Chocolate Chip Brioche Pretzels

I’m pretty sure that the first monk who made the first pretzels as a Lenten meal for his brother monks did not think “chocolate” and “brioche” would be any part of a Lenten sacrifice. But we all have our own weird-ish versions of Lent, don’t we?

I’ve never actually made homemade pretzels before, at least not as an adult. I think there might have been some church activity long ago involving pretzels, but I guarantee I didn’t make the dough, and I’m 100% certain that there weren’t any chocolate chips in it. This week, it’s been kind of cold-ish, by Houston standards anyway, and I wanted to make homemade bread or cookies, and I couldn’t decide between the two. So, I used this recipe from the smitten kitchen‘s cookbook.

Have I mentioned how much I adore the smitten kitchen? As much as I love Ina, I find Deb Perelman, the home cook behind the smitten kitchen, to be much more relatable. She’s a mom, and she’s upfront about her quirks and preferences. Her writing is engaging, and her recipes are amazing.

These were easier than I thought they’d be, but if I made them again, I think I’d add some coarse salt instead of coarse sugar at the end. Still, Rowan didn’t object, and he’s been inhaling them since they came out of the oven.

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Cosmic Balance Sheet

Even though I’m a person of faith, I don’t believe there’s some Cosmic Overlord with a Big Balance Sheet in the Sky. If there were, He or She would have a lot of puzzling questions to answer. I read these articles that basically say, “I’m an atheist because how could God let children get sick?” Um. We all have those questions, struggles, and concerns. If that’s what a person thinks that faith is, or isn’t, then I can understand why they’d be so appalled by it. Most of us are a little more nuanced than that. We really don’t think there’s a big Checklist of Fairness in the Sky. I’d like to think that most of us get to adulthood with the sad realization that bad things happen to “good” people, regardless of faith.

But if I did believe in some Cosmic Overlord, it would explain why sometimes crappy things happen around the same time that really wonderful things happen. The year that we got married, we also had a cancer diagnosis in the family, a bar exam, a broken arm (and subsequent surgery – thanks a lot, gravity), an Alzheimer’s diagnosis on the other side of the family, and a hurricane that rolled through town a few weeks before the big day. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

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We’re smiling because the air conditioning finally came back on after the hurricane clean-up.

The year that Ben was born, I was a little bit worried that I’d be manic with joy because it was spring time, I wouldn’t be pregnant any more, and I’d have a new baby. Then, Ben got colic and I got steamrolled by a big ol’ dose of postpartum depression. Rain, meet parade.

It's a good thing he was so cute.

It’s a good thing he was so cute.

This year, even though our move was overwhelming, I’d say that we’ve been more overwhelmed by joy. In love with our new home. Content. At peace.

And then…

Boom. Sickness. Big time. We have all been sick in some form or another for what seems like forever. Given my penchant for self-flagellation, I could blame myself, I suppose, as the mother and chief nutritionist, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate, or fair.  I think it’s been a bad season for germs for a lot of families, and it might be that we’re adjusting to local germs. It has been, quite frankly, a real bummer.

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Can you find the human on this couch?

But then, to balance that out and bring us back to joy again, we have the most wonderful friends.

Friends that bring us the most delicious, fancy chocolate pudding ever, even after we had to uninvite them to our Fancy Oscar Party because of a fever-ish kid.

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Friends who made us the most amazing bread before Thanksgiving, along with homemade pickles and chutney. Friends who bring us flowers. Friends who made (made!!) this beautiful wooden salt cellar (also known as a salt pig – who knew?!) in a beautiful wooden box. I might have squealed a little a lot when I opened it.

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Friends who bring us homemade chili and corn muffins. Homemade dog biscuits at our door on Christmas Eve. Little treasures left at church or at home for us. Friends who selflessly gave us delightful little Christmas ornaments from their own collection after some of ours were destroyed by what can only described as Houston Garage Conditions. Friends who give us countless suggestions for everything from doctors to hairstylists. Friends we’ve never even met – they’re friends of my parents – who made this gorgeous cookbook stand, which is almost too pretty to use for recipes, but not quite, because I’ve used it every day since I brought it home.

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Does all this wonderfulness cancel out all the sickness? Heck no. It does soften the blow, though, and hopefully we’re going to be back on our feet and softening the blow of human-ness for someone else soon. Because even though I make no claim to theological expertise (seriously – make a joke about Calvinism and watch it fly right over my head while everyone else sips their Scotch and laughs knowingly through their pipe smoke), I do believe this:

Life is short,

And we do not have much time

to gladden the hearts of those who

make the journey with us.

So… be swift to love,

and make haste to be kind.

And the blessing of God,

who made us,

who loves us,

and who travels with us

be with [us] now and forever.

(A blessing given at the closing Eucharist of the 2010 convention of the Diocese of Maine, based on the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881).)

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Pissaladière

I think my friends have come to accept this about me, but chances are, if you make plans with me, they’re going to change. I don’t mean to make that happen, but I’ll either get the date wrong and have to reschedule, or the weather will be inhospitable, or my kid will have a fever … you get the idea.

And so, when my friend and I made plans two weeks in a row, I should have known that something would have to change. Last week, we picked strawberries. In February!! We ate most of them straight out of the bucket and I didn’t save enough to make any of the beautiful desserts I’ve been eyeing on smitten kitchen, but I did manage to keep a few for a strawberry salad with poppyseed dressing, which I’ve been making since our Williamsburg days.

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We had so much fun, that this week I suggested that we go to the zoo. I looked at the weather app on my phone and saw the little sunshine icon, with a high of 60ish, so I thought, why not? A closer look revealed that the temperature would be closer to 40 degrees when we got there, and so we bailed. (My friend, being a native Texan, didn’t want to tell me that it would be too cold. She was going to tough it out. I was the one to pull the plug on our outdoor plans.)

At first, I thought we’d let the kids play, and we’d make a picnic-y lunch from whatever I had in the house, like we had done the week before at the strawberry patch. Then, I remembered some neglected artichokes in the refrigerator. Fancy! By the time I got home, I was thinking about the bag of shredded mozzarella that I had bought for lasagna, but didn’t use. Pizza! Pizza led me to think about pissaladière, a recipe from Barefoot in Paris which I had never tried. In the end, we didn’t end up using the artichokes (remembered them – again – too late) or the mozzarella. If you’re a little bit lost, don’t worry. So was I.

What resulted, though, was this most beautiful French flatbread, with slow-cooked onions, garlic, and thyme, olives and olive oil, and (as a nod to the forgotten artichokes and to replace the optional anchovies), some artichoke hearts from the pantry.

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Not too bad for a last-minute lunch, thrown together with what we had. And, if you’re feeling fancy, this could easily be a meat-free dinner for Lent, or meatless Mondays, or whenever you’re feeling non-meaty. It even got a thumbs-up from Neil, who gives the side eye to a lot of vegetarian fare. I think it’s even vegan – no dairy or eggs in the crust.

A note on this recipe, along with some others from Barefoot in Paris: the editing could use some work. The beginning of the recipe says, “Each pizza serves 4-5 people.” But it’s not until the end that we find out that it makes two pizzas. So, the recipe serves 8-10. It’s not a bad thing, but I do find that Ina’s fourth, fifth, and sixth cookbooks contain recipes that require some fairly careful reading, and possibly tweaking. Thankfully, she seems to have hit her stride again with the last few cookbooks, but it’s just a word of warning in case it throws you off.

Completed/remaining: 607/179

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Love and Fires and Compost

Neil was away last week, in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, and before that, we had diocesan council, and so we really hadn’t had much family time this month so far. So, needless to say, when he came home on Friday afternoon, we were all happy to see him.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember last Valentine’s Day, when I sustained second-degree burns after moving a pot of boiling chicken stock from the stove to our basement refrigerator. Or rather, to our basement floor, when the operation was aborted by a huge trip and fall by yours truly. Neil had a chance to prove his romantic feelings toward me that night and for several weeks afterward, as he rushed me to the sink to get cold water on my wounds, and then drove me to the emergency room, the pharmacy, and home, and tended to my wounds for weeks. Needless to say, none of us really wanted to repeat that experience this year, and so I stayed away from boiling liquids for the day. Neil played with the kids outside and assembled a compost bin (more on that later), and we ended the day with a nice dinner at home.

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I remember when we got married, I read all kinds of internet articles about newlyweds bemoaning the fact that they’d never have the butterflies of a first date, a first kiss, and all the other, ahem, firsts that follow. I don’t remember feeling that sadness when I married Neil, though. New love is exciting, sure, but Neil was also very calming to me, and he still is. And besides, we get to experience all kinds of new firsts together. First first-grade Valentines party! First rodeo! First fire in the fireplace at the rectory!

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In case you were wondering, having an Eagle Scout husband can come in very handy sometimes, even if you’re not the camping type.

Speaking of that, and back to the compost. I We decided to start composting as part of our Lenten family “project.” I’m always torn when writing about Lent. The very idea of telling people what we’re doing seems to go against what the scriptures say about it.

^^^^ That video clip has next to nothing to do with fasting or piety or alms or whatever else they talk about in church on Ash Wednesday. But it’s funny. You should watch it.

And yet, I’ve gotten so many wonderful ideas from people that have shared their Lenten disciplines with me. One year, my brother gave up plastic shopping bags for Lent. If he couldn’t fit something into his reusable shopping bag, or worse, if he forgot his shopping bag in the car (how many times have we all done that?), he had to find a way to get his purchases home without one of those ubiquitous plastic bags.

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Another family we know gave up electronics on Sundays, and spent their time cooking together instead, often sharing their meal with a friend or neighbor. We belonged to one church that directed its community Lenten energy toward a gift for Heifer International. A lot of my friends are trying the 40 bags project. I like the idea of it, but after two moves in a year and regular hand-me-down donations of outgrown clothes, I’m not sure I have forty bags of stuff to clean out. (We may have already reached forty bags in the eight or so months that we’ve been here, between overbought diapers and pullups, outgrown clothes, food donations during Advent, and random trips to Goodwill.) But the idea is causing me to look at our closets in a new light, and maybe use some things that we’ve been ignoring for a while.

We’ve committed to trying the composting thing for Lent this year, because I’m horrified at how much food waste we produce. Generally, home cooks are pretty savvy about using odds and ends resourcefully. Out of stale bread, I can make french toast, bread pudding, croutons, or bread crumbs (stored in the freezer). From any number of scraps, I can make chicken stock, and if I’m careful, it won’t even result in a trip to the burn center. We recycle. We try to eat locally. But still, the amount of food we discard is staggering. The vegetable peels, stems, and cores alone are a huge culprit.

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I’ve wanted to try composting for a while, but I was dissuaded by local ordinances or practical concerns. My solution to the local ordinance problem this time: don’t bother looking them up. Ignorance really is bliss!

I’ve done a little bit of research on the mixture of materials we need to be successful at composting, and I’ll let you all know how it goes. Until now, my most formative composting experience came from my grandparents’ house in the country, where there was a giant heap and a pitchfork. With our two dopey dogs and two curious kids, I think that would go over like a lead balloon, and so we bought a container that we can seal up and rotate to keep things moving. Composting appeals to me because unlike something more drastic like giving up our cars or trying to become a zero-waste household, we don’t have a huge investment outlay to try it. Whatever we’ve spent on containers will come back to us in saved garbage bags and “free” garden fertilizer. It’s something we can do as a family, and the kids have already gotten into it.

I’m also giving up my beloved Keurig coffee every morning, for similar environmental reasons. I’m using the French Press instead, and composting the coffee grounds. Apparently coffee grounds and tea leaves are really good for compost, and we’ve been drinking a boatload (heh) of tea this winter. Rowan (age 7) wants to give up his bad dreams for Lent. Ben (age 3) claims not to have bad dreams, but maybe he can help with Rowan with his. We’re all going to try to be more intentional about reaching out to people in non-online ways, maybe through a personal note or a drawing. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like to get a drawing or a hand-written note from a first-grader, can you?

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Mocktails and Meyer Lemons

Most of you know that I don’t drink alcohol. It’s not a choice that comes from a place of judgment – in fact, I rather enjoy the company of drunk people, especially when they’re not throwing up. Rather, it’s a choice borne of my deeply held need for control, my rather extreme emetophobia, and my being kind of frugal. Not so frugal that I won’t spring for some fancy vanilla beans, mind you, but just frugal enough that I won’t drink something that tastes like gasoline. Mostly, I don’t drink because I just don’t feel like I’m missing out on much by not drinking. There’s one exception, though, and that’s when someone orders a fancy drink with a cool name and a funky garnish. Take, for example, the Smokin’ Cosmo from Salut in Edina, Minnesota.

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When it comes to these attention-grabbers, I’m envious.

And so, I’ve come to embrace the “mocktail,” which is a fancy-ish drink without alcohol. When I was growing up, they were known as “kiddie cocktails” – my dad will usually order us grenadine and sprite, and have the bartender throw in a few maraschino cherries. Side note: I’m from Wisconsin. Ordering drinks from a bar for young children is just something we do. Sometimes a mocktail is a fancy ginger lemonade, or something seasonal and fun. I love a good mocktail.

I’ve started to experiment with mocktails at home, because I bought too many limes a few weeks ago. I’ve squeezed a little bit of lime into ginger ale, and it is just perfect. Just fizzy and sweet enough to feel fancy, but not so fancy that you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed the next morning.

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My next mocktail might have to use some meyer lemons.

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A (very generous) friend brought over a half-dozen of these beauties the other night, and I made them into a pound cake. I’m still adjusting to the fact that we live in a place where citrus fruit just grows in our friends’ back yards, and that we walk outside without a coat and boots in February. Last February, we were inching out of a polar vortex and I had to give myself a few second degree burns to warm myself up. I don’t recommend that avenue, by the way.

So, what’s your favorite mocktail/cocktail? What’s everyone doing with all of their beautiful citrus fruit?

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Maple Vanilla Cream of Wheat

This is a decidedly un-Ina recipe. Even though it doesn’t use Instant Cream of Wheat, it still only takes about three minutes to cook, and it’s made with a pretty well processed ingredient. I don’t even really know what Cream of Wheat is, and in the spirit of this recipe, I’m too lazy to look it up.

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Ben has been in the habit of asking what’s in things, as in, what are they made of. “What’s in water, Mommy?”

“Hydrogen and oxygen.”

“What’s in rice, Mommy?”

“Um, rice molecules.”

What’s in cream of wheat?

Um, wheat, I guess.

What’s in the Willard house these days?

A bunch of germs.

I don’t have any data to support this, other than my entire Facebook feed for the past ten weeks or so, but this seems like a particularly brutal winter for sickness. Thankfully we’ve had nothing serious, but I’ve been coughing since before Christmas. And when the mom gets sick, things get ugly. We wash our hands. We’re fully vaccinated. We eat well. We exercise. Things still happen. It’s one of my biggest complaints about this earthly life, and I get kind of unbearably grumpy about it.

Don’t you wish you lived with me?

And so, back to the Cream of Wheat. At bedtime, I’ve been taking a handful of whatever over-the-counter decongestants, painkillers, cough remedies, and snake oil I can swallow. As it turns out, when a person does that at 11 pm, that person should really eat something after 5 pm, and preferably the 5 pm meal should be something other than yogurt with rice krispies stirred in.

I learned all that the hard way one night, when I realized that I should have eaten something before downing all that cold medicine, and ended up calling my brother in Hawaii at 2 am because I couldn’t sleep. The time difference between here and there is just enough to call him and catch up when I can’t sleep. I don’t know what I’ll do if he ever moves to a time zone with similar daylight hours to mine. And so, to train myself for a day when I can’t call my brother in the middle of (my) night, I’ve taken to eating a piece of toast, or a banana, or more often than not, more yogurt with rice krispies stirred in, before emptying my home pharmacy into my mouth.

One night, I was looking for something different, and stirred up a micro-batch of Ina’s Cream of Wheat recipe (from Make It Ahead). I don’t ever remember eating Cream of Wheat – ever – but I’m sure my mom gave me some kind of wheat baby cereal when I was a baby. I must have harkened back to that time as soon as this stuff hit my lips, because I instantly became warm and cozy and very, very tired. As it turns out, this is quite possibly the perfect pillow for my drug cocktail. It’s basically the recipe on the box, but with more ingredients. I added the honey at the end.

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This + a hot cup of rooibos tea, and I’m out like a light.

Completed/remaining: 606/180

 

 

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Mid-Winter Tea

In every church, and probably in every community, there are people who make the whole place run smoothly. The paid staff are the most visible people who do this, but in every church I’ve ever attended, there are volunteers, often women, who make sure everything is how it needs to be. You probably know some of these people where you live and work. And if you don’t, I can almost guarantee that they’re there, making your life more rich, whether you know it or not. I was raised by one of those women, and I grew up surrounded by them. They usually have an emory board and a roll of Scotch tape at the ready, just in case of emergency.

Some of these women at Palmer, the church we attend and where Neil serves, have not only kept the place going in one way or another, but they’ve also all made a special effort to welcome me, personally, into the fold. The people who have welcomed us are far too many to count, and the people who keep Palmer going are more than that. But I had to start somewhere, and so I invited a small group of them to the Rectory for Tea. I didn’t warn them ahead of time that they’d be charged with taste-testing new recipes and with being my “trial run” group. I’ve never hosted an afternoon tea before, and so I knew there would be some wrinkles to smooth out. We aren’t able to entertain the entire congregation in our home at one time, but I saw many of my clergy spouse friends do just that for their churches during Advent. For that, I salute them. I’m impressed, ladies. I had to start small, and after our cough-riddled December, I think everyone is probably glad that I didn’t host a huge Christmas shindig.

Side note: it’s been a year since the Holy Crepe! party in Minnesota. Apparently this is the time of year when I get a bee in my bonnet to make a ton of themed food and invite people over to eat it.

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In many ways, a tea is much more manageable than even a do-it-yourself dinner party (as the crepe party was). I could make almost everything in advance, and in the mid-afternoon, guests aren’t expecting a heavy meal with wine to match each course. In other ways, it was a bit more intimidating. Presentation has never really been my thing, and I hoped I could pull it off. I love tea, and I love my guests, and so I was determined to make it all come together.

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I highly recommend a dry erase board as a menu, by the way. People know what they’re digging into without a huge explanation, and it can be changed at the last minute if substitutions need to happen.

I chose a few savory items: smoked salmon tea sandwiches (from the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook), cucumber sandwiches, and pimiento cheese sandwiches (cheating only a little by buying the pimiento cheese spread from Central Market). I also baked some sweets: a lime zest pound cake based loosely on the Smitten Kitchen grapefruit olive oil pound cake, and baked in a Nordic Ware pan; pecan squares (from the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook), poppyseed bars from The New Midwestern Table, Nigella Lawson’s buttermilk scones (after I messed up the Smitten Kitchen raspberry scones), and the Ginger Lemon Molasses Cake from Make it Ahead. I attempted the ginger shortbread cookies from Make It Ahead, and I really thought I had a fighting chance at success there, but those went the way of their shortbread foreparents – that is, in the garbage can.

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I made two black varieties of tea, and two herbal blends. For the caffeinated (black) teas, I made English Breakfast and Yorkshire Gold. The herbal teas were both made by Tazo – a sweet orange blend, and a vanilla rooibos parfait. All of them were sampled, but I probably could have gotten way with one or two fewer varities. No matter – the tea can always be made into iced tea, and it’s really not a bother to make as many different kinds as you have the teapots for. I love tea, and teapots, and tea cups. I would have been a disaster in Edwardian England, but I would have appreciated the tea.

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I would make all of the sandwiches again, without question. I would not make the pecan squares for all the tea in China. First, and this might get me kicked out of some states, I don’t really care for pecans. Second, they are a mess to make. But, they weren’t the utter failure that the gingerbread shortbread cookies were. The poppyseed bars were good, but I might try something in the way of something with chocolate or citrus or berries next time. The lime zest olive oil pound cake was as delicious as it was beautiful (and would be the hero of the day if you ran out of softened butter), and Nigella’s scones were as luscious as she is. I served the scones with clotted cream (purchased at Central Market) and homemade citrus jam (a gift from friends who grew the fruit in their yard). The lemon ginger molasses cake was the sleeper hit of the event – I didn’t have high hopes, but it got rave reviews. And it was pretty AND easy.

In addition to all of the pretty food and tea, hosting this kind of event forced us to clean up around the corners where we usually don’t bother, and I might have worked off at least a piece of pound cake, because my FitBit told me that I walked over 14,000 steps that day, without ever having left the house.

The decorative touches were easier than I thought – I used long-stemmed strawberries, sliced lemons and limes, and a whole lime tucked into the middle of the pound cake. The beautiful food and china spoke for itself, and I used every silver-plated tray that I could dig up, which turns out to be quite a few when you get married in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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I was so pleased that this little event turned out as beautifully as it did – and we all had fun! I would do it again in a heartbeat, and probably will. And here’s the dirty little secret about hosting a tea: there are very few dishes to wash at the end of the day. So, even hand-washing china didn’t seem like such a huge effort, at least not compared to Thanksgiving dinner with wine for twelve.

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And these ladies, these guests of mine, appreciated the beautiful table, but they didn’t flinch when I brought out the gallon-size zip-loc bags to send them home with leftovers for their husbands. I appreciate that about them.

What’s your favorite entertaining tradition? Or your favorite kind of tea? Are you a scone person, or not so much?

Completed/remaining: 605/181

Ed. note: can you believe that I made the pecan squares twice? Ugh. I can. Once, way back in 2010, I apparently made them and didn’t love them then, either. I didn’t check the index carefully enough before making them this time. Yikes! So, I won’t count them twice.

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