Friday, January 6, 2017

Joshua Tree - NYE 2016 camping

I want to be a rational human being who doesn't think that how any particular day goes really has any particular bearing on the rest of your year. But there's something about the transition to the new year that gets me. I want it to feel kind of weighty, but also celebratory and serene and reflective. We did it right this year and took a trip out to Joshua Tree. We got in Friday night, spent Saturday scrambling around the rocks and the expected rain even held off long enough to let us enjoy a long NYE happy hour by the fire. (We don't really do "glamping" but I made an exception and packed a couple of our nice champagne coupes for the occasion.) It rained all night, but cleared up for a perfect New Year's Day camp breakfast.

indian cove
rock scrambling
camp grilled cheese
rainy day lunch
camp lunch
NYE 2016 happy hour

You can't really go wrong with Joshua Tree camping, in my opinion. We stayed at Indian Cove this time. The sites are great (if you check the site list you can actually see pictures of all of them, which is really helpful), with plenty of vault toilets scattered around. There's no potable water available in camp, although apparently you can get water at the ranger station about 1.5 miles away. It gets really busy this time of year, so reservations are your best bet. We booked our site months in advance to make sure we got one. If you're planning on having a few people join you, make sure you check the site photos carefully. Although technically you're permitted to have two cars per site, some sites can really only accommodate a single car. We stayed at 96 and were pretty happy with it.

Campsites are dog friendly, but they aren't allowed on the trails - bummer. This can be a deal breaker if you have dogs unless you have a big enough group that someone is willing to hang out at the campsite during the day. For this trip, we didn't really hike, just scrambled around the rocks at the campground (with Circe in her backpack).

If you're into rock climbing, Indian Cove has some great options. D loves it, but I'm terrified of sheer heights, so I can't do it. Oddly, I'm fine clambering over giant piles of boulders, hence the rock scrambling.

I like to take January to think about goals for the year, but we're both on board with continuing our 2016 resolution of fitting in as many short camping trips as we can.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christmas 2016

I spent a lot of time in the kitchen leading up to Christmas, and absolutely zero time shopping, which is exactly how I prefer it. I made a bunch of Christmas cookies, as usual, and packaged them up. I made this crazy lasagna for Christmas Eve dinner. It's my absolute favorite, but it takes basically a full day to put together. Luckily it can sit in the fridge for a day once it's been assembled, so I made it on Friday (along with Caesar salad dressing, croutons, and garlic bread). Then on Christmas Eve morning I woke up feeling like I had nothing to do so I baked a yule log. Emily introduced me to this tradition last year and this year we did a virtual baking session from our respective kitchens, texting pictures and recipes back and forth as we worked. (Notes on the recipes at the bottom of the post)

Christmas Day was a blur of driving and family and then we had a whole freaking week when we were both on vacation and at home, which never, ever happens to us. We made this huge list of things we wanted to do and then instead of doing most of them we took turns catching colds and ended up binge watching a bunch of TV and using the fireplace as much as humanly possible. It was still pretty wonderful.

cookie boxes 2016
buche de noel
christmas eve table 2016
christmas eve dinner 2016
stocking stuffers 2016

Bûche de Noël (aka yule log) I think this is going to become a tradition, so I promised myself I'd write down some notes for when I inevitably forget everything next year.

We used this recipe for the sponge cake + filling. Super simple, tasty. I didn't have any trouble with it except that the recipe specifically calls for a 10x15" jelly roll pan and I only have my beloved half sheet pans (closer to 12x17" if you're looking at the interior measurements) and a couple quarter sheet pans (9x12") from when I had a miniature oven. I stressed about whether I should try to scale the recipe up a bit, but decided against it and as it turns out I think the half sheet pan is exactly what you need. It filled the entire pan perfectly.

Notes -
- Beat the egg yolks thoroughly (3 - 5 minutes in a Kitchenaid). They should be very thick.
- Put parchment paper in your sheet pan and then spray it with oil. I had no issues peeling the parchment off, but some of the reviews mention that if you don't spray with oil it can suck trying to get the paper off.
- The filling is just whipped cream with cocoa powder, and I was afraid it would collapse quickly, but it held up pretty well. I made this the same day we ate it, but the leftovers were good for another couple days, so it would be possible to make it a full day ahead, possibly two (do NOT put meringue mushrooms on until the day you are serving it, though).

Mushrooms - I used this recipe for meringue mushrooms. I used superfine sugar instead of regular granulated because I always do for meringue (I don't buy superfine sugar, just blitz regular granulated sugar in the food processor). Some reviews mentioned the meringue being too salty, and I did notice that I could taste salt, but I actually liked it and no one else commented on it. Maybe reduce the salt a bit at first and taste before adding more? I didn't have a large enough circle tip, so I just cut the tip off the pastry bag. I didn't assemble the mushrooms with melted chocolate as the recipe called for because I was feeling lazy so I just stuck the tops and bottoms together with buttercream. I had watched Emily make the mushrooms last year, so I winged the technique but if you want to see someone do it this looks like a very detailed tutorial, although the video is crazy long (tip - she starts piping around 12 minutes if you need to jump ahead). Meringue will get sticky if it's damp out, so if you're making these ahead of time store them in an airtight bag. I found that mine were fine sitting on the cake for 12 hours, but by the 24 hour mark they were starting to get sticky. The ones in the bag held up perfectly for 3 days (probably would have lasted longer except I ate them all by then).

Chocolate buttercream - I used this recipe for chocolate buttercream and it was tasty but sweeeeeeeeet. I might try something less sweet next year (I usually prefer flour or pudding based buttercreams - Bravetart has my favorite buttercream recipes and tips and I particularly love her German buttercream although I'm not 100% sure it is sturdy enough for this purpose - maybe a ganache frosting of some sort?). But everyone else loved the sweet buttercream so maybe I'll just stick with it because it was super easy. One important note - this recipe makes at least 3 times as much frosting as you could possibly need, even if you are frosting heavily (which you don't really need to do with a yule log). I'd at least cut it by half, possibly by a third.

Making the branches - The recipe I used doesn't explain how to make the branches. I know last year we found a description somewhere but I can't find it now. Basically, I fill the yule log exactly as described in the cake recipe. At this point, I roll it up tightly in a kitchen towel and place it in the fridge, ideally for an hour or two. Then I remove the dish towel, place the cake on a cutting board and cut a slice off each end with a sharp knife (just enough to clean up the edges). To create branches, I then cut off a larger piece from one end (maybe 5" or so?). I cut this piece in half at an angle, creating two pieces that each have one straight side and one angled side. Transfer your log to a serving plate, then add the branches.Using frosting, adhere the angled side to your log wherever you want it. I put one branch coming off the side and one coming off the top, but you can have just one branch or no branches at all, of course.

Frosting - Once your branches are in place, carefully spread buttercream over the entire cake (leaving the ends exposed if you like). I used a small offset spatula with a tapered head for this (mine is like this one), and then just dragged the tip of the spatula in brush like strokes to create texture. You can also create a bark-like texture using the tines of a fork.

Decorating - for finishing touches add the meringue mushrooms on both the cake and the plate using buttercream to stick them in place (again - I'd wait to put the mushrooms on until the day you are serving the cake, if you made it ahead). This year I added sprigs of rosemary from the garden, and a few cranberries for color and then dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar (place powdered sugar in a sifter or fine strainer, then gently tap over the cake).

IDEAS FOR NEXT YEAR: I like having the two branches, but this makes a somewhat stumpy cake (ha). Next year if we want to get ambitious I think it would be fun to work together and make three batches of the cake + filling. This would allow us to get two full length yule logs and use the third cake solely for branches. If you're making more than one cake, you still just need one batch of mushrooms (could probably decorate 3 - 4 cakes with one batch). The frosting recipe I used this year could be cut in half and still frost two cakes easily, I think.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Mini Christmas

I took a three day weekend and went up to the Bay for some niece/nephew time. It was such a great trip and we tried to cram in our favorite holiday activities since we won't see each other for Christmas. We watched Prancer, made our grandmother's pecan ball cookies, and even tried to get my niece to decorate her first gingerbread house. Turns out 21 months is not quite old enough to understand the concept, although she quickly got on board with shoving as much frosting into her mouth as possible. These kids are the sweetest and coming home gets harder every time.

little helper
mini tree
casey, december 2016
gingerbread houses dec 2016
for the adults
gingerbread house

The adults ended up taking over the decorating duties when it became clear the kids weren't going to step up. Our candy supply was pretty limited this year because we were trying to stick with toddler friendly candy (we got snow caps, mini M&Ms, yogurt pretzels, mini marshmallows, mini candy canes, cereal and gummies) but we had a lot of fun anyways. I baked all the gingerbread pieces at home and added the stained glass windows, then wrapped them up carefully and packed them in a box in my suitcase so we could assemble them up north. In case you're wondering, yes, I totally got flagged for secondary screening at the airport because the scanner couldn't figure out what was going on, but it was worth it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reading, lately

I figured I better get a small round up done before the holidays hit and things get busy. I'll try to get one in before the end of the year as well, since I usually manage to get a decent amount of reading done in December. 

heart of light - reading, lately

All the Missing Girls - This thriller has a bit of a gimmicky structure, with the narration starting two weeks after the disappearance of a girl in a small town and then working backwards. I was a little annoyed at first because I kept getting confused by who knew what and when, but it started to make sense as the book progressed. I ended up enjoying it.

Now You See Me - The first in a series about a female detective in London. The premise is a bit gory, but the twists were good and towards the end I didn't want to put it down. If you like the Maeve Kerrigan series, or the Inspector Lynley series (before it went a bit off the rails), then I think you'll like this. I have to see if I can get on the waitlist for the rest.

Extreme Prey - I've never read John Sanford, so I dove right into the middle of the Lucas Davenport series, on the advice of a reader. I didn't feel lost, so I think each book probably stands alone just fine. This really reminded me of the Jack Reacher series (large, testosterone filled protagonist, strange conspiracies, detailed descriptions of weapons). Of course, I love that series, so this totally worked for me. If you're a Lee Child fan, check it out.

The Girls - My well read friend recommended this book ages ago, and I finally got it from the library. It's fiction, based on the Manson family murders. Loosely, I assume, but I know basically nothing about the Manson family other than the bits and pieces I've somehow picked up just from existing. The book was good, really evocative of the time and place. Story is creepy and draws you right in. I felt like it had some gaps in it because the entire story takes place in a really short period of time and the relationship the protagonist develops with the cult, and then the eventual breakdown, felt a little too rapid to be believable (but maybe that's accurate?).  But I can think of at least three friends that I could confidently recommend this book to, so that's a good sign.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things - For the first third of this book I just wasn't getting the hype because it felt very, very slow. But then it gradually starts getting creepier and creepier and ends up feeling incredibly tense and stressful. Full disclosure - I guessed the twist a little early so I didn't love the book as much as others have.

Loner - I was disturbed by this book, as I assume you're meant to be. A nerdy kid gets into Harvard and becomes fixated on a girl who lives in his dorm. I wasn't sure who I was supposed to empathize with in this book, but it is certainly not the narrator, who gets weirder as the story progresses. I didn't really love this overall, although it's pretty absorbing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

I haven't hosted Thanksgiving in a few years and I decided that this year I would be relaxed about it. I still made all my lists, of course, and I took a couple hours off on Wednesday to get some cooking started, but when I hadn't finished everything I was supposed to finish by Wednesday evening, I refused to worry about it. I showered and went out for drinks with our friends as planned and it was lovely. And then on Thursday morning we met up with friends and waited in a crazy line for holiday coffee at Go Get Em Tiger, and even though I knew that I was behind on my oven schedule, I refused to worry.

Which is a long way of leading into telling you that it all worked out, and being relaxed was nice, but I definitely had a moment in the early afternoon when I was running around the house and feeling like maybe I had been too relaxed and next time I'm going to try to find a better balance. Or at least set aside some time to polish the crystal and cut out the place cards early in the week. I think I just need to get back in a hosting groove.

veg stock in progress
glass turkey, podocarpus
Thanksgiving table 2016
the day after

The camera was definitely not my priority during this last minute craziness, but I managed to get a couple quick shots of our table (before we'd gotten around to cutting out the place cards or adding the silverware). I kept meaning to think about what to do for a centerpiece, but then it was Thursday and I hadn't picked up anything at all. I ended up cutting off some sprigs of podocarpus from the tree in our yard and I'm happy with how it turned out. Simple, free, done.

The holiday was wonderful and it cooled down just enough in the evening that we were able to have a fire and sit around talking for a bit before people rolled themselves home. It felt good. And the next day I washed dishes for a couple hours and got two batches of turkey stock made and drank some holiday tea. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving thanks

the table

I took a break from Thanksgiving for a couple years, but we're hosting again this year and it feels like a particularly crazy time to step back into it. For me, Thanksgiving has always been about family and friends, and acknowledging the joy in your life. I have so much to be thankful for, and yet there's so much fear and uncertainty right now. I have so much privilege, but I'm well aware that not everyone does. D is the son of an immigrant, and it's terrifying to realize that if this current political situation was taking place back in the 80s that everything could have looked very different for their family (and our future lives).

I'm excited to get into the kitchen and start cooking and baking. I'm looking forward to gathering with our families and celebrating. But last night I spent some time poring over our budget and freeing up enough space for some recurring monthly donations (I settled on the ACLU, the NRDC and the SPLC). The monthly amounts aren't huge, but it's something.

I made a few one time donations as well, to the Sacred Stone legal defense fund, democrat Foster Campbell's runoff campaign in Louisiana (could give the democrats one more senate seat), and the Health Care Rights Initiative (heard about this organization on the Moth last week and it broke my heart in two - they provide legal assistance to people navigating the often incomprehensible health care insurance system, a cause that feels very personal to me since Dave's accident).

I also signed up for weekly emails from Each week they send you four specific action items, along with all the information you need (phone numbers, scripts, etc). I know that making phone calls is important, but to be honest, I hate doing it. This has made it so much easier.

And I did a quick search and found all the contact info for our senators and our representative, made a quick cheat sheet, printed it out, and hung copies both in my office and on our fridge at home.

I don't know exactly what I should be doing right now, and I'm not sure what will make an impact, but I know that doing nothing is the worst thing. We fumble forward, we come together, we give thanks for our blessings and we work to make sure that those blessings are extended to everyone.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Right this minute

I'm getting excited for Thanksgiving. We're hosting this year and I haven't had time to sit down and do my usual planning process, but I'm looking forward to getting all my lists done tomorrow morning.

Also looking forward to decorating the weekend after Thanksgiving. It's the first time we've been in a real house for the holidays and I've got a few bits of decor squirreled away.

I've been reeling since the election and just feeling overwhelmed a lot. I think I'm a pessimist at heart (I try not to be!) and I tend to just feel like giving up when things get heavy politically. We took last weekend and drove up to see my niece and nephew and it made a huge difference and reminded me that I have to keep contributing. I'm plotting my next steps (hoping to find a good fit volunteering, since we aren't really in a position financially to give much money) but for now I'm trying to focus on doing small nice things daily, even if they are in no way political, just to get some good karma out into the world. Donate blood, participate in a toy drive, give to the local food bank, call our local politicians. I just feel really helpless and I'm not sure what I should be doing, to be honest.

On a lighter note, I'm embarrassed to admit that I just can't get into Wolf Hall, even though so many of you have recommended it! What is wrong with me? I was pretty confused in the beginning and it helped once I figured out that "he" basically always refers to Cromwell. My Tudor history is only so-so at this point, which I guess might be making it more difficult. I pushed through a full 50% of the book and then had to take a break. I feel like a failed reader because I never quit books, so I'm telling myself I'll come back to it when my mind is clearer. But really, what am I not getting?