of like 'Back To School' time in the US. The French version is for more than just students though, everyone embraces a new beginning. This cultural occasion has inspired me to stick to a French theme for my fall reading list.

Michelle Fall 2016 Reading List:


1
I downloaded the eBook to my Kindle's 3M Cloud Library app through my local library.

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown is a novel about a modern day woman who is unhappy with her current life. She finds her grandmother's diary and is enraptured with the tale of how her relative visited Paris during the Jazz Age and had the time of her life. The story is told from these two points of view. I love books like this. The similar A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable comes to mind.


2

Letters from Paris by Juliet Blackwell will be released the day this blog post publishes. Again, this is the story of an unhappy modern day woman who has a link to Paris. She finds a work of art at her grandmother's and then travels to Paris to learn more about it. There, she discovers letters detailing the life of the subject that date from the Belle Epoque. All that reveals secrets from her own life. 


3

From a Paris Balcony by Ella Carey is to be released on October 11, 2016. Yes, this is yet another tale of a troubled young woman who finds a letter about her relative's death from the Belle Epoque at her father's place. She journeys to Paris to get to the bottom of the mystery. Her discoveries inspire her own life to start moving forward again. The Kindle version is affordable, $3.99 at the time of writing.


4

I discovered French Lessons: The Art of Living and Loving Well by E.J. Gore from a This & That blog post on The Simply Luxurious Life. A woman takes a long-term trip to Paris and meets a French woman who teaches her a lot about living well. She goes through quite the transformation. 



I already have four books in mind for my winter reading list. Two of which are Italian-themed.

Find my Summer 2016 Reading List here. From this list, I have published two book reviews and have two more to go. Stay tuned!



Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: Invincible Summer

I discovered the book entitled Invincible Summer by Alice Adams from this post on the blog The Simply Luxurious Life and added it to my summer reading list. I enjoyed it.

or at the library.

I love a novel on friendship. The story follows four friends over about 20 years, starting with finishing up college in England. It is a coming-of-age story of adults in the real world. Each chapter seems to be a year or two apart, highlighting the interactions of these four scattered across Europe. I thought the characters were well-developed, but the author didn't exactly hold your hand. Rather in-depth, the reader witnessed snapshots of their real lives. I wish I knew more about particle physics or finance to really understand what was going on! Or even a better understanding of England would have been helpful... I wouldn't say that I loved one of the four main characters. I adore being in my 30s, so the fact that the protagonists were around this age kept my interest. The themes of friendship, love, loyalty, and life appealed to me. Starting in the mid-1990s, I think the writing captured the time and atmosphere fairly well. Overall, I thought the story truly depicted real life. You don't always get what you want. ...or it can be majorly delayed. You can certainly make bad decisions and suffer the consequences. Friends can help you through tough times. With hard work, love and friendship can prevail. I liked this book, just didn't love it. I think if this kind of thing piques your interest at all, then it is worth borrowing from the library and reading once.



Sunday, September 4, 2016

Simple Pleasure Sunday: Wine Shopping

A friend and I went wine shopping yesterday evening. Long in the works, she wanted to introduce me to a wine, beer, and spirits warehouse that she loves and is conveniently located for her. Plus, we both wanted to visit an old favorite wine shop a bit further in Annapolis. Planning this excursion, I decided that I wanted a rosé and (the liqueur) limoncello to celebrate summer, the only white wine I love, and maybe a bottle of red or two. I like a particular earthy red wine for the upcoming fall. Since my trip to Paris, I've been into drinking a bottle of rosé in the summertime. I set a budget of $75 and predicted that it would be difficult to purchase those five bottles totaling that. I became more my optimistic self after I received an email from the wine shop announcing a major holiday sale, selling many bottles at $1 over cost!



First, we shopped the warehouse called Total Wine & More. This is a chain with stores throughout the country and a headquarters here in Maryland. It was fun discovering something new. They had an amazingly large selection, all at truly fantastic prices. They even had a tasting going on. Heaven!

Perusing many of the aisles, I picked up a Chianti Classico for $14.49, which I consider to be $10 cheaper than what I have ever found elsewhere in the US. I pay that price for regular Chianti. Bolla Chianti is my signature wine, so I consider Chianti Classico an upgrade. I like the romantic picture on the label of this Banfi wine. The text underneath reads, "Incontro tra Federico III ed Eleonora d'Aragona alla presenza di Papa Pio II" which translates to "Meeting between Frederick III and Eleanor of Aragon in the presence of Pope Pius II." They became Holy Roman Emperor and Empress in 1452.


The back label says it is smooth with notes of cherry and plum. I will probably start to drink this first. I plan to pair it with my pasta specialty (pasta in a light tomato sauce with sauteed red pepper, zucchini, spinach and grape tomatoes, likely topped with chicken strips) this week, possibly as early as tomorrow evening. 

Next, I spotted the earthy red wine that I mentioned I like for fall, Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Sometimes they carry this at the wine shop (where I discovered it), but at $11.29, 70 cents cheaper than what I have paid at the other place, I promptly added it to my cart. I thought it was an excellent value before. I normally drank this type of wine when I studied abroad as it was the wine my region produced.

Knowing the wine shop only sold a single bottle of limoncello, I wanted to check out the warehouse's selection. It was large and I picked the smallest bottle, one imported from Italy at that! Probably the lowest price on the shelves, it was $11.79. The label features a romantic description which ends with, "...Caravella is enjoyed served straight from the freezer after a satisfying meal with family and friends..." I will have to store it in my freezer tonight, so I can try a taste after a pasta dinner this week. "To close the stomach" as Italians would say! My mom (an antique dealer) gave me a couple of stemmed cordial glasses that I plan to serve it in. 

I spent $40.95 there. Knowing the rosé was probably going to be around $10 and the white around $30 at the wine shop, I thought I was doing fairly well, but was still thinking I would go over my $75 budget a bit.

My purchases from Total Wine & More.

Next, she drove us to my favorite wine shop, Bin 201, in Annapolis, a city I adore. I wanted a particular rosé that I saw described in one of their emails back in July. It's called Zaza Garnacha Rosé. It described this dry pink wine from Spain as "flavorful" and "cheerful." I also approved of the strawberry notes as well as the price point of $9.99. I paid that price as it wasn't one of the bottles on sale. We should still have hot summer days to enjoy this chilled as intended!

They had two Sancerres, which is the white wine I discovered at O Chateau in Paris. I didn't like one of the descriptions at all, but thought the other sounded delicious. Plus, this second option was the Sancerre on sale for $19 from the original $29.99. Made from Sauvignon Blanc, I like that this French wine is dry and crisp with hints of citrus. I'm not sure if I've had this one from Cédrick Bardin before... I look forward to trying it with my sun-dried tomato cream pasta dish, maybe later on in the week.

As a red wine drinker, it was kind of odd to be buying a rosé and a white, but I still had that budget in mind. My total at Bin 201 was $31.60. My total for all five bottles was $72.55. I was amazed to be just under budget!

My bottles from Bin 201.

I love all of my purchases. I ended up with exactly what I wanted. Inspired, I set a goal to fill up my wine cabinet and its wine rack (once) by the end of fall. I only have five empty spots to fill at the moment, but of course plan to transfer one to my kitchen counter soon! My friend kept reminding me that she could take me back to the warehouse. Plus, like I said, the location is so convenient for her, that I could give her some cash and make a request. I think I'm going to enjoy my fall already! Cheers! Cin cin!


The two of us ended our evening with dinner at Mission BBQ back in our hometown. I love their pulled pork sandwich! The establishment offers six sauces on each table and my favorite is Memphis Belle. I even treated myself to a rare side of french fries. My meal was delicious! The service at this chain is always outstanding as well. This company always seems to be expanding with new locations.


It was such a pleasure to go wine shopping and be out and about with a friend on a Saturday night.

After grocery shopping this morning, I patronized my local liquor store and bought a six pack of beer, Harp, to go with the burgers I was planning. The guy ringing me up asked, "No wine today?!" I just mumbled "No wine today" in reply and didn't mention my cheating on him! ...with no plans on ending the love affair too.