experiments in cooking

Archive for December, 2010

An Evening of Classical Music and French Toast

On Christmas Eve Eve, also known as December 23, Chris had his first night at home after 11 evenings away at various functions with work, church and friends. I had been away for 10 of those 11 nights. The boys had been away half of those nights at Grandma’s or the church Christmas program. So we were all tired and looking forward to an evening home as a family.

That morning we’d discovered that Jonah’s favorite Mozart CD wasn’t working anymore, and he listens to it every night at bedtime. He loves it, and it works like a charm—he falls to sleep within minutes every night. He was sad, and I wasn’t up for a rough bedtime that night, so I promised to find him something new at Barnes & Noble, which across the street from my office. I found a two-CD set called “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World … Ever!” and brought it home with me.

Jonah was excited about the new CDs, especially the fact that there were 18 tracks on each. The more tracks, the better the CD, in his opinion.

“I’m going to listen to my music,” he said.

“Not in the living room,” I said. “Neeley is already watching Elmo.”

Jonah looked nonplussed.

“You can listen in your bedroom, and when Elmo’s over, I’ll let you know so you can come listen in the living room.”

Meltdown averted, Jonah went in his room and closed the door. As I went back to the kitchen to wash the dishes and feed the dogs, I heard, faintly, the strains of a Bach orchestral suite coming from the back of the house.

A few minutes later, as the Elmo’s World closing credits played, I called to Jonah to tell him he could come listen to his music. There was no response. So I walked to his room and opened the door.

There was Jonah, lying under his covers, one arm thrown above his head, fast asleep. His CD player showed Track 7 of CD 1 of “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World.”

Now that’s an aptly named CD.

While Jonah napped, I got ready to make a quick supper. I thought that making something simple would be best, considering all the holiday food we’d be eating over the next couple of days. Also, I wanted to make something that would suit the wintry weather. So I gave Chris two options: (1) macaroni and cheese or (2) French toast.

He picked French toast.

Chris says I make the best French toast. Yeah, of course he has to praise my cooking, but I do have strong feelings about how French toast should look and taste and I think my instincts are right on. In my opinion, many restaurants focus too much on the topping and not enough on making the toast itself taste good. A good piece of French toast would be delicious with no topping at all, and would be heavenly with just a small amount of syrup and possibly a small amount of butter.

French toast was one of the few things I mastered in the kitchen before I got married at age 24. There was very little else that I could make without a recipe—I even had to consult the box each time just to make packaged macaroni and cheese—but French toast I could cook by instinct. My mother taught me her method when I was a kid, I picked up some additional ideas in high school from my best friend Heather’s family, and then I refined my French toast through college and the couple of years after that.

A lot of the French toast out there is soggy, dry, too oily, too egg-y, not egg-y enough, undercooked, or overcooked. People hide this mediocre French toast under giant mounds of butter, blankets of powdered sugar, whipped cream, and syrup so deep you can’t see the toast beneath. I’m sorry if that sounds good to you, because I have to say, there’s no point to French toast like that. That’s a ruined piece of bread covered with a heart attack.

Instead, learn to make French toast so good on its own that it would seem a sacrilege to add powdered sugar, or even a mound of fruit, like some people do. Eat the fruit on the side and let the toast speak for itself.

Of course, my plain tastes don’t suit everyone. You can certainly top your next homemade French toast however you like, but I recommend trying it simple at least once, maybe twice, with just a little butter and syrup (no more than ¼ cup of syrup) to get the feel for how you actually want your toast to taste.

French Toast

Makes 6 slices

2–3 tbsp butter, halved

2–3 eggs (allow approximately one egg per two slices of bread)

2­–3 tbsp skim milk

Pinch of cinnamon

Sliced bread

  1. Melt one tablespoon of butter on a griddle or skillet. Keep an eye on the butter and use a spatula to spread the butter evenly across the griddle.
  2. While the butter is melting, use a fork to stir eggs as for scrambled eggs. Add milk and cinnamon to eggs and stir to combine. Mix well, because your toast will taste best if the egg, yolk, and milk are thoroughly mixed and completely smooth.
  3. When the skillet is hot and the butter melted and sizzling, dip both sides of a slice of bread in the egg mixture, making sure to coat the toast evenly. There should be no dry corners. Do not let the bread soak in the egg mixture or the toast will be soggy. I lay the bread on top of the egg mixture, push it in for just a moment, check to make sure the side I’ve dipped is coated. Then repeat with the other side of the bread. Note that the last pieces of toast you make may have very little cinnamon on them. If you want more cinnamon on them, you may add more cinnamon to the egg mixture before dipping the bread into it or carefully sprinkle cinnamon on the bread while it is toasting on the griddle.
  4. Immediately place the bread on the skillet. Repeat with additional slices.
  5. After a couple of minutes, flip each slice of toast. Do not flip until the bottom side is browned to your liking. After two minutes, you can lift a corner to check for doneness. I like a dark golden brown; my husband likes his lightly toasted. However you like it, do not flip the toast until the first side is completely toasted; it should not be soggy and should be crisp to the touch. When the second side is browned to your liking as well, remove the toast from the griddle and serve with butter and warm syrup.
  6. If you are making more toast than you can complete in the first batch, clean off the skillet with a paper towel after the first batch, then add the remaining butter and begin again at step one. (You can skip step 2 if you made enough egg mixture for all the toast you wish to make.)

Tip: As the toast cooks, you may want to add more butter to the skillet to give the toast the desired buttery, fried look. You can add more butter to the middle of the skillet and, as it melts, spread some around on the skillet under the pieces of toast.

Cranberry-Spice Icebox Cookies

Chris and I have gotten in the habit of taking homemade cookies to work for our lunches every day, but we usually run out of a weekend batch by Tuesday night, so I needed a way to make some quick cookies in the middle of the week.

Yes, I said every day. And no, we are not getting fat from this. I may eat a couple of cookies Monday through Friday, but I pay attention to my total calorie intake and I don’t eat near as many as I used to back when I was young and thought that chubby would never describe me. Anyone else ever had a point in their life where four big cookies was a small snack? And while Chris is eating more cookies than I am, since he gave up regular pop completely, he can afford to eat a few cookies.

Plus, there’s something good about eating fresh sweets instead of processed, store-bought sweets. Eaten in moderation, homemade cookies can add a little nutrition, especially those with nuts or cranberries or oatmeal in them. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Anyway, as I said, we keep running out of cookies mid-week, when I’m usually so busy I don’t have much time to mix up and bake cookies. So, last weekend I used the “Fourteen-in-one” cookie recipe from my Joy of Cooking to mix up some spice cookie dough. I mixed dried cranberries into half the dough, and the other half I left plain. Then, in the beloved icebox cookie tradition, I refrigerated the dough to pull out the cranberry-spice dough as needed during the week.

On Tuesday evening, I discovered it was easy as could be to slice off nine cranberry-spice cookies and bake them for about 10 minutes. After cooling for just a short while they were ready to store to eat over the next couple of days.

As for the other half of the dough, I plan to roll out the plain spice cookie dough this weekend and cut out cookies with Jonah using some Christmas cookie cutters and maybe the new dog bone cookie cutter my mom gave me at Thanksgiving.

Our poor dogs won’t get any, though. They’re all on a diet. So maybe I shouldn’t make any cookie shapes that will get their hopes up.


“Fourteen-in-one” cookie basic ingredients

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ pound unsalted butter cut into 14 pieces, at room temperature (that’s 2 sticks)
1 cup superfine sugar (you can also pulse granulated sugar in a food processor for 1 minute)
½ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg yolk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla

To make them into spice cookies:

Substitute 1 cup packed light brown sugar for the sugar and add ¾ tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp allspice, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves to the flour.

Optional: dried cranberries (chopped or whole; you can mix them into the entire batter or into just half of it) 

On medium speed, mix butter, sugar and salt until fluffy. Add egg yolk, whole egg, vanilla and melted chocolate (or wet chocolate mixture) and mix until well blended. Reduce speed to low and add flour and spice mixture slowly until well combined. Divide dough in half. Roll the dough into a roll if you want to slice cookies from it after it’s chilled. If you want to roll cookies later, you can leave the dough in a dish shape. Wrap dough and refrigerate until firm. (At least 1 hour and up to several days. Dough may also be frozen for up to a month.)

Substitute 1 cup packed light brown sugar for the sugar and add ¾ tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp allspice, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves to the flour.


Optional: dried cranberries (chopped or whole; you can mix them into the entire batter or into just half of it)

Preheat oven to 375 degree F and prepare two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

You can slice the cookies in desired thickness and place about two inches apart on the cookie sheets.

For rolled cookies, on a well-floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8 inch thick. Cut cookies with cookie cutters. May re-roll scraps one time. Any scraps left over at this point should be rolled into balls, placed on a cookie sheet, and flattened. Place cookies on baking sheets and place sheets into oven (one on lower rack, one on upper). Bake for 6–10 minutes, rotating sheets half way through baking (watch closely for browning).

Bringing Back the Fudge of Youth

Some people don’t like fudge. As for me, I don’t have much trouble turning down fudge at a party. I can turn down gourmet fudge at a candy store. I can say no to the fudge that a co-worker brings from home. But I can’t turn down the fudge I grew up eating and learned to make as a kid—my mom’s “five-minute fudge” recipe.

I used to make that fudge for gifts when I was a teenager. I didn’t have much money to buy gifts, so Mom would give me the ingredients to make fudge, and I’d make up a batch or two as presents for my teachers, my friends, and my aunts and uncles.

The list of ingredients is like Christmas music to my ears—marshmallows, sugar, salt, vanilla, evaporated milk, butter, and chocolate—and nuts, if you like nuts. I do.

Of course, I always saved out some for me. I used to take a couple of pieces of fudge into the dark living room, lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree, and eat it slowly, looking at the tree and daydreaming, sipping a mug of hot tea or washing down the fudge with cold milk.

I took a bite of fudge, and I dreamed.

Some day I will fall in love … some day I will have children of my own … some day I will sit next to my own Christmas tree in my very own house with adoring dogs at my feet and I will be a mature adult full of experience and wisdom. I will be beautiful and thin and funny and people will say, “Oh, what an exhilirating life she must have.”

And I took another bite of fudge.

The years passed. A couple decades of them, actually, which deposited me in the mature, experienced, wise adult life I live today. A life, incidentally, that hasn’t seen much fudge in recent years.

Chris doesn’t like fudge much, and in particular he doesn’t like fudge with nuts in it, so for several years I didn’t make it because it is hard to eat fudge in front of someone who says that pecans taste like hair and make him want to gag. Some years I felt I didn’t have time to make and package a batch of fudge; there is, naturally, not much extra time in the exhilirating, funny life I lead, surrounded by children and adoring dogs, and envied by all. And last year I wanted to make fudge, but I was on a diet (having not remained as thin as I dreamed I would). I could just see myself losing all restraint and licking the fudge spoon and pot like a madwoman, then tearing into the fudge tins and eating all of it myself. So I didn’t make it last year.

But this year, I’ve managed to maintain a healthy weight for ten months, while eating reasonable portions of desserts. As December started, I was confident that I could make fudge, enjoy it, and share it too. And not lick the pot.

Also, I knew the boys would eat fudge if I made it. Jonah and Neeley ask for chocolate every day. I believe Neeley believes chocolate is the first course of every meal, and he gets pretty indignant when I suggest he eat his dinner first.

So I made fudge this December. And I made a lighter version of it; fudge is so rich that you can dial down the sugar and fat a little and still feel the thrill of fudgy indulgence.

Since making the fudge last weekend, I’ve been well behaved. I licked the spoon only once and the pot not at all. I’ve eaten only small portions myself. I shared fudge with the boys (but not the adoring dogs, who are sadly overweight); I shared it with my co-workers; and, if there’s any left this weekend, I’m going to share with the folks who come to our church Christmas program … provided that God gives me the strength to hand over the fudge tin when the time comes.

If self control is one of the assets you’ve developed in your mature, experienced, and wise adult life, make this fudge before Christmas. And if it isn’t, make the fudge anyway. It’s never too late to learn self control. And your kids, if you have them, deserve the chance to dream over a piece of fudge.

Five-Minute Fudge

4 cups mini marshmallows

1 ½ cup sugar (substitute Splenda for ½ cup to ¾ cup of the sugar for a lower-sugar version)

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

2/3 cup evaporated milk (skim is fine)

¼ cup butter or margarine

12 oz semisweet chocolate pieces

½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Combine marshmallows, milk, butter, sugar and salt in saucepan. Stirring, bring mixture to full boil. Boil for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add chocolate pieces, beating until melted. Do not overbeat. Fold in vanilla and nuts. Pour into greased 9-inch square pan. Chill until firm, then cut into small squares.

The People Who Eat Peppernuts

When Chris and I were first married nine years ago, and we approached our first Christmas as a married couple, he kept talking about something called “peppernuts” that his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother used to make for Christmas. He described them basically as tiny red and green cookies flavored with peppermint.

The name confused me.

“Do they have nuts in them?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.

“Or pepper?”

“Don’t think so,” he said.

Seemed a little odd to me.

Every year he raved about peppernuts, and one year he made some himself. It took him hours to do it, and he was really proud of what he’d done, but I wouldn’t touch the cookies.

“Peppermint-flavored cookies don’t appeal to me,” I said.

“Come on,” Chris said, “just try them.”

“No thanks,” I said. “Why don’t you have one of my family’s traditional iced Christmas cookies?”

“Can’t. I’m having peppernuts.”

“And I’m eating an iced Christmas cookie,” I said.

For the next several years, Chris kept his Christmas traditions, and I kept mine. He ate peppernuts. He reminisced about cherry moos and zwiebach. I ate iced Christmas cookies and talked wistfully about pecan fudge and date balls and spiced tea.

And then, this year, I decided to cross the great divide. It was time for me to connect with my husband’s German Mennonite roots, as they are my sons’ roots too. I want my sons to grow up in a home with traditions from both families.

So, in the fall, I learned about zwiebach and learned to make Chris’s family’s favorite buns. For Christmas, I planned to make cherry moos and toyed with the idea of making peppernuts. But I still thought the idea of peppermint-flavored cookies sounded a little odd.

Then two things happened that changed my mind: Chris tried to make his own peppernuts, and Chris’s mother sent home a peppernuts cookbook (yes, an entire cookbook full of nothing but peppernuts recipes).

This is what happened. After several years of not making peppernuts because I wouldn’t eat them or help him make them—and they are a lot of work—Chris decided to make up a batch for a bake sale at church. But he forgot to add the sugar. I found him in the kitchen late that evening, trying to fold sugar into the finished dough.

“That’s not going to work,” I said.

“Sure it will,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”

But it didn’t work. The test batch of peppernuts he pulled out of the oven looked awful. We both stared at the baking sheet full of discolored, flat lumps of baked dough, and Chris sighed. I threw away the botched cookies and the dough as he left the kitchen, dejected.

Then the next week, Chris’s mom told me she’d found a small cookbook about peppernuts and was sending it home in Jonah’s school bag for Chris to look at.

But it was me, not Chris, who opened the cookbook that evening and began to read.

I learned that peppernuts, the beloved little German spice cookie, come in many different versions, with and without food coloring, with and without pepper (usually white pepper), with different flavorings—many with anise, or molasses or cinnamon—in different shapes (round or like little pillows), even with and without yeast. And apparently there is much debate over whether the best peppernuts are hard and crispy, chewy, or soft.

I also read that Mennonite women used to make the dough several weeks before Christmas and let it chill for up to a week in a cold cellar to let the flavors mellow. I read about day-long gatherings of Mennonite women, mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and packaging peppernuts. I read about church ladies baking peppernuts to supply an entire town, children waiting all year to eat peppernuts, mothers making peppernuts for Christmas guests. I read about women grinding their own spices to flavor their family’s special peppernuts recipe. I read about star anise, cloves, and nutmeg. I read debates about the origin and meaning of the name “peppernuts.” I read grandmothers’ recipes, best friends’ recipes, recipes from Mennonites in South America, recipes from Kansas, recipes from Canada.

Then I put down the cookbook. And I got out the recipe that Oma, Chris’s great-grandmother, had passed down to her granddaughter, my mother-in-law. And then I mixed up a batch up peppernuts.

With eyes that were now a little familiar with the peppernuts tradition, I looked over the recipe. I saw that its unique features included the use of sour cream and the addition of food coloring to provide Christmas coloring. The recipe also called for wintergreen to flavor the green peppernuts, and I realized I could use anise instead, as in several of the recipes I’d read. And, of course, the recipe called for peppermint extract to flavor the red dough.

With determination, I set to work. And Saturday evening, after the dough was chilled and dinner was over, I called in Chris for help. We spent a couple of hours rolling and cutting and baking and pouring finished peppernuts into jars.

When we were done, we called in the boys for a treat. Jonah reached for a red peppernut, bit into it, and smiled.

“Can I have a green one too?” he said.

So now I get it. I understand where Chris got this passion for peppernuts. And now, although it’s my kids and my husbands who have German ancestry, not me, I am as proud as any German Mennonite woman’s daughter when I look at the glass jars of peppernuts sitting on my kitchen counter, right next to a tin of my family’s favorite “five-minute fudge.” And you can hear me talking about pfefferneusse at work just about any day this month, with the ladies who grew up making these cookies with their church youth group or dunking it in coffee or learning from their mother how to make it the way their family makes it.

Yes, now I understand.


Oma’s Peppernuts

2 2/3 cup sugar

1 1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)

4 eggs (at room temperature)

2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cream of tartar

¼ cup sour cream

6 cups flour

1/8 tsp salt

Red and green food coloring

Flavoring: peppermint extract, anise extract, wintergreen extract, etc.

Cream butter and sugar on medium until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Beat in baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and sour cream. Stir in flour and salt until well blended. Refrigerate dough (for up to one week).

Divide dough into halves. Add red food coloring and 1 tsp peppermint extract. To the other half, add green coloring and 1 tsp anise extract. Roll into pencil-like rolls and cut into small pieces. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes for soft peppernuts or 1–2 minutes longer for crisper peppernuts.

Easy Chicken and Bacon Sandwiches

I thought it might be fun to share some of the ideas for quick meals that I rely on for feeding my family. I have to keep a big repertoire of easy and fast meals for the many, many nights when we have to leave the house early for an evening church function.

I’ll tell you right now, some of those meals involve frozen foods. Do not judge until you have walked a mile in my moccasins, which I purchased at Walmart.

Every Wednesday night Chris has to leave for church band practice at 6:30, and most weeks I go with him. And right now we’re practicing almost every night for a skit that’s part of our church Christmas program. We are committed, even though it means missing my favorite a cappella singing competition on TV. And we missed the entire season of Hell’s Kitchen thanks to our schedule.

On these busy nights, I can’t try my skill at new meals or meals that take a lot of time to prepare. I save those meals for the nights when we’re home all evening, or for a Saturday when I can cook during the afternoon. Instead, I fix meals with just a few ingredients, many of them already prepared. Lately I’ve been able to work in some fresh foods and foods made from scratch but made ahead of time.

One thing I have to be careful about is not serving these quick meals too often. We’ve soured on a couple of old favorites because I made them too often. Take hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls—I made crescent dogs so often a few years back that they began to sound distinctly nauseating, and we didn’t eat them for about two years. But, enough time having lapsed that I now find crescent dogs appealing again, I have recently worked them back into the rotation, largely because a hot dog is one of the few things my sons will eat. But now we eat them on a tolerable cycle of about once every six to eight weeks.

One of Chris’s favorite quick entrees, which we are not yet sick of, is a chicken and bacon sandwich made with a frozen chicken patty. A plain patty on a bun wouldn’t be much fun. But a patty on a really good roll, with bacon and cheese and tomato and ranch dressing or barbecue sauce—that’s worth eating.

The boys won’t eat the chicken sandwiches, but they like the bacon, which Neeley calls “macon.” He also likes to eat the top off my sandwich roll. I can give him his own, but that’s not as fun as eating the top off of mine.

This weekend I made and froze some ciabatta, which I’ll thaw next week for this meal. And because I don’t really want Neeley to eat the top of my ciabatta, I may have to distract him with a decoy roll that I can place on my plate and pretend to want to eat myself.

Here’s how I make them:

Chicken and Bacon Sandwiches

Frozen breaded chicken patties (Tyson patties are good quality)

Sandwich bun (I like using homemade ciabatta, but we’ve also used regular hamburger buns)

Bacon (I use Oscar Meyer ready-to-serve bacon because it’s quick and not that high in calories)

Cheese (I used a half slice of processed white cheese or any grated cheese)

Sliced tomato (I’ve been getting beefsteak tomatoes through the Nebraska Food Cooperative)

Any other veggies you like

Sauce (I use barbecue but Chris uses ranch dressing)

Bake the chicken patties are directed on the package. A few minutes before the patties are done, fix the bacon as directed on the package. When the patties are done, top with cheese and put them back in the oven for 2–3 minutes.

Spread sauce on the sandwich buns. When cheese is melted on the patties, take them out of the oven and lay a patty on each bun. Top the patty with bacon and then with tomato. Serve with chips, baked French fries, salad, beans, or any other vegetable or fruit you like.

Angel Sugar Crisps to Lift Your Spirits

The week after my first son was born was a difficult time for me. I had expected to be blissfully happy and expertly maternal. Instead, I was recovering from an emergency C-section and struggling with feeding issues, thrush, and fatigue.

On top of that, we had a litter of puppies living in the family room because our longhaired dachshund Layla had delivered a litter a few weeks before my son was born, and it was weaning week, a tough week for both puppies and their mother—who, out of desperation at being kept from feeding her babies, kept liberating them from their cage in the middle of the night or in the middle of my shower or a diaper change or whenever I was busy. She also kept presenting her belly in an offer to feed my baby since I seemed to be having so much trouble with that.

And in the midst of all this chaos, there were the cookies my friend Lisa had dropped off with a casserole. She called them sugar cookies, but her mother calls them “Angel Sugar Crisps,” and those cookies did the work of an angel for me that week. Every time I ate one of those cookies, I felt the fog of post-partum depression and new-mom fear and hysteria roll back just a little.

When I think back to that week, I remember the panic I felt at being so out of control, and the sleepless nights, and how shocked I was that now matter how prepared I thought I was to care for a baby, the real thing was more momentous and demanding than I’d imagined. I also remember the cookies. Those cookies were heaven-sent.

But Lisa didn’t give me the recipe, so they stayed only a memory.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about those cookies, so I asked Lisa for the recipe. She sent it just before Thanksgiving—just in time for some angel sugar crisps to play guardian angel again in the current trials of my life.

They were every bit as delicious as I remembered. Four and a half years after the first time I had one of these cookies, they were still the perfect antidote to a rough day.


Angel Sugar Crisps from Lisa Cansler Noah

½ cup shortening

½ cup (1 stick) margarine or butter

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

Sugar to top cookies (try demerara sugar or sugar in the raw)

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cream of tartar

½ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cream shortening, sugars, margarine, egg, and vanilla in a medium-sized mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the creamed mixture; mix until blended. Shape into small balls and dip the top of each ball into sugar. Place sugared side up and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for approximately 8 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Cool 1–2 minutes before removing from pan.

Ciabatta for Thanksgiving

The week before Thanksgiving, I froze a dozen homemade rolls and an apple pandowdy, planning to take them to Missouri to share with my family for the big holiday dinner. I happily anticipated my sisters and my brother-in-law and my mom and dad admiring my delicious, homemade food.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving, an hour outside of Lincoln on our way to Missouri, I realized I had left all of my homemade food at home in the freezer.

No matter how carefully I plan, I always leave something behind. Last time, it was my toothbrush. This time: rolls and dessert. It was heartbreaking. Don’t laugh—it was.

I had my heart set on serving homemade rolls to my family. And I have trouble letting go of things I’ve set my heart on doing. But, there were two bright spots: I had remembered to bring some cookies I’d made a few days before, and I’d also brought along the binder where I keep recipes from friends and the internet.

“You could make something while we’re down there,” Chris suggested.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” I said, feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t feel like I could make anything to take the place of the food I’d left behind.

I got even grumpier when our battery died when we arrived at my grandparents’ house for a lunch stop on the way to my sister’s house. We got the car started after letting it sit while we ate lunch, but I was in gloomy spirits.

“Boy, this is some trip!” I complained. “First I forget my food, and then our battery dies!”

Chris got that look he gets on his face when I go a little crazy—the look that says, “My wife is crazy.”

“What’re you looking at?” I said. As if I didn’t know.

We made it to my sister’s house okay, where my brother-in-law could help us change the battery. That should have cheered me up—the fact that my brother-in-law was around to fix the car, when, had we been anywhere else, Chris and I would have been up a creek. It wouldn’t have been much fun finding a mechanic the night before Thanksgiving. But I kept feeling grumpy, because, like I said, I have trouble letting go.

We ate a big family Thanksgiving meal that night, since our other sister wouldn’t be able to join us on Thursday. We had a good time. We ate good food, which my sister and mother had worked on through the whole day. The meal included a 24-pound turkey that my sister had to bake at her neighbor’s house because it wouldn’t fit in her oven. A turkey like that should get any fan of the traditional Thanksgiving meal excited. But, I’m ashamed to admit, I still felt pretty sad. I mean, my niece and nephew had made a little buffet card that read “apple dessert” for the pandowdy that never came and was sitting at home in my freezer. I felt sorry for the poor little buffet card that didn’t get to do its job while all the other buffet cards stood proudly in front of overflowing, fragrant Thankgiving dishes.

And when I had to drive us 100 miles to my parents’ house from my sister’s house that night, through a thunderstorm that had little Neeley screaming in fear and me praying for survival and using the lightning to see by, on two-lane historic Route 66 across southwest Missouri, I was really out of sorts. It even irked me that the radio station we found to follow the tornado warnings was a country station, and I wasn’t in the mood for country music.

“And on top of everything, it’s country!” I exploded.

Chris probably gave me The Look again at this point, but I didn’t see it because there wasn’t any lightning to see by.

We did make it to my parents’ house, although I think was a close call. I’m pretty sure we hydroplaned at least once, and maybe I should have pulled over in decrepit, historic Halltown, Mo., when we heard the tornado sirens, but the deserted look of the place freaked me out—especially the massive ruined barn I looked up at when I pulled off the road once to seek shelter—so I kept driving.

When we finally arrived, I sat a couple of hours on Mom and Dad’s couch, not saying much, staring into space and trying to calm down. It wasn’t easy. I’m not exactly the calm type.

On Thursday, I was exhausted. The events of Wednesday had shaken me up a bit. But then my mother announced we would have turkey sandwiches for supper. A couple of years back Chris suggested my dad try a turkey sandwich with stuffing and gravy on the sandwich, and my parents think it’s a lot of fun to make those sandwiches.

“Can someone go to the store and buy some sandwich rolls?’” Mom asked.

Suddenly I started feeling less sorry for myself.

“I can make some ciabatta!” I said.

“Is that one of your new favorite recipes?” Mom asked.

“Never made ’em before,” I said, “But I’ve eaten them, and I have my friend’s recipe with me.”

Mom gave me the okay. I appreciate the woman’s faith in me. Anyway, here I was, once again making a new recipe for guests, but I felt confident I could do it. My holiday mood came surging back. I spent the next couple of hours happily mixing and kneading dough, letting it rise, forming rolls, and baking. I also cooked up a batch of cranberry compote to spread on the sandwiches.

When, in mid-afternoon, I pulled a baking sheet with five golden-brown ciabatta loaves out of Mom’s oven, I felt pretty good. I felt even better when people actually ate the rolls, and when my dad asked for a second helping of the cranberry compote.

Yeah, I felt good—and thankful. My grumpiness had been smothering some feelings of gratitude that I wasn’t going to bury any longer.

I was thankful I’d thought to bring some recipes along, thankful my mom trusted my ability to make bread, thankful we’d made it through the storm, thankful my battery died while we were visiting my mechanically inclined brother-in-law.

And thankful that when I got home, I’d have homemade rolls and an apple pandowdy to thaw and enjoy during the Christmas holiday season.

Ciabatta (from Iris Goodding’s French bread recipe)

1 package yeast (equal to 2 ¼ tsp yeast)
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup warm water (baby bath water warm — if your kitchen is a little
colder your water can be a little warmer)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
2 ½ cups to 3 cups flour

Place yeast in a bowl. Cover with the sugar. Add the water. Stir and let sit for 5-10 minutes to dissolve (it should look frothy by the end of the time). Stir in salt, oil and 2 cups of the flour. Stir with a spoon until fairly smooth. Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Knead for 3-5 minutes (avoid over-kneading). Let rise in greased (or oiled), covered bowl for 1 to 2 hours. Divide 4–5 parts lumps of dough about the size of your fist. Take each fist-size lump of dough and pat it back and forth between your hands until it is uniformly round and smooth. Grease a baking sheet and place the balls onto the sheet. Press the ball down so that it is fairly flat while still round (1 to 2 inches think). Let dough rise for another hour while covered.

To bake: Preheat oven to 375F. Bake for 17-25 minutes. (Sometimes they cook fast and sometimes slow.) They should have a nice golden brown glow to them when they are done.

Cool loaves on a rack. When loaves are cool, slice each loaf in half and then slice again for use as a sandwich bread.

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