Puzzling Puzzles

On Christmas Eve I spent hours bending over the coffee table trying to see the difference between pieces as alike as these. I know, I know – you can see plainly that the one on the left has a little bit of dark on its top outie.

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If you’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle, you know that the difference is not so easy to see when the table looks like this.

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The pieces below give you a little more to go on because clearly the very pale green (which makes you want to have a stern conversation with the artist who painted this picture or the marketing person who decided that it would make a good puzzle) – if you can see the very pale green under artificial light when people are walking around making intermittent shadows – is going in two different directions. Do they fit together?

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It could be hours before you discover that they do. In the meantime there are several hundred other puzzle pieces competing for your attention – Pick me! Pick me! – and you can look through all the as-yet-unplaced pieces a thousand times and not see the obvious. Of course they go together.

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Sometimes I think I have a disorder, you know, the kind that has to do with not being able to sit still. I keep pretty active in general and have been known to forget what I’m doing because I get distracted doing something else. Is this a human characteristic or a disorder? I don’t know, but I have also been told that I should relax more.

For the record, doing a puzzle like this is totally relaxing for me and I did not jump up and down away from it every time I thought of something else I should /might be doing. In fact it was so relaxing I forgot about the scalloped potatoes I should have made, which in the end Samuel made and which were fabulous. And now he knows that this is a recipe.

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He made this dish on Christmas morning (with some supplemental verbal instruction), and naturally we were doing a bunch of other things, and I forgot how we did the onions last time – on top or mixed in – so we thought it best to put them on top, which trust me was a very good decision. This is how it looked on the table — that white dish between the wine bottles with the golden brown, soft, sweet onions on top. You will have to imagine how good it tasted.

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My point is that I was so absorbed in the puzzle on Christmas Eve that we were scrambling to do the scalloped potatoes (which were none the worse for the scramble) on Christmas Day. Does this sound like a person with a disorder? Okay, maybe a disorder of forgetfulness rather than a disorder of distractibility. Never mind about the disorder discussion!

Puzzles are challenging! Why do we do them? For me and my family they are a holiday activity, and I do not remember ever keeping a puzzle in its finished form beyond a few weeks. Sooner or later we break it all up and put the pieces back in a box. All that work! All those hours! Why do we take time to do something that in the end goes away? It reminds me of what my mother used to say about Thanksgiving – you do all that food prep, days of food prep, and in ten minutes they’ve eaten it all up! My Airbnb cottage guest, Rob, was saying last night that the different sweeteners you use in mixed drinks react differently (and make a different drink) depending on the temperature of the liquid. There is a whole chemistry behind mixed drinks that he is clearly an expert on, but why does he take the time to study this?

Why does Trish make amazing little appetizers like this to bring to a holiday gathering? Why does anyone take time to make food look like adorable little mice? We don’t eat mice! But when they look like this and we know they are sweet, we eat them!

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We do these things because they bring a certain kind of satisfaction. We use our brains and our hands and put them to work alongside creativity, competence, curiosity and confidence. We love knowing we can do a thing that not everyone can do — even if we couldn’t do it ten years ago and had to learn. Rob had a succulent turkey going inside a foil pan inside my gas grill. He showed me. I smelled it and knew that he and Kelsey would be having a fabulous Christmas dinner. He said he loves to cook but can’t bake anything. Kelsey, on the other hand, can bake! Why? Who knows?

Does it matter? We share our strengths and in the end there is both entree and dessert. There is both passion and reason, strength and flexibility, activity and rest. We need all the components that make us human, but we don’t each need everything all the time. The unboring joy of life includes a little of A, a little of B, some of R sometimes, some of Q another time, learning M this year and N the next, one person doing X, another person doing Y (and it all gets done somehow!). It’s like one big puzzle in which no two pieces are exactly alike yet they all fit together to make a satisfying, wonderful whole.

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A Birthday Cake Worthy of Mom

My mom likes gooey frosting. If you are going to make a cake for her, that’s the first thing to know. If you are going to make her birthday cake, that’s perhaps the main thing to know. She will eat all around the frosting, saving the best for last, and savor every melt-in-your-mouth bite until it hardly looks like there was any cake at all on the plate.

I take that back. If you are going to make her birthday cake, the main thing to know is that the cake should be worthy of her. What is a birthday after all? To me it’s a time to celebrate that a person was born, that they came into the world, that they are part of your world. Clearly moms are in the enviable category of people essential to the fact of our own existence. But that doesn’t make them necessarily good, or in my case, great. I know I am blessed. My mom is amazing and I love her to no end. For as long as I can, I will celebrate her.

Last year, Mom moved to Charlottesville. For the first time in my adult life, I was close by – ten minutes from her place to be exact, as compared to six or seven hours as in the past. This year, on this birthday, she is happy and settled and nearby. Let the baking begin!

Fortunately for me, Mom not only loves gooey frosting, she also loves coconut. I’ve seen her eyeing those coconut-smothered cakes in the glass cases in bakeries. I’ve long known of her love of coconut macaroons, with or without a chocolate base. I’m safe putting as much coconut as I want on a cake. Does this look like enough? For a person who doesn’t eat nuts, oh, how I love coconut!

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This is the finished cake. It is two layers of sponge cake (also called genoise) with a filling of homemade lemon curd that has fresh raspberries and blueberries imbedded in it. The white fluffy frosting is a mix of buttercream and cream cheese appropriately smothered with coconut and decorated with more fresh raspberries. It is possible that I never made a cake for anyone that I was so anxious to eat myself!

The sponge cake part was new to me. What I mean is: I do not have a tried-and-true recipe for sponge cake nor do I remember ever having made one. To make this one, I did what any self-respecting wannabe baker would do, I consulted with an expert baker, or at least a credible one, which nowadays you do online. When you get a recipe online, you get not only the recipe, but often the many comments that others have made after trying said recipe. That’s a good bit of credibility, though not foolproof. I went with Natasha’s Kitchen and followed the instructions for her easy sponge cake.

One of the comments had to do with the consistency of the batter after it has undergone eight minutes of whipping in your stand mixer. The instructions said to whip the batter for 8-10 minutes and a reader said she had a trick to know if you had whipped it long enough: Detach the whisk attachment, lift it above the batter, make a figure 8 and see how quickly the 8 sinks into the batter. She said if you can count to ten and the figure 8 is still visible, you had whipped it long enough. At eight minutes (I used my phone timer) I stopped and did this trick. My figure 8 sank before I had counted to 2. I gave the batter another two minutes of whipping. It sank again. Uh-oh. Natasha said 8-10 minutes of whipping. I gave it one more minute on high and my 8 still sank. That’s where I said Bother this, it has to be good now, and poured it into the pans. It was very good.

The best part of this recipe is the suggestion to cut out circles of parchment paper for the bottoms of the cake pans. After the designated baking time, I let the two layers cool in their pans for ten minutes or so on a rack, then took them out of the pans, and let them cool the rest of the way, they wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap and froze them. This paper peeled easily off the frozen cake layer when I was ready to assemble and frost the cake. Another hint if you try this recipe. Use three pans instead of two. The amount of batter the recipe makes divided into my two standard cake pans spilled onto the sides of the pan. In the end this meant trimming off the edges when I took the cakes out of the pans, which left me having to eat them! Oh, yummy preview! Hmmm, maybe this extra, spilled-over part is not such a bad thing?!

Sandy brought marvelous raspberries the day before, and they are so pretty and so delicious, I wanted to use them in and on the cake. But they need something to sit in. On top they will sit in the frosting but in between the layers they needed something. Lemon curd seemed just right. Again I went online, this time to Taste of Home, having never made homemade lemon curd.

Again I followed instructions, and again the mixture didn’t seem thick enough after the amount of time it said to stir in a pot over a flame. I got impatient at that point and put a teaspoon of cornstarch in a cup and added just enough water to stir it into a thick paste, then added that paste to the hot lemon mixture. This worked. I can’t say whether the curd would have been fine with more patience and without my remedy. Probably it would have.

My last bit of improv concerned the frosting. You make a buttercream frosting with butter, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and a little milk (and vanilla if you want but I ran out last time I used it, and know I have another bottle around here but couldn’t find it, so no vanilla this time). Again I used the stand mixer because I wanted the frosting really fluffy, so I let the whisk beat it like mad for ten minutes or so. But I got concerned that I didn’t have enough frosting for the sides and top of the cake, and I used up all the powdered sugar I had, so I decided that I could add some leftover cream cheese frosting (from another cake sometime recently) just to make sure there was enough. I let this all whip together in the mixer. When I relayed this story at the table while we were eating the cake, my daughter Marie said this example of make-do illustrated my lifelong culinary style. So be it. The frosting worked 😊

The last essential birthday cake element in my house is the plate that is used for the Birthday Girl’s piece (or Boy’s, as the case may be). Long long ago I got this plate and have always brought it out along with the other plain dessert plates. I am not good with balloons for calling attention to the person we are celebrating. But a plate I can do!

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I can’t say I like this plate’s design all that much, and have never been crazy about the orange, but it’s what I have and what we’ve used and it serves! Mom’s piece went on this plate.

Whether or not my children follow this birthday-plate tradition, I don’t know. But I hoped they would. At one point a few years ago I searched on ebay and got them each a birthday plate. My favorite is the one I found for Marie. I have always been enamored with the original Winnie the Pooh stories and illustrations. Could there be a better Happy Birthday plate than this? I hope she uses it on everyone’s birthdays!

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Our tradition, like many people’s, is that we bring the cake with lighted candles in from another room while singing Happy Birthday.

We sang,  Mom blew out her candles and we celebrated this wonderful lady I get to call Mom!

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Where our tradition differs from most people’s perhaps is that after the Birthday Girl or Boy blows out the candles, she or he gets to make the first slice into it. They do not cut their whole piece, just the first slice into the cake, which Marie said was my way of retaining control over portion size, but this is not actually true – that’s just the way my mom did it, so I did! Mom never explained why she did it, but the way I always saw it was that the Birthday Girl or Boy gets to be involved, gets to start the process, but is not burdened with the work of cutting up the cake (which, c’mon, can be messy and tricky and require more concentration than a person celebrating a birthday can rightly be expected to have at that moment) – a perfectly plausible alternative reason to do it this way, wouldn’t you say!?

Mom cut the first slice and I so enjoyed watching her enjoy her piece – down to the last bit of gooey frosting! And I enjoyed mine too!

Home is Home Because

When you have been away from home for an afternoon, you don’t necessarily think about how wonderful it is to return to your own space. But when it’s been sixteen days, that’s a different story. It’s wonderful! Maybe it’s even more wonderful when you are away much longer than that, but for now I can speak only to the sixteen-day effect.

I have always felt that your own space – the place you call home – should be a place of peace (as much as is in your power to make it so) and a place of sanctuary, where you can be safe and you can be yourself. It should reflect your personality and preferences, and you should be able to move about easily and be (let’s hope) happy there. I want to think that everyone is kind and welcoming to guests.

It’s fun to see other people’s homes. The ones I was in while away have much in common with mine. They have a place for street shoes just inside the door as I do, well-equipped kitchens, comfortable beds and chairs, a large table for eating together, some soft furniture, a good deal of bright lighting, images of family members on the walls or shelves, overlooked smudges and scuffs and selective disorder (or shall we say less-than-optimal order in certain areas? Just like mine!).

Yet they are all different than mine. Most profoundly, my children’s homes all felt like their homes, not mine. This made me think about what it is about your own home that sets it apart from others. Some things are practical, some harder to pin down.

In your own home, you know where things are. We all have our patterns, our routines. We keep certain things front and center and other things in their designated places because our patterns and routines run more smoothly if we know where things are. You know where the outlets are for plugging in your phone charger. You know where extra soap is to replace the empty one that’s perched at the back of the sink. When my children were little, I had a thing about my scissors. If you need scissors, you need scissors, and nothing else serves. If you need to use my scissors, put them back where you found them.

Yesterday I needed a crowbar at one point. (We all need a crowbar sometimes, right??) Naturally I went to the shed to get one. There are a couple of screws for hanging the crowbars in there. See them, under the blue box?

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Do you see crowbars hanging from them? Neither did I. Being deep (sometimes literally) into the Big Dig (my foundation repair project) as we were yesterday, I groaned, thinking I might have to waste time looking. There are only so many hours of daylight in October, so dammit, where’s the crowbar? Thankfully, when I glanced in the other direction, I found one in the five-gallon bucket that holds a dozen or so random tools like the big loppers. It was the second most logical place to put it if you forgot the right place. Whew! I was spared the frustration.

In your own home, your stuff is familiar. You know what to expect. Fewer surprises are more relaxing. In each household I visited they all drink coffee and/or tea and therefore have something for boiling water. I saw two electric kettles, one stovetop kettle and one Keurig. All of them work, though I am not convinced that the water coming from the Keurig is as hot as it should be. That aside, my own kettle is familiar to me. I can be a bit more on auto-pilot with mine. My muscles know when the weight of it indicates enough water for one cup, two cups or a whole pot of tea. My ears know the sound of it as it gets close to the boiling point. My hands remember how hot the handle can get depending on how much water is in it.

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It is NOT the end of the world to use different water-boiling equipment. It just doesn’t feel like home.

When it comes to tea (and presumably coffee), there is also something about the water itself. Your own water in your own home, whether it comes from a municipal system or straight out of the earth from your well, has its own taste, and you get used to that. When my friend Fred stayed here, he drank tea more than he usually does, and decided he would drink more once he got home. The day before he left, he bought some of the same loose black tea as I have in my house. It tasted different at his house, and the only explanation for that is that his water is different. To get closer to the tea he wanted, he decided to use bottled water. That made it better, though still not quite the same.

In your own home, it smells right. I don’t mean to suggest that other homes smell bad. They don’t. They just smell different. Houses take on smells of the foods prepared there recently (or frequently), of the cleaning products applied there, of the people themselves and the shampoo or cologne they use, of the animals that share the spaces.

Not everyone bakes (imagine!). Not everyone even cooks! But there’s a reason they tell you to have just made a batch of cookies when you are trying to sell your house and have potential buyers coming soon. When there are onions sautéing in butter or fresh bread becoming golden in the oven, or whenever the smells that seem warm and homey and yummy to you are wafting from the kitchen, it’s a kind of embrace that you are drawn into, one that’s hard to resist, one that feels like home.

In your own home, you know the paces and the peculiarities. You know how to navigate regardless of the lighting, how far it is to the bathroom, what flooring is under your feet at what point, what obstacles you might possibly encounter (dog? toys? edge of table?). You know the flow of traffic, where the choke points are and how to avoid them and what’s the best way from Point A to Point B.

The top step of Bradley’s basement staircase has a wider tread than the others. Don’t forget that when you go up or down; it’s a slight adjustment of your footing. The lights in Marie’s living room get turned on by way of a small remote; the first morning when I got up early (still on east coast time), for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on! Drew’s kitchen sink is the oddest shape I’ve ever seen, like a pac-man in the corner, and it doesn’t fit a large pot, so you find another way to clean that pot.

In my house the screen door gets out of whack sometimes. You have to lift it gently but firmly into place every time you go in and out until a good friend (thank you, Sandy!) fixes it. My kitchen countertop is old and white and gets stained, and it sags just a bit over near the stove. The condensation caused by a thawing container of anything sends a slow, predictable ribbon of water toward one corner. It’s better to put thawing things in my sink (until I get a new countertop!).

In your own home, you remember the way it used to be. You have a history with the property, inside and out. You know what was there before. You see changes incrementally. Marie just got new windows in several rooms. They are very nice, but I don’t remember the old ones. She does and is so happy they are gone. Bradley gutted his house before they moved in, moved all the rooms around, creating a new floor plan. Beth did all the electrical work. If you knew the house before, you wouldn’t know it’s the same house. They have vivid images in their minds of what it looked like when they bought it. I needed photos to show me. Drew has a fabulous new rug, adding warmth to his place in a way that he says is much better than what he had before, which I never saw. I’ll take his word.

If they came to my house right now and saw this mum (yes, that’s my chrysanthemum!),

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they wouldn’t know, unless I told them, how three weeks ago it looked like this:

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And three months ago, you could barely see it in front of the beets.

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I loved seeing my children in their own homes, seeing them comfortable, making their spaces their own. But it is always good to come home. This time, it was good to find a beautiful plant in the garden because there was a big hole in front of my house! More on the Big Dig soon!