Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Counting my blessings

It is that time of year.  To look around and take stock of all that I am thankful for.  And there is so much.  As I sit here at my kitchen table on Christmas Eve, listening to the boys laughing upstairs as they get ready to head to the mall (God bless them) to finish (or start in Son #2's case) their shopping and have lunch together.  We have taken in another boy so we have a Son #3 for the holidays.  Son #3 is a joyful eater.  I am thankful for that.  And he makes Son #2 laugh.  Having a best buddy simply cannot be underestimated.  Son #1's best buddy just moved back to Maine. But he is as happy as I have ever seen him.   Which means I should get to my blessings.

  • My family.  My boys.  The Ex-Ex.  Mama Mildred.  Moo.  Cindy and David.  Best Niece and her boys.  Best In-Laws, including Best Sister-in-law.  Her hubby and son and his new fiancée.  The wedding that will happen in June which will be a family reunion in the mountains. Brother-in-law and his family.  Reconnecting with my Cousin K. 
  • My good health.  If a whack-o thyroid is as bad as it gets, I am in great shape.
  • Amazing friends.  Friends I would do anything for and who would do the same for me.  Friends who are here in good times and bad.  My BFF.  My French sister, La Brune, otherwise known here as Mme P.  Arles Lucy.  La Signora.  Friends who share my belly laughs, tears and occasional tirades.
  • A job I love.  Even after 33 years.  Even with a stack of exams waiting to be graded.  Even with the occasional nightmares where I have no control of the kiddies.  **See note at bottom of page
  • Enough money for all my needs and some of my wants.
  • Travel.  Between January and March 2014, I will travel to France twice and Washington, DC once.  Not bad.  (I've asked Santa for a new suitcase!)  Are you ready, IronWoman??
  • A beautiful home.  And two cats to keep us company when there are no boys upstairs.
  • Son #1's new job.  His dream job in a boarding school in the mountains.  It happened fast.  I am happy he will live in my mountains.  Might seem silly, but that's important to me.
  • Son #2's drive, ambition and hard work at the University of Tennessee.  He has three semesters left.  He survived football season and even attended the game against South Carolina.
  • Books.  So many books to read and new ones recommended by friends that keep coming my way.  (My Christmas break reading list follows the blessings.)
  • Music and art.  They make life so much more beautiful.
  • Good food.  Shared with the Ex-Ex, family and friends.  Always new recipes to try and new restaurants to discover.
  • French wine.  And cheese.  And foie gras.
  • Technology.  The ability to meet new people and read about their adventures. This morning a post from Heather at Lost in Arles popped up.  Huge sigh.  (Merci, Heather, for giving me an Arles Christmas fix.  I long to roam those streets, but since I can't, thank you for allowing me to do it through your pictures and descriptions.)  The ability to keep up with my Frenchies easily even though they are 3000 miles away.  Literally having the world at my touch with this laptop and my iPad.
Since I have a thing about the number 14 for some weird reason, I will stop there. 

My Stack of Books Waiting to be Read:

  • Village in the Vaucluse, Third Edition by Laurence Wylie (Wylie's account of living in Roussillon, France in 1950-51) 
  • Paris, Paris:  Journey into the City of Light by David Downie  ("an irreverent, witty romp featuring thirty-one prose sketches of people, places, and daily life")
  • Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (the story of a German woman and her three year old daughter who were liberated by an American soldier at the end of WWII and moved to Minnesota with him)
  • Crossing On The Paris by Dana Gynther (the story of a woman traveling back to New York on the SS Paris in 1921 after 30 years abroad)
  • A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller  by Frances Mayes (with her Under the Tuscan Sun house as home base, the author travels all over Europe and North Africa)
  • Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris by Ann Mah (Mah, a journalist, is left alone in Paris when her diplomat husband is sent to Iraq and she finds comfort in French food; Ann's website)
  • The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. and  Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe  by Sandra Gulland (parts one and two in a trilogy about Josephine Beauharnais Bonaparte, Empress of France)
  • Guests on Earth by Lee Smith (Smith's latest novel about Evalina, a patient at Highland Hospital, a mental hospital in Asheville, NC, set in 1936- Zelda Fitzgerald was a patient here, dying while a patient in a fire in 1948- read this short account)
And back to family, we visited the In-Laws yesterday, will head up to the mountains at the end of the week to visit Sister-in-Law, Mama Mildred, and the rest of the clan.  Nephew came to visit over the weekend with his lovely fiancée.  A great chance to cook for more than just the Ex-Ex and me.

Sausage and Egg Bake
Serves 8

1 1/2- 2 pounds pork sausage 
1 small onion, diced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
4 1/2 cups cubed day old bread
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
10 eggs, slightly beaten
4 cups whole milk
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. salt
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
Hot sauce, if desired.

In a skillet on medium high heat, cook the sausage, breaking it into pieces and working in batches, if necessary.  Do not crowd the pan or the sausage will not brown properly.  Add onions and mushrooms. Remove the cooked sausage from the pan and let sit on some paper towels on a plate to soak up the fat. 

Place bread cubes in a well-buttered 9x13-inch baking pan.  Sprinkle with cheese.  Combine eggs, milk, dry mustard, salt and pepper.  Pour evenly over the bread and cheese.  Sprinkle sausage over the top.  Add a few drops of hot sauce to top, if desired.  Add more cheese on top, if desired.

At this stage, you can cover it and place in the refrigerator overnight if you want to prepare ahead.  If not, let it sit for 10- 15 minutes before putting in the oven.  Preheat oven to 325˚F and bake uncovered for one hour.  Tent with foil after 30 minutes if top begins to brown too quickly.  Check doneness before taking out of the oven-- do the eggs look set in the middle?  Let sit for 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving. 

Katie's Muffins
Makes 12

Basic recipe (from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook) -- variations at end

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 beaten egg
3/4 c. milk
1/4 c. cooking oil

Preheat oven to 400˚F.
Grease 12 muffin cups or line with paper cups.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Make a well in the center of flour mixture; set aside.
In another bowl, combine egg, milk, and oil.  Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture.  Stir just until moistened-- batter will be lumpy.
Spoon batter into muffin cups, filling 2/3 full.
Bake in 400˚F oven for 15-18 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Cool in muffin cups on a wire rack for 5 minutes.  Remove from muffin cups.  Serve warm.


Add one teaspoon of ground cinnamon to flour mixture.  Peel, core and chop one apple.  Add apple to batter at end, stirring as little as possible.  (overstirring will cause muffins to be a bit "tough")

Fold in 3/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries and one teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel into batter at the end.  

Add one teaspoon almond extract to egg-milk mixture and fold one cup pitted and coarsely chopped cherries to the batter.  Sprinkle sliced almonds on top before baking, if you wish.

Reduce flour to 1 1/3 cups and add 3/4 cup rolled oats to flour mixture.  Apples and cinnamon are good to add to this one.

Combine 1 cup coarsely chopped cranberries and 2 tablespoons additional sugar; fold into batter.

Poppy Seed
Increase sugar to 1/2 cup and add 1 tablespoon poppy seeds to flour mixture.

Streusel Topping
Combine 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon.  Cut in 2 tablespoons butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped nuts, if desired.  Sprinkle evenly on top of muffin batter before baking.

Dried Fruit
Add one cup of Craisins (any flavor),  raisins or any dried fruit to the batter.  If using cherries, add the almond extract or almonds to top.  With blueberries, add the lemon peel.

Make up your own combinations!

**One of the math teachers at school gives his students extra credit on their mid-term exam if they write a thank you note.  Here is one that I received, written only as an 8th grade boy could write--

Thank you for putting up with me for another semester.  I know I may be annoying at times but somehow you see threw that unlike a lot of my teachers who just end up getting plain annoyed with me.  When I don't turn in something and you give me that look like, "I know you can do better" thats the kind of thing that no other teacher can do.  From the moment my sister told me about you, I knew I was going to like you.  Throughout the last year and a half you had made me like the class that everyone had told me horror stories about, the final exam is sooooooo hard, she gives sooo much homework.  And if this year and a half has taught me one thing, it's that the only reason that you give us that hard of homework and quizzes is that you want us to succeed.  Not just in the Upper School but in the real world.  Thanks Mrs. E.

No, thank you, DH.  You make it fun and challenging every single day.  We will be in France in 70 days!!

Bon appétit et Joyeux Noël to all!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Headless chickens

I do not know what the French equivalent of "running around like a chicken with its head cut off " is. Maybe I will found out after I post this.  This is how I feel at this time of year.  Trying to teach a few new concepts (impératif and -re verbs to 7th graders and le partitif to 8th graders) and a few more vocabulary words before exams.  Assemblies, hot lunches, wrapping Christmas gifts for the family we adopted through social services, making up exams and photocopying them, holding review and extra help sessions, dealing with a few inevitable behavior issues, grading quizzes, entering grades... Ouf!  Ça suffit.  That's more than enough.  Makes me tired just typing it.
So what do the tough do when the going gets a little tough?  Why, make cookies, of course.  I came across a recipe for fruitcake cookies on Facebook.  Nevermind that the Ex-Ex hates fruitcake and will not try it in any way, shape or form.  He saw the recipe on the counter and made a face.  I love fruitcake.  I am well aware that this is totally due to the fact that my beloved Papa Bell gave out fruitcakes at Christmas time to his employees at the hosiery mill he owned.  I've written about this before (and I will make David Leibovitz' fruitcake bars.  I've already bought the dates.)
So, I rounded up all the ingredients, even buying my first bottle of sherry in which to soak the fruit.

A little drunken fruitcake, even better.  This recipe takes a little planning ahead since the fruit has to soak overnight and the dough has to stay in the refrigerator for a few hours.  Well worth it, though, if you love fruitcake as much as I do.

Fruitcake Cookies
recipe from Ina Garten and The Food Network
makes 4 dozen cookies

1/2 lb. dried figs
1/4 lb. raisins (I found a mix of raisins and dried cherries)
2 oz. candied cherries, coarsely chopped
2 oz. dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. honey (I still have a little bit of lavender honey left from my last trip to Provence)
2 Tbsp. dry sherry (I doubled this)
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 oz. chopped pecans
Kosher salt
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2. tsp. ground cloves
1/2 c. superfine sugar
1/3 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 extra large egg
2 2/3 c. all-purpose flour

Snip off hard stems of figs with scissors or small knife and coarsely chop figs.  In medium bowl, combine raisins, cherries, apricots, honey, sherry, lemon juice, pecans and pinch of salt.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit overnight at room temperature.
In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter, cloves, and sugars on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.  With mixer on low speed, add egg and mix until incorporated.  With mixer still on low, slowly add flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt just until combined.  Do not over mix.  (I had to mix it with my hands at this point because it was pretty dry.)  Add fruits and nuts, including any liquid in bowl.
Divide dough in half and place on long edge of 12 x 18 piece of parchment or waxed paper.  Roll each half into a log, 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 inch thick, making 18-inch long roll. Refrigerate for several hours until firm.
Preheat oven to 350˚F.  With a small sharp knife, cut logs into 1/2-inch slices.  Place 1/2-inch apart on parchment paper-lined pans and bake 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

While mixing and slicing, maybe a little Michael Bublé Christmas music in the background?  Hmmm... I wonder if Michael likes fruitcake?


Bon appétit to headless chickens, fruitcake and Christmas crooners!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 Sweets

So, it seems that I tortured at least a few readers with the savory post about the best meals of 2013.  On to desserts now.  None of these are made by moi, just as none of the meals posted earlier were my creations.  I love to bake.  It is one of my great pleasures in life, but if told to choose between caramelized onions and chocolate, the onions would win (sorry, sister-in-law).  That being said, I decided to go through my photos and remember the treats of 2013.

Above is a moelleux au caramel I had in Paris at Le Bistrot d'en Face near the Eiffel Tower.  The chef even came out of the kitchen to talk to me about it. That may have had something to do with the moaning noises I made after I cut into it and caramel gushed out...

Simple, yes, and oh so good.  Cherries and chocolate at Arles Lucy's house one afternoon.  No cooking involved.

A café gourmand at Mme P's house.  Ok, so I did make the chocolate macarons.  But Mme P's mousse au chocolat, Mlle de Tavel's crêpes...  quite a lovely dessert idea that is popular in France now.

Angelina macarons.  I love looking at them.  They are just pretty.

Crumble ordered by my Favorite Parisien (he is getting ready to stick his Parisien finger in it...) to finish off the meal of foie gras and lamb.

Fromage blanc aux fruits rouges sprinkled with sesame seeds in Arles with Mme P.  Fromage blanc is hard to describe.  I have never eaten it in the U.S.  Wikipedia has this to say about it--

Pure fromage blanc is virtually fat free, but cream is frequently added to improve the flavour, which also increases the fat content, frequently to as high as eight percent of total weight.
Fromage blanc can be served either as a dessert similar to yogurt, frequently with added fruit, or in savoury dishes.

Mlle de Tavel's moelleux au chocolat with a little caramel melted inside.  (Big sigh)  
A chocolate goodie from Magnolia Bakery in NYC enjoyed in June sitting outside Rockefeller Plaza.  (Thought of you, sister-in-law... really I did.)
More mousse, this time at Fauchon in Paris.  (Hope this doesn't bring back bad memories, Arles Lucy.)

King's Cake in Pujaut at Mme P's.  Oh yes, I am looking forward to this in just a few weeks!

Key Lime Pie made by one of my 8th grade boys at the end of last school year.  He is a pie-maker par excellence and brought this in to thank his teachers.

Ladurée macarons.  Arles Betty's favorites.

Almond King's Cake at Frenchie's house.  Served with cidre.  Ahhhhhh.

And Monuts donuts with the BFF one day.  Seriously good.

That's enough for one night.  
Sweet or savory?  Or who should ever have to choose between the two?

Bon appétit, Sweets of 2013!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Good for the soul

I was sitting at my desk working one day last week and looked out the window to see some 7th grade boys in the grass doing something.  I figured it was a science experiment until they came to get me to take a look.  They were in art class and this was their creation.  I ran back in my room to get my trusty camera so that I could take photos.  I told them I was going to call it my Zen Garden.  They were quite proud of their work.

Lovely, isn't it?
During the course of the week, more Zen Gardens popped up around campus.

Amazing what they did with some stones, leaves and moss.

This one was placed in a tree.

And the last one was placed on the tree dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and colleague Gail Walker.  I explained to the young man who was showing it to me who she was.  I told him that I was sure she would love his art work.  She was an English teacher, but she always had the kids doing art projects, too.  They would periodically have art exhibits in our Board Room.

Art is good for the soul.  It comes in many forms.  Whether in nature or in a museum.
I was lucky enough to visit Paris, Normandy, Provence, New York, and Washington, DC this year.  Some of my 2013 favorites...

A door in Rouen

A statue of Jeanne d'Arc, also in Rouen

A tribute to John Lennon in Central Park

The Statue of Liberty (merci, la France!)

Matisse at the MOMA

and in DC


And Vincent- I visit him whenever I can

Stained glass at St. Pierre de Montmartre, a church I had never thought to go into until last March


At the Vietnam Memorial in DC

Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

An oratory in Arles

A calvaire somewhere near Nîmes

An exhibit of Fashion and Impressionism at the Musée d'Orsay- clothing and the paintings they inspired (no photos allowed in the exhibit)

Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud in DC

Street art in Paris near the Centre Pompidou

Venus of Arles

Rodin's Le Baiser at CDG airport

And I will end with my latest chef d'oeuvre... I have attempted Madame La Tour Eiffel once again.  My 8th graders and I painted together yesterday afternoon.  Wine and Design supplied the canvas, paint and instructor.  We brought the fun.

I love that we all took the same basic idea and added our own touches.

Bon appétit to art in all of its forms!