• Something strange

    Something unusual happened on Sunday evening. As is my custom at the start of the week, I moseyed over to the large calendar that’s posted on the side of the fridge to find out what was going to be happening the following week. And then I gasped. Because there was nothing on the calendar. Nothing. As in, not a thing.

    Five blank days. Totally blank. Not a church meeting, not a doctor’s appointment, not a book due, not a baby to be sat.

    This never happens to me. I’m a homebody for sure, but usually there is something on the calendar, if only a note to place a grocery order for the co-op or reminding me that my period is due.

    Granted, a blank calendar doesn’t mean nothing will happen. Life is full with kids and cooking and cleaning and impromptu trips to town and walks and writing and gardening and phone calls and bills to be paid and laundry and rest time, and, and, and….

    But still, nothing scheduled.

    This freak phenomenon might make some people panic and for others it’s completely incomprehensible. But for me it’s like a breath of fresh air. Open space and freedom. I love it.

    So I called up my friend to see if she needed me to watch her kids this week.

    Maybe blank days do sort of make me nervous after all?

    Anyway, it’s a good thing that I have had a free schedule this week. My head has been screwed on backwards lately and I’ve been trying to twist it back around to the way it should go. Last week I flopped two cakes. I undercooked a batch of bread (and refrained from jumping on it). Then I made it again, but without the salt. Darn.

    This week, I’ve been working to straighten all that out. I took the time to set up my online filing system (thanks, Simplebites dearies!) (I have high hopes for this system—it will clear out my head so I can bake straight … or else), and then I made the bread for the third time. And I got it right! (All of the mistake loaves got eaten, even the unsalted ones—either the bread is very forgiving or else we were starving.)

    This bread is old-fashioned. The recipe comes from Mr. Handsome’s grandfather and grandmother. Grandpa Papp used to make it all the time. He was very particular about his bread. He had a marble slab for kneading the dough. I doubt he ever forgot the salt. If you have a marble slab then you are a serious baker, incapable of commiting brainless errors.

    Mr. Handsome and I (and Mr. Handsome’s sister Sarah and her boyfriend) visited Grandpa Papp when we were dating. On evening Grandpa Papp loaded us up in his enormous Cadillac and drove us to a fancy restaurant where there were roses on the table and we could order anything we wanted. Sarah’s was having trouble with her ears not popping, so she entertained us for the whole meal by opening and closing her mouth like a guppy. She tried to be discreet, but you can’t really imitate a fish and be discreet.

    Grandpa Papp didn’t serve us any of this bread (that I remember) on that visit, but he did sing to us and tell us stories. He was a character, that’s for sure.

    Anyway, this bread is his (or his wife’s, but since I never met her, I think of it as all his). It’s unbelievably soft and tender; Sweetsie calls it donut bread. It reminds me of good-quality store-bought whole wheat bread, in a respectable way.

    Shredded Wheat Bread
    From Grandpa Papp

    I’ve added some whole wheat, but other than that, this recipe is true to the original.

    Make sure you bake it long enough. And don’t forget the salt!

    2 shredded wheat biscuits
    3 tablespoons butter
    1/3 cup sugar
    1/3 cup molasses
    1 tablespoon salt
    2 cups boiling water
    1 tablespoon yeast dissolved in ½ cup lukewarm water
    2 cups whole wheat flour
    5-6 cups bread flour

    Put the shredded wheat, butter, sugar, molasses, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the boiling water. Once the butter has melted and the water has cooled, add the whole wheat flour and the dissolved yeast and stir to combine. Add the remaining flour. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead till it is elastic and smooth. It’s a soft dough, so just add enough flour to keep it from sticking to your fingers, but not too much so that it gets tough.

    Return the dough to the bowl (lightly flour it first), cover it with a cloth, and allow it to rise till double.

    Cut the dough into two pieces and shape into loaves. Tuck the loaves into loaf pans, cover with the cloth again, and let rise till nearly double.

    Bake the loaves at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes. The bread darkens quickly, but don’t be alarmed—it’s not burning (most likely).

    Turn the loaves out onto a cooling rack. Bag and freeze any leftovers.

    (I’m submitting this recipe to yeastspottings.)

    P.S. How we eat shredded wheat:

    Spread it with peanut butter.

    Drizzle it with honey.

    Pour milk over all and eat. The kids go nutso-happy over this breakfast.

    About one year ago: Rhubarb Jam

  • Together

    Meet the gang.

    The pack, the crew, the mob … my kids. I birthed those people, you know.

    They’re together all the time, sharing the same table, bedrooms, yard, sofas, bathtub. They have good moments, like today when The Baby Nickel had a splinter in his hand and entrusted Yo-Yo with both his hand and the tweezers, then crouched down on the floor, averted his face, and whimpered while Yo-Yo carefully extricated the bit of wood and then fixed him up with a band-aid.

    They have their bad moments, too, like today when Yo-Yo threw rocks at Miss Beccaboo (and vice versa) and when Miss Beccaboo poked Sweetsie in the back and when Sweetsie called everybody in the whole wide world bad names and when The Baby Nickel whacked Miss Beccaboo in the head with the vacuum nozzle (I think it was by accident, but one can never be certain). Some (most?) days it feels like the antagonizing and bickering outweigh the cooperation and teamwork.

    But then there are moments like this where they gel. They relax, bond, discuss, and ponder. No fists fly, no bad names (that I can hear), no crying.

    This particular good-will moment took place after two of the kids returned from visiting my parents for several days. I don’t remember which configuration it was—the girls, the boys, the bigs, the littles—but they were clearly pleased to be together again.

    And they were clearly pleased to have their wheels. They love riding bike. They beg to be allowed to ride on the road (where cars go 45-55 mph), and after a high-speed car chase by our house last weekend (a drunk old man was out joyriding on his motorcycle, state troopers in hot pursuit—they went by our house twice), it was easier to explain to them why it is not safe to play on the road. But still, they beg.

    (Maybe you can help me here. We allow Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo to ride the half mile to my brother’s, but so far that’s about it. They want to be allowed to take their bikes out for a spin, to go for longer distances. Any advice? At what age is it appropriate for kids to go on bike rides without an adult? I know there’s no magic answer but that doesn’t stop me from wishing there was. This whole growing up and independence thing is a little unclear at times.)

    Of course the kids aren’t content to simply pedal around the property. They have to ham things up a bit. I’ve always been a little jealous of other mothers whose kids play with toys the way they are intended, put puzzles together, stack blocks, swing on the swings, etc. My kids are incapable.

    Yo-Yo put the baby seat on the back of Mr. Handsome’s bike and took The Baby Nickel for a ride.

    Yo-Yo took all the other kids, plus a teddy bear, on rides. Then he decided that he needed to practice carrying heavy weights so he could get stronger, so he strapped Mr. Handsome’s jacks onto the back of the bike. Like Miss Beccaboo wasn’t heavy enough (she almost broke the seat). I didn’t get pictures of any of that. But it still happened.

    And there goes Miss Beccaboo in her bonnet. Fashion sense isn’t all that important out here in the country where there is only grass to ride on. Shorts, cowboy boots, dirty t-shirts, and calico bonnets—they were meant to go together, right?

    Wheeeee! Look at her go!

    About one year ago: Thinking thoughts.

  • Spring on a plate

    As atonement for yesterday’s verbosity, this post will be short and to the point.

    Creamed Asparagus on Toast.

    It’s good.

    I’ve made it twice in three days.

    Make it.

    (Note: the kids ate this. They didn’t love it, but they didn’t hate it either. And that says a lot, seeing as they all turn up their noses at asparagus.)

    Creamed Asparagus on Toast
    Adapted from a recipe that my friend Kris posted on our Farmer’s Market website.

    This is a fast, last-minute meal, though there is a bit of juggling involved, what with the asparagus and toast being prepared right before serving. Keep in mind that the boiled eggs and cheese sauce can be made ahead of time.

    4 tablespoons butter
    4 tablespoons flour
    1 ½ – 2 cups milk
    ½ teaspoon prepared mustard (I used Dijon)
    a squirt of hot sauce
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
    1 ½ – 2 cups Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese (or something similar)
    ½ – 1 cup chopped ham, optional
    1 pound of asparagus, washed and tough ends removed
    6-8 hard boiled eggs
    buttered toast as needed

    For the cheese sauce:
    Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in the flour and then add the milk (start with the lesser amount and add more as/if needed/desired), whisking steadily. Add the mustard, hot sauce, salt, and pepper. When the mixture is bubbly and thick, whisk in the cheese. Once the cheese has melted, taste to correct seasoning. Add more milk if needed/desired. Stir in the ham. Set aside.

    For the asparagus:
    Separate your asparagus spears into two or three piles, according to size—thick, medium, and thin. (If, unlike mine, they are all uniform, skip this step.) Keeping them in their separate piles, cut the asparagus spears into inch-long pieces.

    Bring a pot of salted water to boiling. Add the thick asparagus and put the lid on the kettle. After one minute, add the medium asparagus and continue to boil, lidded, for another minute. Dump in the spindly spears and boil for a final minute. Drain the asparagus and return it to the hot pot to await assembly.

    To assemble:
    Place a piece of buttered toast on a plate. Pile on the bright green, only-slightly-tender asparagus, ladle the (reheated) cheese sauce over all, and top with a chopped boiled egg. Sprinkle with salt and lots of pepper and dig in!

  • The Monday rambles. Brace yourself.

    Something to chew over, brought to my attention by Jamie Martin, Simplebites contributor: Rachel DeMille, co-author of Leadership Education, states that if mothers of children over the ages of ten or eleven find themselves still cleaning, they have “missed their promotion.”


    Like I’ve said before, my mother is artistic. This past time she visited, she brought me these lemons, in this mug, in this bag.

    In the bag were other goodies for the children (and some gummy worms for Mr. Handsome). I think she’s attempting to improve my house, á la the sahib in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Each time she comes she brings something for the kids’ (Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo’s) bedrooms. This time there were globe lights to hang under Yo-Yo’s loft, hanging ferns for both Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo’s room (Miss Beccaboo is scared of hers and has to de-hang it every night before going to bed), and a glass bowl and some fish for Miss Beccaboo. The glass bowl is supposed to be a cookie jar and comes with a lid, “so you can still use it after the fish die,” my mother explained pragmatically. Two fish have died so far; my mother’s logic was right on target.


    Just for anyhow, I thought you might like to meet my niece. I’ll call her Niecelet.

    She’s a wild thang, that girl is.

    Not really. She’s actually very quiet and sweet, at least in my house where chaos reigns supreme. But she looks like a wild thang with that hair, so I had to say that.

    Out of all of my kids, she has developed a special fondness for Sweetsie. In fact, only Sweetsie is able to console her if ever she wimperith. She’ll have nothing to do with me.

    This means that I don’t really ever take care of Niecelet. I say hi to her, and once in a while I scoop her up and shower her tummy with raspberries (maybe this is why she prefers Sweetsie to me?), but for the most part, I don’t see her all that much. She runs free with the pack, and Sweetsie makes sure she doesn’t get trampled. It all works out pretty nicely.


    Last Saturday I learned that I was going to be teaching Sunday school the following day. The person who was supposed to teach had emergency surgery and I got nailed with the job of filling in. I wasn’t too upset. I’m pretty good at blowing smoke, and I can rant with the best of them, but still, I felt bad. The guy who was supposed to teach was (is—the surgery didn’t kill him) a college philosophy professor who has an intimidating knack for saying lots of mind-altering things in a short amount of time. So I felt bad because the class was going to gather, all excited to hear this dude spew wisdom but instead it would be me they’d be hearing from. And no matter how much I talk, I ain’t no mind-altering philosopher.

    So I bribed them. (I have no scruples.) I decided if I can’t alter their minds with words, then I’ll use sugar.

    Actually, I decided to teach on the subject of “sacrifice” and I thought the sweet rolls could be an object lesson: I would sacrifice the pastries to the class … so they would like me. (Bonus points to ya’ll if you can guess my opinions on the bloody matter.)

    I had another reason for feeding the sweet rolls to the class: I needed their opinion on a very serious matter. A couple weeks before I had made Ree’s cinnamon rolls and—shiver me timbers—I didn’t like them. They were good and all, but they were so loaded with butter and sugar that they were kind of sleazy. I took to calling them my “slutty buns.”

    But I was flummoxed. Everyone else raves about Ree’s cinnamon buns. Were my tastebuds off? Was I an anomaly?

    It just so happened that I had a pan of my regular sweet rolls in the freezer, so I decided Sunday school would be the perfect time to get some feedback. My sweet rolls against Ree’s.

    I set the pans up on two chairs. I didn’t give the class any background. I simply told them that I needed their feedback and they were to tell me which they liked best, Exhibit A or Exhibit B.

    Exhibit A got seven votes and Exhibit B got five. Exhibit A was my standard recipe! I won!!!!

    Later that day I forced our dinner guests to sample the two and cast their vote. Once again, my buns triumphed.

    Now for the disclaimer. I must be fair and point out that the results might have been different if my tasters came from a cross-section of society and not from a little cluster of dear Mennonite freaks. Most of my tasters were well-acquainted with donuts from the relief sale (from whence cometh my sweet roll recipe), as well as decent yeasted breads and homemade sweets. Yeast and sugar are a part of our heritage. On the other hand, I wonder if people who grew up with Cost-co bakery sweets and packaged honey buns would be more likely to prefer Ree’s version. This is just a supposition.

    And note, no one (that I’m aware of) didn’t like either one of the rolls. In that sense, they both won. So go ahead and make yourself some rolls, either mine or Ree’s. Freeze the extras. You never know when you’ll be called upon to teach Sunday school.


    Speaking of Sunday school, the philosopher dude, healed and healthy, came to yesterday’s class. It was round two of an explanation on Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach’s projection theory. In a nutshell: when people talk about God, Feuerbach says they are talking about themselves since they have no other reference point for God. It’s the cabbage concept: if cabbages were to have a god, it would be green and leafy. Furthermore, people of faith (any faith) preach that we don’t have it all together but that God does; we say that God is Truth and our lives are the fable. Feuerbach says we have that backwards and that we are the reality and God is the fable.

    I find this comforting, which is kind of odd, considering that so many Christians have been/are/would be deeply bothered by this perspective. I asked Mr. Wise Philosopher why that is so (that I don’t mind the theory) and he said because it explains how there can be so many different views of God.

    Ah. He speaks true.

    What’s your slant on the matter?


    Check out this geek.

    I live with him, you know. Almost on a daily basis I get ordered to “look at this one, Mama,” and I nod and smile, tell him that his face will get stuck like that, and even bust up laughing on occasion.

    He’s at an awkward stage (and there he will remain for the next six years, poor boy), but this Sunday he read scripture in front of the church like a pro, clearly, slowly, and with poise. Other people said so. I wouldn’t know, seeing as I was so nervous for him (trickle down projection theory) that I could hardly hear what he was saying.

    I just noticed that he kept his eyeballs in their sockets. That was good enough for me.


    Currently, I’m overloaded with reading material. In an effort to gain control of the situation, I’m going to list out all the books I have just finished, am reading now, are on hold at the library, and/or will be checking out of the library soon.

    *Leaving Ruin, by Jeff Berryman
    *The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
    *The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel
    *The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
    *Lit, by Mary Karr
    *Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, by Jim Sheeler

    And to the kids:
    *Peace Be With You, by Cornelia Lehn,
    *The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig
    *When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

    And you? What’s rocking your literary boat? (One can never have too many suggestions.)


    Now, how about we talk movies. Recently seen: You’ve Got Mail (my favorite line is “she makes coffee nervous”), The World’s Most Spectacular Stuntman, Casper, The Chorus Line, Kinky Boots, North Country, Up, Flash of Genius, and Man on Wire, just to name a few.

    I need recommendations. My netflix list is woefully short, and I hate selecting movies that haven’t come to me with high recommendations.


    And now, for the finale of this long and rambly post, some new-to-me blogs that I enjoy.

    Thrift at Home
    Flower Patch Farmgirl
    100 Memoirs
    The Hazel Bloom

    Go visit these blogs and pay your respects. They are indeed respect-worthy.

    About one year ago: Shoofly Pie

  • The perils of homemade chicken broth

    Or, How to Get Your Kitchen Clean on a Leisurely Sunday Afternoon.

    1. Collect a bunch of eggs from your chickens and pop them in an incubator.

    2. Watch the chickies hatch.

    3. Feed the Chicken Littles till they become Chicken Bigs.

    4. Kill them.

    5. Several months later, pull two of them—now Chicken Chillies—from the freezer and set them on the counter to thaw overnight.
    6. The following morning, nestle them in your glass-lidded, sixteen-quart stock pot and boil them till the meat falls off the bones.
    7. De-bone the chicken, returning all nonedible parts to the stockpot.
    8. Boil the bones till bedtime. Turn off the pot and go to bed.
    9. Boil the bones in the morning. Turn off the pot and go to church.
    10. Boil the bones after returning from church.
    11. Settle the kids for rest time and head into the newly arranged downstairs room to visit (no funny stuff) with your husband.
    12. Talk, chaw on Starbursts and Swedish fish, munch on naked pita chips, and talk some more. Contemplate taking a snooze.
    13. Suddenly—CRASH! BANG! SIZZLE! CLATTER!
    14. Sit bolt upright and then freeze, straining your ears. Say, “Hon, you better check on that,” and then hightail it out of the room after your hubby.
    15. Reach the kitchen and screech to a halt. Do NOT enter the kitchen. It is wet and hot, covered in bones and fat.

    16. Take a few seconds to be confused. You have never seen this situation before. Disorientation is allowed in cases like these.

    17. Your husband says, “The pot exploded.” Absorb this.
    18. Note that the lid, after rocketing into the air, landed on the stove top and did not break. Count your lucky stars.
    19. Note that the explosion somehow turned on your husband’s cell phone. Also note that there is broth pouring out of the innards of the house phone.
    20. Note (there’s a lot to note) that the now broth-coated counter that is usually mounded high with papers was devoid of nearly all paraphernalia (minus the phones) at the moment of explosion. Count your lucky stars again. They are few in number, so this is an easy task.
    21. Note that no child/adult was present. There are no burns or injuries. This is a very large, shinning lucky star.

    22. Whimper.
    23. Moan.
    24. Giggle.
    25. When your husband says, “Where is the camera?” go fetch it, for he almost never suggests that you take pictures.
    26. After splashing through the greasy broth to capture the chaos from different angles, snatch some dirty towels from the laundry, fill up buckets with hot water, step out of your Sunday skirt, and start scrubbing the floors in your blouse and panties.
    27. Ignore your husband when he tries to make you nervous by rapping his knuckles on the door frame.
    28. Mix copious amounts of hot water and soap with the oily broth and slip-slide your way around the kitchen, scooping up bones and fatty skin as you go.
    29. When the worst has been cleaned up, get the kids up from rest time, pop them in the car, and drive them into town. (Don’t forget to step into the tub to wash up your feet and put your skirt back on first.) Drop them off at a birthday party and head to a café to write, drink coffee, and eat a strawberry scone. This allows you to gain perspective and gives your husband space to finish cleaning up the kitchen (which includes taking the top off the stove to mop up the large pool of broth that has collected there, as well as taking apart the phone to try—to no avail—to fix the answering machine).
    30. Return home and sigh happily over the spotless kitchen.
    31. Listen as your husband solemnly accounts for the cost of this particular pot of broth: a new answering machine and a new cell phone. Ouch.
    32. Make a mental note to never, ever, ever boil broth without first cracking the lid.
    33. Unless you are desperate to clean your kitchen. If you are desperate to clean your kitchen, then this is definitely the way to go. It produces an element of … pressure.
    34. But there are easier ways, ways that don’t kill your answering machine, cell phone, and your Sunday afternoon in one fell swoop.

    About one year ago: Sticking my neck out. Speaking of butchering chickens…

  • Me and you, and the radishes

    Some people tap out coherent, meaningful, witty blog posts in thirty minutes flat, but me? I ponder, handwrite, think, procrastinate, take pictures, write more, type, backspace, procrastinate, edit, write, twiddle my thumbs, edit, and post. And edit again.

    Why do I do this? I ask myself this question frequently, but especially on days when writing feels like I’m scrip-scraping my nails down a blackboard. On those days I host mega-pity parties, complete with dunce caps and boo-horns. You’re wasting your time, I tell myself. No one cares. Your voice is just one among millions, cluttering up the airwaves. Just shut up and go thin the radishes. At least you can eat radishes.

    Who is this blog for anyway? I write it, but you read it. The line between us can get pretty blurry sometimes. Who comes first? You or me? Me or you?

    The answer is “me,” of course. (The answer is always “me.”) But I write for you, too.

    However, I write for me first. I have to. I started this blog for me, and no matter how big (or not big) this blog gets, it’s still for me.

    Sometimes I think I would like to be famous. I imagine crowds of people flocking to fawn over me, peppering me with questions, stroking my ego, telling me I’m Something Special. If that were the case, I imagine, my heart would continually beat out the I-just-got-a-compliment happy-rush pitter-patter and my cheeks would be forever rosy, the blush of the humble star.

    My imagination embarrasses me sometimes.

    The other week I listened to a music group get interviewed on NPR. The group had been singing together for many years and had only just recently made it to The Big Time. The interviewer asked them if they ever thought about what it would’ve been like if they had made it big back when they first started out. One guy said that, yes, he thinks about it, and he believes it would’ve changed their group considerably. We’ve had to work really hard, all the time, he said. Young singers who come out of the starting box and go straight to the top, they don’t fully appreciate all they have gained. We, on the other hand, savored every little success. Each one was a gift that made us so over-the-top happy. We wouldn’t have enjoyed them or even noticed them if we had been instant successes.

    I’m fairly certain I’m never going to be famous. I don’t have the potential for it, nor do I think I actually want to be famous, all daydreaming to the contrary. But ever since I heard that interview I’ve been noticing how much I really do appreciate all the little happy moments (or sweet “successes”) that come to me through this blog (or in any part of my life, though this is my only consistent public presence, if you don’t count sitting on the front row of church every Sunday). This past week has been full of little hugs—sweet emails, phone calls, notes in the comments, and verbal recipe compliments. Each one makes my insides feel like champagne, bubbly and fizzy-sweet.

    But good feelings only last for a few moments, maybe a day, tops. Then the euphoria wears off and I’m back to the grind, tap-tap-tapping, editing, thinking, and posting it all into the great void of nothingness. Most days there aren’t many (if any) comments, no I-love-your-food compliments, no emails, no phone calls. It’s just me doing my thing. Period.

    And you know what? That’s okay! I realize my hand is forced in this matter (sour grapes, perhaps), but when it comes down to it, this strict regimen of fingertip tap-dance is something I enjoy. It’s my outlet, my discipline, my love. For all my griping and hair-pulling, I do enjoy the process, tedious though it may be.

    I’m not sure what the point of sharing this is. I run the risk of sounding vain (I can be) and self-seeking (I am). I think what I’m trying to say is this: the internet is weird. It twists together the personal and public in some grotesque and awkward ways. The gift of instant feedback is also a curse. It turns writing, a thoughtful, ponderous process (for me), into a ping-pong game—I write, you talk; ping-pong, ping-ing, pong-ong. In many ways, this fast give-and-take trivializes the writing process. There’s too much, too fast, too often.

    The challenge for me is to practice my art, yet keep my integrity; to write for myself, yet hold my audience in front of me; to say what I need to say, yet limit myself from writing too much. Because the internet is a void that could eat me alive.

    I’m just keeping it honest, folks. That’s all. The internet whips my butt some days, and other days it puts me on cloud nine. It’s a struggle, keeping my feet on steady ground.

    It’s a good thing there are some radishes out there in the garden that need to be thinned.

  • Popping the heat

    I will never be able to eat a regular hamburger again. I am ruined.

    Ever since Ree’s (signed!) cookbook came in the mail, I’ve been experimenting with her recipes. I’ve had both abject failures and stupendous successes. The bacon-wrapped jalapeños fell into the latter category with a resounding thunk.

    Last week I stopped by our local butcher shop (I just love saying that) to pick up some ground beef for the baked spaghetti and for our Friday evening burgers (not a tradition but writing it as though it were makes me sound—dum-da-dum—Together) and then ducked into the Latin American Grocer, which is just a little tent perched along the edge of the butcher shop’s parking lot. I bought a generous pound of pinto beans to make Ree’s beans and cornbread (woefully, they slithered into the former category, insipid miseration incarnate—sorry, Ree) and about a dozen waxy jalapeños for stuffing. Stuff the peppers, then stuff myself—that was the plan, Stan, my man-o-man.

    Have you ever grown your own jalapeños? If you have, you know that each plant produces an insane amount of hot diggidy-dog peppers. One year I learned how to brine them and ended up canning about ten (or was it thirty?) half-pints. That was in 2007 and since then I’ve opened only one jar, maybe two, max. That jar has taken up permanent residence on the top shelf of the fridge. It gives me the spooks.

    I haven’t planted any jalapeños since 2007, but after eating Ree’s stuffed jalapeños I’m tempted to turn the entire garden into a jalapeño thicket. (Not really. The urge to hyperbolize just got the best of me.)

    Seriously though, you can tuck away oodles and kaboodles of fresh jalapeños when they come stuffed with cream cheese and cheddar, wrapped in bacon, and roasted in the oven for a slow hour. They have only the slightest bite—just a whiff of heat, really—but couched in billows of creamy cheese and edged in crispy bacon– Well. There will definitely be a jalapeño plant (or two or six) in my gardening future.

    And then. And then! I put two of those luscious, crispy babes atop my juicy Friday Night Hamburger and promptly died and went to heaven. It was only for the briefest second, but I was transported to a glorious place, oh yes! Angels sang and harps twanged. I’m dead serious.

    Bacon-Wrapped Jalapeños
    Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond

    About the jalapeños—if you want some heat, leave in a few of the seeds and bits of the white membrane. If minimal heat is key, scrap them out very carefully. Also, the leftover chilled jalapeños were quite spicy, but after a quick zap in the microwave, they were as soothing as a lullaby. Is there some scientific explanation for this weirdness?

    Adaptation possibilities include, but are not limited to, the following:
    *Add a couple tablespoons of snipped chives or a sliced green onion to the cream cheese mixture.
    *Add some canned pineapple or peaches, drained and chopped, to the cream cheese mixture.
    *Brush the wrapped jalapeños with some barbecue sauce before baking.

    12-18 jalapeños
    8 ounces cream cheese
    ½ cup grated cheddar cheese
    1 pound thin-cut bacon

    Wash the jalapeños and slice them in half, leaving the stems intact. Scrape out the white membrane and seeds (unless you want your ears to smoke).

    Using a fork, mash the cheeses together. Smoosh a spoonful of cheese mixture into each of the pepper boats.

    Cut the stack of bacon in half. Wrap each cheese-stuffed jalapeño with one of the half pieces of bacon (not too tightly as the bacon will constrict as it bakes) and secure with a toothpick.

    Set the wrapped jalapeños on a rack set over a sided baking sheet (to catch the drips). (I used one of my smaller cooling racks.) Bake the jalapeños at 300 degrees for one hour.

    Remove the toothpicks and serve.

    Do ahead:
    *Assembled, unbaked jalapeños can be refrigerated for one day before baking.
    *Baked jalapeños can be frozen. To serve, simply thaw and reheat.

    About one year ago: Honey-Baked Chicken.

  • A cake for you

    I baked a cake just for you!

    Well, at least the photos are for you.

    But I baked it so I could take the photos for you. So, see? I really did bake the cake for you!

    I first made this cake last week, the same week I also made a banana cake (for the second time) and a prune cake (too oily, but it has potential). Forty-eight hours later there was not a cakey crumb in sight. Feast or famine—that’s my modus operandi.

    Understand, we didn’t eat the cakes all by ourselves. One day there were seven kids running free in the back forty, and they succeeded in doing a fair bit of damage to the prune cake. And then the chocolate cake got divvied out between three households. Sometimes it pays to be my friend.

    I’ll be honest with you: at first I thought I didn’t like the chocolate cake. Then I tasted it and changed my mind. Then my not-enthusiastic-about-cake friend gushed that it was THE BEST CHOCOLATE CAKE SHE’D EVER EATEN, so I recanted, completely and totally. And then I made a second cake. So I could take pictures and post about it. For YOU.

    For once, I’m glad we’re separated by cybersparky pixel mega-doohickeys because I’m not planning on doling out this cake with such a generous hand, and having you show up on my doorstep waving forks in my face is a lot more intimidating than your typewritten words. I’d like this three-layer cake to last longer this time around, perhaps for a whole three or four days. If that’s possible.

    The reason I wasn’t sure I liked this cake was because it crumbles. Only dry cakes crumble, right? WRONG! While kids will certainly wreck havoc with this confection (no matter what type of flooring you have, after serving this to children, your tile/hardwood/linoleum floor will look like it is black-speckled), well-mannered adults won’t have any problem. So to recap: the cake is not dry. It is moist and tasty and lush and ambrosial, yadda-yadda-yadda.

    As for the icing?

    Suffice it to say, this is The Mother Chocolate Frosting of all chocolate frostings. Rich as all get out (will someone please tell me where this expression comes from?), but only minimally sweet, it’s heaven on a cake.

    It’s easy, too. And you can make it with light or dark chocolate, altering it to suit your whimsy tastes.

    Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
    Adapted from the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit

    You can use any bittersweet chocolate in place of the chocolate chips, but do not exceed 61% cacao, or so say the fancy-schmancy chefs at Bon Appetit.

    Be sure to use real, full-fat mayo. It’s the only fat in the cake.

    The original recipe called for dark brown sugar, but I’ve made it with both light and dark now, and I can’t detect the difference.

    The absence of salt is not a typo; there really is no salt in the cake.

    One idea I’m considering for future bakings: to replace the boiling water with boiling strong coffee. Yes?

    2 ounces chocolate chips
    2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
    1 3/4 cups boiling water
    2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
    1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    1 cup sugar
    1 cup packed brown sugar
    1 1/3 cups mayonnaise (full-fat)
    2 eggs
    1 teaspoon vanilla

    Place the chocolate chips and unsweetened cocoa in a medium-sized glass mixing bowl. Add the boiling water and stir till the chocolate has melted. Set aside.

    In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder.

    In a large mixing bowl, cream together the sugars and mayonnaise. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and beat well.

    Add the dry ingredients alternately with the melted chocolate, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.

    Divide the batter between three eight-inch (and 1 ½ inch high) cake pans that have been buttered and lined with wax paper. Bake the cakes at 350 degrees till an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 30 minutes. (Do not over bake.)

    Cool the cakes for ten minutes before cutting around the edges with a table knife and turning out the cakes onto a cooling rack. When they have cooled completely, frost them, or wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze till later.

    Classic Chocolate Frosting
    Adapted from the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit

    10 ounces chocolate chips
    1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
    3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
    1 tablespoon vanilla

    Melt the chocolate chips in the top part of a double boiler. Set aside to cool slightly.

    Cream the butter. Add the sugar and beat some more. Beat in the vanilla. Add the melted chocolate and beat to combine.

    Slather generously over your favorite cake, eat, and groan orgasmically.

    Or I would say “groan orgasmically,” but this is a family blog so I won’t.


    About one year ago: A Service Announcement For Parents, or All Kids Really Want Is Some Dirt.

  • Relaxed hosting

    I never told you what I did for Lent this year. I told you what I didn’t do—I didn’t give up sugar or chocolate or coffee (or any of my happy addictions), nor did I commit to getting rid of forty bags of stuff in forty days or any of the other laudable commitments because … I didn’t want to. (Which isn’t exactly the point of Lent, I know, but there you have it, the cold hard truth.) Furthermore, Lent fell in the middle of our annual spending freeze, and though it certainly wasn’t Lent-inspired, I felt like I was already pushing myself in the Giving Things Up Arena. So for Lent we decided to take on something new—company.

    Hosting is a hurdle for me. Let’s be clear about this right from the get-go: this is not the fault of the company. This hosting hurdle thingy is something I’ve erected for my own self to trip over. (I’m kind to myself that way, creating obstacle courses for the heck of watching myself crash and burn.) These hurdles we’re talking about now, the hosting kind, consist of semi-ridiculous, self-imposed expectations such as a sparkling clean house, washed hair, and well-balanced, plentiful, and creative meals. Just the thought of jumping through all those hoops is enough to make me quit the race entirely and go strike off on a hike through the woods, figuratively speaking, which is what I do, most times, hosting be damned.

    So, Lent came around and I decided it was time for me to grab the bull by the horns. I was going to host me some company and I was going to kick those hurdles right out of the race! Removing self-imposed hurdles is no easy task, but by gum, it was lent and I was going to do it! So as a family we brainstormed together about who we’d like to have over for dinner and then I made the contacts and set up the dates.

    My goal was one hosting event per week and my plan To Be Relaxed was three-pronged. First, I’d only cook down-home simple food. (One family got beans, rice, and scrambled eggs while another got pizza and carrot and celery sticks.) Second, I’d try not to clean the house, at least not too much. We’d pick up and vacuum, and I’d spend about half an hour with a wet rag, but that was it. Third, I wouldn’t get showered or dressed (up). I’d allowed myself a quick twirl of the hairbrush and a clean shirt. (Once I even talked myself into staying in my yoga pants. I was so proud of myself, I think I even pointed them out to the guests.)

    And you know what? With my imposed relaxation techniques, hosting wasn’t all that bad! My pre-company tizz was zapped, and I was able to enjoy the guests, which was the whole point of hosting in the first place. We spent hours visiting at the table, in chairs by the fire, and in one case, wrapped up in blankets on the candle-lit porch in one of the first sit-outside-and-enjoy-the-sunset evenings of the year. We didn’t have company over every week like I had intended, but as well as the new guests, we hosted family (they don’t count as company) and I had regular visits from girlfriends. We were also the final stop for a youth group progressive supper, but that was just chocolate cupcakes and glasses of cold milk out at the picnic table.

    From my little experiment I confirmed two hunches. First, I am the one preventing us from hosting. Second, I like hosting.

    It’s true that it is easier to skip the company and just be by our lonesomes, doing chores, reading books, working on personal projects. I’m more tired after an evening of company, the kids get to bed later, there’s a bigger pile of dishes, and personal projects need to be caught up on later.

    But! There’s something invigorating about spending an evening with people you don’t normally hang with. Conversation is elevated, adrenaline flows, and relationships deepen.

    So what keeps me from hosting more often? It takes effort to arrange such meetings. When you live out in the country, guests don’t just magically appear on your doorstep. I’m learning it works best for me to do planning in bulk. When I take a few minutes to make a list of potential guests and then line up a bunch of dinner dates, a lot more hosting gets done. Otherwise, it’s easier to just let everyday life run the show, and while everyday life might be challenging, it’s not often very “elevated.”

    Yesterday was our church’s annual Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner event. We signed up to be hosts and were informed late last week that come Sunday noon, four adults and three children would show up at our door. We were to provide the main course (family number two the salad and bread, and family number three the dessert), so I decided on baked spaghetti (and a kettle of peas to round out the meal). I assembled the casserole on Saturday and then whizzed home after church on Sunday to pop it in the oven (and wash the breakfast dishes) before the guests showed up. The guests came, yummy food in hand, and we ate and visited till late afternoon.

    Now Lent is over and my calendar is blank with no dinner guests on the foreseeable horizon. I think it’s time I go make a new list. Should I pencil you in?

    Baked Spaghetti

    This is supposed to be a way to use up leftover spaghetti, but seeing as we almost never have any leftovers (of consequence) when I make spaghetti, I make this meal straight up, purchasing fresh ingredients for the sole purpose of creating this dish. It’s a good one to take to potlucks and homebound folks, or to make ahead for yourselves or some Sunday dinner guests.

    Feel free to omit the meat, change around the proportions (less egg or butter, or more), add more veggies, use different cheeses, etc. Make it to suit you and yours.

    1 pound spaghetti
    6 tablespoons butter, melted
    3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the dry, pre-grated kind, or fine-grated yourself)
    4 eggs, beaten
    1 teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon black pepper
    1 pound ground beef
    1 onion, chopped
    1 green pepper, chopped (optional)
    4 cups spaghetti sauce (I used a quart of this)
    2-3 cups cottage cheese
    2-3 cups mozzarella cheese, grated

    Brown the beef with the onion and pepper. Set aside.

    Cook the spaghetti according to package instructions and drain. Cool the spaghetti to room temperature, roughly cut it up with a kitchen shears, and set aside to cool to room temperature.

    Stir together the melted butter, Parmesan cheese, eggs, salt, and pepper, and add the mixture to the cooled spaghetti, tossing to coat.

    Put the spaghetti in a 9×13 pan. (This amount makes a very full pan, so either keep a little spaghetti out, or else use an even bigger pan.) Top with the cottage cheese, followed by the ground beef and then the spaghetti sauce. (At this point you can refrigerate or freeze the casserole, tightly covered.)

    Bake the casserole at 375 degrees till hot and bubbly, about thirty minutes. Remove from the oven, top with the grated mozzarella cheese, and return to the oven for another ten minutes till the cheese is toasty-melted. Let the casserole stand at room temperature for about ten minutes before serving.

    About one year ago: A poem for poetry month.

  • My one and only

    I haven’t been satisfied with my banana cake recipe. It’s a good cake, mind you, but a bit too thin and—dare I say it?—rubbery.

    There. Now I’ve gone and made it sound perfectly despicable, and it’s not. Back in the day when she had curly-wild hair and wore sundresses, my mother made it in the shape of a barn for my brother’s birthday. There was even a silo (cake baked in a tin) and the platter—er, barnyard—was inhabited with plastic animals. It was a great cake.

    I taught the women in my Nicaraguan women’s group how to bake that banana cake (minus the silos and plastic animals). They loved the recipe and the cake immediately became their favorite (that and torta simple, a plain white cake similar to basic shortcake).

    Banana trees studded their dirt yards and yet they had never made banana cake! Can you imagine? Probably not, and there’s probably a lot of other things that they’ve never done or seen or tasted that you can’t imagine. Think, for instance, vegetable peelers, washing machines, coffee pots, bacon, mozzarella, diaper covers (yes, you read that right), telephones, etc. And they had never baked using flour. Instead, they used ground-up corn to make the regional favorite—rosquía, a dry, crumbly cookie tasting of soured milk and corn. I learned to love them, for real, but many gringos never develop an appreciation for them (and that’s a polite way of putting it).

    In any case, the women wanted to learn how to bake with flour and I wanted to teach them. There were no ovens, except for the outdoor kind, so when we gathered to bake, we baked in quantity—thirty or more sheet cakes at a time. It was a huge undertaking, filled with many variables (think no measuring cups or regulated ovens, let alone any thermometers). I had to learn to relax my standards.

    Along with the banana cake and torta simple, I taught the women to make carrot cake, almond cookies, braided bread, donuts, frostings and more. The last year I was there, I pulled all the recipes together into a little booklet and gave them each a copy. I doubt they ever make the butter frostings and the yeast breads (the ingredients are scarce and cost prohibitive), but I like to think they still make the banana cake.

    Here you can see what the ovens looked like. I sketched one on the front of the book just for you (though I didn’t know it then).

    A sample page. I did most of the art work, a la Mollie Katzen.

    That banana cake was a fine recipe even though I no longer make it.

    I now make this one—a recipe that calls for yogurt, whole wheat flour, and brown sugar. Simple changes, they are, but the resulting cake is lighter and more flavorful. The yogurt gives it a pleasant tang (sour cream may be substituted but the zip will go missing) and the brown sugar adds a caramely depth that was absent in the white sugar version.

    The thing I like best about this recipe? That it’s healthy enough to stand in for a breakfast muffin, but when topped with a luscious peanut butter frosting, it transforms into a decadent cake.

    In other words, this recipe meets all my banana cake needs and will be, until one of my daughters (or sons) grows up and teaches me otherwise, my one and only banana cake recipe.

    Banana Cake
    A family recipe, with inspiration from the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit

    ½ cup butter
    1 cup brown sugar
    2 eggs
    1½ teaspoons vanilla
    ½ cup plain yogurt
    3 small bananas, mashed (to equal one cup)
    1 cup all-purpose flour
    1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
    1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
    ½ teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon baking soda

    Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat till creamy and smooth. Beat in the yogurt and mashed bananas. Add the dry ingredients and stir to combine.

    Grease pans (makes 12 muffins and one small cake) and bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes, cut around the edges and invert cakes/muffins onto a cooling rack. When they are completely cool, frost them with the icing of your choice (I recommend the following peanut butter frosting), or freeze them for later.

    Creamy Peanut Butter Frosting
    From the April 2010 issue of Bon Appetit

    This differs from the other peanut butter frosting in that it is less sweet. Also, the measurements are more straightforward.

    ½ cup butter
    8 ounces cream cheese
    ½ cup smooth peanut butter (not freshly ground or old-fashioned)
    1 ½ cups confectioners sugar, sifted

    Beat the butter and cream cheese together until they are perfectly creamy (lumps now will be lumps later). Add the peanut butter and beat some more. Beat in the sugar.

    About one year ago: In their genes.