Check out my fiction - http://www.jaletac.com
Check out my science fiction series - The Fall of the Altairan Empire

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thursday Recipe - Easter Bunny Cakes

My mom tried very hard to establish traditions. She tried to do the lemon easter egg cake but it never looked quite right. The cake usually crumbled. Frosting just doesn't work as glue to put it back together. Colored coconut doesn't hide it very well, either. We teased her about her ugly cakes, but they still tasted good. And we still loved her. The effort mattered.

Which leads me to my point of the story - it doesn't matter if you're a Pinterest queen or a total Pinterest fail, like me usually. What your family will remember is that you tried. You had fun with it and with them. That's what really matters.

Easter is a time to celebrate re-birth, new chances, and the resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Because of His sacrifice, we have the chance to be reborn and renewed and forgiven of our mistakes and sins. And He won't care if our cakes are Pinterest-worthy beauties or total disasters. What will matter is that we tried and did the best we could.

So here's my version of an Easter cake, just as a reminder that even imperfect ugly cakes taste as good as the pretty ones.

Easter Bunny Cake

Colored Coconut, aka fake grass:
1 c. shredded coconut
a few drops of green food coloring

Put coconut in a plastic bag. Add food coloring. Shake until coconut is all about the same shade of green. If it's too light, add a couple more drops of food coloring.

Spread on a plate or pie pan and let it dry for a couple of hours.

Cake - feel free to use your favorite cake mix or recipe, but lemon is traditional in our house for this:
2 c. flour
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter or shortening
1 c. milk
3 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
2 eggs
2 egg yolks (set aside the whites to use for frosting)
1 t. lemon flavoring
1 t. lemon zest, if desired

Beat all ingredients on low speed just until mixed. Turn speed to high and beat for 3 minutes. Pour into two round cake pans that have been greased and floured. Bake at 350°F for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to finish cooling.

Fluffy Frosting - you can use whatever frosting recipe you want, but I like this fluffy marshmallow version. It's sticky and messy but very tasty:
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. corn syrup
2 T. water
2 egg whites
1 t. vanilla

Mix sugar, corn syrup, and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook to 242° on a candy thermometer which is firm ball stage - a small amount dropped into a bowl of very cold water forms a ball that holds its shape until squished.

Meanwhile, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Pour hot syrup very slowly into egg whites, beating the whole time. This is a lot like making divinity except it won't get as stiff. Once you get all the syrup incorporated, keep beating and add the vanilla. Beat until peaks form and the frosting is thick and glossy.

To make bunnies:
Take a large serving tray or plate. Cut one round cake in half. Set the halves up on end on the plate to make a half circle, double layer cake set on its side. You can put some frosting between the layers to hold it in place or use a thin layer of strawberry or raspberry jam because it tastes good with lemon cake. Frost the cake with the fluffy frosting. Add two red or pink jelly beans as eyes. Cut ears from pink construction paper and stick into the cake towards one end to make a head. Sprinkle the green coconut on the plate to make grass. Add jelly beans as desired.

To make a cake like my mom's cake:
Crumble half the cake trying to get it out of the pan. Stick the pieces together on a plate, gluing with frosting. If it still looks like a round cake, drop it a couple of times. Glue it together with more frosting. It should be a lopsided weird looking pile of cake crumbs and frosting. Sprinkle coconut across the cake then dump a giant bag of jelly beans over the frosting on top. Set the cake aside somewhere the kids can sneak most of the jelly beans out of the frosting before you serve the cake.

Serve with a spoon since the frosting isn't holding it together. It won't matter because everyone will enjoy it anyway.


Monday, April 14, 2014

The State of Education

I read a very interesting book over the last week. The Smartest Kids in the World took a critical look at education, not just in the US but in Finland, Korea, and Poland, mostly through the eyes of three foreign exchange students. I expected it to be dry and more of a chore to wade through than a pleasurable read, like most of the non-fiction books I've been reading for class. I was very pleasantly surprised, not by the topic but by the readability of the book. The narrative flowed easily and the concepts were presented clearly. One idea led to the next in a logical, easy to follow manner.

The author's findings left me more than a little agitated, not because she's wrong but very, very right, in my opinion. Our school systems have major issues and the trends I see trouble me deeply, one of the reasons I'm pursuing a graduate degree in educational design.

SPOILER ALERT - If you want to discover her findings yourself, go read the book. It's easy to read, but it will leave you unsettled and unsatisfied, especially if you have children in the public schools in the US. We could do so much better. Change will hurt, mostly because it's change, but a few smaller changes can renew our entire system for the better. Other countries have shown it can be done and that change can happen fairly rapidly. But it will take work and commitment to make it happen.

How?

First, change the teachers. Education is only as good as the teachers. If they don't understand math and science, or worse, are afraid of it, their students will also not understand and be afraid. But instead of punishing current teachers by shoving requirements onto them, start where teachers start: at college admissions. Make teacher education more rigorous. Raise the requirements to be admitted to a good teaching college. Create a national teaching license that actually means something and requires a solid understanding of the subject matter, not just teaching but the subject being taught. We do this type of licensing with lawyers and doctors and even electricians, why should teachers be something less?

But no one will want to teach if we do that, will they? All that hard work for no respect and low pay. So pay teachers a salary more in line with a college graduate salary instead of a fast food manager. The respect will fix itself if we require more from our prospective teachers.

With smart, hard-working, well-trained teachers in the classroom, we just need to get out of their way and let them teach. The Common Core is a good idea, maybe not in its current form, but it's at least a start towards accountability for the students. Let the teachers teach in the way that works. Good teachers will find a way if we let them.

Second, change the schools. Make the graduation test an actual measure of real-world skills. I recently took the GRE to get admitted to graduate school. It would work fine for high school. If a student can't do pre-algebra, pass a basic English exam, and write three persuasive essays, they aren't ready for the world. Really. Think about it. The GRE wasn't that hard.

One point in the book that stuck with me was the focus of schools on sports. The one area US schools excel in rigor and quality is the sports program, particularly football and basketball. Schools focus on sports more than anything else, to the detriment of education as a whole. I'm not saying take out sports entirely, kids need play-time and exercise and recess. Kids learn good things from playing sports, but not everything they need to know in order to succeed in today's world. I'm saying make the focus on schools on teaching not coaching. Let the after-school sports programs be that and only that.

Whatever we choose to do to fix our educational system, it's going to be painful for everyone involved. It will take people with vision. It will take flexibility. But it won't take long. If we take the steps necessary.

But we can't be tentative. It will take boldness. It will take commitment to a higher ideal of what education can and should be.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thursday Recipe - Creamy Broccoli Cheese Soup

I've been obsessed with cheese soups lately. This is a good one for spring when you're tired of heavier starchy soups and want something lighter but still with plenty of body for those snowy days.

I'm also in love with these: Mrs. Cubbison's Crispy Onions
The list of ingredients is short and sweet and doesn't include things like MSG. They are also very tasty and go great on top of the soup.

So try a batch of this soup. It's fast, easy, and very satisfying.

Creamy Broccoli Cheese Soup

1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. chopped onions
1/4 c. flour
2 c. milk
4 c. chicken stock (or 4 c. hot water and 3 T. Better-than-Bouillon Chicken)
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1 t. salt
dash of cayenne pepper sauce, if desired
2 carrots, chopped up small
1 large bunch fresh broccoli, chopped small (I put the stems in one bowl and the tops in another)
2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onions. Cook until onions are soft, about five minutes. Stir in flour. Cook and stir until flour mixture is smooth and bubbly. Stir in milk, a little at a time, until mixed. It will thicken up and come close to boiling, that's fine. Keep stirring to keep it from forming lumps. Add chicken stock, seasonings, and carrots. Bring to a slow boil. Reduce heat and cook for ten minutes, stirring frequently. Add broccoli stems. Cook for another five minutes. Add broccoli tops. Cook and stir for five minutes.

Using a stick blender, blend the soup until very smooth and creamy. You should see flecks of broccoli and carrot but not large chunks. (You can use a regular blender, just do it in small batches and be careful. It's very hot.)

Keep on a slow simmer until ready to serve. Stir in cheese. Let sit for about five minutes to make sure it melts completely. Stir again and serve.

Garnish with extra cheese, crispy onions, croutons, or whatever you like with your soups. We also used hard rolls to make bread bowls for the soup. Very tasty!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Two New Books from James Wymore

My friend, James Wymore, has TWO books coming out soon. Check them out!

Book 1: Salvation


Release Date: May 16, 2014

Book Blurb:

A man wakes on a frozen battlefield when a scavenging couple finds him among the dead. As they nurse him back to health, he is struck with the horrible realization he can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. Taken in by the kind pair, he begins helping with their farm. She even takes him to meet her family, especially her single sister. The ideal life offered in the high mountains of Winigh is shattered when he sees a transport bringing enemy monsters to the shores below. Cut off by high snow on the pass, their fate will soon be the same as the town his company failed to protect in the last battle, if this estranged soldier cannot help them fight off the next wave of invaders. Even worse, the people of the town don’t trust this Selene soldier. He has a strange resistance to their folk magic which some say make him as dangerous as the enemies preparing to destroy them.


Book 2:  Exacting Essence
Release Date: June 12. 2014

Book Blurb:

Remember waking up late in the night after a nightmare?  Your mother holding you tight and whispering everything would be all right?  She lied.

Evil clowns haunted Megan’s dreams for years.  Even though nobody ever said she was crazy, she knew they were all thinking it.  With her life falling apart, she turns suicidal until a new therapist suggests the impossible: dreams are real.  Nightmares are living, breathing predators, feeding off dreamer’s fears by exacting essence.

Most, of course, forget theirs as soon as they wake up.  Megan is not so lucky.  She is also not so powerless.

But is even a power nurtured in her dreams enough to fight off the horrors lurking just beyond the veil of sleep?
Author Bio:

On a lifelong search for fantastic worlds hiding just out of sight, James Wymore writes to explore.  With three books and six short stories in print after just one year, he continues to push the boundaries of imagination.  Journey with him at http://jameswymore.wordpress.com


Links:

Twitter: @JamesWymore

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thursday Recipe - Old-Fashioned Taco Salad

Can't beat good old taco salad. This is the cold version, where everything is tossed together. It's a bit different than the taco stack version. It would be great for a picnic sometime.

Cold Taco Salad

1 lb hamburger
2 T. taco seasoning
2 green onions, sliced up
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
1 tomato, chopped
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
2 c. fritos corn chips
1/3 c. ranch dressing
sliced avocado
sliced olives

Brown hamburger. Drain off grease. Stir in taco seasoning. Set aside to cool.

Toss lettuce with tomato, onions, cheese, and fritos. Add hamburger and dressing. Toss again to coat. Garnish with avocado and olives. Serve immediately.

If you want to serve it later, keep the fritos out until ready to serve.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Welcome Mikey Brooks and his new book, The Stone of Valhalla



Welcome to The Stone of Valhalla Blog Tour!
A middle-grade fantasy-adventure by Mikey Brooks.

Don’t forget to check out the GIVEAWAY at the bottom this post
for a chance to WIN a $25 Amazon Gift card and other great prizes!

Synopsis:

Aaron was chosen to save their world, but it might come at the cost of losing his own.

Breaking into an old lady’s basement was supposed to reward 13-year-old Aaron with new friends. Instead he finds an enchanted amulet that transports him to another world—one at war with magic. Before he knows it, he is accused of witchcraft and invited to a bonfire—where he’s the main attraction. If that’s not bad enough, a goblin army shows up and toasts the town...literally. The good news: Aaron escapes being charbroiled. The bad news: the goblins are after him. They want his amulet and will stop at nothing to get it. Battling to find his way home, Aaron teams up with a not-so-magical-wizard and learns it’s his fate to destroy the amulet and save this new world. But is he willing to sacrifice his own?
Check out what these talented authors are saying about it:

The Stone of Valhalla is one of those books that only comes along once in a great while. Brooks doesn't just create a world, he puts you inside of it, allowing you to experience the wonder in a way that only he can. His characters are likable and fun. His twists leave you asking ‘Why?’ Treat yourself to an exciting adventure through a beautiful new land. Make new friends and be a part of the magic. This is a book that you will not be able to put down!”
—J.R. Simmons, author of Ragesong: Awakening.

 The Stone of Valhalla drew me in from the get-go. Aaron’s journey is reminiscent of Dorothy’s trek in The Wizard of Oz. Magic, sword fights, danger, and more danger, sprinkled with humor and unexpected twists. This is one of the ‘best’ fantasy adventures I’ve ever experienced!”
—BBH McChiller, author of The Monster Moon Series.

The Stone of Valhalla is a riveting mystery revealing true friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. Brooks engages the curiosity of middle graders and older sleuths alike, until the very end. Fantastic!”
—L.R.W. Lee, author of The Andy Smithson series.

Excerpt From: Chapter Two: The Penalty of Witchcraft

Aaron thought he’d been transported to some kind of renaissance fair. People milled about in the street, all dressed like they belonged on the set of some medieval movie. Most of their faces were stained with dirt, and they wore soiled clothing. Large, wooden buildings, held together by plaster, loomed overhead and all around him. Some had signs announcing specific trades and goods. The sweet smell of bread came from one shop, clearly a bakery. A rotund man stood out front, arguing with an old man who had a silvery- white beard and a long, purple cloak. He was telling the baker that the rolls he had purchased tasted ‘day-old’ and he required a reimbursement.
Several passersby gave Aaron odd glances. One little girl with a group of women dressed like nuns pointed at him and giggled. He thought he heard her call him a buffoon, but she was quickly shushed by one of the women and pulled into a shop.
This is so unreal.
Aaron couldn’t figure out what had happened.
How did I get here? Who are these people?
Aaron waited for someone to jump out and yell, “Surprise, you’re on camera!”
It never happened.
The seconds drew on like hours, and Aaron stood unmoving like a statue in the middle of the dirt road. The sweet smell from the bakery was drowned by the stench of a sweaty mule pulling a cart packed full with what had to be manure. The wind blew and the wafting smell of poo filled Aaron’s nose. He coughed and tried to cover the reek with his shirt.
“Witchcraft! Witchcraft, I say!”
Aaron turned around to see a middle-aged woman with only three teeth shouting hysterically. She pointed directly at him. He looked over his shoulder to ensure no green-skinned, broom-commandeering, warty-faced lady in black stood beside him. There wasn’t anyone there. The noise on the street stopped dead except for the woman. She grabbed a small wooden crate from a cart filled with fresh flowers and stood on it. “Fetch the constable! Don’t let him get away, or he’ll set a curse on our town.”
Five large men formed a group behind the woman and advanced toward Aaron. He didn’t know what to do.

Where to Find The Stone of Valhalla:
Exclusive price for the eBook release is just $2.99! (List Price: $4.99)
And only $9.99 for the paperback! (List Price: $12.99)
On April 12th 2014 the price will return to the List Price


Another special offer:
During The Stone of Valhalla Blog Tour
Mikey’s other great middle-grade eBooks will also be set to the low price of just $0.99!
The Dream Keeper:
Kindle | Nook | Kobo
The Dreamstone:
Kindle | Nook | Kobo

You’re Invited to PARTY!!
The online launch party will take place on Thursday, April 10th at 4pm (MST). The party will run for 2 hours and you’re invited to drop by anytime. The longer you stay the more chances you have of winning prizes! We have slew of eBooks to giveaway, as well as a Stone of Valhalla necklace AND a $25 Amazon gift card! It is hosted by LovingtheBookLaunchParty on Facebook. Just follow this link to join the event: http://goo.gl/Q2Fd3r.

What’s that? Another Party!
That’s right! If you’re local to Utah you don’t want to miss this kickin’ party. We are having a launch party to celebrate the release of this awesome new book. Of course there will be plenty of giveaways there too, but what’s even better are the guest authors! Just check out these fabulous names: J. Scott Savage, Chad Morris, Lisa Mangum, Jenni James, Ali Cross, and many more. The Launch Party is: Friday, April 11th from 6-9pm at The Viridian Center in West Jordan, Utah. Follow this link for a map: http://goo.gl/dqVc0u

About Mikey Brooks:

Mikey is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is the author/illustrator of several books including the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons as well as the middle-grade fantasy-adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his three daughters and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. Mikey has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works fulltime as a freelance illustrator, cover designer, and author. As a member of the Emblazoners, he is one of many authors devoted to ‘writing stories on the hearts of children’. He is also one of the hosts of the Authors’ Think Tank Podcast. You can find more about him and his books at: http://www.insidemikeysworld.com/.

The Giveaways!

Enter the giveaway below to be entered to win one of the following prizes:

$25 Amazon Gift Card
The Stone of Valhalla Necklace
Autographed Paperback of The Stone of Valhalla
Autographed 11x17 Poster
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thursday Recipe - Filboyd Studge

The time has come to share an old family classic with you. I need to give you the context for this recipe first or else it won't make much sense.

My mom was very much a dump-and-stir cook - you dumped stuff into the bowl or pan and stirred it until it looked right. If it didn't taste right, you dumped more stuff in. It didn't have to look good, it just had to taste okay. One of these days I'll have to post the story of the beef heart to illustrate. Today, we're talking about Filboyd Studge.

My brother named this dish. I still have no idea why he named it Filboyd Studge, but the name stuck. This dish looks horrid. It's a pasty gray mush that's sticky, gloopy, and just nasty looking, but it tastes good. It's very filling and good for those dreary cold winter days, just don't expect it to look appetizing.

Back to my mom. I have eight siblings. My mom was trying to feed a horde on a tight budget and she managed quite well. She used what leftovers my brothers left in the fridge. She could stretch a pot of soup farther than you'd believe possible. She made bread from scratch several times a week. But she wasn't Betty Crocker. She made cheap dishes without recipes.

My mom's still around but she's a different kind of cook since she's only feeding herself and my dad these days. But I'll always remember the huge kitchen table that my dad made so we could all fit around it, laminated so it was easy to clean, and my mom's pot of Filboyd Studge and our jokes about which subterranean cave wall she scraped it from.

If any of my siblings are reading this, I'd love comments with your memories of this dish - how it got named, anything I may have missed in the recipe, that kind of thing. I never actually made this one so I'm going on old memories and guessing.

Filboyd Studge

Whatever's left of the beef roast from Sunday dinner, usually about a cup, chopped up (she seasoned it with mostly salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce, sage, onions, and maybe garlic or oregano on adventurous days)
Whatever's left of the gravy, usually less than a cup
4-6 carrots, sliced, don't bother peeling them, they look more rustic unpeeled
half an onion (bonus points if you get the Terry Pratchett reference), chopped up
around 2 c. pearl barley
salt, I'm guessing a couple of teaspoons
pepper, some? Just season it to taste
a couple of bay leaves

Dump everything in a large pot. Add enough water to cover everything. Put on the lid and cook it on low for several hours. Stir it every once in a while and add more water if it starts sticking to the bottom of the pot. When everything becomes a sort of sticky mass and the carrots are beginning to dissolve into the mush, add salt and pepper to taste if needed, then serve. If you're feeling like a gourmet chef, you can remove the bay leaves and sprinkle some parsley over the top to make it look pretty.

Serve with hunks of homemade whole wheat bread.