Monday, December 26, 2011

Eggnog Cookies: HumanLight, the Happy Holidays debate, and a Cup of Cheer

I should preface this by saying that I celebrate Christmas.   Though I am Catholic by birth, my husband's family was Jewish, and we are now both UU by choice, we go to our fellowship's Christmas services, put up a tree, and track Santa via NORAD.

But I've felt particularly shell-shocked this year by the "war on Christmas" on both sides of the fence.  You've got the "keep Christ in Christmas" people who shout back -- in an annoyed tone of voice -- "Merry CHRISTmas" to the waving antlered Girl Scouts who are wishing people "Happy Holidays" from the float in our holiday parade.   And then you've got people who get all offended when random strangers wish them a "Merry Christmas" because, well, it's not their holiday, and one shouldn't assume.

I find the "war on Christmas" especially ironic because, after all, it's a holiday that is supposed to celebrate peace.  And joy.  Now, I know that Hanukkah and Christmas and Yule and Kwanzaa are fundamentally different kinds of holidays, celebrated in very different ways.  I realize that Christmas dominates the store decorations and sale advertisements for months leading up to the day, and the other holidays barely get any billing.  As someone who dated Jewish men serially during college and graduate school, I got first hand exposure to the frustration with the Christmas takeover, and it was useful perspective.

BUT: when most people wish others a "Merry Christmas," I feel like it has much more to do with good will towards other human beings than it does to do with Christ.  It's like someone wishing you a good day, only in a different language.  AND: when someone wishes me Happy Holidays, I appreciate that they understand that everyone has different traditions.  I don't get offended either way.

A friend of mine recently shared with me a link to a page about the celebration of HumanLight on December 23.  It's a movement/holiday founded in 2001 to celebrate the ideals of reason, compassion and hope--to be a positive expression of humanist values.  Though it originated among atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and other people not affiliated with a faith community, there's a lot to be said for the common ground it shares with religious holidays during December.  Isn't it time we put down the word-weapons and stop second-guessing expressions of compassion and hope?

Join me for an egg nog cookie, and tell me: which side of the holiday fence do you come down on, if at all?  How do you feel when people wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?  How do you wish people joy at this time of year?

Iced Egg Nog Cookies

2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter, slightly softened
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup egg nog


1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons egg nog
ground nutmeg (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl and set aside. In another mixing bowl, mix sugar and butter together. Add egg yolks and vanilla to the mixture and beat until smooth. Finally, add egg nog and mix on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Slowly add flour mixture into egg nog/sugar mixture until completely combined, but be careful not to over-mix.

Drop spoonfuls of dough onto a prepared cookie sheet and bake for 20-22 minutes. Remove immediately to a cooling rack.

For icing, whisk powdered sugar and egg nog together. Add more sugar or egg nog, depending on the consistency you prefer. (I like a “barely thick” icing for these cookies.)
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Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Moderation: Vegetarian Corn Chowder

(Welcome ICLW visitors!  If you want a brief back story, click here: the short version is that I'm mom to two after experiencing RPL and secondary IF.  I make, talk about and take pictures of food, because doing so makes me happy and keeps me mostly out of trouble.  I believe in the power of good food to nourish the body and soul.  I also muse about life, yoga, and being a compassionate, mindful human being.  I hope you'll poke around and stay a while.)

On Friday, my son came home from school with a gingerbread house.

By Sunday, it was starting to look sort of like post-WWII Dresden.  He decided to attach a little note to it:

Truth be told, I was helping to demolish this cultural artifact.  But you sort of have to love the "soup-na.zi" tone.

In many ways, this really is perfect, isn't it?  How many of us overindulge during the holidays?  In food?  In shopping?  In something else? 

My son's note was a nod to moderation.  Yes, you can nibble on the gingerbread house.  But remember what happened to Hansel and Gretel?

This corn chowder was something I threw together last night; it's perfect for rainy, chilly days, and it uses things you probably already have in your pantry.  It's also a good stand-by for when you've overindulged: comfort food without the discomfort that usually comes with it.

Vegetarian Corn Chowder

2 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 c. scallions, chopped
1/2 t. thyme
1 stalk celery, choppped
2 carrots, chopped
1/4 c. flour
2 c. vegetable stock
2 c. milk (or half and half, or non-dairy milk of your choice)
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 1/2 - 5 c. corn (about 6 ears' worth)

Melt the butter and olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat.  Add onion and saute until tender, about 5-7 minutes.

Add scallions, thyme celery, and carrots; saute about 2-3 minutes.

Add flour and stir to coat, cooking until the flour begins to brown and become fragrant, about 2-3 minutes.

Slowly add vegetable stock and milk, bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring continuously with a whisk until the mixture begins to thicken.  Add potatoes and corn, and cook until potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Through the Window: Stained Glass Cookies

Growing up in suburbia, it's sort of hard not to look in people's windows at night.  If you walk anywhere when it's dark, your eyes are bound to be drawn to the light.  And I confess, I've always liked looking in windows ... not in a creepy-peeping-Tom kind of way, but in a curious "gee, I wonder what those people are like" kind of way as I'm passing by.

When I was younger, I made up stories about the people in those houses.  I gave them dialogue.  I imagined what they were having for dinner.  Their lives were mostly more perfect than mine was.

Now, the older, wiser me knows that you can't know what someone is thinking, or feeling, or experiencing, just by looking in the windows.  Even if the lights are on and you can see them, admire the color of their living room and their taste in wall sconces, see what they're watching on TV ... you never have the full story, and you certainly can't know what is going on in their heads.  I've known people who lived next to victims of domestic violence for years, and never guessed what was happening.  On the flip side, I've known people who didn't even realize that their next door neighbor was pregnant until after the baby arrived.

The same is true for anything.  Facebook (which is a pretty self-selected public persona).  Blogs (ditto: remember Trey Pennington?).  Even reality TV (Michelle Duggar comes to mind).  Just because we think we can see every lovely or sordid moment of someone's life doesn't mean we know them.  Or can understand them.  Or feel their pain.  Or can speak on their behalf.  Or that we have the power and right to judge them.  The fact is, we simply don't have all of the evidence.

These cookies come out like beautiful stained glass windows.  They taste wonderful.  But don't try to look through them.  Because everything you see will be colored by Jolly Ranchers.

Stained Glass Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
7 ounces assorted clear colored hard candies, such as Jolly Rancher, colors separated and finely chopped (about 30)


Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder into a large bowl; set aside.

Put butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg; mix until smooth, 1 minute.

Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture, and mix until combined. Stir in vanilla.Wrap dough in plastic, and refrigerate until cold, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Roll out chilled dough on a well-floured surface to a little more than 1/8 inch thick. Cut out shapes using a 5-inch tree-shape cookie cutter. Using a metal spatula, space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Using the tip of a paring knife, make a triangular cutout in center of each cookie for candy filling. Reroll scraps, and cut.

Sprinkle candy in a single layer in hole of each cookie, avoiding edges of triangle. Refrigerate until dough is firm, about 15 minutes.

Bake cookies until candy has melted and completely filled cutout and cookie edges are just starting to turn pale golden brown, 11 to 12 minutes. Do not let the cookies brown, or the candy centers may become bubbly. Let cool completely on sheets on wire racks. Use a metal spatula to remove cookies from parchment.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Darkest Hour: Chai Shortbread Logs

The days continue to get darker earlier.  I find myself lighting the candles in our windows now at 4:00, looking out into the dusk. Even though the solstice is still a week away, the afternoons have me feeling a strange primal urge to build myself a fireplace and burn a very large log.  Nature draws inward for the winter, gathering energy for the lengthening days and the beginning of spring.  I find myself drawing inward, too, even though everything else around me draws me outward in celebration of the season; perhaps it's no wonder that I'm feeling a little overrun by the holidays.

And yet, at the darkest time of year, we celebrate the coming of the light and the spring.  The festival of Yule was initially celebrated by the ancient Germanic people, where at this time of year the hours of daylight are limited, if they exist at all, as a recognition that spring was on the way.  Last year we were invited to a Yule gathering, and I learned that the holiday is also a fertility celebration: the ashes of the yule log were scattered on fields to ensure a productive harvest during the coming months.

I've been thinking a lot about the IF community lately.  The winter holidays can be very dark days when you're grieving a loss, or when the cards plastered with photos of happy families remind you constantly of what you don't have.  Even those of us who "crossed over" feel the darkness at this time of year: old wounds become tender, we feel strange pangs at happy announcements.  And the sad announcements are even worse: I was heartsick to hear about the friend of a friend who, after six years of TTC and several rounds of infertility treatments, just lost his wife to complications from a C-section with twins (you can read about them, and reach out, here).

One of the first poems I ever had to memorize in school was Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening."  I remember being struck by the stillness that the poem evoked, and feeling like my tweenaged self could identify with the traveler: drawn by the darkness, but determined to go on, to reach the hearth waiting at the end of the journey.  Especially now, we owe it to each other to stick together, to keep each other moving through the darkness.  To embrace the turning-inward that comes naturally when we are attuned to the seasons and to our life experiences rather than struggling against them, but to prepare together, quietly, for what comes next.

These look a little like logs, and you can pretend that the white chocolate drizzle is snow.  I hope that it's not too dark where you are; at least you are with friends, and eventually, there will be a warm hearth to come home to.

Chai Shortbread Yule Logs

1 c. butter (or a combination of vegan margarine and shortening)
3/4 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 t. vanilla
3/4 c. flour
3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. almond flour (or more regular flour)
2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. cardamom
1/2 t. cloves
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. coriander
1/4 t. fresh ground pepper
1/4 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 t. chai tea leaf blend
4 oz. white chocolate, melted
1 t. (or more) oil

Preheat the oven to 350.  Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Cream the butter; fold in powdered sugar and vanilla and cream together until smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together flours, spices, baking soda, salt, and tea.  Add to the butter mixture in two parts, mixing well after each addition until a dense dough forms.

Divide the dough into two logs about 8x3" and 1/2 inch thick. Slice into 1/2" slices and place onto parchment about 2 inches apart.

Bake 12-14 minutes, until the edges are just turning golden.  Cool 5 minutes.

Melt white chocolate (either over a double boiler or in 30 second intervals in the microwave, stirring after each interval).  Add the oil and mix well.  It should now be a good consistency for drizzling (it should run off a fork pretty smoothly).  Drizzle over the shortbread and allow the chocolate to firm up before storing tightly covered.
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Monday, December 12, 2011

More Food in the Mail and the Great Food Blogger Cookie Exchange: Mostaccioli

Every year during the holidays, I try to get involved in some kind of cookie exchange.  I love the tapas approach to eating (this drives my husband nuts, because I can often be found grazing in my kitchen), and cookie exchanges are like the potluck tapas of the dessert world.  I have fond memories of cookie exchanges from childhood: my mom was a teacher, and every year around the holidays she'd leave with a Tupperware full of our cookies and come home with new treats for us to try.

You learn a lot about people when they break bread--or cookies--with you.  There's an immediate intimacy that comes from sharing food ... and perhaps that's what I love most about cookie exchanges: not just trying new things and sampling in small bites, but feeling like a member of an instant community.  And during the holidays, when family gatherings can be complicated, these gatherings can make you feel at home.

(Those readers who knew me in my professional 
life will get a good chuckle over the name of the 
winery and the vintage date!)
Last year, I happened across Steph Chow, a food blogger who was running her second annual blogger cookie exchange.  I signed up, and was paired with Emily from Life on Food.  She sent me two kinds of cookies and a bag of peppermint bark, in beautifully tied bags, and I sent her three of my favorites packed in Tupperware (and was a little embarrassed about my presentation, or rather lack of presentation, in the interest of airtight-ness).  This year Steph has been busy with work and with the launch of Foodiacs, but when I did a search on blogger cookie exchanges, I discovered I was not too late to sign up for The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, hosted by Lindsay and Taylor of Love and Olive Oil.  This swap required participants to send one dozen cookies to three different bloggers, and three additional bloggers would send a dozen cookies each to me.  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.  Though I don't consider myself just a food blogger, it sounded like a fabulous plan.

The challenge for me was that I blogged all of my usual holiday favorites last year, so I'd be testing something new on people I'd never met.  Still, if I wanted to write at all during December, I'd have to start trying some new recipes at some point, so I crossed my fingers and fired up the oven.  This recipe caught my eye for its unusual list of ingredients (including WINE!), and I thought I'd give it a try.  I had to adapt them a bit because I preferred a slightly different balance of spice, and I found that the dough was too sticky to roll, but I thought that the end result was really quite delicious: definitely an "adult" cookie with a complex sweet and spicy and ever-so-slightly fruity flavor that will keep them guessing.

I sent out my cookies just after Thanksgiving, and in the past week I got the best kind of mail:
Sarah from Healthy Mom on the Run sent me cranberry orange cookies and gingersnaps.
Kisha from Kisha's Kitchen sent me butter toffee cookies.
Nicole at Life's a Batch sent me Cinna-Mas.

Thank you to the three of you for spreading holiday cheer across the country!  I hope that the people who got my cookies liked them ... and that they were something a little fun and different.  And I hope that you get to share something sweet with someone new this season, too.

Chocolate Spice Cookies/Mostaccioli
(adapted from an adaptation from Nick Malgieri's Great Italian Desserts)

1/2 c. natural (not Dutch process) cocoa powder
3/4 c. flour (you may actually need more than this to make the dough manageable)
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. almond flour
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. cloves
1 t. baking soda
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. molasses
1/4 c. dry red wine (I used Merlot)
1/4 c. confectioners' sugar
1 T. water

Into a mixing bowl, sift cocoa powder.  Add flour, sugar, almonds, cinnamon, cloves and baking soda. Mix lightly to combine.  Add honey, molasses and wine. Mix til a smooth sticky dough forms.  Allow to stand 1 minute to absorb the liquid, then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes (up to a few hours).

Preheat the oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Turn the dough out onto a generously floured work surface. Pat into a rectangle approx. 1/4" thick.  Flour the dough lightly and roll over it once or twice with a rolling pin to even it out.

Cut the dough using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, into 2" squares. With a dry pastry brush, wipe off any excess flour.  Transfer the squares to the baking sheet spacing about 2" apart. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the cookies sit for a minute. Then lift the parchment with the cookies on it, and place on a wire rack.  While the cookies are still warm, make the glaze by stirring the confectioners' sugar and water together til smooth, then brush the glaze onto each cookie top. After a minute or two, brush on another coat of glaze.  Cool and store in an airtight cookie tin.
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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Putting Christmas on Standby: Pumpkin Muffins

I don't know what I was thinking. 

No, actually, I do know what I was thinking.  I was thinking that it was the second rainy day in a row, and I needed to get out of the house with N., and that she needed to have something in her stocking this year (for the sake of appearances for I.), even if it was something small.  I was thinking that it was a weekday in the middle of the afternoon, and that perhaps the stores wouldn't be so crowded.  I was thinking that I had a few gift cards that I needed to spend, and what better way to use them up than on Christmas presents.

I thought wrong.  Forgive me, friends: I went to the mall.

And honestly, after about an hour there, I felt dizzy.  The bright colors, the noise, the crowd, the toys that went "dingalingaling" and the toys that talked ... I couldn't handle it.  I walked with N. back out into the rain and I could hear myself think again; I could breathe again.  I started to wonder what kind of freak I am that I can't go shopping in T.oy.sRu.S any more.

I haven't been to yoga in a few weeks because S. has been traveling.  But one of the last times I went, my yoga teacher talked about restoring vata, the dosha (one of three humours that comprise the body according to ancient Ayurvedic medicine) comprised of wind and space.  When things are swirling around us, and in us, she said, vata can get very off balance. We might experience nervousness, anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness and loss of range of motion: our bodies feel stiff, tight and contracted. And so go our minds, following our bodies.  We practiced re-establishing equilibrium by breathing, imagining the place where the inner and outer air are connected.  We also did partner yoga, which made us all laugh as we played with the asanas, trying to balance each other in a blooming lotus asana, and inevitably toppling over.

Laughing, playing, breathing ... all of these things are supposed to restore equilibrium between the inner and outer air.  And during this time of year, it's essential: our own equilibrium will go a long way towards helping those around us to stay calm.

Standing there in the rain, breathing, I thought to myself: yes, I need to bake cookies and write cards and get some gifts.  But I also need to do the holidays on my own terms, not on someone else's.

These are not Christmas cookies.  They are good for breakfast, when you need something to hold in one hand while you're holding ten things in the other hand, on your way out the door.  They are equally good with a cup of tea, as you're sitting at the window, looking out at the rain.  Which is where I am tonight, in a much saner place.

Buttermilk Pumpkin Muffins

Cooking spray
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-grain pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsulphered molasses
1/4 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk
1/4 cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Coat a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg.

In a large bowl, whisk the sugar, molasses, oil and 1 egg until combined. Add the other egg and whisk well. Whisk in the pumpkin and vanilla. Whisk in the flour mixture in 2 batches, alternating with the buttermilk. Whisk just until combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pan and sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles. Bake for 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of 1 of the muffins comes out clean.

Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the muffins to loosen them and unmold. Cool completely on the rack.
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Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Birthday To Me: Vegan Thumbprints

It's been over a month now since our freak October snowstorm.  Though it's definitely cooler and the days are definitely shorter, it hasn't quite felt like winter since then, and for the first time in many, many years, it's not going to snow on my birthday, or on the day before my birthday, or on the day after my birthday.  (If you want the story about why it used to, click over here ... it's worth the read.)

There's a lot weird about this birthday: no snow, S. is traveling for business, I'm not going to an office to work.  S. was feeling pretty guilty about this, I think, and left me with a box of chocolate, which I have managed to restrain myself from eating in its entirety just yet.

I'm not feeling alone, though, oddly enough.  Despite the fact that it's been a year of change and uncertainty, I feel more supported, in many ways, than I have at almost any other time in my life: I have a wonderful family, friends both far and near (including former colleagues who stuck with me as I've questioned my professional identity), and a network of people that I've gotten to know here, in the blogosphere, whom I call friends, too.

I've been studying the trees as I've been running lately; now that their leaves are gone, you can more easily see the damage done by the snowstorm, when the snow sticking to the leaves made branches so heavy that they snapped like toothpicks.  I feel sorry for them, and I've been wondering which ones will endure the winter, which ones will come back in a different shape than they'd been before, but thriving nonetheless.  There's an important trend I've noticed, too: the ones that seem to have fared the best were the ones that were stuck together in clumps, whose branches supported the other trees despite the weight of the ice.  Yes, they lost limbs, too.  But they lost those limbs only on one side, or randomly all over.  They are the walking wounded, the survivors.

It's a useful metaphor.  We shouldn't expect to come out of the freak snowstorms of life unscathed.  We change shape, we lose "limbs"; we may not even be immediately recognizable.  But if we're lucky, we're standing close enough to other people weathering their own natural disasters that we support each other, reaching out to collectively bear the weight of the ice.  I'm thankful, this year, that I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by so many other survivors.  If you're reading this, you are among them.  Thank you for the gift of you.

I didn't want to bake an entire cake for myself and my son, who eats mostly frosting anyway, so I decided to whip up a batch of cookies that I could stick a candle into, and kill two birds with one stone: these could be Christmas cookies, too!  Many of the vegan recipes for thumbprints on the web have "healthy" ingredients like honey, or oat flour, or flax.  These are basically unapologetic sugar and nut cookies, the kind I remember my mom making every Christmas (though she made them with eggs and butter).  The two great things about vegan baking is that it's a lot easier to scale the recipe (I halved this one for today) and that you can eat the dough completely guilt-free (which I did).  I hope you'll join me with a cup of your favorite beverage as I blow out my candle and celebrate another year of being here.

Vegan Thumbprint Cookies
(adapted from Vegan Cookies Take Over Your Cookie Jar)

1/2 c. canola oil
3/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. nondairy milk
2 t. vanilla
1 2/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c. cornstarch
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 1/4 c. finely chopped walnuts
1 c. jam of your choice

Beat together oil, sugars, nondairy milk, and vanilla.  Sift in flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt.  Mix to form a stiff dough (it shouldn't be too dry, but should roll easily into a ball).

Pour the chopped walnuts into a bowl.  Roll the dough into balls about 1 1/2" round, and place them on baking sheets about 1" apart.  Push your thumbprint into the center of each ball, taking care not to break them.

Bake 16-18 minutes, until cookies are firm.  While the cookies are still warm, scoop about 1 t. (or however much you like) of jam into the center of each cookie.  Allow the cookies to cool for about 5 minutes and then transfer to wire racks to allow them to finish cooling.
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Syndicated! A Blogger-Made Gift Guide

When I started this blog, I wanted a place to write.  I was afraid that I was forgetting how.  And I had a lot to work out.

Almost two years later, I've learned a few things.  First, I still have a lot to work out.  But perhaps more importantly, I have been remembering how much I enjoy this kind of work, and I think I've been in denial all these years that I'd really love to be a freelance writer.

SO: I'm thrilled and honored that one of the bloggers I admire most asked me to write a syndicated post for BlogHer on buying blogger-made for the holidays!  It's a post about gift-giving in a more thoughtful way, by getting to know the people who create the stuff you buy, and buying because things have meaning, not because they're on sale at Walmart; it includes links to some bloggers you might want to read and to their stores.  Please go check it out and leave a comment (especially if you can think of other bloggers that we should add to the list) and then go visit these talented folks to do your your holiday shopping!  Thanks to all who helped me in my search for blogger entrepreneurs, and thank you, BlogHer for giving me such a wonderful opportunity!

Because I couldn't include everyone I found, I also wanted to archive a more complete list here (but go read and comment at the post on BlogHer first!):

Now ... go read some new blogs and meet some really fabulous people!  Happy shopping ... and commenting.
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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brown Tuesday: Gluten Free Dark Chocolate Cookies

There are people I know for whom Black Friday is like a religious experience.  They start out at midnight, armed with sales flyers and coupons and large mugs of coffee, determined to get their holiday shopping done, and they post Facebook updates along the way, as if on a pilgrimage.  It's tradition.

Me, well ... I make cookies.

At least, I usually make cookies.  Somehow, as I mentioned in my Black Forest Cake post, I'm way behind on cookie-baking this year.  I've been thinking about why this might be, and decided that despite my participation in the upcoming Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, maybe it's because I don't have as many people to bake for this year, and I'm having a hard time getting motivated.  I'm the kind of person who goes to the gym if I'm enrolled in a class ... you know, because if I don't show up I'd be letting the instructor down.  (I realize that this is bizarre logic, but it works.  Yes, I was raised with a healthy guilt complex, thank you very much.)

I started to make a list of people who might need cookies.  The woman down the street with a new baby.  The gluten-free piano teacher and her daughter up the block.  (Do you need cookies?  Why yes, yes, you do.)

In the middle of my list-making, I got an email from Mel, who mentioned that her family bakes for a shelter during the holidays.  That was enough to send me over the motivational hump.  Baking for other people somehow defines the season for me, and with newfound purpose, I found myself getting excited about the holidays, feeling less beleaguered by the anxiety of having to search for expensive gifts (which is something my family argues about every year, because I prefer homemade gifts with meaning); less depressed about the fact that my husband is embarking, starting today, on three weeks of business trips.  So today, on a rainy, unseasonably warm, anticlimactic Tuesday, I fired up the oven.

The thing about having a food (or even a food-and-life) blog is that you feel this weird pressure to one-up yourself every year.  Sure, you can make the things you've already written about, but you'd better be prepared to come up with something new and even more spectacular to post.  It's almost like preseving anti-tradition.

I came across a recipe for these last year around this time, when I already had too many chocolate cookies on deck, and bookmarked it to try later.  They are chewy, fudgy, decadent, and a safe bet for your gluten-free friends (though you'll have to find something else for vegans and friends with nut allergies!) and they come together in a jiffy.  You could even whip them up on short notice if you find out that you're about to have company.  They remind me a lot of the traditional Chocolate Crinkle cookies; a quick sprinkle of powdered sugar would make them even more festive.  Most of the fat comes from the almonds, and they're full of antioxidants because of the dark chocolate.  So they're practically healthy, right?  Er ... right.

Tell us: what are your favorite cookies during this time of year?  Do you have any holiday baking traditions?

Gluten Free Dark Chocolate Cookies

6 oz. dark chocolate chips or chunks (preferably 60% or greater)
2 large egg whites, at room temperature (this is important!)
1/8 t. cream of tartar
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
3/4 c. almond flour (or ground blanched almonds, not roasted)

Melt 5 oz. dark chocolate in microwave at 30-second intervals on 70% power until smooth, stirring after each interval.  Add the last ounce of chocolate (if you have time to chop it, do so) and stir until they're just mostly melted, so that you get very small pieces--these will turn into micro-bursts of chocolate when the cookies are baked.  Set the chocolate aside to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment (or lightly oil them if you don't have parchment on hand).  Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Continue beating, adding in sugar and vanilla slowly, until mixture forms stiff peaks.

Gently fold in chocolate and almond flour until fully incorporated. Drop rounded teaspoons of batter onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving one inch between cookies.

Bake 10-12 minutes. Cookies are done when there is a light crust on the outside, but they are soft on the inside.
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Saturday, November 26, 2011

CSA Fail, Thanks-givings, and Vegetable (Beef Optional) Barley Stew

One of the reasons I've been posting less often of late is the lack of inspiration in my kitchen.  It's not that I'm not cooking; rather, it's that I'm dealing with the same head of cabbage and the same husk cherries and the same sugar pumpkin for the SEVENTH week in a row, and I hit the cruciferous wall somewhere back around week four, when my family threatened to stage a coup.  I have been bravely soldiering on nonetheless, but I'm not going to shoulder you, dear readers, with yet another week of cabbage stew.  (If you're having the same problem I am, please do feel free to peruse the archives ... that's what I've been doing.)

It was a pretty bad CSA year for us.  Our farm was feeling its way through a new program, and though we'd heard great things about their produce, and had seen them at our farmer's market last year with lots of great fruits and veggies, every week we got a box that was half full of rotten--or on their way to rotten--items.  The things that weren't rotten were the things that we couldn't stand to think about eating any more of.  I know I whined and moaned about the chard last year, but I would have given my left arm for some chard this year: at least chard is something you can do things with.  Our Thanksgiving box had no sweet potatoes, no arugula, no dinosaur kale, or radishes, or anything else you'd expect to find at this time of year.  Really?  I thought when I saw it.  And because our farm was not very good at communicating with us about what has happening, we're left to wonder: was it just a bad year?  a bad program?  bad luck?

Between that, and the fact that our own garden was decimated by rabbits, groundhogs, deer, and all manner of other woodland creatures who are reclaiming suburbia one squash, one tomato at a time, it would be easy to throw in the towel and decide that it's easier to drive to the grocery store than to live off the land.

The weird thing is, I'm not. The season is officially over now, and we're back to meal and menu planning on our own.  But I'm already scoping out CSAs for next year, and my husband is collecting and browsing seed catalogues.

The experience got me thinking.  For some people, 2011 was a year of prosperity, but for many more it was marked by uncertainty, hardship, despair.  People are out of work, in debt, in distress.  We're supposed to be grateful at Thanksgiving, but it's easy to feel overwhelmed by all that we didn't harvest this year.

Still, though we may not feel much like we have blessings to count, it's pretty likely that we're still holding on to hope for the next year.  By the end of November, we can see the new year approaching, and we project ourselves into a happier future, another chance.  If you got to break a wishbone with someone, I'll wager that you made a wish for something to change for the better in the year to come.  And it seems to me that especially when life throws us against a wall (cruciferous or otherwise), hope is itself a blessing that deserves to be counted.

Here's to the harvest, such as it was, with gratitude for our capacity to sustain the hope that what is needed is on its way.

This body-and-soul-warming stew is full of the vegetables of the late fall and early winter (and is adaptable for vegetarians and non-vegetarians), the barley stretches your dollar a little father, and it doesn't even have leftover turkey in it.  If you use a slow cooker, combine everything except peas and cook on low for 8-10 hours; stir in peas during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Vegetable (Beef Optional) Barley Stew

1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 lbs. tempeh or beef stew meat
1 T. all-purpose flour
2 c. chopped onions
1 c. sliced celery with leaves
4 c. low-sodium beef stock or broth
1 bay leaf
¾ c. hulled barley, rinsed. drained
4 c. peeled sweet potato chunks, 1-inch squares (about 1½ pounds)
2 c. sliced carrots, 1-inch rounds
1½ c. cubed parsnips
½ T. Worcestershire sauce
1 t. dried oregano
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes in juice, broken apart
1½ c. frozen peas (optional)

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan on medium-high. Add tempeh or meat and sprinkle with flour, stirring well to coat. Cook until browned. Stir in onions and celery and sauté for 5 minutes or until onions are soft. Add stock or broth and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 1 (if you're using tempeh)-1½ hours (if you're using beef).

Add barley, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, Worcestershire sauce, and oregano. Cover and simmer 50-60 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Stir in tomatoes and peas. Reheat and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Imperfect: Black Forest Cake

In years past, by this time in the season, I would already have at least several dozen cookies in my freezer waiting for the holiday open house I held for my students.  It's strange not to be preparing for that event this year.  I'm participating in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, though, which will be good motivation to inaugurate the holiday baking.

In the meantime, I've been busy with cake: last weekend I made two dozen chai tea latte and red velvet cupcakes for a birthday party, this past week I was asked to make a Black Forest cake, and this week I have an order for a red velvet cake for Thanksgiving delivery.  I'm not exactly rolling in profits, but cake makes people happy, and I like making people happy, so I like making cake.

Layer cakes are my nemesis.  Put a piping bag in my hands and I can serve up some drop-dead gorgeous cupcakes.  Pie crust?  A snap.  Layer cakes, though, refuse to unmold themselves from pans; layers become lopsided; crumbs leap out of the frosting despite my careful attempts at "crumb layers."  This week I learned that I clearly need to work on my whipped cream frosting; the cake has sort of a "stucco" look to it; charming, to be sure, but not quite what I was going for.  I stopped trying to smooth it out because I didn't want to ruin the sides entirely.  I wanted to post this cake today, and in a momentary lapse of sanity, I almost Photoshopped the side of it to make it look smooth and even.

Then I thought, what am I doing?

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately, it seems, about people's self-portrayal of perfection online, in Facebook and in blogs.  It's true that I am my father's daughter, and I am a perfectionist.  But it's also true that the blogs I like reading the most, and the people I feel closest to, are the ones who honestly portray flawed lives, who experience the range of human emotion, who meet adversity and have to figure out what the hell they're going to do next.  Because that's really what the adventure is about, isn't it?  Loving what is, even as it's falling down around your ears?

The holidays sometimes produce more stress than joy, because of expectations (yours, theirs) of perfection.  This week, I'm reminding you to go easy on yourself.  Life is not a Norman Rockwell picture or a Martha Stewart magazine layout.  And if you have to excuse yourself from the Thanksgiving table, pull up a chair over here.  There's a lopsided, but really delicious, piece of cake waiting for you.

Black Forest Cake 

Devil’s Food Cake (recipe below)
cherry preserves
cherry filling: 1 14.5-ounce can tart cherries (drained) + 1/4 cup cherry preserves + 1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
whipped cream: 2 pints heavy cream + 2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons Kirsch, divided
Maraschino cherries
1 ounce shaved, semisweet chocolate (use vegetable peeler on room temperature chocolate)

Bake and cool the Devil’s Food cake layers.

Prep the cherry filling.

To make the whipped cream: In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip cream and confectioner’s sugar until stiff. Place in the refrigerator.

To assemble the cake:

Place the first layer on your base.

Spread a very thin layer of cherry preserves on the cookie bottom.  Evenly spread 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream over the cherry preserves.

Carefully place the top layer of cake, top-side down, on the whipped cream. Brush the cake with 1 1/2 tablespoons of kirsch.

Spoon half (for a triple decker cake) of the cherry filling evenly on top of the cake.  Top with 1 1/2 to 2 cups of whipped cream. Top with the remaining chocolate layer, bottom-side up. Brush the cake with the remaining kirsch.

If you have three 8 inch layers, repeat the steps above with your last layer.

Pile most of the rest of the whipped cream on top of the cake (save a cup or so), and gently spread the whipped cream to cover the top and sides of the cake. Fit a pastry bag with a large decorating tip, and fill the bag with whipped cream. Pipe a rosette on each eighth of the cake.

Place the maraschino cherries on a clean kitchen towel to drain, and pat them (as dry as possible) before placing one in the center of each rosette.  Decorate the top by piling the shaved chocolate in the center.
If you have any whipped cream left, pipe a border along the bottom edge of the cake.Refrigerate the cake until ready to serve. Use a long, sharp knife, and wipe it off with a damp towel between slices.

(thanks, Mia, for sending photos of the sliced cake!)
Devil’s Food Cake

Adapted from Kathleen King’s “Tate’s Bake Shop Cookbook”

Makes two 9-inch cakes or three 8-inch cakes

2 1/4 c. cake flour
2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 c. salted butter
2 1/4 c. packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
3 oz. good unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 c. boiling water
2 t. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350.  Butter and flour two 9-inch or three 8-inch springform pans or round cake pans (I used cocoa powder instead of flour).

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Stir in the melted chocolate.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk in three stages, ending with the flour.  Add the boiling water and vanilla. Mix well, but don’t overmix. (The mixture will be VERY thin.)  Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Place the pans on a wire rack, and let the cakes cool completely in the pans before unmolding. (If the middles dip a little, the cakes are still OK.)

Once the cakes are cool, you can wrap them in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seeking Crafty/Creative Bloggers Who Sell Stuff!

Just a quick note: if you are a crafty/creative blogger who has a small business in gift-able items (food included), I want to know! I'm writing an article, and am scouring the web for great reads and great gifts. Leave a comment below with your blog address and a link for your shop (Etsy or otherwise), if you have one.

I'll be back soon with more droolworthy posts. :)
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Monday, November 14, 2011

Boot Camp and Red Velvet Cake

I've never really been very good at going to the gym. I don't like the loud music, or the close quarters, or using machines that make me feel like I'm on a hamster wheel. As winter approaches, though, and I'm home with N. (so I can't exactly go running when it's below freezing like I did when she was still in utero), I'm starting to feel like I need to explore indoor options. When the Boy was still a babe, I went to a 24 hour fitness center at 11pm, after kid was bathed and fed and the laundry was done and the dinner cooked for the next day.  I came back feeling completely wiped, and finally decided that it wasn't worth it for me to lose sleep in order to go to the gym.  This time, I won a free month membership to our local YMCA, which I'll activate at some point, but in the meantime, I confess: I went back to boot camp.

There's something about the format of boot camp that appeals to my competitive Type A personality. First, you're expected to show up. I ace  showing up. Second, you are working out with other people. This is great motivation for me because unlike yoga, I can compare myself to every other person there, and there is always someone more svelte than I am.  Third, it's generally outside or in a public place (this one is in a very low-traffic mall early in the morning), so no special equipment is necessary, and you can potentially get some fresh air.  Sort of like running, but a bit more varied, and someone yelling at me to go faster or higher, which I tend not to do on my own (quite the opposite, exactly).  And this particular boot camp is just for relatively new moms, so even though I can't get there every day, or even every week, I get to work out with N, who now can't go in the jogging stroller to sleep for her standard half hour, because she's in nap boot camp.

N has been a horrible napper since we brought her home from the hospital.  She's been a pretty good sleeper at night, though, so our pediatrician is convinced that she can do better during the day to self-soothe and put herself back to sleep after the first sleep cycle of half an hour is over.  She prescribed nap boot camp: we are to put N. down for a nap twice a day, and leave her there for an hour and a half, checking on her every 15 minutes or so while she's awake, soberly reminding her that it's nap time.

In case you're wondering, no, she's not enjoying it.  But yes, it seems to be working.

The up side of this, for me, is that I've had not one but three orders for baked things this week, so with her doubling up on her nap time twice a day instead of doing three shorter naps with lots of fuss before putting her down, I actually have time to do more than go to the bathroom and fold a half load of laundry.

This cake is technically one of Martha's wedding cake recipes, but it's a drop-dead awesome cake to serve for any occasion.  In this case, it was the request of a friend who was being showered for her second child, and I believe that second showers are all about the mom (because often the family has enough baby gear), so her wish was my command.  Especially because I was invited, so I got to eat said cake.

AND ... this one happens to match our barn.  How did I never notice that before?

The down side: I need to go back to boot camp for moms to work off the pounds I put on eating my share of the frosting.

Martha's Red Velvet Cake

Unsalted butter, softened, for pans
2 T. unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 c. cake flour (not self-rising)
1 t. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. canola oil
2 large eggs
2 T. red food coloring
1 t. vanilla
1 c. low-fat buttermilk
1 1/2 t. baking soda
2 t. white vinegar

For the frosting

12 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 c. confectioner's sugar
1 t. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. Butter pans; line with parchment paper. Butter lining; dust with cocoa, tapping out excess. Set aside. Whisk together flour, salt, and cocoa in a medium bowl; set aside.

Mix sugar and oil on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk until combined. Add eggs one at a time; mix well after each addition. Mix in food coloring and vanilla. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk and beginning and ending with flour, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.

Stir together baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl. Add baking-soda mixture to batter, and mix on medium speed 10 seconds. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool completely in pans on wire racks.

Once the cake is cooled, using a serrated knife cut off the convex tops from both cakes, leaving your cakes with flat tops (unless you have perfectly flat cakes, in which case, you're out of luck). Crumble the discarded cake tops into tiny crumbs to be used as a garnish for later. Set aside.

While the cakes are baking, prepare the frosting. In a large bowl, using a mixer on medium speed, mix together the softened cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract. Add the confectioner's sugar in batches until the frosting comes together and there are no lumps. Let cool in a refrigerator until the cakes are ready to frost.

Frost your cake as you normally would, using about a third of the frosting for between the two layers, the top, and the sides of the cake. Finally, sprinkle the cake crumbs around the sides of the cake, spreading evenly.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Harvest: Broccoli Tomato Soup

I am cresting the hill next to a field near our house, half-running, half-walking on the gravel trail to avoid jolting a sleeping N in the jogging stroller.  At the edge of the field, two tractors, a mower, and a rotary rake stand silent in the early morning mist.  It's harvest time; the hay has been cut and raked into neat rows, and is now ready for baling.  There is something immensely pleasing to me about the neat symmetry of the mowed field, waiting to be cleared.

At the bottom of the hill, there are black figures moving through the rows.  As we get closer, suddenly I realize what I'm looking at: turkey vultures.  Perhaps twenty of them, scattered through the field.  I shudder as I pass them, quickening my pace.  For some reason, looking at them feels like looking at death.

And yet, they are taking care of the field, too ... only clearing away the carrion left by the mower, which made hay, cutting down life in order to sustain other life.  Most people think of harvest as a time of abundance.  But that abundance is inextricably intertwined with loss.  The hay is cut to sustain livestock through the winter.  The vultures pick through the hay to find the rabbits and mice and voles who didn't escape the mower in time.  Death brings life brings death brings the possibility of life again.

There are so many things that are like this, aren't there?  We can't have abundance without loss; we can't have loss without abundance.

We've officially entered the season of the One Pot Wonder around here.  Soups and stews and baked things dominate the menu at our house during the fall and winter, and I'm glad; I like both the kinds of things that simmer all day and the things I can throw into a pot and turn into a meal in a matter of minutes.  This one is an unexpected twist on the harvest, too; people don't normally conjure broccoli when they think of fall -- usually we get stuck on pumpkins and winter squash and corn -- and I don't usually put tomatoes in broccoli soup.  My husband calls bacon the Noble Meat; he's a chemical engineer, so he thinks of things in terms of the Periodic Table.  But you don't need to use bacon to appreciate the harvest from a slightly different perspective; simply omit it for a vegetarian version.

Broccoli Soup, Monastery Style (from the Monastery Soup Cookbook)

1 lb. broccoli
3 garlic cloves
6 c. water
6 parsley sprigs
4 strips lean bacon (or veggie bacon or smoky tofu or skip it entirely or perhaps use a smoky cheese below)
6 T. olive oil
1 6-oz can tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
Gruyere or Parmesan cheese, grated

Wash the broccoli, slice into small pieces. Chop the garlic, parsley, and bacon.

Pour the olive oil into a soup pot, add the broccoli, garlic, parsley, and bacon, and saute them for a minute or two. Add the tomato paste and 2 cups warm water. Stir well. Cover the pot and allow the soup to cook for about 5 minutes.

Add the remaining water and cook the soup over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper and simmer for a few minutes. Just before serving, puree the soup in a blender. Soup can be served hot or cold. Garnish hot soup at the last minute with some grated cheese.
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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy Halloween: Pumpkin Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

(with apologies to Stephanie, and others who have had their fill of pumpkins and are just too kind to say so ...)

Our street is Halloween Central.  The houses sport giant cobwebs, the walkways are lined with pumpkins, the trees filled with filmy ghosts hanging from the branches.  People drive from miles around to drop their kids off for trick or treating because the houses are closer together than in the surrounding townships (more candy bang for your walking buck). And most of the residents on the street take on this responsibility without too much complaint; even though it's pretty expensive to supply treats for over 300 kids (especially for folks like my ninety year old neighbors), it's something we've always done.  Very few people turn their lights out for Halloween.

Which makes it even more frustrating when this kindness is taken for granted.

Every year I have my "pet peeve" trick-or-treaters.  One year it was the two moms pushing babies in strollers up to people's doors (the babies couldn't have been more than a year old, if that, and were not walking), collecting candy "for the kids."   Ummmm, right.  Other years it's the kids who come to the door without even an attempt at a costume.

This year, two groups stuck out.  (Here, friends, is where I completely toss the teachings of my kind Buddhist friend from the other day about not being able to change others, but only my own perspective.  No, I'm not proud to say that.  I am going to try again tomorrow.)  The first, tweenaged twins, came to the door, and stood there, pillowcases open.  My husband, jokingly, opened the door and said, "Can I help you?"  To which one of the kids replied.  "Yeah, give me candy."  My mouth hit the floor.  "Seriously?" I said, frowning, storming up to the door.  "Take a hike.  That was really obnoxious.  How about 'please' and 'thank you' and 'trick or treat' and 'happy Halloween'?"  The kids looked at each other in disbelief, as if no one had ever said anything like this to them before.  My husband, who is more of a nice guy than I am, urged me to let it go; he was probably thinking he didn't want our house egged.  He gave them the candy and they walked away, snickering nervously.

A while later, the second group of offenders, a pre-teen boy and his father, rang the doorbell.  Both of them were holding sacks.  "Trick or treat," said the boy.  It was nearing the end of the night, and so I gave him a few pieces, instead of just the one we'd been handing out to each child.  As I turned away, the father held out his sack, too.  I looked at him quizzically.  Really? I thought.  "It's for my daughter," he said, gesturing towards a group on the sidewalk.  "She's right down there.  She's just tired."  "If she's tired," I said, "maybe she should go home.  I don't do parents collecting candy for their kids."  "Oh, all right," he said, turning away.  Did I mention he was dressed as a Jesuit monk?  The irony did not escape me, though perhaps it escaped him.

The evening got me thinking (and I realize some people will hate me for this, but I'm going to say it anyway): if people don't like the Occupy movements, they should look at what we're teaching kids, starting with Halloween.  I'm not advocating for socialism or communism, just human decency.  Teaching kids compassion.  Saying please and thank you.  Helping them to understand that the night is not about bankrupting neighboring towns just to amass a stockpile that's going to end up rotting your teeth anyway.  And you know, while we're at it, maybe we should Occupy Thanksgiving.  And Occupy Christmas.  And Occupy Hanukkah.  And every other holiday, and every other day of the year.  Because (again, completely disregarding what the monk told me about people being able to give only what they have) the reason we're in the mess we're in is that some people forgot the lessons they learned the first time they ever went trick or treating: how to be polite, and thankful, and know when you have enough and should go home for the night, and maybe even when you might be able to share with someone else.

Like these, for example.

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Bars

1/2 c. flour (or spelt flour, oat flour, etc.)
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ginger
1/8 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. allspice
1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 egg (or 1 T. ground flax stirred with 3 T. water until gelatinous)
3 T. brown sugar (or agave, though you may want to lower the oven temp by 25 degrees)
2 T. regular (white or turbinado) sugar
1/2 c. cooked, pureed pumpkin
2 T. nondairy milk
2 T. coconut oil (vegetable oil will do)
3/4 t. vanilla
for frosting: cream cheese mixed with a little agave or honey or maple syrup to make it spreadable, or use your favorite cream cheese frosting recipe

Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine dry ingredients, then add in wet. Spread into an oiled 8×8 pan and bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool fully before frosting.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Meal for the Monks: Pumpkin Apple Soup

Six monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery, who have been traveling around the U.S. for eighteen months, arrived in my little corner of the universe on Saturday night in the middle of a freak blizzard.  I can only imagine what the drive down from New York State was like for them; I was driving my son and daughter home from a birthday party, and every muscle in my body was tense as I watched huge tree limbs snap all around us under the weight of the snow on the leaves that hadn't yet fallen.  It still looks like a war zone around here, worse than when the hurricane hit.  Lots of people still have no power, which means no heat (with temperatures outside below freezing) and no water (unless you're lucky enough to live in town, like we do).

It was pretty amazing to meet Tibetan Buddhist monks on tour, and their visit brought some useful perspective and calm to the county in the aftermath of the storm.  They were down to earth (three of them actually went trick or treating with some kids in the neighborhood), and yet, somehow unearthly--both their chanting (which sent chills down my spine) and their air of calm acceptance made them feel different.  They talked about a lot of things I've been thinking about recently anyway: that life is like a great ocean, and that the ups and downs are little ripples (even if they feel like tsunamis at the time); that you feel the most suffering when you spend the most time thinking about yourself and your inappropriate attachment to things that just go away or change anyway; that people can only give what they have, and that people who are suffering cannot give joy.

(This last one is the hardest for me to swallow.  My conversation with one of the monks went something like this:  
me: "So what about people who are malicious?"
monk: "They're not malicious to everyone.  And they are suffering."
me: "But why be malicious to me, then?"
monk: "That's what they have to give."
me: "I'm not feeling very compassionate towards these people."
monk: *smiling*  "No one said it was easy.")

Now I don't think that I'm going to become a Buddhist any time soon.  In a perverse way, I think I enjoy the highs and lows of human existence.  But I confess I've been feeling more than a little sorry for myself lately, hearing nothing but crickets from the resumes and cover letters I keep sending into the abyss, especially as we're turning the corner into winter (and I'd thought that by now I'd be re-employed), doing the endless loads of laundry and dishes (which I'd be doing anyway, but breaks in the monotony would be nice), cooking until late into the night only to get up at 5am and start the whole thing over again.  And it would be wise of me to remember compassion, and appreciate simplicity (gee, isn't it nice to have heat and running water?), and be a little less cranky.

I volunteered to bring the monks a meal while they were staying with another family in town, and I made this soup, along with a lentil salad and homemade bread.  It's the sort of soup that warms you body and soul, and makes you remember that the world is a fundamentally good place, and that just as the good things come and go, so do the power outages and the crappy days filled with laundry.

Pumpkin Apple Soup
(with thanks to Brown Eyed Baker for the original)

1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
½ t. kosher salt
6 c. vegetable stock
2/3 c. natural (no sugar added) applesauce
½ t. ground white pepper
½ t. ground sage
½ t. dried thyme
¼ t. ground nutmeg
2 (15-ounce) cans pumpkin (3 1/2 c.)
¼ c. brown sugar (or 2 T agave)
½ c. light cream (or half and half)

Heat a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the diced onion, apples and salt. Saute until onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the vegetable stock, applesauce, white pepper, sage, thyme and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and cook until apples are very tender, about 5 more minutes.

Add the pumpkin and brown sugar and cook for 10 – 15 minutes over medium heat. Use an immersion blender to blend soup until it’s smooth. (You can also use a blender to blend the soup in batches.) Add the cream to the soup and heat through over very low heat. (You can add more cream or water, if desired, to thin out more.) Remove from heat and serve.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Difference, Kids, and Argentinean Beef Cook Up

When I was growing up, I was a frequent flyer at my local library.  Though I read wide and deep, there were a few books I remember checking out again and again, like a chain-reader: Louisa May Alcott, Girl of Old Boston ... Free Stuff for Kids ... and Many Friends Cooking.

Many Friends Cooking was published by UNICEF as a "hey, look how much fun other cultures can be" educational tool for kids, back when we thought intolerance could be overcome by international cuisine immersion.  Though we are now a little more willing to admit that food and "cultural dress-up day" isn't the answer to getting kids to appreciate and embrace diversity, I still like the book; it gets kids to think about sampling new, non-threatening but different foods and making that experience fun.

When my son was about two, I started to hunt for Many Friends Cooking, wanting to pass on to him my love of cooking and international foods and stories from around the globe.  I found a used copy online, along with its companion Many Hands Cooking, and every once in a while we pull them out and cook something together; most of the recipes are extremely kid-friendly, so much so that a child can take the lead in the kitchen.  I hope that I can teach both of my kids that difference isn't insurmountable; that we can learn each others' languages; that we can work alongside one another in the kitchen and in many places; that we can be friends.

This recipe isn't all that "different" from a traditional stew you'd find in the U.S., but its origin is Argentinean (hence the meat ... which is apparently what the cowboys eat). You can veganize it by omitting the meat and tossing in some beans after sauteeing the onions and pepper.  It's a perfect dish for the chilly nights that are starting to become more the norm now here.

Beef (or Bean!) Cook-Up

2 lbs. stew meat, 1" cubes (or equivalent beans of your choice)
1 large onion, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
6 potatoes, 1/2" cubes
3 ears corn, 1" rounds (1 c. canned)
3 T. vegetable oil
4 c. broth
1 bay leaf
1 T. oregano
salt and pepper to taste
4 peaches or apples, sliced

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat and brown meat on all sides.  Remove it to a plate.

Add onions and green pepper to the pan and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add broth and bring to a boil.  Return beef to the pan and add the tomatoes, potatoes, and seasonings.  Cover, reduce heat to simmer, and cook 1 1/2 hours.

Add corn and fruit to the stew and cook 5 minutes longer.  Enjoy!
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Compassion: Gluten Free Carrot Cake

Imagine the most honored guest you could think of was coming to dinner.  What kinds of preparations would you make?  What would you serve?  How would you make that guest feel comfortable and at home?

Now: imagine that you are the honored guest.

When was the last time you treated yourself that way?

I'm not talking about hedonism here.  I know the six bags of candy you bought for Halloween are calling your name.  That's not compassion; that's the kind of thing that gives you a hangover the next day.  I'm talking about being kind to yourself, making yourself comfortable.

In yoga class last week, we chanted the Tibetan Buddhist mantra "Om Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā": a call to Tara, who is considered to be both symbol of light and life, and provider of compassion.  Devotees also believe that she can grant wishes, eliminate suffering of all kinds and bring happiness.  When called upon, she instantaneously saves us from eight specific calamities. The First Dalai Lama interprets them as representative of corresponding dangers as follows: 1) lions and pride 2) wild elephants and delusions 3) forest fires and hatred 4) snakes and envy 5) robbers and fanatical views 6) prisons and avarice 7) floods and lust 8) demons and doubt.

I don't know about you, but I could use saving from wild elephants.

The mantra is really more of a heart opener, though, than anything else.  To ask for compassion for ourselves, and to call ourselves to the work of compassion.  My teacher asked us to imagine the heart as a box that can hold everything: all of our worries, all of our struggles, all of the nagging thoughts that won't go away.  All we need to do is give those things to the heart, and the heart will take care of them, giving us comfort.

In my case, I think this means I shouldn't beat myself up for imperfection.  For yelling at my daughter, in one of my more unattractive moments today, to "go the F to sleep" (have I mentioned that she's a horrible napper?  Yeah, that didn't work so well).  For not landing a job, despite the resumes and cover letters that continue to go out.  For a host of other things.

It's funny; I don't usually get upset about imperfection in the kitchen.  I might stress over something in the process, but once it's done, if it's not right, I either eat it anyway or throw it in the trash.  (Yes, I realize that this is wasteful.  Trust me ... things don't often get trashed.)  Sometimes when cupcakes sink, I confess: I just put more frosting on them, and no one knows the difference.

That happened here, because I was making gluten free cupcakes as a surprise for my neighbor's birthday, and didn't have gluten free flour with xanthan gum in it.  But they only sank a little, and they were pretty awesome anyway: moist, warm, sweet without being cloying.  So what if the cream cheese frosting isn't centered? 
Gluten Free Carrot Cake

2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups light olive oil OR your favorite vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour mix (see notes)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts
3 cups freshly grated carrots
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ounces cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups gluten-free powdered sugar (See note)

Preheat oven to 350 F

Use two round 9-inch cake pans, one 9x13 pan or 36 muffin cups for this recipe. If using round cake pans, lightly grease and place a circle of parchment in the bottom of the pan for easy removal. Use paper lining cups if making cupcakes.

Cream sugar and eggs in a large mixing bowl with an electric beater or stand mixer. Add oil and vanilla and beat just until smooth.

In a separate bowl combine gluten-free flour mix, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and beat until blended.

Stir in grated carrots and nuts. Pour the batter into prepared pans.

Bake in preheated oven for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. For muffins, reduce baking time to 30-35 minutes or until they pass the toothpick test. Cool on a wire rack.

While cake or muffins are cooling prepare the frosting: place butter, cream cheese and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and beat on high until smooth. Add powdered sugar and beat until smooth and creamy.  Frost when cake is completely cooled.


Most powdered sugar products are made with granular sugar processed with cornstarch or tapioca starch. However, when buying powdered sugar, read labels carefully to be sure that the product you are considering is not made with wheat starch.

You can use Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Pizza Crust Mix in this recipe with good results. It contains xanthan gum, eliminating the need to add more gum to this recipe. Use your favorite gluten-free flour mix in this recipe and add 1 teaspoon xanthan or guar gum to the recipe if the mix you're using doesn't contain one of these baking gums.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kicking Ass and Taking Names: Cancer, Loss, and Oat Fudge Minis

So it turns out that my college roommate has lymphoma.  She's in her late 30s, has a kid in elementary school, skateboards for fun, wears pigtails and badass shoes.  Not the sort of chick you'd imagine would wake up some day and find out she has cancer.

She made a FB announcement about this the other day, asking us all to put our "grown up pants on," assuring us that her GI said it was "very treatable with chemo," and her wall was immediately filled with people posting support and love and offering to bake brownies (not exactly the kind of brownie I bake here at aHBL.)

I am confident that my friend will kick cancer's ass.  Because that's just the kind of person she is.  She is one amazing, resilient, determined woman ... and that doesn't even begin to describe her.  I'm going to think positive thoughts, send her all of my good energy, and cheer her on through the suck that is going to be chemo.

My friend's announcement was yet another reminder of how vulnerable we are, how everything we know can turn on a dime, how precious this gift called life really is.  I've had a lot of reminders lately, it seems: my friend my age who needed a heart transplant, friends with sick kids, and now this.  Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something?

Yesterday was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a day that thousands of people all over the world light candles in remembrance of lives that never had the chance to be lived, and in solidarity with people who never imagined they would lose a child.  I've written about my own losses here, but yesterday I was thinking about so many other women and men I've met who felt alone, adrift, silenced.  Unlike cancer, pregnancy and infant loss tends to be invisible, or at the very least taboo.  But it needs to be something we can talk about, not so that we can "get over" it, but so that we can learn to live with it.  To support each other, to be there, to bear witness.

No matter whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, no matter when you think life begins, no matter whether you know someone with cancer or have been lucky enough to avoid that happening to your loved ones, I ask you to take one moment today and marvel at the fact that You. Are. Alive.  To realize that the odds against you, specifically you, being born, are actually pretty friggin' incredible.  To give thanks for that gift, and to decide that you're going to do something with it.  And to ask that one of the things you do with that gift is offer compassion to families and individuals who grieve and struggle and hope.

I made these the other day as a healthier-than-usual treat.  They're full of fiber and protein, are a little lower on the glycemic index than your standard cookie, contain antioxidants and other immunity-boosters, and give you energy.  They're the kind of thing my college roommate made in our makeshift kitchen; she's probably long since forgotten, but I remember her experimental "healthy" cookies fondly.  Here's to kicking ass and taking names, my friend.

Oat Fudge Minis

1 medium banana
2 T. coconut oil (you could use canola or an oil of choice…but this stuff is more buttery)
1/4 c. egg whites (or 1 egg, or applesauce)
4 T. agave (more if you like it sweeter)
1/4 t. salt (salt joins the liquids because it dissolves)
1 1/2 c. rolled oats
1/2 c. spelt flour
1/2 c. oat bran
1/4 c. ground flax seeds
1/3 c. mini dark chocolate chips (or more)

Preheat oven to 350.

Mash banana and add other liquid ingredients into banana mixture. Add dry ingredients, one quarter cup at a time, mixing until well blended. Line mini muffin pan with liners (or grease it) and spoon 1 tablespoon into each cup. Press chocolate chips into each mini and cover each mini with remaining oat mixture. Press a few more chocolate chips into each one and bake for approximately 15 minutes.

The coconut oil is good for you. They're sweetened naturally. They have lots of antioxidants, if you’re using dark chocolate, and lots of fiber. Spelt and oats contain protein.  All excellent for ass-kicking.
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