Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Birthday traditions, and a splashy birthday cake

Our little boy turned two years old, and his big sister was excited for weeks leading up to his birthday. She is such a doting sister, and a very family-oriented kid. Where her dad and I are 100% not religious and very loosey-goosey with traditions of any kind, she insists that she would like us to have special family traditions.

We chatted a bit about this and decided to establish five fun family birthday traditions starting with Niam's birthday this year:

1. A big, colorful, festive birthday banner will be strung up in the dining room the night before each person's birthday. Years ago, I had bought a fabric panel designed to be cut up and assembled into just such a banner; Lila and I finally completed it earlier this month, so our family birthday banner is ready and was used for the first time for Niam's birthday.

2. On the morning of the birthday, the birthday girl/boy will wake up to a small surprise. For Niam's birthday, we inflated a few polka dot balloons the night before and left them around the living room. The toddler was indeed surprised and delighted and ran around madly with the balloons in his pajamas at 5 in the morning!

3. On the morning of the birthday, we will make the birthday boy/girl's favorite breakfast, stick candles in it and sing the birthday song before leaving for work/school or whatever the day brings. We made a stack of chocolate chip pancakes for Niam and it was a delightful way to start the day.

4. We will have a special birthday dinner where the birthday girl/boy gets to choose the menu or choose the restaurant if we decide to eat out. I am looking to buy/make a birthday tablecloth and a special birthday plate for the birthday dinners at home. For Niam's birthday, we made some of his favorite foods- mac and cheese, corn on the cob and roasted broccoli.

5. For the kids, I will make a special birthday shirt announcing their age that they get to wear for the day. I made one for the little guy using a plain striped onesie appliquéd with the number 2 with a bit of fabric from my stash.

The idea is to make the day special- both in terms of anticipation and happy memories- while also keeping things fairly simple and doable on my end. Because the fact is that while traditions are fine and good, they are a lot of work for the person who upholds them. To keep things organized, I have a box designated for the banner, candles and other birthday supplies that will be used time after time.

Apart from the actual birthday full of newly minted traditions, we hosted a small birthday party on the weekend for some of our friends and neighbors. A July birthday in Georgia can mean only two things- either you choose a venue where you can cool off in the water or you stay indoors with the air conditioner on. We took our chances with the weather and opted for a party outside, renting a picnic pavilion in a local park that has a splash pad- a playground with water features.

I made an under the sea/ fish tank cake to go with the splashing/ water theme. No original ideas here; the cake decoration was completely cribbed from various cakes I saw online. The nice thing about this cake is that it looks quite sweet while needing NO skills whatsoever to decorate. And you can decorate it in 5 minutes flat using a few items that you can buy in the supermarket. Read on for the details.

1. The cake: My sister recommended this chocolate cake recipe that she always makes for my nephew's birthday cakes. I wanted more servings so I took that recipe and this recipe, put the ingredients from both recipes together to make one big batch of batter, and baked it in 2 pans- a 8x8 inch one and a 9x13 inch one. Confused yet? ;) The idea was to make a big cake and a smaller cake so Lila and I could each have a cake to decorate and we would have enough servings to go around.

You can make any shape/size of cake as long as you have a flat surface for decorating.

2. The frosting: You need blue frosting for the water. We made standard buttercream frosting with 3 drops of blue gel food color + 1 drop green gel food color. Spread the frosting on the cake- it doesn't need to be smooth, in fact, a few waves and swirls give the frosting texture and the cake looks more realistic.

3. The sand: Crush vanilla wafers (or any brown/sand colored cookie) in a food processor to sandy crumbs. I sprinkled the crumbs/sand over the lower one-third of the cake.

4. The seaweed: Buy Fruit by the Foot and Fruit roll ups. Cut the candy into the desired length, twist and ruffle it and place artfully on the cake.

5. The pebbles: To make pebbles/ rocks at the bottom of the water, I used raisinets candy (chocolate covered raisins) with a few colorful jelly beans.

6. The fish: The "schools" of fish are cute little Goldfish crackers- buy the kind called "colors" which comes in a few fun colors. Other sea creatures include gummy fish and gummy worms.

7. Castle: Use a couple of vanilla wafers (the rectangular ones with the hatched pattern) and a few knife cuts  to make a castle.

This is Lila's cake- you can see that she is not a minimalist! Her cake tells a whole elaborate story where the castle is a school by the coral reef and the fish all have names and are going to school etc. etc.

If you make this cake for a party, I highly recommend serving the leftover candy in small bowls alongside because all the kids will want the slice with the gummy fish!

Along with the cake, we served lemonade, snacks (crackers and corn puffs), fruit (apple slices and watermelon cubes) and cheese.

Lemonade for a crowd: I'm jotting down the formula for future reference. Mix 4 cups sugar and 4 cups water in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar dissolves, then cool to make simple syrup.
  • Fill a 2 gallon cooler two-thirds with water. 
  • Add the simple syrup made above.
  • Add 30-32 ounces lemon juice. This can be freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I took a short cut this time and used two 15-oz bottles of RealLemon lemon juice concentrate. 
  • Stir the syrup, water and lemon juice, then fill the rest of the cooler with ice.
To minimize waste, we took along a plastic tote with plastic plates, plastic and stainless forks in a caddy, and plastic and stainless steel cups. All the dirty dishes got piled back into the tote to be brought back home and into the dishwasher. We did use a few paper napkins and a few paper plates but there was way less trash than if we had used all disposables.

Also, the birthday boy is too young to have an opinion about birthday gifts and party favors, so we were able to request no gifts and skip the party favors. Being in a park with a splash pad and playground meant that there was no need for additional party activities and all in all, this turned out to be a fun, simple and low-key birthday party.

* * *

The summer reading continues with the Read Harder 2018 challenge.

Task #3: A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance). Mystery is my favorite easy-reading genre and I started reading a classic mystery, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Fifty pages in, I just couldn't get into the book and gave up. Around that time, I happened to read this New Yorker article on artificial intelligence, and it reminded me of an old friend from graduate school who loved Isaac Asimov's robot novels. So I happily switched genres and read Asimov's I, Robot, a classic of science fiction. Science fiction is not a genre I generally read but this one is a classic for a reason. A reporter is interviewing robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin as she retires- she narrates interesting cases from her career, and in doing so, traces the evolution, so to speak, of robots. This is such a fascinating story collection- it is based around the three laws of robotics coined by Asimov, which influenced not only subsequent generations of science fiction writers but also real life scientists working in the field of robotics.

Image: Goodreads
For Task #8: A comic written or drawn by a person of color, I chose The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American writer/artist/teacher. Through her unique, sepia colored illustrations, Thi Bui narrates the story of her parents' childhoods, how they met and started a family against the backdrop of civil strife and war and the circumstances that led them to take their little kids on a harrowing and unpredictable journey as refugees. The amazing thing is that Thi Bui started chronicling the oral history of her family, decided that graphic art would be a good medium to tell her story and then had to teach herself how to draw comics! Incredible.

A lot of the memoir talks about how the trauma of growing up in unstable times reverberates across generations. Thi Bui ends the book with this gut-wrenching sentiment: "But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don't see war and loss or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free." 

Back in grade school, history was an almost universally hated subject, and those dreadful history textbooks were chock full of disjointed events, wars and the dates to memorize. What a tragic lost opportunity that was. I wish we had learned history through memoirs and novels that told poignant stories from various points of view, the ones I'm discovering just now as an adult. Reading The Best We Could Do taught me more about the history of Vietnam that I ever knew.

For Task #11: A children’s classic published before 1980, I picked up All of a Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor, first published in 1958. This is one of a series of books about a large and loving family (5 daughters and a son) growing up in 1910s in New York City. It is a warm and comforting series of stories about daily life in NYC in the days of the first world war, siblings and their little life adventures and Jewish family traditions. This would be a good book to read aloud with 9-12 year olds- I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and will look for the others in the series.

Tell me about your family traditions and birthday celebrations!! What are you reading these days? 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Lemon Rice for Vegetable Lovers

Memorial Day- May 28 this year- is considered the official kick off to summer. Ours started memorably enough but not in a good way! We had the wettest May on record with 18 continuous days of rain. On May 28 at dawn, I awoke to a loud bang and in a half-asleep, dazed state, saw the ceiling fan going haywire with sparks flying out of it. No joke, and it was not a dream. It turns out that in the overnight storm, a large tree limb fell on our main power lines and sparked a dangerous electrical surge into our home.

The surge damaged our refrigerator, cooking range and microwave to the point of no repair. The refrigerator's water lines were damaged, causing the kitchen to flood, so the water mains had to be shut off. The surge caused the heating/cooling system to malfunction, and the power and internet cables had to be cut by the power company for safety reasons. In one fell swoop, we lost all the modern conveniences that we take for granted, during a holiday weekend. It took us almost 3 weeks to dig out of this mess. As expensive and aggravating as this month was, it could have been a lot worse and we are thankful that there was no fire and no one was harmed.

We were without a kitchen for several days. Friends came to the rescue in many ways. We were able to borrow fridge and freezer space from one friend to rescue some food. Others let us borrow a mini fridge, slow cooker and toaster oven so I had a makeshift kitchen until we were able to get new appliances installed. It was my first time using a slow cooker- I tried a few different things, including a tortellini (stuffed pasta) casserole, which turned out a bit mushy but edible, and rajma, which turned out a bit watery but also edible. The most successful was a simple red lentil dal with summer squash, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

Chantarelle mushrooms: The rain may have caused havoc in some cases (trees falling and all that) but it also caused a boom in chanterelle mushrooms. I wrote last year about foraging for chanterelles and this year this expert mushroom forager (and eater) Lila is at it again. We are enjoying them simply sautéed with garlic.

For a few weeks, lacking a functional kitchen, I gave my CSA vegetable boxes to friends. But here are some highlights from the veggies that I did end up using over the month.

Napa cabbage: For the first time, I bought some fresh Hong Kong style noodles from the Asian store. Not knowing any authentic way to cook these, I just pan-fried them, then topped them with roasted napa cabbage and mock chicken with a sweet and sour sauce. This impromptu dish was a hit.

Green garlic: I remember my aunt buying green garlic (they look like green onions but with a distinct, delicate garlic aroma and flavor) when it was available seasonally, and very rarely, in Mumbai. She would cook it in into simple scrambled eggs and it was such a delicacy. I was excited to get green garlic in the veggie box and that's exactly how I cooked it- into scrambled eggs. 

Tomatoes: For Father's day, we made a simple dinner of some of Daddy's favorite foods, including this deluxe bruschetta/caprese salad mash up with thin slices of baguette topped with tomato slices, mozzarella, fresh basil and chopped olives, all drizzled with garlic-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Collard greens: What else but collard greens wadi- the very best way to eat your greens. 

Shishito peppers: Last week we got some of these mild peppers in the box. I had never tasted them; V remembered eating them in a fancy restaurant a while ago. We cooked them in a searing hot cast iron pan and enjoyed them as in, with a yogurt dipping sauce. 

Lemon rice for vegetable lovers

There was a bumper crop of cabbage and green beans in the CSA box last week and I inaugurated my new oven with this twist on a classic South Indian dish- lemon rice, a light, tangy dish just perfect for summer.

This version is a hybrid of lemon rice and cabbage rice. It fits in with the way I like to eat- with vegetables front and center, and the recipe makes a big batch.

1. Make rice in a rice cooker or stovetop and let it cool down. I used Jasmine rice because that's the staple in my kitchen, and this dish uses about 3/4 cup (1 rice cooker measure) raw rice.

2. Roast 1 baking sheet worth of vegetables at 400F until slightly charred at the edges and tender throughout. I used cabbage and green beans. Carrots, zucchini and summer squash would work well in this recipe, and steamed green peas or black eyed peas would be a nice addition.

3. Juice a couple of lemons and set the juice aside. In a pan, heat some oil. Temper with mustard seeds, chana dal, urad dal, asafetida, turmeric, fresh ginger and fresh curry leaves. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

4. In a large mixing bowl, toss together the cooked rice, roasted veggies and spice-lemon mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.

*** Book chat ***

Appliances may have let me down last month, but books did not disappoint. Oh, it was a glorious reading month.

Image: Goodreads
 For the Read Harder Task #5: A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries, I read The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. BRICS is the acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and of these countries, I chose a book based not only in India, the land of my birth, but set in Malabar Hill, a neighborhood in South Bombay only a mile or two away from the place where I was born.

This book is a historical mystery based in 1920s Bombay but so many of the neighborhoods, landmarks, bakeries and foods mentioned brought back my own memories from the Bombay of the 80s and 90s. I will refer you to Niranjana's excellent review of the Widows of Malabar Hill and add only that if you are looking for a solid summer read, this one is worth picking up.

Image: Goodreads
For the Read Harder Task #6:A book about nature, I read Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Astrophysics- the science of nature at its biggest and most expansive. The book starts off with this quote:

"The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

But after declaring this, Tyson takes on the personal responsibility of helping ordinary mortals make sense of the universe. This slender volume features 12 essays, each of them highlighting some delicious feature of astrophysics. It is only June, but I am pretty sure this is going to be my favorite book of the year.

For the Read Harder Task #14: A book of social science, I picked up Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The author is an NPR reporter (religion beat) who interviews dozens of people going through midlife, and talks to many social scientists researching aspects of midlife, plus there is a memoir theme running through this book.

For all those who like me are staring midlife in the face (!!), some takeaways from the book.

Three themes to living richly in midlife:
1. Engage with verve.
2. Choose purpose over happiness- the concept of eudaimonia (flourishing).
3. Your thinking is your experience.

Two of the many suggestions from the author:
Aim for meaning and not happiness, and you will find both.
At every stage in life, you should be a rookie at something. 

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I do just that- browsing in the library looking for covers that look interesting. That's how I picked up this book in the children's section. Frenemies in the Family: Famous Brothers and Sisters Who Butted Heads and Had Each Other's Backs by Kathleen Krull. This book is informative and delightful and very funny, a gossipy series of essays on famous sibling sets. It covers everyone from royalty, presidents, sports figures right down to the Gosselins. 

How was your month of June? Hopefully not as eventful as mine ;) 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Doctored Ice Cream Recipes, and Summer Reading Kicks Off

I attended a lecture once by a nationally known quilter and she talked about her experience pitching patterns to quilting magazines. She told us that the editors loved two words in the description of the pattern- those two words being "quick" and "easy". Of course they appreciated creative and original patterns and all the rest of it, but those two magic words sealed the deal.

Quick and Easy are very beloved words in the recipe world too. Entire fortunes have been built on 30 minute meals and 3 ingredient cookbooks and semi-homemade cooking shows. You can love from-scratch cooking, as I do, and still have a soft corner in your heart for recipes that produce good results quickly.

As the days warm up quickly and cool desserts are on the menu, I'm sharing two quick and easy recipes for ice cream treats that start off with good quality store bought ice cream and need minimal work for really great results.

Rosewater, used judiciously, gives an indescribably exotic and alluring flavor to desserts. I've made this ice cream two or three times in the last month for different groups of friends and each time, a small scoop of the pistachio rose ice cream left them feeling delighted. This will be my go-to dessert of the season. If you love kulfi and Indian ice cream flavors like kesar pista, you will love this so-simple-it-is-hardly-a-recipe recipe.

Pistachio Rose Ice Cream

1. Set out 1 quart (or 4 cups) good quality vanilla ice cream (I love Trader Joe's French Vanilla but use your favorite brand) on the counter for several minutes until it is soft-serve consistency. Don't let it melt completely.

2. Dump the soft ice cream into a bowl.

3. Add:
1/2 cup chopped roasted pistachios
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tbsp. rose water 

4. Fold the additions into the ice cream (a silicone spatula works well), then scrape back into the container and refreeze. 

For special occasions, cake is my go-to dessert, personally. But many of my near and dear ones seem to prefer ice cream to cake. On her sixth birthday in Fall, Lila requested an ice cream cake. Last week, I was organizing a co-worker's farewell party and she too requested an ice cream cake. If you need a simple ice cream cake that will feed a crowd and please the crowd, here's a- you guessed it- quick and easy recipe.

Oreo Ice Cream Cake

1. Set out a quart each of two flavors of ice cream to soften on the counter- I use the classic chocolate and vanilla but other flavors will work too. 

1. Crumble a box of Oreo cookies (gluten-free or regular) into a bowl. You can smash them right in the bowl, or use a food processor to crumble them. Add 1/4 cup melted butter and stir into the cookie crumbs.

2. Add the cookie mixture into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan and pat down to make an even layer. 

3. Layer with the softened chocolate ice cream and stick it back in the freezer for a while to harden.

4. Layer with the softened vanilla ice cream and stick it back in the freezer to harden. 

Optionally, add a layer of fudge sauce in between the two ice cream layers. I decorate the top layer with sprinkles before putting it back in the freezer.

Here is another easy ice cream dessert from the One Hot Stove archives- the tricolored Cassata, and some ideas for an ice cream social. 

*** Lila's summer reading ***

Kindergarten is finished and school's out for summer. A very exciting thing happened during the last week of school. Lila's school was adopted by a local non-profit that promotes literacy by providing a dozen books (free, and theirs to keep forever) to every child in the school so they have a little home library and can keep reading to prevent "summer slide". I volunteered one morning for the book distribution. The non-profit brought in boxes and boxes of incredible age-appropriate books. Hundreds of books were laid out attractively on several tables, grouped by theme, just as they would be in a book fair. Classes came in one by one and the kids went "shopping" for a dozen books of their own choice. This was a total kid in a candy store situation for any book lover.

We were warned to not steer kids to particular books or to balk at them choosing 12 Star Wars books or whatever. This was the time for non-prescribed books to promote reading for pleasure.

Lila's dozen books
Predictably enough, Lila came home with 12 PINK books about princesses and Dora and stuff, including one book by Danielle Steel of all people. My heart sank that she didn't pick out any of the amazing books that I saw displayed. But this isn't about me so of course I said nothing. We will continue to bring home lots of books from the public library all summer, and enjoying all the books from our home library that we are building up bit by bit.

*** My summer (and beyond) reading ***

I occasionally like doing reading challenges, where you are assigned reading tasks that encourage you to try different genres, seek out new authors and expand your reading horizons just a little bit. Late in the game, almost halfway through the year, I came across Book Riot's 2018 Read Harder Challenge and started it last month, with 24 tasks to be completed until the end of this year. I've completed 3 of the tasks, described below. If you have suggestions for the other tasks (check the link to see what they are), I would love to hear them.

A book published posthumously: For this task, I chose a book written by a terminally ill man whose dying wish was to be a published writer- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

This brilliant and highly motivated man in his mid-thirties had been in school almost his entire life, training to reach the rarefied heights of medical research and practice. On the way there he acquired a degree in literature and almost becomes a writer. In a tragic twist, he was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer while months away from becoming a dual qualified neurosurgeon-neuroscientist. Even as he knew that his demise was only months away and his career goals were dissolving, he found a new goal- to write a book (this memoir). The first part of the book is Paul's life as a neurosurgeon in training, helping patients deal with life and death situations. The second part of the book is his role as a patient facing death himself. Finally there is an epilogue beautifully written by his wife- she finished the book and fulfilled his dying wish by getting it published.

Kalanithi ponders the question "What makes life meaningful enough to go on living"? and I was thinking about this book for several days after I read it.

A book of true crimeColumbine by Dave Cullen. Ironically and sadly, I started reading this book the day before the latest school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. I was still living in India on April 20, 1999 and have no personal recollection of the Columbine massacre. But later, the very word Columbine came to be a symbol of school shootings and I do remember going to see Michael Moore's documentary, Bowling for Columbine, in NYC. Cullen's investigation runs wide and deep. His narrative does not follow a linear timeline but goes back and forth between incidents but it is engaging and makes sense as he talks about the two teenage killers and their thirteen victims, plus the others left with serious lifelong injuries.

The reigning theory of Columbine was that these were two bullied teenagers who lashed out in a horrific way at the people who hurt and bullied them. In contrast, Cullen's book portrays the mastermind, Eric Harris, as a psychopath bent on indiscriminate destruction. The "why" of Columbine quite possibly was a combination of the two. What is left unanswered is how to identify kids going down this spiral- which they do on a regular basis, with horrific consequences. I came away with a better understanding of what psychopathy means and it truly is jarring to realize what a poorly understood mental condition this is, and that these charming, manipulative people are a substantial proportion of the population. 

A comic written and drawn by the same personGhosts by Raina Telgemeier. This is a middle grade graphic novel and after seeing it displayed in the school library, public library and book fairs everywhere, I finally read it myself. Catrina's kid sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, and to help with her breathing, the family moves to a foggy, ghostly small town by the sea. The book describes their adventures there. The illustrations are full of color and life and the story revolves around themes of family heritage, sisterhood and confronting fears of death. It is worth mentioning here that the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration is a major theme in the book and the author has been criticized for not portraying it in an accurate way.

What are you cooking, eating and reading this month?

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

More Veggie Boxes and a Curry Leaf Harvest

Happy May, friends. In our household, the big excitement of April was the installation of a pretty sweet play set in the backyard. 

It was a home project many years in the making. Northeast Georgia is a pretty hilly landscape and looking at our sloped, wooded, crazy overgrown backyard, I never had any hopes of being able to put in a play set for the kids. But sometimes it just takes finding the right people for the job. I finally found two guys at the recommendation of a neighbor who assured us that they were experts in safely installing play sets on hilly, uneven terrain and they did so in just 4 hours on a sunny morning. The shock, delight and pure joy on the kids' faces when they got home from school was priceless. 

They now have a lookout tower with a little bridge going to another roofed tower, with a slide and three swings and a cute little picnic table. All in a cool and shaded spot. Lila hosted a grand opening of our little playground, with lemonade and apple slices served on the picnic table. It makes me so happy that our yard is being used more and that the kids will have more outdoor time in a space we can share with friends and neighbors. 

Meanwhile, the veggie boxes have been keeping me busy in the kitchen and filling our plates with colorful fresh produce. 
Week 2 CSA haul
Saag paneer

This is what week 2 brought us...
1. Arugula- Another batch of potato arugula frittata.

2. Carrots- I roasted these with some sweet potatoes. Kids loved it.

3. Lettuce Mix- Taco salad.

4. Kale and Mustard Greens- Saag paneer. Saag is my go-to dish for hearty greens; my version is quick enough to make on a weeknight and we all (even the kids) love it.

5. Red radishes and Turnips- Made a simple subzi with this, to go with some khichdi.

6. Strawberries- eaten as a snack.

Week 3 CSA haul
Week 3's CSA brought us

1. Beets, Carrots and Spicy Salad Mix- I made a big salad with all of these with a mint and cilantro dressing, and served it as a side for biryani when we hosted a farewell dinner for a friend.

2. Bok Choy and Scallions- These, along with tofu, went into a stir fry, served with rice.

3. Radishes- Made a radish raita with these.

4. Spinach- Spinach and tomato dal.

5. Strawberries- Snack.

Now that warm weather is here to stay (famous last words?), we brought our two curry leaf plants out of their indoor winter home and back outside to revel in the glorious spring sunshine. The plants were getting too lanky so V decided to give them a haircut, a solid pruning of the top to encourage lateral growth. I ended up with branches of curry leaves piled on my kitchen counter.

Many stems have been wrapped and stored away in the fridge. But I had about 7 packed cups of washed and dried curry leaves left. Those got converted into 3 bottles of podi, ready to be enjoyed with idlis and dosas.

Curry leaves and curry leaf podi
The curry leaf plants are about the only "kitchen gardening" we do- our sloped and shaded yard doesn't offer many possibilities. But V and Lila have also put in a small herb patch- fingers crossed! 

Are you doing any gardening this year? What's cooking in your kitchen? 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lava Toffee, and the CSA begins

Lava Toffee: Candy with a Chemistry Lesson

Puttering in the kitchen with kids is always messy and fun, especially when it results in some funky looking candy. A few months ago, Lila went to a one-day science camp. Her favorite activity of the day was the making of a candy called lava toffee. When I went to pick her up in the late afternoon, she was waiting not-so-patiently to taste the confection. Unfortunately something had gone wrong with the recipe (they likely did not heat it to a high enough temp)- the candy failed to set and the campers did not get a taste. Little miss was crushed and only settled down when I promised her we would make it at home "one day". That day came during Spring Break week in mid-March.

You know the quick and dirty volcano you can make with just vinegar and baking soda? This candy works on a similar principle, only using heat instead of acid to release carbon dioxide from the baking soda. You cook a sugar syrup to the hard crack stage; this is the temperature (300F) which gives a hard, crunchy texture upon cooling. Then add baking soda to the sugar syrup. The heat decomposes the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to sodium carbonate, water and carbon dioxide. The bubbles of carbon dioxide make the sugar syrup foam with a dramatic lava effect and the candy cools into a beautiful honeycomb candy. Lila is too young to understand or care about the science of lava toffee; all she wanted to do was eat it, but older kids might appreciate it as a tasty science experiment for a school science fair!

 I used this recipe- it needs only a few pantry ingredients and a candy thermometer. The recipe worked like a charm, foaming dramatically and then cooling quickly into this light, spongy, crunchy candy. A cup of sugar makes a very generous 8 inch x 8 inch pan of candy. The only thing to watch out for is that the candy burns quickly: take the syrup off the heat the instant it gets to 300F. Our candy ended up having a bit of a burnt after-taste because I let it linger at 300F for a few seconds. Next time I will skip the honey, which probably also contributed to the burnt taste.

The Spring/Summer CSA begins. 

Our first CSA haul
A couple of years ago, we enjoyed a weekly local vegetable box delivery (community-supported agriculture or CSA), as seen in these posts. Then we were busy with other things and I did not renew the subscription. I just got around to signing up again for a CSA for 16 weeks.

The first box contained:
1. Strawberries- Washed and eaten in 5 minutes flat.
Parsley dressing
2. Carrots- Tender spring carrots are best enjoyed as a snack and that's what we did.
3. Radishes- Radishes, radish greens and carrot greens all went into a radish sambar.
4. Beets- Beet thoran as an accompaniment to khichdi.
5. Parsley- Made into a simple and wonderful dressing in the high-powered blender with tahini, lemon juice, salt, pepper and some water.
6. Arugula- Potato arugula frittata; took this to a friend's house as our contribution to the meal.
7. Scallions- Tofu stir fry.
8. Baby greens- A few different salads.

You can't eat any more locally than this! These collard greens came from the vegetable garden in Lila's school- proudly planted and tended and lovingly harvested by the kindergarteners. Lila came home with a bag of shredded kale and recited a recipe- to cook it with sea salt, vinegar and honey. 

Kindergarten-grown collards

* * *
Fitness Update: I wrote a couple of months ago about signing up for a weightlifting class called BodyPump. So far, so good. I have been going religiously 3 days a week for the last 12 weeks. The biggest difference I see with regular exercise is that it brightens my mood. I do feel stronger but there are no magical before-after pictures like you see in the ads- building muscle is not something that happens overnight and it is going to take a lot longer than a few months. I am excited to keep doing this.

When I schedule exercise formally by writing it in my calendar, I can stick to it. Once in my calendar, the fitness class is on par with other things that I don't blow off on a whim- like conference calls and parent teacher conferences.  The plan to start running again has not materialized because I have vague desires to run but never put in on my calendar, but I hope to add in some running or swimming into the exercise rotation in the coming weeks.

How has March/April been for you? Tell me everything! 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Stove top Popcorn, and Books Galore

I am a very reluctant movie goer, much preferring TV to movies. On the rare occasions that I get talked into it, the movie trip has to be incentivized with a big tub of popcorn. There's nothing quite like movie popcorn- the crunch, the savory aroma, the salt and butter, well, butter-like substance. It is so good and so bad.

Friday nights are family movie nights at our house but only rarely accompanied by popcorn; we tend to eat dinner while watching the movie. Part of the reason is that I don't like microwave popcorn, and I've tried making stovetop popcorn with very meh results. The popcorn on the bottom of the pot burns and there are too many unpopped kernels left behind. And so a jar of popcorn kernels was quietly hibernating at the back of the pantry.

Last week, in the throes of spring cleaning, I decided to use it or lose it. A quick web search led to a promising recipe (well, it had "perfect" right there in the title) and in one of those everyday miracles, the recipe actually worked exactly as it said it would, the first time around. The first trick is to heat the oil with a couple of kernels so that when those test kernels pop, you know that the oil is exactly at the right temperature. Then the rest of the kernels go in, at which point you use another trick, pulling the pot off the heat so that all the kernels get a chance to get heated up uniformly.

Stove-top Popcorn
(Inspired by this recipe)

1. Add 1/4 cup coconut oil and 3 popcorn kernels to a large pot.

2. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until all 3 kernels pop.
Remove the 3 popped kernels. 

3. Add 2/3 cup popcorn kernels, then quickly cover the pot and remove it off the heat.

4. Wait 30 seconds (set a timer).

5. Put the pot back on the heat and cook, shaking the pot once in a while.

6. After about 2 minutes, as the popping slows down, leave the lid ajar on the pop. This lets the steam out and keeps the popcorn crisp.

7. Pour the popcorn into a huge bowl, or divide among two large bowls (you need space to mix). Sprinkle with salt and honey-butter if desired (the latter made by melting together a couple of tablespoons each of butter and honey). Toss very well and serve right away.

This popcorn was delightful- no unpopped kernels, it fluffed up to fill my stockpot and is the perfect amount to serve a family. Even with my stale kernels which resulted in slightly chewy popcorn, the kids and I enjoyed every bit of it. 

Next time I will grind some kosher salt in the blender to make very fine popcorn salt which salts the popcorn more easily.

* * *
Image: Goodreads

Earlier this month, March 2 (Dr. Seuss' birthday) was celebrated all over the country as Read Across America day. It is a big celebration in Lila's book-loving elementary school. The kids get to go to school dressed as their favorite book characters. Lila has a huge love of dress up and pretend play and went as Fancy Nancy- the main character from a warm and funny book about a girl named Nancy who like all things fancy and glamorous. It was a fun and easy costume to put together- gathering together a tiara, colorful hair bows, sunglasses, a fancy skirt and glittery shoes and a bright orange duster.

Image: Goodreads
On that morning, parent volunteers went to classrooms to read to the kids. The day before, I asked Lila to help me pick a book to read to her class and she went straight for a book on our bookshelf- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole.

Her class is obsessed with learning all about penguins, and it was easy to see why she gravitated towards this book, which narrates the true story of two male penguins in New York City's Central Park Zoo who became partners and raised a penguin chick. I adore this book, with its sweet story of a non-traditional family; the illustrations are adorable. So I can't understand the fuss around And Tango Makes Three being as controversial as it is and the number one banned book in the country.

Not wanting Lila's (very excellent) teacher to be taken aback by my choice of book, I sent a quick e-mail explaining that I was going to read this book aloud and the teacher responded and said, go for it. And that's how I ended up reading a banned book in my kindergartener's class! The kids were excited to read a story about penguins, we all aawed at the penguin chick being born to two devoted daddies, the sky did not fall and a good time was had by all.

Here are a couple of other interesting books that we randomly picked off the library shelves recently.

I am different! Can you find me? by Manjula Padmanabhan has many fun features and kept Lila entertained for a long while- each page has an artfully done picture puzzle, the question "Can you find me" in sixteen languages including Hebrew, Hawaaian, Cree, Swahili, Hindi, and a little write up of words in English that come from that language. We enjoyed using our powers of observation to figure out the puzzles and learned interesting things, like that the words gumbo, tote and yam come from Gullah, a Creole language developed by people who came to America from different parts of Africa as slaves.

Human Footprint by Ellen Kirk chronicles everything you (in this case meaning the average American) will eat, use, wear, buy and throw out in a lifetime. It makes for some pretty spectacular statistics. Some of the facts were eye-opening to me. For instance, every year, you'll buy 48 new things to wear and will spend $52, 972 on your clothes in your lifetime. Really? In the picture above is Lila's favorite page, the one saying that you will eat over 14,000 candy bars in your lifetime, enough to fill 12 shopping carts.

It was fascinating to read through this book and see how we compared to the national average, and knowing that even in the cases where I personally am far below the average (in candy bars and clothes shopping, for sure), I consume far, far more than billions of humans on this planet. The book has a few tips for decreasing one's footprint- basic stuff like using cloth bags for shopping, using refillable water bottles, eating more plant based food, recycling aluminum cans, and not wasting food.

Finally, the best 75 minutes I spent this weekend- our public library hosted their semi-annual book sale, a gym-sized room full of gently used, donated or ex-library books that are sold to benefit the library. I was able to leave the kids at home and spend a glorious Saturday morning browsing through the tables. You can buy a large paper sack for $10 and fill it up with as many books as you can. As you can, I did just that, hauling home a paper sack bursting with 21 books. I found some children's books, baby board books, YA books, random novels, and an Alice Medrich cookbook. My favorite find- American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. I've read it and loved it, and bought it as a gift for V.

What are you cooking and reading these days? 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Vegetable Kadhi, and Many Doggy Pics

Among our favorite warming meals of winter- soups, dals and coconut curries- is the yogurt and besan (chickpea flour) based kadhi. My favorite style of kadhi is the mild, sweet, white Gujarati version but I haven't nailed down a recipe for it yet. Let me know if you have a good recipe for this style of kadhi. I've asked two close friends who happen to be Gujarati and they both claim that they don't like that sweet kadhi (ditto for the sweet Gujarati dal) and only ate it as kids when they were forced to. Sigh.

The current house favorite is this version, yellow with turmeric, with an aromatic tempering of several whole spices that just "makes" the dish. Basically you round up all the seeds in the spice cabinet and put 'em in there.

I add plenty of vegetables to the curry to make it a one-pot meal. This time I added carrots and those flat, broad Italian green beans (a freezer staple in my kitchen). Other vegetables that work well here: cauliflower, green beans, bell peppers, eggplant.

Vegetable Kadhi

1. Heat oil in a deep, heavy pot.

2. Temper it with
  • Mustard seeds
  • Hing (asafetida)
  • Curry leaves
  • Minced green chillies/ red chili powder/ broken dried red chillies
  • Turmeric
  • Cumin seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Coriander seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Nigella seeds

3. Add salt to taste and about 4 cups vegetables. I used carrots and frozen Italian green beans (the broad flat ones). 

4. Cover and let the vegetables cook until almost tender. Meanwhile, mix 2 cups yogurt, 1 cup water and 1/4 cup besan. Whisk together into a smooth paste.

5. Add the yogurt mixture to the veggies and simmer on low heat, covered, until the veggies and besan are cooked through. Garnish with cilantro if desired and enjoy! 

* * *

Our beloved pup Duncan turned 5 in December. His predecessor Dale got plenty of airtime on this blog, being the only child and all, while Duncan is the poor neglected middle child (not really) and I rarely get around to featuring him here. This weekend was the Chinese lunar new year ushering in the Year of the Dog, so this is a good time to post a few pictures of Dunkie.

Dunkie is an extra large dog (tipping the scale at 103 lbs) with a heart that is three sizes too big. He is seriously patient with our toddler. "Guckie" (Dunkie) was one of Niam's first words. He even learned to stand up by holding on to Duncan. Our boy is all over Duncan in his clueless and overwhelming toddler enthusiasm.  Dunkie puts up with it, and if it gets too much, he just shakes off the toddler and walks away. We practice "gentle hands" on Dunkie at every opportunity.

Dunkie has discovered that there is an upside for having a pesky toddler for a brother. Niam demands "Guckie kee-koo" (Dunkie cookie) every few hours- meaning a cookie that he can hand-feed the dog. Plus there are lots of tasty table scraps raining down by the high chair at every mealtime.

A kid and his dog
Dunkie is our one dog petting zoo. Wherever he goes, people swarm around, asking to pet him. People always think he is some exotic breed and are shocked to hear that he is a rescued dog and a one of a kind mutt. In that way he is an ambassador for shelters everywhere which are full of beautiful dogs just waiting for a home. Here are some pics of Dunkie doing what he does best.

Always with a slightly worried
hound dog expression

Snoozing on the biggest pet bed
I could find

His favorite spot in the world

His second favorite spot in the world:
the dog park
Waiting patiently for a treat

Enjoy the week! What are you cooking this week? Tell me about the pets in your life.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

One Hot Stove is a teenager, and Raising the Bar(bell) in February

This week marks the 13th birthday of this blog. Nearly 700 posts. Over 22,000 comments. 6.5 million page views. I started blogging when it was a pretty new thing, I was blogging during the golden era of food blogging and today, years after it has been declared that blogging is dead and people have moved on to twitter and Instagram and podcasting, here I am, still blogging away. What does this say about me? That I'm persistent or that I'm a dinosaur who missed the boat to the next great thing?

Meanwhile, readers have come and gone. Friendships have been forged. There's a lot of my life that has been lived on this little blog! Thank you for stopping by to read it.

* * * 
It is somehow already the second month of 2018. My January goal to streamline my sleep habits went extremely well, thanks to the kids who cooperated and slept soundly themselves. Most nights I was able to read peacefully and then get long stretches of sleep- which is such an unbelievable luxury. Even though we had a few rough nights in the last week (ah well, nothing lasts forever), I feel like a new person.

February's goal is to streamline my gym routine. In the last couple of months, I've been doing lots of thinking and planning about how to get my fitness routine in place. I am convinced that regular exercise is a must for me- it is not optional. The benefits are just too numerous to miss out on, and it gave me beautiful results a few years ago. But being convinced is just not enough- there have to be practical, doable, enjoyable ways of fitting exercise into my weekly schedule. It is taking me quite a bit of homework to figure out the what, when, and where of my fitness habit.

The What: I'm already doing ballet twice a week. What I really want to add to it is strength training- lifting weights and doing body weight exercises- to build muscle. It has been on my radar for a while, with friends telling me how strength training transformed their fitness much more than running/ cardio ever had. The research certainly supports these anecdotes. And my own small-framed physique clearly needs some muscle building and bone strengthening. To really get into the mode, I read a few books in December- The Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove and The New Rules of Lifting for Women, to name a couple- and got pretty excited about the whole thing.

The When and Where: The next step was to figure out how to start strength training when you don't have the first clue about it, other than what you've read from a book while sitting legs outstretched on a couch. There are people who do really well exercising in their own home, using their own routine, exercise apps or videos. Others do well with a gym membership where they can walk in anytime and use the equipment. The only thing, however, that has ever worked for me is fitness classes. I need a specific time and place and duration, and an instructor who knows what to do. Monkey see, monkey do, that's what works for me.

I started looking around for strength training classes- factoring in the timing of classes, convenience, cost, and whether it would be too intimidating for a beginner. And last week, I started doing something called BodyPump three times a week. I picked up a barbell for the first time in my life! The hour long class used barbells with weights, and handheld dumbbells, with the instructor taking us through a full body routine set to music- which is sometimes too loud and not my favorite, but it does make the hour go by very fast. Starting a new fitness routine is exciting and very hard at the same time. It is downright humbling when you can't do a single push up, not one. Also I am convinced that I am a medical anomaly because I have no triceps at all, none. But I am signed up for classes through the end of April and will see what 12 weeks of this class feels like.

Planning for stumbling blocks: It is very discouraging to start an exercise routine only to see it fizzle out when the inevitable realities of life get in the way- spouse traveling, busy days at work, house guests, kids falling sick, you falling sick and getting injured. Life has too many moving parts and the fitness routine has to be flexible. I am trying to account for that by joining a gym which offers dozens of classes every week, different styles of exercise and at different times of day. Hopefully, if I miss one class, I can go to another on a different day or time and keep the momentum going. 

My ultimate goal is to make fitness a daily habit that comes naturally, in a "do something every day" way, where that something could be an exercise class, dance class, neighborhood walk with the dog, run, weekend hike, playground time with the kids (where I actually run around and play with them and not sit on the bench and watch), walking for a couple of hours to do errands, and so on. Physical movement isn't something I am intrinsically excited about but I believe it can be cultivated and I am on my way to embracing it fully.

On this topic, here's an interesting article I read just last night on the development of an exercise pill. Spoiler alert: It won't be on a market for a while so don't cancel that gym membership just yet.

* * *
On the food front, there's lots of everyday cooking happening over here- vegetable kadhi, spinach lasagna, all sorts of wintry comfort food. I also made a roasted sweet potato soup on the fly yesterday- seasoning it with warm spices and coconut milk- and loved how it turned out, so I jotted down the recipe at the end of my other roasted sweet potato soup recipe from 4 years ago. Don't miss the great recipe ideas (for sweet potatoes, and for soup) in the comments on that post.

Do you fit exercise into your life? What do you like to do? What are your challenges and goals for being more active? 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Week 3: Snow days and Turmeric Milk

I saw the latest cover of The New Yorker magazine (by the brilliant Roz Chast) in the mailbox yesterday and laughed out loud. Last Wednesday our Southern town was colder than Fairbanks, Alaska, so the cartoon definitely resonated with me.

Last week looked like this-
Monday: MLK day, no school
Tuesday: Normal
Wednesday: Snow day and streets are icy, town shuts down
Thursday: Snow day again as many streets stay impassable
Friday: Hobbling back to normal

After this unsettled week of entertaining restless house-bound children, I am feeling under the weather. Not sick enough to take time off and not well enough to go about the day energetically- just sort of listless and achy and tired from coughing.

This sort of seasonal crud calls for a good old home remedy- haldi doodh or turmeric milk, now appealingly labeled as golden milk. I can't say I love the taste of it, but it does a sore throat good. I spotted a recipe for turmeric milk mix in a grocery store flier- ground turmeric mixed with coconut oil and spices, stored in a jar ready to be mixed into warm milk. It is convenient to use, and turmeric dissolves better in oil than it does directly in milk. The warm spices offset the somewhat bitter taste of copious amounts of turmeric. Be warned that in addition to being a wonderful spice, turmeric is a very effective dye and will stain clothes if you're not careful.

Turmeric Milk Mix

In a small saucepan, warm 1/4 cup coconut oil.
Stir in 1/4 cup ground turmeric, 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger and a tsp. or so each of  cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and let the spices infuse for a couple of minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in 1/4  cup sugar and additional 1/4 cup coconut oil. Stir well, pour into a small jar and store in the fridge.

 The mix is great, but does set up solid in the fridge, so to use it, either warm it gently or just scrape off as much as you need.

To make a cup of turmeric milk, heat a cup of your favorite dairy or non-dairy milk (I prefer almond milk), stir in 1 tsp. honey and 1-2 tsp. turmeric milk mix. Sip away!

* * * 

On my bed-side table this week is a novel, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, borrowed from a friend who recommended it. The story is told from the viewpoint of two people- an Iranian immigrant and a young troubled housekeeper- who are fighting over a house, a small bungalow in California. So far it has been an interesting, if bleak, read.

Image: Goodreads

In our mother-daughter book club, we are reading Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood, a fantastic story of three children who climb up the Faraway Tree inhabited by fairy folk that reaches up to magical lands at the very top. I was thrilled to find this copy from the '80s at a used book sale for our home library.

What are you reading these days?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Week 2: January is my SLEEP month, and a recipe for toddler-friendly pancakes

January is resolution season- did you make any resolutions in 2018? I rarely make real proper new years' resolutions but I like the idea of one-word resolutions, or overarching themes for the year. My word for 2018 is "streamline"- a word that sort of sums up my aspirations to organize, simplify and put into place helpful habits and processes in different parts of my life.

All through the month of January, I'm working on streamlining our family's sleep habits. I more or less took sleep completely for granted and never gave it a second thought, until we had two kids who are/were pretty terrible sleepers. So I have spent the last 6+ years reading every sleep book I could find and learning about how critical and indispensable good sleep is, while simultaneously racking up enormous amounts of sleep debt. Lately our kids' sleep has been improving/ stabilizing somewhat (famous last words? knock on wood, Nupur!) so I am attempting to climb out of the deep, bleary hole of chronic sleep debt.

January is a good month for sleep goals. December is fairly disastrous as far as sleep goes, what with holiday gatherings and travel and social drinking and bedtimes all over the place. There aren't many scheduled activities in January, it gets dark very early anyway and V's traveling a lot of this month so I am running ragged and ready to hit the sack at the first opportunity. Once the night begins, my sleep is at the mercy of two kids and a dog. A regular wake up time is always cited as a very good habit, but my wake up time is whenever the toddler decides he's "all done" or the canine decides it is time for a potty break. Likewise, when I'm woken up in the middle of the night, it can be a struggle to fall back asleep.

But especially at the start of the night, there are many things within my control and this month I'm trying to maximize those factors by making sleep a number one priority and creating a restful environment for sleep.

1. A regular bedtime, every day, no matter if it is a weekday or weekend. A fixed bedtime is a great way to set the circadian clock and over time, it habituates you to fall asleep quickly and easily at your bedtime. So this is probably the most important habit I'm cultivating in myself and the kids.

By nature I am a very early bird and school/work schedules also demand that we rise early (Lila's yellow school bus shows up at 7 AM!) so bedtimes in our household are very early. Niam's bedtime is 7 PM, Lila's is 7:30 PM and working backwards from my average wake up time (5 AM), I have to be asleep by 9 PM to even have the opportunity to sleep 8 hours.

2. Bedtime routines for my kids and for myself. A winding down routine provides a buffer zone between day and night and cues a good night's sleep. We do the usual stuff- baths, teeth brushing, story time, lotion and massage for the toddler, warm pajamas etc.

3. Stop using screens an hour before bedtime. This is the one I'm really working on this month. Going to bed at 9, shortly after getting the kids to bed and finishing household chores- this leaves me with almost no "me time" in the evenings, no time for crafting or watching TV or catching up on blogs. I have to fight against the feeling that "I deserve some time to chill out" and replace it with "I deserve my sleep". The good thing about screen-free time is that I have built in 30 minutes of reading time before bed- reading on old-fashioned dead-tree material, of course.

4. No tea or coffee after 3 PM. Not everyone is sensitive to caffeine but it definitely affects my sleep. Yesterday I had tea with a friend in the evening and sure enough, had trouble falling asleep. Alcohol also makes for a poor night's sleep. Yeah, good sleep is decidedly un-fun. But really, we get around this by shifting out socializing to the morning- friends come over for brunch and we eat and drink (alcohol! caffeine!) and make merry. Dinners, though? Nope, I just tell everyone I turn into a pumpkin at 9 PM.

6. Blackout curtains in the bedrooms. This made a huge difference in my sleep quality and I highly recommend it! The bedroom should be so pitch dark that you can't see your own hand when you hold it out in front of you. No blinking lights, clocks or electronics, and most definitely no TV in the bedroom.

* * *
After a good night's sleep comes a big breakfast. My toddler loves finger food and I was looking for a hearty pancake recipe with some eggs and oats. I found this one in, of all places, the comments section of a blog post. I personally don't like these pancakes- too bland and eggy for my taste- but the toddler loves them, so here is the recipe for anyone wanting to try it on the little ones in your life.

Toddler-friendly Eggy Pancakes

Measure 1/3 cup oats into a blender bowl. Blend into flour.

To this oat flour, add
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 tbsp. baking powder
  • pinch of salt

Blend everything into a smooth batter in the blender.

Let the batter rest for 10-15 minutes.

Make pancakes- this makes about 5-6 small (6 inch) pancakes.

Serve pancakes with butter, jam, applesauce, syrup or any other spread.

I usually spread the pancakes with jam or applesauce, then cut them into bite size pieces as a finger food. Pancakes can be stored in fridge (3 days) or frozen. Warm in microwave before serving.

Tell me about your sleep- do you get good sleep or is it something you struggle with? 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Week 1: Highlights of winter break, and a recipe for Gingerbread

Ah, December, the most wonderful and most exhausting time of the year. For us it was a month of holiday gatherings, gift exchanges and travel. And catching up with many old friends, which is the best part of winter break for me.

Lila's maximalist graham cracker "Hansel and Gretel"
house made in Kindergarten class. 

Christmas cards made simply with strips of
colored paper and a glue stick
I do lots of holiday baking most years, and this year I managed to do a little bit. For Lila's teachers, I put together boxes of almond biscotti (I finally got around to updating the recipe with pictures to make it easier to follow) and buttercrunch candy, with a few store-bought Lindor sea salt chocolate truffles (the only supermarket candy I like) tucked in for some color and sparkle.

For Niam's teachers, I made some silly-cute wine bottle hat and scarf sets plus gift cards.

I bought a few small gifts for friends that we visited. From a local holiday market, I found some beautiful leaf-shaped ceramic spoon rests for my friends who like to cook.

The favorite gift I gave this year came from a close source. My artist friend Bala published a coloring book last month called Meditative Mandalas. What really amazed me that she drew these perfectly symmetric graphic circles with her hands, using no software to design them.

A hand-drawn mandala from Bala's book
I gave Bala's book to my dear high school
friend in Boston and she has declared that she's
"addicted to coloring"
Lila got two "big" gifts from us- a pink dressing table that she has been wishing for, and tickets to see a beautiful production of The Nutcracker Ballet- we went as a mother daughter outing with my dear neighbor and her daughter. Santa got Lila a much-coveted unicorn beanie boo (Santa's helper had to google that one) and some chocolate coins. She also got several gifts from friends- a horse stuffed toy, a scarf, two art kits, a princess throw, a Playmobil kit and a book. The most off-beat and delightful gift was from our friend S who believe it or not is the production head of a candy factory that makes sprinkles and got her 14 pounds of multicolored sprinkles!

On Christmas Day, we took a flight to Boston to treat the kids to a snowy vacation much unlike what they get to experience here in Georgia. We stayed with friends in their beautiful new home and enjoyed sledding in the yard and looking out at the winter wonderland. The temperatures were brutally cold (even for Boston in December) and it was the perfect excuse to stay indoors in our pajamas all day, drinking chai, watching movies and playing board games (many, many rounds of Codenames).

My friend's Christmas tree in Boston
complete with a toy train running around it.
Festive and darling!
I have so many recipes for holiday treats and sweets and cookies saved, just waiting to be tried. This time around, I only tried one new thing and it was wonderful- a damp, cakey, light as air gingerbread with lots of fresh ginger and molasses. A friend made this gingerbread a couple of years ago and I loved it and asked for the recipe. I couldn't resist adding some cardamom to the recipe to add another note to the heap of fresh ginger and it worked beautifully. The aroma of this cake baking in the oven was enough to put me in a holiday mood.

Gingerbread Cake
(adapted from the Field of Greens cookbook)

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Grease a 9 x 13 pan.

3. Mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl:
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

4. In another medium bowl, beat together:
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup light or dark corn syrup

5. In a large bowl, cream together  until fluffy
1 stick soft butter
1/2 cup sugar

6. Beat in the egg mixture.

7. Add the dry ingredient mix, alternating with 1/2 cup buttermilk (room temperature) until batter just comes together. (Note: you can also use buttermilk powder plus water, as I did, to avoid buying fresh buttermilk)

8. Stir in 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh ginger and 1 tsp. ground cardamom.

9. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a tested comes clean (or with crumbs attached). The cake is relatively thin and light so it is easy to over bake it- start checking at 20-22 minutes!

* * *
Week 1 of 2018 was a bit of home-related chaos around here. We narrowly missed the bomb cyclone up North and landed safely in Georgia, only to come home to a freezing house and a malfunctioning furnace. Suffice it to say that the week was spent chasing HVAC personnel and electricians and borrowing half a dozen space heaters from kind neighbors. But come Sunday night, I'm sitting here in a toasty warm home feeling very grateful to have heat since we have way-below-average temperatures this week here in the Atlanta area.

How did you celebrate the end of 2017? A very happy 2018 to you!