Commencement Means Beginning

I have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster ever since I wrote this last summer. It was therapeutic to share my crazies, and I did a decent job of bouncing back cheerily for the next several months. Then came the college application process, fraught with all kinds of unpleasantness, details of which I will spare. After that, a short period of relief, then back to sadness. At book club a couple months ago, I unexpectedly started crying while talking to the mom of another senior. Not just normal teary eyed stuff, actual boo-hoo-I-need-a-tissue-now crying. After that, I felt better for a good stretch, up until last week. I’m sure it’s pretty exhausting to be my friend these days.

Now with the new batch of commencement speeches being published online, I find myself weepy all over again. Happy and sad and proud and frustrated and worried and…well, just a bit of a mess. Did we do enough for my son? Did we do too much? It’s just so hard to know. We tried to give him all of the things he needed and some of the things he wanted. We tried to lead by example, model forgiveness, embrace natural consequences, love unconditionally…all of the standard things in our Good Parent contract. But was it enough?

One thing I will say with certainty is that we don’t regret a single dollar or single minute spent on family time. When I look back on the very brief eighteen years when he was just “mine,” I picture countless family dinners at the kitchen table, vacations to Vermont and occasionally more exotic places, long summer days spent at the pool and nights barbecuing. I picture sitting around the fire in the back yard, making sticky s’mores and playing Frisbee with the dog. I picture snowmobiling and snowman making and camping trips and long forced family marches through hot, buggy trails. I picture those countless hours and miles at lacrosse, soccer, basketball, ski slopes, swimming lessons, tennis lessons. I picture Monopoly games and checkers and Scrabble and Texas Hold ‘Em and seventeen Christmas mornings. All of those memories are silver and gold right now, and I only wished I gathered more of them while I could, just like every mother everywhere.

On Children by Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Back in the 1980s, almost every commencement speech began with, “Commencement means beginning.” We didn’t have Google back then, so we reached for the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Overplayed or not, it is a true statement, and one I try to keep in mind whenever I’m sad that it’s time soon for my arrow to fly. Best of luck to the class of 2014, and to all of the brave and stable bows sending them off into the world.

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

Today is Mother’s Day and also my son Nate’s thirteenth birthday. I am so lucky to have a mom and be a mom, and I’m happy to celebrate this day with my mom and Nate.

As per tradition, I will be baking Nate’s birthday cake today. When I searched this blog for “cake,” I was surprised but not completely shocked to see so many cakes come up. Since working full-time (just celebrated my one year anniversary, hooray for me!), my baking has pretty much been limited to birthday cakes these days, with the occasional PMS-induced batch of cookies and brownies thrown in. Nevertheless, there is one ingredient even the very part-time baker always needs to have on hand: real vanilla extract!

I’ve been making my own vanilla for several years now. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and if you bake more than a few times a year, it’s also economical. There is something extra special, too, when you use ingredients you’ve grown or created. And by extra special, I mean superior and a little braggy, let’s be honest.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Only two ingredients:
Vodka
Two whole vanilla beans, I used these

Instructions:
Thoroughly clean and sterilize any small glass jar, about 8 to 10 ounces. With a sharp knife, split the beans apart in two and place in jar. Cover with vodka. Shake. Keep in dark, cool place. Once a week, give it another good shake. In about one month, the vanilla is ready to use. Once your bottle starts getting low, replenish with more vodka and repeat process.

I think the pictures below illustrate the process pretty well, but please let me know if you need any clarification. Happy baking!

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Dear New Mother of March 1996

Dear New Mother of March 1996,

This is your future self writing to you. First, congratulations! That was a rather impressive lightening-quick labor and delivery without so much as a single Tylenol. We won’t tell most people that you actually planned to have every drug allowable by the FDA, but nature had other plans for the birth of your first son. “Life not going as planned but still turning out okay anyway” will be a repeated theme for the next eighteen years. Best you learn this on Day One.

The first weeks will be a blur, and I’m not going to tell you to enjoy them. They are the hardest weeks full of fatigue, soreness and worry. It is your boot camp, and you must simply endure. It is not hard because you are doing it wrong, it is hard because that’s how it is. Accept all help that is offered, and ask for help if it isn’t. But maybe ease up on the worry a bit. Humans are resilient creatures from the get-go, and your worry holds no power. You will continue to relearn this lesson for the next eighteen years.

Try not to be an ass about your baby’s accomplishments. They are not your accomplishments and unless something is wrong, there is a very wide range of normal that in no way correlates to intelligence or character. In future years, you will cringe at the memory of responding to a neighbor innocently asking how the baby is. “Oh, he’s wonderful,” you’ll say. “He rolled over at six weeks and he’s not supposed to do that until at least four months!” Your neighbor doesn’t say it, but you’re sure she’s thinking, “Alert Harvard!” Aside from parents and grandparents, no one really cares about your baby’s milestone timeline. Trust me on this. Learn to zip it.

Value your friendships. People will come in and out of your life. Some will be a major lifeline. You will talk to your college friend five days a week, at least one hour each day. You will tackle all of life’s parenting challenges together with humor and sympathy and unconditional support, your families will drive seven hours to visit each other twice a year, but it will not be like that forever. One day, you will not talk at all, even though this is impossible to imagine. This is not due to a big falling-out or disagreement, but other circumstances beyond your control. Honor all the people that have helped you to become a better parent and a better person, and when it’s time, be prepared to let them go without malice or resentment. This will be hard.

Pay attention to the ordinary moments; these are the ones you will miss the most. The cute mispronunciations, the favorite threadbare shirt, the quirky food habits, the excitement over escalators and elevators, the love of yellow (lellow) cars, the glue-sodden homemade gifts and dandelion bouquets, the wiggly teeth, the Raffi songs, even Barney…you will miss all of these things. Years later, you will see other kids doing and saying those same things, and you will remember your own son. You’ll silently will their mothers to be patient and enjoy their kids more, but you’ll know most of them, like you, will just hurry through to the next moment.

Finally, accept the child you have. He is his own person with his own interests and his own agenda, not your chance at a childhood do-over. You will want to give him everything you didn’t have, but don’t. He is not you. Let his interests, passions and unique perspective guide you and open your eyes to more of the world. Stretch outside of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid of mistakes or failure; use them as an opportunity to model grace. Prepare to be amazed at how much this little person will teach you everything you need to know. Buckle up and enjoy the ride, new mother.

Sincerely,

Mom of an Eighteen Year Old

Haiku for the Winter of Our Discontent

I have started and stopped so many posts this winter. Cooking has been a bust. My recipes these days are:

Ingredients
Doritos, preferably Buy 1, Get 1 Free

Directions:
Open bag. Consume.

This has been a very tough winter for many, especially in my area of the world. I have always loved winter, I have always defended winter when no one else did, and now I feel angry and betrayed. Winter is no longer my friend.

As a long-time fan of the haiku (short poems with syllables in 5-7-5 format), I decided to take pen to paper finger to iPhone 5s and work out my angst via haiku. I present to you Haiku for the Winter of Our Discontent:

Where is my black car?
Help, someone has stolen it
Wait, it’s this white one

School cancelled again
Clever principals “rapping”
Farewell sanity

More snow means fun snacks
Cake, cookies, brownies, not fruit
Yoga pants only

My spirit broken
Nothing is going as planned
Like Sochi toilets

Milk, bread, butter, eggs
Darn, what am I forgetting
Martini olives

Foyer of chaos
Scattered boots, jackets, wet clothes
One lost glove weeping

Graveyard of tree limbs
Preserved in icy landscape
Like dinosaur bones

More snow in forecast
Is this December or March?
Must be a sick joke

Cruel Mother Nature
Why have you forsaken me?
My tears have frozen

Would love to hear any of your contributions in the comments section. Spring will come eventually, and I will cook again. Below are actual unPhotoshopped pictures of my house, lest you think I’m being melodramatic.

Deck

TedSnow

Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

My real life and blogging friend Barb of Book Club Mom recently asked me to do a guest post book review, and I was honored to do so. I know Barb from years ago as a lacrosse mom, but despite logging in many games together, I never knew she was such an avid reader. If you like to read or are a fellow “book club mom,” you must check out Barb’s blog. She has some great suggestions, current and classic, as well as some wonderful creative writing and essays.

As luck/fate would have it, there is a rather eccentric customer who occasionally comes into the store and likes to offer me book suggestions. I wasn’t working on the day she last came in, but she insisted on writing down this title and passing it on to our security guard to give to me. I always feel compelled to at least read a sample of a book anyone thinks to suggest to me; it just seems like good manners. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is one of the best books I’ve read recently. To be honest, I didn’t have especially high hopes, but I’ve learned that sometimes great suggestions can come from unlikely sources.

You can find my review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt right here at Book Club Mom. And if you ever have any good book suggestions for me, I’m all ears.

BookParty1

Sign Credit: Book Riot

All of the Good People Can Fit

I was talking to my friend at work about New Year’s Eve when she started to do a head count of all the people she invited to her apartment. I lost track after a while, but I think she invited at least twenty-four. Wow, I said. That’s a lot of people in a little bit of space.

Like me, my friend can sometimes be a perfectionist and often wants things to be beautiful and perfect. Like me, my friend worries about details. So I was impressed with her rather uncharacteristic more-the-merrier demeanor. I didn’t want to be a killjoy, as I sometimes can unintentionally be, but as a self-proclaimed entertaining expert, I had logistical concerns for her party and tried to tactfully express them.

She responded in Greek, with something her mother says. Translated, it roughly means, “All of the good people can fit,” or “There is always enough room for the good people.” It was one of those things which instantly stopped me in my tracks. You’re right, I said. I know you’ll find a way to make it all work, and it will be a wonderful night.

Too many times in my life I have let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ironically, the satisfaction achieved from being perfect, from winning, never measured up to the expectation. But looking back, I’ve never regretted the times I was generous and kind, the times I extended (or overextended) myself to connect with another, even if things were messy and imperfect.

And so as we end 2013, that is my wish for you and for myself: that we just remember to make room for the people who matter. Open up the doors and let all the good people into our hearts and our homes. Don’t stress about the particulars, and be confident that all of the good people can fit.

One Potato, Two Potato

Oh, hello, there! Nice to see you again. I know it’s been ages since I’ve posted, but I’ve certainly done plenty of holiday eating. I’ve been enjoying more than my fair share of delicious gourmet treats from around the world for the entire month of December, courtesy of some wonderful customers. Having the privilege to work for a company with generous clientele certainly has its perks, but weight loss isn’t one of them.

This is my first Christmas working full-time since having kids, so a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes when you no longer have all the time in the world, you really figure out what’s important and what’s not. Easy-yet-crowd-pleasing potato dishes are definitely a priority. Below are a couple of favorite potato recipes which usually leave our guests asking for seconds.

The first one is inspired from Ina’s original recipe here, but I have made a few significant modifications. I love you, Ina, but my way is better.

Sweet Potato Casserole

4 pounds sweet potatoes (about 6 large)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoons kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.Scrub the potatoes, prick them several times with a knife or fork, and bake them for 60 to 90 minutes or until very soft when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and scoop out the insides as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Place the sweet potato meat into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and add the orange juice, cream, butter, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Mix together until combined but not smooth and transfer to a baking dish.Bake the potatoes for 20 to 30 minutes, until heated through.sweetpotatoes

This second recipe was shared with me by my friend Julie, of Julie’s Sausage Strata fame. I have been making them for so many years now that I have claimed them as my own. Countless friends and relatives have requested this recipe, and I’ve been rather evasive up to this point. A girl can’t give away all of her secrets! But the day has finally come.

Over the years, these have been called To-Die-For Potatoes, Trashy Potatoes, and Heart Attack Potatoes, but I’ve finally settled on Dawn’s Holiday Potatoes. I hope you will heed my warning and only serve these two or three times a year, tops. One, to preserve their specialness, and two, to preserve your health.

Julie’s Holiday Potatoes, courtesy of Susan Moore

32 oz. frozen hash brown potatoes (or potatoes O’Brian if you want to get a little jazzy)

1 stick of butter

1 cup chopped onion

1 can of cream of chicken soup. Vegetarians can use cream of celery. Vegans are out of luck.

1 pint of sour cream, and none of that low-fat nonsense

1 t. salt

1/4 t. pepper

2 cups of Corn Flakes cereal

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place frozen potatoes in 13 x 9 glass pan. In a large pan on medium heat, combine all other ingredients except corn flakes until melted, and pour heated ingredients over potatoes. Top with corn flakes and slivers of butter. Bake for 60 minutes uncovered. Prepare to be a hero.

Now Everything is Easy, ‘Cause of You

Victorious

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part…

Marriage vows are said for a reason. Early on, perhaps too early on for my liking, we learned that it’s very easy to be married when you’re healthy and wealthy, but that pesky “poor and sickness” part of the vow really puts things to the test. Our twenty year marriage has been incredibly blessed, despite facing various vow-invoked challenges.

When we first moved to this house, early in 1994, I did not like that we had the corner lot. Even though our property is a hair over one acre, I felt exposed to the road and longed for more privacy. That spring, we went to the nursery and bought ten evergreen trees, Canaan firs. They were about six foot each at the time, manageable enough for Ed to plant by himself, but still an awful lot of work. Once the trees were in, they created a six foot tall natural fence, and it felt like a great improvement. I was satisfied, but I still wanted more.

I would often look at the trees and wish they were taller. Twenty feet would be perfect, or thirty feet would be even better. But wait, I thought. When the trees are that tall, we will be much older than today. Taller trees = more privacy but less years together left on earth. Just one more example of me wanting to have my cake and eat it, too.

Today the trees are very tall.

trees

And like the trees planted in 1994, we are mostly strong and hearty. Remnants of twelve hurricanes and tropical storms — some mighty, some just a nuisance — have blown past those trees, and most of them are still standing. Not all, mind you, since life is never perfect. A couple died, and a couple are looking a little rough these days. Separately, they are not much to look at. But standing together, they create a beautiful, full green fence that blocks much of the road year-round. Together they are a force to be reckoned with.

Almost twenty years and many more pounds ago, I walked down the aisle of Paoli Presbyterian Church and took my wedding vows. I still remember that one of my college friends, the kind of person who was skilled at passive-aggressive compliments, told me I looked “victorious.” Not beautiful, not glowing, not joyous, but victorious. Well, if victorious means I won something, then guilty as charged, sister. Yes, indeedy, you bet I won. I hit the jackpot and I’m smart enough to remember that every single day.

Every birthday, every anniversary, every make-a-wish type occasion, I only ever hope for one thing: more years together. As long as I have that, I will have everything I need.

Our House by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Cauliflower Crust Pizza

I have been wanting to try my hand at cauliflower crust pizza for a long time. The idea of pizza without excessive carbs seemed almost too good to be true, the elusive holy grail of pizza. I’m here to confirm it really is worth all the fuss. And a fuss it is! Now that I’m a working mom, this almost seemed like too much work when I can just have Ed pick up a pizza on the way home. But I couldn’t get this pizza out of my mind for months. I had to try it, and I’m so glad that I did. If you’re going Paleo or on a gluten-free diet (and even if like me, you’re not), this completely satisfies the craving.

A few notes:

My goal was to create a crust that is so good I would want to eat it alone, and I think I accomplished that. This is the recipe I used for inspiration by Michelle of The Lucky Penny. She has excellent instructions and pictures, so definitely check it out. I personally feel like there is nothing as good as fresh garlic, so I knew I wanted to incorporate that into my version.

If you use a large head of cauliflower, you can make two pizza crusts. Do not overstuff your food processor. Don’t ask me how I know this! Three-quarters of the way full is just right, so go for a small head of cauliflower if you’re just looking for one crust.

Reviews: Ed and I loved this. Our seventeen year old loved this, too. Our twelve year old hated it. And our ten year old ate half of one slice and then made himself a Nutella sandwich.

Dawn’s Cauliflower Crust Pizza

1 small head cauliflower
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon iodized salt
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan
1/4 cup grated mozzarella
1 egg, beaten

Heat oven with pizza stone on top rack to 450 degrees.

Add cauliflower florets, peeled garlic clove, and parsley to food processor. Pulse until finely grated and resembles a snowy texture. Place cauliflower in microwave safe dish, cover and cook on high for 4 minutes. Allow to cool, then place cauliflower in clean dish towel and wring out excess water over sink. You will expel a lot of water. This step is important.

In a medium bowl, beat together egg, salt, oregano and cheese. Add cooled cauliflower and mix well with hands. On a piece of parchment paper sprayed with oil, form mixture into shape of crust. Remove pizza stone from oven, carefully place parchment paper with crust atop the stone, and return to oven. Cook about ten minutes, until edges start to brown. Remove from oven, add your favorite toppings, and cook another 6 to 8 minutes until cheese is melted. Cool slightly, cut, and enjoy!

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doughball

Once the cauliflower is cooked and wrung out, you should be able to easily form it into a doughlike ball.

crust3

DO NOT SKIP THE PARCHMENT PAPER! It allows one to easily move the rolled out dough onto the hot pizza stone in a nonstick manner. And on that note, DO NOT SKIP THE PIZZA STONE! Super high heat helps produce a very crustlike result.

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Onion and Ale Soup with Blue Cheese Croutons

Hooray for soup season! Add soup to the growing list of things I’m appreciating more as I march through my forties. It’s right up there with slippers, Lawrence Welk reruns, cardigans, and butterscotch candies. I’m sure Bingo is just around the corner for me.

As soon as I saw this come across my Facebook feed, I knew it was a winner. Onions + Beer + Cheese + Croutons? Sign me up! All I needed was a day off from work and a little cool weather, and I was ready to pounce. This recipe is almost too easy. While the onions are a tad time consuming since you cook the hell out of them, the rest of it almost feels like cheating. But I am not complaining! This soup has a surprisingly sweet and layered complexity of a recipe that requires much more effort. Definitely a fun twist on traditional French onion soup.

Soup1

Fine Cooking’s Onion and Ale Soup with Blue Cheese Croutons
by Maryellen Driscoll, original recipe here

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/2 lb. yellow onions (about 3 medium), halved through the root and thinly sliced lengthwise
Kosher salt
1/2 cup pale ale, such as Saranac or Sierra Nevada
2-1/2 cups lower-salt chicken broth
1-1/2 cups lower-salt beef broth
7 oz. sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (5 cups)
4-1/2 oz. blue cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. thinly sliced fresh chives

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F.

Heat 2 Tbs. of the olive oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-duty pot over medium-high heat until shimmering hot. Add the onions and reduce the heat to medium. Cook without stirring until the bottom of the pot begins to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. salt and stir with a wooden spatula. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot frequently and adjusting the heat as necessary, until the onions are well browned, 20 to 30 minutes.

Add the ale and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat slightly and cook at a vigorous simmer until all but a thin layer of the ale has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken and beef broths and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

Meanwhile, on a rimmed baking sheet, toss the bread cubes with the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil. Spread the bread in a single layer and bake until golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, push the bread cubes closely together, and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake until the cheese has melted, about 3 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with the croutons and a sprinkling of the chives.

Onion and Ale Soup