04 November 2009

Slinging hash: chocolate pudding

Sacha has become very interested in cooking lately. I'm glad to see him taking an interest, but alarmed whenever he pulls his chair in front of the lit stove and shouts, “CAN I HELP TOO?” I'm trying encourage him and keep him alive by making things he can help with without putting himself in mortal peril, that he'll actually want to eat, and don't make too much of a mess.

I'm sure you can guess which of these two of these criteria chocolate pudding satisfies. It's been said thousands of times that corn starch based puddings aren't any harder to make from scratch, and taste far better than a mix, but that doesn't make it any less true.

We've done this together a couple of times lately, and have a system worked out. I measure dry ingredients, and Sacha dumps, something he excels at. Then he helps me add the milk, and we argue about proper stirring technique. I suggest we go in a circle, and Sacha counters that we should go up and down, as if we were churning butter. And that's where it gets a bit messy, and I get a bit exasperated, and pull rank by taking the whisk away from him. 

But he makes up for it by amusing me with his taxonomy of dairy. I often use a combination of 1% milk and cream for pudding. As we pour the milk into the measuring cup, Sacha explains, “This is the milk.” Last time, I finished off the remainder of a pint of cream and opened a quart. “This is cream,” he said, and we poured from the pint. When I opened the quart, he declared, “And this is coffee milk.”

That's my boy.

Chocolate Pudding
adapted from Gourmet

1/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk, preferably whole, but 1 or 2% will work, as will a combination of milk and cream
4 oz chocolate chips

Whisk together cornstarch, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, then boil, whisking, 2 minutes. The mixture will thicken as it cooks. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate chips and vanilla until smooth.

Pour pudding into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until cold, least two hours. If you are anti-pudding skin, press the wrap directly on the pudding.

Serve with whipped cream.

31 October 2009

Barbara Charmaine Goldsteen

My mother-in-law, Barbara Charmaine Goldsteen died early this morning, from complications related to pancreatic cancer. This was her fourth bout with cancer; prior to this, she had survived ovarian cancer three times. Her first two sicknesses occurred before I knew her; when David was a teenager.

No cancer diagnosis is good news, and ovarian cancer is especially deadly. When she was first diagnosed, at the age of 39, her doctor more or less told her to get her affairs in order. And yet, she went on to defy all odds and survive not once, but two more times. She was a medical miracle.

During this last illness, we learned what had become painfully obvious by that point; she had been dealt a genetic short hand, and had a mutated BRCA gene. This last round was the most serious by far; when she was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her prognosis was five months; she outlived that diagnosis by more than a year.

Despite the fact that for a third of her life she had an uncomfortably intimate acquaintance with this disease, she never allowed cancer to define her. She had a remarkable capacity for staring down her illness and saying, "Fuck you, cancer." She was aggressive and fearless in her treatment protocol, and refusing to take no for an answer. And while cancer ultimately killed her, she did not ever allow it to sap her of her will to live. She came to New York for treatments twice a month for a better part of the year, and while she was in town, and suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, she did not take to her sickbed, but continued to explore the city to the best of her ability, seeing shows, and visiting with family and friends.

For a brief while, her doctor was able to put the pancreatic cancer into remission, although it ultimately metastasized to the point where it was like chasing mercury. A few weeks ago, when she took ill for what would be the final time, she told a friend that she did not want anyone to pity her, because by her reckoning, she should have died twenty years ago. She had not expected to live long enough to see her children grown and married, let alone meet eight grandchildren, and die knowing a ninth was on its way.

And yet, although I am grateful that my children had the opportunity to know her for as long as they did, I can't help but feel cheated, because we always want more than we get, and I had hoped she would live to see her grandchildren marry as well.

30 October 2009

Executive decisions

After some wavering, dithering and prevaricating, I have decided to participate in NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. It rolls off the tongue awkwardly, no? I am going to do my best to post something every day in November, which will be no small undertaking for me. I've stockpiled a few things, and I hope that is not considered cheating. Some items will be short, and a few may be lame, but I'll try my best to avoid that. Will I make it? I have no idea, but I'll do my best. 

I am also changing my name. As of November 1, I am retiring Hausfrau. Hausfrau is an awesome blog name, and I can't think of anything that suits this blog better.

One of the things I'll miss most about Hausfrau, and in part why I chose it, is that in addition to a domestic vocation, it is also a porn name, in the sexy librarian mold, and I thought that was a good joke. One of the things I've learned via Google Analytics is that there are a lot of people trolling the Internet looking for hausfraus having sex. Sometimes they stumble across my site via keywords including some combination the two, including my favorite: “anal hausfrau blogspot”. You would think anyone looking for such footage would quickly navigate away from this site disappointed, but you would be wrong. Mr or Ms Anal Hausfrau Blogspot stayed to browse awhile. Maybe they found a recipe, or just related, because they are going through the exact same thing with their kids. Whatever they got, thanks for reading.    

As much as I like it, hausfrau is also a very popular name, and there are a lot of us out there. For awhile, I've toyed with coming up with something more unconventional. A few weeks ago, I hit upon it.

I will tell you what it is on November 1.

28 October 2009

slinging hash: garlic soup

In an exquisite feat of timing, my children fell ill this week in highly choreographed fashion. Gabriel went first, spiking a fever on Sunday evening. Sarah came home early from school on Monday, and Sacha woke up sick in the middle of the night. I thought this most considerate of them, as it means we'll get this round over with quickly, whereas if they'd staggered their sickness, I would be housebound for the better part of a week.

We had a very pleasant day, in part because the kids were too sick to be demanding, and spent the time alternating between napping and sitting in front of the television in a stupor. I did get breathed and coughed on a lot, however, which left me wondering how many days it will be until I fall ill.

And so when it came time to prepare dinner, I thought of garlic soup. I started making garlic soup years ago, inspired by a recipe in John Thorne's excellent Outlaw Cook. Research is beginning to confirm the folk wisdom that garlic may help ward off colds. I knew my kids would hate it, but as they had no appetite, I didn't have to worry about feeding them, so why not try to stack the odds against getting sick in my favor?

Garlic soup is quick and easy. You boil garlic in water, mash the garlic into a paste and return to the water, which is then enriched with eggs. Boiling the garlic tames its pungency into something delicate, while the eggs give the soup body. In all, it is a great demonstration of one of the most awesome things about soup, in that you can make something delicious from practically nothing.

Garlic Soup
serves 4

I serve this with bread or croutons, but plain boiled rice would also work.

6 cups water
12 cloves of garlic, peeled
bay leaf
a few sage leaves or sprigs of thyme, optional
salt and pepper
6 eggs
a few slices of crusty bread
1-2 tablespoons olive oil

Bring the water, garlic, bay leaf, herbs and a teaspoon of salt to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, turn it down to a simmer and cook until the garlic softens, 15-20 minutes. Remove garlic and mash to a paste in a mortar, or with the flat of a knife. Return garlic to the pot.

Beat the eggs in a bowl, and slowly add to this a ladle-full of the cooking liquid, whisking constantly. Whisk the eggs into the pot and stir over very low heat. If the soup comes to a boil, the eggs will curdle, which is not a tragedy. Adjust seasoning.

Meanwhile, broil or toast the bread, and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place in the bottom of soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the bread, garnish with additional herbs and a drizzle of olive oil, or not.

Serve immediately.

22 October 2009

Parenting in ALL CAPS

It is hard to comprehend, as you cradle your newborn in your arms, how much this child will annoy and anger you someday. This is the flip side of love; the ones we adore the most are also the ones most skilled at driving us crazy, sometimes in equal measure.

Spanking has been out for some time, but now, the tide is turning against yelling at our children. I take this with mixed emotions, as yelling is an inevitable, and necessary part of the job.  

In my better moments, my study of mindfulness practices pay dividends. I was talking with a friend about meditation recently, and quipped that one of the greatest benefits I have derived from my yoga practice is to yell at my children with far greater precision. What I meant is that I've become better at catching myself on the verge of an explosion, and deciding how to engage. Recently, I've used a trick I learned from Elena Brower, of lowering my chin to my chest, which changes the pattern of your heartbeat, and I've found it really works. As a result, when I do yell, I am more likely to be in control my anger rather than allowing it to control me.

In my lesser moments though, I've resorted to stomping, gritting my teeth, growling, and wrist squeezing. Once, when Sarah was small, I took a page from my cat, and hissed at her. It was not my proudest moment, but it got her attention.

I learned a good trick for anger management from Sarah. She was about three, and we were beginning to teach her to identify her emotions, and express anger verbally rather than physically. In true sanctimonious parent fashion, "Use your words," was a constant refrain. One day when she was angry about something, she clenched her fists and scrunched her face, and shouted, "I WANT TO HIT!"

We were so proud.

So sometimes when I'm close to losing it, I'll say, "I am really angry right now, so angry that I want to spank you."

What do you do to manage your temper?

21 October 2009

slinging hash: potato gratin

Although there are thousands of ways to cook them, I am not very imaginative when it comes to potatoes. If I'm serving chicken, I make mashed potatoes; with beef, it's roasted or baked potatoes.

When I'm feeling frisky I switch it up by serving mashed potatoes with beef, and vice versa. Last Friday night, I made lamb, and by my logic, it called for an entirely different potato preparation. (If you're wondering, how about rice?, I have one word for you: Sacha. Rice doesn't always vacuum well, and it takes a long time to pick those grains up from the rug.)

And so I remembered potato gratin, and as I always do when I make one, I wondered, why don't I make this more often? Potato gratin is easy and delicious, and coming in somewhere between roasted and mashed, is the perfect fence straddler.

And for a slatternly cook like myself, a gratin has the advantage of coming together more by method than recipe. It is flexible and forgiving. If you have a lot of time — ha! — you can cook it longer on a lower heat. If you're in a hurry, you can raise the temperature, cook it at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time. You can make it with milk, half and half, or cream. Add garlic, or not, though I highly recommend it as there are few things that smell more heavenly than garlic warmed in milk. It is fashionable in the food pages to say that with a salad, potato gratin would make a great light supper, but in reality, I wouldn't bother with the salad. I'd be happy eating it all by itself.

Potato Gratin
serves 4-5
You can easily increase this; my general rule is one fewer potato than the number of people you are serving. 

4-5 medium potatoes
2-3 cloves of garlic
whole milk, half and half or cream
salt and pepper
butter, for greasing dish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.

Scrub the potatoes, and peel them or not, according to your mood and their level of filth. Slice potatoes about 1/8 inch thick.

Slice the garlic into thin slivers.

Butter an 8" square or gratin dish. Place a layer of potatoes on the bottom of the dish, scatter a few slivers of garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat with remaining potatoes and garlic. Slowly pour in milk, half and half or cream to reach the top layer of potatoes, leaving them exposed. Gently press the potatoes down to submerge them a bit; you don't want the potatoes to be completely covered, as they will bake down as they cook.

Bake 40-60 minutes, checking after 40 minutes. Gratin is done when the top layer is nicely browned, and potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife.

19 October 2009

Fighting words

My children have all been great dumpers and tossers of things. The basic recipe goes something like: upend one tin of blocks, add a generous amount of Legos, and a smattering of cars. Using your hands, mix well until ingredients are incorporated, and then repeat vigorously, until items are spread to the far corners of the house.

Sacha is by far, my most talented child in this respect, and I am waiting patiently for him to outgrow this phase.

In the meantime, because I am a control freak have a low threshold for chaos, I spend a good amount of time sorting and returning things to their rightful places. This kind of routine busing of the house is so automatic to me that I do it unthinkingly, and without complaint.

The thing I cannot abide, however, is the flinging. Sacha walks in, sees pillows and blankets neatly arranged on the upholstery, and then methodically tosses everything to the floor. He stops to assess his work, and moves on to the den to do it again.

It is how my house goes, in under sixty seconds, from this:

to this:


It would be one thing if this happened in the course of play – say, making a fort – but the flinging appears to be an exercise in itself. More often than not, once the flinging is done, so is Sacha. His work is so deliberate that it is hard for me not to take it personally. It's as if he is certain that my insistence on placing pillows on the furniture is wrongheaded, and if he rearranges things often enough, eventually I will come to agree. 

Or so I thought, until I walked in to the living room last weekend to find Sacha wrestling with a brown pillow, shouting, “YOU'RE GOING DOWN PILLOW, YOU'RE GOING DOWN!”

This gave me a different perspective. In hindsight, we often realize our tendency to personalize things that have nothing to do with us. I thought the flinging was about me, but now, I saw that it was the pillows, not me, that are Sacha's nemesis.

I'd like to say that this insight gave me new found tolerance for Sacha's idiosyncrisy, but that would be a baldfaced lie. It's still extremely annoying.

15 October 2009

The heat game

Today is an auspicious day in the Goldsteen household. Today is the day we turned on the heat.

When we moved to this house almost three years ago, we experienced a severe case of utility sticker shock. We expected our utility bill to roughly double. We thought this was a reasonable assumption, because our new house is roughly one-third larger than our previous house. You can imagine our surprise that first winter when the utilities bill was closer to three times as much as we had previously paid. I think this had something to do with an unfortunate confluence of rising natural gas prices, and an older, and thus more inefficient house.

And now, every year, when the weather turns cold, when I look through my lovely old windows, with their rippling pains of glass, I no longer appreciate their beauty, and the way they frame the views. All I can see is THEY ARE COSTING ME A FUCKING FORTUNE. I do, however, appreciate the irony in the fact that we cannot yet afford to replace them.

David has gone on aggressive fact-finding missions, searching out and sealing any obvious leaks, which has shaved approximately ten dollars from our average bill.

And thus, we began to play the heat game.

The heat game is familiar to many homeowners. There are two primary aspects; How Low Can You Go, and How Long Can You Wait?

How Low Can You Go is the less challenging aspect of the game; for amateurs, if you will. My daytime threshold is sixty-seven degrees. Sixty-eight degrees is more comfortable to me, but it's nothing that a sweater, a few additional trips up and down the stairs a little extra vacuuming won't cure. At night, we go down to sixty-four degrees, and we are thinking that perhaps this year, we may try to beat this personal best, and go to sixty-three, or maybe even sixty-two.

Once you agree to play How Long Can You Wait, you have made it to the pros. You start by assigning an arbitrary date before which you will not turn on the heat, NO MATTER WHAT.

And then, you wait.

Our date is October 15, and it has given me a new appreciation as to how cold sixty degrees really is without benefit of sunlight. Sixty degrees is cold enough that I have been wearing two sweaters, a scarf, and a hat indoors. If it didn't impair my fine motor skills so much, I would opt for gloves as well. I look fairly ridiculous, but no less so than my friend Sharon, who equips herself for the heat game by creating a DIY Snuggie made from a blanket she wraps taut around her body as one does post-shower, so that she ends up looking like a ragtag Bedouin.

The heat game means I run the risk of becoming dangerously over caffeinated, because instead of one or two cups of coffee a day, I make cup after cup, so as not to be without a warm mug in my hands. Hot beverages have the added bonus of providing temporary relief to the tip of my frozen nose.

The heat game is very good for certain aspects of housekeeping. The floors are very clean, because vacuuming and mopping are good aerobic activities. Bathroom cleaning ranks low, because while scrubbing the tub is effective for raising body temperature, coming into contact with the water necessary for rinsing would negate its aerobic effect.

I felt a little guilty this year because I cheated when I brought a space heater down from the attic on Monday. The kids were off from school, and while it is one thing to subject myself to such deprivations, it seemed a mercy not to inflict suffering on my children unnecessarily. This gave me the added bonus of getting to watch my children duke it out fighting for primacy in front of the heater, in a true depression-style amusement.

This morning when we awoke, David and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement. We had endured long enough, and it was indeed time. On my way out to take the kids to school, I flicked the switch on the thermostat, and when I arrived home, I was greeted by the metallic smell of water moving blessedly through the radiators.

Yet even as my muscles began to loosen, and my teeth unclench, and my fingers thaw, I found myself wondering, if perhaps next year, we could hold out just a few days longer.

Such is the perverse logic of the heat game. 

14 October 2009

slinging hash: corn chowder

I don't know what my children have against soup. Aside from miso or the occasional bowl of chicken noodle, the mere suggestion of soup leaves them mortally offended. But because hope springs eternal, I am thick-headed, and I just like making soup,  I persevere.

Last week I had a hankering for corn chowder when a recipe for Cheddar Corn Chowder in the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook caught my eye. I began to get my hopes up. My children like corn; they like potatoes. Maybe this will be the soup that wins them over. And that was foolish of me, because in child rearing, as with many human pursuits, logic does not prevail.

I would make a terrible recipe tester, because I am incapable of following a recipe to the letter. Except when it comes to baking, for me, a recipe is more of an idea than a blueprint. You should not necessarily trust me if I tell you I made something from so-and-so's book and it was awful, because in reality, I am not that good at following the directions. But this is the beauty of soup; it is easy, and takes well to improvisation. You saute some aromatics, add vegetables, liquid, herbs, spices, or other flavorings, and simmer away. 

When my children asked what was for dinner, and I brightly replied, "Corn chowder!" I was met with the predictable mix of skepticism and disdain, although Sacha won a prize for originality when he shook his head and said, "I don't like corn showers."

Did they eat it? Of course not. But seeing as David and I enjoyed it, and I got a week's worth of lunches for about 45 minutes of effort, it was worth it.

Corn Chowder
serves 6-8

In keeping with my improvisatory nature, this recipe, and the directions are a little loose. I'm sorry if it drives you crazy. But soup is very forgiving, and subject to individual taste. Measurements for half and half and cheese are approximate; truthfully, I don't pay that close attention. My motto is start with less, add more as you go. You can always add more of something, but you can't take it away.

Ina Garten's recipe calls for bacon. As Jews, we are generally not people of the pig, so I omitted it. But since little is not improved by bacon, you can saute some and serve as a garnish. 

People often think you need stock to make a decent soup, which is not true. Stock gives soup a different quality, but is not at all necessary; most of the time, I use water. When I use stock, I like Better Than Bouillon. I don't reconstitute it before using, but instead, stir the paste into the onions, and then add water.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 chopped yellow onions
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon tumeric
3 cups (2-3 medium sized) potatoes, cut in medium-dice
6 cups chicken stock or water
2 bags of frozen corn kernels
1/2-1 cup half and half
8 ounces (approximately 2 cups) grated cheddar or cheddar jack cheese, optional

Heat butter and olive oil in a stockpot or saute pan on medium high heat.

Add onions, salt and pepper, and saute until onions are translucent.

[True confession: often, I walk away at this point, to put in a load of laundry, or some such, and come back to find my onions not quite burnt, but well past translucent. C'est la vie; it still tastes good.]

Add water or stock, and potatoes, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are tender. How long this takes will depend on how small you cut your potatoes. When the potatoes are tender, mash some against the side of the pot, and incorporate, to add body to the soup.

Add corn, half and half and cheese, if using. Cook about five minutes more, until cheese is melted.

Adjust seasoning before serving.

12 October 2009

Playing God

Dear Thomas and Amanda Stansel,

I am sorry you had such difficulty conceiving children. I can only imagine what heartache that would bring, as I was fortunate enough to conceive my children effortlessly with no intervention. I know this is a blessing.

It is understandable that you would turn to a fertility specialist in order to realize your dreams of parenthood. Modern medicine has made many things possible that would have been inconceivable a few generations ago. The desire for children is a powerful, biological force, and in a perfect world, everyone who wanted to have children would conceive them effortlessly. Perhaps you were thrilled that your dreams of a large family were going to come true when your doctor informed you that intrauterine insemination was successful, and you were carrying not one, but six, embryos.

You lost my empathy when I learned that you disregarded your doctor's advice to selectively reduce the number of embryos to help increase your chances for a healthy outcome, and decided to play some very large odds, by bringing six babies into the world. I understand that in keeping with your religious convictions, you consider the notion of selective reduction to be tantamount to abortion, something which, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you could not abide. I am glad you consulted not only with a reduction specialist, but with church elders, to help you arrive at what must have no doubt been a difficult decision to forge ahead with your pregnancy.

It must have been harrowing to deliver your sextuplets fourteen weeks early, and I imagine you were despondent to learn that they had a 60 to 65 percent chance of survival, and a one-hundred percent chance of problems. Your babies were born so early that hospital protocol dictated that no medical care be given unless specifically requested by the parents.

And this is where your logic falls apart, and you made what turned out to be a literally fatal error, when you decided that despite all evidence to the contrary, you would ignore medical statistics, because "God doesn't work in statistics."?

Do you not see that you were playing God all along? That perhaps your difficulty conceiving was God's way of telling you that it was not his plan for you to conceive biological offspring. Perhaps he had something else in mind for you, which, while not what you intended, may have led you to a rich, fulfilling life.

Was it worth it to lose three of your six newborns to gruesome deaths resulting from complications associated with a high-risk pregnancy, and premature birth? Was becoming a parent so important to you that you will treasure the privilege of knowing that one of your newborns died when blood seeped into his lungs via an open heart valve, while another developed an infection in the trachea that inflated his lungs so much that they crowded out his heart? Are you glad to be making daily trips to the neonatal intensive care unit to visit your three remaining infants, one of whom is experiencing kidney failure, and is hovering on the precipice of death?

In life, everyone suffers, and all parents will make their children miserable, hopefully unwittingly, and for as brief a period as possible. Can you live with the fact that you have played such an active role as the architects of your children's suffering? Is it lost on you that had you made the decision to selectively reduce at the beginning of the pregnancy, you might now be the parents of healthy twins, or triplets? At this point, your best outcome is two children with lifelong developmental and neurological issues. Is all the suffering you have selfishly unleashed because you could not see any further than your desire for biological offspring worth it?

07 October 2009

slinging hash: bloody mary

I have always had a fondness for the breakfast cocktail. I wouldn't want to make a habit of it, but sometimes, on special occasions, it can be just the thing. Champagne cocktails are lovely, as is the Ramos Gin Fizz. But I have an especially soft spot for the Bloody Mary, which got David and myself through some fraught family gatherings early in our marriage. In keeping with this tradition, on the mornings of both Gabriel's and Sacha's brit milot, when extra fortification seemed like a good idea, we started the day with a Bloody Mary, our own breakfast of champions.

My affection for the Bloody Mary may be in part why Prune is one of my favorite restaurants, as their brunch menu is not only delicious, but features no less than ten different Bloody Marys, including my personal favorite, the Danish, made with aquavit and garnished with a marinated white anchovy.

A gussied-up Bloody Mary is a nice treat, but the original formula needs no tampering. Once, while mixing up a few drinks, I accidentally added two shots of vodka to once glass, and discovered that extra vodka makes a Bloody Mary even more delicious.

One of the hallmarks of the drink is a bit of heat, usually in the form of Tabasco sauce. I'm not partial to Tabasco, which to me tastes too much of vinegar, and chemicals. And so, I've experimented with different brands of hot sauce, as well as cayenne pepper, wasabi powder, and my current favorite, sriracha sauce.

I have to say, I like this current incarnation quite a lot.

Bloody Mary
Makes one drink

2 ounces vodka
6 ounces tomato juice
juice of 1/2 lemon
generous pinch of celery salt
pinch of kosher salt
dash of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
squirt of sriracha sauce

Stir all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker or glass. Serve over ice, or not.

06 October 2009

Hesistatingly offered free unsolitcited advice!

When it comes to clinical depression, I am a lifer. Because I have had more than three episodes of major depression, the likelihood of me slipping into this state again is too strong to risk going without medication. So Depression is a Dilemma for Women in Pregnancy, in today's Science Times, caught my attention.

I cannot live without antidepressants, pregnant or not. I suffered crushing postpartum episodes after the birth of my first two children, because I stupidly, and against my doctor's advice, tapered my medication back to a minimal dose during these pregnancies. Because I was feeling great throughout the pregnancies, I didn't want to expose my developing babies to more medication than was necessary. The result was what my psychiatrist called double-depression; ie, someone with a predisposition toward depression + postpartum hormonal surges = initial elation followed by an ENORMOUS crash.

When I was pregnant with Sacha, in consultation with my doctors, we decided to keep my medicine at my therapeutic dose. In my third trimester my psychiatrist considered lowering the dosage during the last few weeks of the pregnancy and immediately increasing it back to my therapeutic level upon giving birth, because there were some slight risks to the baby. Ultimately, we decided that the risks to the baby were small, and not serious enough, compared with the possibility of another postpartum episode, to warrant tapering down my medication.

In part because of this decision, Sacha ended up spending sixteen days in the NICU. He was a pokey nurser, but we brought him home from the hospital, unconcerned, two days after he was born, as I'd breast fed two children and was confident we'd get the hang of it. When he was seen by our pediatrician for his first newborn well visit, Sacha had lost almost 10% of his birth weight, and we were instructed to keep an eye on him for any changes in behavior, and return the next day for a weight check.

That evening, we did indeed see changes in his behavior. He was sleeping an alarming amount, even for a newborn, had no suck, refused a bottle, and kept falling asleep at my breast when I attempted to nurse him. When we were reduced to pumping breast milk and administering it via syringe, we called the doctor, who instructed us to take his temperature and call him back. Thus began twenty minutes of shaking down the thermometer, and repeatedly attempting, and failing, to get a reading.

When our doctor called to see why we hadn't called him back I replied, "The thermometer is not working." In our postpartum haze, it had not occurred to us it was our baby, not the the thermometer, that was not working properly.  

And thus began a rush to the hospital, where he was ultimately diagnosed with neonatal serotonin syndrome, and reflux.

I don't know if it was because I was on a higher dose of medication during the third pregnancy, or because Sacha was  particularly sensitive to the SSRI's, but in effect, the medication had a sedating affect on him, and when he was born, he did not understand that he was no longer in utero and had to begin to take on life-sustaining functions for himself. As we joked at the time, he was born depressed, just like his mother!

And yet, despite what was unquestionably a harrowing ordeal, I do not regret my decision to take antidepressants during my pregnancy, because it was absolutely essential for my health. I was already a mother of two, and my experience of being raised by two depressed parents had given me painful proof that a child's well being is intimately tied to their parent's physical and mental health. As my wise therapist once said, a broken arm heals more quickly than emotional scars. 

Through the initially terrifying days, when we had NO IDEA what was wrong with our child, and whether he was he going to be okay — although it was stressful, I was able to function because for the first time ever after giving birth, I was not depressed. This is meant I was able to cope with a crisis, and be available and present for my family. While I was scared, and worried, and did my fair share of crying in those early hospital days, I did not blame myself up for having hurt my baby. I understood that in the face of all available information, and in consultation with my doctors and husband, we made what we thought was the best possible decision, and were now dealing with the consequences. And that is the difference between a depressed mother, and a healthy one. 

I've no idea if it would have made any difference, but in hindsight, I do wish I had lowered my dosage during those last few weeks of my pregnancy and increased it upon giving birth. I regret we had to go through what we did, but not my decision.

And as this blog can attest, Sacha is a now a healthy, ball-busting, 3-1/2 year old.

03 October 2009

Unrequited love

I considered many possible titles for this post. Foiled? So Close but yet so far? For the love of the Arctic Monkeys? But perhaps the sentiment that best sums it up is, Fucking Philadelphia.

David has always had an irrational hatred of Philadelphia. And while I've never spent an enormous amount of time there, it's always stuck me as a perfectly lovely place. David's visceral response stems from bad childhood associations with some crazy relations who hailed from the city.

David and I love the Arctic Monkeys so much that David, a grown man of 40, joined their fan club, which is how we were able to purchase tickets over the summer during the pre-sale. New York sold out too quickly, so we settled for Philadelphia. That David was willing to travel there to see them says a great deal about our allegiance to this band.

Although the contents of our iPods are very different, David and I respect each other's musical taste. It is what allows me to roll my eyes as he yet again declares his love of the Dirtbombs, and the fact that Mick Collins is a demigod, or, as happened earlier this week, for me to smile bemusedly when, moments after mentioning to a friend while listening to a track from Portishead's Dummy, that it is one of my favorite records, David, who was not even privy to this conversation, turned to me and said, "I actively dislike this music."


The Kinks, Elvis Costello and more recently, the Arctic Monkeys, are some of the places where David and I find common ground. And as young lovers make a past time of time cataloging one another's many excellent qualities, so do we recount the many virtues of our latest crush. If you were to spend any amount of time with me, and I intuited that you were interested in music, eventually I would find a way to bring the conversation around to the awesomeness of the Arctic Monkeys. Once I get going, I can be quite insufferable.

Every time I hear them, I can't help but marvel at how such a young band can be so good. I can, and sometimes do, listen to them almost exclusively for weeks on end without getting bored. The Arctic Monkeys are not a band with a kernel of promise who had to grow into itself. They sprung from Sheffield, fully formed, and three records later, are only getting better. Whenever I hear them, my pulse quickens, and I sometimes have to restrain the urge to jump up and down, or bark like a dog with excitement.

Their musicianship is excellent, and they have a knack for compelling melodies. They rock hard.

But perhaps what I love best about them is their lyrical wit. They always come up with clever and unexpected, turns of phrase:

They are masters of the biting take down:
Presuming all things are equal who'd want to be men of the people, when there's people like you.

And as I've said before, never have I heard a bunch of lads be more articulate about how men are led about by their dicks:
You should have racing stripes the way you keep me in pursuit/ You sharpen the heel of your boot and you press it in my chest/ And you make me wheeze/ Then to my knees you do promote me.

I don't know if it's just that everything sounds better in British, or Alex Turner's excellent delivery, but their lyrics always strike me as wise beyond their years. If I were half as clever and insightful in my early twenties, I was doing pretty well.

This show was to be the highlight of my admittedly dull social season.

And so it was that we set out, tired, but excited, on Wednesday evening. Doors opened at eight, and we assumed that meant the band would start at ten, so we asked our sitter to arrive at 7.30. That turned out to be exceptionally dumb of us, but we figured it would allow us to miss rush hour traffic, and have dinner with the kids, thus having a comeback ready for when Sarah inevitably expressed her outrage that we were going out again? Because twice a month is really excessive.

We did not get on the road until close to 8, which was a foolish mistake, but as for the rest of the evening, I blame Google, and Philadelphia. Google Maps directions SUCKED. They weren't just bad, they were WRONG. Google instructed us to go east on NJ Route 38, when we should have gone west, and although David initially questioned whether that could be right, we went with it, and drove  FIFTEEN minutes, searching for Admiral Fucking Wilson Boulevard, until we rechecked GPS via Google on my phone, and realized we had to turn around.

By the time we arrived in Philadelphia, we were cutting it very close indeed. We looked for the North 7th Street exit, only to find it DID NOT EXIST. And so we took the 9th Street exit and attempted to circle back around. This was deceptively difficult, because while the city appears to be laid out like a grid, the street numbers we were looking for continually eluded us. After riding around the block once, we asked a cab driver for help, and he provided a long and thorough lesson on the city's geography, during which we learned that Seventh Street was closed for construction, and we should take Fifth Street instead. We thanked him, and headed back in search of  Fifth Street. And so we counted down the street numbers in their predictable order: nine, eight, seven, six...four. This sort of thing happened more times than I care to count.

As we took one wrong turn after another, David grew more anxious, while I was uncharacteristically relaxed, because I figured, it's rock'n'roll, and these things are never punctual, and maybe we'll miss part of the show, but surely not the whole thing.

And so it was that we finally arrived at 10.30, rushed into the concert venue excitedly, handed our tickets to the bouncer, who, as he ripped them, announced, "This is the last song."


It was indeed the last song, and our timing was so impeccably bad that we only heard a few bars, not even enough to recognize what they closed with, before the house lights came up.

 "What time did they go on?" we asked the bouncers.


Despite my immense disappointment, knowing that they started so early only made me respect the band even more, for I read into this perhaps meaningless bit of information that they were either morning people, like myself, or liked to knock off work early so as to fit in as much drinking and shagging as possible.

I suppose I could have found Alex Turner and offered him my body in exchange for a few more songs, but then David would have had to kill him, and the Arctic Monkeys could no longer make music.

So in reality, our only options were to laugh, or have a rip roaring fight in which we berated ourselves for our stupidity.

David asked me, "Do you want a t-shirt?

"Oh, yes, I do!"

Never mind that if you include the cost of gas, sitter, and parking, that it was one very expensive t-shirt. It allows me the privilege, which I will cherish forever, of being able to say I went to see the Arctic Monkeys, and all I got was a lousy t-shirt.

Although we were despondent, I was oddly calm throughout the evening and for this, I have John Friend to thank, as one of the most important lessons I have learned from Anusara Yoga is a very simple, obvious truth that often eludes us: look for the good.

And so, although we would have both much rather seen the Arctic Monkeys, it was nice nonetheless to spend several hours alone conversing with my husband, and be reminded yet again that not only do I love this man, but I also like him a whole lot.

Even as events were unfolding, the act of blogging is now so thoroughly ingrained in me that everything is material, and I could not help but think, despite my disappointment, this will make a really good story.

And, thanks to my new t-shirt, I had no trouble deciding what to wear on Thursday.

I also learned a few practical things from this endeavor.

David should never again drive at night without his glasses.
Perhaps we should invest in a GPS device.
Maybe there is a Philadelphia curse?  

Fucking Philadelphia.

29 September 2009

I don't know

Every parent will tell you that getting one's children to take no for an answer is one of the more frustrating parts of this job. Equally exasperating, but less talked about, is the acceptance of I don't know.

I think this has something to do with the perception of parental omnipotence, which is something I'd like to preserve for as long as possible. On the other hand, I don't want to lie to my children, because lacking the ability to think quickly on my feet, I am a lousy liar, but also because I want to preserve the sacred bond of trust my children place in me.

This dilemma leads to many conversations like this one I had with Sarah over the weekend.

"When is Sean's birthday?" she asked.
"I don't know." I replied.
"Is it April 10?"
"I know it's near your birthday, but I'm not certain exactly when it is."
"Is it April 5?"
"Sarah, when I tell you I don't know when it is, it's not because I'm hiding anything from you. It's  because I truly don't know the answer to your question. Why don't we just ask him the next time we see him?"
"Do you think it's at the end of the month?"

This type of thing could go on for a while, and sometimes it does. For me, it captures perfectly the nature of this job, and perhaps, of life itself. Namely, the ability to be adorable, comic and exasperating in equal measures, while simultaneously, utterly defying logic.

23 September 2009

slinging hash: shortbread

I don't know if it is because my children are getting older, or I'm just paying better attention, but this year it struck me in an altogether new way how stressful the beginning of the school year is. Between whipping the kids back in to shape and figuring out everyone's schedules, it is like trying to fit together the pieces of an extremely complicated three dimensional Chinese puzzle, and it has me longing for the simpler days of summer.

But school is underway, and my clientele have demanded that I put my apron back on. Because I aim to provide the best customer service possible, that means the cookies are coming. I really don't have a lot of time or energy for weekday baking, so I turn to shortbread. They are as close to a no-brainer as possible; they come together quickly, with very few ingredients.

But my favorite thing about shortbread, aside from its simplicity and utter deliciousness, is that once you have the basic formula down, it is infinitely variable. This means you can perform all sorts of kitchen sorcery, and trick your children into thinking you are making a different, carefully crafted batch of cookies every week. They catch on eventually, but you can have a good run of it.

My favorite way to make shortbread is with instant espresso powder and chocolate chips, and that is how I prepared them for the first week of school. Predictably, Sarah issued one of her proclamations, heretofore unbeknownst to me, that she finds this particular shortbread disgusting — I believe her exact words were they hurt her throat. This was something of a surprise to me as she has happily eaten these for years, but I took it as a sign of the dreaded cookie fatigue. 

Because I am a good listener, this week, I made plain butter shortbread, and it was really no surprise to hear my kids complain about this. 

Gabriel: "They're so boring."
Sarah: "Why didn't you make the coffee ones again? Plain ones taste like nothing."
Sacha: "Cookies!"

Sometimes, a mother can't win, and in the best of circumstances, one's children have no idea how good they have it, and that is how it should be.

Espresso chocolate chip shortbread
adapted from Dorie Greenspan and Melissa Clark

The basic formula for shortbread is 2 sticks of butter, 2/3 cup sugar, 2 cups flour. I like confectioners' sugar because it gives the cookies a smoother, more tender crumb, but granulated sugar works equally well. To make plain butter shortbread, omit the espresso and chocolate chips. To this basic formula, you can add grated citrus zest (about 1-1/2 teaspoons), a spice or seed (up to one teaspoon), a tablespoon of chopped rosemary or lavender, the seeds of a vanilla bean, and so on, and so forth. 

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
generous pinch of salt
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Beat the butter and confectioners' sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, on medium speed until very smooth.
2. Add the espresso powder, mix until incorporated.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low, add flour, and mix until just incorporated. Fold in the chocolate.
4. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the dough to a gallon-size zipper-lock plastic bag. Leave the top of the bag open, and use a rolling pin to roll the dough into an approximately 9 x 10 1/2 inch, 1/4 inch thick rectangle. The dough may crease a bit. Smooth it out as you go if this sort of thing bothers you. Otherwise, don't worry too much about it. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible, and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
5. When ready to bake, position oven racks on second and fourth notches, and preheat to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
6. Slit open the plastic bag and use a knife to cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch squares and transfer to baking sheets.
6. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. The shortbread should be pale, rather than golden. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool.

16 September 2009

slinging hash: coconut macaroons with chocolate ganache

Last spring as I was planning the menu for my Passover seder, it occurred to me that I did not want to make yet another flourless chocolate cake. Delicious as they are, I was bored of them, and wanted to my menu to be a bit less predictable.

I happened to be reading A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg's lovely book. Wizenberg's blog Orangette, is a constant source of inspiration to me. And so I turned to her recipe for macaroons, that mainstay of the seder dessert plate. It had never occurred to me to make macaroons; when I think of them, they come out of a vacuum sealed can, and taste like sweetened sawdust.

In addition to being extremely easy to make, oh my, were they good, like the juiciest, most tender and sublime Mounds bar.

I filed the recipe away for next year, but at the end of the summer, I was going to have my friend Nicole and her fiance over for dinner, and Nicole is on a gluten and dairy free diet. As a cook, I love the challenge of satisfying people's dietary requirements and still making a delicious meal. Dessert was especially challenging. Poached fruit would have been easy and obvious but it wasn't striking my fancy. And then I realized that if if I left some macaroons naked, they would still be mighty tasty, and fit the bill.

And so I made them, and then Nicole had to cancel, and poor me, I was left with a dozen macaroons all to myself. It only took me a few days to finish them.

Since then I have not been able to stop making these, and it is really annoying my children, not to mention violating my two out of three rule on purely selfish grounds. I guess that is the nature of obsession.

As far as Sarah is concerned, I've already slacked off on baking for far too long. But she's a trooper, and let me know that she while she will eat macaroons under duress, they are not her favorite. Sacha, consistent with his approach to baked goods, eats the frosting, leaving behind its mutilated carcass. My macaroon obsession is most unfair to Gabriel though, because he is allergic to egg whites, cannot even partake.

I made these at the end of summer vacation for a party at the pool, and as I passed them around the table to a group of adults, the reaction was much like that which I remember from my college days, when you passed around a bong full of really good weed. And that is just about the best response a cook can hope for.

Coconut Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache
Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

3 cups lightly packed sweetened coconut
3/4 cup sugar
5 large egg whites
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt

4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I like Lindt Excellence Intense Dark 70%)
1/2 cup heavy cream

Place the coconut, sugar and egg whites in a heavy 2- to 3-quart saucepan and stir well. Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently for 10 minutes. The mixture will start off looking very creamy, and as it dries out, you will be able to see individual flakes of coconut. Stop cooking when it is still sticky and moist, not dry. If the coconut mixture begins to brown in spots, turn the heat down a bit and stir more frequently.

Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla and salt. Spread the mixture in a pie plate and refrigerate until cool enough to handle, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.

Use your hands to firmly pack the coconut mixture into small domes, about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, spacing evenly on the baking sheet.

Bake until evenly golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely on the pan on a wire rack.

To make ganache, put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan or the microwave until it is steaming, but not boiling. If you do this in the microwave, cooking in 20 second bursts. It should not take more than 45 seconds on high power. Pour the cream over the chocolate, let sit for 1 minute, and then stir until smooth.

Dip each macaroon into the ganache and lay back on the baking sheet. Refrigerate until ganache sets, at least 2 hours.

Yield: 14-18 macaroons

13 September 2009

Post #105, in which I discover that I am a hypocrite

We made a deal with Sarah that when she had $1000 in her savings account, we would allow her to withdraw money and purchase something significant, subject to parental approval. She reached her goal last spring, and immediately asked for an iPhone.


After being shot down so quickly, she deliberated for a long time. Eventually, she circled back to square one, figuring that if she could not have an iPhone, why not ask for the next best thing; the ne plus ultra of iPodery, THE TOUCH.

To her great surprise, we said yes.

Since that day in late August, she has been on a mission to fill her 8GB.

The first insult came when we invited her to peruse our iTunes library, and of the thousands of songs that she has happily listened to for most of her life, she chose two.

"What about Stars, I asked, or the Magnetic Fields?"
"How about Bjork or Mates of State?"
"Sleater Kinney?"
 "No thanks."
"Rufus Wainwright?"
"I downloaded Hallelujah." she replied. "Sorry, you just don't have any cool teen music."

Let's put aside for a moment that my daughter is ten, not thirteen. In one fell swoop, a decade of my daughter's musical education was dismissed, and I aged about a decade in both of our eyes.

And now, the floodgates are now open to the best and the worst of pop music, which leaves me looking forward to the heart to heart we will have any day now, when Sarah asks me, what a disco stick is.

Until now, we have tried to limit our kids' exposure to the full breadth of popular culture. I do not want my children to be naive, but to maintain their innocence for as long as possible. Lord knows I love a good curse word, and call me a prude, but I could not help but squirm this summer as I watched the 10 and under set dancing and chanting Shush, girl, shut your lips, do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.

You can rationalize by saying it goes over their head, but that does not give children due credit. Nothing gets past a smart child. I was listening to Push Push in the Bush when I was in fifth grade, and I knew exactly what it was about. That doesn't mean I should have been listening to it.

And so, with me now comfortably ensconced on my high horse, I came to find myself this week in the car with Sacha, listening to Humbug, the Arctic Monkeys new record. I have been listening to this more or less constantly since it was released a few weeks ago. I love this band with a passion bordering on teenage, but I try to keep myself under control as befits a woman of my age.

You know how you can sometimes listen to a song many times before you hear the lyrics? Well, I was listening to the first track, My Propeller:

when it dawned on me that the PROPELLER IS A PENIS. To wit: My propeller won't spin and I can't get it started on my own, when are you arriving? And that's just the chorus.

In retrospect, it seems so obvious.

Now, I can rationalize that the Arctic Monkeys are artistically superior to Lady Gaga, or 3OH!3. They are embarrassingly good for such a young band. Their lyrics are clever, not crass; part of the reason why I love them so is that never have I heard a bunch of lads be so articulate about how the male species is led around by their dicks. And if I am to be completely honest, although he is roughly half my age and I think he's let his hair grow a bit too long as of late, I wouldn't mind at all having a spin of Alex Turner's propeller.

So, I've come to realize my hypocrisy. Call it a disco stick or a propeller, but when you come right down to it, dick is a dick is a dick.

05 September 2009

The High Line

One bit of evidence that life with Sacha children is getting easier is that we are starting to venture again into day trips. In the past, every time we'd get to this stage of family life, I'd done go get knocked up again and set us back a few years, but NO MORE.

This week, we went to the High Line. I'd been looking forward to this because I felt a personal connection with the project, as less than a decade ago, I did some grant writing when it was in its planning stages. As I tried to monitor its progress through my young child rearing haze, I was amazed at how quickly such a large scale public work came together; you have to marvel at what money can do.

We found parking on the street, and had lunch at The Red Cat, where we had cocktails with lunch — David and I, not the kids; we don't let them start drinking until after 5.00 — and Gabriel impressed us by ordering chicken livers. Never mind that he didn't care for them, the fact that he is always willing to venture far from typical children's fare is gratifying.

Aside from the thrill of snapping photographs of your child providing the illusion of them perched above 10th Avenue, to your amusement and their grandparents' alarm, it was worth it on many counts.

The High Line encapsulates everything that is wonderful about New York City. More promenade than park, it is civilized, and urbane, and provides interesting and unexpected views of the city. The path ebbs and flows, meandering enough to keep things from getting monotonous, and there are many inviting places to sit along the way.

The day before we went, it did cross my mind that it might be dangerous for Sacha, or exhausting for us to keep him away from the edge, even though I realistically knew there was no way this was actually possible. He has so many creative ways of making the most mundane situations dangerous that it has permanently altered my way of thinking. As it turned out, walking the High Line was perfectly safe, but strolling through Chelsea Market afterward, we had a bit of a tussle.

Try as we might, Sacha does not always heel well. He is the child who will squirm angrily as he attempts to escape my grasp in a parking lot, the child who, when you tighten your grip a bit to indicate that YOU'RE SERIOUS, has no compunction about yelling STOP, STOP, YOUR HURTING ME, with enough conviction to make me worry that someone is going to call the police.

Consequently, I am the mother trying as best I can to casually saunter to school pickup with a sack of dynamite tucked under my arm, using all my yogic skills to maintain calm as other parents observe me with a mixture of pity, awe and disapproval.

I will not be at all surprised if in three years time, we are paying another visit to the expensive doctor to receive another ADHD diagnosis.

And so, as we walked through the market, we were experimenting with letting Sacha walk off-leash, and he was sauntering rather nicely, until the moment when he broke formation and walked right into a man's shins, knocking him to the ground. We apologized, and attempted to help the man up, but he was so angry, all he could do was shoot scowling daggers of disapproval at Sacha, and the unruly breeders who clearly flunked out of obedience school.

I couldn't entirely blame him for being so mad, but refusing to accept an apology? That I blame him for.

But the blessing of New York is you can be mortally embarrassed one moment, and in seconds, the crowd sweeps you up again in the tide of anonymity. So we quickly picked up the scraps of our dignity, and continued on our way.

The rest of the day continued uneventfully, with an unexpected and welcome bonus. We got three hours of this:

It started on the ride home, and survived the transfer indoors, as well as a diaper change. And he still went to bed by 10, which for a third child on a late summer evening, is downright civilized.

So if you need to run your dog child hard, I wholeheartedly recommend the High Line.

03 September 2009

I have my marching orders

Like every other family in the state, we are gearing up for school. This actually involves less preparation than people would lead you to believe. True, bedtime needs to be rolled back, while supplies and new shoes, and haircuts have to be procured, but all of this takes less than 5 hours, so getting ready to go back to school is more a matter of mourning the end of summer, and getting into the proper frame of mind.

For my children, that means, "Mom, get your ass back in the kitchen."

Just in case this was not entirely clear to me, earlier this week, while having a snack, my project manager Sarah diagrammed it for me:

In other words: you've really slacked off on the baked goods this summer, but I understand, because it's hot, and who wants to turn on the stove, and after all, you did allow us to have ice cream every day, so I'm going to let you off with a gentle reminder to get cracking.

(I especially like the reference to my "amazing" oreos, which I made once, and hadn't planned on making again, but I guess I was wrong.)

Aside from Sarah's well documented, and admirable ability to simultaneously work me and massage my ego, I found this amusing on several counts.

Gabriel is represented twice. I think this is because someone didn't like the first likeness, but an equally apt explanation would be his impressive appetite.

Sacha does not show up at all. He is the pickiest eater, so he didn't even rank. Instead, my next door neighbor, who happened to be over when Sarah made the drawing, gets billing.

While his mother is occasionally mortified by the way he slips into our family fold, I have told her on many occasions that I don't mind, because a) I adore him, and b) while my own children endlessly critique what comes out of the kitchen, it is so refreshing to feed someone who is unabashedly enthusiastic about whatever is being served.

So Ethan, we'll see you for dinner tonight at 6.

02 September 2009

slinging hash: zucchini bread

When I was writing my dissertation, I worked for an academic think tank that ran a yearly seminar, where literary technology geeks gathered from around the globe to learn about textual analysis and computer encoding for humanities texts.

One of my responsibilities was planning this seminar, and the most fun part of the job was working with the caterers to plan the meals. The caterer was Main Street Eatery, in Kingston, New Jersey, and I am pleased to learn that they are still in business, because all of their food was very good.

My favorite item on their menu, or at least the one that compelled me to buy their cookbook, was the zucchini bread.

I don't much go in for quick breads, or muffins, because I generally I find them too heavy or sweet, too filled with stuff, or all of the above. But I adored this zucchini bread. It's not too sweet thanks to generous amounts of nutmeg and cinnamon. Once on a whim — because I am notorious for risk-taking — I decided to add black pepper, whose pungency adds just a touch of heat, and complements the warmth of nutmeg and cinnamon. The bread also has a light, moist crumb. I think this has something to do with the zucchini, and the fact that the batter calls for oil, rather than butter, but don't quote me on that.

Almost 20 years later I still make this bread every summer. It comes together very quickly, in one bowl, because you can sift the dry ingredients right into the batter, and there is no butter to cream. The zucchini melts into the bread, making it especially tender, and it keeps very well.

But shelf life is not an issue for me, because the very best thing about this zucchini bread, aside from it being so good, is that all three of my children not only eat it, but beg for it, and that, is a rare thing indeed.

Zucchini Bread

adapted from Fresh Approach, Recipe, Menu and Home Entertaining Diary, Main Street Eatery

Makes 2 loaves

2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Lightly grease 2 5 x 9 loaf pans

Beat the zucchini, oil and sugar together.
Stir in the egg and vanilla.
Sift and add the dry ingredients

Bake at 350 for 50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean, turning the pans at the halfway mark.

30 August 2009

The ass sensor

I have a theory, albeit farfetched and slightly paranoid, that I think many mothers would agree with. I believe that when your first child is born, you leave the hospital, or your birthing bed, not just with your precious newborn, but also, with an ass sensor.

Perhaps there is a dormant part of the female anatomy that is activated by all that pushing, or our doctors and midwives install it unbeknownst to us while cleaning us up down there.

But both of these theories go out the window when I consider adoptive mothers, as well as fathers, who clearly have one too. And so, the most plausible explanation I've been able to come up with is that it has something to do with hormones.

The ass sensor makes it near impossible to sit down for any length of time. I believe it works on some frequency that only dogs and children can hear, and the closer your posterior gets to a seated position, the louder it gets, until your children can no longer bear its horrible high pitched sound, forcing them to use their wits to quickly come up with some minor calamity that needs rectifying immediately.

The timing is so impeccable that is is the only explanation I can come up with for why, once I have cooked, served and cleaned up breakfast, and prepare to sit down for a cup of coffee and to glance at the paper, someone appears with a nasty soiled diaper so disgusting that it needs to be changed right away. My children have heard the lure of the ass sensor.

Or, when I sit down in my study to write, before I have composed a complete sentence, I am summoned to break up a squabble. Because from far across the house, they were possessed by a sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard, and they needed to do something, ANYTHING, TO MAKE IT STOP.

The acoustics of the toilet must do something to amplify the painful effects of the ass sensor, because the last time I relieved my self in peace was sometime in early 1999.

You can try to ignore your children when the ass sensor sounds, but it's ear-splitting kilohertz frequency is so painful for them to endure that it only works up to a certain point.

Once, a friend and I devised an experiment. We were in my kitchen on a Friday afternoon, and all our children were happily playing in the backyard. We sat down to enjoy a drink, and gab for a bit, but the combined power of two maternal asses hitting chairs was clearly too much for the kids to bear. Because my iPhone has a stopwatch, we decided it would be fun to time how long we could sit before the ass sensor sounded.

The record: 36 seconds.

25 August 2009

My ego was bruised

A few weeks ago, David and I spent a vast amount of money so that I could have my intelligence insulted. It turned out to be worth every penny.

At the suggestion of our pediatrician we took Gabriel to see a pediatric neurologist. This doctor does not accept health insurance, and our pediatrician mentioned that his fee was higher than we would normally pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses. When I learned exactly how much higher, I nearly choked. All I can say is thank goodness for flexible medical spending accounts, because I imagine that when I submit the bill to my insurance company, their automated system will laugh mirthlessly as it generates its pro-forma denial of coverage letter.

But what a tax deduction we will receive!

David took a day off from work, and we drove 90 minutes south to spend 3 hours with this doctor. He spent half of this time with Gabriel, administering behavioral, social and cognitive testing, as well as a neurological exam. While Gabriel was with the doctor David and I completed an extensive questionnaire that addressed family medical history, as well as Gabriel's behavioral and social functioning.

This questionnaire confirmed our belief that that our son does not enjoy tormenting small mammals, and has never skinned a live cat.

After 90 minutes, we switched places, and David and I got to speak with the doctor, where we reviewed the results of the questionnaire, and his examination of Gabriel.

We received confirmation of something we already suspected: that Gabriel has an impressively robust IQ; as well as something we did not know: that he has ADHD, and that the two often go hand-in-hand.

And this is when I became conflicted. Not because Gabriel has ADHD, which made sense, and helped account for some of our ongoing concerns. But because this is the point at which this highly esteemed doctor began insulting my intelligence.

Throughout the meeting, he hardly made eye contact with me, preferring instead, to speak directly to David. He noted my history of depression and explained that ADHD is clinically related.

He then looked at David and asked, "Were either of you academically gifted children?"

David answered, “Yes.”

What happened next was my own fault. Instead of simply answering yes, which would have been the correct answer, because I am suspect of the emergence of the cult of my-child-is-a-genius, because I want my children to be humble about their gifts, and I believe that smart can only take you so far, and it is vital that you also work very hard, I felt the need to preface my answer.

And that was my fatal mistake, because at this point, the doctor tuned me out. Had this been a movie, this would have been the point at which the lighting changed dramatically, leaving me in the shadows.

Doctor, looking at David: “Giftedness usually runs in families. Did you score highly on standardized tests?”
David: “Yes.”
Me: “I--”
Doctor, to David: “And were you in a gifted program?”
Me: “I wa--...”
David: “Yes.”

I began jumping up and down and waving my arms, futilely trying to get a word in edgewise. Eventually, I resigned myself to watching the show.

The camera panned in on David and the doctor, who smiled broadly, and said to my husband, “Tell me more about yourself, and your prodigious intellectual gifts. And when we're done here, do you have time to go out for a beer, so we can further discuss our formidable intelligence?”

By the time we left the office, I was vibrating with a mix of pride and fury. David and I were grinning like idiots and practically high-fiving each other in congratulations for producing such an intelligent child.


David took my hand and said, "I love it when you're filled with self-righteous anger. Let's go have some lunch, and get you a drink."

So when the doctor's report arrived this week, I was not surprised to read, in the section devoted to family history — I'm paraphrasing here, but only slightly — Gabriel is of gifted intelligence, in the top 1% nationally, because his father is very smart, in strapping good health, and might I say, charming. His mother, however, is a depressed neurotic, and this is the root of Gabriel's attentional problems.

Needless to say, I placed a phone call to the good doctor's office. Seeing as we paid so much money to consult with him, I felt the least he could do was set the record straight.

22 August 2009

Stuffing it

It is a truth universally acknowledged that boys like to put things in things. In my experience, anecdotal evidence suggests that if there is a hole, a boy is far more likely than a girl to attempt to fill it.

First, there are the bodily orifices. Sacha is a great nose picker, and if I have fewer photos of him than I do of Sarah and Gabriel, it is in part, because many of them wind up looking like this:

Once when blowing his nose, a pea came shooting out. And the less said about his exploration of his anus, the better.

When Gabriel was this age, he too loved to explore the possibilities of putting square pegs into round holes. He is mechanically inclined, so was more likely to experiment on machinery. Once our printer was not working, and we opened it up to find a matchbox car Gabriel had placed inside, so he could watch it move back and forth as the inkjet traveled.

Then there was the time the vacuum stopped working, which constitutes a state of emergency for me. David took it apart, to find that the hose was clogged by a spoon that Gabriel had dropped inside, in an attempt to figure out the suction mechanism.

Sacha also likes to stuff things into mechanical devices. Last week, my kids rented a...what's the word...video tape! from the library, which got stuck as soon as they put it in the VCR. When David opened it up to extract the tape, this is what he found:

Clockwise: one orange die; a letter "R" tile; a used band-aid; three double AA batteries; a glass Mancala stone; a blue game pawn, origin unknown; a black checker.

Clearly, Sacha had been working on this for quite sometime. Watching David remove each item, I would not have been surprised to see a clown jump out.

21 August 2009

Lines may have been crossed

Last night I had one of those exchanges with Sacha that, taken out of context, was wildly inappropriate.

At bedtime, I was snuggling in Gabriel's bed with my boys. Gabriel gets right down to business when it's time to go to sleep, but Sacha, the energizer baby, rarely stops moving. It is also very exciting for him to lie in the bed, because he still sleeps in jail a crib. He bounced about, and generally made this tender moment less than serene. After a few minutes of reflexive self-defense on my part to avoid his jabs, he settled into something vaguely resembling stillness.

His comfy spot: resting between my legs. He was still, I was not getting kicked, so I settled for this. Yet after after a minute or so, he wanted to switch positions, and asked me, ever so politely, “Mama, can you please open your legs?” He then proceeded to tunnel his way up my skirt, nestling his head somewhere between my pubic crest and tubercles, aka, my vajango.


Internally, I squirmed. It was, after all, a one way trip. Externally, I laughed.

I guess this was no worse than the time last winter, when Sacha had a nasty diaper rash, and my pediatrician suggested using a hair dryer after bathing and diapering until it cleared up. We don't own a hair dryer, and even if I did, whipping it out every time I changed a diaper seemed impractical. So instead, I just let him run around naked for a few minutes to air out, or if we were in a hurry, I would gently blow on his bottom.

He really liked this. Slightly too much for a mother's comfort. So much, that for a time after the rash cleared up, whenever I would change him, he would ask, “Mama, can you blow me?”

And so, I did.

Much giggling ensued, followed by a second request: “Mama, can you blow me AGAIN?”

Out of the mouths of babes!

I was grateful on a few fronts. First, it was winter, so my neighbors could not hear these exchanges wafting through open windows. Second, that my neighbors also have boys, and most likely would have thought nothing of it. Third, that Sacha is three, so although it sounds so wrong, it's nothing but innocent.

But if this sort of thing were still to be happening in a few years time, not only would I run screaming to a therapist, but I'm afraid I would also have to turn in my parenting license.

20 August 2009

Beware the ice cream man

Did you know that the ice cream man, that Pavlovian staple of childhood, is A PREDATOR?

Neither did I!

This is the sort of thing that really chaps my ass. Yesterday the New York Times Dining section devoted a front page article to the latest target of the mommy police: When Parents Scream Against Ice Cream.

There are many worthy child rearing causes to be passionate about, but this is not even remotely one of them. The article features Vicki Sell, mother of Katherine, age 3, who: "tenses when the vendor starts ringing his little bell, over and over."

All this, because Katherine once had an "inconsolable meltdown" because her mother had the temerity to refuse her a cone.

Says Ms. Sell: “I feel kind of bad about having developed this attitude...I want Katherine to have the full childhood experience and all. But it’s really predatory for them — two of them — to be right inside the playground like this.”

The ice cream man is not predatory; he is trying to earn a living. One of the first rules of retail is know your market. I'd say any ice cream man who sets up shop in a park, or on the playground, is simply a smart businessman.

I have two very simple pieces of advice for the anti-ice cream man crusaders: JUST SAY NO. Nowhere is it written in the parenting manual that you have to buy your child a treat every time the ice cream man cometh. Saying no to your children does not make you a bad person; it makes you a good parent.

The second piece of advice: GROW A PAIR. Three-year olds don't just have tantrums; they excel at them. I believe it is written into their job description. The sooner you are comfortable with this, the easier it is to endure their tantrums with grace, and, the easier it will be to say no, when you think it is in your child's best interest.

It is our job as parents to set limits, and our children's job to occasionally protest those limits. So holding the ice cream man accountable for the fact that your child had a tantrum is an abdication of responsibility. You can dress it up by saying it's out of concern for children's health. But really, it's an inability to accept that as a parent, you have to teach your children how to navigate the world as it exists, not as you'd like it to be.

So the next time an ice cream truck crosses your path, if you don't feel like shelling out, instead of cursing his insensitivity, think of it as an opportunity to teach your children an unfortunate truth that will serve them well throughout their lives: not everything goes your way all of the time.

18 August 2009

Innocent until proven guilty

Gabriel lost his first tooth on Sunday. This was especially exciting, and something of a relief for him. He is seven, and many of his peers have been losing teeth for 2 years now, and he was getting worried.

He had even exchanged correspondence with the tooth fairy, asking if she had any insight as to when he might expect this event to occur.

Yes, my children and the tooth fairy are pen pals. Her name is Mirabelle. If I ever run out of things to write about, or want to make you laugh, Mirabelle's origin myth, as well as excerpts from her correspondence with Sarah, could give me material for several posts.

Anyway, Gabriel lost his tooth (literally; he swallowed it), and was worried that Mirabelle would not know to visit him because he had no evidence. So he left a note of explanation under his pillow.

Meanwhile, Sarah lost a tooth a few months ago, and — my bad — MIRABELLE FORGOT TO VISIT. Sarah reminded us of this on Sunday evening before she went to bed.

I'm fairly certain she knows by now that I AM MIRABELLE, but money is money, so she's willing to keep up the charade.

On my way up to bed, I placed a note for each of them, and some coins — 2 silver dollars for Gabriel, this being his first tooth, and one for Sarah — under Gabriel's pillow. Gabriel's pillow, because when school ends, Sarah more or less moves into her brother's room for the summer, and bunks with Gabriel.

In the morning, Catherine Leigh Dollanganger, Sarah had her coin, and Gabriel had nothing but a note.


I checked the sheets, looked under the mattress, and did a sweep of the perimeter.

No coins.

Gabriel handled this with admirable grace, especially since HIS SISTER HADN'T EVEN LOST A TOOTH, in part, because at least he had his note as evidence that Mirabelle had been there, but also because he is, by nature, trusting and generous spirited.

Yet David and I were suspicious, and I asked Sarah if she might have any idea where Gabriel's coins were.

She gave nothing away.

She is still, thankfully, an awful liar, and didn't even do the shifty eyed thing that she usually does when she is being untruthful. And so, I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

She was quiet all day yesterday, which seemed to me more evidence that perhaps she was telling the truth, as normally she cannot live for more than an hour before her guilty conscience gets the better of her and a confession comes gushing out unbidden. I've always thought she would be terrible under hostile interrogation.

Still, we were a bit suspicious, because as she moves closer to the teenage years, she is beginning get better at the art of deception.

So this morning, I decided to set a trap.

I stripped Gabriel's bed to wash the linens, and discovered a new note from Mirabelle apologizing for the missing coins, along with $7 to make up for the error.

The tooth fairy is normally not this generous in our house, and so I figured this would really chap Sarah's ass. She is, after all, someone who always has her eyes peeled on the ground looking for money (she's pretty good at finding it, too), and at age 10, is not above crawling around in a shop to hunt for spare change.

Still, nothing.

Just an hour ago, Sarah and Sacha were roughhousing, and Sarah lost an earring. She asked me to help her look for it, but it was nowhere to be found.

As I exited the room I said, "It's funny sometimes how things just disappear, isn't it? It's kind of like Gabriel's coins."

Her voice quavered, and her eyes got a little shifty, as she replied: "Mom, I feel like you are trying to accuse me of taking Gabriel's coins!"

"Of course not," I said. "I'm just saying that things are mysterious. Something is here one minute and then, it's gone, without a trace."

I felt certain she was about to crack, but I was wrong.

And so, I remind myself that this is the beauty of the American justice system; innocent until proven guilty, right?

And yet, I can't help but worry about the things she is going to pull over on us in just a few years time.

One thing is certain, though; the next time Gabriel loses a tooth, I'm putting his money in a sealed envelope.

15 August 2009


I never knew there was such a thing as love at first sight, but that is the only explanation for my first thought upon seeing you: that is the man I am going to marry. The second thing I thought, because I was such a pessimist at the time, was, I hope he is not gay.

I am happy to say that the former turned out to be true, as did the latter.

With your forty-first birthday, we have reached the point where we have known each other for more than half our life. We were kids when we met, and since then we have continued to grow up together.

The day we met the shape of my life changed. I used to be certain the glass was half-empty; now I know it is not even half-full, but overflowing.

Once I said to you many years ago, "When I am with you, I feel like I can eat whatever I want," and it has been a metaphor for so many things that I never imagined possible for me.

You are, and continue to be, the thing in my life that is always easy and effortless. I am grateful for the privilege of being your wife, and that you are the one I lay my head down next to at night.

Happy birthday, my bashert. Call Tony to collect your present.

07 August 2009

Slinging hash: Spaghetti with basil aoli

Spaghetti with Basil Aioli
adapted from Giada de Laurentis
4-6 servings

Note: This recipe makes enough aioli for two meals, or spread leftover sauce on sandwiches.

1 bunch asparagus cut into 1" pieces, tips reserved
1 pound spaghetti

1 garlic clove, minced
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup basil cut in chiffonade

Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt generously, add asparagus pieces, reserving tips, cook 4 minutes.
Add asparagus tips, cook one more minute. Fish out the asparagus with a skimmer, place in a bowl of ice water to cool.

Make the aioli:
Combine garlic, egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cayenne in an immersion blender or food processor and run the machine to mix. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oils.

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in the same pot of water until al dente, 8-10 minutes.

Place half of the aioli and the asparagus in a saucepan, add a few ladles full of pasta cooking water to thin. When pasta is still firm to the bite, use tongs to move it into the saucepan and toss.

Gently stir in the basil by hand.

Correct seasoning, serve with grated cheese.

Get your child into bed, pronto.

Bathtime: A play in one act

The bathroom of a suburban home. Three year-old son has stayed up too late, and is overtired. He's also covered in sunscreen, chlorine, aioli, and bits of spaghetti. Mother places child in the tub.

Mother: I'm going to wet your hair now. Close your eyes so you don't get water in them.

Mother proceeds to pour water over child's head.

Son: What are you doing? Don't DO that!

Mother: Now I'm going to wash your hair.

Son: Okay.

Mother shampoos son's hair.

Son: Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!

Mother: Now I'm going to rinse your hair. Close your eyes, and tilt your head back so you don't get soap in your eyes.

Son: Okay.

Mother proceeds to rinse son's hair.

Son (eyes closed): I CAN'T SEE! I CAN'T SEE!

Son opens eyes.

Son: OW, OW, OW!

Mother: Now I'm going to wash your face.

Mother washes child's face.


Bath is completed in under 2 minutes. Son is dried off.

Mother: I have to put some lotion on you.

Mother gently massages child's skin.


Mother quickly diapers son and puts on his pajamas. She contemplates brushing his teeth, thinks better of it, gives son a kiss and throws him into bed.