Thursday, November 26, 2009

First Thanksgiving and Cranberry Goodness

Below is a photo of our first Thanksgiving in the U.S. spent at my cousin Manolito's house. The lady on the left is a friend of the family. The food was absolutely wonderful - Manolito and his wife, Gladys, were known for their lavish, delicious dinners - but the meal could hardly be called a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, not with so many Cubans expecting their rice and beans. However, I do remember that roasted turkey was among the dishes served; and there was pumpkin pie.

Forty years later I'm still trying to figure out what constitutes an authentic Thanksgiving dinner. I suppose it's a little bit like trying to define what constitutes an authentic American. However, I've come to believe that cranberries must have a place somewhere on the menu. It appears very likely that those early settlers feasted on them, but, more importantly . . . I just love them.

Cranberry sauce made from scratch is simply marvelous, and, thankfully, very easy to make. I add oranges and Grand Marnier to mine, although it's doubtful the pilgrims had those ingredients at their disposal. I feel so sorry for them. And then, there's Cranberry Bread . . . This recipe, which calls for golden raisins added to the batter, balances beautifully the tart with the sweet. It is so good! But there are so many other variations to try out. Do I stop now or do I continue on this happy quest?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

About treats and not expecting the unexpected

O.K. So this was a little weird . . . I brought my Thanksgiving treats to work yesterday and everyone thought I had bought them ready-made at a store. Typical exchange:

Me: Here's a little Thanksgiving treat for you.
Co-worker: Oh, this is nice. Where did you get it?

Hmm . . . Better modify my presentation . . .

Me: Hi, there, I put together these treats over the weekend. Here's one for you. Happy Thanksgiving!
Co-worker: Wow! Thank you. I've never seen these before. Where did you get them?

Hmm . . . O.K. Let's try it a little differently . . .

Me: I found this cool website and this one was one of the ideas they had for the holidays. I made a batch to celebrate the holidays. Here's one for you. Happy Thanksgiving!
Co-worker: Cool! This is nice! Thank you! So you ordered them from this website?
Me: No, I just got the idea from the website. I made them.
Co-worker: You made them?
Me: Yup.
Co-worker: Huh. (Now looking over the bag suspiciously). Where did you get the labels? (Sigh)

And on it went all day. I guess on one level I should be flattered that the bags looked nice enough to have been bought at a store. On the other hand, there was a lot of love and attention put into those little bags and I didn't want people to think that I took the easy route and just bought the darn things.

And then when I walked in the house last night I found . . . John! His classes were canceled today so he came home a day early. What an unexpected joy! I really don't feel like going to work today. I want to stay home and play with my boys. But I'll have a special treat waiting for me tonight: John has promised to cook and make his Chicken Fricasee dinner.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Blessing Mix

I was inspired to make these by my always creative sister-in-law, Angela, who found the idea at Organized Christmas. I'm bringing them to work tomorrow and sharing them with my co-workers. I can't wait!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A letter to knock the socks off any woman.

Here are my parents on their wedding day, November 20, 1953. I just love the hat my mother is wearing - and she could carry it off with such panache!

This was my father's second marriage, so they were not able to marry in the Catholic Church, to my mother's everlasting sorrow. If there was ever a couple that ought to have been allowed the religious wedding of their choice, it was this one. To my mother, the sun rose and set with my father, and I think it was the same for him. They were married 32 years until her death in 1985.

Here is one of the letters he wrote to her while they were dating, I hope my translation does it justice. The letter was not dated but I think it was written in 1952:

"Dear Enriqueta:

'To tell you that I love you, that I adore you and all that you mean to me, I have sat down in front of the typewriter, hoping to be able to crystallize my feelings in words. You are the sweetest of brides, the most beloved and the one who has been able to understand me and give me ease. Aside from an immense love, I owe you a debt of gratitude, because you have returned to my spirit the tranquility that I so need."

"Sometimes, the shadow of doubt comes upon me, and then you, with your sweetness that touches me so deeply, with your beautiful words that caress me, with a look that penetrates the deepest recesses of my soul, you return my coveted calm."

"For this, and for all the good things you possess I adore you."

"I kiss your beautiful hands, "


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hug O' War

I will not play at tug o' war.
I'd rather play at hug o' war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.

—Shel Silverstein

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Natilla (pronounced Nah-tee-yah)

Here's the recipe for my Cuban Vanilla Custard. Thank you to my co-workers for all your kind words, but you will see how easy it is to make:


5 C. milk (I use whole milk, but if you prefer, you can use 2%)
1 C. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 T. vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
5 egg yolks
½ C. corn starch
  1. In a saucepan combine 4 C. of milk, sugar, cinnamon stick, vanilla extract and salt. Cook on medium heat until it simmers, making sure the sugar is completely dissolved in the milk.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining cup of milk, egg yolks and corn starch. A small whisk is most effective for mixing the corn starch into the milk and egg mixture.
  3. When the milk on the stove is simmering, add the milk/egg yolk mixture to the pot, straining it through a fine sieve to catch any undissolved corn starch.
  4. Continue to cook on medium heat until the pudding thickens, usually no more than 3-4 minutes. The whisk will come in handy again to make sure that no lumps are formed.
  5. Remove from heat and ladle into ramekins while still hot, as the mixture cools it gets harder to pour. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon and chill.
  6. Call the kids and/or husband to the kitchen and dispense spoons so they can scrape the pot clean.
Two tips:
  1. Separate the egg yolks before you put the milk on the stove. You don't want to get distracted by the eggs when you should be keeping a close watch so the milk doesn't scorch.
  2. Use a non-stick saucepan if possible. I use a Calphalon dutch oven and a silicone whisk so it doesn't scratch the pot.
These squash-shaped ramekins, a gift from my friend Susan, make a timeless comfort food seem a bit more seasonal. Let me know how it turns out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This week's reading

Three very quick and uncomplicated reads:

And three very quick and uncomplicated reviews: No, yes, and YES!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Weird Mother Nature

Here are the trees in front of the house, no leaves . . .

. . . but still full of apples.

I wish they were good apples, but, unfortunately, even the squirrels turn up their noses at them. We just gather them up when they fall off and put them straight in the garbage. One of these days we want to cut down these trees and put something less messy in their place.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

I got an e-mail at work today: "Congrats, I heard you made the cut." No, I didn't get a promotion, what I did was manage to avoid getting cut - cut out of a job, that is. This has been a horrible, sad two weeks at work. It's actually been longer. For months, there have been hints that a "Reduction in Force" was coming and we've lived with Damocles sword hanging over our heads because what else was there to do but wait? That has been the Elephant in the Room of my life for the last few months. I've talked of so many trivial things on this blog, always avoiding mention of the one thing most likely to affect my immediate life.

Well, the time finally arrived and that sword came down and did some bloody damage. Long time employees, sometimes with twenty years or more with the company, have been packaged along with employees that were hired six months ago. People have not been slotted for jobs at the same time that their positions, or very similar ones have been left open. Alternatively, people have been slotted into positions in which they have no interest, thus keeping them from being able to receive a termination package. It's been awful, and no one really knows what criteria was used to decide who goes and who stays.

I've been kept awake at night thinking of a co-worker currently undergoing radiation, who is hoping that her package will last at least as long as her remaining treatment, because that is also the length of time that she will be covered by insurance. I think about another co-worker who has an enormous tumor in her stomach and was waiting for her overall health to stabilize before scheduling further surgery, and whose husband of 13 years just walked out on her. What is she going to do now? There are so many other stories.

Yes, I survived the cut. My job is changing completely, although I'm keeping the same salary and benefits. But it saddens me that when they slotted me they showed so little understanding of where my strengths lie (It's nothing personal, Maria. I know, I know . . . ). I'll do the best I can with the job, it's not in me to give less than my best. And, who knows, maybe it'll be better than I think right now.

I keep telling myself that this job does not define me, that maybe God or the universe has another plan for me and I should go with the flow and let the plan reveal itself. And I'm trying very hard to be grateful that in this economy I have a job.

But right now, it's painful going to work and seeing the living dead: Those that have been told that they will no longer have a job as of next Monday. I think of John Donne's lines:

"Each man's death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee."

May God watch over us all.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In the eye of the beholder . . .

This copper plumbing is a thing of beauty. It represents the successful piping for the new tub, all done by my dear husband, who despises plumbing work above all things. And this was no ordinary plumbing, no PVC pipes to make things easier. This was copper piping that needed precise measurements and soldering with a blow torch.

The black burn marks on the studs were made when the original piping was installed. But my DH wasn't taking any chances: He placed a fire resistant cloth behind the pipes to protect the studs and the walls on the other side while he had the blow torch going. The things I've learned just by watching him!

Afterwards, we just threw the cloth in the washer and now it's squeaky clean and ready for the next blow torch project!

Next step: The electrical work.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The things you learn through Facebook . . .

My second cousin, Sonia, who, as it happens was a junior bridesmaid at my wedding, mentioned on Facebook that for a Sunday family dinner she had made "pastelitos."

"Pastelitos" is Cuban shorthand for delicate, flaky pastries, filled with "guayaba" (guava) or "carne" (beef). They are also made with other fillings: Coconut, pineapple, mango and cheese, among other choices. But when someone offers you a pastelito you will most likely be presented with a white bakery box where you will find guava and beef-filled pastries.

I could go on and on about pastelitos. They are such a part of Cuban life. Sunday mornings at our house began with my father making a trip to the Cuban bakery and picking up a box of pastelitos. We read the paper and ate them and got sticky flakes all over the table, our shirts and our fingers. There's never a party without pastelitos, and the interesting thing is that no one bakes them. They are always bought at bakeries.  In a way, it's like donuts. I mean, who ever makes donuts?

Unfortunately, we don't have a Cuban bakery nearby (neither does my cousin Sonia) so if we are going to satisfy the craving, we are going to have to make them ourselves. I immediately e-mailed Sonia and asked her for the recipe. She responded quickly, and . . . voilà!

My husband, who's had them many times, said that they were even better than the ones from the bakery (smart man!). They did taste pretty good to me, and the kitchen smelled heavenly while they were baking. Now I'm keeping a closer eye on Sonia's Facebook Wall and hope that she figures out a way to make "Guarapo" at home - sugar cane juice.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The last hankie

This was my wedding handkerchief. My Aunt Lala had it made in Cuba hoping that she'd be able to send it to me and that some day I'd carry it on my wedding day. She had no idea at the time that she would ultimately be coming to the U.S. herself and bringing it to me in person. She stood in line for a week in order to be able to acquire the embroidery floss from which it was knit. Fabric was scarce, so the linen center of the hankie came from a shirt I wore as an infant.

I snagged one of the threads with my wedding ring, and Mama Lala offered to repair it afterwards, but somehow, we never got around to it. It's just as well, the snag is part of the memories of this day. The arrow in the picture below points to the handkerchief which I'm holding in my right hand. The photo was taken by my brother-in-law, Doug.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one:
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
—W.H. Auden

Remembering my father who passed away on November 2, 1986. He was my North, South, East and West. My true compass for perseverance and moral rectitude. He taught me to appreciate literature and history. He demonstrated to us daily what it meant to love unconditionally. He sacrificed for me, although he would have taken deep umbrage at my suggestion that it was a sacrifice. He loved me and he understood me. I miss him.