Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- The Measure of Things

The Lunch With Stennifer Contest ends next Monday at 11:59pm CST. Have you entered? Have you entered as often as you should? Don’t forget you still have time to buy books, post on facebook, and e-mail your friends for entry.

You, your bestie, me and Jen Lancaster at a swank lunch in your hometown, with cocktails and cupcakes, and a large goodie basket! Plus the whole event immortalized on both of our blogs. And a lifetime of memories… click here for the deets, and get those entries in!

One week from today my new book GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT will hit bookstores near you. This makes it a very exciting and nerve-wracking time for me, since as much as I have been waiting to get the book into your hot little hands, now I have to hope that you enjoy it and want to recommend it to your friends and family! I have to hope that the people who review it are kind, and understand what I was trying to say with this story. I have to hope that people like my heroine enough to root for her, even when she does things that we wish she wouldn’t do, even when she handles problems badly or makes mistakes.

It is always such a struggle to balance characters being human, flaws and foibles and all, and still being likable. Still being “people” even though they are just products of imagination.

There are some exciting things going on connected to the book that I want to share…

Monday September 7
Tune in to WGN at Noon to watch me do a cooking segment and talk about the book

Monday September 13
Indy Style Television
WISH Channel 8 Indianapolis
My Indiana pals, please tune in at 9am to see me, probably cooking and chatting about the book, certainly trying not to yawn during segment 

Tuesday September 14
Barnes and Noble Webster Place
1441 W. Webster
Chicago IL

Thursday September 16
Barnes and Noble Old Orchard
55 Old Orchard Shopping Center
Skokie IL

I hope you will watch me on TV, and come to one of the readings/signings if you are in the area…I would love to see you in person. And be sure to let your pals know as well!

When a new book comes out, with all the attendant hoopla, it puts me in the mind of measuring. How do I measure my own success, and how do others? What tools do the people who read use to measure the worth of the work?

I try very hard not to measure based on sales figures. I can’t control the amount of promotion the book may or may not get. For me, and many mid-list authors, it can be a total crapshoot. Does a review get picked up? Does someone with juice read the book and like it and help you by blogging or tweeting about you? Do you get anointed with the lucky stick?

I do my level best to measure based on the response I get from readers like you. The people who e-mail me to say that they heard me, that it made sense, that it moved them. The people who show up at events to get a book signed and tell me I entertained them. The people who buy my books as gifts for others, or ask their library to carry my work. This, for me, has to be the measure of my success, because none of the rest of it is much in my control. I’d love to be a bestseller someday, or have my work optioned for film or TV. It would be fantastic to get to a level where my publisher would send me out on tour so that I could meet more of you in person, and thank you for reading.

But that isn’t the measure I will ever use. If one person has a few hours of their life made more enjoyable by reading the words it occurs to me to put down on paper, then that is successful. If it could be a lot of people, particularly people who might not be related to me by blood, that is a bonus! And I try to remember that the measure of my life will never be the number of books I publish or how many copies they sell.

Measuring is something I often don’t bother to do in my kitchen. I’m a pinch of this, taste, pinch of that girl. Even when I start with a recipe, I frequently use it more as a broad roadmap and not as a specific path, changing ingredients, altering amounts, using what I have. And I love to make things with no recipe at all, just throwing things together until they taste good. Last week I made a simple weeknight pasta for myself and Charming Suitor….leftover chicken, orecchiette pasta, yellow squash and zucchini, some artichoke hearts…a little chicken stock and lemon juice. Parsley and chives. Capers and pine nuts. A little nut of butter. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated. Salt and pepper. I just sort of tossed stuff together and kept tasting and eventually there was dinner. Not the kind of thing I would ever write down or publish, but the kind of thing I am glad I can do. Because sometimes you just need a happy bowl of warm yummy.

When it is time to measure, I rely on a few key tools, and I thought I would share those with you:

Salter scale:

This digital scale makes baking a dream, and is very useful when you find recipes with weight measurements. Affordable and sleek, with everything you will need. It also can be helpful when you want to keep an eye on what you are eating connected to a healthy program, I can eyeball 4 oz of chicken pretty well by now, but it is easy to accidentally overserve yourself….this scale takes the guesswork right out.

Measuring Spoons:

I use these from Nigella Lawson for almost everything. I love the beautiful design, and think they look great hanging in my kitchen. Plus she has the addition of a “Dessert Spoon” on there, which is great if you have any old British cookbooks!

Measuring cups:

For me, these have to be metal and very sturdy. Mine are copper, but these would be great as well.

Pyrex Cups:

I collect old glass measuring cups for liquid measure, but the classic Pyrex are great.

Ratio by Michael Ruhlman
The single most useful tool for measuring and cooking in my kitchen arsenal, this is less cookbook and more atlas...it will guide your cooking in ways you cannot even imagine.  Go. Buy. Now.  Also available in convenient App form.

As for a recipe that requires specific measurements, I thought I would share this one…

Recently Charming Suitor and I took a road trip to Kentucky to visit his parents. They are just the loveliest people, married 55 years, spunky and affectionate, smart and witty and awfully kind. And the most hospitable of hosts. We looked at old pictures and yearbooks, they told all the embarassing tales one wants to hear about their beloved, we got to see all the old family homes and meet a wonderful family friend, and eat delicous meals.  Including my first foray into the world of BBQ Mutton, and let me say, my life is forever changed for the better.  I got twelve hours in the car with CS, singing along to guilty pleasure road trip songs, and pulling off the highway for little adventures.  It was a pretty perfect weekend. 

One of the highlights for me was the morning ritual of biscuit baking…light as air biscuits, crunchy on the outside and ethereal on the inside, glorious little pillows of delicious. Charming Mother, with much encouragement from Reverend Charming and my own CS, would arise to measure carefully the simple ingredients, and work her biscuit magic. Every morning a basket of them would disappear, mine and CM’s with butter and strawberry jam, RC's with butter and sorghum molasses, and CS' with every possible topping and yes I’ll have another please!

Thanks ezrapoundcake.com

Charming Mother’s Morning Biscuits

2 c flour
½ t salt
4 t baking powder
½ t cream of tartar
½ c shortening
2/3 c milk

Sift first four ingredients together, then cut in shortening. CM used two butter knives for this, with deft hands. I don’t know that I would be as successful with that method, so a pastry cutter would be fine. Add milk to bring together and roll out about ½ inch thick. Cut into biscuits the shape and size you desire, CM’s were about 1 ½ inches across, and bake on ungreased cookie sheet or foil pan, with bisuits just touching at 450. Timing is hard here, and will alter based on the size of your biscuits, you are looking for a good golden brown on the outside. I think these took about 8-10 minutes, but we seemed to go mostly based on smell…when the kitchen smells toasty and nutty and biscuit-y they are done.

I cannot guarantee yours will be as perfect as hers, but I can tell you that the measurements are pretty precise, I wouldn’t alter them.

In this week before my latest baby takes wings and leaves the nest to be delivered into your hands--books or no books, sales or no sales, the fact that I have my CS and that he loves me enough to take me home and share in the comfort of his family table, in the joy of his father’s stories and the glory of his mother’s biscuits, that is the greatest measure of success I could hope for. And I am grateful. So very grateful.

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @staceyballis


  1. I only just found the link to your blog on Jen's page. I am enjoying it so much. My best friend and I have read all of Jen's books and I look forward to adding your book to my library. I am heading toward Amazon.com now to see if you have any more books. Good luck with your book and your tour. Only wish we could meet you both.
    Donna @ http://mylife-in-stories.blogspot.com

  2. What a lovely, lovely post! I ran into Borders today on my lunch break to find one of your books... and those foolish people didn't have any! Rather than make you feel sad about this I told the helpful assistant that I love your stuff and think they should stock it. Turns out he has some say in what his particular store sells and said he was pleased to hear of an author he was unfamiliar with and would indeed order some of your books. Guess I'll have to kindle something in the mean time, and can't wait to order your newest to enter the contest!! (Have to wait for the paycheck this weekend, but I'll be sure to get it in on time!!)

    So happy to hear that you and CS had a wonderful time, and that your relationship is going well. I love to hear about CS and welcome any stories with him in it. Good luck!

  3. I, too, just ran across your blog from Jennifer's page. I am ashamed to say that I have not read your books, however, I did just pre-order through Amazon and am now following your blog! I have read the tales of the good friend Stacy through Jen's books and now I am geeked to get your book and read on!

    And ps - I would LOVE to win that contest!!
    -Sarah - www.sealedexpressions.blogspot.com