Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nuggets From....

my Exceptionally Talented Therapist Friend:

1. What everyone needs is to be delighted in.

2. Each of your children has a specific emotional need that only you can meet. Remember, each child connects differently with each parent. Figure out what that emotional connecting point is for each of your children, and then refer back to it often—it will help you cut through all the extemporaneous crap and get to the core of what they really need.

I’m still mulling over those gems, and I think I will be for a very long time.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Little Elaboration

So I didn’t get around to writing about all the Christmas cookies I made: the Cranberry-Orange Biscotti, or the Rosemary-Pine Nut Shortbread, or the Raspberry-Cream Cheese Brownies (chicken food—under-baked), or the Turtle Bars (more chicken food—overly-browned pecans), but I’m just going to forgive myself and move on. There’s always next year...

I don’t even really know where to go with this post. I’m out of practice, writing-wise, and I don’t know how to say everything, or what to say of anything, so maybe I’ll say nothing. Nah, that’s too easy. How about a brief rundown of the past week, with a little elaboration on the points of interest?

In regards to my mother’s Birthday Bash, you can read about it here. Let me just add that when Yo-Yo heard that his Grandmommy was now sixty, he said something like, “She doesn’t even look old!”

That Sunday, after Mr. Handsome had walked around popping balloons and tearing down the paper chains, the Northern and Southern cousins descended upon us, and our house was immediately filled to the brim.

It was freezing cold outside, but that didn’t stop the children, even the Southern ones, from periodically dashing outside to jump on the trampoline.

And it didn’t stop me from frying donuts, outside on the porch.

Niece Lauren

When I set my mind on making donuts, there isn’t much that can stop me. Not even 15 degree weather. It was cold, people, cold! As in, leave a wet dishcloth on the picnic table and it promptly freezes solid. As in, take only one tray of the risen donuts outside at a time, plop them into the hot oil, and then rush the tray with its few remaining donuts back into the house before they turn into Dough Rocks.

Little Niece Claire noticed that my hands were freezing so she thoughtfully brought me her Mama Kate’s big, red, warm mittens to wear. Bless her little heart.

Here she is, chipmunking a donut while simultaneously glazing donuts and trying not to smile.

I think homemade donuts taste better in freezing cold weather.

Because trying to stay warm by jumping up and down and shivering violently does wonders for an appetite.

Which is good when there are donuts around.

That’s why it's good to make donuts in cold weather.

On Monday evening the Southern Cousins performed Lumbricus Terrestris, a play in six parts.

It was The Real Thing—little neon wavy things distributed pre-show to the audience, props, memorized lines, songs, and even a game show complete with customized prizes for each mesmerized child.

Then the cousins left, and we had Major Meltdown on Christmas Eve. Ho! Ho! Ho! Come bedtime, Mr. Handsome and I were so exhausted that we simply could not stay up to get the stockings filled, so we set our alarm for midnight and went to bed with the kids. In the wee hours of the morning we stuffed stockings, left a note from Santa, ate the plate of cookies for Santa, put Rudolph’s carrot back in the crisper, set out a basket of peanuts (from Santa), left another little note from Santa on the whiteboard in the hallway, and then stumbled back up to bed...

Only to be awakened by Sweetsie at two o’clock—she was worried that Santa might get stuck in the chimney. For every hour or so, for the rest of the night, she would say, “Mama, mama, MAMA! Is it morning yet? Is it Christmas yet?”

It was a rough night.

(By the way, let me say here that we have always been very clear with our children that Santa is not real. However, back a couple years, despite our deliberate explanations, Yo-Yo insisted that Santa was indeed real. Mr. Handsome and I studied our options and then decided, What the heck, let's have some fun with this.

Now, Yo-Yo and Miss Becca Boo are fully aware that Santa is not real, but even so, after hearing me give Sweetsie a big lecture on the Santa Myth, Yo-Yo said, "Can't we just pretend that Santa's real? I like it better that way." I told him that yes, we would do that, but I just needed to make sure that Sweetsie understood that we were playing a game.

Apparently, if she's up at night fretting over Santa getting his big rear jammed in our chimney, then she's a little fuzzy as to the nature of this game. But at least I'm not lying.)

Christmas Day was low-key. Well, as low-key as a day can be when your children are subsisting on a corn syrup-based diet. They did not have naps, and we put them to bed at a blessedly decent hour, after which we got to watch a movie, just the two of us, and then go to bed at a not-so decent hour.

The next morning we were two hours late getting off for our trip to PA. Two hours! I think you can determine for yourselves, based on that information, on the texture (rough, smooth, satiny, coarse, prickly) of our morning.

We visited the Great G’s, and then my girlfriend Amber, who has moved back into her growing-up home. (Remember that house, the one I raved about?) On the car ride there, I regaled my children with all sorts of stories, about how the little ditch at the edge of the yard turns into a stream after it rains, about the two sets of staircases, about the five-story barn and how Amber and I pretended to be vets with all the barn cats, about the two-seater outhouse, about the fabulous basement—one of the rooms of which sometimes gets several inches of water on the floor. About, about, about...

By the time we turned into the mile-long driveway, my kids were psyched. They were pumped. They were twitching and chattering. We let them unbuckle their seatbelts (“Keep your butts on your seats!”) and perch on the edge of their seats, straining to be the first to see the bigger-than-life old stone house. Imagine their thrills (and mine) when we came to the little culvert-bridge and saw that the little gully was filled with water: “It’s a creek! It’s a creek!” We pulled up to the house, parked the van, and the kids jumped out and took off running. Before we could turn around and say "Hi, Amber, Merry Christmas", they were the whole way down across the giant yard, on the other side of the creak, soaked and mud-spattered.

After shucking shoes and changing only the most-soaked clothing items, I gave the children a tour of the house (Guess what! The floor of the basement’s Bread Room was covered in water!) and then settled down to visit with Amber in the kitchen. Later we learned that the kids went wading ... in the basement. But of course. It was clear that the kids had caught my enthusiasm for the place.

Then back into the van for a short little drive over to my Aunt Val’s where we met up with the rest of the family and for the next 24 hours we feasted and sang (fiddle, banjo, guitars, the spoons, a shaker, harmonica, a washtub bass), watched YouTube videos, played Take One, held the babies, congratulated the newly engaged couple, told stories and gossiped. Then last night after dark, we threw the melting down kids into the car and drove home through pea-soup fog, getting fabulously lost on I83 and having a crash-bang yelling fight, and then, upon finally getting home, falling into bed at midnight.

Miss Becca Boo and Yo-Yo were Mary and Joseph at church this morning, and now we are home, home, home. We’re eating cereal, reading books, cleaning and unpacking, doing laundry, and now I am sitting in my bed, the computer propped up on the Usborne Time Traveler Book, listening to Becca Boo’s radio belt out fuzzily “What a Beautiful Mess I’m In” (aaah-ah, ah-aaah), blogging. It’s an Ah-Moment, most definitely.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Its Own

I frittered away most of Thursday in a state of slow-motion panic. The majority of the day was spent sitting at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of the five pages, front and back, of scrawled notes spread out before me. I had to come up with a final menu and the corresponding to-do list, as well as the grocery list, or rather two or three grocery lists since I couldn’t buy all the produce on Thursday because it would be starting to rot come next Tuesday and Wednesday when I would finally be ready to use it. I struggled through though, and by the time I went to bed that evening I had not only made my lists, but I had also gone grocery shopping, after which I picked over my Nicaraguan red beans while simultaneously attending a church council meeting.

I'm a skilled woman. Or else obsessed. Or else just skilled at being obsessed.

Right now there is a lull in all the craziness. My family (most of it) is here, the kids are resting, and everyone is lazing around, chatting and snoozing. In another hour it will be time for Mom’s little birthday bash, but for now, I have my coffee and my computer and all is well.

So, would you like another cookie recipe?

I said I would try to write up the recipes for all the Christmas cookies I make, but sadly enough, I’ve fallen short of my goal. That doesn’t stop me from trying to catch up though.

Like I said, I'm skillfully obsessed.

These little cookies are oh-so-dainty, but yet they have Great Presence. They are a complete piece of dessert. You can’t cheat with them, cutting one piece extra big, or secretly nibbling away at the edges. Which is kind of sad.

But what it lacks in snitching availability it makes up for in flavor. Each cookie stands on its own, and each cookie demands to be lingered over, savored, and enjoyed. And for the obsessed, that can be a pretty tall order. You know, repeated tastings and all that jazz.

Sometimes it pays to be obsessed.

Lemon Cheesecake Tassies
Adapted from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett

For the dough:
3/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, flour
5 tablespoons butter, cut into smaller chunks
1 large egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 ½ tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated or chopped
pinch of salt

Combine the flour and butter in a food processor and pulse until it has turned into fine crumbs. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients and then pour them into the processor. Pulse briefly, just until combined.

Using your hands, gently press the crumbly dough mixture together into a ball of dough. Divide the dough into 24 equal pieces.

Grease a 24-cup minimuffin pan, and press each little ball of dough into the muffin cups, shaping it so the dough rises up the sides. Bake the crusts in a 300 degree oven for 9-12 minutes, or until lightly browned.

For the filling:
1 8-ounce package of cream cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/4 teaspoons lemon zest, finely grated or chopped
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla
About 2 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Process all the ingredients, except for the raspberry jam, in the food processor until creamy and smooth. Scoop the mixture into the pre-baked crusts (there may be a little filling leftover—pour it into a little ramekin and bake it separately), making a slight indentation in the batter. Return the tassies to the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. Put a little dollop of jam on top of each tassie and pop them back in the oven for another 3-5 minutes, or until the filling is puffed and brown.

Leave the tassies in the muffin pans to cool, though you may want to run a knife around the edge to loosen them up (especially in the places where some of the jam is touching the edge of the pan). Once the tassies are completely cool, remove them from the pan.

To freeze: Place the tassies in a plastic container, putting wax paper between the layers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

But Then

I am opposed to healthy desserts. I am averse to them. I loath them. I am aggressive in my defiance towards them (thank you, Word Perfect Prompt-As-You-Go). Reduced-fat cream cheese? No way. Whole wheat cookies? Blech. Applesauce in place of oil, or yogurt in place of sour cream? I don’t think so.

Desserts are supposed to be rich and sweet, made from the best of butters and sugars and chocolates and creams. I would much rather eat a small piece of deliciously calorie-laden cheesecake any day, instead of a medium-sized piece of pallid reduced-fat, reduced-sugar cheesecake. (Of course, the “small” piece of cheesecake is for theoretical purposes only.)

But then I ate these walnut balls, and I’m having to eat my words, along with them.

These cookies are rich, decadent, and divinely delicious, but they are also, I still can hardly believe this, healthy. As in, their base consists of ground-up walnuts. And there is some whole wheat flour in them. And flax meal.

Flax meal in cookies? I know! I felt the same way! I could handle the nuts alright, but the whole wheat flour was pushing it, and then to add flax? Good heavens, I thought, Someone has surely gone over the deep end! But, this recipe works. It not only works, it also jives and jitters and does the two-step Mombo-Bombo. (I made that up.)

And I have yet to even mention the clincher: there is no refined sugar. Instead, the recipe calls for maple syrup. (And dark chocolate chips, but they do not, I repeat, do not, count as a refined sugar.)

I can not believe how much I love these cookies. If I had to pick just one of the many cookies that are crammed into my freezer to eat, right now, I would choose the walnut balls. The texture is superb—chewy, dense, tender. And the flavor is deep: dark and nutty, with a just a touch of bitter. And then there is the chocolate.

Now, I will admit that the final cookie looked a little too healthy to suit me. They had a bit of a grayish hue to them, making them look dull and unappetizing (devious little things), but I, brilliant cook that I am, remedied that problem by rolling the little sweets in a some powdered sugar. Then they just looked white and sweet ... and totally plain.

Like I said, devious little buggers.

I am no longer opposed to healthy desserts—it’s just not possible, after eating these walnut balls. Therefore, I now believe that healthy desserts are fine, as long as they are made from pure ingredients, and as long as the end result is both rich and decadent.

Walnut Balls
Recipe gifted to me, via cell phone, by my girlfriend Linell

2 ½ cups English walnuts
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup flax meal
½ cup, plus a little drizzle more, maple syrup
1 teaspoons salt, scant
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup chocolate chips (I used mini chips)
Powdered sugar, for rolling

Grind the walnuts to a fine powder in a food processor. Dump the ground nuts into a bowl and add the flour, flax, and salt. Stir well. Add the vanilla and maple syrup and mix until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips. Shape the cookies into small balls, the size of a large gum ball, and line them up on a cookie sheet. They do not change shape while baking, so you’ll probably be able to fit them all on one cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown and the tops are tinged with brown.

While the cookies are still warm, roll them in powdered sugar, and then roll them in powdered sugar once more before serving.

These cookies freeze well, but will need to be rolled in powdered sugar again before serving (they get all blotchy and mottled in the freezer), so only roll them in sugar once before freezing—save the second rolling for when you get them out to eat. Otherwise, you will be rolling them three times, and that would totally defeat the Healthy Cookie Effect.

Yield: not enough.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Procedure

Miss Becca Boo was awake, off and on during the night, crying and wailing, cradling her sore hand. Mr. Handsome spent the night with her, and once when I walked over to re-tuck-in The Baby Nickel, I heard him singing to her.

When she came downstairs this morning, she lay on the sofa and cried from the pain. Nonstop.

Something clearly had to be done.

So I got on the computer and googled “relieving pressure to a smashed finger”. Up came several different articles, all of them consistent with each other, so when Mr. Handsome came downstairs, I filled him in (speaking in my hush-hush voice) on what we needed to do. He only slightly raised his eyebrows at me, surprised that I was up to such a plan, and then he quietly went about helping me set up shop:

First, Mr. Handsome put a DVD (BBC’s Planet Earth) in the computer and arranged the kids on stools in such a way that Miss Becca Boo, who was sitting on her stool at the kitchen table, had a clear shot of the computer screen.

Second, I laid her hand on a clean rag. She refused to stop holding her sore hand with her good hand, so...

Third, I gave her a candy cane to hold with her other hand.

Fourth, Mr. Handsome sterilized the fingernail, using a Q-tip dipped in alcohol.

Fifth, I fished a metal paper clip out of the Christmas ornament box and straightened it out.

Sixth, using a pair of pliers, I held the paper clip over the flame of a votive candle.

We were set to go.

But then, when Mr. Handsome saw how I was heating up the paper clip, he said, “It will take forever to get red-hot that way. Hold on a minute.” And out the door he dashed, back in a couple seconds with ... Oh, good grief! A blowtorch!

Miss Becca Boo took one look at the evil-looking weapon in Mr. Handsome’s hand and freaked out. I didn’t blame her. My innards were already in a twist. Just the thought of what we were about to do made me feel ill, like how you feel when you get to a bad scene in a movie. I sucked in my tumultuous tummy and played Calm As A Cucumber.

Mr. Handsome fetched a towel from the bathroom, and I held it up by Miss Becca Boo’s face, creating a shield between her and the Scene of Surgery, just like how they did for me when Yo-Yo was cut out of my tummy.

Then, Mr. Handsome lit up the blowtorch—Whoooosh! Miss Becca Boo wailed, the kids yelled that they couldn’t hear the movie, and I whispered loudly into her ear, “Look at those bison! Suck your candy cane!”

More whooshing. Then all was quiet. I could smell burning hair, or rather, fingernail. After a second, Mr. Handsome tapped my arm and told me to look. And there was her purple fingernail, blood oozing out through the hole.

Mr. Handsome poured some hydrogen peroxide into a bowl and I added warm water, but Miss Becca Boo refused to put her hand in the water.

“It won’t hurt,” I told her.

“Did this ever happen to you?” she asked me.

“No,” I admitted. “But it happened to Shannon when she was little. Would you like to talk to her?”

So I called Shannon and held the phone to Miss Becca Boo’s ear, and after the phone call, she slowly eased her hand into the water.

And thus ended the morning’s medical procedure. We put our professional surgical instruments whence ere they came: the alcohol and peroxide to the bathroom cupboard, the dirty rags to the laundry, the votive candle to the center of the table, and the blowtorch to the back of the pick-up truck. I wiped down the table (I think), and we pulled up our stools and dug into our bowls of granola and Corn Chex.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Friends Are For Sharing Pain, and Since You Are My Friends...

Miss Becca Boo had an awkward encounter with a window sash on Saturday. I didn’t see what happened, but apparently, when she opened the window, she smashed her finger ... somehow.

At first, it was just a little bit purple and swollen, but by the end of the day it was all-the-way swollen.

I showed it to Nurse Friend Vi, who sat behind us in church yesterday, and she said it looks okay, not smashed, broken, or infected. I should just give her Ibuprofren on a regular basis, and make sure no red streaks materialize.

Red streaks---yikes!

It keeps looking worse, but she’s eating and playing, albeit with her injured hand gingerly held out before her. (She is having some trouble sleeping, even with the painkillers.)

Just looking at her mutilated finger makes me feel rather ill. I just wanted to share that with you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Real Men

I’m sitting at a bagel shop, chewing on an plain egg bagel, drinking the cup of cafĂ© con leche that I brought from home (yes, I do believe I’m turning into a coffee snob), and writing. I have been in the house for the past two days, only going outside to get the mail and hang up laundry, so I was getting a little stir-crazy. My goal is to write for two hours and then head home to join the cleaning/cooking/tree-decorating melee. Um, on the other hand, maybe I’ll stay here for three hours instead of the agreed-upon two. Think Mr. Handsome would mind?

Speaking of Mr. Handsome. He got up at 4:30 this morning—we went to sleep at 9:30, so waking up at that early hour wasn’t a truly terrible thing—and went downstairs and started cleaning. I was supposed to leave the house at 6:30 this morning, but I didn’t wake up till 6:38. I rushed downstairs to see if it was still okay if I left (the question was more protocol than anything else because I wasn’t about to give up my get-out-of-the-house-and-write time), and there he was, scrubbing down the hanging light above the kitchen sink. When I came out of the bathroom he had moved on to wiping—nay, washing—down the open shelving in the kitchen, and by the time I was leaving, the upper half of his torso was stuffed under the kitchen sink where he was fixing the leaky sink. And then, when the car windshield was too icy, he, without me saying a word, pulled on a coat and went out and readied the car for me.

What a man.

On the other hand, it is his family that is coming to visit, so he better help out.

But! That doesn’t negate the fact that he’s taking charge and initiative (I did have a list of stressing-me-out-items conveniently scrawled on our hallway’s white board—this morning I noticed there were several blank spaces that had been erased), and I just adore a man who takes the cleaning initiative.

You know, that was one of the first things I noticed about Mr. Handsome, besides his black hair and blue eyes and less-than-dainty speech. Mr. Handsome had come down to Texas to visit his sister, who’s voluntary service unit I was a part of for the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I had organized a house cleaning for our unit’s activity night (writing that just made me feel like a total stick-in-the-mud Prude, with a capital P, but, in my defense, the house was Filthy, with a capital F.) The evening of our cleaning spree, Mr. Handsome drove up in his red pick-up truck, charged into the kitchen, plunked down his toolbox, and proceeded to yank the stove away from the wall and start scrubbing. (I don’t remember how his toolbox helped him with scrubbing the walls—he probably fixed something while he was back there.) I already had my eye on that boy, but I payed extra close attention after that.

Ladies, if you are looking for a man, a real man, I suggest you orchestrate a cleaning party of some sort, invite the man-under-scrutiny, and see what sort of damage he can do with some Ajax and a cleaning rag. If he brings a toolbox, he gets bonus points. This a true-blue test, I’m tellin’ ya. I’m sure it’s noted in some dating handbook . . . somewhere.

Okay, that’s enough of that. I’m here to tell you about another cookie recipe. I said that I would try to get them all down, and so I have to, well, get them down. So, enough of the rambling.

Everyone makes Gingerbread Cookies for Christmas. I think. I mean, gingerbread is Christmas, even in other cultures. Maybe especially in other cultures. If you’ve read Treasures of the Snow, you will recall that on Christmas Eve all the Swiss village children sled down the mountain to the village church for the Christmas program, at the end of which every child is given a gingerbread man. Lucien and Annette (neighbors and main characters) walk back up the mountain together; Lucien eats his gingerbread all at once, but Annette saves hers. When she gets home she heads for the barn loft instead of the Chalet, in order to talk to the cows about the birth of the Christ child and to enjoy the Christmas magic. But then her father comes looking for her. Her mother just had a baby and wants to talk to Annette, so Annette hurries inside. And thus begins the story. It makes for a fantastic read-aloud.

Back to gingerbread: I made some. I think part of the reason that the kids are thrilled by the little men is that they are, well, little men, and naturally, little men-shaped cookies taste better than a plain circle cookies.

I hardly ever make cut-out cookies during the year (except for butter cookies at Valentine’s Day) because it just takes too dang long. Back when I had more time, I would ice the gingerbread people with a tube decorator, and one year I made a whole batch of bikini-clad gingerbread ladies—they tickled me pink. Now, I just ice the genderless people with a thin layer of buttercream frosting. It’s supposed to take less time, but it still ends up taking plenty long.

I actually like the simplicity of the iced little men/women/boys/girls. Simplicity is classy, right?

Gingerbread Men
Adapted from my mother’s recipe

The absence of salt is not a typo, just in case you were wondering.

3 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
½ cup molasses
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons cloves
4 teaspoons ginger
4 teaspoons baking soda

Mix together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and molasses and beat some more. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, or a shower cap, and chill in the refrigerator for a couple hours.

On a well-floured counter, roll the dough out to a one-eighth inch thickness. Cut out the little men, place them on lightly-greased cookie sheets (they will puff, just a little, so keep about a half-inch space between the cookies), and bake them at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. I like my gingerbread to be crispy, so I bake them till they’re starting to brown around the edges, but if you like them soft, under-bake them just a tad.

After removing the cookies from the oven, allow them to rest on the hot cookie sheet for a couple minutes (this extra time allows them to firm up a bit) before transferring them to a cooling rack. Once they are completely cool, ice them with buttercream frosting, in whatever fashion strikes your fancy.

To freeze: see the directions for the butter cookies.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Adjectival Extravaganza

Buttery. Crunchy. Sweet. Salty.

What am I talking about? Can you guess? Need some more clues?

Decadent. Nutty. Easy. A little bit expensive.

But, worth every penny, definitely.

Now do you know? Yes? That’s right! I’m talking about brittle. Cashew brittle, to be exact. And it’s very important to be exact here, because cashew brittle is different from peanut brittle is different from almond brittle is different from pecan brittle is different from macadamia brittle, and out of all those different brittles, cashew brittle is The Best. At least I think it is. I’ve never had pecan or almond or macadamia brittle, so I’m just spouting off here, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

Is there even any such thing as pecan brittle?

I found the recipe on Luisa's blog, and so I mixed up a batch last night before supper. The recipe called for one and a half pounds of cashews, but I was six ounces short. And she said to cook the syrup (no candy thermometer required) till golden brown, about ten minutes. Well, after eleven minutes of a rolling boil, the syrup was a yellow-golden so, even though I thought it seemed a bit more pale than I expected it to, I decided that it must be ready. I dumped it out on my parchment paper-covered cookie sheets (I had sprayed the paper with cooking spray), but I could tell, almost immediately, that I had a taffy on my hands—there was nothing brittle going on. Nothing whatsoever. I scooped up some of the flavorless goo (I do believe the flavor of the brittle comes from the caramelization of the sugars) and set it on a little plate so that the kids could have some tastes after supper, and then I discreetly threw the rest into the garbage. That’s right, I did not even give any to the chickens—they would’ve been cackling-thrilled over the nuts, but they would not have been able to eat more than one cashew a piece because after the first bite their beaks would’ve been glued shut. And a non-cackling chicken just ain’t a chicken, in my opinion.

Failing in the kitchen (usually) only serves to get me fired up, so when I realized that I had just experience a First Class Failure, my eyes took on a glinty gleam, my chin jutted out an extra one and three-quarter inches, and I scrubbed out the gooey pot with a little more elbow grease, soap, and water than was actually necessary.

Luisa had said it was a simple recipe. She said, and I quote, “... And so, so easy. I mean, do-it-in-you-sleep easy." Oh, the insult! This was a failure of the worst sort, a Totally Uncalled For Screw-up. You can do better, I snapped at myself.

So that night, when Miss Becca Boo and I drove into town to stock up on library books, we swung by the grocery store and I picked up three bags of salted, roasted cashews—a total of one and a half pounds—and this morning, first thing (that is, after taking the sourdough out of the fridge and measuring the flour and starters for some new breads), I made another batch of brittle.

I did make a couple changes, the first being that I halved the recipe, just in case I was going to be an Extra Slow Learner. And I buttered my parchment paper this time. Actually, Luisa told me to butter the paper the first time around, but I had used spray instead because it seemed simpler, and while it wasn’t the spray’s fault that my brittle was not brittle, I have a feeling the brittle, had it been successful, would’ve tasted like . . . spray. So I used butter this time. And I cooked the syrup till it was a nice golden-brown color. It took close to twenty minutes, so I probably should’ve had the burner set higher than the called-for medium-high setting.

Folks, I am pleased to announce that I am not an Extra-Slow Learner. I made Cashew Brittle and it is knock-‘em-down, kick-butt good. I will be making it for the rest of my life.

Cashew Brittle
Slightly adapted from Luisa’s blog, The Wednesday Chef

1 stick butter
1/3 cup light corn syrup
½ cup, plus 2 tablespoons, water
2 cups sugar
12 ounces cashew, roasted and salted
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, not an enormous one but definitely a good-sized one, measure in the butter, corn syrup, water, and sugar. Turn the burner on medium-high (or high) heat and stir occasionally. Or, if you’re obsessing like I was, then stir it all the time—you won’t hurt it.

After the syrup is golden-brown (clue: it should be the same color as the finished brittle), remove it from the heat and stir in the baking soda and salt. (Yes, it really does say to use 1 ½ tablespoons of salt, and no, it does not taste too salty.) Stir in the cashews.

Pour the candy out on your buttered-parchment paper-covered cookie sheet and spread it as thin as you can. (Do NOT use wax paper!) Mine got a little too thick, but I still think it tastes just fine. After it’s hardened (about ten or fifteen minutes) break the candy up into pieces and store in an air-tight container.

It’s time to get the kids up from rest time, but before I do so, I’m going to go help myself to another piece of that buttery, salty, sweet, nutty, crunchy, easy, expensive-but-worth-every-penny, decadent cashew brittle. Mmm, so good. Maybe just one more piece...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tradition Worthy

Small groups are an important part of our church. Back when the church first started, every member was required to belong to a small group, or module, as they were then called. Church business and pastoral care were a central focus of the module, and each module had a representative that attended the council meetings. However, as the church grew, so did the church council, until there were about twenty-five members, give or take a half-dozen, sitting on church council. It was not an efficient way to get things done.

The church has now restructured, and while small groups are still important, they are not required. Church council now consists of the chairs of the church commissions and the pastors, about ten people. As a matter of fact, I am on church council because I am chair of the youth commission. And I am not in a small group. Things have clearly changed.

So why the sudden lecture on our church structure? I really don't have a reason, except that I felt like explaining some things about our church. Oh, and because I was going to say something about small groups. Yes, that was my point---small groups.

When Mr. Handsome and I started attending the church together (I was attending before we even met), we were approached by some church members to see if we would like to join their module. We did, and it was a very good thing because the people in the group all turned out to be committed, loyal friends.

(In fact, the following year when we packed up and left the country for the Boonies of Nicaragua, they did not forget us, bless their hearts. David and Tina kept a steady stream of care packages headed our way—packages not only for Christmas and Easter, but also for Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving and Just For Anyhow, and probably also for the Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day and our anniversary and birthdays... Jim and Ann actually came to Nicaragua and lived in Managua for a year, though not because we were there, and they came to visit us in our home; their daughter Sara visited us a grand total of four times that year. One of those times was when she served as tour guide for another family from our small group, Linda and Keith and their three teenagers, who bravely endured the bumpy, eight-hour long, headache-inducing bus ride to our little place. I alluded to their visit in the previous post.)

Every December our small group had a tradition of meeting at the local Mennonite highschool (where it was, and still is, Tina’s job to counsel and guide the students) to make Christmas cookies in the large kitchen with the industrial ovens and cookie sheets. Everyone brought containers of pre-mixed homemade cookie dough and we all spent a Sunday afternoon baking and decorating, divvying out the cookies amongst us, and returning home with a wide variety of goodies.

Mr. Handsome and I participated in the Cookie Baking Fest for the year or two that we were living in the valley and still with the group, but I don’t remember much of what we made (though I do vaguely recall that Tina made something involving Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and dipping chocolate that was sinfully good)---except for Linda’s butter cookies. She and her crew turned out mountains of the cookies, all different shapes and sizes, and decorated every which way. I begged the recipe from her, and now I make these cookies every year. Actually, I make them more than once a year—they make beautiful heart-shaped cookies for Valentine’s Day.

This dough is excellent for shaping because the dough is easy to handle and the cookies hardly rise at all while baking. And let me assure you, they are not just a dried-out sugar cookie; they are a butter cookie, delectable in their own right. Topped with a thin icing, they are splendidly exquisite, perfect with a cup of coffee.

Butter Cookies
From Linda

2 1/4 cups sugar
3 cups butter
3 eggs
3 teaspoons vanilla
8 1/4 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt

Beat together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat some more. Add the dry ingredients and mix well.

Refrigerate the dough until it is thoroughly chilled. (You can store the dough in the refrigerator for several days, and it also freezes well.)

On a floured surface, roll the dough out to about a 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out the cookies and place on ungreased cookie sheets. The cookies do not rise much, so you can place them fairly close together. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-12 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned. It's important for the cookies to have some brown to them because it adds flavor. Cool completely before icing with buttercream frosting.

To freeze the cookies, place the iced cookies on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer for about half an hour till the icing has hardened. Gently set the cookies in a plastic container, placing wax paper in between each layer, and then return the boxed cookies to the freezer.

PS. Orangette just posted a recipe for butter cookies that I just may have to try. I do so like a good butter cookie.

PPS. Measurements for when I only have 1 pound of butter (so I don't have to keep doing the math every time): 1½ cups sugar, 2 cups butter, 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 5½ cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and ½ teaspoon salt.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Play Areas, Scorpions, and Ritual Cleansings

The outside play area has recently gotten a pretty big boost with the addition of our “new” trampoline. It’s smaller than the one we had before, but it has a net.

Though I suppose some could argue that the lack of a safety net made the kids play safer and now they will get rough and careless and we will have broken bones and black eyes galore. On the other hand, maybe it was just luck that there were no accidents for the two years that we had a net-less trampoline.

All this talk of broken bones and good luck is starting to make me feel a little uneasy, so let’s not discuss this anymore.

The work on the clubhouse keeps moving along.

Now that it’s getting dark so early, they don’t have much time to work on it after Mr. Handsome gets home, but they work as long as they can.

So that’s why the pictures are so dark—it’s dark outside.

It’s a good thing the outside play area is getting a face-lift. Two of Mr. Handsome’s siblings and their spouses and kids will be descending upon our home over the Christmas holidays. The one family has five children and the other family has three, so that means that there will be eighteen people eating and sleeping in our home. Our house is plenty big, about 1800 square feet, but it will feel like an 800 square foot house what with all the coats and hats and boots, air mattresses, pillows, towels, and dirty dishes piled about. Not that I ever let dirty dishes pile up around my house.

I am not daunted by the prospect of smashing in lots of Mr. Handsome’s family members. No, not at all. When we lived in our 300-something square foot, one-room adobe house (that we built with our bare hands) in Nicaragua we once had nine people staying in that space. Granted, we were only together for one day (or was it two?), but we had no running water, and the refrigerator was just a little bigger than a dorm fridge. And there were scorpions. But we were used to hauling our own water, using a pee-pot at night (though not when we had company---we spared them our tinkle-tinkle sounds), and dealing with scorpions.

The scorpions were nasty. They looked like Sin Incarnate. We learned to peer down in the latrine before delicately perching our tender bums on the cold concrete, to shake out our shoes before slipping our feet into them, and lifting our pillows and peeking under the bedsheets before crawling into bed at night. And Mr. Handsome got a lot of practice dashing for his machete and then smashing everything in sight as he frantically tried to chop the evil creatures as they skittered away. Despite all that practice, he had an uncanny ability to almost never hit the little buggers.

And while we are on the subject of scorpions I might as well tell you that once Mr. Handsome pulled on his jeans without shaking them first, and well, let’s just say that it was a unique way of putting on jeans, which involved much yelling and leaping about and culminated in a high-speed strip show. Another time a scorpion fell from the ceiling tiles, right down the inside of my sweatshirt, and then it was my turn to treat him (and my poor brother) to my own version of a strip show. Scorpions have a way of bringing out the r-rated in a person.

Back to the upcoming onslaught of company. I am very excited. Really, I am. But, if I’m going to be honest, I need to tell you that I’m also stressed. I tend to panic fairly easily, and Mr. Handsome tends to be unsympathetic to this emotional weakness of mine. When that happens, we do not make a very good team. Saturday’s conversation went something like this:

Me: We need to sit down and make a list of all the stuff that has to get done.

Mr. Handsome: Uh-huh.

Me: There is a lot of work we should do now so that we aren’t so rushed closer to the time, you know.

Mr. Handsome: You’re getting stressed, aren't you.

Me: You are so observant. Yes, I’m getting stressed! There will be eighteen people in this house. Do you realize what that means?

Mr. Handsome: Yeah? So what? What’s there to do? The house--

Me: So what? So what? I can not believe you just said that! Where is everyone going to sleep? What are we going to eat? I have to think through all that ahead of time! I don’t want to work nonstop while that everyone is here! I want to enjoy the visit, too! And we don’t just have that visit to get ready for—we also have to get ready for Christmas. And my family is coming before your family and then we’re traveling to Pennsylvania. What's there to do?!

Mr. Handsome, speaking calmly and slowly, and with (how dare he!) a smile in his voice: Just calm down, okay? You are getting worked up over nothing. They could all walk in the door right now and it would be just fine. What is there that really needs to get done? I think the house is fine just as it is.

Me, totally taking the bait and knowing it, but unable to help myself—I am shrieking, stomping, and flapping my arms: THAT IS NOT TRUE AND YOU KNOW IT! YOU ARE MAKING MY ANXIETY WORSE! YOU ARE NOT BEING HELPFUL, SO STOP IT RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE!

And so then he stopped it (smart man), and I made a list and he absentmindedly listened to me without any arguing (again, smart man), and then he went outside to set up the trampoline and when he came in that evening, he went straight to the back hall which he proceeded to reorganize and thoroughly clean.

I felt much better.

If I give the impression that I don’t want to have company, I’m sorry because that is most definitely not the case. I love having company, especially family.

But these bouts of panic are just something I have to go through, kind of like a ritual cleansing. Thankfully, these attacks only strike every now and then (sometimes once a day, and sometimes, in my weaker moments, once an hour), and they are not totally without purpose. They do a very fine job of getting Mr. Handsome on board (they are much more effective than rational conversation, as you can see from the above conversation), and when Mr. Handsome gets on board, the house gets clean, lickety-split, and then the company comes (yippee!) and we all, me included, have a swell time.

Friday, December 5, 2008

True or False

Teaching is not the same as parenting, but parenting is the same as teaching. Explain your answer.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Playing to . . . Learn

To teach a child the joy of taking responsibility, working together, and being a part of the family. It is absolutely crucial that the game is played with a fun-loving and gentle spirit. This game may only be played one time, per child, every three or four years.

*One, or more, mostly mature adults
*One child, between the ages of 8 and 12, who strongly desires to have unlimited time to do as he wishes and who believes that he does too many chores and does not get enough time to play. The child must demonstrate an inability to recognize the already-scheduled free times and holidays provided by the parents, such as birthdays, holidays, Sundays, family trips, etc. The child must have strong selfish impulses, must generally sport an I-feel-sorry-for-myself attitude, must feel mistreated and overworked, must frequently whine and fuss, must have a propensity for justice and fairness, and must have a willingness and ability to forgo the pleasures of family life.

Preparing to play the game:
*Parents and child have several different discussions in which the child gets to fully express desires and complaints while the parents make note of what the child is saying. The parents, in turn, must be very clear that the child will not get everything he desires (fun on a platter), while at the same time stressing the fun that the child will have.
*The parents set the rules for the game. The reason for each rule must be carefully explained and different scenarios ought to be conjured up and thoroughly discussed so that everyone is clear on the expectations.
*The guidelines should be written down.
*The parents should prepare the child for the feelings he or she will experience, both positive and negative.
*Prepare to start the game in the morning, immediately upon waking up.

Playing the Game:
1. The child may do nothing to help another person. This is absolutely forbidden and non-negotiable. The child may do no chores (may not feed pets, fold clothes, empty the compost).

2. Nobody may help the child:
*The child may not be chauffeured anywhere for any activity that is for the sole purpose of his pleasure (clubs, sports, games, friends’ houses), and no friends may be imported.
*The child may not eat food cooked by other family members.
*The child may only eat certain foods that are agreed upon prior (for example, eggs, toast, carrots, apples, granola, and milk), and it should be pointed out, in advance, that the food the child is eating has already been purchased and prepared by someone else.
*The child must wait to eat foods (if cooking them) till the rest of the family is done working in the kitchen.
*The child must clean up his own messes (dishes, toys, books).
*The child may not be read to, unless the parent is already reading to other children.
*The child may not play games with family members.
*The child may not be taught new skills.
*The child may go to bed and wake up whenever he wishes.

3. The child must continue to follow the rules of the house and will be disciplined in the standard ways.

4. Throughout the game, the parents should inquire how the child is feeling (lonely, excited, peaceful, frustrated, sad). Periodically the parents may offer an invitation to the child to rejoin the family, but they should in no way pester or coerce the child.

Ending the Game:
*The child may rejoin the family at any point. The decision to rejoin is final. The family welcomes the child with hugs and smiles and genuine joy. The child must do several chores that were agreed upon prior to beginning the game, such as washing the next batch of dishes, cleaning a toilet, washing some windows.
*Over the course of the next several days, the players should discuss their observations and feelings.


I didn’t come up with this game all on my own; my mother played it with me when I was a child. I have fuzzy memories of living off Special K for every meal (and loving it), staying up late, and coming down with a flu bug when the game was over. The illness was probably a coincidence, but it made a very big impression on me.

Yo-Yo Boy played this game a couple weeks ago. It took us a couple days to prepare for it, and several phone calls to my mother who spent a good deal of time discussing it with Yo-Yo. A third party was helpful for us because we were having trouble maintaining a fun-loving spirit, and besides, she was the originator of the game so she held a lot of clout. (“Can you feed Francie? Oh my no. Absolutely not. That’s directly helping someone else and that is most definitely not allowed. You can only do things for yourself, honey.” And, “You do know, don’t you, that you might feel kind of sad? Are you prepared for that?”)

Yo-Yo played the game till two o’clock in the afternoon when Mr. Handsome just happened to come home early from work. Yo-Yo wanted to go work with Mr. Handsome in the barn, so he came in to tell me he wanted to end the game.

“Are you sure?” I asked, surprised that he was done so quickly. He hadn’t even gotten around to frying himself some eggs, something he had been excited about.

“Yes, I’m sure,” he said.

I still couldn’t quite believe it. Was eight hours for the game really enough time to get the point across? “You realize that means the game is over, for good. You can’t switch back.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And you will have dishes in a couple hours.”


“And just because Papa’s home early doesn’t mean that he’ll be playing with you, or working on the clubhouse. He probably has work that he’s trying to get done.”

“Yes, Mama, I know. But I want to end the game now.”

“Well, okay then.” And I gave him a bear hug and kisses and he went running out to play. The game was over.

So you tell me, does this game have a winner?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Sweet Tradition

Cookie baking is one of my favorite things about the Christmas season. It is synonymous with snow storms, candles, Handel’s Messiah, sparkly white lights, sweet smells, and happy smiles.

Never mind that I live in Virginia and we rarely have real snow storms. Or that I don’t have a radio, tape deck, or CD player in my kitchen (only the one on the computer and it’s finicky and doesn’t count). Or that I get royally pissed off at my kids when I’m up to my elbows in butter and greasy cookie sheets and they insist on pulling up stools (that would be FOUR stools, one for each kid) so they can sample the dough or grab spoons to stir while simultaneously brushing the little piles of sugar and flour that are dotting my kitchen counter to the floor via their shirt sleeves.

Nobody smiles all that much.

And never mind that I do too much cookie-tasting myself and end up feeling sick and not wanting to cook supper, but my kids are starving hungry (because I only let them have one cookie sample) so they are grumpy and mad at me and I’m mad at them and then Mr. Handsome walks in the door and I’m mad at him, too, just because he’s in my house and his presence hasn’t miraculously vanished all my problems since there is still sugar and flour on the floor, mounds of dirty cookie sheets, measuring cups, and stainless steel bowls cluttering up the sink, and piles of cookies on the cooling rack and I haven’t even gotten around to icing them yet, and, oh crap!—there is a still a tray of cookies in the oven and they are way past the golden-brown stage. It's usually right about then that an enormous wave of cabin fever washes over me and I bellow at everyone that I am leaving and I throw on my jacket, stomp out of the house, and take off down the road for a breath of fresh air, the children’s wails fading into the distance.

Baking cookies was a lot easier back when I was in highschool. My mom let me make as many cookies as I wanted as long as I cleaned up my mess. One year I made a list of all the cookies I baked. I kept this little scrap of paper---hold on a second, will you? It should be in the back of my recipe file...

Okay, here it is: sugar cookies, gingerbread boys, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, Russian tea cakes, peppernuts, peanut butter cookies with Hershey Kisses, lemon cookies, molasses cookies, coconut macaroons, hard tack, and mint-chocolate chip cookies. There are some other cookies on the list that do not have a check by them, so I assume I did not get around to making them: lemon squares, butterscotch cookies, stained glass windows, fruit cookies, and chocolate covered pretzels.

I would make oodles of cookies all December long and then come the last day of school before Christmas vacation I would fix little plates of cookies, bundling them up in plastic wrap, pulling all the corners up to a festive peak above the plate and tying them together with some Christmas ribbon, the ends zipped curly with a pair of scissors. I delivered the cookie plates to all my teachers, and the bus driver.

I still make cookies, but not as many as I did when in highschool. On Saturday I made a list of different ideas, being sure to include all of the Cookie Food Groups—lemon, chocolate, nuts, iced, plain sugar, fruit filled, ginger, and coconut. I think I have all my bases covered. One of our most anticipated and talked about (among the children) Christmas traditions is our Cookie Breakfast: on Christmas morning we have a huge plate of cookies for breakfast (after the requisite scrambled eggs—I’m not a complete glutton for punishment), and the children are allowed to eat however much they want. It’s a pretty important tradition.

So, all this to say that this cookie-baking season I will do my best to type up all of my Christmas cookie recipes, so brace yourself for some sweet writings, okay?


I made some Truffle Brownies the other day, just as an experiment.

Now, after eating them for a couple days, I have decided that this recipe is not really a brownie recipe after all. See, brownies are a dessert for any day, for anybody—kids, grown-ups, your great aunt Eunice, the dog. You can eat a couple pieces in one sitting and not feel too gross.

By that definition, these so-called truffle brownies are most definitely not brownies (thus the name change to "Chocolate Truffle Cake"). For one thing, they call for dark chocolate which tends to be too strong for children (and Mr. Handsome, who, believe it or not, does not really care for chocolate, poor guy). For another thing, there is coffee liqueur in both the batter and the ganache, and while I can not taste any alcohol in the batter, the ganache has a pleasant, very adult-ish, zing to it.

The bottom line: When I want to have a brownie, I will still turn to my basic brownie recipe, but this is a darn good decadent chocolate dessert (that was redundant, I do believe) of the snobby sort. However, it prefers to stand alone, so don’t go stuffing it on any plastic-wrapped Christmas platters.

Chocolate Truffle Cake
Adapted from The All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett

Remember, your truffle cake will only be as good as your chocolate, so it doesn’t pay to scrimp.

You may want to serve the cake with some whipped cream which will help to cut the dense richness. (Whipped cream is somehow able to cozy up to the snobbiest among us, desserts included.)

6 ½ ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into bits
1 ½ ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken into bits
1 stick butter
3/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, sugar
1 ½ tablespoons coffee liqueur (I used Caffe Lolita)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
½ cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate on low heat. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, liqueur, and vanilla, and eggs. Stir in the flour, salt, and baking soda. Pour the batter into a greased 9-inch square pan and bake at 350 degrees for about twenty minutes (the toothpick will still be wet, but not gloppy-gooey). Cool completely.

For the ganache:
1/3 cup cream (the heavier the better)
1 ½ tablespoons coffee liqueur
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into bits

Simmer the cream and the liqueur in a saucepan on the stove. Melt the chocolate in the microwave (or in a double boiler on the stove top). Add the chocolate to the cream. The chocolate will seize up, but do not panic, just continue to stir it steadily and it will smooth out. Pour the ganache through a sieve to eliminate the remaining few lumps, cool it slightly (by the time you get it through the sieve, it will probably have cooled enough), and pour it over the cake. Using a rubber spatula or knife, smooth the ganache out all the way to the cake’s edges. Cover the cake with plastic and refrigerate.

Note: You can substitute strong dark coffee for the coffee liqueur.

Ps. I just read this out loud to Yo-Yo and Miss Becca Boo, and Miss Becca Boo informed me that she, too, likes the truffle cake. So I guess it’s not totally an adult thing after all.

Note: This cake freezes well. Just cut it into pieces, package in a box (or plastic wrap), and stash it away. When the chocolate cravings hit, you will be so glad you saved some.

Monday, December 1, 2008

I'm In Love

Back when I posted about my large stash of potatoes and asked for advice on how to use them up, I got a number of good suggestions, one of which came from my girlfriend Linell. Her recipe immediately caught my eye because it involved a lot of cream, as in three cups of cream. I have way too many quart jars three-quarters filled with cream (cream I skimmed from our half gallons of raw milk that we purchase from a local farmer) piled in my chest freezer, so a recipe that used up that much cream seemed mighty handy. Not to mention that I’m rather fond of cream.

This particular recipe was simple, too. All there was to do was simmer the thinly sliced potatoes in the cream, pour them into a buttered baking dish, give them a light dusting of Gruyere, and then bake them in the oven till bubbly and golden brown. Simple and rich—it couldn’t get much better than that, now, could it?

I’ve made them twice, and I’m smitten. The recipe calls for only a few tablespoons of cheese, but the potatoes taste like there is more cheese than that, I guess because the starches from the potatoes combine with the cream to create its own unique potato-y cheesiness.

Potatoes in Cream with Gruyere
From my girlfriend Linell, and according to her, originally from Julia Child.

3 cups cream
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 bay leaf
black pepper
6-7 cups potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
3-4 tablespoons Gruyere cheese

Put the sliced potatoes, cream, garlic, and bay leaf in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Simmer on the stove top until the potatoes are tender. Season with salt and black pepper.

Pour the potatoes into a greased 9 x 13 glass pan, sprinkle with the cheese...

...and bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.