Bittersweet

Summer is ending and as always I’m feeling bittersweet about the impending transition. I can hardly believe in two weeks I’ll have a second grader and an almost four-year-old preschooler.

Even my daughter is in awe of her rising elementary school status. She keeps saying, mom, I feel like I was just in kindergarten! Yup. I hear you, kid. Me too.

I can still see her posing shyly in front of someone else’s brownstone in Brooklyn because we were too flustered to take a picture before leaving our apartment.

kindergarten 2013

Fast forward a year, a first grader in New Hope, PA, our brand new town, walking through those double doors without me, knowing not a single person. My brave girl.

first day of first grade 2014

Now, here we are, on the cusp of another year. But first: summer.

Summer with kids is always a challenge, as well as a gift. The grinding schedule of school suddenly screeching to a halt, like a city bus we’ve been evicted from, the wheels still turning, as we stumble to find our footing.

With only 3 weeks of camp starting at the end of July, we had many days to fill, and yet, somehow, they blew by. There were touch and go moments of sanity (mine) and some freaking out (everyone’s), but here we are at the end of August, the finish line of this short season in sight, and my heart aches at the upcoming shift.

Before I began writing this post, I studied my phone calendar, trying to figure out where the time had gone. What had we done to fill those days? Did I fail to take advantage of our first summer in our new town? Scrolling through my pictures proved otherwise.

Summer Checklist Highlight Reel

1. Eat LOTS of ice cream. Check.

Dilly's Corner. No, we can't eat any of the fried gluten food, but the soft serve and Philadelphia Italian Ices are GF.

Dilly’s Corner. The soft serve is GF.

2. Go all out for the 4th of July fireworks display. Check. 

summer fourth of july

3. Go to the beach at least once, more to come. Check.

Asbury Park, NJ. Not to be missed.

Asbury Park, NJ. Not to be missed.

4. Host family gatherings and insist on very long, hug-filled goodbyes. Check. 

Farewells are not easy.

5. Spend time in nature. Check.

summer nature boy summer nature girl

6. Do a ton of arts & crafts. Check.

summer arts and crafts

Painting fairy houses on the driveway.

7. Get your nails done and let your kid pick the color. Check. 

I have to say, silver might be my new favorite shade.

Silver might be my new favorite shade.

8. Act silly. Also, take full advantage of the ice cream truck. Check. 

summer crazy

9. Go to local fairs and carnivals. ALL OF THEM. Check. 

He got the sparkly pink car. Score.

10. RELAX. Check. 

Summer relax

I love that this was taken the day AFTER the last day of school.

Turns out, we had a lot of fun this summer in the midst of craziness, whining, and all around lunacy. Basically, life as usual, but with no homework and lots of pool time. Not a bad way to spend a couple months.

Did I get much writing done? Not a ton, but more than I expected. There was my successful Highlights trip where I finished a draft of my novel, plus I wrote my first guest post series on The Gift of Writing.

But the best thing I did for myself was to surrender to summer, because fall comes around way too fast.

I’m leaving you with one of my favorite recipes to help ease you into the new season.

Cranberry Orange Muffins (Gluten Free)

cran orange w background muffins

This muffin is the perfect blend of summer and autumn. Also, completely irresistible, according to my husband’s sweet tooth. They usually disappear within a day – or less.

If you don’t have to be gluten free, check out this Food Network recipe made with white flour that inspired my creation. But if you dabble in GF, definitely give these a try. They are worth the effort.

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • zest of one medium-sized orange (preferably a juicy one)
  • about 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice (1 to 1 and a half oranges)
  • 2/3 cup of dried cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cups gluten free flour blend (I use Better Batter)
  • 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your flour blend has it already)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup of full-fat or low-fat sour cream
  • raw sugar to sprinkle on top of each cupcake before baking (if desired)
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 12-cup muffin tin OR a jumbo 6-cup muffin tin with butter or cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Zest orange and set aside. Squeeze juice and run through a sieve to eliminate pulp and seeds. Place juice in a small saucepan with cranberries. Bring to just a simmer over medium heat. Remove pan from heat and set aside so the cranberries can cool and plump.
  3. In a large bowl, mix (by hand) butter and sugar until creamy and fluffy. Add the following ingredients one at a time, stirring well after each addition: eggs, vanilla, orange zest, flour, xanthan gum (if necessary), baking powder, and salt. Beat to combine. Continue stirring until the batter becomes thicker and slightly more elastic, which means the xanthan gum has been activated. Add sour cream to the batter and mix until combined.
  4. Finally, fold the cooled cranberries and orange juice into the batter. Do not over mix.
  5. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups – for those who enjoy being extra precise, use an ice-cream scooper. Top each muffin with a generous sprinkling of raw sugar if desired.
  6. Bake in the center of a preheated oven for about 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes in the muffin tin and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

cran orange cloe up

Eat and enjoy! They go fast…just like summer.

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The Power of Poetry

inside cookie box poem 1

Over the holidays, we received a lovely gift basket from my husband’s aunt. It was beautifully wrapped and overflowing with cookies, crackers, pasta, popcorn, and the most delicious salted caramels. This was not something she picked up at a supermarket or specialty store. She had to make it herself because we are gluten free.

The phasing of that last line struck me. We are gluten free, as if we are what we eat, or rather what we don’t eat. But changing it to, we only eat gluten free, doesn’t sound quite right. The first rings more true. We ARE gluten free. We’re not trying it out to be trendy or lose weight (what a joke!), but because our daughter has celiac. It’s our life.

So, needless to say we were quite grateful. This box of cookies caught my eye right away…

best cookies

Bart & Judy’s The Best Sweet Potato Cookies In The World

Even before I tasted them, I loved the flavor combo, in part because I knew my kids wouldn’t touch them. They were mine, all mine, ha! Though I must admit a little wariness regarding their claim, “the best,” which is one of the most overused, and rather annoying, phrases on the web these days.

That said, these cookies are good. Really good. I love how they’re sweet, but not cloyingly so, how there is only a handful of ingredients, all natural. They are about as close to homemade as you can get, in a box. Plus they are so adorably petite, you don’t feel bad if you eat a dozen a couple.

As I happily munched away I checked out the box, whose surface was peppered with stories and quotes. As a kid my parents used to joke that I’d read anything, even the back of a cereal box. Some things don’t change. But what I never expected was what was inside… and I’m not talking about cookies.

Poems. POEMS!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poems printed on the inside of the box. Are you kidding me?! Bart, the cookie maker, is quite clear what he wants eaters to do:

arrow to read

He includes three poems: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Billy Collins’ “Aristotle,” and John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Later when we bought more flavors at HomeGoods – cinnamon sugar and chocolate chocolate chip – I’d hoped for different poems, but they were the same. Still. Poems with cookies. When does that happen?

Now before you shrug and say, well, I’m not that into poetry (because I’m assuming you’re into cookies, I mean, I hope so), you should know: neither am I.

In fact, I have a history of what I call SPI: severe poetry intimidation.

Of course I’ve read plenty of it; you have to when you major in English lit and get an MFA. But reading poetry always struck a nerve of self-doubt. Still does. Without the familiar footholds of narrative storytelling beneath me, I falter and lose my confidence. Often I start with the best of intentions, but my attention tends to wander at the first roadblock. A phrase I can’t unlock, an obscure reference. It’s kind of what happens when I try to meditate. I lose focus.

Well. Clearly, I need to work on this, because if it weren’t for this box of cookies, I’d never have read “Aristotle” by Billy Collins, now one of my favorite pieces of writing.

He spans a lifetime in a poem. I wept through it, and not only because we were in the midst of dealing with poor Mimi, our dearly departed cat.

Though I do believe reading poetry during times of grief can help. Now, come to think of it, that’s when I’ve been most drawn to poetry. After my mother’s death, a friend sent me W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and I read it repeatedly, as did my father. My novel-in-progress (perhaps I should stop calling it an albatross?) has themes of death, grief, and survivor’s guilt, and I found this poem on Lindsey Mead’s wonderful blog, A Design So Vast.

Perhaps the answer for me, and anyone else suffering from poetry intimidation, is to take one poem at a time and release yourself from pressure to “get it” or even like it.

Maybe, if you’re feeling so inclined, check out some of my favorite lines from “Aristotle.”

From, This is the beginning.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

As I read these lines, between bites of cookie, I thought, I can see that. I heard the hush of the audience as the curtain rose. The skin on my arms rose up and I continued.

From, This is the middle.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

I love how right this feels, the messy middle, when there is still possibility, though the shine of it has rubbed off.

From, And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean…

This is the colophon, the last elephant in

the parade, the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

I was understandably flattened by the wheelchair line, since my mother was in one for the last decade of her life, but I could barely get through this last section without weeping. It felt like The End, more than just the end of a poem.

But that, I’m realizing, is the power of poetry, one that has eluded me over the years. A phrase lights up in your mind, dives down and burrows in your heart, where it beats and bleeds.

Not every poem will have this effect, just like not every book or cookie will, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read lots of books or try lots of cookies.

I’d like to know if you consider yourself poetry fluent, averse, or somewhere in between. What poems have left their mark on you?

Recipe: Chocolate Mint Pretzel Bark and a Contest

*Congratulations to Yolanda, winner of Stephen King’s, “On Writing.” The last book I’m giving away is one of my favorites: “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. The winner will be chosen at random from my entire email subscription list. Sign up now to be eligible. (Scroll down for details.) 

So, as you are probably aware, it’s holiday crunch time. My daughter’s class party is tomorrow, there are teacher cards to write, last minute gifts to buy, and chocolate bark to eat, um, I mean make. Well, both.

peppermint pretzel bark

This is one of the easiest and fastest homemade holiday treats and you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry already. If not, I’m betting you have to go back to the grocery store anyhow. I know I do.

I posted a version of this recipe way back when on my other blog, which I’ve modified slightly and added new pics. The great thing about it is you can use whatever kind of candy or chocolate you want. I use gluten free pretzels because that’s what my family eats, but obviously you don’t have to. Mix up the salty and the sweet, or stick with sweet. I won’t judge.

This time I added marshmallows just because. Mini would’ve been easier because cutting them with a knife was a rather sticky and frustrating experience, but the good news is, it is possible.

Chocolate Peppermint Pretzel Bark with Marshmallows

peppermint bark close up

Ingredients:

  • 2 bags of semi sweet chocolate chips, 24 ounces
  • little less than half a bag of broken up pretzels (I used Snyder’s gluten free)
  • 8 regular sized candy canes (Bob’s brand is GF, btw) crunched up (set aside a handful)
  • about a cup of mini marshmallows or a handful of big ones cut up (optional)
  • 2 gallon size zip lock bags for candy cane crunching

*You can easily halve this recipe, but I needed A LOT so I went for it. In the end it filled 7 small gift bags.

bark gift bag close up

Notice that the measurements are approximate. Play with what you have. As long as you can pour the lumpy chocolate mixture on a sheet and smooth it out a bit, you’re good to go.

Directions:

1. Line a cookie sheet with parchment (or wax) paper, set aside.

2. Put chips in a microwave safe bowl. Heat for 30 second intervals. Check and stir after each 30 second increment. Be careful not to overcook. The chocolate should be smooth and shiny. Let sit for a minute or two while you smash candy canes and pretzels.

3. Break up the pretzels into pieces, not crumbs. Put candy canes in a zip lock bag and then ANOTHER zip lock (that’s two zip locks) and then hit with the back of a spoon to crunch up. If you use one bag you’ll risk breaking it and candy cane particles will fly all over the place. Not fun.

4. Add all pretzel bits and MOST of the candy cane pieces and marshmallows to the melted chocolate. Stir it up so it’s completely coated.

5. Using a spatula or spoon, pour onto the parchment paper. Smooth out a bit. If you used the recipe above it will almost fill up the cookie sheet.

6. Sprinkle with the rest of the candy cane pieces and stick a few marshmallows on the top, if you’d like. This is mostly for looks since the bulk of the candy is mixed in.

This is last year's version sans marshmallows.

This is last year’s version sans marshmallows.

7. Put the cookie sheet in the fridge or freezer until hardened. Then break up into pieces and serve, or wrap up as gifts. Store in a cold place or risk meltage.

This recipe yields 7 small gift bags. Not bad.

bark gift bags

Hope you all have a wonderful holiday, whatever you celebrate. We do pretty much all of it.

dec kids 2014

 But don’t forget about the…

CONTEST! WIN A FREE BOOK!

This month’s final giveaway, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., is closest to my creative heart. I believe reading this book helped reignite me as a writer.

women who run with the wolves

I know that may sound dramatic, but there were times when I felt the author was speaking directly to me, as if the paragraph I read was exactly the one I needed at that moment. Eerie, but true. This is not a book about writing, per say, but about creating and self-discovery. I believe every woman, no matter her vocation or interest, would benefit from reading this book.

Keep in mind, it’s dense, gorgeously so, but it can be intimidating at first. My suggestion is don’t be afraid to skip around or even skim. I first tried reading this book in college and gave up. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. But last year a dear friend, a talented writer, artist, and mother, suggested I try again, and I was blown away by what I discovered. Thank you Anastasia!

All you have to do is sign up for my email newsletter and you’re eligible to win. The results of this random drawing will be posted here on Tuesday, December 30rd. 

Recipe: DIY Starbucks Kale + Veggie Salad

*First of all, congratulations to Carolyn, winner of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”! Thanks to everyone who signed up for my newsletter. There are still two more great books to give away. Next up is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

If you haven’t signed up yet, go now! I’m choosing winners at random from my entire email subscription list. (Scroll all the way down for more info.) The next drawing will be on Tuesday, December 23, and the final one on the 30.

Now, let’s talk about some writing – and eating habits…

diy starbucks kale and roasted veggie salad

During the thirteen years I lived in Brooklyn, I rarely went to Starbucks. Why would I? I lived in the land of Quirky Cool Coffee Shops (that’s a direct quote from the linked article, by the way, I’m not trying to be a snob), and besides, the closest Starbucks was too far of a walk.

But I love writing in cafes, and the closest one to me in Brooklyn was a little sliver of a cafe called Steeplechase, which had the most delicious cinnamon chip scones (alas, not gluten free). I used to go there once a week when my son had a sitter. 

When we moved to New Hope, I knew I’d have to find a place to write. Sure, I had a whole house instead of a tiny apartment, but the thing is, I like the background noise of coffee shops. Plus, I love coffee.

I tried seeking out a cute little independent shop, but seating was a problem. The local Starbucks, however, has some rather comfy armchairs. Did you know they now offer a blonde (light) roast? It’s pretty tasty and far less intense than their dark roasts. Just my personal preference because I know plenty of people who can’t get enough of their regular sludge, I mean coffee.

Anyway, I was also pleased to see that they added some healthy and hearty food options to their menu. Including this awesome salad, which to my knowledge, is gluten free (though not labeled as such):

starbucks kale salad

(Yes, it’s sitting on my dashboard because I was too hungry to take it home for a proper photo shoot.)

So, after buying it several times, I decided to make it myself. It’s a bit labor intensive, but it makes a week’s worth of lunches (unless someone in your household steals half of them…)

DIY Kale, Brown Rice + Roasted Veggie Bowl

IMG_3999

Stuff to buy:

  • big old bag of Kale
  • pre-chopped butternut squash
  • golden or red beets
  • shredded carrots
  • shredded red cabbage
  • broccoli
  • peas
  • brown rice (or grain of choice)
  • dressing of choice, I used a Tahini Sesame kind to mimic Starbucks
  • olive oil, salt, pepper for roasting veggies
  • small/medium plastic or glass containers for storing each portion

To make things easier, look for precut and shredded veggies, frozen and steam ready packages of broccoli and peas (or whatever veggie you’d like, edamame would be great). Pre cooked brown rice would be awesome. Can you tell I love short cuts?

Instructions:

1. Chop up your kale into bite sized pieces. You really don’t want to try to eat a piece the size of your head.

chopped kale

2. Roast your butternut squash by peeling and chopping into bite size pieces (unless you bought pre-cut). Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast at 400 in a casserole dish or on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet for about thirty minutes. Let them cool.

3. Roast your beets. Beware they will stain your fingers when you peel them, even golden beets! But they are SO good, and pretty, it’s (almost) worth the effort.

roasted beets

4. Cook your rice. I used short grain brown rice for a nice chewy effect, but you could use ANY other grain like quinoa, millet, etc. I have a rice cooker that I’m terribly in love with, but you could use the quick cooking kind or pre-cooked.

IMG_3984

5. Microwave your other veggies like broccoli and peas. The best kind is the one you steam in the bag. I LOVE the single serve packages.

IMG_3988

6. Assemble your assembly line. Put stuff in bowls, try to make it sort of organized. Put your kids in front of the TV so they stop asking you why there’s food all over the counter.

kale salad assembly line

7. Then put it together! I put the kale on the bottom and then added everything else on top. I made 4 portions, but probably could’ve made another.

diy kale salads stacked

My daughter was very intrigued by my efforts and wanted to be in a picture. That purple stuff on her cheek is face paint. Created by me. Yes, I’m multi-talented. Just don’t ask for anything but a flower or a rainbow.

kale salads and bunkyThen make sure you hide them in the fridge just in case your veggie averse husband or partner or housemate or child catches wind of your kitchen witchery and tries to steal your lunch. Which totally happened.

gffridaybadge

What are your guilty (or not so guilty) coffee shop pleasures? Do you prefer to write in cafes or at home?

And don’t forget about the…

CONTEST! WIN A FREE BOOK!

This week’s giveaway book is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, a clever and entertaining book filled anecdotes about his life interspersed with practical advice.

onwriting

I had it in my collection for years, but for some reason it took me almost a decade to pick it up. Big mistake. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat. 

All you have to do is sign up for my email newsletter and you’re eligible to win. The results of this random drawing will be posted here on Tuesday, December 23rd. 

Thank you to all who have already signed up! You can also follow my blog by clicking the button on the sidebar if you’d like to be notified every time I post something new.