adventures, by accident


October 2011

Cheese Ball Recipe Review

I talk a good game about growing up in the Midwest, and affiliate myself with the Midwest whenever possible, whether that be by following Big Ten football, drinking Leinenkugel, or complaining about the lack of a road grid in certain East Coast cities. But I should also confess that my Midwestern upbringing wasn’t very traditional, since my mother is decidedly an East Coaster, and I grew up in the Chicago Metroplex rather than a small town, so certain traditions escaped me.

Luckily for me, Mom adapted many classic Midwestern dishes into her cooking repertoire, and it was Dad who more often provided the “fancier” meals of my youth.* While Dad’s turn in the kitchen often meant Hungarian goulash, sweet & sour pork (courtesy a battered old copy of Fannie Farmer) and a raft of dirty dishes, Mom mastered any number of casseroles and even came to consider mashed potatoes a “real” food. One Midwestern classic I remember vaguely from my childhood was the cheese ball whipped up for the holiday open house my parents periodically hosted. While my parents socialized with their peers, my peers and I would tear around the shag carpeted basement, fueled by the pop we only got a few times a year and third helpings of the festive foods we snagged when we thought nobody was looking. I don’t know what recipe Mom used, to be honest, but I do remember being amazed at the prospect of adding additional flavors to cheese and then changing its shape. (I was somewhat of a moron as a child, you’ll soon learn.)

This Midwestern dish disappeared from my life until a recent Thanksgiving. I hosted a few friends who were similarly unable to go home, and we managed a masterful potluck style Thanksgiving. A fellow Midwesterner showed up with an amazing cranberry-coated cheese ball, and we were pretty much all hooked. The accompanying cranberry gin and tonics likely helped. It’s been cranked out a few times since, once to great acclaim by T, and I made it again last night in anticipate of said friend’s pumpkin beer tasting party this evening.

Cranberry Cheddar Cheese Ball (inspired by Martha)**

2 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 8-oz package cream cheese (slightly softened; I’ve used neufchatel or low-fat here with reasonable success)
a dash or two each of: apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Sriracha hot sauce
pinch of salt and pepper
8 oz sharp orange cheddar cheese, finely shredded (I’ve used 1 1/2 to 2 cups to taste, for the non-volumetrically inclined)
2 tbsp preserves
8 oz dried cranberries, finely chopped

1. Put butter, cream cheese and the first five flavors (acid, umami, hot, salt, pepper) into either an electric mixer with the paddle attachment on (you can use the butter wrapper to grease the paddle a bit, which helps the cheese ball not be so sticky) or a food processor. Mix until combined.
2. Add cheddar cheese and preserves/chutney. Mix to combine. Form into a ball – I did this by scraping the substance into a vaguely spherical shape, dumping it onto the cream cheese wrapper, and using the wrapper to mold the ball, as these wrappers are pretty resistant to sticking.
3. Spread plastic wrap on a flat surface. Spread about half the cranberries onto the wrap, and tip the cheese from the wrapper onto the cranberries. Press the remaining cranberries onto the rest of the ball. Once most of the cheese is covered with the cranberries, you can use the plastic wrap to help you adhere any stray cranberries and maintain the shape of the cheese ball.
4. Serve with anything. Honestly. You’ll enjoy.

*Mom would want me to point out that now that she’s unyoked from the picky taste buds of mine and my sister’s youth, she can afford to be much more adventurous with her cooking. We now regularly enjoy shrimp fra diavolo, curried onions, and the traditional Christmas Eve enchiladas. (It’s an amazing tradition.)

**Martha’s recipe is for three balls – to make the base, then add the special ingredients. I’ve split it up to make one party-sized cheese ball. You’ll also notice a number of substitutions – I substituted apple cider vinegar for the lemon I didn’t have, and I suspect almost any acid would work; ditto Sriracha for Tabasco (heat) and apricot marmalade for mango chutney (sweet/fruit). Also, who really has white pepper? For real?


Fall projects

In addition to curling up with a good book, I’ve found crafting to be a fun way to pass a dreary fall afternoon. A little splash of color here and here, the sense of something completed – I enjoy feeling like I’ve used my time well, and often with crafting I can watch a movie and do something with my hands at the same time.

My big fall project goal is some scrapbooking. Not normally my top hobby, but I’ve been feeling a sense of wanderlust and restlessness lately, which I blame on lack of recent travel opportunities. I have a scrapbook of some past trips I’ve taken, and I’m hoping to fill out the rest of the book with the rest of my travel “stash,” which serves multiple goals. By scrapbooking some of the ticket stubs and other ephemera, I’m less likely to lose or damage it, I can look at it again easily, and its’ stored more efficiently than being folded into envelopes and tucked away gods know where. I’m not a fancy scrapbooker, with cutouts and patterned scissors, preferring colored papers and stickers and a straightforward photo album approach.

I’ve also recently completed a few knitting projects with yarn I bought in September. I have historically had a yarn stash problem and tend to buy yarn at twice the rate I knit it up, so this is something of a growth moment for me. My LYS had a trunk show my birthday weekend and I indulged in a hank of golden-hued hand-spun (so expensive I suspect gold was a component of the yarn, but hey, birthday) that I’m trying to eke a second hat out of (I knit one gorgeous hat, but it’s just a tiny bit small, so I’m trying again on larger needles). I also got, and have since completed, a scarf kit with a tan alpaca yarn to be knit up with a teal/green/brown variegated knit ribbon. I promise pictures of both to come, since my description of the latter project doesn’t make sense even to me, and I knit it. With these projects out of the way, I’m planning on concentrating on my Christmas knitting, including tiny knit ornaments for my mom. Worked on size 2 needles and copious charts, I think it’ll be quite a challenge!

Perils of sequels

Fall is pretty officially here in the mid-Atlantic region, perhaps damper than I’m used to, but fall nevertheless. This means I’m spending a good portion of my time curled up in my Poang chair with a pot of hot tea, a (hopefully) good book, and more often than not a cat in my lap. For inquiring minds, my current tea of choice is a cream Earl Gray lavender from a local tea shop. After long walks with T, this is one of my favorite ways to spend weekend day in the fall. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a ton of luck with my book selections lately.

A while back a friend alerted me to the existence of two sequel/companion books to The Giver by Lois Lowry, a favorite of my youth, though I was always vaguely discontented with the ending. Two things drive me crazy in novels – unreliable narrators and unclear endings. For the former, I often end up feeling cheated or tricked out of a “real” reading experience, a frustration that dates back to reading The Things They Carried in high school, weeping over the water buffalo story, and then finding out it was fiction later. It’s totally silly, but I can’t seem to help it much. I also find vague endings unsatisfactory, especially since I can be pessimistic about fiction and imagine the Worst Possible Scenario as the ending.

These two “sequels” to The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger, are set in the same universe, though the second book doesn’t feature characters from the first, instead detailing a society where the powers that be often intentionally orphan-ing children who have skills that might be useful, and attempting to keep the population fearful and submissive by spreading stories about “beasts” in the forests. During the course of the story of Gathering Blue, Kira, the main character, begins to see cracks in the facade of these screens. Without giving the plot away, the story is well-paced, with the right amount of tension to keep readers engaged. As with The Giver, the world is carefully drawn, with the sort of thoughtful details (age is indicated by number of syllables in a name, for example) that make the universe seem vibrant and real. The reader discovers many of the chilling details of the society along with Kira and the other main characters, and the foreshadowing and subtext are handled very well for the intended middle-school audience.

The final book, The Messenger, was a pretty frustrating reading experience. It felt slightly like a tacked-on epilogue intended to wrap up the story rather than add to it, and though there were as many carefully drawn world-building details as the first two books, the plot is much less satisfactory. It’s hard to describe the plot without totally ruining the first two books, but suffice it to say that many of the main characters were previously featured in The Giver and Gathering Blue. While the Village in The Messenger is experiencing social problems, including a sudden aversion to those deemed outsiders, characters discuss the improvements to the towns featured in the first two books, but fail to discuss how these changes happened. Although books aimed at this age group might not be a good forum for discussing political processes, I think readers of this age are sophisticated enough to endure discussions of how and why social structures change, rather than being presented with improvements with a flair of ‘fait accompli’. The ending to The Messenger reflects this disinclination to engage with the issues the characters are facing by solving all the problems faced by the book’s characters with a magical sacrifice on the part of a single individual. It feels abrupt, and to me a bit like cheating – can’t deal with a challenge? Fix your problems by sacrificing a community member, and you won’t have to change a thing! Ta-da!

I enjoyed Gathering Blue, but not so much The Messenger. If you read and loved The Giver, I’d suggest thinking twice before grabbing these.

This one time …

It’s a bit of a lie – I’ve considered and even tried to start a blog more than once, but it’s always petered out for one reason or another. But today, in my enthusiasm the prospect of finally getting Internet access to my apartment in Baltimore, I couldn’t help myself.

I’m hoping to use this blog to consolidated my online identity and to talk about my projects and adventures. I write short movie and book reviews for other sites, but would like to occasionally go into more depth and share those reviews with the public. I spend a lot of my free time cooking, baking, and exploring Baltimore, but despite my love of Flickr, it’s hard to feel like I’m telling a story there, which is what I really love to do. I’ve got a few ideas in mind for future posts, but for now I’m restricting myself to playing around with WordPress features. And trying to figure out how long before Crisco goes bad.

These are important considerations, people. If I’m never heard from again, imagine I died from vegetable shortening poisoning.

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