Monday, December 23, 2013

'Tis the season, folks, like it or not! A million pictures. Yay?

Ho Ho Hoooo boy, it's been hectic over here at Johanesen Cottage for the season so far.  For Thanksgiving, we made the trip over the Cascades to dine with my sister Helen and her husband Matt.  It was really fun. It was one of the few times I had a holiday event involving my family where there was no acrimony or stress. We decided to stay a couple of nights to make the two and a half hour drive tolerable, so we went down Wednesday night and returned on Friday afternoon.

Here is the overnight-brined, butter-basted organic deliciousness that filled our tummies, and provided for several separate meals, including a rich stock, soup (naturally), turkey pot-pies and more.  Fare thee well, gobbler. You were much appreciated.

Somebody rode his first pony during this stay in Bend. We stopped at the barn where my sister was boarding her horse and Alex got to ride a fat, tall American Shetland named Oreo (soooooo original for a black and white pony). He was pretty frisky because of the cold weather. Alex loved it. He loved the horses. There were no screams of fear. He sat on Oreo, and vocalized and patted his mane the same way he pats the cat's fur.  It was precious. When Oreo was walking, he just rode along without a care, watching Eleanor (Helen's horse) in the arena.

We got a little dusting of snow earlier on this month, but it didn't stick around, sadly. I was hoping for a white Christmas for a change. Oh well. It's pretty wet and rainy out there today. I can still hold out hope for a freak snow-storm.

Dan has been playing around with some wood pickets, making these cool little squirrel feeders. The problem is, it's designed for a gallon-sized jar, which apparently are not at all easy to find. But we will prevail! In the meantime, the half-gallon jar of pickles I managed to gnaw my way through during pregnancy (how cliché right?) works just find.

Turns out Alex loves to go to Sushi & Maki with me (my favourite place). He just eats the sh*t out of gyoza and white sticky rice.  Here's a picture of him waiting for the food to come on our last little jaunt into town.  He is growing up SO fast.  In spite of his remaining in the 5th percentile in size (yes, at one year + 1 month old, he weighs 16 lbs, 2oz.) he is on target developmentally. And yes, he is walking now.  It took him a couple of months to tentatively try and step about, but one day, it's like a light bulb switched on over his head, and he just started stamping around like a boss. He is EVERYWHERE now. And you can barely keep him in your lap anywhere, because all he wants to do is explore.

Inspired by the mini-pork-pie pasty bites I made for the Jane Austen tea on 12.15, I came home with more pork to make a full-sized one that Monday night. It was hella good. About a pound of coarsely ground pork, some fresh sage leaves, a large shallot, some salt, white pepper, a dusting of nutmeg, some coarsely chopped stale baguette, a bit of cream to soften it, an egg, and a very simple savoury butter-based pie-crust, and voila. A little bit of dijon, and some salad greens with a bright vinaigrette and man, that was delicious! It was a win with Alex too, who just powered through his own little slice for dinner and the next day for lunch.

Yesterday and today, it has been cookie-baking time. We are opting out of bankrupting ourselves buying made-in-China landfill fodder for all the largely indifferent adult family members this year. Instead, I am making cookie-pails. They can eat them, feed them to the birds, I don't care (historically, my cooking has been way too out of the box for most of them, so whenever I brought a dish to share at their events, nobody ate from it, so I stopped bringing food). I started with some surprisingly light and mouth-meltingly delicious Amish sugar cookies.  I've never actually made sugar cookies. For some reason, the idea of using cream of tartar always seemed too complicated (I know, don't ask), but whenever I saw a recipe requiring it, I'd just flip to the next one as if it was insurmountable or something. Using recipes with shortening is the same for me. Not sure why.  But I sucked it up this year, bought a little jar of the mysterious stuff, and this is the result. Seven dozen delicious, light-as-air sugar cookies.  Enough for the seven pails I am filling up for family.

They are really good. They don't need any icing, or sprinkles or any foo-foo embellishments. They are good just as they are.

Next up, I endeavored to make Speculoos/Speculaas, a traditional Belgian favourite.  I have to find my Belgian cookbook, because these may taste close to the real thing, but they really are too crisp and too hard. The texture is just a bit off.  It's a Martha Stewart recipe, and naturally the picture of her molded cookies is perfection. I used the carved roller to make some little designed cookies. They came out rustic, and okay. They are super-crispy-crunchy, and the spices are good, but just not... bright enough.  I made enough to fill the pails. They will make good coffee dunkers. No sense in starting over. It's not an easy recipe, and it requires a lot of work and a lot of time to make them.

Next cookies will be my no-fail delicious orange cookies that Dan isn't too keen on. But I don't care. I will ice them and they will top the stack in the little pails. I think dinosaurs and forest creatures are Christmassy enough for me. LOL.  I'll make those tonight after we get back from our errands.

The Christmas tree this year. Yes, I'm obsessed with white ornaments, do not ask me why. I like to add a pop of red and some little touches of colour here and there, but every year I find one or two white ornaments to add to my growing collection. This year, I did not use my many glass icicles, nor did I use any of my hundreds of feet of pearl/snowflake/bead garlands.  Alex is mostly leaving the tree alone, but has moments of keen interest. Yesterday he was determined to pull out the snowflake shaped lights, and wanted to decorate it by adding some of his toys into the tree limbs. That's all good.

Yes, it's a bit cheesy and Jersey mob-wife-ish in taste. But I still like it. I love how tulle is so versatile and so cheap. Michaels has spools yards long for minimal moolah in the wedding department. I put it in the tree and on the wreath, it makes it look cloudy and ethereal when lights are diffused through it.  

The first of the little Christmas presents for Alex are stacked up waiting for Christmas morning.  Dan and I didn't buy anything for each other this year. Just Alex gets pressies. :)

Alex got the monster-foot stocking.

Meet 'Stretch'.  I have had Stretch for oh, at least since 1997. He barely survived a savage Jack Russell mauling, and survived to tell the tale, save for a bit of the beard missing on his right slipper and his body being a tad loosened from his stilty legs, but Christmas is not Christmas until Stretch is out on display.  He is as cheesy as Christmas decoration gets, and that's why I love him.

Some garland and snowflakey lights along the archway into the kitchen.

The rollers await the continuation of my baking spree. I have one more batch of Speculaas to preside over, then it's onto the orange cookies.  So much more fragrant than just regular sugar cookies or shortbread.

Trusty KitchenAid mixer, my heart's delight, I love this thing, needs a wipe-down before we proceed with more baking. This was and remains the best gift I have ever gotten. It was a wedding gift, and the only thing that could every outdo this mixer would be the bigger model with the levered bowl.

Oh, someone just sped by.  Who could that be?

The cookie pails await filling.

Some new organization for my craft-crap. It sort of takes over, so I got this so it has somewhere to go other than the top of the breakfront.

The second year of our new tradition, Alex and Santa at Macy's. He was so good, I have to brag that some parents were pretty envious of him. Their kids squirmed and cried and wailed. Alex sat happily on Santa's lap and even cracked a good smile for his last picture.  The icelandic-style sweater onesie and adorable shoes were courtesy of his aunts, who both seem to be bent on buying everything cute they can find on the internet. They've bought him SIX pairs of shoes so far. SIX. There's no stopping them.

And there it is. A smile.  It's a stark difference from last year's photo, isn't it?

Was he ever really that small? A scarce seven weeks here. How sweet.
He's grown so. My precious gift. Who needs anything else for Christmas but a healthy, happy child?

After Macy's, we hit the Oregon Zoo for their annual 'Zoo-Lights' display. It's crazy-impressive, the sheer magnitude of the effort, the zillions of lights, the displays and the care taken.  The whole zoo is lit up.  We were supposed to do this with some of the in-laws, something I proposed and was astonished they agreed to. But true-to-form, they bailed on us last-minute with some lame excuses. I have to remind myself not to take things personally. They do not often deviate from their normal activities, and do not like things that are not at their convenience.  We are the ones that do the bending to them during the holiday season. I won't stop trying to get them to do stuff with us though. Maybe someday, they won't change their minds last-minute. It's so irritating. They missed out on a wonderful time. I cannot say I've had a better time during the holidays than I have had these past few days. And we haven't gotten to Christmas yet (that is usually the stressful part).
Alex reacts to his first sight of elephants in this quick video.  He is fascinated by animals, and really quite fearless of them large or small. that is both a good and a bad thing.  But he was so cute at the zoo. He was waving his little fingers at the elephants (you can see him do it just before the video ends).  And he was making his little guinea-pig noise of interest when he saw them moving.

Alex and Ruger at the Ducati MotorCorsa Christmas party.
Happy Christmas everyone! Thank you so much for supporting this blog and following along with my rather strange but mostly ordinary life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Marzipan cameos and petit fours from hell.

Jane Austen's birthday is today. That's a big thing for us Janeites. We at the ORS arranged to hold a tea in her honour, and the food and centerpieces were my lot for this occasion.  I was resolved to try my hand at making petit fours, and the experience left me exhausted and sore. 

Lesson #1 of petit-four making... If you're doing it for the first time, don't wait for the actual event to make them. A practice session would be helpful, and it may serve to turn you off of the idea forever more.

Lesson #2 of petit-four making... Ignore lesson one if you are determined to make them for your event.  You probably won't want to touch them if you find out exactly how much work and how miserable this task can be for the unprepared.

Lesson #3 of petit-four making... Unless you are really talented or really lucky, get rid of the final product you envision. There is very little chance your cakes are going to look like this:

They will more likely look like this:

Yes, this is my final product. The white speckles
 is just some Devon
Or possibly even this:
Ah, the hell with it, the author of this photo said. They still
tasted awesome. LOL.
So the hard truth about the process was this:

1. The posts I found on petit-four making were pretty non-specific about the viscosity needed in order to make a smooth, unblemished coat of poured fondant icing.  So I'm going to be explicit, because by the time I covered my thirtieth cake, I think I had a good idea of how it should have been done from the start, and how the icing process should be handled.

Tip #1: Buy 2 two-pound bags of fondant icing, and be prepared to double the recipe. I did and the last petit four was barely covered.
Now this is the recipe I used from Bakerella:

A 2 lb bag (@7.5 cups) powdered sugar, 1/2 cup light corn syrup, 
1/3 cup water, 1 tsp vanilla extract.
Heat on low and stir until everything is completely combined.

That is about it on the description of the process of making it.  Here was my experience with this recipe:

 - it was too thick. I added about another tablespoon or two of water later on to thin it out a bit because it was falling into huge, thick ribbons and making the petit fours look like mounds of molten wax.  The trick is making a thin frosting and applying a few coats if necessary.

- temperature is also really important. She says keep it on low and keep it warm. One site recommends a double boiler, another says microwave it frequently. I started with a double boiler but it wasn't keeping it warm or liquid enough, so I ended up pouring it into a pot and putting it on low (higher-low... towards medium) on the stove, and I constantly had to scrape the hardening sides to remelt it.

- the one good thing about this stuff, if it hardens on the drip tray or the rack, you just have to scrape it off and throw it back into the pot. It is reusable as long as it doesn't get crumby from the cake.

- there is GREAT wisdom in cleaning up as you go, because this is a MESSY process. And you will get fondant on your stove burner, so if you have the option to line it with foil, do that. I have a glass-top, so it just carmelized on the surface and smelled the house up.

- pouring it over the cakes can be a messy process.  Sites recommended using a sheet pan and rack and pouring it over that.  The problem with that is that the frosting stacks up beneath the cake and mounds at the base (because you have to pour a lot) and then you have to scrape the stuff off, back into the pan.

- holding the cake over the frosting pot and spooning it might work better for some, but it did not work for me. 1, that frosting his hotter than the surface of the sun and burns like a motherf*&ker. 2, the marzipan top sticks to your finger and can pull off completely when you try to put the cake down.  My solution? I have smaller drip-racks, and I used one to put each cake on, and held it over the pot, and spooned each side first, and then one last spoonful to cover the top.  The frosting should be pretty thin, and doing two coats will make it smoother and more opaque.

- there is a youtube video of a woman who frosts them using a pastry bag. She's a professional pastry chef, so ignore that byatch. She has asbestos hands and has made so many petit fours, she could probably frost them with her feet.  I tried the pastry bag first. It was way too hot to handle, and it took the entire pastry bag to cover one cake.  Not worth it.

Best practice: Make your poured fondant in a pot on the stove, keep it warm and liquid, it should be more like maple syrup in consistency rather than pancake mix.  Use the corner of a small drip rack to hold your individual cake over the pot, and cover sides and then top, or use a huge ladle, and pour a massive volume over the top at once.  Do it twice if you want a thicker coat, but not too much, or it will look like wax drippings. Stir your fondant every single time you take it to get the warmest, ooziest pour.  Use an offset spatula to pry the cake off your rack, wait two or three minutes before you do. To expedite it, I used two of my small drip racks and poured one, and then let it sit while I poured the next. Then I just moved the dry one off, and put a fresh cake on it for the next pour.

I did not lose any cakes that I made. That's the good thing. They may have been more clunky and frankensteiny than the elegant little dainty cakes I had hoped for. But they were still much enjoyed, and the marzipan cameos I put on them were a hit.  Those, on the other hand were very simple to make.  Here's how you make little cameos in marzipan.

Marzipan cameos:
Make a mold. I used Sculpey and a cheap plastic cameo.
Bake it at 225º for about ten or fifteen minutes depending on size.
I made two, one was deeper.
I made a cut-out using an old cookie cutter I didn't care
about anymore. I wasn't perfect, but it worked. I also
used a round-headed pin as a tool.
I coloured my marzipan for the cameo base, and left the
natural colour for the figure. I pinched a tiny bit of the white
and rolled it into a ball and dropped it in the mold.
Using the pin's round end (using fingers doesn't work since
marzipan sticks to skin), I carefully pressed the marzipan into the
figure part of the mold.
I then made a small pastille of the pink marzipan and placed it
on top. And using the back of the second, shallower mold,
I pressed it down.

I carefully peeled it out of the mold.
I aligned the cutter around it and trimmed off the edges.

The front of the cameos will dry out fairly quickly. In about an hour. Make sure you carefully pry them up and turn them over to dry the backs too, or they'll stick to the work surface and remain moist.  Once they're dry you can just toss them into a little container to store until you need to use them.  I affixed them to the petit fours with melted white chocolate.

The full spread.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Disheveled Vlogging about Gifts (and mostly me)

So I vlogged. It sounds dirty doesn't it? I look like crap, but oh well. It's a fifteen and a half stream of consciousness, really. Home in my jammies, thoughts permeating my brain as they often do come the holidays; baby free about the house wreaking havoc unsupervised (Parenting award goes too...).  I'm talking about giving trees, and how memories influence who I choose to buy gifts for.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advice is, keep your advice.

The subject of my latest diatribe is advice. More specifically, unsolicited advice. It is something I am sometimes guilty of; offering unsolicited advice. But I must say in my defense, I offer it with a sense of necessity, not out of some misplaced, smug, superior state of mind. And we ALL have that friend or other, that family member that sits in passive-aggressive judgment of you at any given chance, spewing out sanctimonious words that are completely useless and utterly irritating.

My advice usually comes when one of my friends brings some crisis or other to me. Often, it is a personal issue, of something common to my experience. When it is about surviving depression, about family dysfunction, responsibility, relationships, abuse; when it is coming from someone I truly care about, I often find myself offering fixes rather than just listening.  Being a chronic advice-giver can sometimes mean you are a shittier listener than you think you are. Again, when you have traveled that same road many times, and have met that oncoming semi truck, face-on, and have the scars to prove it, and you see a loved one running towards that same place; hell-bent on the idea that they will somehow have a different outcome, and think they know better… well, to be expected to just sit there and merely mirror their feelings and nod while they careen towards disaster, into the path of that forsaken truck; it's a lot to ask. It is a symptom of love in this case. All you want to do is protect that person from your fate. But in truth, advice is moot, because if they’re going to do something stupid, there really isn’t much of a chance to stop someone from doing it. I have to learn this. I really do have to learn this.

Then, you have the people who just always have something to say about everything. It doesn’t matter. Diet, child-rearing, hobbies, you name it. And not when their input is asked for, but whenever you bring up anything remotely connected to their favourite subjects. Any opportunity to pontificate and hear themselves talk. Whenever you open the door for them to opine, to share their invaluable wisdom, and show the ignorant world the depth of their brilliance.

The parenting experts

"Now boys, we already talked about spying on our neighbour Mrs. Murdock
when she's in her bathroom..."

Type A: The expert in the obvious

I challenge you to go on Facebook, and for the heck of it, just post an update describing anything your child is doing.  Invariably, someone will pop up with the ‘Oh, you think that’s bad… Wait until this and wait until that…’ as if you’ve just stepped out from under a rock just before your child was born and have never experienced anything to do with these tiny humans before. The tone is often: ‘good luck handling that, friend, you can in no way anticipate normal things!’ No post is left un-interpreted as some sort of cry for their infinite fount of experience in the mundane. My response is: Shut The Hell Up. Really. If I am unsure of anything, I will ask. Describing a basic thing does not automatically signify a need for you to profess the flipping obvious.

Type B: The unqualified advice giver.

I have an in-law that gives advice and makes really badly veiled criticisms of how we interact with our child. This in-law is also an alcoholic and has a child that doesn’t speak to him, and another that has also become a drunk and who has shown to have seriously questionable ethics. Listening to him spout his parental wisdom is a joke. To the parent who has little to no relationship with their children and never sees them at all, and hasn’t for years. Please don’t roll your eyes at my choices. I plan to be there for my kid and invest in him. The opposite of you. How much I hold him, coddle him, say yes or no to him is really none of your concern. Why not look more closely at your failures and stop worrying so much about what you think are mine.

Type C: The parent of an asshole.

Let us be realists here. Some kids are assholes. By no fault of their own, granted, but everyone knows one of these little kids. The one you are pretty confident will be enjoying a bright future of bar fights, date rape, criminal behavior, and all around uselessness to society—possibly in thirty years, still living in their parents’ basement sucking on a bong.  You know why these kids are dicks. Because their parents are ineffectual as disciplinarians and at providing guidance. These failed parents come in all forms, helicopter parents, detached 'let them be free' parents, 'I.wanna be your bestest friend parents'. You may not see the complete devastation your bad parenting has wreaked upon your child’s future, and you may be blind to the fact that nobody likes your kids because they’re just plain assholes.  But your kids are obnoxious, spoiled, nasty, loud asshole terrors. Nobody wants child rearing advice from you. We have all seen the products of those wise efforts. No thanks.

Experts in anything diet-related (a.k.a; the ‘annoying upstart who’s surfed on the internet for a few hours or stayed up late watching infomercials and thinks they’re an expert’ expert)

I have raged on this subject before, but man, it still rankles me. When Dan and I were really full throttle on Weight Watchers, we had lost over 110 pounds between the two of us. Changing our eating habits worked. Now that I'm breastfeeding, all bets are off, I'm eating like a pig and gaining weight back. It's not any other reason other than that. I'm not using good eating habits and I am paying the price. It is my own lack of discipline that is the problem. It isn’t my glands, or gluten, or paleolithic genes. It isn’t a lack of any miracle weight loss supplements or because I’m not drinking enough green tea. It isn’t any other reason except that I eat a lot. Period. It’s MY fault that I’m fat. It is my food addiction. It isn’t easy to overcome, but as the past two years proved, with self-regulation, it can be achieved.  It took me a long time to take responsibility for my own weight problems, and stop finding random justifications for the volume of noms I shove into my craw on a daily basis. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?

When we were in full swing, losing weight and shedding pounds, you’d think we would have gotten really supportive efforts from our friends and such. But boy, were we wrong!  And gawd, did the advice come rolling in from near and far, in spite of positive proof of our success. It just wasn’t enough for some folks.

“Weight watchers doesn’t work!” we were told. “There are simpler ways!” “Surely you will fail, it’s only a matter of time.” It wasn’t our resolve that would fail, it was the diet, you see, according to the ‘experts’. And yes, always, always, “There is a better way!”

Now keep in mind, this was mostly from people struggling with their own weight problems, but never getting results themselves. All manner of trend diets and miracle products were suggested. In fact, my mother just told me I should get the lap band and be done with it instead of bothering to try and fail.  We were told about all number of deprivation diets. We were told not to bother, that we were genetically predisposed to be fat. We were told that we were going to fail anyway, so why bother to begin with?  This was our support system in its full form; trying so hard to undermine us with advice that was so obviously flawed, because it wasn’t working for them.  We know what works for us. Weight Watchers worked for us. And the only reason that it’s not working is because we are not doing what we need to do to continue losing weight. It is that simple. There is no easy button. No miracle diet. The diets that work are the ones that require self-discipline and hard work. Period. So if you are overweight, and you think you know the great diet secret, you probably don’t. Sorry.

Sadly, now that I’ve gained half of the weight I’d shed back, the peanut gallery has gone quiet again. It seems some folks must be relieved because it takes the pressure off them.  I know, deep in my soul, that the only reason why I have Alex today is because I lost weight. All of my fertility problems stemmed from my weight issues. And I need to figure out how to wrangle my self-discipline again, because now that I have this beautiful child, I want to be here for him for as long as I can. I do not want to be Aunt Barbs, who fell over and died while feeding her chickens at age 52 from heart failure.  Whatever your choices are, they’re yours. But don’t hinder people with crappy advice because you can’t take responsibility for your own choices.

I have all the answers baby,
but I can barely tie my own shoes.
The sanctimonious fool

“Hi, I have absolutely no way of comparing my situation to yours, and have never lived even remotely close to your experience, but here’s what I would do in your situation…” or…

“Hi, my life is a complete mess, and has been an uninterrupted string of bad decisions from day one –OR- I have no identity, no self-esteem, no notion of self to speak of, and yet, I am pretty sure I have all the answers on everything. Let me sing you the song of my people.”

Erm… yeah. Shut it.

The advice rambler (a.k.a: ‘Oh, a chance to talk about me? Saweet!' experts)

There are a couple of people on my Facebook feed that spend a good deal of time on their feed, just trembling in anticipation of a post where they can just go on and on and on and on about themselves.  One lady I know has a husband dying of cancer, and whenever she posts an update on his condition and her emotional state, another friend cannot even begin to restrain herself from posting paragraph after paragraph of comments, hijacking the whole thread, talking about her own experiences with cancer, or loss, or whatever the hell it is she is talking about in order to focus the attention on her.  It is utterly annoying.

Now as a child of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, I confess, I too have some narcissistic tendencies. I will sometimes do those kinds of replies, but occasionally, I will type out my experiences on a comment and realize that I need to just STFU and move on. At least I have the capacity to limit my ‘all about me’ tendencies, but good god, I can spot people like my mom from a mile away. Here’s an example:

Status update: OMG! I just fell in the snow and twisted my ankle, it’s so swollen right now.

Comment from Narcissist windbag with advice hidden somewhere in there: Once, I was summiting Mount Hood, I was by myself, because two of my climbing companions had to duck out because they were concerned about severe weather, but I wasn’t daunted by the blizzard conditions and I decided I could handle it alone, which I knew I could, because I did it two winters before, and found a cozy little chasm in which to set up my winter gear, and listened to Liszt on my iPod, made Bergamot tea with my little camp stove, and sipped that while reading War and Peace while the storm raged on outside. But I digress, here I was, alone on Mount Hood, snow whipping around me. I was making record time, even without the crampons, the ones my abusive ex-boyfriend gave me just before he tried to beat me one last time, and I knocked him out with a vegetable juicer and had him arrested… and the cop that came for him totally hit on me…aaaanyway, I was at about 10,000 feet when some ice shifted and my boot slipped and bam… I twisted my ankle so hard I saw the back of my heel.  It started swelling up so big, it started straining up against the lacing like a piece trussed pork, so I hopped down the mountain to Timberline lodge, and had a cocoa while this super-smokin’ ski-instructor from Italy named Giorgio pressed an icepack on it. The swelling went down super fast under the ice. So I’d try ice.

Shut. The. Fuck. Up. Seriously.

::calms herself::


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