Saturday, December 31, 2011

Careful What You Pack

“It’s a new year…careful what you pack”.  I’ve had that line from They Might Be Giants in my head the last few days.  I’m no good at culling things, both material baggage and the personal kind.   My husband and I have been recently been doing quite a lot of packing and moving, trying to be thoughtful about what we bring into our new lives in our new home.  The items we were debating keeping when we moved here from North Carolina were the ones that got the axe this time.  Now, a new group of iffy possessions for us to argue their value has been created.  It’s dangerous to make decisions about what to keep and what to part with when you are making such a transition.  It is all too easy to trash something if it means you don’t need to box it up and move it; and while I know that they are just “things,” regret sometimes follows the loss of them.  I think it is the same with personal baggage.  Careful what you pack, but also what you let go of.  It’s easier for me to clean the proverbial closets from 2009 and 2010 than it is for me to start on 2011's.

Ah, but now it is time to face the music.  It’s Resolution Time.  Mine are as follows:
  1. Get healthier/lose weight – This one is always on my list.  Last year I managed to make some headway, but I definitely have taken a few steps back these past two months.
  2. Organization! – In home, time, and money matters.  I’ve looked at organization and routine as dirty words.  I think I have been trying to convince myself that I’m a free spirit who thrives on the unknown, but it’s more likely that I have just been lazy.  The truth is that the unknown stresses me out, and both I and my family would do better with a little more structure.
  3. Read more
  4. Get something going on – This one is going to remain vague for some time, but I need to figure something out. 

Happy New Year everyone!  Have a fun (and safe) time tonight, whether you are going out to party, or having a quiet celebration at home.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy Holidays

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.  We had a very happy Christmas.  Santa brought gifts for the boys, we spent time with friends and family, both near and far (thank you Skype!), and my sister and I spent a fabulous time in the kitchen cooking our Christmas Day feast.

I wanted to share this earlier in the season, but never got around to it.  It's an excerpt from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  I hope you were able to slow down and enjoy not just Christmas Eve and Day, but all the small, everyday things that the "hopeful promise of the day" makes special.

For the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball -- better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest -- laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

The Grocers'. oh the Grocers'. nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses. It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces. And at the same time there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the baker' shops. The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker's doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Dinner Call for Help

It is time to start planning Christmas dinner.  According to the magazines I read, it would have been best to start shopping and preparing a few days ago, but that’s just not my style.  It wouldn’t be the same without the stressful ingredient-hunt at the supermarket; the disappointment when I can’t find exactly what I want; and the mind-numbing shock at the prices I am paying because I don’t have time to shop around.

Actually, that’s me when it comes to most other types of shopping, but I love shopping for just one meal.  I have ten days to plan, purchase, and start prepping, so I think I’m in good shape.  I am just getting hung up on the main event.  I’ve been throwing some ideas around.  Turkey is probably out.  My sister outdid herself on Thanksgiving, and I don’t want to try and compete with that.  I’ve been toying with the idea of duck or goose; make it a Dickensian Christmas dinner (perhaps complete with Christmas pudding?)  It’s a little intimidating however, because I’ve never roasted a duck before.  Lamb is a possibility (although it always makes me a little sad to eat baby animals).  Then there is a pork rib roast, which could be a beautiful presentation.  I guess it’s all going to come down to what I can find at the supermarket for the best price. 

So as you can see, I’ve a lot of work ahead.  Ideas and suggestions are welcome. What will be at your table on Christmas Day?

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

I normally don't have the patience for them, but cut-out cookies are a must for the holidays.  We made gingerbread snowflakes the other day using Martha Stewart's recipe.  Max was very interested in the cookie cutters. He made the snowman and gingerbread man cutters battle while I measured out ingredients.  He was very helpful, but lost interest in the process while the dough chilled.  When it was time to cut them out and bake, he said, "Mom, you just do it yourself."

Somehow I know that for the next 8 or so years, these will be the first ornaments to "fall" off the tree.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Did You Put Your Shoe Out?

Today is December 6th, known in some European countries as St. Nicholas day.  Growing up in Germany and Belgium, we always put our shoes outside the door in anticipation of what St. Nicholas (or Sint Niklaas) would leave us.  I remember in Germany; chocolate coins and eggs tied to a small branch, standing in my siblings’ and my sneakers at 6:30 on those cold, winter mornings.  In Belgium, since we were getting older and our feet were bigger, St. Niklaas would shove a Toblerone or a Cote d’ Or chocolate bar down our shoes.

All these years later, across an ocean, St. Nicholas has found our house in Northern Virginia.  We have modified the legend of St. Nicholas (some would say bastardized it, but I refuse to use such language when referring to Christmas legends).  For us, St. Nicholas is a revered old man, with the same magic as Santa.  He works alongside, but independently of Santa, leaving treats for those who are good and switches and rocks (Max doesn’t really understand coal yet) for those who are naughty.  What he leaves you can be seen as something of a bellwether for how you will fare on December 24th, and gives you a little time to be extra special good if things don’t look too promising.  For a hilarious, twisted, yet still fairly accurate telling of St. Nicholas traditions, check out this story, Six to Eight Black Men, by David Sedaris. 

Max woke up this morning, and said, “Let’s see if St. Nick came!”  As a parent, that’s the payoff.  We went downstairs and checked their sneakers.  St. Nicholas left Max and Sam both sweets and sticks.  At first Max only saw the sticks.  I didn’t think it was possible for his face to get that long.  Sam found his little gold-wrapped chocolate bear, took it out, and threw it on the floor.  I think that the message the sticks were supposed to send may have gotten lost once the chocolate was discovered. 

Janna Improvement Project - Part 2

This is the second and probably last post about the Janna Improvement Project.  I have a confession, I could not finish Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project.  I read until "August - Contemplate Eternity," and  had to stop.   It became clear to me that she and I have very dissimilar personalities and distinct approaches to happiness and life in general.

It's not that I have given up on bettering myself.  I just realize that I cannot compartmentalize the different aspects of myself and my life that I want to improve.  As I mentioned before, I am not one for charts and list-checking.  I am taking the holistic approach, making one decision at a time, trying to fill my life with truth and beauty.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Upside Down - life and cake

Unpacking is happening slowly. We've brought over boxes galore, but don't have the furniture into which the items will be placed. The most furnished rooms in the house are the boys' bedroom and their playroom. Meanwhile I have drawers on the floor, patiently waiting for the chest that houses them, books spilling out of boxes, and only four adult seats in the house. No sofas, armchairs, dining room table, or much of anything else. Either it's too heavy and we are waiting to hire movers, or we're buying new pieces.  In all honesty, the chaos is really getting to me. Luckily, the boys don't mind. They even seem to prefer it this way. 

Some normalcy is returning, however.  We are back to eating home cooked dinners (sort of), bathing regularly (I am embarrassed to say this, but I know that the week of Thanksgiving several baths, both for the boys and myself, were missed), and going to bed at a reasonable hour.  I even did some baking this past week.  I bought some pears at Wegman's with the intent to make a butterscotch pear pie a few days later. Halfway through the rest of my grocery shopping, I looked at my cart, and in three of the pears there was a scattering of small holes, the size of a toddler's finger.  Later wouldn’t work, the pears needed to be used that day. Lacking the energy to make the pie crust, I made an upside down pear cake. It seemed appropriate given the state of my affairs.

Upside Down Pear Cake adapted from Simply Delicious Food, Morning Noon and Night by Fran Warde

My original plan was to tell you how easy this cake was, that it was a foolproof recipe that you can make with one free arm and a baby on your hip. This is exactly how I made it the first time. I didn't have a vegetable peeler or a paring knife, so I peeled the pears with our small santoku knife and cored them with a soup spoon. Edward was coming and going between this home and the townhome, Max was running his usual laps through the kitchen and living room, and Sam was either on my hip or holding onto my jeans, crying. Despite all that, I still thought things were going well, until I checked on the cake and saw it was spilling over the top of the pan. The first time I used my oven, and the smell of burnt cake batter emanated through the house. Great.  To top it off, I couldn’t get the cake to bake all the way through. Half of it baked thoroughly, while the other half oozed onto the serving platter.

Luckily, I didn't have to repeat those conditions the second time I made it; and it truly is very easy. I made just a few tweaks the second time, and the cake came out wonderfully. It’s not going to win any beauty contests, but it’s buttery and delicious. Pears aren’t your thing? Try any fruit you can think of; maybe some plums or caramelized apples.

3 pears, peeled, halved, and cored
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter at room temperature
¾ cup + 2 T sugar
3 eggs
1 cup + 1 T flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 T milk
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Grease and line 9” cake pan with wax paper

Arrange the pear halves evenly in the bottom of the pan

Beat, with an electric mixer or a wooden spoon, the butter and sugar in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition

Fold in the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir in milk.

Pour batter over pears and bake for 50 - 60 minutes. It is a good idea to rotate the pan halfway through baking to ensure it bakes evenly.  The cake should be much browned, and the surface should spring back when gently touched.

Allow to cool for five to ten minutes, and then turn upside down onto a serving plate.  Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately.

This cake does not keep, so serve generous portions.