Book review: ‘Apron Anxiety’ by Alyssa Shelasky

It’s rare that I finish a book with no clearcut reaction to it, but such is the case with Apron Anxiety, the latest in blog-turned-memoirs saturating the market. (Ignore the dig; I’m just jealous.) At various points in Alyssa Shelasky’s story, she upends her life, learns to cook and falls in love — and I alternated between fascinated and crazy turned off by her. But I never put the book down.

Successful writer Alyssa Shelasky’s New York is a glittery, shiny place — and one she never planned to leave. She’s very close to her family, has an excellent group of friends — and it’s her gig at People magazine that introduces her to celebrities and other influential people, including a “Top Chef” contestant who catches her eye.

After microwaving her meals for most of her life, Alyssa’s new beau — referred to only as “Chef” — pulls her into the wild and rollicking culinary world. As their tornado of a romance progresses, Alyssa upends her life and follows Chef to Washington, D.C., where he’s opening his own restaurant. Inspired by his profession and hoping to not look so obtuse to his kitchen-god friends and contacts, Alyssa uses her sudden influx of downtime to get serious about cooking. And the results are different than she anticipated.


My foodie background and love of all things dessert — plus, you know, those aforementioned that blogger-turned-author connection — inspired me to pick up Apron Anxiety, and Shelasky’s open writing style drew me in immediately. Regardless of how I felt about her decisions, Alyssa always seemed open about her motives. The stickier parts of the narrative came as her relationship with Chef progresses, and Apron Anxiety is one of those juicy books that felt like peeking into someone’s journal. Or, since this is 2012 and all, someone’s blog.

And that’s because it is. Shelasky detailed her adventures learning to cook on her website of the same name, and many of her stories had the feel of a woman hunkering down to tap out anecdotes over a 3 a.m. bottle of wine. Look, I’m not hating; I have a day job as a writer (albeit not for People magazine — holy crap) and blog in my “off hours,” too. It’s not always an easy thing, keeping up with both. But I guess many of the stories just came across as so emotionally distant I couldn’t relate to what Shelasky was going through. She’s so matter-of-fact about everything — even nasty break-ups — that I struggled to figure out how I was supposed to feel.

There were points in Apron Anxiety I thought, “I want to be her.” And then chapters would pass and I would think, “Wow, I could never do what she does.” And then my jealousy would nudge me again with an (ample) hip, and I would be back to envying Shelasky’s life. She seems to have it made: fantastic job; living in an incredible city; excellent support system; new hot guy who is obsessed with her and whisks her off to Greece just because.

And that’s what made it so hard to understand her actions.

I’ve written and re-written this review a few times, mostly because I’m going to try not to seem like a shrew. And Shelasky’s life? It’s hers, obviously. She wrote a book about it and I’m talking about the book, but the tricky thing with memoirs? Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m not discussing characters, but actual people. People who really did these things. And what Shelasky does? Well, it was tough to fathom.

With the world in her metaphorical, New York-shaped oyster, Shelasky leaves it all — her career, her friends, her family — to move to Washington with Chef, a man with whom she’s crazy in love . . . but not completely compatible. When she gets to Capitol Hill, she has nothing to do. And then Apron Anxiety derailed for me, detailing how Chef is just too busy to spend much time with her and she has little to occupy herself aside from redecorating their apartment. That is when she learns to cook: out of necessity. Because she’s bored and lonely and embarrassed to know so little about the world in which her boyfriend is so entrenched. Because she’s far from home and needs something to fill her days until he comes home.

To which I say: why did that happen? Why did you throw everything away for a man?

On a heart level, I get it: she took a chance. She was in love and doing whatever she could to make her relationship work. I wouldn’t have done what she did, but that doesn’t matter . . . except it sort of does. It colored my perception of the narrative. It made me frustrated, and I couldn’t understand why we were supposed to sympathize with her and not Chef. She doesn’t make the guy out to be evil or anything — just, you know, overworked. Unresponsive. Unavailable.

And I’m from the Washington area. I’ve never lived anywhere else. Alyssa’s nose-in-the-air attitude about D.C. and its “scene” grated on me as badly as if you’d shredded my fingers on a mandolin. The word that popped up over and over, blinding me to anything else, was elitist. She seems so spoiled that any empathy I’d once felt for her evaporated. So Chef’s working all the time . . . and yeah, that sucks. But the man is starting a business. It’s hard work. He has a life — and Shelasky desperately needed to get one, too.

And she does. She most definitely does, but it was too little for me — and too late. As a reader, I’d become so disenchanted with her entitlement. For me, the book became a scramble of strange decisions and eye-rolling behavior. Apron Anxiety seemed less about the process by which Shelasky gained confidence as a home cook and more about celebrity name-dropping and promiscuous adventures. And it got a little tiresome.

That being said, I can’t act like I didn’t still enjoy Apron Anxiety. Snide remarks about D.C. aside, Shelasky’s memoir is very entertaining — and foodie fans who love hearing about delicious eats, great wine and the process by which it’s all created will find plenty upon which to feast their eyes. Shelasky’s demeanor was often a turn-off, but passages like this could reel me back in:

After all, everyone cooks for matters of the heart. We’re all in the kitchen because it fulfills a longing inside, whether it’s for inner grace, pure survival, a renewed sense of self, or just the thrill of it — these are the stories that get us there, keep us there, or sometimes take us away. But without the people who have moved us, pushed us, left us, maybe even hurt us, then really, it’s only food. (page 249, advanced reading copy)


And like everyone I’ve ever met who comes from or has lived there, New York City itself holds limitless appeal. Shelasky’s descriptions read like a love letter to the Big Apple and drew me in, too:

But that’s New York. The streets are filled with neon-lit restaurants that taste like nostalgia, glamour, guilt, and goosebumps. If you’ve lived here long enough, every corner booth, deli counter, dive bar, coffee shop, and critic’s darling becomes a Polaroid of your life. (page 30, advanced reading copy)


Nice, right?

So here I am: stuck in the middle. Part of me aggravated by a quick read that had me white-hot with annoyance but also still thinking about it after finishing. It inspired some real emotions, you know what I’m saying? I definitely felt something while reading. Shelasky isn’t always a likeable heroine, but she is a real person. Someone I could see sharing a beer and a chat. (Though I’m not sure she’d be up for either with me after this review? Eek.)

If foodie memoirs, bloggers-turned-authors, relationship voyeurism and the plights of 30-somethings finding their way hold appeal, Apron Anxiety is a fast-paced story that had me Googling the principal characters to see what became of them. Reading about real people is a pretty unique experience, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Shelasky’s paramours — especially Chef — feel about their starring roles in her narrative. Guess she owes them a delicious dessert as compensation — and she now has the skills to deliver.

Also: there are recipes. With chocolate.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0307952142 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review


Dark Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes: get ‘drunk’ on delicious dessert


Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day (or a little early, but hey — I’m proactive), I present to you the most praised cupcakes I’ve ever made. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I can promise these are winners — and I’m feeling quite smug after getting endless compliments on these babies at work this week.

They’re Dark Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes with a Bailey’s buttercream frosting, friends, and they’re just as rich, decadent and lush as you would imagine. Fascinated by Ireland since our visit there last spring, my interest was piqued when I first caught a glimpse of this recipe — though I’m really more of a Smithwick’s girl. Regardless, these treats are outstanding — and yes, you can taste both the Guinness and Bailey’s . . . but you won’t get sloppy afterward. At least, no one in the office did.

This recipe originally came from Sasha, the culinary mastermind over at Global Table Adventure. Her recipe is for one awesome cake, but I’m a cupcake fiend. So I present to you this rendition in all its stouty glory. Don’t skimp on the icing, either; it’ll have you licking the bowl.


Dark Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes
with a Bailey’s buttercream

Ingredients:
1 1/2 sticks butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup Guinness Extra Stout
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs

For the Bailey’s buttercream:
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2-4 tbsp Bailey’s, as needed


Preheat oven to 350F. In a small saucepan, melt butter and whisk together with Guinness, vanilla extract and cocoa. Remove from heat.

While Guinness mixture is cooling, add cupcake liners to pan. Whisk together dry ingredients (sugar, flour, baking soda). Pour Guinness mixture onto the dry ingredients, then whisk in the 2 eggs. When the batter is shiny and smooth, pour evenly into cupcake liners.

Bake for 16-18 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

As cupcakes cool, make the buttercream by whipping together the softened butter and sugar, then adding in just enough Bailey’s to get it loose and fluffy. (About 3 tablespoons.)

When cupcakes are done, cool completely. Frost as desired. Yields approximately 18 cupcakes.

New: printable recipe is here!



Cool and creamy pumpkin pie mousse

While searching for healthy twists on traditional holiday recipes, I knew right away I couldn’t leave out my most favorite of all autumn items: pumpkin! (Were you really expecting me to say anything else?) I’m doing a magazine spread of healthier alternatives to the dishes that make this season great, and it’s not like I could print and promote a recipe I hadn’t tried myself. Am I right?

I said, am I right?

Yes. Of course. So I whipped up this pumpkin pie mousse, adapted from a recipe found online. I actually lost track of where I originally found this one, but it’s pretty similar to this version. The biggest change from traditional pumpkin pie is that we’re not using a real pie crust, and there’s no additional sugar. Plus, we’re using all fat-free or low-fat ingredients.

And do you think the pumpkin pie fanatics around my house missed those calories? Absolutely not. This light, fluffy and decidedly pumpkin-y concoction tasted delicious, and the added crunch from the crushed graham crackers kept it from feeling too much like dipping into simple pie batter. It’s cool, refreshing — and simple. Very, very simple.

So when you’re eager to try out a pumpkin dish this fall but aren’t ready to commit to a full-blown pie, keep this one stashed in your repertoire. This pumpkin nut wouldn’t steer you wrong.


Pumpkin pie mousse

Ingredients:
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup skim milk
1 (1 ounce) package instant sugar-free vanilla pudding mix
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 (8 ounce) container fat-free frozen whipped topping, thawed
1/2 cup crushed graham crackers
Cinnamon, to taste

Directions:
In a medium bowl, mix together the milk, pumpkin and instant pudding mix. Stir in the pumpkin pie spice, and fold in half of the thawed whipped topping. Pour into an 8-inch pie plate and spread remaining whipped topping over top. Sprinkle with crushed graham crackers and lightly dust with cinnamon. Chill for one hour, or until set. Serve in individual cups for an added touch.


New go-to dinner: Turkey oven sandwiches

The menu around our house has slowly grown in diversity, but it takes something special — something very special — to earn a regular spot in our weeknight rotation. One night is taco night. Then we have spaghetti night, or chicken nuggets night. My dad will probably thrown chicken on a grill on a different day, and then we’re left with dreaded Leftovers Night or We’re Going Out to Bob Evans Night.

Then I began combing the web for something new to make with ground turkey, something our freezer seems to never be without. Until a few months ago, ground turkey was reserved for homemade meatballs (thereby placing them on the roster for Spaghetti Night) and not much else. But now? With this recipe for turkey oven sandwiches, the times have been a’ changin’.

I love these because they’re simple, quick and different, plus mighty tasty and easy to prepare after work. And the best part is that they’re completely customizable — appropriate for the varied tastes of your family and guests, for sure. My dad hates celery, for one, so he gets one that’s completely plain . . . no celery, no onion, no nothing (well, besides cheese and sour cream). Everyone’s happy because they get what they want, and I’m happy because . . . well, it’s just delicious.

Whenever I think about making these, the best part is that we usually have everything we need right at home — minus the pita bread. I’ve made many a run to the grocery store and walked out with just pita bread, but it’s worth it. Filling and warm, these “sandwiches” — open-faced, anyway — are definitely comfort food. They don’t have to have the calories of traditional comfort foods, though; it’s easy to use fat-free sour cream instead of regular, reduced-fat cheese, etc.

The recipe below is a guideline, and most ingredients should be considered “to taste.” For instance, Spencer and I are totally nuts over garlic — so way more than the teaspoon below goes into our skillet. I’m also guilty of slapping tons of garlic salt, black pepper and other random spices, and these have never turned out poorly. The last thing you want is bland ground turkey, so go bold! Add what you think your crew will like — I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Also, I can easily make five sandwiches from one package of ground turkey — sometimes six, depending on how hungry everyone is!


Turkey Oven Sandwiches

Adapted from Betty Crocker

For turkey:
1 pound ground turkey
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic
1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon black pepper

When layering pitas:
4-6 pita breads
1 medium tomato, diced
1 medium celery stalk, sliced (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (or to taste)

For topping:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Paprika, if desired

1. Heat oven to 425ºF. In a skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil and garlic before adding turkey, poultry seasoning, garlic salt, black pepper and parsley. Stir occasionally until turkey is no longer pink, then drain.

2. Layer pita bread rounds on ungreased baking sheet (it’s okay if they overlap). Layer turkey, celery, red onion, tomato and Cheddar cheese on pitas.

3. Mix sour cream and mayonnaise, then spoon over top. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until topping is light brown. Enjoy!

Book review: ‘The Love Goddess’ Cooking School’ by Melissa Senate

Come with an empty heart, leave with a very full stomach.

On her sixteenth birthday, Holly Maguire is told by her beloved grandmother, known for her fortune-telling prowess, that her “Great Love” will enjoy sa cordula, a traditional Italian dish consisting of . . . well, lamb intestines. Dubious but knowing Camilla would never lead her astray, a much older Holly prepares sa cordula for her boyfriend, a man she loves but feels is pulling away from her.

And, of course, he hates the dish. Dumps her almost on the spot. Heartbroken over losing both John and his young daughter, Lizzie, Holly flees San Francisco for Blue Crab Island, Maine, where her grandmother runs a small Italian takeaway shop and offers cooking classes to island residents.

Well known in the community, Camilla has developed a reputation for her cuisine — and her powers of “knowing” and fortune-telling, an ability of which she doesn’t boast but doesn’t conceal, either. After Camilla’s sudden passing, Holly inherits her grandmother’s business and warm kitchen — but, unfortunately, not her penchant for whipping together delicious meals. Alone and grieving, Holly focuses on learning her grandmother’s recipes, determined not to let Camilla’s business fail. And when Holly’s mother, Camilla’s only daughter, discourages her from trying? Well, Holly just tries harder.

Twelve-year-old Mia appears at The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, as locals have affectionately coined the business, soon after Holly arrives — and offers her services as an assistant during the cooking classes. Seeking acceptance and friendship after her mother abandoned she and her handsome father, Liam, Mia befriends Holly and quickly allows her into the Gellars’ inner circle. And Holly is all too happy to be there — until she feels herself getting a little too close to yet another father-and-daughter duo. Still smarting from John’s rejection in California, Holly has to decide whether to pull away . . . or move forward, fear and all.

A word of caution for those picking up Melissa Senate’s new novel, The Love Goddess’ Cooking School: don’t read on an empty stomach. I’ve issued this caution before, I know, but trust me this one time, friends. Since beginning this warm and engaging novel, I’ve been dreaming of tiramisu, spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, lasagna and ricotta cheese. As someone who feels she must have been Italian in another life (pasta, I love pasta!), the odd stains scarring the pages of my copy may or may not be drool. The prose was just . . . scrumptious. And Senate describes Holly’s creations so well, you’ll want to throw this one down and make dinner every time you finish a chapter.

What I love about this work, Senate’s latest in a long line of great books, is her ability to create likable, friendly and interesting characters who captivate you right from the start. Like the men entranced by the exotic, lovely Camilla Constantina, an Italian immigrant who arrived in America with her young husband and was widowed in the U.S., I was immediately drawn into Holly’s world and felt like I was reading the story of a dear friend. Have I read the running-away-to-find-yourself plots before? Yes, of course. But in Senate’s hands, a familiar story takes on new nuances.

Holly is a bumbling, uncomfortable woman when first we meet her — aching from loss and grief, both in the form of her relationship with John and her grandmother’s unexpected passing; lost as to what to do with her life. Having spent most of her adult years following men from city to city, she has no career or aspirations. She has no calling. And Camilla, when she was living, could tell her little about her future . . . aside from the premonition about sa cordula. She needs guidance. And through her grandmother’s magical recipes, she finds solace and direction.

Liam’s slow pursuit of Holly was magical, too, and felt honest. Though initially attracted to one another, Holly and Liam don’t suddenly find themselves locked in a passionate embrace. There are so many factors to consider: rules to follow; guidelines that should be met. And it takes a whole lot of thinking and analyzing for them to move forward. Of course, when they do? Well. Love can’t happen along someone else’s guidelines . . . sometimes we make the rules up for ourselves.

I’ve read and loved many of Melissa Senate’s novels, including The Solomon Sisters Wise Up, and this was a departure from her usual fare. Still about women, love and family, yes, but there were no sisters here to speak of — and sisters appear often in Senate’s works! I’m happy to report this is my favorite Senate read of all, and a book I’ll still be thinking about in the months to come. Holly is an inspiration.

Now, where’s that tiramisu?


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439107238 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Hot bacon dip — or why you can’t go wrong with bacon

I’ve never been a breakfast person. Pancakes coated in syrup leave me totally cold; sausage and eggs make me want to gag. On vacations and other extravagant adventures, I can down a few slices of French toast — but even that makes me feel queasy after a while. You know what I had for breakfast on Thursday? Leftover spaghetti. And the day before that, it was a can of Diet Pepsi and some cottage cheese.

Basically, I’m weird about morning meals. But I digress.

You know what breakfast food I can totally get behind? Bacon, friends. Crisp, delicious, oh-so-bad-for-you bacon. And if you mention a recipe that includes both bacon, cheese and bread, three of the things I love most in the world, I’m right there with you.

Such was the case on Halloween. Being the true foodies that we are, Spencer and I decided we needed to make a snack to eat while we were waiting for our other food to cook — in this case, green bean casserole and a beef stew for dinner. In between carving pumpkins and getting ready for our Halloween movie marathon, we gathered the ingredients for this tasty dip, which comes courtesy of a recipe written for Spence by Alex, his awesome mom.

And once we pulled the hollowed-out sourdough bread shell from the oven, bubbling over with cheesy, onion and garlicky goodness? Well, it was heaven. I washed my hands of pumpkin guts long enough to nibble on endless slices of French bread, and this dip barely lasted long enough for us to share it with Eric, my sister’s boyfriend. That’s what he gets for arriving late to the festivities. (Okay, so he wasn’t really late — and he called to tell us when he’d be arriving. Maybe I was just being selfish and wanted all the dip to myself! . . . Maybe.)

This was so good, in fact, that it totally ruined us for the dinner we’d had in the Crockpot for hours.

But now I’m eating all the leftovers for lunch at work — and saving $10.

See? This dip is awesome. This dip saves me money.


Hot Bacon Dip

Recipe from Alexandra J.

Ingredients:
• 12 slices center cut bacon – crisp and crumbled
• 1 package (8 oz.) shredded Colby/Monterey Jack cheese
• 1 cup (4 oz.) grated parmesan cheese
• 1 cup real mayonnaise
• 1 small onion — finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic (minced)
• 1 round loaf of bread (not wheat – Italian or French is best)

Directions:

Mix ingredients together in large bowl. Spoon into round, scooped out bread shell (bread bowl). Cover shell with the cut-off bread top. Place on cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until cheese is bubbly. Serve warm. Cube up loaf of French bread for dipping, and use bread removed from round loaf for extra dipping.


My love of capers knows no bounds — so we made Chicken Scallopine

So I’m kind of going through a thing with capers.

It all started on my birthday weekend in July, when Spencer and I went up to Annapolis and had dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. If you’ve never been to a Cheesecake Factory, friends, let me caution you: don’t. It’s so good, fatty, filling and delicious, it will ruin you for every other restaurant. And, um, the cheesecake? Cheesecake, people. In a billion different varieties. But if you’re going for dessert, you should skip the whole meal thing altogether. By the time you’re done plowing through your massive entree, any space in your belly for cool, scrumptious cheesecake will have been invaded by meatloaf.

On this particular evening, riding high off a solitary strawberry margarita in honor of the 25th anniversary of my birth, I ordered a chicken piccata dish. On a whim. Because it featured a lemon and caper sauce and, well, that sounded good.

So I ordered it. Spencer and I chatted and made moony, lovey faces at each other. I drank more of my margarita.

And then my chicken piccata came.

And I ate it.

And it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever had in my life.

Was it the perfectly-cooked chicken dripping in the lemon herb reducation? Or maybe the mushrooms — wow, I love mushrooms. Perhaps it was the tender pasta drenched in all that delicious sauce, or . . .

Yes, yes, it was the capers. Totally the capers.

Since I’ve been getting more interested in cooking lately, as we all know, and have had some successes, I decided earlier this week I would whip this one up with Spencer, my favorite sous chef. (Yeah, right — I’m totally his sous chef. Especially since I spend more time taking pictures of dinner than making it.)

After discovering this recipe for Chicken Scallopine over at The Pioneer Woman, one of my favorite blogs, we went to work. And everything went swimmingly! Aside from a mishap wherein I dropped the jar of capers (eek), our stove wouldn’t get hot enough to reduce the white wine (another eek) and our linguine became sticky from sitting too long while the chicken fried (our fault for boiling it too quickly), it was delicious — and relatively simple.

I’d recommend it — especially if you’re all into capers, like I am. Though the recipe calls for a “heaping teaspoon” of the delicious little pickled buds, I could have happily added the entire jar to our pan.

And next time? I’ll be doing just that.



Chicken Scallopine

Recipe from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Ingredients:
1 pound Linguine
6 whole Boneless, Skinless, Trimmed Chicken Breasts
Salt And Pepper, to taste
Flour
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Tablespoons Butter
12 ounces, weight White Mushrooms, Sliced Thin
1 cup Dry White Wine
Chicken Broth (optional)
1 whole Lemon
½ cups Heavy Cream (can Use Half-and-Half)
1 teaspoon (heaping) Capers
Chopped Fresh Italian Parsley
Parmesan Cheese, For Topping

Preparation Instructions:

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Flatten chicken breasts to uniform thickness. Salt and pepper both sides, then dredge in flour. Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry chicken breasts until golden brown. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Throw mushrooms into the pan and stir. Immediately pour in wine and chicken broth (optional), and then squeeze juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon. Stir to deglaze the pan, and then cook vigorously for 1 minute, until sauce reduces.

Pour in cream and stir, then add capers and parsley and stir. Turn off heat. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Don’t under salt!

Place pasta and chicken on a platter and top with every last drop of sauce. Generously sprinkle Parmesan Cheese over the top.