Dec 31, 2010

Retrospective on resolutions

For better or worse, blogging can hold you accountable. (Yeah, you can walk away at any time, but if you stick with it, you are stuck with your own words.)

Last year, I made a list of new year's resolutions here, and here's how I did on them:
  1. Showing more hospitality.  I wasn't quite as consistent month-to-month as I wanted to be, but all in all, I'm pretty happy with my  efforts on this one - we had several dinners with friends and family, and I opened my home to two big group activities, so I'd call this resolution one that I successfully kept.
  2. Running the race.  Despite a few setbacks, I have stuck with running for another year, and I'm looking forward to logging more miles this year.  Still nowhere near ready for a half-marathon, though.
  3. Becoming more purposeful.  Argh.  This is hard to do, and really hard to objectively measure.  Some days were better than others, and I think I can say I put more effort into attempting to be truly purposeful and careful with my time.  I still have lots of room for improvement, though.
  4. Becoming more prayerful.  Wish I could say I nailed this one, but God knows this is one I struggle with.  I think I struggle most with trying to do things on my own instead of giving them  to Him to handle, which means I hold off approaching Him until I feel I've got everything under control (which doesn't always happen.)  I don't know why I think He expects me to have (or even get) my act together - He knows me better than anybody else!
  5. Reading the Bible through.  I am most disappointed in myself on this one, because I just plain didn't make this a high priority.  I definitely need a do-over on this one. 
If I assigned grades of A through F on these, my GPA would be passing, but I wouldn't be on the Dean's List.  I am happy that I kept a couple of them well, and looking back has given me a clearer idea of what my 2011 resolutions and priorities will be.

Happy new year!

Dec 30, 2010

Happy birthday, baby blog!

A year ago today, I launched the Domestic Dilettante with this post.  In the 365 days that followed, I changed up my blog background and header five times.  And I found - more days than not - something to say:  190 posts and counting.  (Big surprise there, huh?)

If only I could settle on a permanent background and image...
It's been a fun year of learning the ins and outs of blogging.  If you are one of my lurker/readers (I know who MOST of you are), I will tell you what I wished for when I blew out that virtual candle below; hopefully it won't jinx me. 

It was two wishes, actually:
  1. That you enjoy reading about my escapades and tidbits of half-baked wit and wisdom; and 
  2. More of you will show your "faces" here.  Or at least comment on a post now and then.  (I love hearing from you, too!)
More seriously, my biggest wish is for another year of God's grace and mercy and wisdom to pour down on all of us; for His help and comfort in our times of need; and that He will provide us with opportunities to help others in the coming days and weeks and months.

Happy blogging,

Dec 29, 2010

Recipe of the week: Runzas

Today I'm showing my roots, both literally and figuratively.  (My hairdresser will take care of one of those problems soon; in the meantime, we'll concentrate on my figurative childhood roots, which were grown in that good Nebraska farming soil.)

Runzas (pronounced just like you think: RUN-za) are a handful of warm comfort food, a "hot pocket" meaty sandwich that goes back to the late 1700s. Runzas became a fast-food phenomenon in the midwest in the mid-20th century, and I have enjoyed them since I was a youngster and have made them for my own children to eat as a meal or quick snack. As bowl games get underway, I try to balance easy-to-fix snackage with hearty, wholesome foods. Runzas fit the bill perfectly on both counts. You can make them with frozen bread dough, or make your own favorite plain bread dough.

The recipe for bread dough here is adapted from a basic bread recipe in Mary Gubser's "Mary's Bread Basket & Soup Kettle" cookbook and turns out reliably delicious white bread dough each time I use it.

Ingredients for Dough
2 loaves frozen bread dough, thawed and brought to room temperature

1 package (or tablespoon) dry active yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups milk, scalded and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
4-4 1/2 cups white flour (I prefer King Arthur's bread flour; can use all-purpose flour)

Ingredients for Filling
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 head cabbage, shredded (about 3 cups)
1 cup shredded carrots
1 medium onion, diced (1-2 cups)
salt & pepper to taste
10-12 slices American cheese (optional but HIGHLY recommended)

If using frozen dough, you'll need to make sure the loaves are completely thawed and warmed and relaxed (you may thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, then move the loaves to a counter and cover with a tea towel to finish warming and softening - the "dethawing" process cannot be shortcut.)

If making bread dough, combine yeast, water and sugar in large bowl. Allow yeast to "proof" (begin to bubble and expand), then add milk, melted butter and salt.  Begin adding flour one cup at a time, until a soft dough is formed.  Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny, about ten minutes (or use heavy mixer with dough hook.)  Place dough in large greased bowl, turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and a cotton tea towel, allow to double in bulk, about 1 hour.

Once the dough is ready to roll, make filling by placing all ingredients except cheese in large skillet.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. Cover in between stirrings to speed up wilting of vegetables. Once the beef is brown and the vegetables are softened, drain well.  Set aside to cool slightly.

Divide dough in half (or use one loaf at a time) and roll out dough on lightly floured surface into a 10x18 rectangle. Cut into 6-inch squares (you should wind up with 10 or 12 pieces of dough.)  Place a slice of cheese in center of each square and top with a generous spoonful of filling.  Pinch corners together, easing sides of dough into a "knot" on the bottom of the bun.  Place runzas, seam side down on greased cookie sheet.  Repeat with second half of dough.  When all runzas are made, allow to rise another 30-40 minutes, then bake at 375 for 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Brush with butter (I always brush mine with milk or cream first, then rub with butter.) Allow to cool before serving. Can be refrigerated or frozen, then reheated.  Makes 10-12 runzas.

These are a bit of a "labor of love" especially if you are making the dough from scratch.  But you can make up a batch, then refrigerate or freeze them to reheat later.  Runzas are a delicious, easy way to get even picky eaters (pint size or full-grown ones) to nosh on some cabbage and carrots, and love the experience.

Happy eating,

Dec 27, 2010

Preparing for my introduction to Trader Joe's

Confession time:  I have never been to a Trader Joe's.

Quite honestly, I have no idea how I've lived in the Nashville area for ten years and ignored the delicious fact there's one just a hop, skip and jump from me.   It's time to rectify the situation.  I have a list of "must-buy" items recommended by my fellow foodies over at Dave's Garden.  I think it takes a special breed of person to get excited about grocery shopping...and I would count myself among that breed.

So instead of battling the after-Christmas bargain shoppers for markdowns, we're headed to Green Hills to see if this legendary grocer lives up to its reputation among its loyal customers.  Pumpernickel pretzels, green tea mints and organic pasta sauce, here we come!

Happy Monday,

Dec 26, 2010

Is it a house, or THE house?

Remember a few weeks ago, when I said I was tempted to look for available houses? Well, they say if you seek, you WILL find, and that's true especially in this real estate market.

And so here we are...about six weeks into serious house-hunting. We have rejected quite a few, have narrowed our focus down to three serious contenders, and of those, one that I think might be THE one.

How do you know if the house is THE house?  Or just A house?  A really nice house, but just a house?  There's a feeling that says "this is it" but if you're like me, you can get that fluttery feeling from more than one house. Sometimes it happens in two houses in a row, in less than an hour.  Hmmmm.  Am I THAT fickle?  (For those who know me, there's no need to answer that one :-)

In the absence of a strong sense of rightness, sometimes this decision boils down to cold, hard facts.  Price is certainly a consideration.  Size of property, size of house, size of rooms, size of closets - all important.  Location is also a key factor.  How many of my "most wanted" features does it have?  How many of Mr. Official's most-desired features does it have?  (Does he HAVE a list of wish-list items?  Does any man?)

With our present house, I lobbied for it based on location (proximity to specific schools), size of backyard, and - strangely enough - its severely dated interior.  I was exiting a demanding career, and knew I'd need some major projects to keep me challenged and sane as I learned to adapt to life as a stay-at-home-mom.  A house that needed serious updating seemed like a good choice, and that's what we got.  I learned a lot of things through the process (and not just how to hang cabinets or do a professional dry wall job.)  I learned that some things (like 8-foot ceilings and small windows) are not easily changed and to evaluate and consider the neighbors along with the neighborhood.

This time, I'm looking for move-in-ability.  I don't want to have to do anything more serious than change the paint color in the bedrooms and have the carpets, kitchen, bathrooms and windows cleaned before we move in.   I'm also leaning toward a house that has virtually no neighbors, except for livestock.  Given where we've been over the past decade, quite frankly a few goats and horses and/or poultry living next door sounds pretty good.

Everyone's different, every house is different, and every move is at a different point in our lives.  So is this THE one?  Or at least the one for now, tomorrow and a year or two from now?  I sure hope so....

Happy hunting,

Dec 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

My family - like many families - allowed the children to open one present on Christmas Eve.  It was intended to placate us as our anxiety levels peaked by giving us a new toy, book or garment and distract us until bedtime.

My husband tells of his childhood Christmas Eves, when his father couldn't stand to wait for Christmas morning, either.  So he let his children open ALL their presents the night before.  At first I rejected this unorthodox approach, but the older I get, the more I like it:
  1. No more agonizingly slow Christmas Eves spent trying to keep the kids occupied and entertained until bedtime.
  2. No more 2 a.m. "I can't sleep" whispers from children who simply can't stand to wait until sunrise, or squirmy children lying in their parent's bed, counting down the hours and minutes.
  3. No more stumbling to the den at dawn's first light, trying to match your children's enthusiasm without benefit of caffeine.
  4. No more "bed head" shots of the family opening gifts, captured for posterity. 
Our children are now past the age of pre-dawn gift openings.  In fact, last Christmas, Mr. Official and I were the first ones up and we watched an entire movie on our new blue-ray DVD player (our gift to ourselves), sipped a couple cups of coffee, and finally woke our kids to get Christmas day started before noon.

My father-in-law (the instigator of the Christmas Eve gift opening ritual) has been gone from us for a number of years. But the tradition lives on--we gather at my mother-in-law's house for dinner, and a gift exchange.   It's a fun evening to catch up with the siblings, inlaws and outlaws.  We laugh too much, talk too much, eat too much and eventually part ways, promising to get together more often in the new year.

Whatever your traditions are, I hope your season is merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.

Happy holidays

Dec 22, 2010

Recipe of the week: Christmas Confections Concluded

This has been a week of surprises and lessons-learned on procrastinating. A shout-out to my awesome Mr. Official husband who is currently laid up (laid low?) at MTMC's brand-new hospital, suffering from another bout of rhabdomyolosis. (Second inpatient stay in 2 years.)  It's a long story and has something to do with his first attempt at Body Pump and not being outdone by his lovely wife (his words, not mine.)

I'm not sure how I'm going to pull off all the pre-Christmas to-do's on my list while checking in on him several times aday, let alone get his list done, but somehow we'll make it work.  The things that are most important will get done, and everything else will wait or not get done at all.


Today is the third and final spotlight on holiday confections, which I will wrap up with two more favorites: almond crescents and homemade peppermint patties.  The almond crescent cookie recipe has been in our family for a very long time; the peppermint patty recipe came to me from a member back in 2001.  They are both worth the effort to try.

Almond Crescents

2 cups chopped almonds, divided
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar

Mix together 1 2/3 cup almonds, flour and sugar. Work in butter and vanilla. Chill for one hour, then form into 1-inch balls and roll in remaining chopped almonds. Form into crescent shapes (it takes a little practice to make the half-moons), and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes. Cool on pan for ten minutes, then roll in powdered sugar. Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

Peppermint Patties

1 pound powdered sugar
3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons peppermint extract
1/4 cup evaporated milk
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons shortening

In mixing bowl,combine powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, peppermint extract and milk. Shape into 1-inch balls and place on waxed-apper lined cookie sheets. Flatten with a drinking glass to 1/4 inches thick. Cover and freeze 30 minutes. In a double boiler over medium-low heat, melt chocolate chips and shortening together. Dip patties in melted chocolate and place on waxed paper to harden. Makes about 5 dozen.

Happy confecting!

Dec 20, 2010

Holiday Sprint: The final lap

I know, I know...there is another major holiday a week after Christmas. But since we tend to usher in the new year pretty casually, I count this week as the last lap of my holiday race. Whatever we happen to do after December 25 is not planned or orchestrated by yours truly.

I am beyond thrilled to be able to RUN this last lap. Yes, as of last Wednesday, I am once again running. Not as far or fast as I was prior to the calf strain, but I will take any form of running I can get, even if it's only 5 minutes at a time and at a poky pace of 5 MPH or thereabouts. Speed and endurance will be back soon enough.

The final bit of cookie and candy-making is wrapping up today, the cards are going in the mail, the shopping is closer to being done (we got sidetracked by some house shopping this weekend...) and so now we will scurry to finish the last few to-do's and settle in to enjoy the holidays.

Happy sprinting,

Dec 17, 2010

Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
("Seasons of Love" from the musical "Rent")

The evening of December 18, 1982 was cold and crisp in southern Colorado.  On that night I promised to love and honor the young man who is my handsome husband, right there in front of God and everybody.  By my estimate, tomorrow night will be the 10,220th dinner we've shared since we said our vows.  He says I snagged his heart with my spaghetti, and I still happily fix a big pot for him as often as he wants it.  We've experienced almost a quarter-million hours of married life, and I love that he still holds my hand and can make my heart go pitterpat with a glance and a smile.

Life has been exceedingly kind to us, handing us way more ups than downs, but we've weathered a few storms, always side by side.  We've watched each other graduate from college and helped each other deepen our faith.  We've attended weddings of friends and family, ushered nieces, nephews, our friends' children, and our own children into this world.  We've welcomed a great-niece and a grandpuppy into our family. We've mourned the loss of our grandparents and my father-in-law, some of our aunts and uncles, and we've grieved with friends in their times of sorrow.

Since we said "we do", we've witnessed triumph and tragedy on the gridiron for 28 seasons, voted in 7 presidential elections, watched the economy go up and down, and up and down again.  We've spent most of our life together raising three children, and we've proudly watched two of them graduate from high school, and one from college.  If God grants us a little more time, we'll celebrate another college graduation in another year, and then the swimmer girl will walk the line with her BHS classmates the year after that.  If my memory serves, we've housebroken 6 dogs and 4 cats, said goodbye to all of them except for Spice and Luci(fer).  We've quietly flushed an untold number of fish when they went belly up in the aquarium.  (Ssshhh, don't tell the boys.  We let them think the backstroke was a special fish trick.)

So how does a person measure a lifetime with the love of their life?  In years, months, weeks, days or minutes?  Or in all the moments that made us throw back our heads and laugh, along with those that dropped us to our knees?  Either way, as long as we're together, count me in for every minute and moment ahead.

Happy anniversary, baby - I still love you millions of bunches.

Dec 15, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Christmas Confections Continued

Like last week, this week's lineup pairs up a somewhat involved, labor-intensive cookie, and a quick microwave candy.

The cookies are among those I make every year, and have for a very long time. The original recipe called for using jelly or jam in the center, but I like the look, texture and flavor of glaceed cherries, although you have to work quick to wedge them in as soon as the cookies are removed from the oven and the dough is still soft. 

The pralines were an experiment many years ago, and came out surprisingly authentic-tasting. But my Cajun friends snub them when they hear how I make them. One of these days I'll sneak them past and they won't know what hit 'em.

Golden Thumbprint Cookies

1/4 cup shortening (do not substitute butter)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
finely ground walnuts (approximately 1/2-3/4 cup)
glaceed cherries

Preheat oven to 350.  Cream together shortening and brown sugar. Add egg yolk and vanilla; mix well. Add flour and salt. In a small bowl, lightly beat egg white. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and dip in egg white, then roll in ground walnuts to coat. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately make indention with your thumb or another similar size object (your thumb is fastest, trust me). Return to oven and bake 8 minutes longer or just until set. Immediately press glaceed cherry or a bit of jam in the indention. Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies. (I usually double the recipe.)

Microwave Pralines

1 cup fresh light brown sugar, packed (make sure there are no lumps)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups pecan halves (the freshest, plumpest ones you can find)

Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray.  Also spray a large tablespoon for dropping candy; set it aside.

In a 2-quart microwave-safe bowl, combine brown sugar, granulated sugar, corn syrup and water.  Microwave on high for 6-8 minutes without stirring, until a candy thermometer reads 240 (or a small amount of candy dropped in a glass of icy cold water forms a soft ball that flattens when you remove it from the water.)

When it reaches this stage, remove from microwave and quickly stir in butter and vanilla.  Add nuts and let stand for 2 minutes.  Stir vigorously for two more minutes until mixture thickens and turns opaque.  Working quickly, drop by spoonfuls on greased foil-lined cookie sheet, using the greased spoon.  If mixture sets up before you have finished, microwave for 30-45 seconds, then continue dropping until done.  Let stand about 1 hour until completely cooled.  Remove from foil and store in airtight container with waxed paper between layers.  Makes 20-25 pralines.

Next week I hope to have some pictures of all the goodies I listed here on their trays, ready to go spread joy to friends and neighbors.

Happy confecting!

Dec 14, 2010

My Desk: The Final Frontier

After all my blogging, errr, bragging, okay bloviating about my clean desk earlier this fall, I confess I let it slowly slide back into a slovenly mess, starting around fall break, when my docking station (and monitor) crashed.  Day by day, the detritus built back up a little at a time (I think the paper critters breed at night when we're asleep.)  You can say it - you knew it all along, didn't you? When I stopped the weekly updates, that was the beginning of the end.  It was indeed.

But the perfect storm brewed today:  a missing bill, the approaching holidays and getting the tree up in the bonus room swirled around me until I finally took time to whip it back into shape.  And now, with heartfelt apologies to Johnny Nash, my clean desk put me in mind of his single, "I Can See Clearly Now"...with a twist.
I can see clearly now, the clutter's gone,
I can see all the projects lined out for me...
Gone is the junk mail that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sunshine-y day.

I think I can make it now, the catalogs are filed,
All the expired coupons have disappeared
Here is the tidiness I've been prayin' for
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sunshine-y day.

Look all around, there's nothin' but clear desk
Look straight ahead, nothin' but clear deskkkkkkkkkk....

I can see clearly now the clutter's gone,
I can see all the dates on my calendar...
Gone is the tower of papers that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sunshine-y day.
Admit it - you're humming, aren't you?  Not sure it's gonna be a sunshine-y day, but there's a little ray of sunshine beaming down on my clear desk blotter right now.  Because I found the bill.  And I still have a few days to get it paid. Ahhhhhh.

Happy organizing

Dec 13, 2010

Holiday Sprint Week 7: My favorite holiday movies

For most of us, we have a few movies that are inextricably intertwined in our holiday traditions. Some of them are sentimental favorites while others provide a refreshing (even bracing) antidote to the overload of Christmas cheer.  Here are a baker's dozen of my favorites.  So far I've caught #1, 2, 3, 8 and 11; I'll probably make time for a few of the others over the next couple of weeks.
  1. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)  What's not to like about George Bailey and his truly wonderful life?  A reminder that what is important in life is certainly not what's in your bank account. 
  2. White Christmas (1954) Purists snub this for the original black and white "Holiday Inn" but I like it, awkward lines and all - it's worth it for the songs.
  3. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) (Language warning - catching this on TV will dub out the unrepeatable words that may catch you unawares on the DVD.) Another reminder of what is most important - but told with a very different slant.  I think my family can recite this entire movie with little prompting, and I can do a mean imitation of Aunt Bethany (a glimpse into my future, perhaps?)
  4. A Christmas Story (1983) The movie that everyone recognizes by its oft-quoted tagline:  "You'll shoot your eye out!"
  5. A Christmas Carol  Many versions have been done, but my favorites are the 1984 version with George C. Scott and surprisingly, the 2009 animated version with Jim Carrey.  I guess I just didn't think he could pull it off, so I went in with low expectations and came away entertained.
  6. Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Great animated holiday movie and a timeless, fantastic soundtrack performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
  7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) is probably my favorite animated holiday movie. For children, it's a little dark, but as an adult, I appreciate it, much like I appreciate the bite of good dark chocolate, too.  Can't say I'm a huge fan of the 2000 remake with Jim Carrey, but it's passable.
  8. The Santa Clause (1994) is probably a sentimental favorite because we took our boys to see it just before Christmas, back when they were still little and believed in the big guy in the red suit.  Music like ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" helped it along.
  9. The Polar Express (2004) is an enjoyable movie to watch for its technical feats as much as trying to spot Tom Hank's multiple characters.
  10. Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas (1977) was a Jim Henson animation that doesn't get much air time.  I watched it dozens of times on HBO back in the early '80s and liked it even though it is high on the cheese factor.
  11. Trading Places (1983) Yes, it really is a Christmas story, and a modern rendering of the story of Job. And yes, with Eddie Murphy starring, you can plan on covering your ears and eyes for a few less-than-jolly scenes (like "Christmas Vacation," I'd advise catching it on a channel that will censor out the family unfriendly scenes and words.)
  12. You've Got Mail (1998) is both derivative and a remake, but I like it despite those character flaws.  Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and a sweet dog - what's not to like?  Alternate choices are "An Affair to Remember" (1957) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940).
  13. Stepmom (1998) is not usually considered a Christmas movie, but I think it fits the bill nicely.  Watch it and see if you don't agree.  Be sure you have some tissues handy when you do.
A few other honorable mentions would include "Jack Frost" "Family Man" and "Hook" - all are cautionary tales (especially to dads) to live purposefully and put first things first.

For those of you who were expecting to see "Elf" on this list, it was no oversight - I snubbed it.  Other than a few memorable lines ("You sit on a throne of lies....You stink. You smell like beef and cheese...") I can totally forget it.  Will Farrell in tights? 'nuff said.

I also skipped "Christmas with the Kranks" because as much as I like to laugh at Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis (they are both represented among my faves here), I found the over-the-top screwball treatment of Grisham's dry humor was, well, over-the-top.  Skip the move and just read "Skipping Christmas."

So what are your favorite Christmas movies, and why?  If you don't have any favorites, I hope you work a night or two sweet and funny movies into your family traditions.  The quotable lines will become part of your family's shared language and bind you closer together.

Happy watching,

Dec 12, 2010

The cards are coming, the cards are coming!

Note to self: next year we shall take a family shot earlier in the fall. It's fun to do a photo shoot when we get our tree, but that means the cards can't be printed until sometime in December. Which means they won't leave here and arrive in our friends' mailboxes until dangerously close to Christmas. This year, my fingers are crossed they will arrive in the proverbial "nick" of time. Here are the cards I put together using the promotion Shutterfly kindly offered to me a few weeks ago.  Between these and the Santa hats I made this year, I'm beginning to think it's a Santa-centric year for me!

Santa's Belt Christmas Card
Turn your pictures into personalized Christmas cards.
View the entire collection of cards.

Happy holidays!

Dec 11, 2010

Double the dough, half the mess

I am all for efficiency, especially when it comes to cleaning. Why scrub my Kitchen Aid bowl and attachments more than I have to? Last night was pizza night, and instead of doing takeout, I chose to make pizza from scratch. That process starts with the crust, so yesterday afternoon I tried out a new recipe for a thin crispy crust and modified it (I don't have a day or two to let it slowly rise in the fridge.) It was actually pretty good and I'm becoming more convinced that my choice of flour really does have a profound affect on the taste and texture of my yeast breads.

After the dough was mixed and nestled in a greased bowl to double in size, I seized the opportunity to whip up a batch of kolache dough, too.

Before baking
To all my non-Oklahoma or midwestern friends who are wrinkling their brows and wondering WHAT a kolache is, here's the scoop.  Kolache (or kolacky, spell it as you wish) is a yeast bread, probably hailing from Czechoslovakia (there's a Polish version too), and it's pronounced ko-LAH-chee. My paternal grandma made them and she filled her light little pillows of sweet dough with prunes (yes, prunes), peaches, or a cream cheese mixture, baked them until they were golden and then drizzled a simple glaze on them. Other traditional fillings include fruit (peach, pineapple, blueberry or strawberry) ground poppy seed or cottage cheese/cream cheese blend. (I hear tell some Texans make a savory kolache, with the dough wrapped around sausage and cheese. But I think someone should explain to them we call those "pigs-in-a-blanket." Bless their hearts.)

Let 'em cool for 20 minutes, huh?
These overnight rolls are a scrumptious reminder of special breakfasts long ago, and I don't think I've made them since my boys were pre-school size, which means it's been about two decades too long since I made them.  I departed from tradition and filled mine with chocolate/hazelnut (aka Nutella), guava, and a peach/orange marmalade.

In the end, I dirtied nearly all of my mixer's attachments and several other bowls and pans. But the ginormous Kitchen Aid mixing bowl WAS washed only once. Efficiency reigns triumphant, at least in the battle if not the war. Now to get up those outdoor decorations before the predicted rain/snow begins to fall.

Happy Saturday!

Dec 10, 2010

The [How Many?] Days of Christmas...Decorating

It's either lack of ambition or stamina, but I can't seem to get all the holiday decorations up in one day. It doesn't take me twelve days, but even after drastically paring back the decorating by eliminating one big formal tree and a display of miniature greenhouses, it still takes several days to get everything done.

So this year, the first day of decorating consisted of getting the cut tree up and decorated. I forged ahead with the mantel, ran into a mental block, and decided to wait until Monday (when Hobby Lobby was open) to finish it up.

No matching stockings here...
Days 2 & 3, the mantel. Part of me laments how much I have spent wasted on holiday decorations over the years. Another part of me accepts that my tastes have changed, styles have changed, and I have tried to cherish the timeless holiday pieces that have sentimental value, and let go of those that do not.  That's the long way of saying I decided it was time to update the mantel.  It was a long process; several decorations went up, most came down.  I studied several images of mantels, picked some ideas I liked from each and came up with this vignette.  Or is it a hodge podge?  You decide.

It took a while to come up with a look I liked, but I'm more-or-less happy with it.  I especially like the Santa Hats, an idea I snagged from Thrifty Decor Chick.

Aren't they cute?
I really appreciated her advice on where to get the materials.  Just like hers, I found the velvet at Hobby Lobby.  JoAnn's Fabrics yielded the black vinyl and fur trim; 3 inches of vinyl and 1 2/3 yards of fur trim were a whopping total of $5.  I wound up at Michael's for the crystals and bells.  See, I make sure I spread the love among all our local craft stores.

I decided to add my own twist to her crafty idea and left a little extra fabric at the top.  I let it flop over, added a silver bell and a bit of fur trim.  Other than the blister on my finger from the hot glue gun, it was a relatively easy craft!

My kitchen tree
Day 4: Kitchen tree.  I love my little kitchen tree, filled with cookie cutters, miniature kitchen items and other culinary-themed ornaments.

Day 5  Mr. Official's UT tree.  All orange (with a bit of black and white), all the time.

Day 6:  Miscellany.  The dining and living room get a few extra pieces added, as does the den.

Day 7:  The house is officially ready for Christmas.  The cards are ordered, so now it's on to baking and candy making, mailing our Christmas greetings, finishing up the shopping, and then waiting for St. Nick to bring me that Macy's store.  (Wonder how he's gonna get THAT down the chimney?)

Happy decorating!

Dec 8, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Christmas Confections

It's cookie and candy making time! Here are two of my favorites. One dates back to my grandma's day, and a wonderful new recipe I snagged last holiday season.

Grandma Eden's Date Pinwheels

Dough ingredients
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Filling ingredients:
1/2 pound (1 cup) chopped dates
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped almonds

Cream butter and sugars together. Add egg. Stir in flour and baking soda; mix well and chill for at least 1/2 hour. While dough is chilling, combine dates, water and 1/4 cup sugar in a heavy saucepan, over medium-low heat. Bring to boil and boil for five minutes or until mixture has become dense and sticky. Remove from heat and stir in almonds. Let cool to room temperature.

On waxed paper, roll out dough to 10x16 rectangle. Smear with date mixture and roll up tightly starting at wide end. Use waxed paper to keep dough intact as you ease it into a roll. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for another hour or overnight. Cut into 1/4-inch slices and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 12-14 minutes or until golden (but not hard). Makes 6 dozen cookies.

Jeanetta's Pretzel Turtles

Small round pretzels
Rolo chocolate-covered caramel candies
Pecan halves

Cover a cookie sheet or shallow jellyroll pan with foil, spray lightly with Pam or other cooking spray. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Place pretzels in a single layer on the sheet, leaving a bit of space between them. Unwrap and place a Rolo candy on each pretzel.

Place in oven and heat for 2-3 minutes (just until candies soften.) Remove from oven and immediately press a pecan half on each, pressing down to force chocolate and caramel into the pretzel. Allow to cool completely and refrigerate or freeze until ready to serve. Allow to come to room temperature.

Happy confecting!

Dec 6, 2010

Holiday Sprint Week 6: How Sweet it is!

The tree in the den is up, the weather has turned cold, and if that's not enough, the calendar declares it is time for confecting to commence.

Yes, that is a real word, so bring on the baking and candy making. Middle child's eyes lit up when he saw the towering stack of pecan and walnut bags on the counter a couple weeks ago. He knows it means major snackage is coming. It's no wonder this is called the most wonderful time of the year.

I have always loved baking, and Christmas is the perfect excuse to make an unholy amount of sweet treats to share. Not your run-of-the-mill cookies, these are once-a-year treats, made with love using recipes handed down from family and friends.  If I play my cards right, I can optimize the use of my kitchen appliances and oven to keep everything moving assembly-line style and have it all "in the can" in short order.

This Wednesday I'll post a few of my all-time favorite holiday recipes, and I hope you and yours enjoy them if you try them out.

Happy confecting,

Dec 3, 2010

My letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

All I want for Christmas is a
in Murfreesboro.

We hear Hickory Hollow Mall is about to become the site of the Nashville fair grounds, so please encourage the fine folks at Macy's to consider opening a new store in the 'boro, okay?  You must have an in with them, after all your appearances in their Thanksgiving parades.

In case they aren't aware, you can tell them we're the 12th fastest-growing city in the U.S., and the retail shopping mecca/epicenter for 10 surrounding counties.  I'm pretty sure we would make Macy's very happy if they became part of our fair city.


P.S., Since you may not be able to deliver on my wish this year, I could really use a pair of boots, some new gloves and scarf, a Vera Bradley desk calendar, and that nifty half-size bowl and beater/whisk for my Kitchen-Aid (Williams-Sonoma carries them), please and thank you.   A plate of your favorite cookies will be near the tree.  XOXOXO

Dec 2, 2010

Holiday Sprint Week 5: Time is the only thing sprinting around here

It is Week 5 of the holiday sprint and Week 8 without running.  This has to be God's way of giving me a heaping helping of patience, which I'm pretty sure I haven't asked for in a very long time.  (I stopped praying for patience when I figured out it doesn't come in an easy-to-swallow form.)

The good news is, I'm steadily throwing on more weight in Body Pump and getting better at Pilates and yoga.  The bad news is the calf is still not healed.  It is getting better, though and one of these days it will be fully healed.  Next week will be another opportunity to test it and my fingers and toes are crossed it will hold up to a mile or two.

At the risk of sounding like a rank amateur compared to my hard-charging Christmas-shopping friends, our tree goes up later this week - yes, just three weeks before Christmas.  We are planning our third annual family outing to a local tree farm on Saturday morning. 

For those who think it's de rigueur to have your tree up for at least a full month or more, it's not.  Nearly three decades of tree decorating tells me that a 3-week run is plenty long.  No other holiday gets to take over my entire house or dominate our schedule for weeks on end.  After the trees go up (yes, plural - a UT tree goes up in the bonus room and a small one in the kitchen), it will be time for a baking/candy making marathon next week. My tentative plans include these family favorite cookies:
  1. Grandma's Date Pinwheels
  2. Cherry-filled Thumbprints
  3. Iced Sugar Cookies
  4. Gwen's Gingersnaps
  5. Almond Crescents
and candies:
  1. Homemade Peppermint Patties
  2. Toffee
  3. Pretzel Turtles
  4. Fudge
  5. Black Walnut Divinity
  6. Cookie Truffles (Oreo and maybe gingersnap or Nutter-Butters with white icing)

And a new recipe to make it an even dozen; or two new ones to make it a baker's dozen.  I'm not sure what the new additions will be yet, but every year I like to try at least a few new treats.  No, we won't eat all these confections all by ourselves.  I will send a platter with Mr. Official for his co-workers and take some to neighbors and friends.  Once the cookies and candies are done, it will be time to wrap up the Christmas shopping; it has to be done before December 18, since that's a very special date for Mr. Official and me.

Happy sprinting,

Dec 1, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Hash Brown Casserole

I loved Cracker Barrel the first time I stepped foot in one, on the morning of November 27, 1982. It was a memorable breakfast preceding my first-ever UT football game. Unfortunately, it was one of only five games the Vols have ever lost to their in-state rival, the Vanderbilt Commodores (it's only happened once since, in 2005.)  I still love Cracker Barrel, despite our rocky start.

One of my favorite dishes is their hash brown casserole.  I've been known to order a double-portion as part of a "vegetable plate" (I know, potatoes shouldn't count as a vegetable, let alone TWO vegetables, but it's worth the occasional splurge.)

I've tried many recipes that claimed to taste "just like Cracker Barrel's" casserole, and I always came up short, until someone clued me into this simple and wonderful version. It is a perfect dish for a leisurely weekend breakfast or brunch, especially at the holidays.

Hash Brown Casserole Just Like Cracker Barrel's

1 32-ounce bag frozen shredded hash browns
1 onion, diced
3 tablespoons butter
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 1/2-2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375.  Spray or grease a deep-sided 9x13 baking dish (I like my big deep Pyrex "French White" casserole dish, but you can use any dish deep enough to hold the potatoes.)
Saute onion in butter.  Place frozen hashbrowns in dish, toss in softened onions.  Use a spoon and scoop the undiluted soup over the casserole; toss well (it won't seem evenly distributed but do the best you can.)  Sprinkle on cheese and toss once more to mix thoroughly.  Sprinkle with pepper (you can also season with salt, but I don't think it needs it.)

Cover with foil and bake for approximately 35-40 minutes or until edges are crisp and center potatoes are cooked through.  Remove foil and allow to bake another 5-10 minutes to brown on top.  Serve warm.  Makes 6-8 generous servings.

Note:  I have made this casserole the day before and refrigerated it overnight.  The baking time is approximately the same, since the potatoes will have completely thawed.

Happy breakfasting!

Nov 29, 2010

Can you go home again?

Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You Can't go Home Again," which was published posthumously in 1940.  It contains a warning that returning home will likely bring disappointment in two forms:  it will fall short of your expectations, and you will see that you have fallen short of others' expectations as well.

A few years ago, Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora defiantly asked "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" and their lyrics make the point that where you were raised stays with you, no matter where you go. 

More recently, Miranda Lambert's plaintive, poignant lyrics in "The House that Built Me" speaks to a longing to be grounded by our memories of home:
"You leave home, you move on, and you do the best you can.
I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am.
I thought if I could touch this place, or feel it.
The brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it's like I'm someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself..."
So I guess the answer to this question depends on whether you consider home a time or a place, and how far removed you are- not the physical distance, but the effect of time on our emotional connections.

For those who never left their hometown, this question probably makes little sense; for them, home is where and what it's always been. But for those of us who left the place where we grew up, we know the answer is complex and difficult to explain in words.  You can return, but you can't turn back the hands of time.  You can go home, but it isn't the same place. You're not the same person.

This weekend, I visited the town where I spent my early years.  I have been in the area since we moved, but I've never made a special trip on my own, until now.

My old school
We stopped by the grade school I attended from kindergarten until we moved away in the middle of my fourth grade year.  I was mentally braced for the school to seem smaller than I remembered, even though I didn't grow much taller than I was as a kid.  (No jokes, please.)  I wasn't ready to see it boarded up and dilapidated - it's a shame to see it fall into such disrepair.  A side door was broken out and we could peer inside - the big oak doors with their transom windows were intact, despite the obvious signs of vandals, drug users and homeless.

The local campground was full of migrating Canadian geese enjoying the spring-fed ponds on their annual trek. 

Our old farmhouse hadn't changed much since I last saw it, but the driveway seems much shorter than I remember it as a kid on my bike, and the lilac bushes are much bigger than they were back when. 

Late afternoon sunset in Kansas
Local eateries, the movie theater and other landmarks look much the same, but the midwest farming community is dwindling in size, and time has not been kind to it. But there is still part of me in that little town, and another part of me undoubtedly is out west, where I finished growing up.  The fact is, every place I've lived has added to me - given me something to add to my perspective on life, and to my personal character.  And I've left a bit of me behind with each move.

Happy Monday,

Nov 26, 2010

The things we do for love

Just like the old 10cc song.

I love my husband (aka Mr. Official), and he loves football. So this Black Friday morning I arose before 4:30 a.m., just like many other women. But I wasn't headed out to find the Christmas bargains and drag them back to the cave. No, I was getting up to drive 50 miles and take him to the airport so he could catch a flight back to Nashville.

It's Friday, do you know where your husband will be tonight? I do - mine will be on a high school football field, wearing black and white. Tonight he will be in South Pittsburg, home of Lodge Cookware, the folks who make that wonderful dutch oven I got for my birthday.  (I love to cook, and Mr. Official loves me, so it seems we all have things we do for love.)

This is the first year he's gotten a state semi-final game.  While I would love to have him with us for the entire holiday weekend (and have him share the drive home on Sunday), I'm proud for him and I'm happy he's doing what he loves to do.

Happy Friday,

Nov 25, 2010

A Day of Thankfulness

Each Thursday this month, I've added to a growing list of things I am thankful for. On this Thanksgiving Thursday, my list of blessings is topped off with these seven:
  1. A safe trip.  We had an uneventful trip across four states to reach our destination.  We encountered cold and windy weather, but my trusty car got us safe and sound to where we were going.  I pray for everyone to have safe travels to and fro this week.
  2. Creature comforts.  We enjoy plenty of clean, dry, warm clothing, cozy beds and comfortable surroundings, 24/7/365.  Driving to our hotel in downtown St. Louis last night, I saw men and women who were obviously homeless and it is humbling to realize how much we take for granted.
  3. Jobs and health.  God has blessed us with an ability to support ourselves, provide for our children and enjoy life without major health issues.   It's a huge understatement to acknowledge that not everyone is as fortunate.  May we always appreciate our health and ability to earn a living.
  4. Friends.  If I tried to name all the friends who have been part of my life from childhood to now, I would be counting a very long time.  I have friends who have stuck with me through thick and thin, have challenged me to look at life through different eyes, and shared laughter and tears with me.  I am honored by your friendships, and for your willingness to share part of your life with me.
  5. Family.  You can't pick your family but even if I could choose, I couldn't have picked a better family to be part of.  Whether near or far, they are near and dear to my heart.  My life is richer for the experiences I've shared with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, my parents and brother, my husband, his family and our children.  Each person has shaped my life and influenced me in countless ways.
  6. The opportunity to count my blessings.  What a privilege it is to have time to meditate on all these blessings; to stop and take stock of what really matters, and to appreciate all that I have been given.
  7. My savior.  None of what I have or do would matter if I didn't have the hope of heaven.  Because of Jesus' sacrifice, I have grace and mercy instead of punishment for my sins. Salvation is a gift that is beyond amazing or my ability to comprehend.  All I can do in return is to love God, show his love and share the gospel with others.

Happy day of giving thanks!

Nov 24, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Fried Apples

My mother-in-law makes the world's best macaroni and cheese and the best fried apples I've ever eaten, too. I haven't figured out exactly what makes her macaroni and cheese so special, so for now I'll stick with sharing what I do know:  her fried apples.

I had never encountered fried apples until I moved south. Now they are among my favorite holiday side dishes. They are very simple to make, so please don't pick up that can of something called "fried apples" at the store - set it down and pick out a half-dozen fresh, crisp apples. I promise that in a few minutes, you'll have something far tastier to serve. (Warning: you may find yourself testing them as you go, so you might need to pick up extra apples, just to have enough for everybody else. I speak from experience.)

Memaw Katie's Fried Apples

6 small to medium-sized apples (see note)
4-6 tablespoons butter (do not substitute margarine)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice

Core and slice apples. (Note: I usually use Braeburn, Jonagold or Honey Crisp - something with a fine, firm texture and light skin; not as tart as Granny Smith. If you opt for Red Delicious, peel the skins as they tend to be tough and bitter.)

Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add apples in a single layer and sprinkle with sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until apples are soft and sugar has completely melted and caramelized a bit (approximately 15-20 minutes.) Add a dash of orange juice at the end;  not much - just enough to give it a subtle flavor.  Stir through and serve immediately. Makes 4-6 servings.

And that's it - serve them hot or warm. (They're pretty good cold, too.) They can accompany turkey or ham as part of a traditional meal, or serve them over pancakes or hot buttered biscuits for a morning treat. Or over some good vanilla ice cream for dessert.  The possibilities are practically endless.

Happy cooking (and eating!)

Nov 23, 2010

Before you ask me to follow your blog....

One of the goals of a typical blogger is to get people to faithfully read their blog posts.  The easiest way to keep up with a particular blogger is to "follow" their blog and get an email update whenever a new post is added.

A few really serious bloggers make a living from ads or products and/or services they offer via their blog, but for most of us, being read is the only form of compensation we receive.  (Hint:  comments are always welcome.  They're kind of like applause after a performance, letting us know you didn't fall asleep halfway through.)

And most bloggers read/follow other blogs.  That makes sense:  those who love to write generally like to read, too.

I don't have a long list of blogs I follow, but there are those that I do keep up with - some of them are listed on my blog.  (Sharing the good news and all that.)   Unfortunately, I have discovered that I am the proverbial "kiss of death" for many an unsuspecting blogger.  As soon as I start following, they stop writing.  So if I don't follow your blog, please don't take it personally - I'm just trying to protect your writing muse.

Happy blogging,

Nov 22, 2010

Thanksgiving: T-4 and counting

It's here - Thanksgiving week. Woohoo and hoo boy, all rolled into one. It will be a week of frenetic packing, cleaning, and driving - over more than a few rivers and state lines - to get to the grandparents' house.

It's shaping up to be a busy week with lots of last-minute to-do's before we head west. But it's one more week of holding Christmas at bay - no tree or decorations to fuss over and no wrapping paper or bows on the presents just yet. A week to slow down and remind ourselves that we enjoy a bounty of blessings, from tangible and temporal to intangible and infinite. And for me, it's another week of not running, but I'll probably be too busy to miss it much.

To all of our friends, near and far, we send you our thoughts and prayers for a very happy day of giving thanks. To travelers everywhere, we bid you safe travels. To those readying your homes to receive guests, thank you for all you do to make us feel welcome and loved.

To our fellow Americans who are separated from your families because you are keeping us safe from those who would destroy our freedoms, may God guide and protect you and bring you home soon, safe and sound. Know that you are thought of, missed, appreciated and loved, by those who know you best, and strangers whom you will never meet.

Happy Monday,

Nov 18, 2010

Thankful Thursdays: More Blessings to Count

The Thanksgiving holiday is almost upon us and my list of things I am most grateful for continues to grow day by day.  Here's this week's top seven things I am blessed to have:
  1. Our house.  This is not a house I love, but it is a safe, dry, comfortable and secure place to live. Compared to 90% of the homes in the world, I live in a veritable palace.  In fact, the typical house in Rutherford county is larger than the castles that housed royalty in Medieval times.  May I always be grateful for the blessing of having a permanent shelter to dwell in.  It's far more than my Lord had here on this earth.
  2. Our home.  (No, that's not a repeat of #1.)  Our home - where we gather as a family - has been relocated many times.  But having a place for family and friends to share food, fellowship, laughter and tears, means I have a home.  May it be ever so humble, there truly is no place like it.
  3. My talents.  God has blessed me to be able to do many things.  It is tempting (and easy) to dwell on the things I can't do - or can't do well - but more important is what I can do, and what I do with the gifts that have been given to me.
  4. The talents of others.  I am not an island unto myself; I may be talented, but there are definitely many talents I lack.  Thankfully, those talents rest with others around me.  May I always look for the talents in each person in my path - be thankful for them, most especially for the things they can do that I cannot.
  5. The trials of life.  It's never fun to be tested and tried. It is less fun to fail at something, or to be disciplined.  But just as fire refines silver by removing impurities, the trials of life allow me to become stronger and more focused on what is important to my walk here on earth.
  6. My physical senses. I can feel the downy softness of a puppy's head, hear the infectious laughter of a child, see the glorious splendor of man and nature, and smell and taste the delicious flavors and aromas of food.  What would life be like without our senses?  I'm glad I don't have to know!
  7. Time.  You know the expression, "time is money."  We refer to time like it is just that - we spend it, we waste it, we invest it, we manage it, we even find and lose it.  In cold, hard financial terms, there is a time value to money - it's why bankers charge interest on loans.  But time is far more precious than money because we can't make more of it.  Let me not squander the time that I have, but make the most of each day I have ahead of me - it's truly a gift.
Happy counting,

Nov 17, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Overnight Sweet Rolls

I'm not sure which magazine I clipped this recipe from but it's been my go-to sweet roll recipe for many years. The heavy, rich sweet dough recipe is versatile enough to be used in most sweet roll recipes (just roll it the way you want it and add your choice of filling.)  It is also flexible:  you can make the rolls start-to-finish all at once, or you can refrigerate or even freeze the dough to finish and bake later.

My family's favorite are pecan sticky rolls, although orange/coconut rolls are near-and-dear to my heart as well.  Both options are explained below and they are wonderful to make ahead and have on hand to bake up fresh for special holiday breakfasts.

Basic Sour Cream Sweet Dough

2 packages instant active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105-115 F)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh orange rind (optional)
6 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

Stir yeast into water in small bowl with 1 tablespoon of the sugar; stir until dissolved and let stand about ten minutes until it foams.

Combine remaining sugar, melted butter, sour cream, eggs, salt and spices in large bowl of mixer; beat until well-blended.  Add two cups flour and beat until well mixed.  Add yeast mixture and two more cups of flour; beat two minutes at medium speed. Gradually stir in remaining flour to make a medium-soft dough (softer than a bread dough.)

Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead 5 minutes until smooth.  Shape into ball and place in oiled bowl, turn so greased surface is on top.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight, up to two days.

When ready to use, remove dough from refrigerator and punch down.  Turn onto lightly flfoured surface and knead briefly. Divide into 2 or 4 equal balls (2 yields two 9x12 pans; 4  yields four 8- or 9-inch pans.)  Flatten slightly; cover and let rest for 20 minutes.

Roll each ball into desired shape (keep remaining balls in cool place) and:
  1. let rise and bake at 350 until done; or
  2. cover tightly and refrigerate overnight, let come to room temperature and bake at 350 until done; or
  3. wrap tightly in foil and freeze for up to two months, let thaw in refrigerator overnight, then allow to come to room temperature and bake at 350 until done.
For cinnnamon rolls, divide dough into two portions; roll each into a 12x18 rectangle, smear generously with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar, then roll up from the long end; cut into 12 rolls and place in greased 9x12 pan.  Can be glazed or frosted as desired.

For pecan sticky rolls, make as for cinnamon rolls, but in baking pan combine 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup melted butter and 1 cup pecans before placing sliced rolls in pan.  Bake for approximately 25 minutes; immediately invert on platter for serving. (Tip:  make sure your tray is bigger than your pan.  Clamp them together securely and flip them together over the sink; that way, any hot flying caramel sauce can land safely :-)

For orange sweet rolls, divide dough into 4 balls.  Roll each ball into a 12-inch circle, smear with butter, sprinkle with sugar and coconut.  Cut into wedges and roll up crescent-style. Place in greased pan (each of the 4 balls will make a 9x9 pan or the entire batch will fill two 9x12 pans.)  Allow approximately 25 minutes for baking time but check at 20 minutes.

Orange glaze:  While the rolls are baking combine 1/2 cup butter with 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup sour cream and 2 tablespoons orange juice in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Pour glaze over roll immediately after removing rolls from oven.  You can sprinkle with more coconut if desired.  Serve warm.

Happy baking,

Nov 16, 2010

The Holiday Sprint Week 3: Ready? Set! Wait.

The clock is ticking - we're now down to just over 5 weeks.  Eeek!  However, I refuse to allow Christmas to encroach on Thanksgiving's time on the calendar, so we do not put up a tree before Thanksgiving. (I'm amazed at how many people do!)

We travel to the rural midwest for Thanksgiving, which means we don't do "black Friday" shopping, and we don't get home until very late on Sunday, so there's no putting up the tree as soon as the Thanksgiving dinner is over, as is the manner of my highly efficient and effective friends. Since the cards include a photo of us with the tree, I can't get them printed, signed, sealed and ready to mail early. Basically there is no way to get a headstart on the holidays, other than some deep cleaning (pantry is done; refrigerator and freezer are next.)

Some years I chafe under this self-imposed state of limbo, but everything always gets done between the end of November and December 24.  It's not a miracle, but it does require a leap of faith that it will work out, and it always does.

Occasionally I manage to get some Christmas shopping done in advance. The swimmer girl and I are headed to Gatlinburg this weekend for some shopping and relaxing with a group of friends. Here's hoping I can knock out quite a bit of the gift buying this weekend. That just leaves getting the tree bought and decorated, the cards printed and mailed, the cookies and candies made, and presents wrapped, all before it's time to hang the stockings on the fireplace and catch "A Christmas Story" movie marathon. All in 26 days. Piece of cake, as long as I stretch good first.

Happy sprinting!

Nov 15, 2010

Ten things I love about Thanksgiving

Why do I love Thanksgiving?  Let me count the ways:

Mickey joined the Macy's parade in the '30s
  1. It focuses on faith, family and food, which just so happen to be my favorite focal points all the year long. 
  2. Its signature color is orange, too! (Imagine I'm saying it with an Elle Woods squeal of enthusiasm.)
  3. I love New York City and Macy's.  Since 1924, Macy's has sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.  Ergo, that makes the parade doubly awesome, even if I am the only one in my family who wants to watch it.
  4. It is the holiday that dares to be different and remain unsullied by the crass commercialization that tarnishes other holidays. (No Thanksgiving candy or music or gift exchanges.)
  5. It is fall's last hurrah before winter blusters its way in.
  6. Ease of decoration.  Since I don't do Halloween, my fall decorations remain perfectly stylish until it's time to replace the pumpkins with nutcrackers and sparkly things.
  7. Since we visit the 'rents over Thanksgiving, my cooking duties are minimal - I simply pitch in where needed.  No pressure to perform.
  8. Is there any better smell than a roasting turkey?
  9. The college football season is almost over.  (This year that is indeed a blessing.)
  10. Pecan and pumpkin pie.  Need more?  Okay, pie with whipped cream. 

Happy Thanksgiving,

Nov 12, 2010

Week 4 Without Running: The Timeout Continues

Well, I did the bad thing: I pushed for a run on Monday (as soon as I hit week 4). "Surely the recommended 5 to 8 week recovery for a moderate calf strain doesn't apply to me!," said my optimistic self. Alas, it apparently does so I and my calf are back in timeout.

Hopefully it's only a small setback, as I didn't push it to another "pop" but in hindsight it was probably a foolhardy thing to do. I'm thankful for my live-in massage therapist who vigorously worked out the knotted calf while gently chastising me for not respecting the age of my ligaments and joints.  To which I say, "harrumph" (because it is too early to say "humbug.")

This long timeout has forced me to get more creative with my exercise repertoire, which has turned out to be good:  who knew I could become a fan of group workouts?  Of course, next week, I plan to try another run. And the week after, and the week after, until I'm fully healed and running without pain (or Advil.)

Happy healing,

Nov 11, 2010

Thankful Thursdays: The Second Seven

During the countdown to the holidays, I'm taking time each week to take stock of some of the blessings in my life. Last week kicked off with the first five.  There are too many to count them all, so I'll just offer a weekly summary of one per day as we head into Thanksgiving.  Here's the second seven, but above all, today is Veterans Day - a day to honor all our vets.  I pray for God's blessing on all our combat veterans and their families - past and present, along with those actively serving today; may they become the veterans of a peaceful future time.

So what else am I thinkful for this week?
  1. My faithful pooch.  That may sound like a trivial thing to include on this list, but there are days when the dog may well be my best friend - she's certainly among the most loyal and patient of those who know me.  We've had several wonderful canine companions over the years; Spice (aka Big Dog) is my nearly always at my feet - all 80 pounds of her.  Statistically, her remaining years are numbered, and so I treasure the time I have with her while she's still in good health.  If you've never seen the "GoD and DoG video by Wendy J. Francisco, it's well worth the 1.59 minutes to watch it.
  2. Farmers and ranchers.  What would we eat if it weren't for the men and women who keep us in food?  I love having a summer garden, but heaven help us if we had to depend on my gardening skills to feed us all year 'round.  I am grateful to those who raise and grow the food we take for granted.
  3. The innovators.  We'd be a sorry lot if no one had ever conjured up innovations like corrective eyeglasses, utensils to eat with, clocks to keep track of our time, a microscope to see germs (and antibiotics to kill them), and countless other products and devices that we use every day, and barely notice.  But we would surely notice if we had to do without them!
  4. The poets, artists and philosophers.  Their contributions have added richness and depth to the human experience, giving us phrases to express our rough thoughts, beautiful objects to behold, and challenging us to think deeply about our existence and relationship to one another, and to our creator.
  5. The United States Postal Service.  Seriously - is there anything better than opening your mailbox and finding a handwritten card or a package, delivered promptly and cheaply by the good ol' USPS? They do an amazing job, day in and day out, of getting everything to its destination, interpreting terrible handwriting and correcting transposed addresses and ZIP codes.
  6. Friendliness.  A stranger holds the door open for you, a fellow driver lets you ease into their lane of traffic, or someone simply smiles a friendly hello.  Those small acts of kindness are game-changers for our moods, sometimes making turning a miserable day into a tolerably good one.  Paying it forward not only feels good, it is good.
  7. Changing seasons.  I'm not a big fan of winter, in fact I grumble most years when the days get shorter and colder.  But having four seasons is truly a blessing.  There is beauty in each season, and as they change, it's a perfect reminder that we don't have to orchestrate everything in this life for ourselves.  There is a creator who is in control.  The beautiful blaze of fall leaves can leave us speechless, if we stop long enough to take it in.

Happy counting,

Nov 10, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Green Bean Bundles

I first encountered this recipe a few years ago; as we planned a holiday "progressive dinner" a friend recommended it as a side dish to accompany our main course. And what a recommendation it was - these green beans are now a Lea family tradition at the holidays. They look and taste "fussy" but they really aren't much work to assemble, and can be made ahead, then baked at the last minute.

I wholeheartedly recommend using only fresh green beans. Frozen whole green beans would be a second choice. Even though some recipes suggest using canned green beans, I would prepare a different green bean dish if canned beans were the only choice.  This recipe is worth the added effort and expense to track down good crisp, plump fresh beans.

  Green Bean Bundles

1 pound fresh green beans, washed and ends snapped off
8 slices bacon (see note below)
1/8 cup brown sugar
coarse grind pepper

Blanch beans by immersing in boiling water for 2-3 minutes then immediately plunge in ice water to stop the cooking.

Note: I use thick-slice bacon, and I like to pre-cook it (skillet or microwave) for a few minutes to cut down on the baking time.  If you use thinner bacon, you may not need to do this added step.

Divide cooled beans into 8 even groups.  (You can eyeball it or count them - I've done it both ways.) Wrap a slice of bacon around each bundle and secure with a toothpick.  Sprinkle with brown sugar and pepper.  Place in 350 oven and bake for 20-30 minutes or until bacon is fully cooked.  Remove toothpicks and serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings

Some recipes call for adding mustard (dry or prepared) to the toppings and/or drizzling with melted butter.  I haven't found either is necessary (the bacon provides plenty of fat and the sweet/salty pairing of bacon and brown sugar are marvelous on their own.  But you can always jazz 'em up to suit your tastebuds.  And if you're keeping them in a holding pattern - like on a buffet line - a little butter might keep the beans moist.)  

Bonus for busy cooks:  once you've assembled the bundles, they can be refrigerated for a day before baking - just add a few minutes to the cook time to compensate for them being cold when you start.

Happy dining!

Nov 9, 2010

Picking our battles

This week we celebrate Veteran's Day.   God bless our veterans and servicemen and women around the world; they carry the battle scars of conflicts fought to keep our freedom intact.  When I think of our veterans, I often think of Joshua's bravery.  And his carefully chosen words recorded in Joshua 24:15 contain so much wisdom and commitment to our purpose here on earth:
"Choose this day whom you will for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." 
When faced with a choice, Joshua picked his battle carefully and took a brave position, one that I'm sure he found was not always popular with the home crowd.  Not much has changed since his time in that regard.

Most parents today are very familiar with the concept embodied in that verse.  We use the shorthand expression, "pick your battles" to sum it up.  From the time our toddlers begin asserting themselves (a favorite first word is "no"), we are forced to learn diplomacy at lightning speed.  How to finesse a balky child into an outfit they don't want to wear, eat something they don't like, go somewhere peacefully when they really want a nap, or to be calmly held by someone they don't know.  They are learning the art of compromise - and so are mom and dad.

Soon we learn that stripes and plaids and camouflage prints really can be worn together and that the occasional cookie for breakfast won't kill them, especially if they wash it down with some milk.  In return, they learn they can still smile and keep going even when they're tired, and that their Bible class teacher is fun and friendly, not a frightening stranger.

I heard someone add this caveat:  "When you have picked a battle (with your child) , win at all costs."   I tend to agree, although I think that "all-or-nothing" should be tempered with some reasonableness.  If we pick a battle in error, it is okay to show our children that we can be humble and admit we were wrong - very different than simply giving up and giving in.

Unfortunately, I think our society has taken the "pick your battle" idea to the passive, permissive extreme, giving the child free rein because parents are afraid to pick ANY battle.  By sidestepping every conflict, we fail to teach our children that a peaceful and happy life is bound to require them to make some compromises along the way, too.

To all parents everywhere, please pick your battles wisely.  But do pick some battles, stand your ground, and be prepared to fight until you win.  Caving to your child's every whim and whimper is not compromise, it is captivity.  And we shouldn't be negotiating with terrorists - especially not our own kids.

Happy parenting,