Thursday, February 28, 2013

One Kitchen, Many Hearts - New Year, New Theme

These last few weeks have been difficult, professionally.  I'm at somewhat of an impasse, and it's not easy to put on a happy face at work when one is at the proverbial crossroads.  It's times like this when even the small acts of friends make the most impact.
In the last few weeks, both Kat and Megan have sent me cards (Kat also sent one to HRH, who was over the moon at getting mail).  To find hand-addressed envelopes among the coupons of things I'd never buy and offers for a better mortgage rate can fill even the darkest of days with some sunshine.
And then I got Mads's package.
It's once again time for a new rotation in the OKMH version of Birchbox, and it could not have come at a better time.

The point of this every-other-monthly package exchange isn't simply to find an excuse to get a present in the mail six times a year.  While that's a nice perk, the seven of us (yes, seven, for Beka is finally finished with her master's degree and can participate in our reindeer games as originally planned) have taken this opportunity to craft boxes that are designed for someone else.  It's about knowing and identifying with someone else and creating a lasting friendship.
Mads packed a box that was Exactly What I Needed.

Safety Inspector Zooey ensures package security
and checks for hot dog contraband
The theme we selected for our February exchange was "winter necessities."  This might be easy for our friends up North, but Mads, Jeanne, and I all live in more mild winter climes, so a package of parkas and mittens wasn't going to cut it.  And Mads nailed it.
I give you Winter Pamper Yourself Because You Deserve It.

The goods:
  • Vanilla almond caramel tea
  • Fuzzy knee socks
  • HOMEMADE bubble bath
  • All-natural soap
  • Candle (scented with yumminess)
  • Adult Capri Sun Wine that I can drink while in the bathtub
  • Chocolate (not pictured...they disappeared mysteriously)

It was like The Universe told Mads that I needed a little something to take care of myself, and she heeded that message.  Everything in this box is perfect for me.  I can sip the entire cube a little wine while I sit in a bath full of bubbles, inhaling the scent of a delicious candle, and then, once dried and properly pajamaed, slip on those toasty socks (and I DO get ice cube toes!) and have a little tea as I indulge in Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures or Haunted Collector or Ghost Mine or maybe even (I'm almost ashamed to admit it) Finding Bigfoot.  The perfect mental health break if I ever planned one.
Many thanks, Mads, for sending me a little box with a lot of love!

And, for some other ideas of what you can ship to help ease those winter blues, check out:
  • what I sent to Jeanne (Inside NanaBread's Head), or
  • what Jeanne sent to Beka (Kvetchin' Kitchen), or
  • what Beka sent to Kat (Tenaciousl Yours,) or
  • what Kat sent to Megan (Wanna Be a Country Cleaver), or
  • what Megan sent to Kirsten (Comfortably Domestic), or
  • what Kirsten sent to Mads (La Petite Pancake).
Then, get yourself a USPS "if it fits, it ships" box and send away - you never know when you'll make someone's week.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pucker Up!

Growing up, one of my major objectives was to see how many marshmallows I could stuff into my mug of hot chocolate without sacrificing any of that delicious drink.  Since my mom tried to keep junk food out of the house, marshmallows were a rare treat anyway, usually reserved for the chilly holiday season, so I hoarded them, often sneaking a few from the bag and right into my maw when she wasn't looking.

The apple doesn't fall far, does it?
She's just more brazen than I was.
When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was destroyed at the end of Ghostbusters, all I wanted to know is if there was a giant s'more making effort.  The lack of closure here still haunts me.
The first time I ever had Lucky Charms, in college, I was horrified at what qualified as a "marshmallow" and was kind of thankful I'd been ignorant of the horrors within the red box for my entire childhood.
As I've gotten older, I have marshmallows more and more rarely, partly because I have fewer occasions to partake in them, but mostly because I'm less and less enthralled with the mallows that are found at the grocery store.  While surely my taste buds have changed, I can't help but feel that the commercial marshmallows have gone further and further away from that treat the ancient Egyptians made from the marsh-mallow plant sap thousands of years ago (insert nostalgic sigh).
Cornstarch overload aside, I still yearn, each time I treat myself to a cup of cocoa, to fill the top quarter third of my cup with that sweet, gooey confection.
Since I'd been obsessing about marshmallows for a good while, when my group of blogging friends, whom I've affectionately come to call The Theme Weavers (prepare for the parody song soon) decided to see how many sweet confections we could put together in a week, I knew that I needed to try my hand at marshmallows.
The Internet let me know that I had made The Right Decision when, a few weeks ago, Jenni Field, the brilliant and wonderful personality behind Pastry Chef Online, hosted a Google+ hangout (think live webchat) on the art of these lovely candies.  Even though my old laptop kept freezing on me, I saw enough to let marshmallows emerge from the murky shadows of candy-making, giving me the courage to get in the kitchen.

I followed Jenni's recipe and directions (which are at the same time thorough and entertaining) carefully.  I cannot add anything helpful to that recipe, and all the credit of my success is due to my ability to follow Jenni's direction.
I need to point out, however, that I made two minor alterations to suit my needs:
  1. Instead of cocoa powder, I added 1 Tbsp finely ground lemon zest into the water and gelatin mixture (whenever I use a lemon, I zest it and then freeze the zest, so I have a large stash that's nice and dry and easy to grind up in the spice grinder).
  2. Instead of vanilla extract, I used my homemade lemon extract.
Obviously, I was going for a lemon theme.

After the syrup had reached the proper temperature and all ingredients whipping away (Watson, my KitchenAid, has never worked at full strength before, so it was a big night for both of us), I couldn't help it.  I had to taste.

Whip it good!
Right then I knew.

You guys.
These marshmallows are life changing.  Seriously.  They are going to change everything you ever thought you knew about marshmallows.

Oh, the lemon aroma and flavor is intense, and while I had dreamed of a lemon marshmallow, the citrusy flavor coupled with the marshmallow's texture was a little surprising at first.  But then I had a second third fourth marshmallow, and all was right with the world.  The bright tartness of the lemon balances that sometimes overwhelming sweetness that is The Mallow.

But what about fitting a whole bunch of marshmallows into my cup of cocoa?
The good news is that with these bad boys, I only need one.

While you're still reeling from all the mallow-y goodness, please make sure that you check out all the other amazing sweets made by my friends.  We've got us a sugar fix to please any size sweet tooth.
Cakes, cookies, and cremes, oh my!  No matter what kind of sweet makes you cave, we've got it covered.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Running on Empty (A Book Review)

In my attempt to read more books intended for grown ups (instead of those directed at 4-year-olds), I recently signed up for the online book club hosted by Jamie over at Couch to Ironwoman.  I'm not sure I'll be able to get in a book every month, but I'll do my best.
This is my first month participating, the book that Jamie assigned us (yes, I look at it like a school assignment, which, truly, I revel in) was Running on Empty, by ultramarathoner Marshall Ulrich.
I am not an ultramarathoner, as you know.  Heck, I'm not even a marathoner (yet?).  So at the outset, I was a little intimidated.  After all, this book is about Ulrich's 3063-mile trek across the country, from California to New York.
Today I ran 3.06 miles, so... there's the connection?

First, a bit of vital information.

From Ulrich's website, the book is described as:

  • Filled with mind-blowing stories from the road and Marshall Ulrich's sensational athletic career, this is an incredible read with a universal message for athletes and non-athletes alike: face the toughest challenges, overcome debilitating setbacks, and find deep fulfillment in something greater than achievement.

Book ISBN: 978-1-58333-490-4 (paperback - $16.00)
Available on e-reader as well (I downloaded a copy for my iPad)

All right, now, what did I gain from reading a book about a man who runs distances I'm not sure I even want to think about?

The aspect of this book that jumped off the page to me was how Ulrich began running.  In the wake of the battle and subsequent passing of his first wife, Jean, to breast cancer, he took up running.  He ran to cope with the pain, and he ran away from that pain, too.  This first chapter, which details their marriage and Jean's decline, tore my heart apart.  I wasn't sure that I was going to get through the rest of the book, to be honest with you.

Because I started running in memory of my dad, who died from complications related to colon cancer.  Running - any distance that I've gone, from one mile to 13.1 - helps me cope with the sadness that I still have, over 13 years later.  Running gives me an outlet, helps offer me time to put things into perspective, and offers me a way to channel that grief into something positive (I try to focus on participating in race events that are charity-related).

Of course, Ulrich's admission that he allowed himself to use running to run away from pain and grief more than a way to balance that pain tore me up, too.  I grieved for the time he didn't spend with his (now adult) children and the marriages that ended in divorce.  While the candid nature of these descriptions was honorable, and hopefully, for Ulrich, cathartic, it frustrated me, too, that he allowed himself to follow that path for so many years.  The main reason I haven't pursued a full marathon is because of the time commitment.  My daughter is still young, and she still depends on me for so much.  And yes, I have a husband who loves his child more than anything, but his job often requires late nights at meetings, so I am often the parent who gets her up in the morning and who puts her to bed at night, with a full time job (two, if we're counting the parenting that I do while I work) in between.  I am not willing to sacrifice the time I have with her at this young age.  God (and joints) willing, there will be time.  Now is not the time.

Now, we English teachers love looking for metaphors in everything.  See that billboard?  It's a metaphor.  See that roadkill?  Metaphor.  Cat puke on your kid's favorite shoes?  Yep, metaphor.  It's like a sickness.  So it was in that vein that I read Ulrich's tale of running across the country.  For me, it really did give a small sampling as to the metaphor that is the human spirit.  Ulrich literally was able to run down Memory Lane.  His family and friends who were able ran parts of the way with him, and he was able to spend other times contemplating his relationships with others (at times coming closer and at others diverging paths).  While I can't imagine running that far in such a short amount of time (I admit that I have ruminated on an Arizona to Washington trek, though), I can see the draw.  The run changed Ulrich, and it's apparent that he had many epiphanies and "a-ha!" moments along the way that allowed him to come out of the trans-con a better parent, husband, and man (not that he was truly horrible before, I need to note; there is just always room for us to improve ourselves, even without running across the country).

That this amelioration was the end result, to me, makes the blisters, the injuries, the fallouts, and everything else worth it.

And the metaphor I can apply to my life?  If Marshall Ulrich can run across the length of the United States (he has actually criss-crossed the country, going west-east and north-south) and come out the other side having made himself better, then any of us can make similar improvements upon ourselves and our souls by dragging ourselves out of bed in the mornings and giving thanks that we can lace up while we do.  And we can do it in spite of injuries, small or large, as long as we are able to deal with them properly, just like we need to deal with the pain that is part of the human experience (we can't know joy if we can't know pain).

Thanks for the read, Jamie!  Next month's book is Chrissie Wellington's A Life Without Limits.  I'm hoping to be able to catch this one, and I'm looking forward to what April and May have in store as well.  In the meantime, I'm hoping to be able to find and watch the documentary Running America, which details Ulrich's transcontinental run.
If you are a reader and a runner and would like to hop aboard this online book club train, click here for all the details and to see what books the group has already read.

  • What books have you read about running that have inspired you (and maybe scared you a little, too)?
  • What have you learned from reading about running?
  • Would you run an ultra-marathon or participate in another feat of athleticism?