Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween sleepover

 Aisling's Halloween party/sleepover was a lot of fun. We started off with a trip to Jacobs Family Orchard in Mt. Summit, where the girls had fun climbing up on the tower of straw bales. From left to right, Chelsea, Amanda, Ella and Aisling. (Ella is holding Zuzu, who made the trip with us as one of the girls.)

 Zuzu was all agog with so many new sights to see and smells to sniff out. Is that... a GOAT IN THE DISTANCE??!!

 Beautiful pumpkins on a lovely autumn afternoon.

 Ah, yes....the goats! The girls thought the goats were adorable, but Zuzu was underwhelmed.

 Cider slushies all around for the trip home, because it turns out that corn mazes, penned goats, straw bales and the like are all very thirsty work.

 Papa Murphy's was doing the cutest Jack-o-Lantern pizzas, so we wanted one.

 A platter of apple-cinnamon doughnuts and brownies magically disappeared.

 A skeery-looking bowl of popcorn was handy by for nibbling while watching Hocus Pocus and a Harry Potter movie.

 Monkey bread is always a big draw at sleepovers. I make mine out of the finest, freshly-ground 
MONKEY MEAT. (No, really, just little canned biscuits, butter, cinnamon-sugar, butter, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, butter and a little more butter.

Just so we can make it clear that the entire sleepover wasn't spent eating, we offered everyone a handicure with a shea butter sugar scrub for, well, scrubbing (purple pot), cocoa butter enriched petroleum jelly for softening (green pot) and oatmeal/vitamin E lotion for smoothing (pink pot).. 
There were fancy orange, purple and lime green fingernail polishes for anyone who wanted 
a spooktacular manicure to go along with her soft paws.

An anniversary remembrance

My grandparents, Robert and Mary Burch, were married on October 31, 1939, which seems like an awfully long time ago, doesn't it? And it was -- seventy-one years ago today. My grandma died in 1981, but Grandad celebrated his 90th birthday last July. Here they are in the summer of 1974 or thereabouts, and from the looks of things, it must have been the Summer of Izod, with my grandma sporting the ladies' pique shirt dress and Grandad wearing the Woodstock yellow men's golf shirt, probably with tennis tails, although he was always a golfer. Ma was three years older than Grandad, a fact that he constantly twitted her about, and they were just incredibly cute together. Just a brief remembrance on the day that started it all.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In which I wage war against hard water

A month or so ago, our hot water heater bit the dust and when the plumber came toiling up the basement steps, he said, "That hot water heater needs to drain out, but honestly, it's so full of lime scale, I'm not going to be able to carry it upstairs by myself."

He was kind enough not to add: "Because your basement steps look like they were constructed by Daniel Boone and I'm afraid I'll plunge backward down them to my death if I try to heave your crappy hot water heater up them and out to my van."

The plumber said that he'd give it a day or so to drain dry and then come back to remove it, which he did. I thought our problems were over since I could take a shower and wash the clothes and the dishes, but it turned out that the trouble was just beginning.

What we didn't realize was this: The old hot water heater, while it was busy filling its interior with a nice chunk of limestone (I wondered if we broke it open like a geode, I'd find a lovely decorative boulder for my front yard), it was actually functioning as a filter of sorts for all further lime deposits. Once the new, clear water heater was working, those lime deposits came swishing right on through and, well, DEPOSITED themselves on our dishes and our clothing, to disastrous results.

My husband and I have been making noises for the past five years about how we need a water softening system, but frankly, it would be just one more expense on a household budget that is already strained to the max. Every six months or so, I'd go out and buy some new glasses to replace the old set that had been permanently etched by the hard water in the dishwasher, but other than that, the damage wasn't really that awful.

But now? Wow. I bought a really cute new chocolate brown top around the same time we got the new water heater: twice through the laundry and it was utterly ruined, turned into a "heathered" version of its former cuteness due to the mineral deposits. And our dishes....oh, my heavens, I can't even think about the way our dishes looked without cringing. The plates, the glasses, the silverware, saucepans, ovenware....all of it looked like it had been rubbed with wet chalk and left to dry. SO GROSS. Which made me kind of worry about my dishwasher, you know? And my washing machine.

So several weeks ago, I declared war on hard water. We've asked the plumber to come back and run a dedicated water line -- lucky us, he was JUST HERE to run a dedicated water line for the ice maker, and now he gets to come back again and I hope he enjoys the vacation he takes with his family next summer because I believe we're the ones who made it all possible -- but in the meantime, I did some internet research on how to reclaim washing machines, dishwashers, kitchen stuff and clothing from the depredations of mineral deposits.

The items you see in the picture above are, from left to right, Dishwasher Magic, Lemi-Shine, Barkeeper's Friend, distilled white vinegar, CLR, Jet-Dry and Finish dishwasher detergent. For the laundry, I have white vinger and 20 Mule Team borax.

If you have hard water, I highly recommend all the above products because they helped me reclaim my dishes and have probably saved my dishwasher. Now when we run the dishwasher, we use one Finish tablet in the main compartment, fill the second compartment halfway full with Lemi-Shine (only available at Wal-Mart in my city, right where you find the other dishwasher stuff) and make sure the reservoir that holds liquid rinse agent is filled with white vinegar. We also have a little basket of Jet-Dry hanging from the top rack -- just make sure it's out of the way of your upper rack sprayer arm.

Once a month, we use the Dishwasher Magic. When you unscrew the lid of the little bottle, you see a wax seal. Leaving that seal in place, you turn the bottle upside down in the silverware basket and then run the EMPTY dishwasher on the hottest cycle available, which on my Whirlpool dishwasher is called "Pots and Pans."

I had to use the Barkeeper's Friend scouring powder on plates, pots, pans and silverware to get them to come clean enough to run through the dishwasher again and it took me about six hours and four fingernails. But boy, did it work! Everything in my kitchen is now gleaming with a brightness I haven't seen in a couple of weeks.

I'm sorry to say that my cute chocolate brown top is a bust, which makes me very sad. But at least we're getting things figured out before anything else gets ruined. I don't know why my NEW top had to be the one laundry item that completely bit the dust, but since we've started using the borax and the white vinegar (in the rinse cycle), our other clothes have felt better - the fabric is softer. I don't know if I could say that everything looks cleaner, but I feel like something good might be happening.

So! If you have hard water, or if you have soft water but still find that the natural state of your state's water is somewhat hard even after treatment, I'd recommend any of these things to help you keep your appliances and your kitchen and laundry items clear of mineral deposits. I plan to continue using the Lemi-Shine, for instance, even after the water softener is installed next week because I've never seen anything like my gorgeous, shiny glasses. They all look like they've been hand-washed every single time, and you know that glassware is the hardest thing to keep shiny and free of spots. Use and enjoy -- but BUY SOME KITCHEN GLOVES for your hands.


 I'm a bit behind on my French Fridays with Dorie cooking schedule, but I am still plowing ahead with my head down, making, mixing, stirring and baking. It's been a lot of fun so far and this week's Hachis Parmentier (which I kept inexplicably mispronouncing as HASHISH Parmentier, a worrisome thing) was another recipe that interested me: the ingredients used exactly mimicked my own homemade meatloaf recipe, which I naturally serve with mashed potatoes on the side instead of on top. I was curious to see how this would play out.

  In looks, it reminded me a lot of my own Comforting Beef Pot Pie, with a golden mashed potato crust instead of a biscuit crust. My beef pot pie, which is a wintertime staple around here, has a mushroom gravy supporting the beef instead of the beef-bouillon-and-tomato-paste interior of the Hachis Parmentier, SO AS YOU CAN SEE IT WAS JUST A FASCINATING CULINARY ENDEAVOR AND STOP SNORING BECAUSE IT HURTS MY FEELINGS.

   The Hachis Parmentier went together in three steps, one of which I thankfully got to skip because I made a double portion of mashed potatoes to serve with yesterday's dinner of chicken and noodles, which made me feel like I'd been gifted with brilliant forethought. Which....usually isn't the case. Anyway, the first step was to assemble an aromatic beef broth by cooking the meat with parsley, garlic, onion, thyme, salt and pepper along with some celery and carrot chunks. I also threw in a little red wine, as Julia taught me to do. By the way, I opted for Dorie's easier version and used ground beef instead of a more expensive cut.

  The second step was to cook the sausage in some olive oil until it was still pinkish. I used the same spicy pork sausage that I use with the ground beef in my meatloaf. The recipe asked me to stir in a tablespoon of tomato paste (I make a lovely spicy tomato sauce for the top of my meatloaf) and then add the cooked ground beef mixture and a cup of the broth. Easily done. That whole bit went into my buttered Pyrex casserole dish -- I wish I had a gorgeous French oval like the one pictured in the cookbook -- and into the oven at 400 degrees for half an hour, where it smelled so delicious, my husband could even smell it even though he's suffering from a terrible head cold.

  In the picture above, you can see the crispy golden mashed potato crust with the filling bubbling underneath, just as I pulled it out of the oven.

  And here it is, in all its Shepherd's Pie....I mean Hachis Parmentier glory, looking savory and delectable on Meelyn's dinner plate. We all ate it with appreciation, but agreed (to my pleasure) that we all like my beef pot pie better. This, to our taste, was really bland and required a lot of salt, plus a generous application of hot peppers to ooomph it up. It was good and filling and we enjoyed it, but agreed it was a dish that they would never request and I would never voluntarily make. I found this very strange since, as I mentioned, the ingredients were almost exactly what I use in my meatloaf. We always find that very flavorful. Eh bien, I think the French population needs to learn about my beef pot pie and maybe my meatloaf too - it would rock them from Provence to Normandy, and both recipes have the added benefit of being easier to throw together than this was. Alors!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jack o' Lantern time

 'Twas pumpkin-carving time here last Saturday, because what better way is there to spend an hour on the weekend than in the harmless pursuit of digging the slimy guts out of a gourd?
We like happy pumpkins at our house, but Meelyn's smile is even brighter, although she isn't orange.

 Aisling screamed, "I LOOK UGLY!" when I pointed the camera at her and I said sharply, "I AM MAKING MEMORIES HERE" and took the picture anyway. So there you have it.

 Here's my little guy, a pie pumpkin I have named Binky.

Boo to you!

Shakespeare jewelry

This is part of the necklace I'm wearing today, laid out for photographic purposes on the cute runner that's on my dining room table. I got it from a vendor at, which is just one of the best places on the internet for finding, well, anything fun or cute or interesting you'd like to find: If you want one and can't make it yourself, someone else probably can. Which is how I came by this necklace. I did a search for "Shakespeare jewelry" and this is one of the many items that popped up. I was drawn to it at once, mostly because I love that quote, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." (Macbeth himself is the "something wicked," by the way.) Secondly, I really like that bronzey metal, and third, I love that jaunty little skull dangling from the end. I don't think it belongs to Hamlet's Yorick, though, because by all accounts, he was a very decent fellow.

The necklace is on a twelve inch chain, the tag is as long as my pinky and the skull is as big as the tip of that same finger. It cost something like $10.00, which included the shipping. Very clever

Stormy weather

Today is one of those Indian Summer days we often get around these parts, but instead of being a day of sapphire skies and big pouffy white clouds, we are all about the straight line winds, the pummeling rain and the TORNADO SIRENS. Gee, what a fun morning.

The tornado sirens went off about fifteen minutes ago, and without a word, Meelyn stood up from her seat at the dining room table where she was engaged in a geometry lesson, She took her book -- what a dedicated scholar that girl is! -- and went into the downstairs bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind her. Aisling stood up too, but she picked up her mug of hot chocolate instead of her vocabulary textbook.

"Why are you still sitting there at the computer?" she asked me fussily, one hand on her hip.

I, the veteran of many a tornado siren, tend to follow in the path of my forebears, which dictates that when the tornado sirens go off, you DO NOT go into hiding: you go out on your front porch and scan the heavens for a twister. I was too busy with my email to go to the front porch, but sitting at my desk gives me an excellent view of the western sky through the big window.

"I am monitoring the storm," I said absently, tapping away vigorously on the keyboard.

"Are you coming to the bathroom?" she asked me impatiently.

I glanced up at her. "No, I am not. Because if I'm closed in the bathroom with you, your sister and the dogs, I will not be able to see if there's something headed our way."

Meelyn opened the bathroom door a crack and peered out to say, "So are you planning to be one of those people on the news who says, 'I was just settin' there on t'porch and BLAM! That there tornado come by and throwed me out inta the yard and I broke my arm and got hit upside the head with the rake handle.'"

"The rake is downstairs in the basement with all the other garden tools."

"SERIOUSLY, Mother!" Aisling yelled. "Come into the bathroom where it's safe! YOU ARE SETTING A TERRIBLE EXAMPLE." She snatched Zuzu up from the pillow upon which she was reclining like a Roman emperor's wife, and flounced into the bathroom, shutting the door with a sharp bang behind her.

I looked at Hershey, who was stretched out on the floor under the table. He has never gone willingly into a bathroom since he was a very young puppy, shrewdly construing that, bathrooms? Those are the places where you get a BATH and he's perfectly fine with his ingrained dirt. He met my eyes and his tail flopped on the floor three times -- wag wag wag -- as if to say, "Feel free to go on in there if you want to, but me? I think I'll just stay ri-i-i-ight here."

The storm was a quick-moving system and it blew by us in about six or seven minutes, leaving us with the strong winds, yes, but also with a nice, strong rain that is currently splashing against the windows. The girls came out of the bathroom rather sheepishly. Aisling set Zuzu (who seemed to think that we were playing some extra-fun new game and did it involve doggie treats?) back down on her pillow, where she stood for a moment, ears raised expectantly before lying back down with a deep sigh of disappointment.

"Well, that was much ado about nothing," Meelyn said.

"Late October, Tuesday morning, Indian Summer, changing seasons....nothing to see here," I added, returning to my email.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Aisling is having a sleepover with some of her giggly friends this coming Friday (that little tiny kid in the picture is not invited); Meelyn has used the opportunity of Aisling being otherwise occupied to escape to Nanny and Poppy's house for the night. My husband and I are already steeling our middle-aged nerves for the hubbub of having a bevy of teenage girls in the house, although we wisely limited the number of guests to three.

Here's our agenda:

-- Pick up guests on Friday afternoon at the designated meeting place and drive to orchard.

-- Drive to orchard, where there are those stacked bales of straw pictured above to climb on and giggle about; a corn maze to wander through and giggle about; pygmy goats to feed and coo over; an old-fashioned cider press to completely disregard; homemade apple-cinnamon doughnuts to scarf down and cider slushies to quench one's sugary thirst.

-- Drive home and get girls settled (Aisling) and put Papa Murphy's pizza in oven (me)

-- Set out many snacks, which include ranch snack mix, popcorn, cider, soda pop, candy and monkey bread, which I make with only the finest prime freshly-ground MONKEY MEAT. MUUUAAAAHAHAHAHA!! (This duty also falls to me, as it turns out.)

-- Settle down to watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and The Haunted Mansion while eating a lot of junky food and giggling (girls) and get the kitchen cleaned up and the dishwasher loaded, with snacks left out on the counter, buffet-style, and cold drinks in the fridge so that the girls can help themselves (This would be me.)

-- Do Halloween manicures with a sugar scrub, shea butter moisturizer and cotton gloves, fingernail polish in neon orange, green, sparkly purple and witch's hat black.

-- Provide chaperonage in the form of coming downstairs every fifteen minutes to make sure no one is on the computer (learned this lesson at the LAST sleepover - no guests or hostesses allowed on the 'puter while the party's going on) and I'm happy to say that this chore belongs to my husband, who will also be bringing us our own pizza, which we will eat upstairs, probably while watching Sports Center.

-- Stagger downstairs at 3:00 a.m. where girls are still in full swing; put rest of dirty dishes, which is to say every single plate and glass in the house, including my good china and the crystal stemware, into the dishwasher; start it and sit, slumped, at the kitchen table until about four-thirty, when the girls finally decide to go up to bed. Guess who's doing this?

-- Get up at 9:00 and make breakfast -- scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, orange juice -- and get girls downstairs by about 10:00 to eat, urging them to go back upstairs afterward to dress and get their things together.

-- Set off at 11:30 for designated pick-up place, giving girls their goody-bags to take home (candy, caramel apples, hand lotion and various Dollar Tree doo-dads.

-- Come home and start planning, at Aisling's insistence, a Valentine's Day sleepover.

I think it sounds like a lot of fun, myself, and Aisling and I have had a fun time planning and shopping for it. Meelyn, however, says that she plans to head off for Nanny and Poppy's before the guests even arrive, enjoy a leisurely dinner with her grandparents, watch Monsters, Inc and The Incredibles and then get to bed by 11:00. Actually, both evenings sound like a lot of fun, don't they?

The wisdom of nap regulation

Yesterday was gray and windy and rainy. I got up in the morning as usual and went to church, came home, cooked a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and toast, put a roast into the slow-cooker with potatoes, carrots and onions, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher and found myself to be rather WEARY after all that labor.

So I thought I'd go upstairs to my room where it's nice and quiet and where I could hear the rain pattering down and occasional cars driving by, their tires making soft splashy noises on the road. I had my book with me and I read for a little bit, but somewhere along the line, I fell fast asleep. So fast asleep that I wasn't even aware when Aisling came and got in bed with me and cuddled up with her back against mine and that's really saying something because Aisling is a restless person and takes a while to get settled and generally makes you feel like you're on a very small ship on a very high sea as she flops and flounders and arranges her pillows and covers herself up three or four times with her fleece throw and then decides to get up and blow her nose and then gets back on the bed and turns on the television and then drops the remote on the floor and then....and then....and then....

But I neither heard her nor felt her, and when I woke up two and a half hours later, I was completely disoriented and couldn't figure out what time it was or even what day it was, for that matter. But when I lifted my head off the pillow, her head popped up too.

"Hi, Mom!" she said with an amount of good cheer that I found almost unbearable three seconds after waking. "Boy, did you ever sleep for a long time! I bet you won't go to sleep tonight! I went to sleep too so I won't be tired either and maybe we can stay up together and watch a movie on the DVR!"

"Tomorrow's a school day," I replied, having thought it over and decided that yes, it was indeed Sunday. "How long did I sleep?"

"Two and a half hours," she said, "And Daddy said not to wake you up because you'd be grumpy and blame him for letting me wake you up."

"Preposterous," I said. "I only blame him for things like that on days that end in an A."

Aisling looked at me, brow furrowed. "But I don't think that...." Light dawned; she smiled. "Ohhhh, I get it."

As it turned out, she was right about me. She claimed to be having trouble sleeping and came grumpily downstairs at midnight, ate half a peanut butter sandwich and drank a glass of milk and talked my ear off while I sat moodily contemplating the kitchen sink; for lack of anything better to do, I'd cleaned all the leftovers out of the laundry room fridge. That was nearly three hours ago and I've seen neither hide nor hair of her, so I'm assuming she finally fell asleep.

I, on the other hand, am staring down a busy Monday with a feeling of grim dislike. Oh, how I wish I'd set the alarm on my cell phone and not let myself sleep longer than half an hour!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Our five favorite Halloween movies -- whoops! Six!

Halloween is a fun time of year for me. I love cute little carved pumpkins, scarecrows, sweet Linus and his blanket and chubby little preschool girls dressed up like witchies, not to mention babies in bumblebee costumes. I love Victorian Halloween art and trick-or-treaters at the door and my favorite childhood book, Old Black Witch, which I made my mom read to me night after night after night, almost as many times as Where the Wild Things Are and Katie the Kitten.

When the girls were little, we had so much fun devising costumes for them to go trick-or-treating in -- we never did scary costumes -- and I really enjoyed greeting little kids dressed up like Teletubbies and Disney princesses at the front door - I was always one of those people who gave the kids a whole handful of candy, not just one little piece. And OH THE MEMORIES of trick-or-treating in my neighborhood growing up, where Pat and I both had these tall plastic pumpkins to collect candy in. The neighborhood was so big and the neighbors were so generous that we'd have to stagger home halfway through the evening to empty our pumpkins out because they got too heavy to carry. That also gave Mom and Dad a chance to "go through the candy," which we all know is Parental Code for "select the choicest pieces and hide them from the kids, to be enjoyed after they go to bed."

The girls are too old for trick-or-treating now, of course, and our neighborhood never seems to have many trick-or-treaters, which is a great disappointment to me. So help soothe my sorrow, we've collected some Halloween movies that we enjoy watching every year, and I thought I'd post a list of them here. Maybe your family likes the same ones? Or maybe you could suggest a movie that you enjoy that you think we'd like too.

All of these, by the way, are family movies. We don't go in for the scary stuff because I have enough trouble sleeping as it is and once when some tree branches were scraping against the side of the house by our bedroom one windy October night and it sounded like skeletal fingers groping their way toward to window to slam it open and come in and GET ME, I exasperated my husband by waking him up and asking him if he'd mind going outside with the ladder and climbing up to trim that tree back before I turned into a gibbering idiot. He responded by saying grumpily that I already was a gibbering idiot and trimming back tree branches in the middle of the night wasn't going to change a thing. Besides, he added pensively, it was a full moon and the werewolves would be out.

I think he said that just to toy with me.

Anyway, here's my little list, in no particular order.

Halloween Movies We Love

1. The Midnight Hour - This movie, which stars Peter DeLuise (Dom's son), Shari Belafonte and Levar Burton, is a 1980s made-for-TV film that is about both zombies and vampires who come back from the dead to terrorize the people of Pitchford Cove due to a Halloween prankish spell worked by some wacky teenage troublemakers. They didn't think anything would really happen, you know; it was just a goof. But in the process, just about everybody in the place becomes either a vampire or a zombie and it's all up to Phil (Peter DeLuise, with an awesome Rick Springfield haircut) and his ghostly cheerleader friend Sandy to reverse the spell and return Pitchford Cove to normal. This movie is silly and cheesy, but it's supposed to be. You aren't to take it seriously, except maybe the part where Sandy, who has met Phil just a few hours before, decides to put the moves on him, which I told the girls was a bit fast, especially for someone who'd been dead for thirty years. Proof yet again that Fats Domino was finding more than the blueberries to be thrilling out on that hill.

2. The Corpse Bride - This is a Tim Burton special, the same kind of stop-motion animation that was such a success in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Corpse Bride is a very slightly eerie re-telling of a Russian folk tale about a young man, Victor, who inadvertently finds himself married to a girl who is already dead, even though he was about to marry another with a pulse. The corpse bride is actually a very nice girl and she and Victor work to resolve their problem so that the bride's murder can be avenged and Victor can marry his true love. A creepily romantic story with clever songs and voices done by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, among other luminaries. Adorable!

3. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown - I remember how terribly exciting it was when the night came along for this movie to be broadcast on television - everyone in my class at Riley Elementary School was all a-buzz with the fun of seeing Linus and Sally waiting it out in the Very Sincere Pumpkin Patch, Lucy in her witch mask, Pigpen in his dirty sheet, and poor hapless Charlie Brown in his sheet full of eye-holes. I got the same kind of thrill when this movie came out on DVD. This is one of the cutest movies ever, no matter what the season.

4. Hocus Pocus - This is a Disney delight starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as three witchy sisters who are awakened by -- get this -- a prankish spell worked by some teenagers who didn't really think that anything would happen. Hmmm. There seem to be a lot of Halloween movies that operate on that premise. The three weird sisters are too funny, particularly when they can't find their brooms and have to fly around on vaccuum cleaners. This one is just the tiniest bit creepy, and instead of featuring a hormone-charged cheerleader, the teenagers are aided in reversing the bad spell by a ghost who has...turned into a cat? I know. I don't get it either. But it's a really fun movie.

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes - This is another Disney movie, based on the Ray Bradbury book by the same name. Ray himself wrote the screenplay, so the movie sticks to the book -- which is everything that is awesome -- in a very satisfying way for those of us who think what's TRULY FRIGHTENING IN THIS WORLD is the film adaptation of Gone With the Wind, the suckiest movie ever. In my humble opinion. Anyway. Set in the 1930s, SWTWC features an evil carnival which comes harmlessly to a picture-perfect hamlet named Greentown. Dark's Pandemonium Carnival features the usual games and sideshows, but there's, well, a darker side: The proprietor, Mr. Dark, who is played by the devilishly handsome Jonathan Pryce, intends to give the people of Greentown their deepest the expense of their immortal souls. It's up to two intrepid boys, Will Halloway (born on All Saints Day) and his best friend and blood brother, Jim Nightshade (born on Halloween) and Will's dad, Charles (Jason Robards), to stop Mr. Dark from damning the town to eternal darkness. This is a classic tale of good versus evil, of the young learning the wisdom the old, and the old taking courage from the young, and how hope can restore life and light to lives that are lived in the shadows. A beautiful, spooktacular Halloween classic.

6. The Haunted Mansion - And yet another Disney favorite, this one starring Eddie Murphy and that guy from The Princess Bride and no one else I've ever heard of before, I'm sorry to say. Eddie Murphy plays a husband and father who is also an aggressive realtor - he'll do anything to make a sale, including interrupting a family trip to the lake in order to stop by a piece of prime real estate that turns out to be a real fixer-upper. The plot is tolerably interesting, the special effects are really good, and Eddie gets in a lot of one-liners that will remind you of Donkey from Shrek, but that's not such a terrible thing. Cute stuff.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

FRENCH FRIDAYS WITH DORIE: Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

 "Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup?" I asked, puzzled, when I first saw this recipe was featured for October. "I thought this was a French cookbook." Dorie, bless her, answered my question in the first paragraph on page 98 of Around My French Table:  "Because of France's long and deep ties to Vietnam (a former colony)," she writes, "it's common to find Vietnamese restaurants in even the smallest French towns." She goes on to add that Vietnamese ingredients can be found in French fridges, and that most chefs have a Vietnamese recipe or two tucked up the sleeves of their white coats. Photographed on my kitchen counter and ready to be swaddled in cheesecloth and bound with kitchen twine are a mort of aromatic spices and herbs: cilantro, coriander, anise and pepper.
 I had to make some substitutions in this recipe, most notably with the dried red chilis, which I couldn't find anywhere, and the Asian fish sauce. The chilis were an easy substitute - I just threw in a teaspoon of crushed, dried chili peppers from the big bottle we always have on hand in the refrigerator (we like our food spicy.) They looked pretty in the golden broth, particularly once I'd added the cilantro. But then there was the fish sauce. Hmm. Was this, I wondered, a sauce for fish, or a sauce made out of fish? Because the first option would be do-able, but the second? No way. I know it sounds hidebound and unadventurous, but none of us are that crazy about "fish" around here. And we like our chicken noodle soup to taste like, well, chicken. So I passed on the Asian fish sauce, feeling a little bit ashamed. [Just did a little research and discovered that Asian fish sauce is made out of anchovies, so thank heaven I didn't use it.]
 The soup got a last-few-minutes-of-cooking addition of pretty, lacy cilantro leaves and a squeeze of lime juice. The rice noodles, like most pasta, were cooked in boiling salted water, drained, and added to the rest of the soup. I added a garnish of cilantro and lime to each bowl and it looked very nice -- hearty and healthy and fill-you-up-with-good-things delicious, yet also exotic and interesting.
I'm not sure how I managed it, but I actually caught steam wafting up from the bowl. The soup was spicy and chickeny and had a fresh, citrus hit from the cilantro and lime that I found very appealing. The rice noodles, like so many store-bought noodles, were fairly tasteless and didn't add all that much to the flavor or the texture, but I am the Supreme Goddess of Noodle Making and I refuse to bow even to the Amish ladies on this, so I might be a bit biased. I make a mean noodle, of wheat flour of course. Maybe I'd be a dab hand with rice flour, too. Who knows? But anyway, this was a nice comforting soup and I was happy to try it, especially on a weekend when I'm suffering from a head cold. I added some hoisin sauce as a condiment and enjoyed it tremendously. Thanks, Dorie, for a very simple and delicious recipe.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oh no.....

Sore throat. Buzzing feeling in head and ears. Nose that feels like I just ducked my head under water at the pool and took a big, long sniff. Body aches, something like being repeatedly flailed with a gym sock that has a bar of soap in the toe. Barely enough energy to drag myself in here to the computer so that I could type my complaints - because my priorities? They are as straight as arrows and I know that the first most important thing when diagnosing oneself with an ailment large or small is to make sure that EVERYONE CLEARLY KNOWS one is sick (or getting that way) so that flowers, cards, gifts and offerings of therapeutic food and drink can come pouring in. I will grumpily concede that it never really works that way and that I could be splayed out on my bed with a raging fever and a strong will to depart this mortal coil and someone in my family would still bang the door open and demand to know what's for dinner.

I just finished nursing Aisling through this trial and she coughed and hacked and whined all over me for four days running, so I am going to bow to the inevitable and drink some hot tea with honey and lemon. And feel sorry for myself. Or does that go without saying?

Friday, October 15, 2010


 ALDI came through for me again by displaying a row of German mustards (that would be the one in the glass jar) two weeks before the recipe for Gerard's Mustard Tart came up. ALDI already has a variety of other mustards, including a Dijon that is actually very nice indeed. The German mustard is the "whole grain" kind that is known in France as "l'ancienne" or old-fashioned. It was good not only in the tart, but also on ham sandwiches we made for lunch later in the week.
 The crust for the tart is found in the back of Around My French Table. It was really incredibly easy to throw together in the food processor -- Dorie wanted it whirred around until it was crumbly and would stick together when pinched. She suggested rolling the crust out between two pieces of wax paper, parchment or plastic wrap, which I did. This dough did require a bounteous amount of time in the fridge and the freezer so that it would be nice and cold for the roll-out, so it's not a terribly quick thing to throw together. One of the things I like about the Dorie's cookbooks, though, is that she passes on a lot of hints for how to make things beforehand so that you can either put them to use within the next few days, or freeze them for later. I had an entire afternoon at my disposal to make this recipe so I wasn't crunched for time, but if I ever want to make this lovely, eggy tart crust again, I'll remember her helpful hints.
 The veggies had to steam beforehand with a sprig of rosemary. I was able to clip some off my nice little rosemary shrub out front, which was a delightful bonus for this recipe. The carrots and green onions, however, were grown by someone with a great deal more talent for nurturing plants that I have. Dorie's recipe actually called for leeks, but I loathe working with leeks: too expensive, too big, and apt to have sandy dirt in all their nooks and crannies. Plus I don't think they taste as nice as green onions.
 Dorie recommended using a tart pan, the kind of baking apparatus that has collapsible sides so that the baked crust can be lifted out in an impressive manner. But I don't have a tart pan and I didn't want to buy one, so I pressed my crust into a quiche plate and it looked very nice, I thought.
 Here's Gerard's Mustard Tart just before I put it in the oven, and I have to say that I was feeling some trepidation about this recipe. I mean, mustard? I like mustard, but I've never used it as the main flavoring in anything before -- it's always been a piquant addition to add flavor. But I'm willing to try (just about) anything.
The tart baked beautifully and it smelled delicious while it was in the oven. I let it cool down just a bit and then we sliced into it for a sample. And you know, it was actually very, very good. The mustard flavor was not overpowering at all; I suppose the custard mellowed it out a good bit. But the creamy filling with the savory mustard-y flavor combined with the rich, buttery crust was something unusual, something that I'd be very willing to serve again. It was simple, yet elegant. It made me think "chardonnay" although I think that "iced tea" wouldn't be a bad accompaniment. I can see making this for a ladies' luncheon kind of thing, a petite sliver as an appetizer, perhaps. I liked it better than the gougeres, even, so this recipe was a definite success.

Getting to know you (again)

How could it possibly be that it's been TWO WEEKS since I last wrote on my blog? And perhaps an even bigger question is how have all of you, my twenty-four faithful blog followers (and maybe a few more people who accidentally stumbled across InsomniMom while doing an internet search for hasenpfeffer) been surviving without knowing what I've been serving my family for dinner for the past fourteen nights? How? How?

I'd like to think it's not a question of what Aisling just said as she was peering over my shoulder just now, watching me type: "I never read your blog because I'm already kind of sick of you from just being in the house with you all the time."

Gee, thanks.

Anyway, here's a list of my excuses. I have committed them to bandwidth because I may need to use them again someday and want to remember what they were.

1. I had some kitchen renovation stuff being done that started right after I posted the first French Fridays with Dorie recipe (gougeres) and it continued all week last week. Those of you who cook know that the kitchen is the heart of the home and when your kitchen is in pieces (at one time, I had two large refrigerators in the (small) room, one of which was partially blocking the laundry room door and plugged into the wall where I usually plug in the toaster. My microwave was not plugged in because it has to be plugged in to a special outlet. There was a third refrigerator in the laundry room. My portable dishwasher was in the middle of the room, requiring people to squeeze around it if they wanted, say, a slice of cheese for a sandwich. But if they actually got the slice of cheese it wouldn't have done them any good anyway because no one could find the bread.

2. I made the second French Fridays with Dorie recipe (Gerard's Mustard Tarte) last Friday and took some great photos, but then later that afternoon took the camera with me to a family birthday party at my parents' house -- and left it there. We live just far enough away from one another that there was no just popping over to get it, so I had to wait until they were running an errand in my town and brought it to me yesterday. It seems that I've grown so used to accompanying every post I make with a photograph, I am CRIPPLED without my camera.

3. Blogger has made a lot of changes to the website lately that I find irritating and discommoding, so I was in a snit. It's not as much fun blogging when it's harder to post images than it was before their "upgrade," not to mention all kinds of other glitches that have reared their hissing heads.

4. Shakespeare class, as always, keeps me very busy for the weeks the class is running, in this case, until mid-November. But my students are wonderful and so receptive and Hamlet is just as interesting as always.

5. Then there are my own two students, Meelyn and Aisling, who just took the PSAT last Wednesday. They have a lot more work to do this year, naturally -- Meelyn is a junior and Aisling is a sophomore -- and there are a few classes of theirs that I'm taking right along with them, namely Bible study, composition and SAT prep. It takes up a lot of time, but it is all great fun.

6. And we've been doing a lot of stuff at church. Aisling is doing child care for our parish mothers' group -- she likes it very much because the kids are funny and adorable and they pay her well -- plus all three of us are providing child care for the same mothers' group we worked with last year that meets at a Protesant church in our city, so we're busier than usual. That picture at the top of this post is one I took at our annual Pet Blessing which was held on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4. It's fun being at the church more often. I use the time while Aisling is babysitting to work on my religious education lesson plans, as well as my Shakespeare stuff.

7. We've had colds. With fevers and headaches and sore throats and a severe lack of energy. Very unpleasant.

So! That's my list of excuses. I think they seem plausible, but I think it's going to be very hard to make my yearly goal.

Friday, October 1, 2010


This was the first week of the French Fridays with Dorie internet cooking group, and I am so happy to be able to participate, especially since we started out with such a yummy little bang -- although maybe it would be more accurate to say that we started off with a yummy little *poof*

The assignment for this week was to make the first recipe in the book, which was for these tasty little French appetizers called gougères. That sounds very fancy and could be a little intimidating, I suppose, until you realize that "gougère" is the French word for "cheese puff," an appetizer that has been on these shores for many a year. In fact, I believe that these pretty little things are the more upscale French cousin of our very own Sausage-Cheddar Balls, a down-homey Bisquick recipe that might be better with a smidgen of sweet sherry or even a very cold beer. Dorie writes in Around My French Table that the traditional drink with gougères is the cocktail known as kir, but that she herself prefers champagne. See what I mean about "more upscale"?

At any rate, the gougère is a savory pastry that puffs up in the oven and is flavored primarily with cheese, a sharp cheddar in my case, although many different kinds could be used.Gruyère is typically used, but apparently any kind of sharper, bolder cheese will work. I wouldn't think you'd want to use a mild, mellow cheese because it would just blend in with all the buttery egginess and it would be a little bland.

As you can see in the second picture above, all my simple ingredients came from my favorite discount grocery store, ALDI. They happened to be out of whole milk on the day I did my shopping, so I opted for half-and-half instead of waiting for the dairy truck to arrive. The ALDI in my city carries unsalted butter year 'round (it used to be available only during the holiday season and at Easter) and everything else is readily available, so this was probably one of the easiest shopping trips I've ever had. In three weeks, I have to buy star anise, and well just see how chipper I'm feeling about that Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup recipe then, won't we?

Picture number three illustrates the soft dough after the milk, butter, salt and water have been boiled, the flour added, the eggs cracked and the grated cheese tossed in. I mixed it all with a hand mixer and it was very easy; one thing I appreciate so much about Dorie's recipes is that she doesn't automatically assume that you have a stand mixer that cost more than my first car sitting in regal pride of place on your kitchen counter. If you have one, that's great, is her attitude. If you don't, use a hand mixer. Or your own sturdy arm. She is flexible, and luckily, so is my arm. As I mentioned, I used my hand mixer and didn't have to resort to using my own physical strength, which dwindles as the week goes on and can only be partially revived by a large glass of wine.

The last picture shows two piping hot gougères, sitting on a napkin and waiting to be eaten. I didn't have any champagne, but I did have a nice, cold glass of iced tea. My husband had one and allowed that he thought a French cheese puff would be just as good with a cold beer as a Sausage-Cheese Ball would be. Meelyn and Aisling were appreciative of a nice little treat as they finished up their schoolwork at the dining room table, so all in all, I'd count this first week as a great success.

I feel that my cheddar cheese was not as salty as cheddar sometimes can be, so my gougères probably would have benefited from an extra pinch of salt. I'd definitely like to try them again, perhaps with a different kind of cheese. They were really easy to make, just about foolproof. And delish, so what's not to love?

Coming up in the next few weeks on French Fridays with Dorie:

  • October 8, 2010 - Gerard's Mustard Tart
  • October 15, 2010 - Vietnamese Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup
  • October 22, 2010 - Hachis Parmentier
  • October 29, 2010 - Marie-Helene’s Apple Cake


RECIPE: Sausage-Cheddar Balls

Bisquick Sausage-Cheddar Balls have been around for a long, long time. They are a staple at my family's annual Christmas Eve get-together, the one where all the ladies in the family make different kinds of appetizers for everyone to munch on while the kiddies open their gifts. The best thing about them, other than the taste, is how easy they are: Just a few simple ingredients stir up into a very tasty little snack.

Bisquick, the powdery baking mix that can be found on just about every pantry shelf, has been around since 1931. It was "discovered" in 1930 by an executive from General Mills who was traveling by train to some destination and who found that the dining car chef had taken a short cut in making his delicious biscuits by pre-mixing the flour, lard and baking powder. Bisquick was born and has been helping home cooks make things like Impossible Cheeseburger Pie and Busy Day Cobbler and Sausage-Cheddar Balls (things that frequently appeared on the dining room table in my childhood) ever since - it's very versatile.

The origins of the actual Sausage-Cheddar Ball recipe are fairly dim. In doing a little hasty research on the internet, the most information I can find is that they have been around "since the 1970s," which gave me a hideous mental image of a furry-chested man with thick sideburns and tinted eyewear leering at a Florence Henderson-haired woman in an orange halter mini-dress and frosted peach lipstick while they shared a be-toothpicked Sausage-Cheese Ball and a thimble of Drambuie. While listening to the music of Burt Bacharach playing in the background...STOP. STOP. STOP. I really want Sausage-Cheddar Balls to have originated in the more innocent 1950s, where they'd be produced on a china platter by a Marian Cunningham-type of Mom in a frilly apron. She'd be serving them to her afternoon bridge club with a thimble of sweet sherry and there'd be no hint at all of a goldfish bowl full of car keys lingering about the place. Ew.


1 pound of spicy sausage, cooked and drained and patted dry between paper towels
2 cups of baking mix
2 cups coarsely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
enough milk to moisten the mixture(approximately 2 tablespoons)

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl, using enough milk to moisten the mixture easily. Shape mixture into walnut-sized balls; place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown. Best if served hot -- it's easy to keep them piping if you put them in an electric skillet set on Warm -- but also delicious if served at room temperature on a pretty plate garnished with parsley. Very retro, very Middle America.