Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Friday, December 23, 2011

Passing the Torch

In the midst of trying to scrimp and save this Christmas, I did buy one very special gift for my family.  It's an advent calendar, and a really nice one.  I got it for about 60% off because it was one of just a few leftovers from last year's Pottery Barn Kids array.  I am IN LOVE WITH IT.  Seriously - LOVE.

In addition to little candies or trinkets, you can also put a scrap of wrapping paper in a pocket.  The child or children then get to open small gift(s) under the tree that are wrapped in the paper that matches.

When I spied it in the store my heart started racing.  I knew I shouldn't be spending any money and yet I'd had it in my heart for years to procure an amazing advent calendar my children would cherish all throughout their lives.  I'd been gazing - repeatedly - online at the current Pottery Barn Kids "stocking" advent calendar (and checking out stuff on Etsy, too).  I'd been dropping all sorts of hints to my husband about how if it went on clearance after Christmas, maybe he could get it for my Christmas gift next year. 

So when I saw this one for less than $40.00, I HAD TO HAVE it.  Flush-faced (anyone else have anxiety attacks when they spend money?) I handed over my credit card and signed the slip.  As I carried it back to the car, my thoughts turned to its predecessor.  To "The" advent calendar from my childhood, to the house in which it hung for over fifty years, and to the amazing, vibrant woman who hung it:  My grandmother Margaret ("Peggy") Ellis.
1945:  Her engagement announcement to my grandfather.

2009:  Still so vibrant.

I knew, heading home, that things had been a little rougher for her lately.  While we'd all said she'd live to be at least 100, she'd had a stroke last winter (shortly after turning 90).  Thankfully (and miraculously), she'd made a fairly full recovery - *so* her.  But the week prior to my Advent calendar purchase, she'd had "a fall."  A very stroke-like fall.  And when we saw her in October she just seemed slightly less "there."

Thus as I drove off with my own Advent calendar, my mind was filled with visions of my grandmother's calendar and memories of Christmases spent at a little house in Peoria; my father's childhood home.  The excitement of seeing my cousins, the familiar holiday food, the gifts, the love... I made a mental note to thank her for every time she hosted us and all the work she'd put into it, and to tell her about my own Advent calendar and how hers had so inspired me.  I felt even more a mother and a leader in my family as I plotted and schemed for my own children and grandchildren to have such great memories, and to capture those memories in a calendar that would reproduce those childhood feelings and associations throughout the rest of their lives.

One of those earlier Christmases in the Peoria house.

Reading to me and my cousin Ben.

I certainly wasn't expecting to return home to an email from my father telling me that she had been transferred to the nursing home portion of the retirement center she lives in.  What???  I had assumed she had at least five more years in independent living before she'd *even* go to assisted... how could she possibly be in a nursing home facility???  This is a woman who less than two years ago had more energy and a better memory than my parents... heck, than me!  WHAT?  And the rest of the family had gathered in Peoria for Thanksgiving and reported that she seemed to be doing very well.

I had to write my dad back - twice - and make sure he meant to write what he'd written.  But sadly, yes.  All of a sudden my seemingly immortal grandmother - the one who lived through The Great Depression, World War II, and somehow, the death of her own sweet six year old boy Scott Robert Ellis... the one who kept my grandfather at home and out of a nursing home until his very final months all the while herself being in her mid-80's .... could no longer have conversations much beyond "Hello" and "How are you."  She was... the grandmother that *I knew so well* that *I loved* that *I admired so much*, she was very suddenly, in a very real way, gone.

1945 with my grandpa Jack.


Home from The War and newly married.



I know that from the outside it doesn't seem very sad.  She's still alive, she's almost 92 years old, and she's lived a great life.  Nor can I say I have any regrets; during the 6 years we spent in St. Louis, my husband and I saw more of my grandparents than of any other family members, due to proximity.  Some of my most treasured memories of my husband - the ones that melt my heart no matter what else is going on in our lives - are the memories of how strongly he cared for my grandfather as his health failed.  He *loved* to visit the house in Peoria and we went every chance we could.  He learned how to feed my grandfather (through a tube in his stomach) so that I could get my grandmother out of the house and take her for coffee.  He read to my grandfather, who suffered from macular degeneration (among other things at that point).  He found all of my grandparents' old black and white slides and we spent one of our last afternoons with my grandfather looking at them on the old projector.  Thus he was right there when the chronological pictures went immediately from three little boys on family trips "up North" to two late-high school aged boys and a brand new baby girl.  He heard my grandfather utter "She was the answer to our prayers" when those new baby girl pictures came on the screen.  He even heard my grandfather, a man of very few words, say "It's a strange thing... because we wouldn't have had Nancy if we hadn't lost Scott."  At our very last Peoria Christmas, my grandfather - who didn't even know quite who everyone was - was asking for my husband.  I love this man, my husband, who so loved and helped care for my grandparents.

The Ellis Family:  Peggy, Dick (my dad), Scott, John, and Jack.

The daughter she adores; a woman just as capable as she was.

So I have no regrets in terms of whether I maximized my access to and memories of the amazing woman that my grandmother was.  Still, I find myself with a heavier heart this Christmas.  And a yearning to capture some of our family history in a blog entry.   I love the Advent calendar now hanging on our utility closet door, but so much more than that I love the woman who first introduced me to Advent calendars.  My heart is with her this Christmas.  With her stories of growing up poor in Minnesota with four sisters, and a father who was constantly changing jobs for one reason or another.  With her stories of the WWII home front and a friend who, after receiving the news of her husband's death, later received a letter written by him for their baby-to-be; he knew he was "about to be involved in something big" (the storming of the Normandy beaches) and he had a "bad feeling" about how it would turn out for him - he just wanted to leave a few words for the baby he would never meet or hold.  Yes, my heart is with my grandmother and the colorful yet in many ways typical life she led as an American woman coming of age in the 1930's, born in 1921.  My thoughts are on the incredible strength she's had all these years in living on through the loss of her sweet little boy, and with the intense pride and joy she takes in her remaining children.  Her uncanny insight throughout all these decades, her sense of humor, her love of food, the house she kept for so many years and memories, our late-night chatting, and the breakfasts and lunches she always served.  Grandma, I love you so much.  So, so much.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guy Things I Never Thought I'd Have to Know or Do

I'm all for gender equality, don't get me wrong.  But ladies, let's be honest:  We grow up expecting that certain things will be handled by the men in our lives.  Things like deep blizzard shoveling, for example.  Or... dare I say... toilet clogs.  But now that I'm going on 2 years of being a stay-at-home spouse with a very busy husband, it's finally dawned on me:  The days of "guy stuff" are over.  At least for me.  Here is a list of some of the things I never thought I'd have to know or do.

2003

1.  Deep Blizzard Shoveling.  If you're married to a man who's never home during daylight (or even nighttime) hours, someone HAS to clear the snow.  I once shoveled over 8 hours in one day.  Pregnant.  We live on a corner with two entrances (both with stairs and porches) and a bear of a steep driveway.  And we had a "nor'easter"!

Shoveling... it's not for perfectionists.  Especially our driveway.

2.  Toilet Troubles.  I remember the first time I cleared a clog... I assumed it was an extreme, once-in-a-lifetime situation.  LOL.  Since then I've learned all about all sorts of toilet troubles online and in discussions with my dad, our landlord, and the plumber.  Got a toilet problem?  I just may be your lady.




3.  Dishwasher Trouble-Shooting.  It turned out not to be fixable... but I was able to verify that for our landlord after a lot of research.  And without any water damage to our neighbors below!


4.  Massachusetts Plates.  I believe it took 4 trips to the RMV to finally get our MA plates.  With or without a baby, I did all 4 ... waiting over an hour each time.


5.  Need New Tires.  Good thing our tire blew out before winter arrived!  I'd had no idea all 4 needed replacing.  Now I know what to look for and how to tell... and how to get a good deal on new ones.

6.  Other Car Maintenance.  Oil changes, new wipers, brake adjustments... oh yeah.  And all with a baby in tow.


7.  Take Out The Papers And The Trash.  I don't get any "spending cash" for this but trash and recycling are pretty much all me.

8.  Steam Heater Maintenance.  I can't explain this if your house isn't ancient, but it involves keeping water at a certain level in the basement.  I think I made our landlord write it all down for me... that was before I gained confidence in these matters.

9.  Dryer Vent Fixing.  Actually I haven't done this yet because I can't reach.  But that's why it's been out for nearly a year.  I'm still scheming about how to get a chair down two flights of steep, narrow stairs.

10.  Installing the Car Seats.  It scares me that I'm even involved with this.

11.  Assembling Strollers, Furniture, and Baby Toys.  My parents would be proud.  And utterly shocked.


12.  Purchasing Big Heavy Items, like our Area Rug, and Hauling Them Home.  A big thanks to Kelly, who helped me out with the rug.

13.  Last, but definitely not least:  The time I had to fish a dead, stinking, fly-attracting rat out of my diaper bag and salvage what I could of the contents.  It had to be done... and it had to be done before that long hospital shift was over. 

I almost couldn't do it.  I think it took a few tries.
So all you female medical spouses out there wishing you could afford a house already... be glad!  I can't imagine how much more work that would be!  And I have, since childhood, *always* refused to mow the lawn.  ;)

Friday, December 2, 2011

All-Time Favorite Recipe: Orange Citrus Breakfast Rolls (with cream cheese frosting)

Oh.  My.  GOSH.  When my husband and I first bit into these rolls we were absolutely blown away.  Better than my wildest dreams, these rolls had it all:  Moist, stretchy dough texture - even on the outside of the roll, sweet citrus zing, and a hint of savory in the cream cheese frosting.

Citrus:  Perfect for the Holiday Season.
I wrote in an old blog entry that one of my goals is to try as many recipes as possible so that I can find THE best recipes to be the seasonal staples of my children's childhoods. Devouring my first roll I knew: I had arrived.  I'd found THE #1 Christmas morning recipe for my family.  For us, there can be no more important recipe. Of course, it'll be awhile before I'm hosting my own Christmases.  But for now, I'm thinking our tree-decorating day and whatever day we celebrate Christmas in Boston will include this recipe... and I'll make it at NO other time of the year, to preserve its magic.

Here it is, with pics, explanations, and only a few very minor alterations.

(Have you ever tried orange rolls?  They sell them next to the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in all grocery stores - the citrus is such a nice change, really adds more flavor... and citrus is perfect for the holiday season)

Ingredients (Don't be intimidated, nothing exotic):

1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (just ask a clerk if you can't find it - EASY)
1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup warm water

1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup orange juice
1 stick butter
1/4 cup instant vanilla pudding mix
1 tablespoon orange extract (baking section by the vanilla)
4 cups bread flour ("better for bread" flour)
2-3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons grated orange zest (need 2 oranges for this)
1 teaspoon orange extract
3/4 cup white sugar

1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
1.5 cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar
2 teaspoons orange extract

Directions (takes a little time, but not at all difficult):

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon white sugar and the yeast over the warm milk and water in a small bowl.  Let stand about 5 minutes.  Mix in the egg, 1/2 cup orange juice, melted butter, vanilla pudding mix, and 1 tbsp orange extract.  Stir in the first 5 cups of flour (including 4 of bread flour) and salt.  Add more if the dough is too sticky (it will be).  When the dough has pulled together into a ball, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, adding more flour as needed, about 7 minutes.

Place the dough in a large greased or oiled bowl and cover with a clean cloth.  Allow to rise in a warm place for 90 minutes (I used the oven - turned it on for just a minute and then turned it off so it would be a little warm).

Combine the stick of softened butter with the orange zest and 1 tsp orange extract in a small bowl until smooth.  Set aside.  Grease a 9x12 baking pan and another smaller square one.  Don't try to slice them thick and squeeze them into one pan; they won't rise enough and will turn out dense and hard.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface and roll into a 24 inch by 12 inch rectangle. Spread the butter mixture evenly over the dough, then sprinkle with the 3/4 cup of white sugar.

Smears of the filling, ready to spread evenly.  Imperfect rectangle.
Roll up the dough, beginning with a longer side (so that the roll is more long than fat). Slice into 1.5 inch pieces.  Use a very sharp knife or a bread slicing knife if you have one.  They may flatten as you cut but you should be able to sort of put them back how they should be.  The bread flour makes the dough heartier and easier to work with but the all-purpose flour is worth a little extra effort so that your rolls are softer and chewier when they come out.

Cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate overnight or up until a few days if desired.  Hint:  If you refrigerate overnight, which I recommend for a less stressful morning, leave the butter and cream cheese for the frosting out overnight so it's already softened in the morning.


Before baking.

You can save the extra for another morning, if you want.
Remove the plastic wrap and allow the rolls to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.  If you never refrigerated them, allow them to rise until they're twice as high.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly before frosting.

Fresh from the oven, not yet frosted.

Can you tell how amazing the texture of the dough was?

While the rolls are baking, cream together the cream cheese and remaining stick of butter.  Stir in the confectioners' sugar and 2 tsp orange extract.  Spread frosting over slightly cooled rolls.

Frosted.  PERFECT December morning.


Enjoy!  Goes well with breakfast sausage (try Trader Joe's chicken breakfast sausage - mmm) or Kielbasa (Polish sausage).

'Tis the season!!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Moonlighting Blues & The Best Soup Ever

Before I get into this AMAZING soup, a bit about our lives.  For one thing, I get way more hits that way (apparently I wasn't meant for food blogging) and for another, I do mean to document our lives for my children and other medical spouses.

So:

My husband's moonlighting paperwork finally went through and that means he can start picking up shifts where he'll actually get paid as a doctor.  Only problem is he's still working as a resident!  His "senior resident" year was supposed to be a cakewalk but the ACGME passed a new rule this year that limits hospital shifts to 16 hours.  To compare, my husband often worked 30+ hours on his shifts as an intern.  So... someone has to pick up that slack.  And whereas at my dad's hospital they're turning to NP's (nurse practitioners), MGH knows it has an even cheaper labor source in its senior residents - heck, they're salaried so it's a FREE one!  So weekends my husband should have had off, and evenings he should have been home... he's working for *you*, MGH interns.  Enjoy your sleep!  Oh and be warned... if you're counting on moonlighting money, like we were... well, it's not so easy to find the time for it.

If you're wondering whether this is depressing, um, no, it's AWESOME!  Not.  This was supposed to be "the good year" and basically he'll now either work his days off or if we're "lucky" he'll moonlight them.  So sad, especially for Matthew.  I do some full-day baby-sitting and I've been lucky to do a little legal work from home recently, but living in Boston on a resident's salary with $1400/month student loan payments and a baby ... doesn't actually add up, people.  We're out of the money I saved lawyering and that means we need [significant] cash.  And as a friend once put it, my husband and I "don't have any fat to trim."  We're already living in extreme frugality.  (and *please* don't ask me "whether I've considered" going back to work ... it's a little insulting, frankly; if I thought that was a good choice for us right now I'd obviously already have done it).

What a rant!  Clearly my Italian side doesn't permit unlimited Pollyanna-ism and when even my husband's Scandinavian stoicism has devolved into cynicism, the only cheery disposition to be found chez nous is the baby's.  Thank God for him!

Anyway, my husband will be working Thanksgiving AND Christmas.  Woot.  Thanksgiving for free - allllll weekend - and moonlighting all Christmas.  No family in the area.  I don't think I can convey to those of you whose spouses have holidays off how depressing it is to face them alone, with a baby.  Everything is closed and everyone else is having those moments that life is all about, but you're just trying to figure out how to fill the time until the stores open again the next day and you can be excited for some grocery trip and seeing other kids at the park again.  In June my husband will start fellowship, where the first 1.5 years are supposed to be pretty bad.  So basically we're both looking forward to January of 2014, when my husband will be in the lab and things will finally be normal (if we can remember what normal is by then... and if they're actually normal...).  Sigh.  But as I told my own doctor, there are starving people in Africa.  Hmmm.  She still wants me to get therapy.  Her husband did the same programs, by the way...

On a brighter note, my brother's wife Adora (aptly named - we ADORE this girl) urged me to try this soup last year and I have to say she found a MAJOR gem.  Be sure you use good ingredients - sweet ripe pears and fresh ginger - or it won't turn out to be perfection.  But please, give this a whirl.  It's heart-healthy too (with substitutions) so I'll have to double post it on my HeartHealthyFoodie blog.  And it's actually fairly easy - if you double the recipe, you'll have a healthy veggie side dish with no cooking for many meals to come.

Curried Butternut Squash and Pear Soup

Finished Product.
Ingredients:

1 butternut or acorn squash
3 tbsp butter (heart healthy:  substitute Smart Balance Sticks)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tsp fresh minced ginger root (all produce sections have)
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp salt
4 cups chicken broth
2 Bartlett Pears, cored and diced (okay to leave peel on)
                                                                                      1/2 cup cream (heart healthy:  substitute milk)

(1) Roast the squash by slicing in half and removing seeds, and placing flat side down on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil.  Roast in 375 degree oven for 45 minutes.  When done, remove pulp from peel and set aside for later use.

Acorn squash before roasting. But go for butternut squash if you can find it.
(2) Melt butter in large soup pot.  Stir in onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder, salt, and saute until onion is soft. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Add pear and squash and simmer until pear is soft (about 30 mins).

Peeling and mincing the ginger root.
Sauteeing butter, onion, garlic, ginger, curry, salt.
Core the pear.
Easy pear dicing.
SO easy.  Scoop up with spatula and add to soup.
(3) Here's the labor of this recipe:  If you don't have an immersion blender, you need to transfer the soup to a food processor or blender in batches and blend until soup is pureed.  I highly recommend getting an immersion blender though.  They're not very expensive and they can pay for themselves easily when you use them to make your own baby food.

Immersion blender.  Perfect for making your own baby food - or heart healthy smoothies.  $28 on Amazon, makes a great gift.
(4) Return soup to pot.  Stir in cream (or milk).  Reheat.  I like to serve with a dollup of low-fat sour cream in the middle.  So fancy right?

Double batch, baby.  It freezes perfectly in any container.

Enjoy :)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Finally! A Great Family Weekend (+ German Apple Pancake Recipe)

Usually if I want to think about an amazing weekend packed with all sorts of fun and family and friends, I read Erica Carlson's blog.  This girl has such a great life and such a sweet way of appreciating all of the little pleasures life offers... I love her blog and can't get enough.  Plus the recipes are fabulous.

But this weekend I was thrilled to be in my own life.  I didn't spend a single day of it pretending it was still another weekday while figuring out how to fill the time with my husband at work and my few Boston-area friends spending quality time with their own families.  Instead, ALL weekend, *I* got to have quality family time.  And by ALL weekend, I mean that he didn't even work from home.  I can't recall the last time he even had an entire weekend "off" (August, I think!) but I assure you the last time he actually didn't work over a weekend was before he started residency, over two years ago.  And he did have his scheduled vacation last month, which was great... but it was crazy-busy seeing no fewer than sixteen friends in St. Louis and nineteen family members in Chicago and Madison.  Whew!

Anyway, we needed a weekend together as a family.  I don't think I even realized how badly we needed it until we finally had it.  Bonus:  My husband even managed to wake up well before noon both days.  Although he did spend Friday and now Sunday evenings sleeping from about 8:30 on.  And thus I sit here blogging...
Loving his daddy time.
But seriously, we took full advantage.  It was Halloween weekend, and the coolest thing to do in New England at Halloween is definitely to go to Salem.  You know, Salem... where they executed all those innocent people for being witches.  Par-tay!!  

But tragic human depravity aside, Salem is a really neat place to go in October.  The Witch Dungeon Museum is FASCINATING.  First you watch a reenactment of portions of the actual 1692 trial transcript of Elizabeth Proctor.  She was accused by an orphaned girl she and her husband had taken in as a servant and treated as their own.  She was found guilty but because she was pregnant, her execution was delayed until the hysteria was over.  Her husband was not so lucky; he was executed.  Largely for standing up for her - so sad.  Their graves, along with the graves of many of the other 20 convicted and executed "witches" can still be found in Salem.  I mean how weird is it to live down the highway from where that all went down?  BTW local cemeteries are awesome this time of year.  The first time I saw one I thought it was an elaborate Halloween display.

Cemetery at Harvard Square
Next, you tour the dungeon.  Although it's just a reconstruction of the original, it attempts to be historically accurate.  Back then, you had to actually pay for your own time in prison (don't tell the Republicans!).  The wealthy could afford their own cells, and the middle-class were in communal cells.  The poor were in "coffin cells" - cells that were about 2' x 2'.  Like a coffin except you had to stand up.  The entire time you were imprisoned.  #FateWorseThanDeath.

Anyway, so we spent a spooky, rainy afternoon in Salem.  When the rain started to freeze, we picked up a chicken pot pie from the acclaimed Ken's Kicken Chicken (Amazing!!) and headed home, stopping off at Wilson Farm for some of their hot spiced cider.  Back at home we ate our warm pot pie and cider and watched the snow coming down in huge, wet flakes.  Once M was in bed we sat down to watch Knocked Up, decided we hated it, and about fifteen crappy Netflix movies later we settled on The Spitfire Grill.  Fabulous Saturday.

This morning I got up early with M and cooked my husband an autumn breakfast feast while he slept in. If you at all like apples, give this one a try.  It's really quite easy SO good.  A great way to have "pancakes" and actually be able to sit down and eat together instead of running back and forth to the kitchen to flip new ones.

German Apple Pancake

4 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
3 pinches salt
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp nutmeg


1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar 
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced to about 1/4 inch thickness


In large bowl, stir or blend eggs, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt.  Slowly stir in milk.  Add vanilla, melted butter, and nutmeg.  Set aside for at least 20 minutes, hopefully 30.


Preheat oven to 425.  Melt the butter in a skillet or large pot or saucepan.  Add remaining ingredients.  Saute 3-5 minutes, until apples are slightly cooked and sitting in caramel.  Pour apple mixture into pie dish.  Pour pancake mixture on top.  Bake 15 minutes at 425 and another 10 minutes at 375.  

SO GOOD.  Perfect for a fall weekend breakfast.

I did serve this with Breakfast Potatoes.  SO unhealthy but SO GOOD:

Dice up 1 large-ish red potato.  I like it diced small.  Boil for 5 minutes.  Drain.  Start heating it in a small pot.  Add finely diced onion - about 1/6th of a whole onion for each red potato.  Add finely diced or pressed garlic - one clove per potato.  And 2 tbsp butter.  Heat and stir, sprinkle with paprika.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add more butter or onion if necessary.  Cook until desired doneness - I like them slightly crisp on the outside but chewy on the inside.  SO good but *SO* bad.

Anyway, if you're still reading, wow, thanks!  This was one long and disjointed blog entry.  But my main purpose with this blog is to capture our lives, largely for my children.  And this weekend was one I don't soon want to forget.  We finished off Sunday by finally working together on some projects around the apartment (cleaning out the office).  It felt SO good.  Later in the afternoon we did a 3.8 mile walk to and from Wilson Farm for "apple cider donuts" (they're big out here), more hot spiced cider, and a haunted hay ride for M.  Dinner together.  Perfection.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Black Magic Brownies

If you're a lover of intense, deep, decadent, rich chocolate, please try this recipe.  I promise you'll be glad you did.  As a friend once noted, they're almost too intense to technically be brownies, and would more aptly be named "black"ies.  Whatever the name, give these a whirl.  They're perfect any time you have a chocolate craving, but are particularly appropriate around Halloween when all things dark get their time to shine.

These are tiny 1" squares on a tiny plate.  Tiny, intense brownies.
I adapted this recipe from Allrecipe's Best Brownies, by making a few minor changes and one major one:  Using just half of the powdered sugar called for in the icing.  PLEASE trust me and do cut that sugar in half, if you use the Allrecipe's version.  If you don't, the icing ends up stiffer, slightly dry, and overly sweet.  While that was apparently good enough to earn 4.5 stars out of 4,100 Allrecipe reviews, that single significant change takes it to a full five star recipe, in my opinion.

Ingredients:

1 stick butter (or better:  Smart Balance)
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt, slightly rounded (i.e., slightly more salt)
1/4 tsp baking powder

3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup powdered/confectioners sugar
splash or two of cream

Directions:

Grease and flour a square pan (8x8 or 9x9).  A pie pan also works if you don't have a square one.  Preheat oven to 350.  Melt stick of butter in small pot on stove.  Take off heat.  Add sugar, eggs, and vanilla.  Stir until consistent.  Add flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder.  Stir until consistent again and pour into pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Do NOT overcook.  If tiny air pockets have appeared all over the top surface, it's done.  Cool at least 30 minutes before icing, but don't worry about cooling completely.  If the icing melts into the brownies, heck, why not; these are even better the next day, after the icing and brownie have somewhat merged into one.  Top with sprinkles if desired.  For a chocolate souffle effect, serve microwaved with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream on top.

The very close up close-up.
Enjoy.  Tell yourself it's healthy because to get this kind of satisfaction from regular brownies, you'd have to eat five times as much ;)  Then proceed to eat that much anyway, and melt away into total euphoric bliss.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

To DIE For Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Holy MOLY!!!  Please try this cake!


My friend Hillary recommended it to me back in July of 2010 and it is downright TRAGIC that I didn't get around to trying it out until now.  In my defense, it uses a lot of butter and cream cheese... two things I avoid in my attempts to lower my husband's cholesterol.  But I'm home in Madison with my parents right now and we're all about saturated fat.  Mmm...

Anyway, this cake is A-MAZ-ING.  Banana-y and cream cheese-y, not too sweet, and moist as you can imagine.  It's perfect for anyone out there who doesn't absolutely abhor bananas.  Cutting to the chase, here it is:  EASY-

Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from allrecipes.com's "Banana Cake VI"

3/4 cup butter (1.5 sticks)
2 1/8 cup white sugar (next time I might try using just 1 cup packed brown sugar)
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
1.5 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 cups buttermilk
2 tsp lemon juice
4 mashed overripe bananas
OPTIONAL:  Chopped walnuts or vanilla wafers (or both) to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 275 (yes: 275), and grease a 9x13 inch pan.  Mash the bananas with the lemon juice; set aside.  In medium sized bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, and salt.  In mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time.  Add vanilla.  Alternate adding the flour mixture with the buttermilk, mixer on low.  Keeping mixer on low, add the banana/lemon juice mixture.

For these pics I made half a batch; otherwise I'd have needed a 9x13" pan.

Bake for at least an hour, until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.  The center will go from jiggly to firm fairly quickly at the end - keep an eye on it.  Put it straight into the freezer, still uncovered, for 45 minutes.  Meanwhile, make the frosting:

8 ounce package cream cheese
1 stick butter
1 tsp vanilla
1.5-2.5 cups confectioner's (powdered) sugar

Beat the butter and cream cheese until mixed; add vanilla.  Add sugar to taste - I like it less sweet.

Again, I halved the recipe; be sure to use a 9x13 inch pan unless you do too.
Frost the cake.  If desired, crumble a few vanilla wafer cookies (or grab a bag of chopped walnuts) and sprinkle on top.

Keep it chilled and serve it about 15 minutes after you take it out of the fridge - even better this way.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Autumn Memories: Saint Olaf College

Um... read no further unless you're an Ole :)  This really has no general application or interest.  But if you're lucky enough to have experienced the magic of "The Hill," here's to reminiscing.  And if you happen to have stumbled on this while researching college for yourself, PLEASE do not overlook St. Olaf College.  It's not for everybody, but for those for whom it is, it's pure magic.

They call it "The Hill" because the 3,000-student campus sits atop a lofty hill in Minnesota, overlooking the quaint, historic college town of Northfield.  Breathing in elevated views of the Minnesotan countryside from buildings such as this one, the Camelot parallel won't escape you.  And if you're anything like me, it will basically be the culmination of all your princess fantasies and about 90% of your Halloween costumes.

Can I get a Rapunzel up here?

Even gorgeous in the dead of winter.  Check out this article on "Why a Winter's Morning at St. Olaf is Like A Vacation."  Great pics too.

Minnesotan countryside.

Northfield:  Adorable.  (a bit sleepy).
Olaf in the fall.  Brimming with excitement and happy reunions.
Olaf in the winter.  Too gorgeous to really care about the cold.
But that's just the backdrop, really.  The true magic at Olaf is held in its people.  First and foremost, in the lifelong friends you'll undoubtedly make, and in the warm, friendly acquaintances you'll see in your dorms and classrooms.  St. Olaf is a globally renowned music school, it's the #1 small liberal arts college for study abroad programs, it's a dry campus, and it's one of a few remaining colleges that maintain their Christian affiliations (in this case, ELCA:  very liberal).  Plus, it's in Minnesota and it's proudly slightly Norwegian.  It thus attracts a certain personality type, and while it takes some legitimate flack for being "insular," about 75% of students study abroad before graduating.  I spent an amazing year in France without paying anything over St. Olaf's admission (back then, a decidedly more impressive feat).  For those who have the means, the J-term (just January) programs like Theater in London, Art in Italy, Religion in Germany, whatever-the-excuse-to-go-to-Paris-is, and so many other programs all around the world are incredible opportunities.  My best college friend was in Turkey on 9/11 and Morocco shortly thereafter, on "Term in the Middle East."

Wholesome fun on a dry campus.
As a result of its strengths and its limitations - it is, after all, a fairly small campus in a small town, and you are required to live in dorms or honor houses on campus all four years - there are distinct characteristics that make up the typical Ole.  They tend to be what is for me (and many others) a perfect combination of traditional and wholesome, but open-minded and creative.  Yup, they're somewhat sheltered, and at times it can feel like a prep school.  But they are what they are and it is what it is, and most Ole alums hold their campus memories very near and very dear to their hearts.

*Sigh.*  I could go on and on about the myriad of other things that make St. Olaf College my favorite place on Earth, and that cause my heart to ache with longing whenever I view pictures of campus and whenever autumn rolls around.  The food (#1 in the nation), the fantastic professors, and the small class sizes.  The favorite Northfield hangouts (Hogan Brother's, baby), the exciting trips to the Twin Cities, and the traditional Norwegian Christmas Festival (complete with lefsa and lutefisk at the Caf).  And let's not forget The Cookie House across the river at Carleton College.  We owe many fun weekend evenings to a little old lady (Candace "Dacie" Moses, 1883-1981) who left her house to Carleton College on the condition that it always be open to students and always stocked with cookie baking supplies.  But I have to stop here, because my main purpose for this blog entry is to capture my own most treasured Olaf memories in writing, as they grow dimmer with each passing year.  So:

Before I even got there...
  • Road tripping to Minnesota with my dad, who wasn't going to let me overlook the small liberal arts schools he and my mom knew would be best for me.  I'd been set on going to UW-Madison until he dragged me all over Minnesota and waited patiently for me to attend classes and campus events.  We had the best times exploring St. Paul and staying at The Archer House (The Tavern) in Northfield - imagining his own grandparents on a date there as Carleton students in the 1910s.  It means THE WORLD to me that my father did this for me and these are some of my all-time most treasured memories.  I can't hear Sarah McLachlan songs without being taken right back.  
  • My weekend stay at St. Olaf as a "prospee."  The girls of Hoyme Hall were SO nice and SO friendly, they dressed me up as Pippy Longstocking for their Halloween party.   Literally every single person I met was kind and unpretentious.  A stark contrast from high school, and one I could not resist.
  • Returning to St. Olaf after a night out in Northfield and looking up at all the lighted dorms and buildings up on the hill.  Feeling SO jealous and wistful that my prospee host got to return to this magical place every single night.  At the time, I still felt I couldn't actually go to St. Olaf because it wasn't as academically competitive as Carleton or Macalester, my other top schools.  Attending St. Olaf taught me a lesson to which I attribute an enormous amount of my life's happiness:  Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.
  • Keeping the St. Olaf viewbook on my dresser by my bed and staring at it many, many times as a high school senior, unable to believe I was lucky enough to have it in my future. 
  • Imagining meeting a boy there.  Every Camelot needs a Prince Charming!  This boy would be smart and sweet and chivalrous, respectful and a person of great character.  I think I just described my husband :)

Those magical four years...

Leaf Pile Night.  Olaf magic captured on film.
Freshman year dorm with Hillary.
Freshman year dorm 10 years later, with Matt and Dear Husband.
  • Driving to Olaf with my parents and brother, and all of us crying when "Butterfly Kisses" came on the radio.
  • Week I:  Fun activities, awesome new people, a feeling of adventure I'll never capture again. Social nervousness but social acceptance.  Awesome food.  Falling asleep every night feeling like one of the luckiest people on the planet, excited to wake up to another amazing day.  Even without air conditioning AND with occasionally ice-cold showers. 
  • Finding and bonding intensely with my best-friend-to-be, Hillary Rhodes.  Laughing hysterically over the "gum letter" and just about everything else.  "Freezing time."  "We thought it was soundproof.  We thought that was the point."
  • Bonding with our partners in crime, Matt Wieland and Husband-To-Be, over lengthy debates at Goodbye Blue Monday coffee shop and leaf pile night.  Dorkily calling ourselves "the foursome" forevermore.  Chanhassen dinner theater. 
  • Heading off to meals as a group, walking down the sidewalk from Ellingson Hall.  That's the quintessential.  
  • Developing a big crush on Now-Husband.  BIG.
  • Sleepovers with Hillary in her dorm when her roommate was out of town.  Garth Brooks.  Friends in Low Places.  A-oo-oo!
  • Weekends at Hillary's aunt and uncle's mansion in the historic Summit Hill area of St. Paul.  Breakfast at Cafe Latte.  Truffles from Just Truffles.  Her uncle is Garrison Keillor... we were living out The Minnesotan Experience.
  • Trips to the Twin Cities, dorm corridor "screws" to the Mall of America. 
  • Chapel-naps. 
  • The new student center.  The luxury was fun, but we all missed meals and memories at the old one.
  • Falling in love with Now-Husband.  
  • The Cross Country "Screws" in the fall.  Feeling SO lucky to be my Now-Husband's date.  Mongolian barbecue.  Haagen-Dazs ice cream. 
  • Oh wait.  Were academics involved?  My favorite classes:  Speaking French with Mather, Religion with Schuurman, History seminars with Fitzgerald.  The entire French department.  Medieval History with Carrington.  
  • Morning runs with Hillary and/or Now-Husband.  
  • Chapel services, brunch.  Ole rolls at The Ole Store.
  • Due to the popularity of this post, I have had to remove my husband's first name.  I apologize for the awkward writing.  He doesn't want this link to come up when his patients google him.  
Sadly, this list and these descriptions can't quite capture the *feeling* of being in those moments and living that part of my life.  As the years roll by, my Olaf memories fade and I'm caught between trying desperately to keep them fresh, and then also trying not to think too much on them lest the potency of the memories dilute with usage.  So I've written it as best I can, and posted these photos.  Now, I must lock this blog entry away and avoid hearing Googoo Dolls "Slide" or Eagle Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight" on the radio - or ANY Sarah McLachlan (especially Possession) - rationing out these souvenirs as best I can.
Mellby (the nerdy dorm):  Sophomore year dorm with Hillary.
    Thorson:  Senior year dorm.
    Six years after graduation, on Old Main Hill.