Monday, December 31, 2012

Backing Away From the Fiscal Cliff

Like most kids, mine are largely oblivious to what is going on in the world. As long as they have clothes on their backs, food in their stomachs, and well-charged cell phones, they’re pretty much good to go.

As such, my husband and I usually watch the evening news together for what essentially boils down to thirty minutes of cherished “alone” time.

Over the years, I’ve done my best to preserve my sons’ innocence by shielding them from the violence and corruption that often permeates the news media. Right or wrong, I’d much prefer that their sleep not be disturbed by news of school shootings or the frailty of the economic recovery. What’s the sense in all of us being up at three in the morning?

As a result, with the exception of the occasional social studies assignment, they’ve had little interest in current affairs. But one topic has managed to sneak through - the fiscal cliff.

Like a bad infestation of termites, the topic has wormed its way into our dinner table conversations and bedtime prayers. When my ten year old asked what would happen if our country actually goes over the cliff, my husband waved him off with a smile and said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine.”

This response seemed to satisfy him, for a while.

Then he asked, “Where’s fiscal?”


Once I explained that fiscal was a financial term and not a place, his fear that the Lower 48 was about to slide over a massive cliff named “Fiscal” somewhere out in the dessert was abated. He donned his Batman cape and went on his merry way.

Calming our older boys, however, has not been as easy. As much as we have tried to convince them that the impending financial maelstrom will not have that large of an impact on us, their college plans are on the forefront of all of our minds. Our two oldest have their sites set on graduate school and our third son, a high school junior, is just starting to shop schools.

Here’s what worries me the most: the fact that, as citizens, we’re relegated to the sidelines like spectators at grand sporting match, years in the making. We watch helplessly, knowing that there is no possibility of victory for either side. We stare, mouths agape, as our elected officials stick their thumbs in their ears and blow raspberries across the aisles. With so much at stake, we can’t help but marvel at the bipartisan folly.

But one thing is certain. Whatever happens, come the new year, we know that we’ll be fine as long as we have clothes on our backs, food in our stomachs and well-charged cell phones.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Chocolate Bourbon Cake That Saved Christmas

Christmas, once again, snuck up on me this year. While I had decked the halls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I just wasn't catching the holiday spirit. Everything seemed so...what's the word? Obligatory!

A week and a half before the big day, I shook off my doldrums and picked out a family photo to feature on our annual seasons greeting (which reminds me - I'd like to give a big shout out to our local drug store for their same day service and most lucrative coupon). I had our Christmas cards addressed and inserted into the post office's drop box the very next day. Go me.

My husband and I spent the remainder of the week procuring the rest of the items on our family's wish lists. But, I just couldn't shake the blahs despite having so much to look forward to: singing with the church choir on Christmas Eve, watching my youngest sing with the children's choir, opening presents Christmas morning, and going to my oldest sister's afterwards for brunch (and more presents). 

It all seemed so routine this year. While I didn't let my mood degrade into a full-fledge "ba humbug!" (I did, afterall, bake some delectable Bohemian Christmas cookies to set out for the big guy), I just felt so ho-ho-hum.

Then my other sister, the one who had joined us for Christmas dinner with our parents last night and the very same one who could knock the spatulas out of all those sad reality show pastry chefs, served dessert - a Woodward Reserve Chocolate Cake.


As my loyal readers well know, I am as fond of chocolate as a fish is of water. But this cake, decadent and delicious, cast a spell over all who ate it. After the first bite, my father - normally, a stoic, reserved, and sometimes grouchy man was possessed by a mischievous Christmas elf. 

My mother sat to his right, dutifully reading my middle child's article that was prominently featured in his student newspaper, a piece of cake on the table before her. After my father downed his piece of cake, unbeknownst to everyone except my eldest, he swiped his wife's. 

Realizing that his deed did not go unnoticed, he winked at the witness. This, in turn, prompted a round of giggles I haven't participated in since the Great Sock Fight of 2001. 

Before long, my eldest was able to parlay what had just happened to my sister who, in turn, told me. But, having just taken a ginormous bite of my own piece, I was unable to relay the tale to my spouse seated directly to my right. 

By the time I could verbalize again, my mother had finished reading my boy's literary effort, put the paper down and asked, "What happened to my cake?" which prompted an uproarious round of laughter. At this point, my dear old dad's face was contorted into a wince and his eyes were watering. Knowing he couldn't pull off an innocent expression to save his life, he did his best to tame his grin into a serious one. 

Laughter. It is the best medicine. And just so you have plenty to go around at your own table, here is a recipe for the tonic*:

Woodford Reserve Chocolate Cake
Serves 16, generously

1¾ cups strong coffee
¼ cup Woodford Reserve bourbon
½ pound unsalted butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 well beaten, large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon finely ground pepper
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1.   Combine coffee and Woodford Reserve, butter and chocolate and simmer over very low heat till butter and chocolate have melted. Whisk mixture to incorporate.
2.   Add sugar and stir till dissolved. Let mixture cool 10 minutes.
3.   While mixture is cooling, sift remaining dry ingredients together. Using a whisk, incorporate flour mixture into the liquid, making sure that all flour is dissolved.
4.   Whisk in beaten eggs and vanilla extract.
5.   Place finished batter into a 9-inch springform pan that has been buttered and dusted with cocoa.
6.   Bake at 275 F for 1½ hours or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out just holding a couple of crumbs.
7.   Cool cake entirely before removing from the pan.
8.   This cake has never met an icing it didn't like! Woodford bakers prefer caramel.
Chocolate Frosting
3/4 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa (I use Ghirardelli)
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 stick of softened butter
3 - 4 tablespoons of half-and-half or heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift together cocoa and confectioners' sugar in a bowl. In another bowl (I use the bowl of my stand mixer for this) combine 1 cup of this mixture with the butter and a tablespoon of cream and beat until smooth. Add vanilla. Add the rest of the sugar mixture alternately with cream all the while beating well. If mixture seems dry, add more cream carefully until the consistency is just right for spreading on the top and sides of the cake. 

*My sis, who originally pulled this recipe off of, put about two to three tablespoons of bourbon in the frosting, even though the recipe doesn't call for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Your Holiday Card Photo Says About You

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the one you include in your holiday greetings need only be worth two, maybe three, tops:

"Merry Christmas!"
"Happy Hanukkah!"
"Seasons Greetings!"
"Happy New Year!"

But, let's be honest. When picking the perfect holiday photo, the message we're all attempting to blast is: "Are we the perfect family, or what?"

It should come as no surprise then that many families overcompensate and choose several photos to get the message across. If one photo doesn't do the trick, certainly a collage of smiling faces should, right?

Maybe perfection just isn't my thing. After all, my family isn't perfect. In fact, we're far from it. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sure, when my boys were little, I made a weak attempt to dress them in holiday garb. I had hoped that it would make up for the fact that I couldn't get a single photo of them all smiling at once.

Take Exhibit A here. One child is hamming it up, one is bored, one is overdue for a nap and one is in a box. But, seeing that their clothes are so dang adorable, does any of that really matter?

I. Think. Not.

Through the years, I've abandoned the holiday-themed attire and selected instead any picture that had all of my guys in it. It didn't matter if it was taken in August for the first day of school or in October when they were hunting for pumpkins or raking leaves. All I needed was evidence that there were, at one point, doing something together.

One thing I have not done is the destination photo. You know, those cards. The ones in which, behind  a groups' entitled grins, you can spy palm trees and surf or catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

But it's not for lack of trying. The one of us all sitting around the table for breakfast at Paul Bunyan's up in the Wisconsin Dells? Two of us are blinking and three are not even looking at the camera. And that one of us gathered, most ecstatically, in the middle of Main Street USA in Disney world? Camera strap right through the middle of the shot.

Oh well, maybe this year's will be the best so far. The matching Santa cardigans should be arriving any day now...

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Plate Spinner's Disaster Preparedness Plan

These days, a quick glance at the headlines can be enough to convince anybody that the end must surely be near, what with all of the earthquakes, mega storms, drought, global financial meltdowns, genocide, and perhaps most alarming - the sudden absence of Twinkies from store shelves.

So what can a busy plate spinner do to prepare?

Nothing really, because we just don't have the time, especially with the holidays right around the corner.

Oh. Wait. Maybe we won't have to worry about that after all. Never mind.

In any event, here are some helpful tips to get you and yours ready for any disaster that may or may not be imminent.

1. Transfer all of your electronic calendar entries to a paper-based calendar. I know. Stone-age, right? But, trust me, the last thing you'll want to be in a post-apocolyptic world is late for an appointment.

2. Get your hands on a French press and an old-fashioned nut chopper. How else do you expect to grind and brew coffee beans without electricity? Armageddon or not, a world without java would indeed be hell on earth.

3. Hoard chocolate. When world markets crumble, currency will be worthless. Chocolate, however,  will not only retain its value, but can be used to barter precious items such as batteries, matches and fuel.

4. Teach your kids how to play checkers and shuffle cards. When their electronic devices fail, you'll still want them to be able to entertain themselves but be sure to cut them some slack. Transitioning from flashy hand held devices and video games to board games, and learning how to handle a deck of cards, can be quite daunting.

5. Lastly, plan for alternate modes of communication. As difficult as it is to imagine a world without mobile phones, texting and online networking, it may be time to go retro. I'm talkin' ham radios. But, since I don't know the first thing about them, I'll recommend snail mail instead. Besides, don't forget the postman's motto: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." It captures just about anything a disaster can throw at us, except the absence of Twinkies.