Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Lesson From “Leave It”: Raisin Scones

I am not a huge fan of breakfast. A glass of milk stirred together with Carnation Instant Breakfast will usually suffice. I typically only eat a full morning meal when I stay with my parents (my mom makes the best morning feasts!). But since I’ve been trying to get back into running, I’ve needed to find something to fill my stomach and give me a little extra boost of energy in the morning. I found a recipe for homemade granola in the Everyday Food magazine that I am absolutely in love with. I put it over plain, non-fat yogurt with banana slices and top it all off with a drizzle of honey. Yum!

Before I had too many consecutive granola-breakfast mornings and got burned out on my new favorite food, I turned to the box for some inspiration on how to change up my morning routine. My search led me to Raisin Scones. Although they are not the healthiest morning meal, scones are a nice treat that I love to give myself every once in a while. I’ve noticed, however, that a truly great scone can be hard to come by and sadly, this recipe was an example of that.

I’m not sure if it was the combination of buttermilk and nutmeg that I didn’t enjoy or if it was because I swapped Craisins for raisins and the taste didn’t mix well with the nutmeg, but these weren’t my favorite. I was pleased to discover though, that scones are a lot easier to make than I imagined. Now I just need to find a better recipe. Perhaps I’ll come across one in a recipe box yet to be discovered (I’ve acquired two more recipe boxes from antique stores, but there isn’t a scone recipe in either one). 

Another morning routine that needs some adjusting is my workout. I had a pretty decent schedule of going to the gym in the morning, but then the weather got nice and I felt guilty leaving Murphy at home. So I’ve been passing on the gym and have been taking him for walks instead. “Walk” is a term I use loosely here, because honestly, our morning jaunts have absolutely no redeeming athletic quality whatsoever. Murphy, being a retriever and a male dog, has his nose attached to the ground throughout the entire route, raising his head only to watch squirrels play or plan an ambush when a cat dares to cross his path. He stops to smell everything – trees, stop signs, piles of leaves – then lifts his leg on each to claim it as the property of His Highness, Sir Murphy of Minnesota (90%  of the time he’s lifting his leg, but there’s nothing coming out to label the spot as his). I spend most of the walk pulling on his leash and telling him to “leave it.” I swear that the people in my neighborhood think that’s my dog’s name. I keep reminding him that I’m trying to walk all the way to France and it’s going to take a long time to get there if we smell every lamppost along the way. He doesn’t seem to care.

He’ll pick up the pace for a few blocks, enough to raise my heart rate and get me excited about finally finding a good rhythm, but then he feigns exhaustion, stops, and looks at me as if he’s about to collapse. Anyone who comes across us at this point must think we’ve walked about 20 miles and that I’m being inhumane to make him go on. Little do they know that this dramatic display typically begins as early as the end of the driveway…at the beginning of the walk. I lean down, cuddle him up, urge him to go on and start the countdown: “Only three more blocks, Murphy. Come on, you can do it!”

But this act never fools me, because I know that as soon as we make it back home and I turn him loose in the yard, he’ll run around like crazy. Usually he runs in circles as fast as he can with a squeaky toy in his mouth, biting hard enough so that everyone in a five mile radius can hear that, yes, Murphy made it home safely from his walk. Maybe I should just skip the walk and join him for laps in the backyard. I’d have to pass on the squeaky toy though. Maybe this is his way of helping me get to France. Maybe he’s trying to tell me that sometimes, in order to make progress, you need to go off course and try something different. It might be like combining buttermilk, Craisins and nutmeg: a good attempt, but it falls a little short of the goal. But other times, what might seem crazy, such as running in circles in the backyard, just might be the ticket to get you to where you want to go. Because if you run enough laps, pretty soon you’ve run a mile…then two…then three, etc… To my neighbors, it might appear a little odd. But Murphy doesn’t care, he’s running like no one is watching. And what do they know anyway, they think his name is Leave It (well, except for the ones who live close enough to hear me yell “Murphy NO!” when he’s digging holes).  

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sharing the Love: Fluffy Chocolate Sponge Cake

The thing I love most about this project is that it allows me to share not only the printed recipe cards, but the baked product as well. Most of the recipes make way too much food for Ryan and I to eat on our own and it has been fun to share them with our families, friends and my poetry group. This weekend, The Found Recipe Box made its first appearance at a dinner party. But this wasn’t just any dinner party; it has a history that was the perfect fit for a recipe from the box.

A few years ago, a couple of women took a cooking class. Afterward, they thought it would be a fun idea to have a dinner party where friends would gather to share their recipes and teach each other how to make each one. One of the women volunteered her house as the gathering place and then each guest was asked to bring ingredients for an appetizer, salad, main course, beverage, or dessert along with a copy of the recipe to share with the other guests. I have added many fabulous recipes to my own collection from these dinner parties and this weekend was no exception.

The evening began with appetizers of cheese, crackers and the most unique and delicious version of guacamole I think I’ve ever tasted. It was called Avocado, Blue Cheese & Bacon dip. In addition to the ingredients in the name it also includes sour cream, lemon juice, Tabasco, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and cumin. It was hard to stop dipping chips in the bowl. The main meal consisted of Caesar salad, Irish Soda Bread and Bruschetta Chicken. It was the perfect combination of flavors and everything was absolutely delicious.

I contributed dessert and I choose the recipe for Fluffy Chocolate Sponge Cake from the box. After the challenges presented by the Burnt Sugar Cake last week, it was nice to have an easy recipe to make. The card didn’t suggest a frosting, but I chose to use the Whipped Cream/Cream Cheese frosting and topped it with chocolate shavings. It was the perfect compliment to the light, spongy chocolate cake. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and I even saved a piece for Ryan (who quickly gobbled it down as Murphy stood by his side drooling, waiting for his chance to taste the latest creation).

The recipe for the frosting made more than was needed to cover the cake so there was quite a bit leftover. But I found a great use for it – a dip for strawberries! It would be a great fruit dip for a summer picnic and I think it would taste great with just about any type of fruit.

 It was a great evening of catching up with friends who, coincidentally, not only share a love of cooking but also horses. I got to live vicariously through their many tales of horse adventures and we even discussed getting together for a trail ride this summer. To be followed, of course, by a collaborative dinner party. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Flashbacks to Organic Chemistry: Old Virginia Cake

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had visions of living on the coast and working with dolphins. When it came time to choose a college, however, I stayed close to home (which is landlocked). But I still selected biology as my major. The thing about biology is that it requires a lot of math and chemistry – two of my least favorite subjects. By my sophomore year, I had suffered through an entire year of calculus and basic chemistry and was now entering the dreaded world organic chemistry. My life became wrapped up in chemical equations, mind-draining math problems, and a lot of crying out of pure frustration. At one point, I was able to pull a bottle of cleaning solution from under the kitchen sink and draw the chemical structure for each ingredient listed. It was a cool trick to impress my friends, but it didn’t make me enjoy the class any more.

As if sitting in a lecture hall with 300 other students three times a week listening to a professor drone on in a seemingly foreign language wasn’t bad enough, we also had to endure a 4-hour organic chemistry lab once a week. It was a complete nightmare. I hated that lab so much that I would actually get sick to my stomach and start to shake hours before I had to go. In the lab, we used something called a sand bath to indirectly warm up test tubes. I would just stare at the little pile of sand and dream that I was on Pensacola Beach in Florida where we used to vacation every summer when I was a kid. Being able to transport myself to my “happy place” during that lab was the only thing that got me through it. 

At the end of sophomore year, I admitted to myself that biology was not the right major and, after much consideration, I switched to Writing Intensive English with a minor in Fine Arts. I still played around with chemicals, only it was in a photography lab and I got to witness the magic of watching my pictures come to life. It was 100% more rewarding than anything I ever experienced in the organic chemistry lab. I’ll never forget when I was going over my graduation requirements with my advisor senior year and he pointed out that I only needed to take one more chemistry class and then I’d have a chemistry minor as well. I just laughed. There was no way I was ever going to do anything with chemistry ever again in my entire life.

I could not have been more wrong.

This week we celebrated another birthday in my poetry group and the cake chosen was an Old Virginia Cake. It’s basically a Burnt Sugar Cake with a Boiled Icing. The first step is to make a caramel sauce by heating sugar (by itself) in a pan until it turns into a brown paste. Then you add six tablespoons of water. As I stood over the stove stirring the sugar around waiting for some sign of change, I was reminded of the beautiful white beaches at Pensacola Beach. Even though the weather is starting to get nice in Minnesota, I desperately want to return to Pensacola because that’s where my grandmother lives. Just as I was starting to feel the warm fuzzies from being in my “happy place,” I noticed that the sugar had started to brown. My excitement from watching the white crystals break down into brown syrup evaporated when I got a twinge in the pit of my stomach as I started to have flashbacks of organic chemistry. “But this is cooking,” I thought, “this is nothing like that, this is fun!” Yeah, that thought lasted approximately 20 minutes.

After the caramel syrup was done, the recipe instructed to let it cool. So I mixed the rest of the batter and then ate lunch. By the time I got back to the syrup, it was like a solid chunk of amber petrified into the pot. I expected to see a mosquito frozen into it waiting for someone to extract the million-year old DNA and bring dinosaurs back to life. I attempted to add heat in order to return it to its previous runny state, but the amber block just wouldn’t cooperate. I threw it away and started over. This time, however, I don’t think I let the sugar boil long enough before adding the water because it instantly clumped up and was irreversibly ruined. At this point, I began to get really frustrated. I just wasted two cups of sugar and had to start over. Again. Deep breath. Third time’s the charm. Right?

Sort of. The caramel sauce was successful and I didn’t let it cool too long, but the next step is to stir ¼ cup of sauce together with ¾ cup of cold water. Immediately upon touching the water, the sauce would harden into a cloudy orange ball. I had enough sauce to try it twice, and it was the same turnout both times. Now I was getting upset. I had a Julie Powell moment where I threw the kitchen towel into the sink and sat on the floor crying (if you haven’t read her book Julie & Julia, go get it right now. I promise you’ll love it! I actually have two recipes in the box I am dedicating to her, but more on that later…). It hadn’t been a good day before I started the cake (car problems triggered a bad mood early on) and this wasn’t helping. I pulled myself together then headed to the computer to search for videos on how to accomplish making a Burnt Sugar Cake. Unfortunately, most of the recipes were different than the one I was using and weren’t helpful. However, by the time I got back into the kitchen, something amazing had happened: one of the clumpy orange masses had almost completely dissolved in the water. I was shocked. Maybe I had given up too soon, maybe I had let all those pent up feelings of hatred towards organic chemistry overcome me and I deemed the cake a failure before I even gave it a chance to work. So I dried my tears, poured the mixture into the rest of the batter and finished making the cake.

The next step to tackle was the dreaded boiled icing. Thankfully, I had dinner plans with friends that night and couldn’t get to it. Instead, I woke up early Thursday morning and, while Murphy was still tucked in bed (he doesn’t get up until at least 8:00am now, unemployment has made him very lazy) I took on the challenge of icing the cake. I think my guardian angel was making up for the mess of the previous day because for the first time ever, the boiled icing was a complete success. It was so successful, in fact, that it actually felt easy. I cried again, but those were tears of extreme joy (and relief that I wasn’t going to waste a few more cups of sugar). 

I don’t like giving up on things. I was so frustrated making this cake that I almost let my swelling emotions convince me that I couldn’t do it, that I should just give up, post the card to the site and apologize for not having a photo of a cake. I’m really glad I didn’t quit because this is a pretty decent cake (to eat, not to make). But sometimes, we also need to admit to ourselves when something we’re doing isn’t a good match for us and just because we can do it (however painful it is to endure), doesn’t mean we should. The day I officially changed my major, I saw my dreams of being a marine biologist drift away from me. I was crushed and felt like a quitter. Even though I was infinitely happier writing and working in the photography lab, I still felt like I let myself down.

But several years ago, I finally got a chance to live my dream. I swam with the dolphins while on vacation in Mexico. It was the most amazing experience of my life and I hope I get to do it again someday. As I dropped down into the water and ran my hand over the dolphin’s smooth skin, my heart pumped with exhilaration. I wondered what my life would have been like had I chosen to go to school on the coast and study these magnificent creatures. Would I have actually enjoyed organic chemistry or would I still have chosen my creative side over chemicals and math? I think I was always meant to be a writer. From the time I was little, it has always had a presence in my life – I still have sketches of comics I made as a kid and short stories I wrote in grade school. And that day in the pool with the dolphins, I was happy that I had chosen writing and art. Because at that moment, I was absorbed in every detail of the experience, wrote about it in my journal, and kept the pictures in my scrapbook rather than looking at the dolphin analytically, measuring his every move and calculating each aspect of his being. And I’ve had the same experience in the kitchen as well. I recognize that chemistry is wrapped up in every element of what I’m doing, but I choose to see the art in it instead. How the light, airy whip of an egg white meringue looks like a poofy summer cloud and the sheen of a perfect boiled icing reflects the sun the same way the Gulf of Mexico does on a sunny afternoon.  

Although I hated organic chemistry, I don’t view that year of classes as wasted time. Someone told me this week that we can’t look at setbacks we have in life as failures, but instead as opportunities to learn. This year past year has been full of those opportunities. And each one has led me back to writing – especially the ones that involve catastrophes in the kitchen. I’ve learned the most from the recipes that have given me trouble and during each one, I’m already writing the post in my head as I cuss out the mess on the counter in front of me. Organic chemistry forced me to look deep inside myself and discover who I really wanted to be. So has unemployment. So has cooking. And to each of those, I am eternally grateful. 

And who knows, maybe someday I’ll still get a chance to live on the coast and work with dolphins. Only, this time, my dream isn’t to be a marine biologist, but to write about these magnificent creatures and share my love for them through words and images rather than mathematical calculations. And when I finally write a book, I’ll be sure to thank organic chemistry for helping to lead me down the path to realizing who I was truly meant to be.  

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Birthday Cake: Green and White Cake

I was in Illinois this past week for a family reunion (of sorts) and birthday celebrations. On my side of the family, we have five birthdays from the last week in February through the end of March. That’s a lot of celebrating! And two of those were first birthdays. Sandwiched between all of those birthdays was St. Patrick’s Day, so I found it fitting that this month’s cake from the Birthday Cake For Every Month card was a Green and White Cake in honor of that raucous Irish holiday. It was also fitting because my family has a high percentage of Irish heritage and my brothers missed being St. Patty’s Day babies by a matter of hours.

This is another recipe from the New Party Cakes For All Occasions booklet and it also uses a boiled icing. Although I appreciate the challenge of making boiled icings, I don’t enjoy eating them. And since I was bringing this cake down to IL to share with my family, I wanted to make something that everyone would want to eat.  The cake is an angel food cake, so I chose a frosting that would compliment the light, airy taste and texture of the cake – whipped cream/cream cheese frosting. Here’s the recipe:

Whipped Cream/Cream Cheese Frosting
1 8oz. package of cream cheese
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream

Beat the whipping cream until it forms a stiff peak then set aside (I’ve learned that it works best if you chill the bowl and beaters first). In a separate bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Then fold in the whipped cream. (I also added green food coloring to my frosting.)

The directions in the New Party Cakes For All Occasions booklet instruct you to decorate the cake with shamrock sprinkles. It took me an entire day of driving around the Twin Cities to find shamrock sprinkles. When I finally found them (at Joann Fabric and Craft Stores – I love that place, first a doll cake topper and now shamrock sprinkles, they’re lifesavers!) I bought two bottles. Just in case.

Also, a note about the cake recipe: it calls for 1 ¼ cups of egg whites. For me, that turned out to be 8 egg whites. I looked everywhere for a conversion chart, but found it was easiest to keep separating eggs until I got the amount I needed.

I had never made a homemade angel food cake before and can honestly say, I don’t think I’ll ever buy one again. This is an easy recipe to make and you can taste the homemade difference. My whole family agreed that the whipped cream/cream cheese frosting was a good choice. If you make it and choose a different one, let me know! 

I also wanted to share some of the illustrations from the New Party Cakes For All Occasions booklet with you. This was one of my favorites; it’s a story of two brides who are each making a cake for their husband. One follows the lessons she learned from the Betty Crocker radio show and uses Gold Medal Cake Flour. The other doesn’t. Look how it turns out:

I think the best part is that they are sitting at the dinner table dressed for a black tie event. Oh, how times have changed (this booklet was printed in 1931). If that was a picture from dinner at my house, Ryan and I would be sitting in front of the TV eating off TV trays and Murphy would be resting his chin on my tray with a puddle of drool forming beneath his lips. And we’d be in jeans or PJs. To our credit, we don’t have a dining room or an eat-in kitchen so we couldn’t sit at a nice table to eat anyway. Maybe this week I’ll make Ryan a fancy cake and put on an old bridesmaid dress for dinner. Since he doesn’t wear a suit and tie to work, I’d have to settle for his business casual attire. I think that might make him question my sanity even more than the time he came home and I was making a dress for a doll that I was putting on top of the Queen of Hearts Cake. But that’s what I love so much about this recipe box, it’s an adventure and a history lesson wrapped together and served with a delicious, edible moral at the end.

Monday, March 15, 2010

From Battle Plans to Backyard Picnics: Popovers

I hate spring.

I haven’t always. I used to long for the days when the temperature would creep a little higher each day at about the same rate as the snow turning into dirt. When it seemed you could track the progression of change in season by watching jackets morph from puffy marshmallows to a thin layer added more for style than warmth.

Then I got a dog and spring became a dirty word.

I thought last spring was bad. Murphy had packed the snow in the entire yard down to create a thick layer of ice. When it began to melt, we had a lake in our yard covering what was left of the ice field. It was so bad that Murphy didn’t even want to go out there; he just sat on the deck and waited patiently for it all to soak into the ground so that he could resume his summer routine of afternoon naps in the sun beneath the pine tree. 

Spring 2009

But this year, we had so much snow that Murphy only blazed three trails through the yard, leaving the rest virtually untouched. And now that it’s melting, it’s a sloppy, wet mess. Add a dog with severe cabin fever to the mix and you have a mud pit. To make it worse, the squirrels have left their winter homes and are ravenously searching for food. Apparently Murphy is very upset about this and has declared a full-scale war. He’s so determined to defeat his rodent enemies, in fact, that he has created a militia. The draft started a few weeks ago when he began to line his toys up by the back door to see what I’d allow him to take outside. He’s always been very good about leaving his “indoor toys” in the house and keeping his “outdoor toys” in the yard. Not anymore. Now every toy fair game and they’re not all happy about being recruited. As I let him out the other day, he had his Mr. Bill doll tucked in is mouth and as he walked out to the battleground, Mr. Bill’s cries of, “Oh nooooooooooooo,” faded into the distance as Murphy walked off the deck and added his newest soldier to the ranks. (Here's a website that has a picture of the doll and a clip of what he says.)

I’m not sure where he learned about battle strategies, (I leave HGTV on for him to watch when I’m gone, not the History channel) but Murphy has started constructing trenches in the backyard, a tactic that I am not very happy about. I thought I had a few more weeks of solid ground before I had to worry about the dog digging holes. I greatly underestimated the power of a determined dog, especially one whose nails are in desperate need of a trim (Have you ever seen a stuffed grizzly bear at a museum? You know what their claws look like? Yeah, Murphy’s nails look a lot like that. They are serious weapons of mass destruction.). He dug through a foot of soft snow, to the ground, and down about another foot. He did it with such force, that he blasted the back of the garage with mud. Perhaps he is creating camouflage to confuse the squirrels? 

His next plan was to create something of intrigue to attract the enemy. Since they’re hungry and they like to eat walnuts (he knows this because they sit in the pine tree and throw the shells at him – I’m not kidding, it’s actually quite amusing to watch) he dug up my soaker hose that I accidentally left in a garden over the winter and then proceeded to chew it into little bits of black rubber that resembled the squirrels’ favorite food. 

All in all, it was quite an impressive execution of a very sophisticated battle plan. I should be impressed. I’m not. Not in the least. If anyone has been thinking about getting a Golden Retriever, I might have one available if he doesn’t find a new hobby very quickly. But thankfully, I had a hobby of my own to turn to when I couldn’t deal with the devastation that was once my backyard. So I headed inside to the kitchen and made something that gave me happier memories of spring.

My favorite part of spring is when the buds begin to appear on the trees and the green heads of the day lilies and hostas pop through the soil. It’s a sign that in a matter of weeks, winter will be but a memory and I’ll soon be sitting on the deck, bathing in the warm summer sun, reading a book and watching Murphy nap in the grass (if there’s any left by then). Aside from the braches that fell from the pine tree popping through the snow and reminding me that I need to do something about them, there hasn’t been much sign of green sprouting from the ground just yet. So to give the plants a little encouragement, I made a recipe that does a little “popping” of its own: Popovers. This recipe was like so many others in the box, something that I always thought was difficult until I tried it. Popovers really aren’t more complicated than cupcakes and they follow pretty much the same process (except for the frosting). I used an over-sized muffin tin and it made six popovers. The recipe instructs to bake them for 1 hour, however, mine were done in about 35 minutes.

The kitchen smelled so sweet I wanted to bite into the air. It wasn’t sweet like cake or cookies, but instead reminded me more of bread baking with pancakes and drizzled in honey. The first bite was even better than I had envisioned. These are definitely my new favorite roll to serve with dinner. 

By the end of the weekend, 95% of the snow was gone from our yard. The record-breaking temperature of 64 degrees on Sunday helped accomplish that feat. And to celebrate, Murphy had his first picnic of the year (that’s what we call it when he eats his dinner on the deck). The bits of hose were removed from the yard, the pieces of broken pine tree braches were piled up, and even the hole Murphy dug didn’t look as bad once the snow was gone and the mud settled back into place. Maybe soon the hostas and the day lilies will begin to show their faces and then we can put this whole dreary winter behind us. When they do, I’d better warn them about Murphy’s militia because something tells me, they’ll be the next ones on his list.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wish You Were Here: Chocolate Roll


Today is my birthday. I am 34. It’s the same age my Uncle Mike was when he died of a heart attack. I was in 4th grade when he died and, at the time, I thought 34 was old. The closer I’ve gotten to this age, the more I’ve realized how very young he was. I miss my uncle fiercely and his absence has left a huge hole in my life. At every major event (graduations, my wedding, etc…) I’ve always taken a moment to pause and think of him and every time, I’ve wished with all my heart that he could be there to share the moment with me.

I grew up listening to the music of the 60’s and 70’s – Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, Bob Dylan – and one of my all time favorites is Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. Every time I hear that song, I think of my uncle. The opening notes are haunting. I once learned to play them on the guitar, my uncle’s guitar actually, and I felt like I was playing them only for him to hear. Life would have been so much fun with him around. Before his death, he was planning to buy a house and get married. I remember in great detail the room in the house that he promised would be mine whenever I stayed over. 

Uncle Mike & Me (when I was 10 weeks old)

I get angry sometimes when I think of those things. I feel robbed. He was young, too young. His life was just beginning. And now, as I cross the threshold into the years that he never got to live, I think of all the things on my life to-do list that I have yet to experience. The past year has been hard. Since I lost my job and Ryan’s company has been having layoffs, we’ve had to put our lives on hold. Unfortunately, so many of our dreams require money so they, too, are in a holding pattern, just chicken scratch on a list until I get my big break or we win the lotto (I guess I have to start playing for that to happen). But not everyone is in the same boat and the hardest part has been sitting idly on the sideline while I watch others move forward. For a long time, I couldn’t even log onto my Facebook page because every time I did someone else was announcing they were having a baby or going on vacation – all the things that I wanted to be doing, but couldn’t. Instead I was worrying about losing my house and wondering if we could find a place that would allow us to bring the chinchilla and dog or if I’d lose them too. I discovered just how easy it is to fall into the trap of feeling sorry for yourself and drowning in that misery. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for anyone else; I was just so terrified that I’d never get to feel that happiness they were experiencing.

I always thought that this would be a really hard birthday and this dismal year made me dread its arrival. But turning 34 has actually helped me realize life’s potential. I started a vision board. It’s something that I’ve heard about for years and always thought was an interesting idea, but never took the time to do. I’ve filled a large cork board with pictures of all the treasures I want life to bring: a list of all the places I want to visit (the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Maine and Vermont when the leaves are changing, England, Ireland, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Prague, etc…), the names of the kids I’d like to have (I have a girl’s name and a boy’s name all picked out, thankfully Ryan likes them too), a majestic Friesian horse, the farm house we will all live in, a book I will write someday, and a training program for a 5K I will run. This is just a start. There are plenty of other things that I’ll add to the list along the way, but I wanted to get the big ones down there first so that I could see them. That can be the hardest part of being stuck in a tunnel and not being able to see the end. The constant darkness robs your mind of the memory of the beautiful things life can offer. So you need to find a way to switch on a flashlight until you can get back into the sun.

Making this list was just like making the recipe spreadsheet I did for the blog. They are both a list of experiences that I am going to have and now that they’re down on paper I can put a check mark next to each one. Everyday I thank myself for going back to that booth at the antique show and spending the $15 on this recipe box (did I ever tell you that I almost passed it up and didn’t buy it?!). Each of these recipes has a story to tell and each one makes me realize that I do too.

I have felt very connected to this box in many ways, it contains several recipes that hold special meaning to me (my grandmother’s Swedish pancake recipe, for example). And it didn’t let me down for this momentous birthday. I chose the Chocolate Roll for my cake. Growing up, my mom let us choose our birthday cake and she would make it especially for us. Almost every year, I chose a chocolate roll cake. My poor mom went through the painstaking process of making the cake and trying to roll it up without breaking it. I never understood just how tricky it was…until now. 

The recipe is fairly simple, other than guessing at the temperature and baking time, which isn’t listed on the card (I found 350 degrees and about 15-20 minutes to work). It doesn’t get difficult until the assembly of the cake. Once it has been removed from the shallow baking pan, it needs to be filled with whipped cream and then rolled. Easy enough right? It would be if the cake didn’t break apart in the process. I found that if you put the cake on a clean kitchen towel that has been dusted with powdered sugar and use that to assist while rolling it can be a relatively smooth process. Miraculously, I got it to work on the first try. I was prepared to make several cakes, just in case, but I bought all those extra eggs for nothing. I was shocked! I immediately took a picture on my phone and sent it to my mom. It looked just like the ones she used to make and it also had the special touches she adds: broken up pieces of peppermint candies in the whipped cream and a hot fudge sauce on top (I used the same one I made for the Fudge Cake). 

Sometimes we psych ourselves out and think something is impossible before we ever even try. Staring at my beautiful birthday cake, I thought about my vision board. Maybe all of those dreams are more attainable than I let myself believe. Maybe someday I’ll post pictures from the Found Recipe Box European tour with the caption “Wish You Were Here.” No matter where my journey takes me, though, I know my uncle will be there with me. I may not be able to send him pictures with my phone, but I carry him in my heart wherever I go.

I miss you Uncle Mike, so much. I know if you were here, you’d be tacking up pictures to the vision board with me and telling me to never stop dreaming. So today, I’m adding a new one to the board: a card my mom made for me several years ago that bears that same message. I keep it on the shelf in my office for inspiration. But maybe it’s my dreams that need the inspiration now. The times they are a-changin’ and as I enter this new year of my life, I’m going to do everything I can to ensure they are great changes. And if I need some help along the way, well, I’m sure there are recipes in the box for that. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Art of Simplifying: Tiny Shortbread Tarts

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Christine Hoffman, creator of the blog Pies and Aprons. I quickly learned that we have two common interests: antiques and baking. Christine is an interior decorator. She is one of those people who can walk into a room and envision new color schemes, combine unlikely pairs of furniture and accessories, and walk out having created a relaxing, inspiring place to retreat. I wish I had that kind of vision. One of her homes was once featured in Country Living magazine. Flipping through the glossy pages, I realized I was packing my bags in my mind and ready to move in.

One of the things we discussed was our many creative outlets and how we’re always trying to add to our repertoire of talents. We talked about sewing and how, despite a deep desire to be able to sew, we’re both afraid of sewing machines. And then she made a comment that really resonated with me. “I’m just going to have to accept that I’m never going to sew,” she said. “I don’t have to do everything.” And there it was. That part of my life that I’ve struggled with for so many years was suddenly staring me right in the face in the form of a single sentence. And I had to admit that she was right.

I grew up with two brothers (identical twins) and boys tend to be competitive. Well, girls can be too. I played most of the sports the boys and their friends did and tried my best to compete at their level. I learned to downhill ski in junior high and quickly moved on to snowboarding for an extra challenge. Even though the first time out I sprained my wrist and my knees were purple for a week, I was completely in love with the sport. In high school I got the opportunity to go to Colorado and even had a ½ day private snowboarding lesson. One of the greatest thrills of my life was gliding down that mountain listening to my board carve through the groomed trail and feeling my face break through the mountain air.  

I wanted to prove that girls could do anything and I didn’t limit myself to sports. From there it was art. I drew in high school, did photography in college and since then I’ve picked up jewelry making, visual journaling, altered books and card making (to name a few). I am also a writer: poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. And now I can add novice cook/baker to my list of creative skills.

I love that I’ve tried so many different things in my life, although sometimes I wish I could be an “expert” at just one single thing. Like the rest of the world, I was glued to the TV for the past two weeks watching the Olympics. My favorites, of course, were the snowboarding events. I remember watching Shaun White and being in complete and total awe of his fearlessness and dominance on the half pipe. For his final run, the gold was secure, so he could have done nothing at all and still walked away an Olympic champion. But he chose to pull out his full bag of tricks and really go out with a bang. He was simply amazing to watch.

I desperately wanted that exhilaration that Shaun felt when all his hard work paid off and he became a champion. I’m at that point in my life where there are so many things that I feel I am supposed to be doing, yet don’t have the means of accomplishing. The pressure and frustration can be suffocating. So, I decided that I needed to simplify, get back to basics. And ironically, there was a recipe in the box for that.

Tiny Shortbread Tarts have four ingredients. They’re simple to make and they have that classic, dependable taste that makes me smile every time I bite into one. And the dollop of raspberry pie filling on the top is just sweet enough to seduce your taste buds without overpowering the simplicity of the cookie. The hardest part is waiting for them to bake and cool down before popping one (or three) into your mouth. It was just the recipe I needed to gain some perspective on my life. 

Later, I sat at my desk to write. As I paused between thoughts, I glanced around the room and my eyes stopped on an object: my snowboard. I haven’t been on it in years, not since I injured my back, but it stands like a sentry against my bookcase, keeping my memories of that day on the mountain in Colorado securely locked in its bindings. Someday, I want to return to those tree-lined paths of packed snow and carve my way down the trails. Maybe I could get a lesson from Shaun White (dream big right?). But until then, I have to remember that although I’m not an Olympic champion and even though there’s a lot that I can’t do right now for whatever reason, there is still a lot to give me cause for celebration. Hey, I can bake a Queen of Hearts Cake! And I’m glad that I’m not an expert at just one thing. I have my own bag of tricks that I can reach into when I need a moment to let myself shine and that bag is overflowing with options. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll overcome my fear of the sewing machine and I can throw that into the mix too.

I know I’m not the only one out there in my situation. This economy has caused a lot of people to redefine their lives and rethink their dreams. It’s not an easy thing to do, but sometimes, by taking a step back we actually move forward. If you’re one of those people, I just want to say – hang in there. I always thought that at this point in my life I’d be married, have a steady job, kids, and would have stepped foot on European soil. Instead, I have a wonderful and supportive husband, an amazing dog, and a cooking blog (1 out of 4 isn’t bad). They all make me incredibly proud and happy and isn’t that what being a champion is all about anyway?

Life is an interesting balance of cutting ourselves some slack and remembering that we don’t have to do everything, but at the same time having faith that we are, in fact, capable of doing anything. It’s a complex thought for complex times, but in the end, it will make our lives much simpler. And when life gets to be too overwhelming, head to the kitchen. Sometimes the answer can be found in four simple ingredients.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A New Tuesday Favorite: Taco Lasagna


Tuesday is taco night in our house. It’s one of our favorite meals (Murphy included) and we have perfected the art of the double-decker taco. If you’ve never had one, you have to try it. Here’s how it works:

First get a small flour tortilla. Spread a thin layer of warm refried beans across one side. Then put a hard shell taco on top of the bean layer (we’ve found it’s best to break the hard taco in half and lay it out flat on top of the beans). Then start layering in the fillings. I start with meat, then my famous homemade guacamole, cheese, black olives, etc… Fold it back into the hard taco shell shape and you’re ready for the best Mexican food experience of your life!

Mexican is one of my favorite types of food. Italian is another. I was excited to find a recipe in the box that combined both of those into one dish: Taco Lasagna! I will warn you though, this makes enough to feed a small town (we froze over half of it). It would be a great meal to make for a party or large family gathering. And if you need a creative way to get in a strength training workout, lift the pan several times before putting it in the oven and then again after taking it out. I’m guessing it weighs about 10 pounds.

This recipe is more labor intensive than regular tacos so it won’t replace our Tuesday night tradition, but it will definitely make an appearance again. The only change I’d make, however, is to drain the olives (or at least one can). The recipe instructs to use the liquid from both cans, but we found that it made the sauce too runny. I also suggest serving it with sour cream, guacamole and perhaps even a side of Spanish rice. 

Tacos are one type of food that causes Murphy’s mouth to turn on the waterworks. He took one whiff of this meal and the floodgates instantly opened. So if we rate our food on a scale of drool, this one was a raging river (which may be the only time a raging river is considered a good thing – unless you are a whitewater rafter or if you are the one who has to clean up the dog’s mess).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Winter Warm-Up: Cream Soup

This is the time of year when we eagerly await the arrival of spring. It has been a long winter and especially harsh in many parts of the country. My family in Florida even saw snow this year! I was happy to find a card in the box that could offer some support while we wait for March to transform from lion to lamb: Cream Soup.

Not only is this recipe a delicious and soothing comfort food, but it’s easy to make and even easier to prepare in a healthy way. I used low-fat, low-sodium versions of the soup and chose skim for the three cans of milk. I’m not a big fan of celery and onions so I substituted lightly sautéed baby portabella mushrooms instead. I also used turkey bacon. I’m not a huge fan of it because it doesn’t cook right, but it was a small amount so I guess it was O.K. Next time though, I’m just going to use real bacon. And finally, I added some extra chicken (I used a rotisserie chicken) because there wasn't much in the can of chicken rice soup.

Even with the skim milk, the soup was a nice, thick consistency (I think the creamed corn helped with that). I recommend toasting the almonds before sprinkling them on top as a finishing touch. And with just my husband and me at home, it was plenty for two meals each and then enough to freeze to bring out again in a few weeks. Hopefully by then, the snow piles will be drastically reduced and all the toys Murphy left out in the yard before the first snowfall in December will begin to reappear.