Thursday, January 28, 2016

Finding Purpose in a Storm

  Winter is hard on those of us who experience hypothermia when the temperature falls below seventy degrees. At the peak of my hibernation, I could sleep twelve hours a day, a number that will easily half itself in six months. Of course, no busy mother has the luxury of that much sleep. Winter is still a time of doing, with maybe a little scheming mixed in. 

   The blizzard arrived with much fanfare and emptied store shelves, fingers firmly crossed that no power would be lost because the only thing worse than a snowstorm would be a dark and waterless one. The 40 mile per hour winds pounded our house all night. 

   In the morning we awoke to a varied landscape of both flurried sprinklings and deep drifts. As I drank hot coffee, I dreamed of a future filled with weedless raised beds and a rejuvenated strawberry patch. What better gift can you give your husband than following him around with the seed catalog and brainstorming aloud about the backyard? It's what every man wants to do when there's two feet of snow that needs to be shoveled on the front step. 

   Oh, but there was much to do inside, as well. New bookshelves still in their boxes awaited their assembly, followed by boxes of books that had been stored and almost forgotten. 
"Hello, old friend!" I thought as I unpacked my small collection of books. My collection isn't large. During my ten years as a librarian I had the keys to the kingdom and could borrow most any book I wanted to read. What I do own is usually rare, truly loved, or was received as a gift. Once they were unpacked and shelved they looked a little strange, and I had forgotten ever reading some of them. A new book is like a snowstorm, I decided. It arrives with much hype and hope, you delight in its beauty and might as the pages turn, and ultimately hope for a happy ending. Then it's quietly forgotten until someone brings it up in their memory and wants to reminisce about it.

    I also thought a weekend of being shut in would be a great time to put up the gallery wall that I've been furiously pinning for two years. The Mister got out his tools, the levels, and in his tender and sensitive way asked me, "So what do you want?" 
Music to my ears except I couldn't remember how I wanted the shelves and the frames, and maybe I had written it down but I couldn't remember that, either. Further discussion uncovered that we couldn't agree on what pictures would go in the frames, and my project idea sunk in a sea of incompatible preferences. In the end, we decided to do something else on the wall. 

   Marriage, too, is an ever changing forecast of sunshine and shadows. The wind may howl, the rain may come, lightening, and you hold hands as you appreciate a clear day all in the same week. 

   So much of our daily lives is indicative of nature, all of it reflecting our Maker. We are created for the purpose of reflecting the glory of God. What a relief that it isn't to collect books, hang pictures, or even bake the perfect bread. It's a relief, in the same way it is when you realize life is not about you or your wants or needs, but about showing love to others. It is a relief, yet a challenge and opportunity.


     The blizzard left in the way they often do, with plenty of sunshine and blue skies. Rising temperatures began to melt those drifts, and two days later it was all forgotten. It makes you wonder what that was all about, a big snow come to disrupt our life for a weekend. I'm sure it had purpose.









   A few years ago I started making this savory macaroni and cheese with butternut squash. It's one of my favorite cold weather comfort foods. The secret is to use at least three kinds of cheese in addition to one soft garlic cheese. 




Four-Cheese Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound butternut squash, cooked, seeded, and lightly mashed
8 ounces elbow pasta
4 teaspoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup low-fat milk
2 Tablespoons semi-soft garlic and herb cheese  
1 cup mozzarella
1 cup cheddar or other shredded cheese combination

Cook pasta and drain. In a medium sauce pan, melt butter and whisk in flour, salt and pepper. Add milk and continue whisking until mixture is smooth and thick. Add the garlic cheese and whisk until fully melted. Stir in squash and cooked pasta. Stir until coated. 
Use cooking spray or butter to coat a medium casserole dish. Spread half of the pasta mixture evenly in the dish and sprinkle with half of the mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Repeat the layer and bake at 375 for 25 minutes. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Farm Show

   Nothing exhibits the whole of God's creation quite like the massive Pennsylvania State Farm Show. In its one-hundredth year and operating out of an enormous indoor complex, it's a blessing to behold. Cutting edge machinery parked alongside humble yet informative 4-H projects, calves walking through the crowds on their way to the arena, and a marketplace showcasing all of the best this region has to offer. There are the tree and lumber guys, like my very own Mister. The bee and honey people, dairy farmers, mushroom growers, agriculture historians, and environmentalists. People with sidelines you've never heard of tie it all together in a tapestry that demonstrates a magnificent interdependence. No man, nor creature, is an island.

 
Young observer or future farmer.

   The crop of people are just as interesting to me. Families galore, plenty of children pulled out of school for the day to experience the event. There are long lines for the carousel, the expert craftsman of balloon animals, and an opportunity to feed the butterflies. The lines move swiftly, mostly. I also say nothing showcases the diversity of the growing conservative Anabaptist landscape quite like the farm show. Each year there are new styles of coverings and previously unimaginable combinations of modest wear. On my way to peruse the ribbon-winning canned goods I pass a busy mom in a traditional headcovering and ski pants. Maybe they drove in on the snowmobile? I'm sure she had her reasons.








   The canned goods were picture perfect. 
Crystal clear jellies and pickled eggs in 
perfect form. The
Perfectly pickled.
first place chow chow (mixed pickle) is, I kid you not, behind glass.

"Did they think someone would steal it?" joked The Mister.
"Don't give me any ideas!"

You can't do everything, and there's so much to see. An announcement that Punxsutawney Phil, the beloved official groundhog who makes the call on extended winters and early springs, will be leaving in fifteen minutes sends us on a goose chase to quickly find him. We missed the judging for the first ever whoopie pie competition. Don't forget the butter sculpture. I've wondered for years where all that butter goes, a buffet maybe? I hoped not. A new sign announced that it will be recycled into biofuel. At the very end, we peruse the vast market of venison bologna, artisan cheeses, and all manner of top quality bounty.

We bought two unique products that I found interesting. One is called Ghee, a shelf-stable butter that has the dairy solids removed. Ghee is great for frying because it has a remarkably high smoke point. It's marketed as a healthier butter, and I added it to my collection of cooking oils. I read about it years ago but this is the first time I have seen it for sale anywhere. Our other souvenir is Hickory syrup. The ingredients are hickory sap and cane sugar. It tastes sweet but also smoky. My first thought was that it would be great for grilling. Low and behold, it came with some recipes for grilled chicken and fish. I look forward to cooking with these two gifts carved from creation.



We white-knuckled it home in the snow that night along the dark turnpike. How inspiring it was that day to walk side by side with the growers, the milkers, and the mere farmers at heart all under a single roof. Representatives of a rich calling built on passions, diverse practices, and stewardship. I suspect a love of the land reaps a reward beyond mere money. It must because even during the dry years, the truth remains that
He who tills his land will have plenty of food, But he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty. (Proverbs 28:19) It's a truth for all of us.

Now, back to tilling.


Meanwhile, a hundred years ago...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

How to Have an Unforgettable Christmas

Vintage Christmas fun.
  First.

 It helps if your child discovers a picture of a toy in a catalog that you never could have anticipated said child would desire in a million years. Bonus points if it has to do with a character or theme he has never encountered before, and a jackpot bonus if he doesn't fully understand how the toy functions. Spend a lot of time questioning why he would want such a thing and what he would do with it. This will keep the focus on the device and make it even more desirable to him. 

  We need a little Christmas right this very minute. Hauling your child to the local church that does a live nativity will make all those family devotions about the birth of Jesus you've been reading aloud seem so much more vivid. The real camel more than compensates for the yawning Mary standing by the faux donkey. You point out all of the similarities between the carefully planned nativity and what life was like that night in Bethlehem. It is all going great, and then...SANTA! WHAT? There is a live Santa at the end of the Nativity. He waves. Did he come as part of the live animal package? You hope your child doesn't ask too many questions about that and he obliges, because he is in shock, too. 

  He is still talking about that toy. It never goes away and comes up at least once a day. It is the only thing he really wants, and you could buy him the moon but he wouldn't care. You missed all the best deals on it already and so install yourself in a part time position of tracking the ever changing availability and price of this crazy thing. 

My lovely Acorn Angel.
  The church caroling list is a little thin this year and they are looking for a few more recipients of Christmas cheer. You feel bad about the old man who lives alone across the field. You still feel a twinge of guilt about the cookies you fully intended to bake and bring him last year, but never did. Ignoring the half dozen "no trespassing" signs that line his driveway, you knock and discover that no, he doesn't want your songs or fruit basket. He is a Jehovah's Witness. He seems relieved that you immediately understand and he doesn't have to explain it all to you. You have somehow managed to pull off a reverse JW visit where you knock on their door instead of them coming to you. Surely there is a name for this. Congratulate yourself and get back in the car.

  Each year you try to bless someone in an unexpected and often anonymous way. You have your eye on a widow who has come to your rescue more than once, and would like to slip her an unexpected gift. Things are tight, and you need to kind of raise the money to do this. Out of context, the verse about giving someone your cloak comes to mind. It doesn't apply, and yet it does. The gently used winter coat you have been trying to sell on the local yard sale page has languished for months. If you dropped the price to just the amount you need, maybe it will sell. Maybe God will move it. You do, and He does. Within a couple days, you have your money to bless your secret sister, and instantly the gift you want to give another was a gift also meant for you. In that instant, it feels like Christmas.  



I don't do a lot of spectacular baking for the holidays, although I do a lot of baking. I have my routine of standards that my family looks forward to every year. Near  the top of my list are my soft and chewy gingerbread cookies. I've been told more than once that these thick cookies are a winner, and have been asked for the recipe many times. Best of all, the Little Mister asked to decorate them again this year, and I loved that he remembered. 

Recipe makes 16 Gingerbread men

3/4 cup unsulphured molasses
3/4 cup butter (1 and 1/2 sticks)
3 and 2/3 cup all purpose sifted flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 cup dark brown sugar  

Warm molasses in a saucepan or microwave, but do not boil. Remove from heat and stir in butter until melted. Let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Add molasses mixture and egg. Mix well. Divide dough into two equal portions and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least one hour, or until dough is stiff enough to roll with rolling pin. 
Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place one half of dough between plastic wrap and roll out to 1/4" thickness. Refrigerate one half of dough while rolling out the other half so the dough is kept cold. Cut with cookie cutter and place on prepared cookie sheets. Bake 12-15 minutes and cool completely on racks before decorating.   
 
Gingerbread shown here with other classic cookies; Snickerdoodles, Thumbprints, and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip.

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