Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Here is the result of all my wrapping!

It really is greater to give than to receive - I can't wait to see the reactions to some of these presents. Looking forward to hauling half of these to the in-laws later today, and the rest to Montreal tomorrow!

I've got my coffee (the good stuff - Starbucks Verona), my cats, and my sleeping husband... I'm chatting with my bro online and watching the snowflakes outside. This is a great Christmas morning. I'm off to the kitchen to make breakfast in hopes that the smell of bacon will wake my sleeping man. Because if it doesn't, I'm just eating all the bacon. :)

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Our mailbox fell off its post.
So we fixed it.

While I'm amazed as always at the versatility and usefulness of duct tape, I think we'll be buying a new mailbox after Christmas, lest the neighbors think we're rednecks.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

My Christmas gift to both of my grandmothers this year will be tins of homemade cookies. They keep telling me they don't want or need anything, but everyone likes cookies. Mom told me that Grandmaman's favorite cookies are pecan cookies, so I did a little hunting for a good recipe online, and came up with these "wedding cookies". They're traditionally an almond-based cookie, but I substituted toasted pecans and they turned out wonderfully. I'm transcribing this recipe into my book immediately so I don't lose it!

Mexican Wedding Cookies (with Pecans)

1 cup butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cold water
2 cups flour
1 cup crushed toasted pecans
powdered sugar for dusting

Toast the pecans by putting them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or pie pan, and baking at 350 for 8 minutes, stirring them at the halfway point. Put them in a large ziplock bag and crush them with a rolling pin, or do what I did and put them in a cup and smash them with the end of my smallest metal measuring cup. I guess you could dump them in a food processor, if you have one of those. You want them ground pretty fine but with bits big enough to give a crunch.

Cream butter and granulated sugar, add vanilla and water and mix well. Add the nuts and flour, mix until blended. Chill 30 min in the fridge.
Preheat oven to 350F.

Roll dough into balls and then squeeze into crescents (you can leave them as balls if you want) and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes at 350, then move to a rack to cool. When cool, dip the tops in a bowl of powdered sugar. This makes about 4 dozen cookies.

And they're so cute!

I absolutely loved these. I want to make a second batch for myself but I'm getting tired of all the baking, and I also know I'll be eating a ton in the next week, with the special Christmas Eve dinner I'm making, Christmas dinner with the in-laws and then with my Mom... so I'll skip the cookies for now. But I'll be baking these again in the near future, I think.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Ants go marching two by two, hurrah

More like marching by the dozen. Sigh. We have ants. I thought it was a summer problem, but I'm learning. Another issue with old houses, I guess.

Usually we'll see one or two scouts, and squash them before they can report back to the mothership, and that'll be the end of it. But sometimes we'll find a bunch of them trying to eat a dead bug we hadn't noticed, or a kibble that Mojo flung across the floor. I'm doing my very best to keep the floor swept and washed, and the counters clean, but sometimes it's not enough.

The exterminator guy who came out to help us with the bees, mice, stinkbugs, and spiders (we live in a forest, apparently) told us to use this Terro liquid ant bait, because they will eat it and bring it back to the nest, and kill off the colony faster. You put a couple of drops on a little square of cardboard and put it in their path so they'll smell it, and then they go for it like sugar. It works really well, but the first thing that happens is it attracts more ants, so what started out as a dozen is suddenly a hundred, and it freaks me out. Look at this!

I'm not afraid of them, but seeing so many of them makes my skin crawl, makes me think maybe one got in my hair or my sock or is crawling in my ear! My instinct is to spray Raid all over and make them instantly dead, but the exterminator said it's a quick fix and won't really take care of them. Plus I don't like spraying Raid around the cats, where they'll get it on their paws and lick it off.

The bait stuff does work - within a day or so we're down to seeing only a few dozen ants, and within a couple of days they're gone. I wonder if we'll ever be completely rid of them or if this is just something we need to get used to.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's for Dinner - Baked Ziti

Ok, I'll admit it, it was baked shells. I didn't have any ziti.
Easiest thing in the world, not sure why I've never made this before!

1 box medium shells (I used whole wheat)
1 jar pasta sauce of your choosing
1 small (15oz?) container of lowfat ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella (I used part-skim)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
pinches of oregano, black pepper

I cooked and drained the pasta and then added the jar of sauce - I used almost all of it because I didn't want it to end up too watery at the end. There's maybe a 1/4cup left in the jar, back in the fridge. I dumped the ricotta into a bowl and mixed in a third of the shredded mozzarella, some fresh black pepper, and some oregano, then I stirred the cheese mixture into the pasta and poured it all into a baking dish. I added the breadcrumbs to the remaining mozzarella, added some more oregano and pepper, and then sprinkled that over the top of the pasta.

After baking it at 350 for 30min it was bubbling and perfect. I considered putting it under the broiler to brown the top more, but I was too hungry to wait.

This one's in the "make it again" pile. Yum.

Lunar eclipse

I set my alarm to 2:45 a.m. last night so I could get up and witness the total lunar eclipse, because the little girl in me who wanted to be an astronomer is not quite completely dead. I wish I could post some pictures, but my dinky little camera would not do it justice at all.

It was beautiful. By that time it was nearly complete and the moon was a disc of copper with a white crescent edge. It was a perfectly clear night, with bright twinkling stars surrounding the moon - absolutely gorgeous. I love watching the night sky any time I get a chance, and an event like this was not to be missed. I keep thinking I should go camping out in the wilderness somewhere so I could really see the sky and enjoy it properly, maybe get a telescope to get closer to the moon.

Did I mention I was watching the eclipse in my jammies, lying on my bedroom floor with a cat on my feet, looking up through the skylight? How great is that?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Chicken Soup

Chicken soup is a necessity. I can't tell you how distraught I've been, unable to make my husband chicken soup when he's sick. I mean, I heat up Progresso chicken noodle in a bowl for him and can even give him crackers with it, but it's not homemade and therefore will not miraculously bring him back to health after the first bowl.

Mom gave me her recipe - or at least the list of ingredients and vague instructions that passes for a recipe in our world - but I tried a couple of times and it wasn't very good. I used chicken legs as instructed and was grossed out by the marrow sticking out of the bones and the fat floating around in the pot, and after all that work it didn't even taste chickeny enough.

This time I had a picked-over chicken carcass left over from a previous roasted chicken dinner, and I decided to dump it into a pot and make soup out of it. Not much wasted if I failed, right? Also, I called Mom and had her walk me through some of it. Chicken carcass, a cut up onion, and 8 cups of water into a pot, and boil it for an hour or two on a medium setting. With a couple of bay leaves and some thyme.

Now - and here's the part I don't understand - I had to add a whole bunch of chicken flavored stuff (in this case, Bovril) to make it taste enough like chicken soup. And I don't understand that. Surely, these chicken concentrates, liquid or powdered, were made from chickens. I have, and am boiling, a chicken. So why is my chicken not enough to make the soup chickeny? I'm hoping someone smarter than me can figure this out and explain in the comments. People make stock and broth from chickens, don't they?

After deciding the broth was chickeny enough, I pulled out the bones and strained the soup into a big bowl to get all the floaty bits out. then it went back in the pot with some chopped carrots and celery and I let those cook while I cut up the little bits of meat left over from what I'd pulled off the chicken before boiling it. Cooked some rice separately to it wouldn't get mushy, and then mixed it all together to produce a very yummy soup.

I'll be trying this again, probably every time I have leftover chicken bones to play with. But if anyone can solve my "why am I adding chicken flavor to chicken" problem, I'd be grateful!

Friday, December 17, 2010


So it turns out our house was insulated by monkeys.

By which I mean that the people installing the insulation did so with a similar level of skill as would be expected from a group of monkeys given the appropriate materials and let loose in the attic, not that we've discovered that there are simian corpses filling the spaces between the walls.

It's an old house, and it's a big house, so I'm not surprised that the BGE bill is higher than we were used to at the townhouse, but the problem is the bill is higher and the house isn't warmer. An energy audit showed us that the attic doesn't have enough insulation, and there's also a crawlspace under the house where the insulation was put on upside-down and isn't doing its job very well. Hence my suspicion of a monkey work crew. We're wearing slippers and flannel PJs and wrapping up in blankets and cats on the couch, but we're going to need to tackle the insulation issues sooner or later. My husband thinks he can handle the part under the house once he does a little research on the topic, but we'll need expensive pros to do the attic, which sucks. Apparently because of the shape of our attic, we need special "blown" insulation, not the pink fluffy sheet kind. And you need a licensed pro for that sort of thing, no chance of making it into a DIY project. Which is fine, really, because I think we've got enough of those lined up for now anyway!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I stopped at the library before work because I ran out of stuff to read on my lunch breaks and the hospital newsletter isn't terribly entertaining material. The woman who greeted me at the counter had very long and very festively red-and-green airbrushed fingernails, on which I complimented her before she disappeared into the back room to get the books I had on hold. Her colleague overheard my compliment and chimed in to say that she'd love to have long nails but hers keep breaking because her skin gets so dry - apparently this is a common problem with librarians, because they handle so much paper?

Oh, I feel your pain, I tell her, because my lab work has me washing my hands dozens of times a day, leaving my skin dried out and chapped, especially in the winter. But I discovered the perfect hand cream last year and haven't had dry hands since! So I pull my little silver tube of hand cream out of my purse and show it to her. By now we've drawn a small crowd. I have three librarians leaning across the counter, and a woman behind me in line sneaking up to listen in. Ooooh, say the librarians, in harmony. My hands are inspected by all these sets of eyes and judged to be sufficiently smooth-looking as to be an endorsement for said cream. One asks to smell the cream. I hand the tube over to the woman who appears to be their leader and much sniffing ensues. The name of the cream gets scribbled in Sharpie on a Post-It pad and stuck to the computer monitor for reference. I tell them where to get it at the Columbia Mall, and I'm pretty sure that as I exit the library, a librarian shopping expedition is being planned for after work.

That totally made my day.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lemon Sugar Cookies

I signed on for the cookie exchange at work this year, and while I first had crazy dreams of complicated fancy cookies, I ended up being realistic about my time, energy, and skills, and went with lemon sugar cookies. I used the Food Network recipe for Lemon Volcano Cookies, but tweaked it a little by adding a half teaspoon of lemon essence to the cookies, and upping the lemon zest content by a pinch or two because a teaspoon seemed like nowhere near enough. Oops, upon reviewing that recipe it appears I also missed the vanilla completely. Well, no matter, they turned out great anyway. The only real hiccup in the process was the lemon sugar - after refrigerating the cookie dough and trying to cut it into slices, the lemon sugar was falling off, so they didn't keep that nice lemon-sugar "crust" like in the Food Network photo. I didn't pulse the zest and sugar in a food processor as instructed, I just smooshed it all together with a fork, so maybe that's my problem.

I did remember to use my KitchenAid mixer this time! Cookies are so much easier when I've got that thing doing all the hard work!

In return for giving my coworkers batches of these lemon cookies, I got snickerdoodles, flourless peanut butter cookies, cherry almond cookies, and adorable little sandwich cookies with a chocolate filling. Like tiny, tiny, Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. Mmmm.

Jen's Library: Objects of Our Affection...

Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time, by Lisa Tracy

Everyone has stuff. Some have a lot more stuff than others, and the stuff can be very hard to get rid of because if you're like me, and like the author, and like most people, you attach a story to most things you own. This is the stuffed animal your grandfather gave you for Christmas when you were five. This is the picture frame you bought in Paris. This is grandma's teacup collection. Everything connects you to a person, an event, a memory, and this makes it hard to give anything away, even when you're overwhelmed.

This is a non-fiction book, where the author digs into the history of her family by looking at the stuff she's left with after having to empty out her mother's home when she dies. Her mother had to do the same when her mother died, and so on - it's a process than never really ends, and leaves you with so many questions about what's worth keeping and for what reasons. It was fascinating, for me, because her family was military and moved around a lot, and she thinks that's why her family in particular was so reluctant to give up their furniture and china and such - it was the only constant they had from place to place. She's got furniture from Thailand, photographs from the civil war, all sorts of neat antiques with almost-famous origins.

Now, that doesn't apply to my family, but we do like our stuff. When I moved out, I brought some things with me that kept me connected with home. And I have so many things here that carry memories. I'm not quite a packrat, and I'm not a candidate for those hoarding shows, but I do accumulate stuff.

I have some of my Grandmaman's fancy teacups on a shelf in the living room. I really need to display them better. Every single time I would visit her, we'd have tea and she would read my future in the tea leaves left in the bottom of the cup. When I was old enough, she started letting me choose from her fancy cups instead of using mugs, and I remember being so happy to be allowed such a huge honor, and being terrified to break something. And she let me choose my favorites to bring with me when I moved down here to the States! How am I ever supposed to get rid of those? I can't!

I have beside me on my computer desk a metal tin that once contained a dozen Cadbury Flake bars. It might be the one I picked up on my trip to Wales to visit my uncle and his family in 1994, or it might be the one I bought on the Stena Line ferry to Hoek van Holland when I was in Europe with Dave and Marketa in 2005. Hard to let go of either, because just looking at them takes me back there. I have to hold back from telling you all about those trips, because all the memories are floating around in my head and my instinct is to keep writing until it's all out. but I'll spare you.

Anyway, this book got me thinking a lot about how much our stuff can mean, and how important it is to learn your stuff's stories before the people who can tell them to you are gone. It was fun to read, and even more fun to walk around the house later and think about how I would explain to an outsider why I have this or that, and what it means to me.

Christmas decorating contest at work

My hospital gives out annual prizes for the best-decorated department, and for the best-decorated department door. It's not much, maybe $50 to spend on a pizza party for the department, but it's still a ton of fun to waste a day or two gluing sparkles to your door instead of working. Everyone gets really into it, gluing all kinds of things to their doors - last year the blood bank had a cardboard chimney on the door with stuffed Santa legs sticking out. This year, the Transport department is allegedly showing off a 3-D carousel with flamingoes, bears, and penguins... I have not yet confirmed this rumor but I'll head down there Monday to see it with my own eyes.

The deadline was getting close and nobody was feeling into it this year, so I went to the bosslady with a cute and lame idea, and she told me to go for it. She gave me the bottom half of the door, because she wanted the top half to do something else she was thinking about. I bought a giant roll of shiny silver wrapping paper to wrap the entire door, so we could have a festive base to work from. That was the hardest part because you really need two people, preferably tall people, to hold up the paper and tape it in place - luckily there are some tall people on evening shift who I recruited through begging. Then I taped my wonderfully lame idea in place and called it a night. Actually, the taping took me about two hours. I kept poking my head into the blood bank to ask if I was needed for real work, but they kept telling me all was well, so I kept taping.

Here's the door:

See how I used the hospital's name for a subtle kiss-up effect? That's how you get points with the judges! Either make them go "awww" or poke them in their hospital pride. Like I said, cute and lame. I like it. Cutting out those letters was a ridiculous pain, and I had to stick them on by putting tiny little rolls of tape on their backs, so the tape wouldn't show. The big letters are cardboard cut outs, and I wrapped them with another metallic paper.

On top the writing says "we dedicate our work to the men and women of our armed forces and their families." Santa later acquired a small American flag to hold.

It's not much, but it was fun to do.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Prep 2010, Part 2

We got the outside lights up last weekend and I never got around to taking a picture until tonight. So here you go:

Of course, I picked a cold and windy day to stand outside on a ladder and fight with tangled strands of LEDs, because I'm a sucker for punishment. There were a few hooks up already, but after hooking the lights up they seemed to sag too far down, so I added a few of those removable 3M hooks to hold the strands up in the middle. I think the previous owners used velcro to put their decorations and/or lights up, because there are small velcro squares stuck around the front bay window and along the roof of the porch. Maybe we'll look into that for next year - it would be a good way to put a garland around the window. But is velcro strong enough to hold lights up?

I used LEDs for the little shrub, because it's so dried out I was afraid of starting a fire if I used regular bulbs. The big old-fashioned lights went along the porch roof. I considered winding them around the two supporting posts too, but it got complicated and the strands were just a little bit too short to do it right, so instead I just doubled back and ended up with two strands along the edge.

Of course, that was when I discovered that the extension cord we had was the kind with only one outlet at the end, and I had two strands of lights that needed plugging. Thank you, Target, for having all your outdoor extension cords on clearance! I picked one up for $6 and it has three spots at the end. So next year I can add even more lights! I don't think I'll ever create a LED wonderland in the front yard like some others in the neighborhood, but I would like to put more effort in next year. Because Christmas lights are just so pretty.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tackling some book reviews

I'm not a professional book reviewer. I want to make that very clear from the start - I have no idea how to really review a book other than to talk about it and tell you if I liked it. When I read "real" book reviews in any publication classier than People magazine, they seem art-critic-y to me, using a set selection of big words (why are all novels compelling?) and talking about the author's incredible insight. I'm too old for book reports and I'm not going to start dissecting novels for hidden meaning in metaphor or anything fancy like that, unless I get really carried away.

But I read a lot. Can't help myself. I am always carrying a book around, resulting in my buying purses based on their ability to fit a decent book in their compartments. Not just a paperback, either! I'm talking thick nonfiction hardcovers, the kind that could take out a mugger if I swing it right.

Given that I read a lot, I find myself enjoying a lot of books and wanting to share them with people. And I read a lot of odd nonfiction books that people wouldn't necessarily jump on at a bookstore, and when I love them I want to help other people discover them. So, I will begin putting book reviews on my blog, by popular request. Only one person has requested it, but she's popular, so it counts.

I'll get started on some reviews this weekend, because I have two books to talk about already.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Christmas Prep 2010, Part 1

Today was Christmas tree day!

I finally resigned myself to the reasonable and sensible option of an artificial Christmas tree, and we bought one this morning at Target. I love real trees because that's what I grew up with. But with the inevitable vicious needles stabbing me in the feet for three months after Christmas no matter how much I vacuum, the need to crawl underneath the branches to water it, keeping the cats from drinking the tree water, and the giant welts on my hands and arms each year from my evergreen allergy, it made sense to make the switch.

We found a 7.5ft fir tree, pre-lit with white LEDs, for a pretty good price. There was one I liked a little more at Lowe's but it didn't seem like the extra $100 was really worth it, so this one is what we came home with. Those things are really expensive! Happily, it assembled really easily, unlike some other artificial trees I've seen. It came in three parts with the branches all folded up on hinges, so you just pop the three pieces together and then drop the branches and start fluffing them up so they look good. That part was rather tedious, but the result was a good-looking tree.

Out came the red unbreakable ornaments (with three cats, glass ornaments are asking for trouble) and the angel tree-topper. We then started adding all our special ornaments. I collect ornaments when we travel, so we've got dozens now from all our adventures, and I love having them on the tree to look at and spark so many happy and funny memories. Some are too fragile for me to feel comfortable displaying on a tree the cats might climb, so I'll need to find a shelf and an ornament display tree for next year, so they can finally come out of their bubble wrap.

Here's the tree:I'm really happy with how it looks. The tree skirt is adorable, but usually has a cat on it. Whether that adds or detracts from its adorability is up for debate and depends on whether the cat is attacking ornaments. Speaking of ornaments, here's a close-up:

In this one you can see the mini-cowbell from Switzerland on the bottom left, Big Ben a little ways above it, Dutch clogs from Amsterdam at the top, and two corks - the one on the left is from a bottle of wine we shared in Rome, and the champagne cork at the bottom is from the day Dave proposed, in Montreal. See what I mean about the memories? Almost every ornament has a story, and that makes the tree so special to me. I wish I could tell them all, but people get bored.

The problem with the tree is that we couldn't put it in the family room where we normally watch TV, because it wouldn't fit. So we needed another tree. Luckily we had a mini-tree from last year, and we decked it out with bells and bows and sat it near the TV so we can feel Christmassy while we lie on the couch.

Tomorrow we will tackle the outdoor decorating. We have big plans!

Christmas Cookie Extravaganza!

Today was Cookie Day 2010. An event of near-epic proportions. A day which leaves us covered in flour and buzzing from the sugar high.

We get together at my mother-in-law's place in December every year so we ladies can bake cookies while the menfolk wrestle with the assembly of the Christmas tree. This year there may have been some actual wrestling with the strings of lights, because I heard some muffled cursing and then some muffled electrical engineering brainstorming to try and get them to work. They figured it out, though, because in the end there was a fabulous decorated (and lit) tree to admire over eggnog and cookies. And we ended up with a LOT of cookies!

We started by making the oatmeal chocolate chip craisin cookies I've already talked about. There is debate among us whether they should rightfully be allowed as Christmas cookies, but since everyone loves them we definitely had to make them. After that, we got down to the difficult one - the shortbread cookies. The recipe is a very old one from a Five Roses cookbook my Mom's probably had since before I was born. We always made them for Christmas, with Mom doing the dirty work of mixing and rolling and cutting, and us kids going wild with sprinkles and colored sugar. I always end up in the "Mom" role when we make them on cookie day - they say it's because I'm better at rolling them out, but I suspect they just want to play with sprinkles. :)

The first batch, though, didn't turn out quite right. The recipe instructs the baker to knead in flour until the dough "just begins to crack". Well, I learned tonight that it is a damn fine line between "beginning to crack" and "falling apart into cookie dust". Some of the first batch was salvaged and we were able to cut out shapes with the cutters, but after one cookie sheet's worth I just rolled the remaining dough into lumps and added sprinkles and hoped they'd taste better than they looked. This was the result:

Cookie fail! They taste ok, so it's not a complete loss, but considering how pretty these cookies are when we do them right, I was frustrated with myself for misjudging the flour. I started over with a second batch and they were perfect. I think I need to make these more than once a year so I can remember what "just beginning to crack" looks like.

The third cookie of the night was the peanut blossoms. I'm not a huge peanut butter fan but everyone else loves them, and there would be a riot if we skipped these. My favorite part about these cookies is eating the Hershey's Kisses that are left over.

Friday, December 03, 2010

What's for Dinner: Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

So sue me, I'm tired of mashed potatoes. I even tried jazzing them up by stirring in onion dip last time, and while it was tasty, it was still mashed potatoes. The magic is gone, and I think I need to see other potatoes for a while.

New mandolin slicer + bag of potatoes I refuse to mash = scalloped potatoes!
I guess it could also = chips, but I wasn't in a deep-frying sort of mood.

Cheesy Garlic Scalloped Potatoes

One onion, diced
3 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed but left whole
3 cups milk
2 cups grated cheddar cheese plus a little extra
7 potatoes (because that's how many it took to fill my big bowl)

I peeled the potatoes and ran them through the mandolin slicer without hurting myself, which is an accomplishment. I want to buy a chain mail glove to protect my clumsy hands, but for now I went slow and used the special food holder that comes with it, and the only downside was the 7 small chunks of wasted potato from the bit that stays stuck in the holder.

I sautéed the onion in butter until it was soft, and then whisked in the flour with some salt and pepper, and let it get brown. Whisked in the milk and then let it come to a bubble, then added the garlic cloves and then eased up on the heat and let it simmer a while to thicken. I had to keep whisking occasionally to keep stuff from sticking to the bottom. Once that looked ready, I fished out the garlic cloves, and then stirred in the cheese.

I sprayed a baking dish with cooking spray and then poured some of the sauce into the bottom to coat it. Then I layered in the potatoes, taking much more care than I should have, because it really doesn't matter. But I did it right this first time, overlapping the slices slightly till I had a whole layer, then pouring sauce on it, then another layer, etc. I had three layers by the end, and then I topped it all with the rest of the sauce and some extra grated cheese. Popped that in the oven at 350 for 40 minutes and it was perfect.

Next time I'll probably just throw all the potato slices into the sauce and pour the whole mess into the baking dish, because the layering doesn't matter and you can't even see it except for the top layer, and that was covered in enough cheese to camouflage it anyway.