Palaces and Puppet Shows

Palaces and Puppet Shows

One of the things we love about living in Amsterdam is visiting the city centre. While Amsterdam is famous for its multitude of, shall we say, earthly delights, there are also plenty of wonderful family-friendly activities here. Shortly after we arrived, we bought ourselves the Museumkaart, a card that allows you to get into most of Amsterdam’s museums and other historical sites like the Anne Frank House for free.

Our first couple of times using the cards at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum were somewhat less than successful, due to a combination of crowds, long lines, and insufficient parental ingenuity. Today I was determined to make a better plan. We started off the morning with hot chocolate and pain au chocolat (keyword: chocolate) at De Bakkerswinkel, slathered liberally with their signature strawberry jam, lemon curd, and pineapple basil preserves.

While everyone was still on a sugar high, we cycled over to Dam Square, site of the Royal Palace, our cultural destination for the day.

Holding hands

When we asked about kid-friendly things to do while touring the Palace, they informed us that unfortunately the audio tour for children had been discontinued. Undeterred, we opted for the adult audio tour for everyone, which the children ended up finding fascinating.


The Palace was full of all manner of marble reliefs and gigantic paintings depicting Greco-Roman themes, so I once again was happy that I spent the first 6-8 years of my children’s lives thoroughly indoctrinating them in Classical mythology. For example, here’s a fairly terrible photo of a relief of Icarus, placed, appropriately enough, above the room designated to hear bankruptcy cases.

IcarusIn this photo you can see Atlas holding up the sky, whilst presiding over three gigantic floor maps depicting the Eastern Hemisphere, the Western Hemisphere, and the night sky, complete with constellations. Political borders and European knowledge of North America have changed significantly during the few hundred years since the maps were made. But the stars have not.

Royal PalaceOnce finished inside the Palace, we went back out to the square, where a delightfully atmospheric puppet show was in progress.

puppet showStreet performers in Dam Square today included a Darth Vader, a Yoda, two Grim Reapers, a nude woman being progressively covered in body paint, and this impressive Neptune (who is, you’ll notice, pulling Axa’s hair. Why?!?).

NeptuneThe usual bubble blowers were out in force as well, and Axa and Raj are clearly not too old to partake in some gratuitous bubble popping.

BubblesAnd yes, we are “those tourists” who shamelessly feed the pigeons.


It might seem like an innocent photo, but the pigeons here are really a bit of a problem. Not only have I seen them brazenly stealing food off of (occupied) outdoor cafe tables; they are not above flying in and snatching a tender morsel out of the very hand of an unsuspecting passerby. In fact, watching these pigeons in action, it’s easy to imagine how the tale of King Phineas and the Harpies, who stole an entire banquet off his table every night before he could even begin to eat, got its start.

Speaking of which, we finished off the afternoon with Dutch hotdogs, complete with all the trimmings. Which in this case included ketchup, mustard, curry sauce, mayonnaise, diced onions, pickle relish, red peppers, sauerkraut, french onions, and mini potato sticks. They disappeared into our mouths so quickly the pigeons didn’t have a chance.

hot dog

Thanksgiving in Florida, 2014

We’re kind of foodies at our house, so Thanksgiving is generally a gala affair. (See Last Year’s Menu and the Even More Dramatic Year Before) However, I’ve noticed that since I started working full time, I have less and less of a desire to spend my entire day off cooking when it’s a holiday. Go figure. Tony has even less of a desire to cook a big Thanksgiving, possibly due to the fact that nearly all of the everyday cooking at our house currently falls to him.

So this year we’ve decided to pare down Thanksgiving a bit. No, make that a lot. In fact, I’m embarrassed to even say what we’re contemplating, nay have actually determined to do. Suffice it to say that our plans for Thanksgiving do not involve either brining the turkey, wrapping it in bacon, cooking it upside down, or even stuffing it. In fact, they don’t involve a turkey at all. Are you ready for it? We’re going to pick up a rotisserie chicken. It was Tony’s idea, since I wouldn’t have been able to bear coming up with such an travesty. However, once he brought it up and I weighed the merits of a rotisserie chicken against the hours of preparation and the reality of turkey leftovers in the freezer for the next several months, I could see he had a point.

But his next idea was the real bombshell: Stovetop stuffing. I was not amused. Stovetop stuffing is too far even for me. I think he was mainly attracted by the ease of preparation, but he claimed (out loud!) that he actually prefers it to homemade stuffing. I was offended. Was he referring to the Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing I made last year? Or the  Apple, Sausage & Parsnip Stuffing the year before? Only when I promised to make a completely normal and unadventurous stuffing this year (and reminded him that I’d already consented to rotisserie chicken) did he relent and agree to the compromise.

So I am passing over recipes like Spinach, Fennel, and Sausage Stuffing with Toasted Brioche, Rustic Bread Stuffing with Red Mustard Greens, Currants, and Pine Nuts, and Masa Cornbread Stuffing with Chiles with many a sigh and backward glance. Instead, I have chosen the irreproachable “Simple is Best” Dressing, featuring those old staples of Thanksgiving and Simon & Garfunkel, parsley, sage, rosemary and time. Per the reviews on Epicurious (which one should always, always read, for entertainment value as well as culinary wisdom), I’ll double the herbs and add more broth, especially since I’ll probably sub in sourdough bread if I can get away with it under the nose of Tony, the Thanksgiving Grinch.

High on Axa’s list of important foods for Thanksgiving dinner is pumpkin pie. In fact, she’s been asking if we could have pumpkin pie this year since early October. Pumpkin pie is not my favorite thing, but since it doesn’t have a top crust, it is a candidate for my secret weapon/pie crust dodge (aka the easiest French Tart Crust recipe I have ever encountered). She’s looking forward to making it from an actual pumpkin, so there’s no cutting corners there. I am thinking of using this recipe, which includes white pepper, since I love using pepper in desserts and getting away with it. We fell in love with white pepper when we discovered it in Italy, and started putting it in everything. Everything was better with white pepper, until Tony put it in the breakfast oatmeal one morning. It took me awhile to figure out what the weird taste was, but I could barely choke down my oatmeal. We’ll have whipped cream (NOT the kind from a can) with the pie.

Pineapple bacon wraps are a Bringhurst family tradition. We used to make them for Christmas Eve, but since we’re so often out of town at Christmastime, we make them for Thanksgiving now. They are as easy as they sound–just slices (or half-slices) of bacon wrapped around chunks of pineapple. I think we sometimes might have used canned pineapple growing up, but we always get a fresh pineapple now. Tony learned how to efficiently cut up a pineapple on his mission in the Philippines. Here’s Benjamin managing to burn the pineapple bacon wraps when we invited him to Thanksgiving at BYU eight or nine years ago. No, that’s not a bad quality photo. It’s the smoke in the air.


True to form, Tony suggested that we just buy rolls this year, and get berry jam instead of making cranberry sauce. So no recipes to post for that. And our final menu item is roasted veggies, which we usually cook without a recipe, and are somewhere along these lines. And that’s it; the entire contents of our Thanksgiving spread this year.

What are you planning for Thanksgiving? Is your turkey already marinating? Will you be making homemade rolls, mashed potatoes from scratch, and fourteen kinds of pies? Or will you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did? Remember,

Thanksgiving Menu – Florida (Take Two)

pumpkin cheesecake

Believe it or not, real life besides books has been going on too. Last week the CEO at the company where I work said he was not opening the office on Friday, so everyone would be “working from home” (his quotation marks, not mine). I was pretty excited to have a whole Thanksgiving weekend with the family.

Our Thanksgiving menu for this year was a little less ambitious than last year’s Thanksgiving menu, considering the fact that I work full time and Tony, while he is more organized than I ever was about everyday meals, has no interest in presiding over an elaborate, three-day cooking project. So yes, instead of, for instance, making my own graham crackers for graham cracker crust (true story), I consented to comb the cookie aisle for something premade with a minimum of objectionable ingredients. Among other things.

Instead of putting things in order of consumption, like last year, I’ve decided to put them in the order that we made them.

This year, I offered to let each member of the family be in charge of a dish. Axa quickly claimed the pie. She made her Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake with some help from me. Unfortunately, it turned out she was somewhat more interesting in licking bowls, spoons, beaters, and any other sugar-coated cooking implement than she actually was in making pies. She still did a great job, but it took somewhere between three and four times as long as I had anticipated. As always, she made sure to save a little of everything to make a tiny pie too.

I always like to try a new cranberry sauce recipe, and this year I went really adventurous with Cranberry Orange Chutney with Cumin, Fennel, and Mustard Seeds. It smelled like I was making exotic Indian food, and I momentarily wished I had thought a little more about how everything would harmonize, and perhaps done a tandoori turkey. I didn’t end up liking the result very much, but Tony loved it, and has eaten it as jam on toast for the past week.

Raj ambitiously claimed responsibility for our Thanksgiving turkey! On Wednesday night, with Tony’s help, he brined the turkey as the first step to Herb Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy. On Thursday morning, we rubbed the turkey all over in herb butter, stuffed it loosely with apples and onions, and popped it in the oven. I was privately skeptical that brining it was worth the extra work, but it turned out absolutely delicious–moist and flavorful all the way through, even though we never get around to buying an oven thermometer, and ended up overcooking it, as usual.

To keep the turkey company in the oven, Tony made our usual roasted winter vegetables, our longest-running Thanksgiving recipe. They were delicious, especially with the new additions of beets, parsnips, and sweet dumpling squash.

Since Axa and Raj don’t like stuffing and detest mushrooms, Tony and I decided to go whole hog and make Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing. The only alteration I made to the recipe was substituting in sourdough bread, which we loved last year in the apple and Italian sausage stuffing. We ended up cooking the stuffing outside the turkey for once, since we were warned by epicurious that roasting stuffing in a brined turkey would make it too salty.

We finished it all off with the Barbara Parker’s rolls (The rolls my mom always makes for Thanksgiving, named after a friend who brought them to her after she’d had a baby), and I am now wondering why I ever departed from her recipe.  They were light and fluffy and delicious, so I was happy the recipe makes two entire 9×13 pans. We still finished them off in just a couple of days.

Dinner was delicious, and it was so much fun to make it all together as a family.

photo credit


French Women, Tigana, Catching Fire, Mountains of Madness, and Tenant of Wildfell Hall

French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, and PleasureFrench Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, and Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this one up for free, and it’s been sitting in my bathroom for the past month, so I’ve leafed through most of it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book that put Guiliano on the bestseller list, French Women Don’t Get Fat, although I was aware of its basic premise. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone really being able to take her seriously. Giuliano’s tone is supercilious at best. Her constant exaggerated descriptions of her own self-control (the chocolates she didn’t eat, the half of a banana she saved for later, etc.) are bizarre to the point of being red flags for an unhealthy food obsession. And her constant assumed superiority in everything from fashion to stress management (not to mention the broad and blatant cultural stereotyping) make this book virtually unreadable.

However. It is peppered with quite a few recipes, based on seasonal produce, which look to be both delicious and fairly easy to make. And she also includes several “recipes” for natural skin and hair treatments. Which is why I’ve not thrown away my copy, and also why I’ve given the book one star more than its writing deserves. If you can get past the author’s egregious attitude, there’s some good stuff inside.

TiganaTigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another gorgeous and moving offering by Guy Gavriel Kay. I told my librarian friend that he was my new favorite author (while requesting that the library acquire his very first novel), and she responded, “it’s like having a new best friend, isn’t it?” It is.

Tigana is set in Renaissance Italy, or at least Kay’s version of Renaissance Italy. Like his other novels, this one straddles the genres of historical and fantasy fiction. The fantasy is mostly in the details, like blue wine, two moons, and dreamlike scenes in otherworldly places. Kay’s books have complex, tightly crafted plots, but they are really character-driven. And once again in Tigana he has assembled a collection of interesting, deeply explored characters with complicated loves and hates and motivations.

For readers looking for clear heroes and villains or nonstop action, this novel will likely disappoint. But if you are interested in difficult questions, subtle scenes, and beautifully crafted prose, Tigana is a wonderful read.

As with Kay’s other books, this is an adult novel. Expect some sex and violence, neither gratuitous.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As you know, I was not a huge fan of The Hunger Games. But a couple of weeks ago I saw the movie, and I actually liked it a lot better than the book. Plus, my library’s audiobook selection is rather limited, and I really burn through them on my commute. So. I’m giving the series another chance.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot to say about Catching Fire either. Again, I really enjoyed the portion of the book that took place outside the Hunger Games. Once the Games start, it’s just kind of sickening. Also, I don’t think this book is even as well-plotted as its predecessor. Might I read the third? Yeah, but only if my library has it on audiobook.

The Tenant of Wildfell HallThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine there are few people who read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, so it’s almost obligatory to talk about Anne with reference to Charlotte and Emily. But I won’t indulge, except to say that from the standpoint of reading enjoyment, I’m afraid the popularity of the respective books speaks truth. Helen, the heroine of Tenant is just a trifle too pious and resigned to her fate. And the extended epistles and journal entries are too contrived to really allow the reader to fall into the novel properly.

Still, this was no doubt a groundbreaking book for its time, and remains poignantly relevant as the story of a woman who uses her courage and ingenuity to escape from her abusive, alcoholic husband, and retain her own dignity and humanity. Sadly, we still live in a world where some women are trapped (often with their children) in abusive marriages, even when the legal basis for such situations is gone. And in some countries, even the legal basis remains. I wish all those women could read this book.

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t read horror as a genre, because my imagination is already overactive. But somehow this ended up on my Kindle, and I read it.

It was actually a pretty interesting read, more as a cultural artifact than anything else. The thing that fascinated me most was Lovecraft’s implicit assumption that readers would perceive anything different as being threatening, an abomination, against nature, etc. I think we have come a long way since the 1930’s in our acceptance of the “other.”

Even though I didn’t really buy in emotionally to the suspense and horror that Lovecraft was attempting to build, I did appreciate the bizarre artistry of his writing, and how he wove references to his (fictional) “sources” convincingly into the narrative. First class writing for its genre, no doubt, but not really my cup of tea.

View all my reviews

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The Host, Prague Winter, Shakespeare in Italy, and Seven Daughters of Eve

Let’s talk books! The good, the pedantic, and Stephenie Meyer’s already-made-into-a-movie foray into science fiction.

Animal, Vegetable, MiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars, because this book can only be described as uneven. On the one hand, I was absolutely fascinated by the Kingsolver family’s adventures in producing most of their own food for an entire year. Probably because I already had my own fantasies about moving to a farm and subsisting on my own heirloom vegetables and heritage farm animals. I loved the recipes and seasonal menus, as well as the practical information on homesteading, including hilarious accounts of things like mushroom hunting, using a year’s bounty of zucchini, and breeding turkeys. And of course I related to the trip to Italy.

On the other hand, judgmental much? Really, who is she to talk if my daily vice happens to be bananas rather than coffee? The constant preaching (even if with me it was largely preaching to the choir) kind of ruined what could have been a really good book. The Kingsolver family (the book is co-authored by her husband and daughter) come across as supercilious, fanatical, and completely out of touch with the reality of most people’s lives. And sorry, but they are way too eccentric and uneven in their application of moral principles to really be taking the kind of moral high ground that they do. The effect was probably heightened by the fact that I listened to the audiobook of this one, so I heard the litany falling from the very lips of the authors.

In sum, there’s lots of wonderful information here, much of it very engagingly presented, but only if you can get past the egregious tone.

The Host (The Host, #1)The Host by Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the point of view of the body snatchers. You’ve got to admit it’s a novel plotline. Like something you’d come up with to entertain yourself on a mind-numbingly boring drive through the wastelands of Arizona. Which, yes, is exactly how Stephenie Meyer says she originated this story.

And it really isn’t all that bad. It’s true that there is still some of the unbelievably sappy romantic dialogue you have a right to expect from the author of Twilight. But the novel does explore some interesting themes related to the relationship between the body and the soul, individual identity, and the problematic aspects of absolute morality.

Even more than with Twilight, I recognized some fundamentally Mormon ideas and attitudes, like the transcendent importance of experiencing life in a physical body, or the excessive self-abnegation exhibited by the main character (related in some ways to Bella Swan’s chronic lack of self-esteem and passivity in all matters other than dramatic self-sacrifice). Again, we see the cult of the all-sacrificing mother in Meyer’s work.

However, as before, what Meyer lacks in depth and finesse she makes up for in sheer originality and teenage romantic appeal. As an easy, fairly entertaining escapist novel that’s slightly sci-fi without any technological blather, The Host was a perfect distraction on a long plane flight.

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a perfect mix of the personal and the historical. Albright’s father was a key figure in the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile during World War II. She revisits the period through a combination of his personal papers, auxiliary historical research, and her own childhood memories. The Czechoslovakian experience of WWII is an aspect of which I knew relatively little before reading the book, and it was interesting but heartbreaking to read the story of a small, proud country that played a pivotal but relatively helpless role in the continent-wide, and then worldwide conflict.

Albright is a perfect narrator of these events, not only because as a little girl she was surrounded by them, but also because like her father she grew up to be a keen analyst of international relations and events and an important actor in those events. When she writes about difficult decisions undertaken by world leaders in the midst of harrowing circumstances, she is speaking from a position of experience and understanding, and it shows.

This is a thoroughly worthwhile and pleasurable read; well-written, passionate, and insightful.

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown TravelsThe Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, I loved this book so much. In what is the culmination of a lifelong study and love affair, Richard Paul Roe posits that because of the intimate knowledge of Italian culture, geography, and history demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays, he must have been a cultured, erudite upper-class Englishman who spent significant time traveling in Italy, and not the traditional, untraveled Bard of Avon. As a caveat, I am a scholar neither of Shakespeare nor of 16th century Italy (I just happen to adore both), so I can’t really speak to the real plausibility of Roe’s thesis. But I finished this book utterly convinced.

Roe explains why Shakespeare give harbors to inland Italian cities (they were on well-traveled rivers connected by intricate systems of canals). He finds actual inns, houses, and churches referenced in the plays and long languishing in obscurity (and yes, this goes well beyond Juliet’s celebrated and embellished balcony in Verona–did you know that there in actually no mention of a balcony in the stage directions or text of the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet?) Perhaps most intriguingly, Roe locates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an Italian city–Sabbioneta, Lombardy, the so-called “Piccola Atena.”

For lovers of Shakespeare and lovers of Italy alike, this is a captivating and compelling book that will make you want to take a trip to Italy and re-read the plays where Richard Paul Roe says they were conceived, and even possibly written.

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic AncestryThe Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading Sykes’ account of how he used the mitochondrial DNA that is passed down unchanged from mother to daughter to trace our evolutionary roots as humans. After using the minute mutations that occasionally occur in mitochondrial DNA to track the route of colonization of the original inhabitants of the Polynesian islands, Sykes manages to extract DNA from Ice Man, an early man who perished in Italy’s alpine snow 5000 years ago. Even more remarkably, he went on to identify an ordinary British woman as the genetic descendant of Ice Man. After that, he expands the project into an exploration of the genetic heritage of Europe, tracing modern Europeans back to seven individual women.

The science in this book is very engaging by itself, and Sykes really should have left it at that. Instead, he concludes with several schmaltzy chapters in which he imagines a completely fictitious history for each of these “seven daughters of Eve,” and then launches into an incurably sentimental attempt to emotionally connect his readers with their distant ancestors.

Read the first half, and if you can’t skip the last chapters, skim like I did.

View all my reviews

The Joys of a Liquid Diet

As I mentioned in my last post, I had jaw surgery two and a half weeks ago. No, I don’t really want to talk about it, since thinking about what my surgeon was doing while I was out still makes me queasy (if you’re absolutely dying to know, you can look up orthognathic surgery on Wikipedia and learn all the gory details. There, I just taught you a new word). Nor did I take pictures of myself after the surgery, when I looked like a cross between a gigantic chipmunk and a basset hound. Because some things are just better left to the imagination.

The recovery period has been . . . as good as can be expected. Yes, I did end up almost fainting at my post-op check-up five days after the surgery. Turns out that staying properly hydrated when your mouth is banded shut, swallowing hurts your throat, and you’re vaguely nauseated and can barely wake up because of the narcotics is not as easy as it sounds. A couple of I.V. bags later (and an informal prescription for a milkshake on the way home), and I was feeling better.

Life has pretty much returned to normal by now. Except that I have a plastic bite plate wired into my mouth for the next month, which gives me a charming little temporary speech impediment. And I’m on a liquid diet. So in case you’re ever in a situation where you’re consigned to a six-week liquid diet, let me give you a few tips:

  1. Pretty much any food item can be blended up if you add enough liquid. This does not mean that every food item will remain palatable once it is sodden and diluted. For example, a hamburger and onion rings. Just don’t try it.
  2. Your food will taste better if you blend it up with an appropriate liquid. For example, ribs with braised carrots and cabbage blended up very nicely with beef broth. Similarly, I used chicken broth for chicken shish kebabs, and it was delicious. However, fruit is nice blended up with milk, and my normal smoothies with juice work nicely too. Some things, like melon or soups, don’t need any added liquid at all, so they are most likely to remain similar in taste to the original food.
  3. The magic bullet! (or cheap Walmart knock-off.) Trying to make single serving meals in a normal blender would be a pain. With a Magic Bullet-style blender, it all goes straight into the cup you’ll drink from, and you can easily blend up small amounts. And you don’t have to wash your big blender after every meal.
  4. A high-quality protein powder/meal substitute shake is a good idea. It’s hard to get enough calories in a day when you have to blend everything up, and you can’t just grab a normal snack out of the fridge. Several people recommended Ensure, but two of the main ingredients are sugar and soy oil, so I figured I could find something better. I settled on True Vitality Plant Protein Shake with DHA and 8 Billion Probiotic Cells, because I was happy with the ingredients and it wasn’t outrageously expensive (well, comparatively speaking, at least). I got the vanilla flavor, and it tastes . . . bearable, especially if I mix it with milk, banana and peach. I also put in my normal daily dose of pollen, but I skip the flax seeds because:
  5. Beware of seeds, at least if you’re dealing in fixed orthodontic appliances. I made the mistake of whipping myself up a blackberry milkshake during my first week home. Not only did the tiny seeds clog up my syringe-with-flexible-long-tip (sort of the adult version of a bottle), but they got stuck in my bite plate and braces. I’ve since graduated to drinking from a cup, thank goodness, but I still avoid berries for now.
  6. Your juicer is your friend, since raw vegetables don’t really turn out that satisfactorily in the blender. However, juicing all the ingredients on the back of the V8 bottle will not result in anything remotely resembling V8. Ask me how I know.
  7. If you have stitches somewhere in your mouth, do not add pepper to your food! Even if you normally like spicy food, now is not the time, since eating spicy stuff right now is basically like rubbing tabasco sauce in a wound. I also appear to have had a flare-up of my long dormant avocado allergy, due to eating avocado a few days after my surgery while everything was still a little raw in my mouth. Sad times.

Via the above, and some trial and error, I’ve managed to eat what I think is a fairly balanced diet in liquid form. Although sometimes I think I should just make it easy for myself and eat sugar glider food. I have lost a few pounds, I think, since my clothes are feeling mighty loose these days. I know some people consider that a great side effect of orthognathic surgery, but I’m with Frodo: “I hope the thinning process does not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”

photo credit

Thanksgiving–the day after

Soooo . . . I was really dying to write this post, but then I decided not to because I figured nobody would really be interested in yet another post about what I ate for Thanksgiving. But then Michelle (through whom I am vicariously living in Umbria) asked me how it all turned out, and I figured, as I usually do, that if one person is saying it then there must be at least ten or twenty of you thinking the same thing. Right? So here’s a little rundown on how all those Thanksgiving recipes actually worked out for us.

I went to bed with my hair smelling like bacon grease on Thanksgiving night. Which may explain the strange dreams. I don’t believe I’ve ever spent so many hours in one day cooking, from 5:30 a.m. when I woke up and remembered that the turkey was still frozen after two days in the fridge, and got up to put it in water in the sink until 5:30 p.m., when we finally got Thanksgiving Dinner on the table. The only thing that kept me going was remembering that I wouldn’t be cooking for the next three weeks as we ate our leftovers.

Not only did we cook all day, but we also sort of ate all day. Or at least we divided Thanksgiving dinner into two segments and had the first for lunch and the second for dinner.

Lunch consisted of:


Pickled Okra . This was amazing. I made it a couple of days before so that it would have time to marinate and I would have time to cook everything else on the menu. I thought the spices sounded a bit bland, so I googled “pickling spices” and came up with this useful page. I just threw in whatever ingredients I had from both sides, including, among other things, allspice and juniper berries. And I skipped the canning step, since I didn’t have the equipment and I’m perfectly capable of eating two pints of pickles in the course of a few weeks anyway. They ended up tasting like extraordinarily flavorful bread & butter pickles. Just an adviso, we are talking about okra here, so if you don’t do slimy, these are not for you.

Pigs in a Blanket. These turned out delicious. I’ll never use vienna sausages again. My kids also had a great time rolling the sausage into snakes and then brushing the finished rolls with egg wash. And since I omitted it from the first post, here’s a link to The Perfect Afternoon Tea Recipe Book, whence came the recipe.


Heirloom Squash Farrotto.I did not end up procuring any farro, nor did I stir my rice for 45 minutes straight to make a real risotto, but this was excellent as a rice pilaf. I sprinkled very coarse sea salt over the cubes of butternut squash before roasting, and they were transcendent. I have another butternut squash in my pantry already so I can make this recipe again. Also, I forgot the garbanzo beans, but it was still good.

We still had plenty of recipes left over for dinner:


Per Tony’s request, I did end up wrapping the entire turkey in bacon (not pancetta, unfortunately).

Before wrapping it, I followed the slathering steps in Pancetta-Sage Turkey with Pancetta-Sage Gravy. And I made the gravy too, although I didn’t add any extra bacon. The turkey did turn out incredibly moist. But the whole thing tasted like bacon. It’s pretty weird, although not entirely unpleasant, to have 14 pounds of meat with the consistency of turkey and the taste of bacon. Especially after all the bits of crispy bacon we ate off the outside of the turkey, the bacon-flavored turkey swimming in bacon-flavored gravy was just a little much. But if you are one of those people who can’t possibly get enough bacon, this recipe is for you.

Here’s a picture of our Thanksgiving dinner, arranged a bit haphazardly.

Italian Sausage and Bread Stuffing and Apple, Sausage and Parsnip Stuffing. I followed the former recipe, with the additions of apple, parsnip, and sourdough bread from the latter. Stuffing/dressing is my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal, so I consider myself something of a connoisseur. And this stuffing was the best I have ever eaten. Seriously amazing.


Not Your Mother’s Green Beans were delicious, as always. We had them with balsamic vinegar, shallots, and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Roasted Winter Vegetables were also good, as always. Remind me to always use cauliflower. It caramelizes delightfully.

Cranberry Tangerine Conserve. I was surprised at how much I liked this recipe, which has only five ingredients. I prefer my cranberry sauce rather tart, so I reduced the sugar by about half, and it was perfect. I didn’t have sultanas, so I used regular old raisins, but I think it would be even better with the sultanas. The curls of tangerine peel were delicious, and very tender after simmering, so I recommend not taking them out.


Bubble-Top Brioches. These were just OK. I thought they were unusually hard on the outside, and they tasted a little yeasty, but they rose beautifully and the rest of my family liked them.

And finally,


Key Lime Pie. We’ve become key lime converts. This pie was delicious. I had much internal debate beforehand over whether or not to cook the filling. I did taste the filling before it was baked and didn’t drop dead of salmonella. But I chickened out at the last minute and cooked it for the recommended ten or fifteen minutes because I am a bit allergic to raw egg. I can eat the occasional bite of cookie dough, but a whole piece of pie would probably leave my throat feeling raw. I read all 351 reviews of the recipe on Epicurious, and followed sundry advice like increasing the filling by 1/2 to fill up the pie pan, cutting the key limes in quarters and juicing them with a (very clean) garlic press, and leaving the whipped cream completely unsweetened.

The crust was divine too. I had gone to the store earlier in the week intending to buy graham crackers, but couldn’t bring myself to buy any of the brands I found, because they all had corn syrup, preservatives, and other nasty stuff. I even considered a ready-made crust because of all the other recipes I was planning to make for Thanksgiving, but I just couldn’t do it. So I came home and made these wonderful graham crackers from Smitten Kitchen. Seriously, they are so good it’s almost a shame to hammer them up into crumbs. But we made sure to make some just to eat too.

The only thing I didn’t like about the pie was that weird taste of canned sweetened condensed milk (which I would normally never use in a recipe, but which according to my research is the only way to make an authentic key lime pie, since Florida at the time that it was invented did not have a population of cows, so condensed milk coming in on the supply boat was the only dairy product available). My mom suggested making my own condensed milk by adding powdered milk to regular milk. I’m not crazy about the taste of powdered milk either, but it really might be worth a try. Alternatively, I think I may make it sometime with cream, which although inauthentic would probably be delicious.

We didn’t end up making the Berry Streusel Pie until Sunday, since I had neglected to buy vanilla ice cream and Tony did not think it could be eaten without. My well-known pie crust phobia leaves  me a little high and dry when it comes to pies. But here’s my secret weapon: French Tart Crust. Read through the recipe, dear readers, and be shocked, delighted, mystified, and cautiously hopeful. If you have ever wrestled with cutting in butter and sprinkling ice cold water and chilling and rolling and vainly striving to handle your pie crust as little as possible in quest of some elusive, unattainable, possibly completely fictional state of flakiness, this recipe will change. your. life. I use it for savory quiches and tarts as well as dessert pies. It’s easy, meltingly tender, and works perfectly deliciously with half or even all whole wheat flour.

As far as the Berry Streusel Pie, it was delicious. I used frozen berries, so I thawed them on the stove with the sugar so they would produce enough juice to hydrate the tapioca, being careful not to cook them. We had only one disaster. I love warm berry pie, especially with ice cream. So I didn’t take seriously the recipe’s injunction to let the pie cool for at least three hours before serving. We had the missionaries over, and I was forced to serve them Berry Streusel Soup topped with vanilla ice cream. It was still good, but I am resolved in the future to let the pie cool properly.

This is the first Thanksgiving where I really could happily re-use nearly every single recipe. So we’ll call it a success.

Thanksgiving Menu – Florida

It’s that time of year when I have an excuse to get the kitchen really messy. We have a family tradition of spending the whole of Thanksgiving Day cooking together. For normal everyday cooking I tend to make the same 20-or-so recipes over and over, although every time we move I change things up to reflect which ingredients are cheap and easy to find where we live. But for Thanksgiving, I like to try new recipes every year.

I’ve come a long way from our first Thanksgiving as a little family, in which my freshman sister Hannah arrived just in time to prevent me from sticking the turkey in the oven completely unseasoned and with the giblets still inside their plastic bag in one of the mysterious cavities.

Our most adventurous Thanksgiving was the year we had gone all-raw. It was weird how even in the unchangeable climate of San Diego I started to crave hot food. Especially the smell of food cooking. By the time Thanksgiving came around, we had compromised with ourselves and switched to being just vegetarian. We stuffed a pretty impressive pumpkin, and had some yummy mushroom gravy, but I can’t say it was the best Thanksgiving ever.

Now we’re back to being regular old omnivores, so our Thanksgiving choices are a little more extensive. For recipes, I turned, as usual, to my normal go-to source for recipes, Epicurious. Like any self-respecting foodie site (well at least any American one), they have an extensive section devoted to Thanksgiving. I had quite an enjoyable time clicking on their menus from different parts of the U.S. I’ve only lived in California, the Northwest, and now the South (although I’m told that Florida is not really The South), so it was interesting to see what is normal to eat in other places (rice stuffing anyone? oysters? what about Maple Gingerbread Layer Cake with Salted Maple Caramel Sauce?)  The coolest idea I found was stuffing the Turkey with Tamales. I would totally consider it if we were living back in California and awesome tamales were easy to find.

After an afternoon of serious deliberation (and before the list is pared down by Tony and his unerring sense of the [im]practicality of cooking a dozen different dishes on one day to feed a grand total of four people), I give you our Thanksgiving menu!


Pickled Okra . Yes, this might sound like kind of a weird recipe, but it was the only one off the “Southern” menu that sounded good to me. Plus, it’s supposed to be made beforehand, so it won’t be competing for oven space on the Big Day.

Pigs in a Blanket. I found a recipe for this in the Afternoon Tea Recipe Book I’ve been drooling over lately, and told my kids about eating it when I was a kid. Back then, we used vienna sausages for the pigs, and we thought it was so cool that they came in a package of seven. They were obviously a food tailor-made for our family. I don’t know if I could eat vienna sausages now without gagging, so I think we’ll just use regular sausage.


Heirloom Squash Farrotto. This one just sounded delicious, especially with the cumin yoghurt sauce. I don’t know what my odds are of finding reasonably-priced farro anywhere around here, but there’s always pearl barley.


So, I saw this picture on Facebook a few days ago, and thought it looked pretty impressive:

I looked over a couple of recipes though, and found them unconvincing. Enter Pancetta-Sage Turkey with Pancetta-Sage Gravy. Instead of wrapping the whole thing in bacon, you make a delectable sounding pancetta butter to slather all over it.

Italian Sausage and Bread Stuffing and Apple, Sausage and Parsnip Stuffing. Actually, I’m going to combine these two recipes, since the first one sounded more flavorful, but I loved the idea of adding apples and parsnips, and I think it will go swimmingly with the pancetta-sage turkey.


Not Your Mother’s Green Beans. From Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and one of my favorite recipes ever. Just-tender green beans tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, toasted pine nuts, scallions, and herbs. I’ve made this recipe in dozens of variations: orange juice or other flavored vinegars instead of the balsamic, walnuts, pecans or almonds, garlic or thinly-sliced red onion, butter instead of the olive oil, etc. It’s easy to whip up in a few minutes, but dressy enough for company (or Thanksgiving dinner).

Roasted Winter Vegetables. This is our only real traditional recipe. We make it every year because it’s just so delicious, and it feels so much like fall.


Bubble-Top Brioches. These look yummy, and my grandma used to make rolls in triplicate like this. Actually, she also made some delicious cheesy rolls that were rolled up like little cones. I’ll have to ask my mom if she has the recipe.


Berry Streusel Pie. Tony wanted either berry or apple, and I’m not fond of apple. Also, I’m not very good at pie crusts, so it’s better to just have a single rather heavy pie crust than a double one. Plus, streusel!

Key Lime Pie. O.K. I have never even tasted key lime pie. But we are living in Florida, and I saw real key limes at the grocery store last week. So I thought it would be a terrible opportunity to waste. For those of you who are key lime pie purists, which topping is more authentic? My recipe has whipped cream, but I’ve also seen meringue (I’m assuming whipped topping is out?). Also, fifteen minutes in the oven? That’s not really long enough to cook a custard. I’m pretty sure it’s not a mistake, since I saw some recipes where the filling wasn’t cooked at all. Maybe this is just my cultural ignorance showing (and I’m no one to judge, since I can put away as much unpasteurized cookie dough as the next baker), but is this dessert actually composed of raw egg yolk mixed with lime juice? Please enlighten me.

What are you having for Thanksgiving, dear readers? Do you make the same recipes every year, or do you like to try new ones? And have you ever cooked a turkey with the plastic giblet bag intact?

photo credit

What do sugar gliders eat?

I know you’ve all been dying to read another post about my darling new pets. At any rate, I’ve been dying to write a post about them. Unfortunately, I have yet to get some really awesome photos that are truly worthy of their adorableness. So in the meantime, I’ll tell you about my exploits as an amateur zookeeper.

In the exotic pet world, diet for sugar gliders is a contentious topic with potentially serious implications. One of the most common hazards for pet sugar gliders (right up there with drowning in toilets and accidents with other pets) is calcium deficiency, which can cause paralysis and even death.

Naturally, before I got my gliders I did a lot of research online about diets. In the wild, sugar gliders eat a variety of sap and gum, nectar and pollen, honeydew, and insects. Needless to say, this is a somewhat difficult diet to replicate in captivity.

What you can find in most pet stores as far as glider food usually comes in the form of pellets. These are an O.K. occasional snack, but not a great staple food. Here’s the brand I got, along with the other snacks my gliders like: dried papaya, pumpkin seeds, and (ewww!) mealworms. These are the things I hand-feed them when they’re out playing. I also carry a few with me when I’m carrying my gliders around during the day, in case they need a pick-me-up.

But for an everyday meal staple, gilders need something different. There are several well-regarded sugar glider diet “recipes” out there. The one I picked is called the HPW diet. It’s an American version of a diet based on “High Protein Wombaroo” powder from Australia. Here’s what goes into it:

I scramble the eggs, then put them in the blender with the HPW powder, pollen, honey, and water. Then I freeze it. The great thing about it is that it freezes soft, so you can scoop it out like ice cream. HPW also comes in a version called “Complete HPW,” to which you just add water.

Along with their “protein shake,” my little gliders eat vegetables and fruits. At least in theory. In practice, they will often refuse to eat any fruits and vegetables (although they like avocado). Fortunately, as a mother this is not new to me.

I’ve been just giving them whatever fruits and vegetables we happen to eat in a day, since they eat such a tiny amount (a couple of tablespoons each, if that). But the HPW diet prescribes a certain combination of fruits and veggies that have a good calcium to phosphorus ratio. So today I finally got around to mixing it up. Here are the fresh components, which got mixed in with frozen berries, peas, beans, and mixed vegetables.

Yes, behind the vegetables is the huge pasta pot I ended up mixing it in, because the recipe makes a TON, and it quickly overflowed from my popcorn bowl. Everything was cut up into glider-bite-sized pieces.

Actually, those pieces (which are fairly finely diced) are the size of a large apple to a glider. It takes them about a dozen bites to eat a raisin. So cute. Then I divided it up in freezer bags.

I now have what must be a year supply of glider food in my freezer. I had so much, in fact, that I thought I’d whip up a green smoothie for myself with it.

It tasted . . . O.K. I’m going to try blending it up for the gliders tonight, to see if they find their fruits and veggies more palatable in smoothie form. And voilà! Dinner is served.

Bon appetit, Merry and Pippin!

photo credit

Paris, His Dark Materials, Phineas Finn, and Food

Paris in Love: A MemoirParis in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for expat memoirs. So I picked up this one as a matter of course, without even glancing inside the cover. Maybe I should have looked a little closer.

As an author, Eloisa James’ normal genre is romance novels. But I don’t think even that explains the bizarre format of this book. It is, I kid you not, a compilation of her Facebook status updates for the year she spent in Paris. This means that the entire book consists of disjointed 5-10 line paragraphs. There are a few longer sections (of 2-5 pages each), which I paged through and read. But the rest of this book is virtually unreadable.

If you have a hankering for Paris, instead check out Adam Gopnik’s delightful memoir, Paris to the Moon.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tony and I watched the movie that is based on this book, and he asked me to check it out for him. So of course I ended up reading it myself too. This did turn out to be one of those cases where the book was better than the movie, mostly because the plots were very similar, and the movie was visually stunning. Nicole Kidman was lusciously villainous, and Pullman’s alternate-reality-London was gorgeous.

My favorite part of the book/movie was the premise of people’s souls (called “dæmons” in the book) walking around outside their bodies in the shape of animals. Sort of like a cross between a best friend, a smart pet, and just a really good justification for talking to yourself. All in all, this was a fun book, but nowhere near as profound as it was trying to be.

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one was OK, but not nearly as interesting as the first one. I personally think that authors who are working with multiple universes should just stick to one or two, because there’s not really time to develop the differences in more universes, and they end up being boring caricatures. Also, the plot in this one kind of meandered. In fact, I can’t even really remember it a week and a half after finishing the book.

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This trilogy was already mediocre by book 2, so the only reason I read this one was that I was sick in bed, and it was the closest thing at hand. Unfortunately, even just compared to books 1 and 2, The Amber Spyglass is exceptionally bad. Not only does the narrative fall apart, but Pullman’s already thin allegory crosses over into pages and pages of downright preachiness.

Evidently, some Christians have objected to the series (and the delightful movie based on The Golden Compass) on philosophical grounds, but I object to it on purely artistic grounds. Still, if your teenager is reading this and your family is not atheist, you might want to have some discussions about the author’s rancorous portrayal of both religion and God.

Phineas FinnPhineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am, of course, still reading this series. One of the things I love about it is that I am still looking up new words (with the touch of a button–I love my Kindle!). I highly recommend reading Trollope to anyone preparing to take the SAT or GRE.

I’ve also unbent my feminist ire a little. In Phineas Finn, bad husbands are given no quarter, and the woman are portrayed as well-rounded, complex characters. Trollope is still not exactly progressive, but he might not be as bad as I thought. Plus, I’m even getting interested in 19th century British politics. Who’d have thought?

The Deluxe Food Lover's CompanionThe Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This replaces A History of the World in 100 Objects as my bathroom book. What a wonderful, informative, fascinating book. Whether you need to know what picadillo is or how to pick a good kohlrabi, if it has to do with food, it is in here.

Today I perused the cheese glossary, and found that I’ve tried 47 different kinds of cheese. There are also glossaries of sausage, shellfish, sauces, pastas, and herbs, among others. And then there are the many tips scattered throughout the book for ripening persimmons, creating a quick brown roux, and six steps to the perfect hamburger.

With gilt edges, a ribbon bookmark, and profound culinary quotes beginning each chapter (“Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.” — Judith B. Jones), this is a book to be treasured, read, and referred to often.

View all my reviews

photo credit