Saturday, February 08, 2020

Baking Therapy on a Winter Weekend

I was looking for something to help me de-stress, so I took a break from working and pulled one of my favorite baking cookbooks from the shelf. I opened it to a completely random page and--surprise!--I had all the ingredients. Despite that, I immediately set to work looking for ways to modify it--enough to keep the integrity of the recipe yet still make it "mine." This is the result. These Wintertime Berry Dumplings are pretty enough for company and you can make them, start to finish, in less than a half hour.

A few notes before the recipe: (1) Substitute the type of berries with whatever type you like, fresh or frozen. (2) Don't fret about the type of milk you use. I used a combination of cream (I had 1/4 cup left in the carton) and half-and-half. The fattier the milk is, the richer the dumplings will be. I haven't tried this with a plant-based milk. (3) I used both vanilla and almond extract, but you can use just one of them. Do what you like! (4) Prepare the shortening ahead of time, so you can chill it before making the recipe. Any amount of chilling will be better than taking it room temp from the pantry. (5) You'll need a large skillet with a lid that fits (to enable the dumplings to both cook and steam).

Wintertime Berry Dumplings

1 (21-ounce) bag frozen raspberries
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1 cup (8 ounces) water
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Dumpling Dough:

2 cups (8-1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1-1/2 ounces) sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick, 2 ounces) cold butter, cut into dice
1/4 cup (1-3/4 ounces) cold shortening, cut into dice
1/2 cup (4 ounces) milk, half-and-half, or cream
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Over medium heat in a large skillet, combine the fruit, sugar, water, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Keep the skillet uncovered for now and bring the berries up to a simmer while you make the dough.

To make the dough: In a bowl of a stand-up mixer, combine the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder (or whisk by hand). Add the cold butter and cold shortening into the flour and combine until the dough resembles uneven, coarse crumbs (having little chunks is okay).

Measure the milk in a liquid measuring cup, then add the egg and vanilla or almond extract, and whisk until smooth. Add the liquids to the flour mixture and stir just till it's evenly mixed (blend any dry bits from the bottom of the bowl into the dough by hand to avoid overmixing).

Drop the dough into the simmering berries by the tablespoon, then turn the heat to low and cover, simmering for another 10 to 12 minutes, or until the dumplings are cooked through. The smell of cooking berries in the winter is spectacular!

Remove from the heat and immediately spoon into bowls. Top with a dusting of ground cinnamon. To make it really rock, add a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream to the dish.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Not-to-Be-Forgotten Firsts

So last year I got this idea that I wanted to document everything that was new and different. But several months into the plan, I abandoned it, because it looked like I was bragging or trying to be a Big Deal. And although I enjoyed rereading what I had done early in 2016 (I forgot about my first trip to the Ziegfeld Theater), I still feel that I don't need to document anything for the world. I just need to keep a better journal for myself. Trying new things and lifelong learning are part of my DNA, and I'll always try to live my life that way. But as a way to wrap up the year gone by, here are some 2016 firsts I didn't blog about:

  1. I built my first instrument in 2016. A tenor ukulele.
  2. I took a first class (Irish bread) with one of my oldest friends.
  3. I helped someone learn how to drive.
  4. I attended my son's high school graduation and threw a party in the backyard while we were having a well pounded. (Not a great way to multi-task.)
  5. I learned how to strip milk paint off of old floors and stairs (glamorous!) and helped replace a few windows in my house (my help was nominal on the first day). There were 39 of them in total.

  6. I survived a sudden deluge while driving in an open Jeep on a major interstate highway. That quickly went from "Fun--I was born wet!" to scary in a short period of time.
  7. I attended my first concert by the PA Sinfonia Orchestra.
  8. I took up swimming and biking.
  9. I marched in a parade for the first time in 30 years.
  10. I lost my sister Chris (rest in peace).
  11. For the first time I saw Tony Bennett perform live--at his 90th birthday celebration. I also saw Lady Gaga, Michael Buble, KD Lang, Kevin Spacey, Diana Krall, and Stevie Wonder perform for the first time, at that same event. It was the first show I knew would be televised later during prime time.
    Stevie Wonder performing for Tony Bennett's 90th birthday @ Radio City Music Hall.
  12. I helped remodel our bathroom. And yet, it's still not finished.
  13. For the first time, I was the first person to get a book signed by a first-time author. (The book was My (Underground) American Dream by Julissa Arce.)
  14. I took my first glass fusing class with my best friend.
  15. I refinanced my house. Please, never again.
  16. I drank my first hefeweizen beer.
  17. I learned how to blow glass and made a paperweight and a candy bowl.
  18. We celebrated Christmas with our first "real" tree in 15 years--for the first time a Frasier fir.
  19. I reunited with a dear friend I hadn't seen in 20 years. It was a great day!
  20. My first Jeep--a 1997 Wrangler, the first vehicle I ever loved--died.
  21. My best friend from college told me she is expecting her first child.
This was a good lesson to learn--that I don't have to share everything just because I can. The greatest joy should be in experiencing those things, not being able to post them on the Internet.

There are still a lot of firsts I didn't accomplish--skydiving, getting my motorcycle license, traveling to Italy--but that's the fun of life: something new to accomplish.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My New and Different April 2016

Every month presents something new or different to try. Cooking something new isn't really a new thing for me, but if I run across a particularly successful new recipe, I'll share it for posterity.

In the meantime, the most notable new thing this month involved woodturning. I have enjoyed working with wood for quite some time, but I'd never worked on a lathe before. So I took a Saturday morning to learn how to make a "3-hour bowl." The 3 hours accounted for the teaching; once you learn how to turn a bowl, you can do it in a fraction of that time, like an hour or less.

But anyway, I enjoyed being able to put my own spin on this basic project. The instructor liked a more curvy outside edge of the bowl, and the other members of the class followed that suggestion. But I wanted to put my own twist on it, I chose a slightly different look. I guess you could say my finished product has more the shape of a flying saucer than it does a rice bowl.

The "raw" maple wood.

Cut the outside first.
My instructor cutting the inside of the bowl with
very sharp tools that need constant resharpening.
A bowl is born.
To make the wood grain pop and keep it food-safe,
use a butcherblock treatment of mineral oil and food-safe wax.
Easy to find at the hardware store.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

New and Different - March 2016

Though I seek out new and different experiences all the time, this year I decided to document everything. It's kind of a pivotal year for me, and this is my digital diary. This is more stream of consciousness, so I may need the assistance of the grammar police myself...

First Flight

Though my husband and I had taken our son on a 30-minute tour around Moosehead Lake, Maine, when he was about 3 years old, our boy doesn't remember it. It was aboard a noisy "prop job" plane that freaked him out. After all that overstimulation, he fell asleep for the last 10 minutes of the sightseeing tour.

Our family vacations have been road trips, so our son has never flown on a commercial flight. (My own first flight was by myself, at age 22, to the Caribbean.)

My son already knew that I was going to visit a friend in Florida to escape the Northeast winter. For his 18th birthday I surprised him with his own plane ticket. He enjoyed flying--and viewing everything from the window seat. Only one time did he ask, "Is that normal?" when we hit some turbulence.

Our emphasis was on visiting with friends and relaxing. In the process, we had some nice meals, bought some art, saw a bit more of the landscape, and had a special treat kayaking among the manatees. (That was my son's first kayaking adventure that included getting in the water, a picnic in the kayaks, and watching the antics of the other men in our group on the Stand-up Paddleboards, It was a great day.) This was our first vacation together, just the two of us. Still, we were happy to get home to reunite our family.

Red Cross Disaster Institute

This year I became a volunteer for the Red Cross's Disaster Action Team. As part of my training, I was invited to participate in the regional Disaster Training Institute to help gain skills in assisting with and managing a disaster relief effort. By completing some prerequisite training online and attending classes at the Institute, I was certified in food safety and as a forklift operator. Though the skills don't seem directly related, I had an interest in both, and having that knowledge would make me a more valuable teammate if and when a disaster does strike. The Red Cross paid for all this training.

Disaster Kitchen, I was told, had probably never been offered as a training course in our region before. After a full day of classroom discussion about food safety, we put our knowledge to work. The next day we went to work in the self-contained mobile kitchen, one that is actually used in disaster relief situations. It was 26 degrees and windy outside with a threat of snow. Happily, we never got the snow, though it would have certainly added another challenge to our experience.

 Almost immediately there was a problem. As two of us were set to work opening large cans of vegetables with dull can openers, our kitchen supervisor discovered that we didn't have any water. None. Two runners went inside the nearby community college only to discover that the water coming out of their faucets was brown. Plan C took our instructors off campus to a grocery store, where they purchased gallons of water for us to cook and clean with. Not a moment too soon, because the clock was ticking.

Our task was to feed 300 people by noon. (In actual disaster situations, there usually is no time constraint, since people who have lost everything tend to be happy to receive a hot meal whenever it is finished.) Half of those meals would feed the participants at the Institute. The other half would be transported off-site where another charity was feeding people in need.

Our team rose to the challenge. The meal consisted of a small green salad, chili, rice, bread, green beans, and pineapple for dessert. While some of our kitchen mates went off to serve the food, a couple of us stayed behind to clean up then pack up the kitchen. My body was exhausted, but my mind was alive with the sense of accomplishment and ways we could do even better next time. When our team met to discuss our performance, one of our instructors, who had spent his career in the US Army's 82nd Airborne, told us that he was proud of how we worked as a well-oiled machine and that he'd gladly serve "anytime, anywhere, anyplace" with us. I was humbled by the generosity of his spirit and the camaraderie of our team of many colors.

This, I thought, was the real spirit of America, people of all walks and races and beliefs working together to help others.

The next day I switched gears and was certified as a forklift operator. That was fun too, but I was still riding the high from the success of the Disaster Kitchen.

Hand Lettering Project

One of my colleagues at work is getting married soon. She recently asked me if I knew anyone who does calligraphy. I sent her a sample from a friend, but the style didn't seem to fit her wedding vibe. Instead she asked me to do it. "It doesn't have to be fancy," she vowed, having seen my handwriting. "I just want it to be nice and legible."

This was my first paid hand lettering project. Details are distorted to protect the identities of the recipients. It looks easier than it actually is, especially when you're writing "big," on an envelope, as opposed to taking notes on a sheet of paper. It demands greater control of your hand.

I think I'll take a calligraphy class sometime later this year and see where it leads.


Some people may think this is no big deal--after all, I'm not pioneering anything. These are things that contribute to a full and rewarding life, though, and that's a pretty big deal in my book.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

New and Different - February 2016

I'm always looking to try things that are new or different, and this year I vowed to document everything, even the mundane. There's nothing pioneering in what I'm doing--I haven't found any uncharted lands or developed my own dance technique or done anything that hasn't been done before--but if it's new for me, I want to document it and be able to read it again later.

So here's what was new and different for me in February:

Visiting the Famous Ziegfeld Theater
I had a chance to visit the renowned Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. The Ziegfeld, a single-screen theater that opened in 1969, has been described as a "luxe" space where for more than 40 years Hollywood film premieres were shown in red carpet glory, including the 1977 premiere of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Close Encounters is a memorable movie for me, because my late aunt took me to see it at the Roxy in Northampton, PA.)

A lit concession stand in the darkened lobby of the Zeigfeld.
This Ziegfeld on West 54th Street in Manhattan was named in honor of the original, even more famous Ziegfeld Theater built on 54th and Broadway by Florenz Ziegfeld with financial backing from William Randolph Hearst in 1927. The building was torn down under public protest in 1966. One of the original theater's most notable shows included Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in an Antony and Cleopatra revival in 1951, performed with Caesar and Cleopatra on alternate nights. Quite a feat. It was also home to the Ziegfeld Follies, an elaborate theatrical series that eventually became a Depression-era radio show. Ziegfeld Follies included performances from classics in entertainment, such as W.C. Fields, Josephine Baker, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Ray Bolger, and included the talents of a bevy of gorgeous chorus girls known as the Ziegfeld girls. Remnants of those halcyon days--including promotional posters, lavish costumes, and bedazzled dancing shoes--were still exhibited throughout the theater when I visited.

Ziegfeld crystal chandelier.
Sadly, the theater closed right around this time to be used as an "event space" for corporate meetings such as the one I attended. As far as I could tell, the space will continue to look very much as the theater always has, with its gorgeous crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall carpeting, and paneled walls suggesting a golden bygone era. Plus, in a nod to its 40-plus years as a movie house, concession stands are still intact, from which event participants receive single-serving bags of popcorn and cups of soft drinks before relaxing in cushioned theater seats to hear "state of the union" style corporate addresses.

It was a treat to visit this historic landmark.

Jewelry Making
I've heard it said that the oldest profession isn't prostitution, it's jewelry making, and it's something I've been interested in since high school but never had a chance to learn. So when my local community college offered some "adult learning" jewelry-making classes, I signed up to make a bracelet of chainmaille. (Chainmaille is a style that uses metallic hoops somewhat similar to the chain mail used in military armor in the past.) It looked pretty easy; and, in fact, it was so easy that the 3-hour class took me and the other students (half of them newbies like me) only an hour to complete.

I could see myself doing more of this.

Chainmaille bracelet.
Then I plied my darling friend Fern with some brunch so she could teach me how to make earrings. It was fun buying the tools and "findings," and I could feel a kind of primitive hoarding instinct kick in when I saw the cutest charms in the bead shops in both PA and NY. I bought tiny Swarovski crystals, meditative Buddha heads, mini clay tiles, and fish hook clasps. Fern taught me to have lots of basic silver beads on hand, as they are classic elements in any good earring project. One of my first projects was a basic peace-themed set of earrings for my teenage nieces.

Yes, I could see myself doing more of this.
Earrings for my nieces.

Lunching at the Russian Tea Room
Every winter and summer, New York City hosts Restaurant Week. It's a bit of misnomer, because Restaurant Week is nearly a month long, but that's a good thing because it's plenty of time to eat at top-shelf restaurants in an affordable way. I previously enjoyed Restaurant Week meals at Charlie Palmer Steak, 21 Club, and elsewhere, but going to the Russian Tea Room was a double whammy because my dear friend Diane treated me to lunch there. It's a place we'd both always wanted to try.

Russian Tea Room blinchik
Here's the deal with Restaurant Week: For a fixed price (fancy people call it prix fixe, and for this lunch it was $25; for dinner it is $38), we get a 3-course meal that includes an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. There are usually 3 choices for each course, something for every palate. At the Russian Tea Room for lunch, the 3 appetizer choices were a Goat Cheese and Wild Mushroom Blinchik, Traditional Tea Room Red Borscht, and the Tea Room Salad. I chose the blinchik, a mini crepe filled with mixed mushrooms, goat cheese, and melted onions served with lingonberry sauce. I had never had lingonberries, so it was a natural choice for me, and it was delicious. For the entree I had Chicken a la Czar, and to end the meal I had a deliciously smooth chocolate mousse cake that contained a chocolaty hazelnut center. Everything tasted wonderful.

I'm not a fan of caviar, but the caviar is a big draw for many people. The Petrossian is another high-end caviar restaurant that participates in Restaurant Week.

Grilled octopus at Limani
The staff was warm and inviting, despite knowing we were not patricians but plebes trying to sample greatness while it was affordable to do so. On the way out, I spied the nested Matryoshka dolls and other Russian-themed items for sale in a display case.

To push myself a bit further, I tried octopus for the first time at Limani, a posh and modern Mediterranean-themed restaurant in Rockefeller Center. The food was good, with the highlight for me being the excellent hummus and mousse-like tzatziki that my friend Deb had as an appetizer.

I doubt I'll have octopus again--the idea of eating suction-cupped tentacles is a little offputting--but I give myself points for at least trying it.

Raising an Adult
I didn't expect to be as emotional as I was for my son's 18th birthday, yet I don't know why I'd think I'd be straight-faced about it, either. After all, raising a child is a pretty big deal for someone who wasn't sure she'd ever be "mother material." Even though the beginning was a little bumpy (sick through pregnancy, followed by a premature delivery), my experience as a mother has been pretty darn amazing. Even if there were a Pulitzer for my job and I won it, there's still nothing more important that I'll ever do than be a mother. It's that important because it's the future. And during this presidential election year, the future can look pretty bleak.

Eighteen years of goofing around with my son.
I won't go into a long essay about the triumphs and challenges of motherhood--at least not here--but my son's 18th birthday was particularly poignant for me because he's decided to enlist in the military. I'm not "just" sending my kidlet off to a college where he'll drink too much beer and be hazed by a fraternity (my son really isn't a frat kind of guy anyway). Instead, he'll drink too much beer after being hazed by a drill sergeant who will likely call him a maggot, all in preparation for putting himself in harm's way. As a mom, I have my fears about the world, but not about my child. The best thing I ever did for him was to marry his dad, the most amazing man I've ever known (along with my maternal grandfather, who served as a role model for the kind of man I wanted as a partner). We share similar views in all the things that matter, and we're pleasingly different in other ways that have had a well-rounding effect on our boy.

I know that my role as a mother has not magically been completed now that our son is a legal adult, but his birthday did feel a bit as a full-circle event. I'm punting out into the world a young man who impresses me with his depth and sensitivity, sense of humor, and commitment to his own values that I admire.

The best thing about my boy's 18th birthday party was celebrating it with friends and family, but it also gave me an opportunity to surprise him and set us both up for something very new and different that we did together in March.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Groovy Kind of Love Project

If we're living right, we're not waiting for a Hallmark holiday to show people they are in our thoughts or our hearts. You can do this in many ways: a phone call, a letter, a visit, or perhaps this "Groovy Kind of Love" project.

The lead-up to Valentine's Day is a good time to stock up on some love-themed items from craft and dollar stores. For very little money and just a little bit of time, you can treat some friends to some colorful sweets and a simple message that says "I care about you."

I discovered these festive highball glasses for $1 each. So I bought 15 of them. (Some to use now; some for a future project.) The glasses can be filled later with a festive beverage. The other items you'll need can be found at a good dollar store or at a craft store. All told, this project costs about $3 per finished piece. And of course, the affection that inspired it is priceless.

What you'll need:

1 highball glass
5 coconut macaroons
5 heart-shaped gummy candies
1 small piece of wax paper, oil-resistant doily, or other food safe paper (about 4 by 6 inches)
1 square of cellophane wrap (12 to 18 inches square)
1 rubber band
1 tag
Piece of string (10 to 12 inches)
Permanent marker


1. Make the macaroons, using this recipe. They're super easy, I promise! No fancy baking skills necessary. I omit the egg whites--commonly used as a "binder" in cookie recipes--but in this case the cookies turn out the same, both in flavor and appearance. Using a small scoop for uniformity, I made about 60 macaroons that were the perfect diameter to fit into the highball glass. While the cookies are cooling, garnish them with some colorful jimmies. Cool completely before proceeding.

2. Wash and dry the highball glasses. Assemble all the other items to make a convenient assembly line.

3. Drop a macaroon into the highball glass, dome side up, followed by a heart-shaped gummy. Add another macaroon, dome side up, then another gummy, until you've got 5 cookies and 5 gummies in each glass.

4. Crumple the wax paper into a loose ball and place into the top of the glass. (I like to use pre-cut wax papers from my local restaurant-supply store. They're less waxy than wax paper, and one sheet can be cut in half for this project.) This will have the same effect as shipping peanuts and will prevent the contents from shaking around in transport.

Note: I don't recommend shipping these, though it is possible if you package them well. In lieu of the wax paper, you could simply fill the glass to the rim with goodies.

5. Place the filled highball glass in the center of the cellophane square, bring up each of the corners, then twist the cellophane just above the rim of the glass, securing it with a rubber band.

6. Fill out the name tag. Feed one end of the string through the hole of the tag, then tie a bow or knot with the string over the rubber band. If necessary, tape the tag to the cellophane.

7. Enjoy the smiles and hugs (and maybe kisses) of your recipients.

Here are a couple other homemade ideas from years past:
I'm not a fan of cake pops, but these came out well in 2015.

Cream-filled chocolate cupcakes in 2014. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

What's New and Different - January 2016

New Routines

It doesn’t bother me that I am sometimes quirky, kooky, or downright different than others. From an early age, I tried to think for myself, trust my gut, and embrace my own sometimes-goofy personality. Whether it’s the 5-year-old who tried to walk home from school after lingering, unchecked, on the playground (why the hell didn't my teacher notice my absence?!), or the teenager who toyed with spiky hair and non-traditional uses for eyeliner, or the woman who literally ran off a cliff over the Pacific Ocean just for fun, I am not only OK with being different or adventurous. I embrace it.

I am always looking for new experiences—even if it’s just a brief step out of my comfort zone—but this year I decided to document them. So I’m posting monthly with the notable things that are new and different. Maybe other people will do the same.

Bacon, Pea, Goat Cheese Frittata
from Gordon Ramsay's Home Cooking.
The year started with a modest new routine that ended up having a huge impact on my family. Without really intending to, my husband and I decided to get out of our rut of eating out so frequently (multiple times a week, whether it was a sit-down or takeaway or even fast food). Instead, we started poring through the dozens of cookbooks I’ve collected over the years in search of new recipes, new ingredients, or simply new twists on dishes we’ve already had. By doing everything together—choosing recipes, shopping for ingredients, prepping and cooking, and cleaning up—the prospect of cooking at home wasn’t so exhausting after a 14-hour workday. 

Thus began our updated love affair with food. In our first month, we made updated classics such as Southwestern Salmon Cakes with Spicy Remoulade, Chicken Parm Roll-Ups, Mongolian Beef with Handmade Fettuccini, and a Gordon Ramsay frittata that really hit the spot. But most of our favorite dishes were ones that incorporated a totally new ingredient, such as sambal oelek chili paste, which we used in the Indonesian Shrimp Fried Rice dish (see picture below).

Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breasts
from Everyone Loves Chicken.
Our favorite new dishes of the month were:
Wild Mushroom and Goat-Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breasts (my husband’s favorite) and
Halibut a la Proven├žal (my favorite).

Halibut a la Proven├žal from
3-Step Express Meals.

The rewards were pretty substantial. Not only were we enjoying some new ingredients and flavor combinations, but we were saving a lot of money. Our weekly grocery store bill was about the same as one meal for the three of us at a steak house. We’d found that the quality at some of our favorite restaurants had declined, so we limited our dining out to one restaurant per week, where the quality was always good and the value was also high. All told, we estimate that we saved at least $500 in January alone.

We were also shopping together as a family, which gave my husband and me a great opportunity to teach our son more about selecting good meats and produce. This was something I had to learn as an adult. During our first trip to the market, my son followed me to the produce section so I could show him how to select a broccoli crown.

Indonesian Shrimp Fried Rice
from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2012.
“Really, Mom?” he said, incredulous. “You had to pick broccoli? I hate broccoli, and I’m not likely to buy it.”

“But if you ever do, you’ll know what to look for,” I insisted, then showed him a crown that had tight, evenly topped florets with a purplish tinge. Back at the house, we got him involved in the prep and cooking too, and in the process we learned that his favorite task is to operate the hand-cranked pasta machine. He was trying new things too, something he’d resisted for some time. And we enjoyed learning more about each other’s day. One night, after learning from our son’s astronomy class that three planets were visible in the night sky, we headed outdoors for some stargazing together.

Each night after we shared in the clean-up, we’d do something together, whether it was stargazing, talking, or watching an hour of television. As I looked at their profiles, my heart felt full with the love that comes from overcoming obstacles, surviving challenges and setbacks, and the contentedness of a good life made together.

“I love you two,” I blurted out one night as we were watching an episode of Sleepy Hollow. “You just mean everything.”

Cookbooks we used:

AmericaFarm to Table by Mario Batali
A Bird in the Hand by Diana Henry
Everyone Loves Chicken by Weight Watchers
Tyler Florence Family Meal by Tyler Florence
The Greek Yogurt Kitchen by Toby Amidor
3-Step Express Meals by the editors of Cooking Light

Our favorite cookbook, hands down: 3-Step Express Meals