Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

Tackling Mixology

Summer is fast approaching, and the social calendar is already filling up. One of the things my husband and I enjoy most is hosting groups of friends at our place for dinners and parties. When we host get-togethers, I always gravitate towards the kitchen, while Dan plays mixologist. There’s something about mixing cocktails that has always spooked me by seeming a bit too precise. In order to get over this fear, I decided to hunt down some accessible books on how to make the perfect drink for the perfect party. Here’s my short list:

Cover image of DIY CocktailsDIY Cocktails: a Simple Guide to Creating your Own Signature Drink by Marcia Simmons and Jonas Halpren. This is one recipe book where it’s in your best interest to start at the beginning and read on through. I tend to pick up cookbooks and dive right into the middle, skipping all the intro materials, but the beginning of this book is extremely helpful in explaining the nature of cocktail recipes, the tools and measurements used, and how you can improvise. From there, the authors provide you with recipes for many classic and obscure drinks, as well as creative ways to personalize them to make them your own. This appeals to me because I tend to ‘riff’ on the dishes I like according to what I happen to have in the kitchen at the time; this book allows you to do the same with your liquor cabinet.

Cover image for The Punch BowlThe Punch Bowl: 75 Recipes Spanning Four Centuries of Wanton Revelry by Dan Searing. I was first attracted to this title because punch seems to work well when entertaining large groups of people. Upon closer inspection, I found that this book was actually 2 parts alcohol, 1 part history: a perfect ratio for a historian hostess. Early sections of this book are devoted to the history of punch, how old recipes are modernized, and information about antique punch-serving equipment. Liberally sprinkled through the book are lovely photos of punch bowls, service sets, goblets, and well-garnished drinks. The recipes themselves are a mix of very accessible drinks with common ingredients and impossible beverages with ingredient lists that seem unlikely to be filled unless you live in a major city or have a lot of time on your hands. I guess that’s understandable when you take into account the fact that the author includes beverages that were en vogue hundreds of years ago. Thankfully the former outweighs the latter and makes this book a worthwhile read.

Cover image for Cocktails for a CrowdCocktails for a Crowd by Kara Newman. This is essentially the light version of The Punch Bowl. Most of the cocktails listed in this book are designed to be served in pitchers or bowls to make life easier for hosts. Absent are the random obscure ingredients, unless they are simple items that you could make at home to enhance your recipe. In the front part of the book there is ample information about preparing garnishes, as well as infused bitters and syrups. This seems like an excellent pick for beginner mixologists who aren’t in the mood for a history lesson.

Cover image for Beer CocktailsBeer Cocktails by Howard and Ashley Stelzer. For those of you who haven’t been introduced to the world of beer cocktails, this a game-changer for casual get-togethers. The recipes in this book are a far cry from the beermosas and makeshift micheladas my friends and I would whip together using car camping ingredients on groggy Sunday mornings. Beer Cocktails is helpfully arranged by style of beer, so that you can start your experimenting with beers that already appeal to you.

Happy mixing – enjoy responsibly!

Confessions of a Cookbook Enthusiast

Cookbooks fly in and out of the library, sailing across the circulation desk. Their glossy covers tantalize my imagination and whet my appetite with seductive photos and suggestive recipes. I’m lured, tempted, and enticed to experiment! Of all the genres, it’s the culinary arts that push my buttons and get me motivated. Whether I try a recipe or just read up on techniques and trends, the Everett Public Librarys motto to INSPIRE, INFORM, and ENTERTAIN feeds my cookbook enthusiast passion.

dahliabakerycookbookLocal restaurateur legend, Tom Douglas and co-author Shelly Lance, have won me over in compiling The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. I’ve raved about this cookbook, checked it out numerous times and recently became the owner of said cookbook thanks to my sister. I’m in heaven! The old-fashioned molasses cookie recipe with fresh ginger is what turned on my taste buds (see recipe below). They are delicate, chewy, and slightly crisp around the perimeter. These versatile cookies go well with a cup of tea or pair wonderfully with a chilled glass of Jones Late Harvest Riesling. If you like this recipe you may also enjoy the cranberry apricot oatmeal cookies, at 4 inches in diameter these cookies impress!

Personally I’m a bit intimidated when it comes to ‘baking’, more science than art and not my strong subject. Tom concurs that baking requires skill and gives credit to Shelly who is the head Pastry Chef at the Dahlia Bakery establishment on 4th Avenue in Seattle. As a side note several of Chef Douglas’s restaurants are near the bakery. One is Lola’s where my husband and I dined during Restaurant week. The chocolate dessert I had was otherworldly!

Currently, I have on loan two alluring cookbooks: Le Pain Quotidien and One Good Dish and both look a bit exotic. Borrowing cookbooks from the library sometimes leads to adding a well-loved cookbook to my home collection. The Food Matters Cookbook, by Mark Bittman is one such book. I use Bittman’s recipes on a regular basis because a lot of them offer healthy options with substitutions (If you don’t have this you can substitute using this). My confidence is growing as I try new recipes and mix things up expressing my creativity. I encourage you to come in and checkout one of the many excellent cookbooks at the library. There is something for everyone’s palate. Bon Appetite!

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Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies with fresh ginger

makes makes 4 1/2 dozen small cookies

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar, plus about 1/2 cup more for rolling
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 tsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1. preheat oven to 350

2.In the bowl of an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter and the sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg, molasses, and ginger mix to combine. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix to combine. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour before shaping the cookies.

3. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup sugar on a plate. Form 3/4-inch balls of dough and roll balls in the sugar before placing them on parchment-lined baking sheets. Press the balls of dough flat with the palm of your hand. The cookies should be spaced 2 or 3 inches apart after they are flattened.

4. Bake until golden brown and set around the edges but still slightly soft in the center, 7 to 8 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. If you have two pans of cookies in the oven at the same time also switch them between the racks. Remove from the oven allow cookies to cool before removing them with a metal spatula.

My Stomach: the Strong, Sensitive Type

Cover image from The Intolerant GourmetI love to eat. I can demolish healthy foods, spicy foods, exotic foods, comfort foods, or the type of horribly unhealthy grub you’d find at state fairs. I take on all comers; the problem is, my digestive tract won’t. Last year I was diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity. Luckily I dodged the Celiac, allergy, and intolerance bullets (there’s a difference – link opens a PDF), but I still pay a price when I decide to snack on some doughnuts. Thankfully, the food industry in the States is rapidly becoming more gluten-free aware. Gluten-free products are springing up on store shelves and restaurants are adding new items to their menus. For all the cooks and bakers out there, there’s a wealth of new cookbooks being published every year.

Whether you’re avoiding gluten because your body hates it or you’ve decided to cut back for other health reasons, I have a list of books from our collection that I’d recommend checking out. I picked these titles because they all do a good job of explaining some things about being gluten free that can be confusing. Some cover the different reasons why people go gluten free, while others navigate the tricky waters of creating a dynamite gluten free flour mix for baking. Some of them have really handy lists of things you should and shouldn’t eat on a gluten free diet, while others have charts for properly cooking the different grains and beans being recommended in the recipes. I also like these books because they don’t rely too heavily on store-bought, pre-made items (gluten free breads, pastas, dressings, etc.) opting to teach you how to make those items in your own home instead. So, here is my list with some notes:

Cover image from The Gluten-Free VeganThe Gluten-Free Vegan by Susan O’Brien. This book has great explanations about being vegan, gluten free, and choosing organic goods. Those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to eggs may also find The Gluten-Free Vegan useful because it goes into alternatives products for cooking and baking. For those looking to cut back on refined sugars, there’s a section on organic sweeteners.

The Intolerant Gourmet by Barbara Kafka. Kafka stocked the back of this book with great charts for cooking times, water to grain/bean ratios, and more. This title is also a good pick for those who are lactose intolerant.

Cover image from Gluten Free 101Gluten-Free 101 by Carol Fenster. I think this title does the best job out of any of the cookbooks of introducing the reader to the reasons why someone might need to live a gluten-free lifestyle. You can tell that the author is speaking from years of experience and she is there to ease the reader through making the changes they need to make. Aside from the encouraging intro, the recipes themselves look delicious and easy to follow. While Fenster often uses canned ingredients in her recipes, cooks can easily substitute dried or fresh items at home if they want to avoid the extra sodium. Her emphasis in this book is on quick and easy recipes, so the shortcut makes sense.

Cover image for Gluten Free BreakfastGluten-Free Breakfast, Brunch, & Beyond by Linda J. Amendt. If you have suffered under any delusions that being gluten-free is an inherently-healthy lifestyle, this book will destroy them. Each chapter is sprinkled with glorious full-color photos of waffles, crepes, pies, and so much more to make you pack on the pounds. Use this resource wisely if you’re choosing to be gluten-free for weight-loss reasons.

Gluten-Free Whole Grains by Judith Finlayson. After learning I couldn’t eat wheat or rye without causing trouble, my eyes were opened to a world of grains I never knew existed. Reading through the lists of things that I COULD eat, all I could do was wonder how I was supposed to prepare them. This book is really helpful in explaining how to use both familiar and exotic grains in ways that show off their unique flavors and textures.

Happy cooking!

The Quest

With the holiday season already far in the rear-view mirror, and the joys of summer still months off, I’m deep into winter escapist reading. This season I seem to be drawn to books about people on quests. Whether it’s for healing or wild edibles, each writer I’ve engaged with has taken me along on a fascinating journey of discovery. Here are three titles that will set your mind wandering:

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Secrets, Eccentrics, and the American Dream  (Langdon Cook)This title is a great fit for foodies, hikers, lovers of the Pacific Northwest, and those who appreciate investigative journalism that takes you deep inside the story. I enjoyed traveling off the beaten path, literally and sometimes legally, with Cook and his group of wild food foraging contacts. This is a good book to pick up if you’re the type of consumer who is interested in where your food comes from and why it costs what it does. I found it remarkable that items that you can find at any upscale market reach the selling table as a result of so many moving (and potentially unreliable) parts.

Fairyland cover imageFairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott). In some cases, quests can be taken without traveling at all. In Fairyland, author Alysia Abbott journeys back into her unorthodox childhood using her father’s prodigious journal archive. Abbott’s path twists and turns through the complexities of being raised by an openly gay single father at a time when the nation was only first awakening to the gay rights movement. Along the way the author pulls no punches describing her father as loving though aloof and herself as too self-involved to be able to see that he needed her as much as she needed him. Despite these and other hurdles, this small family managed to create a home in improbable places. While readers are often left with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, the overall tone of the memoir is one of grace and acceptance.

Wild cover imageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed). Part of my own personal quest this January is to finish this book; I’m currently in the middle of it. Like Alysia Abbott, Cheryl Strayed had an unusual upbringing. After her abusive father exited the picture, her mother barely scraped by raising her small family. When she eventually remarried, the family moved to the wilds of northern Minnesota where they built their own tar-paper cabin and lived off the land. Though this lifestyle may sound difficult, the family was happy. Strayed goes on to marry shortly after high school and seems to have things on track until her mother suddenly dies of lung cancer. Unable to cope with her loss, Strayed spirals out of control and moves out on her own. In order to regain focus after her divorce, she picks up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and decides to set off on her own. One part travelogue for the curious traveler, and one part memoir for those working through their own loss, this book has a lot to offer to the questing reader.

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 3: Finishing Flourishes

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know we’re on a shared journey together. We’re on the quest for a simple, stress-free holiday party. You may not be a master chef but you’ve learned a lot of techniques that enable you to try more complicated recipes and maybe even have some fun as well. Now I give to you the final installment. Today I’ll go over the little extras that will take your holiday party from just a success to an absolutely stellar occasion.

1A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson contains the number one absolute easiest recipe for cookies ever. You don’t need an oven, but you do need some high-quality alcohol. And let’s be honest: if you’re taking a few nips of the top shelf stuff while prepping cookies (as I assure you is required by law) you really have no business near an oven. Hey, I’m just looking out for you. Chocolate bourbon balls (page 40) combine the best food groups: booze, chocolate and sugar. There are variations where you can substitute other liquors and get an entirely different product. I wonder if anyone has shared this recipe with Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen yet?

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Top 100 Step-By-Step Napkin Folds by Denise Vivaldo is full of simple ways to make any place setting outstanding. Toss aside those napkin rings: you won’t need them this year. I’ll be honest: outside of a cruise I went on last year, I’ve never actually eaten someplace where the napkin has a special fold—except maybe a fan in a wine glass. Who thinks of doing this, anyway? Only the most accomplished hosts and hostesses like you. Bird in flight (pages 26-27), buffet roll (pages 36-37), fir tree (pages 58-59), and shield (pages 90-91) are simple to make but are special enough to add that little bit of flair to your table. Your guests will be surprised and flattered that you took the time to pay such attention to detail…and that you used cloth napkins in the first place.

3The Kitchen Pantry Cookbook by Erin Coopey shows you how to make your own condiments, chips, stocks, and more. What we’re going to care about is in chapter six: dips. There’s nothing I look forward to more at a party than dip—except maybe the drinks. But we’ll get there, so slow it down, champ. If you’re feeling ambitious you can make the potato chips (page 140) or pita chips (page 152) but I confess I’ll just buy some pre-made. The French onion dip (page 146), herb dip (page 148),  and even the spinach dip (page 158) are simple to make and don’t require those seasoning packets you can buy at the store. I guarantee you everyone will be impressed when you tell them that you made these dips. From scratch. I mean, who does that? You do.

4Make Your Own Soda by Anton Nocito has dozens of syrup recipes you can use either with a home carbonating device or simple seltzer water to make your own sodas. And we’re not just talking cola. Guava (page 28), sarsaparilla (page 58), spiced maple (page 68) and hibiscus (page 70) are just a few flavors you can create to delight your unsuspecting guests. There are recipes for egg creams, cocktails, and even warm drinks, like the hot apple toddy (page 139). When I hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I can practically taste a nice, warm hot toddy and smell the cinnamon.

5Cocktails for a Crowd by Kara Newman has over 40 recipes for a good time. Many of my guests enjoy being offered a nicely crafted drink but I do not enjoy spending my time bartending. That’s why this book is so incredible. Your group can enjoy one of several beverages that you can prepare in bulk (can you ever own too many pitchers?) and actually spend time socializing with your guests. Raspberry Bellinis (page 30) serves 16. French 75 punch (page 32) serves 8. Spiked and spiced apple cider (page 42) serves 8. Those all feature flavors that go well with a typical holiday feast. On the other hand, Suffering Bastard (page 77) serves 8 and is more of a summer drink. However, if you are suffering from ‘Too Much Family at the Holidays Syndrome’ you might get a secret thrill by serving these to your family. Quick, someone tell John Green!

Still looking for a little bit of extra polish? Why not whip together a fun holiday playlist? I’ve created a list of holiday tunes that combines the classics with some of today’s more modern spins. If you celebrate Christmas and you actually have your party on December 25, this will be your last chance until next year to hear those carols without someone clobbering you. I say go all-out and don’t turn the music off until bedtime.

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Take my advice. The right mix of fancy napkins, alcohol (or non-alcoholic fizzy beverages), music, and homemade dips will be sure to cement your place as future host or hostess of your family/friends’ annual gathering. Try to stay modest, though. You had help getting where you are today. You can send praise to my boss. It’s performance review time!

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 2: Planning Perfection

Welcome to the menu portion of my three-part series intended to help you master your holiday host or hostess responsibilities in style. Part I introduced you to the basic cooking skills you need as a foundation for cooking confidence. Today I’ll share delicious and simple recipes guaranteed to bring applause and tears (the good kind, at last!) to your gathering. Or, more realistically, you’ll be sure to stress less and have more fun this holiday season, even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen…yet.

1After Toast: Recipes for Aspiring Cooks by Kate Gibbs appears to be designed for the post-college crowd—but any budding chef can benefit from the recipes inside. I found two great snacks you can scatter in small dishes around your living areas. Guests can nosh on spiced crispy chickpeas (page 175) made with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. Sugar-and-spice nuts (page 176) feature walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The beauty of both recipes? You can make them ahead of time, they’ll make your house smell amazing, and they are as simple as tossing the ingredients together and baking in the oven.

2High Flavor Low Labor by J.M. Hirsch proclaims to “reinvent weeknight cooking.” You just need to know it has decadent appetizers that are perfect for your holiday gathering—or any time. Grilled bacon-wrapped figs with blue cheese (page 9) are simple and make a dramatic presentation. Polenta cakes topped with prosciutto and peppadew slivers (page 11) are so pretty, yet so easy. Half the work is already done for you with ready-made polenta. Fig and manchego puff pastries (page 21) pair the dream team of flavors: sweet and salty. Once you master this recipe it’s easy to switch it up later to make mini pizzas, perfect for movie night. Pesto-drenched tomato wedges (page 35) show off the red and green color combination perfect for the holiday season. Blend ingredients in the food processor and pour over sliced tomatoes. How easy is that?

3Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen is “the essential reference for becoming a more accomplished, adventurous cook.” While this is indeed a fantastic cooking reference (are you paying attention, Santa?) what it’s bringing to our party is the salad. Butter lettuce salad with tahini-honey dressing (page 200) is a great basic salad to get your palette revved up. I’m not sure why I haven’t made my own dressings before—it’s super easy. Step 1: put stuff in food processor. Step 2: blend. Step 3: let’s eat! Or if you’d like to be more adventurous, try the raw kale salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted cashews (pages 202-203). Aida swears that making this salad ahead and letting it sit helps wilt and soften the kale. It makes for a fabulous presentation on a serving platter. And your health-fad cousin will love that you used kale, that trendy ingredient.

4Come Home to Supper by Christy Jordan has the dough—meaning there are some terrific bread and roll recipes in here. Cheesy garlic biscuits (page 219) are super-simple to make. And they happen to be my favorite type of biscuit: drop. That means you just mix the ingredients and drop them onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later you have biscuit nirvana. Need an even quicker recipe? Ten-minute rolls (page 224) utilizes muffin tins and has a secret ingredient: mayonnaise: “The mayonnaise gives them a subtle flavor as a sour cream would, acts as shortening, and produces a tender crumb.” Sometimes the shortcut recipes turn out to be the most rewarding, both in time saved and flavor savored.

5Choosing Sides by Tara Mataraza Desmond contains nothing but recipes for side dishes. I implore you to look beyond the mashed potatoes (pages 201-204) and focus instead on switching up the holiday menu a bit. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just be listing the recipe names and pages. Please try not to drool as you read them. Charred asparagus with shaved parmesan (page 84), chimichurri green beans (page 85), crisply roasted garlic potatoes (page 90), sugar snap peas with grana padano crust (page 95), ginger honey carrots (page 101), golden cauliflower with herbed breadcrumbs (page 133), red quinoa with cherries and smoked almonds (page 142), legacy cornbread dressing (page 199), and sugar-glazed sweet potatoes (page 205). Now wipe your chin. Drool is very unbecoming in a host or hostess.

6Christmas Slow Cooking by Dominique DeVito is like the holy grail of holiday cooking. It really does cover every course of the meal and then some, but I like it best for the hassle-free main courses. I don’t know why I’d never considered using my slow-cooker for a holiday roast. Short ribs of beef with rosemary and fennel (page 113) become so tender after ten hours in the slow cooker. Prime rib (page 117) has exactly four ingredients: rib roast, olive oil, salt and pepper but it looks incredible. Turkey, bacon, cranberry bliss (page 125) blends some of my favorite ingredients: just use one turkey breast, bacon, apples, cranberries and spices. Holiday ham (page 131) requires a spiral-cut precooked ham and not a lot of effort. Remember, all of these recipes are made in the slow cooker. Your stress level will automatically lower when making one of these easy recipes.

Layout 1One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti takes the guesswork out of baking. I’m an okay cook but I’m not a great baker. That’s probably mostly due to the fact that I am impatient and imprecise in the kitchen. But this book makes me wonder why I freak out over baking so much. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (page 186) uses crushed gingersnap cookies in the crust and a can of pumpkin puree in the filling. With those serious flavors taken care of, the rest just seems like child’s play. Deep dish plum pie tart (page 198) is a decadent—and simple—alternative to either making a pie from scratch or buying one of the pre-made frozen variety.

You have just read an incredibly simple road map to Party Successville. Population: you. If you make some things a day ahead (snacks, salad) and use the slow cooker to do your main dish’s heavy lifting, you’ll be free to whip up multiple appetizers and side dishes your whole family will love.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will share the little details that transform a good holiday party into a great one.

Carol