Birthday Boy

Happy birthday, Stephen! It's cold and rainy out, a good day for celebrating indoors. This is the kind of weather I was born into about a quarter of a century ago, or so my mother tells me: a foggy and damp December morning, the kind of weather I still love. It does chill you to the bone, though. Brrr. I'm glad we've got bellies full of birthday cookies and birthday risotto to keep us warm.

We went out for brunch to celebrate (nothing says birthday like a stack of pancakes!), then saw the Drawn to Detail exhibit at DeCordova. The museum has a huge staircase flooded with natural light, and it was cozy to watch the sleet and rain run down the windows while we looked at the delicate works on paper. There were some prints, an animation project, and many intricate drawings, some so large and detailed that they made our heads spin.

I've made substantial progress in my November book, but I won't finish it tonight. I've got too much work to do before tomorrow. I'm procrastinating, as usual, but for an unusual reason: one of my assignments is to write a self-reflection essay based on a presentation I gave, which means that I need to watch and re-watch a video of myself and scrutinize my performance. You know how hearing your own voice on the answering machine can make you cringe and ask, "Do I really sound like that?" This is like that, but longer and in greater detail, and I'm being graded on my critique.

So let's talk about something else for a minute, until I absolutely have to go finish my work. How about Thanksgiving travel? I've spent a lot of time in the car over the past week (7 hours round-trip to my parents' house + 6 hours to visit my grandparents) and here are the lessons I learned:

1. Driving on the Tuesday before and the Saturday after Thanksgiving is much easier than on the Wednesday before and the Sunday after, but the Mass Pike is always crazy east of I-84.
2. The content on NPR is better on weekdays than weekends, unless you're really into opera.
3. E-Z Pass is worth its weight in gold, even if it has a silly name (actually, I think mine's a Fast Lane, since I bought it in Massachusetts).
4. If you want to travel by train between Boston and Albany on a holiday weekend, reserve early.

I wanted to take the train to New York state, but it sold out really early. I may try again at Christmas. I love the idea of traveling across the state in a comfy train car, reading and not worried about traffic or road conditions. My mom suggested the bus as an alternative, but it doesn't hold the same appeal for me. My vision of the bus = crowded, sitting in traffic, watching a movie picked out by the bus company, whereas train travel = smooth, sitting by the window, plenty of leg room, quiet, snacks. Maybe I'll take a train ride next weekend, just for the fun of it. Go to the end of the commuter line and look around, see what we find; public transportation as the doorway to adventure.


Something from the Oven

These weeks of the semester are particularly heavy with deadlines, so aside from going to work, class, and the gym, I rarely venture outside anymore. Instead, in between papers and PowerPoints, I've been baking.

This weekend, I made marshmallows. I've wanted to try this ever since I saw a recipe in a Christmas book of my mom's when I was in high school, but the ingredients freaked me out. (Corn syrup? Can you even buy corn syrup?) Now that we've made caramels a few times, the ingredients and the candy thermometer and the weird terminology (soft ball stage, etc.) are familiar and comfortable. Well, as comfortable as things can be when boiling-hot sugar lava is involved.

But I can't say that I was prepared for how messy this stuff would be. It's all stick and no structure: too thick to flow into the pan on its own, but not substantial enough to coax along with a spatula. If you were having a bad day already, trying to wrestle the molten fluff-stuff into a neat rectangle would probably make you cry.

Luckily, I was having a good day, so it was mostly just funny. As we pried the last bits of marshmallow goo from the sugar-encrusted utensils, I told Stephen about an episode of the Muppet Show (not Muppet Babies, which I've actually never seen, but the live show with celebrity guests) where Dr. Bunsen Honeydew develops a Super Adhesive that sticks to everything in the studio. That's kind of what our kitchen looked like on Sunday afternoon. (Update: I found it on YouTube! Wow, that's a blast from my past. Gilda Radner is the guest, if you can believe it.)

Other things I've been cooking up:

Carrot almond muffins, with the last of our CSA carrots. I made these when we were going over to my boss's house for dinner one night. I really like this recipe, which can be modified to fit any combination of nuts and fruit/vegetable. (As always, I got it from here.) There's a variation in the book for pumpkin bread with hazelnuts, which sounds magnificent. We've still got some uncarved pumpkins on the windowsill--I wonder if they would be good for muffins? Or do you have to use sugar pumpkins when baking?

The recipe made a lot of batter, so I made some mini muffins, too. These were perfectly bite sized, and I got in the habit of stuffing three or four in my mouth on the walk home from the gym. I'd tell myself that they're full of beta carotene.

They're also full of molasses, which I substituted for half of the sugar. I love the smell of molasses. I first tried it when I was anemic a couple of years ago and a friend told me to try putting blackstrap molasses into oatmeal, applesauce, and anything else I cooked. I didn't like it in most of those things, but I do love it in gingerbread. Smells like Christmas to me.

I've also been making good use of these implements, which we got on our trip to the Cape last month. The honey is from Plimoth Plantation, the donut mix from a gourmet food store, and the mixing bowl and corn pan are from a fancy kitchen shop. Food and kitchen shopping is pretty much the only kind of shopping that I like to do on vacation, and luckily Stephen feels similarly. He's been making donuts (excuse me, doughnuts) from that mix, and, like most fried things, they are heavenly.

I'm kind of a sucker for most shaped pans. I don't like Bundt pans for some reason--I guess I like cakes in traditional shapes, and the ones that look like castles or flowers just seem silly to me. But I do like shaped pans for other things, like madeleine pans for cookies and corn-shaped pans for cornbread.

Our first attempt to bake cornbread in this didn't work out very well--it was tasty, but it didn't pick up any of the decorative detail from the pan. Maybe we'll have to try another recipe. Or maybe I should try baking non-corn bread in here? A sort of culinary faux bois? Tricky.



Here I am on my way to vote on Tuesday afternoon. I was expecting a long line because it was around the block and down the street in the morning, but there were only a handful of people when I got there at 4:30. I was glad I had gotten up early that day so I had time to figure out a red, white and blue outfit. I felt restless and excited all day, like it was Christmas Eve--a nervous and hopeful Christmas Eve. Everyone at work was talking about the ballot questions in Massachusetts: Would people really vote to abolish the state income tax? (Luckily, they did not.) Stephen and I stayed up late that night to see the results come in and watch the concession and victory speeches. When they called the election for Obama, of course I felt elated. But I also felt--and I wasn't expecting this--relieved. I felt like I could stop worrying about things. Not that there isn't still plenty to worry about, but I now feel that our national problems are in the hands of people smarter than me, and I don't dread the decisions they're going to make. It's a nice change.