A lovely exchange of letters

I love getting “real” mail – not the fliers or bills or the million envelopes I get from all the charities I’ve ever given a dollar to (and I lot I haven’t). I mean, real letters and cards from friends or family who took the time to sit down with paper and pen and send me their thoughts. It is truly a lost art for most. Is it any surprise then that I adore a good epistolary novel? Something about the intimacy of a story told only through letters – through the thoughts that a character shares with only one other reader in mind – draws me into the story like no other narrative tool can. It can be a frustrating narrative format in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand what to do with it – you may get too little information and not be able to follow the story or you may get so much information that it’s implausible you’re reading a letter anymore – but when someone gets the balance just right…these novels can sing. Their modern day equivalents aren’t so bad – I’ll read a book in emails and texts any day as well – but a good long letter always seems so much more to me and my latest read, Meet Me at the Museum, does not disappoint.

This short epistolary novel is letters between Anders and Tina, two people who find their best friend on the other end of a letter at the exact right time. Tina is still mourning the loss of her best friend and realizing her life, while not terrible, isn’t one she wanted. Anders is still mourning the loss of his wife and trying to navigate being on his own and also being a part of his grown children’s lives. Originally, they meet because Tina is trying to reach a professor who’d written a book about the Tollund Man, a man found preserved in a peat bog when she was a child, and writes to the museum which houses the specimen. Anders, a curator at the museum, responds and their correspondence grows from there. It is a lovely, quiet story of two lonely people trying to figure out what the next act in their plays will be and they both elegantly write about their struggles and triumphs through their correspondence. I enjoyed their children’s stories as well – both have daughters that have adventures through their correspondence which also cause Tina and Anders to grow and change as well. The letters are written that you are drawn into these lives, that while not exciting, are fighting to find their way through the murkiness of finding one’s self in the later years in life. I adored both Tina and Anders and even forgive them the slightly ambiguous way the book ends. I can write my own ending from the correspondence shared easily enough.

Looking at Women’s Stories through their Food

For the book club I run, I try to pick themes that guide what books we’ll read. This spring, I chose to focus on books focused on food in some way. We read one of Ruth Reichl’s memories for January and then the delightfully zany Like Water for Chocolate in February. For March, I wanted another non-fiction book as I’d noticed, even if the other ladies hadn’t, we often have our best discussions with our non-fiction reads even though the other members are always kind of lackluster about suggesting them when I call for titles to include in a book line-up. So, I hunted through my TBR list on Goodreads and found Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories which fit the bill nicely. It was a bit more dense potentially than I would normally suggest for book club but still a very approachable biography for six very different women.

I will admit I knew nothing about the first two women featured in the book, and not as much as I would have liked to know about the rest. Getting to know these women through their relationship to food was such an intriguing way to learn their stories. First up was Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s over-devoted sister who kept house for him during some of his most productive years prior to his marriage. Her story was sad to me; after William’s marriage, she just sort of plods along behind and eventually keeps house for her nephew again briefly and then suffers from dementia until her death. Food, so glorious to her when she was using it to fuel someone she loved, became a backdrop to her rather depressing life. A portrait of a lady who potentially could have been more than just a sister or aunt in a different era.

Next featured was the colorful Rosa Lewis, an Edwardian caterer and hotelier who, from her humble Cockney upbringing, cooked her way into the best drawing and dining rooms in Edwardian England, including becoming a favorite of the king’s. I think my favorite part of Rosa’s story was her superfluous husband whom she clearly didn’t much care about and kicked to the curb fast enough once he was no longer useful. But she understood her world. Being Mrs. Lewis did more for her career than any talent ever would have. Following on Rosa’s flamboyant story was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor has such a sad story in many ways but she always seemed to make the best of it, especially in public. I hadn’t heard the stories around food in the FDR White House (it was apparently absolutely terrible) and while I don’t think I agree with all the conclusions Shaprio makes about Eleanor’s food story, I enjoyed the idea that part of the reason Eleanor let the terrible housekeeper keep serving awful food was a bit of an F-you to a husband who’d betrayed her.

Eva Braun was next, a jarring change from the steady and sober Eleanor. Eva was someone I knew one thing about – she was Hitler’s mistress. Telling her story through food was fascinating as it was often just people eating around Eva, not Eva herself. Eva loved to play hostess and loved to play the part of Germany’s leading lady. It was one of the few things that made her pathetic but sympathetic to me – all she wanted was to publicly play the role of Hitler’s wife and it was always denied to her. She had to hide, and sneak, and never been seen when certain people were around. She was shallow, willfully ignorant, and terrifyingly obedient to a monster of a man. I don’t think Eva deserved better – she wanted exactly what she got – but I was sad for her to never have wanted more.

After Eva, Barbara Pym was a delight. I will admit to not liking the one book of Barbara’s I have read but the idea of them still appeals. I love nothing better than a cozy story and Barbara practically invented the post WWII cozy novel. She herself also sounds pretty delightful and someone I would have loved to go to tea with and then eavesdrop on everyone sitting near us. Because, she did that ALL THE TIME. Took herself out to lunch or tea and then sat and wrote down all the bits and pieces of conversations she could hear and used them in her books. How fabulous is that? I also appreciate someone who didn’t shy away from British cooking. I think it has a bad reputation unfairly, and enjoyed everything I ate while in England, and I like that Shapiro and Barbara acknowledge that no, it’s not the best (and it’s certainly not French) but it isn’t terrible either.

Lastly, we reach Helen Gurley Brown. Potentially the most infuriating woman in the bunch because she just so…ugh. Everything I try not to be she prized so highly that I feel mostly sorry for her. To her, food was an enemy. There doesn’t seem to have been any enjoyment or pleasure from food at all. Her only goal was to be skinny and that was how she defined herself. Her stumbling over how to write about food throughout her career was funny and sad. She reminded me most of Eva among the other ladies. Their one ambition seemed to have been to be pretty and seen. The most I can hope for them is they were happy with that in their lifetimes.

I didn’t mean to end on a bit of a downer. I really enjoyed this book. I loved this intimate look at these women through their relationships with food and also how food and culture affected their lives and the paths it took as well. I also appreciated the Afterword where Shapiro shared a little bit of her own food story. It added a personal touch to the book but also showed me this is an historian who sees herself as part of the larger tale and I always appreciate that. History is not simply the past; it continues to work on us long after it’s gone and food especially is a part of our stories as human beings that we carry with us, long after other parts are forgotten.

Hello Shakespeare. You’re tricky to adapt

I have a complicated relationship with the Bard. My first introduction to him was not pleasant in 8th grade. I, to this day, hate Romeo and Juliet with a passion that one would not expect from a fan of romance. Because, to me, two teenagers falling in love at first sight and a lot of people dying because of it just…doesn’t do it for me for some reason? I am apparently weird in this way. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year that I thought maybe this guy was onto something. I am a fan of Shakespeare’s comedies. The tragedies and histories are not my thing (I mean, Hamlet? Don’t get me started). So, I have read all the comedies and the tragedies only when forced by a class assignment and I have pretty much managed to avoid the histories so go me!

That said, the comedies have their own problems and none more so than The Taming of the Shrew. It is also, for some reason, the one that we all seem to like to try to adapt for the modern audiences and I am a bit baffled by this. Is it because it’s the one we most want to make more palatable to modern audiences? Is it the one feminists are most anxious to reclaim? I mean, we’ve been adapting that one for years. I can count several modern adaptions of Shrew but strangely, not one of Midsummer (I mean, fairies and men becoming literal asses might also be the reasoning there) and while you a lot of modern stories get their inspiration from Much Ado About Nothing (hello one of the original enemies to lovers trope!), I can’t think of a movie that purports to be a direct adaptation of it (other than the weird B&W version Joss Whedon made…that we’ll just move on from).

So, why Shrew? It’s kind of a terrible plot line but is, I must admit, comedy gold. A younger sister is the pretty popular one and lots of men want to marry her but her father has dictated that she can’t get married until her older sister, a terrible person because she has opinions, does. Hijinks ensue to marry off the older sister so her younger sister can marry one of her suitors and basically the older sister gets married off to a man who cheerfully tortures her into becoming a compliant wife, the younger sister elopes with her trickiest suitor, and they all live happily ever after. It sounds awful right? I mean, somehow we’re still debating if the play is misogynistic or not. Let me settle this. It is. The older sister, Katherina, is fabulous in the beginning and somehow by the end is this meek shadow of her former self. Enter centuries-worth of adaptations trying to fix that, the most common having the actress playing Katherina wink at the audience as she performs her final monologue to let the audience know all the fools on the stage only think she’s tamed. Still, it’s terrible. I know this. You know this. So why do I adore all the adaptations of this play? Kiss Me, Kate is one of my favorite classic musicals. McClintock! remains one of the few westerns I actually like and let us not forget the classic 10 Things I Hate About You was also based on this play. I think on film and stage, we’ve managed to work our way around, and just out right delete, the parts that cause the most problems. On paper, it’s trickier.

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler, has been sitting in one of the stacks of books I bought at the used book store for awhile now. It’s one of the novels in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, an effort to have best selling authors re-tell Shakespeare’s plays in modern contexts. Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a part of this series, a book which I take off my TBR list and add back on at least once a year since it was published (I also have a complicated relationship with The Tempest – welcome to the life of a recovering English major). I was intrigued enough to buy Vinegar Girl and bolstered by my recent return to reading (thank you Mindy Kaling!), dove into this relatively short novel. And immediately realized that trying to stick to closely to the plot line of Shrew in a modern context is just…icky. Kate Battista has such potential as a 21st century Katherina. She’s in a rut but smart. Could do things with her life but isn’t sure where to start and is pretty sure her father and sister wouldn’t last a day without her anyway. She was kicked out of college for disagreeing with a professor (does this actually happen?!) and so is wasting away as a preschool classroom aid where she hilariously doesn’t lie to the children to make them feel better and gets reprimands from the headmistress when parents call and want to know why she didn’t make their child feel like a special snowflake (the kids LOVE her by the way; honesty is always appreciated by children). Enter Pyotr, her father’s research assistant who is about to be deported because his student visa is running out. But her father NEEDS him so…he basically makes Kate marry him. I mean, Tyler tries to make it less icky than that and the characterization of Pyotr goes a long way to making this not as gross as it could be. But still, her father marries her off. In the 21st century. And then is upset when her and Pyotr decide not to live with him and her teenage sister after the wedding. I just…I had a lot of feelings.

It is a gorgeous cover though – I also really loved the idea of Kate as a botanist but we never really get to see that in the book. [Image: Goodreads]

Mainly, that Kate deserved so much better. I mean, as I say, the fact Tyler makes Pyotr a fairly forward thinking guy who is excited to think about Kate going back to school and treats her like a person and not a live-in servant, made this sort of OK? But like, Kate sort of talks herself into the marriage because Pyotr is a way to leave her family home and get herself out of her rut and she’s excited to have her own apartment and I am just…you have more choices than marrying a man who needs a green card to do those things sweetie! She’s sort of wishy-washy in the end and don’t get me started on the modern version of her final monologue because I threw the book after I read it. Just…it didn’t work for me. It worked at times. and I kind of loved Bunny (Bianca) in this book because, while still a spoiled brat, she does try to save her sister (and, SPOILER ALERT, commit lab theft at the same time with her inappropriate older boyfriend), but just overall I was left with the same feeling I often have after reading Shrew or any of its adaptations. I liked it but I really shouldn’t.

Mindy Kaling is Saving My Reading Life

Not a title or sentence I expected to write. Ever. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Mindy Kaling when I find her, mostly in films as I never watched The Office consistently or saw an episode of The Mindy Project. But I enjoyed her take on Mrs. Who in A Wrinkle in Time and loved her living her best life in Ocean’s 8 as part of a kickass group of women thieves and she was one of the few celebrities to survive my recent Instagram purge when I decided all I really wanted from my Instagram account was English cottage houses, flowers, books, and Disney posts. Mainly because her feed is basically a fashion show and I like seeing cool clothes on a woman more my size. But, I didn’t expect her books to help propel me out of a reading slump.

That isn’t to say I didn’t expect her to be funny, well-spoken and a delight to read. Of course I did, that’s why her first book was on my giant TBR list on Goodreads. But, it wasn’t near the top of the list and didn’t really fit into any of the rough categories I use to try to navigate that list (What’s been on there longest? What books should I be reading in the current political and socioeconomic climate given I am a white privileged mid-30s lady who need to be informed about all the things I do/could/will get wrong?) however, for some reason, in browsing my TBR list in need of something, anything, to catch my eye since the stack of books I own than still need to be read did not appeal, her book was the winner. I think the title appealed more than anything. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) could have been the theme for my high school career. FOMO was something I suffered from hard in high school long before that was a thing. And, maybe because my birthday was looming and I was from a long way from high school, I found my next read.

Now, as I noted in my last post, I have been struggling with reading. I just can’t sit and focus right now and I was getting frustrated with myself. I was not many things but I was, and always have been, a reader and I couldn’t even do that right at the moment. Mindy to the rescue! It was sitting down to have a good gossip with a friend and maybe that, in pandemic times, was what I needed to remember that I loved this. Sitting with a book and losing track of time. Becoming immersed in someone else’s story, fictional or not. Does she say anything particularly profound? Occasionally. But it really is mostly a book full of fun stories and gossip and a good amount of bragging because lady had earned it after working her butt off to get to where she was (though she doesn’t fully own that until her second book). I read it during my lunch hour, remembering for once to step away from all the screens like I used to do in the before times. I read it before bed as a good wind down for the day and to turn my brain off a little before trying to sleep. It was a book that reminded me what reading can do for me; be fun and comforting and an escape. And for that, I thank you Mindy Kaling.

Hello 2021

Some lovely birthday roses sent to me by friends who are keeping me sane

I last wrote here in April of last year. I think we still had some vague hope that the pandemic would be only a temporary stop to every day life though I was a month into working from home at that point. Now here I am, February 2021 and while I am working in my office two days a week, I’m still working from home for three and pretty much staying home at all other times. We’re still wearing masks when indoors and around other people, washing our hands obsessively, and now stressing over when we may be eligible to receive the vaccine. At least there is a vaccine now so we’ll call that progress.

2021 started out poorly for me; I was all over the place in January and couldn’t find a routine and a rhythm. If last year taught me anything, it is that I am a person who doesn’t handle well a lack of routine and rhythm. I am a creature of habit, for better or worse. I’m still working my way to a routine, into some normalcy, this year. I’m struggling to spend my time in a way I’m not angry at the end of the day because of how I spent it. I keep re-watching the same TV shows over and over, not reading, not checking things off my list of things to do. Mainly I feel like a lump and I’m starting to really annoy myself.

So, small steps. A friend encouraged me to work on healthy eating habits and exercising by joining her on a weight loss program. It’s early days yet but it is requiring me to meal plan and prep foods and snacks for the week in a way I haven’t done in years at this point. I’m doing a yoga video in the morning 3-4 days a week so far and keeping to my one day a week cardio class. I feel a routine coming through there but I’m fighting for it (and still working on getting all the food out of my apartment that isn’t helping).

My rut with TV shows is hit or miss. I am trying to schedule nights for watching certain things but there is no consequence to me not following my own schedule so…it works some days and some days it doesn’t. The comfort of re-watching a show I know exactly what to expect is strong right now but I’m slowly trying to wean myself off the old favorites. Exhibit A: I write this while I watch an episode of Brokenwood Mysteries that I have probably watched at least five times. I think this is also part of a routine that I need to break. I put on a comfort watch and sit with my games on my phone and play the night away and since I’ve watched the episodes so many times, I don’t need to pay attention so I won’t miss anything. It’s like I am slightly incapable of watching TV without also playing games. I am aware and am trying to work on it. Goals!

Which brings me to reading. I have also been re-reading like a fiend. Picking up new books even sounds exhausting to me at the moment and that is a major red flag that I am out of sorts. I have had on my to-do list since last week the need to review 2021 reading goals and just…start reading something. Anything new at this point. I made it through my book club book and Mindy Kaling’s first book last month and it exhausted me. See last paragraph where all I want to do is watch the same TV show again and play games on my phone. Even nights when I schedule reading I end up on the couch with the TV on an my phone in my hand.

So, these are my issues. They are all surmountable and I am making small steps. But I am looking for accountability across the board and I’m hoping this old blog can be flogged back into life one more time to give me a place to check in and report back on all the things. Did I manage a book this week? A new TV episode? I feel like my friend will keep my honest on the healthy eating and exercise but I need something to make sure I read and watch new things and that I am not just a lump on my couch watching Ms. Fisher again for the fiftieth time while I play Seekers Notes. So, my goal is a post a week as a check-in. Some weeks will be more exciting than others. Some weeks I may do more than one (!) post if I am excited to share about a book or a show. But the goal is one a week to get me started again. Wish me luck!

Bulgogi Stir-Fry (BBQ beef)

I posted a photograph of this dish and now everyone wants the recipe but I got it from the fabulous Budget Meal Planner emails so no easy place to point people to so…surprise blog post! With the world gone nutty, I have been meaning to write but my usual coping mechanism of swinging wildly between reading obsessively and binging TV shows hasn’t really inspired me to write anything yet. I imagine it’s coming but the current use of my planners (yes, I have two now…I may also be coping in doubling down on planning all the things) seems to be getting me through it (with occasional breakdowns over really dumb things). Now, onto the recipe!

I also liked the colors in this one!

This came together a lot faster than I thought it would. I recommend having everything chopped and measured out before cooking as otherwise this won’t work super well. Also, I started it way too early as my rice was nowhere near done when the meat dish was ready to eat. That said, it was an easy and fast weeknight dinner and left me with leftovers for the next few days. I think though the recipe called for way too much rice. I made the usual amount on the Publix bag (1 cup of dry rice) and that is plenty. The recipe originally called for 2 cups of dry rice to be prepared. This is yummy – the sauce adds a bit of of a kick with the sriracha but it also has a touch of sweetness due to the brown sugar. I’ve tried a few different Korean BBQ recipes but this one is my favorite so far. Also, for my vegetarian friends, pretty sure this would be tasty with meatless crumbles or tofu too!

Ingredients (4 servings):

• 1 lb. ground beef
• 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
• 1 carrot, sliced
• 3 garlic cloves
• 1 tsp. fresh ginger
• 1/2 cup brown sugar
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 1 tsp. sriracha
• 2 stalks green onion
• 1 cup dry rice

Directions:

  1. Begin by cooking rice according to package instructions.
  2. In a large pan over high heat, add sesame oil, minced garlic, and grated ginger. Immediately add ground beef and cook until it browns. Crumbling it as it cooks.
  3. When the beef is about half way cooked, add sliced carrots.
  4. Remove about 80% of the fat that accumulates, and add brown sugar, soy sauce, and sriracha. Cook until liquid has mostly disappeared (this took the longest – maybe about 10 minutes).
  5. Serve 1/4th of the mixture with rice. Top with green onion slices.

Do numbers matter?

Recently, one of my cousins asked how many books I had read in my lifetime. According to GoodReads, it’s a little north of 1300 as of right now. Now, not every book I’ve ever read is listed on there (most of my childhood books never made it in there and I was a prolific picture book reader as a kid) so I guessed 1500 for him. He came back that he was surprised it was so low. And I admit, I had the same thought. 35 years (as of next week) and I only had 1500 books under my belt?! I mean, that’s an average of 42 books a year which isn’t shabby but still, I felt like my bookworm credentials were in danger. We discussed that that probably didn’t include textbooks and school books and other readings I’d done along the way so he bumped me up a lot higher that is probably right and moved on. I never even asked why he wanted to know!

Then, over the weekend, I went full-on librarian nerd and made a listing of all my Musical/Play/ Dance souvenir programs which led me to make a list of every show I have any kind of program for (which meant digging into my memory boxes so….that escalated quickly). I was disappointed to find only 56. Though this made more sense. These shows tend to be a bit pricy (especially for me – I want to be as close as possible and those seats cost) so this number is impressive but still. So many I’ve missed. I mean, I’ve apparently seen The Phantom of the Opera 4 times (I remember 3) and The Lion King 3 times (I really only remember 2 so…that was a surprise) but have missed so many shows I wanted to see. I was also really upset to find that somewhere along the way I lost the Playbill from my first Broadway show (Guys and Dolls, 1992) and apparently never had any programs from the Rockette shows I know I went to at Christmas in NYC.

See? Total Nerd Alert – screenshot of part of the spreadsheet I created to catalog my souvenir programs and then turned into the List of All The Shows

So, do the numbers matter? Of course, the answer is no. In fact, the number of books is sort of obscene in some ways. I fully admit that I don’t remember them all and curse myself now for not keeping better reviews for the books I’ve read so I could look back and be like, “Right…you’re that one.” I am bummed by the show number though. I adore going to musicals; the talent and dance and stories thrill me as much today as they did that awestruck 7 year old watching Nathan Lane play his namesake role from up in the rafters of a New York theatre.

I am lucky to live where there is a lively theatre community and a world renown theatre program and I’ve gotten picky about my shows in my old age (why would I go if I know it’s not music I like?) but maybe then I have only myself to blame for that number. But, I still haven’t quite forgiven Tallahassee for never building that Performing Arts Center they were supposed to so the city could get touring company productions to visit. That said, my annual birthday Broadway Bash is soon; FSU Theatre School is putting on In The Heights so another one gets added to the list soon. 57 here I come!

Update: I realize now I am missing shows I saw at my local high school growing up (because apparently those programs have also been lost to time). That was how I discovered tapping is insane and I want to do that (thanks Crazy for You!) and male duets are swoonworthy (thanks Secret Garden!). I also didn’t list shows I was actually in because…that seemed like cheating.

Trying out a new recipe source

Late last year, and I don’t remember how I found it, I stumbled into the free subscription for Budget Meal Planner. It was such a cool idea (a weekly set of recipes with a theme and a shopping list to go with it) and so many of the recipes sounded tasty but I haven’t tried one until now. I wanted something pretty straight forward to ease me back into home cooking and Sunday meal prep because, after a month of being sick (ear infections as an adult are not fun), I needed to get myself back on track.

I decided to start with Steak and Zucchini Foil Packets. These were tasty and easy to put together. Some chopping but…I kind of like chopping. I find it soothing and the perfect task for listening to podcasts. I did modify. I didn’t put in the potatoes the recipe called for. Two reasons: 1) The bowl I had was never going to fit potatoes in it along with everything else (and it was my biggest one so…) and 2) I really prefer my potatoes mashed. This ended up being a good call because I worry cooking the potatoes in the foils would just make them kind of…mushy and unappealing.

Dinner plates just look better with a big pile of mashed potatoes right?

Now, as I cleaned up from the recipe (shared below with my edits), I did have a think about foil recipes. I like them; they are usually quick, tasty and have a really easy clean-up. But, I’m also trying to be better about sustainability and reusing things and…I threw a lot of foil out in the course of making this meal so I might stick to sheet pan dinners in the future. I wonder if I could make this as a sheet pan meal. Ooo, and maybe then the potatoes would crisp and not go mushy as I think they would. I do love me some crunchy roasted potatoes after all. I will add to the list to experiment in the future. In the meantime, here is the recipe!

For 4 meals:
• 3/4 lb. diced beef (I got what was on sale at Publix this week, sirloin)
• 1/2 lb. zucchini
• 2 bell peppers
• [1 lb. potatoes] I left these out and made a batch of mashed potatoes instead
• 3 tbsp. olive oil
• 2 garlic cloves
• 1 tsp. thyme
[For my vegetarian friends, this can be made using marinated tofu per the original recipe writer]

  1. In a large bowl, combine diced beef, [cubed (about 1-inch) potatoes if adding], cubed zucchini, bell pepper slices, olive oil, minced garlic, and thyme. Mix everything well, cover, and let it sit in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 450F. Cut 3 large sheets of aluminum foil and place equal portions of the beef mixture in each. Wrap and seal foils tightly and let cook in the oven for 20 minutes.

Sidenote: The original recipe said for 3 meals but from what I made, I have enough easily for 4 meals though I did do only 3 foil packets for the cooking.

In which I remember I have a blog

(and steal the title from a favorite indie bookstore, shout out to The Bookshelf! I need to come visit you more – well, my checking account doesn’t agree but whatever)

All. I have a blog. A fact I apparently forgot about. Well, that’s not quite true. I remembered. And totally meant to write and then 2019 kept going and then I had guilt and went through a reading slump and then a cooking slump and then I was like, maybe it’s time to just let it go? I mean, I was never very prolific and did this because I wanted to and it was fun (heaven knows I’ve never made a dime). But, I missed the act of writing and sharing books and recipes and any other random themes that came onto my radar. So much so my Evernote is filled with half-finished nonsense notes which are mostly brain dumps. And, I want to write more so…here it goes.

How to get back into the swing of things? I love my planner. I love plans. I love calendars. I love writing things down and then being too tired to do any of it and pulling a Scarlett O’Hara and saying, I’ll think about that tomorrow (truth: I loathe that character so the fact I apparently am like her in this way is enough motivation to get me back on track right now). So, I’m putting on my planner hat and making a plan. And I’m sharing it so I have to stick to it and maybe then, I’ll hold myself accountable (and if I’m lucky, the occasionally family member who reads will keep me honest too).

So, I have a plan. A loose plan. Making liberal use of all kinds of journal prompts I found when I googled “journal prompts.” Like any good information professional, Google is both my friend and a hated enemy. I will resolve to write two times a week, at the least. I will write ahead if I am traveling. I will use a book-based prompt or book review for one post and another prompt and/or a cooking post for the other. I am also trying to actually use all my streaming services this year (each has been assigned its own night of the week) so potentially reviewing what I’m watching will help here as well. We’ll call that a bonus post per week if I’ve got one.

Let 2020 commence!

The Luck of the Irish

Green Velvet Cupcakes

I have been keeping a long list of things I should write about but nothing has sent me back to this blog until a baking experiment this week. I watch The Great British Bake-Off the second a new season is available on Netflix. The combination of Britishness, tea and the fact that these “competitors” are willing to help their fellow contestants whenever they need help make this a refreshing, and delicious, show to dig into. It also usually inspires me to attempt baking again. But, lacking a new season, another event inspired me. I was invited to a wine & dine with a St. Patrick’s Day theme. I chose to tackle Green Velvet Cupcakes and it’s the first thing I’ve cooked or baked in a long time that really made me feel like I’d made something delicious worth sharing.

I was expecting this recipe to just be red velvet cake but green. I was happy to find myself surprised. I’m not actually a big fan of red velvet cake. The idea always appeals more than the cake itself and I usually end up just eating as much of the cream cheese frosting around the cake itself as I can. So, green velvet cake was a pleasant surprise. It is tasty; nice and springy with a hint of chocolate. Plus, it’s green. Not a vivid green; more like a spring green. Novel enough to please but not so green I thought was I eating something alien.

The frosting though…that is what I am most proud of. I think it’s a type of buttercream frosting or at least that is what I’m calling it. I think I might be most proud of the fact I managed to make it without a stand mixer or killing my arm. Standing and running a hand mixer for 12 minutes doesn’t sound like a workout but it. is. This frosting is delicious (and so pretty). Nice and light with the right hint of sugar and vanilla but not feeling like I’m getting cavities by eating it (in fact, eating it with a spoon may have been something I did…without feeling sick afterwards. More like I’d ate whipped cream with a bit more oomph).

Yum! A bowl full of frosting.

Plus, it was just so nice to make something I liked again! I’ve enjoyed the few dishes I’ve made lately but nothing I felt like bragging about or sharing. It’s all been kind of…eh. Was this complicated and difficult to make? Yes but totally worth it. It tasted better than anything I’ve made in a long time. Happy St. Pat’s Day everyone from someone who was lucky enough to find some fun in the kitchen again this weekend.

Green Velvet Cupcakes
(can also be used to make a layer cake; I did cupcakes since I didn’t have the right pans to try a layered cake – maybe next challenge!)

Cupcakes: 
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, well shaken
1 tablespoon green liquid food coloring
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Frosting:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Pinch fine salt
Green liquid or gel food coloring, optional
Green candies and sanding sugar for decorating, optional

Directions:
1) For the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. BPut cupcake liners in the pan and set. aside.
2) Whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
3) Whisk the buttermilk, food coloring and vanilla in a spouted measuring cup; set aside.
4) Beat the granulated sugar and butter in a stand mixer (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer) on medium speed until very light in color and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5) With the mixer still running, slowly add the eggs and beat until fully incorporated. Reduce the mixer speed to the lowest speed; with it running, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, then 1/2 of the buttermilk mixture, then 1/2 of the remaining flour mixture, then the remaining buttermilk mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Scrape down the sides and beat until well mixed.
6) Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake tins. Bake until slightly puffed and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool entirely before frosting.

For the Frosting:
1) Put the flour in a small saucepan. Vigorously whisk in about 1/2 cup of the milk, making sure to get the whisk into the edges of the pan, until you have a smooth, thick paste. (This step keeps the flour from clumping.) Slowly whisk in the remaining milk until fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth.
2) Cook over medium heat, whisking continuously, until the mixture is very thick, about 5 minutes. (Toward the end of the process, the mixture will become a thick paste; it may seem to be forming lumps, but whisk vigorously and the lumps will disappear.)
3) Scrape the frosting into a bowl, press plastic wrap onto the surface and refrigerate until cool, about 45 minutes.
4) Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a hand mixer), beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
5) Add the cooled flour mixture a tablespoon at a time and beat until smooth.
6) Switch to the whisk attachment (or continue with the hand mixer), add the vanilla, salt and 3 to 5 drops food coloring if using and whip until very light and fluffy, like thick whipped cream, up to 10 minutes with a stand mixer or 12 minutes with a hand mixer.
7) Frost and decorate the cupcakes (be generous with the frosting!)

To assemble (if making a layer cake):
1) Place one layer on a cake plate, spread frosting on top and repeat with the 2 remaining layers.
3) Frost the sides and decorate with candies and sanding sugar if using.

Cook’s Note
This recipe can instead be baked in three 8-inch layers or two 9-inch layers.

[Thanks to my P.E.O. sister Sue Colombo for the recipe which I believe came from the Food Network originally!]