• To drink tonight

    Seeing as it’s the last day of the year I suppose I should do a recap of my favorite books or blogs, recall my best memories or the things I learned, or itemize the ways in which my body has aged. Or maybe I should tell you all the things I plan to do differently in the upcoming year.

    But I don’t wanna. It’s not that I’m not introspective because I am (or can be). It’s because I don’t like anything to dictate when I ought to do something. In other words, if I want to tell my mom I love her and think she’s awesome, I’ll do it, and not just because it’s Mother’s Day. (Hey Mom! I love you and think you’re awesome!) If I want to tell the pastor I appreciate her, I’ll make her a loaf of bread and write a note, but it might not be during the scheduled pastor-appreciation month. If I want to roast a turkey, I’ll do it, though it just might not be on November’s Fourth Thursday.

    This makes me sound contrary and rebellious, which I’m not. (I don’t think.) I just like to do things when they are meaningful to me. Perhaps it would do me good to be more introspective at the appropriate times. Maybe if I let myself (forced myself) to follow the customs I would get more out of life. Maybe it would be a good discipline.

    On the other hand, my kids discipline me on a regular basis. I’ve been subject to their demands/needs/wants for so long that I crave autonomy. (That I was this way pre-motherhood is something I’m choosing not to dwell on right now.)

    Anyway, I assumed that for New Year’s this year we would have a nice supper of leftover Christmas Eve cheeses and crackers, and then we’d all go to bed. But then I read this invigorating post by Aimee over at Simple Bites and started thinking that I might like to throw a party. It even occurred to me that we could keep it a secret from the kids—tell guests to arrive at 9 after the kids are in bed and then have our very own, adult-only shindig. (My mother thought the idea absurd.)

    But then I asked Mr. Handsome what he thought about having a bunch of friends over. He was nonplused. “It’d be so much work,” he said.

    “True, but after we have people over, you always feel great about it,” I pushed.

    “Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said, sighing heavily. “Go ahead and do what you want.”

    “I’m not doing it if you’re not on board,” I retorted.

    That was pretty much the end of the discussion. Because when it came down to it, I didn’t really want to up the ante on our relaxed week any more than he did. And it was clear that my husband was having some much needed alone time in his barn and really didn’t need to have me put a wrench in it. To top it off, I’m rather fond of full nights of sleep. All boring reasons, but true.

    In any case, party or no, tonight you need eggnog.

    Yes, you do. Don’t even try to argue with me.

    I made eggnog for the first time ever on Christmas eve and it was a huge hit. We’re going for round two tonight.

    I must confess that weird drinks make me a little queasy, and I’ve always considered eggnog to be on the weird side. Raw egg, ugh—gag me with a Volkswagen. I developed this aversion when I was living in Central America and got served some pretty wicked concoctions, cornmeal drinks and such. On one particular occasion when we were out in the Guatemalan bush, I ungratefully poured my hostess’s prized offering through the cracks in the wooden floorboards when no one was looking. Then I had to ignore my husband’s horrified expression while acting like it was a total coincidence that the family pigs (which were—oh darn!—sheltered under the house) were having a heyday directly under my butt.

    You will not want to dump this drink in between the floorboards or anywhere else but down your throat. I promise.

    Lots of eggnog recipes call for raw eggs and whipped egg whites, and while I’ve never actually tried them (and in all probability would probably like them) (I just said “probable” two times in one phrase—that’s bad), I think I’ll stick with this moderate, but oh-so-creamy-and-delicious, cooked-egg version. Basically, it’s just like the mix for homemade ice cream, but with more milk than cream. The spices make the tongue dance, and the rum (my favorite) takes it to higher heights.

    I made the mix again this morning (it’s chilling in the fridge) and Mr. Handsome and I will be sipping it tonight while sitting in front of the fire, our eyes propped open with toothpicks. Happy New Year!

    Adapted from Simply Recipes

    Set three of the egg whites aside and use them to make marshmallows to go with the hot chocolate that some people might prefer.

    This recipe is plenty rich. I think it’d be good with just three cups of whole raw milk or with half-and-half in place of the cream (which I did today on my second go-round).

    Also, I want to try this recipe as an ice cream. For that I’d swap the cream and milk proportions.

    Good liquors for spiking: brandy, bourbon, rum (my favorite), and Kahlua.

    Also, I read a comment somewhere that suggested using this mix in a latte. I’m eager to try it—half coffee, half eggnog, with some Kahlua thrown in for extra yums.

    4 egg yolks
    2 cups milk
    1 cup cream
    ½ cup sugar
    2 whole cloves
    pinch of cinnamon
    1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus more for garnish dust
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    liquor of your choice

    Beat the yolks till creamy and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat some more.

    Put the milk/cream, cloves, and cinnamon in a saucepan and heat it up till nice and hot, but not boiling.

    Temper the eggs with the hot milk by slowly adding about a cup of the hot milk to the egg mixture while whisking steadily. Pour the tempered eggs into the saucepan and continue to heat on medium-high heat till slightly thickened. Again, do not boil. Strain the mixture and set it aside to cool. After an hour, add the nutmeg and vanilla and transfer to the refrigerator.

    Serve the chilled eggnog in mugs, a light flurry of nutmeg for garnish and bottles of liquor on hand for spiking.

    This same time, years previous: in which I throw my bread on the floor and stomp on it, parents ARE teachers, and delight

  • One step above lazy (maybe)

    Mr. Handsome is home all week and the calendar is completely blank. In fact, I went ahead and put up the January page since there was nothing to look at on December’s. Life is so slow that I don’t even look at the calendar (except for this morning when I made the switch), I read in the middle of the day, and I let the dirty dishes (from our supper of leftovers because I’m not cooking all that much) wait till the morning. We’re one step above lazy and bored. We are completely relaxed. If someone were to come lift and let go of our collective family arm, it would fall with a thud.

    This level of relaxed is rare. I’ve learned that my body lets down in proportion to the amount of vacation time allotted. For regular weekends, there’s Friday’s huge sigh of relief, Saturday’s jobs and errands, and Sunday’s snooze-y-ness. But then there’s the gearing back up for the week. This time though, we relaxed for Christmas and then on Sunday night I found myself relaxing even more. This deeper relaxation is one I rarely feel. Normalcy is maintained, but at a much-reduced rate.

    Mr. Handsome hasn’t had an entire week off since…since…well, maybe not since we bought this house five years ago and he worked round the clock to fix it up. But that doesn’t really count since he was out here at this place and I was back in town at the old place with three little kids and a lovely case of morning sickness. Plus, he was so stressed that he could hardly sleep. He looked right rough. We were most definitely not relaxed.

    It’s not that my husband never takes off. He does. He stays home for a day or two here and there and comes home early or goes in late as the need arises (a huge perk of being self-employed), but normally when he takes off any notable length of time it’s because we’re going somewhere to visit people or someone’s coming to visit us. For him to have a week (plus Christmas Eve Day, too!) to just be at home with us is unheard of. We eat our meals together and he cleans the toilet (in his own way) (which is way better than my way) and we fight over our—I mean, mybook. And then we go to bed early because we’re old farts underneath our youthful demeanor.

    He is working this week, but it’s here. By 6:30 this morning, he was dressed and in his coveralls, heading out to the barn where he’s building The Stairway To Heaven. And in his spare moments he runs around the house with drywall tape and a tray of spackle, fixing our pockmarked walls.

    I suggested that perhaps the girls and I could go to Barnes and Noble some evening for coffee and he said sure (extended time in his barn puts him in very pleasant spirits) but then I (so far) ended up never saying anything to the girls because I don’t want to put on my going-out clothes.

    So maybe I am lazy after all.

    I might be getting a little bored, too. But just—yawn—a little.

    This same time, years previous: tomatoey potatoes and green beans,

  • For my walls

    I have two new pieces of art adorning my home. The first I won over at Simple Homeschool—a canvas print from Red Letter Words. My first choice was a quote from Napoleon Dynamite: What are you gonna do today Napoleon? I thought I’d hang it in the hallway at the top of the stairs. But that quote wasn’t available in the size that I won, so I opted for my second choice—the quote from Hebrews 13:2.

    Hanging on our chimney in the center of the home, it inspires me all day long. I love it.

    The second piece came to me via my aunt. Back in the day, she used to take pictures and then send them off to magazines to try to sell them (that’s some serious back-in-the-day stuff, no?). Anyway, a couple months ago she was going through some of her stuff and found a pile of black and white prints. She didn’t want them anymore so she brought them to our Thanksgiving gathering and let me and my brother pick over them. I snatched up this one, took it home and framed it.

    I’m not sure how old I am in the picture—maybe four?—but don’t I look pathetically miserable and glum? When I get my hair cut nowadays, I probably look just as morose. But with clothes on.

    My mom cut all us kids’ hair in a bowl cut that for the first six-plus years of our life. Strangers thought we were all girls, but if we had been wearing straw hats and pants with suspenders, everyone would’ve thought we were little Amish boys.

    See my mom in the background? Notice the enormous goggles? If they were sunglasses, she’d totally fit in to today’s stunner shade fad.

    I hung the picture on the wall behind our downstairs toilet, so if you come to my house and need to go pee, you’ll see a little Jennifer, subdued and naked. Neat-o, right?

    And by the way, I’ve named the picture The Little Jennifer. As in, when I made a to-do list for Mr. Handsome, “Hang Little Jennifer” was one of the items.

    “Hang Hospitality” was also on the list.

    This same time, years previous: Christmas 2008

  • Thrills in my kitchen

    Last Saturday was my mom’s birthday. She and Dad, plus two other families (my brother’s and my cousin’s), came to our house for the birthday dinner part of the festivities. I made spaghetti carbonara.

    Up until the past couple weeks, I don’t think I ever had spaghetti carbonara before. I don’t think I even knew what it was. Which is hard to imagine, seeing as how we were made for each other. Now that I’ve seen the light, I know that pre-carbonara, I was just a washed out version of my present self. Colors were muted, songs were off-key, and smiles were lopsided. Now, post-carbonara, my life is so much richer—angels, rainbows, grins—they’re everywhere! (And I’m a little bit fatter, too. But that could also be from all the cookies and ham.)

    I learned about the recipe thanks to some America’s Test Kitchen DVDs I brought home from the library—a book of 4 DVDs with a total of 26 episodes chock-full of Christopher Kimball’s bow tie (yikes). But I wanted to see a cooking show and this was what the library had to offer so I took it.

    The first show we watched (the kids and I lined up on the sofa, the laptop sitting on the piano bench) was about spaghetti carbonara. The recipe looked enchantingly simple so I pulled some bacon out of the freezer and made it for supper. I looked at a couple other sources to double check measurements and ingredients, but mostly I cooked from memory—I had watched the show before lunch, and hunger and that goofy bow tie (it’s a ploy! it’s a ploy!) had helped to sear the recipe into my brain.

    The next time I made it—for the party—I did it all from memory. It was the easiest company dinner I have made in a long time. Since my sister-in-law brought two salads, all I had to do was cook a pot of peas, open a jar of applesauce, slice some bread, and cook the pasta. Which I did at the very end, calling people to the table even as I was calmly (me? calm? yes!) tossing the pasta. A zero-stress meal if there ever was one. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    A few days later I made it again, still from memory. I needed to take pictures, and well, I still hadn’t got my fill of the creamy, wine-y, peppery sauce.

    To make spaghetti carbonara, this is what you do: fry some bacon in olive oil (yikes! yum!) and then simmer it with white wine and a minced clove of garlic. While the pasta is burbling away, beat three eggs together with a cup of finely grated Parmesan. Now, drain the spaghetti, reserving a cup of the pasta water. Put the spaghetti in the serving bowl, dump the raw egg-cheese goo on top (the hot pasta will cook the eggs), pour on a bit of the hot pasta water and start tossing. Keep this up for a minute or so, adding more water as necessary. Add the fried bacon and wine-y juices and toss some more. Sprinkle heavily with pepper and serve immediately.

    See? I told you it was simple!

    I’ve heard three different stories about how spaghetti carbonara came into being. Kimball says it’s because of all the black pepper—like flecks of carbon. But another source (some blog, perhaps?) said it’s because when the Italian miners (or tree cutters or whatever) went out into the boonies to do their week (month?)-long stint of hard labor, they could only carry nonperishables like pasta, eggs, bacon, wine, and cheese, and so out there in the bush, these rugged men created this to-die for dish. However, my food encyclopedia reports the obvious—that the origins of this dish are sketchy—but one possibility is that when the American troops occupied Spain in 1944, the local cooks created the dish from the soldier’s rations of eggs and bacon.

    Truth is, I don’t really care how the dish came into being. I’m just thrilled that it’s finally made its way into my kitchen.

    Spaghetti Carbonara
    Adapted from one of the episodes of America’s Test Kitchen, Christopher Kimball’s cooking show

    I dialed back the amount of olive oil from about five tablespoons to two. Rich dishes are good, greasy ones, no.

    Keep in mind that just a little bacon goes a long way. I recommend half a pound, but you could get away with much less meat and still have plenty of the bacon-y goodness.

    One thing I learned on the show is that when draining pasta, dump it into a colander (but always reserve a cup of the liquid for thinning out whatever sauce you’ll be using) and let it sit for 20-30 seconds without shaking (so you don’t lose the starch) before dumping it into the serving bowl.

    When making spaghetti carbonara, it’s important that everything be ready to go once that pasta gets drained. It needs to get to the table straightaway, no poking allowed.

    To keep everything nice and hot, preheat the serving bowl by filling it with hot water five minutes before you’ll need it.

    Variation: I’ve heard that some cooks add cream to the wine/bacon/garlic concoction…

    1 pound spaghetti
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    ½ pound bacon
    ½ cup white wine
    1 clove garlic, minced
    3 eggs, beaten
    1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
    lots of freshly ground black pepper

    Put the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and turn the burner on to medium high. Add the chopped bacon (first slice it in half long ways and then chop it up into quarter-inch pieces) and stir it around. Reduce the heat a little and let it sizzle for 10 minutes, or until it’s browned and cooked through, but not crispy. Add the garlic and stir it around for half a minute. Add the wine. Simmer for another ten minutes (or so) until the wine has reduced a little.

    While the bacon is simmering, cook the pasta according to package instructions.

    And while the pasta is cooking, stir together the eggs and Parmesan, heat up the serving bowl, and set the table.

    Once the pasta is done, drain it, reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Dump the pasta into the serving bowl (first dumping out the hot water that was heating it up), pour the egg and cheese mixture on top and, using a set of tongs, begin to toss the pasta. Add the cooking water, a quarter cup at a time, tossing it in after each addition. (I probably use about three-quarters of a cup of liquid.) When the eggs and cheese are thoroughly dispersed, add the cooked bacon, making sure to include all the liquid, both wine and drippings. Sprinkle it with lots of black pepper before tossing one last time.

    Serve and enjoy!

    This same time, years previous: marmalade glazed ham

  • Christmas 2010

    Slightly adapted from an email I sent to my aunt

    The kids ate almost all their Christmas candy and brushed their teeth with their new battery-powered toothbrushes. (The Baby Nickel carries his singing toothbrush around like it’s a portable radio.)

    They didn’t like the chocolate-covered pretzel sticks I made them, but they did like their new socks.

    Mr. Handsome made a ham, and I burned the ham and the bread.

    We stacked wood.

    Yo-Yo (accidentally) took out the front porch’s middle post with the mower.

    Mr. Handsome threw a log on my hand and I have the purple knuckle to prove it.

    We ate the ham, which was delicious.

    We played games and read books.

    The kids went to bed and I listed more jewelry on etsy while Mr. Handsome watched a Harry Potter movie with headphones on. Sexy.

    Merry Christmas!

    This same time, years previous: windows at dusk-time

  • Raw

    This was (mostly) written on the 23rd.
    And forgive the unpolished nature of this post.
    At this point, it’s all the better I can do.

    I banished the kids to their rooms for rest time so that I could tell you a little more about our elving and Christmas cheer. The latter of which there is none in this here house today. Instead of fa-la-la-la-las, there’s a profusion of stink-eye, tattling, and the all-out favorite game of Let’s Beat Each Other Up And Then Cry About It. The blood-curdling screaming has been out of this world.

    Maybe rest time will last two hours instead of one. We’ll see. My throat needs a break.

    (Oops. I just gave myself away, I’m afraid. For shame.)

    Like a good mother, I have continued to seek the ever illusive holiday cheer in spite of my trials and tribulations. My computer streams Christmas music ‘round the clock, I make long, detailed grocery lists, and Mr. Handsome and I put the kids to bed and then prep goodies for their Christmas stockings.

    Yesterday morning the kids and I went shopping for this year’s Christmas Present for Jesus—the supplies for several newborn kits for Mennonite Central Committee. On the way home, triggered by the morning’s shopping and the homeless man we spied as we drove through town, the kids and I sustained a longer-than-normal conversation about poverty and homelessness. They were all a-fire, coming up with ideas to fix the problem then and there, so I gamely helped them brainstorm ways they could help the poor. They talked about opening hotels where the homeless people could live, and wondered why we haven’t invited someone to come stay with us.

    “We did,” I reminded them. “Our foster kids were homeless.” That took the wind out of their sails since they know firsthand how hard and totally unglamorous fostering is.

    Back home, the kids helped unwrap the baby things, sort them out, and rebundle them according to MCC instructions. We’ll take them to our Christmas Eve service—I hear there will be a time in the service for people to bring their kits up to the front.

    (But now I’m worried. We only made three kits and I have four kids. I never was very good at math and now there’s sure to be consequences…)

    Last night we loaded up one of our wash baskets with the majority of my Christmas baking—leaving samples of everything (but the Christmas Nippies) at home in the freezer, and not giving away ANY of the fig pinwheels—and handed out little bags (a half dozen cookies in each) to the people who came to the food pantry. One woman ignored the one-bag-per-household limit and took five (or was it six?) bags. I laughed incredulously over how she blatantly, boldly, cheerfully made off with such a haul, but I must say, I felt rather fond towards her, too. Her family will feast on the cookies and that makes me happy.

    I think that’s what bothered me about the evening—because I did come home feeling bothered. It wasn’t the in-my-face discrepancy between the Haves and the Have Nots. It wasn’t seeing the quiet shame in the wrinkled faces, or the hats-in-the-hands respect of the men. Or even seeing a palsied older man who looked exactly like the chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We think, judging by his get-up, that he was homeless.

    Oh, dash it all. I just got tears in my eyes writing that paragraph so maybe it was some of that, too. Maybe I’m just fooling myself that it doesn’t break my heart to see such a crowd of stomped-upon and tired folks. Maybe their exhaustion makes me sadder than I want to admit. Because what’s the point of feeling sad about something that’s so hopeless? Something that will never change? (Don’t answer those questions. They’re rhetorical. I know all The Right Answers, and I’m not being cocky when I say that, either.)

    Perhaps because I don’t allow myself to dwell on those feelings of inadequacy and sadness, all my angst got projected onto those piddly little bags of cookies. Six cookies per household! That’s nothing! I love to share what I bake, but I like to do it freely, abundantly. Giving out measly little tastes made me feel the opposite of generous—I felt stingy and frugal. My style of giving was cramped and I didn’t like it one little bit.

    Trite though it is, I suppose it’s the thought that counts, the little bit of Christmas cheer, the Baby Nickel bellowing “Merry Christmas” á la the Herdmans, the older kids shyly inviting the people to come get a bag of cookies and then calling Merry Christmas as they walked away, a volunteer following along behind to push the cart that held their few bags of groceries.

    The whole thing made me so uncomfortable that I spent more time away from our table than beside it.

    I came home feeling like we hadn’t given anything. We had received, yes. There’s the fresh perspective, the little holes in my heart, the renewed appreciation for what I do have. But even that rings hollow to me, as though I’m using other people’s problems to bolster myself.

    In any case, the whole experience made a huge impression on the kids. There is that. It’s not much, but maybe that’s okay?

    This same time, years previous: on doing the dishes,

  • Perfectly glorious

    Sunday afternoon, while waiting for Mr. Handsome to wake up from his lazy snooze so that he could drill some holes in some coins (the drilling is proving to be too difficult/dangerous/detailed for Yo-Yo to manage, what with all the breaking bits and slippy-slide-y metal) so that I could make some jewelry (which I then listed on Monday morning and promptly sold one of the pieces before I even had time to turn around—wheee!), I decided to make marshmallows.

    Marshmallows have been swarming the bloggy food world for months, but I’m just now catching on. I’ve wanted to make them. In fact, I’ve thought about them quite a bit, but I never could bring myself to do it. I’m a tad bit scared of gelatin, and I try to avoid corn syrup, and since marshmallows only run a buck a bag at the store, it was just much easier to buy them when the urge arose than to worry myself with strange ingredients.

    However, every time I read a new post about marshmallows (like this one or this one), my desire to make them would come sneaking out of the recesses of my mind to stand there in the middle of my mind wringing its puffy, white hands till I flapped my arms and stomped my feet in its general direction, sending it scuttling back into its hiding place again. Harumph.

    But then I read Tara’s post and my little marshmallow urge came boldly striding out to claim center stage, jutting its chin at me as if to say, Try and scare me off THIS time.

    I know when I’m beat. I curtsied demurely and then headed out to the kitchen where I dug the bag of gelatin out of the cupboard and plugged in my Kitchen Aid mixer.

    (Tell me this: is it normal for a person to personify her thought patterns? Because I seem to do it all the time…)

    The cooking process for the marshmallows was straight forward and simple, but halfway through I started to have some serious doubts. See, the marshmallow goo gave off the unmistakable and dismaying odor of, of …of a barnyard. Every time I leaned in close to the thrashing mixer and breathed deep, visions of horses’ hooves clopped through my mind. It was disturbing, to say the least.

    Perhaps this, talking about horses’ hooves while eating marshmallows, is considered untactful? Perhaps it makes my kitchen sound gross? Perhaps no one will ever want to eat at my house again? (And did you catch the tweet about how when I turn my oven on it gives off an intense urine stench?) All this talk of pee and manure makes me sound right high-class.

    But it’s true! And I’m all about being candid. I mean, I wouldn’t want you to try to make marshmallows, catch a whiff of barnyard, and then lose sleep wondering if you were the only one.

    Besides, I like to drag everyone down into my miserable mucky mess with me.

    This tale of weirdness has a good ending, though. Once I added the salt and vanilla, and by the time I dumped the whole satiny, voluptuous cloud into the pan to cool, all traces of equine odors had dispersed and I kept myself happily employed licking bowl, spatula, and whisk. Amen.

    When it came time to flip the pan of marshmallows upside down and cut them up, the entire family gathered ‘round. They oohed and aahed most appreciatively. I doled out tastes.

    Mr. Handsome was floored in a most gratifying way. He said things like, “They taste like marshmallows! Really!”

    And, “They’re way better than the store kind.”

    And, “Wow.”

    What with all the praise and sugar, I was flying high.

    Right then and there I mixed up a pot of hot chocolate (‘cause it’s what you have to do when you make marshmallows) and served everyone a mug (adult mugs got spiked with Bailey’s), a fat marshmallow floating on top. It was perfectly glorious.

    And then yesterday afternoon I had to make myself another cup of hot chocolate so I could take a picture for you all (because it was dark when I did the family hot chocolate thing) and of course I had to spike it so you would get the full effect (you can totally see the difference in the picture, right?) and then I sipped and clicked my way most merrily through my chocolate-y, creamy, marshmallow-y hot toddy.

    Adapted (only a little) from Tara of Seven Spoons

    This are delicious plain but their true spectacularness comes out when set a-float a mug of hot cocoa. Do it.

    If you want thinner marshmallows, divide the mixture between two 9×13 pans.

    Marshmallow variations, yet untried (but not for long): an egg white-less version, toasted coconut, peppermint or almond.

    And how about dipping them in chocolate? Yes!

    Note: for updated information, changes, adaptations and the like, go here.

    1 cup water, divided
    3 tablespoons gelatin
    3 egg whites
    2 cups white sugar
    ½ cup corn syrup
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    ½ cup powdered sugar
    ½ cup cornstarch

    Sift together the powdered sugar and cornstarch. Grease a 9 x 13 pan, sprinkle the bottom and sides with some of the sugar-cornstarch mixture, and then set both bowl and pan aside.

    Measure ½ cup of cool water into a bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over top. Set aside.

    Measure the remaining ½ cup of water, the white sugar, the corn syrup, and the salt into a heavy bottomed saucepan and, stirring occasionally, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers steadily, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, and allow the mixture to simmer, undisturbed, till it reaches 240 degrees, or the soft ball stage. It should take about 12 minutes.

    While the syrup is simmering, put the three egg whites into the bowl of a kitchen mixer. (You can do this with a hand-held mixer, but you will be holding that thing for about 15 minutes. It won’t be difficult, but it will be tiresome.) (On the other hand, if you’re scared you’ll burn up your Kitchen Aid [because 15 minutes is a long time], it’s better to use a hand held mixer.) Beat the egg whites till soft peaks form.

    When the syrup reaches 240 degrees, take it off the heat and stir in the gelatin.

    With the mixer set on medium speed, slowly pour the syrup in, down the edge of the bowl. (If it gets into the blades, it will splatter viciously. Be careful.) Once all the syrup has been added, turn the mixer to high and let it whip frantically for the next 12-15 minutes. The goal is to bring the mixture down to room temperature and to thoroughly fluff it…and then some. Add the vanilla and beat for another minute.

    Pour the marshmallow goo into the prepared pan, and, using a lightly oiled spatula, spread it out as best you can. Sift some more of the cornstarch/confectioners sugar mixture over top. Let the mallows rest for several hours to set up.

    Run an oiled knife around the edges of the pan and turn the sheet of marshmallows out onto a dusted (sugar-cornstarch mixture again) cutting board. Cut them (using an oiled kitchen scissors or sharp knife or pizza cutter) into the desired size. Sprinkle (or roll) the sticky sides in the sugar mixture before storing in an airtight container.

    This same time, years previous: the big snow

  • Middle-of-the-night solstice party

    Not since 1638 has a lunar eclipse fallen on the northern winter solstice, so we decided to whoop it up real good. (Next one scheduled for 2094. Mark your calendars.)

    A darn-awful picture, but cut me some slack, ‘kay? It WAS the middle of the night, after all.

    Though we didn’t whoop it up as good as I originally planned. I thought it might be fun to load the kids into the car and drive to town under an eclipsed moon—how romantic! what memories!—for donuts, but when I suggested my idea to Mr. Handsome, he nixed it right quick. Party pooper.

    Instead, we set the alarm for 2:30 and then hustled everyone out of their beds and out to the deck to stare at the disappearing moon. It darkened and reddened, its little edge of glinting silver growing noticeably smaller by the minute.

    While the moon did its thing, I stood at the stove, banged a whisk against a pot, and whipped up some hot chocolate for the masses. (Tea for me.)

    We oohed and aahed, sipped and yawned, and, after an hour of groggy excitement, crawled back upstairs to our beds.

    Everyone disobeyed my orders to sleep in, so this day is sure to be tedious. And Sweetsie is miffed because winter is here (or so we say) but there’s no snow. What a rip-off.

    But hey, look! The moon’s back!

    This same time, years previous: lemon cheesecake tassies

  • Salvaged compost

    I’ve been receptive to all sorts of inspiring lately. First there was the elving (still in the works, too), and then there were these:

    Candied orange rinds dipped in dark chocolate. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.)

    My girlfriend (the same one who was present for the Christmas nippy shake-down) is the one responsible for bringing these into my life. She started messing around with orange peels in her kitchen and within a couple days I had purchased myself some oranges, too. I’m such a follower.

    They are simple to make, folks. Easy Peasy, A Piece of Cake, and Nothing To It, etc. All you do is blanch some orange rinds, simmer them in simple syrup, dry them out a bit, and then dunk them in chocolate.

    When you stop to think about it, it’s just salvaged compost that gets a gussy-up treatment. And when you look at it that way, these decadent little gems suddenly appear thrifty. Downright virtuous. A frugal woman’s dream.

    (For the record: I am neither frugal nor thrifty nor virtuous. Proof: I went out and bought oranges just for their hides instead of the other way around—buying oranges for the insides and then scrounging around for a recipe that called for orange rinds because it would be an abomination to throw out so much lovely orange-y-ness.)

    Despite all my prattle about it being a simple recipe, my first batch went to the chickens. A recipe I found on the web called for cooking the sugar-water syrup till it reached the soft ball stage and then adding the rinds and simmering them for another hour. The result? Crystallized, crunchy, gross orange rinds. To make matters worse, silly me went ahead and dipped them in chocolate anyway and then decided there was no redemption to be found anywhere and dumped the whole extravagant failure into the slop bucket. (You’d think the chickens might take into consideration all the gourmet fare I feed them and lay me some Cadbury eggs…)

    The second batch was much, much better. My friend patiently coached me through the process via the phone wires until I finally had a confection worth eating.

    And once I started eating—oh-me-oh—I couldn’t stop!

    I am enormously proud of these little delicacies. Gummy, chewy orange-ness with a touch of bite and a kick of dark sweet. They’re good. Three-fourths of my children even like them!

    Then I went and gave them all away so now I have to make me some more.

    But I think I’ll wait till we get ourselves our Christmas citrus. Wouldn’t want any rinds to go to waste, you know.

    Chocolate-Dipped Candied Orange Rinds

    I did only four oranges but found I had plenty of simple syrup. Next time I’ll probably do six oranges at one go.

    5-6 thick-skinned oranges, rinds of
    4 cups white sugar
    3 cups water
    1 pound good chocolate

    Wash the oranges (if you can find organic oranges, go for those) and cut the north and south poles off. Score the oranges into four sections and, using your fingers, gently pry off each section of rind. Slice the rinds into sticks about 1/4-inch wide.

    Put the sliced orange rinds into a kettle and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Dump the contents of the kettle into a strainer, discarding the water. Rinse off the rinds with cold water. Repeat the blanching process two more times.

    Put the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a full boil. Add the thrice-blanched orange rinds and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer (a gentle bubble) and allow to cook for 45-60 minutes, or until translucent (the pith loses its whiteness and turns a little more, well, translucent).

    Remove the rinds from the syrup (if you wish, you may save the orange-flavored simple syrup to add to hot tea, punch, or alcoholic beverages) and lay the rinds out on a wire rack that is positioned atop a cookie sheet to catch the drips. Let the orange pieces dry by either a) letting them sit at room temperature for a couple days, or b) setting your oven to the “warm” temp and “baking” them for two or three hours. (Lacking patience, I went the “b” route.)

    Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and dip each candied orange rind into the chocolate. Scrape off excess chocolate before laying the candies on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet to dry.

    Store chocolates in glass jars or tins at room temperature.

    This same time, years previous: walnut balls

  • My baby

    This is my littlest, my youngest, my seca leche.

    Yes, I realize he’s enormous for his four years, but he’s still a baby in my eyes.

    Just today when we were watching the episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy dreams she goes to Scotland where she gets captured by the townsfolk, falls in love with her prison guard (Ricky) who then feeds her to a two-headed dragon (Ethel and Fred), my little baby climbed up into my lap, lower lip a-tremble, wrapped his arms around my neck, and buried his face in my shoulder. I laughed at him. And then I covered his neck and cheeks with a flurry of kisses.

    It’s odd how your youngest child, no matter what age, has the sweetest and softest skin but as soon as you have another, fresher babe, the older child’s skin suddenly feels all grown-up, scabby, stinky, and sticky. I remember noticing this when Nickel was born. Rosy little Sweetsie (who was just turning two that month) no longer felt nearly so sweet and tender.

    When Yo-Yo was Nickel’s age, he was already the oldest of three. In my eyes, he was a full-grown big kid with no traces of sweet baby soft left on him.

    But Nickel’s stinky, rough, nicked-up skin will always feel soft as peaches to me. As the last inhabitant of my womb, he is doomed to be my baby for forevermore and beyond.

    And let me tell you, no child was ever better suited for the role. He is a Mama’s Boy like none other, going out of his way to kiss me smack-dab on the lips and brush his eyelashes against my cheeks for bedtime butterfly kisses. He curls up in my lap like a baby, pats my cheeks, and strokes the soft skin under my chin (which drives me nuts because that skin does not need any help getting more pliable and stretchy). In fact, he smothers me with so much hands-on loving (right now he’s laying on the floor playing with my feet, hoisting them up in the air, pulling, pushing, making it nearly impossible to work the keyboard) that at least once a day I find myself on the verge of a panic attack, shrugging him off, gasping for air, and pleading (in good moments) or bellowing (in bad) for him to stop touching me NOW!

    Sometimes, in the middle of nothing, he’ll burst forth with a heartfelt “I love you, Mama.” It makes me melt every time.

    He has an unabashed zest for life, this child of mine. For example, at our church the kids are sometimes called upon to collect the offering—to just wander the isles and, when an adult flashes cash, to take it and walk it up to the baskets that sit up front. Nickel treats this venture like a full-contact sport, crouching down low, jutting his elbows out, and then zigzagging at top speed towards the prize. When Nickel collects the offering, I feel like I’m sitting in bleachers in a stadium instead of in a sanctuary.

    While he has inflicted me with a fair number of head-butts and elbow jabs, more often than not it is Nickel that bears the brunt of his own intensity.

    Look at that scratch on his forehead. None of us knows from where it came but it’s big and scabby and makes a pretty loud statement. Which is: I AM A BRUISER. WATCH OUT.

    Check out his left eyelid. See how it’s swollen and bluish green? Something happened—again, we’re not sure what—but that mark didn’t materialize out of thin air.

    And look at that gnarly thumbnail. It’s the new one, a huge improvement over the old—the one he took a hammer to.

    Forgive him his too-small jeans. You can’t tell from the picture, but they are so tight that they give him full-time wedge-y love. Every time he goes to the bathroom, he has to get me to snap them shut. It makes me feel bloated and fat just to look at him.

    P.S. This popcorn was made for the purpose of prettying up the tree. But when I went to thread the needles, I realized that I had none and the ones that Miss Beccaboo brought down from her room had such small eyes that they were impossible to thread. Only two needles got successfully threaded, and then I poked the butt end of ones of the needles into my thumb and, a few kernels later, the pointy end pierced my finger. Then I quit.

    This same time, years previous: scholarly stuff