Ice-Cube Zen

I hate being late. I’m pretty sure this dates back to a childhood obsession with “people pleasing” that has carried over into my adult world. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s nice to show up on time — professionally speaking, this is a bonus, and I think when you’re a dinner guest or meeting a friend, promptness is a courtesy we all can appreciate.

The thing is, I’m realizing that my race to get out the door is inhibiting my ability to live in the present. This is a goal of mine, now that I am in a transitional life phase (that sounds ominous; it shouldn’t).  With all of my children no longer children and living primarily on their own, I find that the mental energy I expend during most days centers around work and…work. Again, this is good — from a professional standpoint, I’m being productive and I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something (again, the people pleasing rears its sometimes ugly head). But the days are whizzing by, and I’m realizing that there is a real peace and satisfaction in sometimes doing and thinking nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing of consequence.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical suggestions for how we become more mindful. One of my favorites:

“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

It’s been more than a decade since I first picked up the Zen master’s seminal work, but for some reason, this passage has stayed with me. And I was reminded of it today as I was filling the ice-cube trays.

In our house, this is a job usually reserved for my husband. I can’t give a good reason as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, well, he just has more patience than I. There are 6 trays in our freezer, and emptying and refilling them all at once takes — oh, I don’t know — maybe 3-4 minutes. In my world, that’s 4 minutes I could otherwise be accomplishing something. But today, armed with a renewed commitment to living presently in the moment, I filled the trays. And while I was filling the trays, I thought of nothing else but filling those trays. Watching the small cavities gradually transform from empty to full was gratifying — A little nugget of momentary peace.  I’ll take it.

Baked Rice Pudding
This dish, in addition to filling your belly with warm, sweet satisfaction, offers good practice in mindfulness and patience, as it requires some babysitting, a little extra TLC, if you will. But oh, it’s worth it.

Ingredients:
4 c. Whole milk (more as needed)
⅓ c. Arborio rice
⅓ c. Sugar
1 T Unsalted butter
½ Cinnamon stick
1 t. Vanilla extract
Zest from one orange
Fine sea salt
Optional: ½ c. dried fruits such as raisins, currants, cherries, etc.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, rice, sugar, butter and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour into the baking dish and distribute evenly. Bake, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15-20 minutes — this is where the patience part comes in — until the rice is very tender and has absorbed most of the milk, about 1.5 hours.

Remove from the oven and stir in vanilla, orange zest and a pinch of salt (*if you’re adding dried fruit, this is when you’ll want to do that). If the pudding seems too thick, stir in additional milk until you have achieved desired consistency. Spoon into bowls, and enjoy! (makes 4-6 servings)

–Adapted from Comfort Food for Williams-Sonoma (Oxmoor House, 2009).

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Homecomings…and Goings

IMG_0818My oldest child returned home from a two-month job out west last week. Her stay here will be temporary, as she is preparing for a new adventure in yet another part of the country and will be leaving again in just a few short days. It’s hard saying hello again, knowing that more goodbyes are imminent. These grainy sands of time just keep slipping through my fingers.

There is still one child home, and he turns 18 this week — the age at which one is considered a legal adult in the U.S. Old enough to legally work, participate in contracts, vote, marry, give sexual consent, and join the military.So in truth, he is an adult; there are no more children at home.

We have a tradition in our family that when one celebrates a birthday, he/she is treated to breakfast in bed. In a happy surprise, the almost-adult told me he wanted to stick with tradition and be feted in bed with a big old breakfast! I’m figuring this might be my last opportunity, so I plan to make it memorable.

Of course, for me they’re all memorable. Burned in my memory in fact. Every breakfast in bed; every birthday party; every celebration that ever was. Hopefully, the “kids” share those memories. Maybe they will think of them (and me), even as time between homecomings becomes longer.

photo (21)Lemon Blueberry Muffins
I love these muffins for their sunny, lemony taste and for their incredible fluffiness — made possible by the addition of a few special ingredients. These will certainly be on the menu for Spencer’s breakfast in bed.

Ingredients:
3 c. flour, plus 1 T. for dredging the berries
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. lemon zest
1/2 c. butter, melted
1-1/2 c. sour cream*
1 c. blueberries

*(Sometimes I like to mix 1 c. of sour cream with 1/2 c. of crème frâiche.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease or line a 12-well muffin tin with paper liners.

In a mixing bowl, combine 3 cups flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Create a well in the bottom of the bowl for adding the wet ingredients.

In another large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and melted butter.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients; mix until combined and then add the sour cream. Lightly mix again but do not over mix. Toss the blueberries with 1 tablespoon flour and fold into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly into each cup in the prepared muffin tin.

Bake for approximately 22 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
(recipe adapted from Kelsey Nixon, Kelsey’s Essentials.)

Season of Missing

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It’s cold here on the east coast.  There is a biting wind outside that elevates the notion of “chill in the air” to something otherworldly. Although I am a December baby, these frigid months are especially hard for me, now … Continue reading

Plant Your Roots, and Watch What Grows

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Today is December 1 and in 29 days I will turn 50. Here’s me in Atlanta, Georgia, just six months shy of my 4th birthday. Not much has changed since then (though I do miss those white patent leather Mary … Continue reading

Baking: It’s Not as Scary as it Looks

This is my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Bright, cheery, promise of all things sweet, sticky, crumbly, flaky and satisfying. But until very recently, this trusty kitchen tool was more like my personal “Dr. Doom.” I kid you not; this gadget frightened and intimidated me. My inability (read: refusal) to use it, evidenced by its perpetual, almost mocking gleam — no caked-on residue here — was made all the worse by my ignorance. I could not distinguish between a dough hook and a paddle attachment, much less figure out how to use them.

The truth is, there comes a certain level of expectation among family and friends when you spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen, like I do. While my cooking seemed to produce consistently positive results, there was no denying that question marks hung in the air of my overheated, active kitchen: Is anything sweet or otherwise dessert-like ever going to come out of those ovens?

It was time to (wo)man up.

Fortunately, the baking gods sent me a sign. The venerable Culinary Institute of America was offering a “Best Of” boot camp for food enthusiasts (see Never Too Late Risotto), with an entire day devoted to pastry and desserts! There it was in black and white: my baking lifeline. If a world-renowned institute of culinary training couldn’t beat me into submission and encourage me to finally take that stand mixer for a spin, there truly was no hope for me.

As it turns out, this story has a happy ending. I returned home from the Culinary armed with knowledge, skills, tricks and tips, and most important, self-belief — perhaps even a little moxie. Now I can’t seem to keep my measuring cups out of the flour canister. There isn’t a pie, savory or sweet, that I won’t try. And since so often these confections begin with the perfect dough, I am sharing this simple recipe with you. Once you’ve conquered this surprisingly easy skill, the sky’s the limit. It is my hope that the following primer will help take you there.

Perfect Pie Dough–Every Time
There are few, if any, variations among the ingredients and methods in most of the pie dough recipes I’ve seen and tried. Some bakers insist on using lard if an especially flaky crust is what you’re after, but I believe that butter provides all the flakiness you need. There is also some discourse about the benefits of hand blending versus food processing. I don’t think you can go wrong either way, but a quick whiz in the Cuisinart is certainly faster. Additionally, some recipes include both all-purpose and cake flour; again, either or both will work. My trusted source for a perfectly flaky pie crust is How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman.

Ingredients:
1 c. plus 2 T all-purpose flour (you will need more for rolling out the dough)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. sugar (optional; I do not use unless I am making an especially sweet crust)
8 T (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 T. ice water, plus more if necessary

Combine flour, salt and sugar (if using) in a food processor and pulse once or twice.  Add the butter bits and turn on the machine, processing until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture resembles cornmeal. This should only take several seconds; do not over-process.

Add the ice water and pulse a few more times until the dough just starts to come together and form a ball.  Add water if necessary to hold dough together, but avoid adding too much. If you do and the mixture becomes sodden, add a bit more flour.

Remove dough ball from food processor and wrap it in plastic wrap. Avoid over-handling the dough. Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes (and up to 3 days) before proceeding with your recipe. Here, I used the dough to create homemade cheese crackers, a recipe I borrowed from In the Kitchen with Kath.
(*This blog post originally appeared on www.projectlife.net)