(cupcakes that look like) Little Fires Everywhere

The book: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

Last month, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This fictional book is about a mother and daughter – Mia and Pearl – that try to settle down in a wealthy, meticulously-planned suburb in Ohio after a lifetime of moving every several months. One family in particular, the Richardsons, become especially interested in this mother-daughter duo. As Mrs. Richardson becomes increasingly jealous and suspicious of Mia, she uncovers dark secrets about Mia’s past, threatening to disrupt Mia and Pearl’s newly-established life.

Little Fires Everywhere was an addictive and amazing read that managed to live up to all the hype surrounding it. The plot was thorough yet fast-moving; this book contains the perfect ratio of backstory to action. It also succeeds at hinting at soon-to-be-uncovered secrets and building suspense. The result is the perfect page-turner.

Not only was the plot of Little Fires Everywhere compelling, but so were the characters! The characters in Little Fires Everywhere are very realistic and well-developed – as a result, I developed a lot of compassion for each character (even when they were difficult or made morally questionable decisions). In fact, I think part of what made the novel so addictive was this deep understanding of each character, which made me root for them and want to see their individual stories play out positively (all the while knowing that not every character’s story would).

I would classify Little Fires Everywhere as a drama, but it went surprisingly deep, touching on complex moral issues. One of the major questions that this book poses is this: who has the right to an adopted and/or abandoned and/or surrogated child? Can the original parents claim the child theirs whenever they want to? Or should the child remain with the family that wanted to adopt and provide for the child from the beginning? Based on how the book played out, it seems that my answer to this is different than the author’s – but the issue is so complex that there is, of course, no right or wrong answer.

Overall, I loved Little Fires Everywhere. It is fast-moving yet thorough in plot, the characters are realistically flawed (i.e. very human and relatable), and the book raises some interesting moral questions. Also, this book just has that “satisfyingly addictive page-turner” quality about it. I highly recommend this novel for a holiday read (or any time).

The bake: chocolate cupcakes with passionfruit frosting.

For Little Fires Everywhere, my original idea was to bake something with some resemblance to actual fire. So, I baked with cupcakes with textured orange frosting, with the idea that the frosting would resemble flames. I chose passionfruit flavor for the frosting, because passion and love are important themes in Little Fires Everywhere; I chose chocolate as the cupcake flavor because passionfruit and chocolate pair surprisingly well together.

To make the chocolate cake, I followed this recipe from Add A Pinch. I love this recipe, and almost always use it for chocolate cake – it is simple, delicious, and can easily be made vegan. The passionfruit frosting was my own recipe (1 stick butter, juice of two passionfruit, and powdered sugar to taste – enough to modestly frost about 16 cupcakes).

The actual baking process was very straightforward; the only issue I ran into was accidentally overfilling the cupcake tin (I had never adapted this recipe for cupcakes before), which then made the cupcakes a bit hard to remove from the pan. To avoid this issue, fill each cupcake tin only halfway with cake batter.

All in all, this bake was delicious! The chocolate cake recipe I used is reliably fantastic, and it paired so well with the passionfruit frosting. I wish passionfruit were more accessible, so I could bake many more chocolate/passionfruit treats!

(chocolate linzer cookies for) Frankissstein: A Love Story

The book: Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson.

In the spirit of Halloween and all things strange, I just finished reading Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. The novel follows two main story lines. First: nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write Frankenstein in the summer of 1816. Then, fast-forwarding two centuries, there is the story of a romance between Ry – a transgender doctor who works in a cryogenics facility – and Victor Stein, an AI specialist dreaming of a future where humans digitally upload their brains to live eternally without bodies. As the novel wades between the two stories, we observe incredible parallels between the story told in Frankenstein, and a not-so-distant future ruled by AI.

My opinions on this book are…all over the place. There were aspects that I liked, and aspects that I didn’t care for…and some things that I have conflicting feelings toward. One thing that I have mixed opinions about is the connection between the two main stories in this novel. I appreciated the parallels between the two main stories…but I wish that Winterson had been more subtle with some of those parallels. For example, Ry and Victor Stein’s story begins at an AI conference in Memphis; at the very beginning of this section, Ry explicitly tells the conference organizer that the conference is in honor of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. At that point, it felt like Winterson was just beating us over the head with the connection between the two plot lines.

I also wish that the book had been more character-focused. Frankissstein had a strong plot that prodded at interesting philosophical questions…but I felt that it could have used more character development. With the exception of Mary Shelley, I found it hard to understand any of the characters beyond a surface-level, which then made it hard to care what would happen to them.

A praise that I have for Frankissstein is that it touched upon fascinating philosophical issues – particularly, can AI solve the problems of humanity? How will technology continue to transform our world, and what will this mean for the future of humankind? Frankkissstein suggests a world where AI may radically change what life means for humans, yet it also shows that people have been pondering questions about how technology may change society for centuries.

Overall, Frankissstein was a bit of a let-down for me. It is characterized as a love-story, but I didn’t find it particularly romantic (did I miss the point?). I also found most of the characters a bit lacking, and possibly underdeveloped. The plot was interesting, though; and if you like thinking about the future of humanity, this book offers fascinating perspectives on what that may hold.

The bake: chocolate linzer cookies.

Frankisstein is characterized as a love story (the subtitle of the book is literally A Love Story). Although I didn’t find the novel particularly romantic, I decided to roll with this theme, and made a “romantic” dessert. I made chocolate linzer cookies with a cherry jam filling (some were filled with leftover lime curd, too).

To make the cookies, I followed this recipe from Bon Appetit. Instead of making the tahini-chocolate filling (which I’m sure is amazing), I used two fillings that I already had: cherry jam (because chocolate and cherry seems “romantic”) and lime curd (because I had a lot of leftover lime curd that I needed to use).

These cookies take a long time to make because the dough needs to chill in the fridge for a long time…but they are not particularly difficult. And this recipe rewards patience: as long as you follow the recipe (including the chill periods in the refrigerator), the cookies will turn out amazingly! The ingredients are nothing out of the ordinary…but somehow these chocolate cookies taste so rich and decadent. Definitely worth the wait, and definitely something to make for any occasion.

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).

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (plus, my first attempt at baking something “gorgeous”)

The book: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Earlier this month, I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. The book takes the form of a letter from a son to his (illiterate) mother, divulging parts of his life to her that she has never known. In the book/letter, he also explains the impact that their family history – starting in Vietnam in the late 20th century – and shared experiences have had on him. The memories he writes about all come together to tell an intimate and moving life-story.

My favorite thing about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was, without a doubt, the beautiful writing. The writing often felt more like poetry than prose, something I had never encountered in a fiction novel before. Because the writing was so poetic, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not only a fascinating story, but also tender and moving in a way that most novels are not. The poetic writing style also meant that I couldn’t quickly binge-read this novel (in the way that some fiction books can be binged) – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book that demands to be read slowly, in order to take in every (beautifully-written) word.

In addition to being beautifully written, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also feels relevant and important in today’s world. The narrator’s encounters with racism, addiction, poverty, and abuse made me seriously consider these social issues, while really empathizing with those who suffer from them. The passages that deal with these issues never feel preachy or forced, though. They are simply portrayed as part of the narrator’s real lived experiences – part of why he has become the person that he is now.

One social issue that is especially highlighted in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is abuse (and abusive relationships). Without spoiling any of the novel, I will say that certain relationships portrayed in this novel seemed abusive to me, yet the narrator still writes about them with love and tenderness. I am conflicted by this, because I feel that writing about abusers in a loving manner is – in some way that I can’t quite explain – excusing their abusive behavior. On the other hand, though, the narrator unsparingly describes the abuse that he witnessed or experienced – therefore calling out the abusers.

Overall, I really enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a beautifully written book, that reads more like poetry than a fiction novel. The narrator’s heartfelt descriptions of formative life experiences are compelling, and they will stick with you, leaving you feeling like you know the narrator. My only caveat is this: because abuse is dealt with in a very complex way, I might not recommend this book to readers with a history of abuse (or I would least caution them before reading).

The bake: lime meringue pie.

I was inspired by the title of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and therefore decided to try to bake something…well…gorgeous. My fiancé loves to bake pie, so we combined forces to make an aesthetically pleasing lime meringue pie.

To make the pie, we used this recipe from Cravings Journal. My fiancé made the cookie crust and lime filling, and I made (and piped) the meringue. We followed this recipe to the T, with the exception of the meringue topping, which I piped onto the pie instead of spreading as suggested in the recipe. I simply used a star-tip, and piped spirals all over the pie until I had used all the meringue.

Spirals are actually really easy to pipe! It is the perfect beginner’s piping design.

This pie was SO GOOD! The buttery cookie crust, the smooth tart filling, and the crispy meringue topping come together perfectly to create a complex, yet delightful dessert. If I were to make this again, I might add zest of one lime into the pie filling, just to make sure that the lime flavor is bold. But aesthetically, and – more importantly – taste-wise, this truly is a gorgeous dessert.

A slice of the gorgeous pie.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (and so are these cheddar scones)

The book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Last month, I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The novel’s title character, Eleanor, lives a regimented and lonely life without realizing that anything is wrong: she goes to work and prepares healthy meals during the week, and enjoys pizza, wine, and vodka on the weekends. When Eleanor saves an elderly man’s life with the help of her coworker Raymond, the three of them become friends, enriching Eleanor’s life with positive social interaction for the first time in years. As the novel progresses, Eleanor’s formerly-mundane life is permanently changed by her friends, who look out and want the best for her.

I absolutely loved reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book somehow manages to strike the perfect balance between hilariousness and darkness. Having spent so many years without social interaction, Eleanor lacks the ability to read social cues, and often says outrageously blunt things without realizing that she is being offensive. Although Eleanor’s lack of filtering is often funny, it never feels like she is the butt-end of a joke. In fact, there are scenes where Eleanor’s coworkers do make fun of her, and those scenes come across as slightly sad rather than funny.

Additionally, author Gail Honeyman goes deeper than just portraying Eleanor’s bluntness as a humorous tic. Throughout the novel, Honeyman provides glimpses into Eleanor’s traumatic childhood, allowing the readers to understand that while Eleanor’s social skills are in some ways amusing, they are most likely coming from a place of pain. I loved this development, because it teaches that peoples’ unusual or unsettling treats generally come from somewhere – and that we should be empathetic rather than dismissive.

The next two paragraphs contains mild spoilers, so read at your own risk!

What I loved most about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is that it eventually became a book about the real progress that can be made with therapy when people are willing to address their mental health issues. Eleanor’s time in therapy illustrates that opening up can initially be quite difficult, but that doing so can allow people to work through traumas, and better understand and improve themselves. The novel isn’t explicitly marketed as a “mental health book” – wisely so, I think – but it does ultimately take that direction, and it does so in a remarkably effective way.

I also loved how this book didn’t end with Eleanor getting into a romantic relationship! At the end of the book, it seems like romance could be in Eleanor’s future, but it is just as likely that her near future will be focused on friendship. I loved this ending, and the message that it carries: a romantic relationship is not the only type of “happy ending” a person can have. I wrote in a previous blog post that this message is starting to feel cliché, but a fellow blogger helped me realize that in today’s society, we really do still need this message to be reinforced.

Okay, done with spoilers.

If you couldn’t tell by the amount of times I used the word “love” in this post, I absolutely adored Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The novel portrays loneliness and lonely people in a very empathetic light, and also demonstrates how friendship and earnest introspection can improve peoples’ lives. The book is also pretty funny, yet it never feels like it is making fun of Eleanor’s social skills or loneliness. There is a lot to be learned from this book, and I highly recommend it!

The bake: cheese scones.

For Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I decided to bake something referenced in the book. As Eleanor and Raymond become good friends, they regularly get lunch together at a local cafe, where Eleanor always orders a cheese scone and a frothy coffee. So in tribute to Eleanor and Raymond’s friendship, I decided to bake my own cheese scones!

For the scones, I followed this recipe from King Arthur Flour, replacing the scallions with fresh basil (because that is what I had in my kitchen). I also included both of the optional ingredients (dijon mustard and hot sauce), because I thought they would give the scones more flavor. Overall, the recipe was pretty straightforward; the only complications were flouring the surface sufficiently to prevent the dough from sticking (scone dough is so sticky!), and shaping the scones.

These scones were lovely and flavorful! They turned out a bit flatter than I would have liked, but that is okay because perfection is not the purpose of my baking. I think other herbs besides scallions or basil would work in this recipe (rosemary comes to mind), so that might be something to experiment with in the future. Overall, these scones were a lot of fun to bake, and even more fun to eat. I ate one with a fried egg this morning; maybe tomorrow I’ll have one with frothy coffee.

Queenie (plus, a bundt cake fit for a queen)

The book: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.

A couple weeks ago, I read Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. The title character, Queenie, has just separated from her boyfriend of two years, and now must make sense of her life without him. Between her job at a national newspaper in London, some tense familial relationships, and several post-breakup rebounds, Queenie is flailing and struggling to figure out who she is (in a society that will so readily tell her exactly who they think she is).

Queenie was a refreshingly slow read, and by slow, I’m referring to the pace of the plot. The novel wasn’t exactly action-packed or overly dramatic, and I think that was the point. Rather than focusing on distracting action and external drama, Queenie spends most of the book focused on internal issues. I found this refreshing because, in an age of near-constant distraction, a novel stressing the importance of slowing down and focusing on yourself (and not just through capitalistic “self-care” rituals like face-masks) seems necessary. I love the message that prioritizing mental health is a story worth telling.

Between Queenie, The Pisces, and the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (both of which I have written about on this blog before), the topic of internal issues leading to problematic romantic relationships is almost (but not quite) starting to feel like a cliched trope. The topic isn’t cliched though: novels that show characters responsibly addressing their anxieties and traumas are important because they set a positive example for their readers, who may also be suffering from anxieties and traumas.

In addition to addressing mental health, Queenie also takes on sexism and racism. Throughout the novel Queenie is fetishized and objectified by white men, and there is also a scene where she goes on a date with someone who turns out to be a white supremacist. Both scenes demonstrate that sexism and racism are still pertinent issues in today’s society, and that they are intersectional.

Overall, I really enjoyed Queenie. The writing style is easy to follow, and the plot is interesting despite being a bit slow-paced. The novel addresses many topics that are relevant today – including mental health, sexism, and racism – in a really effective and compelling way. Also, many readers will probably identify with Queenie to some degree, because the experience of simply trying to find yourself in your early 20’s is so relatable.

The bake: vanilla guava bundt cake.

For Queenie, I wanted to bake something simple and elegant, that would also pay tribute to Queenie’s British-Jamaican heritage. These considerations all came together in the form of a vanilla guava bundt cake: the shape of the bundt pan makes the cake look elegant, the sponge base of the cake pays tribute to Queenie’s British nationality, and the guava flavor pays tribute to her Jamaican heritage (my friend from Jamaica told me that guava-based desserts are common there).

To make this elegant, British-Jamaican-inspired dessert, I baked this simple vanilla bundt cake from Delish (with one modification: I used vanilla oat milk instead of whole milk, in hopes of giving the cake extra vanilla flavor). I topped it with a guava glaze, which I just made by boiling sugar and guava juice into a simple syrup.

This is a very nice cake! My bundt pan has a sort of non-traditional shape, which makes the cake look elegant, and more complex than it actually is. The cake recipe is also really good, and baking it in a bundt pan makes the final cake slightly crisp on the outside while soft on the inside. The only downside to this cake was that the guava flavor wasn’t very strong; if I were to try this again, I’d probably soak the entire cake in guava syrup instead of just making an outer glaze. But that being said, this cake was still delicious.

The Hate U Give (and red velvet cheesecake brownies that are somehow related to the book)

The book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Earlier this month, I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a 16-year old girl who is trying to fit into two separate worlds – one, the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and the other the rich white prep school she attends – when she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend by a white police officer. As the story gains media attention, Starr copes with the trauma of losing her best friend, while also figuring out how much she – as the only witness – should publicly say about the shooting.

I loved The Hate U Give – it was one of those intensely engaging novels that I immediately loved and never wanted to put down. One reason why the book is so engaging is because the main character, Starr, is instantly relatable and likable: she is shy and feels awkward and unsure of her place in the world, but she is also sincere and thinks for herself. Another thing that makes The Hate U Give engaging is the plot. The initial shooting happens early on in the novel, and from there on the book is filled with page-turning events including heated family discussions, protests against police violence, and even high school dances.

While some people might feel desensitized to issues of police violence and racism in America, Angie Thomas does an amazing and responsible job of taking on these issues. By writing the novel from the perspective of a young girl who has lost friends (plural!) to police violence, Thomas allows the reader to understand Starr’s heartbreak and trauma. And since Starr is such a likable character, it is especially easy to empathize with her.

Despite tackling hard-hitting issues, The Hate U Give never feels excessively preachy. The book is full of “teachable moments,” but they are not forced or corny – they feel genuine. Examples of this include Starr’s dad explaining to her how racism is a systemic problem, and Starr explaining to her classmate Hailey how well-intentioned people can still say racist things. I liked these moments not only for the moral lessons they teach, but also because they demonstrated that it IS perfectly reasonable to have genuine and meaningful conversations about racism as part of everyday conversation.

Something that surprised me about The Hate U Give was that it was hilarious at times! The way Starr and her siblings – Sekani and Seven – tease each other is so funny; anybody who grew up with siblings will probably laugh out loud reading these passages. I also found a lot of humor in some of Starr’s painfully relatable teenage behaviors, such as praying that her mom will allow her to miss a day of school.

All in all, I absolutely loved The Hate U Give. It takes the subjects of racism and police violence in America, and makes them so much more real to an audience who might otherwise only see these topics as abstract. The book is also full of sincere teachable moments that are insightful and helpful, but never forced. I can’t recommend this book enough!

The bake: red velvet cheesecake brownies.

I didn’t immediately want to bake after reading the The Hate U Give, because it was a pretty heavy book. But a couple of weeks have passed since I finished the book, and I’m ready to celebrate this amazing novel with a bake! The Hate U Give references Mrs. Rooks’ red velvet cake a couple times (it is Starr’s uncle’s absolute favorite dessert) – so I decided to also make a red velvet based dessert.

Instead of a cake, though, I made red velvet cheesecake brownies following this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. I followed the recipe almost exactly, with the only difference being that I used pink gel food coloring instead of red (my local grocery store didn’t have red!), which resulted in the brownies having a milder color. Also, I didn’t use any type of mixer for the brownies – I just waited for the cream cheese to reach room temperature and was able to mix it by hand.

These brownies were so good! Red velvet and cream cheese are a classic flavor combination for good reason: the tanginess of the cream cheese mixture perfectly complements the sweetness of chocolatey red velvet. And putting that flavor combination into fudgey, moist brownies: such a good idea! Although these brownies probably couldn’t rival Mrs. Rooks’ (fictional) red velvet cake, they are still incredibly satisfying – a definite close second.