Friday, December 30, 2011


I can't decide whether or not I like gingersnaps. I usually pass them over for almost any other kind of cookie, but this time around I made a huge batch of them to give away as gifts and found myself really enjoying them with my coffee.


1 cup sugar (plus more for rolling cookies)
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
3/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg

Combine the dry ingredients, then cut in the shortening to make coarse crumbs. Use your hands to break up clumps if necessary. Stir in the molasses and egg.

Shape the dough into small balls (1 inch diameter) and roll in sugar. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Remove them from the baking sheets immediately and cool on racks. Makes about 4 dozen.

These are very snappy gingersnaps. They're very spiced and very crunchy, so I think they are wonderfully paired with tea or coffee. I have a feeling that the smaller you make the balls, the snappier your cookies will be, so don't go too small or they may be inedible.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Canadian Food Memories

Have a good look at the picture below and tell me what you see.

If you said "macaroni and cheese", you're way off. And you're not Canadian.

We're talking about the blue box of goodness here. Kraft Dinner. Skinny macaroni and that packet of frighteningly orange "cheese" powder, a staple of my childhood. I ate so much of this stuff that I should be a lot more yellow by now from all that dye. I burned out on it near the end of my teens, pushing it to the "starving and in a hurry and I can't find anything else" category of foods, but I used to ask for KD for supper. With hot dogs cut up in it. And not with ketchup. I don't care what the Barenaked Ladies tell you, that is not a thing.

They have almost the same stuff here, but it's not quite the same. The box is different, and it changed its name when it crossed the border, but even the taste isn't right. I've found that the American doppelgangers of my favorite childhood foods are always just a little off. They look similar enough to inspire some excitement as I pop open a bottle or tear open a box, but then I'm left with a sense of emptiness when they don't live up to the dream.

These are cans of Alpha-getti and Zoodles. You don't know what these things are unless you grew up in the Great White North, and if this is your story, I am sad for you. They are alphabet or animal noodles in a tomato sauce, and they made it possible for a whole generation of Canadian schoolchildren to learn to spell with their dinners or have hippopotamuses for lunch. After moving here, I had an unhealthy craving for Zoodles, but couldn't find them at the grocery store. I decided Spaghetti-O's would be a reasonable substitute, since O does indeed belong to the alphabet. And I guess if you had a great imagination, they could be interpreted as rolled-up armadillos and this fit into the Zoo family in a pinch. But no, they didn't quite taste right. Actually, they sucked. I do not like Spaghetti-O's!

America's got plenty of awesome foods and I'm not wasting away for lack of tasty things to eat, but sometimes, when I'm tired, or home sick (or, for that matter, homesick), I crave a familiar taste of home, and the stuff here just can't give that to me.

Dear family: send Zoodles.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Maple and Cinnamon Glazed Carrots

Vegetables are a challenge. My husband prefers them in salads, raw and crunchy, but I get bored with having a little salad with every meal and I want to change it up with fun recipes. I had a ton of carrots hanging out in the crisper, so I typed in "carrot recipes" and started the hunt.

Maple and Cinnamon Glazed Carrots
(Modified from Emeril Lagasse, Food Network website)

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal (1/2 inch thick)
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp orange juice
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt

Mix everything in a small pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until you can poke through the carrots with a fork and the glaze has thickened. If the glaze is getting too thick before the carrots are done, add a little more water.

The cinnamon and maple, together, really made this incredible. Sweet and spiced and warm and wonderful. I'd have never thought of using cinnamon on carrots, but I'm suddenly having a hard time imagining eating carrots any other way, at least for a while!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Far from home, far from the family traditions that make Christmas a comfortable and predictable holiday, and far from the snowy Montreal winters, it's always hard for me to find the right state of mind to enjoy the holidays here. But we're building our own traditions and finding our own comforts in Christmas, and I'll get there.

I miss the chaos of the family around Grandmaman's table, and the ceramic Santa boot filled with toothpicks for the olive-and-pickle plate that was always my job to fill. I miss the men of the family taking turns and stepping up to fill the fake scratchy beard and old Santa suit that Grandpapa wore to hand out presents. Even when we were all too old for Santa, an uncle or cousin would dress up and sit by the tree and call out the names on the gift tags, adding in a Ho Ho Ho here and there for good measure. I remember the Christmas decorations that would come out of the tissue paper every year - the ceramic angel in the green dress, holding the candle with the world's tiniest light bulb at the tip, and the plastic houses of the Christmas Village, with their warmly-lit yellow cellophane windows.

That's gone now, but I know it lives in the memory of all my cousins as vividly as it does in mine. One cousin has the Santa suit, and wore it to a party this year, being very careful not to damage it, because he knows it will be used in the next generation of Christmases, as the cousins all grow up and have our own families. I'm homesick, but I'm homesick for the past, which I can't have back.

This year, my husband and I had a wonderful Christmas Eve, with a crackling fire, lap blankets made of purring cats, and It's a Wonderful Life on TV (again). Snuggled with my man by the fireplace, laughing at Horton fighting with the shredded wrapping paper, I managed to find the Christmas spirit I'd been missing. We played some old-fashioned Quebec Christmas music, the kind I used to cringe away from with embarrassment when Mom played it, but secretly have always loved. We had a great meal and exchanged presents on Christmas Eve, making it our own little Reveillon, even though we didn't have the huge chaotic family to go along with it.

We'll be at my in-laws today, enjoying their family traditions and their welcoming warmth, and it's going to be a merry Christmas. It's my nephew's very first Christmas, and I can't wait to find out, thirty years from now, what little things he will remember about the family Christmases we'll be sharing, and what he will want to carry on with his own family.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

In Preparation for the Possibility of Meeting Wil Wheaton

I'm going on a cruise early next year, and I've learned that Wil Wheaton will be in attendance as one of the performers/speakers/entertainers. Maybe he makes balloon animals?

When I was younger, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation all the time, and I had a big crush on Wesley Crusher, because he was a geek. He was cute and stuff, which was not a bad thing in my pre-teen eyes, but he also managed to keep saving the Enterprise by being all smart and nerdy and that was what I loved. And he never got enough credit for it either. Patronizing, eye-rolling, "shut-up-Wesley-ing"adults never giving him any respect, those bastards. I could sympathize.

Then, I'm sorry to say, I grew up and left Wesley behind. I sure hope he got over it. He wasn't on TV any more, and I had other things to do and other nerds and geeks to crush on. Many years later, in a fateful email, I was sent a link to a review of a Star Trek episode, written by Wil Wheaton. And so help me, I clicked it. I read the review. I devoured it. I looked for more. I laughed. I cried. Mostly just laughed. This guy, this Wil Wheaton dude - he could write! And I found out he'd been blogging and writing books and stories, and of course I had to investigate.

He's talented. If you haven't read any of his stuff, I encourage you to go check it out, because you won't regret it. His writing is familiar and unaffected and real, and he should probably be getting more recognition for it. He's just... this guy. And he does stuff, like real people do. And he writes about it. I'm not sure why that's so amazing - TV people are people too - but it's really great to see that this guy who played a nerdy kid and got a lot of shit for it has grown up into a talented and geeky adult with a huge fan base. And I absolutely love reading his blog and I get grumpy if he doesn't post for a while.

So, when I found out he's going to be on this cruise, I was really excited. Maybe I'll get to meet him! Oh God, wait, that means I'll have a chance to be a blubbering idiot fan-girl and make an ass of myself.

I will try not to giggle like an excited schoolgirl if I see him, and likely fail miserably, so when it happens I will turn to my husband and say "Why would the monkey even say that"! I will instruct him to laugh as well, to help with my cover. I guess we should probably come up with a joke that would have a rude talking monkey punch line, in case Wil is intrigued by our laughter and wants in on the joke. Why a monkey? It's always a monkey.

Even if I don't get a glimpse of him at a cruise event, or I do and then embarrass myself by being a twittery wreck, I'm looking forward to hearing him speak or read or perform in a jug band, or whatever his plans are to entertain the masses. It'll be a little slice of geek heaven for me, and I can't wait.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Prize Shortbread Cookies

I'm not sure which prize they won, who won it, or when, but this is my family's Best Christmas Cookie. Mom made these every year, even when she was exhausted and threatened not to, because we all love them so much.

Prize Shortbread
(From Five Roses Flour "A Guide to Good Cooking")

2 cups flour
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg*
*Freshly grated nutmeg is so much better, but regular ground nutmeg from the spice aisle will be ok.

The recipe in this book is very clear about using a wooden spoon, and I don't know why. I've never dared to try a plastic spoon or (gasp) my Kitchenaid mixer, because I feel I should obey the book. So, start by finding a wooden spoon.

Stir sugar and egg yolk into the soft butter, then stir in salt and nutmeg. Add the flour, a quarter cup at a time, until the batter is too hard to stir with the spoon. I usually hit this point at about 3.5 cups. Dump the batter out onto a floured counter and knead gently while adding more flour to the dough by hand. Keep drawing flour in by kneading until the dough just begins to crack*. Roll the dough out with a floured rolling pin to about a quarter-inch thickness and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar if you want to. Bake at 350F for 10 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet. Look for the edges to start browning the tiniest bit - that's when they're done.

Move them to a cooling rack immediately, but be careful, they are very fragile. Pushing them off with a spatula is usually better than trying to get anything under them on the cookie sheet.

This recipe will get you about 3 dozen cookies, but it depends on how big a cutter you're using.

These will fall apart in your mouth and taste like buttery heaven.

*It has just occurred to me that I should have taken a picture of this step, because what the heck does "beginning to crack" mean to someone who hasn't done this before? It shouldn't be so wet that it sticks to everything, but it shouldn't be so dry that it flakes as you roll it. I'll take pictures next time and add them!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

We knew we'd be in for a lot of work when we bought an old house. An old house whose first owners thought they were the world's best DIY home renovators and who played very funny tricks with wiring and insulation and lights, and whose most recent owners didn't care enough to maintain their beautiful yard, deck, and pool. So every project we take on, to try and make the place a little better, has ended up being much more of a challenge than we anticipated, thanks to the DIY surprises. I'll admit, being genetically predisposed to pessimism, I get discouraged pretty easily. We keep ending up with several half-finished projects because we need to stop and buy new materials, or get an expert in to help, and of course, everything costs money.

I was in a funk about the siding guys delaying and half-assing their work, and I felt like we'd never be rid of them. It was a very long week, with several people coming in to give us estimates on new floors and some drywall work, and the roofing guy pulling off the skylight to repair a leak. Mojo's "elimination" problems still weren't going away, and I felt like anyone coming into our home would smell it and think we were disgusting people with too many cats. Watching the numbers add up, seeing the wood scraps falling into my family room through the open skylight, and hearing Dave on the phone with the insurance company to try and get the contractors moving again, I was completely depressed.

And then, something happened.

I turned on the TV, with a fluffy Mojo in my lap, and found It's a Wonderful Life playing.

It was the scene where George meets Mary in their new house for the first time. I can't find a clip online to share with you, but this is a YouTube version of the whole movie, and the scene is at the 1-hour mark.

A transcript, in case you're not able to get the video going:
CLOSE SHOT –– George enters. The house is carpetless, empty –– the rain and wind cause funny noises upstairs. A huge fire is burning in the fireplace.
Near the fireplace a collection of packing boxes are heaped together in the shape of a small table and covered with a checkered oil cloth. It is set for two.
A bucket with ice and a champagne bottle sit on the table as well as a bowl of caviar. Two small chickens are impaled on a spit over the fire. A phonograph is playing on a box, and a string from the phonograph is turning the chickens on the spit.
The phonograph is playing "Song of the Islands."
Mary is standing near the fireplace looking as pretty as any bride ever looked. She is smiling at George, who has been slowly taking in the whole set-up.
Through a door he sees the end of a cheap bed, over the back of which is a pair of pajamas and a nightie. Ernie exits and closes the door.

MARY (tears in her eyes): Welcome home, Mr. Bailey.
After that scene, it's harder for me to hate our wonderful house. After all, it's home. It's got character and potential, and it's in a great spot with kind neighbors. I'm here with my husband and our cats, and it's not the end of the world if some rooms are half-painted and the carpets are dirty and worn through and the bathrooms are cold. Any kids we may have won't care about any of that, because it'll be home.

I admit, I'm not usually good at seeing the bright side of things. That's always been my biggest struggle. But I'm making up a little note for my fridge that says "Welcome home, Mr. Bailey" and I will try to let it remind me about what really counts.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Blood bank lesson: blood group antigens

I've been at the new job for a week now, and I'm thinking it's going to work out. I've been asked what exactly I'll be doing there, and I would like to explain, but first you'll need a blood bank lesson or two.

You've got stuff on your red cells. They're little nubbins of proteins and sugars, and we blood bank types call them antigens. They're genetically determined and you inherit them from your parents, so what's on your red blood cells will be a mix of what's on your Mom's and on your Dad's. You're probably familiar with the A and B antigens, since they determine blood type, and the D antigen is the one that makes you "Rh positive". Those were the first ones discovered, a long time ago, and since then there have been dozens more, if not hundreds, added to the list. Scientists, having a deep-rooted need to sort, classify, and name everything, have sorted, classified, and named them all. For some people, these antigens become an issue.

When you get a blood transfusion, you're exposed to a mix of antigens from the donor's cells, and your immune system might decide to make antibodies against the ones it's not familiar with. The same thing happens in pregnancy, because the baby's cells will have some antigens from the father's side, which the mother's body has never seen. There's no guarantee that you will develop an antibody if you're exposed to something new, but once you've made an antibody, we have a problem.

Let's say you get a blood transfusion from someone who's got the Kell antigen on their cells. It's a common one - about 90% of people have that one. If you're in the 10% of people who are Kell-negative, you might make an antibody in response to your exposure. Next time you go to the hospital and need a transfusion, the blood bank will find the antibody in your blood when they do a "type and screen". Once they've done their investigative magic and figured out the identity of your antibody, they will have to find you some blood that doesn't have the corresponding antigen on it, because now that you've got those antibodies in your system, if you see the Kell antigen again, your antibodies will destroy those transfused cells and all the red cell guts will be free in your blood and that's a bad thing.

How do they find the Kell-negative blood for you? With antibodies! There are commercial preparations of purified Anti-Kell (and anti-pretty-much-everything) that the blood bank can buy and use to test blood units. So they'd take a little drop of cells from the donor units, and mix them with this antibody solution, and see if the cells clump up. If they do, the cells are positive for the Kell antigen, and you can't have those. The ones that don't clump up are safe for you, because if this Anti-Kell solution doesn't clump up the cells and destroy them, neither will the Anti-Kell you've got floating around in your plasma (the liquid part of your blood).

Recap: Blood group antigens are on your cells. When you're exposed to a foreign antigen, you can make an antibody that will remain in your plasma, which can make subsequent exposures dangerous. Blood bankers use antibody solutions to test blood for specific antigens, when necessary, to be sure to avoid that situation.

Questions from the class?