Sunday, November 29, 2015

Too Many Days Hath November

     November was a brutal month. While giving thanks for the mildest weather in recent memory complete with confused violets springing up on sixty degree days, mom-life stretched me to my limit. It sounds dramatic, but trust me, I'm ready to hibernate.

    It began with Little Mister's fourth birthday, three separate birthday parties, which were swiftly followed by an array of annual medical check-ups and too many days off from school. Many people feel that their children grow up too fast, but it feels like we were blessed a lifetime ago with our little tornado. I can hardly remember a time before him, although there were many! Quote from the birthday boy: "I don't want to be four. Four is too hard!" 


 This month also marked our third official attempt at family picture day. It's too early to say whether the latter was a success, but I'm cautiously optimistic. One thing that was unique and exciting this year was that our photo session was a free gift from a coworker of The Mister. He was very thankful that we could help out with having my husband cover some work shifts so that he could make a visit to his home country when the visa was approved at the last minute. We were surprised and delighted that he wanted to repay us with a photography session. The price of "free" was exactly what we budgeted for photos this year, so that worked out great! 

"Okay, that's enough pictures."
   Although family picture day for us is often unwieldy if not outright stressful, it reached new highs this year. A rainy day led to one session cancellation, and then a drop in temperature changed our wardrobe plans. Over the past eight months, I've gone down 2-3 clothing sizes and have been scraping by with a mix of old stuff that is too big for me and new items that are procured cheaply but aren't very dazzling. Trust me when I tell you that this is a problem no one will feel sorry for you for having, and that is rightly so. As it was, I had to run to a nearby store the night before picture day to purchase a suitable coat, jacket, or warm sweater to wear outside the next day.

We traveled a ways to the excellent Grounds for Sculpture in Trenton, NJ. Put it on your list.

     Soon enough it was our annual church Thanksgiving dinner. We really reach out to the entire community and invite anyone, anyone to come for a free meal. It floors me how few people take advantage of our hospitality. The mashed potatoes are first rate. I know because I make them. I have an efficient system for making a delicious large batch of mashed potatoes without much fuss. I just leave the skins on and mash them.

 Just kidding. 
     I spent Thanksgiving doing what everyone else did; cleaning my house and making pizza for supper. Actually, we celebrated a day later on Friday. Too many work conflicts with family made a Thursday dinner too much of a hassle. When you have a family member who works in a hospital or other 24-hour professions, you get very flexible when it comes to holidays. 

 Back in July, I saw a Thanksgiving display in Kohl's. You would have thought that would have lit a fire under me, but like the rest of the world, I've become both annoyed and oblivious to extremely premature seasonal decor. Thanksgiving saw me trying to cook the corn at the last minute and calling my mom to explain that we'd be twenty minutes late.

"Is this thing on?"

"We're on the way," I told her. Some people were being all fussy about having to wear clothes, while I multi-tasked and shoved multiple slow cookers in the trunk of the car.
"Oh, about where are you?" my mom asked. 
"Well, the driveway of our house, but we're all in the car!"
   I might have been a little tired from shopping online on Wednesday night. Forget Black Friday. I've been conducting an informal study for years that shows all the good deals are live online on  Wednesday night. I just needed the best price on one single thing and I got it.

    I'm glad this month is coming to an end. They say time flies but sometimes it doesn't fly fast enough. The birds flew slow and low these past few weeks. 

Bye, November.

   There are draft posts a-plenty. Join me in December for some pre-Christmas inspiration as I get back on the blog bandwagon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Finding That Memory in Your Recipe Box

I'm not sharing a recipe so much as I'm sharing a piece of personal history.

It was about ten years ago and my family was having The Mister over for dinner so he could meet my grandmother. Of course, he wasn't actually The Mister yet. I remember it was a cold evening, so sometime in winter. My mother made an extra special meal. I decided to bake the dessert. There was a delicious sounding apple cake recipe I saw in, of all places, The Budget. That's the Amish/Mennonite newspaper, for my readers who don't know about it. It has a small recipe section. Those recipes are a real shot in the dark, sometimes with scant directions or misprints. A complete gamble.

The cake was a big hit, especially served warm with the caramel topping. When I told my grandmother that I had never made it before and I was glad that it turned out so well, she was aghast. She told me never to make an untested recipe for a special meal. Too risky, she said. Something might not turn out. 

I still do it all the time. I'm a risk taker. 

I never made that delicious apple cake again because for some reason, I recalled it as being a pain in the neck. Maybe it was the boredom of unwrapping all the caramels for the sauce. Anyway, when I found it recently it in my recipe box, all I could think now is that it sure looks easy.

It uses one box of cake mix, and if you don't feel like unwrapping caramels you can dab on a little of any caramel sauce from a jar. I'll provide a work around if you don't have a box of cake mix.

This makes a very moist and flavorful bundt cake. You don't have to believe me, read the reaction of The Mister at the end. 

1 package yellow cake mix*
1 cup water
4 eggs
1 package (serves 4) instant vanilla pudding
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 large apples, peeled and chopped

20 caramel candies
1/4 cup milk

Grease and flour a 12 cup fluted bundt pan or 10-inch tube pan. Beat cake mix, dry pudding mix, water, eggs, and oil in a large bowl. Gently stir in apples. Bake 50-60 minutes at 350 degrees.

Melt caramels and milk. When cake is cooled, drizzle over cake. (I actually put the sauce on when the cake was still a tiny bit warm and let it melt into the cake.)

*Cake mix recipe: 2 and 1/4 cup sifted flour
                           1 and 1/4 cup sugar
                           2 tsp. baking powder
                           1/2 tsp. salt
                           Cut in 1/3 cup shortening until finely crumbled. This is a basic cake mix.

Review from The Mister: You made this before? It's good. Why did it take ten years to make this again? It should have been in rotation. Can I have another piece?  

I would love to hear some of the good luck stories from your kitchen, and the bad, too. Please share!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Applesauce Time and Sweet Potato Enchiladas

The wind blew and the rain misted lightly on the day we planned to go to the harvest festival at the farmer's market. I could just imagine the bounce castle sailing off into the sky, if they were bothering to inflate one at all. All those country kids in camo and rain gear, a couple suspendered Amish boys, and a few hearty parents filming it all with their phones as the giant red marshmallow would sail off like a tornado. At least, that's how I pictured it would play out. No thanks. 

     After days of stormy skies I was heading to the apple farm on a hunch that apples had probably been sitting around unsold all week and would be at rock bottom prices that Saturday morning. My instincts were right! Baskets that normally went for twenty were now ten dollars. While I made the buy, Little Mister held court with the apple pickers. Young women in full coveralls and jackets who were on break snacking on, what else? 

"We're going to put him to work picking apples in the rain," one told me. Some threat. He would love that. 

     Back home, little hands sliced alongside mine and watched the stock pots boil until that magic moment when we could work the strainer. It was a productive afternoon as we held our own festival. I owe a lot to applesauce. I make it without sugar, instead preferring a blend of sweet apples. It's been extremely useful for my diet. You don't get as much sauce as you would with added sugar, but I'll trade the calories for a healthier sauce.

     After one recent sauce session I made these delicious black bean and sweet potato enchiladas for supper. I had tried several recipes, but all were a little too involved for my busy days. Sometimes I don't have time for chopping and frying AND making sauce. After trying a few recipes, I came up with this easy method where the sauce is up to you, and the filling is simple but tasty. I love the combination of flavors, and also have to add that eating a lot of healthy plant-based meals has also been helpful for my diet. This dish is also kid-friendly. See review at the end.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas

Serving Size: Use a 9x11 casserole dish, but be prepared for extra. 

Fresh veggies and cheese. If this doesn't look good then I can't help you.

3 sweet potatoes
1 can black beans, rinsed
1 cup frozen corn
 2 cups fresh chopped spinach
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
2 cups shredded cheese 
8-10 flour (or corn) tortillas

Enchilada sauce (Use your own, or canned)

Thinly sliced green onions (garnish) and sour cream.

Peel and dice the sweet potatoes into cubes and boil for 15-20 minutes, until tender. Add frozen corn during the last three minutes. Drain water and leave in pot until ready to use. I like to do this step in the morning during or after breakfast.

Preheat oven to 400.

In a large bowl combine the sweet potatoes, corn, spinach, cumin and garlic powder. Add in black beans and lightly mash with a fork. Stir in one cup of the shredded cheese. 
Divide the filling between the tortillas and fold burrito style. Pour a thin layer of enchilada sauce into your baking dish to cover the bottom. Place your rolled tortillas in the dish and over with sauce. Bake for 20 minute, add sauce, and bake for another five minutes. Top with remaining cheese and scallions. 

Serve with sour cream, or as is.

Review from Little Mister: What's that smell? Is that pizza? It smells like pizza! I want to eat it now. Cheese! (Nom nom nom) Yummm-YUM! 

Well, that worked out.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Fly Away Home

     Summer is hanging her weary head.

     September has so far been a time of recovery. Can you believe that once, back when I was pregnant, I actually had a discussion with a friend on what I would do with all of my time once I stopped working outside the home? What was I thinking?

     While I soaked in every ounce of a season rife with homemade root beer and bare feet, the to-do list grew fast as the days grow short. If I actually accomplished everything on it right now, my productivity would burn a whole straight through the core of the earth into China. In fact, if you count the things I did on the fly that never made it to a paper list, it might be the cause of some tectonic shifting.

      This year is different. There is a now a soundtrack. A child learning to speak at the same time he is entering that why phase, where every sentence is a question, an endless song. A novelty song. It's rarely boring.

"Maybe you can buy more money at the money machine."

"I am a grown up. I am a LITTLE BOY grown up."

     Sometimes it can be a little embarrassing. For instance, the declaration made aloud when a man stopped by with papers for us to sign and stayed a little too long.
"Is the stranger going to be here all day?"

Because Little Mister is not easily understood when he speaks, I'm still hoping that I was the only person in the room who comprehended that one. 

There was also the pie bird. You know, that little ceramic bird you place in the middle of your double crust pie to let out steam? I'll tell you, few car salesmen have the persistence of a small child who discovers something as fascinating as the pie bird. What is this? What will it do? If you bake it in a pie, will it sing? Four and twenty blackbirds!
"Let's make a pie right now! Come on, I want to hear it sing!"

      I had just made some ridiculous quantity of baked goods for a church sale, and someone had a growth spurt over the summer and needs all new clothes. A pie was no where on the radar. 

     After days of this I agreed to make a strawberry pie if Little Mister would help me make the crust. I wanted him to see that pies are not just something you throw together in under a minute. Like a quesadilla.

"Thank you for making me a strawberry pie."

Well, I guess that was worth something after all.

     The squeak of newspaper as I clean the windows has nothing on what I hear these days. Fantastic stories involving ice fishing and a wild moose, super powers and pirates. The tall tales are punctuated at the end with "...and that is the end of my story."

     I buzz about on busy bee wings, making the bed, cleaning the sink, wondering what that smell is and whether I left something in the oven. He swoops in gracefully, landing on the big step ladder next to the pantry. "Can I see the brownies to make sure there are no more brownies?"

There's back talk now, too.  Asserting himself, making himself heard.

      Early one morning I see the certain "V" of birds in south-bound flight. They honk noisily, and back inside my own nest I absorb our own cacophony of sounds. It's quite a lot to get used to after years of a home where the only noise was the quiet hum of daily life. If I had to describe what it sounds like now I would tell you to extend your arms, flap and squawk about the letter you forgot to mail, laugh at the nude child eating garlic bread in the dryer, scream about something, and run around the house like pigeons in a park. It's the sound of wings as domestic and family life takes off in flight, never in the same direction.

Building a birdhouse at our church community day.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Blueberry Vanilla Ice Cream (Ice cream maker optional)

     When I was a little girl, there was an older couple who lived nearby. Their children were all grown, but I never forgot their kindness to the neighborhood kids. Sometimes they would get out their ice cream maker and invite everyone to bring a spoon for an ice cream party. The wife provided bowls. The sweet creamy texture of simple homemade vanilla ice cream on a warm day was unbeatable.

      While not a blueberry fan myself, I knew the men around here would enjoy this variation on the theme. It was so easy to make and kept really well in the freezer beyond just a few days. I used my ice cream maker, but if you can also use a stand mixer if you don't have an ice cream maker. I'll post two methods.

     Also, this was easier as an overnight project. If using an ice cream maker, you can do the blueberries the night before and make the ice cream the next day.

Start with: 2 cups coarsely chopped blueberries

Bring blueberries, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of water to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for ten minutes, stirring often. Cool for 30 minutes, and then cover and chill for two hours. I did this step the night before.

For ice cream maker: 
Whisk together:
1 (14 ounce can) condensed milk
1 (5 ounce can) evaporated milk
2 cups whole milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A pinch of salt

Cover and chill for two hours.
Pour milk mixture into 1 quart freezer container and churn for about 20 minutes. Remove container with ice cream and freeze in the container for 30 minutes.
Stir blueberries into the mixture and transfer to a loaf pan and cover with aluminum foil. Freeze for 3-4 hours.

Using a stand mixer:
1 Pint (2 cups) heavy cream
1 (14 ounce can) sweetened condensed milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

In a small bowl, combine the vanilla extract and sweetened condensed milk. Pour heavy cream into a mixing bowl and whip on a high speed until stiff peaks form. Reduce mixer speed to low, and slowly add the vanilla mixture to the mixing bowl. Once combined, stir in blueberries and pour into a loaf pan covered tightly with aluminum foil. Freeze for 6 hours or overnight. 

This was a hit, but you don't have to take my word for it.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Best Intentions

     Does anyone else have a constantly messy house this time of year? No need for a public confession, everyone put you head down and discreetly raise your hand if you do. I'll look around and feel a solidarity with those of you brave front line mamas with a hand up.

Sunflower shadows dance on my wall.
 Thankfully, it's summer, when nothing can rattle me for long. There's little that a fresh tomato sandwich can't cure. I decided to intentionally enjoy every minute of these hottest months and let a few things fall by the wayside this year. I'm just getting by until school starts, making due with the minimal, and finding it a source of joy. It's been a lesson on one aspect of simplicity:  Simplicity isn't the austerity of a perfectly picked up home or perfectly organized life. It is prioritization, and the freedom of making unique choices that work for you and your family. 

School's still out. Amish school playground, Lancaster.

When our lack of a garden this year cut me short on canning and freezing our usual vegetables, I cherished our bramble berries even more. I decided to do what I could, without pressure, and have enjoyed filling the jam shelf in our pantry, making pie fillings, and have had more than enough to keep me busy. It's been peaceful to made do with what I have and to indulge in canning little extras. Projects I've always wanted to put away but never had the time for in the face of endless beans.

     There have been times when I've had to remind myself that I am choosing to focus on the joy of this season, and not let the small stuff distract from the beauty of the green fields and sunshine. For instance, the five mile trip to pick up my canning peaches which turned into a seemingly endless journey when traffic cut off a direct route. A back road was the scene of an auction that just ended. Cars, buggies, scooters, things you never knew were street legal were pouring out of a driveway. Under a clear sky with a windmill glistening in the sun, I dodged a wagon full of tourists on a buggy ride and took a deep breath as I hoped that some other side road would lead me closer to the fruit farm. Puttering behind a line of traffic for the last two miles, I finally reached my destination at exactly the time I had told my husband to expect my return. I need to savor this moment, I reminded myself. There will not be another moment like it for a year. There will not be another perfectly gorgeous summer day where I will be picking up peaches against a scenic back drop and the anticipated satisfaction of filling jars.

No, really, there were a lot more cars than this on the road.

The Little Mister & Ruthie

Back at home, my back hurts as I lay on the wood floor with Little Mister. We're playing with his farm set, which I brought out because I wanted to see if he really still plays with it. It turns out he does. We're making the goat do silly things like stand on the roof of the barn and drive the tractor.

I need to savor this moment, because there will not be another moment like it, ever.  It is truly the day that the Lord hath made.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer Love

This post is just a few of my favorite things about summer. 

As I drive by green fields and ponder roadside wild flowers, I think "What a gift!" This is my favorite time of year and these are things that bring me much joy. I want to live in the present with them as much as possible, soaking in their goodness and preserving them in my heart so I can summon these recollections when the year is dark and cold. 

 Fireflies, or as we called them when I was a kid, Lightnin' bugs. 

 Shelter from the sun under a covered bridge.

 I've expounded on my love of corn fields before, so I'll let this speak for itself.

Wild flowers by a stream.

 Is there anything more cheerful than a sunflower?

 I bought an ice cream maker on sale a few years ago and didn't even take it out of the box until now. Usually, the store deals are so good that I can buy ice cream cheaper than I can make it. However, announcing that we're making ice cream is so much fun. You can't put a price on that.
 It's especially good with fresh cherry cobbler. I really enjoy sweet cherries and prefer them for baking over the sour cherries.

If you haven't fallen in love with summer yet, it's not too late.


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