Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cosmos - the flower, not the drink

Last year, Robby and I bought cosmos from a local nursery. When they first bloomed, they were mostly light pink, white, and a few bright purple. Those all died and went to seed, and the new flowers that have sprung up have all been deep purple. Just yesterday this gorgeous red one bloomed, which is putting me in the mood for all things holiday.

Debbie had told us that if you can get cosmos to come up from seed, you'll have them always. So far, she is right. These guys are popping up everywhere! I love it!

On another note, it is Wednesday, and I am still working on Path to Sanity, so my WRW will have to be postponed until I finish this. All I can say now is it has been life-changing, and that is no exaggeration. I've also started reading all of Chronicles of Narnia again, but this is slow-going, since I'm just reading a bit each night. If you have not read Narnia, or if you haven't read it in awhile, read them!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sugar Cookies...Yum!

Even though our weather has warmed up significantly the last few days (and will continue to be warm through the week), last Thursday officially marked the first day of autumn. That means it is time to get out the cookie cutters and make some fall-themed sugar cookies!

I received this recipe from a friend last summer. It's great for those fluffy sugar cookies that are way over-priced at the grocery store. The cookie itself isn't too sweet and remains tall and soft. As I was nearly out of powdered sugar, I had to go for a more buttercream style of icing, but it still tasted yummy. Next time, I'll do more of a traditional powdered sugar base frosting, though.

Here's the cookie recipe, in case you too want some leaf and pumpkin shaped cookies.

Shannon's Sugar Cookies

Cream together:
2/3 c shortening
3/4 c sugar
1 egg
1/2 t orange peel
1/2 t vanilla
4 T milk

Add to the mixture:
2 c flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt

Refrigerate. Roll out to approximately 1/4" thick. Bake 375 degrees for 6-8 minutes.

Note: This dough gets gooey and melty extremely fast. I found it was easiest to take out just a little bit of dough, put the rest back in the fridge (or freezer, if you're doing a flash cool), quickly roll out using plenty of flour, cut cookies, then put the leftover dough back in the fridge while taking out another little bit. Another tip is to "dip" your spatula into flour. This helps your fragile cookie cutouts slide easily onto the spatula and then onto the cookie sheet.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chocolate cake, anyone?

I have received numerous recipes and baking ideas since my chocolate cake hunt post. As I've sifted through them, I'm finding some key differences (and similarities) among the recipes. One type of basic chocolate cake comes from this "war-time" recipe, when milk products and eggs were at a minimum. Both Andrea's and Debbie's recipe follows this basic eggless, butterless, milkless format: nearly equal flour and sugar, cocoa powder, bit of salt and baking soda, with a mixture of oil, vanilla, and vinegar added in. On the other hand, there is a set of much more complicated recipes that indeed call for butter, some type of milk product (milk, buttermilk, sour cream), and eggs. The one I made last week fell under this category and called for sour cream. I made both types over the last two days, an "Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake" from Cooks Illustrated, and Debbie's chocolate cake recipe.

Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake
This was quite a bit of work. I tried something different by adding a good amount of spices to the recipe, to see if what I was looking for was more of a spice cake. Definitely not what I am wanting, although it was tasty. Robby said it tasted "seasonal" to him. Cute. Except for the over-spicing, it was good in a couple of areas: the texture was moist and it indeed reminded me of a yummy layer cake from a restaurant. I can't see this working too great with cupcakes, though. It wanted to collapse as I was frosting it, so that would be a problem.


Simple Chocolate Cake
This morning, I tried Debbie's recipe. I actually liked this one much better, and boy is it easy to make. The cake was much darker and more chocolatey, although I don't know if that's because the other cake had spices in it. It is definitely moist, but what makes it different is the "crust." It has a very hard outer crust, which makes it nice to frost, but doesn't create the best first bite. I may be able to overlook this, though. The taste was yummy even if I plan to add more cocoa and perhaps a tiny bit of cardamon to the batter next time.

What I really liked about today's attempt was the frosting recipe I found. It came from Sarah Magid's recipe on Design Sponge. Basically, it began with a heated flour and milk mixture, which was cooled and added to a whipped butter and sugar mixture. A little vanilla and spice makes it a nice light buttercream frosting. Click here for the full recipe. (Interesting note: her chocolate cake recipe was nearly exactly Debbie's, except it was doubled and called for all organic ingredients.) One thing to keep in mind, if you do try this, is to make sure and sift your flour so there are absolutely no lumps in the mixture. Mine wasn't perfect, so the final frosting has tiny lumps here and there, hence the sprinkles to cover that up.

The only problem I have now is I am completely sick of chocolate cake and I have all of the above left over! Anyone care for a slice?

By the way, if you're interested in any of the recipes, let me know.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lovely!

It is a joy when flowers bloom multiple times through the year. These cosmos were blooming in late spring/early summer, were still for some time, and have graced us once again. They have become our favorite plant.

Whatcha Reading Wednesday: I'm working on it!

I did start Path to Sanity, and just as I suspected, it is good and hard. I'm going to have to trudge through a bit more before I have something significant to say.

My reading today will also consist of going through the manual for my sewing machine. I'll spare you of that summary though.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

DIY: Organized Craft Rack

I love having an organized home, but it's a plus when the organizing tool is actually kind of cute. And cheap! (Home organization is expensive, right??) Being a crafter, I have tons of materials, pieces, and notions. I had had an old spice rack sitting around, and I decided this would be the perfect holder of those crafting items.

Since I had the rack, this project was inexpensive. The can of paint was about $4 (and covered a few other projects) and the jars were from World Market, on sale for less than $1 a piece. Any rack would do, so wander around your home or a few yard sales and see what you can find!

Williams-Sonoma, you are a faithful friend.


I have made two more recipes from my favorite W-S site: buttermilk pancakes and banana nut bread. Both of these recipes turned out yummy, but the pancakes take the (pan)cake! I have tried numerous pancake recipes, all of which produce a tasty breakfast treat. However, this recipe went above and beyond. Even Robby said they were the best pancakes he had ever had! You must try this. They are flavorful, light, fluffy, and just delicious. And the recipe makes quite a large amount of batter, so you can freeze it. Just cover it with plastic wrap and put in an air-tight container. You'll have batter ready to go for the next day you have a hankering for panny-pakes. (That's what Camille used to call them when she was a little girl.)

Another recipe that turned out quite nicely was garlic mashed potatoes from America's Test Kitchen. If you are a garlic lover, then you will adore these!

4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/2 in pieces
12 T unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 t sugar
1 1/2 c half and half
1/2 c water
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse potatoes in colander and drain thoroughly. Melt 4 T of butter in a dutch oven. Add garlic and sugar and cook, stirring often, for about 4 minutes. It should get a nice golden color and a bit sticky. Add the potatoes, 1 1/4 cups of the half and half, the water, and 1 t salt. Combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 25-30 minutes. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and mash until smooth. Fold in remaining half and half. Season with salt and pepper.

Yay to successful attempts at new recipes!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Whatcha (supposed to be) Reading Wednesday

It is Wednesday, and by now, I should have a post about the second book Kelly loaned me about a month ago. It is called Path to Sanity by Dee Pennock: Lessons from Ancient Holy Counselors on How to Have a Sound Mind. (I feel I should I mention I asked Kelly to borrow this; she did not force it on me.) If you remember, I devoured and loved the Harry Potter book she let me read, but this one has been sitting on my nightstand for weeks. Now, I know Kelly has great taste in books; I know she would never give me something that wasn't going to change my life; I know she believes, like I do, that reading should provoke deep thought and transformation.

That's just the problem.

I know this book is going to require some serious soul searching, and that frightens me. Just listen to the description on the back of the book:

Here are the patristic descriptions of the three basic passions in human nature--VAINGLORY. Wanting the approve of people more than the approval of God, enslavement by idols, cruelty, hatred of repentance. SELF-LOVE. Attachment to what is carnal, rather than to what is spiritual, inability to love others, willfulness, anger, and depression. PRIDE. Ignorance of oneself and one's need for God, self-exaltation alternating with despair, going out of one's mind, hearing voices, frenzy.

(The all caps are not mine. Not only are the three words written in all caps, but the font is somewhat eerie, as well.)

You see my fear? But I must conquer it. I must open the book, turn to the first page, and begin.

I am setting a goal: Today, I will read the preface (baby steps!), and by next Wednesday, I will have something to share about this book. You may hold me to that.

On the hunt for...

...a really good, moist, chocolate cake recipe.

I tried a new recipe on Monday that came from America's Test Kitchen. Although the flavor was good, and the texture wasn't too crumbly, and it was easy to frost (even if my frosting job below doesn't look too great), it just wasn't moist. The lack of moistness was confirmed when Robby brought me a cupcake from The Frosted Muffin on Tuesday, and it practically melted in my mouth when I took a bite. Delicious! How do they do that???

Please, please, if you know of a homemade recipe that's just the ticket, let me know.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Meet Honey

Honey is the newest member of the Vander Kooi family. Although everyone is still sad about the loss of Baby, our sweet little puppy is bringing lots of joy. Honey is a Poochon, which is part Bichon and part poodle. Already she is reminding us of Baby, and we know she will be a great addition to our family.

Fun Night!

On Friday night, Steph Sario, Chelsea Boyd, and I met for dinner at Henry Salazar's and then wandered over to a bench and had Starbuck's coffee. It was a fabulous night. You may remember the story of the three of us: we went to high school and Biola together (Chels and Steph go back even further than that) and were roommates and/or neighbors throughout our years at Biola. We have had many good times, so it is incredibly special to get to be able to spend an evening together, where we spent the night reminiscing and updating.

Highlights of the night:

1. Chelsea told us a hilarious story about her husband trying to make her a maxi dress. The dress was a failure, but the story was a total success.
2. Soon after leaving Henry's, Steph realized she forgot her birthday present. When we walked back in, we could see our waiter and busboy whispering frantically. I jokingly said to our waiter, "Did you throw it out?" His face showed me that he had! Luckily, he was talking about our food (which we had completely forgotten about anyway), not Steph's gift.
3. We sat on a bench on Main Street and talked for nearly two hours. So fun.
4. Steph entertained us with her discussion of her crafts and projects. Check out what she's been up to at her newly fixed-up blog.
5. I don't think we even looked at a watch the whole evening. Time just flew by, and before we knew it, it was after 10.
6. At one point, we traded business cards. Steph asked why we were doing that, and Chels said, "Because we have them, and it's fun!" Check out Chelsea's new wedding planning business: From Ring to Reception.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

So Sad

It has been a sad week for us. Among other things that I can't share, our little family dog Baby died last Friday. Baby was one of those dogs that truly was a member of our family. Chelsea brought her to us when she moved back home a few years ago, and she quickly became a source of joy for all of us, especially my parents. Baby ate with us, watched tv with us, went in the car with us, slept with us, and worked with us. We are heartbroken. Here's a few favorite photos of her:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Faves: September!

In honor of the arrival of September, today's Friday Faves is all about why September is great. And hooray, I even have five today. Love that alliteration.

1. September sounds like autumn is here, even if it doesn't feel like it. (Blast those 100 degree days coming our way!)
2. People dear to my heart have birthdays in September: coming up very soon are Steph's and Anna's.
3. It's absolutely acceptable to start decorating for holidays and buying Christmas gifts. (Confession: I've already started.)
4. The crafts and DIYs that are fall themed are darling! Check out this cute leaf mobile from Design*Sponge by clicking here. How fun would that be in an entryway?
5. We can start to bring out our favorite fall drinks and dishes: chai tea, pumpkin spice latte, spice cakes, cranberry-orange scones (see the yummy things below?) and more.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Whatcha Reading Wednesday: HP Goodness

How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling's Bestselling Books - Paperback

Today's WRW actually is motivated by the fact that I need to return this borrowed book to Kelly, whom we get to see tomorrow (yay!) A few weeks ago with she visited, Kelly loaned me two books, and I've gotten through the first and am working on the second.

How Harry Cast His Spell, by John Granger

I may not have spelled this out too clearly on my blog, but I absolutely loved Harry Potter. Loved! When I finished The Deathly Hallows, I put my book down, wiped the huge tears pouring from my eyes, and thought, That was a masterpiece. How she brought together every small detail and how she wove light and truth through everything was incredible.

Any props I gave to Rowling, however, were pennies compared to what I now give to her after reading Granger's book. He opened my eyes to the genius of her work.

In the first chapter, Granger writes, "I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death that are denied by our secular culture. Human beings are designed for transcendent truths, whether they know it or not, and they pursue experience of these truths and some exercise of their spiritual faculties anywhere they can" (2).

Granger's purpose is not to prove to HP haters that they're wrong (although he does do that!), but it is to show that Harry Potter is at its core Christian. Rowling uses traditional literary symbols that are Christian in foundation throughout the entire series. It's much more than Harry being a Christ figure at the end, however; it's symbols that I should have learned in my lit classes at school, but for some reason did not.

So, here are just a few key elements of the book. Really, I'm just scratching the surface. Buy the book!

  • Harry's Hero Journey: His hero journey follows (for the most part) the traditional literary journey and even includes a "descent" or spiritual death, a resurrection, and a Savior. Think Chamber of Secrets: Harry begins at Privet Drive, heads to Hogwarts to find that year's mystery, descends through the bathroom chute into the chamber where he will fight Voldemort (or some form of him, as he does in every book), "dies" because of the basilisk wound, but rises with the help of Fawkes' healing tears, and ends at Platform 9 3/4 again. Death? Resurrection? A Savior? That sounds familiar. You can apply this hero cycle to any of the books.
  • Spiritual Clues in the Gryffindor/Slytherin opposition: Gryffindor is named for Godric Gryffindor, whose first name means "godly" or "worshipful." Gryffindor means "golden griffin", which is traditionally a symbol for Christ - part lion (king of the earth) and part eagle (king of the sky). The phoenix, which also becomes associated with the Gryffindors, is sometimes called the "Resurrection Bird" and is also a symbol for Christ. On the other side, Slytherin's founder Salazar just sounds snake-like, making us connect Slytherin with a serpent. Their leader is the Dark Lord. Granger points out, then, that the central conflict in the novels is between the descendants of Gryffindor and Slytherin, a fight between good and evil.
  • Alchemy: Alchemy was the medieval "science" whose goal was to find a Philosopher's Stone that could turn lead into gold. (Remember that the first novel in HP is actually titled Philosopher's Stone; the American version is Sorcerer's Stone.) Granger simply defines alchemy as the "transformation of something common into something special" and says Rowling uses alchemy a "metaphor for change" and a "resource for powerful imagery" (30). All good stories have an element of alchemy in it, in that the reader (or viewer) changes through the story with the character. But Rowling is different: she actually uses traditional alchemy symbols and metaphors (and uses them a lot!), just like the greats did. There are three stages in alchemy: the dissolution of the metal, called the nigreda, or black stage, where the old is being killed and dissolved; the ablution or washing of the new material, called the albedo, or white stage, where the material actually turns a brilliant white; then the perfection of the material (gold now!), called the rubedo, or red stage. Quiz! How many characters can you associate with these stages? Albus Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Rubius Hagrid, to name a few. (Don't forget that on the frog card containing Dumbledore, he and Nicolas Flamel were alchemists!) Not to mention that the alchemical work is done by using two principal catalysts: sulfur and mercury, often called the "quarreling couple." Any two people fit that in the book? Of course! Cool Hermione Granger (initials are HG, for mercury, and Hermione is the female version of Hermes, who is the Greek messenger god...Mercury!) and passionate, red-headed Ron Weasley. There are other alchemical images throughout: dragons, egg, water, grave, which Granger explains with connections to alchemy. But the biggest thing for me is Harry's transformation. Is he not the poster-boy for alchemy? His transformation is from lead to gold throughout the entire series. So what has this to do with Christianity? We must remember that medieval literature was grounded in Christian elements and symbols, and the idea of alchemy became nearly a spiritual one of change from base to purity.
  • Doppelgangers: A German word that means "double-goer," we're familiar with this word to mean someone who looks like someone else. In literature, it can be a character's complimentary figure, and can be like a Jeckyll/Hyde thing (same body) or a Frankenstein and his monster thing (two bodies). What it points to is a struggle between the natures, or possibly a dual nature. (Think flesh and spirit struggle for the first, God-man for the second). A few ways that doppelgangers were used (and by the way, they are huge in the books): animagi, Patronuses, "half-breeds," characters trying to live in two worlds (Snape), Polyjuice potion, not to mention all the pairs! Slytherin-Gryffindor, Harry-Draco, Ron-Hermione, Grindelwald-Dumbledore, just to name a few. This doppelganger thing comes to a head in Harry and Voldemort, representatives of Gryffindor and Slytherin, joined by a prophecy, and, whether they want it or not, part of each other. Not surprisingly, this actually goes back to the alchemy element: "Opposites have to be reconciled and resolved ("die" and be "reborn") before they can be rejoined in perfect golden unity. Opposites have to be reconciled and resolved for there to be a new life. One part of a pairing or both must die for there to be new life" (48). Granger explains this further (so read it), but sums up by saying: "Harry and Voldemort, with their mirrored and magically joined bodies and souls, are reflections of the body-soul unities we all are and of the choice each of us makes between carnal- and spiritual-mindedness. For whatever reason, call it the Fall if you like, our hearts are dark, and this choice isn't always easy. But making the hard, right choices, we can die to that evil within, and having won that interior battle, the exterior enemy is defeated when we choose to confront him" (52).
I don't know about you, but I can't wait to read Harry Potter all over again now that I've been a little more enlightened. And can you believe what I've summarized for you is just the first five chapters of twenty? Granger goes on to develop the main themes (Pride and Prejudice, Death and Bereavement, Personal Transformation, and Choice), hash out each novel, then spends three incredible chapters on The Deathly Hallows.

My spiritual life was affected through the reading of Harry Potter, and Granger has given me even more tools to allow it to permeate my soul, which is what good literature is supposed to do. It's supposed to change us, friends, not merely entertain us.

After writing this, I'm not sure I can give this book back to you, Kelly. Maybe I'll just "forget" it at home and have to keep it until next time :) Or I suppose I could take my own advice and buy one for myself.

Note: In light of the comment Stephanie made, I wanted to add that Granger's book is actually way more accessible than I make it out to be. I've squashed all of his ideas -- which he explains so well -- into a tiny blog post. (It is tiny, okay?) I would feel completely comfortable giving this book to a high school student, perhaps even a mature middle school student, so adults definitely will get it! Also, thought I should add that Granger keeps a website called Hogwarts Professor, which you may enjoy checking out. He talks not only about Harry Potter but other good reads. (And Steph, this will get your attention...he even talks about Twilight!)