Friday, December 31, 2010

A Roast in Every Pot

Tomorrow we're serving beef stew to about 20 of our friends. I chose beef stew for the menu for a reason; I had a couple of pot roasts in the freezer that I'm sacrificing for the cause. Sometimes when I make stew for just the two of us I start from scratch, but usually I use leftover pot roast. This time I used my regular pot roast recipe and chopped the meat into bite-sized pieces after it was cooked. Tomorrow I'll do the vegetables and put everything together for the stew.

Here's how I fix pot roast. The red wine tenderizes the meat, adds flavor, and cuts some of the grease.

Pot Roast with Red Wine and Mushrooms

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds pot roast
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef stock or bouillon
1/2 pound chopped fresh mushrooms
3 crushed garlic cloves
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a stockpot until smoking. Brown the meat on all sides. Add the wine and simmer until it's reduced by half. Add the beef stock and cover the pot; simmer for an hour. Then add the mushrooms and garlic. Cover and simmer until the meat is very tender (this will usually take 30-60 minutes). Taste the stock after 15-20 minutes and add salt and pepper as desired.

Remove the pot roast and carve it. Either reduce the cooking liquid and serve on the side or use it as the base for gravy.

“Smell brings to mind... a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years.” ~Diane Ackerman

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Didn't Get What You Wanted For Christmas?

If the emails I've been getting are any indication, the technology and electronics manufacturers and retailers didn't sell as many high-tech toys as they had hoped over the holiday season.  Many of them are offering pretty deep discounts to unload their excess stock.  The most interesting email I received about tech gadgets, though, came from my boss.  He sent me a link to an article on Mashable entitled 80+ Terrific Tech and Gadgets Resources From 2010.  Here are some of the most unusual items:

Too bad I didn't find out about all these gadgets before Christmas; my Dad would have loved the Moonwalker II Robot Kit.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.~Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hand Over That Machete

Friends of ours normally throw open their house on New Year's Day and feed gumbo to everyone who shows up.  A good time is had by all.  This year, though, the combination of illness and house guests made them decide not to throw the usual bash.

In a normal year we would have hosted at least a couple of large parties ourselves by now - probably on or around our birthdays.  Unfortunately, my birthday is at the end of August, when we were at our lowest financial ebb this year, and Barry's birthday was in November when we were traveling, so we have been unusually unsociable.  As a result, Barry suggested that we take up the slack and throw a New Year's Day party ourselves.

Despite the short notice, many of our friends have said they're coming.  This means the hysterical preparation phase of entertaining has begun.  Fortunately (from my point of view, not his), my boss was ill today and texted me not to come to the office.  This freed me to spend the afternoon on yard work.

You might think a yard surfaced with gravel rather than grass wouldn't need much maintenance, but you'd be wrong.  Our homeowners' association mandates that our "desert landscaping" is crammed with miscellaneous trees, bushes, and ground cover plants that need to be fed, watered, and trimmed on a regular basis, and we're way behind on the trimming.  Our front yard in particular was well on the way to being a jungle rather than a desert.  Several hours and three giant bags of debris later, it looks pretty good.  Now if I'm really lucky, my boss will still be under the weather tomorrow and I can attack the shaggy queen palms and Mexican bird-of-paradise pseudo-hedge in the back yard.

I guess the best way to look at this is that I'm saving more money by not calling a landscaping service than I'm losing by not working for a couple of days, I'm getting a little extra exercise, and we won't have to trim anything again for three or four months.  I just hope I can finish the back yard without falling off a ladder or accidentally chopping off an important body part (mine or Barry's).

"What a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it. " ~Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden, 1871

Monday, December 27, 2010

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

Well, it finally happened.  The graphics card on my HP laptop is DOA.  The cooling pad I bought kept it alive for an extra 8 months, but the computer is still kaput a month short of its second birthday.  Considering that my dad just got rid of my first computer, which was 20 years old and had been in more or less constant use that entire time, this is pretty disgusting.

If this were a desktop machine I would just rip out the defective card and replace it myself, but no.  The card is soldered to the motherboard and the only way to get a new one is to send the whole computer to the manufacturer and have the motherboard replaced.  The shipping, handling, parts and labor would cost almost as much as a new laptop.  I also considered getting a bigger hard drive for my 6-year-old Dell laptop (that's what I'm typing this on), but it's really too slow and doesn't have enough memory to handle the graphics and website work I do now.

So, I spent the afternoon shopping online for a replacement.  Fortunately Dell is running a sale on the model I wanted to buy.  Even with a 30% discount the total was pretty painful, but I kept the price as low as possible by buying Microsoft Office and Adobe CS5 separately from a vendor offering deep academic discounts.  Good thing even part-time adjunct college instructors qualify for them.

My new laptop and software are supposed to arrive on January 3, almost like a late Christmas present - at least, they would be if I didn't have to pay for them myself.

“Experts agree that the best type of computer for your individual needs is one that comes on the market about two days after you actually purchase some other computer.”  ~ Dave Barry

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Still Celebrating

It was a good Christmas. Although the futon was our main present to each other, Barry also bought me a big box of chocolate truffles and I got him the DVD for the fourth Shrek movie. We went to my cousin Stan's house for Christmas dinner with the other members of our family who live in the Phoenix area. This year we had ham with cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, tabouli salad and three kinds of pie. Last night, we watched A Christmas Story and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol while snuggled on our new futon with popcorn and hot spiced apple cider.

But the holidays aren't over yet.  Tonight we're watching the Shrek movie while sampling the truffles.  Tomorrow my cousin Don from Oregon will be in town and we're having lunch with him, my parents, and my sister.  We have tickets for a formal dance on New Year's Eve and a black-and-white ball the following week. With luck, we can keep the holiday spirit alive until at least Valentine's Day.

I hope your Christmas was wonderful, too, and that you have a happy and prosperous New Year.

"One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day.  Don't clean it up too quickly."  ~Andy Rooney

Friday, December 24, 2010

Decking the Halls

Still trying to master the autofocus on my cell phone - here are some of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments:

"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall." ~Larry Wilde, The Merry Book of Christmas

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Shall We Be Trotting Home Again?

Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve and we will be going to my parents' house for oyster stew.  This is a Midwestern tradition that has moved around with us; I made oyster stew every Christmas Eve when I lived in New York, and now that we're all in Arizona Mom has resumed gathering our immediate family together for Christmas Eve supper and the gift exchange.  Mom has never written down her recipe for oyster stew, but here's my reconstruction of what she does.  It's much simpler than many versions I've seen but still my sentimental favorite.

Oyster Stew

1/4 cup butter
1 cup milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 pint oysters
salt and white pepper to taste
oyster crackers (optional)

Put the butter in a microwavable casserole or bowl and microwave on the melt setting.  Add the milk and half-and-half; stir.  Heat in the microwave until it starts to steam (do not boil or a skin will form).  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the oysters and their liquor and heat until the oysters are just opaque; again, do not allow the stew to boil.  Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.  Serve with the oyster crackers on the side.

Mom usually uses a double boiler rather than the microwave, but I find the microwave faster and less likely to scorch the milk.

"'O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one."

~Lewis Carroll, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Who Cares If It Melts In Your Hand

Last year our friend Cathy made a big batch of this peanut butter fudge and gave some of it (along with other goodies) to us for Christmas.  It was so addictive I had to ask her for the recipe.  I haven't made it yet this year, but maybe for a New Year's treat...  I believe this recipe came from the back of a bag of Hershey's chocolate chips - at least, the original calls for Hershey's chocolate and Reese's peanut butter.  Could this be a close relative of the secret recipe for their peanut butter cups?  Maybe - but I think it's even better. 

Double Decker Marbled Meltaway Fudge

1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk (1 12 oz. can)
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 1/2 cups peanut butter (either creamy or chunky)
1 jar (7 oz.) marshmallow creme

Line a 13"x9"x2" pan with foil.  In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, evaporated milk, butter, corn syrup and vinegar.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil; boil and stir for 5 minutes and then remove from heat.  Add the peanut butter and marshmallow creme and stir until smooth.

Put 1 cup of the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl and set the other 1/2 cup aside.  Pour half of the peanut butter mixture over the chocolate chips in the bowl and stir until smooth.  Pour this chocolate and peanut butter mixture into the prepared pan and then top with the remaining peanut butter mixture.  Immediately sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of chocolate chips over the surface.  Gently swirl with a knife or metal spatula for a marbled effect.  Cool; cut into squares.

Store covered in the refrigerator if you like your fudge firm.  Makes about 4 pounds of candy (8 dozen pieces).

Fudge is a noun, a verb, an interjection, and delicious!  ~Jessi Lane Adams

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Futon Update

Today a giant cardboard box containing the pieces of our futon arrived on our doorstep.  The delivery people agreed to bring it inside and park it in the hallway, but told Barry they hoped he didn't think they were going to assemble it.  As I suspected, he hadn't realized that assembly was required and was still clinging to the hope it wasn't when I arrived home, even though the box was clearly too small to contain a ready-to-sit-upon sofa.

Armed with my trusty boxcutter, I hacked the container apart after supper and together we put the frame together.  Fortunately the instructions were quite clear, and although the bolts were supposed to be tightened with one of those nearly-useless little hex wrenches, we were able to finger-tighten them and use the hex wrench just for the last few tightening turns.  The mattress was heavier than we expected but we wrestled it into position, distributed the coordinating throw pillows, and threw ourselves on our handiwork.

As we might have known, this is one of those decorating purchases destined to spawn others.  We were no sooner sitting on our new possession, tilting slightly backward with our knees in the air, than Barry said, "We need a hassock."

Unfortunately, he's right.  Maybe I need to start looking for a third job.

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.  ~Oscar Wilde

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Lure of Shiny Objects

When I was three or four, my mother took me with her on an errand to the local lumberyard.  It was a real lumberyard, nothing like a Lowe's or Home Depot, but it did have a small display area with samples of (I assume) items in stock and available by special order.  On this particular day, one of the employees had apparently been laying out mosaic patterns with loose ceramic tiles on a table in the center of the room.  The tiles were small, about 1/2 inch to a side, and had a slightly textured but shiny glaze.  One of the tiles in particular caught my eye because it was so beautiful.  The color was bluer than turquoise but too green to be pure blue.  I picked it up to look at it and then, moved by impulse and the elastic ethical code of the average toddler, I put it in my pocket.

I don't remember whether I showed the tile to my mother after we got home or whether she discovered it herself, but I do remember the storm that erupted.  We drove back to the lumberyard and I had to give the tile back to the store manager and apologize.  Unfortunately for the lesson my mother was trying to teach, the manager either thought the whole incident was funny or I was cute, and he gave the tile back to me.  I still have it in a box of mementos out in the garage.  The lesson was seared into my preschool brain anyway, and that was my first and last foray into deliberate theft.

About 10 years ago I was attracted to another shiny thing in the San Francisco Nordstrom's.  It was a beautiful Art Nouveau-style marcasite brooch with a couple of decorative gray crystals.  It was quite expensive for a piece of costume jewelry because it was handcrafted, unique, and beautiful, but I bought it and have had great pleasure wearing it over the years.  This month I wore it on the lapel of a velvet blazer to one of the holiday parties we attended.

The occasion was a dinner dance, and although we sat at a table with friends, most of the people there were strangers to us.  The room was quite warm, so I left my blazer hanging on the back of my chair whenever we danced.  At some point during the evening when our table was largely deserted, someone else was captivated by my brooch and took it for (I presume) herself.  The value, after all, was in its craftsmanship and appearance, not the materials.

I am still a little angry, but I have enough other jewelry that I can't honestly say I can't live without this one little pin.  I do understand the lure of shiny objects - and all our material possessions are really just on loan to us anyway.

“Property is theft” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It Takes a Village

Before he met me, Barry never bothered with a Christmas tree because he just didn't have the patience for buying the tree and the ornaments and setting everything up and taking it all down again. Instead, he celebrated the holiday season by setting up his holiday village.

The village is a row of Victorian-style ceramic houses and little "pine" trees with fiber-optic lights. He has a church, a train station, a sawmill, and a variety of small shops and houses. The accessories include two ponds, internal lighting, three cats, a dog, and several not-quite-in-scale people. The original inhabitants of the village were a few ice-skaters and Ebenezer Scrooge. I added two travelers waiting for a train, a couple of kids building a snowman, and Ralphie from A Christmas Story checking the mailbox for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

During most of the year the village lives, carefully wrapped, in its own storage box in a cupboard in the garage. No matter how well we wrap the individual pieces, though, we always seem to find at least one casualty when we unpack the next year.  This year the back chimney broke off the sawmill and the grazing mule deer lost some more bits of their legs.  The chimney was a clean break and easily repaired, but we may have to retire the deer.  Having them lay next to the pond like tiny plastic roadkill does not add to the holiday spirit.

Crippled deer aside, even if I don't find the right tree tomorrow, it's now officially Christmas at our house.

(My camera is having a nervous breakdown, so I tried to take these with my cell phone.)

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful." ~Norman Vincent Peale

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Recently I heard my placid 14-year-old cat give a blood-curdling shriek in the next room.  I rushed in to see her standing inches from the sliding glass door to the backyard, back arched and tail swollen like a bottle brush.  A half-grown coyote stood on the other side of the door, looking mildly amused.  He sauntered off when he saw me.

At the time I was just relieved that we never let Rusty go outside.  If she'd been out there, I'm sure she would have rushed over to defend the perimeter of her territory and ended up as a coyote snack.  Now, though, I wish I could invite the coyote back, along with his parents, siblings, and second cousins twice removed.

That's because last week we had to have a major chunk of the wiring leading to our pool equipment replaced for the third time this year because some varmint with sharp teeth had gnawed through it.  As if this weren't bad enough, the irrigation system for our front yard stopped working, and the repair guy confirmed that it had been sabotaged in several places by chewing critters.  Only he didn't say "chewing critters;" he said "rats."  His recommendation: put out poison pellets to deter the rats, gophers, rabbits, or other vermin responsible.

We've never wanted to do this and risk killing off the innocent fauna in the area.  (OK, part of this is my reluctance to deal with the ensuing corpses.)  On the other hand, we can't really afford to keep feeding the rabbits or gophers or rats (RATS!!) our electrical wiring and sprinkler pipe, and we're running out of other options.  We've tried burying everything securely, buying a baby gate for the enclosure around the pool equipment, and scattering bloodmeal and used kitty litter among the rocks in the yard - to no avail.  My mother tries bribing the rabbits in her yard with table scraps, assuming they'll leave her garden alone if they're already well-fed, but our homeowners association forbids the feeding of wildlife in our subdivision.  We may have to resort to poison.

The other possibility, of course, is to invite the local coyotes (or maybe the pair of large owls that nests nearby) to stake out our yard and pounce on any small furry intruders with a taste for metal and PVC.  However, I don't think coyotes can read, and I doubt that wandering the golf course where they supposedly live yelling "here, coyote, coyote" will work, either.  Any suggestions for attracting coyotes or deterring pica-afflicted rodents?

"I wouldn't mind the rat race - if the rats would lose once in a while. " ~Tom Wilson

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Break from the Cookies

Today I didn't have to drive to Scottsdale for work, so I was back in the holiday mood and did a little more baking.  Barry's very favorite dessert is pumpkin pie, but it's so high in fat and calories that we've been trying to steer clear of it.  Instead, I made him pumpkin muffins today.  This recipe actually tastes rather like gingerbread, and Barry loves it.

Pumpkin Spice Muffins

Dry ingredients:
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup roughly chopped pecans

Wet ingredients:
2 cups canned pumpkin puree
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups plain low-fat yogurt
1/3 cup apple juice
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease two 12-cup muffin tins.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in one bowl and all the wet ingredients together in a second bowl.  Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  When blended, fill the muffin cups and bake about 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.  Cool on wire racks.

These actually taste better if you wait at least an hour before eating them so the spices have a chance to permeate the muffins.

I also set up the holiday village this afternoon, but by the time I finished the lighting was wrong for a good picture.  Maybe tomorrow...

“Now for the tea of our host, Now for the rollicking bun, Now for the muffin and toast, Now for the gay Sally Lunn!” ~William Shakespeare

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dodging Oobleck and Aliens

We now return to our generally scheduled crankiness.


We had rain today over most of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, but from the way people behaved you would have thought the clouds were spitting meatballs or oobleck instead of water.  The shoulders of the 101 were strewn with wreckage; I haven't seen that many demolished cars in one day since the last time Barry insisted we watch several back-to-back episodes of World's Dumbest Drivers.  Traffic was backed up clear across the valley.  Halfway through the drive home I morphed from a reasonably sane middle-aged woman into a choleric curmudgeon.

At this time of year, we have two types of residents: those who live here permanently and almost never see rain, and the seasonal migrants from Up North who are at least theoretically familiar with rain, sleet, snow, and other forms of weather nastiness.  Problems arise when these two groups encounter each other on the roads on a nice day; on a day like today, disaster ensues.  The locals tend to creep cautiously along with one wondering eye on the lowering skies.  The visiting aliens, on the other hand, zoom blithely onto the interstate at excessive speeds, apparently unaware that grease and grime have been building up on the roads during the dry months, all the better to send them hydroplaning into the ditches the first time they oversteer to avoid a hypercautious permanent resident.  That would be fine if they didn't take several other cars with them and tie up the local police, ambulance services, and traffic for hours at a time, but they do.

(Deep breath.)

OK, I'm calmer now.  Still, it's enough to make anyone yearn for the comfort and ease of a Star Trekkian transporter unit.  What I wouldn't give for the ability to say, "Beam me up, Scotty," and be answered.

"Road rage is the expression of the amateur sociopath in all of us, cured by running into a professional."  ~Robert Brault

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We'll Be Sitting Pretty

The first year Barry and I were together we bought each other the traditional "surprise" gifts.  This bombed big time.  For instance, on one occasion, knowing how much Barry admires Fred Astaire, I gave him the DVDs for Broadway Melody of 1940 (ending in the amazing "Begin the Beguine" number with Eleanor Powell) and You Were Never Lovelier (with Rita Hayworth, Adolphe Menjou, and Xavier Cugat).  His reaction?  "We could have ordered them from Netflix."  Never mind that we've watched them about a thousand times since - in his mind that money would have been better spent on something useful, like maybe pool toys.  Even worse was the time he gave me a heart-shaped box of candy the week before Valentine's Day.  I decided to wait until the actual holiday to open it; he thought this meant I didn't want it and gave it to someone else.  After a few such misfires we agreed to buy each other only items the recipient explicitly asks for, and if a gift is a consumable, warn the giver if it won't be used immediately.

This year we've decided to buy a reasonably attractive and well-sprung futon as our joint Christmas present.  If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that this summer we disposed of the bed in our spare bedroom and turned it into a combination exercise and TV room.  Unfortunately, we've been without seating in there ever since (at least, I don't consider a pile of spare cushions and the orphaned pillows from the vanished bed to constitute seating for anyone over the age of 16), and our tailbones are starting to feel the strain.  In addition, we no longer have anywhere for guests to sleep.  Barry rather churlishly suggested that anyone who wants to visit us can bed down in a nearby hotel, but I don't think this is a practical solution when our most frequent visitors are his daughters, neither of whom is independently wealthy.  We had looked at a few sofa sleepers and talked about a wall bed, but the futon is both easier to convert into a bed and more convenient to reposition if we are seized by the desire to play tennis or bowl a few games with our WII.

We ordered the futon online this weekend and received an e-mail saying that it's been shipped and will be delivered some time between tomorrow and Christmas.  I'm glad that we bought it when we did, and not just because it will be here for the holiday.  When we were placing the order the retailer's website said  "Limited Quantities Available,"  and when I went back there just now to get the link so you could view it yourself, all mention of the futon had vanished.  We may be getting the very last one they had in stock.

I'm not sure I'm going to mention this to Barry.  If I do, he'll immediately start worrying about what will happen if it's damaged in shipment.  Or maybe not.  When he insisted that we have it shipped rather than pick it up at the store, he apparently didn't realize that this means we'll have to assemble the frame ourselves.  Oh, well - as I've said before, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  At least I'm pretty sure this is one present he won't give away for lack of use.

"The perfect date for me would be staying at home, making a big picnic in bed, eating Wotsits and cookies while watching cable TV."  ~Kim Kardashian

Monday, December 13, 2010

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

As much as I love the winter holidays, December is always a little sad for me.

I married my husband Tom in late November, 1996, and we always celebrated our anniversary by taking a vacation during the week following Thanksgiving.  For our seventh anniversary we drove from Arizona to California.  We toured Hearst Castle, drove up the coast highway, rode the Wine Train in Napa Valley, and ate dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.  Unfortunately, Tom’s enjoyment of the trip was marred by back pain and intermittent queasiness.  He didn’t even feel up to having Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista, one of his favorite things to do in San Francisco.

The back pain started a month or so before our trip.  He assumed it was just the disk he had ruptured as a young man, and although he originally scheduled a doctor’s exam at my urging, he canceled it at the last minute.  During our trip, however, the pain increased exponentially, and so did his nausea.  After we returned he finally saw two different doctors, the second of whom sent him for a CT scan and then an MRI.  By Christmas he was in such pain that he was spending all day every day sitting as quietly as possible in his recliner.  On Christmas Day he decided not to go to our family celebration, which he usually loved; he didn’t think his back or his stomach could handle the big dinner.

Right after Christmas we learned that the back pain was due to a tumor wrapped around his spine, and that something funny was also going on in his liver.  He went into the hospital immediately to start chemo, but it wasn’t successful and he died on January 18, leaving me shocked and bereft.

So, to a part of me, December will always be the month that he was slipping away and I didn’t even know it.  He was normally the sunniest-tempered person I’ve ever known, but that month he was uncharacteristically crabby and demanding, and I felt resentful and put-upon.  In my defense, because Tom was normally disgustingly healthy, he always acted as if he were dying when he wasn’t well; I had no way to know that this time he actually was seriously ill.  At least I had time before he was gone to tell him how much he meant to me, which might not have been the case if he had suffered a heart attack.  

Life doesn’t let us have do-overs, but when Barry is sick and grumpy I try very hard to bite my tongue instead of snapping back at him.  We never know just how long we will have with the people we love.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." ~ Dr. Seuss

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Dickens of a Movie

This has been an extremely busy week, in part because I've been correcting finals for one of my online classes, but we did take time out one evening to watch Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on TV.

TCM actually showed two versions of the story that night - the short (69 minutes) 1938 version starring the Lockhart family as three of the Cratchits, and Scrooge, the 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney in the title role.  Barry bailed on the musical after the first song but we watched all of the other movie.

A Christmas Carol has been filmed at least four other times.  Barry and I have seen the 1951 movie starring Alastair Sim, the 1984 version with George C. Scott, and 1988's Scrooged with Bill Murray.  We have yet to see the 1999 film with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.  Of those we have seen, by far our favorite is the 1951 black-and-white version.  The special effects are quite convincing (the doorknocker that turns into Marley's head terrified me when I saw this in grade school), Michael Hordern is far and away the best, most desperate-appearing Marley, and no one can match Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Both his initial misanthropy and his gradual conversion to Christmas' biggest booster are extremely convincing.  At 115 minutes 1951 film is also the longest, and contains scenes such as the bone-chilling division of Scrooge's effects after his death that were left out of the short versions.

We haven't seen the 1951 version scheduled yet this season, but that's OK because we have an ace in the hole; we have it on tape.  Of course, by now we've watched the tape so often that it's almost worn out.  I may have to give Barry the DVD as a stocking stuffer this Christmas.

"Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it." ~Charles Dickens,  A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Easier Than Pie

I don't know where this recipe originally came from.  These cookies are like little pecan pies, but because the crust-to-filling ratio is higher, they are not quite as sweet.

Pecan Tassies

3 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sifted flour

Soften cream cheese and butter; blend together.  Stir in flour.  Chill for one hour.  Shape into 1-inch balls. Place the dough balls in 1 3/4 inch muffin tins and press the dough against the bottoms and sides to form little tart shells.

2/3 cup broken pecan pieces

Divide half the pecans among the shells.  Set the rest of the pecans aside.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

1 egg
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
dash salt

Beat filling ingredients together until just smooth.  Pour into the muffin tins.  Top with the remaining pecans.  Bake for 25 minutes or until the filling sets.  Cool before eating.  Makes about two dozen. 

"When someone asks if you'd like cake or pie, why not say you want cake and pie? " ~Lisa Loeb

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Double-Dog Dare You to Watch This

Some of the TV stations we get started advertising their annual Christmas specials even before Thanksgiving this year.  We’ve already watched some of them; for instance, the makers of Kung Fu Panda, one of Barry’s favorite movies, released a half-hour show in which Po and his family and friends celebrate the “Winter Festival.”  So far I haven’t seen any ads for my favorite Christmas movie, though, so I googled it to be sure I wouldn’t miss it.

I was happy to see that TBS is once again hosting A Christmas Story marathon starting on Christmas Eve at 8:00 pm.  If you’ve never seen it, A Christmas Story is based on the semi-autobiographical book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by humor writer Jean Shepherd, who also narrated the film, and was the inspiration for the TV show The Wonder Years.  The main character is Ralphie, a pre-adolescent who dreams of receiving a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas despite his mother’s constant warnings that “You’ll shoot your eye out!”  Peter Billingsley is perfect as Ralphie, and Darren McGavin gives an outstanding performance as his irascible father (aka “The Old Man”).

Ralphie’s family lives in Indiana rather than South Dakota, but the landscape of his childhood always gives me a feeling of déjà vu.  As a child I owned a red snowsuit exactly like the one that immobilizes Ralphie’s younger brother Randy whenever he falls over.  My family also went en masse every year to pick out our Christmas tree, endlessly debating the size, freshness, and price of the offerings at the temporary sales lot.  I don’t remember ever standing in line to sit on Santa’s lap, but we saw plenty of Santas who were just as anxious to keep the lines moving as the one that Ralphie encounters.  And, of course, we heard stories about the dire consequences of touching frozen metal objects with our tongues; fortunately our grade school didn’t have a flagpole, so no one could “double dog dare” us to lick it.

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Midwest you’ll appreciate Ralphie’s encounters with the local bully and his hangers-on, The Old Man’s constant battles with their balky furnace, and Ralphie’s mother’s response to the Major Award her husband wins in a crossword puzzle contest.  I laugh more loudly every time I see A Christmas Story; this year I may have to watch it twice.

“In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” ~Ralphie as an adult, narrating

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ginger But Not So Snappy

More holiday cookies!  These taste like gingersnaps but are much softer.

Molasses Sugar Cookies

3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup surgar
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg; set aside.  Sift together flour, baking soda, salt and spices; add gradually to the first mixture.  Blend well.  Chill.  Form into one-inch balls; roll in granulated sugar and place on greased cookie sheets, two inches apart.  (Don't use a dark cookie sheet.)  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes and take them out when they are still slightly soft; be careful not to leave them in too long or the bottoms will burn.  Makes about four dozen.  Store in an airtight container to keep them from drying out.

"Cookies are made of butter and love."  ~Norwegian Proverb

Monday, December 6, 2010

Life After Google

I've been teaching for an online university for about two and a half years now, and last week one of my students told me that he had googled me and found my online portfolio.  Fortunately, since I teach a class in Web Systems, he thought it was a "pretty cool website."  I have to say, though, that I was a little startled by the whole thing; not that he had run my name through Google - after all, he's working on a degree in information systems - but because apparently none of my other students have ever done so.

I was in grad school during the birth of the World Wide Web, when Google was not even a twinkle in someone's eye.  I was thrilled when the school gave IT majors free access to the Internet by acting as our ISP; it was a dial-up connection with an early version of Netscape, but it allowed me to research all my papers online.  I never physically set foot in the University library that year.  I have to smile when I remember that one of my assignments back then was to write a paper on how search engines work.  In those days they didn't work with the speed or accuracy we now expect, and most stores, newspapers, and major corporations did not yet have an online presence.  In those days, the only one of my professors with his own website was the guy who taught a course in Electronic Commerce, itself still in its infancy.  An online search for the other instructors probably wouldn't have turned up anything at all.

Fast forward to today.  When Barry and I have a question about who that bit player in the 40's movie was, or the visiting hours at a local hospital, or the best way to cook an unfamiliar vegetable, we google it.  We are surprised when other people don't.  If I were taking a web design course today, I would definitely want to know whether the person teaching me knew what he or she was doing.  Of course I would google the name.  So why haven't the rest of my students checked on me?

Maybe I'm being naive.  Maybe they all have and it seems so routine that it didn't occur to them to mention it.  I think if they were, though, that I'd be seeing a lot more traffic for my portfolio in Google Analytics.

"Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan. But if they think Google is too powerful, remember that with search engines, unlike other companies, all it takes is a single click to go to another search engine." ~Sergey Brin (Google founder) 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Candy Cane Lane

This is another of my favorite holiday cookie recipes, but I have no idea where Mom originally got it from.

Candy Cane Cookies

1 cup butter (room temperature)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons water
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup quick oatmeal

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Cream the butter.  Gradually add in the powdered sugar; cream until fluffy.  Add the water.  Set aside.

Sift together the flour and salt.  Add it to the creamed mixture, mixing thoroughly.  Blend in the oatmeal (dough will be quite stiff).  Roll into candy cane-shaped cookies and place on a cookie sheet.  Bake for 25-30 minutes; cool.

Mix powdered sugar, milk, and one or two drops of mint extract until the frosting reaches a spreadable consistency and the desired taste.

Frost the cookies.  When the frosting has set, use a small paintbrush or toothpick dipped in red or green food coloring to paint stripes on the candy cane cookies.

"We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup." ~Buddy, Elf (2003)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Let the Baking Begin

When I was a child, my mother churned out seemingly endless batches of cookies between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  She was a cookie-baking machine.  The cookies weren't all the same, either.  She must have had 30 different recipes.  She made drop cookies and icebox cookies and bar cookies, rum balls and fudge and divinity.  She painted sugar cookies and covered pretzels and cornflakes with melted chocolate and molded flower- and leaf-shaped mints.  For weeks the house smelled like heaven and all our Tupperware containers were filled to bursting.  Even more than the decorated tree and the ceramic nativity set, those cookies said "holiday season" to me. 

Last December Barry and I were just beginning our low-fat and low-sugar diet.  It was the first winter of my adult life that I didn't bake Christmas cookies myself, and it left me feeling a little bereft, as if I'd misplaced a favorite possession.  Now that we've reached our target weights, though, we've eased up a little on our original eating guidelines, and I'm planning to make just a few of my favorite cookie recipes, starting with this one.  It's too rich to eat more than one or two at a time, which should help keep our consumption down.

I believe this is another recipe that my mother originally copied from our local newspaper, but I've modified it to eliminate the raw egg that was in the original and to use dark rather than milk chocolate and instant rather than cooked pudding.

Prayer Bars

Layer 1
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup cocoa (I use Scharffenberger)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup liquid egg substitute (like Egg Beaters)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups crushed graham crackers
1 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Grease a 9" x 13" pan; set aside.  Melt the butter and cocoa together over low heat or in a microwave.  Pour them into a large bowl.  Add sugar, egg substitute, and vanilla and mix well.  Add the crumbs, coconut and nuts and mix again.  Press the mixture into the greased pan and chill.

Layer 2
1/4 cup butter
3 tablespoons cream or half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons instant vanilla pudding mix
2 cups powdered sugar

Melt the butter and remove from heat.  Add cream, vanilla, and pudding mix and blend well.  Add the powdered sugar and mix thoroughly. Spread a small amount at a time over the first layer.  Chill.

Layer 3
9.7 ounces of semisweet chocolate (again, I use Scharffenberger)

Melt and spread carefully on top of the second layer.  Chill and cut into small rectangles.  Store in the refrigerator.

"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." ~ Charles M. Schulz

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dance Me a River

Well, it's Pledge Week again on PBS, and as usual they're showing Riverdance - this time, a Riverdance performance filmed in Beijing. I've never watched Riverdance on TV before because I saw it live at Radio City Music Hall when I lived in New York.  We watched it tonight because Barry had recorded it and we could (sorry, PBS) fast-forward through the pleas for money.  I have to admit, I was amazed.

My seat at the live performance was so far up in nosebleed territory that I could see the whole stage at once.  That was a great vantage point for the group numbers, but I really couldn't appreciate the fine details of the costumes and sets.  With the high-definition television, we could see not only the embroidery and eyelet lace, but also the bobby pins in the dancers' hair and the fillings in the singers' teeth.

The true beauty of the performance, however, remains the actual dancing.  The basis of the show is Irish step-dancing, but it also contains ballet, flamenco, and tap.  My favorite vignette, in fact, is Trading Taps - an extremely athletic face-off between two black tappers and three step-dancers that illuminates both the similarities and the differences between the two styles of dance.  Throw in an energetic musical score and a talented chorus and you have a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

If you've somehow managed not to see Riverdance during the last 15 years - or if it's been a while since you did - check the schedule on your local PBS website for the next showing of this spectacular Irish treat.

"… trying not to grin when the band plays full out and 60 feet answer right back, is a challenge." ~The Times (February 2002)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Small Miracles

Now that December has officially started, I feel justified in recommending a little Christmas reading.

Whatever type of Christmas story you prefer - heartwarming, funny, or bittersweet - you can probably find it in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis.  Ms. Willis is an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy and one of my favorites authors, and the eleven short stories in this volume demonstrate the amazing range of her talents.  Some of them celebrate Christmas traditions; others poke gentle fun at them.  (I haven't been able to watch It's a Wonderful Life with a straight face since reading Miracle.)  The book also has a wonderful introduction by the author, who discusses her love for Christmas stories and movies and what she thinks makes the best of them successful.  Surprisingly, she identifies one of the necessary ingredients as irony, which certainly informs several of her own stories.  But let Ms. Willis speak for herself:

"Here they are - an assortment of stories about church choirs and Christmas presents and pod people from outer space, about wishes that come true in ways you don't expect and wishes that don't come true and wishes you didn't know you had, about stars and shepherds, wise men and Santa Claus, mistletoe and It's a Wonderful Life and Christmas cards on recycled paper.  There's even a murder.  And a story about Christmas Yet to Come."

To misquote Forrest Gump, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories is like a box of chocolates, and the items with nuts in the center are my favorites.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Time to Buy the Tree

Tonight we turned on the TV just in time to see the end of the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center in New York.  It reminded me of the last time my late husband and I stood for hours in a chill wind to watch the tree-lighting in person.  When we lived in New York, we spent a lot of time outside in lousy weather around the holidays.  The St. Patrick's Day parade, the Halloween parade in the Village, the balloon inflation the night before Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving Day Parade itself, the tree-lighting, and New Year's Eve all held the threat of frostbitten ears and feet, but we loved them anyway, and not just because they gave us an excuse for Irish coffee afterward.

Barry and I don't go to many public celebrations in Arizona because he gets claustrophobic in crowds, but we have a variety of more private holiday rituals.  This week we kicked off the Christmas season by buying a jug of eggnog and putting our lighted wooden snowman and Christmas tree in the front yard.  We still have to set up the winter village on the sideboard, put out the collection of stuffed reindeer, hang our stockings from the office bookshelves, and buy and decorate a Noble pine.  Other holidays have their own special foods and decorations.  During the months without obvious holidays, we find something else to celebrate.  A couple of years ago we threw a big duck-themed party in June to celebrate Donald Duck's birthday.

I've read that depression and suicide are rampant during holidays, but I've never really understood that.  During the first few years I lived alone in New York, far from my family, I still put up the tree and set out the Easter basket, and if no one invited me to share a holiday meal, I invited others to dine with me.  Rituals like these help give shape and meaning to the year.  Even when things are going badly, I feel better just unpacking the Christmas tree ornament my third grade Sunday School teacher gave me or the Valentine cookie cutters from Barry's older daughter. Barry feels the same way about the ceramic houses and miniature trees in the holiday village.

I'd like to wrap this up with some deeply profound observation about the meaning of holidays, but the right words escape me.  The closest I can come is the motto on one of our favorite banners:  "Life is too short to not celebrate birthdays."  Or Halloween, or the Fourth of July, or Donald Duck.  Pick your holiday, and party hearty!

"I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month." ~Harlan Miller 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Off to See the Wizard

One of my family's after-Thanksgiving rituals is watching The Wizard of Oz on TV.  We started this back when my parents owned a black-and-white television; I was in seventh grade before I realized that Oz was supposed to be in color.  Even in black-and-white, though, the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys scared the crap out of me.

By now familiarity has neutralized the terror, but I love the movie even more than I did at the age of eight.  I don't know just why it has such a hold on me.  I read the book and didn't like it nearly as well, although the part where the ants (not a snowstorm) rescue Dorothy and her friends from the poisoned poppy field was pretty cool.  I guess I love the part-deco, part cartoon sets and costumes, the slightly hammy acting, and all the accumulated lore surrounding the film.  Did you know that the studio originally wanted Buddy Ebsen to play the Scarecrow?  He wanted to be the Tin Man instead, but had to bow out entirely when he was hospitalized for a reaction to the silver makeup.  I also think it's hysterical that the actors had to drink their lunches so they wouldn't mess up their face prostheses.  You can't make this stuff up.

This year was special because Barry and I watched the show on our giant new high-definition television.  All the colors were much brighter;  I always thought the Horse of a Different Color was a washed-out lavender, but this year it was a rich purple, and the greens in Emerald City were almost painfully bright. We also saw the toucan perched in the apple orchard and the crane flapping around next to the Tin Man's house for the first time.  Amazing detail.

Last year I read Wicked by Gregory Maguire.  It was well-written and did a good job of rehabilitating the Wicked Witch's reputation.  What a downer.  The witch I want is Margaret Hamilton, complete with hooked nose, clawlike fingernails and unforgettable laugh.  After all, without her, the trip down the Yellow Brick Road would have been just a walk in the park, and where's the fun in that?

"It's not subtle or restrained. It's not any of the things you like to think apply to your acting. " ~Margaret Hamilton