Thursday, May 31, 2012

Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Sheppard's Pie recipe

Today I'm happy to introduce award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail, a fellow Broad Universe member. She has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over seventeen years. Her works include the urban fantasies, Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, the upcoming Today’s Promise, and The Halfling’s Court, and the writers guide, The Literary Handyman. She edits the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies and Dragon’s Lure, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies.She is a member of the New Jersey Authors Network and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail, lit_handyman), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). Learn more at

If you were marooned on an island, and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food, what would you choose? Hmmm…tricky…I would say Sheppard’s pie (which I happen to make…see below recipe) because it has all kinds of elements that are both yummy and good for you! Besides, I like it lots and lots, but it has to have fresh mashed potatoes on top. The book….wow…You know, I’d have to say the Bible, because it’s a heck of a lot of reading on that onion-skin paper, and if I’m marooned, I definitely need the content too. I have to admit I’d skip the begets, though.

What is your A+, number 1 writing/editing/query-reading snack?
It’s a toss-up…if I’m being good, it’s buttered popcorn with a little Nature’s Seasoning sprinkled on top. If I’m being bad it’s mint chocolate chip ice cream with redi-whip whipped cream on top…LOTS.
Hot out of the oven: What inspired your latest book, and what ingredients do you hope makes it a tasty treat for readers? I just finished Today’s Promise, which is the final novel in my Eternal Cycle series of Irish-Myth based novels, so…basically, it’s inspired by the first two novels, Yesterday’s Dreams and Tomorrow’s Memories.

The series as a whole was inspired by a conversation with one of my supervisors back when I was a volunteer for the Amazing Instant Novelist writing site on AOL. He wrote dark fiction and he was telling us one day about some of the different jobs he had had in the past. One of those jobs was as a pawnbroker. That and his chosen writing style gave me the idea for a pawn shop where an evil broker only accepted items for pawn that had a connection to the owner’s soul, for nefarious purposes, of course.

Now, that was just the seed of the idea; by the time I started to write the first novel the evil pawnbroker morphed into a good guardian elf but the pawnshop and soul-linked objects remained the same. The first two books had all the build-up. Because of that, Today’s Promise is full of spice and zest and excitement because everything is coming together and we have to wrap up a tapestry’s worth of story threads. We have banishments and demon possession; daring rescues and rousing sword-battles.

Of course, there always needs to be something to cut the tension so there is a fair amount of humor, a touch of romance, and actually…a really cool cooking scene involving homemade hot chocolate and fire sprites. 

Too much salt can ruin an exquisite meal, and the perfect dessert tempers earlier mistakes. What ingredients can destroy a book through overuse or salvage a book despite its flaws? One of the primary problems I had with Today’s Promise is, as I mentioned, the fact that it is the culmination of a series. The reason this was a problem is that there tends to be a lot of tension in when you approach the end of a story, the conflicts and the tension build. If you don’t make a concerted effort to break the tension from time to time you risk exhausting the reader. Basically, if you keep ramping things up the reader reaches a cut-off point where just they can’t escalate their reaction anymore. You either wear them out or you push them past the point of suspension of disbelief so they get annoyed with the storyline and the characters instead of being sympathetic to them.

To counteract this I’ve made sure to include brief touches of comic relief even in tense scenes, as well as relaxed moments of reflection. One of the ways I do this is through the lesser fae in my series. The sprites, mostly, particularly BeagScath (Little Shadow), the main sprite that has appeared throughout the series. He is sweet and puckish and irreverent. He certainly doesn’t care if his actions are appropriate to the situation.

1 ½ pounds of ground beef
½ cup onion, diced
2 tbs minced garlic
1 10 oz can of vegetable of choice (corn, peas,mixed vegetables)
1 cup of shredded cheese, American or cheddar
1 small jar of beef gravy, about 1 cup
2 to three cups of mashed potatoes (fresh or packaged)
Spices as desired (salt and pepper, or Morton’s Nature’s Seasoning)

Large casserole dish
Large frying pan
Cutting Board

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. In large frying pan, combine meat, spices, garlic, and onion. 

Sauté until meat is browned. Drain off the fat and move the meat to the casserole dish.

Pour in the gravy and mix well until coated. Spread meat evenly over the bottom of the dish then layer evenly with vegetables.

With your spatula, top meat and vegetable mixture with mashed potatoes to ½-inch below the casserole rim until mixture is completely covered. Do not go to the top of the dish. Spread shredded cheese on top of the mashed potatoes. 

Cover casserole with foil and place foil or catch pan beneath in case of bubble-over. Cook about 40 minutes.

Potential Substitutions

 Meat – any groundmeat of choice, stewmeat or lamb (if using chunk meat, cut into bite-sized pieces)

For individual portions, follow the above steps, but use
single-serving crocks or dishes. Be sure to check the bottoms
to confirm they are oven-rated.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Suffering and Lasagna

Lately, I’ve been working on amping up tension in scenes that are perfectly pleasant but not all that exciting. In the process, I’ve come to a conclusion: liking your characters too much can be dangerous. When you become enraptured with your characters, you never want anything bad to happen to them. You never experiment with their motivations, let them make big mistakes, or throw suffering at them as often as necessary—which, of course, is nearly constantly. 

I realized I was playing it safe, and I promised not to take it easy anymore. As a result, even in happy, restful scenes, I now find myself looking for the splinter or the stubbed toe, the tiny suffering that will linger and develop into a true obstacle—a deadly infection or debilitating limp—in the next chapter. Always ask if a character is suffering enough. If not, the reader might not have enough to root for and enough reason to worry.

Is your character lonely? Perhaps, she needs to be lonely and afraid. But is a general fear enough? No way! Add in a specific fear, a terrifying sight or sound. But is even that enough? Perhaps not. While this could end up in a ridiculous place, piling on a bit more suffering is almost always a good choice. You can’t like your characters so much that you sacrifice tension in the process.

Likewise, being in love with your own recipes can limit their development. When you enjoy the product too much, you might become afraid of experimenting, of switching out one ingredient or one technique for another. For many people, lasagna is one of those unchanging recipes, because, let’s face it, lasagna is almost always good.

After poking around a few places, though, and tweaking some ingredients, I stumbled into a lasagna recipe that tops all those I’d made before. I just hope that when the time comes I won’t be too afraid to change it up one more time, even if I have to suffer some along the way. 

Sweet and Savory Lasagna

Meat Sauce
1 lb. ground beef or sausage
1 1/2 c. finely chopped onion
2 tsp. garlic salt
cloves garlic, minced
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 large tomato, diced
1/2 c. red wine
1 T. Italian seasoning
1 T. chili powder
1 T. brown sugar

1 package lasagna noodles

Ricotta Mixture
2 eggs
1 c. grated parmesan cheese
15 oz. ricotta cheese
510 oz. chopped spinach
2 1/2 T. butter
2 T. flour
1 c. milk
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. basil
1 T. parsley

1 lb. shredded provel cheese (or mozzarella if you must)

Cook beef, onion, and 1 tsp. garlic salt in skillet until mostly browned. Drain. Add the second teaspoon of garlic salt, garlic, tomato sauce, tomato paste, diced tomato, and wine, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add Italian seasoning, chili powder, and brown sugar, and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, stirring often. Set aside.

Cook lasagna noodles as directed on package, drain, rinse, and set aside.

In large bowl, beat two eggs. Stir in parmesan, ricotta, spinach. Refrigerate.

Melt butter, then add flour. Cook 2 minutes on medium heat, stirring constantly. Whisk in the milk and cook on medium high for about 3 minutes until thick. Stir in pepper, nutmeg, basil, and parsley. Pour into refrigerated cheese mixture and mix well.

Spray large baking dish (13x9x2) or lightly brush with olive oil. Layer 1/3 of noodles, 1/3 ricotta mixture, 1/3 meat, and 1/3 provel. Repeat layering twice more. Bake at 375˚ for 3035 minutes or until golden brown and heated through.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guess I'll Make Lemonade

My life is crazy busy right now. The kids are finishing up their last day of school, today actually. Summer program schedules are getting filled out and I have a deadline for a revision on Monday. Plus, this weekend also has a few events, my daughter’s birthday and it’s her year for a party (We let them have a b-day party on years they turn an even number), and a family reunion at my parents house that coincides with Memorial weekend.

After that I have a week break, kind of, because the following Saturday is going to be crazy. My son wanted to earn some money to buy his brother a bike that he could ride that costs around $400. See, his older brother has Autism and Fragile X Syndrome. He has sensory issues making it hard for him to balance a normal bike. He used to use training wheels but now that he is almost 12 years old, he is too big. Anyway back to what my other son is doing. I told him he didn’t need to buy the bike that his father and I were still saving to buy one. But he insisted the he wanted to work and earn the rest of the money so he could get it for him.

How could I tell him no? He’s almost 9 and wants to work, earn the money and not for his personal gain. I had to support him. He wanted to sell all his toys but his sister came up with a better idea, a lemonade stand. Here is the link to the post.

I posted the event on Facebook and sent a few invites out to my friends thinking it might get them ten or so customers. I never expected what would happen. It spread like wild fire. Those friends sent invites to other friends and then they passed it on. A newspaper contacted me and asked if they could run a story about the two’s lemonade stand for their brother. A valley magazine and local news station all called as well. As of today there has been over 1000 people invited to this juice stand and it still has a week until the event. That is a ton of lemonade.

This got me thinking about what kind of lemonade to make. I have an amazing recipe for one that looks like water. I love taking this to gatherings because everyone thinks its water until they take their first sip and it turns out to be sweet and lemony. Most of all addicting.

It reminded me of the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I love those kinds of books that surprise you at the first chapter and you can’t put it down. That is how this drink is. You can’t just have one sip. You have to keep going even when your mind is telling you “Stop! Think of the calories.” Just like when you’re deep into the good read and it’s three in the morning but you just have to find out what happens next. That is when I know something is excellent and needs to be shared.

You will need:
  • 5 gallon water cooler
  • 8 cups sugar
  • 4 tbls. lemon extract
  • citric acid
  • cold water
  • ice

In 5 gallon water cooler add sugar and lemon extract. Add water ¾ the way to the top of cooler. Mix well with long spoon. Next add citric acid. This I do to taste starting at 4 tbls. If you like it stranger add a little more. Usually I use half the bottle. Stir. Finish by adding ice to the top off at 5 gallon mark to make it colder. Pour in a glass and enjoy.

This is another link to my blog, Writing My Chaos, that has a little video clip my son made to help explain how he feels about being the only child that doesn't have Fragile X Syndrome in his family.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cole's Famous Taco Dip for the Busy Writer

Oh, you guys. What a crazy couple of months I've had. First, I had bronchitis for FOREVER! But, seriously, it was five weeks straight. And then, because of said bronchitis, I cracked my rib while coughing, had a book release, several conferences to attend, another book release, several author events, a massive hail storm with damage to my cars and house, a sick child...and the list goes on and on forever. And the list will continue to go on and on forever because this is life and, hey, it's not going to slow down, right?

Because of this, I'm going to let you in on my top secret taco dip recipe. (All right, it may not be TOP SECRET, but it is delicious and will be devoured quickly.) What I love about this recipe is that it is the perfect dish for the harried writer to throw together when decorum demands they bring a dish to the potluck, birthday party, graduation, picnic, whatever they've been invited to. Seriously, you can slap this baby together in less than twenty minutes (the kiddos have a blast sprinkling on the cheese) and it will be devoured, so you don't have to worry about leftovers chillin' in your fridge and collecting mold along with the pizza from a month ago. (Please tell me I'm not the only one.) But I digress...

Cole's Not-so Famous (But Delicious!) Taco Dip 

1 Package Cream Cheese
1 Small Tub Sour Cream
1 Packet Taco Seasoning
1 Can Refried Beans
1 Jar Salsa
1 Package Shredded Lettuce
1 Package Shredded Cheddar
Optional Ingredients: Guacamole, Olives, Diced Tomatoes, Jalapenos

1. Take a cookie sheet and spread the beans along the bottom with a spatula

2. In a bowl, combine the cream cheese, sour cream, and taco seasoning until smooth. Next, spread in a layer on top of the beans.

3. Spread a thin layer of salsa on top of the sour cream/cream cheese mixture.

4. Sprinkle the layers with shredded lettuce until covered and top with shredded cheese.

5. Last, add any additional toppings according to taste (olives, diced tomatoes, etc.)

6. Bring to party, pretend you slaved over it, watch it be devoured with tortilla chips, and enjoy a margarita. Oh, and try not to think too hard about those edits you're supposed to be working on.

Oh, and some people go as far as to heat their dip up before serving so the cheese is all gooey. But really, who has that kind of time?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Simple Pleasures


Verb - in-duhlj - To yield to an inclination or desire; be lenient or permissive with

Writing comes with so many rules. Curb your adverbs. Quash your pronouns. Activate your verbs. Start with action. Lead with character. Trim all qualifiers. Watch those semi-colons!

These rules, over time or at certain tender times, drain the fun out of writing. It’s possible – if you keep all the things you’re not supposed to do while writing in your mind all at once – to not be able to write a single “good” paragraph.

And that, my dears, is no fun at all.

So I say, don’t just give yourself permission to skirt the rules, embrace your excess. For a paragraph, a story, a day or a week. As long as it takes to throw off the paralysis of discipline and rediscover inspiration.

Embrace your purple prose and aggressive alliteration, run yourself dry of wases and to be’s, don’t name your character until chapter three (if at all). Treat yourself to lay writing, over-the-top writing, empty calorie whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles writing.

Run free of the rules. Indulge yourself.

(just don’t tell your editor I gave you that idea, please)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ode to Spring and New Ideas

Of all the seasons, I’d say my cooking gets the most creative in spring. Partly it’s because the ingredients that are seasonal are here for such a short time (ramps, rhubarb, baby artichokes) and I feel the (self-imposed) pressure to use them before they’re gone. There’s always the excitement of being able to get stuff out of my own garden, like the chives that are finally in bloom. Mostly, though, it’s because these are just inspiring flavors, and since I don’t get to cook with them the rest of the year, there’s a lot of joy in the experimentation.
Like this sorrel pesto, for instance—it’s a once-in-a-year type of dish. I had some sorrel from my farm share and I found this recipe on the Guardian UK website. I threw in some of my own chives. Then I pan-roasted some arctic char in a cast-iron skillet and draped this pesto on top, and served it with a portobello mushroom and potato salad with watercress. I was pretty pleased with the way it came out. The pesto’s garlic and lemony tang played off the fish’s rich texture nicely, and it was the perfect fleeting–joy-of-spring meal.
            Which brings me to my writing. I just finished up a draft of a manuscript that I’ve been working on for two years. I think it’s certainly gotten better as I’ve written and rewritten it (this is probably the tenth first draft) but I am, quite honestly, completely lost in the muddle. If this WIP were a food, it would be porridge. (Don’t get me wrong. It could very well be delicious and nutritious. I just couldn’t tell you right now because I can no longer judge the damn thing. Guess that’s what agents and beta readers are for.)
Luckily, there’s a shiny new YA novel idea that’s starting to percolate in my brain. It feels new and fresh and full of possibility. I’m ready to grab onto it, with the full understanding that the newness and freshness won’t last. That’s okay, though—I’ll just enjoy it while it’s here.


Sorrel Pesto
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in the The Guardian UK

2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1-2 handfuls young sorrel leaves (about 45g in weight)
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, stalks removed
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Sea salt
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup hard goat's cheese, grated

In a small frying pan over a medium heat, lightly toast the pine nuts until they're just beginning to turn golden, then tip out into a food processor. Add the garlic, sorrel, parsley, chives and a pinch of salt to the pine nuts, then pulse a few times until roughly chopped and combined. Slowly pour in the olive oil, pulsing as you go, until the pesto is the consistency you like.
Spoon the pesto mixture into a bowl and stir in the goat's cheese. The pesto will keep, sealed in a jar with a slick of olive oil over the top, for about a week.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Post-Edit Diet

When I am in the middle of edits, especially if I'm under a deadline, one of the last things I worry about is healthy eating. Chocolate and goldfish crackers are my staples :D So when the edits are done and my life gravitates back toward normalcy, I try to get back on the healthy eating train. Which isn't always the funnest thing to do when I've been chowing whatever I want for the last several weeks :D

One recipe I've found that I LOVE is one for Almond Flour Blueberry Muffins. I use almond flour a lot because my son has eczema and white flour makes him break out like crazy. It costs a fortune at my local grocery store, however you can get it online fairly inexpensively. I buy mine in 5 pound bags from and my kids have no idea when I substitute it for white flour. They love the treats I make for them using it :)


2 cups almond flour
3 rounded tablespoons Splenda (I use Stevia)
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
4 eggs (at room temperature)
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)


Butter or line 12 large muffin pans with muffin tin liners.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a medium bowl, mix together the wet ingredients.
In a larger bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (but not the berries).
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined (do not beat).
Finally, add the berries and briefly mix again.
Divide the mixture between the 12 muffin pans and bake for 20-25 minutes until risen, golden brown and set in the middle.
Leave in the pans on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, and then loosen carefully with a knife before turning out to cool completely. Makes 12.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Classic Book or Brownie

The Classic Brownie
There has and will always be discussions on what makes a recipe a classic.  Here I tackle The Brownie.  That chocolaty goodness that is one part cake one part fudge and all parts good. I found this recipe in Cook's Illustrated and the title The Best Classic Brownie, not too cakey, not too over-the-top, intrigued me. Too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing.  Balance is key, right.  Okay, okay it was a stretch for me too.  I mean who doesn't love brownies that are 'over the top'?  

The case does hold true however for classic stories.  Those stories where everything is done just right, not too little, not to over-the-top. Although, I have to admit, I've taken part in a number of discussions regarding what makes the classic story and the recipe for that eludes me.  I can however reproduce for you, the classic brownie.  (I've made some changes from the original Cook's Illustrated recipe, does it remain a classic?  You tell me.)

The Classic Brownie
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
12 Tablespoons butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup Dutch processed cocoa
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325.  Line 13x9 pan with aluminum foil vertically and horizontally and spray with cooking oil.
Cut up the butter and place it in a microwave safe dish along with the chocolate chips. Microwave for 1 minute. Stir together until smooth (or microwave in 15 sec intervals until smooth).
Mix cake flour, salt, baking powder, cocoa and sugar together in a large bowl with a whisk.
Beat eggs and add to cooled chocolate mixture. Add vanilla.
Combine chocolate mixture with flour mixture.  Stir completely.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes on middle rack in the oven.
So what makes a recipe or a book a classic in your mind?