Finally going for broke

backgcoolFor the past several weeks, I’ve been researching literary magazines to try to find homes for the short stories I’ve written. It’s the first step in getting published and one that has only taken me, oh, three and a half years to take.

This is my second stab at taking this plunge, the first being a day much like this one last year. I had just finished watching the movie Nebraska, was sitting writing notes about its characters and plot development and, overall, feeling pretty good and smart about things.

So good, in fact, that I gathered the courage to scan the website for the literary mag Tin House, which has received piles of awards.

This, in the end, did not prove useful.

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Powerball dreaming

IMG_2411There can only be one winning set of Powerball numbers and I’ve got it so sorry about your luck, losers. That’s a little haha I’ve been pulling this week and I’ve been getting quite a kick out of it.

As you know, $1.5 billion is up for grabs after there was no winner in last week’s draw. We have four tickets, a repeat of the same numbers we were randomly given the first time. Because that set of numbers definitely wasn’t picked the first go-around, there is a larger chance it will be this time, according to my husband. That math is too big for my small brain to absorb, so I just dutifully followed orders. Still, I think our odds aren’t much better than 1 in 292 million, which is so frightfully small I can’t really wrap my head around that one either.

But no matter how small the chances, there are always a few moments post lottery ticket purchase that you feel pretty sure you’re going to win. You tenderly treat the ticket — caress the soft paper, enjoy its Easter-themed colors — like a silk scarf and place it in a careful spot so you will not, under circumstances, lose it. Then you dream with your spouse about what you would do (i.e. will do) with your winnings.

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The power of one

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Me and Ken right before my wedding.

Not to start the New Year out on a tough note, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t dedicate this space this week to someone very special to me. On Dec. 21, my best friend Kristin’s dad was killed in a car accident, something so random and unfair, quick yet violent, I’m still not sure it’s real.

Throughout my childhood, Ken was a second dad to my little brother Matthew and I. He was endlessly charismatic, warm, funny, hard working and so successful he was a mentor long before we knew the word.

Ken and my dad were best friends and were constantly working on projects together. We lived in a little municipality about 20 minutes outside of the city, just far enough for it to be considered “the country.” As such, Ken and my dad fully embraced the opportunity to be Bumpkins.

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The nutcracker army

IMG_2258Every year, the minute Thanksgiving turns into Christmas, I head to Tuesday Morning and hope for something good. By this time, their Christmas décor is on the shelves and it’s all I can do not to rub my hands together in anticipation. Every year, I am looking to add to the only collection I have in this world, one composed of an army of nutcrackers.

It all started when I moved to Kentucky and realized my then-boyfriend was in possession of these stately gentlemen, some holding beer steins, one dressed like Sir Arthur, another like a Mouse King, some just standing around holding regal holding staffs. William loves a fully decorated house, so I plonked them down in random places and continued on my merry way.

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Is that a baguette in your pocket?

This holiday season, one of my goals was to master baking the French baguette. I wasn’t successful. But what came out of the effort is an image seared forever on my brain, one I’ve come to think of as a special Christmas gift from my oven to me.

The baguette is one of my most beloved breads, in no small part because it reminds me of Montreal. At my favorite restaurants, baguette is accompanied by salted butter, and sometimes paired with olive tapenade or even rillettes or cretons, which are country versions of pâté. The bread is always perfect — nice and crusty on the outside with a crumb that is flavorful yet tender.

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Fudge to the rescue

Easy-Chocolate-Fudge-ChocolateChocolateandmore-26aEvery year at Christmas time, for some party, function or what-have-you, I am forced to bake. It’s an obligation that is always accompanied by a wince, as baking is my least favorite thing to do in the kitchen.

This, I’ve decided, has a lot to do with the fact that baking inevitably requires you to do complicated things to the pan before you can even start. For example, I hate greasing. And if I have to cut parchment paper out and then grease that and then flour it, I’m already in a bad mood. I want to heat up some oil or melt some butter and get on with it.

I also hate the fact that baking has so much to do with measuring. They don’t tell you that in the cooking shows, but when Ina just scoops up a couple of casual cups of flour and drops them in the mixer, that’s just showbiz, people, that’s not real life. A real cake requires pretty careful adherence to a recipe, at least in my life it does.

Then, by the time you get the goo in the oven (because baking is pretty much all goo until you get some heat on it), you’re left with a whole lot of dirty dishes. We’re talking mixers. We’re talking about food processors. And butter and chocolate, which by the way, are not the easiest things to wash off, especially if crucial time has passed and they’ve hardened.

Still, despite my dislike for baking, I’ve had the tendency in the past to choose complicated recipes. For example, last year at a cookie swap, I decided to bring saffron-pear lollipops. This involved, a), ordering lollipop sticks online and worrying they wouldn’t come in time, b), using a candy thermometer, c), heating sugar to a scary high temperature (so I was pretty sure it was going to either, i), explode and, ii), render me with third-degree facial burns) and d) trying to twirl melted sugar into a lollipop shape despite having no artsy bones in my body.

By the time they were finally finished and after the first batch melted like Salvador Dali’s clocks while standing upright on their sticks, I was a wreak. The sick thing is I don’t even like suckers, just liked the idea of arriving at the party with pretty ‘pops all arranged in a bouquet.

And that, ultimately, is my biggest beef with baking: I’m not that huge on sweets. I mean, if they’re around, I’ll eat them, unfortunately I’m the only one in my family who will eat them, but it’s not something I crave on a regular basis.

But there is one Christmas baking recipe that has the capability of knocking people’s socks off (in an understated, “wow, this is no-nonsense delicious” way), takes 10 minutes, has three ingredients, and dirties only one pot. We’re talking about, drum roll, please, Tara’s Christmas Chocolate Butterscotch Fudge.

Yes, fudge. The treat that always reminds you of camping or vacation towns because those are almost the only places that have fudge counters. And the treat that is so decadent you really can only have a few bites (unlike cookies, which you (read: I) can eat 20 of).

So here we go. Take notes. Or clip this baby out. Because it’s going to make you happy.

You need:

  • 1 10- or 11-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chips (or dark chocolate, if you prefer)
  • 1 10 or 11-ounce package butterscotch chips
  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Set up a double boiler (a makeshift one is fine) and heat the water until it is gently simmering. Add chips and melt. Stir in condensed milk until all ingredients are combined. Grease an 8 x 8-inch pan (sorry, couldn’t avoid greasing altogether). Pour fudge in pan. Chill in fridge. Done. Voilà. Delish.

More than a decade ago, I worked for a food magazine back in Winnipeg and the staff members were asked to submit our favorite recipes for our holiday issue. Of course, I used this one, but thought it was such a no-brainer, I didn’t indicate what size packages or cans to use and no one else caught the misstep.

A few hours after the magazine hit the stands, we were fielding calls about these sizes, indicating to us all just how many readers were making our recipes (which was a thrill).

Anyway, it’s a goodie. You can memorize it easily, the ingredients are easy to find, and it’s cheap. So, reluctant bakers, onward to the kitchen. Go forth and be merry.

Advent calendar days

adventcalendar-1Every November 30, you can find me sitting in agony at the dining room table. It’s not a pretty thing as I press my fists into my eye sockets, bite feverishly on my pen cap and, occasionally, moan in pain, something no one hears because no one is home. The day’s task? To write eight mini poems, which serve as scavenger hunt clues for Gabrielle’s advent calendar.

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Flight of the cranberries

IMG_2253It’s a little ironic, given how much I love to cook, but when it comes to preparing the Thanksgiving meal, all the jobs are taken. My nephew Eric has taken over roasting the turkey. My sister-in-law Teresa makes stuffing and dessert and gravy. My mother-in-law makes the potatoes and yams. My sister-in-law Leah brings corn pudding, roasted carrots and green bean casserole.

I’m responsible for making the cranberry sauce, which takes all of 20 minutes. So every year I’m left wondering how I can contribute more than a condiment. Usually, this means I bring some redundant dish that errs on the healthy, green side, but manages to just be in the way. Then, when we come home, I stare at this healthy thing I made and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

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Addicted to cooking vids

So. Who else is with me that mini cooking videos are about the most addictive thing running on Facebook? Over the last few weeks, I haven’t been able to close the damn things down. Everything is melty and gooey because everything either has chocolate or cheese in it. And everything seems like it takes 15 seconds to make.

If you haven’t seen one of these videos, let me explain. They are less-than-a-minute wonders that people have been sharing on their Facebook pages. Each video is broken into ridiculously easy steps for how to make a particular dish. They start with raw ingredients, like say several strips of bacon (bacon is another major player in these videos). Then they’ll show someone cutting the bacon into 2-inch pieces and placing them on a sheet and putting them in the oven until they crisp. Then using the crisp bacon pieces as chips to spoon up guacamole. Voilà, done.

Here’s another example. Start with batter on two slots of a waffle iron. Crack an egg on the third slot, place bacon on the fourth. Grill. Then put Velveeta cheese on each of the waffles. Top one waffle with egg and bacon, then crown with the second waffle to make a sandwich. Then pour maple syrup over the whole thing. Slice in half and voilà.

The most compelling thing about these videos is this final slice or scoop. Everything is steaming and glorious. You can see all the layers intact inside the creation and every one is decadent. Take the “better than sex” brownie video. It starts with spreading cookie dough at the bottom of an 8 x 8-inch pan. Then topping that layer with double-stuffed Oreos, then topping those with brownie mix. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. And then the all-important slice and lift and you see all of that decadence packed on top of itself.

They do this with lasagnas. They’re big into lasagnas. They also like using Pillsbury’s bread in a can. And pull-apart bread is huge. There is a caramel pumpkin pull-apart bread video that will make you weep.

To top it all off, all of these videos are matched with the most hilariously bad music. Part big band, part X-rated adult video soundtrack, the music is as cheesy as the food. And somehow it makes it even better.

Of course, every one of these dishes has about one thousand million calories. And, hello, there is nothing natural about them. In fact, many of the videos start with shots of the packaged food you’ll need to put the recipes together. And as for their practicality, who knows. I was showing my husband a video yesterday and he was aghast. The video involves making spinach-artichoke dip. Then you take a baguette and cut out the crumb inside and stuff the dip inside the bread. Swipe it all with garlic butter and bake for 15 minutes. The shot of them pulling out a slice of that gooey bread, man, it’s good stuff.

But my husband, no, he was not impressed. “First off,” he said, “French bread is crusty and you’re pulling out the soft stuff, so all you’re going to do is cut your mouth. And, when you do bite down, all that dip is just going to shoot all over your hands. It’s stupid.”

I needed to watch the video about six more times before I was willing to admit he might be right.

But these videos, it’s not so much about the actual recipe. It’s good enough just to watch the video because somehow those 15 seconds fill you up in an important way. It’s like learning life hacks for food. It’s not as if you’re ever going to really do them — for example, I’m never going to embed magnets in two small sponges so I can have an easier time cleaning out a narrow vase — but it’s neat to know what you could do if you wanted to.

Anyway, I can definitely suggest checking them out. Just Google BuzzFeed food videos. My only suggestion is you do so on a full stomach.

The no-appetite experiment

rs_634x1024-150420113901-634-kraft-mac-and-cheese.jw.42015So an interesting thing happened last week while I was in the death throes caused by the Worst Cold of the Decade. All at once and with little fuss, I lost my appetite. And by lost, I mean completely. No thoughts of food, no cravings for burgers and fries, no idea what to make for dinner because nothing sounded good. Even more interesting is it isn’t really back.

This is an extreme situation for me because normally my day begins and ends with thoughts of when I can eat again. Dinner planning either starts in the morning or days before if I’m being particularly organized. So intense is my craving for specific meals that I’d say a good 20 percent of my dreams are food dreams, ones in which I am tasting, with remarkable accuracy, cookies and cake and pasta and pizza.

See, even as I list those wonderful treats now, I feel nothing. No hunger pains, no desire. Just a low-grade nausea.

Of course, one would think the upside to zero appetite is weight loss. Because how in the world can you gain or even maintain your weight when you’re not hungry? Not possible, is it? The scale, with whom I reluctantly reacquainted myself yesterday for the first time in a week, said it is though. So possible it was staring at me plain in the face, and it had the number 6 in it. Unless you’re 116 pounds, no weigh-in with the number 6 in it is ever a happy one.

So I reevaluated. It was then I realized I had been eating, but only what I marginally wanted and, because I thought I wasn’t eating otherwise, however much I wanted. That’s how I bought the box of Kraft Dinner or, since I’m American now, macaroni and cheese. I’d been forlornly walking the depressing aisles of IGA, which alone should be testament to the fact that my appetite was gone, and I saw a pack of ramen. Was it still really just 29 cents? I thought of graduate school, how I used to dress it up with tofu and Velveeta cheese, and felt a brief spike in my appetite. Maybe this was the ticket. But then I talked myself out of it.

Only to turn around and see the mac and cheese box glowing from the other side of the aisle. Mac and cheese: the staple dinner when our parents were going out for the night and we were having a babysitter. Mac and cheese: whose cooking directions suggest 2 percent milk and 4 Tbsp of margarine. Mac and cheese: whose neon noodles I used to pierce on my fork and pretend they were logs of a campfire because mac and cheese is just that fun.

So I bought it and cooked it and ate the whole pot of it even though I wasn’t hungry. How was it? For the moment I had it in my mouth and was chewing, pretty good. I mean, maybe the word “good” is a stretch, I’ll say it was decent. It certainly reminded me of being 8. It certainly hadn’t changed and that was nice in an important way.

So I decided to tailor my non-appetite to foods that reminded me intensely of childhood. I didn’t actually go out and buy Jif, but I did have plenty of toast and peanut butter. I made my husband make me perogies with bacon and onions and sour cream and had milk with them. I bought a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar because it’s the closest I can get to Canadian chocolate bars here. One afternoon, I badly wanted to go out and buy a package of Oreos, but didn’t have the energy. I honestly hadn’t thought about dipping Oreos into milk since I was about 19.

All told, my vegetable intake was nil. I subsided entirely on carbs. If I hadn’t felt so terrible, it would have been great.

Luckily, I am considerably better this week. In fact, all that’s left to come back is my appetite. But its absence has made me make some important realizations. I have to say, life is actually a lot less stressful when you’re not hungry. I’m not constantly fighting or bargaining with myself not to eat. There is no feeling of deprivation because the desire is gone. But, at the same time, there is a lot less to look forward to because food is such an intensely pleasurable thing. Hopefully it will come back soon. Until then, the experiment is an interesting one. Next stop: bologna.

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