Thursday, December 23, 2010

"You're a Baker . . . Bake Something!"

I am a baker at heart.  From earliest memory, my grandma would prop me up on a step-stool, with a flour cloth towel tied around my little self, wooden spoon in hand, "helping".  We made more dozens of cookies than I could ever count.  Lemon-nut refrigerator cookies, date pinwheels, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, shape cookies, chocolate chip, chocolate pixies, ranger cookies, and those funny face cookies from the Betty Crocker kids cookbook that tasted yucky but were fun to make, so I didn't complain.  She also had me pull taffy, bake pies and cakes, make popcorn balls, and muffins. 

My mom was very happy that I had the baking bug.  She was more than happy to turn the kitchen over to me to experiment and bake anything I wanted, provided I cleaned up after myself.  In jr. high, she pulled me out of school to do her Christmas baking.  I was stoked.  I pulled my little tv into the kitchen and watched reruns of Tarzan and The Love Boat as I made her famous Thimble Cookies, which have an indent created by a thimble dipped in sugar.  I tell you, that metal thimble gets hot when you re-press the cookies halfway through the baking time. 

I made my first wedding cake for my brother-in-law and his wife back in 1995, or so.  They were married in Vegas and I decorated the cake in the hotel room, using squat-shaped champagne glasses with roses underneath to hold the layers up.  There were blue and pink hearts piped onto the sides.  Looking back, it was pretty hokey, but it was my first wedding cake!!!  I am the type of person who fully embraces the bride and groom getting real messy while feeding each other the first bite.  I think we left an extra tip for the housekeeping staff who had to clean the carpet after they were finished with each other. 

In college, I studied Communication, which finally came in handy for this librarian gig I have currently.  During Junior year, however, as I color coded the index of my newest Bon Appetit in the library instead of studying, I wished I had gone to culinary school instead.  For Christmas and Birthdays, I got down and jiggy in the kitchen.  People with sweet tooths (?) love me.  We were staying at a friend's house in anticipation of Ozzfest the next day.  Some of his friends were there, and when they found out what I did for a living, they said, "You're a baker.  Bake something!" like I could just pull the butter and sugar out of nowhere.  Grrrrr.  My husband loves that line and uses it on me anytime he has a craving for something sweet and there's nothing to be found. 

I was a baker at Coco's in Rancho Cucamonga for a few years.  There I learned the fine art of inventory, clipboards and checklists, and baking all night long with Metallica as loud as it could get.  I would be a drooling mess by the time family Thanksgiving dinner hit, but it was a great learning experience. 

We worked as servers at a local restaurant in the mountains called the "Antler's Inn".  At times I would give away my tables to bake up sweets in the kitchen.  My hubby wasn't so happy about my tips going down, but I was happier behind the scenes than running the floor.  One year the owner bought a whole bunch of supplies for me to bake anything that I wanted.  I was still inexperienced and was like a deer in the headlights.  I needed structure.  I disappointed her, and myself, by not utilizing all her purchases adequately.  Give me that stuff now.  I would rock it!!!  For a few meals, she had a special menu and I was in charge of desserts.  This was more my style.  I would plan and implement the desserts, spending hours in the kitchen.  Score for her!

After we moved to San Diego, I worked for a short time in a hellhole of a restaurant I refer to as "Perfect Puke".  It's real name was "Perfect Palate" and was run by an ex-baked goods delivery driver who wanted to make a profit by cutting out the middle man.  The plus side of the job was more creative freedom and a storefront to sell out of.  The downside was that he was a disgusting person who used his mother's name to open credit accounts, hoping she would die and he wouldn't have to pay.  We used to have to serve lunch at the local strip clubs.  I tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than having to tell the strippers that they couldn't have any of the patron food.  We catered a luau and there were 2 dead pigs in the walk-in refrigerator for a couple of days.  What a nightmare.  I was not sad to leave that place!

I was eventually hired by a husband and wife team who had opened up a little cafe in La Jolla called "The Come On In! Cafe".  I had to work my way up to baker's assistant, by working the front and making sandwiches, but it paid off.  Working for this perfectionistic, exacting, high-level couple introduced me a whole new world.  Previous to me getting that fabulous job, I had applied to be a pastry cook for the San Diego school district.  When they offered me a position, I couldn't turn down the hours and benefits, but held my place at the Cafe by coming in some afternoons and working the summertime.  As a pastry cook, I learned to bake for hundreds.  We fed about 7 schools.  They got homemade breads, brownies, cookies and pies.  I would (illegally) take the leftovers to the Ocean Beach pier to feed the homeless.  I hated throwing food away, which led me to eventually quit that job.  I worked for the Cafe for about 14 years total, for different bosses.  I opened a new store in Sorrento Valley, leaving my house at 3:30 a.m. to get the muffins and scones ready for delivery by 6.  Again, lots of loud metal got me through those surreal mornings. 

After awhile, I had developed a serious allergy to the flour dust and cinnamon.  I would bake with a dust mask on, but I was still sneezing my head off all the time.  I also got sick of the commute and of being a zombie by 7 p.m. so I gave notice.  I started stalking a local restaurant/bakery that was simply not living up to its potential.  By the time I had the courage to ask the owner if he was willing to sell, he had already sold it and informed me that the new owner needed a baker.  Sigh.  I was bored with baking, but figured it was a step in the right direction.  And I could walk to work.  Score.  I worked at "The Lace Apron" for a few years, but unfortunately, the local business just wasn't enough to keep it afloat and my dear boss had to let her staff go.  I was ready for a new career and started subbing at the local library and schools.  I was thoroughly sick of baking.  I didn't volunteer to make birthday cakes or Christmas goodies anymore.  I was perfectly content to be the one bringing the salad to the potlucks.  For a few years, I would break down and make cakes for my hubby or son, but that was it.  I would buy the pre-made chocolate chip dough and tell myself that it was almost as good as making it myself.  My husband just raised his eyebrows and ate the cookies. 

Well the years went by and the love for baking came back.  This year I have been in the kitchen since the holiday started for me on the 18th.  I made fruitcake (for my mom), cranberry-orange nut bread (also a request) and Bishop's bread, a family recipe that contains dates, pecans, chocolate and candied cherries.  Yum.  I also made cookies for an exchange and an apple/berry tart.  I've got 3 pumpkin pies in the oven, then I'm calling it quits for the season.  I also spent time in the kitchen melting down some candles that my grandmother had left behind and reforming them to burn at our family dinner tomorrow night.  I'm glad I'm a kitchen goddess once again.  I missed that part of me.  Thanks for listening. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holidays 2010

The finely tuned and edited version

Christmas hit me early this year.  Sometimes, when the holidays come our way, I want to call the whole thing off.  The thought of all the planning and baking and shopping and cooking and traveling and spending just because "they" say so, just seems overwhelming.  This year, however, we pulled up all our decorations from the basement around Thanksgiving . (Yes, we have a basement!  One of the few houses in S. Calif that does!!!)  I like to have at least our revolving, pre-lit tree up in the window and the inflatable Santa (thanks, Auntie the great!) up to greet the Fallbrookians who travel down our street to see the Christmas Parade which is held in early December.  We had the whole house dialed in earlier than ever this year.  Don't know why the bug bit me to celebrate full-bore, but it did. 

As usual, I have great and huge plans for the Christmas card that always gets put off until I practically panic.  Well, guess what?!?  It is December 18th and I haven't even ordered them yet!!!  Ha ha.  This isn't too unusual.  I usually focus on the "Have a great New Year" to make it seem more appropriate when it gets to people's mailboxes in mid-January.  If you notice the cute pic above of our son and his dog, it seems wholesome and celebratory.  Let me tell you a little story about it.  Last weekend, we enticed Kodi to sit for numerous pictures by having the bag of doggie snacks close by.  He didn't even try to shake the reindeer headband off.  Good doggie.  Jake was still wearing his pj's, but I didn't really think that would matter, even though his green camo sweats clashed horribly with his Chargers shirt.  I figured it wouldn't show too much.  After downloading the pictures and deciding that this one had the best looks on their faces, I realized that my dog was sporting a boner.  Yup.  I said it.  I laughed, I cried, I kissed my  . . . never mind.  I just decided that I would either throw the whole card idea out the window or break down and retake the pic.  I had to share it with E, however, because it was just too funny.  When our dog gets excited or nervous, he shows it.  And boy did it show. 

E cracked up, then got to work, downloading a free photo-shop-type program and erasing the X-rated part.  For some reason, this grossed me out to the max.  Seriously, I was shrieking with laughter and peering through my fingers as he very carefully "cut" it off.  I couldn't get a grip.  Then he fixed Kodi's eyes, which had captured the flash and looked a bit supernatural.  Did he stop there?  Oh no, not my man!  He then colored the green in our son's offending mis-matched pants blue to match his shirt.  Man oh man, is this man good!!!

Christmas time is also a time to remember times past.  I have a jar of ancient maraschino cherries which remind me of one of my grandfathers.  Every year my son asks if we are going to eat them.  Heck no!  First of all, they are very sentimental to me, and secondly, they would probably kill us. 

I unwrap other remembrances from grandparents who are no longer living.  Ornaments, a Mr and Mrs Santa kissing candle, some creches given to me by a grandmother, all fill my heart with a bittersweet longing for the "good ole days".  Well, I know perfectly that today is tomorrow's good ole day and I move on.  I let myself feel what I feel and when I get tired of decorating and packing up my usual decorations to make space, I remind myself that I am creating those memories for our son. 

I have been overcome by my emotions a bit more than usual this year.  Today when driving home, I saw the Christmas lights on the street and it hit me afresh that this would be the first year without my beloved father-in-law.  He died on this past Labor Day.  I got my mother-in-law a carved angel ornament to commemorate this year.  My Aunt K has asked for family recipes to put in a personalized recipe book.  I typed in my Grandmother B's Gingerbread Cake with tears pouring down.  She used to make it every year for my mom's birthday in November.  I miss her so much.  I was reminded of her just a few minutes ago when I pulled out some white tissue paper that had tiny colored sparkles in it.  She used to lay out a similar cotton blanket under her tree.  It looked like sparkly snow to my child eyes. 

Starting in November, the season just hits the ground running.  Our son's birthday is in November, my husband's is 5 days before Christmas, my niece on Christmas Eve.  Our Anniversary is on New Year's Eve.  This year marks our 20th.  We will be on a cruise in the harbor celebrating this year.  We travel a lot, celebrating Christmas at least 5 times in as many days.  We spend too much and tend to pull the belts tighter in the coming months.  We get burned out and cranky.  We wonder if it is all worth it.  My answer?  Yup.  Thanks for listening and have a great holiday yourself.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bloody with a Touch of Angst

Since becoming a Middle/High School Library Media Technician three years ago, I have dived whole-heartedly into fiction geared toward these younger readers.  Beside an occasional Stephen King or Alice Hoffman novel, I find my fiction selections based entirely on what's right in front of me.  The Hunger Games Series, all 12 of the Cirque du Freak stories, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, Skellig, to name just a few of the books I have enjoyed while chomping down my lunch, sitting at my desk, happy to eat and read in relative peace. 

When I hit the public library, I find myself in the Young Adult section, seeing what they've got and occasionally grabbing from there as well, especially the audio books.  Blessed audio books.  Nothing makes a commute more enjoyable than a good story. 

True, sometimes the younger fiction can bog down in emotions or simplicity.  I have to admit the same can be true for a lot of adult books as well.  What I am continually encountering is, however, Darkness.  Sadness.  Loneliness.  Alienation.  Being misunderstood by family and friends.  Love.  Passion.  Need and Want.  Having to choose between what the heart craves and what seems to be the more acceptable choice. 

At school right now, I am reading Crescendo, the sequel to Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick.  Book one had all the "good girl drawn to the hot bad boy" that was found in the Twilight novels, but the sexual tension was turned up a notch, if that's possible.  High schooler Nora Gray is still reeling from the murder of her father when she is partnered with Patch, (the aforementioned hot bad boy) in Science class.  By the end of the book, she is in love with this fallen angel.  Literally.  He has the scars on his back to prove it.  In Crescendo, the drama continues and Nora thinks she sees her dead father all over town.  I haven't finished it yet, so I can't ruin the plot for you.  It's pretty good stuff, though.  Tasty over a bowl of soup during period 5 which is my blessed prep period and I am only interrupted about 3 times on average from my book and meal.
In my car today I just finished The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.  Seriously, how could I resist a title and cover like that?!?  I hadn't even heard of it before I found it on the library audio book shelf.  Mary lives in a small village surrounded by chain-link fence.  She has never been beyond its boundaries because they are surrounded by a forest which is filled by "the Unconsecrated", (read Zombies) and one bite will turn you into one of them.  Her father has disappeared and her mother gets bit in chapter one.  Mary has not been "spoken for" by a male and must go live with the Sisters (who rule the village with religion and rules).  While learning their ways, Mary uncovers some very ugly secrets.  A childhood friend, Harry, steps forward and asks for her.  Even though Mary is in love with Harry's brother, Travis, she makes the choice to become betrothed, despite her broken heart (on so many levels) and her craving to leave the village to find the fabled ocean her mother used to tell her stories about.  Eventually, Mary, Harry, Travis and some others must escape their village as it has been breached by the Unconsecrated.  This has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read.  There is about 4 % happiness and 99 % blood, horror, gore and gristle.  (I know that math doesn't add up, but it's true.) The end is a bit of a cliffhanger.  I am hoping for a part two from this first time author.  I will put it on my wishlist for the school.  The teens will eat it up.  I do have to say, however, that I hope they get a different narrator.  The girl who read it used the same voice inflection for commas as for periods and I was constantly re-speaking it in my head.  Very distracting. 

Today when I went to the library to return my latest story, I perused the children's section of audios.  I picked up some slightly more wholesome stories, both for me and my boy, who loves to listen to sleep at night.  I picked up Peter Pan (unabridged, thank you very much) in memory of the recently seen movie about it's author, J.M. Barrie.  "Finding Neverland" was a great movie;  one I will watch more than once.  Starring Johnny Depp (purrrrrr), it is heartbreakingly beautiful.  I also got The Wind in the Willows.  It's been on my son's bookshelf since he was an infant and we never really got into it.  I will start disk one tomorrow.  Maybe I'll let you know how it is.  Thanks for listening.