Friday, April 24, 2015

"Gosford Park"

Gosford Park
Image Credit: Barnes and Noble

If you love whodunits or upstairs/downstairs movies, you'll love "Gosford Park." I'm an Anglophile and love movies about the English monarchy, class system or as I call them, “talkie English things.” Written by Julian Fellowes of "Downton Abbey" fame, there are plots, subplots and schemes in every scene. Similar to Agatha Christie mysteries, everybody has a motive for murder and everything happens in one location in one weekend. The movie takes place in 1932 at an English country weekend shooting party. Gosford Park is an actual park located in Coventry, England.


There's a very large and star studded ensemble cast, most of whom have issues with the soon to be dispatched patriarch, Sir William McCordle, played with delicious, evil glee by Michael Gambon.  McCordle is the polar opposite of his best known character, the kindly Professor Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter.” I had to set up a spreadsheet to keep track of the thirty or so characters to sort out who is related to whom, who is married to whom, and their motives for murder. I’ve included my own observations and put a detailed cast list at the end of this article for your reference.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Maggie Smith has terrific tart commentaries throughout the movie. 

This was the first time I ever noticed Clive Owen, laying in bed reading a book wearing a tank tee shirt.

Ryan Phillippe was beyond smarmy as an American actor that played both sides of the fence and upstairs/downstairs.

Major actors in key supporting roles include Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Northam, Tom Hollander, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates and many more. 


I thought that Julian Fellowes was an actor and writer. In addition to “Gosford Park,” he has written “Downton Abbey,” “Young Victoria,” “Vanity Fair” and “Picadilly Jim”. I was surprised to find that he is actually a Baron and member of the House of Lords. This certainly explains why he writes so knowingly about the English class system. That knowledge garnered him an Academy Award for the screenplay of this movie.


Another surprise is that Robert Altman, of all people, directed this very English movie. He is better known for directing “all American“ movies, like ‘MASH,” “Nashville,” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” According to the 2014 documentary by Ron Mann, “Altman,” the director had trouble getting financing because of the large ensemble cast and the ambiguous ending. Altman just went to London and contacted almost every major English actor to make the movie. At the last minute, he obtained funding from the UK National Lottery Premiere Production Fund. The Fund also helped to finance two other great period movies, both written by Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband.”

Altman encouraged his actors to improvise. I'm sure that many of the Shakespearean actors had to do some adjusting.  The scene of the sisters, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins, comforting each other is a master class in improvisation. Below, check out the interview with Stephen Fry about working with Altman and a great Maggie Smith quote. 

Robert Altman won Best Director from the Golden Globes and was nominated for Academy Award for this movie.

Stephen Fry discussing Robert Altman


The locations are absolutely stunning. English country houses are opulent beyond compare. Several different stately homes provided the luxurious settings. The exterior of the house is located at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. Wrotham Park, in Middlesex provided the dazzling drawing rooms.  The bedroom scenes were filmed at Syon house near London.  The exquisite garden folly used for the hunting lunch scene is supposed to be at Hall Barn, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire but I can't find any images to support that claim. Sets were built at Shepperton Studios, Surrey, for the “downstairs” scenes. The downstairs felt like a claustrophobic rabbit warren to me. 


The costumes are positively exquisite! Jenny Beavan, the Costume Designer, won the BAFTA award for Best Costume Design and was also nominated for an Academy award for "Gosford Park." Lady Sylvia’s slinky white with black trim gown is to die for. Clive Owen’s tee shirt isn’t bad either. Ms. Beavan has done spectacular costumes for many period movies including “The Remains of the Day”, “Sense and Sensibility,” “The King’s Speech,” and many more.


Renowned British composer Patrick Doyle wrote the score. Very wisely, he also used six songs composed by Ivor Novello, who wrote for British theatre, as did Noel Coward. The songs sung by Jeremy Northam, who played Novello are:
  • "Waltz of My Heart" - sweetly romantic song
  • “And Her Mother Comes Too" - cute little ditty that was often played by Bobby Short
  • "I Can Give You the Starlight" - lovely sentimental ballad
  • “What a Duke Should Be" - comedic tune poking fun at the aristocracy
  • “Why Isn't It You?" - spritely up tempo piece
  • “The Land of Might-Have-Been" - absolutely haunting melody
Mr. Doyle has also done the scores for a wide variety of films including “Sense and Sensibility,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Brave” and Kenneth Branaugh’s “Hamlet.”

Quotes and Zingers

“If there's one thing I don't look for in a maid, it's discretion. Except with my own secrets, of course.” Maggie Smith (Constance, Countess of Trentham).

“I suppose that life must go on.” Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Sylvia),as she prepares to go to bed with Ryan Phillippe on the night that her husband is murdered. 

“When was the last time you stabbed a corpse?” Clive Owen (Robert Parks) to Kelly Macdonald, (Mary Maceachren).

“I’m not interested in the servants, only someone with a real connection to the man.” Stephan Fry (Inspector Thompson)

Site Gags

There are quite a few site gags, typical of Robert Altman’s style. My favorites include:

Maggie Smith with cucumber slices on her eyes.

Kristin Scott Thomas wearing a heavy layer of cold cream and thick white moisturizing gloves while setting up a rendezvous with Ryan Phillippe.

Ryan Phillippe’s reaction to having hot coffee poured on his “man parts” and covering up with a pillow.

Teresa Churcher fixing a wedgie after one of her assignations with Mr. Blond. 

Try It, You’ll Like It

Escape to a different time and place watching "Gosford Park." Even at 137 minutes in length, I didn't want the movie to end. I was astounded when the murderer and murder weapon were revealed. No, I’m not going to say who it is. Watch the movie and find out!

About the movie: 

Available for download on iTunes for $9.99
Available on DVD from Barnes and Noble for $9.49
Run time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Released in 2001 by USA Films, now known as Focus Features

Movie Trailer

**Spoiler Alert** - many plot details revealed 

Cast List - Upstairs

Maggie Smith

  • Constance, Countess of Trentham 
  • Aunt of the three sisters: Sylvia, Louisa, and Lavinia
  • Dependent on an allowance from Sir William, which he has threatened to cut off

Michael Gambon

  • Sir William McCordle, husband to Lady Sylvia
  • “Hard-hearted randy old sod” as described by Mrs. Croft

Kristin Scott Thomas

  • Lady Sylvia McCordle, Sir William's wife/widow 
  • Cut cards with her sister, Lady Louisa, to see which one of them would marry Sir William for his money

Camilla Rutherford

  • Isobel McCordle, daughter of Sir William and Lady Sylvia
  • Blackmailed by the not so Honourable Freddie Nesbitt
  • Romanced by Lord Rupert for her money

Geraldine Somerville

  • Louisa, Lady Stockbridge, Sister of Lavinia and Sylvia, wife to Lord Stockbridge
  • Flirts constantly with Sir William

Charles Dance

  • Raymond, Lord Stockbridge, Baronet, husband to Lady Louisa
  • Classic aristocratic snob

Natasha Wightman

  • Lady Lavinia Meredith, sister of Louisa and Sylvia, wife to Anthony Meredith
  • Angry with her sisters for not persuading Sir William to change his mind about a business deal with her husband

Tom Hollander

  • Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Meredith, husband to Lady Lavinia
  • Having severe financial problems. Sir William won’t invest in a scheme to provide boots to the Sudanese army
  • Quite a different character to Cutler Beckett, whom he played in “Pirates of the Caribbean”

Jeremy Northam

  • Ivor Novello, an actor, Sir William's cousin
  • Real person, well known tenor and composer for the theater
  • Beautiful singing voice, recorded live on the set
  • Under utilized in this film
  • Loved him in “Emma” and “An Ideal Husband”

Bob Balaban

  • Morris Weissman, a Hollywood producer
  • Listed as a producer for this movie
  • Chicagoans may know him by his family connections to the Balaban and Katz movie theatre chain which included the iconic Chicago, Esquire and Uptown theatres

Ryan Phillippe

  • Henry Denton/Mr. Weissman, valet to Morris Weissman and Ivor Novello
  • American actor pretending to be a Scottish valet to observe servants to research for a new Charlie Chan film
  • Implied to be bisexual and Weissman’s lover
  • Tries to rape Mary and seduce Elsie

James Wilby

  • The Honourable Freddie Nesbitt, husband to Mabel
  • Married Mabel for her money, spent it and now hates her
  • Blackmailing Isobel so she’ll help him get a job from Sir William

Claudie Blakley

  • Mabel Nesbitt, Freddie Nesbitt's wife
  • Not accepted by aristocracy because her father made gloves
  • Many snide comments made about her wardrobe and lack of a lady’s maid

Laurence Fox

  • Lord Rupert Standish, younger son of a marquess
  • Wants to marry Isobel for her money as he will inherit none

Trent Ford

  • Jeremy Blond, Lord Rupert's friend
  • Trysts with Bertha interrupted by Mary and George on separate occasions
  • Isobel hears him tell Lord Rupert that “he can do better”

Cast List - Downstairs

Helen Mirren

  • Mrs. Jane Wilson (née Parks), housekeeper
  • Mother of Robert Parks, sister of Mrs. Croft
  • Previously a factory worker/conquest of Sir William

Eileen Atkins

  • Mrs. Elizabeth Croft (née Parks), head cook
  • Sister of Mrs. Wilson
  • Previously a factory cook/conquest of Sir William
  • Had a son by Sir William that died from scarlet fever
  • With actress Jean Marsh, created both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The House of Eliot”

Alan Bates 

  • Mr. Jennings, head butler 
  • Conscientious objector during World War I

Derek Jacobi

  • Mr. Probert, devoted valet to Sir William
  • Founding member of the National Theatre
  • Played many Shakespearean leads such as King Lear, Richard II, Hamlet 
  • Played the Emperor Claudius in “I, Claudius”

Meg Wynn Owen

  • Lewis, Lady Sylvia’s lady’s maid
  • Very loyal to Lady Sylvia 

Emily Watson

  • Elsie, lady’s maid to Miss Isobel and Mabel Nesbitt
  • One of Sir William’s dalliances
  • Fired when she speaks out of turn while serving dinner

Richard E. Grant

  • George, 1st footman, acting valet to Lord Rupert Standish
  • Criticized by Jennings and Probert for disinterest in his job
  • Pours hot coffee on Ryan Phiilippe to get revenge for Phillipe’s deception
  • Also appeared in “Downton Abbey” as an art dealer trying to seduce Countess Cora

Kelly Macdonald

  • Mary Maceachren, the Countess of Trentham’s lady's maid
  • In a breach of protocol, Lady Trentham calls her Mary rather than Maceachran because she cannot pronounce the last name
  • Born in Glasgow so her accent is authentic
  • I didn’t feel any chemistry between her and Clive Owen when they kissed
  • Also played Helena Ravenclaw in “Harry Potter, Evangeline in “Nanny McPhee” and a lady in waiting to the queen in “Elizabeth”

Clive Owen

  • Robert Parks, Lord Stockbridge’s valet
  • Raised in an orphanage outside London
  • Illegitimate child of Mrs. Wilson and Sir William
  • Went on to tremendous screen success in movies such as “The Bourne Identity,” “King Arthur” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

Jeremy Swift

  • Arthur, footman, acting valet to Mr. Blond
  • Implied to be homosexual, makes several attempts to become acting valet to Mr. Novello
  • Also plays a butler to the Dowager Countess in “Downton Abbey”

Sophie Thompson

  • Dorothy, maid
  • Unrequitedly in love with Mr. Jennings
  • Comedic talents showcased in “Relative Values” with Julie Andrews and Colin Firth

Teresa Churcher

  • Bertha, kitchen maid
  • Having an affair with Mr. Blond

Adrian Scarborough

  • Mr. Barnes, Commander Anthony Meredith’s valet
  • Disdainful of his employer

Local constabulary

Stephen Fry

  • Inspector Thompson, a policeman
  • An obsequious bumbler
  • Terribly funny as usual

Ron Webster

  • Constable Dexter, Thompson's assistant
  • Very able, long suffering

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How I Promote My Blog on Twitter

Image credit: Lunar Templates
Twitter is my favorite and most effective social media platform for promotion. Since it was founded in 2006, Twitter has revolutionized social media and even revolutions. I have used it extensively and profitably when I had an Etsy store and Squidoo postings. Since Squidoo crashed, I’m starting over and now use it for promoting my own blog. Twitter is free and easy to use. I like the free part best.  I'm not a marketing guru or tech geek, just a retired baby boomer blogger. The following information is based on my own experience using Twitter for several years.

Twitter account

You need a Twitter account first, of course. Just go to to open an account. I keep separate accounts for my blog and for my friends. Try to name the account with your exact blog name. If that's taken, try close variations to keep your branding consistent. Since tweets are restricted to 140 characters, it’s sometimes difficult  to fit in what you want to say. I try to use a snappy phrase as an attention getter, followed by the link and hashtags.

The link to a blog post can be quite lengthy and makes the tweet look bloated. There are several Web sites that offer shortened URLs, consisting of numbers, capitalized and non-capitalized letters. The ones that I see most often are,, and from Google. The shortened URL looks more professional, which makes the tweet more appealing and recognizable. I’ve found that click throughs increased dramatically when I started using shortened URLS. Both and offer extensive analytics.

Hashtags are an extremely useful to get wider exposure on Twitter beyond your followers. The hashtag is “#” and is found on the “3” key on your keyboard. For example, when I tweet about a recipe, I’ll add the hashtag “#recipes” and the type of recipe, such as “#lasagna” or “#burrito.” The tweet will then come up in general searches in addition to being sent to your followers.

Here's the tweet I use for this blog article: "Tips for promoting your blog/Web site on Twitter & social media! #blogpromotion #twitter #hootsuite #donnasblogs."

Once I’ve composed the tweet and tweaked it to my liking, I save it to a spreadsheet for later use. Using the tweet on other social media saves a lot of time posting. The hashtags can serve as keywords on Delicious or Tumblr. I use the “snappy phrase” for those sites, Facebook and Pinterest. For Instagram, I simply post the picture and use the tweet as the text. Other ways of saving the text include Evernote, OneNote and Google Docs.

Finding Followers

Here’s how I got Twitter followers for my Etsy store, Squidoo, and now my blog. First and foremost, make sure that you have a Twitter button/link on all your posts and your blog or Website. This is the easiest way to get followers. Blogger puts them on the bottom of posts for sharing a post but does not offer a widget to put them on the sidebar. There are many websites that offer free packs of social media icons in many styles. Choose the style that you like, post the jpg or png to the HTML widget and link to your social media site. The file will be very, very small-about 20 x 20 pixels. In February 2015, Twitter just started offering a plugin for WordPress. Just click on the Twitter button to the right to follow me!

Now that you have the perfect tweet, who do you send it to? I started by following a few bloggers that I know and branching out. Check out Twitter’s Best Rules and Practices for guidelines. Basically, it says to follow a few people at a time, not thousands. Once you are following 2000 people, Twitter has limits on the number of followers.  I followed and had about 1500 followers for my Etsy store so I haven’t had experience with the limit. 

I've started from zero followers for my blog Twitter account, @DonnasBlogPosts. I  try to add 10-20 followers per day on the Twitter Web site. It’s not a fast method, but it works for me. First I check the Notifications tab on my Twitter account.  I usually follow back people that follow me. Also, I follow people that retweet, favorite, or mention my tweets.

I don’t follow everyone that follows me. If their profile doesn’t fit my blog, I don’t follow back. I write a lifestyle blog about recipes, movies, gardening and music. I don’t follow technical computer tweets, science tweets or business tweets.  

When you first start on Twitter, you’ll get some junk followers. There are a lot of “marketing gurus” that offer to get you thousands of followers. I’ve seen a lot of authors promoting their books. Don’t be surprised if you get followers that tweet porn, obscenities, or hate tweets. I’m all for free speech, but I just block those followers and any other oddballs so that I don’t run afoul of the Google Analytics guidelines for my blog. This is especially important now that Google is able to include tweets in Google Search results.

I’ve also found mentions from several people that use the tweets on their “newspapers.” is based in Lichtenstein. People can create their own publication that is sent routinely to followers by using Twitter feeds. I need the exposure right now but I may block the use of my tweets for this purpose in the future. I tried for a while, but it did not expand my following. However, it may work for you.

The Twitter button and Notifications tab are the quickest way to find followers. Now it’s time to go out and look for them! Conveniently, Twitter offers a Who to Follow window on the right hand of the screen. I click View All and start searching, based on the following criteria. Most of the suggestions are related to my profile, so I check to see if the person follows back and is active daily. The actual number of following/followers isn’t important to me if they’re about equal. For my blog account, I don't follow the "quote of the day" folks.  I don’t follow most commercial sites since they don’t follow back. I will follow manufacturers related to my blog like canning supplies or movie sites. I don’t follow promoted sites either. I will do some primitive data mining to find people to follow. Twitter makes your list of followers publicly accessible. Sometimes if I like a particular person, I will look at their list to find more people.

How do I know if people don’t follow me back? There are several free Web sites to check for non-followers. I use ManageFlitter to clean out my list on a regular basis. I try to keep my followers/following numbers approximately equal. ManageFlitter will sort out non followers, inactive, fake and many other types of undesirable followers. I usually give people a week to follow back and then unfollow if they do not. I do keep those commercial sites mentioned above and some of my favorite bloggers even if they don’t follow me.

Time Saving Tweeting

I certainly don’t spend all day on Twitter! Following and unfollowing take about 15 minutes of my time. I upload future tweets so that I’m not directly tweeting all day. There are many free tools on the Web for this purpose such as Twitter’s TweetDeck, Hootsuite and many others. I’ve used the free version of Hootsuite for several years with TweetDeck as an alternative. This is where keeping tweets on a spreadsheet, Evernote or whatever can save a huge amount of time. I spend about 15 minutes once a week uploading timed tweets for the next week. 

There are many theories of the best time to post. I randomize my posts to try to catch everyone at some time. This method may sound weird but it works for me. I post six tweets a day throughout the day. On even number days I post on even numbered times and on odd numbered days I post on odd numbered times, rolling the times. For example, on an even day I’ll post at 12 AM (midnight), 4 AM, 8 AM, 12 noon, 4 PM and 8 PM. On the next day, which is odd, I’ll post at 1 AM, 5 AM, 9AM, 1 PM, 5 PM, and 9 PM. The next day is even so I post at 2 AM, 6 AM, 10 AM and so on. It may sound complicated but it’s easy once you try it a few times. When I post on Hootsuite, it’s not precisely on the hour so the tweets may be sent of 1:50 AM or 8:05 AM, adding to the randomization. Hootsuite does offer bulk uploading with their paid option. I used that for my Etsy store and it was easy to use. I’m going to wait for a revenue stream to get going on the blog before I go to the paid options.

Another way to tweet automatically is to utilize the inter-connectivity of most social media sites. I’ve connected my Facebook blog page to my Twitter account. When I post a blog on Facebook, it goes on their Twitter stream which adds another site for blog exposure. You may choose to connect with tumblr, Instagram, or any of the other popular media Web sites.

Twitter does offer promoted ads and has a toll free number to help with set-up. As above, I'll wait until the blog generates enough income before investing in paid services.


Analytics are important to follow to see if your strategy is effective. Twitter finally introduced tweet analytics in August, 2014. This is one more reason Twitter is my primary social media promotion platform. You don’t have to generate a code to place on your blog or Web site, like Google Analytics. The data is just there! Click on your profile icon in the upper right hand corner and choose Analytics on the drop own menu, which opens in a new window. The analytics are robust and provide the statistics that I am interested in for my tweets. Twitter Analytics seem more similar to Google Adsense than Google Analytics.

The Twitter Analytics Home page provides a 28 day summary of your tweets, impressions, profile visits, mentions, followers, and a number of tweet highlights. Below that are the same statistics for the previous months that your account was opened. If you want to drill down further, click Tweets on the menu across the top. You’ll get details of the last 13 days for each of your tweets for impressions, engagements and more. There is an option to set the date range on this page. A CSV download option is convenient for me because I like to sort by the various statistics on my beloved spreadsheets. The Followers Page shows the trend of your followers, hopefully going up. It also includes demographics such as interests, location and gender. I was surprised to find that almost half of my followers are male even though I tend to follow women with similar interests.

Twitter Trivia

On a lighter note, here’s some Twitter trivia. The Twitter bird was created by Simon Oxley and originally posted to The bird is officially named “Larry” as in Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics basketball team. There have been four versions of Larry, the bird not the basketball player.

Final Comments

These strategies can be applied to any social media site to build a following and drive traffic to your Web site or blog. I’d love to hear from you about how they have or have not worked. Give some or all of them a try!

Image Credit:
John James Audobon-Blue Jay

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving"

Image credit:
I started canning during the summer of 2013. I want to save money, have the freshest possible food, and minimize the number of artificial ingredients, like most people. I got advice from friends and family, researched the Web, and watched YouTube videos. I thought that was plenty of research and successfully canned tomatoes and salsa. I also made some jams and jellies. So far so good but there was an issue. I live in a Denver suburb and have to make altitude adjustments to processing times. Different online recipes gave different adjustments to the times even for tomatoes. 

There was only one solution-the "Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving," first published in 1909. Right there on page 5 are the altitude adjustments. The recipe I had for canning red cabbage called for 4 quarts of red cabbage, not the weight or number of heads. The answer is in the equivalents table on page 117-just use the dry measure conversion of cups to quarts. The table even has the measurements for a bushel and a peck! 


The first chapter warmly invites you with the title “Learning About Canning, just one step beyond cooking.” I was afraid of canning due to the fear of spoiled food or worse. This chapter allayed these fears by an easily understandable and thorough explanation of what causes spoilage and how to avoid it. I have a background in chemistry and microbiology and it even answered my questions! The next section describes the two methods of processing, boiling water and pressure. Finally, the equipment used in canning is explained with plenty of photos. As the saying goes, you need the right tools for the job! Since the book is from Ball, all the products pictured are Ball brand, of course. 

Water Bath Canning 

The next three chapters provide recipes and detailed instructions for canning three kinds of foods suitable for water bath canning. The High Acid Foods chapter is probably going to be the one that I refer to the most. High acid foods include all sorts of fruit and tomatoes. Apple recipes include apple rings, sliced apples, applesauce and baking apples. There are many other types of fruits from berries and oranges to tropical fruit such as papayas, mangoes and pineapples. At the end of the chapter, there is an illustrated two page step by step set of directions for canning tomatoes. 

The techniques shown apply to canning all types of food, not just tomatoes. Jams, jellies and fruit spreads are next-yum! There is a two page primer defines the different types of spreads, use of pectin, and the gelling test. There are twelve pages of recipes for butters, conserves, jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves using every kind of fruit that I can imagine. Red onion marmalade and watermelon rind preserves are a bit beyond my imagination, but should tempt the adventurous palate. There is also a chapter titled Something Extra" with many imaginative recipes such as garlic jelly and blueberry basil vinegar, just to name a few. At the end of the chapter, there is an illustrated two page step by step set of directions for canning soft spreads.: 

Pickled foods and sauces complete the group of water bath canned foods. Too many cucumbers in the garden? No problem, there are so many cucumber, pickle and relish recipes that you’ll probably plant even more next year. Spicy chutneys will keep you warm during the winter. Other winter warmers are chili sauce, red hot sauce and taco sauce. 

Pressure Cooker Canning

Pressure cooker canning preserves low acid such as meats, seafood, soup and vegetables. The microorganisms that spoil these types of food can only be killed processing in a pressure cooker canner which raises water temperature to 240 degrees, 28 degrees above boiling. Either a dial gauge or weighted gauge pressure canner can be used. The chapter refers back to the introduction for diagrams of both types of pressure canners and altitude adjustments. These are great make ahead recipes for any size household with all the basics. Dinner is always ready with recipes for beef stew, chicken soup, and chili among others. 

A wide variety of vegetable recipes helps to provide balance meals. Just pick what you like-asparagus, baked beans, creamed corn, greens, okra or potatoes. The other vegetable recipes are too numerous to mention here. At the end of the chapter, there is an illustrated two page step by step set of directions for canning green beans. To be honest, I’m hesitant about pressure cooker canning. I really shouldn’t be because it’s really no different than using an autoclave, as I did back in the day. 

Special Diets 

The low sugar and low salt recipes utilize both water bath and pressure canning. There are several recipes each for fruit, tomatoes, spreads, pickled food, and fruits and vegetables. I was disappointed with this chapter because I hoped for many more recipes that modified standard recipes to reduce salt and sugar. For example, the three bean salad recipe uses two and a half cups of sugar which seems a bit much for a low sugar recipe. 

The recipes for spreads use classic pectin and three to four cups of sugar which is way too much for my taste. Ball has a product called Ball RealFruit Low or No Sugar Needed Pectin but there are no recipes for this product. Luckily, they have a Web site that will provide a recipe based on the type of fruit, jam or jelly and type of pectin. I've made delicious raspberry jam, cherry preserves and apple jelly using recipes produced from this site. I didn't need to add any sugar to the raspberry jam and only one cup of sugar for six jars of apple jelly from juice using the low/no sugar pectin. I just wish that this was included the Special Diets section. 

Other Preserving Methods 

Vintage Canning Books circa 1947
Freezing and dehydrating techniques and recipes are included in the last two chapters. Freezing is a very easy adjunct or alternative to canning that requires only standard kitchen utensils and a freezer. I particularly like this chapter because the recipes don’t even have to be frozen if you don’t want to. I’ll never buy frozen corn again. The step by step directions for freezing corn at the end of the chapter are just terrific. Also, there are recipes for game such as venison, rabbit and squirrel. These remind me of my mother’s Ball Blue Book and Kerr canning books from 1947 that have canning recipes for game and other meats like head cheese, organ meats, and pickled pigs feet. 

Dehydrating foods is only ten pages long. Although the chapter covers the basics, I would get a book devoted entirely to preserving foods this way before attempting beef jerky, dried fruits, or fruit leather. There must be a better name than fruit leather, which sounds rather unappetizing to me. 


Finally, there several handy guides at the end of the book. The planning guide cross references fruit and vegetable peak seasons to geographic regions. The equivalents guide is where I found the information for the red cabbage, and a bushel and a peck. The Problem Solver and Glossary are particularly helpful for a newbie like me.

Bottom Line

The "Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving" is the grandmomma of all canning books. Don't start canning without it!

Image credit:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Fearless Fair Isle Knitting"

Fearless Fair Isle Knitting: 30 Gorgeous Original Sweaters, Socks, Mittens, and More
Image Credit: Barnes and Noble
I've been knitting since I was a teenager in the late 1960's. As you might expect, I've made sweaters, hats, gloves, and baby clothes. The problem is that I only knew how to use one color per row so multi color meant stripes. I've always wanted to do Fair Isle knitting. I was watching "Knitting Daily" on PBS and saw that Fair Isle used only two different colors in each row. I had "Fearless Fair Isle Knitting" on my book buying wish list. Then I found it on sale of one third of the list price at a local yarn store and bought it immediately.
The photographs are just beautiful! My opinion is that if the photos are not great, how can the finished piece be great? There are many patterns for men, women, and children, which can be knitted in just one color or Fair Isle. Hats, gloves, mittens, sweaters, socks and several more projects are included. My personal favorite is the fingerless gloves. I've knitted two pairs for myself already. Mittens are my next project. My favorite charts (color patterns) are the classic Nordic snowflake, reindeer and flower garden. All the patterns use five to six colors and the palettes are just gorgeous. The author shows how to choose shades for the best effect.
This is not the book for the knitter that has not done Fair Isle knitting before. There is a chapter titled Basics. However, there are no diagrams or photos showing the actual process of knitting Fair Isle. I would have liked a series of photos showing how to hold and float the different colors of yarn. There is a technique called steeking which creates a finished edge on a completed section such as a neckline or sleeve. There are some photos of machine sewn steeks but there are no photos of how to create a crocheted steek. Thank heavens for YouTube videos or I would never have known how to do either technique. As a newbie to Fair Isle knitting, wrangling five to six colors is a bit more than I can handle. I did find a two color hat that I've made successfully. Finally, most the of patterns use size 2 or 3 needles, even for adult garments. It would take a long time to knit an adult sweater with such itty bitty needles.
If you want lots of diagrams and explanations, this isn't the right book. On the whole, I'm glad that I bought "Fearless Fair Isle Knitting." I knit hats for a local homeless organization and will be adding mittens to my donations. I love the finger-less gloves because I keep my thermostat fairly low and they keep my hands warm. I like the pattern charts and will use them or parts of them in the hats that I make.
Where is Fair Isle?
Fair Isle is a tiny Scottish island in the North Sea. It is north of Scotland and between the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Fair Isle is only three miles long and one and a half miles wide. It looks to be as close to Scandinavia as London. Local Fair Isle knitters originated the double stranded knitting technique for added warmth in the hostile winters. Fair Isle has become a generally descriptive term for multicolored patterns but is technically different from Scandinavian multicolored knitting. 
Making your own patterns
It's easy to make hats for all ages with just a Fair Isle chart, as shown in the pictures to the left. I just found patterns that I liked and adapted them to a basic stockinette hat pattern on double pointed needles.
Google Images has a lot of Fair Isle patterns. I searched and printed out a classic Fair Isle snowflake pattern and reindeer pattern. I also look at cross stitch patterns. I have a book of patterns from 1947 and took part of a chart for the bottom hat.
Here’s how I made these hats. I had a lot of red fingering (baby) yarn from an unfinished sweater and then purchased white fingering yarn. From experience, I know that a baby hat is about 100 stitches of fingering yarn on size 5 (US) double pointed needles. I just multiplied the size of the repeat on the chart to reach about 100 stitches. The snowflake had a repeat of 36 stitches so I cast on 108 stitches. The reindeer repeat was 24 stitches and 96 stitches cast on. The flower repeat was 23 stitches with 92 stitches cast on. 
I tried to center the pattern vertically by estimating the ribbing and the decreases at the top of the hat. The ribbing can be done either as K1, P1 or K2, P2. Also, ribbing looks best if it's done with a size or two smaller needle than the hat. I didn't have small needles so the ribbing was done on size 5 double points.
After completing the ribbing, I did a few rows of K1 to help define the pattern vertically and then followed the chart for the pattern. At the top I also did a few rows before starting the decreases. For the top of the hat I did one row of K8, K2 together for the first decrease row and then a row of  K1. The second decrease row was K7, K2 together and then another row of K1. This continued until there were between 10-13 stitches left. I cut the yarn, pulled it through the remaining stitches with a crochet hook and started weaving in all the strands. The last set of decreases may not have been exactly the same put the hats still turned out well.
The floats for the top and bottom hats were between five and seven stitches, so i did not have to do any twists.  I prefer patterns that don't require twists in the floats. The reindeer pattern was mostly floats with twists every five stitches.
I hope you find this information useful. Have fun with Fair Isle knitting!
Here are a few videos that helped me tremendously. 

Very useful ideas for yarn wrangling 

The first part shows how to use circular needles

If you want to watch just one video this is the one! Shows how to read charts, manage yarn and floats.

 Part 3 shows how to complete the hat and use double point needles.

Terrific introduction to steeks!

Image Credit:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My Ten Favorite Cookbooks

My Ten Favorite Cookbooks
© Donna Cook – All Rights Reserved  
I'm a foodie. There, I said it. I have over 40 cookbooks marked with Post-its for recipes I want to try. Here they are on my kitchen counter. I don't even want to count the number of recipes I've gotten from magazines, newspapers and the Internet. Choosing just ten cookbooks is very hard. What about Lidia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Burt Wolf, Julia Child, Martin Yan, Paul Prudhomme, and cookbooks from the New York Times, McCalls and Better Homes and Gardens?

Many of these cookbooks have newer versions or are out of print. This picture shows the books that I bought and use. 

My cookbooks can be divided into two groups, those on the kitchen counter and those in an improvised book shelf in the cabinet below. These are the cookbooks that I use the most and are on my kitchen counter. Enjoy!

"Betty Crocker's Cookbook"

© Donna Cook – All Rights Reserved  
Yes, that's duct tape holding my 1975 edition of "Betty Crocker's Cookbook" together. Did you know that Betty Crocker is a character, not a real person? The first edition of this classic cookbook was published in 1950 although the character was created in 1921 by General Mills. According to their Web site, the character was created in order to make responses to customers more personal. Check out the site for the complete story. Who cares if there wasn't an actual person named Betty Crocker? This is the cookbook I use the most.

"Betty Crocker's Cookbook" is the first cookbook I bought after I was married. It's still my go to cookbook for basics like roasting turkey, chicken, pork or beef. I do need to check if the internal temperatures needed for doneness have changed on the USDA Web site. The recipes are tried and true. Stuffing is always perfect. Cake and frosting are as easy as pie recipes.

The book certainly of a different era. A cake recipe for an 8" x 8" pan is called a "dinette cake for small families." Harvest gold, avocado green, and burnt orange form the color palette from the 1970's. I still have Tupperware in those colors! Convenience was a big deal at that time so there are a lot of prepared foods in the recipes, like canned soup.My favorite recipes are the coffee cake, stuffing, roasts, nut breads, and hot German potato salad.

"Crock-Pot Recipe Collection"

© Donna Cook – All Rights Reserved  
I bought my Crock-Pot in the 1980's and it's still cookin' away. A small pamphlet of recipes came with it. Most of those overcooked the food and spices were cooked out.

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copy
I bought "Crock-Pot Recipe Collection" a few years ago and it is just terrific. There are lots of recipes from other countries like Persian Eggplant Dip, Jamaican Chicken and Cuban Pork Sandwiches. Italian and Mexican style recipes are represented in abundance. Don't worry, there are plenty of American favorites including Yankee Pot Roast, Clam Chowder, and Wisconsin Beer and Cheese Soup.

My favorite chapter is Soups and Stocks. I still need to make Italian Sausage Soup. It looks very much like a soup I've had called Italian Wedding Soup. The Chicken Tortilla Soup would be a perfect after school treat. I'm sure that the Hot and Sour Soup and Greek Lemon and Rice Soup is as good as any restaurant. No soup chapter is complete without a tasty minestrone!

"Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving"

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copy
I didn't buy this canning book first but I should have. I call it the "grandmomma" of all canning books. I had put up two bushels of tomatoes before I realized how badly I needed the very best canning book of all time, first published in 1909. I live at an altitude of 5,203 feet in a Denver, Colorado suburb. I found too many different altitude adjustments in canning recipes from the Internet. The adjustments in the "Ball Blue Book" are conservative, like adding 10 minutes to processing instead of 5 minutes. I like that. I also like the detailed explanation of the importance acidity and preventing the growth of microorganisms. Although what I learned in college chemistry and biology is way outdated, pH and bug growth haven't changed (even if the names of the bugs have).

Water bath canning is covered in great detail and is probably the most popular type of canning. I would guess that tomatoes are the most popular food that is canned. I love the step by step directions at the end of chapters that show exactly how to can a particular food, especially tomatoes. There are recipes for tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa, and all things tomato. The chapter on jams, jellies, and fruit spreads really helped me as I now make low sugar jams and jellies. I am afraid of pressure cookers, but the chapter on canning low acid foods such as meats and vegetables was very informative. I live near a bunch of farm markets and the idea of canning my own vegetables is very appealing. Preserving by freezing and dehydrating are covered. Dehydrating is intriguing but I would get a book on that subject alone because I would like in depth coverage of that topic.

This edition may not be available now. I would suggest checking you favorite book seller for the most recent edition. 

Church Cookbooks for Authentic Cooking

© Donna Cook – All Rights Reserved  
I treasure these two church cookbooks published in the early 1970's. My Volga Deutsch grandmother bought them at her church in Chicago and gave them to my mother who passed them down to me. I've labeled this "Authentic Cooking" because the recipes are mostly from immigrants from Eastern Europe or first generation daughters. I see German, Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarian recipes in abundance. There is a Bohemian egg bread with raisins called houska. I never learned to make it from my Bohemian grandmother. I've been able to adopt the recipe in one of these books to work with my bread machine. It's just like being with Babicka Kuchynka. The Fleisch Berok recipe makes me feel closer to all my Volga Deutsch relatives that live so far away.

I know that I'll never make the pig's knuckles with sauerkraut or the old fashioned liver sausage. However, kuchen and kolacky are on the cooking to do list, as are the sauerbraten and chicken paprika. This is not health food but everything in moderation.

"Betty Crocker's Best Bread Machine Cookbook"

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copy
I received a bread machine as a gift over ten years ago. I haven't bought a loaf of bread from the grocery store ever since. My first attempts at yeast breads and rolls were terrific door stops and hockey pucks, so I started making quick breads to compensate for my yeast failure. The bread machine restored my yeast self esteem as did the discovery that there is a flour specifically for bread. I don't remember my grandmother having bread flour and my mom did not make bread, so how was I to know? I set out on a yeast mission and got about half a dozen bread machine cookbooks. Quite frankly, a lot of them had recipes that I would never make like dill bread. I love dill pickles not dill in bread did not appeal to me. Then I realized that what would be better than a Betty Crocker cookbook for a bread machine? Thank goodness that I did, because this is my favorite bread machine cookbook. newer edition is available. 

Even the introduction is tremendously helpful with an explanation of the machine cycles, types of flour, and yeast. The photos of the failed loaves is worth the price of the book alone. The FAQ is a resource for either the newbie or the experienced bread machine user. The recipes range from basic white bread to rustic loaves and beyond. My favorite chapter is about sweet breads and coffee cakes. I just love the Cinnamon Roll recipe, although I use a glaze from my dear old Betty Crocker's Cookbook from the 1970's. I make the rolls as gifts only for very special people in my life.

"The Joy of Cooking"

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copy
I first bought "Joy of Cooking" as a paperback when I was ready to venture beyond basics and into high falutin' recipes. Of course, Joy is a terrific cookbook and fabulous cooking reference. I broke down and bought the hardcover edition so that it would lay flat when I was using it.

There are 18 chapters with recipes for abalone to zucchini and everything in between. There are diagrams on how to eat with chopsticks and submerging the neck end of a goose in boiling water. I doubt that I will ever need to know how to cook emu but I know that "Joy of Cooking" has the directions. The pictures of orange roughy and mahi-mahi show rather unattractive but very delicious fish. Monkfish will never be in my kitchen. I only use a couple kinds of pasta but I can refer to the chart that shows 27 types with their cooking times.

I probably use the stocks and sauces chapter the most, although I'm still trying to master hollandaise and Bearnaise sauces. The marinades and rubs chapter is terrific for preparing meats to barbecue. I never grill meats anymore without marinating for the richer, deeper flavors. There are a lot of international recipes included in the newer editions reflecting the trend towards a world cuisine. I see that there is a 75th anniversary edition available with a predominantly red cover

Just a side note about the movie "Julia and Julie." I just loved the scene with Irma Rombauer where she told Julia Child what it was really like to get "Joy of Cooking" published.

"The New Professional Chef"

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copy
Does the acronym CIA mean spies or cooking to you? The Culinary Institute of America was founded in 1946 and has trained many famous chefs such as Duff Goldman, Anthony Bourdain, Anne Burrell, Cat Cora, and Michael Symon. I was given "The New Professional Chef" by the Culinary Institute of America as a gift. It is one heavy duty cookbook weighing in at eight pounds. If you ever want to know anything about kind of food or technique, this is the cookbook to get! I have the 1996 edition and it's geared to towards future restaurateurs.

The recipes are set for 10 servings, which is great for large family, party or restaurant. Of course, the recipes can be cut in half. Fully one third of the book is devoted to safety, ingredients, equipment and basic techniques. This is the best cooking reference book that I have. There are diagrams, pictures and descriptions of knives, cookware, and cuts of all kinds of meat, poultry and fish.

My favorite section is The Raw Ingredients that has photos of an amazing amount of fruits, vegetables and spices as well as grains, nuts and beans. My next favorite section is Mise en Place which translates from French to "to put in place." I take it to mean preparation prior to cooking. Knife and cutting skill photographs will teach proper knife techniques. This section finally taught me the difference be between bouquet garni (herbs tied in a bundle) and sachet d'epices (herbs and spices in a cheesecloth bag.)

There are recipes for everything you can imagine in 10 serving sizes. There's just one recipe to each 8 1/2 x 11 page. The ingredients are listed in order and the preparation steps are numbered. I really should use this cookbook more. I have seen a new edition at my local bookstore. This cookbook will take your cooking to the next level!

Ball Blue Book and Kerr Canning Book from 1947

© Donna Cook – All Rights Reserved  
I'm a pack rat and hold onto some things for years because I think I'll need them again. Sometimes I do! Occasionally, I run across stuff that I didn't even know that I had, like these vintage canning books from 1947. I kept the few cookbooks that my mom had and these were inside of one of them. I only discovered them last year. They are a precious reminder of my mother. I never saw her do any canning although now that I think about it she did have a couple of canning utensils. We had a peach tree in the back yard and there are food stains on those recipes.

I didn't know that there were jars with glass lids and separate rubber rings to seal them or jars with bail wires to keep the lids closed. There is enough sugar in the jelly and jam recipes to rot your teeth just from reading them. The recipes call for three to four cups of sugar to one cup of fruit. No pectin is added, just sugar. I was surprised that the jars aren't sealed with paraffin.

When I was a kid, my dad would take me to the butcher in the old neighborhood, Cicero, IL. There was a large Bohemian community in Cicero in addition to the gangsters you may have heard about. Organ meats filled one entire meat case in the butcher shop. There are canning recipes for things I remember seeing like pigs feet, sweetbreads, tongue, and sulc (head cheese-you don't want to know.) I didn't see a recipe for tripe.

These two cookbooks are a wonderful window on the past and just how far canning has come since then.

Jacques Pepin's Cookbooks

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copies
I love to watch cooking shows. Before there was the Food Network and the Cooking channel, most cooking shows were on PBS on Saturday mornings in my home town of Chicago. Jacques Pepin shows were my introduction to French cooking. I love his practical methods that make gourmet cooking as easy as burgers. These are the two cookbooks from the 1990's that I have.

Jacques introduced me to the wonders of Herbes de Provence and ratatouille. I still make the Ragout of Potatoes. I would like to make the apple tart but don't have the patience to make the dough or lay out the apples. "The Short-Cut Cook" is my favorite of the two books with a newer edition available.
Charlie Trotter's Cookbooks

Image credit: Donna Cook
My copies
You may remember the late Charlie Trotter from his 1999 PBS show, The Kitchen Sessions. If you didn't see the show, get "Gourmet Cooking for Dummies", which he authored. I never liked the For Dummies series of books until I got this one. Like all the For Dummies books, the subject is taken seriously but with a wry sense of humor. Flavors have many complex layers. My favorite is the Barley Risotto. "The Kitchen Sessions" is a feast both for the eyes and the palette. Most recipes have one whole page with a photo of the dish on the facing page. Right now I'm looking at the Sea Scallops with blended Chicken Liver Sauce and Braised Collard Greens. This is a terrific example of how Chef Trotter blended and layered flavors for unbelievable food.

I was fortunate to have eaten at his Chicago restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, for a couple of special occasions. His mother was at the restaurant and gave guests tours of the kitchen and the area where the TV show was shot. I'm still lusting after the 55 gallon stockpots.