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In Search of Wisdom and Coconut Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

April 21, 2014

Vegan Coconut Milk Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I recite this–the Serenity Prayer—daily, often many times each day. The last line often provides the biggest challenge.

Prayer and meditation in various forms are a regular part of my life though I’m not particularly religious; something six years of Catholic schooling didn’t change. Dad never went to church. He was likely agnostic for all I knew. It wasn’t something we talked about. When I entered my twenties and answers to those kinds of questions started to matter, he was dead. Mom was Catholic, the go to church for Christmas and Easter variety. In spite of or maybe because of her reluctance to be a Sunday mass regular, she made me go. On nice days I’d spend the hour at the playground near the church swinging from the monkey bars in my skirt and ruffled bobby socks. When the church bells tolled it was time to go. Then I’d sneak in the side door of the church and grab a bulletin from the table at the back—the requisite proof of attendance that mom would demand when I returned home. Some days I’d forgo the charade, embracing the peacefulness that the big stone church with its enormous vibrant glass windows offered instead. Father Leon’s gentle voice punctuated with the low murmur of “Amen” was a stark contrast to the soundtrack of barking dogs and shouting matches at home. I sat in the back pew where I couldn’t feel the pitying glances of parishioners who wondered why a young girl was sitting in church alone.

As an adult when peaceful moments were easier to come by, I stopped going to church. The communal aspects never appealed to me, not as a child, not as a grown woman. My backyard is my favorite place of worship today. I can find spirit in a single daffodil, blooming where snow fell only the day before. I can also find it in that first sweet creamy spoonful of homespun ice cream. Spirit is with me when I feel Greg’s hand in mine on an early morning walk. Or when my god daughter wraps her tiny arms around my neck and whispers, “Aunt Bobbi can I have some lip gloss?”

Lately I’ve been praying more than usual. It happens when life’s current lesson isn’t obvious and my purpose grows a little fuzzy and recedes a bit into the distance for only God and my cosmic joker to see. I’m moving forward but it feels like I’m pushing a boulder uphill. History has shown me that I’ll reach the top eventually without being crushed under the rock. It’s also taught me that more valleys and mountains will await me after I do. My spiritual teachers Eckhart Tolle and Eknath Easwaran would remind me to focus on the rock, the moment, now. The past, both mistakes and triumphs, and the future—that mountain top view—exist only in my head, taking up residence with the gremlins there that say, “You can’t do this. You won’t do this.” My heart grows heavy when the voices are loud. Before I succumb to the role of victim and reply, “Why me?” I must remember that I give them the power to run amok in my monkey brain, and only I can take that power away. Sometimes in prayer I find this strength. And sometimes the voices just get louder. In those moments I always return to the Serenity Prayer, desperate to find that line between casting my ego aside and surrendering to spirit–to accept the things I cannot change, and taking action–to change the things I can.

The wisdom to know the difference is often what eludes me. Where is the line between surrendering and copping out? Between taking action and trying to control something that I’m not meant to control? Navigating the space in between requires every bit of patience I can muster. It’s also where I know I’ll eventually find grace. And so I shift my focus away from the blurry future (and a second bowl of coconut ice cream!) and back to my rock and the earth beneath my feet.

Coconut Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

This is the vegan ice cream recipe I promised you in my last post. It’s become a freezer staple over the last month. We topped our last batch with chocolate sauce and toasted coconut–like a Mounds Bar all grown up and more delicious. Play around with the amount of sugar if it’s not sweet enough for your liking. If it’s too sweet the coconut flavor is less pronounced.


    2 cans coconut milk
    4 teaspoons cornstarch
    2/3 cup granulated sugar
    1 vanilla bean


  1. In a small bowl whisk together a little coconut milk and the cornstarch to create a slurry.
  2. Combine the remaining coconut milk and granulated sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the bean and seeds to the pan. Whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Bring to a gentle boil and whisk for 2-3 minutes until the mixture thickens slightly.
  3. Let cool then chill mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight.
  4. Freeze in your ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

A Vegan Dinner Party and Cherry Berry Crumble

March 31, 2014

Vegan Cherry Berry Crumble

I love butter, preferably salted, melted into the nooks and crannies of a piece of toasted brioche.

Then there’s cheese: cow milk, goat, or sheep—I don’t discriminate. If forced to choose between butter and cheese when I’m packing my bags for exile to an uninhabited island, it’s hard to say which I’d choose to live without. For now, I’m grateful that such a conundrum is pure fiction. In fact, as awareness of food allergies and intolerances grows at a record pace, there’s much, much more that I’m grateful for when it comes to my food: I can, and gleefully do, eat just about anything except for green peppers and Jello.

So why am I checking in with a vegan dessert? It’s not because I ran out of butter or eggs. That, I can assure you, never happens around here. The first and perhaps most important reason is that it’s darn tasty. In fact, if I hadn’t mentioned the “V” word, you might reach the bottom of your bowl of Cherry Berry Crumble without even realizing that you’d just fallen hard for a vegan dessert. The second reason that rivals the first in importance is that one of my favorite oh-so-omnivore clients recently embarked on a vegan journey, and this week she’s hosting her first all vegan dinner party.

The dinner is an annual event. Last year it was creamy asparagus soup, lemon herb chicken thighs, and potato gratin. And please don’t forget the cheese course. I know I won’t–triple cream St. Andre, smooth Ossau-iraty, nom, nom, nom. This year, hold the meat and fish, the butter, the cream, the eggs, and the cheese. Vegetables are more interesting to me than meat especially chicken on any given day. The hard part is doing without eggs and dairy accompaniments. There are a lot of vegan friendly products that mimic foods like butter and cheese, but I can hardly tout the benefits of “real” food, while I’m cooking with a butter “spread” made from eleven ingredients one of which is pea protein. What is that?

Then I started leafing through my favorite vegetarian dinner menus and realized how many of them included vegan dishes or ones that were darn near it and would require only minimal tweaking. There will be a spinach and roasted garlic soup, zucchini fritters with avocado cream and red pepper coulis, wild mushroom and asparagus risotto, cauliflower steaks with gremolata panko, and haricot vert with basil pistou and roasted tomatoes. All made without pea protein. Whew!

Dessert posed the biggest challenge. Did I mention that pie, apple pie with a perfect, flaky crust, is the signature dessert of this favorite client? She pulled it from a warm oven for last year’s dinner. The guests swooned at the sight of it and left nary a crumb on their plates. The experiments started in earnest ten days ago with avocado chocolate mousse and olive oil cake. They proved to be solid contenders, but this fruit forward crumble was the clear winner. If you like your crisps, crumbles, and cobblers served a la mode and you’re not following a vegan diet, a vanilla bean ice cream sidecar is a no-brainer here. And if you are following a vegan regimen, hang tight until my next post, which will include the recipe for an equally satisfying coconut milk ice cream.

Just So Happens to Be Vegan Cherry Berry Crumble


(You can use fresh or frozen fruit.*)

    1 1/2 cups blueberries
    1 1/2 cups blackberries
    1 1/2 cups sweet black cherries
    2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
    1/4 cup pure maple syrup


    1/4 cup vegetable oil or coconut oil, melted
    3 tablespoons brown sugar
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
    1/3 cup sliced almonds (optional)
    1/2 cup all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
    1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
    1/2 teaspoon sea salt


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the berries, cherries, flour, and maple syrup.
  3. In a small bowl whisk together the oil, brown sugar, and vanilla. Combine the remaining topping ingredients in a larger bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and blend with a fork.
  4. Spoon the fruit into an 8×8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the oat mixture evenly over the top. Bake for 35 minutes, or until bubbly and golden brown. (*Increase the baking time if you’re using frozen fruit.)

Kitchen Essentials and Coconut Curry Cashews

February 11, 2014

coconut curry cashews

“What are your kitchen must-haves?”

From earnest bachelorettes to moms out for an overdue girl’s night out to corporate executives bringing together their staff for a team-building event, this is the number one question I’m asked at my Conscious Crumbs cooking parties. When I do in-home, private lessons I emphasize doing what you can with what you have, intent on cultivating culinary MacGyvers rather than filling cabinets with unnecessary equipment. Still, they press me for what to buy or register for. Now I keep a kitchen essentials list on Amazon, but I share it cautiously, reminding eager cooks and bakers that they don’t need everything on the list to enjoy time in their kitchens and prepare satisfying dishes.

For me cooking is more than the utensils, gadgets, and appliances that overload my cupboards and drawers. (Even though I shudder at the thought of slicing five pounds of cucumbers for a crudités platter without my mandoline.) Time in my kitchen is a crisp Albarino wine to sip from a delicate stemmed glass while I mince garlic. It’s a white pillar candle (unscented, please) casting a warm glow in the evening over my prep area. Tonight it’s shaking my hips to Gary Clark Jr. while I stir a burbling pot of mushroom risotto. Tomorrow Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s guest chefs on The Splendid Table will transport me to the bustling streets of Thailand in one segment, then instruct me on the finer points of massaging kale in the next.

Cooking is waiting for a text from Greg letting me know that he’s on his way home. It’s a brand new, ice-cold cookbook rescued from our snow-covered porch. Or Penny De Los Santos‘s latest pics on Instagram. It’s the bell that chimes from my trusty toaster oven where fragrant hazelnuts are toasting. White plates are warming on top, a blank canvas ready to be dressed with my latest culinary experiment. Thoughtfully arranged plates will soon sit next to mismatched, unpolished antique silverware collected from local thrift shops. Each fork and knife tells a different story, their settings ranging from British passenger liners to 19th century luxury hotel dining rooms. It’s dimming the lights, always too low for Greg who claims that I was a mole in a previous life. His wine glass joins mine at our small table where we’ll linger as long as time allows. Then it’s time for a little hip-hop while we scour pans and fire up the dishwasher. These are my real kitchen essentials, because they allow me to feed the ones I love and feed my soul.

What are your kitchen must-haves?

Roasted Coconut Curry Cashews

Cashews, curry, and coconut. It just might be my favorite flavor combination–in sweets and in savories. Speaking of the sweet variety, my food blogger friend at makes a delicious coconut curry cashew that’s reminiscent of a nut brittle. They are equally addictive.


    1 large egg white
    1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt (less if using salted nuts)
    1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (More if you like spicy foods)
    1 tablespoon curry powder
    2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
    1/4 cup unsweetened coconut, finely shredded
    2 cups cashews (Peanuts are tasty too.)


  1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium bowl, beat the egg white with a small whisk until foamy. Whisk in salt, spices, sugar, and coconut. Stir in the nuts.
  3. Spread the nuts in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes. Stir. Return to the oven and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes.

rosemary almondsRoasted Almonds with Sriracha and PaprikaNot a fan of cashews? Try these recipes for roasted almonds: Rosemary Almonds or Smoky Sriracha Almonds.

Talk About the Weather and Spinach Feta Roulades

January 25, 2014

Spinach Roulade with Feta and  Roasted Red Peppers

-2 degrees Fahrenheit. Minus two for God’s sake!

That’s what the temperature was when I sat down to write. My fingers, still cold from shoveling today’s freshest snow, are behaving as if they have forgotten where the computer keys are, each stroke awkward and tentative. I’d planned to share my current culinary obsession with you: roulades. (Roulade is derived from the French word “rouler” meaning “to roll”. Loosely, it refers to something flat and edible—meat, sponge cake, omelet–that is wrapped, or rolled, around a filling. It’s also a rapid succession of notes sung to a single syllable. I’d never heard of either, the food wrap or the musical embellishment, until last month.) There are so many things you can make out of and into roulades that it would make for a fine story on its own. But it’s below zero just outside the window where I’m writing from, five degrees warmer than it was when I reluctantly crawled out of our warm bed, and according to the overly smug weatherman on the local channel, this is today’s high.

I’m not one to go on about the weather. When we engage in conversation I usually skip over the “some drought we’re having ain’t it?” and the “can you believe it’s been raining for three straight days?” in favor of a more intimate conversation. The weather is just scratching the surface. It’s one impersonal step past “How are you?” “How’s it going?” and “How ya doin’”, the popular questions typically asked out of habit rather than curiosity or concern where the inquirer is out of earshot by the time the responder issues forth their “very well” or “good, thanks” . (According to Grammar Girl at it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m good.”)

It’s like this, I seldom see you face to face. These days scheduling a date to meet for coffee must be done three weeks in advance. So when we finally get together I don’t want to waste time on the weather. I want to ask, “How are you doing?” and this time with feeling. “How is the job hunt going?” “Are you taking care of yourself?” If I were an avid Facebook user I’d know the answer to some of these questions, and I could have “liked” your status update regarding your dad’s recent bout with kidney stones. Regrettably that sense of connection available anytime at my finger tips often leaves me feeling completely disconnected.

Besides, when it comes to the weather, I’m all talked out. Daisy the cashier and I talked about it while she rang up my groceries, all eight bags of them. It’s all our mail carrier (who most people will agree has the worst job ever this season), can talk about, and who could blame her. The guy at the gym that wheezes on the treadmill next to mine might wheeze less if he didn’t talk about the weather or anything for that matter while he was running. Even the stranger on the train this morning gave it airtime, a particularly unusual conversation for a man without a hat or gloves and wearing only a lightweight leather jacket.

But here’s the thing, I can’t not talk about the weather, because it no longer plays a background role in my life; it overshadows everything I do or don’t do. Fashion decisions from the ankle up are impossible, layer after layer after layer. (There’s only one choice for the shoes: my Sorel “Joan of the Arctic” boots. It seemed like a comical even dramatic name for a pair of boots when I bought them last winter; I’m not laughing now.) Cooking classes have been cancelled due to icy road conditions. Tonight’s dinner plans with friends, months in the making, postponed because no one wants to venture out unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Still, I have to go out again to finish shoveling the snow. I pile on more layers and grab the shovel, its blue plastic edge frayed from overuse. People trudge past unrecognizable to me with only ten square inches of flesh showing and ice crystals twinkling on their downward gazing lashes. It’s too cold for conversation. They press on. If there was a “How’s it going?” in their wake, it was muted under their woolen layers. In spite of my craving for real, live social connection I hurry too. Back in the house, I pull off my boots, slip into shearling-lined moccasins, and twirl my scarf from around my neck like a roulade coming undone.

The phone rings as I’m hanging up the last of my arctic gear. I race to answer it—the outside world is calling. The voice, so familiar, it warms me instantly. I grab a blanket and curl up on the couch, settling in for a long overdue conversation with a friend. It’s our consolation prize for the cancelled dinner plans. We have a lot of ground to cover: the holidays, a recent trip to Nashville, and such, but first we have to talk about the weather.

Spinach Roulades with Feta Cream and Roasted Red Peppers



    12 cups spinach
    3 eggs
    1 teaspoon salt


    8 ounces feta cheese
    heavy cream or milk
    2 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs such as basil, parsley, dill, mint, chives (optional)
    salt, black pepper
    2 sweet red peppers, roasted, skinned and cut into 1/4-inch strips (You can substitute canned peppers.)


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a 14×10-inch jelly roll pan with buttered parchment paper.
  2. Bring a pan of water to a boil and add spinach. When the water returns to a boil, drain and rinse the spinach in cold water. Squeeze spinach dry with hands. Place spinach, eggs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a food processor or blender; pulse to a smooth puree. Spread spinach mixture into the prepared tray. Bake until set, 9-11 minutes. Lift the baked spinach off the pan and let it cool.
  3. For filling, combine cheese, 3 tablespoons cream or milk, and herbs until the mixture is smooth and spreadable with the consistency of peanut butter, adding more cream if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cut roulade in half crosswise so you have two, 7×10-inch pieces. Peel the baked spinach off the tray lining paper. Place each half on a piece on plastic wrap. Spread filling evenly over both halves, to within about a ½-inch of the edges. Cover each with a layer of red pepper slices. Roll up each roulade half from the long edge. Wrap in plastic wrap, twisting the ends to secure. Refrigerate the rolls 2 hours or until ready to serve.
  5. Unwrap. Trim the ends of both roulades. Cut each into 10 slices. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 20 hors d’oeuvres.

Tub Frosting and Blueberry Pecan Biscotti

December 16, 2013

blueberry pecan biscotti

What makes you angry?

What really sets you off?

I don’t mean irritated or agitated or annoyed. I mean what triggers an endless chorus of rapid fire expletives or a slam session where no door in your house goes untouched. I burned off most of my explosive anger in my 20s thanks to a love of long distance running and a long term relationship with a Jungian psychologist whose name rhymes with vulva. These days my anger is less like a 0-60 eruption and more like a slow simmering pot of stock, carefully managed to prevent boiling. So imagine my surprise when a little matter like store-bought frosting sent me over the edge in the midst of a Thai food lunch with a friend, a very good friend, the kind of friend that listens, counsels, and seldom, if ever, infuriates me. In a casual conversation she described the birthday cake her eight-year-old (and down-right adorable if you’ll pardon the bias) daughter wanted to make, including the purple frosting—a tub of store-bought, purple frosting.

The look on my face likely said it all, but my fork fell with a clank onto my plate of pad see ew and I opened my mouth anyway to deliver my judgmental, visceral, and of course, unsolicited response, “What? You can’t use tub frosting? Do you know what’s in that s#@&? And how easy it is to make frosting from scratch?”

We were both stunned. It bears repeating that this is a very good friend.

I’m a militant label reader, favoring real foods made with ingredients my Gram would recognize. Still, I reserve my soapbox appeals for vile things that are consumed regularly like Pop Tarts and Lunchables. If it’s something you eat on a special occasion—and a birthday certainly qualifies as such, screw the label, just enjoy it. So why the outrage then? I wondered as I slunk back home already at work on my apology.

The ingredients in store-bought frosting, while unsavory, had little to do with my reaction. As I peeled back another layer of the onion that is my psyche, I saw that it had everything to do with the connection between a mother and a daughter. My collection of warm childhood memories is small, and I guard them like the Crown Jewels. The best memories were made in our tattered kitchen from simple things like homemade frosting. Butter + sugar + cream + vanilla. We never used a recipe. I worked the hand-held mixer, mindful of not making it rain powdered sugar across the kitchen. Mom would peek over my shoulder and with only a glance she knew—a little more sugar, a bit more cream, adjusting back and forth until billowy, satiny frosting filled the bowl. There was a bonus round if I got to transform the white wonder into a colorful frosting, swirling in drops of food coloring. The best part? Licking the sweet beaters until they looked nearly clean enough to be returned to the drawer. In time I knew too and could make the “bit of this” and “dash of that” adjustments without mom’s watchful eye. Strangely this, all of this, the grit of the powdered sugar on my teeth when it’s not fully dissolved in the butter, the swirls of red food coloring, the bright white yielding to pink, and the feel of my tongue on the grooves of the beaters were locked away for safekeeping in a dark corner of my brain until the words “tub frosting” unleashed them.

My apology was accepted (Thank you again E!), and I was invited to give a sweet little birthday girl her first homemade frosting lesson. A little more powdered sugar. A splash of cream. Lots and lots of red and blue food coloring and a bit of patience as we waited for a vibrant purple to emerge from the bowl. I stood over her shoulder as my mom had over mine, forging a memory almost as sweet as the one I carry with me from my childhood.

blueberry pecan biscotti

Blueberry Pecan Biscotti

This recipe was adapted from Alice Water’s biscotti recipe in The Art of Simple Food. I prefer the texture of biscotti made without butter. They’re a bit more brittle and can withstand a generous swirl or two in my morning coffee.


    1 1/4 cups pecans, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
    2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    3 eggs
    1 cup sugar
    1 cup dried blueberries (Dried tart cherries are nice too.)
    white chocolate (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat.
  2. In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until the mixture is silky. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir until just incorporated. Gently fold in the pecans and dried fruit.
  3. On the prepared baking sheet, form the dough into two, 3-inch-wide loaves, about three inches apart. Wet your hands with a little water to keep the dough from sticking to you. Bake the loaves until lightly golden, about 25-30 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and let cool for ten minutes.
  4. Lower the oven temperature to 300°F. Slice the loaves into 1/2-inch-thick cookies and place cut side down on two baking sheets. Bake for ten minutes, flip the cookies over, and bake for ten more minutes.
  5. When the cookies are completely cool, dip in or drizzle with melted white chocolate, if using.

Makes about 3 dozen.

Thanksgiving Through My Crystal Ball and Chocolate Glazed Walnut Cake

November 25, 2013

Chocolate Glazed Flourless Walnut Date Cake

The countdown to Thanksgiving has begun. Here’s a preview of what’s in store as we prepare to host our 13th annual family celebration.

I’ll kick off the week with a fit of denial. Even though the calendar indicates that Thanksgiving is late this year, and as of today Christmas is only a month away, I’ll spend a large part of today questioning how the holiday has snuck up on me once again.

Over breakfast we’ll review the Thanksgiving Day seating chart. The challenge of squeezing twenty plus people into our ten person dining room is akin to a blivot (That word spent several years at the top of my favorite word list. It has since been replaced by ubiquitous. These sorts of digressions are exactly why I will be in the weeds on Wednesday.) But for two engineers who enjoy problem solving, figuring out how to weave the big and small people in our life around a communal table can be, well, fun. Except when it’s not fun, and we disagree on what constitutes adequate personal dining space. You would think that we’d have it down to a science by now, but every year is different. Last year Kalina was in a high-chair and this year she’ll be in a big girl chair. It goes like that.

Tonight, I’ll finalize the menu, while Greg puts the extra leaves in the two dining tables and test drives our seating arrangement, moving like Goldilocks from chair to chair and flailing his arms. He claims he’s simulating the diner’s experience, but unless we’ll all be tossing 14-inch rounds of pizza dough it looks a tad excessive. If I’m smart, I’ll keep that bit to myself while he works.

The menu for the most food-centric, tradition rich holiday could write itself, if I’d let it. But when Thanksgiving is still four days away, and I naively believe that time is infinite, I like to add a few new sides to the already full buffet. That kind of experimentation is how we discovered that our family loves Brussels sprouts. Now, five years later, they’re a staple. I’ll run my menu ideas past Greg, who somehow manages to forget that I love this stuff, and will say something like, “Don’t overdo it.” Or, “Just keep it as simple as you can.” I always overdo it. And there is nothing simple about cooking for 24 people. Besides, when you order three turkeys (two for the deep fryer and one for the oven), you’ve already closed the door on simple. So why hasn’t he learned to indulge me and say something like, “Wow, those maple glazed turnips sound delicious. You should try them.” And why haven’t I learned to stop asking for his advice on the menu?

Before bed tonight, I’ll sit down at the computer and make new turkey day playlists, a mellow one for dinner and an amped up one for the afterhours clean up. I’ll download the new Daughtry album and then start clicking my way to other songs wishing all the while that those New Direction songs weren’t so darn catchy. Greg will call me to bed again, and again and eventually drift off. I’ll make it to bed at last then have trouble falling asleep myself with all the music playing in my head.

Tomorrow I’ll grocery shop. On the way home from the produce market the car will be pulled to Marshall’s like a moth to a flame ostensibly for something necessary, like, well, I can’t think of anything right now, but by tomorrow I’ll have something in mind. I will slip into that store like Alice down the rabbit hole, emerging an hour later with a bag full of things that doesn’t include what I went there for. Then it’s home to make pie crust, bake bread for stuffing, make and freeze dinner rolls, and clean the house, in between writing proposals and answering emails for work. I’ll also squeeze in a workout, not in anticipation of the feasting but to quiet my mind.

We’ll go to yoga before the sun is up on Wednesday though I will likely have been lying awake in bed long before the 5:15am alarm sounded. It will be one of those classes where the stillness pains me. I’ll lie on my mat and twitch just thinking about everything that has to come together in the coming 36 hours. The new living room curtain rods will arrive that afternoon. If I were a sane woman, I’d stow them in the basement and swap them out on Sunday when the house is ours again and quiet. Instead, I’ll pull out the ladder and rush to get them in place before Greg gets home with our turkeys even though I already know that the house will be so full, no one is likely to notice. This mild obsession could spark an argument with Greg who will ask a simple, logical question while I teeter precariously on the ladder, “Have you made the pies yet?” By Wednesday, time is no longer infinite and there is a manic edge to my movements through the house. If pressed Greg would admit this is not what he loves most about me.

In an ironic twist, the same man who insists I keep it simple and stay off of ladders in favor of pie baking will ask me if I have time to give him a long overdue haircut. Cut to the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed little girl’s eyes roll back in her head. There will be no masking my disbelief.

Later that day my two nieces will arrive on the train from Joliet. This tradition, now in its fifth year, is one I relish. Admittedly, when the girls were young, they were less help, though still fun. Now that they are solidly in their teen years, it’s like sharing the kitchen with girlfriends (minus the wine drinking). Bailey, the youngest, comes with a plan for a new dessert for us to try. They are never simple, but making the time to turn a cupcake into a turkey is something I’m happy to do even if it means we have to scratch that new turnip recipe.

Larry, the dad I adopted when mine was taken from me too soon in college, will come barreling in later that night. He’ll be exhausted and in desperate need of a break from his life in Pittsburgh. He will take up residence in the middle of our living room floor for the next three days. My maternal instinct will kick in, and I’ll try to restore him over the course of his stay, except for the hours immediately preceding the feast when everyone is on their own while I focus on the mission.

In between welcoming guests, there will be baking: a rich and creamy pumpkin pie, a pumpkin roll, a chocolate glazed walnut cake, a cranberry walnut tart, something triple chocolately that we can use as a birthday cake for my sister-in-law Karole, and whatever Bailey has dreamed up. The cranberry sauce will be checked off the list too if the curtain rods don’t consume me and the ladder doesn’t tip.

Game day starts too early. I’ll likely wake to fresh dreams of screaming turkeys roasted with their feathers on or some other Freudian nonsense. By 7am I’ll be elbow deep bringing together the stuffing in a soup pot. My full cup of coffee will be ice cold by the time I get a second sip. Greg’s family will begin trickling in around noon. I’ll mix up a batch of cranberry sangria to share with my mother-in-law, who’s a big fan of my bartending skills. From there the day that I’ve been preparing for all week will pass by in a flash of forkfuls and sound bites.

Three turkeys two ways. “Grandma’s pulling all the skin off the turkey again.” Sweet potato casserole with brown sugar and pecans. “Grandma, it’s me, Bobbi, Greg’s wife.” Maple Dijon Braised Brussels Sprouts with sprouts from Erik and Karole’s garden. “Who is Greg?” Kristy’s Roasted Butternut Squash with Gorgonzola. “Has anyone seen Lucy?” Mom’s Broccoli and Cheese Casserole (gulp, yes the one with Velveeta, but hey it’s once a year). “Where should we set up the karaoke machine?” Sausage and Mushroom Stuffing. “What time are Bill and Lori getting here?” Jean’s Corn Bread. “Go Steelers!” Parker House Rolls. And don’t forget the gravy.

Around nine I’ll mix up three bourbon and Cokes, one for me, one for Greg, and one for his brother Bill who, like Greg, can make me laugh until it hurts. It will be the first drink I finish all day. My other glasses are half full and scattered throughout the house in the exact spots where I left them when the oven timer chimed. The first of the family starts to pack up for the night, over-tired little kids, missed bedtimes, and the like tugging them home. I’ll get a touch of the blues that the party is winding down when I’m finally ready to relax.

Alone again in our kitchen with the clean up play list doing its part to keep us awake, Greg and I will scour a few more pans and start the list of what we’ll do differently the following year. Shortly after midnight we’ll crawl into bed exhausted, the last round of dishes whirring their way to clean in the dishwasher. Greg will wrap his arms around me and tell me thank you, something he hasn’t always done. I’ll thank him for thanking me, because I never take it for granted. My last thought will be of my breakfast the next morning: a cup of hot coffee in the quiet kitchen with a slice of Greg’s mom’s apple pie drenched with warm milk, the way my mom used to eat it the morning after Thanksgiving. I’ll fall asleep fast, and that night my dreams will be sweet.

Chocolate Glazed Flourless Walnut Date Cake

Adapted from this recipe at



    oil or butter for the pan
    3 cups walnut halves
    1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 cup granulated sugar
    4 large eggs
    finely grated zest of 1 orange
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
    3/4 cup chopped pitted dates


    3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
    4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
    1 tablespoon honey
    1/3 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped, for topping


  1. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch-round cake pan and line with parchment paper. (You can also use a deep tart pan with a removable bottom.)
  2. Put the walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar in a food processor; pulse until finely ground.
  3. Whisk the eggs, orange zest, vanilla, and salt in a small bowl until frothy. Fold in the dates, then fold in the ground walnut mixture. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 22 to 25 minutes. Let cool, then run a knife along the sides and invert the cake onto a platter.
  4. Make the glaze: Combine the chocolate, butter, and honey in a heat-safe bowl. Microwave or heat over a stove-top double boiler until the butter and chocolate melt. Whisk until smooth. Cool slightly, and then pour over the cake. Top with toasted walnuts.

Quandary Peak and Honey Pear Crisp with Hazelnuts and Thyme

November 11, 2013

gluten free honey pear crisp with hazelnuts and thyme

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

And for a woman that endured the loss of both parents and her brother at a young age, I can’t imagine what it took to scare her.

The adrenaline rush triggered by fear can make me tingle all over with an undeniable sense of being alive, but I’m too much of a chicken shit to actively seek fear on any regular basis let alone every day. Besides, I scare so easily, fear finds me, employing the ever-effective element of surprise without me going to look for it. Changing lanes on I-94 is enough to make me sweat through my favorite leather jacket. A single, unannounced sneeze out of Greg can send me off my chair, which is how I earned the nickname “Froggy.” (Really, I don’t know anyone who sneezes as loud as he does.) With that in mind, it’s possible that I rack up 365 scares in a year without even trying. To my credit, fear has never kept me from doing something that thrills me, like traveling to Thailand, jumping out of what my horrified family members called “a perfectly good airplane”, or getting a tattoo. Of course those were all premeditated events with conscious choices. Most of the time fear comes fast and furious without warning: that damn sneeze or a fat rat racing across my sandaled foot in the alley.

That’s how it found me in Colorado, 14,000 feet in the air, approaching the apex of Quandary Peak. Greg and I had climbed from 10,850 feet to just over 14,000 in two plus hours, covering nearly three miles of precipitous, rocky ground. Quandary Peak reaches 14,265 feet above sea level, but from where we were, I couldn’t see the summit. The climb ahead was steep– steeper than an attic staircase in an old house and steeper than any climb I’d faced before. To reach the top—wherever it was—we’d have to scramble up a terrain that resembled the surface of the moon except that in the video of Neil Armstrong touching down, the rocky, cratered surface looked flat. I was facing a wall of rock, standing on legs that were already quivering with fatigue.

From the beginning, I was never sure we’d make it to the top. We’re in good shape—still capable of running eight-minute miles without audible gasps and doing pushups without getting our knees dirty—but climbing a mountain is, uhm, a lot different. This is a good time to remind you that Chicago, where I make my home, sits at an elevation of approximately 600 feet above sea level and is flat with a capital “F”. The climb and what it would do to my quads worried me, but the altitude worried me more. A few years back Greg and I climbed Mauna Kea (EL 13,796 ft.) on the Big Island of Hawaii. On the hike Greg experienced his first bout of altitude sickness. We’d been together for six years, but I’d seldom seen him weak or vulnerable, and it scared the hell out of me. He doesn’t remember the altitude sickness. The memory that is permanently lodged in the score-keeping side of his brain is that the entire sole of his left foot was covered in blisters, or “one giant blister”. The Guinness Book of World Records blister was, as I learned on our way to the top of Quandary Peak, my fault, because I was the one who insisted on going on “and on”, intent on reaching the top.

But Mauna Kea was thousands of miles and many years away. Here on Quandary Peak our feet were as yet, blister free, and our breath while shallower with each short step wasn’t yielding to the woozieness that overcame Greg in Hawaii. We stopped for a water break when Greg announced that we’d made it to 14,000. He handed me the bottle for a luxurious sip. The air temperature was just above freezing with a strong, chilling wind blowing from the valleys below, but we’d built up a lot of heat in the climb so the cool water was refreshing. I let out a deep sigh as I swallowed and casually turned around to take in the view that I’d been missing due to my laser focus on the unstable trail.

Cue up the music from the shower scene of Psycho here: I nearly lost it right there. When we stopped my throbbing quads were singing, “dang, that was steep,” but the view from 14,000 feet screamed, “crazy lady the only way you’re getting down is if you roll off the edge into that pristine mountain lake below.”

I’m not sure what I said or if I said anything, but something prompted Greg to say, “We can stop here. I’m okay if you want to stop. I’m just happy we made it to 14,000.”

“Are you worried about how we’ll make it down on shaky legs?” I asked. If he was afraid, he was doing a bang up job of hiding it.

“No, but I can tell you are. Bob, we don’t have to do it.”

Maybe I was a bit woozy after all, but I was suddenly overcome with gratitude tainted with a healthy serving of shame. I knew that if the tables were turned, I would be prodding him—blistered foot and all–to get to the top. Like a well-intentioned but obnoxious cheerleader, I’d recite various incantations meant to inspire, but would likely have the reverse effect (Remember the first marathon we ran together sweetie when you “hit the wall”?) I mean well in those moments, I really do. I believe that I’m helping him, me, his biggest fan, his wingman. With the clarity of hindsight I see those moments are selfish on my part. I’m hell bent on accomplishing the mission with or without him, but I let myself believe that he will thank me when we get to the finish line or the top, even if his foot is oozing puss. (Please let the record show that this is not a part of me I’m proud of.)

While this may have been our first “14er” as the avid climbers call the 14,000 plus foot peaks, Greg has a lot more alpine hiking experience than I do. If he wasn’t scared, why should I be? More than that though, I trust him to look out for me. Greg isn’t a big risk taker especially when it involves my safety. If the guy who reminds me to be careful every time I strap on my running shoes thought we were in grave danger, he would never suggest we push on.

I turned my back on the majestic view and the path of our descent to face the wall of sharp rocks before me. And we pressed on. Several yards up the trail we caught up with a group of sure-footed mountain goats. Their hard hooves clicked and clacked as they ambled up the mountain. I briefly considered whether or not I could climb in hard, rigid shoes, let alone be so nimble. A rock gave way under my foot as if in answer. Though I’m far less graceful than a goat I managed to regain my balance. I kept climbing and watching my feet. There would be no looking up until I was at the top with but one choice: to go back down.

A half hour after the fear inducing water break, we reached the summit of Quandary Peak. Two more goats were there waiting for us, perhaps hoping we’d invite them to our Clif Bar and apple lunch. We took turns signing the scroll, proof that we had indeed made it to the top. Then we found a smooth rock to sit on and rest our Jell-O legs. Greg took pictures of me and the curious goats, while I took in the view, this time without flinching. Ice-capped mountain tops undulated across a blue sky in every direction I turned. My fear was nowhere to be found. I didn’t want to leave, but not because I was afraid; I was sad to leave such beauty behind me. I turned slowly in a final circle without blinking, hoping to permanently imprint the magnificent view in my mind’s eye, where I could turn to it later when inspiration was hard to come by. Another hiker reached the summit; it was time for us to go. We left him the same gift that greeted us—the view, alone, and started our way back down, following the goats that had welcomed us to the top. One foot in front of the other, eyes on the trail, and my fear in my wake.

Quandary Peak Summit

Mountain Goats on Quandary Peak

Gluten-Free Honey Pear Crisp with Hazelnuts and Thyme



    4 cups pear slices, skins on
    2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
    3 tablespoons honey
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot


    1/2 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour mix (You can substitute white whole wheat or all-purpose flour)
    1/2 cup rolled oats
    1/4 cup brown sugar
    2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
    2 tablespoons honey
    2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skins removed, and coarsely chopped


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 10, 1/2-cup individual ramekins or an 8×8-inch baking dish.
  2. Combine lemon juice, honey, cinnamon, and cornstarch together in a bowl. Add the pears and gently stir to coat.
  3. Whisk together flour, oats, brown sugar, thyme leaves, cinnamon, and salt. Add butter and honey; using fingertips, rub in until moist clumps form. Rub in the hazelnuts.
  4. Evenly divide pear filling between ramekins or pour into baking dish. Sprinkle on topping.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until filling is bubbly and topping is golden brown.
  6. Serve warm.

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