Archive for December, 2008

With love from Hank & Willie

December 24, 2008

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I wasn’t sure Will would come down off his “I was a sheep in the pageant, baaaaaaaa!” high in time to fall asleep, and Henry stayed awake so long I thought for sure that he would be helping Santa unpack his bags (“Hey St. Nick, you want this one over here?”) but they are both FINALLY sound asleep and no doubt dreaming of sugar plums and Santa and jingle bells right now.

Actually Henry might be dreaming about cookies on a plate—the last thing he said to me before he fell asleep was this, whispered in my ear: “I WANT to eat Santa’s snack.”

Guess who’s going to eat Santa’s snack right now?

Merry Christmas, one and all, and I hope this Christmas brings tidings of great joy to you!

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The days, they get longer now

December 22, 2008

I promise I won’t post reruns ALL month long, but a loooong afternoon with the endodontist (all I ever wanted for Christmas!) and two boys awake before 5 a.m. today have left me a little thin on the reflections. I think it is enough that I am reposting this 16 years to the minute that I learned my mother had died.

I’m okay, really, I am. And tomorrow I’m going bake about 4,000 cookies and watch a little boy rehearse his role as sheep in the Christmas pageant. But tonight my heart aches along with my jaw (see above) and I am just going to let it be so.

The days, they get longer now

Originally posted December 22, 2007

The short days, the long nights, the cold—sometimes I feel like I’m just surviving in these waning days of the year. Especially as the calendar winds around to today’s date, December 22. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death.

It’s hard to write this in the midst of so much holiday gaiety (cue record scratching sound). For so many years, all of December rang hollow for me, a month to simply get through. I used to wonder where I could go that would feel completely unlike December, and where I could find a place without Christmas, which was now so indelibly linked to losing her. It is no accident that my babies were born in the lightest time of the year—I couldn’t imagine the load my heart would be forced to carry if I had a baby in the darkest days of winter.

But the years, they do march on. It tugs on my heart to know I am so far from the person my mother last knew, that 21-year-old college senior. That Maggie, Matthew and Kate, my three siblings, have now, in reverse birth order, each spent more of their lives without her than with her, and my heart aches for that loss.

It wasn’t in her plan, that’s for certain. Diagnosed in April 1992 with metastatic colon cancer, my mom bargained for life with everything she had. Disregarding her terminal diagnosis and her doctors’ urges for quality of life, she said, “Nothing? I have to do something. I have four children.”

Just 50 at the time of her diagnosis, she pursued treatment at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, followed a macrobiotic diet and underwent experimental liver surgery at Yale before entering a study at New York’s Maimonides Hospital. She set goals, adjusting them as the cancer moved in. First, to see her eight-year-old daughter become a teenager. Then see her fifteen-year-old daughter graduate from high school. Then see her twelve-year-old son get his dream fulfilled—a dog. And finally, with the window closing on her, she hoped to at least see me graduate from college. She missed it by exactly five months to the day.

And now the thing I didn’t understand fifteen years ago, is all the years we have without her. It wasn’t just the self-absorbed 21-year-old that would miss her. I didn’t understand how much the 25-year-old scientist-turned-writer would miss her when there were career choices to make. And how much the 29-year-old bride would wish she could be there for a day filled with joy, yet one that underscored her absence more than any day so far. And how, when the 32-year-old first-time mother would shed tears, they wouldn’t all be because of post-partum hormones. And then again with another baby, this time a sick one, that the 34-year-old mother would mourn her absence so deeply again.

My heart clenches when Will asks me my mother’s name, or why she isn’t here. I wish she could have met my husband and held my boys. I wish, political junkie and presidential historian that she was, that she could be here to see that the once portly governor from Arkansas is now a former president, campaigning for his wife. I wish, techie before her time that she was, that she could live in this age of the Internet, instant information and blogs! I wish she could explain why I can’t get the snowflake cookies from her cookie press to come out properly. But most of all, I just wish she was here.

A close family friend of ours said my mother’s funeral mass on December 26, 1992.  His words offered me perhaps the only comfort I have ever found in the wrong that is the mother who was taken away from her four children. Over the sounds of my eight-year-old sister sobbing in church that day, I heard him say, “She stayed with them through the darkest days of the year. She stayed, until it began to grow light again.”

And I do take comfort in that still. Because while I am still without her, and in the words of poet Dylan Thomas, I can rage all I want at the dying of the light, the days are getting longer now, and the light is coming back.

And I have a little boy who says, “Tell me who your mom is?” And I can hold him tight and say, “Her name was Carol, and she would so have loved being here with you.”

And it isn’t even Friday

December 17, 2008

I am completely lame—this is a reprint from last December, and you’ll have to put up with some year-old stream-of-consciousness to get to the good stuff, namely the candy and cookie recipes below. I have baked NOTHING this year yet, but it is just Dec. 17 and I am just getting warmed up. The peppermint bark factory at my house will be open for business in a day or two, so it seemed like a good idea to haul this one out of the archives. Plus, this is for Mike who didn’t know “about this whole peppermint bark thing” until yesterday.

So, from Dec. 14, 2007….

I just peeked at my stats, assuming you had ALL LEFT ME for good after not posting all week, but surprise, you have been here checking for something new every day. Your faith in me is touching, if undeserved. At least I left you with something good to look at all week.

But anyway. It’s just that I’ve been doing all this freelance work for Santa this week, and he is an absolute BEAR on the deadlines, so my blogging life suffered a bit. But I make it up to you with not one but TWO recipes today, both diligently tested at my house in the last 24 hours.

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Mine is only dark chocolate this year. Because I’m simplifying.

Peppermint Bark

You do know you don’t have to buy this only at Williams-Sonoma for $20 a tin or Trader Joe’s for slightly less, right? Because you can make it in your own kitchen, and you get to use your favorite kind of chocolate, too.

This recipe is infinitely adaptable (white chocolate! dark chocolate! layers! peppermint extract! or nooo!), but here are the basic ratios:

Crushed candy canes, to yield one cup

One pound chocolate (I like bittersweet or sometimes I layer dark and white)

(A word about chocolate: Callebaut, Valhrona are excellent choices for this confection and sold in big chunks at places like Whole Foods, but not to worry— you can also use grocery store chocolate chips like Ghiradelli or packaged squares like Bakers. Just stay away from the milk chocolate. Because that is wrong.)

1/2 teaspoon peppermint flavoring, optional

Place candy canes in a plastic bag and smash away into 1/4-inch chunks or smaller. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, and stir constantly. Combine candy cane chunks/dust with chocolate, but save some of the biggest chunks to press into the top after you pour it out.

Add peppermint flavoring at this point, if desired. Chocolate will separate a little at this point, but just keep stirring.

Pour mixture onto a cookie sheet (with edges, to contain the river of chocolate) lined with parchment or waxed paper, add big chunks of candy cane on top and place in a cold spot for 45 minutes or until firm. (Don’t use your Silpat liner here, as I learned—your bark will be etched with the Silpat pattern.) Remove from cookie sheet and shatter into cookie-sized pieces.

Supposedly this will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator, but I wouldn’t know. (Plus, if you put it in the fridge, it will get that unsightly white cocoa “bloom”—just eat it, for God’s sake, or give it away.)

I promise to add the cookie recipe later today, but Santa is cracking the whip right now.

Like you were going to make cookies before breakfast anyway.

See you later—it’s good to be back!

And, since we live in the age of TIVO and instant gratification, you get the cookie post too, even though last year you had to wait for it.

For the love of Christmas cookies

By Anna

So, I love Christmas cookies. LOVE them. And I plan to enjoy them wholeheartedly this year, because last year? Was Christmas with no egg, no dairy and no soy. And while my family came through with AMAZING substitutions (email me if you need help in that department), I still will be enjoying a healthy, if you will, dose of butterfat this year.

But anyway, that is where you come in, dear readers. I want your cookie recipes.

Please post a favorite Christmas cookie recipe in the comments, or on your site and post the link or if you scavenged it from out there in the interwebs, then share the love and post a link to that. PLEASE.

Consider it your little Christmas present to Hank & Willie, and think of the amazing cookie resource we can create. Bakers of cookies like Granny Annie’s Bourbon Balls, Jayne’s Toffee and Shannon’s Rum Balls, I’m talking to you.

Because I NEED those recipes this year.

Here’s a few on my list:

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Photo by Smitten Kitchen

Homemade Oreos from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve had the exquisite priveledge of enjoying these baked by TWO Hank & Willie readers, Clink and Lorraine. Send ‘em along if you want me to taste YOUR version. I’m a very appreciative audience.

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Photo by Milk & Cookies

Double Chocolate Cookies, originally by Martha, as adapted over at the delicious food blog, Milk & Cookies. I agree with the adaptation, because I don’t find much call for milk chocolate in my life.

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Peppermint Checkerboards by Julie, via Cookies Unlimited.

Peppermint Checkerboards, as seen in Cookies Unlimited. Version here made by Julie at A Little Pregnant who says, “I modified Malgieri’s vanilla sablé recipe by replacing half of the vanilla with peppermint extract, and then dyeing the holy Christmas shit out of half of the dough.”

And then finally, the mother lode of Christmas cookies, here at Food Blogga — a collection of Christmas cookies from readers around the world, updated daily. You even have a chance to win a dessert cookbook, Desserts by the Yard by Sherry Yard. So AFTER you post your recipe here, head over to Christmas Cookies Around the World to post yours and enter to win this yummy-looking cookbook. Mmmm….

Here’s what I’m entering over there:

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(Recipe and illustration by Susan Branch, Christmas from the Heart of Home)

I’ve been making these delicious, easy butter cookies for YEARS, and if you make no other cookie, make this one. It can be anything—twist this dough into candy canes, roll it out (chill it mercilessly first) and use your cookie cutters, put it in a pastry bag and squirt it through a # 2 star tip, or roll it all into one giant snake, roll it in sprinkles or mini chips or coconut and slice and bake into perfect rounds….you get the idea. The dough does need to be really well chilled to work with, though. All that butter, you know.

Annie Hall’s Butter Cookies

2 cups unsalted butter, slightly softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

4 egg yolks

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

4 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350. With an electric mixer, even the hand-held kind, cream together butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and vanilla, mix well. Suft flour and salt together and beat into butter mixture until well mixed.

When ready to bake use an ungreased cookie sheet (I use my Silpat liners, but not required.) and place cookies about one inch apart. Bake for about ten minutes, but do not brown them. Remove cookies from cookie sheet while still warm and cool on sheets of waxed paper.

And as my aunt pointed out last year, when you make these, you have extra egg white, so then you make THESE:

Surprise Meringues

2 egg whites (clearly, you WILL have to double the recipe after making those butter cookies.)
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla
1 6-oz pkg chocolate chips
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup sugar

Beat egg whites, salt, cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar gradually, beating until peaks are stiff. Fold in chocolate and nuts. Cover cookie sheet with plain brown paper or parchment paper. Drop mixture on by rounded teaspoon. Bake in slow (300F) oven about 25 min. Makes about 2 dozen, cool before removing from paper.

Or you make these, provided by Christina last year:
Christina’s Mom’s Coconut Macaroons

3 eggs white
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
8 oz coconut

Whip eggs, salt and vanilla until peaks form. Slowly add sugar while continuing to beat until stiff. Gently fold in the coconut. Drop by teaspoonful onto cookie sheet covered with brown paper/parchment paper. Bake at 325 for 30 minutes; cool before removing from paper. and then ENJOY!

Get thee to a kitchen and start baking, folks! But not before you post what you’re baking here.

Tomorrow? Shannon’s Rum Balls. You won’t want to miss them!

Photo fix: holiday card edition

December 11, 2008

So I sure had a lot of fun with these images from H & W readers, and I hope what I did makes their photos just a little bit better. I’ve been mostly editing photos in Lightroom this fall, so it was fun to get back into Photoshop and work on an image individually!

Reader Jyl at Moore Love Than Ever sent this photo of her  little two-year-old loves. They are almost twins, just a month apart.

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It is slightly soft, so I used curves, levels and a soft light layer blended together to increase contrast, then sharpened.

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Here we have the lovely Kate from Walking Kateastrophe.

The first image is her original. Kate and Matt are shown kicking up their heels in China (those are Chinese military hats). The fog made for a tough shooting environment, and the image was underexposed for the people, but lovely for the scene.

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Looking at my edits, I’m glad to see their faces, but I think I pushed the exposure too far, bringing in too much grain and losing the lovely detail in the background. Kate, since you are a PS user, try opening your original in Adobe Camera Raw, and using the sliders to adjust exposure and fill light. I like seeing your faces and the beautiful red of your jackets, but it I had five more minutes to call my own I would strike a happy medium with less exposure adjustment. See if you like your edits better!

Fabulous quilter/crafter Molly at AppleCyder sent this charming photo of her little fella. It didn’t need much to enhance those beautiful blue eyes, but it looks like the flash fired, blowing out (overexposing) some of the detail in his face, so I wanted to bring that back a bit. Also, Mama requested “crud removal” on the side of his face which was an easy fix with the clone tool in PhotoShop.

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I used a multiply layer blend in PhotoShop at about 30% to try and expose the face properly, and then boosted color and contrast with curves, levels and a soft light layer for this color boost option. Also sharpened.

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I also tried a brown-tone color action I am currently loving, by photographer Brenda Acuncious.

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Hard to pick isn’t it?!

I have one more to share, but my own active photo subjects are calling. And are probably wondering when I’m going to make my Christmas card.

i heart eCommerce, part 2

December 9, 2008

Okay, I think Amazon just made it up to me.

I have discovered the amazing Universal Wish List tool, wherin you drag a little button to your bookmarks toolbar, gather all the web goodness OUT THERE, on any site, and bring it back to your handy amazon.com wish list.

I am finding it very useful for gathering gift ideas to review later, for sharing gift suggestions for your children when lovely generous people ask,  for comparing similar items or for DROPPING HINTS TO THE PHOTOGRAPHY FAIRY, of course. And you can maintain public and private wish lists, so you have absolutely NO IDEA what list I have built with YOUR NAME on it.

Nice work, Amazon. Now let’s get going on that whole Super Saver shipping nonsense and you might be on to something.

(Photo fixes tomorrow. I was too excited about this today!)

I heart ecommerce

December 8, 2008

Dear Amazon,

The LARGE, FLASHING sign at the top of your web page letting me know how many shopping days are left before Christmas is NOT HELPFUL. Neither is your lame “Super Saver” shipping which, you tell me, will deliver my purchases promptly on DECEMBER 26.

Gee, thanks.

Anna

* * *

Griping aside, here is a preview for this lovely and patient family! Which means I am not the only one who has not ordered Christmas cards yet. Whew.

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* * *

H&W readers who sent in your photos, I will send them back to you (if I haven’t already)  for tomorrow and will plan to post them tomorrow, too. Thanks for sending them, I got a great variety!

Food Friday: Other People’s Food Blogs

December 5, 2008

I have been a dismal failure at food blogging of late—Fridays used to afford me a delicious chunk of time during naps, but that time seems to have evaporated in the last little while. I know you haven’t been pining away for my fantastic food posts, but I miss it, because I love food and recipes and cooking almost as much as all the other things taking up my time recently.

So today, I cheat and give you a few amazing food blogs that you ought to be visiting. And I’m hopeful that you’ll post your links to your Food Friday in the comments, because I know so many of you are out there doing it, and I love it!

The current photo of  Sweet and Salty Cake at Bake or Break: Adventures of an Amateur Baker makes me need to fan myself a little.

I want to either be Deb at Smitten Kitchen or her live-in taster, I can’t decide.

You can’t miss with the always lovely and always simple Simply Recipes, the inspiration for Food Friday.

Rachel’s original recipes and photos at Coconut & Lime are DIVINE.

The Wednesday Chef makes a heroic attempt to get through her piles of recipe clippings from the New York Times and the LA Times. Yum.

Just look at the three gorgeous cakes featured today on Bakerella. Holy buttercream.

To balance all this butter and sugar, I recommend a stop at A Veggie Venture.

I love the idea behind 101 Cookbooks even if I have FAR MORE than 101 cookbooks and no plans to stop adding to the collection.

Always something good cooking at the Food Blogga.

And finally, if you have had your head under an Internet rock, you might not know about Ree Drummond at The Pioneer Woman Cooks! and her amazing style of “everything’s better with butter” cooking. Spending the holiday season visiting her cooking blog is a feast for the eyes. Amazing photos and great giveaways, too—she just gave away a new stand mixer!

Where do you go for food talk, recipes and gorgeous food P-O-R-N photos? Share it with the rest of us, and a happy Food Friday to you!

The ones we’re NOT using in the Christmas card

December 3, 2008

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Photo day for Hank & Willie, and a friend. Weather was below freezing and children were miserable. Note chocolate-bar-as-bribe in my hand, bottom left. Note also that it is not having desired effect.

So folks, it’s December. I have no idea how that happened, but here’s another bulletin—Christmas is THREE WEEKS from tomorrow. Never mind the shopping, have you done your holiday cards yet?

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That’s a superhero face, in case you aren’t fluent in the expressions of four-year-old boys.

For us moms who love pictures, this is our SuperBowl. I’m still figuring out which image to use for ours—and believe me, these boys didn’t give us many choices—and what it’s going to look like—make my own? Use one of the designs at the excellent design and printing companies out there, like Posh Peacock, Tiny Prints, Moo? Try the new and improved offerings at the photo-sharing sites like Smug Mug, Shutterfly and Snapfish?

Looking for ideas on making your card uniquely yours?  Try these nine fantastic tips for making your own creative photo cards at Martha Stewart, or head to ShutterSisters and read their great series, Great Greetings!, on taking better photos and sharing great ideas about holiday cards. And for further inspiration, check out their Flickr pool for finished holiday cards and photos.

And if you’ve got your photo, but it needs a little something before you create your final card? As my gift to you, I would be happy to try a little Photoshop magic on your photo this year.  So far this year for friends’ photos I have:

A) Swapped heads on a lovely family for optimum smileage

B) Removed a silver picture frame embedded in the head of a handsome preschooler

C) Done basic contrast/curves boost and color boost (Falls under the category of “make it better and brighter!”

D) Done black and white conversions

E) Done vintage and faded conversions

If you think you need help with one of those areas and if you think I might be able to make your photo look better than it already is, send me your original, unedited high-resolution file.

But remember, pictures that tell the story of your family don’t have to be perfect to be great!

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The fine print

Send me your photo at hankandwillieATgmail.com and make sure you put Hank & Willie Photo Help in the subject line. And, if you send me a photo, it is fair game to post the before and after on H&W, but I won’t use names if you don’t want them published.

I don’t think I am going to get tons of photos, because many H & W readers are far better at photo editing than I am. However, if I get too many (like more than five) I will pick a few randomly to work on. Because remember, it’s just three weeks from Christmas!

She almost doesn’t look cold

December 1, 2008

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I’ve taken so many photos of kiddies this fall, that it was really fun to take photos of an adult recently. This is my friend and work buddy Chelle, who is one of those people you are always glad to have around.  Chelle is helpful, thoughtful, kind and upbeat—and now I can add “extremely patient” to that list!

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We were outside taking photos of boats, the temperature was a very unseasonable 29-ish degrees, the wind was whipping off the water and yet she let me muddle around with backlighting and sidelighting and didn’t even shiver on camera while I took advantage of the gorgeous late-day light and her beautiful smile.

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I can’t choose my favorite for Best Shot Monday, so I’ll let you decide. For more beautiful smiles, go to Best Shot Monday at Tracey’s.