Why I wonder and wander…

While applying for law school, my application required a personal statement about why I wanted a law degree. I no longer have a copy, well maybe I do, but we’re talking pre-cloud days here and I no longer own a computer that reads a floppy disk. Why I still have a draw full of floppy disks is a whole other discussion, but as I recall I mentioned something along these lines.

I grew up the daughter of elementary school teachers. My father was the first in his family to earn a college degree via the Marines and the G.I. Bill. The Marines and the University of Rhode Island forever changed my father and would go on to shape my world and my choices. As I saw it there were two types of people, “my world people” and “the world” people. My Father was the later. The former were good people they just didn’t seem to worry about what was going on outside their circle of influence. They watched the local news, cheered for the Pawsox, went to their kids’ little league games, to fish fries at the Elks or dinners at the Grange and they’d give their brother of their neighbor the shirt off their back but they saw the world in terms closer to their own backyard.

“The world” people may do all of these but they also look beyond. They wonder and they worry about people, the environment, whether there will be clean water to drink, whether the Russians were going to attack, whether nuclear energy was the way to go, the gas crisis, the AIDS crisis, what we could do for the starving children in Ethiopia, why Imelda Marcos had all those shoes.

My Father was of the world. He read the paper everyday, both the morning and evening edition back then; he watched the local and the national news and 60 Minutes. He called me in to watch the shuttle launches, the resignation of President Nixon and other events he informed me were historic. He reminded me that it was my duty to vote, to make my voice heard, to care about what was going on in the world as well as what was happening in my world. My memories are of him with his head in a dictionary, an almanac or a volume of the encyclopedia. Soon an oral report on the location and economy of some remote country, the accomplishments of some prominent figure or the salient facts of an event or invention was filling our ears. If he was unfamiliar, unsure or just plain curious he investigated. Curiosity, one of the many gifts he gave me.

One of eleven children, he and his younger brother Don were the first to leave New England and to graduate from college. Prior to the Marines, Boston was the most exotic destination for a poor kid from Rocky Brook, a small close knit neighborhood of Peace Dale a village in a rural coastal Rhode Island town where food and friendships were more prevalent than the degrees issued right up the road at the state’s land grant college. Boot camp at Parris Island then Camp Pendelton in California before heading over to Okinawa, Japan. Fortunately the Korean War was ending; helping to return life to normal rather than to fighting. I credit this time with my Dad’s willingness and desire to travel even though the life he had chosen as a local civil servant did not afford the salary to plan lavish trips. The travels of my youth were to see people or history, not to relax. In 1972, he and my mother were able to travel to Germany to see a URI exhibition game and my father became German. He loved German food, German beer, he came home with a German hat and a beer stein and above all a desperate desire to share this experience with my brother and me.

After 10 years of saving and planning we flew into Karlsruhe, Germany. As a 16 year old, I was less than appreciative of being “dragged” away from my friends and life on the beach to travel with my parents and younger bother. Fortunately I kept a journal on this trip. Based on my entries it is clear that I presented as an ungrateful brat, however, somewhere around day five I indicate that “I am actually enjoying myself, but I am not going to let anyone know.” Although it was many years before I could consider myself an adventurer, I credit this trip with my love for travel. In my 20s I proclaimed my love of travel in a group, a close friend leaned over and whispered, “but you don’t go anywhere.” Luckily I have been able to change that.

Wondering about a cranberry blondie

This recipe was given to me by my wonderful friend Martha (not Martha Stewart)- as a cake recipe. I’ve made it about a hundred times and every time I do the same thing happens: people initially weren’t very interested. Unlike brownies that sell themselves, I always had to make sure that I’d removed a piece or arranged squares on a plate and even then it usually took one adventurous soul to get the party started. Initially I was thinking it was the “cranberries” – maybe everyone isn’t the fan I am but after going on a homemade brownie kick I started to see my cake in a new light. The recipe had no baking powder or soda, it’s dense and sweet. Maybe it’s not a cake. Maybe it’s my cranberry blondie!

Set oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 13 baking dish. I use a Pyrex one and although I usually use crisco to grease pans, my butter was so soft that I ended up using the butter wrappers. Add 3 eggs to your mixing bowl. I used my Kitchen Aid mixer with the paddle attachment.

Add 2 cups of granulated sugar, I know it seems like a lot, but this is a desert! You’ll mix this on medium speed for about 5 minutes, you’ll see it transform from the thick yellow mixture below (original color will depend on your eggs)…

to a light a fluffy pale mixture – see below. Add 3/4 cups softened butter (1 1/2 sticks) – mine was pretty soft, I have softened in microwave in past – as long as it’s not “hot” you should be okay – and add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and mix on medium again for 2-3 minutes.

Add 2 cups of all purpose flour, I usually try to sneak wheat flour into most my baking but I wouldn’t try it here. I mixed on low just to combine and pulled it off mixer and removed paddle giving a final mix by hand – you don’t want to mix too much once you add the flour – it starts to activate gluten and can make things tough.

Then gently fold in 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of cranberries. I like to be able to taste th blondie as well as the cranberries. I usually go with about 1 1/2 cups and mine were frozen, I didn’t bother to thaw them out. If you like nuts you can also add in 2/3 cups chopped pecans. I’m usually taking mine to a party and with so many nut allergies these days I tend to skip the pecans.

This will be a very stiff batter. I plop it in the pan and then use an offset spatula to spread it evenly throughout the pan.

Then comes my favorite part. I sprinkle the entire top with about 2 heaping Tablespoons of granulated sugar.

Pop the blondie in the center of your preheated oven and bake for 45 to 50 minutes until toothpick in center comes out clean. Let cool and enjoy! I have not tried this warm, but I will next time! I have also not tried freezing this but on rare occasions it has sat out on my counter for up to four days and it’s still great on day four.

Cranberry Blondies

Set oven to 350 degrees

Grease 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish

3 large eggs

2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup softened butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of cranberries (fresh or frozen)

2/3 cups chopped peacans (optional)

Beat eggs and sugar until light in color – about 5 minutes on medium. Add butter and vanilla and beat on medium for 2-3 minutes. Stir in flour until just combined. Fold in cranberries and nuts if you are using them. Spread in greased pan and bake for 45-50 minutes until center comes out clean.

Wondering why I was surprised that a talk on happiness would be full of people who were not…

Last Tuesday I went to a Cambridge Forum talk by John Leland, NY Time journalist, regarding his new book Happiness is a Choice You Make. My initial attraction was that John’s book was about his experience spending a year with members of the oldest old, those over the age of 85. As John describes it he was initially anticipating writing about a “malody of the month” but then realized that there was a different message and he needed to share it.

He challenged the audience to focus on “what is” instead of “what isn’t” and to think about learning how to train our brains to see life as amazing; that seeing ourselves as the author of our own life can lead to more satisfaction. He discussed some of the people he followed for a year sharing a lesson learned from each. From one a lesson on gratitude, from another a lesson on purpose. Lessons that John took to heart, making a conscious decision to choose happiness.

Unfortunately it wasn’t until my 40s that I too realized that happiness was something you chose not something that happened to you. I do now believe that it is something you can make. How I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self to stop waiting for someone or something to bring me happiness. Not sure if I was initially wired to see what I did not have instead of what I did or whether it was my family or society that focused me outward instead of inward.

Fortunately at a friend’s 40th birthday I had a moment of shear joy – maybe the first since childhood when we are focused inward and don’t understand the judgement of ourselves and others. Dancing on an outdoor patio on a perfect summer evening, I became lost in the beat of the music, twirling, spinning, smiling, shining. A sense of peace combined with euphoria, a lightness that I could not recall entered and seemed to fill every fiber of my being. I remember telling my friend about it the next day and she said she thought she had a photo that may have caught the moment. When she sent me the photo I nearly cried to see the joy on my face. You could see if in my eyes as well as on my lips.

Choosing happiness, meditation, mindfulness all fall into the same box for me. They all seem too simple to work. There has to be more. The more is that as simple as each of them are, the committment to them is what makes the difference. For those of us used to seeing the cup as half empty and always waiting for the other shoe to drop it’s hard to shift that focus. Meditation in an of itself may feel silly. I remember when I tried it years ago doubting that it would do anything and I proved myself correct. And if I’ve heard or seen the word mindfulness once this week, I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s everywhere and being touted as the answer to everything.

Slowing down this year, meditating, understanding that although I can’t always choose what happens to me, I can choose the way that I react, that I can look for and see the lesson or the positive in any situation and being in the moment has increased my own level of happiness. Mindfulness for me is trying to quiet the voices in my head that are always thinking about, planning for or worrying about what’s next. Sometimes it is easier than others. But it is work and hard work for me to not be planning dinner while I’m eating a buttery mouth watering croissant let alone enjoying a hot new band when the voices in my head are worrying about getting a job and taunting me with thoughts that I may never work again, who will want to hire YOU. So I really get it.

I should have gotten up at the end of the talk after hearing one depressed and or struggling person after another come to the mike. They wanted an answer, a path, a fix. Choosing to be happy doesn’t sound substantial enough and for those with true depression it is not. But for those of us who are spending too much time wondering or worrying about the “what ifs” choosing to focus on the facts, the “what is” and finding some joy or peace there can be the answer. It’s not easy but it is simple.

Wondering how often we cook a meal to transport us back in time.

My mom and dad first traveled to Germany in 1972 to see the University of Rhode Island football team play in an exhibition game in Munich. My father came home smitten with the country and everything German. The one thing he was able to copy and share was schnitzel. My father turned 86 this week so for his family birthday dinner I took a stab at a German themed meal complete with pork schnitzel, homemade spaetzle (a noodle pasta), and a sweet and sour red cabbage. The meal would probably not pass muster with my German born and raised uncle but we all enjoyed it. I enjoyed so much that I decided to make it again a few days later for my husband.

I started with a pound and a half of boneless pork loin that I cut into about 8 slices, trimming off the fat. We enjoyed 3 slices for dinner and my husband was thrilled to take pork schnitzel sandwiches to work this week.

I placed each slice between waxed paper and pounded to about 1/4 inch in thickness.

After all pounded out, it was time for the holy trinity. Flour that I’d added kosher salt and black pepper to, a couple of beaten eggs with a little water (that’s the way my mom always did it) and seasoned breadcrumbs (because that’s what I had). Not sure why I went left to right, just happened that way.

I covered them with wrap and put in the frig for later. I had about 3 cups of sliced/shredded red cabbage that had been cooked for about 10 minutes in boiling water with a tablespoon of kosher salt left over from the birthday dinner so I downsized my red cabbage recipe that calls for a medium head of cabbage. I cooked 3 peices of bacon till crispy in my Dutch oven.

I removed the bacon to a paper towel and poured off about half of the drippings. Then added 1 Tablespoon of flour and 1/8 cup of dark brown sugar and stirred to combine then added 1/2 of a small chopped onion, 1/8 cup of apple cider vinegar (you can use white) and 1/4 cup of water. I stirred those around for about 2-4 minutes, letting the onions begin to cook.

Then added the cooked cabbage and bacon (I ended up eating a piece so I only added 2) broken into pieces.

And then the part I love, you’ll see the cabbage transform from a lovely indigo to fushia before your eyes.

Cover and cook for about 20 minutes on medium/low, stirring often. I was too lazy on a weeknight to make spaetzle (it is easy though) so opted for egg noodles and green beans.

Dad had bought me the monster of all electric fry pans so I was able to cook the schnitzel in 2 batches in under 20 minutes. I heated the skillet to 300 and added a Tablespoon of Crisco and a Tablespoon of olive oil. When all was melted and shimmering I added the pork.

It look about 4 to 5 minutes for the bottoms to be crispy and brown. I added a tad bit more olive oil as I turned them over to make sure they would not stick. I love my OXO tongs for this purpose.

When nice and crispy on bottom I would typically remove to a cookie sheet, covered with tin foil and placed in warm – but because 5 of these were for lunch I didn’t bother – we just ate the last 3 out of the skillet. I should have served this with lemon, but I forgot!

This meal like so many bring me back to a place and time. Memories of family dinners. Memories of my mom. Laughter and a smoke filled kitchen. Although I can’t really go back to the 70s, every once in a while I can go back there in my mind.

Wondering about chocolate loaf cake

I’ve always loved a woman who can bake and cook, why do just one when you can do both. Julia could and maybe that’s why I enjoyed Nigella Lawson so much. That and her late night snacking on the treats she had made also made me love her. English accent didn’t hurt either.

Visiting my almost 86 year old father this weekend when he mentioned he wished he had something sweet in the house. There’s not much you can buy for an 85 year old with a sufficient pension nor much you can do for a proud man who believes that allowing his kids to help with anything around his home is admitting to some type of weakness in character. What he does allow is an occasional home cooked meal, if it’s not too much trouble and anything sweet – especially if it involves chocolate.

Nigella to the rescue. I recalled a chocolate loaf cake that we used to enjoy from her How to Be a Domestic Goddess cookbook. A quick Google search did the trick …

Set oven to 375 degrees. Grease and line a 9 x 5 loaf pan with parchment paper. Melt 4 to 6 oz of bittersweet chocolate (I used 6 oz of chocolate chips because that’s what Dad had – I melted them in the microwave). Mix 1 cup of softened butter -Dad had salted (original recipe calls for unsalted) with 1 and 2/3 cups brown sugar, I generally choose dark but light was already opened, so used a cup of that with 1/3 of dark.

Add 1 tsp vanilla and 2 beaten eggs (I used large- which are typically used in baking) and beat till well incorporated. Put a kettle of water on to boil.

Add the melted chocolate and gently fold in until just incorporated.

Mix 1 tsp baking soda in to 1 and 1/3 cups flour. Then you will alternate mixing flour and 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons boiling water into the chocolate batter – do this in about 4 additions each. This will produce a very liquid batter. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan. Mine fills to about 1 inch below top of pan (if yours is going to go higher, internet directions suggest baking off the rest in one or more ). Also suggests placing a pan in oven below for any overflow.

Bake for 30 minutes then lower oven to 325 degrees and cook for 15 minutes more. Recipe explains that cake will still be “squid day” but that you should remove. In my experience cake is “raw” at this point and I have never been happy with taking it out at this point. I have always left it in over for at least an additional 15-20 minutes. Even an hour in, my tester never comes out clean – but for me the cake seems reasonably done and still on the squiddy side so I take it out. Remove from oven and let cool completely in the pan. Don’t worry if top sinks in a bit. As soon as it was cool we jumped right it. It’s great on its own and even better with some fresh whipped cream!

Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake

1 cup soft unsalted butter

1 2/3 cup dark brown sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

4 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons boiling water

Wandering around Providence

Just 50 miles south of Boston is the city of my youth. I grew up 30 miles south, but for Rhode Islander’s Providence is everyone’s city.

On Friday, I hoped in my car to meet my cousin for a little ‘downcity’ exploring. We started our morning at PVDonuts, 79 Ives Street (corner of Ives and Wickenden) for what PVDonuts claims to be Rhode Island’s first specialty donut shop.

We were in luck, only a few were sold out. We chose 3 so we could experience the 24-hour raised brioche-yeast stuffed – bourbon peach crumble, a 24-hour raised brioche-yeast unstuffed – maple bacon and a cake donuts – chocolate birthday cake. They also have old-fashioned, cruller, vegan, fritters and flourless options. These are locally sourced, homemade donuts and when they are gone, they are gone for the day and when they are all gone, the shop closes!

Stuffed but happy we headed to the Providence Place Mall – currently offering 3 hours of free parking and a beautiful view of downcity…

Despite tempertures in the teens we walked along the river walk – home of Providence’s Waterfire – to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, 20 North Main Street. Admission is $15 (free under 18, $12 for 62+ and free on Sundays from 10-5 and on the third Thursday of every month from 5-9pm).

What a gem. I am sad to say that despite growing up in RI and considering myself an unofficial permanent resident, I had never been to the RISD Museum. Don’t miss out, there’s everything here from Gilbert Stuart portraits to a Chihuly chandelier.

We’d walked off our donuts, well sort of, so we headed for Ellie’s Bakery, 61 Washington Street. Arriving at a bakery after 3pm means you’ll take what you can get and although initially disappointed we soon were savoring an amazing seafood chowder loaded with muscles and monkfish and all sorts of other goodies along with a savory flaky kale and feta croissant – YUM!

Wondering if I can break the cycle of paper hording

I come from a long line of paper borders. In adddition to a bazillion photos and slides, my maternal grandfather left behind every checkbook register and check stub from every checking account he had ever held. Finding the 1940 receipt for his wedding brunch celebration to my grandmother was a gem that could have easily been missed among the rental table books for the Equitable building where he worked in the thirties and the programs from Oddsfellow productions, receipts and warrantees from appliances from two holdholds accumulated over a 60 year periods and just about every statement and receipt the man ever laid his hands on.

My mother carried on the tradition, I open my mail on my front porch next to my recycling bin in an attempt to avoid the mountain of mail that accumulated on the 4 foot long peninsula in my parent’s kitchen. It did disappear from time to time, relocate might be a better description, a hasty move to the top of the washing machine just prior to the arrival of guests or to make room for rolling out Christmas cookies or frying chicken in the electric skillet. However, most of the time it sat there taunting us, just waiting to explode.

I recall with horror opening up a cupboard in my parent’s living room shortly after my mother’s unexpected death at the age of 52 to find thousands of Christmas cards. Lovely cards with family photos, cards with handwritten notes and news of the year past, but more than 50% were just generic cards with “the Andrews family” or “love, Joan” nothing more. Who were the Andrews family? Joan? Why hang on to these?

Although I generally have the “mail” part of my families obsession covered, it is still a daily battle. Junk mail, fliers and solicitations immediatly hit the recycle bin. I open bills (unwilling to go completely electronic – especially with credit card bills that fluctuate from month to month) and write a note on my refrigerator calendar a week before they are due to remind me to make payment, recycling the outside envelop immediatly, adding any magazines to my reading pile (have given up most subscriptions at this point) and read any personal mail. Bills, personal mail I haven’t yet responded to and the I’m not sure what to do with it stuff ends up in my “box.” I learned a long time ago that if I did not contain things they would crawl and occasionally they still do but when the box starts to look like this…

…it’s time to organize – unfortunately – about once a week. So that when I am done it looks more like …

As I am currently job searching I have an extra “pile” next to the box.

Once bills are paid, the statement and any other statements, receipts, or miscellaneous paper goes into my personal box which has a lid and is kept in a closet or the house box (mortgage, taxes, electric, etc) that is kept in the basement. When they become full or unruly I mangage those – shredding what no longer is relevant or necessary.

Fighting the urge to save ticket stubs, letters, receipts is a never ending battle but one that become easier with each passing year as I realize that I rarely if ever need or look at the things I’ve saved and think about the fact that no loved one wants to have to sort through mounds of nothing to find the one gem. I keep reminding myself to keep a gem or two, but dispose of the rest!