Month in review: September 2019

Hello and HAPPY AUTUMN! I’m glad to be writing this wrap-up, because I’m quite ready for September to be over. The month started out with a cold that knocked me out for a few days, but things were busy and stressful even after I recovered. I didn’t read or bake as much as I had hoped to, but I still got a little bit done!

Books read:

So…I only finished reading one book in September. Luckily, it was a really good book! Lost Children Archive is about a family of four that embarks on a summer road trip to “Apacheria” during the “immigration crisis” at the United States’ southern border. It is a touching book that strikes a great balance between somber, heart-breaking, sweet, and funny.

Bakes inspired by the books:

I baked two things this month. Inspired by The Truffle Underground, I made fungus-filled pizza…which is disgusting phrasing but delicious eating (it was a pizza that had baker’s yeast, bleu cheese, and porcini mushrooms).

For Lost Children Archive, I made banana-ginger cheesecake bars. Both of my bakes this month were pretty experimental, and I am happy to be taking more risks in my baking now. In the case of the banana-ginger cheesecake bars, the risk didn’t result in anything spectacular; but the mushroom pizza was amazingly good!

Books in progress/October reading goals:

I’m currently about halfway through Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; I have mixed, but overall positive feelings about it so far. I am also still working on An Orchestra of Minorities! It is long (~450 pages) and I have been getting through it pretty slowly, but I hope to finish it this month. I also hope to read The Invention of Nature and Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis.

Some great blog posts I came across in September:

  • Katie at Never Not Reading posted a moving piece about the value of reading books about people who are different from you (something I wholeheartedly agree with)
  • Vee at Millenial Life Crisis nicely summarized the essentials of self-esteem
  • Ashley at Mental Health at Home tackled the notion of “drug seeking” – a phrase that is commonly and wrongly used to describe people who use medication – and explained why it is problematic
  • Tess McClure published an amazing article about the dark side of the “healing crystal” trend that is especially popular amongst consumers who practice “alternative” lifestyles

Favorite photos this month:

Lost Children Archive (and the ginger-banana cheesecake bars it inspired)

The book: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

Earlier this month, I read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. The novel follows a family of four taking a road trip from New York to Arizona: the father, a documentarist, is creating a sound documentary about Apacheria (the former home of the Apaches). At the same time, the mother has become impassioned by the immigration crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, and decides to create her own sound documentary about it. Lost Children Archive is a moving story about marriage, family, and the so-called “immigration crisis” in the United States.

While the novel may sound heavy (and honestly, it is), Lost Children Archive is incredible – it may even be my favorite book of the year. Luiselli’s writing style is smooth, flowing, and poetic. This makes the novel easy to follow, even when the plot or the novel’s themes get heavy. Also, Luiselli doesn’t use quotation marks around characters’ dialogue – I liked this technique because it made the conversation feel like it was flowing very naturally.

Valeria Luiselli is also a master at evoking all the emotions. When the plot centers around the plight of migrant children and their families, the novel evokes immense empathy and sadness. Other parts of the novel are anxiety-inducing yet page-turningly suspenseful. And then there are moments where the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Luiselli’s ability to capture the surprising and hilarious innocence of children.

As the novel progresses, parallels between the family’s children and the “lost” migrant children become increasingly clear. I thought this was a clever way of evoking empathy for children. These parallels first draw empathy for migrant children, because it allows the reader to feel for migrant children the way they would for children they actually know. The parallels also elicit empathy for children in general, by showing how even relatively privileged children can feel lost in the world.

Although I loved Lost Children Archive, I will acknowledge that it has received a lot of criticism from those with a more formal literary background. I am a casual reader and a scientist, so literary things – like cramming in too many references to older literature, or imitating the writing style of James Joyce – did not bother me (in fact, most of the references flew right over my head). I loved and learned so much from this book.

The bake: ginger-banana cheesecake bars.

When I was contemplating a bake for Lost Children Archive, I drew on the idea of the cross-country road trip for inspiration, and decided to bake something that would combine various regional desserts. The ultimate fusion dessert that I landed on was hummingbird cheesecake bars (with a spicy twist). Hummingbird cake is said to be a classic Southern dessert (although I never ate it when I lived in the South), and cheesecake is often thought of as a classic New York dessert.

Luckily for me, a hummingbird cheesecake recipe already exists, so I used that as a guide for my bake. However, hummingbird cheesecake seemed like too sweet of a dessert for a novel as heavy as Lost Children Archive, so I decided to spice it up a bit by using candied ginger instead of pineapple. Also, I used an 8×8 inch pan to make “bars” instead of a traditional cheesecake, because bars seem more kid-friendly than a traditional cheesecake (and this bake was inspired by a book about children).

The cheesecake bars look a bit ugly, but taste quite nice.

From the long bake time to the decoration, these cheesecake bars ended up being WAY more challenging than I expected! If I were to make these bars again, I wouldn’t use candied ginger, because it sunk to the bottom of the cheesecake batter and made the bars difficult to cut. That being said, they were very tasty – I loved the flavor combination of ginger and banana. These cheesecake bars are a great sweet-and-spicy treat – perfect to celebrate a bittersweet novel like Lost Children Archive (or just to enjoy on their own).

The Truffle Underground (and my above-ground fungal feast)

The book: The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs.

Last month, I read The Truffle Underground by Ryan Jacobs. This non-fiction book exposes the fraud, corruption, and even violence that goes on in the truffle mushroom industry – generally, without the knowledge of the consumer. As a lover of fungi, I was compelled to learn about the dark side of the delicacy known as truffle mushrooms.

Although the subject matter of The Truffle Underground intrigued me, the first 60 (or so) pages of the book did not. I thought the book got off to a boring start without any real hook. In fact, I felt like the writing was attempting to be intriguing – without much success.

After the slow start, however, The Truffle Underground really picked up. The book became compelling partly because the rampant corruption in the truffle industry is shocking, and partly because the writing starts to flow better after the first few chapters. Jacobs exposes issues in the truffle industry ranging from malicious sabotage of competitors, “under-the-table” dealings, tax evasion, and fraudulent mislabeling of much less valuable truffle species as the delicacy Tuber melanosporum. One thing that has especially stuck with me is that “truffle oil” is one of the biggest lies in the food industry: it is virtually never made purely from Tuber melanosporum, and oftentimes contains no mushroom in it whatsoever.

Overall, I’m glad that I read The Truffle Underground. Learning about the dark side of the truffle industry was unsettling, but it also provided me with a much more nuanced perspective of the industry. After reading this book, I will probably never eat any food product with the word “truffle” in its name (besides chocolates, of course). If you want to learn about the world of complexity and corruption that lies beneath one of the finest delicacies in the food world, I definitely recommend this book – just be warned that it can be a bit boring at times.

The bake: fungus lovers’ pizza.

While it turned out to be a fascinating read, The Truffle Underground turned me off of truffle mushrooms in the strongest way possible. So a bake that incorporated “truffle oil” or “truffle cheese” or any BS truffle product was out of the question. Instead, I turned to some other edible fungi that I love: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (bakers’ yeast), Penicillium roqueforti (blue stilton cheese), and Boletus edulis (porcini mushroom) – and combined them into one fungus-tastic pizza!

I didn’t follow any recipe for the pizza. I just bought pizza dough from the grocery store, then topped it with a homemade garlic-ricotta sauce, mozzarella cheese, bleu cheese, porcini mushrooms, and basil. I had read that a common mistake with homemade pizzas is overloading the dough with too many toppings, so I was pretty modest with the toppings. I baked my pizza on the top rack of an oven at 450 degrees (F), and took it out when the crust was lightly browned.

This pizza was AMAZING! I probably could have been more generous with the toppings, and also taken the pizza out of the oven a couple minutes sooner. That being said, it was still deliciously decadent, and the various flavors (garlic, ricotta, bleu cheese, basil, etc) worked well together. While I will probably never eat anything “truffle”-flavored ever again, I still love and appreciate edible fungi in the forms of yeast, mushrooms, and bleu cheese.

Served with a dash of hot sauce and a fungal-fermented drink (BEER!)

Month in review: August 2019

I finally figured out the secret to adult life: it’s that everyone is insanely busy all of the time. Saying “August flew by” is a cliche, but it’s a cliche because everyone says it, and everyone says it because it’s true because we’re all so busy. The point of this is to say that, once again, I had a very busy month. Highlights included kayaking, going to a wine and paint night, FINALLY having a beach day this summer, celebrating with friends and family at the best bachelorette party ever, and visiting a super cool art exhibit. And spending lots of time with my cats. Low-lights (if that’s a word?) included falling behind on chores, not getting enough sleep, and public transit being slow and inefficient.

Books read:

I finished three books this month, all of which were quite different from each other. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fictional memoir, that reads more like poetry than a novel – it was my most challenging read of the month, and also the one that I enjoyed most. If You See Me Don’t Say Hi is a collection of short-stories featuring first-generation Indian Americans going through challenging life events. It was a quick, compelling, and stereotype-smashing read – I highly recommend it. Finally, The Truffle Underground is a non-fiction exposé on the corruption that goes on in the truffle mushroom industry – I won’t say much else here, but a post about this book is coming soon!

Things I baked:

Early in the month, I made delayed bakes for two books that I finished in July. I made cheese-scones inspired by Eleanor’s signature lunch in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and a fresh mint cake inspired by Maybe You Should Talk To Someone.

For On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I wanted to bake something beautiful, so my partner and I teamed up to make an aesthetically pleasing lime-meringue pie. For If You See Me Don’t Say Hi, I baked chocolate-tahini cupcakes with assorted frostings (inspired by the different shades of brown on the cover of the book). I haven’t baked anything yet for The Truffle Underground, but that post is coming soon!

Books in progress/September reading goals:

Right now I’m reading Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I’m about two-thirds through, and I absolutely love this book: it is gorgeously written, culturally relevant, and generally insightful. I can’t wait to post about this book! In the next month I also plan to read An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. And maybe others if I have time – we will see.

(just a few of the many) blog posts I loved:

  • Jan wrote an excellent piece about the importance of “wasting” time.
  • Sohpie wrote about the positive impact that blogging has had on her mental health.
  • Ashley wrote a beautiful and powerful article about intersectionality, and the major role it plays in mental health issues.

Favorite photos of the month: