I’ve always loved church. I mean, what’s not to love about a motley group of people getting together every week to discuss values and ask big questions about Life? Hashing things out, together, is super challenging and complicated and hard, but it’s that complexity that’s also what makes it rewarding.
Plus, church provides a creative outlet for experimenting with new skills and projects. It’s where I get my friends and mentors. It’s my link to the broader world, and it’s my safety net. Church is the people who will care for me, and who I’m committed to care for, when things get tough.
For me, church is the people.
But the pretense of all of this church-ness is God, of course: worshipping God, reflecting on God, spirituality. For the last number of years (decades?), that part of church hasn’t connected with me so much. Which has been fine, actually. Our church is pretty action-oriented, so the religious-speak has always been something I could either use, or ignore, as suited me.
But then Covid happened and church switched to Zoom. Pretty soon, I realized that Zoom church (zoom anything, really) just wasn’t gonna cut it for me. Without the togetherness, the words rang hollow. I could just as easily (easier, maybe) get my inspiration from a good book or podcast, or via a conversation with a friend.
drone photo credit: my older son
So we dropped church, thunk.
Did I miss it? Not really.
No, let me take that back. There was actually a lot I missed. The rhythm of a weekly reset. The going somewhere together as a family. The familiar faces. The singing and the people watching and the exchange of ideas. The post-church rants. The pull to look at things differently, and the push to refocus on things that mattered rather then my petty wallowing. Done well, church is at the intersection of community development, social justice issues, the arts, mentoring, skill building, and political activism. Tapping into that energy, that potential — that’s what I missed.
photo credit: my older son (obviously)
A couple Sundays ago, we attend our first church service since Covid stopped the world cold. The single-day retreat seemed a nice middle ground to venture back. Hopefully, outdoors, we’d feel safe enough to freely connect? But I was nervous, too. This could be awkward.
And at first I did feel disconnected. Out there under the trees, the churchy motions — the head bowing, the standing and sitting, the scriptures, the offering and prayers, the religious jargon — felt out of place. Cover the faces with (the required) masks, keep other people at arm’s length, and I felt lost.
drone photo credit: my older son
But then, lunch — handmade burritos and watermelon — and games: sand volleyball and miniature golf. Ultimate. Nuke-um (how’s that for a peace-church game, ha!) and cornhole. Kids chased each other and toddlers toddled and everywhere adults were visiting.
Sitting in the shade with an ever-revolving door of friends, the sun-warmed grass pricking my bare ankles and my skin salty from the sweat of Ultimate, I luxuriated in the pops of laughter and the babble of conversation washing over me from all sides. Now this was church.
drone photo credit: my older son
And it was good.
Photos from a Sunday morning family hike a few weeks back.
I have no idea if this salad is Italian or not, but I felt Italian when I was eating it so I’m calling it Italian.
The recipe popped up on Cup of Jo recently. Apparently it’s been around for a long time, but I had no idea so: new to me! It’s not a throw-together salad — I had to go shopping for half the ingredients (radicchio, iceberg, pepperoncini, Genoa salami, provolone, red onion, cherry tomatoes) — but it’s a fun one, and it feeds a crowd.
The family actually wasn’t that keen on it — maybe because it was the main course and they were hoping for more? Needy eaters, sheesh — but with a glass of red wine and some sourdough, I thought it made a fabulous complete meal. I ate myself silly.
I wasn’t sure how the leftovers would hold up — and we had a lot leftover — but I needn’t have worried. In the fridge, everything softened and melded together, making it an altogether different dish. For my lunches this week, I’ve been griddling a piece of sourdough bread to go with my big bowl of salad. I use the toast as a shovel and juice sopper-upper and then, since there’s always a good puddle at the end, I tip the bowl into my mouth and slurp up the rest.
I think the day-(or three)-old salad would make a great sandwich filling. I’d use a soft Italian bread, the center plucked out to make a bread canoe, and then stuffed full of juicy, salty, tangy salad, mmmm. It’d also go good, I think, piled in a grilled cheese or stuffed into a wrap.
And as for the little bit of dressing that was left over? I added it to the beef veggie soup I made last night. The acidic, herby, garlicky dressing gave the soup an excellent little flavor kick. It’d also be good in tomato soup, scrambled eggs, and drizzled over roasted veggies. In other words, too much dressing is not a thing.
for the salad: 1-2 heads radicchio, chopped 1 head iceberg, chopped 1 can chickpeas, drained 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved and lightly salted ¼ pound provolone, cut into matchsticks ¼ pound Genoa salami, cut into matchsticks ½ red onion, the layers separated and then cut in thin strips and soaked in cold water 5-8 pepperoncini, cut into rings juice of half a lemon
Pile everything into a large bowl and drizzle with the lemon juice.
for the dressing: 2½ tablespoons red wine vinegar 2 tablespoons dried oregano 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed or grated ½ – 1 teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper 1½ cups olive oil
Stir together the vinegar, oregano, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper and let rest for 5-10 minutes. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Drizzle over the salad and toss to combine.
To finish the salad, sprinkle with more salt, pepper, and dried oregano, and another generous spritz of lemon juice, as desired.
I tried to write this morning but it just felt like fiddling so I gave up and came downstairs. But what to do? The kids were both gone for the day and, with nothing pressing, I felt adrift. But then, needing (okay, wanting) something sweet, I mixed up a pan of brownies and soon, in an “if you give a mouse a cookie” series of events, I had a bunch of things going at once. Here, I’ll show you….
After I started the brownies, I decided I wanted cake, too (nibble-nibble, says the mouse). I’m trying a new recipe — one that calls for cake mix and instant pudding mix. Yikes, I feel so naughty typing that! But hear me out: through the grapevine, I’ve learned that expert, normally-from-scratch, and wholegrain-loving bakers use this method for their cakes. So I’m testing it to see what we think. And anyway, it’s not like I’m food-virtuous or anything; some days, my diet consists mostly of Twizzlers….
Milk jars draining. Milk jars everywhere, really. The fridge fills up with milk, I empty it out, we wash the jars — this is our pattern. And you know what? I wish we had more milk. That’s right, two to three gallons of milk is not enough. My appetite for cheese making is limited by the amount of milk we get, and already I’m mildly panicking about what we’ll do when Daisy goes dry.
Sourdough baby, happily bubbling away after its breakfast feeding. Also, a squirt bottle of vinegar and water solution. I’m constantly spraying my cheese-making equipment. Just today, I discovered I had mold growing on my Dry Jack cheese and the mat was a fuzzy mess, so: scrub-scrub, squirt-squirt. (The last few days the humidity was sky-high — or cloud-low — which made for ideal mold-growing conditions, apparently.)
Here’s the three gallons of milk that I’m culturing for Ibores, a Spanish cheese. It’s a low-culture, low-rennet, low-temp cheese. Once it’s pressed and air-dried, the outside gets rubbed with a paste made of smoked paprika and oil.
Also resting on the stovetop, a quart of heavy cream (from the store) that I’m culturing for sour cream. I buy a lot of heavy cream; since our milk is low-fat, I add it to my milk when making cheese.
And . . . freshly-baked sourdough bread! It smells so good. Buttery, almost.
I’m burning a pumpkin spice candle. I get most of my candles from thrift stores. Sometimes they’re real duds, but every now and then I get a winner. Not sure which one this is yet — just started it last night.
Another batch of sourdough in the works. It’s in the fold stage — every thirty minutes or so, for a couple hours, I lift and fold each of the four corners. Next, I’ll let it sit undisturbed for several hours before cutting and shaping it into the two loaf pans.
My cooking notebook (full of my cheesemaking notes, recipes, menus, etc), and my cheesemaking book. Also, the day’s to-do list and a scattering of pens. Pens are everywhere in this house! Sometimes all I have to do to make the house feel clean is put away all the pens. Also, twisties and rubberbands. Seriously, it’s the little things that make it feel messy.
Big things make it feel messy, too. Like the mountain of dirty dishes awaiting my daughter’s return from her afternoon tutoring session with my parents. She’s on afternoon dishes and my younger son is on supper dishes. Speaking of supper, I’m still undecided. Maybe a ground beef veggie soup to go with fresh buttered bread?
Taking advantage of the residual heat, a cracked-open oven door to warm the chilly kitchen. It’s fall, y’all!!!!
Brewing my afternoon coffee. (I turned on the pot and then, when I didn’t smell the coffee, I realized I’d forgotten to add the water, oops.) It’ll go good with some of that warm brownie topped with ice cream.
Remember that question I posed back in June about what to do with that useless corner in our room? Well, I have a confession. While it was true that for years we didn’t know what to do with that corner, we’d actually already made a decision and acted on it pre-blog post. I know, I know! So dishonest! But I wanted to hear your insights, and there was still the whole room to consider. Maybe someone would offer a solution we hadn’t yet considered and we could incorporate it? Still: misleading. Forgive me, pretty please?
So let me tell you what we did do: we (er, my husband) tore out the closet.
I suggested this solution when we came back from Puerto Rico, but then it took us the next three years to debate options and then actually do something. Without the closet, the little corner is still useless, but the room feels bigger. Now the window is a part of the room, and the corner is less pinched. And cleaner.
In place of the closet, my husband built a new, much bigger closet directly opposite.
For the first time, we actually have extra hanging space, and he even made shelves for (my) shoes. What extravagance!
I’m particularly fond of the little door knobbies:
The next two projects for the room upgrade are a) some sort of white, free-standing cabinet thingy to replace our dressers (I hate dressers), and b) an under-the-bed frame filled with deep, pull-out drawers for clothes and extra bedding. Once those are in place, then I’ll focus on creating a cozy reading nook with a soft chair and good lighting, and a writing table (though I am rather partial to the current setup…)
Beyond that, I have visions of a dramatically large, unkillable potted plant standing sentry in the empty corner (the aloe plant is temporary), some throw rugs (a sheepskin on the floor by my side of the bed, perhaps?), flowy curtains, a mirror somewhere, and art for the walls. Oh, and viney plants and twinkle lights [insert the Husband Eyeroll] atop the closet. The vibe I’m going for is sparse, spacious, white, calm, airy, but we’ll see. Might take us another decade or so….
My daughter is over at her grandparents, studying, and my younger son is working with my husband, so the house is quiet except for the whirring of the fans doing battle against this rash of hot humid weather. Summer’s last gasp, I hope. I’m so ready for crisp fall days, with cinnamon candles and apple pies and crunchy leaves scattered across the porch and dark nights and piles of library books.
My writing group was here this morning. I baked a blackberry cobbler to go with our coffee and served it with vanilla ice cream.
Yes, you read that correctly: vanilla ice cream at nine in the morning. There are worse ways to start a day, I think.
Right now I’m making a big batch of traditional cheddar. For me, a “big batch” equals four gallons of milk because I don’t have any pots large enough to go bigger. I don’t think my press would hold a cheese much bigger than that anyway.
Right now I’m waiting for the curds to settle to the bottom so I can strain off the whey. And then I’ll be cheddaring the cheese — turning the slabs every 15 minutes for two hours. Lots of good writing time, yes?
not me in this exact moment, but close enough
So while I cheddar and whey-t (hehe), let’s talk about cottage cheese! I’ve been wanting to tell you about this recipe for weeks now.
Cottage cheese has, I think, a bad reputation, probably because we always say chunky gross things — like baby vomit or weird mouth rashes — look like “cottage cheese.” Which isn’t really fair to cottage cheese because cottage cheese is actually quite luxuriously delicious. Plus, cottage cheese is just curds, like the curds in any other cheese, just unpressed.
I grew up eating it with sliced peaches, or with applesauce. Along with celery and bananas and Wonder bread with margarine, it was a treat. Oh, and I think my grandmother used to make a cottage cheese cake — like cheese cake but nubbly with bits of cottage cheese. We loved it.
As an adult, whenever I’m at a salad bar, I almost always get a scoop of the cottage cheese to go with my salad, but aside from that, I only purchase it when I want to make lasagna — cottage cheese makes next-level lasagna, trust me — or a breakfast bake. As a result, my family rarely gets to eat it so they don’t fully appreciate its glorious wonders. (This, along with their lack of appreciation for shoofly pie, is one of my griefs.) And now I have learned how to make a cottage cheese that I, at least, think is ridiculously delicious.
I don’t know what it is — the creamy saltiness, perhaps, or the gentle squeak of the curd, or the toothsome chew — but I can hardly control myself around the stuff. I eat it plain or stirred into pasta or in a potato-sausage-pepper bake or in quiche or on pancakes , in my new favorite way, on baked potatoes: butter and sour cream and cottage cheese.
I’m serious about my dairy.
Cottage cheese holds well in the fridge for at least a couple weeks. When I make a batch, I plan several meals around it so we get to enjoy it. (Stuffed shells are in our future.) Any leftovers get tucked in the freezer; even though it doesn’t freeze well — the curds lose their distinct textural brightness — when it’s baked in a lasagna or quiche, no one can really tell.
Cottage Cheese Adapted from 200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes by Debra Amrein-Boyes
For the mesophilic culture, I like flora danica. However, more often than not I use whey leftover from making another cheese (like quark) that uses mesophilic culture — ¼ cup whey per gallon.
This is a high-yield cheese! For 2 gallons of milk, I got 1 pound 10 ounces of curds; with the cream, it was over 2 pounds.
2 gallons milk ½ teaspoon mesophilic culture, like flora danica ½ teaspoon calcium chloride in ½ cup cool water (if using store-bought milk) ½ teaspoon liquid rennet diluted in ½ cup of cool water 1-2 cups heavy whipping cream salt, non-iodized, like Morton Coarse Kosher
Gently warm the milk to 70 degrees. Turn off the heat and sprinkle the mesophilic culture over the top. Wait two minutes for it to rehydrate, and then gently stir in the culture using an up-and-down motion and without breaking the surface. Gently mix in the calcium chloride (if using), and then the rennet. Place a lid on top and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours.
Cut into ½-inch cubes using a long knife. Let stand for 5 minutes for the curds to heal and then stir gently for a couple minutes.
Place the kettle of curds over a smaller kettle half full of water — Voila! A double boiler! Slowly heat to 115 degrees over the course of 1 hour. I set one timer for an hour and use another timer to keep track of the stove-heating: 3 minutes with the heat on, 5 minutes with it off, or whatever works so that the heat raises about a degree every 3 or 4 minutes. (Heating too quickly makes the cheese bitter, or so I’ve read.) Stir continuously! While stirring — I like to use my hands — I search for big curds and slice them with a paring knife. Don’t squeeze the curds!
Once you’ve reached 115 degrees, drain the curd into a cheesecloth-lined strainer and rinse them under cold water to remove all the whey. Transfer the curds to a bowl. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of salt and add 1 cup of the cream and mix well. Let the curds sit at room temperature for 15 minutes to allow the curds to absorb the salt and cream. Add more cream (don’t be shy! the cream is what makes it good) and salt as needed. Even in the fridge, the curds will continue to absorb the cream, so after chilling for a day or two, you may want to add even more.
Remember how I said I wished I had a grandma to teach me how to make cheese?
Well, a few weeks back I got an email from some professor guy. Apparently one of my girlfriends works with him, and when he told her he was into cheesemaking, she mentioned that I was also making cheese: Would I be to talk about and/or trade cheeses with him? he wondered.
I wrote back (paraphrased), Whoop! Can I come watch you make cheese?
But I was hoping to shadow you! he responded, which cracked me up because, judging by the cheeses he was making — Cotswold, Cheshire, butterkase, Colby, peppery Italian-style, etc — he was leagues ahead of me.
So anyway. That’s how, a couple Saturday’s back, I ended up in some stranger’s kitchen watching him make dill Havarti.
his son (or son-in-law?) built the press
He’d cut into a Lancashire he’d made months before so we could nibble (or, as in my case, feast, ha!), as well as a Belper Knolle. Both cheese were insanely good. Like, mind-blown, bar-raised, and “take some home and don’t tell my parents when they stop by because I don’t want to share” good. This guy’s cheese was as good as — no, better than — good quality store-bought cheeses.
Belper Knolle on the left, Lancashire on the right
While there, I got to go down to the basement to see where he ripened and aged his cheeses. I couldn’t get over the variety of cheeses stashed away in his fridge-turned-cheese cave — they looked so professional, so delicious — and I asked about everything, from the plastic mats in the bottom of the ripening boxes to brine solution to cultures.
LOOK AT THOSE CHEESES
Turns out, I was right on both accounts: 1) he did know much, much more than me, and 2) seeing someone make cheese — discussing and watching his process and asking questions — did wonders for my cheesemaking education. I came home from his place PUMPED.
My biggest problem, though, was figuring out how to dry cheeses at room temp — it was so crazy humid-hot in our house — and then where to keep them for long-term aging. Ideally, cheeses are aged at 56 degrees, in either a root cellar or a refrigerator that’s been cranked up high (which is what the Cheese Professor did) or in a wine fridge, but I had nothing.
So we started testing things. Our little dorm fridge stayed too cold, as did the full-sized fridge we had in the barn. My husband began researching what it’d take to transform an old upright freezer into a cheese cave. I put out feelers on social. We scoured craigslist. Nothing. In the meantime, we stuck the air conditioner in the downstairs bedroom, turned it down way low to a chilly 63 degrees and used the whole room as my temporary cheese cave. Not very practical, but oh well.
And then my older son’s (then) girlfriend said her dad had an unused wine fridge we could borrow; when the two of them visited her family to announce their engagement, they brought it back with them. At first it didn’t cool properly (or at all, actually), but then my husband waved his hands over it and brought it back to life AND NOW I HAVE A FANCY-ASS CHEESE CAVE.
Currently, I’m air drying Leicester, stirred-curd jalapeño, and Belper Knolle. And in the cave, I have stirred-curd cheddar, traditional cheddar, Monterey Jack (which I’m pretty sure is punk), and the dill Havarti.
The bad thing about cheesemaking is that it takes months until I know if the cheese is any good. What if we hate it? But the product seems consistent — things look as they should, I think, and the curds taste good — so I’m deciding to trust the method, the instructions, and the cheesemaking instagrammers and bloggers and just run with it. It’s not like I have any other option, right?
This weekend I cut into one of the week-old Belper Knolles — I couldn’t take it anymore — and it was fabulous. Not as fiery and intense as it’ll be in several more weeks but good enough for me to eat a solid half of a cheese and then make plans to get going on a few more batches.
Those little nuggets are gold.
I’m learning that cheesemaking takes time and focus. I can’t be zipping around doing a million other things (since sanitation is huge, I have to take care not to be simultaneously working with sourdough — cross-contamination with yeast is a sure-fire way to ruin a cheese) so the only other thing I can do while making cheese is read. As a result, I’ve taken to calling cheesemaking days my “Cheese and Read” time. In between monitoring temps, stirring curd, finagling double boilers, setting timers, and meticulously sterilizing equipment, I read.
I got it in my head that, if I could make cherry bounce, why not do something similar with grapes? A quick spin around the internets and my cookbook shelf didn’t yield much information. Or rather, there was a lot of information, but it was all over the place and recipes varied wildly.
Finally, I narrowed it down to one of two methods:
a) make a grape puree, add sugar and spices (cinnamon? allspice? cloves?), and then top with vodka and, after several months, strain.
b) put grapes in jars, top with 100 proof vodka, let sit for 3 months, strain and add sugar.
And then I found a Hank Shaw recipe for elderberry liqueur and left a comment asking for advice. Hank’s response: don’t do the grape puree version because it may cloud the drink — go with Plan B, aka his method for making elderberry liqueur.
But then just today I found other delicious-looking methods that call for mashing the grapes (like this one) and now I’m waffling again. I love eating the cherries from the cherry bounce — wouldn’t a drunken grape puree be yummy over ice cream?
I could try both methods, and maybe I will, but then it occurred to me: maybe some of you have experience with this? We have a TON of grapes this year and there’s a giant bottle of 100 Proof Vodka sitting in the back hall. So tell me, please: WHAT SHOULD I DO.
P.S. I wrote this yesterday and then, last night, I went ahead and tried the Plan B option. I still want to make another version, though — I’ve got some vodka left, and there are still loads of grapes dangling from the vine…
Last week, my older son texted, I need relationship counseling. My office is open, I wrote back.
For nearly two hours, he perched on my dresser, his heels hooked on the hanging-open bottom drawer, while we hashed out his relationship with his girlfriend, my relationship with my husband, core values, personality differences, decision-making methods, life goals, etc, etc. The two of them had a good thing going, we both agreed. Also, it’s okay to take things slow, I said.
The next night they came out for supper and announced they were getting married.
I actually wasn’t surprised — from the very beginning, our entire family has thought (and hoped) this was where the relationship was heading — but I was shocked. My son’s getting married. Our family is gaining a new sister/daughter/WIFE. What the what?!?!
Gradually, the news is settling. I’m beginning to wrap my head around this seismic change. Our family now includes another person. My son’s loyalties are shifting . . . and so are mine: for all these years, I’ve had his back; now I have their back. This switch is so strange — and terribly scary: vulnerability, risk, and hope are inextricably intertwined — but it’s also liberating. I’m free to love her now.
My husband and I have been spending a lot of time processing, thinking back to our few whirlwind months of long-distance dating and our seven-week engagement when I was twenty. We were so young, we marvel, shaking our heads. That two people can decide to do life together — it’s audacious, really.