On Apple Cake and Book 5 of 5

Day-old Apple cake* plays a huge role in my “Tales of Darkwood” series, especially in the final book that publishes this coming Monday. I only thought it fair that I find a good recipe for apple cake to share with you. Here it is: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/361695413829270678/

Book 5, titled “Blood to Bind” turned out to be a fantastic yarn. I’m going to go out on a limb and say publicly that I’m thrilled with it, as well as happy with the whole series. Completing an entire five-book series, along with a hefty novella prequel in a single year (well, okay, it took a year and a half to noodle them out and write them all, but they all published in 2022) took a lot of effort. Not to mention learning how to be a publisher, creating my publishing imprint, and then figuring out marketing. If you haven’t started them yet, this is the link to my author page. https://www.amazon.com/Stacey-Upton-Bracey/e/B07NZDGRPJ You could get all 5 books for someone for Christmas for less than $25 on kindle… just a suggestion.

“The Traveller’s Tale” is the FIS (First in Series—see how I can sling the acronyms? Lol.)

I’ll let you in on a secret: It nearly did me in. Especially this last book. I imagined it was going to be a 75k page book but turned out to be about 110k. It’s good though. A page-turner that wraps up multiple story lines in an entertaining way. My Beta readers claim it’s their favorite one. I trust them.

I stayed sane by talking to friends, going for walks, and swimming. Coffee also played a big part in keeping me going. I wrote nearly daily, at least 2,000 words a day (about 8 pages of book). Towards the end, I was writing about 8k a day (32 pages) to get it done in time. I’ve found I do my best writing in the morning, so I started getting up early, around 4am to get ‘er done. Not that I like that answer to “what is my writing practice,” but it’s what works for me.

I do love writing, though. Pretty sure my current pace of at least 6 full-length books + some shorts per year is something I can keep up.

This coming year will bring some changes. I have a pen name I introduced in an anthology this year, alongside the dark fantasy series. Stacey Christine writes Romance. I’m currently torn between writing Paranormal Romance or Sports Romance (Clean or Spicy?) or Small Town Second Chance Romance. What do you like to read? Email me back here and let me know. Please share any good titles you think I should read in those genres too!

That’s it for now—enjoy your apple cake! “The Seasoned Mom” has good recipes.
*Being that this is a darkish sort of tale… the apple cake in the story might be poisoned…

On Road Trips and Family Traditions

This past week we took a road trip up to Amarillo, Texas. It’s about a six-hour drive from Dallas, with stops, angling up the 287. The road is dotted with small towns, lots of fields with various crops, wind farms, cattle, and not much else.

My husband and I quite enjoy a good road trip. Usually we listen to a book, but the CD player got stuck, so we chatted about what we were seeing as we drove through the sprawl of Dallas and environs (which takes a good hour) out into the sometimes rolling but mostly flat vistas of western Texas. Or enjoyed the long, comfortable silences you can experience when you’re with someone you love.

You don’t realize you miss seeing horizons until you see them again after a long time. Growing up in Kansas, I had quick and easy access to vistas. Big skies with amazing cloud formations and below it, the stretch of land literally as far as your eye can see.

Color becomes important too, even as we descend (finally!) into colder weather here in Texas. The shadings of brown, the occasional pop of green. Of course, the ever-changing sky. It was mostly cloudy for our drive out, raining the entire way back, but even then the differentiation in grey tone was a marvel.

We saw tall grain silos, long trains, and fields of cotton. No, I didn’t know they grew cotton here, either. The fields look like a giant upended a popcorn bowl after their team scored a touchdown. I saw antelope too, a first for me. And tumbleweeds. Long, long trains, too. Double stacked with shipping containers, with three engines to pull it. Or, passing the other way, open cars filled with what we guessed was coal, but turns out is coke, a by-product of the oil industry.

The purpose for our road trip was to spend Thanksgiving with a bunch of folks who are pretty new to us. This is the gift your children give you as they grow up and have serious relationships. I love it, especially since we got to spend the day with 25 or so people. I say this as an only child. Most of my memories about Thanksgiving include having to dress up and then sit with just my parents and me at the dining room table, having stilted conversation or none at all. It didn’t generate warm feelings for the holiday. There, I’ve said it. Although I have always liked the pie.

This Thanksgiving changed all that. Our hosts could not have been friendlier or more accommodating. They went out of their way to welcome us, to fold us right in. And man, the food was great. Mac and cheese, green bean casserole, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and corn casserole on the island. Relish trays, Jell-O salad (a fave for me), deviled eggs, bread and rolls, cranberry sauce. Beef stew, ham, and turkey. The kitchen table was stacked with desserts. Pumpkin, pecan, and chocolate pies, cookies, strawberry cake, pumpkin and chocolate cheesecakes, a rice Krispie thing with chocolate and caramel, and more.

The meal started with a prayer from the oldest person there, the great grandpa to most of them, a wonderful man who’s seen a thing or two. And then the eating and talking. Four hours passed by in a flash. We weren’t in a big house, but somehow those lovely people rolled us up and included us in conversation and friendship. It made me truly thankful and blessed, and something else, too. It made me enjoy Thanksgiving.

It was like the vistas we saw on the drive. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re missing until you see it.

On Bread and Pumpkin Pie

The holidays are back! As I get older, they whirl back around again with an uncanny speed. I often forget what month I’m in. I have no idea how we are at the end of November, but here we are. This is the time of year I bake the most.

I have two easy bakes to share with you. I’ve been in the throes of finishing book 5 of 5 in my dark fantasy book. “Blood to Bind.”  (Last 5 days to save 50% on the e-book! $2.99. Click here: https://www.amazon.com.au/Blood-Bind-Tales-Darkwood-Book-ebook/dp/B0BLMB5XJF )

I use walks, swims, and bakes as my antidote to the eye-burning task of finding and removing extra words in that manuscript. I promise both of these are easy.

PUMPKIN PIE

Use the recipe on the back of a condensed milk can, and then add lots of extra cinnamon and nutmeg, so it’s a nice dark orange, not that baby puke color. That’s it.

 I buy refrigerator crust. They were out of Pillsbury ones this year, which are BY FAR the most reliable pre-made crust on the market. I used Trader Joes’ version on this one. Now you know I love TJs, but not this crust. Hard to work with, it came out of the package cracked into about 14 fiddly pieces. If that happens to you, stitch it together in the pie tin to an approximate shape, then put it in the oven at 375 for ten minutes. It softens the darn thing so you can use a spoon to smooth over the cracks.

BREAD BOULES

This recipe makes 3 small, or 2 large loaves. Even if you’ve never baked bread before, you can bake this. That is my firm Thanksgiving promise. You need a big bowl to start with, so the bread has room to grow. That one you use to serve salad in will work just fine.

1 ½ packets active dry yeast
3 cups lukewarm water
1 hefty pinch of salt.

Mix these together in your big bowl, and let it sit for 10 minutes. You’ll start to see a few bubbles as the yeast does it thing.

6 ½ cups BREAD flour. Not regular flour.

Add the flour in slowly – I do 3 cups at first, then 2, then 1, then the pesky .5. Mix it in with a spoon and your hand if you need to. You want the flour absorbed. Be gentle and zen. Think happy thoughts. You might even talk to your dough and tell it how lovely it smells.

Cover it loosely (paper towel is fine) for at least 2 hours, until it grows 2x and is flat on top. If it’s cold out it can take longer.

Prep your cookie sheet (or if you’re lucky you have one of those pizza stones) with a thin layer of cornmeal so the bread doesn’t stick.

Sprinkle the top of the dough with a bit of flour, and a bit more for your hands. Use a serrated knife to cut it in half, or thirds. It will be sticky and remind you of playdoh if you’re old enough. Use your hands to form a ball, tucking the ends under. Don’t overthink this, its bread.

Let rest for 40 minutes. It will rise again on your sheet. 20 minutes into this process, heat the oven to 450. Right before it goes into the oven, use the serrated knife again to make a crisscross slash on top of the bread so it can grow in the oven. These should be pretty deep.

Pop a pan of water on a lower rack (this makes steam and is the magic that makes for a crusty loaf). Put your bread in on the rack above it. Bake for 30 minutes. Take it out and let cool on a wire rack.

Or don’t. Hot bread is one of the great joys on this planet but do wait at least 10 minutes to cut it.

On a Hammam Experience and Taking the Long Way Home

Leaving Loutro, and with it the calming swim-eat-sleep-repeat experience was bittersweet, as the endings of most wonderful long-awaited trips are. We start to turn our heads toward home, even though our feet are still on foreign soil. It’s not all bad, knowing you are returning to the familiar, to the loved ones. Yet the lingering thought remains; will I ever be in this place again?

I can only say, I hope I do.

After a quick ferry ride, three of my friends and I took a hired car back to Chania. I had planned a Cretan cooking experience, but just as I was leaving to meet up with the driver, it was cancelled. Ah well. I was not unhappy at the prospect of a couple of days on my own back in Chania.

Here is the stunning room in the old town of Chania that I got to stay in. The Boutique Hotel de Doge is housed in a 15th century restored Venetian villa. Yeah. Here is the street it is on. No, really. There were a lot of stairs to get to this room too, and one more time, I didn’t mind a bit. I grabbed some street food for dinner at a place near the bus station, where they cook your food right there in front of you on the grill. This chicken sandwich was absolutely delicious.

I mentioned last week that I swam in the Aegean as well as in the Mediterranean on this trip. I accomplished that early the next morning, having sussed out the journey (maybe fifteen minutes of walking) from the hotel. The way carved its way past narrow streets, even more ruins, and some cool graffiti then onto sandy Nea Chora beach. There were only a few other early swimmers. I felt pretty comfortable just leaving my things on the shore and popping in for a mile or so. The water was a bit cooler than the other side, and there was more chop, but checking off a thing I’d wanted to do for a long time made it all a delight.

Afterwards, I treated myself to a fancy breakfast at the Venetian harbor. I ordered in Greek and for the first and only time I didn’t get corrected, and I got everything I’d asked for. Score! I did my shopping for gifts in the busy old section and explored a few more ruins. As always, there were cats everywhere. They own the place. In one store, I got into a lovely conversation in half-Greek, half-English, and got directions to the new Archaeological Museum of Crete. She said it was a beautiful walk, maybe a mile or so, and gave me the directions. In Greek. I know I’ve been harping on being able to speak a little bit… and read most of the signs. I am going to put a plug in for Duolingo, the free version for giving me this bit of courage. It took me nearly two years, and turns out my accent was atrocious, but it made a big difference to me, especially when I was on my own, that I could communicate and find my way. And that I got my 61-year-old brain to learn a few new things.

Then it was time for my Hammam experience, which is a Turkish steam/bath/massage. I had booked it on a bit of a whim, lured by the fact I’d never experienced one, and this particular place was located in the same bathhouse that’s been there since the town has been there, so you know 600 or so years. They gave me a big cotton towel and non-skid slippers, and throwaway undies to change into. I spent a half hour in the marble-encased steam room (they had cold water to drink). Then my person came and got me. The bathing/massage part took place on a marble slab. There were two of these slabs in the room. It was connected to the steam room as well, so everything happened in a sort of dream-like water vapor arena of swirling white and heat. The process made me feel like a queen, which I didn’t see coming. I’m not one to go for “pampering,” ever, but this felt different from merely being indulgent. I’d frankly expected having someone bathe me as awkward, and perhaps slightly icky. Instead, it gave me a sense of power. The environment made me feel connected through the ages to all of those who’d stepped foot in this ancient place. One olive oil soap-warm, silky water lathed over me-olive oil massage-hair wash later, I emerged as clean as I’ve ever been, and utterly relaxed. I’d do it again and recommend it to anyone.

My friends from the trip were staying at the same hotel as I was but leaving early the next day. We had a final delicious meal together, which sported the best stuffed spinach leaves I’ve ever eaten, as well as stuffed artichoke flowers. There are no pictures. I ate them all before I remembered to take any. We wandered a bit and found this store that was built over the top of a church. Those are the (empty!) burial chambers from the catacombs beneath the store. We took a bit of a stroll at night. One of my pals took the pic of Chania at night that heads up today’s blog. Those buildings on the left have stood there for over 800 years.

The next day, I woke early, packed, and left my bag at the hotel with a note that I’d be back for it. Then stepped out in faith for the museum. I loved the walk that took me to a whole new section of Chania, and eventually to the museum, which I had to myself, as I got there right when it opened. So many brand new, thoughtful exhibits. Do you remember I told you the enterprising Minoans repurposed their bathtubs to be their sarcophagus? Here is an example of that. And here is a bowl with one of the earliest examples of Linear A writing — so cool! I had a perfect museum brunch on the patio that overlooked the Aegean. Then I stepped over the museum cat who had been laying in the entrance when I walked in. She was still there in the same spot when I came back out three hours later. I walked back to the old town, had a lemon gelato, and decided 18,000 steps in one morning and afternoon were enough, and that as much as I loved it, it was time to say goodbye to Chania and Crete.

I collected my bag and caught the bus to the airport. I was way too early, but I had just… had enough, you know that feeling? I’d seen everything I wanted to see, and anything else seemed too much. So I killed 6 hours in Chania airport. Lucky for me I struck up a conversation with the woman running the ticket counter, as there was a bit of an issue with my ticket as I tried to board – I was flying into Helsinki for a connection, but it was technically on the next day, so didn’t have the connecting boarding pass.

That meant the screen flashed RED when I scanned my pass, and (since I can read Greek) I could see the screen said DO NOT ALLOW THIS PERSON TO BOARD THE AIRCRAFT. Behind me, the other people in line shifted and grumbled. The men guarding the gate put their hands on their guns and SCRUTINIZED me.

Here is where some travelling mercy kicked in. While my stress level at that moment shot up to 110%, I called on every ounce of self-possession I had. Instead of pouting, yelling, or posturing, I smiled nicely at the woman who’d I’d been in conversation with, and trusted she’d fix it.

She said “Och ochi,” and started typing furiously. That means “Oh no.” I continued to smile, stepping to the side so the grumbly passengers behind me could go around. Yes, part of me wanted to just push past her, dash onto the tarmac and up the stairs of the waiting plane. Instead, I trusted.

She fixed it. The screen went from red to its normal grey. “You’ll need to talk to a person before you get to the gate in Helsinki,” she told me. I thanked her profusely, and moved on, just as if my heart rate wasn’t the highest it had been in years.

The plane was full of very tall people, who all had puffy jackets with them. I had my window seat, per usual. The sun had gone down, so we flew over pitch black for the most part. Every once in a while there were cities, the golden and white lights looking like the lit veins and arteries of a living thing. Finally, we landed in Helsinki at 12.30 at night. It was just over freezing, and I understood why they all had those puffy jackets.

I only had my sweater and a scarf. That airport was cold, compared to the temps I’d gotten used to on Crete. I’d known this part was coming though. My twelve-hour layover in the Helsinki airport. I did my best to get comfortable. The whole place is like Ikea, all blonde wood and chrome, just with planes outside. Yes, they had Christmas trees up. Maybe it is Christmas there all the time. Finally, at 4am the coffee shops opened. At eight, I talked to a very stern gate agent about my ticket issue. She also typed for a very long time before she could hand me a boarding pass. I smiled nicely at her too. I got through the passport check with no issues, then it was time to go to the lounge I’d paid an upgrade to get.

It was a great decision. As nice as Helsinki airport is, it was nicer in the private lounge, where it’s quiet and there’s free food and coffee and a place to put your feet up. I dozed here until it was time for me to make the next long-haul, 14 hours to DFW.

I got lucky and had an empty seat in the middle, and a very nice flight companion. I had opted for the dairy-free meal, and it was delicious. I’d travel Finnair again anytime. Two movies, a lot of pages of a book read, and a short nap later, I landed. It took a long time to get through customs at DFW, as about five planes came in at the same time, but finally I got through. My wonderful husband was there to meet me. I think I finally got to bed about 38 hours after I’d last slept, but my heart and soul were full, my skin tan, my muscles exercised, and my mind brimming with more new stories to tell. I truly am a #luckygal.