Easter Dinner on My Chernobyl Stove

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Cjorsch – Wikimedia Commons

This weekend I’m preparing a big Easter feast for my son and his wife, my baby granddaughter, and my son’s in-laws (our co-grandparents). Am I nervous? You bet. You see, we moved into a condo a few months ago, and I’m still getting used to the new glass-ceramic cook top stove in my kitchen. Its smooth surface is a dream to clean, but so far this stove has spelled doom to more than one dish I’ve tried to cook on it.

Last week’s St. Patrick’s Day corned beef roast was its latest victim. I placed the roast in a deep cooking pot, doused it with a large can of good Guinness stout, set the pot on the stove and turned the heat to low. However, the burner has an inner and outer ring, and when both are turned on even a low setting can become really hot fast.

The roast was supposed to cook slowly on the stove for 2-3 hours. So, I left the roast to “simmer” while I went on a short errand and when I returned (about a half-hour later) it was to find that the meat had almost incinerated. The stout had evaporated into the heavens, leaving a thick, brown, bubbling and impenetrable crust on the bottom of the pan. My husband was home; he noticed the dense cloud of smoke coming from the kitchen and turned the heat off. I had to pry what was left of the roast out of the goop.

As you can imagine, the pot itself was a total disaster. It was an old Dutch oven I’ve had for decades, and I decided I could either dedicate the next two weeks of my life to trying to scrape it clean or just toss it and chalk the loss up to experience.

Guess which option I chose. Let’s just say my cupboards are a bit roomier now.

No wonder my daughter-in-law, who’s also had experience with a glass-ceramic cook top, calls it a Chernobyl stove. I can see why, after my pot nearly melted down.

Anyway, my St. Patrick’s corned beef mishap makes me fear for the fate of my Easter dinner. You can bet I’ll be watching anything I cook on the stove very carefully.

Have you had trouble getting used to working with a glass-ceramic cook top? I’d love to hear about your experiences, and especially any tips you may have.

One menu item I’m not too worried about is my hot cross buns. I use an old family recipe, and so far it’s been pretty reliable. It makes over 3 dozen, so it’s just right for a big holiday feast.

Hot Cross Buns 

Ingredients

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1- 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • ¼ cup shortening (or 1/2 stick butter)
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. allspice
  • 1 cup currants

Directions

  1. Soften the yeast in the warm water and set aside.
  2. Scald the milk; add sugar, salt and shortening. Cool mixture to lukewarm. Add flour to milk mixture to make a thick batter. Mix well. Add softened yeast and eggs. Beat well. Add spices and more flour to make a soft dough. Stir in the currants.
  3. Turn dough out on a lightly-floured board or pastry cloth and knead until smooth and satiny. Place in a greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until dough is doubled in size (about 1-1/2 hours). When the dough is light and has risen, punch it down. Let it rest for 10 minutes.
  4. Divide dough into walnut-sized pieces. Shape each piece into a ball. Place 1/2–inch apart on greased baking sheets. Let rise until doubled (about 45 minutes).
  5. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 20-25 minutes. Cool. Make a cross with white icing on each bun.

Make ahead tip: Prepare the buns through Step 4 and put them in the refrigerator overnight. Bake right before you plan to serve them.

 

 

A Delicious “Vinegar Valentine”

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A “vinegar valentine” (Wikimedia Commons)

Does the very thought of Valentine’s Day leave a sour taste in your mouth? If so, you’re not alone. Many people dislike or even dread Valentine’s Day.

But few would go so far as some people in previous generations did, sending anti-Valentine wishes or “vinegar valentines” to mock the holiday.

Sometimes called “comic valentines” (though they weren’t the least bit funny, especially to the recipient) these cards littered mailboxes for about 100 years, from the 1840s to the 1940s.

Vinegar valentines were nasty, insulting, mean little missives meant to wound and humiliate. These cards were cheap to make and buy, and were usually sent anonymously. They featured a sarcastic sketch and a few lines of verse, and no one was safe from their ridicule.

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Here’s another example. Not exactly hearts and flowers, is it? (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, you’re unlikely to find vinegar valentines at your local card store. But if you’d like inject some vinegar into your Valentine’s Day in a sweeter way, you can’t go wrong with this chocolate cake recipe.

“Wacky Cake” has been around my family for decades – I’m not even sure of its origin. Chocolate-y and delicious, the recipe calls for vinegar combined with baking soda. You’ll see from the list of ingredients that this cake has no eggs and no milk, making it vegan and dairy-free.

This simple, economical recipe has saved the day many a time when my children announced over dinner that it was my turn to bring treats to school the next morning.

It works as a layer cake, or it’ll produce about 2 dozen cupcakes. This cake tastes just fine unfrosted, too.

 

♥ Wacky Cake ♥

Ingredients 

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2/3 cup cocoa
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 tsp. vinegar (I use plain white vinegar)
  •  1 cup cooking oil
  • 2 cups cold water

 Directions

Mix all ingredients in one bowl. Stir well. Bake in ungreased cake pan(s) at 300 degrees for 45-55 minutes. (If you make cupcakes, test for doneness after about 30 minutes.)

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This cake tastes great with coffee.

 

 

How do you like your Valentine’s Day – sour or sweet? I like mine wacky!

Here Comes the Rain Again

I woke up this morning to gray clouds and the promise of rain. That’s not unusual for January in my corner of the Pacific Northwest. It’s been raining for days now, so 14-04-15-fahrradmonteur.de-01much so that I’m beginning to startle at the sight of the sun.

It’s tough for your home correspondent to maintain a cheerful outlook in such soggy conditions. For one thing, this rainy weather is hell on housekeeping. Shoes and coats have to be shed at the front door, lest the entryway get too wet. The dog’s paws have to be firmly wiped of mud each of the 36 times a day he demands to be let outside, and his full-coat shakedown after each outdoor excursion leaves the walls dripping if I don’t towel him off in time.

I know I shouldn’t complain, especially since most of the East Coast is blanketed in a mountain of snow that has to be shoveled. But rain depresses my spirits, and the best cure I know for that type of depression is music.

Here are ten of my favorite songs for coping with rain:

  1. Here Comes the Rain Again – The Eurythmics. “Here comes the rain again, falling on my head like a memory . . .” such poetry almost makes the rain worth it.
  2. Bus Stop– The Hollies. A sentimental favorite of mine, the song tells the story of how summer rain and a shared umbrella brings two lovers together.
  3. Rhythm of the Rain – The Cascades. Fantastic harmonies, which makes it impossible to resist singing along.
  4. I Wish It Would Rain – The Temptations. Again, lovely harmonies coupled with a soulful lyric, but I just can’t get behind the message right now.
  5. Fire and Rain – James Taylor. A classic, sung in Taylor’s beautifully mellow voice.
  6. Who’ll Stop the Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival. Who indeed? I find myself singing this after three or more rainy days in a row.
  7. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head – B.J. Thomas. This song is almost unbearably perky, but it’s worth it for the image it evokes of Paul Newman and Katharine Ross riding a bicycle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  8. Singing in the Rain – Gene Kelly. Who hasn’t had the urge to latch onto a lamppost and belt this song out at one time or other? Gene Kelly made it look like such fun in the movie.
  9. I Can See Clearly Now – Johnny Nash. This is a good one to sing when you catch your first glimpse of a rainbow.
  10. Rainy Days and Mondays – The Carpenters. Karen Carpenter’s smooth-as-silk vocals may not help you beat the rainy day blues, but she does have a soothing effect.

What did I miss? Tell me your favorite rainy day songs!

Image: © Ralf Roletschek / Wikimedia Commons/ GFDL

 

 

9 Ways to Beat the Post-Holiday Blues

Every year I tend to sink into a funk right after Christmas.  It doesn’t matter if I enjoyed the season or not. If I had a wonderful holiday, I’m sad to see it end. If I had a less-than-stellar experience, I grieve the missed opportunity to connect meaningfully and joyfully with family and friends.

Holiday BluesAnd then there are the memories of Christmases past. For me, Christmas is an emotional time of year.

Post holiday let-down also has a lot to do with fatigue. As a mom I often feel primarily responsible for my family’s holiday experience – good or bad.

That perception propels me into overdrive – shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, composing greeting cards, planning meals and get-togethers, as well as attending parties, church services, and community festivities.  I’m the ringmaster of a three-ring holiday circus.

No wonder I crash afterwards.

Here are some ways I try to reset my mood after the holidays and get ready to embrace a new year:

  1. Playing music or binge-watching TV as I put away decorations. Watching a non-holiday movie or several episodes of a TV series I enjoy is a good distraction while I take down the tree – it prevents brooding. I also like to listen to music that gets my blood pumping. Moving to music makes the task more fun, with the added benefit of feel-good endorphins.
  2. Planning a treat for when the work is done.  A long relaxing soak in the tub is something I look forward to. A home facial or manicure works nicely, too.
  3. Staying out of the kitchen. Who wants to cook and do dishes in the middle of Christmas clean-up? I go out to dinner, even if it’s just for a burger, to escape the rooms that now seem stark compared to their former holiday glory.
  4. Getting something new to display. A pretty vase or piece of art is a welcome visual treat in place of holiday lights and decorations. To keep from busting my strained post-holiday budget, I shop for these items at Goodwill, Ross and similar thrift/discount stores.
  5. Thinking green. I like to thumb through a seed catalog or gardening book and dream about spring. Or I buy a houseplant. This year I bought a pothos and a philodendron (both high on the hard-to-kill list) for their lush foliage, which helps me miss the Christmas tree less. Plus, live plants improve indoor air quality – a welcome bonus.
  6. Buying a calendar. Every year I purchase a colorful or witty calendar – whichever gladdens my heart. I love calendars because they’re pieces of art you get to change every month. There are some really beautiful ones on the market, and after Christmas they’re discounted.

Got the decorations put away but still feel blue? Here are a few more ideas that may brighten your mood:

  1.  Set goals. This may be a traditional New Year’s activity, but it’s a classic because it works. I’ve found the trick is to set two types of goals – those I’m fairly confident I can achieve, like taking more walks or eating more vegetables, and one or two that are more ambitious, like losing weight or organizing my closets. I want to feel empowered, not overwhelmed.
  2. Plan a vacation for later in the year. Even if I have to stay close to home rather than jet off to an exotic locale, I look forward to taking a break from my routine. I’ve also had fun just being a tourist in my own town, hitting the museums and other points of interest highlighted in the Chamber of Commerce brochure.
  3. Tackle something new. Learn how to paint, play a musical instrument, speak a foreign language – or whatever else appeals to you. Ten years ago I resolved to relearn how to crochet and practice yoga. And I actually stuck to one of those resolutions!

What have you done to beat the post-holiday blues?

 

Holiday image by Esra

The Occasional Table

As your indefatigable Home Correspondent, I’m not afraid to tackle tough topics in home décor. So today I’m focusing on ambiguous furniture – pieces that just can’t make up their minds what they are.

These are items of furniture that have more than one identity – a sleeper sofa, a storage ottoman, a desk bed (yes, there is such a thing – folded, it looks like an upright piano), or a chair step-stool, to name only a few.

And then there’s the “occasional table,” a real stumper.

This furniture item is truly, deeply unsure of itself. Is it a table that’s used only occasionally or a piece of furniture that’s only occasionally a table?

If it’s the latter definition, my home is full of occasional tables. For example, there’s a kitchen stool that does double-duty as a fan table, a piano bench that’s a book table, and an African drum (left behind when my son moved out) that serves as a coffee or cocktail table, depending on my mood and the time of day.

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A hall table or a cat tree? It can’t decide.

According to one definition, occasional tables must be too small to have any other practical use. If you adhere to that rule, you can’t really call your 6-ft dining room table an occasional table.

That’s too bad, because the table in my dining room is also only a table occasionally. More often it’s a place to dump and sort mail, a craft table, a library table and even a jigsaw puzzle board. On these occasions, especially when puzzle pieces are spilled everywhere or arranged in painstaking order, we eat our meals juggling plates on our laps.

I hope the “occasional” tag catches on and gets applied to more than just tables.

There could be occasional desks, of which we have several, since my husband refers to every horizontal surface in our home as a desk. I’ve come to dread the words “it’s on the desk” when I’m trying to find something for him.

Also, we have several occasional beds – at least, according to our cat and dog, who sleep whenever and wherever they feel like. To them, anything they can stretch out on or curl up in (like the rug in the entryway or the bathroom sink) makes a fine spot to nap.

And speaking of cats in the context of tables, the Home Correspondent advises against allowing felines on any of your tables, be they occasional or otherwise. This objection is not based on hygiene, but rather on the typical bad attitude most cats possess.

See how this kitty “thug” uses a table, for example:

Now if only there could be occasional cats – an animal that’s sometimes a cat and sometimes a cute stuffed animal that never coughs up hairballs. My carpets could use a break.

Rite of Spring

House_cleaningAh, springtime – the time of year when the air is perfumed by the scent of cherry blossoms and soft breezes herald warmer weather as winter loosens its frosty grip. It’s hard to believe that some people view this lovely season as the perfect time to clean their houses from top to bottom.

The tradition of thoroughly cleaning your house in the spring is ancient. Something about the vernal equinox has prompted conscientious housekeepers for centuries to wash their walls and windows, sweep every corner of their floors and haul their rugs outside to beat them with wire whisks.

I remember spring days not so long ago when my own dear mother-in-law would tie a scarf around her head, put on a house dress and enlist her children’s help in moving every single piece of furniture out of the main living areas so she could apply a fresh coat of wax on her floors and buff the wood to a glossy shine. It was a full day of back-breaking labor.

“Housework, if you do it right, will kill you,” said humorist Erma Bombeck. She was so right. I freely admit that I seldom wash my walls or clean my baseboards, and dusting seems like a diabolical waste of time, since dust resettles on the surfaces in my home almost as soon as I wipe it away.

This time of year, women’s magazines are full of articles outlining ways to clean your house faster, better, and more thoroughly, to the point where it would almost be easier to tear everything down and start over.

800px-Messie_Syndrom_Arbeitszimmer_10A case in point is Martha Stewart’s spring cleaning checklist. She includes tasks such as scrubbing your driveway and polishing your doors. Rotating your mattresses, cleaning your refrigerator coils and emptying your bookshelves to better dust and vacuum their nooks and crannies are other items on her to-do list.

It sounds exhausting – and a perfect way to spoil a fine spring day.

The best advice I ever saw about house cleaning is to do a little every day of the week, on the theory that it’s easier to keep a clean house clean than clean a dirty one. (How’s that for a tongue-twister?)

A half-hour spent daily on one aspect of house-cleaning (mopping floors on Monday, dusting on Tuesday, vacuuming on Wednesday, etc.) can work out better overall than devoting hours or even an entire day to housework. This is the approach advocated by the delightful Fly Lady, and it works for me – when I remember to do it.

400px-Beagle_and_sleeping_black_and_white_kitty-01Of course, cleaning takes on a whole new meaning if you have pets. I’ve always had cats and dogs, and it’s amazing how much fur those animals can shed when winter warms to spring. The other day I combed almost enough loose fur off my long-haired cat to make a whole new animal.

Today’s Friday Funny addresses the topic of spring cleaning from a cat’s point of view. In this video, Henri, an existential cat who speaks French, meditates on the futility of life in general and spring cleaning in particular.

Here’s “Blight of Spring.” I hope you enjoy it!

All the images in this post are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Napoleonic adventure in pastry

Viola_reichenbachiana_001March 20 is the first day of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere, and spring is the time of year when hopes of new beginnings bloom along with the flowers.

This day also marks the anniversary of another spring two hundred years ago, when a very hopeful Napoleon Bonaparte left his relatively cushy exile on the Tuscan island of Elba to sail back to France. He landed on the French coast on March 20, 1815, and began a misguided attempt to reclaim his empire.

Napoleon_saintheleneHis doomed effort ended 100 days later in the Battle of the Waterloo, where he was defeated by the armies of the Seventh Coalition. After losing the battle, Napoleon was exiled once more, this time to St. Helena, an isolated speck in the South Atlantic Ocean. 

If you’d like to remember Napoleon’s ill-fated quest in a delicious way, you can indulge in a confection that bears his name. Though there’s no proven connection between this pastry and the Emperor, both have ties to France, share the same name, and are complicated with many layers. That’s enough for me.

Slide-mille-feuilleThe dessert Napoleon, which is called a mille-feuille (“thousand leaves”) in France and a custard slice in other countries, is composed of layers of puff pastry alternating with layers of pastry cream. The top layer can be coated with powdered sugar or an icing. You can make this treat yourself if you are ambitious or purchase it from a bakery.  

 

If you’d like to give the recipe a try, here’s an easy variation:

 

And of course, since its Friday, here’s a Friday Funny:

 

Question: Can you name the Mediterranean island where Napoleon was born?

 

Answer: Of Corsican!