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Britta: So I tried to make icing and even though I softened the butter like the recipe said, it’s all lumpy with butter chunks despite beating the daylights out of it. I hate baking. Why can I cook but not bake?

Tom: Well…I think that’s pretty common – people being good at one or the other. Baking is science and you don’t like science.

Britta: What?! I LOVE science. I was a total science nerd in school. Biology, Botany, Zoology…

Tom: Not that kind of science. Baking is chemistry.

Britta: Damn. I hate chemistry.

Tom: *puts hands in air and shrugs while grinning (a little too smugly, I might add) *

And I grumbled all the way to the baking aisle at the grocery store where I picked up pre-made, smooth icing. If only Sophie had asked for a nice risotto for her birthday dessert…we would have been set…

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I tend to get just a teensy stressed out around the Christmas season. Gifts need to be bought, or made. There are cookies and treats to be baked for neighbors, friends, and teachers. Decorations to hang up, events to attend. This is why I ignore Tom when he mocks me for starting my holiday planning in August. This year though, even though I did start planning early, I managed to get behind and have spent the last two weeks trying not to have an anxiety attack. All the traveling we did this year was wonderful, but that plus a lot of visitors means your To Do list gets pushed back further and further.

Just this last week I have:

  • Sewn so much that it even exhausted the dog.

  • Had dinner with friends visiting from Utah. I hadn’t seen them since my wedding (even though we keep in touch on-line) so I forced them to take a picture with me, despite being in horrible lighting. That dinner made me realize once again that there are some people you will always be friends with, no matter where you live or how far apart your time together is. Funny side note: the girls were completely blown away by the fact that Randy’s boyfriend is named Tom. As Sophie said, “DADDY is Tom! We have TWO Toms?!” To think!

  • We attended Ella’s pre-school Christmas program. It was awesome. The kids all dressed up as Christmas trees and sort-of sang, sort-of yelled some songs. You can see one of them here, and the re-creation of a few (at home – in pj’s – with Sophie’s help, of course) here.

  • Started the first of several batches of anise drops. Made less boring (you have to beat the batter for at least 10 minutes) by my stand mixer and the iPad. I remember the years when I did those babies by hand – that was a labor of love.

(That’s not a filter, Jonny  – I know you were thinking it – it’s just my awesome kitchen lighting, creating that 70’s glow. And hey, Marty – I’m reading your blog there!)

  • Mixed in to all of that was more sewing, knitting, finishing and trashing pottery projects – all for gifts. And I’m not done yet, mostly thanks to some mistakes with clay that were partly my fault and partly out of my control. What does an anxiety attack feel like again? Oh yes, there it is…

In case all of this sounds a little Bah Humbug to anyone, I have to say that on the other end of all this, I have two little girls who completely believe in the magic of Christmas. Their faces light up so easily at any hint of the day to come and it really is catching. Their joy balances out my anxiety nicely. I am looking forward to Christmas morning almost as much as they are. Now if only I can get these last projects done…anyone want to keep me company in the sewing room?

Awesome. Next year I’m teaching her how to thread a needle – looking cute doesn’t get the projects off my machine any faster.

(P.S. – I finally put pictures from Wisconsin up on flickr. Did I mention I’m not exactly on top of things lately?)

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The day before Thanksgiving I called my aunt and told her I wasn’t sure if we would make it. I was feeling horrible and Sophie was complaining that her ears hurt. But once we went to the doctor, he told us the infections were not contagious, and it made me really sad to think about not seeing my PA family, so we loaded up on medicine and trekked to The Burgh. I will admit that I was not as mentally present as I would have been, not hopped up on cold medication, and I felt guilty for not helping in the kitchen – but I’m so glad we went. Pittsburgh is always a good time, even if it’s spent in two lazy days, just being with family.

And then when we got home, Tom decided he wanted to try some new recipes and use the frozen turkey breast we had hiding away under all that beef since last year. Second Thanksgiving? Yes, please. It was the best turkey I’ve ever tasted by the way. I guess that’s what happens when you cook it with an entire bottle of champagne. And we still have leftovers. For a holiday that could have been pretty miserable, considering my lack of health, it was pretty awesome.


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Tom pointed out, while talking to his mom, that I hadn’t shared anything about Ella’s epic disaster of a birthday cake. Maybe I did that on purpose, Tom? Hmmm? But after watching the video where it repeatedly falls apart (along with my horrible camera work) I couldn’t help but laugh and agree that some things are so bad, you have to share them.

I’ve never had much success decorating the girls’ cakes, but they have come out okay, so I keep doing it. This year Ella wanted a Wizard of Oz cake, and I had a basic idea in my head of how to accomplish that. Oh man…everything just went wrong from the get go. I had planned on buying a red velvet cake but they didn’t have any at the store and when you add cheap red food coloring to vanilla cake it turns dark pink. Not Ruby Red. The Emerald city was made from rice crispy squares and then covered in icing and…(insert sigh)…you’re just going to have to see it to believe it…

That’s the yellow brick road and a poppy field, in case you thought I just threw that stuff on there all willy-nilly. It looked pretty bad anyway, but despite at least 20 toothpicks, used in desperation, the Emerald City was destined to fall. You can watch it fall, if you like, by clicking on the link below (Why is WordPress not letting me insert videos anymore? Boo.)  – just be aware it’s long – my video editing software has decided it hates me. Thanks Microsoft – you rock. If you make it to the wishes part though, listen carefully to what Ella wants. I had no idea she had such hopes and dreams. Next year I’m buying the cake – that is, unless anyone wants a Plain Cake With Plain Icing theme – then we’re good to go.

Ella’s Cake Disaster

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Ghoulish Grub

I realize it’s November 8th today, but I can’t leave the Halloween season behind just yet – we had some awesome holiday food that simply must be shared. Our now annual Halloween dinner with Beth’s family was something I was really looking forward to. I had been crazy busy though so my part of the food sort of got left to the last minute. Thanks to people more creative than I that post things on the internet, the dinner turned out devil-y delicious.

Our main dish was a combo of (ironically) a recipe I found from Martha Stewart and an idea from Not Martha. I used our Mennonite pork sausage instead  of turkey and made some other modifications that, at least in my head, made my life easier, and then used crescent roll dough from the store for the tentacles. Instead of individual pots (we don’t own enough) I used my large dutch oven. I was nervous about it but it worked like a charm.

Tom whipped up a batch of guacamoldy, and Beth and Stephan added some awesome drumsticks and witches hands.

For liquid sustenance, there were two batches of shrunken head apple cider (I used the method for the heads but for the drink I just simmered apple cider with a cinnamon stick for about 20 minutes). One had a little extra poison in it. The other was for the adults. (KIDDING!….maybe…)

Everything was delicious.

And the company was not to be beat – not one of them tried to eat anyone else’s brain. Very dignified…for zombies…

And then on Monday, after a delicious dinner and trick-or-treating with our friends in Millersburg – while Brad read Halloween stories to the kids, Ange filled up plates for us that looked like this:

Pumpkin ice cream, witch’s pie, and skeleton cookies. All homemade. All delicious. And because we just finished the leftovers that she sent home with us last night, I think it’s time to go raid the candy pile and keep the holiday spirit going.

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So. Back to Jamaica. Here we are, in lovely Negril, enjoying our vacation with The Smiths, and Colt brings up the Anthony Bourdain episode where he comes to Jamaica. We had seen it, but probably not for a few years so I only vaguely remembered bits and pieces. Colt had recently watched it and he was very excited about repeating the scene where Tony eats chicken foot soup. Wait. Did I hear that right? Please, for the love of all that is holy (I had already declared my New Years Resolution by this time) tell me that you did not just say chicken FOOT soup. I am telling y’all right now that all three of my traveling companions looked at each other at that moment and smiled very, very wicked grins. Me? Not so much.

After the initial mention, the topic remained in the background until the day we took a ride up to Push Cart, for that fantastic dinner. Our driver, David, was being very friendly and informative food-wise so you know what happened next – Colt asked about The Soup. Silence. More silence, and a little bit of laughter on our end, and then he sort of mumbled around about it, not really telling us where you could get it. He made sure to assure us that they cleaned the feet and snipped off the nails before they put it in the soup. Okay…and then he said when we asked him, he was so surprised that his tongue swelled up. So basically we got nowhere with David – chicken foot soup was not something tourists asked about – despite the feet being so clean (that point seemed to be very important to him).

I can’t say I was sorry about that response, and I also can’t say that I was surprised that Colt made a second inquiry – this time to our fantastic server at Push Cart – Flava. Flava laughed nervously at first but after some reassurance that yes, Colt was very serious, he promised that he would get us some chicken foot soup. Awesome. I could hardly contain my excitement.

The next day, a few seconds before Flava showed up at our hotel, it started raining. A very intense rain. But guess what? Flava stuck it out with us until the weather cleared and there we went – in to Flava’s car, on the search for soup. We did make a stop first for some patties in town, but this post is not about the patties, is it? It’s about the soup. So back in the car we went. A short ride later and Flava pulled in to a parking lot surrounded by tiny, colorful shacks – selling food, phone cards, and even hair cuts. He told us this was the cabbie yard. We were the only tourists, and definitely the only white people hanging out in the yard. I think everyone was watching us as Flava walked up to a man sitting by a large soup pot. After a short conversation, we headed back to our car. He was out of soup, but had another recommendation of where to try. Oh thank goodness, I was super worried there for a sec.

Back to the car and a drive to the other side of town to what appeared to be just a bar, but we followed Flava to a window where he talked to someone and we, once again, failed to blend in to the Locals Only atmosphere. And again – no soup.

I would have felt relieved but Flava simply marched across the lot where we parked, into a building filled with small shops. Winding our way in to the back where a very small cafe was surrounded by people, picking up lunch. And guess what? No soup! And no pictures either – Flava was doing a really good job of keeping the locals at bay, who were trying to approach us for who knows what (most likely weed sales) but I am a small town girl and I was not feeling awesome at that moment about taking pictures of people with my iPhone. What would I do if someone took it? No more Angry Birds?! But I digress…we were back in Flava’s car and he was out of ideas. After a minute of thinking, he promised Colt that he would go get some in the morning, before everyone ran out, and bring it to us after our waterfall tour was over. Okay then. Settled.

Except as we were coming back in to the main part of town, we all noticed a street cart being pushed across the road (okay – full disclosure – I totally noticed it before, but you better believe I kept my mouth shut). Flava pulled over and called out through the window to the proprietor. And guess what y’all? He had the soup! Yay? We parked and hopped out. $4 bought both Tom and Colt what I would guess was a pint each of chicken foot and conch soup.

In case you were wondering, there were definitely chicken feet in there (forget the conch – there were FEET IN THE SOUP). Tom said he actually had no conch, but about 4 feet. To their credit, they dug right in.

Maggie didn’t seem exactly hesitant to try it either.

You know what’s coming next right? I did make them say it – “Britta – would you like to try my soup?” – there was no way I was offering. Maybe they would forget. Right.

Now normally I would not post these pictures because they are not flattering. But. I need proof that I tried it. So all of the Internet can know that I stuck to that resolution, damnit! And I’d also like to point out that to eat the foot, you have to BITE DOWN ON A TOE AND PULL THE SKIN OFF. Re-read that last scentence as a favor to me. And just FYI – that skin has been boiling for who knows how long. This is no Extra Crispy KFC skin. So you get my point…

Please note Tom’s immense enjoyment out of my discomfort. Yep. And don’t think Maggie and Colt weren’t laughing off-camera. As far as the taste goes? Chicken foot does not taste awesome. I don’t care how clean it was, it tasted like skin that had been boiling for 2 days. The soup however was the most flavorful stock I’ve ever had – just not worth the feet that come floating in it.

The rest of our afternoon was filled with shopping and happily, a stop at another street vendor. Only this time it was for jerk chicken. NO FEET ATTACHED.

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The Food

Over the years I’ve become much more adventurous with food. Not only with what I cook, but what I’m willing to try in restaurants.  I think Tom and I both agree that our appetites for really good food can be credited to two men: Alton Brown and Anthony Bourdain. In all honesty, it should be credited to my Mom – we had fantastic food growing up – but after I left her house I resigned myself to easy, boring meals. Alton Brown got us interested in cooking again – it’s hard not to get caught up in the science of how food can taste better – and Anthony Bourdain pushed us to get outside of our comfort zone.

So you take that, and add in my New Year’s Resolution (I only had one) that if someone offered me food, I had to try it, even if I didn’t want to – and the trip to Jamaica was going to be interesting food-wise. I was determined to try some of the local flavors – why travel if you aren’t willing to immerse yourself in the culture, and what says culture more than food? I knew that Tom would probably offer me fish/seafood (which I don’t like) but I also knew that there would be jerk chicken, pork, and lots of local fruit. I’d also read that the patties were a must-try, and even though I had no idea what they were, I was going to take the advice to heart.

We started our trip off with jerk chicken and from that moment on, one of us had at least one item of food jerked, every day. It’s what Jamaica is known for and there is definitely a reason. We found out quickly that your cab driver was the best resource of information on food and we got all sorts of tips on where the best jerk was to be found. I think everyone will agree that it was all good – my favorite being the pork at Push Cart and the chicken eaten in the back of the cab on the way to the airport (that may have something to do with being grateful we were alive after our driver sped like a demon to get us to Jerkee’s before we needed to be checked in for our trip home – but the scotch bonnet sauce was amazing nonetheless and it was the only place we went to that used pimento branches to smoke the meat).

Okay. So – I made the mistake of telling our traveling companions (Colt and Maggie) about my resolution and some of them (Colt) may have abused it a little bit. Even though Tom gets a little too much enjoyment out of seeing me eat things I don’t like, he’s pretty good about laying off on things he knows I’ve tried and just don’t enjoy (shrimp and mustard, for example) – but due to all three of my travel partners, I tried calamari (again – still don’t like it!) whatever fish Colt had at Push Cart (not too bad, but I wouldn’t order it), the leafy greens with saltfish (meh), curried goat (didn’t really need an invitation – and it was very good), and a certain soup that we’ll get back to later. Oddly enough, not one person asked me if I wanted to try their fries, and Tom gave me a dirty look when I kept trying his beverages – just branching out, baby, just branching out.

Most of the food we had required no effort on my part to taste and enjoy. I think the favorite surprises were the things we bought off hawkers on the beach. A quick side note: if you’ve been to Mexico and had people try to sell you things on the beach, quadruple that, and make half of them grumpy that you don’t want to buy things, and you have Jamaica. The advantage to that though is if you really don’t want to leave your beach chair and you are hungry – you’re pretty much set for the whole day – just bring some cash (another quick side note: you can barter there but they are much more reasonably priced in the first place, whereas in Mexico they start ridiculously high) and you are good to go. We sampled the local bananas, sugar cane (which oddly enough seems less sweet than actual sugar), coconut, and guineps (a sort of grape-like fruit – weird texture, but delicious). I don’t remember if it was the second or third day but we finally saw the lauded patty man, pushing his bicycle with a box of food, and decided to snatch some up. The Internet seemed to be right about him selling out early because all he had left were veggie patties and coco bread. We got one of each and then he threw in some extra coco bread (really just like a plain scone – the deep fried kind, not the English kind) and some frozen bags of soda. Best. Fast. Food. Ever. The best way to describe them is a Hot Pocket. Except Hot Pockets are gross and patties are DELICIOUS. We ended up sampling some in town later, and they were also excellent, but the ones on the beach were hard to beat. I think at the end of the trip we had tried the veggie, beef, beef and cheese, curried chicken, and shrimp. The beef and veggie were my favorites – it seriously makes me sad that I can’t get them in the states. I may actually have to attempt to make them.

You would think with all this amazing food that I would have taken pictures of it. Yeah. Nope. I was much too busy devouring it and searching for more. I did take some pictures at our favorite restaurant (Push Cart – another recommendation from a cab driver – seriously, they are awesome) though. We actually had reservations at the place next door but thanks to an inquiry (see aforementioned tip) we had a Jamaican meal, instead of Americanized Jamaican, in a killer setting, right on top of the cliffs, looking out on the sunset.

 

The last two pictures were taken by Colt. The group shot was taken by our waiter, Flava, who appears in the last photo. Flava is essential to the next part of the Jamaica story. Remember the soup I wouldn’t expound on? To be continued…

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