• tamalada!

    That’s what a tamale party is called, in case you didn’t know, which I didn’t—at least, not until I decided to have one.

    When I learned that my whole family would be coming to our house for a not-on-Christmas dinner, I decided to make tamales:

    Lots of people + big appetites + open-minded tastebuds = a chance for me to try something different, yee-haw.

    I’d never made tamales before and I didn’t particularly like the Nicaraguan tamales (called nacatamales)—giant, greasy, gelatinous piles of masa and meat, wrapped in a green banana leaf and boiled in water for hours on end—but I do like Mexican tamales. So I turned to Lisa’s blog, The Homesick Texan—

    No. I’m getting this all wrong. It went like this: I was flipping though Lisa’s blog in search of the bacon-jalapeno cheese ball recipe (because Julie told me to) when I spied her tamales. I looked at the pictures, studied the recipes, and thought to myself, “That’s what I’ll do for the family. I’ll make tamales!”

    I emailed some friends in search of a tamale steamer, but no one had one. So I cornered my husband and made him promise he’d rig something up for me. He agreed (after a brief bout of second guessing my decision: why do you always pick things that are so complicated!), and I was able to finally turn my full attention to the delectable details of masa, pork, and chiles.

    They say that making tamales is a big affair, requiring lots of work and many hands, but I found it to be much easier than I anticipated. I blackened the chiles and made the meat filling and the masa (dough) the day before, so all we had to do was assemble and steam the tamales.

    However, when it came time to stuff, roll, and tie the tamales, all the would-be tamale makers were off working on other projects, so it was my mother, my daughter, and I (with a little help from the other children) who assembled the tamales.

    We made 60-plus pork tamales and 20-plus cheese and chili and it only took us about an hour. Making cut-out sugar cookies is harder.

    For the steamer, my husband poked holes through a piece of metal and bent it so it fit into my largest canner. For the other kettle, I used several metal measuring cups to support a metal roasting pan.

    count the helping hands!

    To help set the mood and get the tamale vibes going (and because I really had no idea what I was doing and there was a good chance the entire dinner would flop), I cranked up the tejano music. I hated the twangy tunes when I was living in Nicaragua, but I liked it well-enough during our tamalada. I think the music may have even enhanced the flavors.

    Also for our supper: refried beans and Mexican rice (both recipes courtesy of The Homesick Texan—thank you, Lisa) and my mother’s cabbage slaw, and leftover crumbly cheese (I bought the wrong kind) and salsa and crema. Dessert consisted of hot chocolate with marshmallows, coffee, cookies, citrus, and Christmas cake.

    Adapted from The Homesick Texan

    *All components can be made ahead of time. I recommend you do so.

    Masa (dough)
    Pork Filling
    Poblano Chiles and Cheese
    Dried corn husks
    A steamer

    the masa:

    *for the liquid, I used 2 cups strong chicken broth, 2 cups pork broth, and water.

    2 cups lard
    12 cups maseca flour
    12 cups liquid
    2 tablespoons salt

    Cream the lard. Beat in the salt and a cup of flour. Now a cup of liquid. Continue adding the flour and liquid, alternating between the two and beating thoroughly after each addition. Keep track by making tally marks on a piece of scrap paper. Part way through, you’ll probably have to dump the whole mess into a large bowl and swap the beaters for a wooden spoon. Cover the masa tightly with plastic and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the tamales.

    pork filling:

    *I used only 5 jalapenos and the filling wasn’t spicy at all. Next time I’ll use the full 8 and maybe even add some of the seeds.
    *The original recipe calls for 8 tomatoes, roasted and charred, but I used roasted tomato sauce instead.
    *Also, I found the meat filling to be too dry, so I added a cup or two of the pork broth back in at the end. Next time I will add even more liquid.
    *Don’t skimp on the salt.

    5 pounds boneless pork, cut into large chunks
    12 large garlic cloves, minced and divided in half
    2 large onions, chopped and divided in half
    1 tablespoon salt (at least)
    1 teaspoon black pepper
    4 cups roasted tomato sauce, or 8 tomatoes, roasted and pureed
    1 tablespoon canola oil or lard
    6-8 jalapenos, seeded and minced

    Put the pork, half the onions and half the garlic, the salt and pepper, and a half cup of water in a large crock pot. Cook on high for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is cooked through. Remove the meat to a plate to cool and then shred into little pieces. Strain the broth and reserve (if not for the pork filling, then for the masa).

    Puree the tomato sauce with the remaining garlic.

    Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the remaining onion until translucent. Add the tomato sauce and jalapenos and cook for five more minutes. Add the shredded pork and heat through. The pork should be saucy and juicy, but not runny. If it’s too dry, add a cup (or three) of the reserved pork broth (or some chicken broth). Taste to correct seasonings. (I added some of the roasted poblano chilis—an excellent addition.)

    Store the meat in the refrigerator (or freezer) until ready to use.

    poblano-cheese filling:

    *I used only 2 chilis, but the flavor was so wonderful I recommend preparing more and then chopping up the extras and freezing them in little containers to add to future chili, rice, and bean dishes.
    *The original recipe says to cut the chilis into thin strips and add one to each tamale. I thought the tamales could use more umph—next time I’ll make a mixture of (lots of) minced chilis and grated cheese.
    *I bought the wrong kind of cheese—crumbly and dry. What you want is a mild, chewy, soft Mexican cheese. If you can’t find any, use Muenster or Jack.

    2-4 poblano chilis
    1-2 pounds soft Mexican cheese

    Put the chilis on a baking sheet and broil until blistered black, turning them every few minutes. Cool slightly before coring and seeding. Cut into thin strips, or mince. Store prepared chilis in the refrigerator.

    to assemble:

    Soak the corn husks in a bowl of water for one hour. This makes them pliable, so they don’t break and crack when they bend. Drain the husks (just a few at a time—keep the rest in the water until you need them) and pat dry.

    Place the husk lengthwise in front of you, the skinny end on one side and the wide end on the other. Place a handful (perhaps 1/3 cup?) of masa in the center of the tamale and pat it flat so it’s about 1/4 inch thick, leaving a border of husk all the way around (making sure it’s a particularly wide border on the sides, as those are the ends that will be tied). Top the masa with 1-2 tablespoons of meat or chili-cheese filling. Roll the tamales up as you would a sweet roll, not worrying if husks are pressed into the filling.

    Tear a couple softened husks into strips and use the strips to tie the ends of the tamales shut—like giant Tootsie Rolls.

    Put 3-4 inches of water in the bottom of the steamer. You want enough water that the kettle won’t boil dry (though one of my pots did and it wasn’t the end of the world), but keep it low enough so the tamales aren’t sitting in the water. Pile in the tamales and clap a lid on top.

    Steam the tamales for 45 minutes, occasionally checking the water level. You know the tamales are done when the masa pulls away from the husk.

    Serve the tamales straight up, or with whatever green or red salsa suits your fancy. Leftover tamales (rejoice!) can be refrigerated or frozen. Reheat in the microwave (or a small steamer).

    Yield: 60-80 tamales

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

  • chopped locks

    It’d been taking my daughter forever and a half to comb her hair in the morning. She’d walk around with a brush in her hand, half-heartedly thwacking at her mane every now and then, and almost every morning I’d end up yelling at her to “Get in the bathroom, shut the door, and do not come out until your hair is brushed!” So when she started making noises about perhaps wanting to cut her hair, I was thrilled.

    A couple days ago, my brother and his friend and I got to talking about hair, and Locks of Love came up. “That’s it!” I shouted. “I never thought of that! She’ll love the idea!” I scurried over to the computer to do a little research, and when my daughter came home from a trip to town with her papa, I explained all about Locks of Love. She jumped right on board. (Interesting fact: did you know that 80% of donations come from children wanting to help other children?)

    First, I washed her hair in the sink and then blew it dry. She tossed her hair about like in the shampoo commercials she doesn’t see.

    “I’m missing my hair already,” she said.

    I pulled her silky-smooth (and suddenly painfully beautiful) tresses back into a ponytail, braided it, and tied off the end.

    Hair donations are supposed to be a minimum of ten inches—we were cutting more than twelve.

    I measured once, measured twice. Giggling giddily, we admired, touched, and mourned her hair. And then I picked up the scissors and started snipping. At first, they didn’t make a dent, but then I figured out how to use just the point to take little cuts and soon the braid started to come free.

    Right in the middle of all that snipping, my husband came inside. He stood in the door, his eyes wide. “You mean you were going to cut it without calling me in to watch?”

    And then her short, choppy hair was swirling around her face, and I was holding a strawberry-blond braid in my hands. I stared at it, semi-shocked at what I had done, tears filling my eyes. I felt like I had just cut off my child’s arm.

    I watched her closely, waiting for the hot tears of remorse, but they never came. She kept ruffling the back of her hair with her hand and tossing her head from side to side, saying “It’s so light!”

    “You look funny,” her sister said, appalled.

    I’d never hacked off a ponytail before, so I didn’t know what it would look like. The sides swooped down long around her face, while the hair went up in the back, stacked-fashion.

    We quickly discovered it was too short for a ponytail—her one, very clear specification, oops—but I showed her how we could pull back the top to keep it out of her eyes, and she was satisfied.

    We put the braid in a zip-lock bag, wrote her name and address on a piece of paper (so she’ll get an official acknowledgment from Locks of Love) and made a quick trip to our local post office where we bought a padded envelop (according to the instructions), and sent her hair on its merry way to Florida.

    Back home, my brother’s friend (her hairdo courtesy of my other daughter) and I tried to smooth out the sawed-off appearance, but we quickly gave up—it was way beyond our abilities.

    For a while I kept suggesting we take her to a professional to get it fixed, but then I stopped talking about that, too.

    My daughter loves her new chopped locks. And besides, hair grows.

    This same time, years previous: one step above lazy, tomatoey potatoes and green beans, hats

  • giant sausage and leek quiche

    The other week, I bought a couple bundles of leeks because I needed to photograph a potato and leek soup for an article that’s coming out in a local magazine.

    The pictures were a flop (I’m not sure what I expected exactly, since it’s just a bowl of white creaminess and I don’t style my food at all), but the soup was delicious. The younger two kids fought over the leftovers.

    I was surprised at how expensive leeks were—about a buck a leek (that sounds funny)—and it felt even more extravagant since I was only buying them for the white part. I couldn’t bring myself to toss the mountain of green stalks though, so I bagged them up and stuck them in the fridge, thinking I might use them in a beef soup.

    However, instead of the beef soup, I cooked up all that leeky greenness into a gigantic sausage-leek quiche. It was a fabulous quiche, a quiche made all the more fabulous because the star ingredient was originally destined for the compost bucket (shame on me).

    Never again will I toss the leek tops. I can think of a million uses for them now—pretty much any dish that calls for sauteed onions.

    Giant Sausage and Leek Quiche

    ½ (the bigger half) recipe lard and egg pastry
    4-8 cups chopped leek greens
    1 pound ground sausage
    2 cups cheddar cheese
    ½ cup Parmesan cheese
    1 ½ cups milk
    4 eggs, beaten
    1/4 rounded teaspoon salt
    1/4 rounded teaspoon black pepper

    Line your biggest pie pan (mine is a 10-inch, earthenware monstrosity) with the pastry and crimp the crust.

    Brown the sausage in a large pot over medium high heat. Transfer the meat to a large mixing bowl, leaving the drippings in the pan.

    Return the pot to the heat and add the leeks (and a pat of butter if the drippings were meager). Saute until tender and brilliant green. Add the leeks to the bowl of sausage. Add the cheeses and toss to combine. Put the cheese and meat mixture into the pastry-lined pan.

    In a small bowl, mix together the eggs, milk, and seasonings. Pour over the meat and cheese. Bake the quiche at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes, or until the center is puffy, golden brown, and set. Cool for 10 minutes before eating.

    This same time, years previous: Christmas 2010, windows at dusk-time, spaghetti carbonara, marmalade-glazed ham, for my walls, Christmas 2008

  • dancing mice, and other Christmas tales

    So some mice had a disco party on my kitchen counter the other night. They were leaping and prancing around like they owned the joint, or like they were practicing for the Nutcracker.

    My husband hauled our half-asleep black cat over to the party and—shazaam—one of the mice was no longer dancing.

    The cat now owns a free indoor pass (at least until the infestation is under control).


    We trekked around the neighborhood, handing out festive tins of crack (and some bags of peppernuts and a couple lip balms). The kids were boinging all over the place.

    Note to self: next year, practice approaching houses and knocking on doors before letting the kids do the real thing. The littlest twit of yours, especially, would benefit from some basic instruction.


    When I was packing up the Christmas goodies, my daughter entered the kitchen bearing an old National Geographic. “What’s this?” she asked, showing me a picture of a dead, bruised and battered little boy.

    I scanned the caption. “It’s a war in another country. A bunch of people were killed, including some children.”

    As I scribbled Christmas trees and drew stars on my note cards, she peppered me with questions. How old was he? Did he have any brothers and sisters? Where are his parents? And, Look! They put all his toys beside him on the bed.

    I watched her out of the corner of my (misty) eye, waiting for her face to crumble and her shoulders to hunch forward. But they never did.


    I made a cheese ball and even though I haven’t eaten it yet (I wrote this part of the post on Christmas Eve), I know it’s the best cheese ball ever and that it’s going to be a part of the rest of my life, so there.

    Bacon-Jalapeno Cheese Ball
    Adapted from The Homesick Texan

    I bought fresh cilantro specifically for this recipe, but when I got it out of the fridge it had mysteriously turned into parsley. (I hate when that happens.) So I used some dried cilantro (that tastes more like cardboard than cilantro) and a tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley just for anyhow.

    8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
    ½ cup sharp cheddar cheese
    2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
    1 clove garlic, minced
    1 teaspoon lime juice
    ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
    1/4 teaspoon cumin
    pinch of chipotle powder (or cayenne)
    pinch of salt
    5 pieces of bacon, fried, crumbled, and divided
    1 jalapeno, minced and divided
    1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted

    Mix together all the ingredients down through the salt, plus half of the bacon and half of the jalapeno. Shape the cheesy goop into a ball with your hands.

    Mix together the remaining bacon and jalapeno, as well as the pecans, put them in a plate or shallow bowl, and roll the cheese ball around in the crumbles until it’s nicely coated.

    Cover the cheese ball with plastic and chill for an hour before serving with crackers (though I like my cheese ball at room temperature—it spreads better).


    They’re back at it again.

    This time around, the tools are fancier.

    It made for a great holiday project, something to get them outside after gorging on candy and cookies.


    I had a minor break down at our Christmas eve service. Three of my kids were in a little skit—dirty sneakers and dress-shirt collars poking out from under their robes, plastic ivy and pipe cleaner laurel wreaths, that sort of thing. Nickel was Quirinius. He had to stand up front beside his big brother (Cesar Augustus) and unfurl the registry scroll. But the scroll wouldn’t unfurl, so he tossed it out, as though a quick flick of the wrist would fix everything, but instead of unrolling, the scroll flew out of his hand and landed on the floor with a thunk.

    That’s when I lost it, a giant belly laugh half exploding out of me. I pressed my lips together quick and held my breath, but that only made the belly trembles grow all the more violent. My eyes watered, my shoulders shook—I was helpless against the hilarity.

    At that moment, when I was physically and emotionally completely out of control, at that moment all the tension of the last couple hours—all the yelling and running around and cleaning up the house and getting everyone through the shower and trying to be jovial because it’s Christmas Eve for Pete’s sake—all that tension peaked and I realized that—oh my word, I am not stable! I am going to start sobbing because my child just hurled his scroll on the ground!

    I didn’t do The Ugly Cry, thank goodness. A couple more stifled gasps and the strain eased up. I was even composed enough to wink at my boys without falling to pieces, whew.

    Supper restored me the rest of the way.


    Even though we’ve told the children that it’s us doing the gift giving, our Santa pretending makes my younger daughter upset, almost angry even.

    This morning, after the stockings and hoopla, she told me, once again, that she knows there’s no Santa. “Tell me for real, Mama. I know it’s you and Papa.”

    “This really bothers you, doesn’t it,” I said. “Okay, so yes, Papa and I buy the gifts, but we like to pretend it’s not us, just for fun.”

    “And—tell me the truth—you’re the tooth fairy, too!”


    “Who does the tooth fairy more, you or Papa?”

    “I do.”

    She smiled, pleased (and relieved?) to finally get a straight answer.

    Later, she asked if she could tell the other kids the truth. They already know, I said, but she wanted to tell them anyway. So she did, and the big kids said, Yeah, we know, but for her, this truth-telling statement was big, I could tell. The air was cleared. She could finally relax.

    (Also, at bed time tonight, I asked her what her favorite part of the day was, and she said playing in the field and getting her feet muddy on the swings. Hello, honey! Today was CHRISTMAS and playing in the field was YOUR FAVORITE THING?!)


    My older daughter took her earrings out for the first time.

    Except they were stuck, so my husband had to use a pair of pliers to wrench them from her ears, smooshing the earrings in the process. She put in a pair of dime earrings she had made for herself, but later, after she took them out so she could go roughhouse, she couldn’t get them back in. She needed the lightweight studs, but I, thinking they were too damaged to use, had thrown them away.

    So she and her father meticulously went through the garbage, searching for the tiny studs, which they somehow found, cleaned, and made useable. The earrings slipped back in (with a little numbing cream), and the dreaded holes-growing-shut disaster was averted.


    I read the first couple chapters of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever before bed on Christmas Eve, and we finished it up tonight. So much of our last 24 hours coincided with parts of the story: the kids acting out the Christmas story during our church service (my daughter was Mary—You really should’ve thumped that doll on the back like Imogene did, I told her), the bit about Imogene not being able to take out her hoop earrings for fear the holes would grow shut (Sound familiar, sweetie?), and the ham, of course.

    We didn’t bear ours down the center aisle of the church, though. We just ate it.

    Hey! Unto you a child is born!


    Peace and joy to you, sweet friends. Merry Christmas!

  • flat

    My writing mojo has flown the coop, gone on a hike, decamped, whatever. I sat at Panera for several hours yesterday and wrote the worst crap ever. All cliches, nothing interesting, bad, bad stuff.

    To give me a little credit, I had trouble focusing for a good reason: I was afraid I was stranded. See, my husband and son are in Pittsburgh working on my brother’s house, my two littlest are in West Virginia at my parents house, and so it’s just me and my daughter at home, and she was at a friend’s house for the day. So I could write long, eloquent, charming essays, whatever.

    Except one of the van tires kept going flat. My husband said I had to check the air every day and then fill it up.

    “Check it how?” I wailed. “Fill it up with what? Every day, are you serious?”

    “Stick this thing on it and the stick should pop out to 34. If it’s less than that, fill it up with air. Beccaboo knows how—have her do it.”

    I didn’t do it the first day he was gone, but the second day I dutifully stuck the little stick thingy on (making even more air whoosh out)—it read 15 pounds. So my daughter filled it.

    “I’m getting tired, Mom. Here, take a turn,” she pleaded.

    “No, no. You’re doing fine.”

    Two things to note about this picture. First, her shoes. My mother gave her a traditional Japanese outfit complete with these horribly uncomfortable wooden shoes which she now wears all the time. They’re loud, too. Second, the hole in the van bumper. There’s a story behind it (of course)new blog readers can learn all about it here.

    I discovered the source of the leak when I got to Panera so I went inside to write an SOS email to my husband, via my brother’s email. It read:

    So I’m at Panera. I get out of the van and hear hissing. The roads were wet, so I can see the air bubbling out. There is a nail stuck in the tire. I pushed it in even farther and the hissing slowed.

    I may be stuck at Panera till you get home.

    Send advice.

    He didn’t send any advice (I wasn’t surprised), so I finished writing my pages of crap and nonsense and then drove around town acting like I didn’t have a nail sticking in my tire. I called my husband once I got home (I don’t have a cell phone—be shocked, I don’t care), and he ordered me straight to a tire shop to get it patched. The end.

    I mean, “And that’s why I couldn’t write yesterday. The end.”

    I can’t write this morning for the dead mouse on the kitchen counter. I’m supposed to be baking, but my daughter set a trap and caught the little bugger, but she’s still sleeping and I am not about to touch that trap. I mean, I could, but I’m ethically opposed to cleaning up my children’s messes. Even if it’s a mess she made to help me.

    Really, I just don’t feel like it.

    I keep checking the mouse to be sure it’s actually dead. It doesn’t move: no breath puffs, no tail twitches. It remains perfectly flat, still, quiet, GROSS.

    I guess you could say the dead mouse is making me write. Because otherwise I would be baking.

    I have an impossibly long list of things to cook this morning, things like pretzel crack and mozzarella cheese and peanutella and peppernuts and cheesy polenta and eggnog. I’ve been eating so poorly since my family up and left me. Coffee, mostly, and pretzels and cider and peppernuts and hot chocolate with whipped cream. I’m so ready for real food—thus the reason for the cheesy polenta. I’m going to saute some kale and collards to go with it and can hardly wait. My very veins are yipping with anticipation.

    This same time, years previous: marshmallows, the big snow, power paranoia, and turkey in a wash basket

  • Christmas pretty

    I feel like I owe you a Christmas post. To assure you that we got the tree and put it up and strung (a little) popcorn and set up a couple nativities, etc. (Or maybe it’s to reassure myself that I’m on the right track?)

    We’ve done it all—and parts of it have even been fun!—but what I really want to know is: HOW IN THE WORLD DOES ANYONE EVER KEEP THEIR HOUSE CLEAN?

    I don’t know how anyone does it, period, but I really don’t know how you all cope with the mess and filth during the Christmas hoopla—I mean, holidays.

    The glitz and glam make more mess, do they not? And the decorations are supposed to be up for at least several weeks, so you have to clean around all The Extra Pretty, right?

    Seriously, people! Are you okay with this?

    I read blogs and see magazines and all these people are doing such wonderful festive stuff and all I’m thinking about is the pine needles that are falling on the floor (and the mittens that fall in the tree’s water pan—why are there mittens in the tree’s water pan, willsomeonepleasetellme?) and that all the pretty votive candles eventually burn down and then need to be washed out before I can fill them with fresh votives but the little votive holders clutter up my sink for days because I hate washing them out and then my counter looks trashy.

    So… I corral the five children in my charge—all under 10 years of age and two of them not mine—and make them work. They dust baseboards and chairs, wash dishes, desprout the potatoes, scrub sink and toilet, empty the compost, collect the trashes, all while I run around washing windows, dusting, and wiping down the stairs. It feels really good and I even call my husband to tell him he married a goddess.

    But then the next day comes around and I spend the entire morning with the four children in my care—all under 12 years of ages and all of them mine—cleaning the house again. There are more windows to wash and picking up to do and organizing and vacuuming and a toilet to scrub and the kitchen floor to wash and empty canning jars to be taken to the basement and full ones to be lugged back up (and washed and shelved) and firewood to be hauled to the front porch and—

    I am so sorry. This is probably boring you to tears. Heck, it’s boring me to tears. My point is: the house still feels messy and I feel defeated. All these blog-and-magazine people go waltzing through the holidays, red ribbons and twinkle lights and sanding sugar galore, and all I can think is: WHO IS CLEANING YOUR TOILETS! WHO IS DUSTING AROUND ALL THOSE KNICK-KNACKS AND WHO IS MOPPING UP THE STICKY SUGAR AND DON’T YOU EVER GET SICK OF IT AND FEEL LIKE SCREAMING?

    I’m not really that shouty. I just start talking in all caps when I feel like my reality is totally different from everyone else’s. Perhaps they have better filters on and know not to talk about such boring stuff on their blogs. Perhaps they have cleaning ladies. Perhaps their houses are such screwball messes that they have to focus on the sparkly lights with uber concentration, because if they let themselves even notice the dust rhinos under the piano, the facade will crumble into a pile of dust, which is just one more thing to clean up.

    Baby Jesus’ halo has fallen off and the windows are dirty, but hey, 
    there’s a bouquet of poky red berries to divert the eye and boost the happy!

    P.S. I don’t have an open fire in my kitchen, in case you wondered. Those pictures are from our annual visit to a local Christmas tree farm where the kids get to hunt for the hidden candy cane tree, drink hot chocolate, and pick out a free ornament. Oh, and cut down a tree, too. It’s a jolly affair.

    P.P.S. I love Christmas. Seriously. It doesn’t even stress me out.

    P.P.P.S. Messes stress me out.

    This same time, years previous: middle-of-the-night solstice party, lemon cheesecake tassies

  • the quotidian (12.19.11)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    *de-sprouting the potatoes (the five-year-old was quizzing the four-year-old in basic addition, no joke)
    *using the inhaler for the first time: my husband is giving my (wheezing) daughter a demonstration. Also, I’m so thankful for medicine.
    *beef broth: a quarter cow showed up on my porch in the form of ground beef and a huge box of frozen-together bones that my husband jumped up and down on in order to break them apart. I thought it might be fun to try to reconstruct the cow by hooking the bones together, but instead I’ve been steadily cooking them for hours, batch after batch—it makes the most marvelous, thick (think jello) broth.
    *”I’m a Chinese-er, Mom!”: because that’s what you become when you eat your peppernuts with chopsticks
    *watching this Ted.com talk
    *messy art: (stifled sigh)
    *rest time results: whatever will I do with this child!
    *more rest time results: a paper-and-tape bridle and saddle for a favorite unicorn
    *leeks: because they’re too beautiful not to photograph
    *learning to make granola: she made it two days in a row. A couple more times and she’ll be the new granola expert, yay
    *wood carving: inspiration credit goes to Christmas Story (cheesy, but the kids liked it well enough)
    *we’re not perfect: but we did tone it down a little (after pausing to to laugh at them)
    *the solar project continues! (photo credit: my oldest)

    This same time, years previous: chocolate-dipped candied orange rinds, walnut balls

  • peppernuts

    I’m at Panera. I’m writing (obviously), but, I’m pleased to say, it’s efficient writing. So often I procrastinate till I’m bored to death and only then do I begin to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

    Today, however, is different. Today I’m working extra hard because I have a lot to write down, plus I’m feeling a little guilty since I left my husband at home with the four kids and a 300-pound tank to get into the basement and mountains of laundry to hang up in the bitter cold.

    He told me to go, though. He said it’s easier for him to do his projects and take care of the kids when I’m gone. He said something about how he hates having to “protect me” when I write at home. The phrase “high maintenance” may have escaped his lips. Humph.


    It’s one week and one day till Christmas (like you don’t already know that), and I’m feeling resigned and relaxed and like who gives a big whoop anyway. The tree is up and the kids spend lots of time rearranging the ornaments and dropping them and I don’t really care anymore. Heck, I didn’t even touch the tree except to cut off some boughs for an arrangement: green bits o’ Christmas tree stuck in a milk pitcher along with some violently poke-y red berries I stole from a roadside ditch, fa-la-la, ouch-crap.


    I’m sounding more scroogy than I actually am. I throw lots of flour and sugar around in my spare time, and when I venture out, I say Merry Christmas in best holly-jolly fashion. We’re happily ticking off the things on our Christmas to-do list (our next read aloud is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever—have you read it?), and the kids are contented, so all is well.


    Peppernuts: they’re my latest obsession.

    I read about them on my sister-in-law’s sister’s blog and promptly whipped up a batch. The kids went bonkers for them, which surprised me because I have a vague memory of little turned up noses the last time I made the spicy cookies.

    While baking them, I ate a ludicrous amount—my self-control was no match for their tiny peppery selves. Besides, I had to sample each batch to make sure they were the correct hardness. It’s part of the job.

    When I finished the baking, my peppernut belly and I went for a walk and then off to a church council dinner where my earlier gluttony prevented me from eating as much as I would’ve liked, and where, when I confessed my reason for not sampling both kinds of soups, I unintentionally sparked a vigorous debate.

    Everyone had a strong opinion about the hard cookies. Some professed complete adoration while others couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. One man said, “I think the reason I like them is because they’re not really that good,” (huh?), and when one member of the group admitted complete ignorance to this food, she was attacked by both parties, the peppernut haters waving their arms dismissively and pooh-poohing all the hoopla while the peppernut lovers rolled their eyes and wailed protestations.

    Someone, I do believe it was a hater (can my memory be messing with me?), made mention of one member of the congregation who made excellent peppernuts. They have a wonderful bite, she said. (Are the haters bluffing?) So back home, I fired off an email to The Maker of Excellent Peppernuts, begging her recipe. I got it this morning (it varies only slightly from mine), plus a promise of a peppernut sampling party at church tomorrow, yay!

    I’m going to go ahead and share the recipe I made this week even though I might not be done experimenting. I can always update with adaptations and variations later, I figure. Besides, according to my family, this recipe is already a winner.

    Adapted from Queenie’s recipe

    I swapped in a cup of spelt flour and a cup of whole wheat for part of the white flour—delicious. Next time I’ll increase the whole grains to at least four cups.

    1 ½ cups butter
    1 cup brown sugar
    1 cup white sugar
    1 cup golden syrup (I used King)
    1/3 cup sour milk (I used plain yogurt with milk)
    4 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    3/4 teaspoons salt
    1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
    1 1/4 teaspoons cardamon
    1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
    1 teaspoon each nutmeg, ground cloves, ginger
    7 cups flour (part whole wheat)

    Beat together the butters and sugars. Add the syrup and sour milk. Beat in the remaining ingredients, but only part of the flour. When everything is well-mixed, exchange your beaters for a large wooden spoon, and—because the mixture will be quite thick—stir in the remaining flour by hand.

    Shape the dough into skinny ropes, the size of your pinky finger (assuming you’re not a giant) and cut into quarter-inch pieces. Place the peppernuts on an ungreased baking sheet (they will puff only a little, so you can place them fairly close), and bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown. (They are supposed to be crunchy, so let a few cool to room temperature and then sample to make sure they are hard all the way through. Adjust your oven time accordingly.)

    Cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container or freezing.

    Yield: I’m not sure—we ate so many of them while baking! (But I think at least 1 gallon, and maybe 1 ½ gallons.)

    This same time, years previous: my baby, scholarly stuff

  • crazier than usual (updated)

    It’s gotten a little crazy inside my head. Crazier than usual, I mean. It’s all good stuff (from a writer’s perspective), but I’ve been moving around slowly, trying to keep the spinning top that is my head from popping off.

    Take, for example, this one 24-hour period in which I:

    *worked on an article for a local magazine
    *drunk way too much coffee
    *read a radio interview transcript (and was appalled by how casually and effortlessly I butcher the English language)
    *had trouble sleeping
    *wrote a potential guest post for another blog
    *met with a newspaper editor
    *wrote the (rough) first piece for my food column

    That’s right, FOR MY FOOD COLUMN! Every other week I get to write about food for the flavor section of our local paper! I queried them and they said no and then they said yes and now I’m trying to figure out a title for the column, which will be stories from my life and down-to-earth, made-from-scratch recipes. Any ideas?

    Last night my brain was fried, so I turned off the computer early and watched What About Bob?, and then I dreamed I was passed out on the floor and everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong with me.

    Update: The guest post is up and running! It’s a Biting Confession. Literally.

    This same time, years previous: fig-and-anise pinwheels, ginger-cream scones, a pragmatic man

  • cracked wheat pancakes

    Remember the salad I made last week? The recipe originally called for bulgur, but I didn’t have any so I tried to use cracked wheat. But the cracked wheat cooked up kind of mushy, so I called my friend and she said bulgur and cracked wheat were basically the same thing but that bulgur was precooked. So I put the mushy cracked wheat in the refrigerator and switched to quinoa for the salad and all was well.

    Saturday morning came and with it an urge for pancakes. Saturday mornings are supposed to be lazy, slow affairs punctuated with multiple cups of coffee and a carb-heavy kick-off. Or is that Sunday morning? Not sure on that one, but in either case, I’m a failure. The first weekend day, my husband is raring to jump into his projects, and the second one, we’re trying to get out the door without killing each other. So I usually dump granola in bowls and call it good.

    But this Saturday morning was different. My husband was chomping at the bit even more than normal: he had a hot date with three other guys to get those panels on the roof right after lunch and there was lots of prep work to do. But I had time and a fair bit of energy despite my sore throat and head cold. I could handle standing by the stove with a spatula in my hand, I decided. Plus, that cooked cracked wheat was begging to be dealt with.

    Intermission: solar panels
    My husband submitted an application for a grant and we were accepted. The whole project is supposed to be done before Christmas so now he’s running around like crazy, punching holes in walls and ceilings, moving the freezers around, zipping up and down ladders. It kind of gives me a headache (but I’m not complaining).

    Saturday was the big Haul The Lunkers Up On The Roof Day. The guys got it done in an hour and a half, no sweat.

    The hardest part (from my perspective) (and from my husband’s, he just informed me) was keeping my littlest from going up on the roof with them.

    See these two guys sitting pretty in the sky with my husband?

    These are the guys my husband spends his days with. The one up higher is the boss, and the one down lower joined up with them a couple years ago. There’s so much I could say about these guys—like how the one enjoys throwing rocks at the porta-potty when my husband is inside it, or how the other rides his bike everywhere, two kitty litter buckets attached to either side, saddlebag fashion—but I’ll spare you all the gory details and give you two little tidbits instead:

    Tidbit One: a couple days ago, the bearded guy called me to talk bread. He’d gotten some of my starter and was getting ready to wake it up and go to Baking Town but first had some questions regarding wheat and such. He hasn’t made a peep about the bread since then, so maybe it flopped and he’s not telling me because he doesn’t want to give me a sourdough starter complex?

    Tidbit Two: When I walked out of the house to take pictures of the whole operation, Boss Man accosted me with a “Hey, Jennifer. I need a good gluten-free granola recipe. Do you have one?” I went back in the house and emailed him what I had, and the next afternoon I got a reply email: “Thanks Jennifer,  Here goes!” I haven’t heard a peep out of him since then, so maybe it went downhill?

    My point: I’m surrounded by guys that bake.
    My other point: my husband works with guys that willingly, graciously, generously come out to our house in the middle of their Saturday to help with our project.
    My final point: I’m glad the panels are on the roof.

    P.S. I spent this intermission mostly talking about my husband’s co-workers, but my brother also busted up his Saturday and put his life on the line (i.e. his butt on our roof) for our solar project. You should know, since we’re talking about bread and bikes and such, that my brother bakes with ease, and he rides his bike to work, too.

    End of intermission and back to the pancakes.

    I took Luisa’s Oatmeal Pancake recipe (that I’d already made once before), did some swapping and substituting, and came up with a splendiferous Saturday (or Sunday) morning pancake: hearty and filling, with a delightfully nutty texture from the cracked wheat.

    The kids, however, took a few bites and eyed their pancakes suspiciously. They said things like, What’s in these, Mama? And, I like the other kind better. They ate them then, but there was no pigging out. I bagged up the leftovers and stuck them in the freezer.

    I eat a pancake each morning for my breakfast. I heat the pancake in the microwave and then top it with a dab of butter and a glug of syrup. I cut my cake into small pieces with my fork, and swirl each bite over the plate to mop up the syrup drips. Chewing slowly, contemplatively, I savor the complex textures, the depth of flavor. I’ve actually become rather protective of my pancake stash.

    And wouldn’t you know, now all my mornings feel like Saturday morning!

    (Just kidding. It seemed like the appropriate ending, though, so I had to say it.)

    Cracked Wheat Pancakes
    Adapted from Luisa’s blog The Wednesday Chef, and she, in turn, got it from Kim Boyce’s book Good to the Grain (that I ordered last night!)

    Updated February 2016: I make this recipe frequently, subbing leftover cooked oatmeal for the cooked cracked wheat. I also omit the white flour and use all freshly-ground whole wheat pastry flour. A double batch makes enough to feed six people.

    1 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
    3/4 cup white flour
    2 tablespoons sugar
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    3 tablespoons butter, melted
    1 1/4 cups buttermilk (or regular milk)
    1 cup cooked cracked wheat (see below)
    1 tablespoon molasses
    2 eggs, beaten

    In a large bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients and stir lightly to combine. The batter will be thick.

    Fry the pancakes, making sure to spread the batter out with the back of the ladle as soon as it hits the hot skillet. Serve with butter and syrup.

    to cook the cracked wheat:
    Place one cup of cracked wheat in a small saucepan and cover with 1 1/4 cups water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring once or twice. Reduce the heat to low and simmer without stirring, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, or until all the water has evaporated. Fluff with a fork.

    This same time, years previous: gingerbread men