The Men in My Life

August 25th, 2014 by sharktank

This afternoon I came home from taking our calico putty-tat to the vet to find my husband assembling a pantry we’d bought for our new kitchen. He needed a spare pair of hands, and I just happened to have a couple that weren’t doing anything right then. I held the bottom corner steady and square while he put in screws. Then it was time to attach the back. “If I recall correctly, you’re a lot better at this than I am” he commented. Indeed, that’s what we had found when we had done such projects in the past, so we flipped the thing over. I looked at the hammer he had ready, then went into the garage and got my favorite hammer.

It’s a smallish tack hammer, 48 years old. I know exactly how old it is, because I’d gone to the hardware store with my daddy when he bought a hammer. I said I wanted one too, so he picked out the smallest real hammer in the store. It fit my 7 year old hand perfectly, and when we got home he showed me how to use it and not pound my own fingers. Not that he was all that adept himself; any time he went for a screwdriver or a hammer, Mom went to get the Band-aids. But I got to help with whatever he was doing. I don’t remember what the project was, but I remember how thrilled I was to be able to work with him. I was a Big Girl. I had my very own hammer!

The pantry project continued. Beloved husband started attaching hinges to the doors, saying that there were instructions for adjusting the hinges, and that it would be another thing I’d probably be better at. That led to remembering my grandfather, and how horrified he was when he found out that I was the one fixing the bathroom sink and my husband the one laying shelf paper, when we’d just moved into our first house (as opposed to apartment) type residence. When I finished and called him back, he told me I was to listen and not answer back, and then proceeded to lecture me on how it wasn’t appropriate for a woman to work on the plumbing. I had a husband; it was his job. Never mind that I knew how to do it and my husband had no clue. Never mind that it was a tight space, and that I fit better. I was female, and therefore should not be doing that. So I listened, reminding myself at frequent intervals that he had grown up in the 19-teens and early 20s, and didn’t let it bother me.

Five or ten years later, Gramps was grumbling because he was no longer physically capable of fixing his own bathroom sink, and didn’t want to spend a fortune on a plumber. He napped often by then, dozing off while he watched tv. That particular evening, I quietly went out to the garage, got the necessary tools and washers, and went to fix the dripping faucet. By the time he woke up, the tools were put away and I was sitting quietly on the couch reading. He went to the bathroom and came out with a puzzled expression. “The faucet isn’t dripping anymore” he said. “I don’t know how it happened.” I told him I had fixed it while he was asleep. “Oh” he said. “Okay.” He didn’t thank me right then (he did later), but neither did he chide me for doing something a girl “shouldn’t do”. Maybe half an hour later, as I was fixing dinner in the kitchen, his best friend called. I heard snatches of the conversation, enough to know that Gramps was telling him about the faucet. And then I heard “I tell you, Bill, that girl is something. Alisa can do anything!”

I laughed a little over the potatoes and onions in the skillet. And thought about all of that, and of how my father’s willingness to buy his little girl a hammer and my quiet, determined defiance of my grandfather’s notions of men’s work and women’s work had shaped what I learned and can do, as I finished adjusting the hinges on the pantry. They were both doing what they thought was best for me, and I love and miss them both.

Frozen

March 7th, 2014 by sharktank

I finally went to see the current Disney movie, Frozen. I loved it. The music was good, the animation incredibly well done, the characters complex. And none of that was what was most striking about it.

It’s loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, but it is told from the perspective of the Queen. She begins as Princess Elsa with magical power over ice and snow. Playing with her sister Anna as little girls will, she accidentally hurts the younger girl with her power. She’s terrified by what could have happened. So are their parents. With the encouragement of the adults, she tries not to feel her power, not to let it show, to be utterly controlled – emotionally frozen – at all times. Predictably enough, that eventually fails. She runs away, not realizing she’s leaving bitter magical Winter behind her in what had been the heat of summer. Finally letting her power go, in defiance and in utter joy, she creates an incredible ice palace on the side of the highest mountain. She is determined to remain there, in isolation, where she cannot hurt anyone.

Of course it’s never that simple, and eventually it gets to the point that once again, using her power to defend herself against would-be assassins, she strikes Anna – this time leaving a sliver of enchanted ice in her heart. Eventually it will turn Anna into solid ice. The only cure for a frozen heart is an act of true love.

Everyone – Anna herself, the young man helping her, the villain of the piece (a prince conniving to claim the throne) – assumes that means “true love’s kiss”, the same thing that woke Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Anna is on the verge of turning to solid ice, the young man who really does love her is in sight, and she sees that the conniving prince is about to kill Elsa. Anna turns away from the man who might save her and interposes herself between the prince and Queen Elsa. Just at that moment the enchanted ice turns her into a statue, and his sword shatters when it strikes her.

And then she slowly thaws back into her normal self. That is the act that saves her. It isn’t external. Neither man is required. It isn’t something done for or to her; it is something she herself does. It is her love for her sister, her act of willing sacrifice, that melts the enchanted ice. In saving her sister, she saves herself.

And in the end, there isn’t a wedding. There’s a friendship that might develop into more for Anna. There is no hint of any kind of romance involving Queen Elsa. The ending is happy, and the women saved themselves. I love that.

Spicing Things Up

March 7th, 2014 by sharktank

Yesterday was hamantashen making day. Of course the first step was finding a recipe that looked good to me. I’ve never made hamantashen before, because usually I don’t much care for them, but there’s a first time for everything. So I’m looking at recipes, both online and in my extensive cookbook collection, and I realized why I generally don’t care for them.

The cookies are bland. Shortening, sugar, flour, an egg, a little vanilla. That’s it.

I don’t do bland.

I kept the proportions of the basic ingredients, and then set out to complement the fillings instead of just provide a holder for them. Vanilla got doubled. Almond extract went in. Tasted it. Still pretty bland. Add lemon peel, ginger, allspice and cinnamon. That tasted pretty good. The dough wanted to crumble, so I added cream. Then I stuck it in the refrigerator to firm up and went about my evening.

So today I pulled out the dough, assembled the cookies and baked them. I am quite pleased with the result. They’re basically filled spice cookies.

They are most definitely not bland.

SPICED HAMANTASHEN

1/2 cup (one stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
grated rind of 1 lemon
2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
2-3 Tbsp cream or evaporated milk

Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in eggs, vanilla, almond extract and lemon rind until well blended.

Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice. Add to the butter and egg mixture alternately with the cream. Start with 2 Tbsp of cream; add the third if the dough is too crumbly. Divide into 2 balls, wrap in wax paper and chill until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet or two with parchment. Lightly flour your work surface (mine is my bread board), and use your hand to flatten the ball of dough out somewhat. Roll out to 1/4 inch and cut out circles. I used a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter because that was what I had, but really the only difference it will make is the size of the finished cookies and the number of cookies you end up with. Use whatever filling you like. A 2 1/2 inch cookie will hold a scant measuring teaspoon full without losing structural integrity. Fold into triangles and put 1 inch apart on the cookie sheet. These will rise and spread just a tiny bit.

Bake 10-12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a cooling rack.

Enjoy!

Baker’s Math

March 5th, 2014 by sharktank

There is a gathering every spring which we go to any time it’s close enough. It moves around the country, so it isn’t always, but any time we’re going, I bake for it. It’s the best excuse of a baking binge I have, holidays like Thanksgiving included. There’s nothing like knowing a hundred or so people will be there to share the treats around to allow for unrestrained baking. This year it’s in Ann Arbor. That’s quite close enough.

We have other things going on, though, so I decided I wouldn’t bake as much as usual. Instead of making multiple batches of assorted things, I would make just one. What I hadn’t thought about was that when one makes a multitude of different goodies, all those single batches add up. So far I have brownies, oatmeal peanut butter cookies, 3 loaves of caraway rye bread and 2 1/2 pounds of penuche. Planned but not yet made are onion dill bread, Hamantashen (the event being smack dab on Purim weekend), seed cakes (undecided as to whether I’m making that as a cake or as cookies), standard model fudge, and chocolate chip cookies. If I don’t run out of time, I may make apple spice bars as well. That’s nine or ten different things, all of them tried, true and very popular with this group.

As usual, the measure of how much I’m making is how much flour, butter, sugar and chocolate I’m using up. It’s substantial. It will become more so. I’m having a fabulous time. Onward – I hear butter calling my name!

Best Served Cold

September 2nd, 2013 by sharktank

There’s a saying I’ve liked since I first heard it: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” It applies to many things, cooking among them.

When last I worked in a large office, they had monthly departmental pitch-ins. Every month I’d bring something a little different from Midwestern standard, every month my co-workers would look at it sidelong, and every month I’d take home my contribution, minus the serving I’d taken for myself. While it served a purpose in assuring there was at least one non-dessert dish on the table I could eat, it still got old. I mean, it wasn’t like I was bringing in chilled monkey brains a la Indiana Jones. I was bringing in things like tabbouleh or kugel or lentil salad with feta cheese. Not something you’d find at the neighborhood Golden Corral, but not anything all that weird either.

Finally I decided I’d had it, and set out to make the most chemically laden, egregiously sweet concoction I could assemble from the contents of my kitchen. Freezer contained a tub of Cool Whip someone had brought over that hadn’t been used because, well, I don’t ever use it. I can taste the chemicals. Bleah. Cabinet contained a box of pistachio instant pudding, purchased for a cake I didn’t end up making. I had a sleeve of Thin Mints that had melted in the car before I got it home, and had fused as the chocolate hardened. The light bulb went off.

I mixed the pudding with milk per the instructions on the box. Before it set I stirred in the thawed Cool Whip. Then I broke the cylinder of mint chocolate cookie apart enough for the blender to be able to grind it, reduced it to crumbs, and folded them in. It had, to my way of thinking, no redeeming features. It was my cold, creamy revenge.

Which backfired completely. The bowl was empty in under 10 minutes. People who missed it heard about it from people who’d gotten there in time. I got asked for the recipe by half a dozen different co-workers. They loved it.

It went a long way toward explaining why they wouldn’t even try my normal cooking.

The Fruited Plain

August 28th, 2013 by sharktank

Last year, between the drought and the heat, there just wasn’t much fruit on trees and bushes. Almost no apples, pears, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, hickory or hazel nuts – nothing. This year we’ve had rain and reasonable temperatures, and the plants are making up for lost time. I went blueberry picking at a local farm, and filled a 6 pound bucket in under an hour without either stretching or stooping. (I then proceeded to eat the entire batch in a week. None of them made it into the freezer, as I had originally planned.) As I drive around, I’m seeing trees so weighted with fruit it seems unreal. Some of it, as near as I can tell, is free for the picking, based on years of watching it ripen and just fall. I’m taking advantage of that.

Across the road from the parking lot at what passes for a strip mall in the nearest town, there is an old but well cared for farmhouse. It has a pear tree in the front yard. Every year since we moved here, I have watched as pears got ripe, fell to the ground, and were simply ignored. It drove me nuts. It’s a large, healthy tree and is always covered in fruit, and it was all going to waste. Finally this year I decided I would ask about it.

The minute I mentioned the tree to the local librarian, she nodded; she knew exactly what house and tree I was talking about. She told me that the owner of the house, a very elderly woman, had died some months back and that the house was vacant now. So on my way home from assorted errands (hair cut, picking up holds at the library, getting stamps), I parked, ran across the road with a Starbucks bag and picked pears. It took me about 10 minutes to gather 5 pounds, and I truly did not make a visible dent in this year’s crop. Looking at them, I could see that they’re ripening at different rates, so I shall be going back at intervals to gather more. I have no idea what variety they are, but the one I ate was luscious. The rest are gathered into a couple of paper bags to ripen a bit further.

Then there are the apple trees. I know that 100 years ago, it was common for a house or a farm to have its own orchard. Some might have fifty trees and some no more than five, but they were there. I think I’m seeing the remnants of that practice. There are huge old apple trees visible from the road, perhaps 10 feet back. They aren’t quite ripe yet, but I’m watching. I’m sure someone owns the land, but equally sure that at this point the trees are abandoned. So when they get a bit more ripe, I’ll be doing the same thing I did with the pears; taking a bag or three and filling it. There are trees in an area that’s being allowed to go back to woods off the county road on the way to my son’s school, and more off the state road that leads into Valparaiso. (For those who worry, they’re near enough to the road to be clearly visible and far enough off it to be safe.) Some of them may well be seedlings (wild sown apples), but some of them won’t be, and the apples are big enough to be clearly visible while driving.

The nuts have yet to start falling, but I can see them on the trees at the back of our lot, and they’re as thick as the rest. I haven’t managed to get any in previous years; the insects always get to them before I do. But they’re so abundant, I may manage it this year. I won’t get a whole lot, but there should be enough for nut bread, anyway.

So I foresee pear cake, homemade applesauce and fruit eaten out of hand in the my future. That makes me happy.

Seeing Red

January 12th, 2013 by sharktank

I’m a redhead again.

No, it’s not because I hated the grey. I don’t actually mind it at all. I didn’t even particularly mind the “two toned Chevy” effect growing it out caused. It was a question of contrast.

I started coloring my hair in the first place out of sheer aggravation. In its natural state, my hair is (or was) dark brown with red highlights. My complexion, on the other hand, is very fair. Makeup color one shade darker than albino fair. Never go out in the sun because you won’t burn, you’ll crisp fair. Downright pale. In contrast to the dark hair, it was worse. It wasn’t noticeable if I wore makeup, and I did for a long time. For years, it was part of the morning routine. But I’ve never been particularly vain, and I started leaving the makeup off if I wasn’t going to be “on display”.

And every time I did, people would look at me at say things like “You’re awfully pale. Do you feel all right? Are you sure? Have you eaten? Here, sit down awhile.” They acted as if I looked to be ready to faint or at death’s door from consumption or something. It wouldn’t have been too bad if they’d accepted my response, but telling them I was fine didn’t help. Explaining that no, I was naturally fair didn’t help. I have very little rose in my skin tone (mostly golden), and in contrast to my hair people seemed to think I just looked ill if i left my bare face hanging out. I had a nurse that was prepping my grandfather for surgery ask me the same question 5 times in 20 minutes. I appreciate concern, but it was ridiculous!

Enter a whim. I got some red henna and dyed my hair with it. It was a revelation. Suddenly I was fair, rather than pale. The red hair, green eyes and light complexion all went together as expected. All the annoying questions stopped. Indeed, I began to get compliments. I decided that Nature had simply made a mistake. I was supposed to be a redhead, and a redhead I stayed.

I did let it grow out a time or two, but the most recent had been when our son was a baby, and he’s 15 now. (No, he’s never seen my hair its natural color, or at least not to remember it.) It was time to find out what color it would be now.

I found out. It’s a salt-and-pepper steel grey. I’m fine with that, but the other thing I found out is that my hair and complexion still don’t match. The same questions started again. “Are you all right? Do you need to lie down for awhile? You’re awfully pale….” Same old problem.

With the same old solution, a box of L’Oreal Medium Auburn.

I think I may wait another 10 years before I try the experiment again.

Lemon Lover’s Bundt Cake

June 22nd, 2012 by sharktank

An elderly lady from a family everyone knows and likes died the other day. Her funeral will be in a couple of hours. The email asking for help pulling together the traditional post-funeral meal went out an hour after Iris left this earth, and within three hours we had everything organized, including who was making cake (me), tuna salad, kugel, bring bagels, cream cheese, sliced tomatoes, fruit, who could set up, and so forth. It was an amazing thing to behold.

So last night I made a lemon sour cream pound cake. One problem: for reasons best known to the baking deities, it didn’t rise. It looks like the upper third of a bundt cake, which looks really silly. It won’t go to waste. It tastes good, so I’m planning to slice it and put fresh berries over it. But it’s also not exactly a presentable cake, so I made another one this morning, starting from a different recipe. It’s lemon.

Now, I’m not talking about a hint of lemon. I’m talking about serious, no mistaking it lemon. Juice, rind, extract and glaze. It’s not super-sweet, but it is super-lemony. And it’s good.

Lemon Lovers Bundt Cake

1 cup softened butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
Grated rind of one large lemon
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon extract
5 eggs
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Spray a 10 or 12 cup bundt pan with non-stick spray; set aside.

Beat sugar and butter until fluffy and very pale in color. The more air you beat in, the better. Beat in lemon juice, rind and extracts. Add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each one.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to batter alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour. Blend thoroughly but lightly. Be careful not to overbeat.

Spread evenly in prepared pan. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until it passes the toothpick test. Let cool 5-10 minutes in the pan.

In the meantime, dissolve 1/4 cup sugar in the juice of one large lemon. Unmold cake onto serving plate. Spoon glaze over evenly. It will be light, just enough to give the cake shine and a light crunch. Allow to finish cooling.

Enjoy.

A Week In Elf Hill

June 6th, 2012 by sharktank

Mom had a bit of surgery the end of May. The days before I left were crazy, which always warps time a bit, but I spent at least two weeks after I got home feeling like nothing so much as that I must have spent the week I was gone under the elf-hill. I was going to Indy in the first place to take care of my mom after she had her eyelids tucked up. She’d been putting it off, but they were interfering with her vision and it couldn’t be delayed any longer. Her doc said she only needed someone there for 2 days, which I translated (accurately) as a week. Surgery was scheduled for the morning of May 24th, and we duly got into my new car and drove off to the surgery center. All went well and smoothly, and as soon as she had shaken the sedative and could stand reliably, we went back to the house via Steak-n-Shake. A chocolate banana shake cures a multitude of ills.

For that week, I did nothing but take care of Mom. I didn’t call my friends. I didn’t go out for more than an hour, to the grocery or the drug store. Among other things, Mom needed ice packs on her eyelids as close to continually as we could manage for the first three days, and drops in her eyes eight to ten times a day, and ointment on the incisions every two hours for the rest of the week. She can’t do those things for herself; her hands are too unsteady. It wasn’t onerous, but by the same token it didn’t leave much of a window to go anywhere for any length of time. That was the beginning of the heat wave, too, which kept us not only home, but inside. On the sixth day after surgery we went for her post-op check, and all was well. I put in rails in her bathroom (its own adventure when you have a ten inch wrench and about seven inches clearance to work in), and then went home and slept.

It was as if that week simply vanished. I found myself looking at the yard and thinking “but Wick just mowed that”, only to realize that it had been done the day before I left, and that had been two weeks previous. I ran out of grocery store staples the same way, not realizing how long it had been since I bought them. The things that I did in Indianapolis were real, and the things I had done at home were real, but they weren’t connected in time. It was very strange.

It took me at least two weeks to get my sense of time and place back, and that week is still separate from the flow of my life. Thomas the Rhymer spent seven years in the land of the Fae, and never quite fit into the world of Men again. I understand why. A week was quite long enough for me.

The New Star of the Driveway

June 5th, 2012 by sharktank

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. A couple of days before I was to go down to Indianapolis for week (another story), the air comditioning in Dragon Firewing began to misbehave. Not wanting to be driving over half the state in an unairconditioned minivan, I of course took it to the mechanic. The news was not good. It needed a new compressor and all parts pertaining thereto. Total cost: a nice even thousand. Then the mechanic told me that it had several incipient problems that fell under the heading of “old car maintenance” and that the front brakes were not in good shape.

Firewing was a 2003 Dodge with 140,000 miles on it. I knew, from prior research, that Dodge and Chrysler vans tend to eat their transmissions at about 150,000 miles, give or take. I was looking at sinking a huge amount of money with no assurance I wouldn’t be spending even more in under a year. I told the mechanic to fix the brakes for safety’s sake, asked friends for dealer recommendations, and began hunting online for a replacement. All I was really hoping to get was an idea of prices. Car buying has never been fun, complicated as it is by a funky hip that is very particular about seat design.

It was, bar none, the easiest car shopping I have ever done. I found a 2008 Honda Civic at a dealer in Indy that looked perfect. I knew, from driving a friend’s car, that my hip has no problem with a Civic. An email brought a return call about 15 minutes later, telling me that the car was indeed still there and available. The salesman couldn’t have been nicer; when I told him I’d be driving in from Hebron the next day, sandwiching a test drive in before my mom had surgery on her eyelids, he offered to hold the car for me. (Probably didn’t hurt that I told him that if the test drive went well and the car looked as good in person as it did online, I’d be buying it.). And indeed so it was. I emptied all my junk out of the van, pulled into the dealership at 8:00 p.m. Indy time, and drove away at 10:00 the pleased and deeply relieved owner of a new-to-me car. I have been reminded why I loved my compact cars before my hip started raising hell and I ended up with my first van. Her name is Bluestar.