Out of the Box Desserts : Simply Spectacular, Semi-Homemade Sweets

stars /5

out_of_box_dessertsThis is everything your sweet tooth has ever wanted. End of review. No? You want to know more? Of course you do!

I’ve always loved baking, but recently the recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House chocolate chips bag hasn’t quite been cutting it. Pinterest held me over for a while – I found some great dumpcake recipes and a new favorite blondie recipe – but eventually I came to the conclusion that I’d seen everything I was going to. And then Out of the Box Desserts found its way into my hands and suddenly my days of hit-or-miss dessert recipes were over.

Out of the Box Desserts has a very straightforward organization (five chapters that cover cakes, brownies, cookies, pies, and candies) that makes it easy to navigate and I actually found myself reading author Hayley Parker down-to-earth introduction of each recipe – the part of every recipe that I inevitably skip over in my eagerness to get to the good stuff.

And the recipes themselves? Oh man. Where do I even start? Blueberry Muffin Cake? Strawberry Milkshake Cupcakes? Peanut butter Snickerdoodle Bars? Cherry Pie Cookies? Root Beer Float Pie? The goal of Out of the Box Desserts is to transform, you guessed it, out of the box dessert mixes (brownie mixes, cake mixes, etc.) into something completely new and decadent. Check and check.

Originally published on Manhattan Book Review.


Disney Villains: Delightfully Evil: The Creation, The Inspiration, The Fascination

disney_villains_delightfully_evilstars /5

This book is one part good concept, one part beautiful artwork and one part thorough research all whipped together with fantastic execution. Disney Villains: Delightfully Evil is broken down into chapters by themes such as “Oh So Vain” (Cruella De Vil, Gaston, and so on) and “All in the Family” (Scar and Mother Gothel). Included in the villain is concept art and photographs of the voice actors getting into character.

I loved the concept art that was featured, especially for characters like Gaston (probably my favorite Disney villain) and Ursula (and I must say, I like the final product much, much better than some of the first ideas animators tested out). We’ve all grown up with the final product, so it’s really cool to see how the character progressed and became the villain we all love to hate. It was also very cool to see the progression of animation from the earlier films to the most recent.

While the art steals the show, this book wouldn’t be what it is without the delightful gems of Disney knowledge that are nestled amongst the artwork. One of my favorite spreads was in the first chapter where author Jen Darcy reveals what villains were brought to life by the same actors as beloved characters like Winnie the Pooh and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

This is a book every Disney lover needs in their lives.

Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment

siddharthas_brianfour-stars /5

Siddhartha’s Brain aims to show not only how science and spirituality interact, but also how they are dependent upon each other—and it very clearly accomplishes this goal. Author James Kingsland skirts narrative history, personal experiences, scientific discoveries, and spiritual practices of Buddhism and demonstrates how they interact and can work to the benefit of each other. Without stumbling into the pitfall of alienating scientific language, Kingsland is able to convey complicated ideas in a way that the average reader will feel comfortable tackling. Aside from explaining how these interactions work, Kingsland invites the reader to try for themselves with five guided meditation exercises that correspond with the information discussed in the proceeding chapter.

Aside from one college course on Transcendentalism that wrapped back around Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and touched briefly on some of the superficial teachings of Buddhism and my own occasional dabbling in cruise ship yoga classes, I had little exposure to the teachings of Buddhism and I certainly had no exposure to how meditation might affect the human brain before this book. And while I haven’t been convinced to drop everything and devote my life to become a monk, I was nonetheless intrigued by the approach Kingsland took when discussing how meditation affects the human brain and what influence it may have on mental illnesses.

Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

Modern Eclairs: and Other Sweet and Savory Puffs

modern_eclairsstars /5

What can you do with seven ingredients? Make pasta? Soup? How about pate a choux? Wait! Don’t go to Google translate — you’ll get something along the lines of “paste of cabbage.” But if we take things a little less literally, we arrive at something closer to “a pastry that puffs”: cream puffs and eclairs.

Let me tell you, this is the best paste of cabbage you’re ever going to taste. After clearly outlining the optimal ingredients and tools, Jenny McCoy goes on to offer an array of beautiful eclair recipes. Basic techniques are outlined with step-by-step pictures for visual learner like myself. The flavors of the book cover the gauntlet from fruity to chocolate (yay!) to savory.

I love the format of this book. Everything from its slightly unorthodox shape to the playful font and bright colors, plays off of the creativity of the eclairs themselves. I have no complaints about this book. McCoy makes eclairs look easy and promises desserts to impress.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Cookie Classics Made Easy

Cookie Classics Made Easystars /5

Over the past few years I’ve become quite the cookie connoisseur—that was my go-to destress through college—so quite a few cookie recipes have come through my kitchen. So many recipes require ingredients you’ll never use for anything else or take so long to make that they’re not realistic for that college student schedule. Cookie Classics Made Easy takes care of both these concerns. Recipes are quick and easy—easy to make and easy to follow. They stick to basic or easy-to-find ingredients. And, oh yeah, they’re yummy.

This is a super cute, well executed book. The format is easy to follow and provides great pictures of each of the cookies—an absolute must for a visual learner like me. Instead of digging through my pile of ten or twelve cookbooks, I can just turn to Cookie Classics Made Easy; it has all my favorite recipes. The binding was a little odd and I found that I needed to put the bag of sugar on the spine to keep it open to the correct page when I had dough all over my hands. Other than that, I have no complaints about this book—and this certainly isn’t enough of a complaint to stop me from purchasing this all-inclusive cookie cookbook for eleven dollars. Two cookie dough covered thumbs up!

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better

sara_moultons_home_cooking_101stars /5

Lot of people aren’t natural cooks, but they—we—still need to eat. So what are the options for these tummy-grumbling kitchen armatures? Well, they could boil up a big pot of ramen noodles. Again. Or they could bite the bullet and find a recipe. From personal experience, I’ve been led to believe that this is the reason there are so many cookbooks on the market. So with so many cookbooks weighing down the shelves at the local bookstore, how does one standout? For starters, you make sure you have yummy recipes that are easy to recreate, that you’re using tools that are easy to find, and that your cookbook is laid out and illustrated in the clearest way possible. Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101 manages to do all of that and then some.

One of my favorite parts of this cookbook is the four pages that are dedicated to Moulton’s favorite tools. She gives information on what each tool is used for and what makes it necessary for a well-functioning kitchen, allowing you to prioritize which tools you need immediately and what can wait—something this starving college student took full advantage of. Each recipe is complete with a list of ingredients and cooking instructions (as all cookbooks are), but what makes this cookbook stand out is that every recipe also includes helpful tips—often on damage control. There’s a great mix of difficulty levels demonstrated in the recipes, which makes this cookbook a universal kitchen resource for cooks of all levels.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Veterans Voices: Remarkable Stories of Heroism, Sacrifice, and Honor

veterans_voicesstars /5

Like everything we have come to expect from National Geographic, the quality of Veterans Voice is second to none. I’m a strong proponent of photographs in any nonfiction book that is even remotely historical and I wasn’t disappointed here. Veterans Voices is divided by eight values that contribute to the legacy of the American military—inspiration, courage, resilience, duty, gratitude, wisdom, loyalty, and honor—and each chapter tells the stories of outstanding individuals who dedicated themselves to their country.

In the foreword, Bob Woodruff points out that all Americans should respect the military men and women who have served the country, regardless of their own political leanings. Despite the frequent political bickering that my household is subject to, I couldn’t agree more and this sentiment is one of the things that stood out the most in this book. The photographs offer a window into the lives of soldiers and veterans and remind the reader of what Americans should be proud of. Featuring images ranging from Civil War cannons to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to boot camp and Arlington National Cemetery, Veterans Voices ensures that the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country from the very beginning aren’t forgotten. A must have coffee table book that would make a great gift for any patriot (happy 18th birthday, little brother).

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Have You Seen Elephant?

have_you_seen_elephantstars /5

It all starts with Elephant’s simple question, “Would you like to play hide and seek?”, and from there this picture book introduces characters with the unlikeliest of skills. Elephant’s choice of hiding spots will entertain children as the boy moves from room to room looking for him. If you need a hint to find Elephant yourself, the dog turns out to be pretty good at hide and seek even when the boy is stumped by Elephant’s clever hiding places. Once the whole house has been searched, the game moves outside, where Elephant and the boy meet a turtle who wants to play a game. “Would you like to play tag?”

Author and Illustrator David Barrow has already won several awards for his children’s book illustrations, including the Sebastian Walker Award for the most promising children’s illustrator in 2015. High expectations will not be disappointed with Have You Seen Elephant? I absolutely love the illustrations throughout the book; they are sure to capture the imagination of eager Elephant seekers and turtle racers alike. Barrow has even managed to tuck a little extra fun in the front and back covers, where the family portraits make room for the new friends.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

The Time Traveler’s Handbook: 18 Experiences from the Eruption of Vesuvius to Woodstock

time_travelers_handbookstars /5

This is your basic travel guide manual. Just like Rick Steve’s books or the popular Lonely Planet guide books, The Time Traveler’s Handbook outlines the optimal journey: where to stay, where to eat, where to seek out local knowledge, how to stay out of trouble, and what to see. The catch? It is, as the title suggests, a guide for traveling to some of the most influential moment in history. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see the opening night at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, or maybe you’d prefer something a little more adventurous. You could always opt for joining Marco Polo or exploring Pompeii during the most famous volcanic eruption of all time.

While this book is clearly satirical, there was a part of me that wished it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t a typical work of fiction as it’s formatted exactly like the information you’ll find on tour companies’ websites. It uses the same enticing details and paints a vivid picture that makes you want to take this trip. Despite the nontraditional style, it was very fun to read and I found myself lost in it just like I would have been if it were a collection of short stories about people who did take these trips.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

The Girl from The Savoy: A Novel

girl_from_savoythree-stars /5

The Girl from the Savoy is told from the perspective of two women from very different backgrounds trying to make sense of their lives in the aftermath of World War I. Dolly Lane takes a new position as a chamber maid at The Savoy, a hotel that caters to London’s most famous guests, in hopes of putting lost love behind her and climbing the social ladder step by step to the spotlight. Loretta May is the most well-loved leading lady of London’s theater scene. With Loretta’s health quickly – and secretly – declining, the two women’s chance meeting will offer each the opportunity to change reevaluate their priorities and this may just be the very opportunity they have each been looking for.

The story wasn’t bad by any means, but I felt more like I was being pulled along, rather than being pulled in. I read the description, but they didn’t come to life around me. I knew why the characters were doing what they were, but only because I was told why, not because I got to know the characters well enough to read between the lines. I found my mind wandering away while I was reading and would have to backtrack and reread the whole page. Perhaps it would have been more intriguing for someone who had a more pointed interest in this era. I chose it because I like historical fiction in general, but not this time period any more than another.

Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.