• Worth the suffering

    Lentils, lentils, lentils. Oh, how I love them! But seriously, they sure do know how to cause problems in my house—strife and anguish, tears and bellyaching, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    Like I said, problems.

    Nobody but me really likes them. Oh, they’ll all eat them, though only with the natural consequences clearly outlined: you may not have any more food, AND THAT INCLUDES DESSERT, till you eat your lentils. This is our general rule, no surprises here, but I have to repeat it several times, with painstaking enunciation, for it to sink in.

    What’s up with these people? Did they not come from my very own womb? Did I not eat enough lentils while they were in my womb? (I’m not talking about my husband here—though all my children have thought, at one point or another, that he came from my belly, too.)

    (And by the way, the Baby Nickel has a specific idea of where each of the kids sprouted in my body. He says that he came from down low, right about the spot of my c-section scar, that Sweetsie came from my tummy, that Miss Beccaboo materialized somewhere in my lungs, and that Yo-Yo came out of my shoulder, or maybe my neck. It’s rather humbling to see the world through my children’s eyes. I am a vessel and nothing more.)

    In any case, my approach to lentils is much like my approach to shoofly—I am convinced that at some point they will fall deeply and madly in love with the little legumes and so I doggedly continue to serve them. And again, as with the shoofly, Mr. Handsome is a major stumbling block. Oh, he’ll eat lentils when I serve them (and he acts—most of the time—like a big boy at the table, chewing politely and talking about other things), and he even takes the leftovers in his lunch some days (after I level him with my beady eyes and hiss that he has no other lunch options), but he’s not ga-ga over them.

    You’d think that after living in Nepal and Thailand for several months he’d have a little bit of affection for the lowly legume, but he does not. He remains totally aloof, even while I’m mounding the rice and lentils onto my plate, shoving tremendous mouthfuls into my mouth and then collapsing back into my chair, eyes rolling heavenward as I savor the luxurious flavors. He’s one cool cucumber, that man.

    To me, lentils are pure comfort food (as is pasta, red beans, buttered toast, popcorn, salsa, granola, tomato soup, and baked corn, so maybe that’s not saying much). I made a batch of them last week during the middle of the stomach bug attack (that I have still managed to successfully evade—three cheers for the SQUIRREL! technique), and I ate them several days straight, once even for breakfast. I served them to a friend who came for lunch and she gave them high praise and ate seconds (as did her kids, lucky woman).

    So ignore the wails of my children and the suppressed sighs of my husband and make these lentils. They’ll transport you heavenward, far away from the suffering of the other family members, and that’s gotta be worth something, no?

    And one more thing. Please tell me this: what is your favorite way to make curried lentils? I need more ways to torture my children.

    Curried Lentils
    Inspired from the collection of lentil recipes in Extending the Table

    *If you like your lentils hot, feel free to add some minced jalapeno, cayenne pepper, or hot sauce.
    *You can see from the pictures that I added a small white potato, too.
    *Swap the spinach for other greens, like chard or kale.

    3 tablespoons olive oil
    1 medium onion, diced
    4 cloves garlic, minced
    2 tablespoons ginger root, minced
    1 teaspoon cumin
    2 teaspoons curry powder
    1-2 teaspoons salt
    1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
    2 cups dried lentils, rinsed
    1 large sweet potato, medium dice
    1 10-ounce package spinach, fresh or frozen, roughly chopped
    2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus wedges for garnish
    1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish

    Put the lentils in a saucepan with five cups of water and simmer till tender.

    While the lentils are cooking, saute the onion, garlic, and fresh ginger in the olive oil. When they are translucent (but not browned), add the cumin, curry, and salt and cook for another minute, stirring frequently. Add the potato, spinach, and one cup of water and simmer, covered, till the potato is fork-tender.

    Add the lentils (including the liquid, though most of it should have already been absorbed) to the vegetables and heat through. Stir in the cilantro and lime juice and taste to correct seasonings.

    Serve the lentils over rice, with a flurry of cilantro on top and a wedge of lime alongside.

    About one year ago: orange-cranberry biscotti

  • To meet you

    My dearest peeps,

    After nearly two years of being Mama JJ, I’ve had enough. I’m mama to my kids, and my initials are JJ, but I’m not Mama JJ. I’m Jennifer Jo.

    There, I said it.

    Hi. My name is Jennifer Jo.

    (Firm handshake.)

    It’s nice to meet you. And you are—?

    The last name is not coming out any time soon, but it’s not that much a part of my identity; it’s my husband’s name after all, just a little addition to my real name. So for now, I’ll just bippity-bop along with Jennifer Jo.

    It’s feels so good to say that. I had no idea!

    I’ve always liked my name. Never mind that my parents were totally uncreative—the year I was born the top girl name was Jennifer and the top boy name was Michael. But in all fairness, I don’t think they knew that till after they named me. Besides, it was rather comforting to be named the same thing as all my other classmates; it was the only thing I had in common with them, and without the popular name stamp, I would’ve been a total social misfit.

    And anyway, my parents gave me a really cool middle name: Jo, as in Little Women Jo. You know, the writer girl whose manuscript met a fire-y grate, I mean fate. (As of yet, I’ve never burned documents, only deleted them. I once got so angry over one that I threw—and broke—a chair. But I don’t want to talk about that right now.)

    I wasn’t ever really called “Jennifer Jo.” It’s always been “Jennifer.” But there have been variations on the theme:

    Jenny (my grandma)
    Jen (a handful of friends)
    Yenisfair (the Nicaraguans)
    Hot Little Thang (Mr. Handsome)
    Mama, Jen, Mama!, JENNIFER! (my kids when they’re trying to get my attention)

    But most everyone calls me just plain old Jennifer.

    (Mr. Handsome doesn’t actually call me “Hot Little Thang,” and with good reason. First, I’m not a Thang. Second, I’m not little [I used to be almost 5′ 9″ but I recently discovered I’m shrinking and am now closer to 5′ 8″ so by the time I’m eighty I just may qualify for some small adjectives]. Third, I’m not hot, body temperature-wise. In fact, whenever I climb into bed at night, Mr. Handsome yells YOU’RE AN ICE CUBE! and then I press my icy-cold hand on his toasty, tender tummy just to make him cry.)

    I never had any nicknames when I was growing up. My parents were pretty strict about calling me and my brothers by our full, three-syllable-long names. “We gave you a name we like. Why would we want to shorten it?” they asked. My dad did call me “Ginger” every now and then, and my highschool friends called me “The Oatmeal Child” because of my healthy lunches, naivete, and creamy complexion. My mom sometimes calls me “Jefinner.” I’m not sure why.

    As for the meaning of my name, it’s quite boring. It means fair one, white wave, white cheek, and white spirit. I’ve certainly got the white bit down—I’m about as white as they come without being albino. But wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if my name meant “runs at the mouth” or “word slayer” or “lover of sweet things” or “sieve head”—something that speaks to my personality, not what I look like? But I guess there’s nothing I can do about it. My cheeks are white and my name is Jennifer.

    It has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure.

    Yours truly,
    Jennifer Jo

    About one year ago: thick, creamy homemade yogurt

  • A sticky sweet indoctrination

    I am Mennonite. My grandfather was a straight-laced Mennonite Bishop, and my mother wore a covering (until some point in her wild college career when she decided to risk God’s wrath and toss it). I never wore a covering, but as a teenager I was baptized by the straight-laced Mennonite Grandpa, and I wrote a paper in highschool explaining why Mennonites don’t go to war (and then underwent an impromptu inquisition headed up by my teacher—my mother wrote an article about the experience—maybe I’ll reprint it here some time). I can play the Mennonite Game (or I would be able to if I could remember any names), and I can throw around Mennonite acronyms like it ain’t nobody’s business—proof: I attended/participated in MYF, EMU, VS, and MCC. (For the non Mennonite reading this, that would be Mennonite Youth Fellowship, Eastern Mennonite University, Voluntary Service, and Mennonite Central Committee, respectively.) And I love shoofly pie.

    Mennonites have different opinions as to what a shoofly pie ought to be like. There have been many an intense conversation (but I’ll wager nobody’s come to blows over it because it’s not generally our custom to knock the daylights out of each other) over whether or not the pie ought to be wet or dry, dark or light. I hail from the wet-and-dark (but not too dark) camp. I like my pies to have noteworthy goo levels, as well as a pronounced molasses flavor. But those are just my preferences—I’ll eat and enjoy any shoofly pie.

    My husband, Catholic that he is (or rather, was), does not like shoofly. This mortifies me, but I’ve tried to play it cool. I don’t bake shoofly pie all that often, and when I do and he only takes a small piece (shame! shame!), I try not to burn him at the stake for it. (Like his ancestors did to my ancestors, I might add.) (Though I don’t think they were being burned for eating too much shoofly pie.) But now we have children and I’ve discovered that if I don’t train my children up in the way of shoofly pie, nobody will. It is my duty to cultivate their Mennonite taste buds.

    Here’s how the molasses training has gone down so far. We’ve got ginger cookies down pat. They like them in any form, soft and chewy, crisp and crinkly. But Mr. Handsome likes those, too, so the cookies don’t really count. Gingerbread is trickier; almost everyone will eat it, but they’re not crazy about it. But shoofly pie? Here’s where it gets dicey. Yo-Yo will eat it, Miss Beccaboo kind of will, Sweetsie won’t, and The Baby Nickel positively adores it (that’s my baby).

    This past week I decided it was time to buckle down and solve the problem once and for all. I decided to approach the problem from a different angle—instead of shoofly pie, I’d try to snucker them in with shoofly cake. I made one recipe that touted itself as a shoofly cake but was nothing of the sort—it was just a gingerbread with crumbs on top. Good, but not the cake I was looking for. Then I called my brother, a shoofly afficionado, and after a bit of discussion involving two recipes he had in his files, plus some tweaking of my own, I created The Shoofly Cake Of My Dreams: buttery bottom crust that turns soft in spots and chewy crispy in others, a supremely gooey middle, and a moist, cake-y top.

    Since the recipe makes a big pan, it’s the perfect recipe for molasses indoctrination. My methods are rather traditional, with a touch of charismatic flair. I serve the cake after meals, with lots of whipped cream (that’s the traditional part). I make no fuss if they don’t like it, but I do allow for seconds (that’s still traditional, I think). I eat it voraciously, sighing and moaning with pleasure and smiling most favorably upon the other appreciative eaters (that’s the flair part).

    So far my ploy hasn’t worked, but fear not, I am not dismayed. Opportunities for making and eating shoofly cake abound. I may gain a little extra padding in the process, but really, what’s a couple pounds when I’m winning souls for shoofly? In these cases, it’s important to keep my priorities straight.

    And she shall rise up, a shoofly cake in one hand and a bowl of whipped cream in the other! And verily, they shall say to each other, We best partake of the cake, lest this woman stuff it in our faces. And they shall eat and be satisfied. And she shall show them mercy and make apple pie for a change of pace.

    The end, and amen.

    One further note, or rather, a question (or two or five):
    *Are there any Mennonites out there who don’t like shoofly?
    *Are there any non-Mennonites out there who grew up with shoofly?
    *Is there anyone out there (Mennonite, Hindu, or otherwise) who did not grow up with shoofly and liked it the first time they tasted it?
    *Is anyone even out there???

    If you’ve never tasted shoofly, then you know what to do: make the cake, find out what you think, and check back in with your response. Pretty please? The curiosity is killing me. (If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the cake, just halve it. The only tricky part is the one egg bit, but if you turn the egg on its side and whack it quick with a sharp knife, it splits evenly down the middle—it’s an old Mennonite trick.)

    Shoofly Cake
    Adapted from two recipes my brother had in his recipe box

    A note about the syrups: The recipe calls for two cups of syrup; I use half molasses and half of some other thick syrup. You can use different proportions—less molasses and more thick syrup, or the other way around—depending on how much of a love relationship you have with molasses. Do not use blackstrap molasses (unless you’re sure you want to).

    2 1/4 cups brown sugar
    2 sticks butter
    2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 cup molasses
    1 cup King syrup (or light corn syrup)
    1 egg, beaten
    2 cups boiling water
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    1 teaspoon salt
    accompaniment: whipped cream

    Using your hands, blend together the butter, brown sugar, and flours till you have a sandy, crumbly mixture. Set aside two cups of the crumbs to use for the topping. Press the remaining crumbs firmly (but not too firmly—I pressed mine down fairly hard, then raked the uppermost part of the crust with a fork to loosen the crumbs back up and then lightly pressed them down again) into the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 pan.

    Thoroughly combine the molasses, syrup, and beaten egg. Add the boiling water, salt, and baking soda and stir well. Pour the liquid mixture over the crust. Sprinkle the reserved crumbs over top.

    Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes. Because the bottom part remains gooey, it does no good to check it with a toothpick—you’ll know it’s done when the top is set and the cake is pulling away from the edges of the pan just a bit.

    Serve warm or at room temperature, with plenty of whipped cream.

    About one year ago: Nana’s Anise Biscotti

  • Thoughts

    1. I’m having thoughts. They’re non-important, most of them, but they rattle around in my head, trying to get out. I don’t even know what they are. I just know that they make a mighty big commotion up there in my noggin and it’s frightfully hard to ignore them.

    2. I’m eating pretzels. At one of the houses where Mr. Handsome is working, the woman cleaned out her cupboards and passed off some extra bags of pretzels to him. We’re grateful for them—snack food in a time of snack-drought.

    3. Is something wrong with me because I love to sing “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” from My Fair Lady? Higgins makes me laugh every time I hear his puzzled, sardonic voice.

    Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!
    Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
    They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
    vacillating, calculating, agitating,
    Maddening and infuriating hags!

    The nerve! I know I should probably get all red in the face and rant and rave, but I don’t. I just grin and hum along. (Miss Beccaboo and Yo-Yo get mad, though. “But he’s not nice or friendly! He’s lying!”)

    Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
    Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
    Eternally noble, historic’ly fair;
    Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
    Well, why can’t a woman be like that?

    That I’m not incensed is probably proof that there is something deeply wrong with me, though I’m not sure what. Anyway, I don’t really want to think about it. I’m a woman, after all.

    Why is thinking something women never do?
    Why is logic never even tried?
    Straight’ning up their hair is all they ever do.
    Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?

    4. This song is running through my head because today my kids were listening to the movie soundtrack. We watched the movie several months ago, and for weeks afterwards they marched around singing, “Oh-ho-ho, Henry Higgins! Oh-ho-ho, Henry Higgins! Just! You! Wait!” Some days they practice dropping their H-s, too.

    5. Speaking of media indoctrination, have you seen the movie Up? Well, there are these talking dogs in it and they are mean and vicious, but if they’re chasing somebody and that person points off in another direction and yells “SQUIRREL!” they immediately forget what they were doing and run off after the imaginary squirrel. That was background. My point is this: The other night Miss Beccaboo was having fever dreams and Yo-Yo had a wicked, wicked nightmare (Mr. Handsome had to flat-out tackle him to get him to stop shrieking), and so three o’clock found us all sitting in Yo-Yo’s room, rather dazed and not sure of what to do. Suddenly, Mr. Handsome yelled “SQUIRREL!” and pointed. We all busted up laughing, thankful for the much-needed distraction. From now on, that’s going to be our family code-word for “shift focus.”

    6. SQUIRREL! Just kidding.

    7. Really, though, I’d like to yell SQUIRREL! at this stomach bug that’s taking over our family. It started with the Baby Nickel and is slowly moving it’s way up, slaying all the kids, in order. It’s a smart little bugger, I tell you. And it’s pretty clear who the next victim will be. That’s why I’d like to yell SQUIRREL!

    8. I made up my seed order list. Most of my gardening pals have already ordered their seeds or started their little plants, but me? I’m contented in my cozy-warm house, drinking my coffee, baking cakes, and doing bookish stuff with my kiddies. The mere thought of digging in the dirt and hauling in baskets of produce to process makes me feel almost ill. But then I read something in which the writer used the phrase “green grass,” and it hit me: green grass. Bare feet, long days, sun-warmed, juicy tomatoes, open windows, mulch, dirt, and aching muscles. And so I cheerfully poured over my seed catalogue and made up my list. Six months from now when I’m moaning and groaning, remind me I said this.

    9. I had curried lentils and naan for breakfast. I was planning on making it for lunch, but then I realized that there was no law that said that I had to wait till lunchtime to eat lentils, and so I put the freshly cooked oatmeal into the fridge and feasted on the spicy lentils. I felt feisty, like I belonged to the Nutritionally Elite. It was quite the little rush.

    10. It’s late. I wanted to tell you about the cake I have been eating all the live-long day. (So I lied—I don’t really belong to the Nutritionally Elite.) It’s inspired me to haul firewood—if I haul a bunch of wood than I can justify eating another piece of cake. It’s a good cake (but a weak theory). I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. Good night.

    About one year ago: Ode to the Titty Fairy. Grab a hankie and brace yourself. It’s a doozy.

  • Movie night

    Nearly every weekend we stuff our three-year-old into snuggly pajamas, sit him down on the sofa, push a plastic box of popcorn in his hands, and then flicker animated images in front of his innocent face.

    He doesn’t fight us on this. In fact, he begs to do it. He looks forward to these parent-approved sessions of terror and trauma.

    I say “terror and trauma” because almost as soon as the movie’s plot is revealed, the lower lip starts to tremble and the tears start to eek out around the edges.

    In case you didn’t realize it, almost every movie (Up, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Hoodwinked!, Monsters, Inc.) is built around the theme of getting lost (big kids and adults see it as “going on an adventure”) and then trying to find the way home.

    The Baby Nickel takes these “getting lost” adventures very seriously. He worries and cries up until the end when the joyful reunion (that we have foretold) occurs. He asks, over and over again in a voice wobbly with tears, “How will they get home? How can they do it?”

    We hug him tight, explain how it will end, and ask him if he wants to come into another room with us, all to no avail.

    He remains glued to the screen all the while he is coming unglued internally.

    It’s enough to break a mother’s heart.

    But not enough to cancel movie night.

    About one year ago: Gripping the pages

  • Pink cupcakes, in no particular order

    Cookie Baker Lynn gave me a sweet little award, but sadly, I don’t know enough computer mechanics to fetch the box of pink cupcakes and post it here. But that’s okay; I’ve learned to function despite my limitations. I can still play the game.

    I don’t usually play games (board, pass-the-recipe, or otherwise), but for some reason this one caught my attention. I think it’s because after I get through telling you about some of my favorite things (hum along now: raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/crisp apple strudel and warm woolen mittens) (I think I garbled those lyrics), I get to tell you about some of my favorite blogs—blogs that make me smile and think and be a better person (not necessary all at the same time). Then those tagged people can, if they chose, follow suit, and in this way we waltz Maria-style through the blogosphere.

    So here we go. My ten favorite things, in no particular order:

    1. Mr. Handsome’s smile. It’s dashing and lights up the room and he’s kind of stingy about flashing it which makes it all the more special (though I think it would still be special if he chose to beam me with it all day long).

    2. The UPS truck.

    3. My baby’s cheek-pats and lip-smooshing kisses (when they aren’t overdone).

    4. The relief that comes after finishing dread jobs, such as window washing, sorting kids’ clothes, and wet mopping the floors.

    5. Homebound dates with Mr. Handsome—when the kids go elsewhere and we have the house all to ourselves and can do projects, watch movies, and eat what we want, when we want.

    6. A good read-aloud.

    7. Going on walks with my sister-in-law.

    8. Good ol’ Mennonite four-part singing. For a joint Christmas service, the masterful song-leader had us sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah and suddenly all those ordinary people sounded so glorious that I thought they must’ve sprouted wing buds underneath their suit jackets and polyester blouses. Mr. Song Leader was a blast to watch, raising his hands in the air, fingers fluttering, to make us hold the notes extra long, and eyeballing certain people so they’d slide their voices up to the tippy, tippy, tippy-top of the scale.

    9. Getting comments on this little blog.

    10. Food.

    And now, for the fun part: bloggy friends who inspire, encourage, and delight me. Again, in no particular order.

    Life in Transition: Sarah is Mr. Handsome’s older sister. He adores her and makes it no secret that he wishes I were more like her—adventurous, relaxed, and a self-starter. Sarah is the type of person who paints the living room of her mother’s house with a two-year-old and six-month-old twins underfoot—and laughs about it. She has been known to travel cross-country with five kids by herself … multiple times. (She reports that earplugs and graham crackers play a key role.) She’s one of the most accepting, least presumptuous people I know. After being with her for a few days, I find that I lighten up more, start new projects, and spend more time with my children. She doesn’t update her blog that often, but when she does, I’m inspired.

    Jumping Off the Food Chain One Box at a Time: Mavis, otherwise known (by me, in my head) as The Dot-Dot-Dot Lady, daily pours out the details of her high-energy existence. She’s forever setting new challenges for herself (walk-a-thon, grow 2000 pounds of vegetables, figure out more ways to annoy her husband), and has an unhealthy obsession with formal wear. I love her.

    Breed ‘Em and Weep: Jennifer writes candidly and humorously (often at the same time) of her divorce and bipolar illness. An exceptional word craftswoman, she inspires me with her writing and brutal honesty.

    ThyHandHathProvided: This is one of the few friends I call when I can’t take life anymore. She is sweet and gentle, but take note—there is nothing wishy-washy about her. Her blog is full of recipes, glimpses into their life as a homeschool family, tales from the garden and chicken butcherings, and right now she’s doing a spiffy giveaway. Even though we live only six miles from each other, our paths rarely cross, but this past Monday she invited me out to coffee (her treat) and we talked for four hours straight. Mr. Handsome called at 11:00 to find out where I was. Since I said I’d be home between 9 and 9:30, he had a right to be worried. When I got home I apologized and then lit into him, “You mean you waited a whole hour and a half before calling to see if I was okay?!” He grinned sheepishly, but quickly switched back to being the martyr: “I just sat in the chair, watching the road, waiting for the police to drive in…” Okay, okay! I’ll call next time!

    Subsistence Pattern: Mr. H (another Mr. H!) and his wife work year-round, growing all the food they need. They’re forever trying new foods, or variations of the old standbys, and are currently storing oodles of potted plants in their basement—they bring up different pots at different times, give the plants good light for several days, and then pick the leaves to make incredible salads.

    The Home Grown Journal: Mama Pea lives in the boonies with the wolves … and her husband. She quilts and grows things and lines her make-up drawer with bright red paper to elevate her mood. You need to do things like that when you live in brr-Minnesota.

    Seven Spoons: Tara takes beautiful pictures, writes well, and gave me my new favorite popcorn recipe for which I am eternally grateful. (Though snorting cayenne pepper is not a good idea. I accidentally did that last night when I was fixing the popcorn to go with our shoot-‘em-up movie, and then immediately started batting at my nose with the back of my hand, like a dog, I realized, so I added a couple snorts and head shakes for good measure and then busted up laughing.)

    Clover Lane: Sarah, a mother of five, is a crafty, industrious, thoughtful, insightful, opinionated woman living in a big white house on a clover lane somewhere. Half the time (okay, not quite that often) I don’t even agree with what she says, but I love that she thinks and writes about more than, oh, I don’t know, sniffing cayenne powder.

    Dinner with Julie: I knew it was time to switch from lurker status to follower status when I kept clicking on her site to see if she had written anything lately. This is one of those ladies that blows my mind with all her productivity. She’s gifted, too, with both words and food. And lately she’s become more vulnerable than ever before.

    Paprikahead: Rosanna writes sparingly, beautifully, about the food she creates, foods that (sometimes) take a long time to make because she employs old-fashioned methods. She has a cookbook coming out soon, so keep your eyes peeled.

    That’s ten, folks, so my job is done. Go on and visit my friends and then please do introduce me to yours. I got five hours sleep last night, it’s sleeting, and the kids are hacking their lungs out—I could use a cheery diversion.

    About one year ago: Baked Brie

  • On thank-you notes

    I’m a firm believer in the old-fashioned thank-you note, handwritten and mailed with a stamp.

    You probably immediately thought of a time when I could’ve/should’ve written you a thank-you and didn’t. I’m not perfect, and I didn’t say I was obsessed with writing thank-yous. I didn’t even say I liked writing thank-yous. I said I believed in them.

    My brother didn’t use to believe that he should have to thank people. He felt like it was an unnecessary action, a stupid one. He thought that if he did something nice for someone, or they for him, then they both knew it and there was no need to talk about it. The extra words were superficial hoopla to him, empty fillers like “how are you?” —a phrase that neither of my parents ever employ. But my parents told my brother that he needed to verbalize his thanks because it was important for other people to feel appreciated. What it boiled down to, my mother said, is never to scrimp on being nice even if it sometimes seems stupid or frivolous.

    Of course, the flip-side to all this thanking is that you act so polite that your niceties ring hollow. Which reminds me of the I’m Sorry Phase I went through in middle (high?) school: every night before going to bed I apologized to everyone in the family for any way in which I might’ve wronged them that day. I didn’t necessarily have a particular incident in mind when I said I was sorry (though there were no shortage of mean acts on my part); it’s just that my mother had drilled into my head the scripture Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and I took it to heart. My little neurotic obsession didn’t last too terribly long, and nowadays I could probably do with more frequent bouts of humility.

    Not all thank-you notes are of the same caliber. To my way of thinking, there are four kinds of thank-yous. Here they are, in order from most common to least common.

    1. The obligatory thank-you note for birthday, wedding, and graduation gifts. Often these gifts were given without too much forethought (hello, gift registries), so it stands to reason that the subsequent thank-you notes end up sounding a bit rote. These can be a chore to write, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile.

    2. Thank-you notes that aren’t prescribed but aren’t unexpected, either. In these cases, the person, upon receiving the note, is mildly surprised, but then switches easily into thinking, “Well, yeah. Of course they’d write me a thank you for that [meal I delivered after the baby was born/the weekend they spent at our house over Christmas/etc].”

    3. Thank-you notes from children. Although almost always forced, these notes carry tremendous weight for two reasons: one, they are so dang cute, and two, you know all the work that the parent went through to get the kid to write the card, and as a result you’re thrilled that there are people in the world who think it’s important to teach gratefulness and who are willing to spend time with their kids doing so. In fact, upon receiving a thank you from a child, you feel so touched that you almost write a note to the parent to thank them for making their kid write a thank you note to you.

    4. The best thank-you of all: when someone is just doing their job but they do it so thoughtfully and intentionally and well that you just have to say something. In these cases, writing the notes is wonderfully fun, a delightful act stemming from sincere gratefulness. In fact, I’d go one step further and say that these notes are much more fun to give than to receive (though I think receiving them is probably pretty grand, too).

    I rarely do thank-you notes of the last variety, but when I do, I get such a buzz that I don’t easily forget them. The last person who inspired a Number Four Thank-You was my pharmacist. Yep, a pharmacist. My pharmacist is not just any old pharmacist. He is Completely Amazing. Take into account the following:

    *He knows our names.
    *He makes sure I get my coupons and double coupons and that I don’t forget to use them.
    *He warns me when medicines are extra expensive and when they won’t be covered by insurance…
    *…and then he goes and looks up why they aren’t covered by the insurance and what brands are covered and then fills me in on all those little details, without me ever even asking.
    *He cheerfully answers questions about serotonin levels and weight gain, sleep problems and allergy meds, and stimulant overdoses (not the coffee-induced ones).
    *When a certain medicine doesn’t come on time, he calls to let me know. He wants to save us the trip, he says.
    *Once when I tried to fill a prescription for a sick Baby Nickel and it turned out that Nickel hadn’t been entered into the computer system yet and I didn’t have his insurance card with me, my pharmacist told me to just go ahead and take the medicine anyway (I did not suggest this)! He didn’t let me pay, either. He just told me to stop by with the card the next time I was in town and then waved me away. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I thought to myself, Well, I NEVER! I’m not sure, but I think I may have gotten a little teary-eyed over that one.

    After that amazing kindness I had no other option but to make the man (and his team) a pan of ooey-gooey sweet rolls. When I walked into the store and plunked the tray (with the accompanying thank-you note) on the counter in front of the dear man, he looked up at me startled, and I don’t think it was because it was the first time he had seen the lower half of my body (I always go through the drive-thru) (and wow, that TOTALLY came out wrong—I’m not implying that he was looking at me in any special way because he wasn’t). (Goodness. This is getting stressful.)

    Anyway, he said, “You didn’t have to do this,” and I said, “I know, but I wanted to; you guys are amazing,” and then I walked out.

    Everything is the same as before (he doesn’t slip me free drugs or anything), but he did go about getting Yo-Yo’s pill in a smaller dosage despite what the doctors told us—that our insurance won’t cover for sixty small pills instead of thirty large ones. When I told him what the doctors said, he cocked an eyebrow and told me to wait a sec. Then he came back and said he could do it for me, no problem.

    You know what else I heard about this pharmacist? (This will be the last rave in this review—promise.) I heard from an inside source that in order for an elderly woman to keep getting the same color pill (because apparently older people often don’t know what kind of pill they are taking, just the color of the pill), he had to order some crazy-huge number of the pills (like 8,000) in order to be able to get it in the right color…and so that’s what he did.

    People who do their jobs really, really well are all too rare. But there are exceptional people out there. So often I focus on the people who are lacking—the clueless social worker, the clerk who can hardly run the groceries by the scanner because she’s coddling one of her ridiculously long nails that just broke, the brusque, insensitive doctor. But no one says I have to dwell on those people—I can “pick on” the ones who are doing a stellar job. It’s my choice.

    This post is getting long and rambly and slightly off-track, but I don’t feel like wrapping it up all tidy-like. Instead, I’d rather hear your take on the thank-you note business. Do you think they are silly, stupid, and superfluous? Do you love them to pieces, writing notes to everyone for everything? Have you ever given or received a thank-you of the Number Four caliber?

    (Are you hungry for sweet rolls now? Never fear, I have just the recipe for you! You didn’t think I’d leave you hanging, did you?)

    About one year ago: Capturing the moment

  • Collecting bottles

    Over the years I have amassed a tidy little collection of liquors. To some people it would seem like a crazy huge extravagance, but to others it would appear laughably small. To me (and I’m who matters here, right?) it is pretty close to just right. I have brandy, rum, whiskey, Creme de Menthe, cognac, vodka, Baileys Irish Cream, triple sec, and most recently, a bottle of Kahlua. It’s enough (though I am wishing after Grand Marnier and Kirsch).

    (And for those of you who now think I’m a true-blue slushy, I’m not. I’ve never even been drunk in my whole live-long life and most of those bottles have been there for years and years and years. So there.)

    I’ve taken to amassing another sort of bottles lately, those of the Asian variety.

    I know nothing of Asian cooking. I’ve never traveled to Asia, and I speak no Asian languages. The closest I’ve been to relating to Asians (not counting a few friends and family members who are part Asian but who are completely at home in our culture) was when we hosted a fifteen year-old girl from Indonesia for a summer. She was a sweet girl but lacking in her z’s—zip and pizzaz. She had one serious downfall: she didn’t know how to cook Indonesian food (the consequence of housemaids and education-driven parents), so I didn’t get any good cooking lessons out of her. I was sorely disappointed.

    (I did teach lots of Asians when I was an instructor in the local Mennonite university’s English as a Second Language program. It was the year I got married to Mr. Handsome, and I was outrageously in love and I guess my giddiness eeked out around my professional [HA!] edges because during the final program the students did a spoof of the teachers and they had me talking constantly about Mr. Handsome. I laughed till I about peed my pants, and from then on made it a point to censor my chatterbox. I’ve only been mildly successful.)

    Even though I have no handle on Asian food, I still like it. It’s totally different from our normal fare, and considering that my cabinets are filled with sacks of oats, boxes of chocolate, and ketchup and mayonnaise, I knew if I was going to cook anything Asian, I would need to make a few purchases. So I did. So far I have fish sauce, Tamari soy sauce, Sriracha, Chinese five-spice, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, chili oil, and coconut milk. I have fresh ginger and a big old bag of cilantro in the fridge. (I also have matzo meal, chickpea flour, tahini, and dried chickpeas for a Jewish kick I was planning on embarking upon but haven’t gotten around to executing yet.)

    I collect all these goodies from our local Oriental Food Market. When I go there I always end up taking longer than necessary (I do that with most grocery stores, though), creeping through the isles, peering at all the strange labels (half of which I can’t even read), and imagining the exotic dishes that they’re used to create. It gets my creative juices flowing.

    Two of my favorite spots in the store are the freezer section with its huge heads of cabbage, bags of sprouts, oysters, and chicken feet (not that I’m planning on buying chicken feet any time soon—we had our chance to harvest a beautiful bouquet of feet but I chose to pass them up—I can always buy them, cleaned and neatly packaged in plastic wrap, if I so desire—which I don’t) and the fresh produce isle. This past time there were bags of fresh tamarindo, which looked exactly like the brown brittle pods that littered the dirt road in our Nicaragua community. I was never crazy about the fruit when we lived there—I didn’t know how exactly to use it and couldn’t google it to find out—but I squealed with delight when I saw it here in the states, more over the collision of my two worlds than over any real desire to actually eat the fruit.

    I’m fully aware that my slew of new jars will take me eons to use up, considering that I only use them sporadically, but they keep forever, so I don’t regret my purchases at all. Why? Because these bottles have helped me to create the most fabulous peanuty noodle dish I have ever made.

    Granted, I haven’t made many peanuty noodle recipes, but I have tried several and that has to count for something. In each of the previous recipes I could sense potential but I just didn’t have the know-how to harness it. Now I know. I have harnessed it. I’m happy about that.

    One of the bonuses about this pasta is that it’s good warm or cold, making it perfect for packed lunches. Remember when I asked Mr. Handsome if he liked his lunch and he gave me a quick yes answer to get me off his back? Well, when he got home from work that day, I asked him again what he thought of his lunch, and he said, with heartfelt umph, “It was delicious!”

    “Yes, it is, isn’t it!” I replied, happily, firmly, á la Julia Child. (You know the scene—when Paul walks into their little kitchen and dips his fingers into one of the many bowls cluttering the table and Julia says, It’s good? and he says Yum, and she says, all confident and self-satisfied, Yes, it IS good, isn’t it.)

    (I apologize if all the Julia Child references are getting to you. That movie—and the subsequent food—really made an impression. Be patient with me, please.)

    Peanut Noodles
    Adapted form the November 2009 issue of Food and Wine magazine

    The original recipe called for two teaspoons red pepper, but I dialed it way back to about a half teaspoon in deference to the children. I love heat though, and the kids weren’t crazy for the dish (a couple of them did claim to love it after several hours of playing on an empty stomach), so next time I might make it my way. Ooo, my lips are tingling already!

    The next time I make this, I think that instead of reserving most of the sauce to add at the last minute, I’ll toss it all together the first time around—it seemed like an extra unnecessary step (though I could be wrong about that—I guess I’ll find out). I’ll still hold the celery back, though, adding it immediately before serving. (Updated on June 21, 2010: no, it’s better, if anything, to keep the cooked noodles in the fridge, undressed, and then heat them up in the microwave before spooning the peanut sauce on over top. I’ve been keeping a jar of peanut sauce in the fridge, cooking up pasta for whenever the craving hits…which is quite often.)

    1 pound spaghetti
    3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
    ½ cup unseasoned rice vinegar, divided
    3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
    6 tablespoons soy sauce
    1/4 cup water
    1 tablespoon sesame oil
    ½ – 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
    1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
    1 large garlic clove
    3 stalks of celery, trimmed and thinly sliced
    ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
    lime wedges, optional

    Cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

    In a small bowl, combine the celery, fresh cilantro, 2 tablespoons of the rice vinegar, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir well and set aside. (It can be refrigerated for a day or two, though it will lose a bit of its crispness.)

    In a blender, whiz together the peanut butter, 6 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons of sugar, the soy sauce, water, sesame oil, red pepper, ginger, and garlic. Add a half cup of the dressing to the noodles (run a fork through the sauce to make sure that there are no chunks of ginger) and toss to coat. Serve the noodles with the extra sauce and top with the celery. Don’t forget the lime (like I did).

    Update, January 28, 2010: I made this again, but with 1 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes. It was the perfect heat for me, but Mr. Handsome said it was a bit too hot for him, so I’ll stick with 1/2 teaspoon from now on and just sprinkle extra pepper over my food. (Silly me forgot the lime the second time, too. I’m hopeless.)

    About one year ago: On not wanting, the origins of the current bet.

  • All this time

    One of the lasting impressions from the Julie and Julia movie, aside from when Julia forces Paul to sample the fish she is swooning over and then tries to drag a compliment out of him but only gets a noncommital shrug in response (that’s me and Mr. Handsome to a tee—well, minus the balding head and big heels), was when Julie made that chocolate almond cake and then Eric tore into it with his fingers while she was still icing it. And she laughed.

    You wouldn’t catch me laughing if someone grabbed a hunk out of a cake I was working on. Just last night Miss Beccaboo snaked her hands under my arm to snitch from the pans of granola I was stirring, and she was duly rewarded with an elbow in the head. It was completely accidental (I think), but I was kind of glad it happened. Her fingers are always everywhere, poking and snitching and grabbing. She’s been this way ever since she was a baby, touching everything, so the natural consequence of a bonked head was rather gratifying (poor kid).

    I did, though, dive into the cake fork-first myself, though the cake was fully iced when I took the plunge. (I think that pretty much explains from which parent my daughter has inherited her snitchy fingers.)

    Now that I finally got around to making the cake, I can’t believe that I’ve had Mastering the Art of French Cooking on my shelf all this time and have never made it before. Of course, there are probably a lot of other equally divine recipes in that book that I don’t know about, and somehow I get by without any notable pangs of regret. (My logic is skewed, I know. It’s like lamenting that my kids don’t know the whole periodic table right now. But, might I point out, you can’t eat the periodic table.) However, discovering a spectacular chocolate cake has a way of erasing any logic one might (or might not) normally possess.

    The recipe makes just one eight-inch layer cake. I don’t know about you, but two-layer cakes can feel daunting some days—by the time you get down to the last couple pieces you’re pretty much sick of cake. This cake, on the other hand, is so elegant and rich that it still lasts a long time despite its petite size.

    Of course, it would disappear faster if I stooped to share it with my family, but seeing as I’m pretty much the only one eating off of it (because I’m being greedy and make a point of sneaking pieces during the kids’ rest time), it has stretched out to cover a week’s worth of afternoon coffee breaks. And it doesn’t tempt me (too much) in between eatings because it’s so rich (though I look forward to my allotted slice all day long).

    Now, the icing is a different entity all together. It’s the very last recipe in the book, so that in itself says something (you know, best for last and all that jazz). All you do is this: melt some semi-sweet chocolate with rum and then whisk in five tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time. The resulting mixture is runny, runny, runny, but! Just set it over a pan of ice (or in my case, run outside and set it in the snow) and beat it steadily and before you know it, it firms up into a creamy, whipped chocolate butter. It’s magic.

    While the icing is deliciously tender and creamy, I prefer the cake without it (so much so that I scrape off the icing before I eat the cake); instead, I find a big dollop of whipped cream to be the perfect pairing. However, if you do want to make the icing (and I firmly believe that everyone should try this icing just once, if only to make yourself feel like a wizard), you must use unsalted butter. I didn’t, and the icing was disturbingly salty.

    Confession: after boasting that I’m able to restrain myself all day without eating any cake, I went and ate the last piece after I wrote the above paragraphs. And it’s not even ten-thirty in the morning! The Baby Nickel discovered my soiled plate, ran over to the counter to look at the cake platter and came back crying. Now I have a problem (besides the broken-hearted baby): what to eat with my afternoon coffee?

    Julia’s Chocolate Almond Cake
    Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

    This cake is supposed to be underbaked. Julia said to bake it for twenty-five minutes, but after twenty minutes the top looked dry and cracked, so I took it out of the oven. It sank a lot, and was wonderfully gooey while warm, like a molten chocolate cake (whipped cream was created for cakes like this), but once it cooled to room temperature, it set up nicely and was simply, and perfectly, moist.

    The almond does not overpower—it’s a modest enhancement that really, really works.

    4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
    2 tablespoons rum (or coffee)
    1 stick butter at room temperature
    2/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
    3 eggs, separated
    pinch of salt
    1/3 cup almonds, finely ground
    1/4 teaspoon almond extract
    ½ cup cake flour

    Using a double boiler, melt the chocolate with the rum over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally. Once the chocolate has melted, remove it from above the water and set aside.

    Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt till soft peaks have formed. Sprinkle one tablespoon of sugar over top and beat until stiff peaks form.

    Not bothering to wash the beaters, cream the butter with the remaining sugar. Add the egg yolks and beat some more. Add the melted chocolate to the butter and stir well. Add the ground almonds and almond extract and stir to combine. Blend in one fourth of the egg whites to lighten the batter and then, with a folding motion and a rubber spatula, add the cake flour, sprinkling a bit of it on at a time, alternately with the rest of the whites.

    Pour the batter into a prepared eight-inch cake pan (greased and lined with wax paper) and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Cut around the edges of the cake with a knife and then let it rest for ten minutes before gently turning it out onto a wire rack to cool the rest of the way.

    When the cake has completely cooled, prepare the icing, if using. (You should wait till the cake is completely cooled because the icing must be spread as soon as the icing is ready; otherwise it will harden up too much for easy spreading.)

    Chocolate-Butter Frosting
    Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

    2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
    2 tablespoons rum (or coffee)
    5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

    Using a double boiler, melt the chocolate and rum over simmering water. When the chocolate is creamy smooth, remove it from over the hot water and stir in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Set the pan of liquid chocolate over a pan of ice (or take it outside and set it on a pile of snow) and whisk steadily till it has whipped up into a creamy frosting. Immediately spread it over the sides and top of the cake. Decorate with slivered almonds, if desired.

    About one year ago: Five-Minute Bread: Part II (the actual recipe). Miss Beccaboo mixed this up this morning; we’re having pizza for supper.

  • Kiddisms

    *I played one of Yo-Yo’s new piano songs for him. It was called “Harp Song” and involved, for the first time, the use of the damper pedal. He stood stock-still while I played through the piece, and when I finished he turned to me, his eyes wide with startlement: I’m crying! It’s so beautiful it made me cry! And indeed, his eyes were watery and red-rimmed. For the rest of the day he mused aloud that a mere tune on the piano had the power to make him cry.

    *In a grumpy snit, Sweetsie stomped into the kitchen and declared, “Can I run away from this house? It’s all old and raggedy! The windows aren’t scrubbed good!” I gawked at her for a second before turning away to jot down what she had just said. By the time I turned back around, she had fetched a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom, pushed a stool up against the stove, and was diligently rubbing away at the grime on the stove’s back ledge.

    I gave her a wet washcloth in exchange for the wads of useless toilet paper and watched as she went on to wipe down the stove and the lower kitchen cabinets. It made me wonder if I could perhaps be better maximizing my resources.

    *After a rather rough morning which involved a fight with Yo-Yo and Mr. Handsome, I fled to my room to cry. Miss Beccaboo soon came up after me. She sat down beside me on the bed, wrapped her arms around me, and leaned her head against my shoulder. After a minute she said, “You know, sometimes things don’t go like we want them to.” I sniffled and sighed and patted her on the head, “You’re right, honey, I know.” I resumed crying and blowing into my hankie and after another minute she said, “And you and Papa are different people.” At that, I busted up laughing and shooed her out of the room, my little eight-year-old sage.

    *One night at dinner I was showing off for Mr. Handsome, quizzing Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo on the periodic table. We were discussing element number ten, neon, when The Baby Nickel piped up and said, “It’s a gas and then you put electricity in it and it lights up.” Needless to say, Mr. Handsome was totally impressed.


    The kids were hungry and Sweetsie suggested “ants on a log.” I said yes.

    And then I had an inspiration: instead of fixing the snack myself, I assembled the ingredients (if you can call them that) on each plate and let the kids make the snack themselves. They had a wonderful time and ate everything, down to the last “ant” and peanut butter smear.

    Ants on a Log

    several ribs of celery, washed, trimmed, and each rib cut into thirds
    peanut butter

    Spread peanut butter inside each piece of celery. Poke the raisins into the peanut butter. Eat.

    Note: if allowing the children to assemble the snack themselves, it is wise to divvy out acceptable portions and then tell the kids that what they see on their plate is what they have to work with. Otherwise, they’ll eat all the peanut butter straightaway and then beg for more, and that just gets downright annoying.

    Variation: Use chopped, dried dates in place of the raisins.

    About one year ago: Getting in fixes, and other general impishness-es