Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Forty



Hello! Thank you for the get-well and holiday wishes on my last post. We had a nice Thanksgiving, in spite of the fact that the Bear had fallen to the illness by then too. I stayed well through it all, though, and a good thing too, since I had a lot of cooking to do. It was a lot for one person to do all by herself, I will admit, and as usual, the "man" version of the illness seemed ever so much more dire than the child version, but that's neither here nor there; everyone appears to be back to normal, more or less, and the holiday was a good one. Over the weekend, I also celebrated my fortieth birthday, with a dinner out (this wasn't looking like it would happen, but we made it in the end), a lovely cake and presents. Coming at the end of a very hard week, my birthday pictures feature a fairly haggard crone-like figure, so I'll keep them to myself. I assure you, I was very happy on the inside.

My birthday last year was shared with Thanksgiving, as sometimes happens (I was born on the day as well), so I was happy to have the days separate again this year. It's a lot for one day and my naturally guilty conscience won't let me enjoy my birthday fully when I suspect that people are trying too hard to juggle my day and the holiday. They'll never say so (well, some of them will, and have, but I don't invite them to my birthdays anymore), but it's a feeling I have within myself and I don't like it, so it's good to have the holiday and the birthday fall on different days like they did this year.

Last year, we went out for a mediocre Thanksgiving meal in a restaurant; this year, I could cook the big meal and have the birthday dinner out too, which is so much nicer. I also went back to my old tradition of having a store-bought cake (the same one I've had many times, the Berry Chantilly cake from Whole Foods Market), instead of making my own; last year, I made a delicious dulce de leche cheesecake from Pati Jinich's first cookbook, which I enjoyed very much, but I really, really love that berry cake and I liked having it all ready and waiting in the fridge.

I had perfect (for me) birthday weather this year too - sunny and chilly, with crystal-clear blue skies. Last year, my birthday was a weirdly warm and hazy day, sunny and something like 75 degrees. On Thanksgiving! People were outside barbecuing and drinking beer on their front lawns. Sorry, that's just not right for late November. I liked our normal November weather much more, especially our cold, cloudy Thanksgiving Day. I'm complaining, I know, and I don't mean to. It's just funny how differently birthdays can feel from one year to the next.


My gifts were really lovely. This is my favorite gift, a group of three cakes of gradient yarn. I mentioned this yarn before, as well as the project its intended for (the Trio crocheted blanket by Susan Carlson of The Felted Button); I didn't expect to ever have any of this yarn because it's out of my normal crafting budget, but I was asked to provide gift suggestions and because it was a BIG BIRTHDAY, I decided to ask for this yarn for a present. The Bear was only too happy to provide. I was so excited! The yarn, Scheepjes Whirl, is a light cotton/acrylic blend and comes in so many beautiful colors (click the link in the yarn's name to see them). My colors are (clockwise from the top): Black Currant Squeeze Me, Lavenderlicious and Green Tea Tipple. Fun names, right? I love these colorways so much. Honestly, I'm just in love with gradient yarns lately; I really can't get enough.

As much as I love these colorways, I had a little trouble deciding on them, but then I usually do. I needed three cakes for the project and I loved looking through examples of the blanket made by other people, many of whom are a lot more adventurous with color than I am. In the end, I decided to go with my favorite tones. I guess I played it a little safe. My favorite colors include purples, blue-greens and grays, and I loved all three of these colorways, so I took a chance on them and I think they look fantastic together. The blanket design will have the colors pooling and blending from one end to the other, so I have to decide whether to use these yarns from the inside of the cakes or the outside. I'm not sure yet, it's kind of complicated to think about it, actually! I haven't started working with the yarn yet, since I'm still plugging away with my stash-buster ripple, but I'm looking forward to it. I've decided the Trio blanket will be for me. I've never actually made a blanket just for myself, and I'm not exactly sure how to go about having a blanket be just for me, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. I'm sure I'll be willing to share sometimes, but only with nice, careful people.


I also received a wonderful gift that I've wanted for a long time, a new ice cream maker. We have an old one that doesn't work as well as I'd like it to, needs to be used outdoors because it's noisy, and requires copious amounts of ice. It works, but it doesn't, you know? I love to make ice cream, and would really enjoy branching out into sorbets and sherbets, and I'd really appreciate the convenience of a countertop appliance, so this is something I've had on my wishlist for a couple of years. I'm really glad to have it. Sorry for the box photo, as if this is a low-quality catalog; I just haven't unboxed it yet but it's coming soon.


Miss GB made me a very pretty bracelet. The beads sort of click together to open and close, which is nice for putting it on myself. The colored parts are plastic, but they look like sea glass. She has a bag of them that came with a DIY jewelry craft kit and she kind of hoards them, so I feel very lucky to receive something like this from her. I also received Ghirardelli chocolates and a small baking dish, as well as lovely cards and a DVD of one of my favorite movies, Peggy Sue Got Married. We had dinner in an Italian restaurant and came home for delicious cake. It was a really lovely day.

And now I'm forty years old. I'm still getting used to that. On the other hand, I've always felt much older than I actually am, and for some reason, always had the idea that when I was forty, I would finally feel like my age matched my sense of myself. I think it's accurate, actually. There's something about being able to say that I am forty that feels correct and fitting. I think I felt forty at fourteen, honestly. I probably looked it too (I've never gotten enough sleep). I'm happy about it. I feel settled in my life and I like where I am at forty. I don't have big ambitions and never have; I like being a wife and a mother, a homemaker, a general helper-outer in my kids' school, a good-enough daughter, sister and friend. It's enough. I think I like myself more the older I get, which is what they always said would happen, so I'm right on track there too.

I will say that my birthday feels like a finish line, of sorts, after a difficult year. A few very challenging things went on behind the scenes here, but I don't want to dwell on them. They've kept me away from blogging, commenting, emailing, socializing, creating, and a lot of other things I wanted to do, and they don't deserve the space anymore. It's just good to be getting back to the healthy mindset that I've worked hard to develop in myself - one of gratitude and appreciation for the life we've chosen, the relationships we know we can count on, the loving home we've created for ourselves, our happy marriage and utter joy in parenthood, my meaningful and healing hobbies - and when I think about all of that, I know that's what matters. So, while I'm never one for resolutions or hard promises, I do feel like I've reached a turning point and that I have the strength and sureness to move forward and leave a very bad time behind, looking instead to the good and positive things once again, but not to pressure myself. A birthday is not a deadline or a magical new beginning, it's just a day (and this one happens to be a big cultural milestone, and it also happens to fall at the end of the calendar year), just a jumping-off point for better things and I'm more than ready to embrace them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bright berries












This morning, I baked a carrot cake in a bundt pan. I'd always baked them in rectangular pans, all the better for covering with foil after icing, but I felt like a change this time. I'm going to make thin, drizzly icing instead, and I felt like trying the cake in a bundt pan, which worked surprisingly well. I thought maybe the carrots would make the batter too heavy, but nope - a beautifully risen bundt cake. It's our Thanksgiving dessert and I baked it today because I have too many things to cook tomorrow. I also made my cranberry sauce already - yesterday morning - because it can just sit in the fridge and firm up for a couple of days. I'm also making a turkey breast, candied yams, garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing and steamed asparagus. The Bear will bake bread outdoors in a cast-iron Dutch oven with hot coals (he loves this kind of cooking, or any kind of fire work, really - he's had the rocket stove out lately firing his own clay pottery in it; Dutch oven bread is really just another flavor of that), and we'll have our usual assortment of olives and nuts for appetizers. We've almost always had Thanksgiving at home, just the two - then three, then four - of us, and we really like it calm and quiet this way. Thanksgiving is a great holiday for food and hanging out. It's some work, yes, but it doesn't have the pressure of presents and decorations and high expectations, so I like it best of all the holidays, I think.

All week, I've had sick kids lounging on the couch. There's something really crummy going around at school, with fevers and sore throats and aches and pains. I've done very little all week as a result. I feel fine myself, though. We're watching TV shows and movies, reading books and listening to the radio. I've been crocheting a lot. My stash-buster ripple is getting huge and I'm nearly at the bottom of my yarn basket. None too soon, since the ripple I'm replacing literally tore right down the middle while a sick person was attempting to spread it over himself. We put it out with the trash on Monday.

I was a little sad; that blanket was my first real, big crochet project, made a year or two after I found crochet-based blogs and started thinking that it looked like a good craft for me to take up. I was a less mature, less settled person then, mother of a preschooler and a baby, feeling overwhelmed a lot, wishing I had a way to unwind and calm what was already a very anxious and high-strung personality before babies and young children ever entered the scene. Making that blanket showed me that I was capable of finishing a project, and of making something really useful for my household. We used it to death, apparently. I loved it, though, and it gave me the confidence to try more and more new things in crochet. I've said it before, but I do think crochet changed my life for the infinitely better. I'm always surprised by how empowering it has been to learn a craft and stick with it.

So it's been a weird week, and not just because I'm semi-mourning an admittedly ugly old blanket. You know how it is when they're the real kind of sick, not the kind where they want to talk to you and they argue about what they're allowed to eat and drink. This is the kind where they lie there listlessly and then take themselves off to bed at 6:30. It makes for strange days for me, where I don't go out and all the activities and lessons are off the table. At least it was a short school week, so they didn't miss much. I'm hopeful that they'll be well for tomorrow. For now, it's just another quiet day. We're watching Frasier on Netflix, which I really should have given more of a chance back when it was on TV. I should go and see if the patients feel like having lunch. Even if they don't, I could use some.

I wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday if you are celebrating! Take care, enjoy and have a lovely time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Cake for later

Hi! So much for blogging more often, huh? Life lately is kicking my butt. But we're doing fine and everyone is looking forward to the holidays. It's good and cold outside now - way colder than it even should be for this time of year! - which makes me very happy. We even had a dusting of snow yesterday. So exciting! It melted by noon, but it was pretty while it lasted. Right now, I'm planning my Thanksgiving menu for next week. We may decorate for Christmas over the holiday weekend, or we may wait until the following week. We haven't decided yet, but I do have a new Christmas tree topper, a simple update that was a long time coming. Goodbye, tired old paper angel.


In the spirit of just beginning to prepare for Christmas, I baked a traditional Christmas cake with fruit and nuts a couple of weeks ago. This seems like an antiquated thing to a lot of people, but it's something I really wanted to get right. When I was a kid, we often ate store-bought fruitcakes with one set of grandparents, who would have them with coffee. I liked them well enough, my favorite part being the green- and red-dyed candied cherries that I would pick out and eat first, before consuming the rest of my slice of cake. I know there are lots of jokes about fruitcake and how much everyone hates it, but I like the idea of making your own in the weeks before Christmas and feeding it with liquor periodically. I like routines and schedules, they're my thing. And I like making a food that needs to develop over time as opposed to being eaten right away. It feels like a real creation then.

This was not my first Christmas cake. I'd made them in the past, but it had been about five years since my last attempt. They never turned out well. They were overbaked - almost burnt - and they usually tasted far too rich and boozy to us. I didn't want to make those mistakes again, so I spent some time browsing recipes that were new to me, finally coming across one that gave me a few things I was looking for: lower alcohol amounts, more real fruit (though I did want to keep just a little of the candied fruit, because it's pretty and festive, so I'd just make them part of the total fruit amount), better instructions for baking, and slightly healthier ingredients overall. I found all of this in a vegan recipe, of all places. I'm not vegan, and neither is anyone else in my house, but the recipe gave me what I was looking for, so why not. Vegan (almost) Christmas cake for us.


The recipe comes from BBC Goodfood, with modifications. For example, I didn't use coconut oil, I used canola oil. I did this because we're not crazy about the flavor of coconut oil in baking. I didn't use chia seeds (to make a "chia egg") either; I used two egg whites instead. I've also added conversions to US measurements, because I'm a little challenged that way and I thought someone else might find it helpful. My measurements are in parentheses.

BBC Goodfood Vegan (Almost) Christmas Cake
adapted from the original recipe

Ingredients

1 kg (about 2lb, 3oz) dried fruit (raisins, sultanas (golden raisins), currants, cherries, cranberries, prunes or figs; I used currants, regular and gold raisins, cherries, cranberries and a few ounces of rinsed, chopped candied cherries, adding the candied cherries after step one below)
zest and juice of one orange
zest and juice of one lemon
150ml (5oz) rum, plus extra for feeding
250g (8oz) coconut (canola) oil
200g (7oz) light brown sugar
4 tbsp chia seeds (I replaced with two egg whites)
175g (6oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
100g (3.5oz) ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp mixed spice (pumpkin pie spice is a good substitute)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
100g (3.5oz) flaked (slivered) almonds
1 tsp vanilla extract

Method


1. Put the dried fruit, zests and juice, rum, oil and sugar into a large pan set over medium heat. Give it a good mix, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Tip the mixture into a large bowl and leave to cool for 30 minutes.



2. Heat oven to 150C/130C/fan/gas 2 (I heated my oven to 300F). Line a deep 20cm cake tin (I used my basic springform pan, the deepest round pan I own) with a double layer of baking parchment (I did this by cutting three strips of parchment about five inches wide each, spreading and layering them over each other to cover the whole inner area of the pan), then wrap a double layer of newspaper around the outside, tying it with a string to secure. Mix the chia seeds with 150ml water. Leave to sit for 5 minutes until gel-like and thick (I didn't do this; I just added two egg whites to the mixture in the next step).


3. Add the remaining ingredients to the fruit mixture, along with the chia-seed mix (or egg), and stir well, making sure there are no pockets of flour. Tip into prepared tin, leveling the top with a spoon, and bake in the center of the oven for 2 hours.


4. Remove the cake from the oven, poke holes all over with a skewer and pour over 2 tbsp of rum. Leave the cake to cool completely in the tin.

5. To store, peel off the baking parchment, then wrap well in cling film. Feed the cake with 1-2 tbsp (I'm going with 1 tbsp) of alcohol every fortnight (two weeks), until it's time to ice it. Don't feed the cake for the final week to give the cake a chance to dry out before icing.

I'm so happy with how this has gone so far. It's dark but not burnt. The smell while it baked was just intoxicating - family members came in from outside to see what I was up to! My cake is now sitting on the buffet in the dining room, inside a plastic pie-taker container. I just gave it its first repeat feeding on Sunday, one tablespoon of light rum. It's the cheapest rum in the world, but we have a lot of it so it's perfect for this job. I haven't decided yet how I will decorate my cake, but I'm considering trying my hand at fondant. That may be an optimistic plan, so I might stick with basic icing, but we'll see how ambitious I'm feeling when the time comes. I think it will be a festive holiday treat either way. Soon, I'll turn my attention to cookie-baking! Tis the season, very nearly.
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