Let Them Eat Cake!

I’ll start with a confession.  When I saw that January 27th was National Cake Day I knew immediately that would be the week for the BAKE SOMETHING FROM SCRATCH challenge.  It wasn’t until I took the picture of the date in my calendar that I realized it was actually National CHOCOLATE Cake Day.  I’d already purchased the items for a white cake with white frosting but no harm. You can never have too many options for cake.

I started my search again.  Checking out Pinterest, flipping through my own cookbooks, searching books at the library for the perfect chocolate cake recipe.  Since I’m a novice baker I needed a basic cake.  Most of the cookbooks on my shelves are about cooking not baking.  The problem with most books dedicated to cakes is that they really want to WOW you.  That’s not a problem if you are an experienced baker but I wasn’t ready to start with a checkerboard cake or one covered in fondant.  I needed a basic layer cake recipe. I did look at my Mom’s (very) old copy of Better Homes & Garden’s New Cook Book.   Those cakes were basic alright.  Find me cookbook today that has six cake recipes on one page.  I was going to need more than a paragraph to make this happen.

new-cook-book

Finally walking across the library I spotted a new cookbook by Ina Garten called Cooking for Jeffrey and on the cover was this beautiful chocolate cake with white frosting.  I’d found my cake.

I received some good advice about baking: make sure your eggs and butter are room temperature, grease and flour your pans, weigh your ingredients.  My ingredients were out and at the (hopefully) correct temperature, pans were greased and floured, and the oven was hot. I was ready. When I work in the kitchen I listen to music or audiobooks or podcasts or pretty much anything but not during the baking of this cake.  I felt like I had to focus so precisely on what I was doing that there was no room in my head for anything else.  It was like when you turn down the radio in your car so you can figure where you are going.  (Admit it, you do it, too.) The whole process took a lot longer than I expected.   The butter took a long time to soften. Weighing the ingredients took longer than just scooping them.  The cakes took longer to bake than they said they would.  The cooling took forever. By the time I was done my back hurt, my dogs had relocated to the kitchen floor, and I understood that bakers start at the crack of dawn so that they aren’t baking until midnight.

dogs-in-kitchen

I did not end up using Ina’s frosting recipe.  It requires six sticks of butter!  If you are using your scale you’ll know that’s 1 1/2 lbs.  I’d like to say that it was just on principle that I thought it was too much butter but actually I just didn’t have that much butter left.  Luckily, I was already prepared to attempt a beautiful buttercream frosting.  I didn’t frost the cakes the night I made them.  After a couple of frantic texts to my friend, Terry, about cooling time I let them cool, and wrapped them loosely in plastic wrap so they’d be ready to frost in the morning.

unfrosted

I didn’t get up as early as a professional baker but I did rise before the sun did to get my cakes frosted.  Ina suggested that a revolving cake stand would make the job easier but I don’t have one of those. Luckily, one of the brilliant people on Pinterest suggested that a large-mouth bowl flipped upside down with a plate resting on top works just fine and they were right.

cake

And then it was done.  I didn’t promise you a beautifully decorated cake. Just one that was made from scratch and that would hopefully be edible.  It was edible.  I thought it was a bit on the dry side but overall a baking success.

So, did you bake something from scratch this week?  Did you eat something that someone else made from scratch?  I’ll admit I did enjoy this challenge and I will make another cake from scratch.  In fact, now that I’ve gotten the first-day-on-the-job jitters out of the way I’ll be able to relax and enjoy it a bit more. Lessons learned: 1. the paddle attachment on the stand mixer is the one you need to cream butter not the whisk. 2. cleaning up after making cake is not fun. 3. your value to your co-workers will rise exponentially if you bring them a cake.

cake-at-work

Before you go…the cake was devil’s food made with both expresso and sour cream.  It was supposed to be a four-layer cake.  But I know my limitations and when Ina Garten has to use skewers to help her evenly slice her cake layers in half horizontally to get four layers, I’ll just stick to two.  Who am I trying to impress?

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On Your Marks, Get Set…Bake!

Anonymous good deed? Check.  500-piece puzzle? Check. Mastering a new favorite song? Check. Now, it’s time to BAKE SOMETHING FROM SCRATCH.

My mom liked to bake.  She made bread shaped like teddy bears and even baked her own dog biscuits! So, genetically it seems like I might have an advantage in this challenge.  But my own experience is fairly minimal.  I went through an “artisan bread in five-minutes a day” phase for about a year when we lived in Northern Virginia.  That’s rough on the waistline.  I make a mean Texas sheet cake but I’ve never baked an actual layered cake from scratch. Turns out that National Chocolate Cake Day is Friday, January 27th.

national-cake-day

So, I’m going to bake a chocolate cake from scratch. I’ve watched all of the episodes of the Great British Baking Show.  I’ve even watched some episodes of the Great American Baking Show (not as good as the British one but better than I thought it would be).  I’ve watched every season of Top Chef.  Those crazy-talented chefs never want to tackle dessert.  They want to cook, not bake!  Baking is difficult. It requires more precision than I’m used to using in my life.  I’m not a precision person. Wish me luck.

What about you?  Have you ever baked a cake from scratch? Do you have any tips for me?   I’m excited to give this a try.  I now like puzzles (Andrew and I are working on a 1,000 piece puzzle!) so, who knows, maybe I’ll never buy another cake mix again!  You certainly don’t have to bake a cake.  There are a lot of things you can bake from scratch.  If you make something, I’d love to hear about it. Hopefully, I’ll just manage to make something that I’m not embarrassed to give to my co-workers on National Chocolate Cake Day.

Before you go…if you’ve never heard the stand-up set about cake by the comedian, Jim Gaffigan, you need to!  As a 10-year-old, Andrew could recite the whole thing.  Probably still can.

Oceans Rise. Empires Fall.

This was an enjoyable challenge but it was a challenge all the same.  As a regular sing-alonger I promised that I would push myself…and I did.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m in the midst of a serious obsession with the musical Hamilton.  At home, it’s been looping so much that Andrew can probably sing it in his sleep.  The rapid-fire lyrics and intricate rhymes can make many of the songs particularly tricky to sing accurately.  Of course, I’ve never been afraid to just make up a lyric or kind of la-la-la it through a song if I can’t figure out what they’re saying.  But since this was an official challenge I decided that la-la-la-ing wasn’t an option.  It took me awhile to decide which song to choose.  I love to sing almost all of them.  However, like I said, some are much harder than others.  I finally decided not on one song but two: “Helpless” and “Satisfied”, songs that are closely tied to each other.  To master them, I dedicated the time it took me to get ready for work everyday, my commute time (only 5 mins!), and my time on the treadmill.  Luckily, for anyone in ear-shot, my treadmill is in the garage so I can sing out loud during my workout, leaving the vocal quality even more compromised than usual.  I need to add here that the speed of the lyrics in these songs left me feeling more than a little out of shape.  These folks have some serious lung power.  Singing along, even when not mid-workout, I usually sound like I’ve just climbed a flight of stairs. To be honest, that’s one of the ways I chose the songs.  My choices aren’t as asthma-inducing, or honestly, as tongue-twisting.  Being able to read the elaborate lyrics made it easier to learn what I was actually saying.  Fortunately, I own the book HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION which has all of the lyrics and I had my own karaoke lounge every evening thanks to Amazon Music.

tv-hamilton

I realize one of the things that I love about this musical is that it is a celebration of history and a celebration of language, as well.    I remember having a discussion about music and lyrics with my friend, Damon, back during our high school days, and stating that I was more interested in the lyrics of a song than the music.  Now, keep in mind, we were probably 16-years-old during this conversation, so I’m sure it was deep and profound but it’s obviously stuck with me.  I actually think the best songs combine music and lyrics in a way that causes an emotional reaction, anything from sadness to joy.  Singing is like driving or reading, you can do it without thinking about it.  We’ve all driven somewhere on autopilot and then thought, “wow” I don’t remember getting from there to here.  Ever read aloud to a kid?  Next time you do really THINK about each word that you are reading.  It’s the magic that provides the connection between text and emotion.  The same is true for music.  The best singers are great not because of their voices but because they connect us to the emotion.

So, did you learn the words of a new favorite this week? Return to an old friend?  Songs are like smells, they can transport you to time and place.  They can be magical.  This blog has grown up listening to the music of Hamilton.  Every post has been written with those songs as soundtrack.  They will always be connected for me.  Maybe you’ll return to this shared time and place everytime you hear the song you tackled this week.

Before you go…the title of this post comes from lines in the songs in Hamilton sung by King George. They are belting lines.  The kind you sing at the top of your voice.  Every time I sing them they bring me joy!

Sing a Song

This next challenge is really no challenge at all for me.  MEMORIZE ALL THE WORDS TO YOUR FAVORITE SONG, THEN BELT IT OUT WHEN IT COMES ON THE RADIO.  I’ve been doing this as long as I can remember.  Ask any of my kids and they’ll tell you.  I cannot sing but that does NOT keep me from singing.  Especially in the car.  I have distinct memories as a grade-schooler of singing along to the radio in my brother Daryle’s car.  He, of course, would turn down the music mid-song to mess with me but that’s proof I’ve been singing along for a long time now.

I listen to a wide variety of music:  Old school rock, 90’s pop, a little country, anything from the 80s, show tunes, hip-hop, even children’s music.  The poor folks who attend Preschool Storytime at the Library have to listen to me sing every week!  Here’s a free early literacy tip I often share: kids don’t care what you sound like.  Singing helps them get ready to learn how to read and it’s something they like to do!

As you can tell, I’m a big proponent of singing.  When Lee was deployed to Iraq my kids (especially Elisabeth and Rachel) and I spent almost an entire year playing a kareoke PlayStation game called SingStar.  As long and difficult and worrying as that year was we still managed to have fun.  You haven’t really bonded with your kids until you’ve tackled Ice Ice Baby as a duet.  Singing gave us some really good times.  It was also the year I finally realized that I was singing the words to Rocket Man all wrong.

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Since I really love to sing and don’t have much issue memorizing the words to my favorite songs I’ve got to figure out a way to really challenge myself this week.  I’m going to try and tackle something different.  Nothing from the movie Frozen.  I’ll stay away from Bobby Brown and The Spice Girls.  When we meet again later this week I’ll have tackled something that I don’t usually sing along with.  And I promise, you won’t have to listen to me sing it.

So, are you a car-singer?  Do you loop a song on repeat until you’ve mastered it?  What are some of your favorite songs to sing along to?  This week let your inner Celine out, sing along with Whitney, John Waite, Florida-Georgia Line or whoever makes you want to sing like there is no tomorrow.

 Before you go…take some time to listen to Rocket Man by Elton John this week and tell me if you’ve been singing the line “Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone” correctly.  I’m not sure what I was singing but it wasn’t that. 

Pieces of My Heart

Challenge number two is in the box.  Actually it’s out of the box and still sitting on my table but you get the point.  I put together a 500-piece-puzzle with a little help from Andrew. Actually a lot of help.  Basically he did the puzzle and allowed me to assist but it’s done.  It was pretty much framed out by the time I realized he’d started.  I’ll admit it took me a bit to get going. First of all, it was kind of overwhelming so many pieces, so many shapes and colors.  And, since the edges were already done, where do you start?  Plus, I needed my reading glasses which was a bit humbling.  But just like riding a bike, once I got on again it all came back to me.  Pretty soon we were working side by side, piecing together smaller sections, searching for their place in the larger picture.

In prepping for this challenge I got some valuable insights from experienced puzzle-doers. One mentioned that puzzles are basically a problem-solving activity, which is so obvious to me now.  I’d never really thought about it before.  Andrew has always loved a similar activity: legos.  He even mentioned, while we worked, that when he doesn’t have a lego set to build that he likes to do puzzles.  Didn’t know that.

Another puzzle advisor told me that part of the joy of doing a puzzle is working on it with other people.  For me, truer words have never been spoken.  I did enjoy the search for the right piece and the pleasant feeling of it all coming together.  But my favorite part was standing shoulder to shoulder with my seventeen-year-old son, no phones, just a shared task with a singular purpose.  I think he enjoyed it, too.  I can write that because there is no way he’s reading this blog.

andrew-puzzle

One of the unexpected benefits to working my way through these challenges (two so far!)  is that in order to best recall how you think and feel about something you have to be present in the moment.  It’s forced me to examine my emotions in a place and time.  We live such busy lives that stopping occasionally to see “hey, how does that make me feel, and why do I feel that way?” kind of slows life down.  Doing the puzzle together also slowed time down.  Just for moment.

So, did you try your hand at a 500-piece-puzzle?  Were you inspired to dust off the old puzzle boxes and put puzzles back into your life again?  I won’t be designating a portion of our kitchen table as a permanent puzzle station but I will do one again.  If fact, Andrew and I have plans to start on a 1,000 piece dandy in the near future.

Before you go…if you, like me, are prone to snacking while you are watching tv or reading or doing basically any other hands-free activity, puzzles are a great way to keep your hands busy!  It’s hard to eat and do a puzzle at the same time…unless you can get someone else to keep working while you are eating.  Ice cream may have been eaten during the completion of this challenge.

waffle-cone

I’m Puzzled by Puzzles

Hey, I feel like I’ve accomplished something!  Maybe you do, too!  That’s about as many exclamation points as you are ever going to get from me.  So, trust that I’m feeling pretty good.  The first challenge was definitely challenging but also kind of inspiring.  Bear with me.  We have 99 challenges to go and they aren’t all going to make you feel as good about yourself.  Ready for the next challenge? COMPLETE A PUZZLE…WITH 500 PIECES OR MORE.  Full disclosure:  I’m not a puzzle person. I don’t dislike them, I’ve just never really been particularly drawn to do them.  Games? yes.  Puzzles? not so much.  But this isn’t like eating a burger with mustard on it…this I can do.

In case you aren’t aware, January is National Puzzle Month.  Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know that either until the sign at Barnes & Noble told me.  All three of my kids like to do puzzles and I’m pretty sure my sister, Laurie, likes to do puzzles (or at least she used to).  But, I think part of my problem with puzzles is that they feel a little pointless to me.  What do you do with them when you are done?  I certainly don’t want to break up a 500-piece puzzle immediately after completing it.  And, I also don’t have the wall space to glue then frame it or the desire, quite frankly, to do that either.  I’m also afraid that I might not have the patience.  That being said, there are a lot of very appealing looking puzzles out there. It took me a bit of time to choose, eventually deciding on a 500-piece beauty depicting classic travel posters.

puzzle

I realized after I started to write this that the puzzle could actually have been more than 500 pieces but I will acknowledge here that I’m not much of an overachiever.   Five hundred pieces satisfies the challenge so that’s good enough for me.  If you are joining in, feel free to go for it.  Seven-hundred and fifty!  One-thousand! I won’t judge, I just won’t be helping.  Or take advantage of the buy one, get one half price deal that Barnes & Noble is running this month and do them both!

I feel, at this point, that I should offer an apology, only four blog posts in and I’ve already name-dropped Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, Target, Panera and now Barnes & Noble.  If only they were my sponsors and I was getting paid for all this product placement.  As you can tell by now, I am actually sponsoring them.

Do you like to do puzzles? If so, may I ask, why?  Heck, maybe by the time I check in later this week I’ll have discovered I like them, too!  Got any insider tips or hints for me?  Just not the old starting-with-the-edges tip…I have done a puzzle or two, you know.  So, clear your card table, choose your puzzle, and dig in.  Or, at least cheer me on!

Before you go… if you read closely you will have realized that I used more than two exclamation points.  I’m a bit embarrassed by that for some reason.  I’ll save you the trouble of counting them.  I used eight…counting this one!

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It is Harder to Give Than to Receive

If you are not aware of Panera Bread’s Rapid Pick-up service, you are missing out.  This handy little courtesy allows you to order and pay from an app on your phone and then when you arrive at the restaurant your meal is magically waiting for you on a special shelf.  No waiting in line, no talking to anyone…practically perfect in my opinion.  Thank goodness that Panera offers reasonably healthy options (stop thinking about the side baguette) because I’m embarrassed to admit how frequently I use this service.  Anyway, on Monday as I swooped in to pick up my awaiting meal, I noticed that my bag was not alone so I quickly slipped the gift card into the other person’s bag.  I felt pretty good until about the time I reached my car.  What a short walk from confidence to doubt. Would it be gross to discover a stranger had put something in your bag of food?  Even if it was a good something?  Probably broke some kind of sanitation code…sorry Panera.  I hope I’m not the reason they stop offering this service.  I’ll admit it.  This challenge was harder than I thought it would be.

Gift card number two was actually even harder.  Maybe because by the time I gave it away I was so desperate to find a person to give it to that I was acting more like someone casing the joint to steal something than a good samaritan.  I tossed ideas around with the good people with whom I share an office. They were very patient.  It seemed like every option had a negative.  I’d almost decided I was going to toss it out the window on my way home just to be rid of it like the ancient tiki idol that Peter and Bobby found in the Brady Bunch Hawaii episode.  According to what I affectionately refer  to as “THE 100”, “being nice can actually make you feel better physically…it not only makes you more calm and relaxed, it can also ease pain, increase your energy, and help ease stomachaches!”  Obviously, I was doing this all wrong.

for-you

I finally decided within about five minutes of executing my plan what I was going to do.  Driving from one library branch to another I realized I would pass a new local coffee shop.  Hmmm, small place, only a couple of tables, no imminent sanitation violation, plus good coffee (bonus).  As the barista made my latte I surreptitiously put the gift card on a table by the window.  Someone would happen upon it and feel special…even if only briefly.  I left in a couple of minutes with coffee in hand and a spring in my step.  Lessons learned: 1. seize the moment 2. don’t overthink 3. it’s not about you.

Did you find a way to do something nice for someone without letting them know you did it?  Let me know!  If you are still reading these blog posts and haven’t told me then consider that a challenge accomplished.  Thanks for reading!

Before you go…if you are not old enough to have seen the special Hawaiian three-parter on the Brady Bunch you now have an additional challenge.  Watch that soon,  it’ll make my ancient tiki idol reference make much more sense plus it might help you avoid unnecessary bad luck in the future.

Starting at Page One

Let’s start at the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  Actually, I’m starting with page six but it is the first challenge.  DO SOMETHING NICE FOR SOMEONE BUT DON’T TELL THEM YOU DID IT.  Hmm, okay.  Seems simple at first, and if you don’t want to get too cutesy about it, it really is simple.  The point, as I explained yesterday to my kids, Andrew and Rachel, is that you don’t want someone to know “who” did something nice.  So, paying for the person behind you in the drive-thru is out.  Although, that is a nice thing to do.  Go ahead and do that if you want.  I’ve been the recipient of that a couple of times…mostly at Dunkin Donuts.  Not sure why that is, maybe because odds are it won’t be a large tab?  Or are people who drink Dunkin just a generous lot?  You’ll have to take my word that it’s not just because I go through the drive-thru at Dunkin Donuts all the time…I don’t.  We did have that happen to us once at McDonald’s.  Although we initially ruined the joy for ourselves because after being excited to receive such an unexpected gift, we blamed the folks for us getting the wrong order.  Nope, before the days of all day breakfast at McDonald’s, breakfast magically transitioned to lunch at 10:30am.  That’s how you end up with Crispy Chicken Club instead of a sausage biscuit. Not the fault of the generous person in front of you or the person working the window.  I’ve paid for people behind me before but I usually don’t think about it until someone pays for me and then I just pass it on.  That still counts but the credit really goes to the person who started the chain.

Back to the challenge.  As we discussed this, we identified a couple of things you could do.  Since I work at a library, I could pay someone’s late fines.  That’s a nice thing to do but you don’t really want library staff digging around looking into people’s accounts to see who owes what, so that’s out.  You could drag someone else’s trash can back from the curb but that seems a little too easy.  I think for that to count you’d need to do that multiple times and then you’d feel bad if you stopped.  It would almost be like adding another chore to your own list.  Plus, that might confuse people and make them think you were shaming them, as if they are somehow not putting their cans up in a timely manner.  Who knew the mental minefields of secretly being nice to people?  We finally settled on a sort of a secret Santa plan, without the Santa part.

I had several $5 Target gift cards that I purchased earlier this year and didn’t use.  I guess that could be another blog post in itself, but I won’t bore you.  This week, each of us will find a way to give these gift cards to someone without their knowledge.  We determined the only rules are that you can’t use it for yourself and you must try to get it to someone without them knowing it came from you.  target-cards

What about you?  Are you up for this feel-good challenge?  You certainly don’t have to spend any money to do something nice for someone.  If you decide to participate please let me know.  I’d love to hear what anonymously nice thing you did for someone.  I’ll be back at the end of the week to report how we deployed our gift cards and hopefully we’ll be able to check this off as a challenge completed.  Don’t keep this challenge to yourself. Challenge your friends to participate, too.  We can start of movement of thinking about others instead of ourselves…okay, probably not, but we will make someone’s day and we’ll feel better in the process.  Thanks for reading!  You in?

Before you go…the first two lines of the blog are from the Do-Re-Mi song in the Sound of Music.  Just didn’t want you to have to Google it…and now you’ll be singing it all day!

Looking for the Adult in the Room

A couple of years ago my sister, Emilie, sent me a box of books at the library where I worked.  This in itself was not unusual.  She often donated boxes of books for us to use in our collection, give away as Summer Reading prizes or generally use as we best saw fit.  In this particular box was a book published by National Geographic Kids called 100 THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOU GROW UP by Lisa Gerry. It’s a fun book filled with colorful pictures and interesting graphics designed to encourage the reader to do just what the title suggests: enjoy life before you grow up.  I put the book aside with the idea that it might be fun to utilize it somehow as a social media challenge for our young library patrons on the library’s Facebook or Instagram pages.  It sat on the shelf behind my desk for a long time.  Occasionally I would pick it up and look at it but back on the shelf it would go until I had “more” time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it.

One day I woke up and realized, with a little more clarity than usual, that I was quickly approaching my 48th birthday which meant that with a little luck I would soon be also approaching my 49th and then in a blink of an eye I would be 50.  Fifty years old…would I feel like a grown up then?  How often do we talk and laugh about looking for “the adult in the room”?  I was at a time of transition in my life.  My husband, Lee, would soon be moving to California without me as I would stay in NC to allow our son, Andrew, to graduate high school the following May.  I would then quit my library job and move to the opposite coast into the foreign world of being an empty nester and apparently a soon-to-be grown up.  At that point I had the idea that it might be fun to try and tackle the 100 THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOU GROW UP. The intro to the book says “From the moment you are born, there are about 6,570 days before you’re legally considered an adult.”  As I write this on January 1, 2017 I have 434 days until I turn 50 on March 10, 2018.  I better get going.

Join me as I tackle the 100 challenges. I won’t be able to complete this project in 434 days but, in the end, that’s not really the goal.  According to the book the goal “is to inspire you to make the most of every day and seize every opportunity.”   Join in on the challenges if you want, watch from the sidelines, share the memories unearthed from your own life challenges.  I only ask for your encouragement.  I have come to realize that I am a strong starter and not such a strong finisher.  Ready?