On the Irish Sea

Flags

Though our time in Ireland was brief, I think of Guinness and colorful flags and warm air.

Stone buildings, kind-faced people and shimmery green landscapes.

Castles and pubs, expansive seas, old cemeteries.


Guinness

Cemetery


I think of 2011: walking in a foreign country an ocean apart from Spencer, trying to find a way to call home . . . and somehow managing to exist without a cell phone.

For a week, anyway.


Irish sea


I think of waking up in Dublin to pull back the curtains in the tiny hotel room I shared with my sister, both of us bleary-eyed after an early wake-up call as we watched a buzzing city come to life.


Moss on stone


And I think of taking it all in with my family, laughing at how American we must have looked with our cameras, comfortable shoes and wide eyes.

I don’t mind being a tourist . . . or even looking like a tourist. So long as I’m soaking it all up, taking it all in, what does it matter?

We only live once.

And we should definitely spend part of our days on the Irish Sea.


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Book chat: ‘The Godforsaken Daughter’ by Christina McKenna

The Godforsaken DaughterWhen her father was alive, Ruby Clare didn’t much mind that she was single, serious, plain and sturdy. She and Vinny worked side-by-side on the family farm in Tailorstown, Northern Ireland, toiling together in a way that felt less like work and more like camaraderie.

But after his unexpected passing, Ruby is left to care for her aging, tyrannical mother and ungrateful twin sisters — both of whom fancy themselves sophisticated ladies now that they’ve fled to Belfast, working at a department store and returning only to antagonize Ruby about their starched sheets on the weekends.

Mired in grief and desperate for hope, Ruby discovers a set of mystical objects left by her paternal grandmother — a spiritual woman who died in the lake outside their house. The deeply-religious Martha immediately fears that Ruby has been taken over by an evil spirit, remembering how her mother-in-law — awash in her own grief years before — had eventually committed suicide.

But Ruby is buoyed by the strength and confidence the objects give her, eventually finding the courage to stand up to her family and a sense of peace that she does, in fact, have some control over her own destiny . . . however fleeting.

Alongside the story of Ruby is that of Henry, a psychologist from Belfast who arrives in Tailorstown after fleeing his own wayward life following his wife’s disappearance. It’s the 1980s in Northern Ireland, and unrest is still all around them . . . and in Henry’s soul, too. Not knowing what happened to Constance, his beloved wife, is destroying him — but he’s been told to lay low and “stop looking.” He’s just not sure how.

The Clares and Henry’s lives eventually intersect in Tailorstown, where everyone is yearning for something about unsure how to find it. In the mix, too, are Jamie McCloone, a lonely farmer; Rose, his friend and Ruby’s new confidante; and Father Kelly, the devoted parish priest who tends to the Clares in their darkest moments.


Irish countryside


Christina McKenna’s The Godforsaken Daughter is an enthralling, well-drawn and incredibly evocative story of love, grief, redemption and faith. I couldn’t read a passage or two without picturing the rolling Irish countryside, and the idea of life on a small pastoral farm was intoxicating.

Of course, life for Ruby Clare is far from picture-perfect. I immediately bonded with our heroine as she traverses the strange, awful landscape of life without her father. Her mother, Martha, is a distressingly awful woman who leans mercilessly on her oldest daughter but offers little in return. When Martha threatens to parcel off her late husband’s farm, Ruby shows her first signs of a backbone — and I desperately hoped to see more.

There is so much happening in The Godforsaken Daughter, but it never felt cluttered. First, the time period: set in the 1980s during the Troubles, there is a sense of unrest and simmering violence throughout the narrative. Without giving too much away, several characters are affected by the Troubles. Though I’m not intimately familiar with Irish history, I remember stories of the violence and bombings in Belfast when I visited in 2011. My lack of knowledge didn’t hamper my understanding — and enjoyment — of the story.

And enjoyable it was! I fear my synopsis has made it sound darker than it actually is. Even with mysticism, seances, religious differences and death, The Godforsaken Daughter still manages to be . . . uplifting? interesting? wildly compelling?

McKenna draws each of her characters so vividly, you feel as though you’re sitting in a diner nibbling on pastries with Biddy or cruising through town in the back of Rose and Paddy’s car. Ruby is a Cinderella-like character who longs to be loved and accepted, and she eventually comes into her own. Though she’s in her early thirties, the novel also functions as Ruby’s coming-of-age story.


Irish Sea


Northern Ireland itself comes alive in McKenna’s tale, taking on a shape and personality as distinctive as any other character. I felt like I was on the banks of the Irish Sea, thinking about a different way of life in a town populated by such colorful people. I loved how easily I could picture each of Tailorstown’s residents — even the awful sisters, who were terrible brats I hoped would get theirs.

The Godforsaken Daughter is an engrossing, page-turning read about family, love, faith and moving forward. I adored its country setting, relatable cast and unique plot. By the last page, the loose ends had come together in a way that was deeply satisfying without being predictable. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading McKenna’s other works!

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane

Black LakeNestled in the Irish mountains on a lake so dark the locals call it “black,” the impressive and imposing estate of Dulough sits perched on a hillside. It’s home to John, the stressed but determined patriarch, as well as his wife, two children and members of staff. The daughter of a middle-class Dublin family, Marianne isn’t accustomed to a life of leisure — and can only busy herself with gardening and tutoring Kate and Philip. There isn’t much else to do.

Descended from a long line of wealthy but untitled Irish families, John can hardly bear to reveal the troubled state of the Campbells’ finances — but when he does, a solution must be found. Opening Dulough to tourists seems to be the only way to keep the estate in their possession while trying to release the grip of impending poverty, but the family’s move to a small cottage nearby ends up costing them more than they anticipated.

Johanna Lane’s Black Lake is moody, atmospheric, compelling and strange. At just over 200 pages, it’s a slim novel that still packs a wallop — mostly because of Lane’s interesting storytelling. We know right away a tragedy has befallen the family, and it’s easy to determine what’s transpired. It’s another 100 pages until the truth is finally revealed, however, and when it is? It’s almost like an afterthought. Stated as fact.

That actually worked for me. Really well.

The core of this story is a foursome struggling to find their place in the world — a “room of their own,” if you will. Before we’re given an actual timeline and history of the estate, I believed Black Lake took place in the early twentieth century. Once I realized John and Marianne’s birth dates and college years would put them closer to modern day, I was actually . . . shocked. There’s just something so stately and Downton Abbey about living in an imposing mansion; I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this place could exist in the here and now.

But it could. I felt John’s sense of stewardship over the property acutely; it was obvious that history and tradition mean a great deal to him, and to let Dulough be sold would represent a failure. Through diary entries and the revisionist history John himself pens, we’re introduced to some of Dulough’s past owners and visitors. The epigraph puts it perfectly, in fact:

“. . . I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and shorterm sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.”

— Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

The story is short, and not much “happens.” I assumed the book would revolve around a single incident, and . . . well, it both did and did not. Marianne and John are complex characters, but we’re not privy to most of their thoughts. The narration shifts several times throughout the story, from husband to son back to husband and, finally, to wife. I enjoyed getting Marianne’s perspective the most, especially because she was the most unmoored.

Though I never fell in love with these characters, exactly, I did feel as though I came to truly understand them. The Campbells are captains of a crumbling ship, and the atmosphere Lane creates is thick and palpable. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself standing on a cliff, bracing sea air whipping my hair from my face; I could easily run my fingers across the shoddy cottages or sturdy furniture moved from Dulough, or see the green-capped mountains in the distance.

Black Lake is well-written, interesting, unusual. Not like anything I’ve read recently, and definitely one that gave me pause. Fans of literary fiction, character studies and family dynamics will be intrigued by this one. Though rather sad, it’s a powerful book that would hardly qualify as a beach read . . . but is likely to be one on the lips of readers this summer.


4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Irish soda bread muffins — and a link-up for St. Patrick’s Day

Irish soda bread muffins 1


With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon (today!), I craved something with an Irish flair — but have been trying really hard not to derail my progress with desserts. I was warned that losing the weight could actually be easier than maintaining that weight loss, and I’m feeling the pinch.

But these? Totally a guilt-free, delicious afternoon — or breakfast — treat. Using whole wheat flour as well as honey and raisins as natural sweeteners, they’re a savory and satisfying muffin that totally worked for me. Spencer liked them, too, though with a caveat: “As long as you’re not expecting something sweet, they’re great.”

Best served with tea or coffee, plus a huge pat of butter!


Whole Wheat
Irish Soda Bread Muffins

Recipe from Skinny Taste

Ingredients:
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp chilled butter
1 cup 1% buttermilk
3 tbsp honey or agave
1 large egg, beaten
2/3 cup raisins (or more, as desired)


Directions:

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners.

In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt). Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

In a small bowl, stir together buttermilk, honey (or agave) and egg until blended. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir to combine. Stir in raisins. Batter will be sticky and thick.

Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center of one muffin comes out clean.

Remove tin and cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes before removing muffins from tin; finish cooling on rack. Serve warm or cool completely and store muffins in an airtight container or Ziplock bags at room temperature.


Soda bread muffins 2

Soda bread muffins 3

Soda bread muffins 4

Soda bread muffins 4

Soda bread muffins 5

Soda bread muffins 6


Lucky Link-up copy


Now it’s your turn!

Share links to your favorite Irish-themed blog posts! Whether you’ve made a fantastic Irish recipe, reviewed a favorite Irish author, traveled to Ireland and want to share photos . . . now’s your moment. Links can be new or old; it’s fun to revisit past posts. Add your link by clicking the button below, and check out great content here and at She Is Moments!




Guinness cupcakes revisited — or, enjoying a rich and boozy cupcake

Guinness cupcakes


Remember these?

I sure do.

Boozy desserts are all the rage these days, and these may go down in history as one of my most popular baked goods ever. I actually couldn’t believe I first made these in 2012. It really feels like yesterday.

Though I’m really more of a Smithwick’s drinker than a Guinness girl, you can’t visit Dublin without trying the iconic beverage. My dad was the sturdy one in our group, ordering his drink on our first night there in 2011. I remember less of the drink and more of the meal, which was hearty and delicious and filling.


Guinness

Irish flags

Irish food


Burger and fries — Irish style. What I wouldn’t give to jump into that frame . . .

Ahem. Anyway. Though I do partake in the occasional beverage, I have to confess to enjoying booze more in desserts than glasses. If you like the rich taste of chocolate and the bold, unmistakable tang of Guinness, this is certainly a treat for you.

Just have some milk handy . . .

Or maybe an extra Guinness. Totally your call.


Cupcake trio


Dark Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes
with Bailey’s buttercream

Recipe adapted from Global Table Adventure

Ingredients:
1 1/2 sticks butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup Guinness Extra Stout
1 tbsp 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


Directions:

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.


Lucky Link-up copy

Come back Monday to share your favorite Irish-themed posts in the Lucky link-up I’ll be hosting with the lovely Maureen of She Is Moments! Whether new or old, share posts that could highlight favorite Irish books or authors; recipes for favorite Irish dishes; travel posts from past Irish adventures . . . or something entirely new. The link-up will go live in the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day here and at SIM. We hope you’ll join us!



The obvious Americans — and happy St. Patrick’s Day!


It’s been almost a year since I was in Ireland, drinking my fill of Guinness (or Smithwick’s — I’m not serious enough for straight Guinness, despite my cupcakes) and thinking I blended amongst the locals eating out in Dublin. Though I was, of course, an American tourist, I wasn’t prancing around with a neon pink fanny pack and white tennis shoes, barking at people to serve me “A-mer-i-can food, dammit!” and generally setting international relations back a few centuries.

Not that I recall, anyway. (So much Smithwick’s.)

(Okay, not really — I’m not a drinker — but everyone is a drinker in Ireland. Even my mother, plied repeatedly with Irish coffee.)

I’ll just come out and admit it: I can be a bit smug when I travel. I try to never be “the ugly American,” offering courteous smiles to everyone I meet and never stiffing the locals on tips. On our trip to Italy years back, our tour director said something that has stayed with me: “We are all international ambassadors.” Meaning, you have an unpleasant interaction with an American. You think they’re rude. Though it’s not necessarily fair, our minds may make a leap: this American woman was rude. Americans can be rude. All Americans are rude. And so on.

I try never to be rude. To blend, if you will, and this doesn’t just apply to international travel. When asked by a clerk if I was “from Texas?” while shopping in Los Angeles years ago, I just cocked an eyebrow and laughed. If she thinks my Southern accent is strong and Texas-like, she’s obviously never met a real Texan. (Or a real Southerner, ’cause my twang ain’t go nothing on the accents of my North Carolina relatives. I’m sort of jealous, really; I’ve just got the Eastern Seaboard thing goin’ on. Though I do use “y’all” with reckless abandon.)

So anyway. In Dublin. I’m trying to blend and not be rude and be a courteous American when I walk into a pub with my family. I’m trying to not scream “TOURIST! TOURIST OVER HERE!” and just enjoy a casual evening in Ireland. Before we’d uttered a word — before we’d even greeted a soul in the place — a cute young waiter approached, passing out menus. “Evenin’,” he said with a smile. “Americans, eh?”

HOW DID HE KNOW?

I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think I had a “tell.” Is it my purple jacket? My jaunty swagger? The way I “style” (term used loosely) my hair? My liberal eye contact?

Grabbing hold of our good ol’ American enthusiasm, my family and I exchanged questioning looks while I laughed, “Yes — what gave it away?”

The server’s crooked smile would have made Edward Cullen jealous. With a gentle but aggravating shrug, he replied, “I just know.”

“But how do you know?” I pressed, suddenly desperate to see what set us apart. “The way we walked in the pub?”

We hadn’t known where to sit, of course. Not locals.

“I just know,” he repeated, and then I dropped the matter. Mostly because I was starving and we were soon going to be served this:


(And yes, we ordered burgers and fries in Ireland. How cliche.
But I tried haggis in Scotland, so sue me.)


Then I forgot about cultural identities and international relations and politeness and fanny packs (or lack thereof).

Om nom nom nom.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


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!