Thursday, February 25, 2010

coconut vanilla bean custards

Last summer, I got a mysterious package in the mail. There was a return address, but I didn't recognize it, and there was little else to identify the sender - no note, no name. Inside was a little treasure trove of kitchen goodies - a packet of gray French sea salt, glass jars of shallot-pepper seasoning, herbes de Provence, Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon, a pretty wooden bud vase. The package also included a long, thin glass container of whole vanilla beans - dark, exotic, intensely aromatic and absolutely beautiful.

There is little in this world so wonderfully delicious as pure vanilla. When given the choice, I almost always choose vanilla ice cream. I like to throw a bit of vanilla extract into any sweet recipe, even if not called for - waffles, apple crisp, caramel corn. I have always loved baking, and have burned through many a dark brown bottle of pure vanilla extract. But in all those years I've never actually used real vanilla beans. My never having used them before, coupled with their mysterious origins, made these vanilla beans the most special of all.

I later learned that the mystery package came from my friend Nick, a fellow foodie whose been busily mastering all things culinary since early childhood. Though we're now separated by a great distance, one way we now stay in touch is to send each other links to deliciously written and photographed food blogs, and by supporting each other in our own blogging adventures. The little mystery package was a wonderful surprise, but learning who it was from made it even sweeter.

I made this recipe for coconut vanilla bean custards for Valentine's Day this year. The recipe makes several servings and kept well in the refrigerator for several days.

Coconut Vanilla Bean Custards
adapted from Martha Stewart Food

1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons finely shredded unsweetened coconut
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 envelope (1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin
1 cup half and half
1 whole vanilla bean
1/8 teaspoon salt
strawberries, for garnish

Toast coconut in 350 degree oven until browned, watching carefully so it does not burn. In a small saucepan, heat milk and sugar over medium, stirring often, until sugar dissolves and milk is steaming, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in 1/2 cup toasted coconut, cover, and let stand 15 minutes. In a large bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water and let soften for 5 minutes. Strain warm coconut and milk mixture through a fine mesh sieve into gelatin, discarding coconut. Whisk until gelatin dissolves, then whisk in half and half and salt. Use a sharp paring knife to split the vanilla bean and carefully scrape all of its seeds into the bowl. Reserve the empty pod for another use. Divide the mixture between 6 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours. Top with remaining toasted coconut and garnish with strawberry, and enjoy with someone you love.

Monday, February 22, 2010


This weekend we finally had a glimpse of spring - two sunnier days warm enough to get outside. It felt like the first meal enjoyed after begin sick, the first chance to come up for air from a long, tedious job. It felt so good to finally breathe fresh air again, to feel warmth on our faces and play outside after so long indoors.

I had a creative weekend - sewing and knitting, baking, meeting with my friend Mandy to talk about our new creative venture (more on that exciting news later). Dora played while we felted little wool purses, marveling at the yarn's unpredictable transformation. In the afternoon, while Dora slept, I set up my sewing machine, bringing to life a few ideas I had been envisioning for weeks. As the sun streamed in through my window, casting light across my work, I thought how I could be satisfied, fulfilled even, by doing this all the time. A real artist, I'm sure, doesn't have her sewing studio in her dining room - along with the home office, the playroom, and the recording studio - but it was a lovely little daydream for a few minutes.

In the afternoon I took Dora to the playground. I chased her around while she explored, snapping pictures. The sun was low in the sky now, casting long shadows, peeking between the wooden slats of the play structures. I could barely keep up with Dora, ending up with lots of photos of mulch and wood, a tiny flash of pink t-shirt streaking off the corner of the frame. On the swings, an older girl asked Dora what her name was. I answered, and she said, "like the Explorer?". "yes, like Dora the Explorer." Dora got away from me at one point and slid down the big slide with me at the top, unable to catch her at the bottom. She fell off the end of the slide, landing face-first in the mulch. No tears, though - just jumping up and brushing herself off, getting back to business.

On Sunday, I sat across from the stained glass windows glowing from the outside in, illuminated by the morning sun. I listened to the sermon, about the wilderness within us, and the wilderness around us, and how we navigate that, and learn from it, and grow with it. Later in the service we heard that about a member of the church who had suffered an aneurysm at work on Friday. He will not survive, but his partner and family members are graciously allowing his medical team to keep him alive until recipients are identified who will find new life through his donated organs. Even in grief, these people have found a way to let the sunlight into someone else's life - into the lives of strangers. I was moved - am moved - beyond words.

I had a lovely weekend - lots of sunshine, both literal and figurative - but I still found time to bellyache about what I'd like to change about my life, still found myself jealous of another's success, still had timeouts and toddler screaming matches and unfinished loads of laundry. But, I was reminded, too, of how all of this is so fleeting, so much a blessing even when it might not feel like it. I was reminded of the incredible strength of love, of how,
even in our darkest moments, we can let love guide us to a place where our selflessness saves someone else, where we open the curtains so the sun may shine on another.

I watch my girl run through the frame, explore and play with abandon, fall down on her face and get right up again. My heart could burst with love for her, hot and glowing like the sun inside my chest. What I never knew before becoming a parent is how much my I would learn from my child, how much she would teach me about love and light and life. She is my sunlight, my warmth after cold, my reminder of all that is beautiful in this world. She reminds me that the sun is going to shine again - winter never lasts forever. It is up to us to get into that light, to be filled by it, and to revel in the blessed opportunity to feel our faces warmed, to find a way to share it with those we love and those we don't even know yet.

Friday, February 12, 2010


This week Dora and I made Valentine's for her classmates. When I heard they were having a Valentine's Day party in her room this week, I started thinking about what to make. Growing up, I had this great book called "Making Things", full of projects and ideas, ranging from giant paper mache sculptures to fingerprint creatures. I used to love reading through that book, thinking about what it would be like to make the projects and dreaming of doing them. Now, years later, I STILL love reading through any kind of instructional material for creative projects - sewing projects, knitting patterns, cookbooks - and I do the same thing, imagine what it would be like to make the skirt or knit the sweater or bake the bread. That love for reading each step and thinking it through is really what drew me to cooking, knitting, sewing, etc. in the first place. There's something about being told to start here and end here, and being shown what the results will be, which is very comforting to me.

I remember making a lot of potato print projects with my parents as a kid. Printing was something that happened a lot in my house. My father inherited an elaborate collection of letterpress materials from his father and uncle, and for as long as I can remember dabbled around in his basement printshop creating cards and broadsides and stationery. One of my mother's art mediums was woodcutting - she created a series of intricate animal prints from solid wood blocks that she carved early in her career as an artist. The unicorn, the cat, the elephant, the rabbit - a menagerie of tiny stripes and circles and fine lines in a multitude of colors marched through our house. I think we probably got into potato prints more due to their economy than as a simple derivative of my mom's more detailed carvings or my dad's printshop, but either way making potato prints reminds me of childhood.

So, I picked up a potato at the grocery store on my lunch hour, and that evening, after dinner, I carved several different heart shapes out of the potato. We used red finger paint and white card stock and stamped away, making a few ugly, globby messes before getting our technique down. Dora didn't want to stop when it was time to put our stuff away - begging for more paper and paint. Last night, I cut the card stock into quarters, writing a quick message on each one for Dora's little classmates, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and her great-grandma Brause.
Brian said Dora proudly carried her little envelope of Valentine's into school, and tonight we sorted through all the Valentine's in the construction paper heart folder her teachers made for her. Little Asher drew a picture of his and Dora's house, Evan sent along a yummy heart-shaped rice crispy treat, Brooklyn sent a set of princess stickers. Dora's sweet teachers sent home some Valentine's for her, too, and I instantly regretted not making Valentine's for them. How could I forget those sweet ladies, who have loved my baby girl from infancy, feeding and comforting and watching over her with as much love and attention as they afford their own children? We pay a pretty penny for their love, but the way they love Dora, and the way she loves them back, is true and honest and worth every cent.

I was supposed to babysit for a friend tonight, but the plans fell through - in part because of snow, but mostly because Brian is sick, and I feel like I might be getting sick. I so want to repay this friend, who has helped me out so much lately, but it was not to be today. Our plans for tomorrow have been cancelled, too. It seems like nearly every time I plan something - a dinner party or a date or a babysitting gig - someone gets sick, it snows, something interferes and I have to cancel. I can't even remember to make Valentine's cards for the sweetest ladies on earth who take care of my little girl while I slug away under the fluorescent lights.

All of this makes me feel like such an unreliable person - the person who no one can count on because something always gets in the way, the person who cancels at the last minute, who forgets or falls short or just doesn't get it right. I love being creative - love coming up with designs and projects and using my vision or my words to create something new - but sometimes I wish there were step-by-step instructions for everything. I want to be the person who does things right - who follows the directions and gets good results every time - but I'm not. Nobody is - not even Martha Stewart or Oprah or Thomas Keller or Anne Lammott.

The snow is falling again outside, and all around us is a blanket of white. I've got a family to take care of - a husband who doesn't feel good, a baby who's sleeping, a kitty with a bad tooth. I've got a knitting project to finish and a craving for popcorn. Maybe the person I really need to make the Valentine for is myself. My friend Emily was writing about this very thing the other day, and as she so deftly pointed out, loving ourselves is often the hardest thing to do, the lowest on the priority list, the Valentine we really forget to make. There aren't instructions for this one - the only thing we have is the starting point.

Start here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

silver lining

The past two days have been the kinds of days that force me to conjure up some glimmer of hope, some positivity, some silver lining in an otherwise bleak landscape. Yesterday, for example, included an unwieldy stack of chairs getting the best of me, an unexpected (and, it turns out, very expensive) car repair, and another tiny, predictable disappointment - one I had anticipated but that hurt a bit nonetheless. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and driving the company car because my husband was driving my car while his was towed away unusable. It was the last straw - a reckless, angry driver who thought I cut him off followed me from Dora's daycare center to my neighborhood. I took a detour to the police station, which finally deterred him, but not before I had become totally shaken by the experience.

Today we learned the full extent of the cost of the car repair, muddled our way through all manner of logistics to solve our transportation woes, and puzzled over the 4th day in a row in which our usually charming, happy girl has been fussy and complaining of feeling bad. Both Brian and I felt like we were losing it today - more than once I felt tears taking over while trying to work, trying to stay on top of the impossibly stressful tasks that face me in the coming months of my job, feeling more trapped than ever by responsibilities, emails, meetings, new debts.

In the midst of all of this, I have been reminded of the solace that can be found in simple beauties and pleasures. Last night, I found comfort in the rhythm and familiarity of cooking, in the promise of spring found in rows of green asparagus, in the simple deliciousness created by combining them in a hot oven with olive oil and coarse salt.

Amid my current turmoils I found joy in the fact that Dora's new, short haircut reveals that she has inherited the little cowlick I have at the nape of my neck, the one that pushes my hair to one side when its cut short.

Through the fog I saw a beacon of light from friends near and far, who pick up my daughter and bring her home for me, who let me borrow their car, who offer a listening ear, even if electronically. From 723 miles away, my heart was warmed by the fact that my friend Kendra and I, on almost the same day, took nearly the same snowy photograph without even knowing it.

photo by Carrie Turner, Asheville, North Carolina

photo by Kendra Stanley-Mills, Beulah, Michigan

These difficulties, too, shall pass, but perhaps they are necessary as a reminder to notice the small things, the little niceties of life that are easier to ignore when all is going smoothly, the little unique blessings only we can see on our own lives, the silver lining in the otherwise gray cloudy sky.

Friday, February 5, 2010

looking back and looking forward

A couple of years ago, I started writing a blog on MySpace. I don't even remember how I got started doing it, but it evolved into a story about becoming a mother. I was pretty faithful about writing that blog throughout Dora's first year of life, and even later. I've been thinking for a while about creating some sort of archive here with all of those blog entries. I went back to reread some of them recently, to see if they are worth resurrecting. I think that they are - at least some of them. It's funny to see that, two and a half years later, I'm still, in a way, thinking about the same things, asking the same questions. Have I made any progress at all?

The night I re-read my old blog entries, I also read an article by Anne Lamott, one of my absolute favorite authors. In the article, she talks about finding who we're supposed to be, something that everyone, including my hero Anne Lamott, apparently, struggles with. Having read Lamott's work, I know that she has, indeed, made many mistakes and wrong turns in her life. But, she's always been a writer, right? Did she go through years of imagining herself as a writer while doing something else, or shopping her books around unsuccessfully, all the while considering a career in retail sales? Of course she did - even Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child, right? - but it's hard to imagine those we most admire ever having questioned their place on earth, ever having been unsure or unable to take the next step.

Admitting my own questions and frustrations is not to say that I don't love my life right now. If we can't do anything but imagine how much better our lives would be some other way, we're wasting our time. Today, I came home from work early because Dora's daycare was closed. We spent the remainder of the afternoon - most of it, anyway - building a city of blocks around the train set with butternut squash, garlic, and sage roasting in the oven. We were giggling, snuggling, smiling, making funny jokes about how each of our pets lived in one of the wood block buildings we had constructed. That's Martin's house, and that's where Simone lives, and Mommy, Daddy, and Dora live in the big tall one. It was a sweet, sweet afternoon - a pleasure, a gem, a little winter gift. It was my sweet little angel and me, cozy in our warm little house with the wet snow all around outside, reminding ourselves of why we've got it so good.

It's funny to think that, two and a half years ago, we were blindly stepping off into the unknown of parenthood. Our whole world was about wondering if we had a boy or a girl, worrying about the birth, wondering how hard it would be. Now we know - it's incredibly hard, incredibly life-changing. Now we know that birth is beautiful, that we were blessed by a little girl angel baby. Now we know that, even though we can dream about what we hope to become in the future, we have a gift in who we are today, too.

So here's to looking back, and looking forward.

Friday, July 27, 2007

It's July 27th - a date I have been saying for 9 months. It's an estimate, and I was pretty sure the big arrival wouldn't be today anyway, but it's still a little surreal to look at the calendar and see that today is that day. I'm just going about my usual business, even though everyone keeps saying, "You're still here?".

Someone said to me today, "enjoy your last few days of being pregnant." It's so strange to think that any day now, we will be 3 instead of 2. One morning you wake up and suddenly there is another person in your life, who'll be there forever. I don't even know if this person is a boy or a girl, what their name will be, what they'll look like, but it's still pretty amazing. And the other amazing thing is that somehow, and we don't know exactly how yet, we'll get there together. There's no way to get there - to the arrival of this new life - except to go through it, knowing (hoping) that something - our love, our faith, God - will help us find our way.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Dora has gotten really good at operating my iPhone. She knows how to use the slider at the bottom of the screen to turn it on, she knows how to use the touchscreen. She's opened apps, sent emails, made phone calls, even changed my settings. All of that is fairly annoying, but one thing she does that I actually find very charming is that she changes the wallpaper picture frequently. Nearly all of the photos on my camera are of her, so it's not hard to pick one that has her as the subject - but I think she picks photos of herself on purpose. It's fun for me to pick up my phone and see what photo she's chosen for me. Right now, it's a sweet summertime picture of her. She's wearing a pink tanktop, green grass all around, her light blond hair blowing in the breeze. She's looking down and smiling, in such a shy, sweet, playful way. I love this photo of her, love that every time I open my phone I see her there, looking 2 years old and 15 years old all at once.

I like to think that Dora is choosing for me the way she wants to be seen, the way she wants me to think of her when we're apart. Isn't that what we all try to do? Don't we all try to pick the most ideal image of ourselves, the one we like the best, and try to become that image in the world? We do it with the foods we eat, the cars we drive, the work we do, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to. We do it with the shows we watch, or those we are willing to admit that we watch.

But just like every other form of communication, an image isn't foolproof. An image can be misinterpreted. You may believe that you are projecting an image of yourself as the kind, considerate, thoughtful, and honest person you believe you are, that you want to be. But sometimes the image doesn't read that way to someone else, even when you do your best. Sometimes it doesn't read that way to ourselves, either. In my mind I'm this creative, kind, patient, balanced mom, but then sometimes I find myself staring into space while Dora watches "Dora the Explorer". Or I allow myself to get dragged away from our 15 minutes of pre-dinner playtime to answer a work phone call. Even for someone with a relatively good self-image, the self-doubt within can sometimes win the day - or at least dominate the internal conversation. When that self-doubt is compounded from outside - from a coworker, a family member, a friend, a stranger - it becomes almost too much to bear.

We try so hard to be the best version of ourselves, to be the person in our favorite photograph of ourselves - the young, healthy, attractive, happy person. We try and rarely do we succeed, but perhaps its the trying that matters. Perhaps its the fact that we create that ideal image and then strive to meet it that makes the difference, even when we so often fall short. As I said recently, having a child forces a level of optimism - something that some of us struggle with. I believe with that comes a requirement to believe that the ideal image of ourselves is attainable, and that even when it is not, as long as we keep that frame in our line of sight, we're succeeding. And on the days when the image is not attainable - when it's out of focus, or has a poor composition, or the lighting is all wrong - on those days we have to forgive - ourselves, the world, the viewer. We have to forgive and we have to remember that tomorrow, we get another chance, another turn behind the lens, another click of the shutter, another chance to get it right.