Friday, January 30, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Wednesday

I haven't been writing much as I seem to be right in the middle of a whole lot of nothing. Today was Wednesday, the most ordinary of days, only it was actually quite remarkable in a number of small ways.

I still make a weekly trip across town to teach knitting to residents of a low income apartment complex. When I started I worked primarily with Somali Bantu students. My ESL teacher communication super powers were stretched pretty thin with this group as their English skills barely surpassed my knowledge of Maay Maay (which consists of exactly one word) but I enjoyed both the challenge of trying to teach these women and the feeling of being the foreigner as the Somali ladies yakked it up.

As time went on, many of these women found work or moved away. Some just came to me for yarn and crochet hooks. And gradually the population changed. A bunch of Burmese families moved in and I enjoyed working with a number of these women. Again, work has taken many of them away from our regular meeting time.

Recently a similar housing complex has been built across the street from Kateri Park. More of these residents are American born and those with the time to come knit are predominantly women on disability for various reasons. I had a great one-on-one session with an African American grandmother the day after Obama's inauguration. Interesting conversation, including the observation that it was a fine to have him in The White House and all but Michelle's the one who's really Black--isn't that something?

I've written before about Bella and Cheryl (not their real names). Bella hasn't come the last few weeks but Cheryl, bless her heart, just keeps coming back. Both these ladies are pretty heavily medicated which really messes with their cognitive abilities along with their motor skills. I haven't been able to make much progress with Cheryl because very little is retained from one knitting session to the next. But her mom was a master knitter and she really, really wants to learn so I keep trying different approaches, different explanations, anything to make in-around-back-off stick in her head and transfer to her hands. I was trying to explain something more complex to one of the other women and Cheryl kept interrupting, asking for more attention. I found myself thinking, with some irritation, about how my 6 year old daughter gets knitting, what's the big deal? After about the 10th explanation of the day while my frustration grew she put her hand on my forearm, looked at me with wonder, and asked, "how can you have so much patience?".

The thing is, I don't. I am possibly one of the least patient people in the world. Ask my kids. Ask my students. I know this about myself, and yet when Cheryl made her comment, it was as if my well of patience magically just filled right back up. Because it finally hit me. What was my impatience when matched against her challenges? This woman is so brave to come back, week after week, to struggle to get through one lousy row of knitting. The least I can do to honor her courage is to try to teach her in-around-back-off as many times and as many ways at takes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

After waking up to today's local headlines, I was not in a place to get all worked up about the inauguration. I listened to bits and pieces on the radio and nothing really got to me until they said that Bush had gotten in his helicopter and flown away. It's over! Eight years of madness is over!

And this is what I can't get out of my head today:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fruity Oat Bars

Lest my readers think that it's all chocolate and caramel and butter around here, I offer you an old favorite, highly modified from the original which, I think, came from Quaker Oats. This is a dense, sturdy bar studded with goodies like dried cherries and almonds. Kind of a homemade granola bar only softer and full of flavor.

My version has less sugar and more nutrition than the original recipe and had proven to be a welcome addition to any expedition as they travel well and pretty much can't go stale. The recipe is flexible so you can make changes depending on your tastes, your whims, or your pantry.

Especially after the recent super-indulgent cake, these bars were just the wholesome sort of thing to tuck into my tote bag for a day trip with a friend yesterday. They were very welcome when we left out destination absolutely ravenous. I think you'll like them. The recipe is here.

Heavenly Overload

Last month I wrote about how the weather dashed plans to make a day trip to Tacoma to visit the famous Korean spa. I'm on doctor's orders to sauna regularly (love my doc!) so the change in plans forced me to sweat locally and necessity led me to Loyly, a sweet and simple bit of heaven in SE Portland. I confess to now being utterly and hopelessly hooked on the sauna and curious about how other facilities handle the experience.

We made a second plan to visit Tacoma earlier this month when, wouldn't you know, the freeway was submerged under 10 feet of water. After canceling that expedition I wasn't to keen to plan a third. After snow, ice, and floods, what could be next? An earthquake? Tornado? I considered stocking up on bottled water before making plans yet again.

Saturday was as lovely day as one could dream of in January and my friend arrived early to pick me up. We chatted and laughed for two hours straight before heading off the freeway just south of Tacoma where we entered another world. Suddenly Korean replaced English on all the signs. We located the spa in a most unassuming strip mall next to what I think was a flooring shop.

Upon entrance we were handed towels, a thin cotton robes (think hospital gown) and funky pink striped bonnets (think hair net). The robes weren't required but the bonnets were and they acted as a great equalizer. It's hard to feel squeamish about being nude in front of strangers when everyone, regardless of shape, size, or color, looks like a naked lunch lady. It's kind of hilarious, really.

I have no idea about fancy-schmancy spas but this place was a perfect combination of utility and pleasure. It was easy to spend hours there as the choices were nearly infinite. After a a cleansing shower one enters the hydrotherapy room which has hot tubs ranging in temperature from 90 to 110 degrees and a chilly pool for plunging. There's also a big tub full of mugwort infusion--people would wander over and pour dippers full over their bodies at varying intervals. I have no idea what the stuff is for, but I did lots of dipping and pouring for the fun of it. After relaxing in the hot pools, I made numerous visits to the dry sauna and steam room, both of which were lovely.

There's a tiny restaurant--more of an indoor lunch cart, really. I'm sure they do a booming business because one thing I have learned is that sauna makes me ravenous. We had yakisoba noodles accompanied by tiny dishes of condiments and the meal really hit the spot.

After lunch we explored the dry side of the spa. I was delighted to find that the marble floors were heated, just like at my grandmother's house. There were women sprawled all over, reading and napping on the warm floors. There are three "earth energy" rooms as well, with heated floors and various stones and charcoal on the walls. Again, no idea what this was all about, but it was all reputed to be beneficial and it was certainly relaxing.

We originally planned this trip the week of my huge dental appointment when I had all my mercury amalgam fillings removed and I'd thought I would try out a detox body wrap. A month later I'm not sure how much benefit there might be, but I went ahead with it. Maybe I should have given it more thought. I was covered in goop, wrapped like a burrito, and left to stew for an hour or so with Billie Holiday singing in the background. Kind of weird and kind of claustrophobic but I really tried not to dwell on that seeing as I was straitjacketed alone in a room and if I wigged out, who'd know?

I confess I was relived when that part ended and I could get back to what I loved: soaking and sweating. Eventually, though, I reached a point when I knew I was done. I never felt cleaner in my life. Or hungrier. We found a nice Indian restaurant, had a lovely meal, and drove home completely and utterly relaxed.

I am somewhat surprised to discover how much I like this kind of experience. I don't think of myself as a "spa" kind of person. But the health benefits of sweating in sauna and steam are undeniable and I love how clean I feel afterward. But there's also something incredibly valuable about taking the time to step away from the daily responsibilities and let all that go. I worried a lot about being naked in front of strangers before I started this and it's funny how that just doesn't bother me anymore. Everyone has body issues of one sort or another but I'm finding that shedding those along with my clothes is incredibly healthy and invigorating.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sweet and Salty

I mentioned in my last post that the book Baked: New Frontiers in Baking had a few things I was eager to try. Today I found myself with enough time to try the Sweet and Salty Cake, a three layer production which took most of the afternoon to complete, in addition to this morning's trip to The Meadow for fancy-schmancy fleur de sel. Given that the saltiness is a big part of the flavor I figured my standby salt (Diamond Kosher) was maybe not the best choice. I can make my way through any number of exotic supermarkets with confidence but this place with its Wall of Salt was just a wee bit intimidating, especially with a couple of slightly rambunctious kids in tow. The salesperson was quite helpful and talked me into buying a tiny, precious jar of very expensive salt which smells faintly of old basement. That and some wildly expensive chocolate set me back more cash than I'd care to admit, but the salt proved to be perfect in this case. I had my doubts but it turned out well, holding its crystalline shape atop the cake and providing tiny salt explosions within the creamy ganache.
What intrigued me about this cake was the use of salted caramel between the layers and as a component of the ganache frosting. While I love chocolate as much as anyone, caramel is my real weakness. Luckily with this cake there's plenty of both. Much as I love it, I haven't made caramel in ages because prior attempts were both stressful and unsatisfying. I think my so called candy thermometer may have had something to do with it. The Baked boys said to cook the caramel until the thermometer read 350 degrees but my first batch was a blackened, smoky mess at about 310 degrees. Once I got that cleaned up, I decided to skip the thermometer altogether, watch carefully, and remove the caramel from the heat the second the first bit of smoke appeared and this was a good call. The resulting caramel was absolutely perfect and I had a hard time keeping my fingers out of it. I can't wait to dive in to it after Shabbat dinner.
Later: Wow. That's a crazy-good, super-rich, over-the top cake. It's the kind of cake you'd make for a something huge: a graduation or a wedding. Even though I spent all afternoon making the thing I didn't quite feel I'd earned the right to eat it. I only used about 2/3 of the caramel ganache frosting and even so it was wildly decadent. And really, really good. When you need a showstopper cake, I'd highly recommend this one.

You'll find the recipe here. I'd love to hear what you think. I notice I haven't had a comment since November. Sometimes it feels like I'm talking to myself here. I know you're out there, people. Why don't you pop in to the comments and say "hi"? I'd love to know who's reading.

Never Forget Me

By way of Poppalina, I offer you this charming video which I think should be mandatory in every 9th grade health class.

At 7 minutes long it covers the subject quite thoroughly.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sunny Day

Hi everyone! It's been a while, hasn't it? We've been getting back into gear here at Casa Magpie after a lengthy, snowbound winter break.

We'll remember the snow (and hope for more, ideally on a school day) but lately it's like early spring here in Portland. We always have a week or two like this and the garden centers love them because everyone gets all excited and goes out to buy plant starts which mostly rot in the ground once winter returns. Fake spring usually comes in February, so this is a bit odd, especially coming on the heels of ice, snow, huge rains, and floods reminiscent of Genesis.

It's almost warm and the sun is brilliant in the low-in-the-sky wintry way. We joined friends on an outing yesterday which I know we'll mostly remember for getting just a bit lost and the slog through cold, muddy, calf-deep water which finally got us back to our starting point. The kids thought it was great fun!

But in and around the adventure, there was a lot to look at, too.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baked Brownies

Hello Readers! I'm still here, but with winter term just getting under way there hasn't been a whole lot of adventure in my kitchen.

I'd hoped to write about almond cardamom stars. I found the recipe in a back issue of Cooking Light which is not a publication I generally read. But I was offered a stack of used cooking magazines recently and took the lot. Almond paste and cardamom together in a cookie sounded lovely and the dough smelled heavenly. It even rolled out easily and cut with no problem--maybe that should have made me suspicious. Because the texture of these were awful, like dense cardboard, chewy and tough when I wanted them to be buttery and light. Oh, they were eaten, because the flavor was delightful, but I am going to have to import that heavenly combination to a more edible cookie. I'll keep you posted.

It's nice to be able to balance out our culinary failures with a huge, flamboyant triumph and thus I am offering you the Baked brownie. I generally find brownies underwhelming. Usually they are dry, crumbly, with only a hint of dusty chocolate. The opposite, of course, is the goopy frosted monster, sweet enough to make my teeth ache and leaving me feeling slightly nauseous and full of regret after the smallest piece. Brownies are either something my kids whip up because they aren't too difficult and my expectations are low, or they're an extra dessert during Passover because I've suddenly realized the seder menu is deficient. Passover brownies are generally better than regular brownies though I have no idea why. The lack of leavening maybe?

Anyhow, on a recent evening I was neither preparing for work or preparing dinner as we'd planned to eat here. This left me with a quiet bit of time to drink a cup of coffee and leaf through a new library find. Baked: New Frontiers in Baking is full of all kinds of enticing sweets although they almost lost me with their use of white chocolate (which is, in my mind, not chocolate at all and just, I don't know, icky) and the the thought of root beer bundt cake actually made me a bit ill. But paging through the crazy stuff, I found a few gems. I can't wait to make the Sweet and Salty cake which combines deep chocolate flavors with salted caramel. Oh my! But a layer cake requires planning and lots of time and I wanted to dip into this book with something a bit more manageable. I thought I'd give their brownies a try and I am so glad I did! These are crazy good--moist and chewy with a deep, dark chocolate flavor. The authors insist that only Valrhona or Callebaut will do but I was quite happy with my results using Guittard dark chocolate chips which I can buy for under $3 a bag on sale. So was everyone else who tasted these. And you will be, too, I promise. The recipe is here.

Monday, January 05, 2009


MonkeyBoy and I were having a conversation today about his plans to stop homeschooling and go to high school next fall. I asked him how he thought he'd do and he figured he'd do fine, primarily because he wasn't afraid to ask for help. "After all," he said, "I'd rather look stupid than be stupid."

I want that on a T-shirt.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


I know, I know, we've had a few years worth of snow already this winter but now, instead of the two week buildup for the Giant Arctic Snowpocalypse we are getting little surprises like tonight's lovely snowfall. I don't think it will interfere with anyone's work or school in the morning as it's predicted to turn to rain soon enough but I had to spend some time watching the flakes fall this evening.

Friday, January 02, 2009


Even without the excellent reviews I would have gone to see Slumdog Millionaire. I love AR Rahman soundtracks and MIA sings a couple of the songs. With both Anil Kapoor and Irfan Khan in key roles, I was ready to love it even before I saw it. I knew it would be good but I didn't expect it to be as great as it was. I won't bother to do a recap here as you likely already know what it's about. This was a move that had it all: great story, fine acting (especially from the kids), excellent music, color, drama, and an endearing hero. Some parts are admittedly hard to watch but the whole package is not to be missed. After my many hours of watching Hindi cinema I found it fascinating to see how a non-Indian made an Indian film but you don't need that background to enjoy the film.