Tuesday, August 2, 2011

So you're thinking about having a baby...

First of all, let me assure you that nothing I have ever done has given me so much joy and delight. Having a baby to raise is magical: they are members of the family from day one, full of idiosyncrasy and intelligence, magical in their ability to apprehend the world around them for the first time and still really get it.

However, please don't assume that nothing will change. Here are a few honest truths.

1) Tell your partner you think you should see other people. Er, person. Small, demanding person that you will both love madly, derangedly, passionately. You will find yourself telling your child that s/he is your favorite person in the universe, right in front of your mate. You will kiss the bare skin of the baby a million times in the first month -- hundreds of times a day. You will dangle upon a toothless smile. This swoon of love is wonderful, but it will change your relationship with your partner; you will not have much time together, and if you do, you will speak in glowing tones about the new girl/guy in your life the whole time. Ouch. Look, this is truly nice, but you will find yourself getting misty about the times when you could spoon your lover's back and just listen to him/her breathe.

2) Your body will no longer be your own. Let alone the gross and magical things that happen to you while you are bringing the baby into the world, as I am sure you have thought about them -- and maybe you have come to terms with peeing yourself, etc. No. I am talking about all the other stuff. The hours spent expressing milk in one fashion or another. The long days without a shower or even sometimes brushing your teeth. Skin on skin, the baby's on yours, until you cannot stand another touch. Being poked, prodded, punched, slapped, pulled, tweaked, suckled, bitten, drooled on, sneezed on, vomited on. Having tiny handfuls of hair pulled out painfully or torn off. Not being able to wear your glasses without incurring a sharp, if clumsy, punch in the nose. Being used as furniture. Having your spider veins and moles picked at obsessively by an observant little ape with sharp fingers. Being kissed with a wide open and drooling maw. Getting slapped in the face with a drooly hand. Waiting to pee until you do actually pee yourself while bending down to change a diaper, all because you dare not disturb your progeny. Getting strong in the arms and back from lifting but flabby in the middle because you never go out anymore. Saying goodbye to sleep. Saying goodbye to your bed -- both for lovemaking (if you share a room with a bright-eyed light sleeper) and for sleep (since said light sleeper will often demand to cozy up with you, taking up the whole bed.)

3) You will change. What happened to the woman who couldn't abide irritating noisy toys, and who didn't want any plastic junk around? I seem to remember she never thought she'd eat anything that had been in another person's mouth. And she never, ever wanted to co-sleep with a child. She didn't like to be touched very much, because it made her skin sore. She was very clean about her person and thought she wouldn't let anybody ever, ever eat off her floor. She was definitely going to use cloth diapers all the time on her baby. She was going to make ALL the baby's food and was not going to humor picky eating. She hated the idea of a pacifier. She was going to give birth naturally, and to nurse the baby at her breast for two years. She knit, wrote fiction, made (and wore!) perfume, maintained her ties to the world. Her. Wow, where the hell did she go? Ah well, we don't need her. She didn't have a fucking clue what was going on in her world.

In her place, there's a woman in a milk-stained shirt and faded sweat pants, with unshaven legs and the distinct aroma of the unshowered. She has her ragged and torn hair up in a tight ponytail to avoid grabby hands: she looks like she trimmed her own bangs in desperation with nail scissors and the only product in them is baby drool and maybe a stray Cheerio. She's barefoot because she isn't going anywhere she doesn't have to go and because the bottoms of her shoes really aren't clean enough to bite, so they are exiled to the closet. Her toenail polish is chipped and has grown partly out; it's not that great a color anyway. Her knuckles are reddened and rough from washing up in hot water, and her nails are down to ragged stubs surrounded by hangnails, because they, too, are dry. Her unmoisturized arms are a solid mass of bruises, one with the very distinct impression of small toes.

She is grinning like a god-damned fool.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bread, booze, and bragging...

My dad and stepmom just visited us, and it was a really nice visit, marred only by us catching a plague that seems Of Biblical Proportion because Pat is teaching four classes plus handling family visit and because Fletcher is 7 months old. They were here for Father's Day, and we had a terrific barbecue-get-together thing. My stepsister came too, bringing her three sweet little kids (who were very excited to meet Fletch) and so all my dad's kids were there. Yay!

For this event, my stepmom made a tasty dessert. I noticed it bore some resemblance to Paula Deen's "gooey butter cakes" and was just on point of asking about it when she presented me a handwritten, water-stained recipe.

"It's your Grandma Rose's 'Tea Brag,'" she told me. "Your grandmother, Grandma Rose, well, I guess she called it a 'Tea Brag,' I think that's right... I think she'd like for you to have it, and make it, her Tea Brag, this is her recipe anyway."

I love my stepmother. She does have occasional fits of batting at the English language like a cat with a toy or a bird trying to get out through a screen door, though, so I abandoned the momentary impression that she'd had a stroke and was trying to say "tea bag" for some reason. I gave her the ol' "do what now?"

She handed me the recipe. Sure enough, it was labeled "Tea Brag." Huh. I've heard of buckles, slumps, bettys, grunts, pandowdys, etc. but never a "brag".... but wait, back in the murky depths of my teenage holiday memories I remember Grandma calling this cake a "brag." Weird.

So I did what any sane person would do: I told Pat about it in the car and told him about its weird, rednecky ingredients miraculously forming a squishy sort of fruity cake. He shuddered in horror. He actively dislikes many of the ingredients and has the luxury of being snobby about cake, since I bake most of ours from scratch, and I have a knack for cake (unlike pie crust!).

And then he googled it with his iPhone. In moments he told me, "It's a BRACK. Tea brack. It's an Irish recipe."

Every recipe for Tea Brack that I found bears zero resemblance to Tea Brag, but I think it really is the inspiration. The thing is, the recipes for Tea Brack are so mad, so completely crazytown, that I had to make one.

I dug out my Irish cookbook (yes, I have one.) And that's just what I did -- I made Tea Brack. It's a boozy sort of fruitcake/bread pudding affair. Yes, make one. It's awesome in a kind of I Have Gone Mad And Will Now Cook With Booze-Soaked Prunes kind of way.

Anyway, for your delectation, here are both recipes. I am doing you the courtesy of halving the Tea Brack recipe because honestly, nobody needs two huge bread pans full of this stuff. A little goes a looooong way and having eaten one slice, I feel like I've had a reasonably stiff drink. Yikes.

Tea Brack, the way I made it (only halved because the original recipe lied to me and seriously, you do not want two of these the first time you make them)

ONE POUND of dried fruit, mixed of whatever. I used prunes, unsulfured apricots, dried cherries, raisins, and some dried cherries I had around from another project.
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 cup Irish whiskey (but I used Southern Comfort because I am a redneck and that's the whiskey I had)
1 cup strong black tea, preferably Irish Breakfast but I used double bergamot Earl Grey
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon "apple pie spice" (cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice evidently. I got lazy and used pumpkin pie spice -- which I had -- and a little extra cinnamon and nutmeg)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 eggs (you could probably just use two and use a wee bit more flour. I won't tell. The original recipe makes an ass-ton and uses 3 eggs, so I am doing you a favor here.)

Mix the fruit and sugar. Pour hot tea and room temperature whiskey over, and leave to soak overnight. I forgot to cut up the fruit into reasonable sized pieces, so after soaking, I tried to cut it up in the processor; this made the part I did this to resemble mincemeat or a coarse, lumpy puree, so I gave up and used half un-cut fruit and half minced soaked fruit. Don't be like me. Cut your fruit before you soak it, unless you forget and are like me after all.

Take time to giggle fiendishly about how preposterous this recipe is. Consider using just dried apples and uncrystallized candied ginger next time. Consider what all this dried fruit and booze will do to your insides. Stop considering.

Mix in eggs, flour, spice, and baking powder. Turn mixture into a well-greased 9 X 5" loaf pan (that's the big fat loaf pan -- seriously, I have four and only one is that big). Bake for an hour at 350.

Online sources will tell you that this is nicer when underbaked a bit. They fucking lie. It will be mooshy even when it is properly done. Bake it for the full hour. Hell, give it another 5 minutes. Maybe more. Keep an eye on it, it's trying to get away with something.

Allow to cool on a rack in tin for a few minutes before turning out onto rack and cooling some more.

Serve a nice boozy slice slightly warm with butter on top. Ahhh. Weird. But tasty.

Tea Brag
, as written by my stepmom, following Grandma Rose's recipe

Butter 9 X 13 bake dish
Pour in 1 can cherry pie mix
Pour over 1 can crushed pineapple
Next sprinkle 1 yellow cake mix over fruit & "mix" slightly [I love the quotes here]
Sprinkle some coconut over mix
Layer chopped nuts
Drizzle 1/2 c melted margarine over entire mixture
Bake 325 until done = 35 minutes

Believe it or not, this turns out pretty festive. Tasty but very sweet and gooey and sort of undefined. I'll leave my feelings for margarine and cake mix out of it, and Pat's feelings about coconut and nuts in cake... really, you should make one some time when you are feeling lazy and sweet-toothy and have to make dessert for a crowd. It's fancy. Faaaaaancy.

Anyway, enjoy! :)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seasonally inappropriate corn casserole

So because I do an incredible lot of baking in summer, because evidently my inner thermostat or common sense sensor is broken, I was making a cake. And it overflowed the pie pan it is prepared in. And even though I thought that this pan was bigger than the one that had previously PERFECTLY held the same recipe, it was smaller and I don't fail like this often. But it overflowed and sent berries and cake and sugar onto the floor of my oven and it burned like blazes. (As an experienced baker, I am embarrassed. Seppuku with a pie wedge will probably follow.) So...

I tried an oven cleaning tip I picked up on the Internet. Now, Sally Homemaker, I am not. But I got tired of setting off the fire alarm every time I bake anything above 350 degrees -- which, as you recall, is often in the summer (partially because I know I can open doors and windows to let the smoke and fumes out in summer, whereas in freezing weather it is less practical) -- so I looked up oven cleaning tips. A year ago. And continued to just unplug the alarm and fling it across the room when it went off every time I baked, until the boil-over.

The fire alarm issue was the result of me setting the oven on fire three Thanksgivings ago when I made candied bacon to top a dish. Candied bacon is delicious, but it's baked atop parchment paper. I unfortunately stuck it in the oven right after turning off the broiler (which cooks above Fahrenheit 451) and boy, does pork fat and brown sugar and paper burn bright! Got to show Pat you can put out kitchen fires with baking soda, so I managed to impress him despite rookie firestarter behavior. Hat trick!

So back to the boilover. It was foul and left a thick burned mass reminiscent of those awful Fourth of July "fireworks" "snakes" that just smell bad and grow and grow. Yuck. It necessitated action.

Here's the thing: put baking soda on it and keep baking. Later, scrape out the majority. Mix baking soda and water, put in a cheap garden mister and mist the oven just before every time you preheat. It'll pull the burnt grunge and ash off the walls and you can just mop it out later with a damp sponge. No elbow grease, baby!

Having accomplished this and still astonished at the efficiency of the operation, I decided to make corn casserole. It's rednecky wonderful and I jazzed it up a bit to pretend it's Mexican because I am pretty sure Pat preferred the quesadilla option for dinner and was just being polite.

Rednecky Pretend It's Mexican Corn Casserole

*1 1/2 sleeves saltines, because you know you bought a box to eat chocolate frosting on, but you don't have any more frosting and, you know, buying more for stale crackers would make you totally hate yourself
*2 cans cream style corn, which you totally have in the cupboard even though you have no idea why the hell you keep buying it
*half a can of evaporated milk, same shopping drill as the corn
*one small can of minced green New Mexico chiles, because you're guilty about the quesadillas after all
*a pitiful looking hunk of cheese, grated, to give a quesadilla feel to the thing (yeah, sure it will!) and because fuck it, the original recipe I learned in the 70s used a lot of butter and cheese won't make this worse for me. Hell, corn was considered a vegetable instead of a starch back then! Cats were dogs! It was madness!
*a heavy pinch of cumin seeds to make it more Mexican-ier
*a heavy shake of black pepper because corn loves pepper
*shortening, because I don't grease pans with anything else

Grease your casserole dish. Poke some small pinholes in your saltine sleeves, and crush saltines beyond recognition. Mix corn, chiles, cumin, pepper, and corn. Layer cracker crumbs with corn mixture several times (first layer will be crackers). Drizzle some evaporated milk over the top. You can dot this with butter if you want. Bake at 400 in your newly cleaned oven until crusty and set; believe it or not, this really will kind of set up without an egg, but you can add one if you want insurance. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fourteen days

Fourteen days ago, Fletcher figured out how to crawl.... sort of.
Seven days ago, Fletcher figured out how to crawl better.
Five days ago, Fletcher figured out how to sit up from a lying position.
Four days ago, Fletcher figured out how to stand up unassisted.
Yesterday, Fletcher figured out how to say "Mama!" and "Daddy!" He may have been doing it for a while, but he is understandable now.
And he finally figured out, over the last couple days, how to eat non-pureed soft foods. He enjoyed tastes of cake, chili cheese fries, and beer cheese yesterday (and let me tell you, that's an awesome food day for mom, too.)

Life happens fast. So fast!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Healthy philosophy

I don't know why my brain has been sifting the aphorisms that serve as linchpins of my personal philosophy, but it has. These little gems may or may not form anything coherent when assembled, but they add up to a bit of my own operating manual. And hey, after reading a handful of them, you may understand why I'm incoherent myself.

A lot of these seem to be about anger management. Weird! I didn't know I thought about it so much.

If you quit something you've committed to, be sure you leave on a high note. You'll be likelier to feel as if you're really finished, and you won't be making a mistake. If you quit on a bad day, you might cheat yourself out of some good ones. I got this one from a pumping/breastfeeding forum the other day and thought it was brilliant.

My darling Grandma Red told me this when I was a kid, and it has stuck with me. If a spat can be settled before you sleep on it, it doesn't simmer in your consciousness all night and leave resentment in its wake. This piece of advice has led to a lot of late-night letter-writing and exhausting postmortem conversations, but I believe it has also saved me from some long-lasting anger issues. And it allows you to wake up fresh and happy in the morning.

Another Grandma Red-ism. Punching down the dough, shaping the warm elastic mixture, watching it rise, breathing the heavenly smell of homemade bread... it's therapy. It's a plus that you end up with a lovingly produced, special, homey gift to offer your loved ones; you can literally turn your negative feelings into positive ones as you work through them in productive, contemplative labor. Just be sure that this isn't the only time you make bread!

I think I lifted the phrase "cuddle a grudge" from a science fiction writer -- Robert Heinlein or David Gerrold, maybe. The thing is, a grudge doesn't do you any good. Cherish the best in your life, not the worst -- feel free to dismiss grudges before they taint your outlook.

When I told Grandma Red that I was getting married, she was the only person who was unabashedly delighted. Our parents thought we were too young and it showed. She sat down with me and held my hand, and gave me a good talking-to including lots of advice. I told her how delightful it was that she was happy about the upcoming nuptials rather than shocked because of our age, and she said, "Honey, it is true that you are young. You probably have some growing up to do, both of you. But if you grow together and not apart, your marriage will only be the stronger." So we share hobbies, run errands together instead of separately when possible, share social activism and volunteer together, and hang out together a lot. Guess what? It works. We're incredibly codependent and some friends treat us as if we're indistinguishable -- we're not, but we do have a lot in common (just as the Emperor had foreseen.)

EXERCISE IF YOU ARE FEELING DOWN (e.g. "Go outside!" or "Let the sun in!")
It works. If you're having a blue day, get out into the sunshine. Our brains are wired such that natural colors center us and make us feel better. It's convenient... guess where there are lots of natural colors? Outside! Go outside, take a walk, do some exercise or chores, and your body will feel better... and so will your brain, and mood. At the very least, you smelled some fresh air and got yourself a little endorphin high.

Another Grandma Red-ism, which she annoyed me by uttering every time she babysat me when I was sick. She's shoo me out of bed, make me wash my face and do my hair and put on lipstick under the pretext that I'd feel better if I did. It always irritated me that it really did work. Now, I rarely wear cosmetics other than lotion and colorless lip balm, but even those help. Something about the physical activity of getting ready, or about knowing that you are presentable, makes you feel nice. When my doula brought me lotion and lip balm, and my mom brought me new nighties, when I was in labor and hooked up to IVs and stuff -- boy, did I feel better. Even better when the nurses finally let me up to shower after 3 days.

I used to be very into meditation and believed I was nourishing my spirit and body by inhaling "prana," which I visualize as little spirit krill that live in air. Now I believe in deep breathing for other reasons as well: oxygenation, stress relief, a way to buy a few moments of thinking time before making a decision or undertaking something risky. It also significantly affects my blood pressure -- for the better.

I go round and round with this one. On the one hand, I detest the neutering of expression in order to speak no evil; an otherwise excellent former boss was incapable of saying things plainly. She couldn't say anything negative, even when the situation was very clear cut -- and wouldn't tolerate it in her employees. We weren't permitted to say something was a mistake when it could be termed a "teachable moment" and so on. But... if you pep-talk yourself, think positively, and husband your energies, you will be happier and more effective. So there's something to this -- just try not to extend it so far that you sound like a cultist.

This, I am NOT conflicted about. I have a guilty pleasure: reading an online advice column twice a week (and the ensuing wrangle in the comments section). Facebook is to etiquette as wedding photography is to small claims court... people fight about it all the time. It all boils down to the Golden Rule; don't be a jerk. This is more important than ever in the era of social media and remotely stored persistence of commentary.

When you go out, feel like you look good. Wear colors you like, bright ones if you dare. People always compliment me when I'm dressed in my loudest colors and I am just learning that I should listen to them. (Also, having a baby means I've turned up in lots and lots of pictures... and I've discovered which clothes make me look like a feature on People of Wal-Mart. I am trying to get rid of those outfits.)

I found this on a cooking blog and promptly forgot where I got it, but it's marvelous. I wish I could say who had said it first, but it's too good not to share because I can't reference it. Are you ready? Don't save the good wine for later. Don't save the fancy olives. Eat them, drink them, don't try to have your cake and eat it too (but later.) Eat your freakin' cake already! Miserly behavior (other than saving money) is crazy, hoarding activity. Take joy in the little pleasures that present themselves to you in life. Likewise, wear your expensive perfume, and your fancy clothes, and eat off of the good dishes.

A Zen cooking show taught me this. Take a break from multitasking and just do one thing. Meditative, mindful activity is well-spent activity. It is restorative to the mind and fills the soul.

Another nudge toward mindful living, hailing from the first years of our birding hobby. For reasons I won't go into here, we call goslings "geeshes." They are the epitome of tranquility -- eager, bright-eyed, never stressed or worried. If you're looking at them, put yourself in the same frame of mind. If you're not looking at them, why not? Google makes birdwatching easy. :) But it doesn't have to be geeshes, it can be baby ocelots, anteaters, or humans. The women's magazines often run blurbs saying that to look at cute images helps increase workers' productivity -- and I think it's because we dismiss all the drama and fuss that makes us ineffective when we reorient toward that innocent, loving, unworried state we see in young animals and humans.

And, as always, let me nudge you toward the Parable of the Bitter Tea in the Principia Discordia. Diluting something bad leaves you with something weaker -- and still bad. Start afresh when you need to; you'll be glad you did. Just, you know, don't quit on a bad day. :)

Sunday, April 24, 2011


There really are a couple blog entries between these recipes, but they're invisible. You see, I never finished them or hit "publish." So I'll get them out in the next few days.

In the meantime, Happy Easter, or whatever spring holiday woke you up with a smile on your face. :)

But make this within the next few days or you'll be sad that you took so long to do so once you finally get around to it. Seriously. Do you have eggs, milk, honey, and flour? Make this.

Don't be scared to pull out the fancy honey for this either. You can really taste it.

This delicious dish is like a baked custard mated with a Yorkshire Pudding, right on the nexus of milk & honey. It IS milk and honey held together with eggs and just enough flour to allow it to puff and brown on the edges.

Finnish Pancake

3 eggs
2 1/8 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
scant 1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons butter
(You could optionally flavor this with vanilla extract or beans, or with nutmeg, but why? The honey is soooo good in this.)

Heat oven to 425 and put your 10' iron skillet in it to heat up. In the meantime, beat the eggs until homogeneous, then mix the eggs, milk, salt, and honey until well amalgamated. Beat in the flour until no lumps remain.

Remove the skillet from the oven and drop the butter into it. It will melt and foam. Swirl pan so that the sides are buttered too and the whole bottom of the pan has been slicked with foamy butter. Pour in the custard mixture and put it all back into the oven.

Leave it alone until it is puffed, browned on the curled edges, and set in the middle (a knife inserted in the center will come out "clean.") There will be a little lake of butter on top, so be careful.

Serve immediately, because it looks most impressive that way, with additional honey and fresh fruit piled atop it. But you won't be able to eat it until it cools just slightly, because it has the immediate aspect of lava.

Should serve 3 or 4, but the two of us ate it all by ourselves (again.)

Oh. My.

Emily, so far as I know, honey is all right for an expectant mama. But remember that baby can't have any until he or she is a year old for fear of botulism toxin. This will be an issue. Fletcher wanted to remind me today that this should properly serve 3 or 4 people, and one of them is HIM.