Monday, December 24, 2012

So Long, 2012: Cocoa Mocha Crinkles

It's been a hell of a year.  There was the crash of the Costa Concordia, which made us question heroism.  The horrendous scandal at Penn State, which opened our eyes to be wary of hero worship, and reminded us that we all own the responsibility to protect our children.  The shooting at the theater in Aurora, which reminded us about our vulnerability, and drew the first large-scale media attention of the year to gun control and mental health issues.

Then there was me.  I got to take a long-anticipated trip to BlogHer, and meet some of the women and writers I most admire.  I unexpectedly lost a friend in tragic circumstances that still make no sense, leaving her two children without a mother.  My mother fell down her stairs and had to move in with us while she recovered from her broken ribs and scapula.  Superstorm Sandy left my state without power, and left many without homes to return to.  I got myself elected to the Board of Education.

Finally, there was the tragedy in Newtown, which left us all grieving the loss of beautiful, innocent lives, and rethinking how we will live, to cultivate love for the future.

Despite some of the highs, honestly, I'll be glad to see 2012 go.  I've been cleaning out the refrigerator in preparation for our trip, and it feels good to be empty, to start the year with a clean slate, even in my pantry.   I don't make New Years' resolutions, because I feel that they're sort of artificial and arbitrary, but something about the change in calendar year makes me feel like I can start over, like I can wake up with hope and purpose.  And I'm looking forward to that more than usual this year.

I won't be posting for a little while, because I'm going to disconnect from my computer, and I won't be wrestling with internet on my phone.  But I'll be thinking about you while we're gone, and hoping to return here in the new year (or a little before then) with renewed blogging energy, with some thought-provoking posts, and with some tasty recipes.

In the meantime, here are the last sweets for the season.  We'll be leaving cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve, and if I were Santa Claus, I think they'd be exactly right; chocolatey, snappy, with a slight caffeine kick to keep me awake for the long journey of good cheer before I turned the sleigh towards home.  Wishing you warmth, light, and love during this darkest season of the year.

Cocoa Mocha Crinkles
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. packed light brown sugar
2/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 t. instant espresso
1 t. baking soda
2 egg whites
1 2/3 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1 T. unsweetened cocoa powder

Beat butter in a large bowl on high speed for about 30 seconds.  Beat in sugar, 2/3 c. cocoa powder, espresso, and baking soda.  Beat in egg whites.  Beat in flour.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350.  In a small bowl combine 1/4 c. sugar and cocoa powder.  Roll dough into 1" balls (and then into 1 1/2" logs if you like) and roll in sugar/cocoa mixture.  Place 2" apart on a cookie sheet.

Bake 8-10 minutes or until edges are firm.  Transfer to wire racks and cool completely.
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Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Not-So-Modest Proposal, or My Trouble with #26

I need to talk about #26Acts.  And I hope that you'll give me the benefit of the doubt and read through before you react.  {Updated to add: please understand, too, that my intent is not to diminish the #26Acts movement.  Because I agree, as Kathy comments below, that movement is serving an important purpose.}


I wouldn't say that I was a do-gooder when I was growing up, but I was certainly no stranger to the idea of service.  We had to do service for my Confirmation in the Catholic Church, and for graduation from high school; I was a candy striper at the local hospital, and I did some other things, too.  I was a member, and then Vice President, of my high school's Social Action Club; we raised money for important causes, wrote letters for Amnesty International.  And I felt pretty good about my contribution to the world.

When I was in college, I took some courses in social justice.  And I started to understand the long-term investment and commitment necessary to make social change happen.  No, I'd never thought that I could change things overnight.  But I discovered that in order to really make change, you needed to act in a sustainable way.  And sustainability? Is HARD.

Like many other people, I've watched #20Acts and #26Acts hashtags spread like wildfire, trending on Facbook and Twitter and Instagram and blogs.  I applaud Ann Curry for promoting the idea, and I'm glad for the enthusiasm around acts of kindness.  I've done my share of random acts of kindness over the years, ever since I heard the phrase used in college.  And I don't want to diminish some of the amazing, generous projects that some of my blogging friends have started.  But there's something about the movement that bothers me, too.

You see, #26Acts, like many forms of social media itself, feels perfunctory to me.  You leave $26 in $1 bills taped to gas pumps.  You donate to Toys for Tots or "adopt a family" for Christmas (which to me is the wrong word; adoption is not just "borrowing" people to give them gifts, even if they're really fabulous gifts ... and silly as it sounds, I feel like the semantics matter).  You deliver plates of cookies to first responders to thank people for their service.  You leave 26 lovely handmade ornaments with tags on them around town, encouraging the recipients to do 26 acts of their own.  And while these are genuinely nice things to do, it feels more like chain mail, or like a popular internet meme, than a deep and meaningful tribute to lives lost.  How can I say that $120 at Starbucks, even if I give it to people anonymously, and even if my gift prompts 20 people to give 26 more cups of coffee or do whatever acts they choose to do, is worth of the 26 -- or 27, or 28, depending on how you're measuring -- lives lost in Newtown?  And am I done grieving when I reach 26?  Do I suddenly feel better about the world?  How long before the movement fades away?

Because here's the thing about grief: it doesn't last only for an hour.  It doesn't go away after a month.  It doesn't live in envelopes with surprise gift cards or on lovely Christmas ornaments left on park benches.  Grief lives on for years, sometimes hiding under the bed or in a closet or even at the mall, and then BAM it leaps out and shakes you to the core again when you least expect it.  At some point, the nation will stop grieving.  Maybe it already has.  We have to, after all; life has to go on.  But those people who lost loved ones in Newtown will grieve for years, for forever.  And there are few more terrible feelings than grieving alone, than feeling like you're grieving alone.

I don't know.  There's a lot all tied in together here for me.  The events in Newtown hit too close to home.  I have a first grader.  It could have been him.  My heart still hurts, aches for the grieving parents, for our communities; I long for a more peaceful, loving world.  And I want to make a more lasting impact on the world than doing 26 nice things.  I want to make the world a better place for my children, and for the other children who survive.  I also know too much about working for change to be satisfied with movements that are not sustainable, especially when I believe that we are capable of so much more.

I posted something to this effect on the Facebook page of #26Acts and immediately got attacked by people telling me that now is not the time for criticism.  That "you have to start somewhere."  And maybe they were right; I took down the comment.  But I felt like we had so much momentum, like there was so much potential -- and that settling for something less than heroism was shortchanging the opportunity.

Doing twenty-six really difficult things is too overwhelming.  I get it.  And that's the appeal of #26Acts.  Short, manageable.  An attainable goal.

So I'd like to propose an alternative.  {updated to add: Or maybe a supplement.}

ONE act.

Commit to one act that will change something about the world, that will change you and other people for the better in the long term, that is difficult for you, that will take effort.  Quit smoking and give the money you saved on cigarettes to an organization that provides needed mental health services for the community.  Forgive someone who has hurt you deeply.  Start a nonprofit.  Go every week to a food bank or a soup kitchen and think about ways that you can eliminate poverty.  Participate actively in an advocacy campaign.  Do something that you've been putting off, something your heart says is the right thing to do to create peace in the world.

Give yourself a year to do it.  Remember the love of Newtown for a year.  Make it something more than a New Years' Resolution; commit to it for long term, for the teachers and staff and 6 year olds who smile at us, gap-toothed and hopeful, from their school photos, and for the sake of fostering a fierce and relentless love in the world.  Be in solidarity with those grieving families for a year.  Not just for an Instagram moment.

This kind of work--this deep soul-work--is difficult.  You need a support system in order to change something that big, and it needs to be more than a Twitter feed or a Facebook page.  So I'm offering myself: if you want someone to keep track of your commitment, to remind you about it, to send you encouragement periodically, to hold you to your promise, I will do that.  You can post it here, or you can email me directly, and I'll hold in in confidence.  No one else will need to know.

I will commit to #OneAct of my own.  I'm not going to post it here.  But I promise you that I'll be working on it all year long, with anyone who wants to do so with me.

And I will guarantee you this: that even if nothing profound happens in the world as a result of your gift, after one year with #OneAct, you will be changed.  And that, friends, is a sustainable foundation for a fundamentally different, more beautiful world.

What do you think?  What would you commit to if you were to commit to #OneAct?
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Friday, December 21, 2012

Past Lives, and Rosemary Shortbreads

My mother has been cleaning out her house.  Or at least, my brother's room.

This is, in theory, an excellent thing.  My mother has lived in the same house since she was two years old.  Though over the years before they moved out, her two brothers took things that belonged to them, there is still a good almost-seventy years' worth of accumulation of things there, and after my extremely organized Type-A father died in 2003, there was no longer anyone left in the house to do periodic purging.  She borders on hoarding behavior, her basement pantry stocked full of condensed soup and canned vegetables and brownie mix and pasta (we recently found cake mix there that had expired ten years ago), and every bedroom piled with her clothes and bills and paper and shopping bags with items still in their original packaging, tags attached.  I worry sometimes about what will happen if she downsizes, and selfishly, I worry, too, about the inevitable unpacking of her life that I will have to do some day, even if she never leaves her house.

I know that children create clutter, and I've claimed quite a few things from my mother's house over time.  Books.  Clothing.  Random pillows and throws.  Notebooks.  So, so much paper.

But I know there are also still many things left, remnants of another someone I used to know, like that overplayed and over-covered Gotye song.

On my birthday, my mother presented me with two canvas shopping bags of things belonging to me, which had been living in my brother's room: one bag containing two sets of artist-quality colored pencils, a set of watercolors, and a large box of crayons that probably date back to the late 1970s; the other containing a pile of awards and plaques.  My spelling bee plaque from the eighth grade.  My ten-year Excellence Award plaque from my dance school.   A plaque recognizing my service as the leader of the Children's Choir at my Catholic church, from my senior year of high school.  Another congratulating me on my performance on the National Spanish Language exam.  And on, and on.

The first bag was easy to deal with.  I gave the colored pencils and paints to my art-obsessed son and the crayons to my crayon-obsessed daughter, who has already made them her own.

The second was not so easy.

I've moved seven times in my life.  I am no stranger to the process of purging things, because there was no space in the car or the moving truck or on the bookshelf or in the cabinets.  I regularly recycle and Freecycle what we no longer need.  So it's odd to me that I'm left wondering what to do with these things, feeling on the one hand like I can't get rid of them (besides, the green citizen in me wonders, how does one recycle a plaque, anyway?) and on the other hand that I need to reduce the clutter in my life, not add to it.  This green canvas bag full of the past made me feel both like I need to retain this physical connection to that past, so I can pass it on to my children, and because--as Lori Lavender Luz puts it so beautifully in her post "Presence"--all of my past selves are me, and yet also like I have no need for physical attachment to that part of my past, to that person I no longer resemble. 

My past lives have been on my mind.  We're going out to LA in less than a week; it will be the first time I've been there since I left in early 1998, fourteen and a half years ago.  It will be a trip full of bitter, and sweet, and salt.  We will visit my old street, my old apartment complex.  We'll eat cake down the street at Sweet Lady Jane where, alone, I mourned the loss of a brilliant and generous-hearted college friend to a rare brain cancer, celebrated small triumphs, recovered from the traumatic experience of oral exams.  We'll walk past the alley where I was mugged at gunpoint.  We will step into the Pacific Ocean, the place my then-boyfriend took me in the dark of night when I first landed in the west coast for the first time eighteen years ago, knowing that I needed to touch the west.  We'll see some old friends.  I can't put my finger on why, but there was something about this act of remembering that has been important to me lately.  LA and I parted ways on less than friendly terms, but recently, I've felt like I needed to go back; I was ready.

I've shelved the plaques for now, in a place where I won't see them, where they will gather dust, like old memories do.  They'll stay there, and I suspect I will eventually forget about them, until I'm deep cleaning, moving, reorganizing.  I'll pull them down and look at them, and probably move them again, to somewhere else out of sight.  Maybe then I will know what to do with those fragments of the past; or perhaps, some day someone else will have to decide whether those artifacts are important enough to keep.

What physical pieces of your distant past do you hold on to, if anything?  What artifacts do you wish you could get rid of, but can't?  What would you do with a pile of old plaques?

Rosemary-Lemon Butter Cookies  

These cookies were made by fellow blogger Susan of A Less Processed Life for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.  I've added a bit more lemon juice and zest, because I liked the pairing of tangy with sweet and salt.  Sort of like memory, come to think of it.

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 c. sugar
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla extract
1 1/2 t. fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 c. sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. finely chopped fresh rosemary
3/4 t. kosher salt
1 1/4 t. lemon zest
coarse sanding sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350.

Stir together the flour, rosemary, salt, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes.  Mix in the egg, vanilla, and lemon juice and beat until combined, then gently beat in the flour mixture until the dough just comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured workspace and pat into a 6" round; cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 10 minutes.

On a lightly-floured workspace, roll the dough to 1/4" thickness and cut into desired shapes.

Place the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle each cookie with coarse sanding sugar and bake for 20-22 minutes or until lightly golden on the edges.

Cool on a wire rack and store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.
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Monday, December 17, 2012

Tea for One: Gingersofts

I got through the weekend pretty well, all things considered.  The events at Newtown have continued to weigh heavily on my mind.  There was a birthday party for a friend in my son's class, and seeing all of the children together made me think about those children who don't get to celebrate any more birthdays.  And those parents whose arms are empty, who wrapped Christmas presents to give to a child who will no longer be there on Christmas morning to open them.  But I tend not to grieve in the form of tears until a few days or weeks after something happens.  It's just the way I work.  And besides, I still have my children.

But this morning, after putting my son on the bus, I almost threw up.  And then I wept, walking back to my house with my daughter in my arms.

Because the reality is that every day I watch my son leave on that bus, and am faced with a complete lack of control over what happens to him.  It's nagged at me a little bit every day since the first day of school.  It was just a little harder than usual today.

I could keep him home.  I'm home now with my daughter; I could homeschool him.  He's smart, and though he also resists instruction and correction from me, we would make it work.

But that's not where he belongs.  He's a social child, a child who expresses his creative self best in the company of others.  We have a good school system.  And horrible things happen everywhere, in many places that are supposed to be safe, not just in schools.

I could enroll him in a private school, a smaller school where there would be more vigilance, more safety measures, less intrusion from the outside world.

But I'm a product of the public school system, and I believe in the value of children from all walks of life learning together, and teaching each other.

I could drive him to school every morning, at least removing one more transition during which something could go wrong.

But he loves the bus, he loves that freedom.  It makes him feel grown-up.  He is probably no safer in my car.  And I trust the bus driver to get him to school and home safely.

So I put him on the bus.  I wave at him through my tears, as he presses his face against the window, grinning in his inimitably impish way.  I try to put things in perspective, feeling lucky for the luxury of waving to him.  I remember, as many people have said, that the risk inherent in becoming a parent is that you allow your heart to walk around outside of your body.  I make ginger tea, because that usually helps to settle my stomach, and maybe I break into the container of gingersofts.  And I wait for him to come home, watching the minutes tick by impatiently.

I didn't want to write about Sandy Hook today.  But it also seemed irreverent to write about anything else.  So I will settle for comfort, for the normal of Christmas cookies.  Because there is more than one way to die in this world, and one of those ways is to refuse to live.  And the children of Sandy Hook deserve a better legacy than that.

Gingersoft Cookies
adapted from Two Peas in their Pod

2 1/2 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 c. light brown sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
1/4 c. molasses
1/4 c. diced candied ginger
White sugar for rolling

Preheat the oven to 375 and line baking sheets with either parchment or silicone baking mat.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium bowl.

Beat the butter and brown sugar at high speed with a hand or stand mixer until fluffy, about two minutes. Add in the egg and vanilla extract.; beat well. Add in the molasses; beat well.

With the mixer on low, slowly add the flour mixture a half cup or so at a time until all of the flour is mixed in.  Mix in the crystallized ginger either VERY gently with your mixer or by hand.

Roll dough into tablespoon-sized balls, and roll each ball in white sugar.

Place the cookie dough balls two inches apart on prepared cookie sheets.  Bake 8-10 minutes (they should still be soft, just cooked in the middle and barely crispy around the edges).  Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for a minute or two, then transfer to a cooling rack.
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Saturday, December 15, 2012

With Love for Newtown

This morning, I yelled at my son for losing a magnet.

He and his sister have been playing with the magnet set in a way that is downright careless, and as I am getting together lunches and snacks and gifts for the children and teacher at N's dance class so that I can get everyone out the door on time to do an errand at my son's school, I ask them calmly to put the set away.  Instead, they continue to play, and what they are building collapses and scatters across the floor in three rooms. Taking stock of the damage, they inform me that a piece is unaccounted for, as if I am supposed to produce it myself.

"FIND it," I growl, unsympathetic.

My son proceeds to "look" for it in his usual half-hearted way, staring at the floor while he paces, examining unlikely hiding spots (e.g. up the wall behind the curtains).  After about five minutes of this, five minutes more we have now spent not preparing to leave the house, I lose my cool.  I roar his name.  I'm not angry about the magnet, but about the lack of care; I expect that when my children lose something, especially something they prize, that they make a concerted effort to find it, instead of leaving the job of finding to me.

"I hate you," he tells me, defiant.

Ever before he utters these words, I feel badly about yelling, especially since I've found my temper shortening these days, with the stress of the holidays and joblessness.  I reply, as evenly as I can, that while I'm sorry to hear that, and that I know my yelling was not an effective conflict-resolution tool, it doesn't change the fact that he had to learn to be responsible with his things, because the things we are trusted with only become more and more important.  He stomps away, and the minutes tick by; we are losing critical minutes if I'm to get him to school on time.

After a few minutes, I call him back into the room.  I apologize for yelling, admit that yelling was not a useful way to address the problem, but reiterate my concern about the importance of being responsible.  I manage to extract a reluctant half-hug before he buckles himself into his carseat, and feel hopeful that perhaps we can smooth things over.

But then I log on to the internet and there are children dead in Newtown.  First graders.  Kids who are my son's age.  And all I want to do is go pick him up and tell him that I don't care about the magnet.

My heart aches for the community of Newtown, Connecticut--not just for the families, but for everyone who is mourning their loss tonight.  I've been unable to dislodge the lump in my throat that's been there since the early afternoon.  This could have been my son's classroom.

There will be lots of discussion in the coming days and weeks about gun control.  About mental health services and proper identification and care of the mentally ill.  About lockdown plans for schools.  And rightfully so.  We need, desperately, to talk about those things.

There will be less talk about how we are raising our children, and how we treat each other.

But the reality is that we, too, are responsible.  Not necessarily for one gun-wielding maniac, but for complicit acceptance of a culture in which violence is the norm.  If we don't speak up, we are OK with it.  If we can't act out of love ourselves, even when love is difficult, we are OK with it.  And if we aren't teaching our children responsibility, for themselves AND for the welfare of other human beings--as I saw so many parents at my former university tell their children that they weren't responsible, for grades, for assignments, for whatever--then we perpetuate the culture that hosts the shooters of Columbine and Newtown and Aurora and Virginia Tech.

It's time for everyone to take a stand.  Not just against gun ownership policy.  And for stronger school safety procedures.  But to promote a culture in which we love aggressively.  In which we are all responsible for each other.  In which finger-pointing is not the answer.  In which all of our words can be powerful weapons, and in which we use them wisely.  Because it really does take a village, and not just to raise a child.

I'm holding the community of Newtown in my heart, grieving with them.  Imagining losing my child, my six year old, to a random shooting at school makes me sick.  There are no words for this kind of tragedy, this kind of loss.

And together, my son and I will look for the lost magnet today.  Because it all matters.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap: Honey Basil Shortbread Cookies

There's no denying it.  In December, I become a cookie fanatic.  And to a cookie fanatic, there are few things more lovely than getting a package of home-made cookies in the mail, especially from a friend you have yet to meet!

For the second year, I decided to participate in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap hosted by Love & Olive Oil and The Little Kitchen.  This swap requires participants to send one dozen cookies to three different bloggers, and in exchange, three additional bloggers send a dozen cookies each to you.  All in all, you get to meet six new bloggers and try three new kinds of cookies, and there's a round-up at the end wherein one could salivate over all cookies in the exchange.  Last year I agonized over the cookies to send: I wanted to offer up something really different, really unique, but didn't know where to begin.  I scoured the internet, and wound up with mostaccioli, which are traditional chewy almost cake-like Italian cookies, made with wine.  I also learned a lot about attractive packaging and sending cookies in the mail last year, lessons which I tried to apply in this year's swap!

This year, Lindsay and Julie upped the ante and partnered with Cookies for Kids' Cancer, a national non-profit organization committed to funding new therapies used in the fight against pediatric cancer, which claims the lives of more children in the US than any other disease.  Each participating blogger made a small donation to the organization for the honor of participating, and OXO® will be matching the total donation, dollar for dollar, up to $100,000 dollars!

I'd been in sort of a baking slump, and I have to credit this year's swap with helping me to get my cookie-making mojo back.  I've tried and modified quite a few recipes that I'm posting here as a result of my search for the perfect swap cookie!  During the past year I've become especially interested in using traditionally savory herbs in sweet treats (like the basil ice cream I made), and I wanted to send something that represented my blog and my commitment to local food sources; so I decided to make Honey Basil Shortbreads with local honey and basil.  I get my honey from Tassot Apiaries, which is just a few miles away from our house (they also make fabulous soap and other items which you can order online); their honey is among the best I've tasted anywhere, and I practically live on it during cold season.  I loved the fact that you can really taste these flavors in the cookies, though they're not overpowering.  I also thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with cookie stamp patters using found objects.  I don't own a cookie stamp, but I pressed my cookies with a swirl-shaped wire, with the top of a clean star-shaped pattern in the top of a spice-jar shaker, and finally, as you'll see below, with the back of a pie server! My recipients were:
My swappers did not disappoint, either!  I received:
  • Honey Vanilla Macaroons from Ruth at the tasty tRruth (see, Ruth? I was paying attention!),
  • Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies from Denise at Addicted2Recipes, and
  • Espresso Shortbread from Sarah at Cooker Girl, to whom, in a bizarre twist of fate, I sent my cookies last year!  (Sarah, in a great twist of irony, I just baked some soft Gingerbread cookies ... not yours from last year, but definitely similar!  I'll be posting the recipe soon.)
I loved the honey taste in Ruth's macaroons, too.  Denise's Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies left me desperately seeking a pint of Haagen Daaz' Peppermint Bark.  And Sarah's espresso shortbreads were just right; not overpoweringly coffee-flavored, but perfect with a morning cuppa joe.

Thanks again to everyone who made the cookie swap happen, and to Lindsay and Julie for hosting!  Congratulations, ladies, on your fundraiser, and on helping the food blogging community to give such a fabulous gift together this year!

Honey Basil Shortbreads
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

1 c. butter, softened
2/3 c. sugar
1 egg
3 T. honey
1 T. fresh snipped basil (or 1 t. dried)
2 t. finely shredded orange peel
1 t. vanilla
3 c. flour
sugar for stamping

Preheat oven to 375.  Beat butter in a large bowl on medium high speed for about 30 seconds until fluffy.  Add 2/3 c. sugar and beat until combined.  Add egg, honey, basil, orange peel, and vanilla and beat until combined.  Beat in flour.

Place a small amount of sugar into a shallow bowl.  Roll dough into 1 1/2" balls, and place them about 2" apart on your cookie sheet.  Dip the patterned bottom of a glass, a cookie stamp, or serving utensil (I used a pie server!  This is a great time to experiment with found objects in your kitchen, to see what they turn out like!) into sugar, and using the glass or stamp, flatten balls to 1/4" thickness.

Bake 6-8 minutes or until bottoms are light brown.  Cool on sheets 1 minute; transfer to wire racks and cool completely.
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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Time Warp Tuesday: Simple Gifts, Revisited

Kathy over at Bereaved and Blessed is doing the Time Warp Again!  Time Warp Tuesday is the monthly blog hop in which Kathy invites us to revisit an old post from our blog, and think about where we are now, how our thoughts about the post may have changed from its original writing.  This month, Kathy directs us to find an old blog entry about gifts:

December is a month filled with holidays celebrations for most people, regardless of our faith traditions. Often these holiday gatherings include giving and/or receiving gifts. Choose a post from your archives in which you wrote about one or more gifts that you gave and/or received and what that experience meant to you. The gift(s) don’t have to be connected to a holiday. Then write a new post on your blog about why you chose the post that you did and what has happened in your life since.
Why did you pick this post? Has your perspective changed since the day you wrote your original post? Do you think you would still feel the same way if you were writing your post today? What have you learned about yourself, your family and your life since you wrote your original post?
I've written a lot here about gifts, but I chose a post I'd written back in 2010, towards the end of my first year of blogging, in which I talked about the kinds of gifts that are the most important to me: the gifts from the heart.  As I've said in other posts, I have a hard time with December because of the obligatory extravagant and not-always-thoughtful gift-giving that happens in my family (both for birthdays, which come like bananas in a bunch at the beginning of the month) and then for Christmas.  In December 2010, my daughter had not yet been born, and I was just about eight months pregnant, hoping for a successful delivery.  That year, I gave my son a special gift from Rockefeller Center, and got two gifts from bloggers, which began to make me feel like there were real people out there beyond the computer screen.

Since I wrote that post, N. was born, I left my job, and I've met some of those bloggers in real life.  If nothing else, those events have made me even more appreciative of the real gifts that life has to offer: family, friends, and self-respect.  We've now had two more Christmases to solidify our family gift-giving traditions, and I love the fact that our son--now six--routinely makes gifts and cards for friends and family, carefully thinking about what they'd like, and employing his creative talents.  I'm looking forward to the day when N. can understand that tradition better; though she's really a great help when it comes to projects, she still doesn't quite understand the permanence of gifts ... we're still working on taking turns with beloved items.

I'm glad that my convictions about what's important have only deepened since that post, and that I try to practice thoughtful, earth-friendly gift-giving.  This year I got a lot of locally-produced consumable goods, to support the local small businesses I know.  I do need to work on my gift-receiving skills, though, and trust that even when it's not obvious to me, people are most often giving from the heart.

Make sure you go check out the other posts this week, and the bloggers who are remembering their special gifts, too!
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Monday, December 10, 2012

Thirty Spot Guest Post!

So, how does it feel to be 39?  Erin's "Love for 30" project over at My Thirty Spot features posts from women who are reflecting on the experience of their 30s, and my 39th birthday seemed like the perfect time to offer up some thoughts on the subject.  Please click over to My Thirty Spot today to read my guest post on the gifts I've received through the journey of my 30s; I'll look forward to seeing you there!

My son baked my birthday cake.  My husband helped
him to reach the writing icing ... only it wasn't
writing icing.  It was food coloring.   :)
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Risking Joy, and Cornmeal Lime Cookies

I have, for as long as I can remember, been a type-A control freak.  This will come as no surprise to those of you who know me in real life, and to be honest, it's served me well academically and professionally.  But it's also been something of a liability in parenting; if there's one thing having children proves to me, again and again, is that I can't always be in control, and sometimes that's OK.

The other day, at a park playdate with a friend, I was on the "big girl" swing with N. sitting on my lap, letting go of her just enough so that she could experience the adrenaline rush of a brief freefall, pumping us both high enough so that after she got past the initial uncertainty, her squeals were near-continuous.  As we swung into the icy breeze, I couldn't help but notice how the other mother hovered over her child, who was swinging just imperceptibly next to us, and swooped down when her small lip quivered with uncertainty, picked her up and pressed her to her chest.

There's no rulebook for potential parents, of course.  Parenting styles are as varied as the individuals who parent, no matter what path we take to achieve that role.  We know our children best, and sometimes we can avert disaster by being attentive, by responding to comfort them before they even know they need comforting.  My friend is a fabulous parent: smart, caring, nurturing, encouraging.  But I was also struck by the thought that as parents, especially as parents who have experienced loss, we have to make a deliberate choice to risk joy, and that joy sometimes requires letting go.

And then I thought, well, maybe that applies to everyone.  If you've ever known loss, it becomes hard to trust again.  Joy is a risk.  It's a risk because you might connect to something that will be taken from you, or you might never find joy at all.  But there must be something about being human that drives us to take the risk again and again, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Last week, on one unseasonably warm day, I decided to take N. for a walk before we met I. at the bus.  We locked the door and picked our way down the steps as toddlers do, and when she hit the sidewalk, N. began to run.  And run.  "RUNNNNNNNNNNNN," she chanted, punctuating her footfalls with "NNN...NNN...NNN," only to rev herself up and do it all over again, occasionally turning around and saying "Mommy's turn?"--encouraging me to run, too.  I decided to follow her, just to see where she went.  When we got to a street, I asked her to hold my hand to cross, but otherwise, I made sure she was the one in the lead.  I don't know if it was the weather, or if she loved being in front, or some of both, but she ran that way, "RUNNNNN .... RUNNNNNNNNN!" for the better part of a mile, to downtown.

I felt lucky to witness that exuberance, to be part of it.  And really, that kind of joy is worth the risk, isn't it?

Cornmeal Lime Cookies
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens 
These cookies are an unexpected combination, a bit of a risk on your holiday cookie plate.  But totally worth it.

3/4 c. butter, softened
2/3 c. powdered sugar
1/8 t. salt
1 c. flour
1/2 c. cornmeal
2 t. finely shredded lime peel
1/2 t. vanilla

In a large bowl, beat butter until fluffy with an electric mixer on high speed for 30 seconds.  Add powdered sugar and salt, and beat well to combine.  Beat in flour, cornmeal, lime peel, and vanilla.  Cover and chill at least one hour, and preferably longer.

Preheat oven to 350.  Roll dough 1/4" thick; using a 2" cookie cutter, cut dough into shapes and place onto a cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.  Decorate with sugar if desired, and bake 8-10 minutes or until light golden brown around the edges.  Transfer to wire racks to cool.
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Pratyahara, and a Birthday: Carrot Leek Soup

So I turned 39 yesterday.  It was, in many ways, an ordinary day.  Little or no fanfare, no dinner at a fancy restaurant, just good wishes.  I went to the Y and tried a Boot Camp class that kicked my proverbial arse, but was told by the instructor that I "had potential to stick around."  My son baked me a birthday cake from a box (which I have to tell you about in my next post, because it deserves discussion of its own).  Though it was a quiet birthday, it felt just right.

This month in yoga, we're focusing on the practice of pratyahara.  In a nutshell, pratyahara involves sensory withdrawal, removing the information overload that we live in every day in an effort to draw inward, and pay more attention to the self.

My yoga teacher says that everyone on earth, when we strip away everything else, wants the same things: peace, happiness, and to be seen or known, by ourselves and by others.  Though I'm not sure I can agree with such a reductive statement about humankind, I do think that most of us want to be known.  And I also agree that sometimes all of the noise--both the noise that the world creates for us and the noise we create within ourselves, with negative self-talk or attachments to worldly things--gets in the way of us knowing our deepest selves.  Pratyahara--which we practiced by closing our eyes, blindfolding ourselves, and covering our ears--counters that noise by creating silences: by removing visual or auditory or other sensory distractions.

It so happens that I spend a lot of time in asana with my eyes closed.  I know it's not recommended; it's a force of habit.  And yet, I never realized why it was so natural until tonight.  Yes, in some ways it's relaxing (though I'll warn you, you're going to feel that stretch in your side seam a whole lot more in trichonasana, and it's a lot harder to balance in vrikshasana when you can't focus on a spot on the wall).  But it's mostly relaxing because those distractions go away, allowing me to focus on what's happening in the physical body.  Once you realize that's what you're doing, that sensory withdrawal is like a laser beam, illuminating one small piece of you at a time.

That drawing inward to look at ourselves, and to gather energy for what's coming next, is a perfect winter activity.  The pause, the caesura, the time of waiting.  Just as people do physical cleanses, and get rid of the junk food in their lives, so it's important, sometimes, step away from all of the noise.  To meet our truest selves.  Pratyahara offers one way to withdraw, to restore our senses, to renew.

And in some way, even if I couldn't articulate it at the time, maybe this was my wish for my birthday: to withdraw a little, to go inward, and to prepare myself for what's coming next.

Here's looking at you, 39.  I'm ready.

Carrot and Leek Soup
adapted from The View from the Great Island
Good mental nutrition requires good physical nutrition.  And though I hate to admit it, sometimes you need something a little better for you than cookies.  This is what I ate when I came home from yoga tonight.  You can strain it to get rid of the seeds, but I sort of like them, for a little crunch.

1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
2 t. yellow mustard seeds
2 t. coriander seeds
1/4 t. tumeric
1/2 t. garam masala
1" piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 leeks, sliced (white and light green part only)
1 small green apple, peeled and diced
1 lb. carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 c. vegetable or chicken stock
salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Heat the oil and butter over medium heat in a large soup pot and saute the spices for a minute or two. The seeds will start to pop.  Add the leeks and saute for a few more minutes, stirring often to prevent browning.

Add the apple, carrots, and stock to the pot. Bring to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, about 25 minutes.  Puree the soup in a blender, food processor, or with an immersion blender.  Add additional water if necessary.
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Monday, December 3, 2012

Hope, and Pistachio-Rosewater Slice and Bake Cookies

My oven broke last night.

It was a small tragedy.  I had designs on a batch of granola last night and more cookies today.  My husband had bread on deck.  We did everything we could: restarted the oven, unplugged the oven, flipped on the cleaning cycle (sounds like tech support, doesn't it?), only to be faced with the grim reality: the oven would turn on, but not heat up.

Of course, it will be repaired.  We're lucky we can afford to fix it.  This is not the end of the world.  I went a full week without oven access when we had no power, and I lived to tell the tale.  But it's holiday baking season, and the oven is my refuge.

I was thinking yesterday about my complicated feelings about the month-long celebration that December has become.  I dislike the shopping season that arrives earlier and earlier every year, the decorations in stores that make you feel like you're behind on your gift-giving preparations (not to mention assuming that everyone who shops celebrates Christmas).  I dislike my trifecta of family gatherings--the Thanksgiving/Birthday(mine and my brothers')/Christmas get-togethers--that make me feel pressured to give out of obligation.

But I get it.  When I was a practicing Catholic, I loved advent.  I loved the lights, the candles, the music, the smell of pine, the general feeling of goodwill.  Advent was appealing because it was about nurturing hope.  And if you're feeling like you need hope (and really, who doesn't?) there's nothing better than more of it.  Days and weeks of it.  And it's for those reasons that I don't mind the December holidays taking over the entire month.  The people who shop?  Misplaced hope, manifesting itself in consumerism.

These days I don't celebrate advent, really.   My son requested an advent calendar this year, because his grandpa (who is Jewish, mind you) gave him a secular one created by a famous illustrator last year, so we got one and we open one window each morning.  We also tear one link off of a paper chain he made in his (Unitarian Universalist) religious education class.  But those nods to the countdown until Christmas are background to the baking I do during late November and December.

It's not that the world needs more cookies.  I sure as hell don't need to eat more cookies.  But holiday baking is my coping mechanism, it's my reminder to hope.  When I feel depressed about the obligatory elements of the holidays, I retreat to the kitchen and chop nuts and beat sticks of butter into fluff.  Baking gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment and forward-looking-ness that has been particularly welcome this year, as I continue to job-hunt and ask myself what it is I "plan to do with [my] one wild and precious life."  When I'm done baking cookies, I have cookies.  I can count them.  They're a measurable achievement.  And then I can give them away, which makes me feel good.

So here's hoping that the nice repairmen (and yes, they are men, because I called the old guys who have a shop down the street) will work their magic soon, and restore my coping mechanism to me.  Because I need a little Christmas, my way.

What is your favorite way to prepare for holidays, whether they're the Christmas holidays or other important holidays in your tradition?

Pistachio Rosewater Cardamom Slice and Bake Cookies
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 3 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
2 t. rosewater
generous pinch of cardamom
2 t. finely shredded lemon peel
3/4 c. salted dry-roasted pistachios, finely chopped

Beat butter and cream cheese in a large bowl for about 30 seconds on high speed.  Add sugar, baking soda, and salt, and beat until combined.  Beat in egg, vanilla, rosewater, and cardamom.  Beat in flour and 1/4 c. of the pistachios (you may need to knead them in).

Divide dough in half.  Roll each half into a log about 1 1/2" diameter.  Place remaining pistachios on a sheet of waxed paper, and roll the dough logs into the nuts.  Wrap rolls in plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hours.

Preheat oven to 375.  Cut rolls into about 1/4" slices.  Place 1" apart on cookie sheets and bake 7-9 minutes or until the edges are slighly browned.  Cool on cookie sheets 1 minutes, and transfer to racks to cool completely.
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Friday, November 30, 2012

Simple Gifts: A Story About Giving, and Celeriac Soup

It's pretty clear from the insane traffic around here (because NJ is Mall Central ... haven't you seen the Kevin Smith movies?) that the holiday shopping season has reached full-on crazy, and though I did not stand in line anywhere for Black Friday (except in a row of people lifting weights at the Y--go me!), I've been thinking about gift-giving.

My husband pokes fun at me for my notoriously poor gift-receiving skills.  And in many ways he's right.  I don't give a second thought to returning something that I don't want, or passing it on to someone who might make more use of it than I would; I don't like waste, and I hate to see something sit in a closet and gather dust.  And maybe that's a character flaw.  But I do appreciate gifts that have meaning, even if they may not be the right size or color, and maybe the reason I hate holiday shoppers so much is that I see gift-giving as an art, not an obligation.


It was a Sunday afternoon in the spring of my junior year in college when my parents and brother appeared in the doorway of my bedroom, laden with the usual parcels: a few items of clothing from home, a box of cookies from the Italian bakery, my mail.

I was starting to sort through the mail, making small talk with my family, when my father produced a small wrapped package.  "Here," he said, handing it to me.  "From Disney."

I once read that many Japanese tourists take photos as a matter of politeness; it's expected that you bring the experience back for those people who couldn't come with you.  It's part of the collective nature of Japanese culture.  In my family, when you go somewhere, you bring something back.  Because that's what you do.  It's sort of like the T-shirt so many of my friends had when we were growing up: "Grandma and Grandpa went to (name exotic place) and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."  And I've gotten some strange stuff over the years.  Bookmarks.  Potholders.  Maracas.  On the one hand, it's nice that the buyer is thinking about me; on the other hand, I feel like I'm on a list in the souvenir shop: J-check-maracas.  B-check-keychain ... you get the idea.

I knew that my family was going to Guatemala without me to visit my ailing uncle, but they hadn't even mentioned to me that they'd be going to Disney.  I found myself feeling strangely hurt about being excluded, even though I'd just taken a trip, myself, to California, to visit some graduate schools, and though I was "too old" to care about a trip to Disney.   But taking the package in my hands, I also felt excited: what could he have brought for me?

Gingerly, I lifted the folds of tissue paper.  And nearly dropped the object when it was unwrapped in its entirety.

It was a scarlet unicorn head, a four inch tall wooden figure with a wild, frightening look in its eye.  I held it, looking at it, unable to speak.  From Disney?  Why?  Why had he gotten this thing for me?  What did it mean?

"You like unicorns," he said, almost triumphantly.

I think I nodded, feeling terribly immature, biting back the tears, holding in my hand what felt, at the time, like proof that my father never knew me, would never know me, and didn't care to get to know me.  Yes, I thought; I liked unicorns ten years ago back in the fourth grade, when my favorite color was also purple.  Maybe he thought he was giving the perfect gift.  After all, he didn't have to bring me back anything.  But at that moment, to an adolescent who desperately wanted her father to get her, it felt all wrong.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to set the offending item down on my desk.  I swallowed hard.  "Thank you," I said.

Long after we returned from dinner, and my parents and brother had returned home, I found myself at my desk, face to face with the blood-red unicorn head.  I turned it over; fingering the small gold "Made In China" sticker, and, selfish as it sounds, felt alone in the vast universe.


Twenty years later, the unicorn head is long gone.  Or maybe it's somewhere in the recesses of my mother's closets, and I'll find it when I inevitably have to clean out her house some day.  But the memory of it returns every year when I start to think about finding holiday gifts for the loved ones in my life.  Because each year I'm determined to try to get people the kinds of gifts that say "I know you, I am thankful for you, you matter to me."


Two weeks ago a good friend and colleague finalized her move to Boston.  She won't be far away, but it's not close enough for an impromptu cup of coffee any more.  Even though we hadn't gotten together all that much since both of us left our last place of employment, it was comforting to know she was right there.

She came to have lunch with me before she left, and after we'd placed our order, took from her purse a small tissue-paper-wrapped package.  "I wanted to give you something of mine," she said, smiling broadly, handing it carefully to me.  I opened it gingerly, unfolding the paper in my hands, revealing these small Chinese mud men.  I knew immediately: this was us.  The older and the younger friend, a mentor and his student, thinking and reading and working together on a project of great philosophical importance, focused on a similar, if not identical, outcome.  When I asked her to tell me about the piece, she described this relationship, too.  "But colleagues, equals, not a mentor and student," she said.

It was perfect, and I was touched.

It's difficult to give good gifts all the time.  It takes a great deal of forethought, and energy, and care.  And hell knows, there are many times when I get it all wrong, too.  But it's good to remember that the best gifts, like the best meals, are often the most simple ones, not the ones from the mall, or from the mega souvenir shop, but given from the heart.

Have you ever gotten a perfect gift?  Have you ever given one?

Celeriac Soup
This soup is made from a less-than-beautiful root, but it is comforting, warming, and not too rich, like some cream soups tend to be.  Serve with your favorite crusty loaf of bread for a simple dinner on a cold late-autumn night.

2 T. butter
3/4 c. chopped onion (about 4 ounces)
3/4 c. chopped celery (about 4 ounces)
1/2 t. minced garlic
1/2 c. white wine
1 lb. celeriac, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large potato (1/2 pound), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken stock
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. evaporated milk
1/4 t. celery seed
1 t. salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice

In a small stockpot, melt butter.  Saute onion and celery until translucent.  Add garlic and white wine and cook until the wine is reduced by half.  Add the celeriac, potato, stock, celery seed and just enough milk to cover the vegetables simmer over low heat, covered, until the vegetables are tender (check at about 15 minutes).  Add the remainder of the milk and bring almost to a simmer.  Remove from heat.  In a blender or food processor, puree the soup until very smooth. Strain back into the stockpot, heat to a simmer and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and lemon juice. Add additional milk, if necessary, to achieve desired consistency.
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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thank You.

Thanks so much to all of you who "baked a difference" by baking, bidding, tweeting, sharing, writing blog posts, and otherwise supporting the baked goods auction to benefit the United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund!

I couldn't have done this without every one of you, and it was truly humbling to watch my blogging community and my friends come together to rally around this cause with me.

We raised a total of $367 in winning bids, and the good news is that many of you even increased your bid level when you submitted your donation online!  Those of you who didn't win can still support the cause with us; I've included the button at right again so it's easy to click over.  Where it says "organization," please write "A Half Baked Life Auction" in addition to any other organizations that may match your donation.

Next week, BlogHer will be featuring a post about using social media for good, and I was contacted by the author, who asked me about my reasons for turning this into a community event, rather than just a link to a donation website.  It was an interesting question.  Why bother with all of the complications?

First, I'm convinced, through my work over the years with various fundraisers for a host of different organizations, that people are more likely to give at an event than through a direct appeal campaign.  Most of us don't like simply giving.  We want to connect.  There's something about belonging to a community of committed donors that makes us feel more generous than we would as an individual.  Perhaps it's feeling the ability we have to be change agents when we work together, rather than wondering how our small contributions might make a difference.

I also believe that if you want to raise awareness, you can't do it by simply providing a link to a donation website.  It's easy to click a button and feel like we've done our duty.  It's a lot harder to read a blog post like Dana's or Ilene's and not personalize the loss, the cause.  The stories are just as important--if not more so--than the statistics.

Even if we didn't raise thousands of dollars, some great things happened as a result of the event.  Bloggers met new bloggers, people whom they might not have happened to read otherwise, because they're not in the same interest area.  A fabulous cross-section of people came together for this: participants (both bakers and bidders) included blogging friends from the ALI community, from the parenting blogger community, from the wellness blogger community, general diarists, and a number of my own non-blogging friends, many of whom didn't even know I had a blog until this week.  (Yes, I outed myself on Facebook for this event, and it was scary as all hell, thank you very much.)

And maybe this event, like some of the events I've participated in myself over the years, will inspire someone to do something similar somewhere down the line.

Because giving (whether we're talking about time, or talent, or money, or even empathy) isn't something that we do on the day after Cyber Monday.  (Though God help us, it's a small antidote to the post-Thanksgiving capitalist frenzy that I hate so much.)  It's something that we do because we're human.  Because we are connected.  Because our stories have meaning.  Because we matter to each other, even if we don't know each other yet.

So one more time: thank you to everyone who hung with me on this one.  Even if you didn't win, you are cordially invited to my virtual table for tea and cookies, any day you want.
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Perfect Moment Monday: Turkey Trot 5K

Each month, my lovely friend Lavender Luz sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  While you wait for me to get a night's rest before posting auction results and matching winning bidders with bakers (THANK YOU to everyone who participated!!), enjoy this small PMM.


November has been a little crazy.  We began the month without power, and with kids out of school for a week and a half, due to a wild late season hurricane.  My mother had moved in with us just before the storm, after falling down her stairs and breaking six ribs and her scapula, deputizing me as LPN and OT.  I ran as a last-minute write-in candidate for our local Board of Education, using only word of mouth and social media to campaign, and on the day after we got power back, won the seat.  My mother-in-law came to visit for a long weekend, bringing the total number of grandparents in the house to two.  And then there was the the Thanksgiving meal and my mother's departure, five weeks after she'd arrived.

So I was especially relieved to have a low-key weekend.

We don't do Black Friday around here.  In the morning, I went to the Y, and in the afternoon, we went geocaching at a local nature preserve, driving in the opposite direction from the mall.  On Saturday, we supported Small Business Saturday by going to one of our local farm markets, and then buying ingredients from our local health food store for the cookies we'd make for the online bake sale (final tally to be announced later this week!). On Sunday, we went to a fabulous playground and ate what may possibly be the best pizza on the planet (kale and butternut squash pizzas, be still my heart), and then we came home and made a fantastic mess with flour, rolling out gingerbread dough, N. eating about dough as much as she rolled.  That night, I watched as the bids began to come in for the Hurricane Sandy Relief bake sale items, and the tweets started to appear, and the blog posts started to proliferate, feeling amazed and proud and overcome with emotion that my fellow bloggers had rallied around and stepped up to the plate when I asked them to lend their time, their talents, even their blog space.

Any of those things could have been my Perfect Moment for the month.

But there was one moment on Thanksgiving that moved me, that grounded me, that I thought was worth sharing.

Almost every year we run the 5K Turkey Trot in my town.  It's practically shameful for us not to run, given that the race course goes right down my street, allowing for ample porch space for visitors to watch.  It's quite the show: some people run in Santa suits, one team in a large cardboard replica of the Mayflower, many with turkey hats, some in tutus and suits, and this year, even a random banana.  It's a huge race; this year, over 6,000 people participated.  And because it's so large, it's not really possible to run your best race; there are too many people with strollers, or dogs, or small children running, and no one seems to pay much attention to the signs at the beginning that tell you where to stand if you run a 5-minute or 6-minute or 10-minute mile.

At times, this becomes frustrating.  If you are me, you're trying to run off your apple pie in advance, you see.  You have the best intentions of completing this course in less time than last year.  And you can't do it if there's a six year old in the way, or a wall of sorority sisters trotting, arms linked, five across the road.

But there's a point in the race, on the uphill coming back into town, where you can see ahead and behind you.  If you're in the middle of the pack, which I usually am, you can see the throngs of people, all running together.  And suddenly, this sea of people feels important. We're all bent on the same goal.  We're there to support each other.  It's not a race, but a challenge.

As I ran up the hill this year, looking ahead of me and knowing that I was more than halfway done, I felt an adrenaline rush.  It really was an amazing thing, this running together.  I felt strong, and connected, and free, and part of something much larger than myself.  And it was, for that moment, absolutely perfect.

Have you ever felt like you were part of something much larger that yourself?
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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Baking A Difference: A Bake Sale/Auction for Sandy Relief

Welcome to our nation-wide blogger baked goods auction to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy!  UPDATE: BIDDING IS NOW CLOSED.  PLEASE CONTINUE TO DONATE TO THE UNITED WAY HURRICANE SANDY RELIEF FUND, BELOW.)

Though the headlines have begun to fade from the national media, the work to rebuild in New Jersey has barely begun.  Many people, especially those at the shore and in Staten Island, are still without power, weeks after the storm.  Cleanup will take months (see the image below, courtesy of one of my blogging friends, Mastering Mommy Brain, whose parents' home in Ortley Beach was among the affected properties).  Families have been displaced, forced to leave their homes.  Though donations of food and clothing have been plentiful, the difficult work is still ahead, and I'm proud to have so many blogging friends who agreed to participate in this auction, and raise some awareness and funds for the ongoing relief effort!

Proceeds from the auction will go to the United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund.  My family has worked with the United Way over the years, and I feel confident about their plans to support communities through the rebuilding and recovery process, not just in the short term, but in the long term.  Moreover, they have informed me that they will charge no administrative fees on donations to the Fund!  They are making cash infusions to community-based organizations currently unable to deliver at full capacity, so that those organizations can better serve the needs of those affected by Sandy at the grassroots level. Rebuilding and expanding the capacity of these organizations are critical to overall recovery efforts.  The Fund will be distributed through grants to community-based health or human services organizations in order to bolster or create services that directly address the unmet needs of individuals and families adversely affected by the hurricane.  Near and long-term supports may include: basic needs, such as food; medical and mental health services; transportation assistance; housing and utilities assistance; legal assistance; and job retraining and counseling.
Let's Bake a Difference for the Garden State!

We have fabulous items up for auction below!  However, we understand that some of you might prefer to contribute directly to the cause; if you would like to make a contribution to the United Way Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund without bidding on an item, click on the button at the right, and where it says "organization," please write "A Half Baked Life Auction" in addition to any other organizations that may match your donation.  I'd love it if you'd leave a comment on this post, too, or email me, letting us know that you donated, even if you didn't bid, so we can include your donation in the final fundraising tally.

Now without further ado, on to the auction details:
  • Bidding opens at 8pm EST on the evening of Sunday the 25th.  Bidding will close at 11:59pm (one minute before midnight) EST on Monday the 26th (Cyber Monday!).  Please tweet the auction as much as possible, so that we get lots of traffic and bidders during the day!  It would be great if you would use the hashtag #Sandy in your tweets, and #bakeadifference.
  • Each individual item has its own page with its own comments section.  These pages will include information about the starting bid, and will be available for you to view by Sunday night.  The bidding will happen in the comments section on each item's page; it will be up to you to refresh the item page to see the highest current bid and bid above that amount.
  • In order to be eligible to win an item, bidders are required to leave a name and valid email address in EACH bid comment.
  • Your bid must be at least $1 higher than the starting price or previous bid (if there are any) but can be as high as you’d like!  Bidding will go up in increments of $1 (not $.50, or $.25, etc.).
  • Comments/bids are timestamped; if you are the final high bidder, you will be notified that you won within 24 hours.  Timing of shipping for items won may be negotiated between bidder and seller, though we prefer that items be shipped within a week, and all transactions must be complete by January 1.  Seller will cover shipping costs.  (UPDATED in response to comment below: items will be sent to U.S. shipping addresses only.  Apologies to my international blogging friends!)
Winning bidders must make payment and send their mailing address to me via paypal within 72 hours of the auction ending.  If payment is not made, winner forfeits item and the next highest bidder is awarded item. Once payment is made and shipping address is received, winning bidders will receive contact information of individual in charge of shipping their item.  Once all payments have been received, I will send a single donation, on behalf of the auction participants, to the United Way fund.

Get ready, get set, BID!  Here are our Fabulous Auction Items:
(click on the link above the picture to go to the bidding page for that item):

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Friday, November 23, 2012

The Cobbled Together Holiday, and Tuscan Bean Soup

When I was younger, Thanksgiving was defined, as it is for so many of us, by meals with my small extended family.  Thanksgivings in my early years belonged to my aunt and uncle in central New Jersey, where there would be turkey and stuffing and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and my mother's pumpkin pie and creamed onions, and early birthday presents for my brother, my cousin, and me.  Later, as I grew older and my aunt and uncle moved away, Thanksgiving meant a trip to Kennebunk Beach, Maine, where my grandmother lived with my other aunt and my cousin.  We still brought the pie, and there was still a turkey with all of the trimmings, but there were also my grandmother's meatballs and spaghetti and banana bread and coconut bread.  By the time I got to college we were spending most Thanksgivings alone, just the four of us, but that was fine, too; it was tradition.

I remember the first Thanksgiving I spent in Los Angeles; it was the first time I wasn't going to my relatives' house for the holidays, and though I didn't even feel like being with family was the happiest of holiday experiences, the palm trees wrapped with Christmas lights did little to quell my homesickness. After a halfhearted mid-day potluck with some fellow graduate students, I went to Ralph's, the local grocery chain, where I bought a store-made ready-to-eat pumpkin pie and a tub of Cool Whip, which I ate in their entirety that night, alone, watching reruns of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But over the years, Thanksgiving with friends became easier; my friends became my family when my blood relations weren't available.  And sometimes I did both; there were Thanksgiving potlucks before Thanksgiving, and then meals with family later.

The older I got, the more I started to feel like the best holidays were the cobbled-together ones; the ones that involved both family and friends, or ecletic mixtures of friends from different corners of my small universe.

I remember talking with my friend N. about this last year; her parents were coming to visit, but they'd also managed to invite parents of a friend who couldn't speak English and didn't have a place to go for the holiday, and some of her husband's graduate students.  Initially, she was dreading playing hostess, but she mentioned later that it was one of the most fun holidays they'd had in a while.

Friends of ours were coming by in the morning to watch the Turkey Trot 5K, which passes right by our house on Thanksgiving morning.  They usually run the race themselves, but were benched by injury and recovery from surgery this year, so they wanted to cheer on the other runners.  I asked if they would stay for the meal, if they'd help us eat our turkey.  After an initial hesitation, they agreed.

And honestly?  It felt the most like Thanksgiving around here that it's felt in years.  I was deeply thankful not just for family, but for the friends whom we can choose to be family, the ones for whom we can be simply ourselves.  I was grateful for the destabilization of old conversations around the Thanksgiving table, the way in which new presence changed them or silenced them entirely.  I was appreciative of the extra hands and the extra ears and eyes, not just in the kitchen but everywhere.

This soup is one of those cobbled together meals, using up some of the things you probably have in your refrigerator from the preparations of the Thanksgiving meal, and some things you probably have in your pantry.  It's light enough to detox from the holiday indulgence, but heavy enough to make you feel warm and cozy after a late autumn day.  It was a staple in my graduate school years, and I still make it today.

Tuscan Bean Soup

1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
1 onion, chopped
1/2 c. carrot, sliced
1/2 c. celery
2 cloves garlic, minced
rosemary to taste
15 oz. can black beans
19 oz. can cannellini
15 oz. can broth

Melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat in a large saucepan.  Add the onion, carrot, and celery; saute for four minutes or so, until just translucent.  Add the garlic and rosemary and saute for a minute or two longer.  Add the beans and broth, and simmer for about 12 minutes.

Serve, if you like, with some grated Parmesan, or a crusty loaf of bread.
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Monday, November 19, 2012

Difference at the Table: Moroccan Root Vegetable Stew

Despite my love of the harvest, and the falling leaves, and the apples and squash, and even the raking, I don't love November.

It's something about the darkening sky, the full-tilt rush towards Christmas and the pressure to give extravagant gifts, the starches of the Thanksgiving meal, the conversations I'm doomed to have around our Thanksgiving table.

World War Three, the Passive Aggressive version, came early this year.  With my mother's fall down her stairs, and her move to our house for her recovery, we've been dancing around difficult conversations for weeks now, me sometimes biting my tongue, and sometimes not.  Imagine Thanksgiving, with all of its family land mines, stretching out for three, then four, then five weeks, and you'll get some sense of what it has been like around here.

Reflecting on the difficult topic of religious pluralism in church this week, our minister reminded us of another meal that wasn't exactly the most congenial of meetings.

Edward Winslow wrote, in a letter dated December 12, 1621:
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown.  They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.  Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Can you imagine?  The Pilgrims had invited Massosoit to sign a peace treaty, and spent three days eating with ninety surprise guests with whom they couldn't communicate (except through Squanto), warriors who were bearing arms, not really sure whether they were going to be killed.  And you thought your Thanksgiving table conversation was a little tense?  Not that I am entirely sympathetic with the colonists, but it sort of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?  At least we're not armed.  And the one thing I've noticed is that over time, even if the conversations are still difficult, they've become less charged, as if time has diffused them, just a little bit.  Maybe we are figuring each other out, even if that understanding doesn't make us best friends.

Much has changed since 1621; though we haven't entirely abandoned our "roots," there's a lot on our Thanksgiving tables that is hardly "traditional" fare.  This dish is a nod to those early settlers and to their native American guests at the table, a stew made with traditional root vegetables, most of which actually were around for that first Thanksgiving (no potatoes, since they hadn't yet made their way across the Atlantic).  It's a perfect example of the meeting of cultures, American vegetables fused with the flavors of the Middle East.  Even if peace may be hard to imagine, perhaps at least we can appreciate the result of the marriage of flavors, knowing that the longer we sit around the table together, the more likely it is we'll at least achieve some kind of understanding, if not agreement.  And we can give thanks for that.

What--and who--will be at your Thanksgiving table this year?  What do your Thanksgiving roots look like?

Moroccan-Style Chicken and Root Vegetable Stew

4 c. canned low-salt chicken broth
1 T.olive oil
1 lb boneless skinless chicken
1 1/2 c. onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 t. garam masala
2 t. ground cumin
1 cinnamon stick
2 c. sweet potatoes, peeled, 1/2" cubes
2 c. parsnips (I used kohlrabi, because I had one) peeled, 1/2" pieces
1 1/2 c. turnips, peeled, 1/2" pieces 
1 large carrot cut in 1/2" pieces
1 c.  rutabaga, peeled, 1/2"pieces
1/4 c. golden raisins or apricots (chopped)1 14-oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes, drained
Juice and zest from one lemon

In a small pot, bring chicken broth to a boil, continue to boil until reduced by half, then set aside.

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Sauté chicken for about a minute until light golden and remove from pot; set aside.

Add onion to pot and sauté until golden and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Add spices and stir 30 seconds until just fragrant. Add sweet potatoes, parsnips (kohlrabi), turnips, carrot, rutabaga, broth and currants. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add tomatoes, lemon zest with juice, and chicken, and simmer over medium heat about 5 minutes, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked. Sprinkle with cilantro if desired.
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