Friday, December 30, 2016

Goodbye 2016

I know I'm not the only person who's looking forward to turning the calendar over to start a new year. So I thought I'd get one last post in, wrap up 2016, and start fresh tomorrow.

Here's a few highlights from the final month of the year:

Flowers have brightened a lot of days for me this year, and this was a truly epic bunch presented to me at Thanksgiving by DP's honors seminar team.

Red rambler roses on the walk to school. No matter where I come across them, these will always remind me of my mother and grandmother.

Miss B's continued penchant for animals of all kinds and imaginative play have made this Pusheen plushie a character in our house.

And speaking of Miss B, this cake marks the end of an era - her graduation from primary school, a bittersweet occasion as I'm sure many of you can relate. She requested a Victoria sponge, filled with raspberry jam, iced with vanilla buttercream, and topped with crystallized raspberries.

And then the pre-Christmas mayhem was upon us - goodie bags for teachers, administrators, and various others....

...decorating the house and tree, wrapping the presents...

...the traditional Frying of the Doughnuts on Christmas Eve morning...

...and the big day itself - celebrated this year with not one but two epic and traditional desserts: the Yule Log and an enormous trifle (not made by me!).

During the Twelve Days of Christmas, there's been a little more time to unwind and enjoy Christmas presents...

...visit friends...

...enjoy leftovers...

...try out some new local restaurants while everyone else is out of town...

...and begin planning for 2017.

I'll end, as I began, with flowers - and very best wishes for good things for all in the new year!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ten things

The waiting continues...and I've been working hard at practicing meticulous mindfulness. It's been going pretty well, aside from a couple of weeks where the US election combined with solo parenting to send me into an anxiety tailspin. (The election was one of the things I was waiting for, and to say I was not happy with the outcome would be an understatement on the order of describing Australia as a place with one or two possibly harmful critters.)

But. Life marches on, and I must focus on the things I can do even in the midst of feeling helpless and at the mercy of events over which I have no control. So in that spirit, here's an update of recent-ish happenings.

Going back to early September - a tiny birthday cake for a visiting colleague of DP's who has become a family friend. He made the long trek to Australia for the second year running to guest lecture in DP's program, and I found out that his first full day in town was his 66th birthday. So we surprised him when he came over for dinner.

In late September, we went to the US for our planned family visit; for me it was five cities in just under three weeks. One of the highlights of my trip (and my year) was a long-planned sisters' weekend in New York, with all of us together on our own on a trip for the first time in a very long time. It was a memorable and spectacular trip, in part because of visiting places like The Frick Collection.

Our final city in the US was a 36-hour stopover in Dallas to visit our good friends who live there. We really enjoyed visiting the Dallas Arboretum's Pumpkin Village - a clever and creative use of winter squash, and I couldn't stop giggling most of the time for thinking about this. (Warning: NSFW language!)

Then back to Canberra, swapping autumn color for spring in bloom and harvesting lemons and rosemary from the garden.

Two weeks after we got back from the US, I was off again - this time to Seoul for my organization's annual meeting. It was a productive and positive week overall, but it makes me a little sad that this is pretty much the only picture I managed to take outside of the conference (it's a little mall made up entirely of small shops run by local craftswomen and -men).

Back again for the tail end of October; settling in to nearly three months with no overseas trips scheduled, and starting to see some real signs of spring - encouraging enough that I have revived my cold brew coffee habit, making it in my French press and then storing in a repurposed Chianti bottle. (Classy, no?) My standard ratio for coffee (hot or cold) is 7g of coffee per 100ml of water; cold water for cold brew, and let it brew for at least a couple of hours. Chill in the fridge overnight, then serve over ice with a hefty splash of milk and a dollop of maple syrup to sweeten.

The end of October also means Halloween, and a sweet treat to celebrate it. This year I made ghost cakes for Miss B - basically a chocolate cupcake, topped with a gloopy pile of vanilla buttercream frosting and suitably decorated.

Moving into November and real spring weather - a good opportunity to host our first outdoor Sunday lunch of the season and invite a few friends over to share it with us.

And speaking of a few friends: this weekend we celebrated Thanksgiving in Australia, with a buffet turkey dinner for 60+ friends, colleagues, students and their families. An epic undertaking achieved with a lot of lists and a lot of help, and one to make me remember to be grateful for all the things I have.

Which today include the luxury of having to do not much of anything except eat pie, bask in the afterglow of yesterday, and figure out what the heck to do with all these leftovers.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

While you wait

Nearly four years ago I wrote a post about how stressful I find waiting, at a time when I found myself in a state of limbo, awaiting significant outcomes over which I had no control in my personal, professional, and national life.

Well, here I am again - and it doesn't feel as though I've gotten any better at being zen about waiting. Possibly even worse, at least at the moment, compounded as it is by grief. My current strategy is something I call "meticulous mindfulness" (or would "mindful meticulousness" be better? I can't decide), by which I mean that I am trying to focus on the things that I want to accomplish each day, and then trying to give each of those things my full attention. In the short term, when I can accomplish it, it stops the hamster wheel in my brain from spinning; and in the long term, I hope it adds up to a period of sustained accomplishment and satisfaction, rather than one of fruitless frustration.

So: this morning, I woke up early for Sunday, slightly jetlagged after returning from my second trip to the US in two months (this one, a family trip, was the one I had been planning to take this year). I lay in bed and thought about what I wanted to do with this unexpected block of time. Did I want to stay in bed and read, enjoying having nothing to do after three weeks of non-stop activity (including stops in five cities)? Or did I want to tackle some task on my monster To Do list?

I split the difference - I read for a while, and then I got up to bring my blog up to date. Here's some recent happenings, aside from what I've already told:

An impromptu family trip to Perth and the southwest corner of Western Australia during July school holidays that almost didn't happen, between DP's travel schedule and my father's hospitalization. But it did, and I'm glad we managed it - as well as this, which was on Miss B's must-see list: sunset over the Indian Ocean. Our last night before we flew back east, we went down to the beach in Fremantle and sat there to watch it happen.

The saying goes that in the midst of life we are in death, but the reverse is also true. My father died five days before Miss B's twelfth birthday, and I flew to Boston the day after. We had a family dinner and cake on the day with a few close friends, and with the help of some of the aforementioned meticulous mindfulness I was able to give Miss B the cake of her twelve-year-old dreams, even if I didn't manage a birthday post.

And to continue the theme: my oldest sister's birthday was the day after my father's funeral, and for my gift I made a birthday dinner, for her and all available family members. For dinner we had spaghetti al'amitriciana three ways: the standard version, as outlined in this post; a batch made with gluten-free pasta, for the GF contingent; and a vegetarian version for the birthday girl, substituting fried halloumi for the bacon. For dessert we had her favorite treat: birthday pie. I tested out Nigella's GF Pie Crust (a smashing success, even made under sub-optimal conditions in someone else's kitchen) and made maple-blueberry for the birthday girl (who doesn't eat refined sugar), and peach-raspberry for the non-blueberry fans.

That takes us up to early August...more to follow soon.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Vale Pater

One of the things that was weighing on me when I last wrote was that my father had been hospitalized in May, and that his condition didn't seem to be improving. I haven't written since because, as it turned out, it wasn't, and he died in late July.

My father was 88. He'd had a long, full life, and had been dealing with a number of medical conditions that had caused his physical health, emotional wellbeing, and quality of life to deteriorate steadily and significantly over the last decade. It turns out none of that prepares you when the time comes to say goodbye.

I went back to Boston to be with my family for the wake and funeral. My sisters and I spent hours composing an 8-page eulogy in which we tried to distill his essence - his kindness, his steadfast reliability, his sense of humor and enjoyment of life, his love of sports and music, his devotion to our mother and all of us. The priest who said his funeral mass - who also married DP and me 20 years ago and has known my family even longer - described him as a man whose "true vocation was fatherhood."

Our Boston community of family, friends, and colleagues turned out in force to commemorate him and condole with us. I've heard so many people say how much it means to have that support when someone you love dies, and now I know how true it is. I will always be grateful for that solace and care.

My father was a romantic but not sentimental, and couldn't abide most of the traditional choices for father-daughter wedding dances. All of us who got married chose instead to dance with him to songs that were his favorites, and that are bound up with our memories of him. This is mine.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ten things

Multiple aspects of life are not great at the moment – not anything I can discuss here, and not anything earth-shattering. Just things that suck some of the joy out of life. (To say nothing of what's been happening in my home and first adopted countries....) So I’m trying to focus on good things where I can. Here are some recent ones:

1. I got to go to Tokyo on a work trip last month! Just for long enough to whet my appetite for more, and with most of that spent inside a hotel, but I did get in a bit of sightseeing here and there - this is sunset in Shinjuku, which was my home base while I was there.

2. I also found time to track down the one thing that Miss B wanted most from Tokyo - a stuffed Totoro. (For those of you in the know - she already had the small white and blue ones, but has been longing for this one for ages. For those of you not in the know - if you have children or love animated movies, find and watch this film. It is utterly wonderful, and I say that as someone who has seen it dozens of times.)

3. Watching autumn turn to winter in Canberra - always beautiful, and familiar and strange at the same time. Red maple leaves are a lifelong sign of autumn, but finding them in the garden in May, amidst eucalyptus and other native Australian flora? Still getting used to that.

4. It only took 10 months, but our guest room is sorted and habitable at last. (Just in time, by the sounds of it, given the sudden uptick in requests following recent events in the US and UK.)

5. Celebrating DP's birthday - a perfect excuse to make a metric ton of buttercream frosting and get crazy with food coloring and piping bags. (You're never too old or too manly for frosting roses.)

6. Dropped by to meet our friends' new baby (and deliver a reheatable meal to his exhausted parents and exuberant big sister - I made this pasta bake, a loaf of bread, and a mini cake made from the birthday leftovers).

7. Went to Melbourne for the weekend to visit friends who have bought a Victorian hill station on a mountainside outside of town, and are in the midst of renovating house and garden. This is a glimpse of Miss B on our tour of the grounds. (Fun fact: did you know that the temperature drops 1C for every 100m you travel above sea level?)

8. Speaking of learning things, our conversations over the course of the visit inspired me to start listening to BBC Radio 4's History of the World in 100 Objects podcast - it's instructive and fascinating, and for those of you based in Canberra, timely, because the exhibition is coming to the National Museum later this year!

9. I also came down with a cold while there, which got a lot worse after I got back and which I'm still recovering from more than 2 weeks later. There's nothing like feeling abjectly awful physically to remind one to be grateful for feeling healthy and energetic most of the time.

10. And finally, a small thing which has improved my working life significantly in the last couple of months, after I gave up and admitted that I couldn't manage to keep track of my work just with digital tools - I admitted I needed a pen-and-paper system and as soon as I did, I came across a glowing recommendation for bullet journaling. If you're a similar devotee of analog tools, I whole-heartedly recommend it. It really has changed the way I work in some simple but effective ways, and I've already converted one skeptical friend, so do check it out if you're looking for a new way to get on top of things. I promise you don't need anything other than a notebook and pen!

Hope all is well where you are, and that you're keeping warm - or cool, as the case may be!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Crumpet experiments

By special request of Beck, fellow Canberra blogger from In Search of Golden Pudding, today I'm posting the crumpet recipe I've been using for the last couple of years. I only make these a couple of times a year, so even though I'm not entirely overjoyed with this recipe, I've just been tweaking it rather than researching others. The way these come out reminds me more of the American version of English muffins than like my memory of crumpets - not enough air holes, in particular. However, I will come clean here and say that my only experience of crumpets (other than my own) is out of a packet, so my expectations may not be realistic.

This recipe is adapted from Delia's Complete Cookery Course, by UK cooking powerhouse Delia Smith. My main adaptation is drastically cutting the amount of yeast (from 1 Tbsp), because I prefer to let the dough rise overnight rather than the 45 minutes suggested in the original recipe - I think the crumpets taste better, plus I'd rather not have to hang around for 45 minutes before I can even start cooking Sunday breakfast.

1. Heat 275 ml/10 oz milk and 55 ml/2 oz water to 'hand-hot' in a small saucepan (I interpret this to mean I can stick my finger in for about 10 seconds).

2. Pour liquid into a jug, stir in 5 g/1 tsp sugar and 5 g/1 tsp yeast and leave to prove for 10-15 minutes, or until frothy.

3. Sift 225 g/8 oz plain/all-purpose flour and 5 g/1 tsp salt into a medium-sized bowl, then add yeast mixture and mix together thoroughly. (I use my dough whisk.)

4. Cover the bowl and leave batter to rise overnight. (I do this in the fridge.)

5. When ready to cook, grease your frying pan or griddle well, as well as the inside of your crumpet or egg rings. When your cooking surface is hot, spoon 1 Tbsp of batter into each ring, and let cook for 4-5 minutes, looking for the appearance of bubbles and allowing them to burst.* Then remove the ring and flip the crumpet to cook for 1 more minute.

Makes 10-12 crumpets.

* This is the step that hasn't really worked for me - I don't get as many bubbles as I expect, either using the original recipe or the adapted overnight version. They're still yummy, though. Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Eight weeks (part 2)

April arrived in Canberra complete with an April Fool's Day joke from Mother Nature:

...making our local landmark, Black Mountain, topped by the Telstra Tower, disappear in the morning...

...and reappear in the afternoon.

Other highlights of the month included our quarterly care package of American goodies from sister/aunt L...

...two weekends at the coast - one to Kioloa...

...and one to Durras Beach in Murramurang National Park...

...where we got up close and personal with some of the locals...

...and admire some of the oldest gum trees still standing anywhere in New South Wales.

Most of the rest of April was taken up with a combination of school holidays and solo parenting, which meant juggling work with activities around Canberra - and Miss B's and my now-traditional Sunday breakfast of crumpets when DP is away - making the batter the night before is definitely the key to success.

And my latest foray into flower arranging brings us up to date, with autumn taking hold in Canberra - the heat is on, the nights are drawing in, and the slow cooker is getting a workout. What's happening where you are?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Eight weeks (part 1)

That posting-more-often thing doesn't seem to be working out too well, so here comes another mammoth update - so much that it's going to be in 2 parts!

I've developed the habit of baking a loaf of bread on the weekend just to have some around - not because we've got company coming or any other special reason, but just for us. This is what happens when I leave it lying around.

I took some of my first batch of homemade oat cereal and used it as the filling for some homemade chocolates to bring as a hosts' gift. I thought of it as a variation on the Nestle Crunch-type candy bar, but discovered I like the crispy but hefty (and a little bit salty) oats even better.

This is a chicken recipe involving sauteed onions, chicken breasts, and deglazing the pan at the end with balsamic vinegar. I made it in March and I can't remember where I found the original recipe - it was good, though!

Miss B and I have been trying to make time for creative endeavors - we found these alphabet stamps at Miss B's favorite shop.

My first attempt at a salade Niçoise, with a twist - I roasted the potatoes and green beans instead of boiling them, as in the traditional recipe. An excellent dinner salad for those of you where the weather is warming up.

DP's program has students from about two dozen countries besides Australia, and every year they host an International Day festival. I went this year for the first time - here's a picture of, as you can see, the Anglo-American corner.

Continuing the salade Niçoise theme, I made a pan bagnat - a Provençal sandwich - as my contribution to a potluck cards evening with friends. Given the activity, I thought sandwiches were the appropriate food choice, but as it turns out you need two hands to eat this.

And then all of a sudden it was Easter! The usual suspects: tarrale... chiena...

...the brunch spread...

...and this year's new addition: an Easter-egg-themed table runner that I made myself out of tea towels.

I liked it so much I moved it onto the kitchen table after Easter was over, and left it there to enjoy for another week or so, along with some leftover goodies.

Speaking of leftover goodies, that brings us to the end of Easter and the end of March. Next up is part 2: the April recap!

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