April 15, 2015

Mucking Out the Barn (and what I made for a treat after I did it)

I love my barn.

And I love my daughters. (Much more than I love my barn.)

These sweet girls want to play basketball back in said barn, so it needed its annual post-winter muck-out.

This I did, and here's what I've got to say about it. You know that classic children's book, Everyone Poops? Well, it's true, and based on my muck-out morning, I can tell you that everyone who does it the most resided in my barn this winter.

But the barn is now cleaned out, and for this maternal labor of love, I am looking for a treat. So I'm making my skinnyish version of a Starbuck's Vanilla Bean Frappuccino. I call mine a "mockacinno" for wordplay reasons, but there is no coffee in it. Not that there couldn't be. Anyway, there are spins on this all over the Internet, so if you're looking for a vegan or Paleo or locavore or "all-natural" version, you have plenty of lovely options to choose from. Meanwhile, this is what works for me.

Vanilla Bean Mockaccino
(makes 1-2 servings)

1 cup milk (cow, nut, or otherwise), or more for desired consistency
1 cup ice cubes, or more for desired consistency
"caviar" from 1/2 split vanilla bean* (cut the whole bean in half crosswise, then slit one half lengthwise with a knife and scrape out that black paste made up of a zillion tiny gifts-from-God seeds)
2 tablespoons sugar-free French vanilla creamer, or more to taste
1/4 cup frozen reduced-fat non-dairy whipped topping, or more to taste
whipped cream for topping

*Yes, I know vanilla beans are crazy expensive. But they are SO worth the cost. My dear husband gifted me with a reasonably priced stash of them, and they are gorgeous. You'll love them. Use half of one in your Mockaccino and the other half to make Vanilla Bean Butter (unsalted butter, a pinch of salt, and the scrapings of half a vanilla bean). Which you will then spread on EVERYTHING.

Throw the milk, ice cubes, vanilla bean paste, and creamer into a blender. (Okay, fine. You can use vanilla extract if you want to make this while you're waiting for your shipment of vanilla beans to arrive.) Pulse/ice-crush/blend this mixture almost to oblivion, or until the ice cubes have submitted to your will for them. Add more milk or ice cubes or creamer to adjust the consistency or flavor according to your preference. Add in the frozen whipped topping and blend just to incorporate. Serve in a glass topped with whipped cream from one of those aerosol cans you can shoot directly into your mouth. Not that I would. Or have. But I will say that I considered it this morning when I was looking to free up refrigerator space.

So, the good news about spending my morning removing animal deposits from our barn is that it makes tomorrow's project--scraping peeling water-based paint off my daughter's bedroom floor because I AM AN IDIOT and put it directly over oil-based paint--seem like a day at the spa by comparison.

Next up once I finish the floor and get Anna's bedroom makeover finally done: "Tips and Tools for Tricking Your Closet into Thinking It's a Bedroom."

Gratefully shared at Weekend Wind Down Link Party and Motivation Monday!

April 13, 2015

I Chose My Husband Because He Chose Chocolate

My husband and I met on a summer morning in 1993 at the back of a small church in the Michigan countryside. We still attend that church, and every Sunday, I walk right past the spot where Chad and I met, fell in love, and decided to marry each other, all in the space of about five minutes. At the time of our meeting, Chad was a law student in Lansing, Michigan, and I was living and working in Manassas, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., at my first post-college job. Because I was 23 years old with no marriage prospects in sight, my younger sister and various aunts were on constant husband-watch for me. My sister, who along with my parents had just started attending the little church in the cornfield, reported to me on the phone that she had found a candidate. “He’s cute, he’s going to be a lawyer, and his parents are really nice.” My Aunt Judy, who was friends with Chad and his family, told him one night at dinner she thought he and I would be perfect for each other. Chad thought, “That’s great, but doesn't she live 700 miles away?”

The day we met, Chad was home on break from law school, and I was home from Virginia for a memorial service for my grandpa, who had lost his long battle with cancer. That morning, I sang "Holy, Holy, Holy" for music ministry, and afterwards, while I was casually walking past Chad on my way to nowhere in particular, he said, “I really enjoyed your song this morning, Elizabeth.” I walked over to him and launched into the conversation I had rehearsed in my mind during the 11-hour drive home from Virginia. After we finished talking, Chad went to the lobby of the church, where he was offered a doughnut by one of the church ladies trying to get rid of leftovers. He chose the doughnut with chocolate frosting, and I thought, “Yes, I could spend the rest of my life with this man.” I promised to do just that a few months short of two years later (quick courtship, long engagement…there were bar exams to pass and job contracts to finish out).

So, chocolate is very important in our relationship. Chad was raised by two parents who much preferred vanilla, but marriage to me has brought out his inner chocoholic. When we need to meet our daily chocolate requirement in a hurry, I make Molten Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pudding. Not only is it fast, easy, and made with ingredients I almost always have in the pantry, but with calcium from the milk, protein from the peanut butter, and heart-healthy flavonoids from the cocoa powder, it qualifies as health food in our house. Stir up a batch the next time you need to satisfy a chocolate craving, but beware: it just might be love at first bite.

Molten Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pudding

This pudding is made in the microwave, which eliminates the possibility of scorching. I love using the microwave for pudding so much, in fact, that this is the only way I make pudding anymore.

9 tablespoons (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon) sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsweetened cocoa powder 
Dash salt
2¼ cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup creamy peanut butter
½ cup non-dairy whipped topping, unthawed
2-3 regular-sized or 4-6 mini chocolate-peanut butter cups (I like the dark chocolate variety), coarsely chopped

In an 8-cup microwave-safe bowl or glass measure, stir together sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, and salt with a whisk. Whisk in ¼ cup of the milk, stirring well to eliminate lumps. This is the trick to smooth pudding; initially adding only a little of the milk creates a paste that allows you to work out the lumps. Whisk in the remaining 2 cups of milk. Microwave on High (100%) power for 2 minutes. Whisk mixture, then microwave on medium-high (70%) power for 5 minutes or until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Remove from microwave and whisk in vanilla and peanut butter. Divide among 4 serving bowls or mugs and cover each with plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface of the pudding. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to cool just slightly, then remove plastic wrap and top each with 2 tablespoons of the still-frozen whipped topping and one-quarter of the chopped peanut butter cups. Serve immediately. Makes four servings.

April 2, 2015

Why I Scored a Zero in Hospitality on my Spiritual Gifts Assessment

I was right in the middle of hosting a "hang-out date" (what used to be called a playdate before the participants involved hit puberty) when I had a sudden moment of total clarity about why I am the world's worst hostess: I am undone by the pressure of being responsible for other people's happiness.

The entire time my daughter's darling friends were at our house, I was worrying: are they having a good time? Are they bored? Do they feel comfortable here? ARE THEY HAPPY????? 

Because the truth is that this is what hospitality is all about: making other people happy in your home. I fully understand that being a hostess is not a matter of impressing people but rather welcoming them. But why do you welcome people into your house if not to make them happy while they're there? And this is where things get tricky for me.

If you are a guest at my house, I am always concerned about whether you are content and pleased. You, of course, are not at all judgmental or demanding. But while you are talking, sharing, eating, conversing, listening, and observing, I am wondering if you are enjoying yourself. Are you warm enough? Cool enough? Is the couch comfortable? Do you like the people you're with? Are you bored? Do you feel relaxed? Did I, the hostess, do enough in advance to make you feel your visit was special? At the same time, am I now carefree, attentive, witty, unhurried, and unflappable? (Unlikely, since I am never carefree, attentive, witty, unhurried, or unflappable.)

I am also nervous about your reaction to your surroundings and to the food I serve you. Do you like our house, the furniture and its arrangement, the decor? And do you like what I've made you to eat?

And if you don't like anything, be it the casserole or the couch, I am worried you will be unconsciously, and on the most benign of levels, unhappy with me. I know you will not be unhappy with my husband, because for one thing, almost no one is ever displeased with my husband, one of the world's most truly likeable people. Also, there is no chance that he will have cooked the meal. So you might be displeased with me, the hostess--which, to a pleaser personality, is a fate almost worse than death. The mere thought that someone could be in my house and be unhappy about anything that could be construed as "my fault" is troubling.

Obviously, I do not feel this sort of "pleaser pressure" on a regular basis with my little family. My husband and daughters are certainly unhappy with me on a regular basis and sometimes do not like the food I make for them. But they also know that the alternative to me cooking and cleaning and managing the place is that they would have to do it. As such, I am daily given the benefit of the doubt, motivated by their gratitude that at least there is clean laundry. Also, my secret-recipe chocolate-chip cookies cover a multitude of sins.

I know all this inhospitable-ness makes me sound wildly self-absorbed, as if I think everything is all about me. But that's the point: if I invite you over, our time must and should be all about you! And what if you don't enjoy yourself? WHAT IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY?! 

I'm thankful there are so many gracious, relaxed hostesses out there who are gifted at extending hospitality. I'm just not one of them. I do not have that gift. But I do have the gift of my Aunt Jennie's fabulous meatball recipe, which I gladly share with you here. Serve these when you host guests in your home, and I believe they will be very happy indeed.

Special Company Meatballs

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 TB minced fresh onion
1/3 cup ketchup
2 TB brown sugar
1 TB lemon juice
1 (16-ounce) can jellied cranberry sauce
1 (12-ounce) bottle chili sauce
2 TB water

In a large bowl, combine the first five ingredients (beef through onion) gently with a fork just until bread crumbs are incorporated. Form mixture into about 30 meatballs and set aside. In a separate medium-sized bowl, using a fork or, ideally, a potato masher, combine the remaining ingredients 
(I pour the water into the nearly empty chili sauce bottle, replace the lid, and shake it around to glean the remaining sauce from the bottle).

Coat the insert of a slow cooker lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Spoon or ladle about 1 cup of the sauce mixture into the bottom of the insert. Gently place half the meatballs on top of the sauce in the insert. Spoon or ladle about half the remaining sauce over the first layer of meatballs. Add the remaining meatballs to the pot, and top with the remaining sauce. Cover with lid and cook on low for 7-9 hours, depending on how hot your slow cooker runs. Serves about 8.