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Category Archives: Carpe Gaudium

I’m Still Here

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This blog has been sputtering along for a while now. The film project has helped, but I haven’t been writing anywhere near as much as I’d like, and as much as I used to once upon a time.

The fact is that my day job has had a great deal to do with that; I’m doing something unsuited to me, for too little money, and I’ve been trying to do that for too long.  The hopeful note is that I’m trying to do something about that, however, and there are some hopeful signs that things could change for the better very, very soon.  But “very, very soon” is not yet, and that leaves me sort of stiff-upper-lipping my way through the days.  Which gets hard.

My immediate supervisor is aware of, and endorses, my attempt to change – he agrees that I’m not in a job that fits me.  Others I know outside of work have also offered to help.  But someone recently gave me advice that maybe didn’t work in quite the way they thought it would; they implied that I wasn’t being aggressive enough in my search.  Which stunned me, because I’d just told them in the breath before about the list of multiple job interviews I was about to have that very week. But the “advice” he gave me, nevertheless, was “less blogging, more job hunting.”

It took a minute – but I got well and truly pissed.  One of the reasons I told him, long ago, that I wasn’t satisfied with my job was because I didn’t have the brainpower to do much blogging; it was a part of me that was missing and I wanted it back.  And yet, here he was telling me not to do the very thing that was helping me feel most like “me”.

I chewed on that for most of the rest of that day, had a sulky dinner and went to sleep.  And I woke up determined to keep blogging, to get a job even faster and get out of there.  And I had a whole new motto in my head – “I’m me, so fuck you.”  Trying to have fun and trying to do the things I enjoy is just as important. It reminds me that I am not just trying to survive, but I am also trying to thrive.  And that I deserve both.

I’m going to devote some time this weekend to prepping for an interview.  But I am also going to spend it polishing up the house and baking, reading, and defiantly being me.

 

 

Operation Chocolat Goes Trendy

Okay, the fact that I’ve even heard of this is a nigh-miracle.  I’m usually the last person to catch on to anything hip – I discover bands ten years after everyone else, I hear about books and movies well after others do, I’m pretty much the last to know about trends.

But apparently the internets is going bugnuts over a hot beverage trend – combining mulled wine and hot chocolate.

Frankly, it sounds weird at first blush – kind of like a half-assed entry from Iron Chef or Chopped where a contestant had two ingredients left over and just threw them together. But after reading a lively discussion about it elsewhere online, I found myself looking thoughtfully over at my cabinet.  – I have the makings of hot chocolate, I thought. – I have the bittersweet chocolate…I have the milk…and I have a lacing of  Shiraz left over.  …And I’ve had a crappy day.

Now, this isn’t as simple as spiking your Nestle’s.  No, this is the kind of hot chocolate that you have to heat up milk on the stove and stir in chips and whisk it.  And there were a score of recipes, all calling for different approaches to heating the wine – some with spices, some without, some separate from the milk, some together at the last minute.  The one I used actually called for melting the chocolate into the wine first, heating them both together into a sort of ganache-y thing, and then adding the milk.

…Honestly, I don’t taste the wine. It could be because I’m using super-high-end chocolate and kinda-plebian wine (Guittard for the chocolate, Two-Buck Chuck for the wine), but – the most I taste is a faint sort of fruity whisper, which is easy to mistake for a note in the flavor of the chocolate.  On another note, though, I’m sipping this at the rate I usually have hot chocolate – which is at a somewhat faster clip than I drink wine.  And I’m about halfway through the mug and am starting to feel a little…fuzzy.

My family are all wine nerds, especially my brother when hosting family events. I think I may have to introduce him to this custom.

Operation Chocolat – Pungent Spice Chocolate

(For the whole rest of the winter, I’m going to be working through a cookbook devoted to 60 different kinds of hot chocolate. Because why not.)

So, lemme state first that this kind of recipe takes work.  This is no envelope of Swiss Miss or anything, here – this involves heating milk on the stove, steeping things in it, stirring chopped chocolate into the milk and waiting some more.  And that is assuming it hasn’t boiled over or spilled or foamed up all over the stove, and it also is assuming that you have time for this.  This isn’t hot chocolate for the quick hour you have after coming in from work and changing before running out to your book club.

But that’s kind of the point.  This is meant to be slowed down over and savored.  I have still rushed this recipe (see: book club), but I managed to get it done in time to linger a bit.  Calling a cab to the club instead of going by subway will save me time. (It’s freakin’ cold, I was already planning on a cab.)

I went fairly simple first – a basic recipe, with cinnamon and cloves spiking the milk before you stir in the chocolate. There’s a lot of chocolate in this, too – a quarter pound, whisked into the steamy milk on the stove. It’s made the drink super-thick – like there’s someone gently kissing me with each sip.

But I cut corners with the cinnamon and cloves, I think, as I don’t really taste them.  The recipe said to let them simmer in the milk for ten minutes before adding the chocolate, and I halved that to five in my haste.  I can smell them, faintly – just a whisper of them there.  Enough to suggest that if I’d been more patient, waited a bit more, I’d have tasted them more.

An intriguing lesson for next time.

Operation Chocolat

It’s been a rough and grumpy week. We’ve all been walking around in something of a daze since the election, but this week in particular just felt unusually grinchy – no one single thing wrong, more like a whole pile of little pecked-t0-death-by-ducks annoyances. Fortunately done now for the most part.

But part of it may also just be because it’s winter – finally proper winter too, with cold that makes you shiver and makes you not want to be outside all that much. We even finally got a dusting of snow a few days ago – nothing that stuck, sadly. But it made me realize that winter is only just beginning – technically, it hasn’t even begun yet, and there are going to be colder days to come. And cabin fever is going to keep me cranky as well.  I needed something happymaking stat.

For some reason, as I got ready for work this morning, I grabbed one of my cookbooks as subway reading.  I honest to God don’t know why. But it turned out to be a genius idea – the book I grabbed was one entirely devoted to hot chocolate.  There are some admittedly weird recipes in this book (there’s one which calls for using cubes of cheese in place of marshmallows), but…even there, there was something so…calming about it.  Each recipe had an introduction, and every one was either about the cafe it came from – where invariably you could “linger for hours” over your cup – or was about the childhood memories of the chef, which usually involved snow pants and sledding or something just as nostalgic.

And since I’ve been trying to think of ways to both unwind after work and permit myself to indulge a bit more often, I decided right before leaving work: I am going to try each and every one of the recipes in the book, once per day, starting tomorrow.  Not in order – there’s six or seven recipes in a row that are all spiked, and those are probably best saved for the weekend (the thought of going to work with a chocolate-and-tequila infused hangover sounds terrifying).  There’s about 60 recipes, which will take me to the end of February to get through if I start now…and honestly, doesn’t the thought of settling down with a cup of hot chocolate in the evening sound so comforting?

 

 

The Goose Is Getting Fat

I’m way ahead of myself with Christmas this year.  Partly because I did a lot of gift shopping when I was in Paris in July – I was there during the sales, and deliberately hit up a couple shops and bought things in bulk. And then everything got safely stowed in the hall closet – I’d wait until later to wrap them.  Usually I do a lot of wrapping on Christmas Eve – I always end up traveling to my parents’ house to spend the holiday with the family, and I usually have Amazon mail everything to them there so I don’t have to drag it on the train.

Then came….the election.

And after a week of mourning, I bizarrely found myself suddenly thinking of how I would wrap my presents. I ordered special Paris-themed Christmas wrapping paper, and started hunting down boxes.  Dug everything out of the closet again, dug out a big box of ribbon, and started writing out tags. By Thanksgiving I already had a stack of ten presents piled up in a corner of my room and was already eyeing the toys I set out as a little sideboard display – I couldn’t put them out yet, could I?

I did wait until this week for that.  But I still was getting things done much earlier than usual.  And the whole time, a song from Mame was going through my head – “we need a little Christmas right this very minute…”  Yes. Auntie Mame is what we need now – try to hang on to joy as fiercely as we can. Carpe Gaudium.

I’ve also started preparing for a small Christmas party I’m having, in two weeks.  I’ve bookmarked about twenty cookie recipes and even some candy and fudge recipes, and made up the first batch this weekend – a shortbread thing I make every year. They’re  supposed to be decorated with melted chocolate and walnuts to make them look like acorns, but this time I dug into some crunchy caramel candy sprinkle things I got from the shop G. Detou in Paris.  I had a little flash of “no, I want to save this” and I cringed a bit when I put it away after, noticing it was only a third full now – but then I reminded myself that I was already planning to go back to Paris in the spring, and I could get more, remember?

And then I tried one to reinforce that it was a good idea to use the damn things.  ….And oh my it was.

I’ve bookmarked about fifteen more cookie recipes, three candy recipes, and a couple of small appetizer kinds of things to make for a small party I’m having in a couple weeks, and I’ve also already started some of the make-ahead bites. I’m holding back on the tree for another week yet, but there are some candles and garland greens that are going to start showing up over the next week, and I’ve even got special tins to store all the cookies in as I make them.  I’ve also got the packet of vin chaud spices (also from Paris) ready for when I need it.

Because I predict I’m going to be needing a little Christmas a few more times this month – times when I’ll want to huddle by the window with a cup of something hot and minty or spicy and a cookie to nibble – and hopefully friends to join me.

 

A Moment

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ –Kurt Vonnegut

It’s Thanksgiving evening now. I was home here in New York City – every other year, my brother and cousins and some aunts and uncles all spend the holiday with their in-laws, so my parents and one aunt and I say “to hell with it” and have our Thanksgiving at a restaurant on the weekend. This leaves me free to spend Thanksgiving Day proper at home, wearing nothing but jammies and eating exactly what I want. A made a lentil-pumpkin curry stew, and I made us each dishes of baked sliced sweet potatoes, simmering in a glaze of butter, sugar, and the juice of some fresh cranberries. I also cheated and got a turkey tenderloin that had been packaged with its own marinade – and most likely had been swimming in it for a couple days – and roasted that alongside.

Yesterday at work was thick with office politics, the tension of three peoples’ strong wills being amplified by extra uncertainty; I work for an NGO that resettles refugees, and we have all been swinging between heartache and anger since the election. We also have been floored by a Texas judge’s move to overrule the expansion of overtime – an expansion we started preparing for months ago, and now may have to stop all our work in its tracks. Sometime at 2 pm yesterday my boss sent out word to “leave whenever the Lord places it on your heart”, but the last-minute scurrying to wrap up all essential tasks for the week took me another two hours, so it was nearly my usual time to go home anyway.

Elsewhere my friends are sharing their Thanksgivings up and down on Facebook. Three families I know have new babies celebrating their first Thanksgivings – one wee one is brand new, only about three days old. One friend shared portions of the three-page speech his seven-year-old is writing. Another friend is celebrating her first 5-K run, completed this morning. Others are on a ski holiday. My friend Colin is working over the holiday, running the lights for a stage show on board a cruise ship – but still found a chance to post a photo of his “Thanksgiving meal” of baklava and a capuccino on a balcony in Santorini.

I played a little too fast and loose with money the past couple weeks. I’m not poor – I have enough to make rent, feed myself, and take care of expenses if I am careful – but if I’m not careful, I definitely find myself broke. I’ve been in this state before, though, plenty of times -I fall into the trap of taking cabs home from work, or buying my lunch instead of brown-bagging it, and then the money I budget for myself to cover two weeks lasts only one. I was hoping to see Moana this weekend at some point, but money is tight right now to the point that I may need to wait another week.  It’s my own fault, but not being able to simply see a movie when I want is frustrating beyond belief.

A turned the stew into a thick soup that we’ll be eating for leftovers. There was also leftover turkey, which I’ll be turning into a bunch of other dishes myself. There are also tons of sweet potatoes, potatoes, and carrots in my fridge, and I have three days to turn them into dishes too – things I can bring to work or have waiting for dinner when I get home, simplifying the evening. A enlisted me for help cleaning the fridge out a little today, and I saw some bits and pieces of other food I can use, things that can be turned into pasta bakes and casseroles and tucked into omlettes to further eat. At this moment, though, I’m full.

We still don’t quite know what’s going to happen next year. Regardless what you think of the outcome of the presidential election, it’s inescapable that it’s prompted a lot of anger on both sides. It’s anger that people are not going to be able to just let go – people have been pushed far past their breaking points. The first mis-step of the new administration and some people may snap. The impact of that snap may be small and local – or it may be national. But there will be an impact. The only question is how big it’s going to be.

Maybe it will just be small.  Maybe I’ll be wrong after all.

A is streaming something in her room – either a movie, or an episode of West Wing, which she’s been working through. I have just finished a small chocolate caramel lava cake, something from a mix that I discovered in the back of my pantry (and am not entirely sure how I got). The peppermint tea I just had to settle my stomach a bit is warm in my belly. We got the boiler fixed last night – it was acting up – and the house is comfortably warm against the BQE outside.  I’ll get to sleep in tomorrow and then two more days after, and I’m well fed. There’s a candle making a soft light in the kitchen and a special documentary about Shakespeare on the radio. For the rest of the night, I don’t really have anything to worry about, or even do, except just be.

Yesterday was chaotic, tomorrow is uncertain. Tonight, there is good.

 

August Break 22 – Square (Meals)

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We talk a lot about food in this house. A makes a living at it – studying the way food and culture have shaped and affected each other throughout history – whereas I just have a voracious appetite, a curious palate, and very little fear or good sense when it comes to trying a recipe. One thing we agree on is how it’s too easy for people to fall into the trap of overthinking meal planning way too much.

I grew up with the four food groups, having that view of nutrition drilled into me; how important it was to have balanced proportions of meat, grains, fruits and vegetables, and dairy – in every meal. Even cold cereal; I remember cereal ads from my childhood crowing that Frosted Flakes or Rice Krispies or whatever were “part of this complete breakfast”, showing a bowl of cereal modestly sitting on a table alongside a plate of bacon and eggs and a big glass of orange juice.

 

But there are a lot of people, and always have been, who bent over backwards to balance every meal exactly.  There must be some kind of meat or protein in every meal.  There must be grains, there must be some kind of dairy product. There must be the exact percentage of whole grain fiber foodstuffs in every meal.

And that’s not even taking into account the notion that the four food groups are now in a food pyramid, and that the pyramid has even changed – and we’re not even getting into vegetarianism, or veganism, or pescetarianism or Atkins or Pritikin diets or low-carb eating or clean eating or paleo eating or any one of a hundred panacea diets out there.  Not that some people don’t need specialized diets, mind you – A is gluten-free out of medical necessity – but an awful lot of people toy around with their diet based on an incomplete understanding of what it’s going to do to them, out of a vague notion that it’d be “healthy”.  These different diets tout all sorts of wonderful things, and many of them do have a grain of truth to them – “clean eating”, for instance, advocates whole, fresh food and shuns overly processed foods, which is advice nearly everyone agrees on. But lots of clean-eating advocates get further caught up in debates about various food additives or nutrients and adds another layer of complexity to it.

I find it makes people anxious about it all. My mother was pretty relaxed about the food pyramid.  She’d round out our lunches and dinners with some kind of vegetables and salad – even when we got takeout pizza, she’d make up a simple dish of steamed summer squash or green beans, or make up a big salad – and sometimes would slice some oranges along with breakfasts, but other than that she left things be. She certainly wasn’t making us bacon and eggs alongside our Cheerios in the morning, and would probably rather have spit tacks first. But she was an excellent cook, and treated vegetables with a light hand, so we rarely shied away from them. The only food fussiness I had as a child was about sauces – I’d ask for light amounts of pasta sauce, only faint amounts of salsa on tacos, and I wouldn’t even have dressing on salad.  I still often don’t. Lots of people found it strange, but I was just enjoying the natural taste of food, and was protecting it from being covered up in a highly-seasoned goo.  Cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, and even iceberg lettuce all have taste, and I liked that taste more than I liked Thousand Island or Ranch or what have you.

And taste has always guided my meal planning, at the end of the day – taste and pleasure. Tonight’s dinner was a spontaneously-thrown-together thing made up of adding One Package Of Sausage Tortellini to Whatever Vegetables Need Using Before They Go Bad – a few leaves of kale, a bell pepper, a generous couple handfuls of grape tomatoes chopped up.  I hadn’t even planned on this to begin with – this was a last-minute meal plan born of a late day at work.

But as I was sauteeing up the vegetables in the skillet, the deep green of the kale played so nicely against the paler green of the peper, and the bright red of the tomatoes.  I added the grape tomatoes last so they’d hold their shape longer, letting them speckle the dish red rather than giving them a chance to melt into sauce. The kale took on a faintly roasted taste, as did the garlic clove I chopped up and added to the pan; those roasted tastes set off the sweet smokiness of the sausage inside the tortellini.  And it all just looked gorgeous too – I didn’t even add my usual sprinkle of grated parmaesan.  And ultimately the last-minute dinner turned out to be a delicious meal. And – nutritionally balanced to boot.

Food is supposed to be something we enjoy. A lot of the fad diets forget to emphasize that part.